Monday, March 12, 2012

"Rough Music" by Simon Kurt Unsworth

Rough Music
(Spectral Press Chapbook Series #5)
Simon Kurt Unsworth
28 pages

I've had the good fortune to read and review the first four chapbooks from Spectral Press, so when I received a review copy of their fifth I was really looking forward to seeing what they were offering to readers this time around. As it turns out, Simon Kurt Unsworth brings a literary horror romp that acts almost like a prelude to his impending collection of stories that will be coming out through Spectral Press next year. The guy already has quite a few collections and anthology contributions to his credit, and after reading this story it's pretty clear that I need to find more of Simon's work.

This story, clocking in a little over twenty pages long, involves a married man named Cornish who wakes up in the middle of the night to sound of wood banging on metal somewhere outside his townhouse. He looks out his window to the street below and sees a man wearing a bulbous-shaped mask over his head, dancing a little jig, and banging a wooden spoon on a pot. The guy does this for a while then takes a bow and disappears into the darkness. Imagine seeing that outside your window. Strange shit, right? Well, it escalates.

As the nights press on and the racket outside becomes louder and louder, Cornish learns that his wife doesn't hear a thing, in fact it seems like he's the only guy on the block who can hear the cacophonous concert in the middle of the street. Each night, the strange man in the mask is joined by more and more masked performers until it winds up there is a play of sorts that is playing out each night, and Cornish realizes that it echoes facets of his own life, and the masks resemble those of his neighbors and friends. At the same time, his relationship with his wife is reinvigorated and more passionate after months of a wedge between them, in the wake of a transgression on his part. But the disturbing music and dancing outside his house, despite whatever influence it is having on his mood and relationship with his wife, it depriving him of his sleep--and maybe his sanity.

Yet again, Spectral Press finds a gem of subtlety and escalating strangeness to offer readers. I was really impressed with the way Simon used the mirroring of Cornish's life with the mummer performance outside his window. The ending was a bit abrupt, but it definitely achieved the kind of awkward terror I think he was aiming for. I'll definitely have to keep an eye out for more of his work in the future.

Friday, February 10, 2012

"Black-Eyed Kids" by Ian Rogers

Black-Eyed Kids
by Ian Rogers
Burning Effigy Press (2011)
60 pages
ISBN 9781926611136

Canada isn't all maple syrup and ice hockey, you know. We've got monsters too, and Ian Rogers is a guy who knows how to shine a spotlight on them. I've already been entertained by the first two novellas in his Felix Renn series through Burning Effigy Press, so I was interested to see if Black-Eyed Kids would make it a trifecta.

If you haven't read my reviews of the first two books, which I posted on this blog, you can check those out by clicking on the links: Temporary Monsters and The Ash Angels.

One of the nice things about this series though, is the fact that you don't necessarily need to read the first two to hop on the bandwagon. You could start with the third and get caught up with the main story points in short order.

This time around, Felix is doing some work in Toronto that is much more mundane and far less life-threatening--for a while, anyway. He's been hired by a guy to keep an eye on his wife whom is suspected of being unfaithful, but while Felix has her apartment staked out she is murdered right under his nose--cut in half with the lower half missing, and there's no sign of anyone coming or going. It doesn't take long to realize there is something supernatural going on, as that sort of thing seems to just gravitate to ol' Felix. A big clue that things are on the paranormal side of things is when two kids, a boy and a girl, begin stalking him. Maybe not so disturbing when put like that, but these kids are Village of the Damned caliber creepy thanks to eyes that are orbs of pure black. When Felix finds out the kids are connected to the murder, he also learns the guy who hired him isn't who he says he is, and there's been more than one death linked to those kids.

Whoa Nelly, this one was a dark treat to read. The first two books certainly had their fair share of sinister vibes, but there was more--how do I put it?--rollickingness. No that's not right. Maybe sardonic tone is what I mean. Felix is the kind of guy who will let his world-weary side shine through. This time around there isn't a lot of room for that, because his life is in imminent danger even more than the last two times. The story is the most intense of the three with a threat that Felix comes to believe he can't defeat. Everything plays out really well with an episodic quality I've come to expect and appreciate from Ian's work.

I think this would have to be Ian's strongest effort yet of the three novellas published so far, which bodes well for future iterations, including a Felix Renn novel that's apparently in the works. If you enjoy gritty urban fantasy, this should be right up your alley.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"The Ash Angels" by Ian Rogers

The Ash Angels
by Ian Rogers
Burning Effigy Press (Sept 2010)
40 pages
ISBN 9781926611099

I blogged a month or two ago about the first novella in Ian Roger's gritty urban fantasy, the Felix Renn series. I quite like the hard-boiled blending with dark fantasy and a dash of the Great White North for flavor. Well, I got around to reading the second installment, The Ash Angels, and while the book could work as a stand-alone I thought it a good follow-up to the impressive debut.

It's Christmas time, and while Felix and his ex-wife are civil to each other these days, he'd rather be alone--and drunk. He needs something festive for a chaser while home alone, so he heads out to find some eggnog and wides up with a mystery involving piles of ash shaped like angels. It's a case that leads him from a funeral home and ultimately to a familiar location from his recent past, all the while trying to keep from winding up like the ashen corpses he finds.

The Ash Angels has the same hard-boiled approach to urban fantasy that I've come to enjoy from several authors, and Ian has a great character with Felix Renn to explore this world he's created. That said. this second installment didn't come off quite as strong as the debut effort. The curse of the sophomore book in a series, I suppose. It's not bad, quite the contrary actually, but with such a powderkeg as Temporary Monsters, I had my hopes set really high on this one. Still a satisfying read, and I'm eager to read the third installment, Black-Eyed Kids, in the near future, which Ian intimated is his strongest work of the three. Good to know.

If you're not on board the Felix Renn bandwagon, and you're a fan of gritty urban fantasy, I suggest you remedy that.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

"Four Live Rounds" by Blake Crouch

Four Live Rounds
by Blake Crouch
self-published by Blake Crouch (2010)

Merry Christmas to me, because quite a few authors I had on my watch list offered free e-books on the Kindle Store this past Christmas. Blake Crouch was chief among them, I dare say, as he had several listed as freebies for a week or two. I think I downloaded them all, including this collection of four short stories. Four Live Rounds was my first time reading Blake's work that was not a collaboration with another author, so I was very interested to see how good he did on his own compared to the thrillrides he writers with J.A. Konrath and others.

"*69" starts with an interesting concept: what if someone's cell phone inadvertently called you while that person was committing a murder? Pretty creepy, especially if you've ever gotten one of those odd calls where there's no one on the other line, but you can hear something like breathing or some kind of commotion. In Blake's story, after the initial phone call, there's a quaintness to the married couple pondering who might have called and whether they actually overheard someone's murder. But the story quickly ramps up as their suspicions escalate and their actions to learn the truth cross a couple of lines. A really strong opener for this collection.

"Remaking" is a tragic bit of work strikes a nerve considering the number of times you hear about a child abduction on the six-o-clock news. If I had to pick a runt from this litter of stories, "Remaking" would be it, but it's still one that kept me hooked until the end because the man's torment and how it threatened the safety of the child was chilling.

"On the Good, Red Road" is a western that acts as a prelude of sorts to a novel of Blake's called Abandon. A man tries to make his way to a mining town, but winds up in the couple of a trio of outlaws. Things are tense enough as the guy tries to gauge how best to get away from the villains, but when a sudden blizzard leaves them stranded and starving in the middle of nowhere, that's when it really turns into a nail-biter.

"Shining Rock" struck me as a story with a really strong start and finish, but there was a piece in the middle that strained my credulity. A married couple are on a romantic excursion in the bucolic fields of a park called Shining Rock, and are approached by a lone man from a neighboring campsite who at first seems off-putting with his large knife, but ultimately charms them with smalltalk and pricey booze. But there's something about the lone man and his brief tale of tragedy during drunken chatter that sets the husband on edge and has him wanting to flee the park as soon as possible. I really liked the story overall, but there was one aspect of the wife's reaction to her husband's revelation that didn't feel believable to me. Aside from that, it was probably my favorite story of the four.

It's a nice, quick hodgepodge for anyone who'd care to check out Blake's work for the first time. A little bit of everything, from western to psychological thriller, to horror. There's a larger collection on the Kindle Store called Fully Loaded, which includes these four stories and a bunch more (his collaboration with J.A. Konrath, Serial, among them), so I'll have to check that out sometime, too.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

"Temporary Monsters" by Ian Rogers

Temporary Monsters
39 pages
ISBN 9781926611073

I do love me some gritty urban fantasy, so when The Man Eating Bookworm reviewed this novella by up-and-coming Canadian author, Ian Rogers, it caught my eye.

Set in a world in which monsters do exist and the borders between our dimension and a hellish one known as the Black Lands exists as well, Felix is a burned-out private eye with an ex-wife and bills to pay. His latest job has him looking into the background of a movie star who went on a psychotic rampage, in the guise of a vampire, before someone killed him in self-defense--that someone being Felix, no less. Felix soon learns the rising star was not only doing one helluva job as a vampire when he went outhouse crazy in a restaurant, but the movie he was working on in town had him playing a vampire. And when things go wrong with the actor's co-star, who is playing a werewolf ... well, one guess how that turns out.

The world Ian has created here is surprisingly robust when barely using thirty pages to not only set the stage, but tell the whole story. The added twist of a drug that seems to temporarily morph users into monsters of choice is both macabre and original. There's a good payoff at the end with enough of a teaser for future installments. In fact, The Ash Angels is the next story in the Black Lands series, which I hope to read sooner rather than later.

Seeing Canada portrayed as something other than a snowbound land of overly polite syrup-suckers is always welcome, and Ian did a heckuva job layering grime all over Toronto. I'm looking forward to reading what else he has in store for the great white north and abroad.

Friday, December 9, 2011

'Red Penny Papers' (Fall 2011)

I can't remember exactly when it was I discovered Red Penny Papers, but I can tell you it's been a welcome source for short fiction from day one. Stories by Aaron Polson, Camille Alexa, Natalie Sin, and others have provided me with no shortage of creepy, fun stories--and all of them for free.

The Red Penny Papers fall edition presented five short stories from authors who are all brand new to me. "Arkady's Apprentice" by S.J. Hirrons was a rather stirring tale of magic and legacy with a magician, his apprentice, and his son. The side-note at the end of this story, where Hirrons writing instructors apparently dismissed this story as unpublishable. Whoops. That's some writing school.

Next was "So Long, Warren" by Ash Krafton, a devilish mix of noir and the supernatural, which is one of my favorite combinations these days. "Iron Jack" by Mark Rossmore was interesting with its decomposing marriage and the automated servant tearing the couple apart.

"Oni wa Soto" by Sara Kate Ellis would probably be classified as my favorite of the bunch. A story about a devil with a crisis at the workplace. The Japanese setting, along with the undercurrent of dark humor, really resonated with me. Good stuff. And then "Janitors of the Cosmos" by William Vitka finished off the collection. This one could be classified as the strangest of all five stories, bordering on the surreal, as a "god" exterminator roams the universe hunting down various incarnations of deities who still cling to their would-be worshippers.

If you'd like to check these stories out, you find them all on Red Penny Papers' website. I managed to get this in November when Katey the editor pointing me towards an e-book edition--for free! It might still be available, so if you prefer e-books over reading from your web browser, I highly recommend going that route.

Just checked on Smashwords and it's still available free of charge:

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

"King Death" by Paul Finch (Spectral Press Chapbook Vol. 4)

It's pretty hard to imagine the rampant disease and death and quite literally plagued Europe, even the world, during the 14th century. Perhaps the centuries have mythologized the Black Death to a point that it's simply hard to comprehend. Hell, judging by the degree to which the public at large loses their damn minds when the evening news mentions a flu outbreak, a bonified pandemic wouldn't have to hit us physically--the world would be crippled on a psychological level. So think back to a time when our modern medical marvels didn't exist, but an engrained acceptance of the supernatural did. What would that world really look like?

Well, Paul Finch shines a spotlight on one patch of England, as a con man roams the country side exploiting death and superstition by parading himself as King Death himself. Rodric is out to plunder a devastated territory for whatever meager gain he can get. After all, who's going to stop them when everyone is too busy dying?

That's kind of a simplistic summary of Rodric and his motives, and when he encounters and orphaned lad with a chip on his shoulder, Rodric's motives are given a real test.

The story itself weighs in around twenty pages, but that's plenty of time to set the stage and the stakes. Some of the language is a bit of a chore to get through for a dullard like me who doesn't read historical fiction that stretches much further beyond the 18th century. Fortunately, there's a glossary at the end of the book, so a quick glance at that and I was off to the races.

This is the first time I've read Paul Finch's work and walked away impressed, showing Spectral Press has a good eye for picking out short fiction to feature in their chapbook series. Paul apparently has a helluva lot more work out there, so I'm going to have to look up some more of his work down the road.