Monday, February 26, 2018

Thoughts on The Specimen by Pete Kahle

Right off the bat I've got to say that for a debut novel, Pete Kahle has shown us that he knows what the hell he's doing. I haven't read a debut this strong in years. It's astonishing what he managed to do in this tome with character development and a plot that is told in a nonlinear format that most authors take years of novel writing to develop. Bravo, Pete!

So, The Specimen is a story about parasitic entities called Riders that, throughout human history, have been latching onto various people, living within them, and causing a great deal of bloodshed. There is a secret agency out to destroy the alien race of Riders, and have been doing so for many years, but their collective has corruption of its own. There's so much in this story that I can't even begin a good synopsis without spoilers, so I'll leave it at that.

The character development in this story is as rich and detailed as a Stephen King or Robert McCammon novel with visceral violence and gore that leans to the extreme in its vivid detail. Blood and body fluids abound! I found it interesting early in the story when a couple of guys were called "your typical goon", which I thought was a bad descriptor, until I realized that was a way of saying, hey, there are so many richly detailed characters in this book that these guys, who are only in the story for a few pages, are just a couple of red shirts. believe me, there's no lack of detail concerning the characters who matter to the story. They live. They breathe.

Now, I'm not a huge fan of massive tomes. They tend to feel padded and under-edited. I think this book could have been dialed down just a bit. There are a ton of sub-plots going on and the time-line jumps around a lot. It all makes sense and wasn't confusing at all, but I found the present day material to be the most interesting, and really the heart of the story. I think a lot of the story that was told through reports from the Graylock Institute (I may have flubbed the name there) could have been weaved into the narrative and completely eliminated, but that's just probably just me trying to slim down a novel that gives a great pleasure to people who like to sit down with that huge six-hundred-pager and commit for a while. I also think the intermissions (read the book to find out what I'm talking about), which gives the story nice historical context, were ultimately unnecessary. In fact, during the climax it is all summarized in a few paragraphs. The intermission chapters were well written, but I think they could have been pulled from the manuscript and used as promotional tools on a website or Patreon page or something. But who am I to suggest such a thing? Pete Kahle has done very well with this book, getting a shout-out recently from Brian Keene and earning almost 200 reviews on Amazon (that's fucking astonishing for both a debut novel and a small press author).

lastly, I listened to the audiobook version of the book, so I would be remiss to not mention a bit about that experience. First off, the narrator did a fantastic job. There were a number of accents that he nailed with convincing accuracy, which is so important. That gives the narrative movement and theater. No one wants to slog through an otherwise good book that feels like a sluggish monologue. Also, there were sound effects here and there that really added to the experience. They were used sparingly and were quite effective, making for a fun and entertaining experience.

Look, I know what Pete is doing with Bloodshot Books is important, but he needs to get another novel out there. I absolutely love reading new authors that are the real deal, and Kahle has got the goods. I highly recommend reading The Specimen, or better yet, listening to the audiobook (yes, the highlighted words are links).

Next up is Catacombs by Andrew Laurance, originally published under the title The Hiss. See ya then!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Thoughts on Paperbacks From Hell

The non fiction book of 2017 was Paperbacks From Hell by Grady Henrix, hands down. Not that I read a whole lot of non fiction in 2017. I just can't see something else that's better than a book about mass market paperback from the seventies until the crash in the nineties, loaded with colorful pictures of cover art, sublime and glorious. If nothing else, I imagine this book has and will continue to reinvigorate people's fondness for long lost paperbacks that have been relegated to used book stores, thrift shops, and library book sales. Some of them have been terribly mistreated, probably considered a slice of schlock that wasn't worth preservation. I have plenty that were used as door stops and bent and torn and probably thrown across a room a time or two (I can only imagine how previous owners treated some of the books in my collection). Covers taped on, spines so cracked you can hardly read the title much less the author's name. But the words are still there on the pages (if they're not falling out), and thus the story can be read, for better or worse. Some of those old books are great (Michael McDowell's The Elementals and T. M. Wright's Strange Seed are recent gems I've read), and others are utter trash (William W. Johnstone's The Devil's Kiss fits nicely in this category). Paperbacks From Hell covers it all, with brief summaries of certain titles, interesting factoids about certain authors, and even insight on some of the cover artists that brought us all those amazing creatures, skeletons, demons, evil children, native spirits, and devils that popped in embossed foil, holograms, and step-back art.

I savored this book slowly since getting it for Christmas. I didn't want to just blow through it. I lingered on the cover art, following paint brush strokes and skeleton faces, baby dollies and evil entities. The book is written with a nice dose of humor and sarcasm that could only come from someone who truly appreciates the subject matter. Hendrix has obviously read a great deal of the books (probably pored over them while writing the book and probably sick to death of embossed skeletons by the time he was finished). Putting a book like this one together is clearly a labor of love, and the insight on the titles that are summarized come from more than just reading the back cover copy.

My guess is that finding autobiographical info on the more obscure authors who graced paperback racks back in the seventies and eighties is pretty difficult. I could have done with more of that. I found the little biographical tidbits fascinating. I think there should be a companion book that focuses on some of the more prolific authors of the time, as well as the cover artists. A few authors and cover artists are highlighted, but there are plenty more, and I for one would be fascinated to learn more.

If you're a horror fan and you don't have this book, shame on you. You can purchase it HERE, and though there is an ebook available, do yourself a favor and pick up the physical version. It's full-color and well worth the investment.

That's all for now. Next up is Pete Kahle's The Specimen. I've already finished it, so those thoughts will be posted soon. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Thoughts on American Gothic by Robert Bloch

I'm a huge fan of Robert Bloch. He was one of the absolute best writers of short stories ever. King of the twist ending and able to develop a character in a paragraph or less. I read a ton of his short fiction before I ever read one of his novels. My first was Lori, and it's a good one. Lori is one of those reads that even someone like me who is a dreadfully slow reader can get through in one day. The man just knew how to structure sentences for maximum readability, something that was probably spawned from the economy of words in his short fiction. I've since read a number of Bloch's novels and the latest was American Gothic. These are a few of my thoughts.

First off, it was clear from the first page or two that this was a story based in part on the notorious serial killer H. H. Holmes. The villain's name is G. Gordon Gregg and we quickly discover that he has built a castle in Chicago with quite a number of rooms as well as staircases that lead to secret passage ways and doors that blend into walls. H. H. Holmes hired several contractors to build portions of his mansion using separate plans so no one but himself would know about the secret passages and whatnot. Fascinating stuff, so it's no surprise that Bloch decided to render a fictional account of the infamous H. H. Holmes and wrap it up in a mystery. There's an afterward entitled Post Mortem in which Bloch explains a bit about Homes and the inspiration for American Gothic.

The story itself was very much a mystery like the early Bloch material such as The Scarf, The Couch and Psycho, only this one was a historical piece. The characters were well drawn and he certainly didn't beat the reader over the head with the fact that is was the late eighteen hundreds, which is something that often happens with period pieces. I do have to say that when reading Robert W. Chambers, who was alive and writing close to the time this story took place, his work in many of the stories in The King in Yellow are so fully drenched in the stagnant alleyways and unpaved avenues of New York that you can't help but feel like you are right there in another time. Though you don't ever forget the time period in which American Gothic takes place, I felt that the presence of time could have been a little richer.

I like the protagonist, Crystal, a go-get-'em journalist who risks life and limb to break a story no one has faith in. She has to take seriously desperate measures and essentially she's working on a hunch. I can't help but see in her a character I wrote a in an unpublished novella and an unpublished novel. My investigative journalist, Veronica Hensley, is Crystal reincarnated, only she deals with modern menaces both human and inhuman.

There's no real motive for why G. Gordon Gregg does what he does (some kind of absurd romanticism as shown in his collection at the end of the story?), but who cares? Do we always have to have a reason? It's not like he was going to make some confession in the last chapter when he's getting doused with his own flesh dissolving chemicals and stabbed with his own knife. Just accept that G. Gordon Gregg is a goddamned vicious psychopath (a specialty of Robert Bloch), and enjoy the ride.