Just read: "Seven Kinds of Hell" by Dana Cameron & "Positive" by David Wellington & "The Migration by Helen Marshall

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This past July, I had the honor of serving as Toastmaster at NECon 38. Everyone just refers to the event as “Necon” because the conference has been around for thirty-eight years. Quick explanation: the North East Conference is for authors, publishers, genre sellers and enthusiasts, illustrators, and other creative folk. It’s a relatively casual con’ with a tight schedule of panels and events built on its years of tradition. There’s always a Guest of Honor—or two, or three; a GOH artist, Legends, and a Toastmaster. Which is where I came in this year.

The Toastmaster has a handful of responsibilities:

  1. Hold a kaffeeklatsch with new attendees
  2. Give the official conference opening toast
  3. Interview the guests of honor

One of the things I set out to do—in addition to some background sleuthing and Internet creeping—was to read. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get through their copious oeuvres: Cameron has several novels and multiple short stories, Wellington is the same, and Marshall is a short story enthusiast with four collections and many short stories out in the wild. These are the three novels I chose to read.

SEVEN KINDS OF HELL is Cameron’s first book in a modern fantasy series that blends history, archeology, and divided, but hidden, supernatural species called “fangborn.” The series follows young archeologist Zoe Miller. She’s been plagued for most of her life by episodes where, under stress and in the presence of evil, she believes she’s imagined becoming a wolf and…dealing with the problem. This is exacerbated by an absentee father and a mother who seems to be on the run. The book opens with her mother’s death and Zoe’s spiral into the world and conflicts of the fangborn.

I’ve read plenty of modern fantasy novels and series featuring enhanced, former humans and spooky supernatural goings on. “Seven Kinds…” fits right in. It’s a fast-paced, globe-trotting race to secure items of power. For Zoe, her personal challenge is accepting the most controversial aspects of her heritage and, of course, her role in this ancient power play. Frankly, I enjoyed the character. She fits the archetype of the heroine in modern fantasy books such as this, but that’s not who she is. It’s her experience—successes and failures—that are the highlight of this book, the character herself was a joy to follow along with as she grew and changed from the first page to the last.

POSITIVE is one of at least four zombie novels that Wellington has written. His rise began with the near-accidental serialization of his first novel on a blog that his friend had stopped using. Serendipitous. Walking dead stories are generally lumped into a horror category, but they probably best fit within science-fiction, Wellington’s first love. In “Positive,” Wellington’s hook is that he’s following a character who has grown up post-apocalypse. Only one generation removed, Finnegan lives on the blasted isle of Manhattan with his family and others in a few high-rises. They fish, they farm, they survive. ‘Positive’ refers to victims of the virus that has scorched the world. Exposure means twenty-years of uncertainty as the virus runs its course. The result is a hyper-aggressive human that craves the consumption of flesh.

As mentioned above, Finn is a product of this world after the fall. His perspective, awareness, and learnings are informed directly by this. There are still plenty of people—such as his parents—who remember what life was like before. This is where Wellington’s novel shines. The story is being recounted by Finn in the past tense. Often, this means something of a spoiler since the reader knows the protagonist survives. However, we have no idea what condition Finn is in or how he survived. When his mother succumbs to the virus, Finn is doused in her blood when she’s killed. The community flies into a panic and turns Finn and his best friend over to the military authority that has been trying to restore order since the fall. Part of his sentence is to have a large plus sign tattooed on the back of his left hand. In handing Finn over, his story truly begins as he learns how the military deals with positives and what other factions populate what’s left of America. All of this is from Finn’s post-apocalyptic perspective and we get to follow Finn as he learns, as he grows, and this is the most satisfying aspect of the book, in face of the trials he must overcome. Wellington populated the novel with an awful reality of hunger, misperceptions, fear, and opportunism, but his handling of Finn is the catalyst of change in the story. I’m sure plenty of readers will see a critique of our current political systems and cultures—and rightly so—but, in my honest opinion, the story shines a light on our current shortcomings as much as it considers what might be. Wellington does the zombie genre proud by keeping the threat of zombies in the background and exploring humanity’s progress or lack thereof through the eyes of Finn. Go forth and read it!

THE MIGRATION is Marshall’s first novel—which isn’t obvious, considering the quality. (I read an ARC, the novel is commercially available in March 2019, according to amazon.ca) She’s the author of four collections and a multitude of short stories elsewhere. She’s also a medievalist with a PhD and her fiction has won several awards. I only mention this because she’s very good at what she does precisely because she pours her life and her experiences into her writing that produces some stunning stories that easily defy categorization. Weird and bizarre come to mind, but they miss the mark, as do horror, science-fiction, or fantasy. Let’s just call it speculative fiction and be done with it. “The Migration” is no exception.

The story follows a young woman, Sophie, and her family. Her younger sister, Kira, has contracted a disease that is spreading around the world amongst the younger generations. Her mother and father have separated and her mother has moved them back to her country of origin, England, where there appears to have been some progress identifying and treating the disease. Nothing is as it seems, of course, as Sophie learns the hard truth of their situation between the historical knowledge of her historical epidemiologist aunt and the doctor treating Kira. In the meantime, the weather itself seems to have turned against humanity’s survival and the whispers of death afflict those who’ve contracted the virus.

Marshall is masterful at conveying the ties that bind us in humanity, the bonds of family and friendship. Her world-building is incredibly personal and all too real. In this debut novel, she explores the fraying of those ties, the building of new ones, and the courage of our younger generations. Sophie is dogged in her pursuit of the truth despite just about every adult in her life trying to dissuade her. This was a lovely, strange, and harrowing tale. I highly recommend it.

Perhaps a metaphor might help?

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Is This Your Leopard?

“Excuse me?”

“Yes?”

“Is this your leopard?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Is this your leopard?”

“Where?”

“This one, the one that is eating my face.”

“Oh! That might be my leopard. I mean, how would I know?”

“It is eating my face.”

“If you say so.”

“Will you help? I took some video, to be sure. Would you care to see it?”

“If it will shed light on this situation, then, yes, please.”

“Here you can see the leopard eating my face.”

“Yes, I see the leopard eating your face.”

“Is this your leopard?”

“May I see the video again?”

“Yes.”

“Is there any more video?”

“What do you mean?”

“Because I think that is my leopard and I don’t understand why it would eat your face. I did not raise my leopard to eat faces.”

“Well, it is eating my face.”

“But what did you do to the leopard, why is it eating your face?”

“I thought you might know and, perhaps, get your leopard to stop eating my face.”

“I see… Well, it has never eaten my face.”

“But it is eating my face.”

“Did you disrespect the leopard?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“What did you do to my leopard? I love my leopard, my leopard loves me, it has only known my love, and my leopard does not eat faces.”

“But your leopard is eating my face.”

“That’s not possible, not without cause. What were you doing before the leopard started eating your face?”

“Walking.”

“Walking?”

“Yes, walking. I was walking to the store.”

“To the store?”

“Yes.”

“To rob the store?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Were you robbing the store?”

“No, I was not robbing the store. I was walking to the store.”

“You weren’t running from a robbery?”

“There was no robbery.”

“Was there a gun or a knife?”

“Why would there be a gun or a knife?”

“The leopard is eating your face. I can only assume you threatened the leopard.”

“I did not threaten the leopard. Can you please make it stop eating my face?”

“I love leopards.”

“I know.”

“That leopard is part of my heritage.”

“I understand that, but it is eating my face.”

“My leopard is part of my history.”

“I think your leopard may have eaten my parents faces too.”

“That’s just your opinion. What are the facts? My leopard has never eaten faces.”

“Never?”

“Never.”

“Your leopard is eating my face right now.”

“That is an exception.”

“I do not want your leopard to eat my children’s faces.”

“Your children should not provoke the leopard.”

“I was not provoking the leopard.”

“Then why is it eating your face?”

“I do not wish to speculate, but you raised this leopard, you love this leopard, this leopard is part of your heritage. And it is eating my face.”

“What can I do?”

“This is your leopard?”

“Yes.”

“You love this leopard?”

“Yes.”

“This leopard is part of your heritage?”

“Yes.”

“Then why won’t you at least try to make this leopard stop eating my face?”

“I’m not responsible for this particular leopard, this is the first time I’ve seen this behavior. Yours is only one face, it is simply an error, the leopard will correct itself, its history is good and I am a good person.”

“Are you saying this is not your leopard?”

“I misspoke earlier, I raised a leopard that came before this one. They look and behave remarkably alike. They do not eat faces.”

“And you loved that leopard?’

“Yes, and I love this leopard too.”

“Because?”

“Because it too is part of my heritage of raising leopards to be free and just.”

“Well, I fear it is too late, your leopard has eaten my face and I am dead.”

“I am sorry.”

“I am still dead.”

“Excuse me, might I have your assistance?”

“I can no longer help you, I am dead.”

“The leopard is now eating my face.”

“I am sorry. And dead.”

“I do not understand why this leopard would eat my face…”

Just watched: "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"

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This is a great movie, most people enjoy it. Since it's being removed from Netflix soon, I thought I'd introduce my kids to it. They...enjoyed it, but all the gags that make it fun were almost completely lost on them, we had to explain something every five minutes.

  1. Every old cartoon character. These 'toons aren't in constant syndication anymore, they have no idea who Daffy Duck or Tweety Bird are. They're vaguely aware of the Disney characters and certainly had no idea who Betty Boop or Felix the Cat were. 
  2. "Shave and a haircut..." Not a clue about this tune or how it fits into the gag.
  3. Most of the adult gags and references to Valiant's alcoholism, such as "Dabbling in watercolors" or  "You change your name to Jack Daniels?" or "Is that a rabbit in your pocket?" They didn't miss the overt stuff like Jessica's booby trap or her affect on men. I mean, her boobs, y'all, her boobs.

I didn't realize how dated the movie is. I don't feel that old, but I guess 70-year old references from the 1940s on have finally been put to pasture.

Still, it's a good movie.

And Judge Doom is still scary AF.

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Just read: "Neuromancer" by William Gibson

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I compiled a reading list for myself that includes books I should have read while I was growing up. These are books that are both hugely influential in genre circles or just popular and I totally missed them. I grew up in a sort of book desert. Most books are recommended by friends or stumbled upon in conversation—it’s an organic process. And I didn’t know anyone who read this stuff. The best I could manage was going to Barnes & Noble and browsing the sci-fi/fantasy section.

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“Neuromancer” (published in 1984, after and influenced by Blade Runner) was a challenge because of it’s iconic status. Much like “Treasure Island,” it established a number of tropes that have multiplied into their own genre, in this case: cyberpunk. The Matrix movie leans heavily on narrative frameworks established by Gibson, for instance. As I read the book, it was difficult to see it as the first in a flood of work that explored a cybernetic noir of decay and advancement in human future. Gibson also heavily relied on throwaway lines about future events and products, creating a reality that is both foreign and familiar.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and it’s wildly expanding world of technology. I did the fact that Gibson envisioned the endgame for the World Wide Web and artificial intelligence.

Just watched: "Black Panther"

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I’ve always liked the idea of the character Black Panther in Marvel comics. It wasn’t until Christopher Priest (writer) and Mark Texiera (illustrator) got a hold of him that I really started liking the character. That team did more to create the big-screen version of T’Challa than anyone before them. I thought the movie was phenomenal. I’ve seen it twice, once with my wife and again with my wife and my daughters. I’ll see it again, as soon as I can. But rather than try to explain why the film’s so good or what it means, I’ll rather provide an anecdote.

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My mother used to read comics to me when I was a kid. I remember “Fantastic Four” and “Thor” being the first. I was hooked from then on, reading both Marvel and DC, consuming newspaper strips and editorial cartoons nonstop. There was a shop called “Sunny’s Cigar Store” a little over a mile away in Boston’s Mattapan Square neighborhood. (This was a neighborhood that was overwhelmingly black, nearly 100%.) They kept a spinning rack of comics and whenever I could manage to be there with my parents, I’d get some books. As soon as I was old enough, I started walking there on my own, trying to figure out when new comics were available. I enjoyed Marvel more than DC, but both of them treated their non-white and non-male characters as either second-rate or marginalized. As much as I wanted to see The Falcon or Black Panther or Power Man be as significant as Captain America, Spider-Man, the Hulk or even Wonder Man, it wasn’t happening.

Eventually, I started creating my own characters. Oddly enough, I was never all that interested in drawing or writing with the existing ones. I created dozens and cobbled together storylines before I hit the age of twelve. It was about that time that I realized every character I’d created was white. And male. Every one. Dozens. How was this possible? It was possible because every media property from books to television to movies was dominated by white faces and the white male gaze. Anything could be appropriated, but only white people could create it, fund it, star in it. And that media landscape infected my brain, subtly convinced me that only white people were heroes—men, specifically—everyone else was there to support them or be saved by them.

And here we are.

Just watched: "Blade Runner 2049"

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A friend of mine has a lovely 4K television with surround sound set up in his basement. Of course, we got together and watched "Blade Runner." The one from 1982, director's cut. It had been a while since I'd seen the movie and I'd never seen this version. The core idea about life, how it's defined, and who deserves it is an entertaining one. I still enjoyed it quite a bit, but... Something nagged.

There's a scene where Rachel is back in Deckard's apartment, after saving his ass from Leon. Something is drawing the advanced replicant and the recommissioned Blade Runner together, for sure. After a heated conversation, Deckard forces her to stay. Forces her to kiss him. Forces her to ask for him to kiss her. And the whole scene is kind of cringeworthy. Then I realized that there are no "real" women in the movie. Not one human woman. The women who are there have been created to serve men, in one way or another. Tyrell created Rachel as some sort of advanced replicant experiment.

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All the advertising in the movie exploits women, in one way or another. Projected on buildings, in neon, wherever. There are women in the background, apparently living what passes for normal lives in Los Angeles, circa 2019. All of the women featured in the movie are literally objects. Women have very nearly been erased. And once you see that, it's creepy AF and hard to unsee.

Fast forward thirty years to 2049 and the second "Blade Runner" film. A new series of replicants have been engineered by another dude with a God complex. This new series is obedient. And generally homogenous. The entire cast is white, in appearance, at least. Which, for science fiction about the future, is getting beyond exhausting. Somehow, thirty years in the future, from the last future, there are even fewer non-white people in America. Oh, wait, there's that creepy black dude running an off-the-grid orphanage that sells kids. Or something. 

At the point in history being depicted, America has not only erased women, it's erased brown folks too, while also creating a slave class of white replicants. WTF is going on here? The replicant Blade Runner has an AI girlfriend, a customized, build that advertises as a 100-foot tall, nude woman. She's literally more object than replicant women. Who appear to be either bloodthirsty killers or street-walking prostitutes. Of the two human women featured in the movie, one is a politically motivated, awful person who tries to sexually harass her Blade Runner. And the other is Deckard's genetically damaged, but otherwise brilliant daughter who's literally kept in a bubble. Literally kept safe and productive. Classic. And it's one of those odd never-mind-the-man-behind-the-curtain moments because if the tech exists to manufacture human beings, why can't they fix this woman? Then again, why would they bother? Since the goal is to do away with women entirely, it seems. I wonder how much of this erasure was intentional?

Gorgeous movie, well-acted, great soundtrack, neat ideas, continuity, and execution, but once I saw it...

Just read: "The Forever War" by Joe Haldeman

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Original cover

This was a fantastic novel, an impressive entry for military sci-fi with an emphasis on the science fiction. The story follows William Mandella, a physics major conscripted by the United Nations Exploratory Force to fight the alien Taurans. The UNEF uses near-light speed technology in conjunction with “collapsars” to deliver the war. This and the fighting suits create some interesting problems for the soldiers. The exotic environments are often just as deadly as the enemy and traveling at near-light speed creates significant relativistic effects—a couple years’ time in space calculates to decades in Earth normal time. All of this amounts to a very entertaining setting for Haldeman to play with as Mandala navigates his new life in the war.

At times a bit dry or clinical, Haldeman’s narrative uses an understated tone to recount the horrors of war and time dilation. Culture shock, the hazards of life in a space war, language, gender, and more is dealt with as humanity cycles through hundreds of years of history. Everything is on the table for examination as the war progresses. It’s clear from both Haldeman’s background, the publication date (1974) and the progression of the war itself that the novel was inspired by the Vietnam War. Yet, nothing truly feels dated in the story which is a testimony to Haldeman’s creativity in envisioning humanity’s plummet into the future.

I truly regret not having read this novel decades ago. If I had, I’d have probably read it a few times since then! I highly recommended this book.

Just read: Logan's Run by William F. Nolan & George Clayton Johnson

 The first edition cover by Mercer Mayer, 1967

The first edition cover by Mercer Mayer, 1967

"Logan's Run" was published in 1967, one year before I was born. Due to the circumstances I grew up in, I became more familiar with movies and television adapted from books than the books themselves! This is one of the more prominent examples. I enjoyed the 1976 movie and the following television series in 1977 as science fiction movies and television exploded. As is most often the case, the book is superior to the movie. Though I will admit that this is one novel ripe for a remake, there's plenty of material that was reinterpreted or omitted from the film. "Logan's Run" follows Logan 3, a "Sandman" police officer (Deep Sleep Operative) tasked with killing "Runners"—people who try to escape their inevitable death sentence once they reach 21 years of age. The future is a dystopian ageist society that copes with Earth's limited resources by ensuring that no one ages beyond 21. The entire system is administered by "The Thinker," a massive and complex, world-wide computer system. Children are raised by machines and encouraged to take advantage of unlimited, hedonistic pleasures. Their time is delimited by a crystal embedded in the right palm that changes color over time until black indicates the time of "Lastday" when a citizen is to report to a "Sleepshop" where a toxic and pleasureful gas is to be administered.

Logan is nearing his "sleep date" when he tracks down a Runner named Doyle 10 and witnesses his murder by near-feral children called "cubs." Before dying, the man hands a key to Logan that will grant access to "Sanctuary," a safe harbor for Runners. Logan decides that since he's running out of time, the greatest service he can perform is finding Sanctuary and destroying it. He manages to connect with Jessica 6, the Runner's brother.

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The novel is a fun, scifi thriller and presents an intriguing, dystopia brought about by dwindling resources for an overcrowded planet—a recurrent theme in science-fiction since the 1960s. As much as I enjoyed the movie, I was struck by the richness of the novel's world. The twists and turns, the details of daily life, the various environments, and how the Deep Sleep Operatives are organized. One of the ideas introduced that seemed familiar was the DSO's weapon of choice, simply called "Gun." It's a six-shooter with various loads such as needle, explosive, and "homer"—a heat-seeking bullet. (The weapons struck me as impossibly similar to those used by Judges in the comic 2000 A.D.) "Omnite," the martial art of choice for Sandmen, reminded me of Krav Maga with it's malleable and hybrid nature. Certain political aspects which clearly materialized in the 1960s are prescient and seemingly immutable, compared to our current political climate. One line that stood out and showed what might be a conservative warning against liberal excess:

...with the death of the Republican Party in 1988
the Crazy Horse bill was passed without opposition.”

Later in the book, it becomes clear that the future relies on youth, but not on the utter destruction of aged wisdom. One political reality presented as unchanging in the future is delivered with unequivocal directness. In Logan's reality, the current dystopia has been brought on by a powder keg event referred to as "The Little War." At the time, the young had multiplied beyond easy capacity and challenge the comfortable existence of the older, fatter, selfish political leadership. Policy is enacted that creates far too many restraints on common life among the world's youth. The young rise up and, as the majority, crush the ruling class.

By morning, half of Washington was in flames. Senators
and congressmen were dragged in terror from their homes and hanged
like criminals from trees and lampposts.”

As satisfying as the fiction may be, it also serves as a warning for the young to remain engaged and not to trust the future to an aging leadership. Disengagement equals ruin.

Just read: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

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Because there are a great number of iconic books that I haven't read, I've started a project to read them. Treasure Island is the first up and, I have to say, it has turned out to be a somewhat difficult read. It's not that the English is so old that it's awkward, it's that the book has been the source for so many popular tropes about pirates. If you've seen any of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, you've experienced all the tropes. If you've seen more than one pirate movie, you've definitely absorbed all the cliches. Which is why, rather than attempt a synopsis or review, I'm going to list all the familiar bits I stumbled upon. Before that, I will say that I was struck by the diversity on display in this old tale. Not amongst the main characters, no, but people of color were acknowledged and sprinkled throughout. And now, the list:

  1. Fifteen men on the dead man's chest—yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
    Drink and the devil had done for the rest—yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
  2. Constantly craving rum and being drunk.
  3. Treasure chests, buried on deserted isles, and cryptic instructions on a map with a big, red 'X.'
  4. Disheveled, tattooed, pirates living hand-to-mouth.
  5. "...with rings in their ears, and whiskers curled in ringlets, and tarry pigtails..."
  6. One-legged pirates.
  7. Tortuga (island).
  8. Wig-wearing Brit to act as a foil.
  9. The Spanish Main.
  10. Jim Hawkins
  11. Shiver my timbers! (Not: Shiver me timbers!)
  12. Long John Silver.
  13. Captain Kidd.
  14. Hispaniola.
  15. A parrot on the pirate's shoulder.

BONUS: Quite a few words that were new to me or I hadn't retained their meaning:

Marish - a marsh or swamp

Miry - very muddy or boggy

Mizzenmast - the next mast back from the main mast

Thwart - a mounted piece of wood perpendicular to the length of a small boat for sitting

Halloo - an exclamation used to attract attention or to incite dogs during a chase

Bolus - a small rounded mass of a substance, especially chewed food

Gammon - ham that has been cured or smoked like bacon or the bottom piece of a side of bacon, including the hind leg

Spars - a thick, strong pole such as is used for a mast or yard on a ship

Slough - a swamp

Puncheon - a short post, especially for holding up mine shafts

Hawse - the part of a ship through which the anchor cables pass

Keelson - a centerline structure running the length of a ship and fastening the transverse members of the floor to the keel below

Glim - a candle or lantern

Gibbet - an upright post with an arm on which the bodies of executed criminals were left hanging as a warning or deterrent to others

 

 

 

 

StorySLAM'd

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For the first time I ever, I participated in a story-slam. I'd always enjoyed The Moth, but the event rarely came near me and, when it did, the theme wasn't something I had a story that fit. A smaller slam organized at Wheaton College did the trick. The theme for the evening was 'bloopers' and my story is "Of Whales, Gravy and Essays."

Just read: "The Rising" by Brian Keene

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I’d heard much more about this book than any other–with the exception of some King novels–before I got around to reading it. Keene is considered one of the grandmasters of modern, thrilling horror, somewhat prolific and officially recognized within the writing world. Many words have been spilled about this particular book and about Keene himself. Frankly, he’s an occasionally combative and always knowledgeable figure in the halls of horror fiction. I think all that is supposed to mean ‘controversial,’ but I think he’s a pretty regular dude.

“The Rising” features Jim Thurmond, a sort of everyman who’s been pinned down by a zombie apocalypse and has lost his new wife and child to the undead. He’s a divorcee, however, and has additionally lost all hope for his ex-wife and young son have survived. Until he gets a very brief phone call forcing him out of his hole and on the road to rescue his son. Thurmond is the most developed character and clearly the central protagonist. His emotional journey is the most wrenching. He’s followed by Frankie, a drug-addicted prostitute. Her story has a definitive, redemptive arc. Martin is probably the least developed, an aging priest whose self-assigned purpose is to help Thurmond along. Since Keene is unafraid to murder his characters, there’s some question, during the entire novel, about who will survive and who won’t. The first few chapters can come across as somewhat slow and that’s because Keene is setting a particularly large stage. There are a number of secondary characters and plots that need to be put in place for the horror show that is to follow. It makes sense later, but it can be a bit of a slog to get there.

Once Baker, Frankie, Martin, and the obligatory rogue military unit are established, the pace increases exponentially. Keene takes virtually all the modern zombie tropes—as well as one critical aspect of zombies past—and spins up the ante on the nightmare. No one is spared the horror of the world collapsing and there’s a nice mix of undead and living motivation. Often, zombie stories are best when the walking dead are treated like a natural disaster. This allows the living characters to drive the plot. Keene puts a more adversarial spin on that idea, where the rising dead are unmistakably antagonists with some motivations of their own. I truly enjoyed the book, it sits well with other zombie media that I’ve enjoyed and that makes perfect sense to me since the book was released around the same time and influenced by the same lore that I’d been enjoying.

Now, about that ending…

It’s a good ending. Anyone who says otherwise is looking for a reading experience that holds their hand and leads them to an obvious conclusion.

Just read: "Mongrels" by Stephen Graham Jones

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I had the privilege of meeting Jones at Necronomicon 2017 in Providence, Rhode Island. Near as I could tell, he's a laid back, cool, experienced author and very (very) dedicated writer and reader. His fiction cuts to the quick, it’s an emotional time bomb and sometimes strange, but never confusing. If I had to assign a texture to his work, I’d say velvet and stone.

I sat down to write a review of this book and all I can come up with is that it comes at you like a studied fighter. Every scene, every section is a revelation and it just keeps coming. The book is an unabashed, funny, bloody, horrifying tale about myths, reality, childhood’s end, cars, family, and love. Told through the eyes of a boy who desperately wants something he can’t easily obtain, the ersatz family’s methods of survival are some of the most entertaining aspects of the book. I found the boy to be an unintentionally unreliable narrator whose misunderstandings about werewolves and life in general evolve over the course of the book. The real gem in this novel is the young boy’s growth and Jones’ narrative techniques.

1987: Rebel Without A Pause

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Rebel Without A Pause was the first single released from Public Enemy’s sophomore album, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. I actually remember where I was: boot camp. A place where there is no music. After that? Infantry school. Some music, but not much. After that? An overseas duty station in the United Kingdom. All this happened in less than a year. It was in England that I first heard Public Enemy. Their innovative sound had been tearing its way from New York and across the nation, skipping from city to city, a wave of something new in hip-hop that was going to signal an expansion in the genre. Where hip-hop production and sampling were, at the time, The Bomb Squad were going to exponentially blow that up. But I was mostly unaware that it was happening, having been removed from the city and my old neighborhood for the better part of a year.

Yes - the rhythm, the rebel
Without a pause - I'm lowering my level
The hard rhymer - where you never been I'm in
You want styling - you know it's time again
D the enemy - telling you to hear it
They praised the music - this time they play the lyrics
Some say no to the album, the show
Bum Rush The Sound - I made a year ago1
I guess you know - you guess I'm just a radical
Not on sabbatical - yes to make it critical
The only part your body should be parting to
Panther power on the hour from the rebel to you

My first duty station, near an out-of-the-way, seaside resort town in Cornwall, England, was part of the U.S.M.C. Security Forces. We guarded a munitions depot attached to an R.A.F. base surrounded by green fields and flocks of sheep. The direction of the wind determined whether or not standing guard was a pleasant day in the English countryside or an olfactory hell. It was a small duty station, only a company of Marines, but on my arrival, I was only one of two brown-skinned personnel. That would change in the coming months.

Radio - suckers never play me
On the mix - just O.K. me
Now known and grown when they're clocking my zone it's known
Snakin' and takin' everything that a brother owns
Hard - my calling card
Recorded and ordered - supporter of Chesimard2
Loud and proud kickin' live next poet supreme
Loop a troop, bazooka, the scheme
Flavor - a rebel in his own mind
Supporter of my rhyme
Designed to scatter a line of suckers who claim I do crime

Within a year, there were a significant amount of black men serving at the duty station. Enough so that there was the occasional friction between more urban or southern black men and more suburban or middle-American white men. Sometimes. But we were all Marines and it generally always boiled down to that. And we all learned from each other, taking some steps towards breaking down the cultural barriers that had been built up over the previous few-hundred years. The point is, these young men brought with them something important: cassettes of hip-hop music from America.

From a rebel it's final on black vinyl
Soul, rock and roll comin' like a rhino
Tables turn - suckers burn to learn
They can't dis-able the power of my label
Def Jam - tells you who I am
The enemy's public - they really give a damn
Strong Island - where I got 'em wild and
That's the reason they're claimin' that I'm violent
Never silent - no dope gettin' dumb nope
Claimin' where we get our rhythm from
Number one - we hit ya and we give ya some
No gun - and still never on the run
You wanna be an S1 - Griff will tell you when
And then you'll come - you'll know what time it is
Impeach the president - pullin' out the ray-gun
Zap the next one - I could be you're Sho-gun
Suckers - don't last a minute
Soft and smooth - I ain't with it
Hardcore - raw bone like a razor
I'm like a laser - I just won't graze ya
Old enough to raise ya - so this will faze ya
Get it right boy and maybe I will praise ya
Playin' the role I got soul too
Voice my opinion with volume
Smooth - know what I am

The most distinctive sound on that first single—that warbling squeal repeated and laid over a rumbling, syrupy beat—raised the hairs on my arms. It was mesmerizing, it blew my brains. I recognized the squeal as a saxophone, and it sounded familiar, to boot. I’d re-learn its origin later, digging up old James Brown and affiliates records because it was about one half of the alto saxophone, glissando opening of “The Grunt,” by the JBs. This track was a deafening debut, a bombastic proclamation of Public Enemy’s signature sound. An aggressive, thundering wall of combative, rhythmic…noise. There was plenty of parallel with aggro music across other genres, but none in hip-hop, at the time. That insistent squeal, the rumble of the beat, and Chuck D’s distinctive and clear voice meant that track could be heard even when you were blocks away.

No matter what the name - we're all the same
Pieces in one big chess game
Yeah - the voice of power
Is in the house - go take a shower boy
P.E. a group, a crew - not singular
We were black Wranglers
We're rap stranglers
You can't angle us - I know you're listenin'
I caught you pissin' in you're pants
You're scared of us dissin' us
The crowd is missin' us
We're on a mission boy

My nascent Public Enemy fan story doesn’t end there, of course. Over a year into my tour of duty, a friend decided to marry one of the natives. (These things happen. A lot.) The ceremony was to occur in Birmingham, well north of Cornwall. All of us invitees (and the groom) piled onto a chartered bus for the ill-fated “Jack Daniels” tour. I do remember stopping for steak and mushrooms, just before dark, for dinner. I do remember arriving at the hotel, signing in, and going—with some assistance—to my room. And later becoming reacquainted with the steak and mushrooms I’d had earlier. (They were delicious the first time.) I woke up around midnight. Alone. Which is difficult when you’ve spent the last two years always having at least twenty guys at your back. Birmingham, at the time, was a sleepy city. Retail and other services had closed well before I got downstairs to the lobby. Even the hotel’s lobby was closed, glass doors drawn shut. Outside the glass doors, one of my comrades stood perplexed at being locked out. I opened up for him and, as he led me to the rest of the crew, we bumped into yet another Jarhead. The three of us continued and, sure enough, heard that squeal and the thunderous beat somewhere ahead. We followed the sound for about two blocks and—I should mention this to best explain the impact of what was to come: Even though there were several more non-white Marines at the duty station, we were still part of a notable minority. I’d spent nearly the last two years in the whitest white people country that is arguably the original source of the white world’s white-most-whitey-whiteness, whiteyouverymuch. So… We followed the sound to an old brick building with smoky windows. The music came from the basement. Without hesitation—because that’s the kind of boldness engendered by routinely having twenty guys at your back—we opened the door. At the bottom of the stairs began a sea of black flesh, wall to wall people dancing to the booming sounds of Public Enemy. We waded in, forgetting about the rest of our squad. Thirty years later, it remains one of the few albums I’ve never stopped listening to, and an artist I’ve continued to follow.

Attitude - when I'm on fire
Juice on the loose - electric wire
Simple and plain - give me the lane
I'll throw it down your throat like Barkley
See the car keys - you'll never get these
They belong to the 98 posse3
You want some more son - you wanna get some
Rush the door on a store - pick up the album
You know the rhythm, the rhyme plus the beat is designed
So I can enter your mind - Boys
Bring the noise - my time
Step aside for the flex - Terminator X

  1. Bum Rush The Show, Public Enemy’s first album only features some of their signature sound. Made a few years before their second LP, it still bore the taint of hip-hop’s past when it’s release was delayed. Though it was fairly well received, the sound wasn’t anything very special.
  2. Chesimard is the married surname of Assata Olugbala Shakur, a member of the Black Liberation Army. She is a notorious figure in America’s modern history, and well worth looking up.
  3. Chuck had a thing for the '98 Oldsmobile. No idea why…

Just read: "Down. Set. Fight!"

Written by Chuck Bowers and Chris Sims, illustrated by Scott Kowalchuk, and begging to be a go-for-it grindhouse movie adaptation. This graphic novel follows the life and career of Chuck "Fearless" Fairlane, a football prodigy trained beyond his limits by a congenital gambler of a father. Chuck finds himself in hot water after a post-game, on-field, rage-out brawl precipitated by dear ol' dad where he manages to punch anyone who dares take the field. Fast forward fifteen years later and Chuck is a high school football coach with an interesting professional football asterisk in his past. Until mascots start targeting him. Fun, fast-paced, whacky. Fight!

Just read: The Blue Blazes and The Hellsblood Bride by Chuck Wendig

Wendig’s words wind and whip, while wounding with wonder! Kidding. There’s no alliteration in the story, but, man, the word-play at Wendig’s fingertips is incredibly entertaining. The story features lifelong thug, Mookie Pearl, and the fate of the criminal organization he works for. An organization called…The Organization. The heart of the matter, however, is Mookie’s estranged relationship with is wife and obstreperous daughter. That’s what provides the central emotional tension. The situation is specially tense since Pearl’s daughter is stirring up the underworld both above and below the New York after putting a bullet in Pearl’s partner’s hip. The mix of supernatural criminals from Hell and the humans that stand between them and us regular folk are painted with a brutal brush that’s a welcome addition to the urban fantasy genre. Precious few characters aren’t grizzled and spent, their lives an unending grind that doesn’t let up.

There’s a healthy dose of noir here as Pearl, a Neanderthalic and preternaturally large human being, lumbers through his life as an enforcer for the order that keeps the supernatural from spilling into the daylight. By Wendig’s description, Pearl resembles “The Goon.” (And if you haven’t read the The Goon, byIt’s a wonder he was with a woman long enough to get married and have a daughter. But the that was a long time ago. Nowadays, he works with the hybrid goat-man Werth, breaking knees for The Organization where most others fear to tread: in the Down Below. Complicating matters is the existence of Cerulean, a drug called the “blue” amongst those in the know. Blue allows the user to see through the glamour underworld denizens—of which there are many—use to mask their true appearance. Central to Mookies problems are Gobbos (Goblins), seemingly mindless marauders, and Ernesto Candlefly, a mysterious associate of The Organization’s boss. Everything seems to go right and wrong at the same time with Pearl and that’s the very broken heart of noir.

For me, Wendig’s story shines when he’s mixing supernatural elements with what we consider reality. Fast-paced and brutal, Mookie’s ham-handed antics are a pleasure as this man-mountain past his prime attempts to save the world—after he patches things up with his daughter. But Mookie’s not much of a thinker, he’s a doer, in his own words, and these problems require him to come up with solutions more nuanced than stomping someone’s head into the ground.

Just read: "Our Lady of Vengeance" by Thomas Pluck

These are certainly "13 dishes served cold." Pluck is a master of hardboiled, two-fisted noir. And I love stories about revenge. Win-win. He excels at shifting gears and producing stories that can be lyrical, brisk, emotional or all three. He applies his singular technique in this themed collection to settings ranging from feudal Japan to the deep south to the heartbreaking cities of the East Coast. I really can't say enough about this crime writer, he successfully takes chances with storylines and characters, pushing boundaries and entertaining the whole way. For anyone who hasn't read Pluck's work, this is a fine introduction and, I hope, a gateway drug for the rest of his catalog.

Just read: "Blood Cult of the Booby Farmers" by Peter N. Dudar

I… This book… The, uh… Let's start with what the note the author attached to the book:

This book is an homage to Grindhouse films of the 70s.  The story contains material that is graphic in nature and not suitable for persons under 17 years old, pregnant women, literary and academic types, clergy members or fellow parishioners, people who are politically correct or easily offended, animal lovers, people whose parents are blood-related, parents of children that go to school with my child, or fellow family members.  But if you love dark, upsetting horror stories, I’d love for you to check it out.  I think you will like it.  I know I do.  - PND

Okay, well…I liked it. Really. From the title and the cover, it's difficult to know what to expect. Bizarre, bloody, and at times gross and disturbing, there's a solid story here that plummets forward with abandon. I think, with books like this, context is very, very valuable. For fans of the lesser-known horror films--the kind of films that just went for it--like The Hills Have Eyes, The Beast Within, or The Incredible Melting Man; this book just goes for it!