Mr. Hands by Gary Braunbeck

While I’m already behind on my promise to write something about each book I received in my suhweet Dorchester Publishing order, I have been more-or-less been making good on my word that I’ll read the books from that order before I jumped on anything else. More because I’ve read two more since my last update. Less because I had to read a book for review for HorrorTalk and after I finished that, I wanted to read something I knew I liked, so went right to Legacies by F. Paul Wilson (you can never go wrong with a Repairman Jack).

With that said — since I’m now out of excuses — the next book I read in that package was Mr. Hands by by Gary Braunbeck.

Fuck if Braunbeck isn’t quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. I’ve been impressed with everything I’ve read from him (including Prodigal Blues, Safe and The Ballad of Road Mama and Daddy Bliss). The man is currently batting 1,000 with me and I don’t see that changing in anytime soon. His writing is that good, and Mr. Hands is no exception.

The interesting thing about Mr. Hands is the title character does not appear until about midway through the novel. Instead, the first part opens with a stranger arriving at “The Hangman’s Tavern” and telling his story of Uncle Ronnie, the town’s local serial killer from years prior. But Ronnie isn’t your typical serial killer. He’s more of a Dexter than a Dahlmer, and there is a supernatural element involved for the reasoning behind his killings.

At the halfway point,  Uncle Ronnie’s story goes away for a bit and Lucy and Mr. Hands are introduced. Mr. Hands was once the toy of Lucy Thompson’s daughter before the girl was kidnapped and murdered, completely destroying Lucy and her marriage. On a fateful evening, Lucy discovers Mr. Hands is more than just a toy, but rather a golem of sorts and he is at her command. Once she sets him loose, things start hopping.

One thing that constantly amazes me about Braunbeck’s writing is how he is the master at the run-on sentence. He can make one sentence a page long (I shit you not) and you don’t notice. It’s almost as if he’s writing the train of thought as it’s coming to him, and these long passages of words without a break are some of the best in this book.

Contrary to the cover image, Mr. Hands isn’t about a monster. Certainly the monster is heavily involved in the novel, but it’s really about revenge and payback and how the two are not as black-and-white as you’d like them to be. I’m a huge proponent of an eye-for-an-eye justice, but Braunbeck creates a pretty compelling argument using the characters in Mr. Hands on how things just always what they seem.

I have a few more of Braunbeck’s work in that box o’ goodies from Dorchester, but I think I’m going hold off on reading them. I’ve really, really dug his library so far, and I don’t want to blow through it too quickly. It’s hard, as I desperately want to jump into one of the others, since I know I’ll enjoy them, but I also know that I’ll be pissed when I have nothing of his left to read. I’ll save them because they’ve been worth the wait thus far.

Urban Gothic by Brian Keene

A couple of weeks ago, Dorchester Publishing had an amazing sale. 50% off their entire catalog. If that wasn’t good enough, if you were a member of one of their clubs — like I am (the Hard Case Crime club) — you got an additional discount. Plus for every five books you bought, you got one free! I ended up picking up 12 books for $26 shipped. Damn fine deal for brand new books.

Of them, I finally got around to purchasing Brian Keene’s Urban Gothic. Since I picked up my Sony eBook reader, I’ve been a bit behind on some of my favorite authors, simply because they aren’t available in eBook format. (My God, I can’t wait for this to change.)

It had been awhile since I had read something from Keene, so I eagerly tore into Urban Gothic first when I got my bundle o’ books from Dorchester because I’ve enjoyed all of Keene’s work. Surprisingly, I was a little disappointed in this one.

Urban Gothic by Brian Keene

The premise of Urban Gothic is relatively simple: A group of white kids, on their way home from a concert, get lost in Philadelphia and end up in a very bad neighborhood. To make matters worse, their car breaks down. This is not good, as this is the kind of neighborhood cops don’t even bother responding to calls. After a confrontation with a group of teens who live in the area, which leads to one of the cracker kids shouting out ‘nigger’, the whitebreads escape to a house that even the residents of this ghetto avoid due to its shady history.

Of course, immediately after entering the house, they get locked in. And there are far worse things in this dwelling than the angry youths that chased them. The suburbanites immediately find this out when a seven foot tall mutant crushes the skull of one of the teens within minutes of entering the house. And he isn’t the only freak-of-nature in the house, not by a long shot. The party has started.

The biggest strength in Urban Gothic, hands down, is the unflinching brutality that runs rampant throughout the book. Within 20 or so pages, one of the (what you would have assumed) main characters is immediately dispatched. And like many of Keene’s work that I have read, no one is safe. That’s one of the things I really like about Keene, he doesn’t care if you like the character. He doesn’t care if the character is a good guy, or a hero. They are human and they can, and many times will, die. Don’t get too attached.

The book is also a very fast read. The action is virtually non-stop the moment the kids enter the house. Hell, once the first of the group bites it, the kids are either running or fighting constantly, and eventually even the teens that chased them into the house get involved. It’s an exciting book in that regard.

However, the problem becomes the book feels as rushed as the action within it. There are plot points that are hinted at, but never fully developed, like the history of the house. At one point, one of the girls finds a room with papers and photos that might give a clue on the creatures that lurk within, but that’s just a tease as all she does is take some pictures of the papers with her cellphone and then moves on. I’m not the type of person to necessarily need to know why something is, but when an explanation is dangled in front of me, I would want some follow through.

Also, Urban Gothic has some of the weaker editing I’ve seen compared to Keene’s prior works that I’ve read (and I’ve read most). There were more-than-a-few instances of forced analogies. In particular, the phrase “it reminded him [or her] of” is used a lot. For example, if a character felt a breeze that could lead them to the outside, they would be “reminded of the time” they went on that picnic. Or if a character was extremely thirsty, they were “reminded of the time” they went hiking and forgot to bring water. (Note, these situations are made up, as I don’t have the book in front of me, but you get the gist.) I am completely aware how nitpicky that seems, but once you pick up on it, it stands out every time you see it. I don’t blame Keene for this, as I freely admit I do it myself in reviews for HorrorTalk, but the people that do my editing generally pick it up.

This does not make the book non-enjoyable, not by a long shot. It’s a lot of fun and, like I said, a quick read. Hell, this is one of those books that would make a great movie because of all of the action. Keene fans will definitely enjoy it, and Richard Laymon fans will dig it as well because it drips of his influence. I’m just a bit disappointed that there seemed to be a missed opportunity with the history of the house (or, rather, the inbreds within it), the rushed feel of it and the need for a stronger edit.

There is little doubt I’ll read it again down the road, but I’d probably give The Rutting Season or Ghoul a re-read before this one.

Delirium Drops Trade Paperback Line. Goes Digital.

Today, Delirium, one of the best small publishing companies specializing in horror, announced that they will replacing their trade paperback line with digital editions.

Delirium’s trade paperback and book club will end this month with the final featured title: David Jack Bell’s The Girl In The Woods. My focus has shifted significantly over the past few years and digital editions will replace the trade paperback line in Delirium’s production schedule.

This will no doubt become a hot topic, but I’ve come to the conclusion over the past few years that the digital medium is a necessary step for the survival of not only the genre in literature, but the entire book industry.

The only thing I can say at this point is this: it’s no longer become a matter of whether you like or dislike the digital medium; it’s the point that the business of publishing needs to change in order for it to survive. The money-makers for each physical book that is produced sadly barely include the two essential components which is the author and publisher. The money that changes hands profits printers, book binders, distributors and shipping carriers, which is great, if it weren’t for the fact that what little is left (a very small pittance) falls into the hands of the true artist and those that work hard to bring their book to a broader readership.

The digital format has the ability to change all of this, to even the playing field, to compensate justly the starving artist and independent entrepreneur instead of the bloated corporation. It also allows readers to purchase new works of fiction for much cheaper than limited editions, trade paperbacks and even mass market paperbacks in some cases.

I’ve always been one to do things my way and carve my own path and it’s time to start a new direction.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the physical book as well, and plan to continue to produce limited edition hardcovers for collectors, but I feel the time has come for change, to focus on digital.

Delirium’s amended publication schedule will be posted in the coming weeks.  Instead of monthly, Delirium will take on an irregular production schedule of primarily digital releases with some limited edition hardcover releases in the mix.

Another major reason for the reduced production schedule is my involvement with Horror Mall.  This company has really become a force in the past year and I feel it is essential to the growth of the genre at the independent level.  It is a company that is at the forefront of helping many authors, artists, publishers and movie studios.  And starting this month it has become my full time job. My goal when I founded Horror Mall in 2007 was to make it the gateway to independent horror and it is well on its way. With more of my focus on Horror Mall, I will be able to promote digital titles not only from my own press, but from others as well. And not just digital, but the fine limited edition publishers that are in business.  And Horror Mall will be there to support other entrepreneurs, artists and many others in our genre.

(Story Link)

As a proud Sony 505 owner, I can only say this pleases me. Is it going to piss off some people? I’m sure it will, especially those without some sort of reader. But, let’s face it, digital books are a thing of the future, like it or not, and if Delirium jumps on now to both save money so they will be around in the future as well as embrace the new technology, I can only say kudos to them.

Admittedly, I do feel for those who do not have an ebook reader of some sort, but the selfish part of me would rather see Delirium — and other independent book sellers — stay in business, and if this is the way to go, it’s time for people to throw down money for the technology of the future. For those of us who already have readers, this is win/win/win. It will be even easier for us to get the newest books from lesser known authors, it will be cheaper and it will be in our hands much faster. Hot damn this is good news, indeed.

Smart move, Delirium. I’m quite sure I won’t be your only huge supporter in this, and I look forward to purchasing even more titles from you.

The Stand

“Guess what The Stand Girl is reading,” my buddy, Zig, started off the conversation with when he called me a bit ago. That’s exactly what he said, too. Guess what The Stand Girl is reading.

The Stand Girl is one of Zig’s friends. I’ve never met her, but like most good friends, he brings her up in conversation often, and that’s what I know her as. I’m sure he’s told me her real name. Hell, he’s probably mentioned it numerous times before getting tired of me going “Who?” and him replying with “The Stand Girl.” Sometimes you stick with what works. She got the nickname rather easily: One day he told me he had a friend who was a big Stephen King fan. He had talked to her that day and she had just decided to watch the TV version of The Stand straight through one day. People, this is impressive as the miniseries runs about 6 hours. So I asked the next logical question: “Is she single?”

To my dismay, no. She’s married. Jealousy of her husband aside, she became forever known (to me) as The Stand Girl.

So, Zig calls me about a month ago and says, “Guess what The Stand Girl is reading?”

“What?”

The Stand.”

“Oh, duh. Aren’t you reading that now, too?”

“Yeah,” he replied, “and I was talking to Kevin last night and he mentioned he was reading it, too. How odd is that?”

“Shit,” I said, “that is weird. I’ve been wanting to jump back into it lately, too. It’s been ages since I’ve read it.”

“Now’s a good time.”

He was right. I used to read The Stand every two years or so growing up because it’s that good. Hell, when the full uncut edition came out, I read the abridged version, then immediately read the uncut edition. That’s a couple thousand pages, and I enjoyed every word. But I hadn’t read it in years and I was well overdue for a jump into the battle of good and evil.

As I wrote on my facebook wall, what can you say about The Stand that hasn’t already been said? Considered by many, myself included, this is King’s masterpiece. Yes, he’s had great books both before and since The Stand, but the closest he’s come to matching the enjoyment of The Stand is IT.

The Stand is nothing more than a battle of good and evil, plain and simple. But King is at his best here at what he does best; storytelling and characterization. There are a lot of characters in this book, but each one is unique, and I never had any confusion on who was who. This is a big deal for me, as if there are too many characters, or if they are too cookie cut, I have to page back to see who is who (this is no doubt coming from ADD). But not here, no sir. Each player is instantly recognizable.

If there’s one teeny, tiny, itsy, bitsy problem I have with the novel is the last 200 – 300 pages seem a little rushed. It’s as if King got to page 1,000 or so and said, “Well, shit, this is going on way to long. I need to wrap this the hell up.” It no way distracts from the book’s enjoyment, but if I’m going to read 1,300 pages, I’m going to read 1,500 if that’s what it takes.

Regardless, The Stand is my favorite book, hands down, no question. It was good to revisit it again.

Now to re-watch the mini-series.

Rosemary’s Baby

Many months ago I was at the much talked about, much loved Wheaton Public Library buying my usual bags and bags of books, when I came across a beat up copy of Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin. I, of course, had heard of the movie and was quite aware that it was a book first, but I have never bothered with either.

The movie I never bothered with because Roman Polanski is a fuck and should be skinned.

The book I never bothered with because I’ve never had the opportunity. Well that obviously changed when I saw it for a quarter. (And, to be quite honest, if it were over a buck, I most likely wouldn’t have bought it as the title just never interested me.)

The story of Rosemary’s Baby (for those who have been oblivious to pop-culture for about 30 years) is not complex at all. A woman, Rosemary, and her husband (whose name escapes me, so we’ll call him Hal) move into a new apartment that has a questionable past — suicides and murders and such. The apartment’s tenants are rather… eccentric, to say the least. Strange shit starts happening, Rosemary gets pregnant and the tenants may or may not be devil worshipers and her baby may or may not be demon spawn.

Let’s face it, devil worshipers and demon spawn just aren’t scary anymore. Sure, back in the day you had The Exorcist (which I desperately need to read) and The Omen, and those are still good now. However, people prancing around a pentagram in dark hoods and robes and black candles just don’t cut it nowadays. But damn if that doesn’t effect the enjoyment of this book.

Levin does a fantastic job of just telling you a story. He doesn’t try to do anything else. The entire book centers around Rosemary, and you don’t know anything beyond what she knows. Levin isn’t trying to scare you, he just sits you down in an easy chair and tells you a tale. The entire tone of the book is very conversational and, because of this, reads quickly. But don’t take that as it reads quickly like a pulp fiction novel, where as few words are used as possible, but quickly in the sense you are talking to a friend, and time slips away from you.

The only problem I had with the book — and this is no fault of Levin, but rather the time it was written — is the ending… or, rather, the reveal of Rosemary’s baby. I believe that, at the time, it may have been shocking, but now it reads a little hokey. The actual ending is really good, unsettling even, because of how Rosemary handles her unique situation, but the description of the kid leaves a little to be desired.

Rosemary’s Baby is the first novel I’ve read by Levin, but I see he’s also written such noted works as A Kiss Before Dying and The Stepford Wives, which I would like to read in the future. Most notably, though (for me), he wrote a sequel to Rosemary’s Baby, called Son of Rosmary, a full 30 years later. I’m really curious about that, and will keep an eye out for it.

Fetish

I like J.F. Gonzales. I really do. I haven’t read every book he’s written, yet, but I’ve liked every book I’ve read, starting with Maternal Instinct.

Gonzales has a nice knack of disturbing the hell out of you, and I can appreciate that.

But, for some reason, with the last two books I’ve read from him — Bully and, now, Fetish — he seems to be having a hard time ending his books. And by that I mean just the last few pages. In Bully, it wasn’t too bad, but, man, in Fetish, I have zero idea on why he felt he needed the first and last chapters. They are such an obvious force into making the book into some sort of *shocking* ending, and does nothing but hurt it.

The meat of the book is top notch, as usual, and very good read. Long story short, it’s about a cop, a newspaper journalist and a serial killer.

But, dammit, the first and last chapters are so completely unneeded that I wish I hadn’t read them. They are so tacked on, it feels like they weren’t part of the book from the beginning, and an editor (or publisher) suggested he throw them in there. But they just don’t work.

Yet, even with that said, I think Gonzales is a great author who gets better with each book. My favorite is still Bully (with a Survivor a very close second).

I’ll certainly keep reading him.

Dead Sea

I’ve been a big Brian Keene fan ever since I read his first novel, The Rising, so picking up Dead Sea, his latest, was a no-brainer.

Dead Sea is Keene’s return to zombies, something he hasn’t written about, in at least novel form, since City of the Dead (the sequel to The Rising). I’m curious on how much of a new Keene zombie book was due to fan pressure, publisher pressure or both, as I’ve always gotten the impression from him (either through appearances or interviews) that he really wasn’t ready to write about zombies anymore. Fortunately, that doesn’t effect the enjoyment of Sea.

In Sea, the undead walk due to a sickness. Originally started in New York, where undead rats came out of the sewers and started chowing down on human flesh, the disease spread and spread and spread (as it does), and soon the Earth is one big walking cemetery. At first, some animals were effected by the disease, too, and some weren’t. But then the disease started crossing over, making for one hell of a problem.

Lamar, the book’s main character, is Sea’s reluctant hero, trying not only to save his own ass, but also the two children who he’s ‘adopted’ after finding them in building fending for themselves.

With each new book, Keene has been steadily improving his craft. In the technical sense, Sea is leagues above Rising (although I enjoyed Rising more). But while I enjoyed Sea a lot, I didn’t feel the passion Keene usually injects in his book, like the passion I felt when reading Terminal or Ghoul. There’s a lot of emotion in The Rutting Season (my favorite Keene book, by far, for personal reasons), but that’s more anger than anything else. Man, Season is an angry, angry book. A great one, but there is frustration in those pages that seeps into your fingers.

However, while there might not be as much passion, there is excitement. Keene is to zombies like Michael Bay is to explosions. While I wish there were a little more depth to some of the supporting characters, it was easily overlooked due to all of the chomping and chewing going on. Keene definitely keeps the blood flowing and the pages turning.

While it’s not Keene’s best work, it’s still a pretty damn good summer read. And a quick one, at that. Something you can eat up on the beach, or on your way to work.

Just keep one eye out for stray rats while you have your nose in the book.

Breed

Ever since I read James Welch’s Fools Crow in college, I’ve always wanted to read more by a Native American author as there is just something pretty damn cool about the history and mystique of the Indians.

And, of course, I never got around to it.

But a couple years ago, I heard of this Indian who wrote horror. Word was, he was pretty good, he had won a Stoker award and everything. Except I could never remember the guy’s name when I was in a bookstore, and by the time I got home from the bookstore, I usually forgot to look him up. But, one day — at the Wheaton Library, no less (because they have the best ongoing used booksale in the area) — I was perusing the horror section and I finally came one of the author’s books and, after seeing the name, was a little perplexed on why I could never remember it. Owl Goingback. Seriously, how bad ass is that name?

The book I snagged was Crota, the one that got Goingback the Stoker. Over time, I’d picked up Darker than Night and Breed. And, as it goes, instead of reading Crota first, I grabbed Breed. (Which kind of pisses me off, as I generally like to read an author from his/her first book onward — especially if I own the damn book.)

Breed - Owl Goingback

Well, for a Stoker award winning author, Breed was completely underwhelming. Part of it could easily be that I came off of the fantasticly depressing The Devil’s Knot, but, overall, it felt like Breed was rushed. Rushed for a deadline, rushed to get it done and worked on the next one, rushed for whatever reason. And because it felt rushed, it also felt a bit amateurish.

The story itself is good, albeit not completely original. An old spirit is inadvertently released upon the town of New Orleans and no one is safe from its murderous path. It is up to a young woman, a cop and a ghost to stop the spirit. Granted, it’s certainly fleshed out, but it is a rather standard tale.

Not helping the story much are the cookie cutter characters. The young woman with the troubled past, the cop she falls in love with, the jokester ghost. Speaking of which, the ghost was the most disappointing character for me. It seemed as if he were too comical for the book’s own good.

For what it’s worth, the book isn’t bad, by any means. Even with its flaws, I still enjoyed it, as it was a quick and easy read and good enough for me to give at least Crota a whirl. And there were some pretty good gore scenes in Breed. But, overall, it was just sort of middle of the road vanilla.

Clickers II: The Next Wave

About a month or two ago, I read Clickers, by J.F. Gonzalez and Mark Williams, and had one hell of a time with it.

In Clickers, a hurricane rips through a small New England town, bringing dog-sized beasties that look like a lobster and scorpion put some Barry White on the turntable and got their groove on. Oh, yeah, there has to be a pitbull somewhere in the mix to give them a thirst for blood.

Now, as if that weren’t bad enough, soon after the Clickers cause mayhem, something follows them out of the ocean. The Dark Ones. Seven foot tall Sleestacks (how I envisioned them, anyway). They take care of what the Clickers missed.

Yeah, it was one big bloodbath.

I read Clickers in preparation of its sequel, the appropriately named Clickers II: The Next Wave. This time Gonzales teamed up with Brian Keene. So I was pretty excited to dive into it, as I have enjoyed the works of both writers (and Keene does have that special place in my heart).

Boy, I was not disappointed.

The first thing that makes Clickers II a better book than Clickers is Gonzales is a much more seasoned writer than he was when he co-wrote the first book. And, while I enjoyed Clickers quite a bit, the writing in the sequel is a step-up.

The story in Clickers II is a little tighter, as well. Like in the first, it still jumps from different characters’ points of view — meaning one chapter you’ll be reading about Rick (the main character in the first book), and the next you’ll be reading about what’s going on with the President, or the Mafia Guy, or the scientist, etc. I really dug that, because it was nice when things started coming together. And, speaking of the president, holy shit…the character is obviously based on Bush (as well as his cronies), and cranked up to 11. While his character is satirical, it’s not too far off from the truth. In addition to not believing the East Coast is being over run by car-size Clickers, he refuses to pull troops out of Iraq to defend the US citizens from these buggers.

Clickers II

Oh, did I not mention that the Clickers are much bigger than in the first? Yeah. See, the Dark Ones, the guys that eat the Clickers, got a little pissed off after the U.S. Government found one of their breeding grounds completely obliterated it. So they rounded up the biggest Clickers they could find, sent them in first (just like last time) and, when everyone on the EAST COAST is in a panic, they stride in and finish up. That’s right, kids. The Dark Ones aren’t just busting up a town. They want the whole damn coast. And they have a plan this time. Not just to feed, but to avenge. Man, these guys kick some serious ass.

If there’s one problem with the book, it comes towards the end. (This may contain a minor spoiler, so you may want to skip this entire paragraph if you haven’t read Clickers II, and you plan on it.) In the final chapters, the Dark Ones bring up the queen Clicker. 100 feet wide, 30 or 40 feet tall. When this bitch came out of the water, I got a little excited. Now the shit was really going to hit the fan. But, no. It didn’t. Because it was killed off with two shots from a tank. With very little fanfare. It was a little sad because there was so much blown potential. It’s almost as if I’m missing out on some chapters. Like there’s a director’s cut out there somewhere, and it’s going to come out in a couple months. I can’t explain it, but the entire scene with the queen Clicker just felt like it was missing more.

But, even with that, I still enjoyed the hell out of Clickers II. Like its predecessor, II has a B-movie feel to it that makes it a lot of fun to read. There’s blood, there’s guns, there’s beheadings, there’s grue and there’s no lovey dovey crap to take away from the action. This isn’t Keene’s best book (The Rutting Season will probably always be my favorite), nor is it Gonzalez’s (I give that to Bully). What it is, though, is what it’s meant to be. A helluva lot of fun.

It’s sold out in its Limited Edition form, but here’s to hoping it comes out in a mass-market paperback like its brother, as it’s well worth a purchase. In the meantime, I suggest you pick up Clickers from Amazon (or some other source), as it’s worth the duckets, as well.