Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Move: Part 2

Warning: It is going to be quiet around here for a few days. We are moving back to Salt Lake City, from the beautiful and oh so rural college town of Cedar City. My office gave me a leave of absence to finish my masters degree, which is now complete, and I have to be back at the office on 4-Jan-10. We are moving on Monday December 28, and we should be in our new place December 29. The summer of fun is over....

See you next week.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy Holidays!

It’s been a wonderful year for my wife and I, and the holiday season has been no different. We are having a quiet Christmas this year—we watched the first two episodes of Rose Red last night (we’ll finish it tonight) and today we are going to spend the afternoon in Zion National Park.

I hope your holiday is as wonderful. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

BARBED WIRE by Elmer Kelton


I have listened to few audio books. I never seem to have time; at work I tend to concentrate on work and lose the plot and action. In my car I tend to listen to, and curse at, traffic. But my wife gave me an MP3 a few days ago and it took me about two hours to download a book from the library, and I really enjoyed it.

The novel was a short western by Elmer Kelton. The title: Barbed Wire. It was originally published in 1957, and it has lost little of its impact over the fifty years since its first publication. It is a Texas range war story that is told, essentially, from the perspective of a fence builder—although it is told from several view points. The land is split between ranchers and dirt farmers; it is open range country, and the largest rancher—Captain Rinehart—wants it to stay that way.

The story unfolds as the Captain battles against the coming fences that will lock away the water, and cut the land into tiny rectangles of farms and ranches. It is the future; this separation of land that will allow herds to be bred exclusively, crops to be secured against the roaming cattle, and the protection and hoarding of water in a dry country. It is a future that terrifies the Captain enough that he is willing to let himself be mislead into action by his foreman.

Barbed Wire is an excellent western. It is only my second experience with the work of Elmer Kelton, the first was his novel Badger Boy, and I wasn’t disappointed. The plot is fairly generic, but its execution, characters and authenticity, mark it a few notches better than the norm. The prose is gritty and matches the western plot like a glove—

“It was a sorry way for a cowboy to make a living, Doug Monahan thought disgustedly. Bending his back over a rocky posthole, he plunged the heavy iron crowbar downward, hearing its angry ring and feeling the violent jar of it bruising the stubborn rock bottom. He rubbed sweat from his forehead into his sleeve and straightened his sore back, pausing to rest a moment and look around.”

The plot is executed with a tight linear momentum that takes the expected and makes it fresh and somehow new. The characters are tough and realistic, the action is paced with an equitable easiness—a pace that is far from melodramatic, but is exciting and seemingly authentic.

Ken Marks read Barbed Wire. His voice is mellow and southern, a perfect fit for the story. He is easy to understand and he brings the story vividly to life.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Short Film: The Ugly File

A few months ago I mentioned a short film based on Ed Gorman's short story "The Ugly File". It is now available to watch on the Internet. It was directed by Mark Steensland (Peekers) and the screenplay was written by veteran horror novelist Rick Hautala. It was produced by another familiar name, Richard Chizmar.

It is a faithful adaptation, and really pretty good. The streaming quality isn't top-notch, but it will do.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

RIDERS OF THE SHADOWLANDS by H. A. DeRosso


I recently read another H. A. DeRosso collection—after Under the Burning Sun—edited by Bill Pronzini . Its title: Riders of the Shadowlands. It was published by Five Star in 1999, and it is similar to Under the Burning Sun in that it collects ten of DeRosso’s western-type stories—two were published by mystery magazines, although one is a strange kind of mystery. The tales are less eclectic than the first collection, but no less entertaining, existential, or downright terrific.

The stories in this collection are also lightly edited—James Reasoner in a comment to my post about Under the Burning Sun said, “I compared a couple of the stories in the collection to their original magazine appearances and found only a very few changes.” Mr. Pronzini also states that he only edited superfluous, and redundant words. I only mention the editing because of the recent Internet flare-up about the new Harlequin pulp editions that were edited for content—a situation that is far different than the editing in this volume.

My favorite stories included in the collection are both tales of the “shadowlands.” One is a short story and the other a novella. The novella is the title story, “Riders of the Shadowlands,” a fairly conventionally plotted rustler tale. Its ordinariness ends at the plot however. It is a violent story in a hellish setting with a hardboiled / noir attitude. It has more in common with the hardboiled crime written in the 1950s, but the western setting and attitudes are accurate and beautifully described in a hard-bitten, stark prose.

There is a terrific mystery titled “Dark Purpose,” which was originally published in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine (April 1958) under the title “Kill the Killer.” It is a manhunt story set in the wilds of Northern Wisconsin. The wilderness, and landscape, are as central to the story as they are in DeRosso’s “shadowlands” tales. In fact it is as much a western as any of the stories included in the collection.

Riders of the Shadowlands does not include a dud; each is vibrant, entertaining, and dark. The stories were published between 1950 and 1962, and each is an example of how talented and original DeRosso was as a writer.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Top Five Reads of 2009

I’m not sure why I do a top of the year list; probably the same reason I do anything on this blog: to hear myself type. But damn if I don’t enjoy it. So here is the fourth annual Gravetapping Top Five Reads of the Year…enjoy…. And, a little refresher on the rules. The book must be new to me, but its publication date is unimportant.

This year’s list was more difficult to create than its predecessors because, simply, I read so many wonderfully entertaining novels. The year was a year of discovery. I discovered a dozen or so new authors, the bulk of them wrote during the paperback revolution in the 1950s and 60s and I also rediscovered a bevy of authors whom I had ignored for years. The most important from the latter group is Brian Garfield and Donald Hamilton, and from the former H. A. DeRosso, Merle Constiner and Robert Colby.

Here it is, in ascending order.

5. Line of Fire by Donald Hamilton. I read this title in March and I was awed by the power of both its linear storyline and tight, literate, prose. A perfect suspense novel.

4. Cage of Night by Ed Gorman. This is another early 2009 read; I read it in April. It is a story that doesn’t fit a category, exactly, but it lives somewhere between dark suspense, supernatural horror and crime. It is one of the finest horror novels I have ever read.

3. Under the Burning Sun by H. A. DeRosso. I read this one in December. This is a collection of stories written, for the most part, in the 1950s and 60s. The stories, particularly the “shadowlands” westerns are unforgettable. DeRosso was thirty or more years ahead of his time.

2. Fear in a Handful of Dust by Brian Garfield (originally published as by John Ives). I read this title in July. This modern western / suspense novel knocked me off my feet. It is literally perfect. A masterpiece of suspense.

1. Violent Saturday by W. L. Heath. I read it in May. There are only a few crime novels I would ever refer to as beautiful—defined as haunting, sharp, and meaningful—and this is one of them. It is a novel that everyone should read. Really, I mean everyone.

This list easily could have gone to ten of fifteen titles, but I sweated, worked, chaffed, and even cried a few times in my attempts to reduce it to the mandatory five. A few more titles that could have made the list but didn't are: Northfield by Johnny D. Boggs, North Star by Richard S. Wheeler, The Midnight Room and Ticket to Ride by Ed Gorman, Necessity by Brian Garfield, Binary by John Lange, and Slammer by Allan Guthrie.

All in all 2009 was a fine year for reading. I bet 2010 will be just as good.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

TICKET TO RIDE by Ed Gorman


The eighth, and reportedly last, Sam McCain novel opens in 1965 at a Vietnam peace rally in Black River Falls, Iowa. The rally is held in the local Presbyterian Church and after 90 minutes of the same arguments—being spoken by different people—McCain is ready to leave the rally for the comforts of a double feature at the drive-in. But then as the newest local superstar, a pretty boy named Harrison Doran, is speaking a man takes the stage and asks to rebut the protestor’s arguments.

The man is not only the father of a casualty of war, his son died in Da Nang, but he is also a prominent and wealthy resident of Black River Falls. His name is Lou Bennett, and it doesn’t take long for boos to start and the scene to turn ugly. There is an altercation between Doran and Bennett, and then later that night Bennett is found dead. Harrison Doran is the likeliest suspect. McCain doesn’t like Doran, but he is enlisted to defend him, and it is a position that makes Sam less than popular amongst the mostly conservative population.

Ticket to Ride is a real treat. It features all of the regulars; the town’s pornographer, writer of sleaze, and McCain buddy Kenny Thibodeau, Judge Esme Anne Whitney, Jamie Newton—McCain’s guileless, but less than competent secretary—and the obnoxious and usually wrong police chief Clifford (Cliffie) Sykes, Jr. Mr Gorman perfectly captures the essence of small town America and he does it with a subtleness that never succumbs to cliché or stereotype. His characters are living, breathing people, who are never clearly good or bad—he shows their humanity in brief and poignant moments of vulnerability, weakness, and strength.

The plot is smooth and sharp; the prose is understated, readable and powerful—
“I wanted to say something smart, but his honesty surprised me. He was admitting that all the scorn hurt him. He had no right to tell me this, because, at least for the moment here, I had to feel bad about making fun of him all the time. Cliffie was supposed to be a cartoon. It pissed me off that he’d forced me to see him as a human being.”
The amazing achievement of Ticket to Ride is that it is written with a humor and innocent cynicism that allows the story a power of both place and time, and also a social commentary that is relevant for the story's Vietnam-era setting, as well as that of modern America. It is simple a brilliantly rendered private eye novel that is a wonderful addition to the series and the genre.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

"Dance of the Dead"

I watched a decent little horror film a few days ago called "Dance of the Dead." It is marketed as part of the Ghost House Underground; whatever that is. It is a clever and humorous look at the zombie tale. The violence is silly, rather than realistic, and the plot is built less for suspense and more for sheer fun and comedy. It is a decent quality independent / low-budget film.

"Dance of the Dead" was written by Joe Ballarini, and directed by Gregg Bishop.

Warning: The trailer is rated R.



IMDb page.

Monday, December 07, 2009

UNDER THE BURNING SUN by H. A. DeRosso


I read an astonishingly good collection of stories by pulp writer H. A. DeRosso titled Under the Burning Sun. The collection includes twelve stories; two are novelettes. Ten are straight westerns, although generally far from traditional, and the other two are suspense with a western voice. It was compiled and edited by Bill Pronzini; in his Foreword he writes the stories, save one, were lightly edited “to eliminate superfluous and repetitive passages contained in the original magazine versions.”

This collection is my first experience with DeRosso’s work and I was stunned by the power of his writing. It tended toward the unusual and bleak, the mythical and surreal, but it also vitalized the characters with a hard-bitten sadness and self-awareness that is rarely found in genre fiction. A major theme in the stories is one of hope, but it is hope that is never fulfilled.  The characters—the protagonists—can see a better place and future, but can never quite get there.

The best story in the collection is a novelette titled “The Bounty Hunter”. It is what Bill Pronzini labels a “shadowlands” story—a surreal western that is related more to the bleak other worlds of The Twilight Zone than a traditional western. It reminded me of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger.  It is a relatively simple story, and follows the track of a bounty hunter called Spurr. Spurr kills an outlaw who, he is told later, may be his own son. It is a mythical story—from the beautifully surreal landscape to the internal demons that drive Spurr to search for the truth.

The other stories range from the more traditional “Hold-up”—the story of the father of a failing rancher who is forced to choose between his self-identified morality and both his, and his son’s, future—to the rich rendering of the final months of the Chiricahuas’ fight to stay off the reservation in “The Last Sleep”.

Under the Burning Sun is more than a collection of western stories. It is a sample of how good the genre story can be. The violence—and there is some—is realistic and vivid. It is examined with a neutrality that allows the reader to see its effects on the characters and story. The “shadowlands” tales—“The Bounty Hunter” and “Those Bloody Bells of Hell!”—are brilliant.  The prose is written in a surreal form that depicts the landscape as a hellish nightmare where only monsters exist. It is best related to a high quality comic book; something like Jonah Hex.

Under the Burning Sun is a wonderful collection. It reads like a train steaming through the vast deserts of the Southwest; desolate, beautiful, and deadly. Bill Pronzini relates DeRosso’s style to the Black Mask school of hardboiled in general, and Cornell Woolrich’s work particularly.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

And the Winner is...

A winner was randomly chosen from the list of entrants to receive the ACE Double (G-638) The Action at Redstone Creek by Merle Constiner / A Time to Shoot It Out by Edwin Booth. Thanks to everyone who entered; there were enough that I may do another contest. Maybe. The winner is...Craig Clarke. Congratulations Craig. Also, you should check out Craig's terrific blog Somebody Dies where he reviews crime, western, and more.

Also related to the contest, I received several terrific recommendations for pulp western writers. Including:

Donald Hamilton, Marvin H. Albert (aka Al Conroy), Harry Whittington, H.A. DeRosso--I just started a story collection and so far I am blown away by the bleak power of his writing--T.T. Flynn, Peter Dawson, Luke Short, Clifton Adams, and Jack Slade.

Thanks to everyone!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

"The View" by Brian Garfield

I found an older issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine over the holiday weekend—July 1983—that contained a Brian Garfield story. It cost a princely two dollars; it didn’t take long to both purchase it and devour the Garfield story. Not long enough at all since the short stories of Brian Garfield are more difficult to find than one would think.

The story is titled “The View” and it is a California story—land developers, Hollywood actors, and deep muscle massage professionals. There is also a murder, a touch of adultery, a terrific view, and a condominium builder who wants to take it—the view—away.

Christopher works as a massage therapist, but his true ambition is as a screenwriter. He has several clients on a mountaintop overlooking the Los Angeles basin, and as the story opens he is at the front door of former film star Tom X. Todhunter—an 84 year-old veteran of both silent films and talkies. The old man doesn’t answer and when Christopher tries the knob it opens and he finds Todhunter looking forlornly out the large picture window at the back of his house.

It seems that his neighbor, also a client of Christopher’s, has purchased the surrounding properties with the intention to build a large condominium complex that will completely block Tom’s view. And he is less than excited about the prospect. He tells Tom that they need to stop it from happening, but damn if he knows how….

“The View” is pure fun. It is less mystery and more suspense. It is expertly plotted and written, just as one would expect from Mr Garfield, but there is also a touch of humor and poetic justice. The prose is understated and the story moves with a quick and light pace—it is made for reading, and it reads with a pleasant and expert smoothness. The characters are surprisingly well defined in short space, and the story is perfect for a lazy bedtime read.

“The View” is a professional and competent story and it begs the question; Why isn’t there a Brian Garfield collection available on the market. He is one of the defining writers of both suspense and western fiction from his generation and both his short work, and for the most part, his novels are largely forgotten. If anyone is listening, I will be the first in line to buy a Brian Garfield collection when it is published.

Friday, November 27, 2009

New Authors: 2009

Last year I participated in a meme that asked for a list of all the writers I read for the first time. I really enjoyed it. This year there has been no such meme, but J. Kingston Pierce over at The Rap Sheet made a list and I thought I would follow his lead.

The list is in order of reading. I excluded all non-fiction. I have also included any additional titles I read by the author in 2009. I added ten new fiction writers to my personal “read” library—the exact number as I added in 2008. Five of the 10 are pulp writers and the other five are contemporary, although the novels were original published anywhere from the mid-1990’s to 2009.

Stephen J. Cannell
On the Grind, February

Paul Harris
The Secret Keeper, April

Jack Kilborn (aka J.A. Konrath)
Afraid, May

W.L. Heath
Violent Saturday, May

Stuart Kaminsky
The Rockford Files: The Green Bottle, June
The Rockford Files: Devils on My Doorstep, September

J.M. Flynn
Deep Six, June

Robert Colby
The Quaking Widow, July

Sid Jacobson
Vlad the Impaler, October

Edmond Hamilton
Fugitive of the Stars, October

Merle Constiner
The Action at Redstone Creek, November
Guns of Q Cross, November

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Odds & Ends: Thanksgiving Style

1. My wife and I are going to spend the Thanksgiving holiday in style—in Las Vegas, Mojave, and maybe, just maybe Baker, California. It is where all the truly beautiful people go for holidays. So needless to say it’s going to be a little quiet around here for a few days.

2. If you are of the mind there is an interesting essay on the Dorchester website written by Ed Gorman about his recent Leisure release Death Ground. He gives an idea of its origin and even discusses a review that compared it to a Spaghetti Western. Click Here

3. I’ve been reading pulp writer Merle Constiner recently and he really had a knack for writing witty and downright funny dialogue. I finished his novel Guns at Q Cross yesterday and the following line has rattled through my head more than once:

"He'd be more at home with a green buffalo hide, behind a pile of manure."

And don’t forget that I am giving away a copy of Constiner’s The Action at Redstone Creek. The deadline is November 30, 2009. Click Here

4. This is probably old news to most of you, but I discovered a fantastic website that has .pdf files of hundreds of old pulp stories. The stories include the full text—very clean and easy to read—as well as any illustrations that ran with the story. The site is PulpGen.com. If you haven’t been there, you should take a look around. Click Here

5. Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 23, 2009

SLAMMER by Allan Guthrie


Nick Glass is a rookie prison guard in a Scottish prison. He has been on the job six weeks with mixed results—the other guards mock and make trouble for him and the inmates don’t respect him. At home he has a five-year old daughter and a wife. His wife tends to drink too much, and is just on the backside of an affair. To say Nick has a little stress is an understatement.

To make things worse Nick is approached by one of the inmates and asked to mule drugs inside. The inmate gives him two choices: 1) make an easy buck; or 2) his little family gets hurt in a big way. Nick is in big trouble as he desperately tries to protect his family at home and his own life at work.

Slammer is the sort of novel that creeps up on you in about three pages. It starts hard and strong and never lets up. Glass is a regular guy caught in a nasty and impossible situation. He doesn’t belong in the prison. He is a nice guy, both weak and sincere. He, much like his name, is prone to fracture. And Guthrie makes sure Glass does just that.

The novel opens with Glass in the office of the prison psychiatrist. It is a mandatory visit and Nick is less than pleased to be there. The psychiatrist is an instrument Mr Guthrie uses to foreshadow and then define the undoing of Nick Glass. He is a skewed sentiment of sanity in a dark and insane world. A world that envelopes Nick and threatens to destroy him. And Nick is the perfect object—he is prone to fantasy, and as the novel progresses, he begins to mistake his fantasy for reality. It is a trip into hell. A trip the reader knows is coming with each progressive sentence, paragraph and page, but is helpless to stop.

Slammer is a wonderfully executed novel. It is reminiscent of Guthrie’s first novel Two-Way Split, but it is better and executed with a higher skill set. It is short, 263 pages, but it does not lack meaning or story. The prose is hardboiled, lean and smart. The dialogue is crisp, and the atmosphere is weighty and oppressive. It is a fine example of the new noir: a hopeless, distraught and shameless (in a good way) vision of human condition.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Book Giveaway













This is a little different. I have been searching out novels by the pulp writer Merle Constiner, and in my enthusiasm I picked up two copies of his ACE Double The Action at Redstone Creek. And I want to give it away. It is numbered G-638, and it includes A Time to Shoot it Out (originally titled Renegade Guns) by Edwin Booth. The publication date is 1967.

If you are interested in adding this classic ACE Double to your collection send an email to zulu1611@yahoo.com with “Book Giveaway” in the subject line along with your name and the address you would like it shipped in the body of the email by Monday November 30 at 11:59pm MST. I will then select an entry at random, notify the winner and ship the book in early December.

I wrote a review for The Action at Redstone Creek a week or so ago; click Here to read it.

Also, I would love to hear about any old westerns you remember enjoying—titles or authors. Feel free to email me, or post a comment.

Note. The above scans are not of the actual book you will receive.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Jack Higgins

Jack Higgins has been entertaining me since I was twelve or thirteen. I started with his bestsellers and then fell—literally—into his earlier work when I found several old paperbacks at a library sale. The titles included In the Hour Before Midnight, The Keys of Hell, and East of Desolation. I can still remember finding that cache—each of the books were Fawcett Gold Medal’s from the 1970s. They had those terrifically tight and sexy covers from the era, and the stories. What can I say about the stories except they were/are the best adventure thrillers I have ever read.

I’m reading one of Higgins’ early titles now—The Iron Tiger—and as often happens I did a search for Mr Higgins and found an article that appeared in Reuters this past January. I learned a few things—the first, is that 2009 marks his fiftieth year as a professional writer, and that he was diagnosed several years ago with an illness that made writing impossible. There is also a short interview where he discusses The Eagle Has Landed; how it was received, how it changed his life, and how his original publisher didn’t want it.

A snippet:

“CANBERRA (Reuters) - Novelist Harry Patterson, better known as thriller writer Jack Higgins, celebrates 50 years of writing this year, counting his blessing.

“Patterson, 79, was diagnosed about eight years ago with essential tremor syndrome, a progressive neurological disease, that made him shake so much that about two years ago he found he could not pick up a pen and was about to give up writing.

“But while suffering a seizure friend's house, he fell and knocked his head, ending up in hospital -- and overnight his tremors disappeared, allowing him to write again.”

To read the rest go Here.

To read a little appreciation I wrote last year go Here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mystery v. Thriller

This is an interesting (and very superficial) video interview with a few thriller writers about the difference between a thriller and a mystery. The writers each tend to define mystery as a traditional whodunit rather than a crime novel; although the lines between crime and thriller are heavily blurred. I tend to prefer modern crime and mystery novels to thrillers--modern thrillers tend to be too big and bombastic, and usually challenge my willful suspension of disbelief.

I do like the idea one of the authors had about mysteries (to paraphrase): they tend to be intellectually stimulating. He was speaking of the whodunit, but the major advantage of the crime novel is that it is a terrific vessel for social commentary, which is the element that draws me to it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Trailer: The Killer Inside Me

This is an extended trailer for the upcoming release of the The Killer Inside Me. It is based on the novel by Jim Thompson. It really looks good; a little violent, but good. It stars Casey Affleck, Kate Hudson, and Jessica Alba. It was directed by Michael Winterbottom. It is coming in 2010.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

WEAVEWORLD

I have almost no experience with the work of Clive Barker. I have seen a few movies based on his stories, and know his name. And that is it. A few days ago I was thumbing through my wife’s bookshelf and pulled Barker’s Weaveworld down and read the first few pages. I was stunned; both the prose and deep current of meaning were beautiful.

I haven’t read Weaveworld yet—it is an intimidating 700 pages—but I have read the opening few paragraphs a dozen or more times over the past few days. It captures the essence of how story relates to society, and how the story becomes an extension of the society that tells it. But Mr Barker writes it so much better…

“Nothing ever begins.

“There is no first moment; no single word or place from which this or any other story springs.

“The threads can always be traced back to some earlier tale, and to the tales that preceded that; though as the narrator’s voice recedes the connections will seem to grow more tenuous, for each age will want the tale told as if it were of its own making.

“Thus the pagan will be sanctified, the tragic become laughable; great lovers will stoop to sentiment, and demons dwindle to clockwork toys.

“Nothing is fixed. In and out a shuttle goes, fact and fiction, mind and matter woven into patterns that may have only this in common: that hidden among them is a filigree that will with time become a world.”

Sunday, November 08, 2009

ISIS by Douglas Clegg

I have been a fan of Douglas Clegg’s work for several years. I first discovered him through his novel The Infinite. A spooky and enchanting haunted house story, which turned out to be the third novel in the Harrow series. Harrow is an old estate in the Hudson Valley that has seen more than its share of evil. The books all feature Harrow, but they are each very different—each explores the haunted place from a different angle and time, and each is very, very good.

I recently read a new Douglas Clegg story that reminded me, just a little, of my first experience with his writing. It is a novella published in hardcover and fully illustrated by Glenn Chadbourne. The title: Isis.
Iris Villiers is a young girl—lonely and isolated—in the family estate. Her father is steadily away with his work, and her mother is ill with tonic and despair. Iris’s only joy is her brother Spence. The two wander the large estate and play. They create games and, based on a play they performed one summer, they take to calling each other Isis and Osiris. Their world is one of fortune, if a bit empty, until an accident changes Iris forever.

Isis is a haunting tale. It has the feel of a fairy-tale blackened with a supernatural yearning and loneliness. It chronicles the tenuous grasp humanity has on its destiny and how tightly we are held by the past. The prose is simple and wispy—it is the voice of a girl who never really had much, but who is desperate to keep the little she does have.

It is short—113 pages with a dozen or more black and white illustrations—but the meaning and intricacies of the story linger long after the book is closed. Isis is a genre story with teeth. It is literate, interesting, entertaining and very, very smooth. It is absolutely a pleasure to read.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Brad Anderson

Brad Anderson is a director who has never really broken-out. He has made some terrific films, including the three below, but he seems to meander between feature film and television. His films, including some of his television, are pretty straight forward, but he always adds something fresh and new.

He is able to take an old idea (the ghost house in Session 9) and use the expectations of the genre against the audience. He never creates the usual, but rather he uses the usual in unexpected ways to fashion a very unusual and often powerful story.

If you haven't seen any of Brad Anderson's films, you should. The three below are all good, with Transsiberian being the best, and The Machinist at the weakest. I would also recommend his episode of Master of Horror. A clever hour long movie titled Sounds Like.

Transsiberian,
2008



The Machinist, 2004



Session 9, 2001

Sunday, November 01, 2009

THE LAWBRINGERS by Brian Wynne Garfield

The American western novel has a bad reputation. It is reputed to be ethnocentric, violent and, even worse, simple and inaccurate. The good guys are too good, and the bad guys are too bad. The natives are deemed to be one-dimensional cutouts and often misrepresented. The townsfolk—the common working class—are either portrayed as stupid or weak, or both.

In many cases this poor reputation is deserved—there have been some really, really bad westerns introduced on television, film and fiction. But there have also been some damn good westerns over the years—both past and present. To quote Theodore Sturgeon—he was defending SF, but the same rule applies to westerns—“ninety-percent of everything is crap.” It is the other 10% that separates a viable genre from a dead genre and the western is far from dead, whether we are talking about golden age stories or the modern novels that are published today.

An example of an older title—it was published by one of the more maligned houses, ACE, in 1962—that holds its own against the often valid arguments against westerns is Brian Garfield’s The Lawbringers. It is a traditional western from beginning to end. It is short, seemingly simple, and very much to the point, but it is also clever, intelligent, and subtly complex.

The Lawbringers is a biographical novel about the formation of the Arizona Rangers—a law enforcement agency created by the territorial Governor to combat the seemingly endless supply of toughs and criminals that haunted Arizona in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Its focus is directed at the chief Ranger, one Burton “Cap” Mossman, but it is told in a less direct fashion than expected. It is a multi-perspective novel that never attempts to get into the head of Mossman. Instead he is painted and defined by the characters around him—some real, others created by Garfield—as a hard, stubborn and tough man.

The novel is dedicated to Burt Mossman—“a chivalrous gentleman, a lawman, and an Arizonan.” But it is far from a one-sided novel of adoration. It tackles the man’s complexity as well as his flaws. He is depicted as a hard man doing a hard job. His decisions are made with the citizens of Arizona in mind, but with a frightening lack of color. There are no gradient shades, but rather his view is strictly black and white, and more often than not, the end justifies the means. He wasn’t above lynching a man to make his point, and the Mexico-Arizona border was less a concrete end to his jurisdiction and more a line on a map that could be ignored and crossed at will.

Mossman is a man who withstood political pressures and did what he thought best, no matter the consequences. He typified the mythical western protagonist, but is portrayed by Mr Garfield as nothing more than a man—stubborn, sincere, and flawed. He had friends, enemies, and admirers, but still, he was a man who hid behind a wall of secrecy and loneliness. He was a man that fit into the demands of an era, but whose era passed quickly and without much fanfare.

The Lawbringers does all of the above while telling an exciting and tight story. It has its fair share of gunplay, but it is told with a peculiar heavy quality. It is packed with emotion and wonder; wonder at the basis and definition of right and wrong. It is a western with a conscience, but it isn't limited or judged by that conscience, rather it is simply expanded into the realm of believability. It is complex and wondrous. In short, it is very much part of that 10% that has allowed the western story to survive for more than a century.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Halloween


A more astute cliché has never been uttered: The road to hell is paved with good intentions. It is as true in blogging as it is in the real world. I intended to write a post about the horror films I watched in October. I intended to write a review about a horror novel, or, at least, a short story. But I didn’t. In fact, I have nothing.
With one exception, and I hope you enjoy it. My wife and I discovered a little town—I use the word loosely—not far from the Utah-Nevada border when we first moved to Southern Utah. It appears to be an old railroad town that has nearly dried up and blown away. It is approximately one square block, with only a handful of the buildings occupied. The rest is a damn good example of a ghost town.
The town is called Modena, and it is located about nine miles east of the Nevada border—on the Utah side—on SR 56. It is a spooky place that is fitting for a Halloween journey; we visited again yesterday. It is the type of place where you can feel the history and decay flattened into a picture of broken dreams and heartache. It is desolate, lonely, and really, really cool.
Imagine coasting into town at dusk, a rattle in your engine and nothing for miles. Now imagine you hear a noise; see a flicker of movement; a baby cry; an old woman mumble. In the distance you can hear coyotes calling the night. The slither and rattle of snakes. The whimper of rodents.



Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

DEATH GROUND by Ed Gorman

Another older review. I posted it about a year ago, but Leisure has just released Death Ground in a new edition. It should either be on bookstore shelves or on its way. It is a Western that anyone and everyone will enjoy. The cover art is terrific, and the novel is even better.

Leo Guild is an aging bounty hunter. He is a former lawman, father and husband, but that is all behind him. Now he rides alone. He is melancholy, intelligent and violent; when he needs to be. He also has a past that sticks with him. He killed a little girl. The courts forgave him, but he can’t find the heart to forgive himself.

Death Ground opens on the evening of Guild’s 54th birthday. In lonely celebration he makes a date at the local brothel with a young “straw-haired” girl. Things don’t go as expected with the girl and his birthday truly turns for the worse when he is summoned to the Sheriff’s office.

Two men are dead. One—Merle Rig—hired Guild as a bodyguard and the other—Kenny Tolliver—was technically Guild’s employee. He hired Kenny to protect Rig while he paid a visit to the "straw-haired" girl. As he looks at the cadavers on the heavy mortician’s tables he figures his job is gone and it is time to ride on, but first he pays a visit to Kenny’s mother. A scene that unsettles Guild and also piques his interest; Kenny’s mother knew Rig and Kenny palled around with a couple local deputies.

Leo Guild decides he can’t leave town until he figures who really killed the pair and why. He has a feeling it is not the violent mountain man being blamed by the Sheriff, but he doesn’t have many suspects. He doesn’t have anything but a hunch, really.

Death Ground isn’t a traditional Western. It, like all of Gorman’s Westerns, is a noir mystery wrapped in the trappings of the Old West. That is not to say that the historical element isn’t accurate or interesting, because it is. It is also central to the story, but an Ed Gorman Western is more of a historical mystery than anything else. A hardboiled historical mystery at that.

The prose is tough and tender in varying shades. It defines the story, action, and protagonist with a lean, smart and melancholy and literate style:

“Then he started digging snow up with both hands, and he covered them good, the two of them, and then he stood up and looked out on the unfurling white land. There was blue sky and a full yellow sun. Warmer now, there was even that kind of sweetness that comes on sunny winter days. It made him think of pretty women on ice skates, their cheeks touched perfect red by the cold, their eyes daring and blue.”

Leo Guild is an everyman. He is the man who does what needs to be done. He isn’t a hero, or a villain, but rather he is simply a man; a man who has seen much, done much, and lost much. Guild is an example of what makes Ed Gorman’s fiction so damn good: characters that are measured and three-dimensional; characters that act, feel and sound real. His male characters are strong and pitiful, lustful and scared, vain and dangerous, lonely and weak—generally all at the same time—and more importantly they are recognizable. And his female characters exhibit the same steady qualities. Neither wholly good nor bad, just human.

Death Ground is a Western that should have wide appeal. It will please the traditionalist with its rugged description of frontier life and the people who settled it. It will also introduce readers of hardboiled crime fiction to a new genre, but mostly it will please any reader who wants something tangible and meaningful mixed into a well-told, excellently plotted and immensely entertaining novel.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

"Nightmare Gang" by Dean R. Koontz

I found an old science fiction anthology at a thrift store a few weeks ago. It is titled Infinity One and it advertises itself as “a magazine of speculative fiction in book form.” It is a mass market published by Lancer in 1970. It has 18 stories, sixteen appear to be originals, and the story—or its author at any rate—that caught my attention was a nifty short titled “Nightmare Gang” by Dean R. Koontz.

The editorial introduction for Mr Koontz is also of note (to me at least)—“Dean R. Koontz is another of the younger generation of science fiction writers.”—because I have never lived (at least as a reader) in an era when Dean Koontz was considered anything but a veteran bestseller. But here, in this anthology, Koontz’s name doesn’t even make an appearance on the cover—front or back. How times change.

“Nightmare Gang” is something approaching dark fantasy. It is a motorcycle gang story with a dark twist told in first person narrative. It opens with a knife fight between the gang leader and a member who would like to be leader. It doesn’t last long, and the leadership hierarchy is left unchanged. The leader, a man simply called Louis—there are no last names—uses the fight as an “object lesson” to scare the other gang members into line.

Louis has other advantages over the bikers besides physical strength. He is the only one who knows who each of the members are; none of them have memories of anything before the gang. Their timeline begins and ends with their gang initiation. There have been members who wanted out, but strange and unexplainable (if not terrifying) things happened to stop them.

“Nightmare Gang” was an unexpected find. It is early Koontz, but it is really damn good. It is written in a simple and almost stark style. The cadence of language is crisp and tight. It is written more like a hardboiled suspense story than science fiction—

“Cottery was a knife man. He carried six of them laid flat and invisible against his lean body, and with these half dozen confidence boosters giving him adequate courage, he challenged Louis to a fight, for he envisioned himself as leader of the gang. It was over inside of two minutes. Louis moved faster than he had a right to.”

The plot is well conceived and it is capped with a perfect ending. Mr Koontz gives very little away, and gives it a twist and nudge at the end. I think he may even have winked. I do know I smiled. I also know I enjoyed the story a whole lot. It also made me wish for a more complete volume of Dean Koontz’s short stories. His Strange Highways collection is a start, but it isn’t nearly enough.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Halloween Reading

This is a post that went live in October 2007. It is far from a complete list, but I still really like the novels and authors I chose to include. If I were to do it over I would also include a few other authors / books that have brought a nasty bit of entertaining fright and horror since I wrote this. A few—Cage of Night by Ed Gorman; Stir of Echoes by Richard Matheson; Terminal by Brian Keene; and Afraid by Jack Kilborn.
Also, the numbering next to the authors name means absolutely nothing. It is simply a means to separate the authors into their own tidy category.
The end of October is in sight, and that means one thing: Halloween. Halloween is a favorite holiday of mine, and as it approaches I find myself filled with an unexplainable sense of excitement—it is the twelve year-old boy in me craving a past that no longer exists, but it is also more than that. It is the excitement of autumn—the days are shrinking, the shadows are lengthening, and nights are deepening. I love the cool crisp air, the idea of coming winter, but mostly the spooky chill that is Halloween.

So in honor of Halloween I’m going to list a few of my favorite horror writers—five to be exact. The only rule in this selection of authors is: there are no rules.

1. Jack Ketchum. The work of Jack Ketchum is truly frightening. He generally doesn’t employ the horror norms of demons, goblins, and poltergeists, but instead he creates truly frightening evil in the form of humanity. He shows us the worst elements that can exist in us all, and then unleashes it on the characters of his stories. If you haven’t tried Ketchum, do it soon.

My favorite Jack Ketchum novels are: The Girl Next Door, Off Season, Red, and his short story collection Peaceable Kingdom.

2. Richard Laymon. I discovered Richard Laymon in the autumn of 2000, and I quickly found and read every novel that was available in the United States for less than the price of a small automobile, which at the time was about sixteen of them. His work can be gross, violent, and very nearly pornographic in places, but somehow—especially in his better novels—he lightens it with humor, and adolescent innocence.

My favorite Laymon novels are: In the Dark, The Traveling Vampire Show, One Rainy Night, Night Show, Into the Fire, and Among the Missing.

3. Stephen King. This is a writer who truly needs no introduction, but I’m going to give him one anyway. Mr. King writes with a power that few modern writers have—he creates working class characters so real and vibrant that when he eases mysticism and fantasy into the stories it doesn’t feel forced or unreal. It is simply part of the story, and very believable.

My favorite King novels—specifically aimed at Halloween are: The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, The Stand, ‘Salem’s Lot, and his short story collection Skeleton Crew. I have never read a Stephen King novel I didn’t like, but the aforementioned titles are spooky enough for any Halloween.

4. Douglas Clegg. Mr. Clegg probably has more raw talent than any other horror writer currently producing mainstream horror. His voice is strong, clear, and very frightening. His work runs from chilling ghost stories to vampires, to the more cinematic and gory. I have yet to find a Clegg novel I didn’t like.

My favorite Douglas Clegg novels are: The Infinite, The Attraction, The Hour Before Dark, and Nightmare House.

5. Dean Koontz. Mr. Koontz is another writer who needs no introduction. His work is difficult to categorize because he is able to mix and match genre elements with ease. His early work was mainly in the science fiction genre, but he also wrote in the suspense, horror, romance, and mystery genres—now all of these genres can be found in his work. I especially enjoy his work from the 1980s, but I really haven’t found a Koontz book I didn’t enjoy.

My favorite Dean Koontz novels--with a Halloween twist--are: Lightning, Midnight, The Bad Place, Twilight Eyes, and The Face of Fear.
An additional word on Dean Koontz. I have read several Dean Koontz novels in 2009, and with each reading I gain more and more respect for his work. He is the master of the big suspense novel. His style and ability allows him to write a large and complex novel without losing the intimacy of a smaller voice novel. He truly is the voice of modern suspense and his work, at least parts of it, should survive his and my generation. At least I hope it does.

Monday, October 19, 2009

FUGITIVE OF THE STARS by Edmond Hamilton

The name Edmond Hamilton is legendary in the science fiction genre. He originated, or at least popularized, the space opera style story, and he wrote several classic tales including the short story “The Man Who Evolved”. He was a stable writer for the pulp magazine Weird Tales where he published 79 stories between 1926 and 19481. He was one of the most popular writers of science fiction for decades, but since his death in 1977 his work has nearly been forgotten.

I recently read his novel Fugitive of the Stars—an ACE Double (M-111) published in 1965 with Kenneth Bulmer’s Land Beyond the Map. It is, according to isfdb.org, Mr Hamilton’s second to last published novel. It is a scant 116 pages, but it is pure adventure from the opening sentence to the final page.

Horne is the First Pilot for the Federation freighter Vega Queen. He is on a leisurely cruise to the distant Fringe Worlds—a place where the Federation’s influence is only sporadic and rumors of slave ships and abduction has caused a good deal of unrest and fear. When the Vega Queen reaches its second port stop at the small world of Skereth the second pilot and Horne find trouble. Horne makes it out okay, but his second isn’t so lucky, so with a new second pilot the Vega Queen continues its scheduled route through the Fringe.

Unfortunately the trip goes awry in a hurry. The Vega Queen is smashed apart in an asteroid belt. There are only eighteen survivors, and Horne is accused of drunken negligence. He knows he was drugged, but the investigation taps him as the responsible party. He isn’t satisfied with the verdict—he escapes the detention center in search of the second pilot and the truth behind the crash.

Fugitive of the Stars is pure pulp. It captures the essence of adventure and awe that was science fiction in the 1940s and 50s. The intended market was twelve year-old boys, and it hits square. The only problem, it was written and published in the 1960s; an era when science fiction was changing from its escapist adventure roots to a more serious form. An era that introduced writers like Philip K. Dick, Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, and J.G. Ballard; Mr Hamilton was an old horse by then. His time and stories very probably viewed as archaic and trite by the genre elite.

But damn if it isn’t entertaining. The story is quick and competently written. The prose is smooth and clean, and surprisingly strong and attractive in places:

“To fall with a soundless scream through an empty chaos of contending forces, to be riven right out of your own dimensions and hurled quaking through alien continua…that was how it was, if you looked at it one way."

and

“The mountain was a skull and Horne walked within it, a micro-organism moving through the convoluted tunnels of the brain that filled its great domed hollowness.

The bottom line: Fugitive of the Stars is entertaining. It is escapist and fun. It is competent—the prose, the plot, the characters—and very well designed. It is a novel that anyone who enjoys a quick and exciting story will enjoy. Don’t break the bank acquiring it, but if you run across a copy—buy it!

1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edmond_Hamilton

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Four Elmore Leonard Trailers

Elmore Leonard recently turned 84. 84! This guy has been around for a long time. He started out writing westerns and really made his mark--as far as sales go--in the crime genre. I tend to enjoy his earlier work better than his later work, which is not to say that his later work is bad. But his early stuff, including the westerns, is marvelous.

So here, for your viewing enjoyment, are trailers to four films based on Mr Leonard's early work...

1967. Hombre



1971. Valdez is Coming



1972. Joe Kidd



1974. Mr. Majestyck


Monday, October 12, 2009

VLAD THE IMPALER by Jacobson & Colon

I don’t read many graphic novels. I enjoy the occasional Spider Man, and the odd post-apocalyptic series—The Walking Dead, although the dialogue has become depressingly poor at best, and a little Jonah Hex. But my fiction taste trends toward prose rather than graphic and I usually try to keep it that way for the simple reason that a novel lasts longer and costs less.

I received a graphic novel in the mail for review (it happens, why?, I don’t know) and I was pleasantly surprised—surprised that it was sent, and also surprised at how enjoyable it was. I opened it late this past Saturday and finished it in one sitting. I had intended to go through the first several pages, but the story captured me and I shuffled through the entire book—all 115 pages of it.

The title: Vlad the Impaler; written by Sid Jacobson and artwork created by Ernie Colon. It is a historical piece about Vlad Dracula. A fifteenth century prince of Wallachia—Southern Romania—known for his brutal and cruel reign; he was called “the Impaler” because of his propensity to impale his enemies and showcase the victims to the public.

Vlad Dracula’s modern legend is one that is much more literary than factual. His name was borrowed by Bram Stoker for his legendary vampire Dracula; probably a case of the man more evil than his literary counterpart. Vlad sat upon the throne of Wallachia no less than three times. As a boy he was a captive of the Ottoman Empire and as an adult his overriding concern was power.

Vlad the Impaler covers the terrain of Vlad’s life with a powerful simplicity. He is portrayed as a monster. The language is simple and the dialogue competent. The artwork runs from colorful and bold to dark and muted depending on the deeds of the characters.

Vlad Dracula is neither antagonist nor protagonist. He is simply the story, and the people around him—a faithful friend and advisor, a wife, a brother—serve as the humanity. He is a monster filled with rage, lust, hatred, and paranoia. A man with great boldness, but a man burdened with a lack of decency.

Vlad the Impaler is a disturbing yet intriguing story. It only grazes the man’s life, but it is startling. It tells a story of barbarity, love, faith, and betrayal. It is told with style, but it creates more questions than it answers. It is a story that will entertain, but also lead the reader into a deeper survey of a man whose name is known, but who—as a man—is mostly unknown.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A Couple Movies

The summer was a dismal movie season this year—mostly duds with a few “it was okay” movies. But the autumn has been a little better so far. We—my wife and I—have seen two movies that I am unabashedly recommending. The first is the Matt Damon film The Informant! It is the story of an ADM executive—during ADM’s notorious price fixing era—who acts as an FBI informant. The entire movie is a surprise and the less you know about it the better. Go see it.

We also saw Zombieland over the weekend and it really made us laugh. It is a zombie film with more than just a touch of humor. It is everything you want from a Zombie/horror movie—suspenseful, humorous, and damn fun.

The Informant!


Zombieland

Thursday, October 01, 2009

"A Killer in the Dark" by Robert Edmond Alter

It has been too long since I have posted an original review, but here, finally, today, I have one. The story is older—published in 1963—and the author is new to me: Robert Edmond Alter. Alter died young. He was born in 1925 and died in 1966. He wrote two Gold Medal novels that were reprinted by Black Lizard in the 1980s (Carny Kill and Swamp Sister) and a myriad of short stories.
 
I read his short story “Killer in the Dark”—Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, August 1963—and while it has its share of flaws, it is nevertheless entertaining and enjoyable. I read it in Alfred Hitchcock’s Grave Business anthology.

Peter Dawson has a daughter and a wife. He is enjoying a warm summer evening when a neighbor interrupts him. Her son glimpsed a Diamondback rattlesnake scuttle into Pete’s basement through a broken windowpane.

Pete is dubious, but he decides he better take a look. Unfortunately nothing quite goes right—his daughter and her friend are in the basement playing the monster game, the basement light is burned out, and the flashlight doesn’t have batteries. And it gets much worse before the story ends.

“A Killer in the Dark” is a dark suspense story with a chilling and downright frightening premise—an angry rattlesnake lurking in the basement with two young girls who are not only unaware of the danger, but oblivious even to its potential. Mr Alter masterfully creates suspense by measuring sharp and harrowing setbacks to the protagonist, but, unfortunately, he goes a little too far with the climax. The scene quickly loses its fear and dread and crosses that thin line into silliness.

With that said, I enjoyed "A Killer in the Dark," blemishes and all. The prose is tight and simple. The story is dark and fear inducing. It is a professional tale that is entertaining and fun. It is horror with a chill and a laugh; in other words, it is escapist fiction of the first order.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Short Film: Lovecraft's Pillow

This is an interesting short film directed by Mark Steensland and written by Rick Hautala. It is credited to an idea from Stephen King. The pair--Steensland and Hautala--have collaborated on several short films including Peekers, and The Ugly File. Peekers is a terrific short, and I am anxiously awaiting the Internet release of The Ugly File. It is currently making the film festival rounds.

The Ugly File
is based on a masterful short story by Ed Gorman and it would make a terrific film. It's too bad Masters of Horror didn't produce it.

Anyway...here is Lovecraft's Pillow.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Daniel Keyes - A New Novel?

I made an interesting discovery last night while I was cruising the Internet. Daniel Keyes—the guy who wrote the classic science fiction story “Flowers for Algernon”—has a new novel titled The Asylum Prophecies. It is currently available at the online retailers and is likely in stock, or will be shortly, at most bookstores.

My only experience with the work of Daniel Keyes is “Algernon.” A story I read as a teenager, and a story that resulted in two heavy feelings: 1) awe at its simplicity and success; and 2) angst at the unfairness of everything.

A little about “Flowers for Algernon.” It was originally written as a novella length story in 1959—it won the Hugo Award that same year. It was then expanded to novel length—a short novel to be sure—in 1966 for which it won the Nebula Award. It is a truly wonderful story / novel.

It—“Flowers for Algernon”—is the only Daniel Keyes I have ever seen at a bookstore or library, and when I realized the Daniel Keyes on the cover of a new Leisure Book was the Daniel Keyes I had a moment of: This guy is still alive? He is still writing? On further investigation I discovered that, while he isn’t prolific, he has published other fiction and non-fiction. I just haven’t noticed it before now.

The new Keyes’ novel has an interesting concept, albeit a little strange. The description over at Leisure’s website reads:

Raven began the day in an asylum, a disturbed young woman with multiple personalities recovering from another suicide attempt. But now she holds a secret that could save thousands of innocent lives. Buried deep in her splintered subconscious are details of an impending terrorist attack against the United States—details that her kidnappers cannot let her reveal. As Raven summons all her strength to fight her captors, an American agent races across the globe to rescue her and find the key that will unlock her trapped memories before it’s too late.”

I don’t know if it is any good, but I do think it is worth a try; if for no other reason than “Flowers for Algernon” was so good. It is the Daniel Keyes; the guy who wrote “Flowers for Algernon” and literally blew my fifteen-year-old mind.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Something a Little Different

I just finished one of the busiest weeks of my life. The good news: it was very productive and even better, it is over. The bad news: I neglected Gravetapping more than a little. I have a post that will be going live early this week--Monday or Tuesday at the latest.

This post however is about my wife. She is an artist--an illustrator, graphic designer and fine artist. She has a showing of her water colors at a local gallery. The theme: desert wildflowers. The work has a flair of simplistic beauty that captures the essence of the wildflower. And while I am more than a little biased I think it is damn good.


The above is an image of one of the paintings that is in the show. If you have any interest, or just want to stop by and take a look, it is at the Blue Sage Gallery in Cedar City, Utah. The address is:

94 West Center Street
Cedar City, Utah

It opened a few weeks ago, and it will run through October 9, 2009.

You can get a sampling of the pieces in the show by visiting my wife's blog Here.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"The Shadows, Kith and Kin" by Joe R. Lansdale

I meant to have a post about Donald Hamilton and Westerns today, but it didn't quite happen. It will appear next week right here, but until then here is a review I wrote for a brilliant short story written by Joe R. Lansdale.

Joe R. Lansdale has near legendary status in the horror world—he has won an astonishing six Bram Stoker Awards and the British Fantasy Award. Three of his stories have been translated to the screen—the wonderful Bubba Ho-Tep, and Incident On and Off a Mountain Road for the Showtime series Masters of Horror, and The Job. He has published an impressive amount of short stories and he is also an acclaimed mystery writer.

Which makes me even more embarrassed that I haven’t read much of Lansdale’s work. I actually own a few of his novels including his most recent release Lost Echoes, but they haven’t arrived at the top of my to-be-read pile. So when I came across his short story “The Shadows, Kith and Kin” in the 2006 Edition of Horror: The Best of the Year I decided I better read it. And I’m glad I did.

“The Shadows, Kith and Kin” is the story of a lonely man. He is unemployed, married to a woman who no longer loves him, and even worse, lives with his in-laws. He sleeps during the day while his wife is at work, and at night he sits out on the porch and watches the shadows—shadows that he begins to associate himself with. To tell any more of the plot will spoil the story.

“The Shadows, Kith and Kin” is told in first person. The narrative is seamless. The pace is near perfect, and the prose is, at times, beautiful. One passage was particularly haunting:

Lying in bed later that night I held up my hand and found that what intrigued me most were not the fingers, but the darkness between them. It was a thin darkness, made weak by light, but it was darkness and it seemed more a part of me than the flesh.

The story builds slowly. The first half is dark, haunting, and surreal. Then Lansdale changes gears and swiftly takes the story to a place I wasn’t expecting. The narrative moves from introspective to explosive—the main character, while not changed intrinsically is forced into an action that changes his world.

“The Shadows, Kith and Kin” is a story that packs a wallop. It is what horror should be: meaningful, haunting, scary, and damn fun. It’s impact lasts well beyond the final page, and if this is an example of Joe R. Lansdale’s short stories, I need to read more of them.

“The Shadows, Kith and Kin” was originally published in the anthology Outsiders edited by Nancy Holder and Nancy Kilpatrick; it also appeared in Horror: The Best of the Year 2006 Edition edited by John Betancourt and Sean Wallace; it is also in Joe R. Lansdale’s most recent collection Shadows, Kith and Kin published by Subterranean Press in 2007.