Monday, February 28, 2011

Struckhoff, Deathlings & Black Label Comics Anthology (2010)

Ian Struckhoff et al, The Deathlings: Anne’s Story no. 1.Black Label Comics, 2010. Pp. 28. ISBN 1396402418. $5.99.

Ian Struckhoff et al, Black Label Comics (anthology) no.1. Black Label Comics, 2010. Pp. 44. ISBN 1396402433. $8.00.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

I hold up my hand: I am not a big comic buff. I cannot reel off data regarding writers, artists and movers and shakers in the industry (my one fact is that Mark ‘Luke Skywalker’ Hamill is active in the comics trade and has been for some years); but I like reading them, and it is clear to deduce from readerly reaction when a comic works and when it does not. First I did some digging. Just who is Ian Struckhoff? He arrived suddenly into my world view through these comics, and is not a name I recognise. The anthology comic proudly tells us on the inside of the front cover that Black label Comics are “independently published”. Privately published work has long had a reputation for producing somewhat dire writing that should never see the light of day: the suspicion is that if any writer can get it published, it is more a work of ego than of art.

Although independent publishing is not the same as private, there does remain a small worry in the back of the mind; is this some fantasy strip by a sub-standard talent flaunting itself because it found a press to publish at all? The worry is compounded by the fact that the whole world of Black Label—comprising, we are told, several different stories, universes, genres and planned comic book series—is sprung from the mind of one man. It does start to look troublingly like a narcissistic trip. But then there is the sheer scope of the project: from the sample chapters/ snippets in the anthology (cunningly designed to give one a taster of the main series and tempt one into investing in the whole), there are at least six separate, but interrelated series to be developed, stretching from noir to western to bizarre to gothic, and all with the influence of the fantastic (some positively steeped in it). Artistic duties are farmed out, and in fact there is a call for artists to submit samples of work on Struckhoff’s deviantART member page, but the thrust of the vision remains his, suggesting that Black Label has been a real labour of love and effort to enter the world of comic books. He states on his deviantART page that his reason for being online is “to get involved with the community, to show my artwork to the world, to become a better artist.” While not uncanny to the need for networking and contact-making, he is also open to learning and to sharing. This is not publication purely for personal satisfaction, but also sharing a vision with a much wider audience: the motives seem sound for a business venture based on a personal strength.

More of Struckhoff can be found on his deviantART page, where a short biography gives his interest as photography, comics and philosophy. Comics are often used as a forum for espousing and examining the interplay of reality and imagination, especially through the reworking of myth and legend. The combination of a graphical eye with a contemplative mindset is not unpromising for thought-provoking story lines. I was pleased with the breadth of engagement he has to his work and with the wider specialist community through the website. The commitment to his work carries on through an enthusiastic and positive write-up (on the webpage devoted to the comics themselves) of his first trip to ‘Comic Con’; perhaps the biggest and most important fantasy/sci-fi event in America each year for anyone involved in creating fantastical fictional world and the fans who love them. Struckhoff’s work appears to mostly comprise the theme of the fantastic—from gothic to fluffy-light. His images, both photographed and drawn, consistently play on ideas of feminine beauty, grace, power and sexuality. It is not surprising to also find strong females at the heart of his stories.

To the stories, then, because comics can only stand on how they grab the reader. Time is of the essence for comic books, where the reader needs to be involved, interested and hooked in far fewer pages than a novel, or even a short story. If a picture paints a thousand words, then comic books, profoundly based on the visual, should have this as the strongest selling point; information about where, who, when and what all served up at once in a few succinct frames. So: does it interest? Does it intrigue? Is the artwork pleasurable and does it add to or detract from the experience? These were to be my guide to reviewing (and apologies to anyone savvier about comics who find it too simplistic).

The material is sensationalist; no doubt about it. Anne’s Story is a gothic fantasy about a young woman falling into a world of weirdness she does not yet comprehend, watched over by the strangely omniscient Ani, a being from another realm. The anthology features violence, zombies, apocalyptic landscapes and serial killings. This is not half-hearted stuff: Struckhoff and his artists are throwing all they’ve got at it to sell the idea. And underneath it all is this idea of inter-connectedness. In the anthology, Ani’s voice directs the cowboy through his mission among the zombies (‘The Deathlings: Black Label’), she is seen watching the action in a post-apocalyptic somewhere where two children play a dangerous exploring game (‘The Deathlings: Kid Stuff’). Although she does not feature directly in ‘Huginn & Muninn’ or ‘The Dark Age’, the fantastic element is still very strong. The former is about Odin’s two ravens in human form abroad in the world, and the latter, as Ani explains in the amusingly cartooned introduction to the collection, is specifically about a crime-noir world where “all the magic went away, except she [the heroine] meets this guy Nero.” Naturally, given this juicy dangler of a spoiler, the denouement there will be some type of magical incursion. A multi-serial production under one label does strongly suggest a master plan at work by the author, and all the stories, either directly or by implication, build steadily from intentionally mythic roots.

And all feature strong female leads. The two ravens are given beautiful female bodies to inhabit while they search out Odin’s curiosity, of the two children it is the little girl who prompts the action, followed by her older male companion and even the male cowboy character is on a mission directed by a female. Strong femininity is the core of this work, and while it might seem empowering, women are also brutally murdered (‘Dark Age’; Anne’s Story), and in a short, sweet little story about a female inventor that almost seems a little throw-away sweetness in the middle of the exotic action and gothic finery, the character’s main hubris is her inability to find love (a typically female emotional quest); realising she cannot make it in her workshop.

The most obvious female is Ani, the aforementioned watcher. Depicted as a slim, well-proportioned female of youthful appearance, with pale skin, spiked black hair, dark Goth makeup around eyes and mouth, dressed in raggedy, very brief black clothes and a cloak that wraps around her with a life of its own, she seems the very pin-up of gothic desirability. With a motif of scissors and strange stitched lacerations over face and body, she could almost be a rag-doll of the mind, but unfortunately she stands upon the shoulders of giants, and suffers for comparisons. She will definitely put any comic-reader of any breadth at all in mind of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman epic, with strong overtones of Sally from A Nightmare Before Christmas (but that could be just the stitching...). Specifically, Ani is a conglomeration of Death, Delirium and Dream. Her puckish childishness, oscillating with mysterious gravitas could come from any of Gaiman’s pages, and the idea of the ‘Deathlings’, the overriding story arc behind the comics, seems a paler version of Gaiman’s hugely involving tapestry of fantasy, fable and legend.

This isn’t to say that Struckhoff’s idea fails. The fact it can bring up such strong comparisons will conversely provide an ‘in house’ thrill of recognition to those who have read widely. It is also interesting to see how he will take on the challenge of similar-themes-but-new-working. Anne’s Story ends with the image of her broken body on the ground, and a short story in the anthology assures us she is not dead: her best friend is directed, by Ani, to find Anne hidden somewhere in a dream world. Struckhoff is staking his plot out: he wants individualist characters (Anne is teased by her friend for always wearing boyish, punky clothes; the badge of the street-smart ‘individual’), strange situations, and to blur the boundaries. This is different to Gaiman, who re-treated old legends and fairy-stories; imagining the reality of supernatural life by humanising its component parts. Here’s to hoping I have not read this wrong and Struckhoff can prove himself a man of his own ideas.

Anne’s Story introduces us to the Deathlings through Ani: she appears in a young woman’s dreams, warning her of dangers to come, but remaining vague on details, only promising darkness and danger. Her warnings seem apt when Anne, trying to find a barbeque in the woods to which her crush has invited her, gets lost and finds a very different gathering. One that turns distinctly sinister when she consumes a special drink and starts seeing the people around her for the creatures they really are... my biggest criticism of the story (aside from the Ani character—see above) was the art work. Yes, it’s strong, yes it’s detailed and yes, the style suits the story: rich colours and clean lines fading into shadows and less definition when Anne finds the supernatural camp-out. But Anne herself is meant to be eighteen. She looked about mid to late twenties. I had a hard time thinking of her mother as her mother; they looked more like sisters. Long-legged, toned and generously-chested, Anne fits the format for most comic book females: idealised to the point of unidentifiable, ridiculous, even. I would believe Anne’s dark-haired, punk-gothic fragility more if she actually looked her age. Feminine beauty is a definite preoccupation with Struckhoff, and such styles of drawing are par for the course in comic books, but I felt a little disappointed there was not more variety from a series purporting towards something magical and special.

So was I intrigued? Would I buy into such stories from this first issue? Yes and no. I have already voiced my concerns over Anne’s Story, but I am a bit of a sucker for the epic-mythic. It’s obvious that, with his multi-pronged project, this is what Struckhoff is aiming for, and so, yes, I would be interested to see more. I might even be wiling to give Anne’s Story another chance, to find out more about the Deathlings, whoever they may be.

In terms of catching interest, the anthology is the best hook. Collecting up the ideas of one’s projects and releasing it so soon into the label’s run (these two were the first releases; released together last year) is a smart move. It is like a trailer at the cinema; it does make you curious, and that does make you want to know more. Added to this, repeating themes: zombie-invested wastelands in more than one tale, the mirroring of Ani and Anne’s physical appearances, possible crime connections between stories; all these draw the stories closer together, giving one a sense of being a part of a bigger picture. The desire to belong, to see it all, is tempting.

The use of different artists and their styles for each story (a staple of comic book formatting) helps to provide texture to the selection, and the artist is well chosen to the tale. ‘Dark Age’s noir thriller is all hard lines, angular view and grey-greens and black. ‘Black Label’s cowboy is saturated in hard lines and bright, stark reds and yellows under a hot, dusty sun. ‘Kid Stuff’ is all cheerful pastel hues and soft, forgiving lines; even the zombies are slightly fade in detail so they don’t look so bad, unlike those the cowboy faces, which are all leaking fluids and raw, exposed flesh and bone.

I liked the format. I liked the genre and how it was dealt with. I even like the idea of one stable, many horses under one manager. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but that is a genre-specific consideration. Lovers of fantasy should give it a try as a refreshing new voice on the scene. I found two stories, perhaps three, within the Black Label Comics Anthology that particularly snagged my interest, and I would pick and choose the stories to follow, but Struckhoff has made a promising first impression with his vision.

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Sunday, February 27, 2011

North et al. (edd.), Machine of Death (2010)

Ryan North, Matthew Bennadro & David Malki (edd.), Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die. Bearstache Books, 2010. Pp 452. ISBN 9780982167120. $17.95.

Reviewed by Sheri White

If you had the opportunity to find out the manner of your death, would you take it? That’s the shared theme of the stories in Machine of Death. All it takes is a drop of blood, and your fate is printed out on a small piece of paper. Your fate could be CANCER, an ACCIDENT, or even NUCLEAR BOMB. However, the answers are decidedly vague. For instance, CANCER could mean that yes, you die of cancer. But will you be old? Young? Or will someone else with cancer kill you? Maybe someone with the astrological Cancer sign will cause your death. The ambiguity of the predictions is frustrating and scary. And how do you live your life to the fullest after finding out how you’ll die?

This anthology was inspired by an episode of “Dinosaur Comics” by Ryan North in which a green t-rex mentions how cool it would be if you could go to the doctor for a blood test that would tell you how you would die. Machine of Death was shopped around for a couple years, but as no publisher would take it due to the number of unknown authors who contributed, the editors finally decided to self-publish, setting up Bearstache Books.

Although Machine of Death has a rather dark theme, not all of the stories reflect that tone. The first story, ‘Flaming Marshmallow’ by Camille Alexa, a girl is excited for her sixteenth birthday; that’s the legal age for using the Machine of Death. Popularity is decided by manner of death—“Burners” are cool, as are “Chokers.” Anything involving a CRASH will get Carolyn in with the most popular girl in the school. But SICKNESS and OLD AGE will have you sitting at the boring table until graduation. Carolyn has a crush on Brad Binder, whose slip read FLAMING MARSHMALLOW. Even though Carolyn’s friend Patrice ridicules Brad’s cause of death, Carolyn secretly thinks he’s still awesome. Where will Carolyn be sitting tomorrow after her trip to the mall’s Machine of Death?

The Machine of Death introduces one more way for kids to ostracize one another in high school, a time that’s hard enough under normal circumstances. But it also gives the unpopular kids a way of fitting in if their deaths are deemed “cool.” Before they know how they are going to die, the “No-Knows” are shunned by the “Knows,” especially by those with exciting deaths. The more horrific your death seems, the higher up in the social network of high school you are. Death has taken the place of clothes, shoes, looks and affluency in determining popularity.

‘Starvation’ by M. Bennardo shows the horrors of war as two men, Dalton and Johnny, find themselves stranded in the jungle after their helicopter goes down. Dalton signed up for the military after his slip told him HOMICIDE; Johnny is supposed to die of STARVATION. While trying to survive in the jungle with barely any food and water, they each start thinking of their deaths. Is Dalton going to die by Johnny’s hand, or will Johnny starve first? Or does HOMICIDE mean that Dalton will die trying to kill Johnny before Johnny kills him first?

Paranoia permeates this story, from Dalton’s death dilemma to Johnny’s fevered dreams as he lay sick and hungry. Dalton goes for help, but will he come back for Johnny? A little claustrophobia adds to the story as well; Dalton leaves Johnny in a pit with no way out while he goes for help. That way, Johnny can’t sneak up on him. The outcome is completely different than either of them suspects.

Throughout this anthology, the Machine of Death is debated by characters as being immoral, unnatural and evil. Should anybody know how they’re going to die? Is it right for parents to have their children tested? And if a child is tested, should it be at birth, or even in the womb? The Machine of Death has added a new dimension to the abortion debate—whether or not to abort a pregnancy if the child is destined to die a horrible death.

In ‘Miscarriage’ by James L. Sutter, a young couple has endured the miscarriages of two children, one of them at eight months’ gestation. Now Annie is pregnant again and she and her husband Ryan have decided to have their unborn baby tested. If the baby’s slip said MISCARRIAGE, they would terminate the pregnancy themselves since it was safer for Annie than having another miscarriage.

Another area of contention is in telling children how they will die. The “death talk” has now taken the place of the “birds and the bees” talk. If a child is to die by drowning, will the parents make sure the child has swimming lessons, or never let the child near the water?

Tommy’s parents had him tested as a child, but never told him, and Tommy has never had the desire to have himself tested as an adult. In ‘Friendly Fire’ by Douglas J. Lane, Tommy is a member of the Unknown Future Liberation Front, a group that hides behind masks and destroys public Machines of Death with hammers and other weapons. The group decides that one machine at a time isn’t enough, and make plans to blow up one of the machine’s factories.

Tommy’s parents had also had his little brother tested, and after finding out the answer, practically made the boy live in a bubble. Their over-protectiveness couldn’t help Davey, though. Because of this, Tommy has sworn he will never get tested. But his mother calls the night before the planned bombing, and lets him know that his slip said FRIENDLY FIRE. Knowing he’s about to head into a battle of sorts, this revelation troubles him deeply. Nobody knows about the bombing except the group’s members—is this the FRIENDLY FIRE that will kill him?

The machine is always right, even though it’s vague. There is no changing your fate, and you never know when it’s going to happen. It will always be a surprise. But in ‘While Trying to Save Another’ by Daliso Chaponda, exact dates are given to some people along with their causes of death. Called EDs, many join support groups to help cope with this terrible knowledge. Others actually embrace knowing when they will die, and have parties the night before to say good-bye to their friends. Timothy falls in love with Isma when they meet at an ED support group. They find out they are to die on the same day—will they die together? At the end, Timothy is left to decide his own fate—but is the decision really in his hands?

There is a story by Brian Quinlan that made me laugh out loud in this anthology; however it’s also the shortest—the title is longer than the story. I won’t reveal the title or the story; otherwise, everything would be given away; however, if it makes you laugh, then you have a twisted sense of humor like I do.

Every story in this anthology captured my attention; there are thirty-four stories in all, and each one is illustrated. Machine of Death is an incredible idea for an anthology, and each of the stories is very well-written and engaging. It may be odd to say I enjoyed a book about death, but actually death is not the forefront of most of the stories. Morality, mortality, fear, love and sex are just a few of the underlying themes throughout this anthology, which make Machine of Death more than just a book of dying; it’s also a book about living.

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Monday, February 21, 2011

Bilodeau, Destiny’s Blood (2010)

Marie Bilodeau, Destiny’s Blood. Dragon Moon Press, 2010. Pp. 308. ISBN 978-1-897492-11-6. $19.95.

Reviewed by Regina de Búrca

I was intrigued by the Dragon Moon Press blurb for Marie Bilodeau’s Destiny’s Blood: “To save the withering First Star, will Layela sacrifice her sister... or herself?” Being interested in both female familial relationships and the concept of ‘fate’ in fiction, I had a feeling I would enjoy this book. Happily the novel matched my expectations. At first I was disappointed by the cover art; although beautifully executed, the picture concerned me—I thought it looked like a romance novel. But I am delighted to report that there are no Harlequin novel clichés to be found within its pages!

This book is a highly enjoyable read—it’s compelling and well-written tale of Layela Delamores and her twin Yoma. Layela tries to outrun her difficult past and her nebulous sense of foreboding by moving to the remote planet of Collar to set up a flower shop with Yoma. But when her sister disappears, Layela is determined to find her. Accompanied by Yoma’s friend Josmere, a member of the Berganda ether race, she embarks on an expansive quest to find her sister. In the process she finds both her family’s legacy and her destiny.

The twins’ characters are polar opposites—Layela is sensible and forward-planning, while Yoma enjoys the hand-to-mouth existence of living on the run. Layela tries to build a steady life for herself and her sister but Yoma is not on board. It is a situation familiar to most families: Layela wants to impose what ‘she thinks is best’ on her sister but ultimately fails. I liked the way Bilodeau makes the relationship between the two sisters so easy to relate to; she doesn’t descend into sentimental clichés like some sci-fi writers do. This realist approach to the dynamic between the characters brings the fictional world they inhabit closer to the reader.

One of the twins is fated to save the First Star, but to do so one must die. The sisters embark on a ‘hero’s journey’ to realise the prophecy that is to be their legacy. This plot is well-realised and interesting, and has a different take on the usual quest scenario typical of this genre. The ending is beautifully resolved with a fitting climax.

This novel is feminist in that the female characters are strong and are fighting to shift the androcentric imbalance of power in their world. The concept of the ‘ether’ races struck me as the embodiment of Gaia, the divine feminine. Intuition, vision, nurturing and living in harmony with nature are characteristics of a race that are dying out, due to the ruling military regime. The ether realm is a proliferation of life force, while the military’s world is one of war and death.

The botanical descriptions in Destiny’s Blood are beautiful: Bilodeau creates entire genera of flora and fauna to create an immersive setting. The fine writing makes the fate of the Bergandas—a race of plant people—even more poignant as they are becoming extinct. Forced to wear gloves to limit their powers and forbidden from owning businesses on certain planets in the galaxy, the Berganda are being ethnically cleansed. It is the destiny of the Delamores sisters to try to prevent this from happening.

One criticism I had of this book—and this is certainly not specific to Destiny’s Blood, as it is almost a science fiction convention by now—is the linking of personality traits to races. For example: “For a Berganda, I’m actually quite positive” (33); “Mirialers were stubborn and loyal to their own” (147). I find this convention pigeonholes the races and makes them seem even more different. In an unequal world, this stereotyping separates the races even further. Bilodeau’s writing is so good that I feel she doesn’t need to rely on this outmoded trope to describe her characters.

Nonetheless, this story is well-crafted and often cinematic, at times reminding me of Firefly/Serenity or Star Wars: A New Hope. The story’s pace is fast, with many plot turns. This wouldn’t be the type of story I normally chose to read, as I prefer slower, Ursula K. Le Guin-type meditative narratives, however Bilodeau writes these numerous action scenes so well that I was more than happy to go along for the ride.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Pirie, Burying Brian (2010)

Steven Pirie, Burying Brian. Immanion Press, 2010. Pp 260. ISBN 978-1-904853-71-8. £12.99.

Reviewed by Carey Gates

Belial has hoodwinked God into going down to earth again—and now God is trapped in Mrs. Tippings head, while Belial starts The Judgment of the World. And it’s up to Brian—and the Gravediggers of Mudcaster, to save mankind dead and alive from hell. Because of course, Belial doesn’t play fair. And everyone is guilty, even if it is sweet old Mrs. Pemberton, whose sin is stepping on a garden snail...

I didn’t know what I was getting into when I asked for the review copy of Burying Brian, Pirie’s second novel from Immanion Press. I’m not a horror book reader, and my daughter thought maybe I’d bitten off more than I could chew. But the back copy is very accurate in calling this a “gentle comedy”, even if a dark one. Sure, there’s Pestilence and his horse, both hacking and coughing their way through the story and covered in weeping sores, but one feels more like they should call the humane society for the creature and make a Calamine bath for the incarnation than to run away screaming.

I started the book without reading the back copy, and felt totally lost. Reading the back copy helped provide a frame for the story and then the pieces fell into place as I read. The setting is so intrinsically English that as someone who’s never been to England the detail is invaluable in painting the picture of an English village, but it also made that much more to keep track of. But that’s just another reason to read the book again.

The book is written with an incredible amount of detail, almost too much detail, it seemed at first. After the first two pages I thought, “There’s no way I can wade through 200+ pages of this”. There are what seem to be incongruously accented words in the first few pages. There are also a few sentences that either are awkwardly structured or have typos that were missed in the proofing/typesetting for the book. As a very grammatical reader this was distracting, having to stop and go back to see what I had “missed” or interpret what the sentence was really saying. As I got used to Pirie’s writing style, this was less distracting. The detail does level out after the first few pages and the word accentuation decreases and seems more appropriate to the story.

I found the book to be a relaxing read, not something one generally associates with apocalyptic Judgment Day tales. In fact, this book was so relaxing to read I had a hard time reading more than 10-12 pages at a time because I would be so relaxed I’d want to go to sleep. This was definitely not because the story was boring, but Pirie’s writing rhythm lulls the reader, much as the citizens of Mudcaster are lulled by the everyday presence of gods who are meter maids and gnomes who open doors to other places and times—and push unwilling parties through them, bridges go under streams, and bingo numbers have the ability to bring the world to an end. And yet it all seems so believable.

The book abounds with satirical metaphors and similies of Biblical and Revelational concepts, interpreted very uniquely. Christ’s Temptation in the Wilderness is replaced with Brian’s Visit to Hell and the Sampling of the 7 Deadly Sins (for how can a Savior relate to sinners unless he’s experienced their sins?). The Four Horsemen romp through the story as well, but Pirie’s horsemen are siblings, and the children of Mr. Grim, the Gravedigger’s Union President.

There are also allusions to the first advent story all through the book, but Pirie makes it very clear that this is not a retelling of the first advent (although he does make one wonder what really happened back then...).

Brian makes an unlikely hero; in fact he’s more of an anti-hero. And he certainly would not have been a hero if the gnome hadn’t pushed him through the outhouse door. And yet, his very reluctance and unsuitableness are exactly what help him succeed, partly because he doesn’t know any better, but also because of his simple belief in the correct order of the universe. This makes Brian a very relatable character because I could picture myself in the same type of situation and feel like I could muddle through just the same.

Pirie has taken two seemingly incompatible concepts—horror and gentleness, and images and themes that could be written in ghastly terms, and wrapped them in the flowers and the aura of a quiet English village. By the time he’s done, it feels like The Judgment is an everyday affair and that escaping it is really quite easy, even accidental. All in all, Burying Brian is a charming and entertaining read.

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Friday, February 11, 2011

Polson, Loathsome, Dark and Deep (2010)

Aaron Polson, Loathsome, Dark and Deep. Belfire Press, 2010. Pp. 204. ISBN 9781926912141. $11.99 print / $3.99 e-book.

Reviewed by Don Campbell

Henry Barlow fought in the Civil War. His wife met her end as the victim of a vicious murder. He hasn’t touched a pistol or a rifle since and has crawled deep into a bottle of bourbon and when we meet him is hiding out at the only brothel in Ecola, Oregon. There, he receives orders from his employer, H & P Lumber, who want him to travel up the Lewis River and investigate why their camp there has gone suddenly silent. With his colleague, the nervous and meek Otto Olson, and a small group of hired men, Henry makes his way up the river toward the silent lumber camp only to find a situation worse than anyone could have imagined.

Loathsome, Dark and Deep is Aaron Polson’s third book and second novel and his first published through Belfire Press, a small house established in 2009 and primarily interested in cross-genre titles. The cover evokes a feeling of being lost in the forest, the trees closing in, a feeling I am personally all too familiar with. Even readers who have not wandered aimlessly through an endless labyrinth of trees for hours on end searching for a way back to civilization may find it to be effective in conveying a sense of isolation at the very least.

The title of this novel is a subverted reference to Robert Frost’s poem ‘Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening’; where Frost speaks of the woods as “lovely, dark and deep”, here we are given an alliterative opposite. Polson weaves a solid narrative using aspects of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the basis for the film Apocalypse Now, giving it a dark horror, somewhat steampunk and certainly more American spin. Lumber was far more important in America post-civil war than ivory would ever be. Barlow finds Curt’s camp devastated by greed and ambition, men twisted by Curt’s vision and the work of Curt’s second in command, Dr. Scheller, an engineer and inventor.

This is a relatively easy read that is hampered only, in my opinion, by too much focus on Barlow’s reminisces and not enough on the situation at hand. Edmund Curt himself appears only briefly and Dr. Scheller almost not at all, and one feels there were opportunities missed for some far more grandiose villain scenes than are presented. Our visitation with The Colonel, a man so driven by religious fervor as to be dangerous, is also all too brief. Chalk it up to the first person narrative, but I felt the scope of the story could have been larger, focusing as it does almost solely upon Barlow. That said, however, Polson’s writing itself is quite good, his descriptions vivid. When Barlow meets his colleague, Olson, he states, “Otto Olson had a face that looked like a thin strip had been sliced out of the middle and the remaining halves shoved back together.” A fantastic image deftly composed and indicative of the rest of the story’s style.

Whether Polson meant it to be explicit or not, the book paints a grim picture of technology during the infancy of the Industrial Revolution. It does not necessarily condemn the technology itself outright, but certainly highlights man’s ability to twist it towards dark purposes. Scheller’s devices and machines that begin as a means to make logging more efficient, evolve into engines of horror that almost literally strip the men at the camp of their souls. Even before the team reach the camp, alluding to his past in the Civil War, Barlow states, “By the end of the day, I would once again be under those trees, but this time marked for life and waiting to die in a hell made with the machines of war.”

Man’s inhumanity to man is not new territory for a writer to cover, but Polson does the job well enough. Barlow’s struggle to maintain a semblance of sanity when everything around him is going to hell and Otto Olson’s eventual growth from lily-livered craven to a man with a bit of sand in him are juxtaposed against characters who have fallen so far down the well they can no longer see the daylight. The frontier was a brutal place full of brutal men and many found it difficult to hold onto their values or far too easy simply to try and create new ones. With virtually no law or government comes opportunity to create what one will out of what one has, be it an edifice to horror or a utopian playland. Unfortunately it all too often begins as the latter and rapidly spirals into the former.

Perhaps it was Barlow’s former tragedies that help him move through this landscape of insanity without losing too much of himself. He wears the scars of his past on his face in both a literal and figurative sense and perhaps the parts of him he had thought lost to those events were not so much gone as forgotten. His decisions are certainly informed by a core of, if not morality, then at least a well developed sense of right and wrong. Ethical certainty in the face of moral ambiguity can be difficult at best. Stripped of consequences, more than one person has found it difficult to distinguish the left-hand path from the right-hand path.

Loathsome, Dark and Deep treads a path well worn by books that have come before, but it is a path of adventure and excitement nonetheless. Those looking for more gratuitously visceral fare under a horror label may be slightly disappointed, but if it’s a dark adventure with a strong protagonist you’re looking for, this novel delivers. Reminiscent of, if somewhat less graphic than, early Jack Ketchum (specifically Ketchum’s first novel, the Sawney Bean-inspired Off Season), Loathsome, Dark and Deep is a good piece of historical horror set against the backdrop of the forest, dark and deep.

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Friday, February 04, 2011

Pruden, Immaculate Deception (2010)

Scott B. Pruden, Immaculate Deception. Codorus Press, 2010. Pp. 329. ISBN 978-0-615-34825-4. $19.95.

Reviewed by postmorbid

Immaculate Deception is the debut novel by Scott B. Pruden, a journalist and writer, and also the first novel published by “independent literary collective” Codorus Press. It follows the quests of two men, one dead and trying to become alive again by helping out a confused, all-powerful being, and the other trying to stay alive while learning who killed his father.

“Better off dead” has been going through my head a lot recently. This is not because I am suicidal, and I have also not decided to revisit my teenage phase of being excited by Bad Religion. The line first popped into my head after starting to read Immaculate Deception, and the more I was drawn into the book the more difficult I found it to forget about it.
“But until then: better off dead”
First of all there is the irony of the fate of Jon Templeton, the novel’s main protagonist. One day he finds himself dead, and escorted into heaven by the supreme being. However, instead of rejoicing that he has gone to a better place, Jon only wants to get back to Earth where he left his alcohol intoxicated body in a puddle of vomit after his wife dumped him and he had lost his job.

All is not well in heaven either though. The supreme being fears to be on the brink of losing control over the universe, and so it recruits Jon, a former investigative reporter, to uncover information on something it cannot comprehend. Jon will be sent back to Earth, but only for the duration of the mission—and that explicitly excludes getting in touch with his wife. So neither is the dead Jon Templeton actually better off dead, in Pruden’s novel he also has to face a conflict of interest with an increasingly moody supreme being that has fucked up at being omniscient.
“Better off dead, yeah better off dead,
A smile on the lips, and a hole in the head
And I’ll never make the same mistake
The next time I create the universe I’ll make sure you participate.”
So, what went wrong? And when and where? The story is set in the future, at an undefined date perhaps a couple of decades ahead in a somewhat dystopian South Carolina. Despite a range of new gadgets society still works mostly as we know it, but wars and the breakdown of state control in some areas have taken their toll, as have new social trends. One of the latter is going to play a key role in the novel, a new sect that is increasingly popular as it preaches getting close to god by focussing on enjoying sex as much as possible, especially during church service.

It is this sect that Jon Templeton is asked to infiltrate on a mission he hopes may give him a chance to not only save the universe, but, more importantly to him, save his marriage. He is, however, not the only reluctant hero in Immaculate Deception. There is also Mako Nikura, a surfer dude and unwilling heir to a global company who suddenly finds himself on the trail of a conspiracy that led to his father’s death. His part of the story involves a bizarre mixture of assassins, weapons smuggling, religious terrorists willing to kill night club visitors over their taste in music and a memory stick that eventually makes the paths of Jon and Mako cross at a critical juncture, with the fate of the human race at stake.
“And I’ll never make the same mistake
So if you’re looking for a patsy,
Why not try the entire human race
Just to play it safe?”
Both unlikely heroes are not alone on their quest. They are helped and hindered by an intriguing cast of characters involving armed cross-dressing night club owners, the devil’s minions, gay US Marines, sex-hungry beach beauties, Jesus Christ and the souls of the dead, including an angel-like former prostitute. There is sex, a lot of sex in fact; drugs, quite a few drugs; and perhaps a little less rock’n’roll. Also on offer are a good dosage of action involving breaking into high security buildings and fighting drones and beings from beyond the universe, plus a conspiracy with several surprising plot twists.

To sum up, it all sounds like total trash.
“Better off dead, yeah better than this,
Take it away ‘cause there’s nothing to miss
I’m sorry about the world,
How could I know you’d take it so bad?”
And yet I did not take it bad at all. In fact, it is probably the most enjoyable book I have reviewed in a long time. First of all I enjoy the intriguing concept of a supreme being that has to deal with something it cannot comprehend, sending a mere mortal (well, mere dead) on a mission that is indeed well suited for an investigative reporter. This brings me to the second reason that makes Immaculate Deception so enjoyable: a well constructed story. The introduction, for instance, may appear relatively long, but all the information planted into the reader’s brain is there for good reason. Some of the turns and twists may perhaps seem a little unlikely, but after all there are supernatural forces at work. As long as you accept that premise, the story works.

Pruden also creates a lot of suspense, especially by moving from one story line to the other at critical moments, and (excepting very few minor issues the editor should have tackled) the book reads well. On a few occasions Pruden comes close to doing too much—at first I cringed when Jesus Christ entered the scene, and some of the characters are living the cliché—but the balance is never lost. Only during the big showdown I was not 100% convinced that the timing in the action sequence worked at all moments—but this comes from a reviewer who has spent two decades working hard to ensure that events are properly synchronised in role playing games. The overall build-up of the story is excellent and I soon found myself hooked.

If you like a jolly romp involving supreme beings, conspiracies, a dosage of scifi and much action, and if the thought of an investigation dealing with a sex-focussed sect, a global weapon’s manufacturer and real estate do not put you off, then you will enjoy this. Dead or alive.
“A smile on the lips and a hole in my head,
better off dead, yeah better than this”
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