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Smashwords book reviews by Matthew Fryer
- I Was Probed by Aliens and Lived to Tell the Tale
on June 08, 2010
I hadn’t read any of this author’s work before, so I thought I’d begin with something light-hearted.
The star of this ostentatious title is William Brown, an ordinary bloke who is abducted by an alien from Tau Ceti 42. Although hideous in appearance, the xenomorph goes by the name of John Smith, and turns out to be polite, slightly indignant and affectingly naive with a passion for reruns of the earth show “I Love Lucy”. The two become friends, and he takes our protagonist on an adventure across the galaxy.
This is a strong novella that wrings a giggle out of every SF staple and abduction cliche. There are bawdy misunderstandings (such as the shaking of an alien’s “hand” that turns out to be a much more intimate appendage), gross-outs and comedy of manners. And as you’ve probably guessed from the title and cover, the aliens have an unhealthy and inexplicable obsession with anal probes. I was going to post a paragraph as an example, but was too spoiled for choice and couldn’t decide. Which says it all, really.
The dialogue is crisp, and there’s plenty of slapstick buffoonery, including the accidental destruction of an entire planet. Even the minor characters bring something to the party. My favourite was a pompous, megalomaniac brain that achieved its glory in a spelling test that lasted thousands of years during which its opponents died of boredom. Neurotic baddies – especially those that are completely unaware of their own absurdity – are always good for laughs.
With its “Which Ray Gun?” magazine and irreverent banter, this is SF very much in the vein of Red Dwarf. The raw science takes a back seat to the gags, and while some of them are pretty obvious, they’re well-timed and relentless.
My only complaint is the language of our narrator. I suspect his slang is used to contrast with the comically well spoken alien, and to inject a distinctly English flavour. Although this worked overall, the overuse of “bloody” seemed unecessary and somewhat intrusive after a while.
But despite this, the pace never lags, and an amusing set of appendices rounds it all off very nicely. Throw in a strong sense of otherworld place, some adept greyscale artwork and a wry smidge of politics, and you’ve got a perfectly entertaining way to spend an hour or so.
- Ill At Ease
on July 06, 2011
Penman Press present this eBook collection of three short horror stories from a talented trio of British horror writers. The title sums it up. These tales ooze with an askew feeling, where even the most ordinary of situations becomes alien and sinister: the essence of any good macabre fiction.
First to follow that vertigo-inducing cover is Stephen Bacon, and “Waiting for Josh” is one of his triumphs. Narrated by a man named Pete Richards, he revisits his hometown to see a dying childhood friend and discovers that there’s more to his lonely alcoholism than meets the eye. This author excels at first-person storytelling, and it works very well here, drawing us into the character’s mood and nostalgia as though it were our own. This also makes the chills more effective, and I defy anybody not to be moved by his haunting journey of guilt, loss and confronting horrible truths. This is poignant and mature writing, and I insist on a collection. Immediately.
Mark West maintains the standard with “Come See My House in the Pretty Town”. Here we meet David Willis, another man reconnecting with his past when he visits an old college friend who now lives the dream in a quaint country village. But as Mark West is writing this story, there’s to be no pleasure in the sunny, picture-postcard surroundings. Everything has a sinister edge, and he notches up the tension in small intriguing reveals about the character histories. When the real descent comes during a visit to the local fair, it’s a grim, breathless ride with a brilliant pay-off. Mark also scores extra for creating some truly scary clowns, whether they normally freak you out or not, and their first appearance is a simple but powerfully charged scene of lurking violence.
Although I wasn’t familiar with Neil Williams, he’s now a name I’ll remember. With “Closer than you Think” we meet Dave, an ordinary family man. When he spots a perfectly good car seat being abandoned at a rubbish tip by a strange, dull-eyed woman, he decides to take it home. But when he starts to use it for his young daughter, a series of strange and disturbing occurrences ensue. As the supernatural increases, the story becomes a tense family drama with some tight dialogue and oily, nightmarish scenes. Although it has less depth and more formula than the others, it’s a real one-sitting read that grips from the off and doesn’t let go. For me, the supernatural has to be really good to give me a chill – Gary McMahon and Paul Finch spring to mind – and I was happy to discover that Neil Williams also has the knack.
It might be a relatively short book, but “Ill at Ease” rises way above the mire. The theme of horror in the mundane is perfectly realised, mouldering constantly beneath the text and infusing it with a sour sensation of impending doom. It’s modern horror that understands subtlety, full of real characters and plenty of shivers. These three authors clearly take pride in their work, all writing with lucid, thoughtful prose, and the time and effort shows. As reader, there’s no jarring, no creases – just an effortless, entertaining read. With interesting author notes, it’s a great package and well worth a couple of quid. Highly recommended.
- Butterfly Winter
on Aug. 23, 2011
“Even in the end the children still dance.”
I’m a sucker for a great opening line, and that one certainly delivers. But that’s not all. Despite its bland cover, this novelette from Crossroad Press presents a beautiful, precision story about humanity, war and the dangers of hubris.
The tale concerns the crew of a bomber, part of a squad flying to Shanghai in a nuclear war of mutually assured destruction. But when it comes to the crunch, one well-intentioned soldier named Leroy Pearson struggles to deal with the genocidal potential of his trigger finger. After the attack, the bomber crashes in a remote part of China and Pearson awakes in a rustic village by a lake. A place populated by an unaffected and artistic people, colourful butterflies, and curious dancing children who embrace the bedraggled warhorses without prejudice or suspicion.
This is a perfectly crafted story. The haunting introduction - a post-apocalyptic scene on the edge of the lake - has overwhelming tones of nostalgia and insidious darkness, and segues nicely into the build up of the bomber’s mission. This is appropriately tense, and the switch from cacophonous war to the eerie traquillity of the village is fantastic, setting the mood for the second half. Leroy Pearson’s back story is seamlessly worked into the flow – especially his defiant father’s refusal to buckle beneath racist abuse – and explains our protagonist’s motives and why he’s the man he is today.
Another strength is evocation. As well as the nightmarish opener, equally outstanding is a scene atop a blazing pagoda that catalogues an unhinged soldier’s life from childhood to present. It’s incredibly elegant, yet also rendered hopeless by the inevitability of doom. There’s genuine humanity here, but what seems to be hope in a world of contamination and death soon becomes tainted. The author manipulates our sense of duty, and where our moral decisions fit into actual right and wrong.
With a breathtaking conclusion, “Butterfly Winter” is superb and I couldn’t find fault. This is a journey we really share with the characters, and well worth the 99c (about 60p). Thought-provoking and elegiac, it’s an experience that lingers. Recommended.
- One Buck Horror: Volume Three
on Nov. 10, 2011
Sporting a sharp psychotronic cover by Shawn Conn, the latest issue of this relatively new e-pub is exactly what the title proclaims. You pay your buck, you get horror. Edited by Christopher and Kris M. Hawkins, a lot of effort has clearly gone into this magazine, and it shows.
Kicking off is “Helpers” by David Steffen in which we find a nefarious character stalking children in the night. Basking in the aura of a grim fairytale, it was marred for me only by a moment of awkwardly whispered dialogue, but is a very promising start to the issue with a well executed – if slightly derivative - pay off.
Next up is “Home” from Augusto Corvalan. This is a triumph of evocation that paints an uneasy world with barely any description. It opens with a domestic family scene littered with sinister teasers, before introducing us to a grim apocalypse. With shades of The Road and even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it keeps a few surprises up its sleeve.
Despite a dodgy opening line that put me off, John F. D. Taff’s “Child of Dirt” is an intriguing read. It presents the psychological descent of a man’s journey through the pregnancy and birth of his son. Is the child his? Is it even human? I found the flow broken up by too much description between lines of dialogue, and a few adjectives too many, but that said, the style does lend it an old-school horror flavour that works here. The tale never lags, oozes a discomforting atmosphere and evil tone throughout, and handles the moments of horror with aplomb.
A more unusual contribution is “The Catman Blues” by Leisa K. Parker. Devoid of dialogue, this first person tale concerns a strange feline musician who brings death to a smoky blues club. I don’t normally favour this informal, anecdotal style of storytelling, but I was happy to find it a colourful and beautifully told piece.
In “Vacation” by J. Tanner we meet a young girl reluctant to go on holiday with her family, so much so that duct tape is employed, and we slowly learn why through her grave reminiscing. Gripping from the off, this is an original tale that doesn’t just rely on concept and shocks, full of real characters and dialogue.
Finally, Mark Budman brings the issue to a satisfying close with “Off With His Head”, a flash piece about a man who awakes to discover he has quite literally lost his head. It’s an odd and brave story, but well executed and palpably real, and owes more to Kafka than bizarro.
Despite the occasional flaws, this is a robust mix of horror fiction. It doesn’t have a specific theme, but certainly its own flavour: the stories all possess a wickedly gleeful streak beneath the darkness that prevents the magazine from sinking into bleak. The lay out and editing are perfect – credit to the editorial team – and although a relatively slim volume, it’s great value for 99c, and I’ll certainly be sampling again.