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Jonathan Stover (Ontario, Canada)

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Saga of the Swamp Thing Book Five
Saga of the Swamp Thing Book Five
by Alan Moore
Edition: Hardcover
12 used & new from CDN$ 95.95

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Into the Void, Feb. 15 2012
The Saga of the Swamp Thing Volume 5: written by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, Rick Veitch, and John Totleben; illustrated by Rick Veitch, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, and Alfredo Alcala (1986; collected 2011): The penultimate collection of Alan Moore's career-making run on DC's Saga of the Swamp Thing sees Rick Veitch take over as primary penciller. As previous Swamp Thing penciller (and then-continuing cover artist) Steve Bissette notes in the informative introduction, Veitch's interest in science fiction over horror helped shift the book to a more science-fiction-oriented direction. But first Swamp Thing would travel to Gotham City for a fateful encounter with Batman. Then it was off into space for several issues for an odyssey that would conclude in the next volume.

The double-sized issue featuring Swamp Thing's battle with Batman is a doozy, showcasing as it does longtime Swamp Thing inker John Totleben's second full-art stint on the comic book. It's gorgeous: Totleben's art often looked like he was cutting his fine lines into wood or perhaps copper. It's elegant and old-school without being stiff or anachronistic. This was the time of Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns, so Batman gets a really, really big Batmobile. However, Moore's Batman is much more sympathetic and fallible than Miller's -- and reasonable, in the end, as he and Swamp Thing ultimately resolve their differences without killing each other.

Subsequent issues further develop the character of Swamp Thing's beloved Abigail Cable, reintroduce two horribly transformed characters from Martin Pasko's early 1980's run on Saga, and bring us Swamp Thing's first foray into space travel. One can see Moore straining at the chains of the endless status quo of the mainstream superhero universe here. Things may return to the baseline at the end of each seemingly world-changing event, but logically they shouldn't.

Even if DC wouldn't soon anger Moore and cause him to leave the mainstream forever, one can't really believe, reading these stories, that he would have been much longer satisfied with 'The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same.'

The Seven Days of Cain
The Seven Days of Cain
by Ramsey Campbell
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 19.95
12 used & new from CDN$ 13.72

5.0 out of 5 stars Adam Raised a Cain, Feb. 15 2012
This review is from: The Seven Days of Cain (Paperback)
Young Liverpool couple Andy Bentley and Claire are struggling to conceive a child. Andy works at his father and mother's photography studio; Claire works for a government-sponsored charitable organization that tries to provide homes and job training for the homeless. Things seem to be going OK, despite the fact that doctors can't figure out why Claire can't conceive.

Elsewhere, someone has murdered a playwright with the somewhat goofy name of Penny Scrivener in New York. One of Barcelona's "living statues" has been murdered in Barcelona; her name was Serena Paz. Soon thereafter, Andy begins getting emails about something he did in the past, apparently something awful, from an unknown sender with a flair for puzzles and word games. An old schoolmate of Claire's shows up outside her workplace, homeless, and very odd. A self-important writer shows up at Andy's studio, looking to get memorable photographs of himself, eventually offering Andy a chance for mainstream publication of his photos.

After 150 pages, one may think one knows where this novel is heading, but one really doesn't.

On the beach near Claire and Andy's house, the (real), and really odd Liverpudlian metal statues of the same figure repeated dozens of times, staring out to sea, sometimes seem to have one less member, or perhaps one more. On the horizon, giant windmills tilt at the sky, always intruding into Claire and Andy's perceptions of that environment.

Campbell's novels have often tugged and pulled at the nature of reality, perhaps most notably and successfully in Incarnate and The Grin of the Dark. Well, he's back at reality again, in a novel that functions as a sequel of sorts -- or perhaps more accurately a shared-universe tale -- as related to a previous but recent novel and a 40-year-old short story that turned out to have a concept within it that adapted well to the Age of Internet. Naming that novel and that short story would reveal too much, too soon of the novel's clever shift midway through, and knowledge of the two isn't necessary to enjoying The Seven Days of Cain, though that knowledge does add to the enjoyment -- and the level of existential disturbance.

The Seven Days of Cain supplies a lot of Campbell's trademarked description, both vivid and intensely allusive, that can sometimes make a story seem disturbingly dream-like, as background and midground and foreground collapse into one (the story does feature a photographer as a protagonist, after all). No one will be punished for anything resembling a "real" crime here, but punishment -- or judgement -- is coming nonetheless. Why and for whom? Read the emails carefully. Don't stand too long on the beach. Don't check your spam box too often.

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 22
The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 22
by Stephen Jones
Edition: Paperback
14 used & new from CDN$ 23.79

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Best New Horror, Feb. 11 2012
The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 22 (2010), edited by Stephen Jones (2011), containing the following stories:

*What Will Come After by Scott Edelman
Substitutions by Michael Marshall Smith
A Revelation of Cormorants by Mark Valentine
*Out Back by Garry Kilworth
*Fort Clay, Louisiana: A Tragical History by Albert E. Cowdrey
Just Outside Our Windows, Deep Inside Our Walls by Brian Hodge
*Fallen Boys by Mark Morris
The Lemon in the Pool by Simon Kurt Unsworth
The Pier by Thana Niveau
*Featherweight by Robert Shearman
Black Country by Joel Lane
*Lavender and Lychgates by Angela Slatter
*Christmas with the Dead by Joe R. Lansdale
*Losenef Express by Mark Samuels
Oh I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside by Christopher Fowler
*We All Fall Down by Kirstyn McDermott
*Lesser Demons by Norman Partridge
*Telling by Steve Rasnic Tem
*As Red as Red by Caitlin R. Kiernan
*With the Angels by Ramsey Campbell
Autumn Chill by Richard L. Tierney
City of the Dog by John Langan
*When the Zombies Win by Karina Sumner-Smith

Series editor Stephen Jones gives us 23 stories this year, along with the lengthy annual 'Year in Horror' and encyclopedic 'Necrology' (the latter consisting of obituaries of writers, actors and others with some affiliation to horror, written by British horror expert Kim Newman).

I've starred the stories I think are really exceptional. The writing level is, as always for this series, high. Stories range from nouveau-Cthulhu by way of hardboiled Jim Thompson (Norman Partidge's "Lesser Demons") to the surreal ("Featherweight"), from zombies (three stories) through Lovecraftian ghouls ("City of the Dog") to unwanted, menacing fruits and vegetables ("The Lemon in the Pool"). Ramsey Campbell supplies a story about old family grievances and wounds that may or may not involve the supernatural. Caitlin Kiernan and Albert E. Cowdrey give us fine examples of closely observed historical horror -- or maybe historical-research horror would be a better moniker, as the protagonists dig deeply, too deeply, into the undead past.

Angela Slatter delivers a story that reminds me favourably of some of Tanith Lee's best work. Scott Edelman and Karina Sumner-Smith both deliver elegaic farewells to, well, zombies; Joe Lansdale gives us zombies and Christmas; Mark Samuels delivers a disturbing tale focused upon a character based on deceased horror writing and editing great Karl Edward Wagner. All in all, another good year.

Horns: A Novel
Horns: A Novel
by Joe Hill
Edition: Hardcover
39 used & new from CDN$ 0.84

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Horns of a Dilemma, Feb. 11 2012
This review is from: Horns: A Novel (Hardcover)
Ignatius "Ig" Perrish wakes up from an alcohol-fueled black-out to discover that horns have sprouted on his head overnight. A year earlier, somebody murdered his longtime girlfriend Merrin, a murder most people believe that Ig committed. So begins Horns, the second novel by Joe Hill (after Heart-Shaped Box).

Ig's horns give him some (mostly) useful powers. People will tell him pretty much anything bad they've ever done, without prompting, and not remember doing so (or seeing Ig, for that matter) afterwards. And when he touches people, he can see every bad thing they've ever done in exhaustive detail. When you're investigating a murder, powers like these seem almost heaven-sent.

Merrin had suddenly broken up with Ig the night of the murder, which was also the night before Ig was set to fly to London, England to work for Amnesty International for six months. She said they should see other people, as they'd been dating steadily for ten years -- since Ig was 15 and Merrin 14.

After an argument in a roadhouse, Ig stormed out, leaving Merrin to find her own way home. And soon thereafter she was dead. There wasn't enough evidence to link Ig to the crime, but pretty much everyone in Ig's small New England town "knows" he did it and got away with it. Everyone except Ig and the murderer.

The early stages of Horns see Hill working in the somewhat familiar territory of Thomas Disch's Minnesota Quartet, four vaguely linked, blackly humourous and satiric supernatural novels from the 1980's and 1990's. Ig's early adventures with his horns lead to terrible revelations set within a storyline dotted with social and political satire directed at the Right and, more generally, the seemingly 'good' pillars of any community. Everyone has secrets: pathetic secrets, awful secrets, blackly comic secrets.

However, Hill is a much softer touch than Disch, and the novel moves into more humanistic territory even as the supernatural grows in importance. Lengthy flashbacks gradually fill us in on what really happened, while all the time Ig's powers -- and resemblance to a traditional Christian devil -- grow. It's an enjoyable ride, chock full of pop culture references and allusions, and possessed of a truly awful, pathetic antagonist. The action gets a bit repetitive towards the end, but it's nonetheless a solid read and a pretty impressive second novel.

My Work is Not Yet Done
My Work is Not Yet Done
by Thomas Ligotti
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 21.71
35 used & new from CDN$ 3.63

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bad Work, Feb. 5 2012
My Work Is Not Yet Done: Three Tales of Corporate Horror by Thomas Ligotti containing "My Work Is Not Yet Done", "I Have a Special Plan for the World", and "The Nightmare Network" (2007): Frank Dominio is a team supervisor at a corporation called New Product. On his own initiative, he comes up with, well, a new product, and briefly presents his idea to his fellow supervisors and their boss, Richard (nicknamed "The Doctor" for initially unknown-to-Frank reasons).

And here Frank's troubles begin in the lengthy titular novella.

Thomas Ligotti gets to be described as a unique voice in horror because he really is a unique voice in horror. He can be approximated by imagining some bizarre mash-up of two or three or four other writers (for the record, I'd go with Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Clark Ashton Smith, and Roald Dahl) , but there's no single writer who's truly like him. He's an American original, writer of some of the bleakest, bleakly funniest horror stories of the past thirty years.

His take on corporate horror is singular and tricky. The novella initially seems to exist in the realm of the workplace revenge fantasy, something we've all seen. But the means of Frank's revenge are extraordinarily odd, and become odder as that revenge progresses. This is not Office Space With Ghosts.

People who've read other Ligotti stories may realize around the halfway mark that "My Work Is Not Yet Done" takes place in the same bleak universe as 1999's "The Shadow, The Darkness." One doesn't need to know this to understand what's going on, but it does deepen the experience as we plunge into the Magical Nihilism that is Ligotti's dominant mode of discourse.

But the novella is also horribly funny, as are the two short stories that complete this triptych. Frank Dominio begins the novella with a bleak outlook on humanity in general and his co-workers in particular, and the events of the story show that bleakness to not be enough. The world is much worse than Dominio ever imagined. The revenge scenarios initially carry a certain grotesque zing, but they quickly lose their enjoyability for Frank as he realizes who and what he's up against -- or working for.

Ligotti's fiction can truly unnerve one (as S.T. Joshi has observed), leading one to question the parameters of one's own existence, and the meaning of existence itself. But it's strangely, blackly refreshing because if one rejects the nihilistic cosmos of many of Ligotti's stories, one finds one's own cosmos to be that much more welcoming and benign by comparison.

Sgt. Rock Archives, The - VOL 02
Sgt. Rock Archives, The - VOL 02
by Robert Kanigher
Edition: Hardcover
12 used & new from CDN$ 58.50

4.0 out of 5 stars Rock the War, Feb. 5 2012
Sgt. Rock Archives Volume 2; written by Robert Kanigher and Bob Haney; illustrated by Joe Kubert, Russ Heath, Irv Novick and Jerry Grandinetti (1960-61; collected 2003): Second volume of the adventures of DC's Sgt. Rock and Easy Company in various WWII theatres of war sees Joe Kubert become Rock's primary artist and Robert Kanigher the primary writer.

War stories meant for children and early teens portray war as violent but bloodless, though Kubert's evocative, gritty art nonetheless makes war look pretty hellish. Sgt. Rock's adventures always tended to have a fabulistic quality, in part because like superheroes, Easy Company had far more adventures than could reasonably be accounted for in the chronology of the 'real' world. Instead, the reader gets bracing fables about courage, teamwork, and heroic death.

All of this is narrated by Rock, who sprinkles lessons-learned throughout that narration, explaining why and how he does certain things. Kubert's art is really the star here (ably replaced by Irv Novick, Jerry Grandinetti, and Russ Heath in a few issues).

Kubert was already the comic-book master of suggestion by the time the early 1960's rolled around, the art stripped down to lines and spot blacks, nothing fussy, nothing busy. The faces of the soldiers are distinct, unique, and careworn in places. The backgrounds are detailed when they need to be and suggestive when they don't. The machinery of war looks, for the most part, realistic without drawing attention to itself with too much wanky detail. The overall effect is smooth and memorable, almost soothing -- a textbook example of a comic book meant for children that could be enjoyed by adults, something we see almost nothing of today.

Spider [Import]
Spider [Import]
DVD ~ Ralph Fiennes
Offered by 5A/30 Entertainment
Price: CDN$ 49.78
13 used & new from CDN$ 12.81

5.0 out of 5 stars No Exit, Feb. 3 2012
This review is from: Spider [Import] (DVD)
Written by Patrick McGrath, based on the novel of the same name by Patrick McGrath; directed by David Cronenberg; starring Ralph Fiennes ("Spider" Cleg), Miranda Richardson (Mrs. Cleg/Yvonne/Mrs. Wilkinson), Gabriel Byrne (Bill Cleg), Lynn Redgrave (Mrs. Wilkinson) and John Neville (Terrence) (2002): David Cronenberg, bless his soul, likes to go places other filmmakers don't, won't, or can't. In the case of Spider, he heads back into the territory of Dead Ringers, giving us a horror story in which there is no catharsis, no growth, and no hope. It's an astonishingly bleak film.

Ralph Fiennes, complete with hair that was apparently an homage to Samuel Beckett (the playwright, not the Quantum Leaper), plays the titular schizophrenic without the bells and whistles someone like, say, Robert DeNiro might have demanded. There's no showiness, no look-at-me-acting scene of yelling or imploring the audience for empathy. Spider is almost completely mute, and when he does talk, he mumbles incoherently.

Spider's been released from a mental asylum into a halfway house when the movie begins, in a rundown, vaguely 1980's-looking urban England. His nickname comes from a tendency he's had since childhood to weave elaborate webs out of string and pieces of rope. He's a pattern maker. But he's also schizophrenic. The patterns he makes, the viewer needs to remember, may look sound, but they're inherently flawed.

The movie takes us through Spider's reminscences of his childhood, of what seems to be an ogre-ish and unfaithful father and a saint of a mother. How reliable are Spider's memories? Therein lies the mystery of the movie, inevitable as death. This isn't a movie to enjoy in a normal way -- it's horrifying, and there's no attempt to make Spider warm and cuddly, a Hollywood madman. He's very sick. And schizophrenia doesn't spring from some easily understandable childhood trauma: it's a disease, a cancer of the mind.

I was exhausted by the end of the movie, and that was from watching it in 20-minute increments over several days. But it was a good exhaustedness. But this isn't Rain Man or A Beautiful Mind. There are no easy life lessons here, no Nobel Prize, no well-meaning brother who learns valuable things from someone with cognitive difficulties, though there are, even for Spider, flashes of clarity amidst the crushing horror. And the clarity just makes the horror worse.

The Best Horror of the Year Volume 2
The Best Horror of the Year Volume 2
by Ellen Datlow
Edition: Paperback
26 used & new from CDN$ 12.81

3.0 out of 5 stars Getting Better, Feb. 3 2012

*Lowland Sea by Suzy McKee Charnas
The End of Everything by Steve Eller
Mrs Midnight by Reggie Oliver
*each thing i show you is a piece of my death by Gemma Files and Stephen J. Barringer
*The Nimble Men by Glen Hirshberg
*What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night by Michael Marshall Smith
Wendigo by Micaela Morrissette
*In the Porches of My Ears by Norman Prentiss
Lonegan's Luck by Stephen Graham Jones
*The Crevasse by Nathan Ballingrud and Dale Bailey
The Lion's Den by Steve Duffy
Lotophagi by Edward Morris
The Gaze Dogs of Nine Waterfall by Kaaron Warren
Dead Loss by Carole Johnstone
*Strappado by Laird Barron
*The Lammas Worm by Nina Allan
*Technicolor by John Langan

Big, big improvement on the first volume of this series, with more excellent stories and fewer boring ones. I've starred the high points, which run the gamut from near-future apocalypse ("Lowland Sea" by Suzy McKee Charnas) through a bad night at the movies ("In the Porches of My Ears" by Norman Prentiss) to, well, a bad night ("What Happens When You Wake Up in the Night" by Michael Marshall Smith). The Toronto-set Gemma Files/Stephen J. Barringer story does a lovely job of combining both the structure and the content of new media with one of the oldest structures for a horror story (the epistolary format), while John Langan's story presents us with a mountingly dread-filled college classroom lecture on Poe. Recommended.

Batman: Unseen
Batman: Unseen
by Doug Moench
Edition: Paperback
14 used & new from CDN$ 18.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Invisible = Invincible, Feb. 3 2012
This review is from: Batman: Unseen (Paperback)
Written by Doug Moench; illustrated by Kelley Jones: Throwback to Moench's 1990's and 1980's work on Batman, some of it with Jones as illustrator. Batman, plagued by doubts about the efficacy of his Batman persona when it comes to frightening an increasingly unfrightened criminal lot, faces an invisible enemy -- a scientist driven crazy by his invisibility serum.

1980's Moench creation Black Mask, one of Gotham's criminal kingpins, plays a supporting villainous role. Jones's art is as interesting and grotesque as it's ever been, and Moench's Batman is a lot more human than most recent incarnations. The invisible villain isn't all that interesting, and Batman seems to have way more trouble fighting him than one would expect. Not a high point for either creator, but certainly diverting. Lightly recommended.

The Imago Sequence and Other Stories
The Imago Sequence and Other Stories
by Laird Barron
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 18.97
30 used & new from CDN$ 11.83

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Men Under Pressure, Jan. 27 2012
Either The Imago Sequence and Other Stories or something I ate gave me a screaming-to-awake nightmare, so that's a recommendation. I even fell out of bed. If I were blurbing this, I'd write "The Imago Sequence and Other Stories made me fall out of bed with horror!!!"

Barron collides at least two things -- the wounded, jaded, unheroic, macho American tough guy from Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy with a Lovecraftian secret history -- that haven't been collided much before to my knowledge.

There's a certain sameness in the overall conception of several of the stories (first-person-narrating tough guy encounters horribly, horrifyingly awry cosmos, gets stripped of his manhood by cackling representative of chaos), but the imagery and the characterization really carry the day. Also, there's a lot of violence towards men. It's like he's trying to balance the scales. Cracks appear in reality. Cracks appear in traditional constructions of masculinity.

It's hard to summarize any of the stories without giving away the surprising horrors that await. Several appear to occur in pretty much the same universe, one that's Lovecraftian without explicitly name-checking Lovecraft's alien pantheon. Much of the action occurs in Washington State and other West Coast areas (Alaska and Northern California both figure), where real-world oddities (the Mima mounds) jostle up against assorted incursions into everyday reality by some truly awful things. Barron's characters are generally doomed, beset by forces that can't be stopped, incapable of action until it's far too late.

One thing done well here is making characters sympathetic whose backgrounds are anything but (a ruthless real-estate tycoon, a leg-breaker, an aging CIA operative, a right bastard of a Pinkerton detective) -- thus, the stories don't reduce down to EC-style revenge horror, in which the supernatural takes vengeance where the natural has failed. And yet that's the basic concept that Barron uses in some of these stories. But what's coming is so awful that no man deserves it. Or maybe he does. I'll be damned if I know. Tough and poetic and occasionally very funny, Barron really is already one of horror's brightest talents. Highly recommended.

Second reading and review (November 2013):

The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron (Collected 2007) containing the following stories: Old Virginia (2003); Shiva, Open Your Eye (2001); Procession of the Black Sloth (2007); Bulldozer (2004); Proboscis (2005); Hallucigenia (2006); Parallax (2005); The Royal Zoo is Closed (2006); and The Imago Sequence (2005): Barron's fictional cosmos, in which most and possibly all of these early stories take place, exudes dread. Barron himself is a marvelous writer who seemed to arrive fully formed in 2000, as good or better than all of his contemporaries, and then proceeded to get better over the following decade.

As with H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, Barron's fictional cosmos deploys many of the trappings of supernatural fiction in service to what is really science-fictional horror. What seems to be supernatural is really the result of beings and sciences too far beyond humanity to be fully fathomed by Barron's protagonists. None of the seemingly supernatural beings we encounter is remotely benign.

Humanity isn't so much cattle to many of these beings, per Charles Fort's classic construction, as it is game. Modern, 21st-century game animals, hopelessly doomed by the firepower of the modern hunter, still striving to escape while terrible things laugh at their impotency in the face of torture, death, dismemberment, or worst of all, transformation at the hands and tentacles and proboscises of their tormenters.

What helps set Barron apart from the majority of those who have followed in Lovecraft's squamous, gambrel, rugose footsteps is the nature of many of his protagonists. Most tend to be the hardest of hard-cases: professional killers, enforcers, former soldiers, Pinkerton men. When they come face to face with the ravenous, cloachal, aggressively sadistic god-monsters that populate the dark place of the Earth, they find themselves punching way, way above their weight class. But by God, many of them keep punching. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.

Barron's keen eye for both psychological and physical description is a joy to behold, regardless of the awfulness of what it is he's beholding. Even the worst protagonists seem benign compared to what they're facing.

There's a real sense of pathos in "Hallucigenia," to cite one example, in which a millionaire real-estate developer whose business practices are mostly loathesome but legal -- he specializes in displacing the poor in places such as Viet Nam so as to build factories -- comes up against...something. Something in an abandoned barn in the Pacific Northwest, where many of Barron's stories are set. Is he being punished? Well, no, I don't think so: Barron's universe, like Hemingway's, doesn't discriminate morally in terms of who it kills. Or eats. Or tortures. Or transforms.

There are awful wonders here, and marvelous images, and a measured approach to the accumulation of psychological detail. There are oddities I can't recall reading in any other horror writers. And there's a tremendous amount of re-readability, both to catch all the things you missed the first time, and to make the connections among the stories collected here and elsewhere. The stories can all stand alone, but the various intersections of characters, names, and locations often add extra levels of dread and delight. Highly recommended.

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