Review of Sarah Pinborough’s FEEDING GROUND

Here is the latest in my All New Books review series. For more on what the reviews are about, how I choose the books, find the link to the original post here. So far this fall the blog’s been mostly book reviews and I plan on doing more. I’ll also be getting some interviews in and will be writing some posts on the Crimes of Heaven and Hell series as well as the book that will follow Slash of Crimson. For now, I hope you enjoy this review of Sarah Pinborough’s Feeding Ground:

Back when my wife Sarah and I lived in Brooklyn, we often met at a saki bar in Williamsburg on Friday nights after work. The place served a kind of pan-asian tapas, squid dumplings and the like, along with carafes of dry saki, ice inside bubbled glass so it didn’t dilute. But it wasn’t these attributes that brought it into a book review of a horror novel. Rather, it was the monster movies playing perpetually on its TV screens.

Instead of the football game or the latest reality show, this place gave you complimentary Godzilla, Rodan, King-Kong. They also played more obscure films, stuff I didn’t recognize at all involving giant lobster men and phantoms on futuristic motorcycles.

Most of the time we chalked these films up to kitsch and camp and swallowed our saki and laughed at the rubber lobster claws.

Occasionally, though, they played something with a more serious tone. Here was the first place I encountered sci-fi noir film 2046, the story of a lovelorn gambler caught in a web of time travel in a vast urban dystopia. This film was utterly kitsch-less. And while it did have action scenes, love scenes and the like, it took its time when necessary with elaborate portraiture and the allowance of the environment to reflect the emotions of the characters.

It is this sort of mood I felt when I began reading Sarah Pinborough’s Breeding Ground. When I first picked it up, I could see that it was the second in a series and the first wasn’t on the shelf. But something about the first chapter led me in and implied that I didn’t need to have read the first installment to get the story.

Thus I descended into a post-apocalyptic London drenched in warm rain and crawling with spider-like creatures that feast voraciously on human flesh and blood. At the opening of the book nearly all of the world’s women have been killed in the process of being used as vessels to give birth to these monsters. But in Pinborough’s flooded, blurry apocalypse, nothing can be quite so clear as ‘killed’ or ‘survived’, as the creatures seem to carry some of the memories of their victims with them.

The story follows several sets of characters, students from an inner city school, students from a private academy, and a group of cocaine dealing gangsters, as they try to deal with this fang-encrusted catastrophe. Most all of the narrative is solemn and shadowy in its tone, and the instances of humor entertainingly grim. If you like to laugh at slapstick zombies throwing limbs at each other, this is nothing like that. It is about constant threat, darkness and the minds of the characters as they try to deal with these circumstances.

A few of the characters come close in their own way to being heroic—Charlie Nash and Blane Gentle-King, the two notorious gangsters both in their own way transform and transcend their circumstances. But ultimately this is a world where darkness is waging a war of attrition to which even the strongest and smartest remnants of humanity will have to in some way succumb.

Back in our Brooklyn days, it was this sort of grim portraiture which occasionally changed the flavor of our weekend saki treats when a serious movie came along. I remember walking home some nights after a J-horror flick or the aforementioned 2046 and taking extra note of the boarded up windows on the crumbling brick buildings as we made our way east. The number of such buildings along adjacent empty lots increased as we came closer to the border of Bushwick and Bed-Stuy where we lived in a once abandoned and minimally restored mattress factory. It is this kind of beauty of decay and of the tragic, along with the triumph of that which is alien, that makes Feeding Ground a gem of a horror novel for those with the palate for it. Indeed, I feel like it’s a tone the genre could use more of these days, for survival is so much more precious when the obstacles are so severe.

Review of Tom Piccirilli’s The Last Kind Words

Greatings everyone–it’s great to be breathing life back into the blog. I’m not sure what happened–it seems the end of the summer got away from me, or I got away from it, or everything in my world got away from everything else. Well, part of it is that I’m working hard on the book that will follow Slash of Crimson. For now, however, I’m happy to be back on the website again, and what better way to kick things off than with a review of the latest novel from perhaps the best dark fiction author writing today. Without further ado, find below a review of Tom Piccirilli’s The Last Kind Words:

Tom Piccirilli is a writer who understands the angles of crime noir. I don’t just mean innovation, an original spin on crime families or bank heists. I mean the shapes of deception, the math behind the form, the way acts like theft and murder can be traced back to emotions and motives that can’t be understood from the outside. He knows that if you want to know why there’s smoke, you have to look under the hood.

I’ve been a fan of Piccirilli’s work for a long time. I wrote a review of The Coldest Mile some years ago and posted it on Amazon (link here). In it I gave a little history of what I saw as his journey from supernatural horror mixed with crime noir to the straight up crime thriller. I won’t repeat that history here, but only say that, from the angle of a horror writer, there is still much to glean from this author’s unique brand of fast-paced surreal lyricism mixed with concrete realism.

Thus, The Last Kind Words tells the story of the Rand family whose members have a near magical ability to prowl, steal and deceive. I say near magical because aside from their success at stuffing their old house with nooks and crannies full of strange loot and cash, they are haunted by vicious emotions that come inherited from generations of living outside the law.

The story begins with Terry Rand returning home to deal with his brother Collie’s execution. Collie has been on death row for years for a killing spree that left five dead. But despite his insane rampage, he hands off an unsolved crime to his brother, along with an implication as beautiful and ugly as a stolen diamond ring, that some of the murders on the spree were committed by someone else, someone who his thief brother may have the right skills to stop.

The search for the killer becomes the catalyst for Terry’s hell-like journey through his past. And here is where Piccirilli’s artistry rises—he creates a Long Island that is a world of its own—a world of mobsters, gun dealers, sly police and quaky prostitutes that make the novel’s pages glow with tension and allure. Beneath it all cruises Terry’s dark reflection, his attempts to understand what it means to be born of a family of thieves, and whether and to what degree its morality is different from the hit-men and murderers and other criminals with whom they traffic. Without spoiling how it plays in, the book’s title becomes a gloss for his revelation about this morality at the story’s climax. What it means to exchange ‘kind words’ when surrounded by cruelty and imperfect family becomes the book’s crucial insight.

It’s amazing that Piccirilli is able to pull off this kind of moral exploration without coming off as cheesy, preachy, or most importantly, dull. Instead, all characters, from Terry’s sharp-witted teenage sister to his burglar father and pair of card shark uncles, become intriguing suspects. Each also becomes a portrait of someone we can equally love to hate and love to sympathize with. If George R.R. Martin has proven a master of the panoramic cast of characters, of mixing the good with the bad, Piccirilli has shown what it means to discover the varying beauties among the bad, the worst and the not-too-terribly-awful. To be a master of crime fiction, it is not enough to just be ‘gray’ in one’s morals. It requires reinventing morality itself, and reinventing it in a way that can be understood in its own dark context. To convey this in a landscape fraught with figurative language that still keeps the pacing makes The Last Kind Words a suspense novel worth reading. Not just because the story is so easy to enjoy, but because its insights into the dark side of family are something which we all, sooner or later, will likely find of use.