Feeling a bit nostalgic for the end of summer, I find myself full of strangely clear memories tonight. Call it the end of summer, the only end of summer 2017 there will ever be. My kids are of a certain age, coming up on the end of childhood and the beginning of teen years (well for the older one, at least). I tend to be precise in my measurements of time. I call the last day of summer August 31st for those in the northeast and I call the last day of childhood the day before you turn thirteen. So I find myself reflecting on how it’s been the best of the times, worst of times, the year my collection was published, and the year I am realizing how much things have changed in the last decade (cue Led Zeppelin’s “Ten Years Gone”). One of the items welling up in the waning of summer is reflection on the passing of one of my favorite novelists, a writer who I consider one of the finest novelists America has ever produced—Tom Piccirilli. Though he passed away in the summer of 2015, his works endure. I had hoped that he would reach a popularity level similar to George R. R. Martin and J. K. Rowling someday so that I might see some of his works become movies or a television series. I was particularly fond of works where he combined horror and crime-noir (though he eventually appeared to focus more on straight-ahead crime noir in his later works), and can’t say enough what an inspiration his writing has been to me. I once wrote a review of his work which he kindly responded to. The review is pasted below. I never expect an author to respond to a book review. In truth, book reviewing is an obscure art. It makes my day when a reader says they found a review I wrote helpful. This happens fairly often. It’s just an amazing feeling when an author responds. I don’t think this is something that really should be expected or happen often. Authors are few and readers are many and I am, in fact, fond of some traditional structures when it comes to art. I guess I’d compare it to getting a buy-back at a bar—fantastic when you’re poured a free beer, but you never ask. I did not know Tom Piccirilli personally, but from folks I’ve met at conventions who knew him, I’ve gathered he was a generous personality. His note was not long, but he had good things to say about the below review. And so, let’s remember this amazing author and his work tonight. I hope my words from way back in 2009 concerning his writing and his books below will be enjoyed and maybe offer some insight into why I continue to consider him to be one of our finest. Continue reading
Spoiler warning—this review discusses themes from the novel and TV show American Gods in a manner best enjoyed by those who’ve already read the book and/or seen the series.
I first read Neil Gaiman sometime in the early aughts, I think it might have been 2002. The novel was titled Neverwhere, and I didn’t know it had been a TV series. I had just picked it up as a random fantasy novel as I often did back then and started reading away. I found it so-so—I couldn’t relate at all to the main character, but sort of liked the villains, and was pleasantly surprised at not being able to guess the traitor. So it was all right.
I was travelling on a Greyhound bus, coming down from Maine to New York City, and having run out of reading material, decided I might as well try to take in the chapter stuffed in the back that came from another of his novels, something called American Gods. I read about Shadow, a man about to be released from prison and full of all the excitement and apprehension that goes with it. I, too, felt like I was about to embark on a journey into the unknown. Along with that feeling I also noticed that the prose itself in this novel had a grittier texture, like those styles called ‘realism’ and ‘surrealism’ had been mixed together. I decided I was going to give this author another try, and picked up a copy of American Gods when I arrived in New York.
On one level, we can describe this novel’s story arc in very simple terms. A mysterious con-man hires an ex-convict to travel the United States to help him in his quest to become the king of all the con-artists… But no, says a reader, it’s that they are gods, Mr. Wednesday is Odin, Mr. Nancy is Anansi. Yes, they are gods, but they are gods involved in, for better or for worse, type of popularity contest which feeds their very existence. And so I place emphasis first on the themes of cons and games of deception because the story’s arc (as well as America’s) can be said to be about travelling and the necessarily tricks required to survive on the road.
As the story unfolds, it slips into a kind of Kerouac’s-On-The-Road-meets-grown-up-Wizard-of-Oz feel. Shadow’s and Mr. Wednesday’s travels meander, and in this way, the narrative does not overtly move in the five-act script style from inciting incident to climax. The two characters move from state to state, pulling small swindles and meeting a smorgasbord of gods new and old. They are pursued by characters like Technology Boy and shadowy government power-hounds known as the Black Hats. All the while, much of the tension focuses on Shadow’s relationship with Wednesday, his reluctant admiration for him and curiosity about his identity. At the same time, he deals with the still lit flame for his deceased and adulterous wife, Laura. Due to a misplaced gift of a magic coin from Shadow himself, Laura returns from the dead to both haunt and help Shadow on his quest, and becomes a kind of parallel companion who contrasts Wednesday in her ironic sort of loyalty and visceral love.
With these elements in place, the story builds into an increased yet steady rhythm that lasts for much of the middle part of the narrative. Gaiman weaves anecdotes about Celtic and African gods and embeds them like short stories contained within the broader arc. They appear as colorful distractions, but also serve to build the understanding of how gods, when worshipped sincerely and by many, grow in power. This dynamic is improved when a given god’s attributes are part of the worshipping—a war god thrives on slaying, a love god on erotic acts, a storm god on lightning.
In allowing for this meandering path to build the narrative’s tension, Gaiman takes great risk. Particularly in our time, when the instant is everything, when we are ostensibly supposed to seize audiences before they know they’ve been seized, this kind of spiral-web might come across as possibly swollen. The story’s strands appear to strain under America’s vastness, its specific and exceptional place in time and geography of the history of the world’s cultures (Gaiman himself addresses the difficulty of seeing this vastness all at once in his essay How Dare You? wherein he touches on how to write about topics of such a size). It would seem on a certain level that the narrative’s spiral-path helps handle the apparent paradoxes of American diversity and unity. Such is reflected by the presence of very distinct gods who share common needs. The relativity of time and place, size and significance, moves to center stage, and we begin to glimpse how gods from the old world can take on new attributes, how the large can become small, and vice-versa.
I’ll digress into my own experience, by way of example. I am originally a New Englander, born in Connecticut, whisked to Maine before I was one-year-old, where I then lived until I was 25. Although I’ve been to both Europe and Asia, I have also travelled around a lot just within New England. What? Isn’t that an absurd concept, “travelling around” within that tiny place called New England? But yes, that’s what I mean—I’ve paddled through spartan New Hampshire with its bills-paid-on-time farmsteads and rivers clean as the barrels of well-oiled rifles. I’ve hitchhiked through Vermont where they distill music like moonshine, even if the bills might not get paid on time (whether the cash is kept under a mattress or in several money-market accounts). I’ve rolled along the coast of Maine countless days and nights, where icy horrors-that-must-not-be-named well up from the ocean and can be packed and sold for $21.99 a pound (some in flash frozen filets, others in paperback, hardcover, and e-book). I’ve sped down the highways of Massachusetts, where ale’s an art-form and disrespect for the Sox might still get you hung as a witch. I’ve bussed through Rhode Island where a talent for poetry is almost as good as a talent for tattoos, and of course, I’ve attended grad school in Connecticut, where you can’t buy beer at gas stations and besides, it’s after ten o’clock. New England has its own vastness, its states able to birth their gods, along with the accompanying distinctions and similarities.
But even with this relative nature of culture being recognized, underneath, American Gods knows well America’s very specific position in its history, one that is both idyllic and horrific. If we think the meandering trip is mere sight-seeing, if we find the weaving of the web dazzling but empty, we are watching only the hand that is offering us the feint. Because the story’s other hand has been reaching straight for the jugular…
About halfway through the story, Shadow reaches Lakeside, a quiet town in northern Wisconsin. He meets some friendly locals such as old-timer Hinzelmann and police officer Chad Mulligan who invite him to enjoy the small town life. The town, its pub, its peaceful library, all of its charms function as a kind of ‘eye’ in the novel’s storm. The physical distance these Wisconsin scenes have from where the cons and conflicts take place mirrors the narrative distance this ‘eye’ ostensibly has from the coming plot climax.
We must be careful here, lest we lose sight of the web through the strands. We discover the novel’s true ruse when there is no turning back, that America is a beautiful, but dangerous place. We can see its forest and mountains, taste its food and witness its roadside attractions. But we should keep an awareness of its distinct personality and power, and, among the conflicts of its gods vying for attention and survival, the inevitable blood that will be drawn. The blood will often run where you least expect it—aw look at that clown, he’s so funny, and he’s great with kids! Mr. Gacy, can I get your number? My friend’s got a four-year-old with a birthday coming up… …dude, check out McVeigh’s car, hilarious, dude, a beat-up old Marquis. Have fun on your road trip, man…
So we see how America’s web feeds very real spiders, and how American Gods is a novel which can be quite accurately placed in the horror genre. It does not deny America its paradoxes or sugarcoat its history, but does offer insights into how gods and the futures they occupy can be re-sculpted again and again.
It is in this spirit of re-sculpting and reinventing that Shadow thwarts the disguised horrors with his own version of a disguised strength. When it becomes clear that the battle of the gods is a trick, a con put in motion by Odin and Loki to make a blood sacrifice of gods for gods, Shadow gains respect not through overt battle but by making his own very specific sort of blood sacrifice to Odin (i.e., by offering himself). And when we learn that Lakeside has been sacrificing children to Hinzelmann the kobold all along, that small town America sups handsomely on blood, Shadow does not confront the devourer alone, but together with the town native Chad Mulligan. We see in Shadow a unique ability to handle oversight and deception, an original way to confront masks and disguises. For we learn through him that the antonym of strength is not gentleness, and that patience is not a synonym for weak. He shows instead that, when confronting the many faces of the monstrous, if you weave a mask of your own, you have some say in how the eyes see.
TODAY IS THE DAY: SLASH OF CRIMSON AND OTHER TALES AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK AND E-BOOK! Thank you to everyone who has shown interest in this book. I think the most exciting thing about publishing this collection is the amazing people who I have worked with, the editors, publishers, artists, and fellow writers who have gotten involved and invested their time and believed in it. In truth, I think we’ve put together a really fun read—if you’re engaged in summer travels, or looking for something new to read or replace the TV for a change, I invite you to try these stories out. The title piece makes a great beach-read as it’s set in a city by the sea. The second novella, the all new TORN FROM THE DEVIL’S CHEST, is my first story that takes place in upstate New York and would be excellent for adding a dash of thrill and creepiness to a camping trip. Together with the six short stories, the collection is a full 80,000 words, and is set in the CRIMES OF HEAVEN AND HELL world, a setting in which I hope to be publishing more works in the future.
I want to offer particular thanks once more my editor Margie Colton, as her work on the text itself has really helped the stories come alive and distill the style to what it’s truly meant to be. There are many other folks to whom I owe gratitude and whose names are listed in the acknowledgements, but most of all I thank readers who pick up a copy and enjoy the stories themselves. Like any craftsperson, the true spark and satisfaction lies in that first taste of the product and the pleasure it imbues.
The link to the Amazon page is below. For those of you who like to crack the spine of a fresh paperback and take in the printed page, the collection is available in trade paperback. For those with e-readers, the Kindle version is also now available for immediate download.
Thanks again to all who have taken an interest—and for those who do pick up a copy, enjoy the wild ride! –Carl R. Moore
Click linked images below to purchase:
In follow up to my post on the SLASH OF CRIMSON AND OTHER TALES cover, I wanted to respond more specifically to those who asked when the book will be on sale, and in what form. I also wanted to give a little background on the content of this new release.
First, for those of you with Kindles and Kindle apps, the collection can currently be pre-ordered on Amazon by clicking the link attached to this post:
Pre-orders are extra-appreciated because they will all register the first day the book is officially available, July 21st, so the more there are that day, the more exposure the book’s launch will receive. July 21st is also when paperback editions will be available for online order. I do not yet have details on bookstore distribution, but will certainly follow up again when I do. For those who were aware of an earlier published incarnation of the title novella, I would like to add that the version within this collection is an expanded version, a “director’s cut”, if you will, edited by the amazing Margaret L. Colton. I think those who give it a fresh read will enjoy the new details.
Also, there is a whole new, never before released novella, TORN FROM THE DEVIL’S CHEST, which is one of my first pieces set predominantly in upstate New York. Together with the six short stories, the collection is a full 80,000 words, enough to provide hours of beach, woods, poolside reading over the summer. All the stories are set in the CRIMES OF HEAVEN AND HELL world and make a great prologue for a series I hope will have more installments, including full-length novels, following soon. A heartfelt thanks to all who have taken an interest, and for those who pick up a copy, enjoy the wild ride! –Carl R. Moore
Great news for the release of Slash of Crimson and Other Tales with Seventh Star Press—the time has come to offer a sneak peek at the cover! Rendered by the skilled and insightful Aaron Drown Design, it’s a great honor to see the project come alive with an image that is haunting yet energized, a perfect fit for the mood of the stories. How can you go wrong with a claw-marked S.G.? Also check out the back-cover copy, where we get a few hints about the title story, as well as the six never released short stories and brand new novella, Torn from the Devil’s Chest. The collection will be available for purchase in July, so get ready for some intensely fun summer reading! Thanks!
Please enjoy this review of The Complex, by Brian Keene. It is part of my Is That an Old Book? review series. There are a few spoilers, so if you’re like me and prefer to read reviews after reading the book, please be advised.
There are moments when we want to give disclaimers about expectations, when we want to say, “you may assume, it’s like this, but really it’s like this.” We hear lines like, “Oh, sure he’s a heavyweight champion who smashed a guy’s skull to splinters, but really he’s a teddy bear, no really…” I’ve heard Stephen King’s writing described this way when folks say things like, “Did you know he wrote The Shawshank Redemption and Stand by Me? It’s not all about blood and gore.”
To be fair, it shouldn’t be—most virtuosic artists possess depth and range. For example, besides A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin has also written the children’s book The Ice Dragon. Old school black metal vocalist Gaahl of Gorgoroth is also a vocalist for Wardruna, a group that plays traditional Scandinavian music. High quality artists tend to branch out. Brian Keene is no exception. Besides his seminal horror work The Rising, Keene has written stories with a wide variety of themes, along with non-fiction and essays. Many of his short stories that are dubbed ‘horror’ could arguably be considered thrillers (I’m thinking of I Sing a New Psalm from the Dark Faith anthology) or even magic realism (I’m thinking of The Last Things To Go, co-written with Mary San Giovanni, from anthology The Library of the Dead).
Here we are discussing his recent novella The Complex (Deadite Press, 2016), a visceral tale that combines brutal murder with social irony. It’s a novella that lets loose with heavy doses of flesh, blood, and the pure Cro-Magnon beauty of crude weapons, while at the same time offering subtly complex symbols and a touch of tasteful social commentary.
The story kicks-off by introducing an eclectic mix of residents living in a somewhat run-down, pre-fab apartment complex. When an attack of naked homicidal lunatics ensues, these neighbors must band together to thwart the onslaught. Among them are a writer teetering on the brink of suicide, an aged Vietnam vet wrestling demons of his past, a widowed cat lady mournful for her husband yet handy with his revolver, a young man who is becoming a young woman, a single mom and son, a pair of slightly dorky yet fairly skilled and ruthless young thugs, and a serial killer who may or may not be a hero.
As ever with Keene’s fast-paced horror novels, the reader can enjoy his dexterity in character development intertwined with the violent action. I’ve always considered this dynamic to be one of his most effective stylistic traits. Somehow he can believably weave a character’s history—such as memories of time suppressing a riot, or moments grieving for a relationship—into scenes where crazies are scratching through walls and reaching for their victims’ throats. While all quality novelists put this technique to use to some degree, I would say few can evoke as much depth in such a short narrative. Keene neither slows the pace down with info-dumping, nor does he make the prose sound hurried by using phrasing that is too condensed.
The story’s arc proceeds to detail what amounts to a running firefight (indeed, what a good number of these neighbors do have in common is pistol ownership). The leader of the lunatics is a gigantic naked fat man with a Hello Kitty tattoo on his torso dubbed “Tick-Tock” because of the way his skull snaps back and forth on his neck. The character recalls Urban Gothic’s Noigel in his sheer size and mercilessness.
I encourage anyone who feels like they need a break from slow-tempo stories and miss hard-rocking horror to pick up The Complex and enjoy the ride. For though I am touting its speed and its violence, let it not be said that Keene achieves this by sacrificing subtlety. Rather, the story uses symbolism to great effect. The well-woven interplay of violence and vulnerability, of weaponry and nakedness, serves to create an tension that crescendos in how a group of very disparate individuals attempt to overcome their differences and work together. In its tightly rendered conclusion, the physical imagery mirrors the climactic action in a manner that offers an ironic statement about mob mentalities and what it really means to see someone’s true identity.
The Complex also gives a unique perspective when it comes to world-building. Late Twenteith-Century critic Rosemary Jackson, in her book Fantasy, the Literature of Subversion, offered categories for fantasy stories that drew a difference between stories of the “marvellous” that take place in far-away magical lands (think Star Wars and Lord of the Rings), and the “fantastic”, where fantasy elements are stitched though realistic descriptions of everyday life (such as, to use Jackson’s example, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis). While Keene’s work certainly fits into the latter, I would say that even among such writers there are categories of difference that flavor the styles. For example, while H.P. Lovecraft’s works contain overlapping characters and mythological figures, I would place him higher on the “reveal” scale—a story like The Thing on the Doorstep reveals, by the end, what’s really going on and why, with old Ephraim Waite’s motive of immortality lying at the root. In The Complex, as well as other works such as the aforementioned Urban Gothic, Keene steps back from this level of “reveal”—the motives remain blurrier, with hints and speculation adding to the tension. I would say this kind of world building is like the difference between an overtly sweet liquor like Jack Fire with its cinnamon assault, and a whiskey like Knob Creek, that has subtle, maple notes in its finish. While it is true that a work like The Rising does have what I would call a higher “reveal” factor when it comes to the origins of the zombies, overall I would say that works like The Complex, with plentiful action offset by symbolic subtlety and a delicate use of the “reveal”, can keep Keene’s work exciting and insightful for what I hope are many great books to come.
Carl R. Moore is the author of Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, forthcoming in July, 2017, with Seventh Star Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.
I’ve always been a writer who emphasizes that it is a mix of experience and imagination that makes a good story. One the one hand, Herman Melville shows us what experience as a sailor can do for making a whale story realistic. One the other, George R.R. Martin, having never been in a real sword-fight in his life (I assume), writes amazing and exciting longsword duels out of shear passion for the subject. I think both types of inspiration play an important role in informing the creation of horror stories. My collection Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, being published by Seventh Star press in the summer of 2017 employs this mixed sort of inspiration. And yet, while most of the stories possess both elements, one of the stories, The Red Path, draws heavily on an image witnessed in real-life at my father’s cabin in the north Maine woods. The picture here, taken on the shores of Junior Lake, shows a pair of rather striking water spiders engaged in a duel to the death. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, nature ain’t always cuddly. In fact, just before this picture was taken, a snake living in the nearby rocks poked his head out hoping for a meal, only to find the dominant spider pause the combat long enough to square off like, “You talkin’ to me?” The snake decided to find its meal elsewhere, and the dominant spider finished off its fellow and made what appeared to be a liquid meal of its carcass. Such wrath left an impression on the cameraman, and when writing The Red Path, ended up being an inspiration. Here’s to hoping the story’s as thrilling to read when the book comes out as it was to write.