Short Take: “The Sleep Tight Motel,” Lisa Unger

Pros: Vivid, melancholy, and beautiful
Rating: 5 out of 5

Lisa Unger’s novella The Sleep Tight Motel (Dark Corners collection) is hauntingly beautiful. Eve is on the run from her abusive boyfriend Erik after unwillingly helping him to rob her place of business. She pulls over at the Sleep Tight Motel, where the sweet proprietor, Drew, makes her a lovely breakfast, offers to talk, and gently encourages her to stop and rest. When she tries to run–both from the police and from Erik–her car refuses to start, and Drew’s unable to get it to run. She knows Erik isn’t far behind her, but she’s just so tired…

The other Dark Corners collection novellas I’ve been reading are mostly horror; this volume is more of a melancholy paranormal with a vein of horror running through it. It’s absolutely lovely and sad. It explores all of the different emotions that can make a certain kind of bad relationship seem so difficult to leave. It doesn’t make things simple or easy. The story of Eve and the odd little motel is vivid and clearly drawn, and I was riveted to the page. The characters have so much depth in just a small space. This is a rather short tale and I don’t want to ruin anything for you, so I’ll just say that I think this is a lovely tale that’s well worth reading.

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Ligotti’s “Autumnal”

If you have a few spare moments, read the super-short story Autumnal by Thomas Ligotti. I’ve read thousands of books, and I have a terrible memory, yet throughout the years this has remained my favorite short story. “Autumnal” is from his collection Noctuary [my review from 2001], also one of my all-time-favorite books.

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Short Take: “Hannah-Beast,” Jennifer McMahon

Pros: Enthralling
Rating: 5 out of 5

Jennifer McMahon’s novella Hannah-Beast (Dark Corners collection) tells a short, but engrossing, Halloween story. Amanda won’t let her daughter Erin go out trick-or-treating dressed as “Hannah-Beast,” the local scary legend. Decades earlier Amanda and her friends took not-entirely-bright outcast Hannah out trick-or-treating, in a tale that ends in fire and death. Amanda’s never told Erin she was involved in the events, and Erin is outraged that she has to go out as a cat yet again. Amanda stays in handing out treats and carving a pumpkin, only to receive a bit of a visitation.

This is a rather traditional scary story, and McMahon spins it beautifully. Every detail of Hannah’s fateful Halloween is constructed like a piece of artwork, paralleling Amanda’s present day fears. For such a short story the characters have a fair amount of depth, and the tale is vivid and complete. I won’t say much more, because the experience of reading it is really where the fascination lies, and of course I don’t want to ruin the ending. If you’re looking for a short horror story that’s nice and dark, Hannah-Beast will keep you satisfied.

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Review: “Band on the Run: Rock Band Fights Evil Vols. 1-3,” D.J. Butler

Pros: Utterly fantastic third story; great set-up
Cons: Some inconsistencies
Rating: 4 out of 5

D.J. Butler’s Band on the Run: Rock Band Fights Evil Vols. 1-3 is amusingly creative and unusual. The rock band in question changes its name with every venue to try to avoid those who might be searching for them. The band consists of a bunch of people who’ve been damned who have a beef with Satan. Eddie, the guitar player, tried to sell his soul for musical talent, only he worded the request badly and now he’s the world’s best tambourine player. Mike, the bass player, sees his brother’s vengeful ghost whenever he isn’t blitzed. Jim, the singer who doesn’t speak for fear of drawing unwanted attention, is Satan’s son. Adrian, who plays the electric organ, is a narcoleptic sorcerer. Twitch, the drummer, is an outcast fairy who can turn into a horse or a falcon. Together they’re searching for ways to stay under the radar while simultaneously looking for things that might give them some leverage with the powers that be.

The first of the three volumes in this story is the tale of Mike’s introduction to the band and is told from Mike’s perspective, which makes for an easy introduction via the outsider’s viewpoint. At first he’s just filling in for the night due to the death of the band’s previous bass player, but when a hellhound and a bunch of demonic flies attack, he gets pulled into the fight. When the band realizes he, too, is damned, they decide he can join them. The band goes after an unusual, extremely old mystical talisman of a sort, and goes up against Heaven and Hell to retrieve it.

The second story is told from Eddie’s perspective, which is nice for some variety. The band drops straight into fighting serpentine demons in a small town, and Adrian gets poisoned. In order to save Adrian’s life, the band will have to track down an itinerant preacher, go after a giant Lamia, and prevent the summoning of an ancient Egyptian snake god. The story of the talisman from the previous tale gets totally dropped as if it never existed, and the first fight of the story explodes of out nowhere in a bit of freak timing that makes it feel a little off. Mike also feels a little flimsy as a character this time around. The rest of the tale, however, is very creative and interesting.

The third story is dynamite! It’s told from the perspective of Jane, a very old and powerful woman who’s tracking down the band to take something from them. (Which is to say, the plot from story number one finally reappears, although the item in question is still little more than a MacGuffin.) Jane’s perspective lets us see the band in a whole new light, and her tale is absolutely fascinating. The first two stories mostly showcase the band’s impressive fighting skills, whereas story number three builds up the most wonderful backstory for the world, involving all sorts of Biblical stories, angels, fallen angels, and so forth. Jane is an utterly fantastic character and I totally want to read more about her.

Overall I really enjoyed Band on the Run. I would read more, particularly if Jane was involved. I still want to see more of Jim–his story seems full of potential yet not a lot has been done with it so far.

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Writing bigots as characters

I stumbled across an online conversation about authors creating racist, sexist, or homophobic (etc.) characters, and readers feeling the characters’ views reflect the authors’ views. The argument was that authors should be able to write characters with negative character traits without being labeled as espousing those viewpoints themselves.

First: I absolutely agree with this in principle and in general. Seeing characters like these is one way we work through our feelings on these matters, and it’s a legitimate part of a story to have a character that isn’t perfect (or hell, is downright nasty).

BUT. Sometimes authors forget that there are authors out there who are sexist, homophobic, and/or racist. And when they give those traits to their characters it’s because they do espouse them. It’s understandable that the line can get blurred in a reader’s eyes, and sometimes it’s absolutely right to call out an author for what they’ve put into their work.

The author needs to think to themselves how they can show the distance between themselves and the character. For instance, does anyone challenge the character on their bigotry? Do the character’s viewpoints get them in trouble or have a hand in their downfall? Is the character otherwise portrayed as sympathetic, such that we think we’re supposed to identify with them?

Also, take genre into account. For instance, if a romance protagonist espouses homophobic beliefs and no one calls them on it it’s going to look suspect, because a romance protagonist is expected to be a sympathetic character. In some science fiction on the other hand it might be expected that a story will push the boundaries of what’s comfortable.

So yes, write about characters that have negative beliefs. But if someone tells you that you’re coming off as homophobic, sexist, racist, or otherwise, take that into account. Ask them how and why. Ask them how you can make it clear that it’s the character who holds those viewpoints and not you. Keep in mind that it isn’t their responsibility to educate you. You’re asking them for a favor here. Nor should you, if they can’t give you a good answer, dismiss them out of hand–it’s entirely possible to know that what you’re reading is problematic without knowing why or how to fix it. Be open to learning. Of course there are going to exist some readers who will assume the worst no matter what you do, and if you truly believe this is what’s happening then go ahead and ignore them.

Just remember that they might have a point.

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Short Take: “The Tangled Woods,” Emily Raboteau

Pros: Vivid
Cons: Annoying characters; rambling
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Emily Raboteau’s novella The Tangled Woods (Dark Corners collection) follows a man and his wife and child as they go on vacation together. Reginald is a vicious film critic who wishes he was still young and adventurous, and who is more than unsatisfied at the compromises he’s had to make in his life. He’s sleeping with his teaching assistant, his wife has grown into exactly the kind of person he hates, and his son drives him crazy. He’d rather go vacationing in the wilderness, but his wife has pushed them into going to a lodge where there are lots of activities for their son Thurgood. As he and Thurgood try in vain to solve a wizard’s quest live-action game, Reginald comes into conflict with a few others around him.

The style rambles a bit. A chunk is taken up by a nightmare of Reginald’s, for example, that I felt didn’t contribute that much. All of the characters Reginald encounters are seriously annoying. On the one hand this is partly a case of excellently depicting Reginald’s point of view, but it also makes for a very obnoxious story in a lot of ways. It’s just not much fun reading about all of the most annoying stereotypes of humanity. In particular Reginald is definitely not a likable character, and he isn’t redeemed by anyone else. The writing style is very vivid, which is good–it’s impressive how realistic the annoying people are, but in some ways that just makes reading about them worse.

This is, overall, a well-written story, but it just isn’t what I’m looking for when going for some horror escapism.

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Short Take: “The Remedy,” Adam Haslett

Pros: Almost manages to live up to its high aim
Cons: Doesn’t quite pull it off
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Adam Haslett’s novella The Remedy (Dark Corners collection) is about a young man who can’t seem to find a cure for his physical and mental infirmity. His family is wealthy enough, however, that a friend has referred him to a special clinic and doctor, whose methods he can neither talk about nor explain. The young man visits the new doctor, finds the experience strangely uplifting, and waits to see how the final ‘therapy’ will help him.

The idea that some unique therapy could cure all these people when traditional therapy and medicines has failed is interesting, but it sets up an expectation that the story can’t really live up to. It comes about as close as it can to managing it, leaving some to the imagination, which is really the only way to approach something like this. But of necessity–or we’d have wonderful therapy like this available to us now–the author can’t really convincingly portray the emotional revelations the character goes through, nor the choices he makes along the way. It’s a good story, but it just can’t live up to its high aim.

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Short Take: “Oak Avenue,” Brandi Reeds

Pros: Dark and threatening
Cons: Hard to read; cuts off a bit early
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Brandi Reeds’s Oak Avenue (Dark Corners collection) is a horror novella about a young family that moves into a historical house in the country. Unexplained things start happening to Anastasia, and her husband Eddie not only doesn’t believe her, but starts acting strange and threatening himself. The only person who’s being friendly to Anastasia–who isn’t from that town–is someone Eddie doesn’t trust from high school, and soon Eddie even begins to believe Ana is sleeping with his old acquaintance. Ana’s just concerned about keeping her baby safe, but the local nosy old woman believes leaving the house won’t be enough to make things better.

The oddities happening in the old house Ana and Eddie have moved into build up very quickly and feel a little sudden. That said, they’re believably dark and sinister once they get started.

I found part of this story depressing and hard to read. Ana’s alone in this new town, no one likes her except for a man it’ll ruin her reputation to be seen with, her in-laws have no interest in her, and even the guy digging up the dead trees on the property insists he’ll only take direction from her husband. Right now, in the current climate with misogyny taking up so much of the news, I found this difficult to read about. It was a little too ‘real.’ I’m sure for some this will make the horror deeper and easier to relate to–it’s a matter of taste, I believe, and I think it’s good to know about before you decide whether to read the story.

While the story ends at a suitably chilling place, I still would have liked to see more. There are some assertions made that never really get a chance to be tested or played with.

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NaNoWriMo Storybundle

For you writers out there, there’s a new NaNoWriMo Storybundle. It offers up twelve writing books to help you on your way. I’m tempted to get it just because I used to do a lot of reviews of writing books, and they’re fun to read. But I have so many other books to read too, and it’s been a long time since I reviewed any writing books.

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Review: “Selected Stories: Horror and Dark Fantasy,” Kevin J. Anderson

Pros: Some gripping stories
Cons: Breaks in mood
Rating: 4 out of 5

Kevin J. Anderson’s Selected Stories: Horror and Dark Fantasy is definitely good, but I preferred his Selected Stories: Science Fiction Volume 1. There’s a handful of stories in here that are humorous, and while I definitely agree with Anderson’s assertion in the introductions to these stories that horror can also be funny, some of them were just so silly that they disrupted the feel of the book. When I settle in to read something described as horror and dark fantasy, I’m definitely looking for a certain feel. Humor can leaven that, but I prefer that it not get too silly. There are also a few stories that are a little cartoonish or ham-handed in one way or another, such as the opening story set in Tucker’s Grove (Anderson has a number of dark stories set in this fictional town). That said, there’s plenty of delightful, spine-tingling, downright chilling material in here as well, so the book as a whole is well worth the read. Just a content warning for you: there is one brief, frank rape scene in here. It’s handled well (i.e. it isn’t lurid or prurient), but it might be a tough scene for some readers.

I enjoy the Tucker’s Grove stories, but some are definitely better than others. There’s a humor piece about a man who goes to great lengths to track down Dracula for entertaining reasons. There are several werewolf stories, including a nicely chilling one set in the middle of nowhere and a rather silly one set in Hollywood. The humorous story about resurrecting a one-hit wonder metal singer starts out well but gets over-the-top goofy at the end. There’s a fabulous story about an antique camera inhabited by an incubus, which delightfully manages to include the phrase “psychic moebius strip.” There’s a Dan Shamble, P.I. story set at a cosplay convention that is just a bit of silly fun.

I think my favorite stories were some of Anderson’s very short flash fictions. “Age Rings” was the first story in this book to truly make my jaw drop. It’s short enough that I can’t really say anything about it without giving too much away. The same can be said about a chilling Christmas story later in the book.

There’s a delightful piece that explores the origins of the pieces of Frankenstein’s monster, deftly interweaving the tales. There’s also a story about a drummer who bikes through Africa, only to discover a mysterious little town that is the source of some truly unusual drums. A few chilling ghost stories round things out, mostly set in various historical periods.

On the whole I recommend Anderson’s collection of dark fantasy and horror tales. Maybe if you’re expecting the bits of silliness they won’t break the mood for you quite as much as they did for me, and there’s plenty of good, chilling material in here.

They were like ghosts from his past who had come–not to haunt the General–but to let him haunt himself.

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Stuff for Gamers

Take a look at the shirts-n-things in our stuff for gamers store.