An Impressive Offering

Back in 2014 I had the pleasure of reviewing These Old Tales by Kenneth W. Cain. It was an anthology of his dark fiction. I still remember the tale of the man whose life is too good to be true, until he finds himself in a Chinese buffet run by a very shady proprietor. Every time I see shrimp at the grocery or on a menu, I hear “irucky shrimp!” in my head and I shudder. Suffice to say, Cain’s stories have a way of staying with you long after you’ve read them.

Which brings me to the subject of my current review. When I heard that Cain was publishing another anthology I couldn’t wait to purchase it. Previously I had read his works on my Kindle, but this time I was bound and determined to get myself a copy I could hold in my hand. I ordered Embers: A Collection of Dark Fiction off Amazon as soon as I was able. When it arrived I held it as close to my face as I could in order to see the intricate detail of the cover. Laugh all you want – it’s true. The cover, like so many of Cain’s stories, is frightening in it’s subtlety. The tiny red glowing eyes of the child and the setting which evokes thoughts of a catacomb. Truth be told, I’m not sure I’ve come across Ben Baldwin’s cover artwork before, but I will be on the lookout going forward. It compliments the stories within the book extremely well.

From time to time I have found that when an author writes their own anthology it can be problematic in that the stories start to take on a formula. Cain defies this monotony by switching the perspective his stories are written from as well as their settings. Every story is unique but fits extremely well within the whole. There are several that I can tell will be staying with me for some time. Cain also varies the monsters in his stories. I was surprised when reading that a few of them were from the perspective of the monster itself, and often it can be debated who really should wear the mantle of “monster”. The human characters aren’t always the most horrifying and evil in the stories. The only aspect of Cain’s work that could be considered formulaic is that he enjoys leading the reader in one direction and then completely ripping the figural carpet from their feet. Rather than being disorienting or annoying, this tactic is one of my favorite aspects of his writing. Cain’s stories are interactive, in that I’m always guessing who the narrator and characters are and what the surprise will be. I can say that with Embers I never guessed correctly. I came sort of close in the story “The Bad Men” but I wasn’t quite on the money.

I loved Cain’s work back in 2014 and didn’t think it could get much better. I was delightfully wrong! Cain has honed his storytelling to a razor-blade precision that cuts deep every time. He’s more confident in his storytelling and it shows in that he’s willing to go even further into the odd and unfamiliar in order to scare his readers. Back in 2014 I compared his writing to The Twilight Zone. I almost would have compared it to Tales from the Darkside, but I think even that isn’t really getting to the marrow of the matter. Cain is in a class of his own. His stories are short, wickedly clever, and have a way of burrowing into your mind.

As a reviewer, I would be totally remiss if I didn’t speak to the quality of his characters. Cain doesn’t need to go in-depth describing every facet of his characters. Most of the time he lets the characters speak for themselves through their actions and choices. From the tiniest human to the most tentacled being, all of Cain’s characters are relatable and so realistic you can’t help but become immersed in their stories. One of my favorite characters is Boris, the anxiety-riddled bystander in “To Save One Life”. He knows the identity of a heinous killer and wants desperately to step in, but he’s not sure how much he can do to save the victims. The reader watches helplessly as Boris tries to figure out some method of intervention, and it’s impossible not to feel for his distress leaking off the page.

The girl in “Valerie’s Window” faces a terrible dilemma. If she leaves the safety of the house in which she hides, she risks being eaten by the undead. However, the house isn’t as safe as it should be, and she has a difficult choice ahead of her. Cain goes beyond the usual trope of being trapped with nasty people during the apocalypse to bring a multi-layered and heartbreaking story to life. I had to re-read parts of it because I couldn’t help but hope that I was wrong in my assumptions. I was correct, and I don’t envy the girl her choices one bit.

His story “Soul Tapped”, about a man named Henry who lives in a nursing home reminded me of one of my favorite movies. Like Bruce Campbell’s character in Bubba Ho-Tep, Henry is up against a supernatural foe that is hell-bent on killing. Henry tries to stop it, and in so doing finds out a truth more awful than he could have ever imagined.

For those who love a good Lovecraft story, there’s “The Water People”, in which a man spends his life researching the myth that there are tentacle beings inhabiting Chesapeake Bay. As is usually the case in these stories, he is proven correct with disastrous results. Cain’s parting shot, however, will leave your jaw swinging and your mind spinning. It’s anything but the usual fare.

Cain’s characters are anything but black and white. They are as multi-faceted as any real person you know. They are presented with difficult decisions and even worse situations, and they do the best that they can. Monster and man both are tested relentlessly, Cain never taking the easy way out. Some of the stories are predominately scary, some are predominately sad. All of them will evoke a range of emotions while you read and long after you’ve finished.

I can’t recommend Embers: A Collection of Dark Fiction highly enough. Normally I wait until I am done with a book before putting up a review, but I couldn’t wait. I have to finish “Parasite”, which is visceral, nasty, and totally engrossing. (And, it might be mentioned, somehow I’ve found up eating while trying to read this story three times, having lost my appetite every time!) Then read “Strip Poker, Crabs, and Blue Women”, “The Benefit of Being Weighty”, and the “Afterword” by Cain, and I will be finished. In many ways I wish Embers would never end because it’s so damnably enjoyable. However, considering Cain seems to enjoy these anthologies of dark fiction, I am hopeful that there will be many more volumes in the years to come.

If I may make one last suggestion, if you like what you’ve read in this review, not only should you pick up Embers, but his other books as well. You can find a full listing at his author site here, and it’s worth noting that he writes several types of books. He has offerings for middle grade, youngsters, and the seasoned horror reader just to name a few.

 

Outrunning the Beast

Previous posts go into the history of my discovering that I suffered from depression and anxiety, so I won’t go into it here. What I want to focus on, instead, is the daily struggle.

It’s open for discussion, but for me personally, the greatest struggle is not the illness itself, but how I am unable to communicate my feelings to other people. I was talking with a family member today and trying to explain that it’s just not a good day for me today. It doesn’t matter that the sun is shining, or that I love my job, or that I have people who are very dear to me. When you’re hanging over the abyss much of what normally makes you happy just doesn’t. It’s not for lack of appreciation, but more that you’re missing some core component.

I was trying to explain to this family member that despite the many blessings I count, today was going to end the same as the last two. I am going to finish my work shift, go home, walk my dog, take a bath, and curl up on the futon downstairs in the finished basement. I will either read, put on a movie, or read a book. The response I was looking for was something along the lines of how sometimes you just have to take care of yourself.

Instead, she tried to comfort me by telling me how she was feeling and what she was going through. What it did was actually make me feel like not speaking up at all. Without meaning to, she had started up a “Who is Sicker?” competition. I said depression and anxiety. She saw that and raised it by a stroke. I told her I had a nervous breakdown. She told me she had one in her late 30s.

I understand how callous this can sound, but hear me out. I just wanted her to listen. I am aware of her conditions, but she’s always saying how she wants to help me. When I try to open up and speak, the conversation always goes back to her somehow. I explained this, and she understood. It seemed like we were getting to a place of understanding, but as it turns out, we weren’t really because my anxiety derailed that pretty quickly.

Immediately when she began to understand I fought not to backtrack. Whenever I speak up and fight for understanding, there’s always this voice (that sounds an awful lot like the one that tells me I’m worthless in the beginning) that starts telling me I’ve been too strong. Too bossy. I’ve trampled someone else and am guilty of what I was accusing them of doing.

I’d say that’s a slippery slope, but in truth, it’s more like being kicked into the abyss. Before I can stop it, I’m running through everything else that I do wrong. All the ways I hurt the people I love. All the things say and do that are wrong. Then, just for good measure, I circle back to what I should have said and done but didn’t. From there, I find myself drowning in the things I’ve done days, months, and even years ago. All the damning evidence piling up to prove what I already know in my secret heart: I’m a flawed human being and it’s unbelievable how lucky I am to have people that look past that and find something in me worth loving, and it’s not going to last.

I used to let it end there. I would stay in that lightless oubliette, all of my successes and all the love I give forgotten. Cancelled out by the twisted monster I was. The knowledge that I would never get better anchoring me in the mire and filth of my self-hate.

At my lowest point, something happens. It’s like I hit the bottom and then bounce. I’m not going to lie and tell you that I become fully operational again. But usually it’s enough of a bounce for me to be vertical. To get the laundry done. Or answer a phone call. Then I start thinking of how bad things used to get when I would stumble, and I know that I’ve made progress.

From there it’s not too much of a stretch to remember the good moments that I’ve been a part of. I think of something Dipper told me, which is that the anxiety is loud, I just have to make sure the love is louder. Usually around this time I start swimming up from my cocoon in the covers, and I find Tkout ready to give me a kiss. Provided he can push Zelda out of the way long enough. A quick glance at my phone shows me previous messages between Dipper and I, and if he’s awake, sometimes I’ll reach out. I’ll start looking around the room (any room of my house, actually) and seeing the momentos of happy times from Tkout, Dipper, and Phoebe. Most of the time that will bring me out of it, with a little more help from my Ride or Die Family.

Today is one of those rough days, where I feel like I can’t outrun the beast fast enough. I’ve managed to stay for most of my shift, and in 47 minutes I will be able to say that I stayed for the whole shift. I can cross that accomplishment off in my daily journal-list. Then I can go home and start to convalesce, and within a few hours I should be feeling better.

What I’m getting at is that it doesn’t do any good to push everyone away. Or to wallow in self-hate. (When I figure out how to consistently do those things and never fall into the trap, you can bet there will be a post on that!) But until then, I’m going to keep practicing not giving up on myself, and being kinder to myself. If my Family doesn’t see me as a monster, then I’m sure I can find something worthwhile to hold onto until I’m able to properly see myself again when the clouds lift.

 

 

Not Your Average Monster {Anthology}

One of the things I love most about being a reviewer is that I get to talk to so many different people all over the country – and even people outside the country. I was talking with author Pete Kahle recently and he told me that he had started a publishing house called Bloodshot Books. I told him that if he needed any reviews, to let me know. He passed along a Kindle copy of Not Your Average Monster! A Bestiary of Horrors, along with some of the other titles. Along with the book came a warning about his story, which is featured last in the anthology. He told me that it was a gross-out. I don’t really think that was an adequate description! (To my absolute horror, I found myself attempting to eat while reading it, because I didn’t want to put the anthology down. Without giving too many spoilers, I’m really struggling with the thought of eating rice any time in the next month or so!)

{Before I go into the review proper, I want to make sure that my readers are aware if they want to read Bloodshot Books, they can either borrow them on Amazon.com with Kindle Unlimited or purchase them from Amazon.com in digital or traditional format.}

Not Your Average Monster is a page-turner filled with talent. I know I said a few paragraphs up that I love anthologies, but don’t let that weaken my claim. The monsters contained in the pages of this anthology defy title. The only other time I’ve encountered a lamia in horror literature or cinema was Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell. Kahle managed to find not one, but TWO lamia in one story.

The remaining monsters in this tome don’t have a name. They seem to be pulled right from the shared human subconscious, from the days where we were little more than primitives scratching stick figures in caves by firelight. The monsters Kahle has collected come for you in sunlight, in darkness, but always with teeth and deadly intent. I’m not afraid to admit that they scared me so badly that I had nightmares. But you know, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly which monster did it. Was it the horrible two-legged beasts rampaging through a school as a little girl tries desperately to hide? Or the boojum, a nasty sort of beastie that one girl must defeat using the advice of the Parliament of cats, before it can come back and finish the job it started? Or the story of the family in the tunnel, who survive a horrific pile-up only to find themselves fighting shapeless monsters? Maybe it was the parasite hidden deep within a cave, stumbled on by some friends reliving their wilder days. It could have been the spirits summoned by human hatred and bloodlust to the carnage of a battlefield, to claim souls for their own.

Truth be told, I think it was all of them. There wasn’t a single weak story in this entire anthology, and I’ve only scratched the surface of what horrors lurk within. I don’t want to rob any readers of the terror and surprise waiting for them in Not Your Average Monster! A Bestiary of Horrors.

There is a second volume, Not Your Average Monster, Vol. 2: A Menagerie of Vile Beasts, which you better believe is high up on my to-read list! There are two main reasons I’m not jumping right into the second volume. Firstly, the stories are like a horror buffet. I don’t want to run through it all at once. Secondly, I’m well and spoiled for other anthologies, probably for the rest of my life. This is hands-down one of the best anthologies I’ve ever read. And, well, I lied, there’s three reasons. Kahle has not confirmed the intent to publish a third volume (to the best of my knowledge). I don’t want to go through everything now and be left like an addict without a fix.

Oh, and if you’re stuck for what to get mom for Mother’s Day? Well, here you go! Volume 1 and 2 make great gifts for your favorite horror hounds! Or for yourself, if you’re looking to sample the work of several extremely talented authors all in one place.

The Zen of 360

Currently we are a quarter of the way through the 31st year of my being on this Earth. Since getting married and buying a house 4 years ago, I’ve noticed small indicators that I’m growing up. As Dipper pointed out, I’ve started really stretching my legs and moving into the house. The rooms are starting to take on personality and become indicative of Tkout and my styles. Three weeks ago I went on a spending spree, purchasing hostas, lilies, and canna plants for the house. This coming weekend, I hope to landscape the front bed and finally have a front yard worth looking at for more than two seconds. I’m hoping Phoebe will want to help with the window boxes. Two weekends ago I hosted Easter dinner for my family, and turned the house upside down for a whole three days beforehand, cleaning, hanging pictures on walls, organizing the kitchen counter, etc.

As good as I feel about all of the aforementioned changes, nothing will point out that you’re old faster than playing a video game with a 9 year old. Shit you not.

I’ve played board games with Phoebe. We have sat on couches, her building LEGOs or coloring, while I crochet. I’ve gone to one of the local art museums with Dipper and Phoebe. We’ve played with my pets and her kitty. We’ve curled up and watched horror movies, as well as shows she has wanted me to watch with her. I’ve watched her play video games before. None of this prepared me for the experience I had Friday night. (To be fair, we played Katamari on a previous Friday, but she was coming down with a really bad cold and was more than a little out of it.)

Per our usual ritual, Phoebe and Dipper came over Friday night. This time they brought LEGO Dimensions with them. Phoebe was very excited to introduce me to the newest digital crack.

We ordered dinner and got the game set up. Once dinner was over and we were sat down in front of the XBOX 360, Phoebe proceeded to give me an introduction and tutorial to the game that was not unlike being strapped to the top of the USS Enterprise just as it hits warp speed. Being older and more self-conscious, and also lacking a serious amount of time spent in front of a console in many years, I was wanting to go granny speed. Learn the controls. Check out the characters. Basically get my bearings. Phoe was not having any of that. Before I knew what was going on, I was sucked through a vortex and dumped out into the Wizard of Oz. While I was busy hitting things to get the little LEGO studs as possible, Phoebe was demolishing the sleeping flowers in the Batmobile. Before I knew what was happening, we were watching Batman accost the Scarecrow and accuse him of releasing a hallucinogen, thereby producing. The cutscene ended, I smashed a few things, and before I could collect the studs, I was in the middle of a boss battle with the Wicked Witch.

Wicked Witch? More like WTF! This change of activity was born of her intense boredom at my attempt to collect every single stud available. Over the course of the next 2 hours, I was convinced I was going to lose my shit and wind up in a straitjacket. Even though I was having a ton of fun, I couldn’t figure out what the hell I was doing to save my life. Phoebe had already played that level before, so she knew every trick and battle, and she was eager to show it all off. The need for a straitjacket went both ways – Phoebe was going nuts because I was constantly off doing something counter productive to her goal of getting to the next level. (This I admit fully, freely, and with total shame.)

This past weekend, I spent time by myself playing the same level. It took fucking forever. I was after every stud, every secret corner, and switched characters to see what they could do. I enjoyed my run through, but there was something missing.

Today while walking back from lunch, I was thinking about gaming with Phoebe Friday. I was looking ahead two weeks to our next Friday together, and thinking about playing the game together. About how ready I would be. How I wouldn’t force her to have to wait for my slow ass to catch up. I realized what was missing. You see, adulting means that your priorities change. I was focused on getting studs for upgrades later, and for completing as much of the level as I could. I wanted to be sure-footed with my characters and their vehicles. I was thinking ahead to the packs I needed to purchase in order to interact with some of the content, and wondering how the experience would change if I were to switch up the characters. I was overthinking how to reach the highest heights, and what would happen if I met an obstacle I couldn’t overcome.

Phoebe was burdened by none of those things. She approached the game with a balls-to-the-wall excitement. A need to explore and experience. An almost palpable urge to see and do as much as she could. To her, there were no obstacles. If she couldn’t break it, build it, climb it, or go around it, she switched characters and tactics until she figured it out. Each time, she went at the problem fearlessly and joyously. 

More than anything, I can’t wait to play LEGO Dimensions with Phoebe again. To willingly strap myself to the top of the USS Enterprise and wait for her to hit warp speed. Being a stodgy completist can wait for when I’m playing the game on my own. What I want is a slice of reckless abandon. To run balls-to-the-wall into the digitized sunset with no idea where I’m going, how I’m getting there, or even what I’m doing. Which, considering how slowly I play the game and the amount of bullshit adulting I need to do between then and now, won’t be that hard. All I lack is a small, bright-eyed, golden-haired pilot.

 

 

 

Hi. My name is Holly Ann, and I’m addicted…

…to LEGO Dimensions.

Addicted, as in, TAKE ALL OF MY MONEY. RIGHT. NOW.

I can’t begin to describe how intensely awesome this game is. Or how purchasing the parts for it feels like selling your soul. Phoebe and Dipper brought it to my house Friday for Family Friday, and I was hooked. Bad. Like a junkie looking for a fix.

First things first. Just what is LEGO Dimensions, and who cares? LEGO Dimensions is a video game originally released in 2015. The plot is super simple. Lord Vortech (voiced by Gary Oldman) and his robot henchman X-PO (voiced by Joel McHale) are searching for Foundation Elements. With these 12 Elements connected, they can basically take over the universe. The 12 Elements are artifacts from different universes (which are different fandoms), such as Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Frodo’s One Ring, etc. In a bid to keep the universes from falling under single rule, all of the Elements were scattered.

Everything would have gone according to Lord Vortech’s plan, except Robin, Frodo, and Metalbeard are sucked into a vortex with the Elements. Their friends Batman, Gandalf, and Wyldstyle willingly jump into the vortex to save their friends. They fall out of the vortex on Vorton, where they need to rebuild the generator that allows them to travel to different universes, saving their friends, collecting keystones, and saving the Foundation Elements.

That’s only scratching the surface of the game. The worlds they travel in are varied and hilarious, as are the heroes they work with. There is a franchise for absolutely everyone. Gremlins. The A-Team. Retro Ghostbusters. Modern Ghostbusters. Knight Rider. Jurassic World. The Simpsons. Mission:Impossible. Doctor Who. Back to the Future. Midway Arcade. The Lord of the Rings. That’s listing about half of the franchises included. Other franchises are being added, The Goonies, Beetlejuice, and Teen Titans Go! being the ones I’m looking forward to purchasing. Meh on Power Puff Girls. Although the idea of seeing Stripe tear through their pastel world is very very enticing! Just look at the picture below. The Joker, Stripe, Gizmo, and Harley in Gotham. Don you just know that’s going to be a wild party?!

When I said that this game was ridiculously expensive, I wasn’t kidding! There are several levels of add-ons that can be purchased. I’m going to go into a little detail about each level, starting with the least expensive and ending with the grandaddy. The least expensive are the Fun Packs. They retail for around $11.99 and are usual one character and a vehicle of some sort. Excalibur Batman and the Bionic Steed from The Lego Batman Movie are just one example. As you purchase updates for the vehicle (Bionic Steed in this example), you can also rearrange the LEGO configuration to resemble the new form. My favorite is Crabmeat from Sonic, which turns his airplane into a giant rideable crab. It’s also worth noting that vehicles aren’t character-specific. I absolutely LOVE running Stripe around Middle Earth on Shelob.

Next up are Team Packs. These feature 2 characters and 2 vehicles from a
franchise and will run you about $24.00. I’ve alluded to it several times, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t feature it here. My favorite team pack is from Gremlins. Gizmo and his RC racer are cute, there’s no denying that. But I absolutely love Stripe!

As with any videogame, the characters have certain catchphrases that they use. I can’t get enough of Stripe’s incessant babble. Sometimes as he’s tearing around you hear “Gizmo caca!” straight from the movie. Other times he merely grumbles to himself and laughs. If you leave him standing too long, he pulls out a bucket of popcorn and starts eating. Start moving again, and he discards the empty bucket.

If you want more levels, you can purchase a Level Pack. For around $30 you get a character, two vehicles, and then more levels for the game. For the adults who are playing LEGO Dimensions, there is Mission:Impossible, The Simpsons, Midway Arcade, and Doctor Who. Those aren’t the only Level Packs by a long shot, but they seem to be aimed for the older set. Midway Arcade comes with a stereotypical 80s gamer LEGO piece, the Spy Hunter car, and an arcade machine. This Level Pack promises over 20 classic arcade games.

Currently there are three Story Packs that you can purchase. Story Packs allow you to play through an entire movie. The three current packs are Ghostbusters (2016), The LEGO Batman Movie, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. What you get in each pack varies a little. The LEGO Batman Movie gives you Batgirl and Robin as playable characters, as well as a vehicle and a new LEGO piece to add to the game pad, which looks like the inside of the Batcave. Fantastic Beasts… gives you Newt Scamander as a playable character, Niffler as a playable character, and the Magical Congress of the United States is the game pad add-on. Ghostbusters (2016) features the Chinese restaurant facade where the girls have their office, Abby Yates and the Ecto vehicle. I don’t know if this is true for the other story packs, but finishing the Ghostbusters (2016) story unlocks the other Ghostbusters. When selecting Abby, it’s possible to play as Holtzman, Erin, or Patty. For $40, I think this pack is a pretty good deal. Even if you don’t use the facades on the game pad, they’re still neat to have, and playing through a whole movie instead of a few levels is definitely a plus.

Before you can play though, you need the basics. That’s where the Starter Pack comes in handy. The game is available for XBOX 360, XBOX One, Wii U, PS3, and PS4. No matter what platform you choose, you are looking at around $65.00-$80.00 for the starter pack. Let’s be honest, that’s a pretty competitive price when you consider that most games debut in the $50-$60 range. With the Starter Pack you get the three main playable characters of the game, Batman, Gandalf, and Wyldstyle. Also included is the Batmobile. You also get the game pad (where you place the LEGO pieces to introduce characters and vehicles), the game disc, and a LEGO build of the Vorton vortex, which matches what you see in the game. Basically, you get everything that you see to the left.  

the most expensive packs are almost laughable at this point. They’re called Polybags. As the name suggests, it’s literally a plastic bag. With one figure. But it’s exclusive and therefore expensive. The only place you can really get ahold of them is ebay or amazon.com, and you will pay out the ass. The two characters are Green Arrow and Supergirl. The prices are outrageous. I’ve seen $129.00 for both, $65.00 for Supergirl alone, $35.00 for Green Arrow. It’s literally all over the place based on who is selling and when you check. Green Arrow was apparently a GameStop exclusive when you purchased any pack on Black Friday of 2016.

When I first started purchasing additional content for this game, I nearly shit from the amount of money. Of course, I started purchasing after all the Easter sales had come and gone. The buy one get one free, the half off. Those types of sales. To the best of my ability, I’ve followed Dipper’s recommendations and purchased lots or discounted items off ebay. I also just snagged a plastic snapcase for the figures and their vehicles. In part so I can bring them over when I visit Phoebe and Dipper, and in part because my cat is an asshole. She recently figured out that there was interesting stuff to knock over on my desk and shelves. LEGO is known for small pieces, and quite frankly, I don’t want to lose any.

The main reason I’m not as upset about the prices is that most LEGO sets go for
about $15.00 as a base price anyway. I purchased the Ghost Rider and Hobgoblin set for myself, and it set me back $20.00, and it doesn’t do anything but get assembled and sit. Granted, it’s absolutely insanely cool, but that’s all it does. Because I intend to take it out of the box and build it, it won’t even maintain a collector’s value. Speaking frankly, I don’t give a damn. The set is great, reminds me of Dipper, is horror themed (c’mon, a flaming skeleton on a motorcycle from Hell?!) and makes me happy. The same is to be said of LEGO Dimensions. The pieces are a blast to put together, the game itself is a riot, and the content is varied enough that it appeals to a variety of audiences.

 

Writer’s Notes:

Please forgive my lack of links in this post. With so many buying options from stores like Target, GameStop, and Walmart to online retailers ebay and amazon, it didn’t seem worth it to tag the packs. Not to mention the many varieties available.

Information on the voice actors for the series can be found here. In some cases, recordings from the movie or TV series the lines came from was used. For others, other voice talent was hired.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When God is All Too Human

I was given the opportunity to read a review copy of Mark Alan Miller’s book, Clive Barker’s Next Testament. I assure you, the title is correct. You see, Mark Alan Miller took a concept he and Clive Barker had tossed around and made it first into graphic novel format, now in novel.

The core idea is very simple. What if the God of the Old Testament came back? Add to that, what if He were a sociopathic bully who found his creations vile? I was hooked on the core idea for the novel before I was even offered to review it for this site since it ran closely with some of my own theological questions. Namely, why is the God from the Old Testament is the bad cop to Jesus’ good cop in the New Testament? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking in a fiction book for religious answers, but I thought it would be interesting to see what Mark Alan Miller and Clive Barker had to say on the subject.

The story starts out with Julian, who is rich, entitled, and a total egotistical asshole, searching the desert for that important missing “something”. What he finds is a pyramid buried in the sand. Inside the pyramid is Wick, or God of the Old Testament. Wick is shaped like a man, but colored wildly all over his body, hence his name The Father of Colors. Julian takes Wick back to his home and teaches him about life in the modern age. Not to mention spends a good deal of time exploring the carnal pleasures available to a human who has the divine at his disposal. At first Wick is a very willing student, but he very quickly decides that he wants to see some of these people for himself. At this point he demands Julian throw a dinner party and invite his friends.

The dinner party guest is a true rogue’s gallery. The only people there who are not selfish, rich, and all around terrible people are Tristan and Elspeth. Tristan is Julian’s mostly-estranged son, and Elspeth is his fiancee. After meeting the attendees and spending some time humiliating them publicly, Wick decides he’s had enough. What started out as a weird social gathering quickly turns into a bloodbath. I have to admit that as bad as it sounds, the dinner party is pretty funny. The insults Wick delivers and they way they are taken by the recipients is pure gold. When the murder begins, nobody is worth saving, except Tristan and Elspeth.

Tristan and Elspeth escape the dinner party and go on the lam. Although they believe in Wick’s divinity, they don’t know what else to do. They want to be as far away as possible, and as quickly as possible. Terrified out of their minds, they begin a cross-country drive hoping to find shelter and safety on the East Coast. During their journey they see many indicators of Wick’s wrath, including but certainly not limited to every plane falling out of the sky, and the entire world communications network being wiped out. No phones. No internet. No radio. No TV. All gone in the blink of an eye.

Meanwhile, Wick searches for his new Rome, where he can rule and be worshiped and adored by his loving creations. Unfortunately, Wick finds neither new Rome nor loving creations. Everywhere he goes, people are obsessed with the restoration of their technology, as well as their own self-interest. The more Wick sees, the more he decides the world just isn’t worth his time. While speaking to a crowd, a young red-haired woman named Shauna distinguishes herself, setting Julian’s world tumbling even further. Julian wants to keep Wick to himself, but faces fierce competition from Shauna. She’s smarter, more adventurous, and not self-centered like Julian. Wick takes to her immediately.

As for the rest of the story, you’ll just have to read it yourself and see what happens. Truth be told, I’m not even done with the book, but I wanted to get some thoughts down while they were still fresh.

In the spirit of giving a totally honest review, I’m going to admit that there are parts of the book that I found deeply disturbing. It’s really awkward to read about God having a frivolous sexual relationship. I wasn’t sure what to think of that, as I’m not used to viewing God in that light.

Whereas I could understand that Wick would want to kill everyone at the dinner party, the seemingly endless massacres that followed didn’t make sense. I couldn’t see a justification for murder on such a scale. For instance, at one point, Wick gets pissed and just unmakes an entire crowd of people. GONE. Because they annoyed him with what I can only describe as their humanity.

The other issue I had was the fact that I believe God is omniscient, so therefore he wouldn’t have to search for new Rome, or wonder what the world was like. Then I remembered he had been trapped in the pyramid by the other two members of the Holy Trinity. Which bothered me as well, because I always thought the Trinity was in harmony.

Last night I was reading Clive Barker’s Next Testament and really digging into the text. I surmised from the introduction pieces at the front of the book that I was missing something crucial. Instead of seeing Next Testament for the satire it was, I was butting heads with the text over my own theological beliefs. Searching for some context, I looked for articles or reviews online. I found Ron McKenzie’s blog Thoughts and Scribbles and read his post NEXT TESTAMENT: The Gospel According to Mark Alan Miller. It tells the story of how Clive Barker and Mark Alan Miller came up with the whole idea, how it stemmed from a human canvas project Barker was working on. How he painted Miller’s body and when he stepped back and saw his work, he realized he had birthed Wick. From there, Barker and Miller came up with the story. Of course, this is in the introduction to the book as well. But additional insights from Miller accompanied this story. I was intrigued and kept reading. Then, it hit me.

I’ve always heard it said that we are created in God’s image. What happens if God is created in our image? If the divine more closely resembles humanity?

It was like a stick of dynamite went off between my ears.

I was bothered by the concept of Wick because he was too human. All of the restraint I expected from God was gone. Watching Wick not only ignore the 10 Commandments, but seemingly do his level best to go against them at every turn blew my mind. What I hate the most about the human race is what I hate about Wick. The wanton destruction of lives. The petty annoyances that turn into full-blown carnage. The hubris and the self-centered attitude. It upset me to see a God that embodies the worst traits of the human race, with seemingly none of the good.

Now, it’s like reading the book with totally new eyes. The revelation that what I hated most about Wick happens to be what I hate most about the human race, the arrogance, the wanton murder sprees, has allowed me to enjoy the book as the satire that it most certainly is.

If you have thick skin religiously, or are open to different interpretations, I highly suggest Clive Barker’s Next Testament. It’s at times humorous, sad, and difficult to read. It holds up a mirror to humanity that is all too uncomfortable sometimes. If you can withstand the tide of emotions, I highly recommend picking up Clive Barker’s Next Testament.

A Living Legend

Today’s post is a bit of a walk down memory lane for me, and a celebration of the charmed life of talented actor Tim Curry. Today the celebrated English actor turns 71, and it seems only fitting to take a look at his career highlights.

I was a fan of Tim Curry as an actor long before I could put a name to a face. Or a voice for that matter. A quick search on IMDB.com shows that his career stretches all the way back to 1968, which is impressive for any actor or actress. When you consider the sheer variety of roles he’s played, it’s even more staggering.

My first encounter didn’t occur until 1992, with the release of FernGully: The Last Rainforest. Curry plays Hexxus, the pollution monster trying to take over and destroy a beautiful rainforest. (Curry worked with memorable talent such as Robin Williams, Samantha MathisChristian Slater, Cheech Marin, Tommy Chong, and Tone Loc.) Curry takes on many forms as Hexxus, including toxic slime and the badass skeleton-tar creature pictured. Kudos to the animators, who captured Curry’s dramatic movements for this part.

My next encounters weren’t much more grownup. He appeared in several animated series that I used to watch as a kid growing up in the 90s. I confess that I only know this because I am perusing his IMDB.com page so that I can get the years and titles of his performances correct.

I was in high school when I first saw the 1990 miniseries Stephen King’s IT on VHS. (I think we borrowed it from the library or rented it. Does that date me, or what?!) Even then, seeing Curry was more of a coincidence than anything else. As a teenybopper, I had a raging crush on Jonathan Brandis, who plays the young Bill Denbrough, the leader of the Loser’s Club. Even so, Curry stole absolutely every scene in which he appeared. His presence was so commanding that he stole even the scenes where he wasn’t present, just based on the anticipation of his appearance.

If I had to choose his most iconic role, I would choose Pennywise the Dancing Clown. He was terrifying. Unpredictable. Nasty. Even when he was in his clown-guise, you could still feel the horror lurking just behind his eyes.

A close runner-up for me is Cardinal Richelieu in 1993’s The Three Musketeers. He’s slimy, devious, and downright scary as the Cardinal attempting to undermine a king and secure an alliance with an enemy country.

However, when most people think of Curry, they no doubt think of his first major movie role, Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He first portrayed the flamboyant and outrageous character in a London stage production of the same name. Curry absolutely steals the show in every scene as he struts around with complete confidence in his lingerie and heels getup. And that’s to say nothing of his facial expressions! Curry is one of the most
expressive actors in the business.

While doing research for this post, I came across news that in 2012 Curry had suffered a massive stroke. He has been confined to a wheelchair and his speech has been affected, but from what I can tell the incident has not affected his spirit in the least. He is still as determined as ever, going so far as to star in the 2016 production, The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again.

If you are somehow not already a fan of Tim Curry, then I suggest you watch the following movies to become better acquainted. (And yes – there are some kid’s films in there, because his voice-over acting is superb.)

Over his long career, Curry has played these and many other roles. What was your favorite movie?

 

A Strong Finish

Disclaimer: I pride myself on being an honest reviewer. In that vein, I’d like you to know before reading this review that I had the pleasure of copy editing the piece before publication. As a copy editor, I didn’t change anything in the story, just made sure the events were consistent with the first two books, and sussed out any spelling or grammar errors. I neither made nor proposed any other changes to this story.

 

Having given you my disclaimer, let’s get into the fun part! Afternoon is the third book of The Daylight Cycle. Initially Kody Boye wasn’t sure he wanted to release it, because he wondered how it would stack up against the other two books. He was looking for another pair of eyes, and I volunteered. Afternoon picks up where the previous two books left off, and serves to tie in two seemingly unrelated storylines in a believable and exciting way. Rose, from First Light, meets up with Dakota and his crew of survivors from Sunrise. They band together with other survivors they have come across and on the surface everything seems safe, or as safe as it can be given that they’re living during the zombie apocalypse. They spend their time fortifying their space, scavenging for supplies in the surrounding houses and shops, and getting used to life after the fall of civilization.

Everything is going well until the survivors run into trouble during a supply run. One of their members is taken down by a vicious pack of zombies. Of the three that survive, one is scratched. What’s worse is that the injured survivor is Erik, Jamie’s childhood best friend. It’s just a small scratch and doesn’t even break the skin, but nobody knows whether or not it will cause infection. Jamie is desperate to believe that Erik will be ok since there was no blood. Dakota and Steve, as much as they’d like to hold onto hope, are skeptical. Jamie’s hope is put to the test as Erik’s health begins to spiral. Fevered, bedridden, and incredibly miserable, nobody can deny he’s sick. But the signs of infection aren’t presenting themselves quickly enough. Is it the zombie virus, or something else?

Steve and Rose manage to repair a radio enough they they can make contact with other survivors, if there are any left alive. As luck would have it, they manage to contact a college in Boise, Idaho whose science department is still laboring away at curing the disease. The decision is made to take Erik to the university, because his condition isn’t getting any better. Erik also feels a sense of duty – if he can be any help in curing the disease for others, than he wants to do what he can.

I’m going to be the first to tell you that I’m hoping Kody doesn’t stop with a trilogy. I understand authors want to expand, create new worlds and characters, etc. To that end, I’d be happy with a short story collection down the road sometime. I’m not quite ready to be done with Steve, Dakota, Jamie, Rose, and the other survivors.

Not to mention Kody has given the zombie apocalypse a wild spin that I’m craving more of – the plant walkers. You read that right. They’re dried up prune-looking zombies that smell like fruit, and undoubtedly dead, but maintain a small amount of intelligence and seem to abhor the zombies. It’s a concept I’ve never come across before, and I have to admit that I’m super curious. I’m anxious to see if the plant walkers are the gentle shepherds they seem to be, or if they’re something more sinister in disguise.

I found Afternoon to be a great way of tying the first two books together. It was great to catch up with Rose and several other survivors and see what they’d been up to while Dakota and his friends were traipsing across the country. I blew through Afternoon, despite editing it for spelling and grammar, because I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. Particularly when the group was at the university watching the doctor perform tests on Erik. I was tense the entire time, waiting to see what would become of Erik. Whether he’d be a glorified guinea pig in a dead world, or whether he’d be the answer to their plight.

Whether or not Kody decides to continue with this series down the road, or if this is the last book he’ll write with these characters, I’m 100% on board. The same goes for any other series he writes or has written. Kody has the ability to create characters who are realistic and varied. Some of the characters may more closely resemble the asshole sitting next to you in the cube farm than they do Mother Theresa, but regardless, they’re realistic. As are the relationships between the characters. Whether friends, partners, siblings, or strangers, Kody deftly navigates the different interactions without weighing down or taking away from the action.

Do yourself a favor and go pick up The Daylight Cycle, because each book only gets better!

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

Since I am generally more of a horror fan than anything else, I admit that I miss out on great works by authors in other genres. Some months ago, there was a call for reviewers for an upcoming book by Scott Oden. I had never heard of him before, but Adrian Chamberlin (whose work I am extremely fond of) gave me the head’s up. I read the brief summary of the book and was immediately intrigued by the little I read about A Gathering of Ravens.

I responded to the call for reviewers, and was placed on the list. When the book arrived, I was extremely impressed. A Gathering of Ravens is a solid book, clocking in at 336 pages, and I found that there was nothing I would have cut out of the book. On the contrary, I would have added more to it in the form of a series, but that’s me being selfish. I didn’t want A Gathering of Ravens to end!

My apologies upfront, I will not be getting very in-depth with the plot summary. Oden packs many surprises and twists into his story, and I don’t want to deprive any readers of the joy of discovering those twists for themselves. The story begins with a young monk travelling to a monastery, guided and protected by a great warrior. They shelter for the night in a cave, coming face to face with a fierce skraelinger. (Fantasy fans might be more familiar with the term “orc”.) The skraelinger is none too happy to have anyone in his cave, even for a night. He allows them to stay, with the understanding that they will be gone come morning. When morning comes, things are not as cut and dry as they had seemed the night before, and the real journey begins.

As the reader continues, it is revealed that the story really belongs to Grimnir, the skraelinger. His quest for vengeance overtakes any other storylines and becomes the driving force of the story. His brother was murdered many years ago, and Grimnir had sworn to avenge him. Not only will Grimnir go to great lengths to make good on his oath, but everyone around him will be drawn into his quest, whether willingly or not.

A Gathering of Ravens is an amazing book. I was really upset when it ended, because there is, as yet, no announcement of it becoming a series. Oden is masterful in deceiving his audience. I was pleased to see the main character shift to Grimnir who is not likeable in a traditional sense, but has his own honor and code that he lives by. I have to admit that Oden threw me for a loop. At first he seemed to deal disrespectfully with the young monk’s Christian faith, but as I continued, I realized that much of what he wrote mirrors history. It’s no secret that the Crusades were a less than holy undertaking, no matter what they were intended to be. Oden also weaves in a deep respect for nature worship, and eventually shows that the two can co-exist and that a belief in both is no conflict. Don’t misunderstand me – Oden is in no way preachy. However, he is deft in terms of weaving the character’s various faiths and superstitions together. If anything, it adds to the three-dimensionality of the characters. They become all the more real because they are complicated, unpredictable, and a mesh of their various influences and cultures.

Oden is a master world builder as well. There are many places where it is difficult to tell if the events are real or fake. The locations in the story vary, from the very real England, to the mythical Yggdrasil, or World Tree. It doesn’t matter where the characters are, the setting always seems real.

The supporting characters are also well written and complex. There are no superfluous characters, and all of them are more than just a vehicle to move the plot along. Oden also manages to drop hints about the character’s pasts and influences, so that the reader seamlessly gets a feel for who they are without being tossed out of the action of the book for a “backstory session”.

Overall I am very impressed with Scott Oden’s A Gathering of Ravens. It’s an amazing work of fantasy with a very real touch of both humanity and the weight of history. While reading it, I lost many hours of sleep because I didn’t want to put the book down. Oden has populated his strange world with witches, monsters, Vikings, warriors, cowards, and everything in between. It’s safe to say he’s gained another fan after writing this book!

A Strong Start for an Amazing Series

I recently read Kody Boye’s First Light, and I absolutely loved it. It’s book one of The Daylight Cycle series. (I’m currently reading book two – and whoa! Does he amp up the scares!) The central characters, Rose and Lyra, are flatmates in England. It’s Lyra’s home country, and Rose’s adopted country. They are typical college best friends, and their third flatmate Mary is the overly dramatic third musketeer.

The zombie takeover is well underway when First Light begins, although nobody knows that quite yet. The news stations are using words like “riot” and “civil unrest” to describe the outbreaks of violence in major cities. Rose and Lyra are worried that their proximity to an airport will cause them to encounter the violent protestors. Only a few pages into the book, Mary stumbles into the flat bawling her eyes out and bleeding. Apparently her on-again off-again boyfriend not only proposed, but proceeded to bite her. The girls hear a terrifying screech from the hallway while they are trying to calm down their hysterical friend. Moments later her boyfriend throws himself against the door and claws his way in. For Lyra, Rose, and Mary it’s a battle to the death. And it’s only the beginning.

As the story progresses, the girls find themselves in a variety of situations that they had no way to be prepared for. Including floating on a boat that neither of them knows how to sail, and fleeing from a country that’s using deadly force on anyone looking for asylum. Neither of the girls can really blame the country, because by then they know it’s a virus that spreads through bites and scratches.

First Light is an amazing book, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what exactly about the book is my favorite. Kody’s apocalypse is all too real. The freshly dead run, the long dead shamble. And the girls are forced to survive by whatever means they can.

I also really love how Kody portrays the friendship between Rose and Lyra. They’re incredibly real. They argue over what the best course of action is, and where they will be safest. They wind up eventually talking out their points of view, and though they have their rough moments, they are always fiercely loyal to each other. They are strong in their own ways, but also show their weaknesses.

The end of First Light finds Rose and Lyra making a choice that will affect them for the rest of their lives. Rose doesn’t believe they are safe in their current location, despite fortifications. Lyra, however, doesn’t believe that they are any safer outside the walls. The decision is a heavy one, and could possibly split them apart for the rest of their lives.

First Light is an amazing read from start to finish, and showcases Kody’s unique writing style. I recommend this book (and series!) to anyone looking for a solid story with relatable characters, realistic situations, and a helluva scary zombie element! (If you like what you read, I’d also recommend checking out his other books. He writes more than just horror!)