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.

 

Spoilerless Thoughts on Evil Dead

AMCTHEATERS.COM image for Evil Dead. (I told you – no spoilers!)

This past Thursday, my husband and I decided to engage in a timeless ritual: the double date.  We met our friends Brian and Meg at the local mall for the evening showing of the Evil Dead.  Popcorn, soda, and pretzels in hands, we seated ourselves in the packed theater and waited for it to begin.  All around us, people were wearing Evil Dead and Army of Darkness t-shirts, and discussing Sam Raimi‘s cinematic cult masterpieces.  Not soon enough, the room darkened and the previews began to march across the screen.

And now we have come to the part where you’re most likely to start screaming death threats at the computer.  When all was said and done, I just wasn’t that impressed by the new Evil Dead.  Had they called it something like “Woodland Massacre” I would have been alright – just don’t make it an Evil Dead movie!  It didn’t have any of the kitschy terror that made the original films endearing, but I’ll get there in a few.  The characters were blah at best, but the most damnable characteristic of this remake was the excessive torture in place of any actual storyline.

I personally do not like torture-filled movies.  I refuse to finish watching the SAW and Hostel franchises for this reason.  I find that kind of torture to be upsetting and it’s hard for me to watch.  Going in to Evil Dead, I didn’t expect any of that.  The original movies played on the psychological terror Ash and other characters felt, and the demons actively preyed on their minds and tore them apart as the movie progressed.  The demonic interference pushed character Ash to the point where it could be solidly argued that he had lost his mind and that some of the phenomenon was all in his head.  Going forward, the 2013 remake used torture scenes in place of any actual demonic horror.  It seemed as though the character’s possession was only used to give the characters a motive to destroy each other (sorry if that’s a spoiler).  Truth be told, I think I missed a solid 20 minutes of the movie averting my eyes so I wouldn’t throw up, which left me irritated instead of horrified.

As to the kitschy terror, I miss that.  The creature effects in the 1981 film were great, and still look good.  I was in middle school the first time I saw The Evil Dead.  My father, our neighbor, and I watched it in total darkness.  By the end of the movie, I had a sore throat and didn’t want to go to bed for fear of demon noshing on my soul.  To be fair, they did leave in many of the elements from the original, like the ugly necklace, the basement trapdoor, and The Book of the Dead.  I guess without Bruce Campbell, it just isn’t the same.

Look for another review on Evil Dead after it hits stores.  I want to like this movie so badly that I’m willing to watch it again.  And I think that liking it eventually may be a possibility.  Perhaps now that I’m ready for the gore and torture, I can go through it again and concentrate on it’s other qualities.  Until then, I remain deeply disappointed in the remake.

Bruce Campbell, demi-god

Cover of "My Name Is Bruce"

Cover of My Name Is Bruce

The always versatile Bruce Campbell shows his ability to actually laugh at himself and the kinds of movies that he makes.  I’m not sure that the same could be said about every other actor and actress that has made a similar mark on pop culture.  Recently, I saw “My Name is Bruce“, which is sure to delight any Bruce Campbell fan.

The basis of the movie is this: Bruce’s acting career is tanking, and he’s kidnapped by a rabid fan who has accidentally unleashed the ancient Chinese god of War (and bean curd).  This fan thinks that Bruce will be able to save the town, based on his acting ability in such films as The Evil Dead.  Bruce thinks its a joke at first, but soon realizes that the sinister Chinese god is real, and coming after the people of the town.

This movie works on so many levels.  The first is that if you’re a fan of Bruce Campbell, well, then I don’t really need to say any more.  For fans of cheesy horror movies, you’ll find some fun in the laughable foe Guan-di (god of bean curd and war), whose red eyes are little more than glorified flashlights.  I found myself laughing almost every minute during the movie, due in no small part to Campbell’s ability to constantly lampoon himself.  (Perhaps that comes from knowing how much he means to the majority of the nerd-population, myself thoroughly included.)   There are some cameos of director Sam Raimi favorites, including his brother Ted, and a few guys who were in the original Evil Dead movies.  They make a few jokes about their previous roles, and they wear mostly the same clothing, so they’re pretty easy to spot.  If you’re a fan of Bruce Campbell and his movies, then you MUST see “My Name is Bruce”.

Vote in AMC’s Most Dangerous Zombie Hunter Poll !

AMC is hosting a “Most Dangerous Zombie Hunter Poll” right now.  The cool / unconventional part of this poll is that from the outset you can vote all the way to the win in one go.  Then everyone’s votes get tallied.

Andrew Lincoln (Rick Grimes, The Walking Dead) VS   Ken Foree (Peter, Dawn of the Dead – original)

Will Smith (Robert Neville, I Am Legend)  VS  Cillian Murphy (Jim, 28 Days Later)

Woody Harrelson (Tallahassee, Zombieland)  VS  Simon Pegg (Shaun, Shaun of the Dead)

Bruce Campbell (Ash “Ashley” Williams, The Evil Dead series)  VS  Milla Jovovich (Alice, Resident Evil series)

Now, first off, I’m not telling you who I’m voting for.  (If I were honest, I would admit its because I have no clue who I’m voting for just yet.  If I were dishonest, I’d say its because I want you to make up your own mind.)  This is only the first round in AMC’s poll, there are still a few other elimination rounds.  Keep track and vote at http://polls.amctv.com//chart/data/2623-lead-1.html.

For me, who I will ultimately vote for depends on a few factors.  The worst part is that they’re all really amazing characters with their own unique zombies to face.  So what exactly, defines the “most dangerous” (read: most unabashedly bad-ass) zombie fighter ?  Is it weapons prowess (Alice), or is it pure luck (Shaun) ?  Or perhaps crazy good catch phrases (Tallahassee and Ash might tie on this one…)  Perhaps its the ability to survive sprinting, drooling, rage-infested zombies (Jim) ?  Each of these characters represents a path in my downward spiral into full immersion of zombie culture…so I’m not sure how I’d even begin to choose.

{Update:  I just did the poll – no, I’m still not telling you who I voted for, and I got to the end.  Wasn’t terribly impressed.  It seems worth the conversation and the giggles, and its worth seeing what other people gave as reasons for who they picked.  Other than that, I highly disagree with the outcome.}