Sunday, October 20, 2013

Book Review: The Rising and City of the Dead by Brian Keene

Before these two novels, I had read Keene's novels Gathering of Crows and Darkness on the Edge of Town. Both were enjoyable and made it obvious that Keen had a thing for mass havoc and the destroying the world. It's no surprise that his first novel was a zombie apocalypse novel. Quick disclaimers: The version of The Rising that I read is the original version from the now-defunct Dorchester Publishing. The version currently imprint from Deadite Press has a lot of extra material. Also, one of Deadite's editors sent me a review copy of City of the Dead. Now that that's out of the way...

The Rising

Jim Thurmond has managed to stave off the zombies that have taken over the Earth and hole himself up in a shelter. What he misses most is his son Danny, who is several states away with his ex-wife. When he gets a call from Danny and realizes he's still alive, he sets off to save his son. Along the way, he meets a preacher struggling to keep the faith, an ex-prostitute and junkie,a guilt-ridden scientist who had a hand in bringing the zombies to life, and a demented military officer.

The Rising is just a fun read. It's not hard to see why it won a Bram Stoker award for first novel. This is the kind first novel that signals the beginning of a long and fruitful career in horror writing.

In addition to being fun to read, Keene has a unique take on zombies. As well as being fast, the zombies are also intelligent enough to speak, use weapons, and organize. It's not just humans that come back as zombies either. Birds, dogs, bats, rats, and cats all come back from the dead as well. To make things worse for the human race, a body doesn't have to be bitten to become a zombie. Any corpse that dies comes back as a zombie. With all of these advantages on the zombies' side, it's very easy to believe they would quickly overwhelm humanity and cause societal collapse.

One of the stronger parts of The Rising is how well he balances the world at large with the lives of the individual characters. Given the unique zombies it would have been easy to get lost in the complexities of them and lose the human element altogether. Keene doesn't do that. There's enough back story to most of the characters to make them feel like more than pawns in the grand scheme of things. From the preacher Martin's attempts to figure out how zombies fit in with his concept of the divine, to Frankie the ex-whore kicking her heroin addiction, and of course Jim's determination to reach his son, The Rising is driven just as much by its characters. This said, one of the biggest flaws of the book (or at least the version I read) is that there are enough characters that they could have stood to be fleshed out a little a more. The sadistic Colonel Schow is almost kind of cartoony in how evil he acts.

The plot is actually fairly simple. In fact, the way Jim and the companions he meets on his journey go about, it feels rather episodic. This isn't a bad thing really. It gives us a chance to see this world of Keene's zombies from different perspectives, and it still manages to culminate in a fun climax. A lot of people were pissed off by the ending (which I won't spoil) when this first came out, but I personally think it was a ballsy move on Keene's part to give us this kind of ending. Either way, there was enough demand for a sequel that he eventually wrote one.

Buy The Rising Here

City of the Dead
(Warning: Spoilers for The Rising ahead)

Built to withstand almost anything, Ramsey Tower in the heart of New York City is humanity's last stronghold against the zombie forces. Ramsey, the corporate executive who owns the tower, is doing everything he can to round up survivors and bring them into the tower. Among one of the several rescued is Jim Thurmond, his son Danny, Danny's neighbor Don, and Frankie. Reunited with this son and his story of traveling across the zombie infested country to save him an inspiration to the other survivors, it seems like we've got our happy Hollywood ending. That is, until the zombies start to become more and more organized and double their efforts on attacking the Tower.

Like The Rising, City of the Dead is a fun page turner. In contrast to the previous book which had Jim and his friends running all over the ravaged countrysides and small towns of the east coast, this book takes place almost entirely in New York City. Specifically in the Ramsey tower. The atmosphere here is incredibly claustrophobic as a result. This doesn't make the book feel any smaller though. Keene gives enough detail to how the rest of the world is falling down to remind us we're in the middle of an apocalypse.

Like with The Rising, Keene introduces so many characters, he doesn't get a chance to properly flesh them all out. Don, the new member of Jim's crew, feels especially generic and like he doesn't get much to do. Also, while the moments between the reunited Jim and Danny are usually touching, there are a few times where it slips into bathos.

None of this detracts from the book too much. City of the Dead manages to continue Keene's zombie apocalypse story without succumbing to simply repeating the first book. In fact, City of the Dead could very well be read on its own.

I would highly recommend both The Rising and City of the Dead to fans of zombies and to fans of horror in general.

Buy City of the Dead here.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Book Review: Apeshit by Carlton Mellick III

Desdemona is the only girl on the cheerleading squad with a mohawk.
How can a novel with that opening line not be worth reading?

As Mellick himself says in the introduction, Apeshit is a love letter to B-grade horror films, especially slashers. The plot of the book self-consciously uses the extremely cliché set up of six teenagers going out to party in the woods. Bad shit happens. This being a Carlton Mellick novel, it's not the kind of bad shit you'd expect. 

It's kind of hard to talk about the plot in detail without going into too many spoilers. Mellick takes all of the tropes of slasher films and turns them on their heads. For one thing, the killer in Apeshit isn't even the one that draws first blood. That honor goes to one of the teenagers attempting suicide. In fact, most of the book is more about the teens dealing with their bizarre problems than with a killer after them. Problems like vagina dentana, abortion fetishism, AIDS, and sexually confused three-ways. 
Stephanie is in the van brushing her teeth. She always brushes her teeth whenever she's nervous. She has brushed her teeth five times today already. White foam is drooling out of her mouth onto her knees her mind is in another place.
Mellick's simple and straightforward prose makes this read almost like a script (appropriate given the main influences) and adds a layer of dead pan humor through the whole affair. As fucked up and gorey as the proceedings get, Apeshit never takes itself too seriously. The result is a great balance of humor, gore, melodrama, and even a little bit of pathos.
Jason's father wasn't afraid of anything. Not a single thing. It was his goal in life to make sure Jason was not afraid of anything, either. Whenever he learned of something Jason was afraid of, he would make him face that fear.
The biggest flaw I see in this is that people going in expecting a plot driven horror story are going to be disappointed. The plot is dead simple with all of the entertainment value coming from the characters and the fucked up shit that happens to them. And that they do. 

Apeshit is just a bloody good read and hard to put down even as gross and over the top as it gets. I'd highly recommend this to fans of horror fiction and to anyone wanting to dive head first into the Bizarro genre. Personally, I'm also looking forward to reading its just released sequel Clusterfuck.

Buy Apeshit here.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Book Review: Son of a Bitch by Andre Duza and Wrath James White

It's October! Time to read some horror books.

First up, let's take a look at a brief but fun collaboration from Deadite Press. (Disclaimer: One of Deadite's editors sent me a review copy of this.)

Andre Duza and Wrath James White have so much common, both in their style (horror that tends towards the extreme and bizarre, often with elements of urban fiction) and in their personal lives (both are family men and have a background in martial arts), that a collaboration between the two seems almost too obvious. It's actually kind of surprising how short and straight-forward the end result turned out.

Demetrius is an underground breeder who breeds attack and fighting dogs. After he finds out one of his dogs is being used in Voodoo sex rituals, his conscience gets the better of him.
As soon as he heard what they were up to, he knew he had to get her back. He’d have never sold them the dog in the first place, no matter how much money they offered, if he’d known they were going to gang rape the damned thing.
When he gets the bitch back, he finds that she's pregnant. Soon, she gives birth to what is clearly not a normal puppy. The fact it tears apart and eats its mother being a pretty clear sign.
“Man, this shit can’t be happening. This mutherfucker can’t be real. I must have smoked some bad shit. Shit like this ain’t supposed to be!” His mind kept screaming at him. Yet there it sat, splashing around in the blood and entrails of its mother, purring and cooing contentedly.  
To make matters even worse, the dog demon ends up eating the heart of a sadistic hitman named Warlock. This causes Warlock's soul to be bound into the demon's body. Demetrius and Warlock set out to find a way to free his soul from the creature's body, but everything seems to go wrong along the way.

Son of a Bitch proves to be a real page turner. It's a sex and violence filled thrill ride with some very funny moments.
“I’m nasty? Yo, have you looked in the mirror lately? Your face looks like a Sloppy Joe.”

“That’s it. I’m killing your ass right now. I don’t care if I have to drive this mutherfucker with my damn paws!”

“Okay, okay, I’ll chill. Damn, don’t be so sensitive.”
Other than that, there's not much to say about it. It's a brief (less than 90 pages) but fun and satisfying read, but given what I had read from both authors before, I expected a little more. I feel like Duza and White could come up with something really brilliant if they did another collaboration and really aimed high. My other complaint with this book is the editing (though this just may be my review copy). While not egregiously bad, there is still a high ratio of errors to the length.

Still, if you want an entertaining book that reads like an urban Dead Alive-esque horror comedy, you should definitely pick up Son of a Bitch.

Buy Son of a Bitch here.