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Richard Thomas (Chicago, IL)

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United States of Japan
United States of Japan
by Peter Tieryas
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating vision., 24 May 2016
This review is from: United States of Japan (Paperback)
A powerful book, unsettling at times, surreal, and hypnotic. There's a bit of Philip K. Dick in here, and Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, especially the war sub-plot, but Peter Tieryas is his own voice, a talented author, somebody to keep an eye on for sure. I loved his last book, BALD NEW WORLD, and I loved this one, too.

The Visible Filth
The Visible Filth
by Nathan Ballingrud
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A dark, disturbing read., 30 Mar. 2015
This review is from: The Visible Filth (Paperback)
By witnessing, we become complicit. In Nathan Ballingrud’s unsettling and captivating novella, The Visible Filth, a simple act, a bit of curiosity, turns into something much darker—a poison that seeps into our flesh, unable to look away, a plague brought forth, the page becoming our undoing.

Bird Box
Bird Box
by Josh Malerman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best books of 2014., 31 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Bird Box (Paperback)

Bird Box by Josh Malerman is a dark, tense, and touching story that is incredibly hypnotic. It’s the story of one woman, Malorie, and the lengths she’ll go to in order to keep her boy and girl alive. In a unique twist on the contemporary post-apocalyptic novel, Malerman has created a monster so horrible that merely looking at it will drive you violently insane. How do you adapt? How do you survive?

Malerman creates tension with scenes that are so heavy and rife with dark possibility, I found myself sweating. Not figuratively, but literally sweating, reaching for a napkin or sleeve to mop my brow. Whether taking an ill-advised trip to neighboring houses looking for supplies, giving birth as the world goes to hell, or even getting water out of the well, the intensity never lets up:

“He hears something. Again. It sounds like wood popping in the distance.

When Felix turns he accidentally knocks the bucket off the well’s lip. It falls in; the crank turns without him. The bucket crashes to the bottom. The loud echoes of metal against stone. Jules calls to him. Felis, turning around, feels incredibly vulnerable. Again, he does not know where the sound comes from. He listens, breathing hard. Learning against the cobblestones, he waits.

Wind rustles the leaves of the trees.

Nothing else.”

The story gets more intense from there on out. Imagine the scariest situation you can think of, and then put your protagonist not only in the dark, but blindfold her. Trusting, for no reason at all, that the danger is in looking, not just in being. An amorphous creature is floating in the air, possibly right beside you. Don’t look, don’t panic…DON’T OPEN YOUR EYES. Just keep going.

Hard to do.

So you’re alone, flashing back in time from the present, to the past—what could make your plight more dangerous and vulnerable? Yes, pregnancy, and then later, birth—the children. In both time periods, we see how much danger Malorie is in when pregnant, and later, with her trained children, who sleep in mesh wire cages, cloth draped over the top, having learned to wake up without opening their eyes. She hovers over the babies, ready to blind them so that in a future moment of weakness, they will never look, never open their eyes and go insane.

In the most terrifying novels and films, the danger, the beast is always at a distance, something out there—until the moment that it’s in here. When the violence finally follows you home, the great all-seeing eye of destiny alighting on you, and yours, tag—you’re it. When Gary, a neighbor, shows up on the doorstep, setting off the bird box alarm (a cage of cooing birds that alerts the dwellers to any new presence) there is trepidation and fear. Over time, Gary becomes part of the family, but never trusted by Malorie. And like a ticking time bomb, doesn’t it always go off?

In addition to the daily life and rituals of the survivors in the house, we jump forward in time to a trip down a river—Malorie has trained her children to listen so well that the tiniest details reveal themselves in the quiet. Down the river they go, one obstacle after another, banking on the long shot of an ending where they might find others, where they might be saved. The enemies on this journey are her fellow man, rabid animals, and the creatures of course, the ones that make you go violently crazy—and the worst thing she can do is get injured, hurt, and pass out.

A brief excerpt from their trip, which involves, of course, birds:

…the voices of the birds rise in a grotesque wave, nearly symphonic, shrieking.

It sounds like there are too many for the trees to hold.

Like they make up the entire sky.

They sound mad. They sound mad. Oh my God they sound mad.

Malorie turns her head over her shoulder again, though she cannot see. The Boy heard a voice. The birds are mad. Who follows them?

But it no longer feels like something is following them. It feels like that something has caught up.

What amazes me is that this is Malerman’s first novel, especially the ways he made me care about these people, the way he got through to me, off the page, and into my life out here in the real world, making it hard to breathe. Part I Am Legend, part The Road, this dark, anxious, and hauntingly original novel was one of my favorite books of the year.

The Elvis Room
The Elvis Room
Price: £3.59

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beward The Elvis Room, 16 Jan. 2015
This review is from: The Elvis Room (Kindle Edition)
This was the usual SGJ brilliance—creepy, unusual, and something that will stay with me for a long time.

The View from Endless Street
The View from Endless Street
by Rebecca Lloyd
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.75

5.0 out of 5 stars Quite a view, 8 Jan. 2015
Powerful stories overflowing with emotion. Really enjoyed this collection.

Gory Hole: A Horror Triple Bill
Gory Hole: A Horror Triple Bill
Price: £2.45

5.0 out of 5 stars Be prepared. You have been warned., 3 Jun. 2014
When your laughter turns to tears, saline to bloody rivulets, you have found GORY HOLE by Craig Wallwork. A master storyteller, this trio of black comedy is lyrical prose dipped in deviant lust dusted with violent retribution—for the horror fan in us all.

In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods
In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods
by Matt Bell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £25.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A dark contemporary fable that is dense, touching and lyrical., 12 Sept. 2013

In Matt Bell's debut novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (Soho Press), we are lured into familiar territory--the world of fables and tall tales, where our expectations of the surreal, the grotesque, and the magical are fulfilled in ever-expanding layers. But beyond the illusions, beyond the world building, darkness, and the unknown is an allegory--a harsh yet beautiful lesson on what it means to be a man, a father, and a husband; to be a woman, a mother, and a wife. Told in layers, fractured into sections, unfolding in a grand tapestry that weaves emotions and actions into a complex series of destinies and consequences, this novel is not an easy read. But the reward is dense prose, powerful psychoanalysis, and the unsettling feeling that our own actions today--many miles from the woods with its failing bear, and its lake with its undulating squid--might be bound by similar rules and outcomes.

Our story begins in a land where a man and wife have left behind the busy city and the noise of commerce for the peace, beauty, and solitude of a distant body of water, a forest filled with life, and a simple plot of land upon which to build their humble home. But as the sentences unfold, the language teases anxiety out of every split log and trapped animal, every shadow and echo and bird call. Reality is not the same here--songs bring life to the quiet land and put moons in the sky--building, destroying, and transforming:

Things were odder here than they were elsewhere, and most stories were not written as clearly: On the other side of the lake, across the mountains, the truth had been inscribed in the stars, and could not be changed. Here, upon the dirt, my wife had wiped clean that sky-flung slate, and so I was not sure what to believe, or where to look to rediscover what once I had simply known.

To have one's faith in reality, in God, in self, shaken like this is to let in an endless array of possibilities--both good, and bad. They come to this land to have a child, but are instead granted one miscarriage after another --the process, the death, the blood and anguish grinding them down into a paste of crushed expectations.

Where a lesser author may have shied away from the reality of these losses, here the gore and brutal truth remain on the page, lyrical in their violence, horrible in their honesty:

What sad and sorry shape was born from her after those next days, that labor made long despite the lack of life within:

Not an arm, but an arm bud. Not a leg, but a leg bud, a proto-knee.

Not a heart but a heart bulge.

Not an eye but an eye spot, half-covered by a translucent lid, uselessly clear.

Not a baby, instead only this miscarriage, this finger's length of intended and aborted future.

And what was not born: No proper umbilical cord, snaked from mother to baby, from placenta to belly, and so the starved child passed from my wife's body into a clot of blood and bed sheet, and then into my waiting hand, where I lifted it before my eyes to look upon its wronged shape, that first terminus of my want.

Then to my lips, as if for a single kiss, hello and goodbye.

Then no kiss at all, but something else, some compulsion that even I knew was wrong but could not help, so strong was my sadness, so sudden my desire: into my body I partook what my wife's had rejected, and while she buried her face in the red ruin of our blankets I swallowed it whole--its ghost and its flesh small enough to have in my fist like an extra finger, to fit into my mouth like an extra tongue, to slide further in without the use of teeth--and I imagined that perhaps I would succeed where she had failed, that my want for family could again give our child some home, some better body within which to grow.

The shock of this scene, the horror, the love--it is unbearable. And yet, we bear it. This is a dark moment, a secret we will share with this man, the entire act, the bloodshed, the loss merely a parade of black--one layer of darkness after another.

The world around the characters changes, these failed births pushing them apart, the husband left to hunt and gather, the wife to sing her songs into the air, making and unmaking, losing herself in the process. They should stop. They must stop--this is not their fate. Every animal caught and buried, comes back to life, altered and bent, never whole again--"a mink without its fur, or else this beaver without the squared hatchet of its teeth, gnawing useless at a trunk it had no chance of opening." Whatever he touches, it is tainted, a great sadness washing over their world, the light slipping away with every selfish act. Rooms appear, stairs descend, objects and creatures and moments are conjured, are trapped, existing in ways that they never should. It is not right. And the bear watches, the squid waits, and the house upon the dirt squats in exhaustion, waiting to expand.

Eventually the child inside the man will be known to us as the fingerling, and the wife will leave, she will disappear, and return with a son that is known as the foundling--secrets and lies their blankets and pillows, a sour taste left in bitter mouths. Even though nothing is right, they continue. The man acts as a man feels he should, doing what he can--hunting, fishing, building--anything to have a fixed goal, to act, instead of comprehending his actions, her actions, and the possible consequences. The foundling lives in the shadow of his mother, and the father is left out in the cold--unable to reveal his secret minnow, the fingerling that lives within him, unable to bond with his boy, the flesh that is not quite right. What frustration:

Soon the foundling bawled every dusk when I approached the house, even when I came empty-handed: for while it was his mother who cooked for him, he saw only that it was I who fished and trapped, skinned and slaughtered and butchered, and even though he had no trouble sharing in the meals we made it became my wife he thanked, and me he feared.

What to do? The sustenance met with pale, empty faces--the lack of gratitude setting fire to a slow boil that will eventually bubble over.

But scattered between these dark moments, are stories, rooms, and images of their love, is proof that what they have is good, is supposed to be alive, meant to survive the horrors and desperate acts. What he will later call the deep house, a plenitude of rooms filled with one captured moment after another:

And in this room: The times my wife touched me while I was asleep, happening here in sequence but cut away from their context, their chronology recognizable only by the changes in my body, in hers. How long she persisted. How I thought throughout that we were already estranged, that in out silences we were to come undone, unravel from our bonds. And yet in this room she ran her hands beneath the sheets, across the width of my widening back, traced her fingers through the salts of the day's working, then wrapped her arm around the slumbering bulk of my belly, that round shape girthed heavier than that she had first married, that she then still loved.

You can feel a heavy sigh wash over the pages of the book, these moments that were missed, these quiet blessings that went unnoticed.

The novel expands in many different directions--the bear has her own story, and becomes an accomplice, as well as a continued enemy, her loyalties in a constant state of flux; the fingerling exists inside the husband, jealous of the foundling, making his needs known, giving, and then taking away, healing and hurting in equal measure; the wife leaves, and eventually, is found, all the while our protagonist striving to understand why, to ask the darkness why, to never grasp what brought this circle of hell to his doorstep.

It isn't until the final pages, the acts continuing when it certainly must end, that our hero, our villain, finally understands that "no longer did I need to know all the seats of power," that his surrender, his lack of self, would lead him to the place he had been striving to find all along--and all he had to do was let himself be saved.

You can certainly compare this dense, powerful, and heartbreaking novel to other fabulists, such as Kafka, Calvino, and Borges, but Matt Bell's writing also owes a debt of gratitude to Cormac McCarthy, Kelly Link, Benjamin Percy, and Aimee Bender. In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods can only really be compared and assigned to one voice--Matt Bell's--which is unique, innovative, captivating, and hypnotic in a way that only he can make it. This is a book that will be talked about, dissected, and shared for years to come because it is not only his story, it is our story--every single one of us.

Don't Kiss Me
Don't Kiss Me
by Lindsay Hunter
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Dysfunctional stories of Southern gothic love and loss., 26 Aug. 2013
This review is from: Don't Kiss Me (Paperback)

Lindsay Hunter owes as much to Denis Johnson as she does to Mary Gaitskill. Her short stories, collected in Don't Kiss Me (FSG Originals) do not hesitate to descend into the primal urges and dark, lusty behaviors that make us all animals at our core, but they also shine a light on the truth, a nugget of goodness at the center of what is quite often a lonely, depraved and tragic journey, one blanketed in a desire to be seen, to be loved--no matter who we are, or what we've done. Hunter's characters work at diners and long to be included, they take care of their children while embracing their shortcomings, they chase boys into cornfields and kiss their best girlfriends, all the while longing to feel special and included.

One of the early stories in this her second short story collection, "Dishes" starts off in typical Lindsay Hunter fashion, setting the stage by showing us the raw recounting of every humble and embarrassing moment--no filter, just a mix of pride and surrender:

"At breakfast my kid practices his ABCs and barfs into his cereal bowl just before Q. My other kid points out how the barf had splashed onto the table in the shape of Oklahoma. I don't tell him it looks more like Texas, he's a little kid and if he wants to mistake Texas for Oklahoma it's no skin off my tit. My husband wipes up the barf and I watch his shorts bunch in his ass."

There is so much going on here. First, it's funny, right? Whether you've been there a million times before, or this whole scene is a window into what parenthood might look like, the casual retelling, the "no skin off my tit," summons up laughter. Later, as a chorus through the story, our protagonist keeps saying, "Big girls gotta eat!" She laughs at the fact that she's overweight, she knows it, and she embraces it. She is who she is. You can almost picture her shrugging her shoulders as she says it. Her son packs her a lunch of nothing but Fruit Roll-Ups, Tootsie Rolls, half of a juice box, and a single Goldfish cracker. It's funny, it's sweet--and it's kind of sad. We go along with the joke, but quite often after the punch line, there is an extended darkness that hangs in the air to remind us that these are people, not jokes--these are real lives, not just there for our amusement. Take the final lines from this same story, "Dishes" and tell me how it feels:

"...a song about a lonely desert wandered starts, I pass tacos pizzas chicken ice cream barbeque. The sky is pink meatblood, is a runny sorbet, the sun is a melting butterscotch, the sky is a dirty plate."

Not so good, I think.

Another story that does a great job of luring us in with soft memories and sweet adolescence is "Three Things You Should Know About Peggy Paula." This might be my favorite story in the collection, and since it leads off the book, Lindsay Hunter may agree with me. The first thing we learn is that Peggy works in a diner, where she watches the popular kids come in after games and dances, always in the shadows, picking up lost lipsticks, making them her own, transferring the lust and heady glow that the girls have to her own seduction of the red-headed dishwasher weeks later.

The second things we learn is that "Peggy Paula has a kidney-shaped scar on her lower back from falling backward out an open window backward at a disco." She went there to meet men, but it was a gay nightclub, so she didn't have any luck. Tumbling into a dumpster, pissed on by an apologetic blonde boy, this is a memory that she cherishes, even though she was hurt, even robbed by the club goer. The memory she clings to is that he called her special.

The third thing we learn about Peggy Paula is that she is having an affair with a married man who worked at the local video store. Throughout the story we get all of the sweaty moments in back seats, the desperation and grunting, the echo of shut doors as these men use her, and walk away. But what brings the story full circle, what really punches you in the gut are the final lines of the story, after they've been caught, what Lindsay Hunter does best--showing us the truth and motivation that drove Peggy to commit these questionable acts:

"...and maybe that's why she let the man in two nights later, had to see his eyes, had to feel again, and she kept letting the man in, she kept letting the man in, his smell the hair on his chest the delicate skin above his pelvis the muscles in his thighs his calloused hands the shapes of his toes the gold in his eyes the missing molar the mole on his back the heart in his chest the breaths in and out he was alive he was another he was a man and Peggy Paula let him, she let him, because if no one is there to touch you are you even really there?"

If you don't take a deep breath there, and let out a heavy sigh, nodding your head, maybe tearing up a bit, swallowing your judgment, muttering, "Damn," under your breath--then maybe you don't have a heart, just a lump of coal where that pumping, anxious beast should rest.

And the taboo--what about that, the deviant, the sexual, the secrets? That's another part of what makes Lindsay Hunter such a brilliant writer, her willingness to risk everything on the page, to say what we're all thinking, to reveal those moments we'd prefer the world never saw. Here are two quick examples.

The first is from "Plans," where our female lead kisses a teacher, and steals a lipstick, just to see how it feels, to get that rush of adrenaline:

"I wore that lipstick one night when we all met up to swim and it was so dark I let a boy take off my bottoms, the lipstick smeared and greasy all around my mouth and its crayon smell all over the boy, and then I put a ribbon on that lipstick and gave it to Momma for Christmas."

She likes to cross lines, break rules--stealing, kissing teachers, taking off her pants at the lake, the dirty lipstick now a gift to her mother? "Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?" you might ask. It seems that she does.

And then there is "Me and Gin." It's a sweet story on the surface, but just under the bruised flesh is a dysfunctional childhood, parents that are damaged and absent, friendships that are anything but healthy. The opening lines:

"Me and Gin play Lips. This a game where you see how long you can touch lips before you need to scream. Gin always the one screaming first, I guess not always, sometimes I scream first cause I don't want to seem like no weird lips lover.

Me and Gin's both girls. See."

And no, I'm not giving you all of the juicy parts in this review, you'll have to pick up the book and read it yourself.

When I think of the rabbits in "Summer Massacre," it immediately reminds me of "Emergency" by the aforementioned Denis Johnson. When I read the slick sex in the back seat of a car in "Three Things You Should Know About Peggy Paula," I think of the previously cited Mary Gaitskill and the power struggle that is "Romantic Weekend." When I pause to remember "Plans" and the final words of the boy hovering over our girl when she says, "I ain't no bitch like your brother called me," and he answers, as they finish their grunting and heaving, "Ain't you, he said, ain't you?" I'm transported to the heartbreak that is the final scene in "Life Expectancy" by Holly Goddard Jones. But whatever other voices flitter about you as you read Don't Kiss Me, familiar dysfunction, dark roads you've been down before, know that Lindsay Hunter is an original, she is fearless, and she will always be a soothsayer--telling stories with heart, compassion, and authority.

Red Moon
Red Moon
by Benjamin Percy
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £5.83

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The future of literary horror is Benjamin Percy., 26 Jun. 2013
This review is from: Red Moon (Hardcover)

Red Moon is not merely about the werewolf, that familiar history and archetype--no, Red Moon (Grand Central) by Benjamin Percy is a brilliant blend of genre horror and literary poetics that reveals the creature in us all, and a debate about what it is to be human and where our priorities rest. Weaving a hypnotic tapestry of connected stories, Percy allows us to follow a cast of characters, good and bad, on an epic journey that distills the heart and soul of other classic post-apocalyptic tales such as The Stand, The Road, and Swan Song. Part of the new movement of genre-bending work that is dominating publishing today, Percy has written a novel that is approachable and yet layered, familiar and yet unique, ancient and achingly visionary.

Red Moon is the story of Claire Forrester, a young woman who sees her parents killed in the name of national security, soon to become one of the hunted. It is the story of Patrick Gamble, the lone survivor of a terrorist act aboard an airplane flight that feels eerily similar to recent terrorist acts, and shows us exactly how violent the lycans (what Percy calls his werewolves) can be. And it is the story of Chase Williams, a newly elected president who inherits the nightmare of the lycan uprising, and vows to repair the damaged and fractured United States.

Driving this novel is Percy's uncanny ability to write with authority. This ability reveals itself in many different ways--in a narrative of the near future where a lycan presence feels like a possibility, not a fantasy; in using his knowledge of technology and firearms to educate us as a Ranger or Green Beret might; and in his portrayal of rural landscapes, mostly the Pacific Northwest, as lush, haunting, and layered settings where the violence and desperation unfolds at an alarming rate.

Take this brief excerpt from early in the book, where Patrick is describing Portland:

"He doesn't mind the landscape. The deep-rutted glaciers glowing from the Cascades. The thickly forested foothills with their hiking trails and bear-grass meadows and whitewater rivers. And then, to the east, the sprawl of the sage flats interrupted by the occasional striped canyon, the bulge of a cinder cone. Hanging above all of this sky, that high-altitude sky, as clear and blue as the stripe inside a marble."

It is not only a depiction of nature in all of its tranquil beauty, but a language that is certainly foreign to city-dwellers, the flora and fauna a backdrop that urban residents may never have seen. Percy shows us the landscape in a way that educates and informs while painting a vivid and visceral picture.

Or take this quick description of a handgun by Miriam, an ally of Claire's, her distant aunt, and weapons expert:

"Miriam gives her a quick lesson on the Glock 17. Austrian-made semiautomatic pistol. Self-loading. Polymer frame. Checkered grip. Used by virtually every law enforcement agency. Outperforms any other handgun on the market for ease, accuracy, and durability. Seventeen-round double-stack magazine."

If you've never shot a gun before, you just got schooled, and if this were your aunt, and the woods were contracting around your cabin, movement in the night, a heavy thud on the roof, windows nailed shut, and boarded up--this is the lesson you might need.

Beyond the authority that Percy lends this novel, there is the constant sense of unease and foreshadowing that permeates this story. It is something as simple as a word choice here and there--teeth snapping together with a clack, an open mouth gasping for air, lips smacking, muscles tightening, every snapping stick in the forest the revealed weight of your impending doom. Take this passage from early in the novel where a lycan struggles to hold down his transformation, waiting for the right moment to rise up and destroy the passengers of an airline flight, his every twitch and shudder taking us that much closer to the violence of his release:

"He has not eaten this morning, his stomach an acidic twist. But the smell of fast food, of sausage and eggs, is too much for him. His hunger rolls over inside him. He orders a breakfast sandwich and paces while he waits for it. When his number is called, when he collects the bag, he rips it open and can barely find his breath as he shoves the sandwich in his mouth and gnaws it down. Then he licks the grease off the wrapper before crumpling it up to toss in the garbage. He suckles his fingertips. He wipes his hand along his thigh, unconcerned as he smears his pants with grease, and then glances around, wondering if he has caught anyone's attention. And he has. An old woman--with a dried-apple face and dandelion fluff hair--sits in a nearby wheelchair, watching him, her mouth open and revealing a yellowed ridgeline of teeth. `You're pretty hungry,' she finally says."

You almost laugh, and yet, you know what is coming. The details of this scene are intense, the camera slowing down to capture every moment and clue, and you are the lycan for a moment--the anxiety and panic washing over you, waiting for the scene to unfold, the restraint to disappear, and the beast to unfold.

And it doesn't take long for that first violent scene to appear on the page as well. While Percy's prose isn't quite as dense and obtuse as the passages Cormac McCarthy made famous in books such as Blood Meridian, the scalping, bloodshed, and graphic feeding frenzies of the lycans are not ignored. It would have been easy for Percy to turn the camera away, and let us fill in the gaps, but he doesn't do that, and he should be applauded for that courage. In lesser hands, the gore would be the story, instead of a necessary part of the dangerous ability the lycans carry with them at all times. In a stuffy literary voice, the nature of the beast might be glossed over entirely. Percy finds a balance--one that supports the story, the character of his protagonists, and the dark tone of the novel, inherent in every page.

Much like vampires that sparkle in the sunshine, pale imitations of the dark night fliers that haunt Stoker and King alike, Percy's werewolves are animals first, and human second, their transformations startling and violent, their behavior terrifying and convincing. Here is what finally happens when the lycan we just witnessed finally loses control, a terrorist weapon unleashed on the innocent, with horrific results:

"The lycan moves so quickly it is difficult for Patrick to make sense of it--to secure an image of it--except that it looks like a man, only covered in a downy gray hair, like the hair of [a] possum. Teeth flash. Foam rips from a seat cushion like a strip of fat. Blood splatter, decorating the porthole windows, dripping from the ceiling. It is sometimes on all fours and sometimes balanced on its hind legs. Its back is hunched. Its face is marked by a pronounced blunt snout that flashes teeth as long and sharp as bony fingers, a skeleton's fist of a smile. And its hands--oversize and pouched and decorated with long nails--are greedily outstretched and slashing the air. A woman's face tears away like a mask. Ropes of intestine are yanked out of a belly. A neck is chewed through in a terrible kiss. A little boy is snatched up and thrown against the wall, his screams silenced."

And that's only one paragraph of the scene, which sets the tone early, and never eases up. This is not a novel of gore and slick violence--it is a journalistic reporting of a horror that will hopefully never materialize in our reality, told with a lyrical voice that is hypnotic and unsettling. By showing us what Patrick sees in a cold, calculated manner, we are made to feel what Patrick feels--terror, revulsion, and vulnerability. The violence is a necessary part of this tale, but not sensationalized. Much like in war, and the battle scenes he shows us, it is not pretty, not heroic--but tragic, and that is clearly evident in the remorse and suffering his surviving characters endure, the depth of emotion that Percy reveals.

Once you've tucked into the narrative, it is impossible to put down. We follow Claire on the run, we track Patrick into forbidden areas, and we watch the rebellion of beasts named Magog, Puck, and Balor. We root for the good guys, and when they get infected, our loyalties waver--the outcome not as cut and dry as when we started--the vaccine hidden in a backpack, waiting for a fall or bullet to shatter the glass. And we are uncertain which is the better fate--because love, friendship, and trust overcome these differences, and the violence, selfishness, and vengeance of man become the real monster in this story.

I'm not a huge fan of werewolf stories, and my relationship with another popular horror staple, vampires, has been limited to Stoker, King, and Rice. What Ben Percy has done for this niche of horror is elevate it, transcend it, and leave behind a literary narrative that we will be reading for years to come. I was a fan of his last novel, The Wilding, and his short story collections, The Language of Elk, and Refresh, Refresh, but this may be his best work to date. Don't take it from me, but from the words of Peter Straub, a master of literary horror: "With Red Moon one of our most blazingly gifted young writers stakes his claim to national attention." I couldn't agree more.

by Frank Bill
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £7.76

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gritty rural story that layers brutality over compassion., 18 April 2013
This review is from: Donnybrook (Hardcover)

If your best chance of securing a future is to fight in a "Donnybrook," a three day fighting match where ponying up $1,000 gets you in, and your chances of getting out in one piece are slim, then maybe you need to reconsider the path you have chosen. Frank Bill's gritty, violent, and grim debut novel, Donnybrook (FSG Originals) is not for the faint of heart, as the body count is high, and the actions desperate and brutal. But buried in the bruised flesh are the stories of Jarhead, a desperate fighter, Angus, a drug dealer, and Fu, a martial arts enforcer--men with a strange sense of honor that lurks beneath their questionable actions, doing what they have to do in order to survive, to protect their own, and to please their employers. Meth cookers and dealers, drunks and addicts, whores and hustlers, they all scrounge for a meager existence, one that inevitably leads them to the Donnybrook.

In order to fully appreciate the actions of our cast of characters, you have to be able to picture the settings of Southern Indiana, the way some people live down there. With an authority that reveals his many years in these rural towns, Frank Bill shows us in vivid details the places and sensations of life on the fringe:

"Logs had started to moss over. Matched the tin roof's shade, hunter green. The Blue River ran just as green on the other side of the road. That hint of fish smell wafted into Whalen's inhale. The yard was littered with beer cans and pine needles. A small brown fridge sat on the wooden deck up next to the cabin's front door."

You can almost hear the purdy, purdy, purdy of a Cardinal in the distance, a flash of its red feathers, the rapid-fire pecking of a Pileated Woodpecker like gunfire. Wood smoke, and the sound of gravel under tires as they slow to a stop, the world that Frank Bill has created is a backdrop for the violence that unfolds at every turn.

But Frank Bill's gift for realistic, layered settings isn't the only way that he pulls you into his story. He creates tension by showing us the paranoia of his shady characters as they go about their dark deeds, and by revealing that, in many instances, that sensation of being watched, of being tracked, is not unfounded. Scattered across the countryside, these lost souls are hidden in the woods, lurking in haylofts, squatting in abandoned cabins, and up to no good:

"He'd watched the towering man enter the barn. Same man he'd watched smoking nights back. Sized him up as he gazed at the tools and animal traps on the wall. Watched one of his long arms decorated with inked lettering, vines, and skulls remove the sickle from the wall while his other arm touched a gun handle pressed down the front of his waistband. The sight drove a shiver through his figure.

He pulled the spit from the flame with an animal-hide glove, blowing the meat to cool it, wonder what the man and women were doing in the old house, what they were cooking the other night that smelt so god-awful. Biting into the meat, he hoped they'd leave soon. Or he'd have to bring chaos to the farm like his father had years ago."

Frank Bill lays out these steppingstones, and we follow him down that path. But we are never quite sure who is the spider and who is the fly. What's that line from the award-winning comic by Alan Moore, The Watchmen: "Who watches the watchmen?" In this case, too, the guardians and heroes of our story are criminals and deviants, antiheroes, and here too we are counting on them to get us through this story intact, even rooting for one man over another, to win the Donnybrook, to get back home safe to his wife and kids, no matter how many scurrilous men he kills.

And what of that Donnybrook? The novel builds to that moment for 145 pages, as we wait to see what happens when all of our main characters descend on the farmland of Bellmont McGill. We are not denied the spectacle and sport. It is everything we hoped it would be, and more:

"In the frays of field grass there were enough dented, dirty, and rusted vehicles to fill ten football fields, maybe more. From them, onlookers got out with lawn chairs and provisions. Set up camp. Their forest fires scented the air with smoke and the whole chickens or slabs of venison, goat, squirrel, rabbit, or coon they grilled. It's what they'd do for the next three days. Sell their food to others. Sit chasing pills and crank with swigs of bourbon or home brew. Watch twenty men enter a thirty-by-thirty barbed-wire ring, fight till one man was left standing. Then another twenty numbers were called for the next free-for-all. Till Sunday, when the winning men were left to fight till one man stood bloody and toothless waiting for his cash prize."

And what of these men? What are they made of? They are raw hunger and brute strength:

"They circled and bumped on another like predators. Men with talcum teeth, skin cleaved by scars. Hair braided, slicked, or stringy. Short or shaved. Bearded or stubbled. Tall. Short. Lean, hard, or fat-bellied. They came in all demeanors. Donning bibs or jeans ragged as the boots laced around their feet. These were the backwoods bare-knuckle fighters."

Above and beyond the fighting and betrayal--the broken arms, shattered teeth, and bloodstained canvas--Frank Bill is able to make us care about these men. We root for Jarhead to make it out alive, knowing his options in life are limited, his family counting on him to get back home alive. We marvel at the calm violence that is Fu, his ability to torture and disarm, to make the human body do exactly what he wants, with his martial arts voodoo, and his needles. We watch the bloodshed unfold with gape-jawed wonder at the vengeance Angus inflicts on those that have betrayed him, hesitant to align ourselves with him, but understanding his need for justice, anyway. With an unflinching eye, Frank Bill has created a dark world, one of desperation and loss, showing us a part of the country, and humanity, that we would be smart to avoid. There is danger and death on this roller coaster ride, but we pay our admission, and climb aboard, nonetheless--grinning as we hold our ticket, strapped in and ready to go--sweaty and sick, swallowing back bile, our eyes wide open to the horrors that lie ahead.

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