Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Naming of the Beasts (Felix Castor #5) (2009) by Mike Carey

The Naming of the Beasts (Felix Castor #5) (2009) by Mike Carey (a.k.a. M.R. Carey): Argh! Mike Carey hasn't written a Felix Castor novel since this one. Come back, Mike! Freelance exorcist Felix Castor finally gets his showdown with the demon Asmodeus, who's in possession of the body of Castor's best friend. Asmodeus is out and about in London, up to something that will free him from his unwanted mortal vessel without sending him screaming back to Hell. Meanwhile, the supernatural world seems to be shifting, changing the rules that have only been in place for the ten years since ghosts, demons, and other beings were inexplicably unleashed on Earth.

Castor is a fun hybrid of hard-boiled detective and snarky, ironic commentator. Carey's put a lot of thought into Castor's world, in which scientists and occultists alike try to master the spirit world before it masters them. If there's a flaw here, it's that it's hard to care about Felix's best friend Rafi. He willingly participated in the ritual that stuck Asmodeus in him. 

Moreover, we've never seen him unpossessed in the series: we're told over and over again what a charming rogue he is, but we never really have that shown to us. It makes the stakes somewhat light: like some of Castor's occult colleagues, I find it hard to justify worrying so much about keeping Rafi alive when the demon riding his body is racking up such a death toll. 

But other than that and a last couple of pages that reminds me of all those 1960's and 1970's American TV dramas that ended with everyone standing around laughing despite the catastrophes that came earlier in the episode, The Naming of the Beasts is a fun and often wildly imaginative ride. More Castor please! Recommended.

Bethany's Sin (1980) by Robert R. McCammon

Bethany's Sin (1980) by Robert R. McCammon: Horror vet McCammon's second published novel is a loopy, often purple piece of pulp horror. It's almost endlessly fascinating. I'm also pretty sure it holds the record for most uses of the phrase "female musk" in a non-pornographic novel. 

The novel pits a Viet Nam vet with childhood trauma issues (and Viet Nam torture issues... and psychic precognitive ability) against a supernatural cult of killer women who control the small Pennsylvania town of Bethany's Sin he and his wife and daughter have just moved to. The supernatural cult rides around on horses at night killing and dismembering men. And they intend to induct his wife and daughter into their ranks.

There are many flaws in this novel, a fact of which McCammon himself was later much aware -- for awhile, he all but disowned his first four novels. The wife especially is a narrative problem, a plot object rather than a convincingly realized character. The psychic abilities of the protagonist ultimately seem gratuitous -- the plot could unfold without them, and there's more than a hint of the wild talent vs. supernatural menace concept used much more expertly and organically in Stephen King's earlier The Shining

McCammon also severely undercharacterizes any possible allies the protagonist might find in Bethany's Sin: there are a lot of characters here, but the novel seems severely underpopulated. And the explanation for the name of the town, when it comes, would only really make sense if the town's origin came at least 100 years earlier. As is, the revelation provokes a bemused, "Really?", primarily because the explanation has been pounded into the wrong-shaped hole by a plot decision that isn't necessary or all that convincing.

But there's also a certain amount of fun here, and signs of a writer finding his voice at points. There's a highly unpleasant rape scene, but it non-stereotypically involves the rape of a male character by a trio women. Scenes set at the blighted wasteland of the dump depict a well-conceived Hell-in-miniature. And the protagonist is an almost emblematically tormented McCammon male protagonist. 

The climax owes too much to a few too many action movies and certain pulp cliches, especially those in which a character suddenly turns into a cross between Batman and Sgt. Rock after hundreds of pages of more realistic depiction. That could have been solved with a few more allies for our hero (Stephen King understood this in 'Salem's Lot), but McCammon wouldn't figure out how to create a group hero for purposes of verisimilitude for a few more books. 

The wife remains an annoying cipher to the very end, trussed up like Penelope Pitstop when she isn't repeatedly denying the town's essential weirdness. There's a certain amount of enjoyment here, clouded somewhat by some luridly purple descriptive passages and a whole lot of female musk. Lightly recommended.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Devil You Know (Felix Castor #1) (2006) by Mike Carey

The Devil You Know (Felix Castor #1) (2006) by Mike Carey (a.k.a. M.R. Carey): The prolific and enjoyable Mike Carey's first novel after more than a decade of fine work in comic-book writing on such titles as Hellblazer and Lucifer introduces us to London, England's favourite (ha!) freelance exorcist, Felix Castor. Castor moves through a world pretty much exactly like ours with one significant changed premise: about eight years before the events of this novel, various ghosts, spirits, and demons started to appear in the world. Now they're pretty much everywhere, with no real explanation as to why the afterlife expelled so many creatures and dead people.

Carey does a lovely job of giving us just enough back-story and exposition to keep us afloat in this strange new world. Exorcism is something that only certain individuals can do, regardless of religious affiliation (of which Castor has none). Castor plays tunes on a tin whistle to work his exorcisms, while others use anything from cat's cradles to more traditional bells, books, and candles. Exorcism is basically a state of mind and a talent linked to that mind that can take pretty much any form. When it works, exorcism sends the ghost away. Where? Castor doesn't know.

In this first adventure, the not-very-hard-boiled Castor takes an assignment to purge a rare documents library of a newly acquired ghost which seems to have arrived with a shipment of pre-Revolutionary Russian documents. 

Of course, nothing is as it seems. Castor will soon come to question the ethics of exorcism itself. He'll also have to face human crime-lords, a giant were-something that looks just barely human, and a succubus called up from Hell. There will also be an embarrassing moment at a wedding and a moment of seriocomic vengeance at an annoying teen's birthday party.

Everything goes down smoothly and enjoyably. Carey's imagination is a fun place to stroll around in, his characters deftly sketched, and Castor an occasionally guilt-wracked but generally witty and humane narrator. 

And then there's Castor's best friend Rafi, in an insane asylum with a demon welded to his soul. That's partially Castor's fault, and the Rafi story-line will gain in prominence as the five Felix Castor novels play out. Recommended.

The Missing (a.k.a. Virus) (2007) by Sarah Langan

The Missing (a.k.a. Virus) (2007) by Sarah Langan: Winner of the 2007 Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers' Association for Best Novel, The Missing is a horror novel of its time. Specifically, it makes a lot more sense when one thinks of U.S. adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of the tepid governmental response to Hurricane Katrina. This is a horror novel about how the Bush Administration lost a war against monsters. And I think that informs how it won that Best Novel award, because it's certainly not a great horror novel. Timely, though, and of its time.

The Missing is Sarah Langan's second novel. It takes place an almost literal stones-throw away from the setting of her first novel, The Keeper. They're both set in small-town Maine -- The Keeper in the run-down industrial town of Bedford and The Missing in the adjacent upscale town of Corpus Christi. The Keeper picks up about a year after the disastrous (for Bedford, anyway) supernatural events of The Keeper.

This time around, we begin in Salem's Lot territory, as a mysterious virus buried in the woods near Bedford infects a child and a teacher during an extremely ill-advised school field trip to the Bedford woods. The virus, which seems to be both sentient and telepathic, kills most people and turns the rest into what are basically amalgams of vampires, werewolves, and zombies. Corpus Christi could be in trouble. So, too, the world.

Langan's a pretty brave writer. She's not interested in providing sympathetic characters. Our main characters are instead deeply flawed. So flawed, indeed, that the novel eventually suffers. Harking back to my Bush thesis, the authorities in their entirety are utterly incompetent. Not the authorities of the town -- of the United States. Despite the fact that the virus causes its monsters to sleep during the day-time, nothing is done about them other than a half-hearted quarantine of the town, swiftly broken. We get the point -- it's Katrina all over again, but Katrina with monsters.

But between the incompetent indifference of the authorities and the incompetent unpleasantness of most of our protagonists, all of whom do at least one unforgivably stupid thing, we're left with an apocalypse one simply isn't invested in. And as the vampiric qualities of the monsters echo such novels as Salem's Lot, we're not even given an interesting apocalypse with unpleasant characters as we got in, say, Thomas Disch's The Genocides. Monsters run around killing and eating people. The disease spreads. Good times!

Langan is a solid writer, one gifted with the ability to create complex characters. There are a couple of people left to root for by the end of the novel. But the last fifty pages go by in a blur of telling and not showing, as the scale of the infestation suddenly goes national. It's a last fifty pages that seem to gesture towards a sequel that never materialized, one in the vein of Justin Cronin's later The Passage trilogy or even Max Brooks' World War Z.

And for all Langan's strengths, she's nonetheless created an unpleasant novel that fails to horrify in the end because its sub-textual critique of the Bush government forces its depiction of governmental response to a crisis into the realms of the absurd. Lightly recommended.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Deceased (1999) by Tom Piccirilli

The Deceased (1999) by Tom Piccirilli:  The late and much-lamented Tom Piccirilli's early horror novels were uniquely strange. Strange events, strange creatures, strange protagonists. The simplest of plot-lines could suddenly stop dead for disturbingly violent and/or sexual set-pieces. Characters might spend pages immersed in their own poetic maladjustment. The prose would push the limits of the purple and the florid, sometimes going way, way beyond the red-line. 

And it all worked as the expression of someone who wanted more out of the horror novel than simply plain prose and A-Z plotting.

The Deceased embodies Piccirilli's approach to horror. Indeed, there's almost no point describing it in all its pulpy, poetic, weird glory. It's about a young horror writer wrestling with the demons of his terrible past. Some of those demons are deceased members of his own family. There's pathetic fallacy and incest and tips on writing (seriously). There are strange things in the forest surrounding the ancestral home. There's that ancestral home with its weird construction and hideous facade. There are ghosts and monsters and voices from the past.

To borrow a phrase from somebody, it's all a bravura frenzy. It's also the sort of writing that seems to drive a certain type of reader, one looking for the straightforward and the plain style, completely nuts. You're watching a gifted writer assemble and disassemble himself simultaneously. It may not always be pretty, coherent, or even 'good' in a traditional sense, but it's compelling and very human. Recommended.