Midnight Duets, edited by Robert Swartwood / ***

downloadAuthor’s note: Midnight Duets is a collection of three novellas, each co-written by a different pair of thriller writers. I bought it some time ago, but it’s no longer available; at this point, you have to buy each of the three novellas separately. As a result, I decided that it would be better to write each of the novellas as a separate review…and that was before I found out that the third novella was F. Paul Wilson and Sarah Pinborough’s A Necessary End, which I had already read and reviewed earlier this year. (I wasn’t a giant fan.) So what’s below are some short, more capsule-style reviews for the other two novellas. Short answer: even as a collection of three novellas for a cheap price, I don’t know that I’d recommend the collection, and that might go less for buying them individually.


Robert Swartwood and David B Silva’s Walk the Sky, is, at first glance, a Western. We open with two men on the run after the questionable death of a mayor’s son, only to have their flight interrupted by the appearance of a very strange boy, followed by a crew of armed men who tie them up. A good start, and one that grips the reader’s interest quickly, right? And Walk the Sky unfolds nicely for a bit, plunging the reader into a strange Western town said to be under persecution from the Devil himself – a fact that our “heroes” realize all too well.

It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Walk the Sky is a zombie story in some ways, but one that’s more focused on humanity and its evil tendencies towards each other than in the hordes of undead (although that’s not quite what you get here). And the first half of Walk the Sky is enjoyable and solid, unfolding at a great pace and constantly changing in front of you. It’s when the broad Native American shaman stereotypes enter the story that things fall apart, as characters are given knowledge and techniques in a deus ex machina style that only gets worse when action sequences start unfolding, followed by an ending that feels overlong and scattered. It’s fun enough in the early going, but there’s definitely a sense that it all falls apart in the second half. Rating: ***


It wouldn’t be unfair to say, as some have, that Christopher Golden and James A. Moore’s Bloodstained Oz sometimes devolves into an “edgy” take on the tropes everyone knows and loves from The Wizard of Oz. We start on a similar note – tornadoes in Kansas during the dust bowl years – and while the story this time has Oz coming to Kansas, rather than vice versa, there’s still a scarecrow, and a lion, and a tin man – they’re just mostly nightmarish and twisted, with vampiric tendencies and horrifying incarnations.

And yet, as a purely pulpy, nightmarish tale, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that Bloodstained Oz works pretty well. You’re not going to get great character depth here; these are archetypes, and the plotting is thin, at best. (Even now, I’m still confused as to certain elements of the story and what they were doing there.) But what you get, in exchange for letting those things go, is some genuinely great scares along the way, and a display of horrific imagination that definitely worked for me. From malevolent porcelain dolls to silver vampiric entities, from a nightmarish take on the Tin Man to some surprising takes on Oz staples, Golden and Moore approach their story with ghoulish, twisted glee. Bloodstained Oz isn’t a great story – I’m not even sure that it’s all that good. But as a piece of nasty, violent pulp horror, it’s got imagination and style to spare, and sometimes, that’s exactly what a good piece of horror needs. Rating: *** ½

Amazon: Midnight Duets | Walk the Sky | Bloodstained Oz
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It Devours!, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor / ****

185741If you’ve read this blog long enough – or browsed the archives – you probably know that I’m a fan of the wonderfully weird and bizarre podcast Welcome to Night Vale, which takes the form of public radio broadcasts from a small desert town that’s just like yours…if yours had lights in the sky, and vague yet menacing government agencies surveilling everyone, and a dog park that served as a gateway to another dimension, and blood matter storms – you know, a typical small town. Anyways, I enjoy Night Vale quite a bit, and I liked co-writers Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor’s first attempt to turn their podcast into a novel.

Now comes It Devours!, the second Night Vale book, which finds Fink and Cranor telling a story of religion (here, represented by the Church of the Smiling God, who will one day come in the form of a monstrous insect and devour our sins) and science (with a major supporting role by everyone’s famous handsome scientist Carlos). How all of this connects to the pits opening up under houses and business in Night Vale is best left for the reader to discover; suffice to say that, as always, Fink and Cranor have a wonderfully meandering but carefully plotted approach to their world, one that allows lots of doodling and imagination around the edges, but never forgets the story it’s telling.

In that, It Devours! is a bit more successful than the original Welcome to Night Vale novel, in which Fink and Cranor felt a bit more scattered (a la the original podcast). Here, they’ve managed to capture the silly side observations that make the podcast great, but keep the book more focused and streamlined. The fan-service feels cut down; the nods to existing continuity are there (and enjoyed), but It Devours! feels like it would be more accessible to non-fans, as long as they could embrace the weirdness of Night Vale.

More than that, though, It Devours! embodies all of the things that have made Welcome to Night Vale such a hit: a committed approach to diversity and acceptance, a warm spirit and kind heart (even in the face of unimaginable horrors), a desire to be earnest and thoughtful, and a complex view of the world that tries to understand everyone in it. That comes most into play in the novel’s approach to the dichotomy between science and religion, with neither being dismissed, and both being allowed to find a place in the modern world – even as both take their lumps in the story.

It Devours! ultimately feels a little light and disposable, for all of that; I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, but like the podcast, it’s a novel that’s less about its story and more about how it tells that story. That means you sometimes get characters who don’t feel like your standard three-dimensional characters, or normal plot arcs, or usual pacing…but none of that is necessarily a bad thing, not when the book is as enjoyable and wonderfully odd as this one is. I can’t tell you whether or not you need to be a fan in order to enjoy It Devours!; what I can say is, if you are one, you’ll be more than pleased with it.

Amazon

 

Dark Night of the Scarecrow / **** ½

dark night of the scarecrow LargeOne of my recent pleasures in life has been frequent attendance at Full Moon Cineplex, a local independent movie theater that tends to show horror movies from the 70’s and 80’s. It’s a fun way to spend Friday nights, and although I attend fairly regularly, I don’t always feel the need to write reviews of what I see there – after all, what do I really have to say about another Friday the 13th movie, or A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, or the bizarre but deeply inept sort-of slasher Tourist Trap? Besides, part of the fun of these movies is that I can enjoy them on whatever terms I want – sometimes, just as forgotten trash cinema – and not feel the need to discuss them.

But sometimes, something sneaks up on me and surprises me wonderfully, and such was the case with the 1981 TV movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow. I knew Scarecrow had a solid cult following, but it would be far from the first time a cult 80’s movie turned out to have a reputation fueled more by nostalgia than anything to do with quality. Add to that the fact that it was a made-for-TV movie…well, I was curious, but didn’t expect anything all that great.

Instead, though, I got something really solid – nothing groundbreaking or all that inventive, mind you, but solid, engaging, well-made, surprisingly nicely shot and acted, and genuinely moody in a satisfying way. At its best, Dark Night of the Scarecrow feels like the kind of movie that 80’s Stephen King would have loved and drawn off of – pulpy and unoriginal, maybe, but lived-in and fleshed out in all the right ways.

It doesn’t hurt that the film’s cast is largely character actors who know how to make the most of small roles – while the always welcome Charles Durning is the lead of the movie, there’s no small amount of “that guy” actors here, including Larry Drake (Darkman) and Lane Smith (My Cousin Vinny). But it’s Durning who carries the weight of the movie, and makes it work, injecting a real darkness and malevolence to his small town mail carrier who leads a posse to hunt down a wrongfully accused mentally challenged man after a young girl is attacked by a dog. After Durning and the men dole out “justice,” they start suspecting that they’re being hunted down by some larger force – and from there, things go about like you’d expect.

In most cases, “things go about like you’d expect” would be a slam, but Dark Night of the Scarecrow makes it all work, doing lots of little things right and pretty much avoiding any major missteps along the way. Rather than trying to hide its low budget, Scarecrow uses it to its advantage, using shadows and tension rather than gore effects and relying on suggestion and implication (and some truly spectacular match cuts) to build the mood and scares. More than that, it’s surprisingly well made and shot; director Frank De Felitta and cinematographer Vincent A. Martinelli work wonders on a tight budget and short shoot length (17 days, apparently), doing better work than you’d expect from a TV movie. And, as mentioned, there’s Durning, who turns down his garrulous charm in favor of something more seething and angry – and maybe even darker, as the film hints. (And “hints” is the key word – more than once, the film manages to hint at things more than hammer them home like a lesser movie would do, giving the movie more ambiguity and uncertainty than you’d expect it to have.)

Dark Night of the Scarecrow isn’t going to blow your mind. There aren’t surprises here, or big shocks – this is a pulpy, no-frills movie that’s just trying to tell a classic spooky story. But somehow, it does things so much better than you’d expect – and with more effort – that the result is genuinely engaging, intriguing, and compelling. I dug it a lot; you can add me confidently to the cult following the movie’s earned.

IMDb

The Americans (Season 6) / *****

ob_e88e75_unnamedWriting about the final season of a show can be difficult. It’s all too easy to let an overview of the season become a post-mortem on the finale. That goes doubly in a case like FX’s brilliant series The Americans, where the finale was so incredible – and stuck the landing so well – that it threatens to overshadow just how good this final season was.

And that’s a shame, really, because the final season of The Americans may well go down as one of the all-time great final seasons of a show. After what would easily be the show’s weakest season, which felt like all set-up and repetition (with a purpose, I think, but repetition nonetheless), the sixth season had no small amount of work ahead of it. Not only did it have to justify the (intentionally) wearying, exhausting grind of the fifth season, but it had to find an ending worthy of this compelling, tense series – one that balanced the show’s complex portrait of a fraught marriage with the labyrinthine spy work that gave the show its hook. Not exactly a small task, and that’s not even counting all of the loose plot threads that needed to be tied up.

But somehow, The Americans pulled it off, making clear something that’s been evident for some time: that for all of the show’s joy in depicting spywork and craft, this has always been a show about a marriage – about parenting, about working together, about the secrets that a marriage evolves to accommodate, and so much more. That’s not to shortchange the show’s commitment to the world of espionage, of course; after all, this season dove into the cultivation of Russian assets, the slow tightening of the noose that comes when an investigation finally cracks open, the tension that comes in an interrogation, and the difficulties when you as a spy begin to suspect that those commanding you are playing you as just another piece in their own games. Indeed, in some ways, this was the best season of the show in terms of its spycraft, with long-term infiltrations mixed with desperate extractions, with slow-burn investigations sharing time with hunches and unease. And by bringing all of that to the foreground, the show was given a tension and uncertainty even more extreme than what it’s always had (an extremity no doubt influenced by our knowledge that this was the final season and the end was coming soon).

More importantly, though, the final season focused in on the marriage of Philip and Elizabeth, as the two of them found themselves on opposite sides of a rapidly growing divide that took a toll on both their marriage and their emotions. It was a brutal season at times, one that never forgot that partners in a marriage are more capable of inflicting pain on each other than anyone else in the world. So as Philip and Elizabeth fought over the children, each other’s priorities, and the goals of their marriage, we saw how that internal fighting distracted them from the tightening noose around their necks, and wore them down more even than the other tensions in their lives.

It was a choice of focus that became most explicitly clear during the second half of the finale, as the show became about the fate of the Jennings family. Would Paige and Henry be okay? Will that marriage survive? Would there be happiness after everything else?

That last question was maybe the most important, because few shows since The Sopranos have focused more on the devastation left behind by our nominal protagonists. Over the course of the final season, especially during the finale, and even more during three all-time great scenes (a garage confrontation, a family phone call, and a gutpunch of a moment on a train), The Americans made clear that our “heroes” left trauma behind them, and that whatever they told themselves about their jobs, they weren’t the good guys they wanted to be. What was remarkable, though, was that the show wasn’t always about the lives taken or the injuries doled out – it was about the emotional pain and wounds that would never heal.

It all added up to a brilliant ending to a superb final season to a truly great television show. Like the best shows of its era, The Americans gave us a great hook – what if an all-American family was really a Soviet sleeper cell? – and used to simultaneously tell a tense, riveting spy story and to explore the inner tensions and difficulties of a marriage. Anchored by two incredible performances (that neither Matthew Rhys nor Keri Russell has been awarded for their work is absurd, and that doesn’t even get into Holly Taylor or Noah Emmerich’s incredible work this season), written intelligently and carefully, and impeccably crafted, it ends as it lived: unexpectedly but brilliantly, approaching its subject matter with thought and depth that sneaks up on you.

IMDb

Algorithm, by Arthur Dowekyo / **

51fhcmloe1l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Ideas can only get a book so far. Which can be frustrating, but it’s the truth; no matter how engaging and interesting the ideas of a novel are, ultimately, as Roger Ebert said (and I quote so often), stories aren’t about what they’re about; they’re about how they go about it. And it’s that quote that explains why I was so put off by Arthur M. Doweyko’s Algorithm, despite some interesting ideas at play and a couple of genuinely neat concepts.

It’s not just the frequent grammatical errors and typos that put me off – although, I’ll be honest and say that having three of them within the first two pages doesn’t fill me with confidence about the book I’m about to read. No, it’s the haphazard nature of the plotting. When you have such a neat hook – which revolves around a gold medallion uncovered in a lump of coal, buried for thousands of years, which leads to a young man making connections not only with an alien race, but possibly with the origins of human life itself – sometimes, you need to realize that you have enough. That goes doubly when you’re as ambitious as Algorithm is, mixing discussions about the purpose of DNA, evolution of humankind, alien life, and so much more into an adventure story.

Instead, Algorithm throws in literal Nazis, cackling about world domination in the most cartoonish and ridiculous way imaginable. And a shape shifting religious alien zealot (maybe?) who comes and goes as the plot needs him to, and otherwise conveniently stays offstage. And shoehorned in exposition. And badly written dialect that grates. And a female character who’s constantly described in terms of her looks and whose whole purpose to provide “tension” and “banter” with our hero. And all of that is just in the book’s (admittedly lesser) first half, before the second half throws all of that out and gets more complicated and somehow sillier still, with continued reliance on some one-dimensional characters and overly contrived plotting that obscures the interesting ideas Doweyko is wanting to explore and play with.

There’s a great book buried somewhere in Algorithm, and I mean that honestly. I really liked the shape of what Doweyko was going for, and the revelation of what the medallions were used for was genuinely surprising (if a bit nonsensical, if you try to think about it). But in the end, to get through that, I had to get through some flat characters, a lot of grammatical issues, inconsistent actions, convenient plotting, and so many other problems that I can’t recommend this book. The ideas are great, but sometimes, that’s just not enough.

Amazon

Shocking True Story, by Gregg Olsen / *** ½

924159492There’s something inherently fun about the idea of a true crime author like Gregg Olsen writing a fictional novel about a true crime author whose personal life becomes tangled up in the true crime case he’s researching. (Did everyone follow that?) It’s an easy hook for a novel, and a fun one at that – and that’s before Olsen essentially begins writing two books at once, alternating between the story of Kevin Ryan, struggling true crime writer, and the white trash love story turned violent that’s the subject of his latest novel.

And that’s all before the two start overlapping in messy, bloody ways, giving the book a great hook.

For all of that, though, Shocking True Story left me with a sense of “is that all?” by the end of it. That’s not to say that it’s not a fun read – I tore through it, and Olsen’s direct writing style and twisty plotting made that easy. And it’s not that the conceit doesn’t work, because it does, even without Olsen’s clever way of turning Ryan into a self-involved narcissist without ever coming out and being explicit about it. (Such a choice also allows Olsen to lampshade some of the concerns and criticisms of true crime, all while creating a character that represents both the best and worst sides of the genre.)

But ultimately, by the end of it all, Shocking True Story feels empty – as though what plot there was wasn’t enough to sustain the book. Even with essentially two books in one here, neither one ever comes to much of anything; the “true crime” story feels incomplete and insubstantial, and the murder plot that Ryan finds himself part of ultimately comes to a standard (and unsurprising) big reveal that sort of fizzles out. Indeed, even the possibility that Ryan is in danger of losing something or being blamed for it all doesn’t last long, as though the book didn’t have the patience to invest in that storyline. (Incidentally, this is one of the rare books where one of the red herrings Olsen presents would have been a far more interesting payoff than the one we got – always something you have to worry about with those.)

I didn’t hate Shocking True Story – it’s entertaining and fun, and it’s an easy read – but I definitely ended it feeling like what I got could have been a novella and lost nothing, or even better, extended and fleshed out into something much better. As it is, it’s a fine enough read, but one that won’t stick with you in any real way. Ask me in a week, and I’ll struggle to remember all that much about it.

Amazon

The Outsider, by Stephen King / ****

36124936In some ways, Stephen King’s The Outsider is the logical follow-up and continuation of what he began doing as a writer with Mr. Mercedes. With that book and the rest of the Bill Hodges trilogy, King started writing crime novels – well, crime novels a la King, which aren’t quite the same thing. But what it showed was that King was just as capable of playing in other genres, and in many ways, all the things he does so well – great characterization, superb pacing, excellent tension-building – were things that were also needed for a great thriller.

Now, as the Bill Hodges books continued, King started to bring more of his supernatural and horror elements into the books, with mixed results. The Outsider continues that trend, but by virtue of having been designed as a crime/horror hybrid from the get-go, the resulting novel feels smoother and more cohesive than, say, End of Watch, which felt a bit bumpy.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that The Outsider starts so incredibly well, alternating between the very public arrest of a beloved small town figure with the unquestionable evidence that ties him to the brutal murder of a child. And in that early going, King manages a notable feat, keeping the audience constantly uncertain as to whether what we’re reading is an innocent man being framed or a nightmarish killer’s facade of innocence. By sliding constantly between the police and the accused, doling out information carefully and methodically, King is near the top of his game, giving us one of his most enthralling first halves in a long, long time, all culminating in a setpiece that plays to all of his strengths.

It’s a bit disappointing, then, that the second half of The Outsider doesn’t measure up to the first. That’s not to say that it ever becomes bad, mind you; the introduction of an old friend of Constant Readers gives the book a nice second wind, and there’s something satisfying about how King applies his mystery-writing strategies to a supernatural event (even if that old friend gets used in some deus ex machina ways). But the answers we get are disappointingly bland, especially given King’s unique take on so many horror tropes, and while there are aspects of the finale that are interesting – more the implications and hints conveyed during that sequence than any true revelations – it doesn’t soar in the way that the best King climaxes can.

Mind you, I still absolutely devoured The Outsider, and couldn’t put it down. No, it may not be among the top tier of King novels, but neither is it anywhere near the bottom – for whatever blandness and iffiness along the way, it’s more consistent and focused than End of Watch, and more gripping and propulsive than Sleeping Beauties. And if nothing else, there’s nothing like King for books that are so easily and constantly readable, and allow me to lose myself so deeply in their pages.

Amazon