Torn by Lee Thomas

Lee Thomas isn’t new to the horror genre. His 2004 debut novel Stained won the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in the First Novel category, but it wasn’t until I saw Thomas’ The German on virtually every Best of 2011 list that I finally took notice. While I still haven’t had a chance to read his intelligent thriller, I got my first taste of Thomas’ work with his Cemetery Dance Publications Novella Series title Torn, which comes out this month.

From the Cemetery Dance website:

How do you go on when something like that happens to your child?

 

Bill Cranston is a family man, whose marriage is falling apart, eroding under his wife’s constant bitterness and her retreat into alcohol and drugs.  He is also the sheriff of Luther’s Bend, a generally quiet town. When a little girl is abducted from a local park and carried into the woods, Bill leads a desperate search to find the child. But the little girl is only bait, and something vicious waits in the woods for her rescuers.

I am me. Can’t you see?  I am me and he is he. When he is he, I can’t be me.

 

Douglas Sykes is insane. He sits in Bill Cranston’s cell, speaking in rhymes and riddles. Though a stranger to Luther’s Bend, Sykes seems to know a lot about Sheriff Cranston. Through his ramblings he reveals secrets about Bill, and secrets about himself. Sykes claims to be a mythological creature – a monster – and a handful of his victims have finally tracked him down, victims who now share Sykes’ affliction.

A pack is descending on Luther’s Bend. They are hunting Sykes, and they will not stop until everyone near him is left broken, bleeding, and torn.

Reading Thomas’ Torn it’s apparent why he has garnered a bevvy of awards and praise for his work. Cracking open this novella is like busting into a box of those golden fishes (you know, the ones that smile until you bite their heads off) and telling yourself you’ll only eat a few. There’s no stopping once you start. Not one for elaborate set-up, at least in this novella, Thomas chucks the reader right into the heart of the drama. Maggie Louis Mayflower has gone missing and Sheriff Bill Cranston and crew are canvassing the woods near the park for her whereabouts. Shortly after, we have our first death and the suspense of the story kicks into high gear with the whole town in a frenzy over the recent events.

As the synopsis suggests, there are two parts of Torn; pre-Douglas Sykes and post-Sykes. Pre-Sykes Torn paints the town Sheriff, Bill, as the hometown hero and neglected family man, someone who plays single father to his two little girls while their mother sleeps away each day in a pill-induced haze claiming to suffer from “migraines.” In the post-Sykes narrative the story chips away at the picture perfect façade of Bill. Through Sykes’ telling rhymes we find Bill harbors a devastating secret. Various clues come together like puzzle pieces to build an alternate perspective to the overall tale of a town terrorized by strange monsters and harmful lies.

In the same way the story shifts the reader’s perspective two ways, the word “torn” similarly takes on various meanings. There is the literal sense of the word regarding not only the bodies of the monster’s victims being torn apart, but also the monsters themselves as they morph from human to beast. Then there is the metaphorical sense which represents man torn between his innate bestial craving and his civilized self, and also the conflict of the heart’s desire and society’s expectation.

Initially, I thought “cool, a creepy monster story,” but that just shows how little I know about Lee Thomas’ writing. Torn represents his complexity as a writer that I am sure is present in his other work. This novella is a creepy monster story, but there is another layer to this tale that Thomas reveals with disciplined patience never threatening to disrupt his pacing. He not only spins an effective horror yarn with dark atmosphere and chilling suspense, but Torn also offers a not-so-subtle message about the destructive nature of repression, in this particular case sexual, whether that manifests in violent physical outbursts or emotion turmoil.

Torn is a bite-sized novella that packs all the flavor of a full course meal. Thomas’ pacing is consistently unrelenting, the characters flawed and endearing, and the atmosphere horrifyingly dark. I had trouble tearing myself away at night, so I must end this review with a warning: this book could be hazardous to your sleep!

You can pick up the signed limited edition hardcover from Cemetery Dance here and don’t forget to stop by Lee Thomas’ website for more information on his projects past, present, and future.

Advertisements

Newsbitten #2

Today we’ve got some big news from Cemetery Dance, not much in the way of medium-sized news and because I’m feeling generous, two shots of indie. Before I begin, Meli’s Bloody Bytes touched on a few things that I wanted to mention, so check them out here.  On to the news.

Sales/New Releases

The big news from Cemetery Dance is that their “Renewable Gift Certificate” offer took exactly 2 days to sell out. Why is that big news? Cemetery Dance is finding new ways to be innovative with print publishing, something that a few (6) other publishing houses would do well to emulate. The concept was this: Spend $400 now on the gift certificate, get $100 a month for the entire year of 2012. The money rolled over and didn’t expire until December 31, 2012. That means you could potentially have $1200 worth of books to buy for the Christmas season. Obviously, this deal was awesome, but it still warrants mention, because you need to be on the lookout for it.

Keeping with Cemetery Dance for just a minute, not only are they happy to report that many of their recent releases are close to selling out, but they’re also interested in knowing if you have a Kindle. They’re looking to develop some promotions and would love your help. Here’s the email address, just put “Kindle User” in the subject line and let Brian know how many CD books you own. brianfreeman@cemeterydance.com. They also have some sweet pre-orders on right now, hit up the website for all the info.

Flash

Dark Moon Digest is hosting a limerick contest, click here for details.

Indie Shot(s)

Stant Litore has released the second in The Zombie Bible series What Our Eyes Have Witnessed. You can pick it up at either Amazon or Barnes & Noble. I’d like to congratulate Stant on the success of Death Has Come Up Into Our Windows, which is now a bestseller on Amazon.

The 12 Days Of Creepfest are upon us! Click the link to be taken to the list of blogs (can’t join in anymore). This is brought to you by most of the same folks who were in the Coffin Hop, however this event was spearheaded by mega-talented author/cover artist RL Treadway. Giveaways, interviews and some fine reading can be had.

That’s all I have for this week. With Christmas kicking all of our schedules in the face, I’m not sure whether I’ll return with this feature next week, or if I’ll have something else. To ensure that you don’t miss anything, make Dreadful Tales your homepage, follow us on WordPress, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. To keep up with me either click the link in my bio, or follow me on Twitter.

The Horror Hall of Fame: The Stoker Winners, Edited by Joe R. Lansdale

It’s been a long time coming for Cemetery Dance Publication’s The Horror Hall of Fame: The Stoker Winners. The earliest story is dated 1996, but timing isn’t so much an issue when you have a collection of truly timeless fiction. These stories, handpicked by the Horror Writers Association for the Bram Stoker Award for short and long fiction, represent a wide spectrum in horror writing.  Editor Joe R. Lansdale, a master of horror himself and a contributor to this collection, describes the anthology best in his introduction stating “These stories cut a wide swathe through the field.” He goes on to say that these stories are “gathered together like fine chocolates,” ones that “do not diminish with consumption.” The Horror Hall of Fame represents a remarkably diverse range of horror fiction and stands as a testament to a horror writer’s ability to tap into more than just the emotion of fear.

What better way to prep your palate than with a tale by a writer best known for penning Psycho? Robert Bloch opens with “The Scent of Vinegar,” a grotesque vampire story that leads one man to discover urban legend is sometimes borne of something real. There is nothing conventional about the stories chosen for this anthology, so although Bloch uses a classic monster you can expect a fresh perspective.

In an interesting turn, Bloch’s “The Scent of Vinegar” is followed by David B. Silva’s “The Calling,” a striking juxtaposition to illustrate different styles of horror. Silva’s story abandons any supernatural elements to delve into one of the most terrifying real-life monsters, cancer. He exploits the psychological power of sound to evoke a gnawing suspense and terror. Using this one minor detail, an incessant whistling from a man’s suffering mother, Silva exposes the residual horror of disease and death.

Following those two notably different tales is an equally distinct short by the infamous Harlan Ellison in “Chatting with Anubis.” Ellison, a writer whose shelves must overflow with awards, is unsurprisingly the one to whet our appetite for fantasy. “Chatting with Anubis” is an otherworldly piece that pits man against God, albeit a jackal-headed one, when two people seek great discovery in the mythical Shrine of Ammon. Ellison is an author with an impressive resume perfectly at home with the horror elite, but considering the collection overall, this had the least impact for me.

While “Chatting with Anubis” didn’t stick for me, it is followed by one of my favorites in the collection, the disturbing, nauseating “The Pear-Shaped Man” by horror / sci-fi / fantasy master George R.R. Martin. He takes one of the most nonthreatening objects, cheese curls, and turns it into a real terror. Yes, you read that right. Martin makes those delicious little, orange puffs of corn your worst nightmare. Only a true Horror Hall of Famer could do that! Martin builds pitch-perfect suspense to a shocking and satisfying reveal.

Joe R. Lansdale keeps the momentum going with another one of my top picks, “The Night They Missed the Horror Show.” Boredom leads two men into a dangerous situation where one despicable act is trumped by another in what I consider the most brutal, gut-wrenching contribution in the bunch. They miss a horror show, but find out real-life horror can be much worse than any movie could depict.

The Horror Hall of Fame continues to position stories with significantly different styles by placing Nancy Holder’s “Lady Madonna” next in line. Holder boasts four Bram Stoker Awards solidifying her as a veteran Horror Hall of Famer. In this tale, one woman struggles to give birth in secret suppressing screams of agony to protect her child. But this is no ordinary birth or baby. Our first-person narrator shares the bizarre story of her obsession to bear a child, one for which she goes to extraordinary lengths.

When one talks horror fiction, Jack Ketchum’s name is sure to come up. Ketchum, also a four-time Bram Stoker Award-winner, has perplexed readers for years with his MacGuffin in “The Box” as readers wonder “What’s in the box!?” This tale concerns itself with a man whose son mysteriously stops eating after looking into the box of a stranger. When this condition is passed on to the other children and eventually the mother, we are subjected to the aching sadness a father who grapples with a helplessness to save them.

Now past the halfway mark, we finally get into a subgenre of which I am most fond, erotic horror. Elizabeth Massie’s “Stephen” is more titillating than terrifying, but a short that will be burned into your memory. A woman volunteers at a rehabilitation center to help patients with extreme deformities, an assignment that culminates in violent revelation and one of the strangest sex scenes ever put to paper.

We cool off with a dark atmospheric piece by one of my favorite horror authors, Thomas Ligotti’s “The Red Tower.” The narrator shares the story of the titular Red Tower, an obscure factory that produces a “terrible and perplexing line of novelty items.” Ligotti is able to horrify with just a building and a clever history of macabre production. He builds his Red Tower effortlessly in the reader’s mind despite his often unconventional prose in which he indulges in lengthy descriptions.

Contrary to the serious and dark tone of “The Red Tower,” Alan Rodgers follows with a playful science-fiction story about a boy who comes back from the dead, appropriately titled “The Boy Who Came Back from the Dead.” When aliens dig up Walt, he immediately goes back home. His family isn’t terribly disturbed by his return initially, and he even goes back to school for a bit, but that doesn’t last long. Rodgers’ offers a bit of reprieve from the darker tales in the collection with his charming undead protagonist, b-movie influence, and tongue-in-cheek attitude.

Another sci-fi entry, Jack Cady’s road story “The Night We Buried Road Dog” is an example of horror being heart-warming. The story is multi-layered revealing the big picture in bits as we progress. I found this to be one of the more surprising stories in terms of development. Simply put, it’s about a friendship between two gear heads who become preoccupied with a legend of the road, but simple becomes complex as the origins of the legend are revealed. The friendship between Cady’s two central characters is palpable which makes the conclusion of the story emotionally stirring.

The arrangement continues to be eclectic with the fitting placement of another erotic horror piece. P.D. Cacek introduces readers to a hypersexual woman in the strange and arousing “Metalica.” She stimulates her readers with a normally sterile encounter, the Pap smear. “Metalica” casts the reader as a metal-craving nymphomaniac by alternating between second-person and third-person narration. One moment finds Kate lying back for this routine procedure, another “you feel him growing warmer, incandescent as the orgasm builds.” Cacek successfully turns a big turn-off, visiting your Gynecologist, into a turn-on which coincidentally makes you feel a bit weird for being aroused by it.

Sadly, the anthology must come to an end and the last chocolate in the box is David Morrell’s “Orange Is for Anguish, Blue Is for Insanity.” In this story, the work of legendary Impressionist Van Dorn, ignites an obsession that threatens to destroy anyone who tries to understand its secret. For those who do, their downward spiral into insanity leads to a gruesome end.

The Horror Hall of Fame is an anthology of great stories by some of the most talented authors in the genre. It’s a must-have for horror fiction fans. Every story has the prestigious stamp of approval by the Horror Writers Association featuring authors every fan should be familiar with. It’s also the perfect collection for a reader who is curious about horror, but doesn’t know where to start. And as Lansdale suggested in his introduction, it’s “a wonderful primer for would be horror writers… because good stories and good writing do not belong to genre; they belong to readers.”

The Horror Hall of Fame: The Stoker Winners is available just in time for Christmas from Cemetery Dance Publications. The book features cover art by Alan M. Clark and darkly delicious interior art by Glenn Chadbourne for each story.

Lucifer’s Lottery by Edward Lee

Want to take a no-strings-attached visitor’s tour of the underworld without all the fuss and muss of the painful agony and burning? What if your personal tour guide was horror fiction master H.P. Lovercraft? In Edward Lee’s bizarre tale, Lucifer’s Lottery, you get an up close and personal look into the flaming Abyss, but it isn’t the great empty expanse of fire and brimstone you may have come to expect. This is also not Lee’s first foray into Hell. He first introduced readers to his version of the Inferno, a city dubbed Mephistopolis, via lonely goth girl Cassie in City Inferno, originally published by Cemetery Dance in 2001, and again in House Infernal. For Lucifer’s Lottery Lee takes us back to Mephistopolis to accompany would-be priest Hudson on a grand tour of the city of pain and suffering as Satan attempts to make him an offer that may be too good to refuse.

Every 666 years one man or woman wins the Senary, a lottery where Lucifer chooses one of God’s devout followers at random. The winner is tempted to give up all prospects of eternity in Heaven for an afterlife in Hell instead. Of course, the Morning Star will make it well worth the winner’s while should they accept his offer. So, what does Lucifer get out of this deal, you ask? Simply, the satisfaction of knowing he took one of God’s most devout souls for his own. The next 666 year cycle is here and just one month from entering seminary Hudson is chosen for the Senary. Howard Phillips Lovecraft, known as just Howard to us for the length of this story, is his ever-descriptive and poetic tour guide to Mephistopolis as he tries to convince Hudson to take this once in a lifetime opportunity. With the prospect of fulfilling his most sinful desires for an eternity in Hell, Hudson struggles with his commitment to God.

Lucifer’s Lottery has all the signatures of a Lee novel – hyper-sexualized scenes, stomach-turning filth and viscera. In the context of the story and Lee’s supernatural Hell-world he is able to create the most unspeakable horrors, but it’s not all eye-candy. Pulling the readers through this stench-filled nightmare of tortured human damned, monsters, and hybrids is the excitement of wondering what will happen next and what you will see next. And the bizarre sights are delightfully disgusting and morbid! “Each District, Prefect, or Zone features its own decorative motif.” There is a district made of skin and constructions held together by bones and guts. We’re introduced to a bar featuring Mammiferons, breasts that function as taps dispensing milk for its upscale patronage. Another establishment we visit offers “Hell’s greatest delicacies,” newborn Demon fetuses crushed like grapes to make Satan’s own wicked wine. And that hardly scratches the surface of the vile things occupying Lee’s Mephistopolis.

Lee goes all out in Lucifer’s Lottery. He doesn’t simply cross the line into the extreme; he won’t even acknowledge there ever was such a line, so for readers seeking the perverse and weird in excess Lee hits all the right notes. At the same time, there is a good sense of humor to this book giving us the chance to have a laugh or two in the face of evil. Lee elicits amusement married with disgust and sometimes even eroticism with revulsion. He is a master of creating mixed emotions in his readers. It’s hard not to be charmed by Lee when he not only shocks us with wild sights, but has some comedic relief as well. We first arrive to Mephistopolis with a newly deceased human damned only to have “a black bat with a six-foot wingspan and a vaguely human face” drop a deuce on his head! While that opening let’s us know we can have a good time with this book it doesn’t take away from the hideousness of Lee’s Hell. It’s sick, depraved, hysterical, and sometimes even titillating. Lee manages to make you feel a little weird about the latter. You may find yourself turned on by a sexy Golemess whose “grapefruit-sized breasts…offer nipples distending like overlarge Hershey’s Kisses;” a possessed Deaconess who lubes herself with olive oil to temp Hudson; and Lycanymphs, “Erotopathic female werewolves,” who dispense milk from a wall of boobs!

The horrors are inexplicably grotesque and the pacing break-neck, but none of this would be quite as successful if the characters weren’t interesting. None of them are particularly likable save for the protagonist Hudson, but they each have their own allure and don’t fail to entertain. The bad guys are absolutely despicable, the sinful are the worst of the worst and they have some hilarious dialogue. Like when a bum laments his choices for sustenance in difficult times – “It sucks when ya have to eat your own nut just for the calories, ya know? You ever do that?” No, no I haven’t. We have Howard narrating the tour of the city making the atrocious place almost sound beautiful in his fluid prose. While I found Hudson sympathetic, I was especially hopeful for the down-on-his luck, suicidal paraplegic Gerold. Unfortunately, this is a tale centered on Lucifer and the unlucky humans that become part of his game, so I wouldn’t get too attached if I were you.

Lucifer’s Lottery had me gasping in shock, squirming in discomfort, and laughing aloud at the insanity of the world Lee created. It’s non-stop thrilling and will keep surprising the reader up to the last page. But, be warned! Lucifer’s Lottery should bear with the same warning as the gates of Hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

-Meli