Earthworm Gods: Selected Scenes From The End Of The World by Brian Keene

earthwormgodsselectscenes-1-2With no shame at all, I’ll admit Brian Keene has made me cry.

No, it’s not because he’s failed to respond to my countless invitations to dinner, or the way his eyes seem to see straight into my heart. Oh… wait. That’s unrelated. Best you just ignore that.

Keene first brought my rotten heart back to life when he broke onto the horror scene with The Rising. That tale of father Jim Thurmond trying to get to his son, Danny, in the midst of a zombie apocalypse is both terrifying and a tear jerker. As a young father who was going through a divorce and worried the end of his first marriage would devour his relationship with his son much like the zombies in Keene’s debut novel, the book spoke to me and introduced me to an author I grew to admire. Continue reading

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The Cage by Brian Keene

Brian Keene has a knack for writing some of the most powerful novella length fiction in the genre.  His no-nonsense style is well suited for format.  Most authors introduce us to the characters and then allow the plot to unfold around them but Keene is a completely different animal.  One of the strongest aspects of Keene’s writing is his ability to mesh character development with plot to form a fast paced, suffocating story that gets right to the action and rarely relents.  This delightfully streamlined style allows Keene to tell a novel length story over the span of a hundred pages.  With that in mind, I was absolutely delighted when I learned that Deadite Press would be releasing a paperback version of the long out-of-print novella, The Cage

From Amazon.com:

For the employees of Big Bill’s Home Electronics, it’s just the end of another workday – until a gunman bursts into the store and begins shooting. Now, with some of their co-workers dead, the hostages are being slaughtered one-by-one, and if they want to survive the night, they’ll have to escape… The Cage.

As described in the summary, the story follows a group of six electronics store employees who are at the mercy of a madman.  This man breaks into the store after-hours and locks the group up in the store room for very mysterious, yet surely sinister reasons.  The majority of the story takes place in the store room as we play voyeur to the interactions of the employees, all while the mysterious intruder is busy in the front of the store.  One-by-one the man brings the employees to the front of the store leaving the remaining hostages to wonder what exactly is happening on the other side of the warehouse doors.

The Cage is the perfect marriage of youthful hope, world-worn wisdom, nerve wracking tension and some gore soaked imagery that will leave your jaw hanging and your unmentionables soiled. What makes this story so damn engrossing is Keene’s ability to intertwine genuine supernatural terror with the everyday horrors that we all experience in our lives.  The villain in the story will get your blood pumping and your palms sweating but the reason this tale will resonate with readers is the trials and tribulations of the common man.  It is completely evident that Keene knows quite a bit about strife and pain.  The characters in The Cage discuss topics such as love lost, growing older and loneliness with such raw authenticity that the reader has no choice but to succumb to the story’s power. There is a certain power in prose that is born from a world of sweat and hardship. Keene wields that power with a reckless abandoned that only few in the genre can ever hope to harness.

It was also interesting to notice the subtle shift in style with the dichotomy between the real life fears and supernatural elements.  Keene wrote the conversations between the store employees with copious amounts pain and grit sprinkled in the interactions.  These are the conversations that we have had a thousand times yet they continue to be important because they are is the lifeblood of our daily routines and existence. Much like the author himself, there is no pretense with the characters and their interactions as the wear their hearts on their sleeves on every page. There is exchange that was particularly heart wrenching between Roy, the older warehouse employee and the younger store employees that I found to be especially heart wrenching :

“Your kids don’t know you, your wife barely tolerates you. You’re a stranger in your own house. And a stranger in the mirror, too. And when that happens, you look back on the last few decades and wonder where they went.”

These moments of gritty truth make the juxtaposition of the super natural so much more extreme. When Keene  isn’t describing the inner-turmoil of the Big Bill’s employees, his writing takes on a cinematic quality that would not be out of place in the world of Cronenberg or Lynch.  The main villain in The Cage is donned in black and sports an arsenal that would make Frank Castle giddy.  Keene creates one frightening villain who nonchalantly goes about his grisly business with the indifference of a T-1000.  I use the Teminator example because this dude is straight out of a late 80’s action film but still maintains a surreal presence that is common with Keene’s other works..  Keene himself seems to realize the cinematic leanings of his writing as the characters joke about the clichés of action films. There is a particularly humorous exchange when the trapped employees attempt to lighten the mood by discussing how their ideal action film would play out.

The Cage comes to a very satisfying finale with absolutely every element of the story getting heightened to extreme volumes (literally and figuratively). Blood flows, hearts break and evil is everywhere.  Much like some of my favorite Keene stories, everything ends as it should.  The ending is in keeping with the rest of the tale with no surprises.  It is always refreshing to read a story that does not stray from a previously established tone and plot in order to achieve a gimmicky twist.

This is a story that is perfect for those looking for a quick scare.  It is also a story that is MANDATORY reading for Keene fans that have an interest in his Labyrinth mythology.  Readers are treated to some added content as well. Included are three short stories that share the same themes and tone of The Cage, as well as accompanying ‘Author’s Notes’ which add a tremendous amount of insight.

Deadite Press is releasing The Cage in Trade Paperback which marks the first time that this amazing story can be enjoyed by the masses.  You will be able to pick up the book shortly from Amazon and check out all things Keene at his site.

Bloody Bytes: Digital Deals & Steals

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Satan’s sleigh bells are ringing and all his minions are singing “Bring us good beer!” Wait, did I get that right? Well, I think I got part of it. Anyway, with Christmas upon us it’s time to start hunting down the best deals for the loved ones in your life. It’s also a good time to snag a lil’ something for yourself because everything is on sale! For this week’s Bloody Bytes, we’ve got cheap reads perfect for getting you fiends in the holiday spirit, a grab bag, a coupon, and a beautiful gift you can enjoy everyday this month for free! Check it out beyond the break.

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Population Zero by Wrath James White

Wrath James White’s Population Zero is one of the most disturbing, gore-soaked books I have ever read. Self-induced abortions, DIY vasectomies, and unbelievable scenes of blood letting that will shake you to the core. White seriously challenged my threshold for the sick and depraved in his quick novella. Despite being a mere 112 pages long, there is quite a bit to chew on. Population Zero examines the dark reality of going too far for what you believe is right and good.  There are no supernatural monsters, ghosts, or otherworldly creatures at work in this story, just one man hellbent on saving the planet at whatever cost. White isn’t shy about making some biting commentary about social issues in Population Zero, but it wasn’t his socio-political bent that drew me to his book. It was his reputation as a master of sex and splatter literature and the beautifully grotesque Deadite Press cover that initially sold me. What I found was a frightening depiction of extremism that sated my hunger for the darker side of things, but also made me think.

Population Zero focuses on Todd Hammerstein, an employee of the Welfare Department and staunch environmentalist who is dedicated to controlling the ever-growing human population using some violently macabre methods to meet his goal. Out of context Todd’s insane efforts would seem like a cheap set-up to outdo one gore gag after the next, but White is coercing his readers to consider real societal problems not just turn their stomachs, although he is masterful in doing so. Before White subjects us to Todd’s demented acts, we are treated to an unsettling snippet from his past that gives intimate perspective on the origin of his extremist views regarding overpopulation. Todd learned a hard lesson about population control from his father after his best friend, a Golden Retriever named Honey, had a litter of puppies. His father explains that euthanasia is “the right thing. We just can’t afford to feed them all.” Todd takes that logic a step further and applies it to humans. If we are responsible for controlling the overpopulation of animals, shouldn’t we do so with humans? Inspired by the book Zero Population by Heimlich Anattoli, head of Todd’s environmental activist group, he makes it his personal mission to do the right thing by the human race, so he thinks. His mission starts out innocent enough. Using his position at the Welfare Department, he first offers a pregnant woman government assistance if she promises to have an abortion. Another man if he gets sterilized, but his plan rather quickly derails into complete insanity. He starts where most individuals do when they tackle an issue so much greater than themselves, questioning his impact on the cause at hand. Take recycling for example. You recycle, but ask yourself if that’s enough when you drive by miles upon miles of garbage lining the highway of your daily commute. How do you combat a problem so large? Dedicate your free time to cleaning up trash? If you were Todd, you may brutally punish litterbugs. I can’t say I related to Todd necessarily, but I understood that overwhelming sense of helplessness. Whether you are taking on the issue of human rights or environmental activism, I think people can connect with that inner struggle and turmoil that comes with fighting for something you believe in.

White further connects the reader to Todd by using a third-person omniscient viewpoint. The reader can follow the thought process of Todd and are even treated to some of his schizophrenic inner dialogue. Right at the moment you think “this guy is bat-shit crazy” he is also wondering “Oh my God. Maybe I am Crazy?” But Todd is so strongly convinced he is doing what’s right he justifies his actions through every psychotic step. Again, you probably won’t understand the absurd choices Todd makes, but at times that scarred little boy shows through and it’s hard not to feel sorry for him, except when I was grieving for his poor victims. White does a stupendous job of making Todd more human than psycho. He’s completely off the rails, no doubt, but still human.

Todd’s concern about the rapidly growing population isn’t particularly radical, it’s the way he acts on his concern that makes him radical. Todd is the horrifically skewed, nightmare version of Population Connection. This grassroots organization “works to ensure that every woman around the world who wants to limit her childbearing has access to the health services and contraceptive supplies she needs in order to do so.” For Todd there is no want, population control is a hard truth and he will use whatever means necessary to rid the world of more mouths to feed one victim at a time. White uses painfully detailed, horribly unsettling scenes to really drive that point home.

When Population Zero was originally published by Cargo Cult Press in 2008, the popularity of multi-birth families was really taking off. I can’t help wonder if White was inspired by reality shows like Jon & Kate Plus 8 and the strange celebrity of Octomom. Reading this novella, my mind naturally wandered to this multi-birth phenomenon and our culture’s recent obsession with it. I suppose there could be many inspirations for this novella, but that’s the beauty of it. Its extreme violence and imagery makes the reader consider more than just overpopulation.

This novella, and White’s work in general comes with a warning. The man himself said it best in a recent blog post, so I’ll let him take it from here:

If you don’t want to hear criticisms about race and religion and society, don’t read my shit. If you want an optimistic portrayal of the human condition, seriously, DO NOT PICK UP MY BOOK. So, here is a list of upcoming titles that those with more delicate sensibilities should selectively avoid.

If you lack the delicate sensibilities White refers to, find out what upcoming titles you can expect from him via his website Words of Wrath. As for the novella Population Zero, you can pick it up from Deadite Press for under 8 bones or the Kindle edition for just $2.99!