Book Review: The Wide Game by Michael West

Wide-Game_7star_finalThe Wide Game
By Michael West
Re-release 2013 Seventh Star Press
Order from Amazon here
10 / 10 Arjays—because everyone knows Arjays are the coolest thing ever!

This text below was originally written for a previous edition of the novel, now out of print.

“When you’re in high school, it all seems so serious. Every little thing has cosmic ramifications. Everything is life and death. It’s only when you get some distance you realize it wasn’t that way at all.” This bit of dialog appears late in the novel The Wide Game, spoken without a trace of irony. And the reader knows by this point in the story that Paul Rice, our protagonist, would punch the speaker in the face if she were anyone other than his wife.

Those who give in to the numbing effects of time and distance forget that a small percentage of every high school class never graduates due to suicide. For those lucky enough (or unfortunate enough, one could convincingly argue) to have a high school sweetheart, they experience a love more powerful and more pure than any to come after, resulting in scars of the heart and soul that never entirely heal afterwards. Some high school friends remain friends the rest of our lives. Music and movies make a far deeper impression. High school is an experience of feelings at its most pure, not because we can’t distance ourselves, but because most of us have not built up the walls that life and experience force us to build. The walls built between our true exposed selves and the rest of the word. Because high school teaches us to build those walls.

So okay, I’m three paragraphs in, and I haven’t talked about the monsters. If you read Skull Full of Kisses (and if not, why haven’t you?) then you already know West can deliver on the scary. In The Wide Game, the scary comes in the form of an unspeakable evil that rises from the cornfield in a variety of terrible shapes and methods, and as the mystery unfolds, the motivation works beautifully. The blood is spilled, the scary things come. Terror ensues. Much has been said about the horror in this horror novel in plenty of other reviews. If you are here for a great horror novel, The Wide Game delivers.

But what impressed me more about The Wide Game is West’s ability to create fully developed characters, even the ones that won’t make it to the end.

Paul Rice, in the year 1997, returns to the small town he grew up in with great reluctance for his ten year high school reunion. Paul visits his mother’s home with his wife and two children, so grandma can watch the children and Paul and his wife can head off to the reunion proper. We hear references to a great tragedy during the class of 1987 Wide Game—essentially an annual small town senior tradition scavenger hunt / graduation party held in a giant cornfield. We learn that Paul, then a film major and participant in the game, actually captured some of these events on his video camera.

Wisely, the book doesn’t spend a lot of time in 1997, but quickly jumps back to 1987, where we experience the events “live” as they unfold. And here is where the novel really resonated with me.

We are dealing with the mid-80s, teenagers, and mass murder. Yes, West flirts with many of the teen horror movie conventions of the time. You have the high school sweethearts; the obsession with music and M-TV; The 80’s slang; the nerd and the bully; the bodyguard who defends the nerd; the jock; the stoners; the Laverne-and-Shirley-like best girlfriends. Incredibly and in spite of this, West manages to avoid the typical dumb teenager clichés while paying homage to the era that brought us these great clichés.

Paul is very much in love with Deidra, and West takes his time developing their passion and budding romance, letting the reader experience it firsthand. The rest of the novel relies on the reader caring about them, and taking the time to develop the relationship pays off. Rather than bringing the story to a halt, it’s my favorite series of scenes. Paul and Deidra are sweet and likeable and sincere, and any reader whose heart is not made of gargoyle stone will get vested in their story. All this while already knowing that Paul’s wife in 1997 is named Mary, not Deidra.

Paul falls hard for Deidra, invests his heart, his soul, and his creative romantic energy the way only a swooning teenager can—before the first heartbreak, the first shattering of romantic dreams, the first time you realize your destiny was not as set as you thought.

I don’t know if West based this on reality, but I can take a guess. Having experienced a similar arc in my own high school experience (well, minus the being chased by psychotic pissed-off spirits in a cornfield part) West opens a creative vein of truth to bring the perfect touch of honesty to his fiction. For me the high school hi-jinks resonate to the point of a near-flashback, and the reunion worked equally well for reasons that enter into spoiler territory.

Bottom line: If you’re just looking for a great scary book, you can’t go wrong with The Wide Game. Even if the 80s high school setting means nothing to you, you’re still in for a great time. If, however, you happen to a couple years on either side of age 40, The Wide Game could very well serve as a wonderful, chilling reminder of a past when “Every little thing has cosmic ramifications…[and] Everything is life and death.”

Review: How to take the back roads to the frontal lobes and end up cowering under the covers.

51BVk9RHzoL._SS400_Back Roads and Frontal Lobes
by Brady Allen

A collection of 23 short stories
2012 Post Mordem Press
10/10 Arjays (because nothing is cooler than an Arjay!)
Since September, I’ve been doing a progressive hit-and-run reading through Brady Allen’s premiere collection of short stories. I worked on it in chunks, taking breaks between stories, and also tackling  two novels and a holiday collection.

Perhaps because of this approach, more than anything else, my sanity remained intact during the shocking, disturbing, and wonderfully gobsmack-tastic stories presented within (though I suppose some may tell me it’s not as intact as I tell  myself, but I digress).

The title promises to take you to dark places, and the collection does not disappoint. Honestly, as a ghost story and sci-fi reader, it goes to darker places than my recreational reading habits are used to. Paranormal romance readers and Twi “LIGHT” readers, consider yourself warned.

A "candid" photo of R.J. reading Back Roads and Frontal Lobes
A “candid” photo of R.J. reading Back Roads and Frontal Lobes

I gave this collection my highest rating. That does NOT mean that I absolutely loved everything here without reservation. In my opinion, few readers will fall in love with everything here. I didn’t “get” a couple of stories. Others crossed into the realm of “too much.” But I loved most of it, and more to the point, I love the ambition of all of it.

You see, this collection defines what the term “edgy” storyteller really means.

If there is one overused, abused, and burdened word in all of modern horror, it’s “edgy.” Though kicked around all the time in fallback market-speak (I’ve even used it referring to myself), readers rarely experience a writer truly on the edge.

In this collection, Brady Allen makes 23 attempts to take you somewhere unique and exciting. Someplace you have never gone before. A handful of those times, he won’t quite get there. Most of those times, he will. What Brady will never do is play it safe. Never. And that’s what I admire about even the attempts that fall short. Even when I read something that falls a little flat, he by-God went for it, doing the narrative equivalent of standing on the high wire hopping on one foot while juggling chainsaws. So even when a chainsaw falls to the ground, you can’t help but salute the attempt. And when he succeeds, it’s even more amazing.

This collection, more than most, relies on what you bring in with with you, but I can say with confidence you will enjoy much from this collection. You may not think as much of the bittersweet ghost story “Small Square of Light” as I did. You may think more of “Devil and Dairy Cow” than I. You may prefer the sci-fi over the horror, you may gravitate toward the rays of hope in some tales or prefer to bask in the tone of impending doom of others.

One thing is clear with every story. Brady loves people. Rednecks, working professionals, rich or poor, the practical and the dreamers, he loves their spirit, even when the shell has cracked and insanity has overwhelmed them, even when society has turned against them, Brady admires people in their everyday struggles, both in the familiar normal or the new normal his sci-fi tales spell out.

He loves the camaraderie in everyday public gatherings. Just try to count the diners, pubs, truck stops, bars, and other similar places. Each one unique, filled with people and their dreams, desires, so  many of them beaten down and overwhelmed by their own baggage.

Since it’s my review, I’m obliged to discuss  some of my very favorites. And if you’ll pardon the bad pun,  your mileage, and opinion, may vary during your own travel of these back roads.

I very much enjoyed the very insane observations of Ned, who thinks he’s got it all together when nothing can be further from the truth in “Not Over Easy”.

I got a huge kick out of the twin tales “Taste of a Heart” and “Burger”, both featuring Rose Holmes, redneck psycho or perhaps something far more sinister.

I loved the trippy psychedelic journey as “Bear Hogan Walks the Sky”.
I dug the Twilight Zone-esque twist of a hapless late-night traveler’s unpleasant stop for gas and snacks at a filing station where “It Lives and Breathes”.

I wept to his blues tales of “Blues Bus to Memphis” and “The Ballad of Mac Johnstone”. Blues Bus, in fact, hits upon a universal truth of any artist trying to pursue their dream. A highlight in the collection that still haunts me today.

I read while peeking between two fingers of my hand during the–for lack of a better term–“Deliverance fiction” setup of in “Sh**s and Giggles”.

“Praying” and “There Are No Hills” are both powerful presentations of perseverance in two possible distopia / post apocalyptic futures.

And more, but that’s enough for this  review.

But I wanted to give special kudos to “The ‘Ists After the Apocalypse”, what I feel is the best of the bunch. Part political commentary, part zombie thriller, set in a world populated with fantstically drawn characters and situations, a story which, for me,  ended way too soon and could easily be expanded into a larger work. (hint-hint)

Bottom line: Those brave enough to travel Brady Allen’s Back Roads and Frontal Lobes will return much better for it. This collection receives my highest recommendation for those who love dark, edgy horror.

Review: Cinema of Shadows

Cinema of Shadows
Michael West
Cover and interior illustrations by Matthew Perry
©2011 Seventh Star Press

9/10 Arjays—because there’s nothing cooler than an Arjay

For the last several months, every review site on the web has taken a moment to heap praises upon Michael West’s Cinema of Shadows, his second novel and his first release through Seventh Star Press. Now it’s my turn. Cinema is a triumph—incredibly satisfying, offering the scares you hope for with an attention to detail, history, and a set of characters you like and root for, even knowing not everyone makes it through to the end.

And the movies. The book is a celebration of Michael’s love of movies.

The book begins with a couple of prologues, first about our main character Kim Saunders, then with a significant flashback within the Woodfield—the movie palace in which the bulk of the story takes place.

Michael takes us back to Harmony, Indiana, the setting of The Wide Game (which I awarded the coveted 10/10 Arjays, see review here). He’s taking us from high school to college, where follow Ms. Kim Saunders and her group of friends—her roommate Tashima, and Joss and Kevin. The four have been grouped into a “team” of wanna-be investigators all trying to earn a semester’s credit of paranormal research under the leadership of the infamous and very British Professor Geoffrey Burke.

Kim is chosen to communicate with the spirits. It’s clear from the start she has a talent in finding rapport with the other side. When she addresses them, things “happen.” Her friends don’t know (but the reader is let in) of her mysterious past and the encounters that have allowed this to happen.

Following a partly botched haunted house episode, Kim is taken to the emergency room and treated by Doctor Tyler Bachman. It’s hardly five minutes later that “Doctor Bachman” has discharged her, asks her out, and he becomes “Tyler” for the rest of the novel, and the budding romance falls into place.

Professor Burke has been offered the unique opportunity to investigate the soon-to-be-demolished Woodview Movie Palace for the weekend, and he recruits the student team most aggressively to join him. Everything clicks into place pretty fast, and soon the team is setting up at the movie palace, learning its ghastly history, uncovering its secrets, upsetting the spirits, and getting into all sorts of trouble.

At 278 pages the book moves fast, yet never feels rushed. For me, comparisons to The Wide Game are inevitable, so, compared to The Wide Game, the situation is simpler, more straightforward. While The Wide Game protracted the reveal, Cinema is about getting to the scares and whipping the plot along.

The book, about a movie palace, shows a distinct love for movies, and “unspools” like a movie. Lines that will read as throwaway detail to some will have film students nodding their head at the in-joke. For example, when Kim and Tyler take a late-night stroll, Michael makes a point to mention that the sidewalk glistened wet from a recent rain. Those familiar with cinema techniques know that cement photographs better when wet and is often hosed down prior to filming.

Much has been said about the scares in other reviews, and I won’t go on about that except to confirm that if that’s what you’re looking for, Cinema is full of scares, surprise reveals and action sequences. I want to take a moment to praise Michael on his characters and his ability make the reader care and root for each one, even the throwaway ones. (The stripper, Michael—how could you do that to the stripper? Like her life wasn’t tough enough?)

I’d like to also mention the Catholic Christian emphasis in both Cinema and The Wide Game. For several decades it seems to have become out of vogue to create horror stories in which the power of God and the name of Jesus Christ can affect the outcome of supernatural encounters. (The crucifix, in modern vampire fiction, is waved around more like a can of mace than a symbol of spiritual presence). Modern American spirituality tends to be removed or minimized from “mainstream” horror fiction and only handled (or mishandled in my opinion) in “Christian horror” fiction. Not so in Michael’s work.

Cinema offers us a group of sexually experimenting college kids, prone to use “bad” language, but some of which have a strong faith, and fall back on that faith in hopes to affect the outcome of the tale. As a result, Cinema becomes one of a few unacknowledged Christian Fiction horror novels, with Christian characters most American Christians would understand and relate to, but will never be found in  a Christian Bookstore. For me, and I suspect for others, Cinema and The Wide Game fill a gap in secular storytelling, and I applaud Michael and Seventh Star Press for making that stand.

Now I hear Michael screaming “why didn’t it get ten Arjays?” A rating of 9 should tell everyone that I loved Cinema of Shadows, but I related to The Wide Game on a personal level in a way that no author can control. And so, I preferred The Wide Game,  by a “smidge”, and had to rate the story in a way that reflected how each book affected me, the reviewer, personally.

Bottom line: Highly recommended for those who love action-oriented cinematic paranormal fiction.

See my interview with Michael West around the time of the release of Cinema of Shadows here.

Book review: Spellbent by Lucy A. Snyder

Spellbent; Lucy A. Snyder; Del Rey/Ballentine Books 2009

Book one of the Jessie Shimmer series;

A review by R.J Sullivan

Score: 9/10 Arjays—because everyone knows Arjays are the coolest thing ever!

First of all, anyone who says fantasy art covers play no role in selling a book has never seen Spellbent.  In December 2010 I attended Apex Day in Lexington, Kentucky, with the Indiana Horror Writers, and in choosing from the overwhelming number of titles on display, I happened to look over at Spellbent. SOLD!

Okay, confession time. I’m a sucker for Tanya Huff and Elizabeth Moon. They tend to write sci-fi series novels about tough military and/or mercenary gals with giant guns blasting giant holes in bug-eyed monsters while slapping their boyfriends around and barking orders. It’s a sort of sci-fi junk food that I’ve acquired a taste for, and I’m not saying they’re great literature, but they are a heck of a lot of fun.

So I’m looking at this cover and I’m pretty sure this book is going to be great, and I’m also sure I know exactly how this book is going to play out.

I was half-right. The book WAS great—but it didn’t play out the way I thought.  It far exceeded my expectations.

While I was all set for an Aliens inspired Ripley-esque action piece (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) what I got instead was a book that tapped an entirely different vibe, but one that resonates with me just as much—the hero-against-all-odds tale. See, while I’m a Tanya Huff junkie, I’m even more of a Spider-Man/Stan Lee junkie, and I love any story of the underdog struggling against incredible odds. (This should be no surprise to anyone who’s read Haunting Blue, but I digress)

Okay, let’s get to it. And we start off—with the reason for minus one Arjay. We have Our Hero, Sorcerer’s Apprentice and hot twenty-something Jessie, and her former-college professor-now-sorcerer-and-lover Cooper.  This is just me being totally honest, as a middle aged guy, I could not get on board for Jessie and Cooper.  In fact, I found the whole thing decidedly creepy. Much is made throughout the first chapter of Jessie and Cooper’s sorcery exploits; much more is made of their sexual exploits, and how Cooper can’t keep his hands off of Jessie and how Jessie loves every minute of it. And since this is Jessie’s story, the reader is not given Cooper’s perspective. But I found it just a bit suspicious and frankly, a bit disturbing in an icky way.

In fact, later in the book, when Jessie is desperate to find Cooper, accusations are made. Evidence is presented, and the case is made that Cooper wasn’t interested in training Jessie at all, but just wanted to take advantage of her naivety and use and abuse her body while not really taking her seriously as a student of the magical arts. Jessie, of course, doesn’t believe a word of it, and stays true to her mission to save Cooper. But as I read the evidence, well, the accusations made perfect sense to me.

To be clear, I absolutely bought that Jessie was committed to Cooper. But it’s like watching a good friend giving themselves over to a relationship when you’re not entirely sure if the other person deserves that commitment or knows how lucky they are.  So—minor spoiler here—Cooper spends the majority of the book MIA, and frankly, Cooper still has to prove himself to me.

So enough on the quibbling point. Jessie and Cooper are off on a routine assignment, to cast a simple weather spell for a disgruntled farmer, when apparently a portal to another dimension–possibly Hell–opens up and swallows Cooper.  As if that’s not bad enough, Cooper has been pulled into Hell and something else has been transferred to our dimension—a really aggressive hellhound demon beasty thing. And it’s on a rampage.

At this point we meet Pal, Jessie’s familiar. Until this moment, Jessie has been unable to form a mental bond with Pal. Not that it matters; Pal is a ferret, which really doesn’t do Jessie a lot of good against an aggressive hellhound demon beasty thing. However, as people aren’t supposed to know that there are wizards in their everyday existence, the beasty has to be tracked down and killed ASAP, and Jessie is the only one who even knows about it.

To summarize, Jessie is terribly unprepared for the fight. While she does ultimately manage to stop the beastie, she takes a serious pummeling, making it clear that whatever Cooper’s intentions, she was terribly unprepared for an eventuality like this.

Much later, the council of sorcerers that run the world behind the scenes close in on Jessie and order her to give up her efforts to rescue Cooper. And they won’t take no for an answer, or play fair while they wait. And so, terribly injured, cut off from most of her magic powers, and even given a sort of magical “mark” so that other magic users will know not to help her, we watch Jessie refuse to follow orders, continue with her plans to save her lover, to a point where I could point to a spot in the book where I said to myself, “this is not worth it, I would give up right here, sign what I needed to, get my powers back, and abandon Cooper to his fate.”

But that’s why Jessie is a hero and why I just write about them. For the next 300 plus enjoyable pages we meet a delightful and intriguing cast of supporting characters while learning how this magic secret society operates in the real world, as the plot takes a number of dark twists, turns and revelations, all of which would be an incredible disservice for me to discuss or reveal.

Note: I have every intention of contributing book reviews to the Sci-Fi Guys Book Review site as often as my very slow reading pace allows. This review ended up on my own blog because Rodney already wrote his own rave of Spellbent here.

The NIghtmares Before Christmas Booklist 2010

Tis the season, time flies, and I got caught up in too many things to do this up in a big way. Excuses, excuses.

Still, it’s not too late to support your local horror authors, and here’s a list of books I can personally recommend for that slightly disturbed (but i n a good way!) reader on your Christmas list.

Look up these titles on the Amazon and Barnes and Noble websites:

The Butterfly Killer (Book 1 of the Monica McDowney Thrillers) by James W. Kirk (paperback and ebook)

Skull Full of Kisses by Michael West (short story anthology) (trade paperback and ebook)

Kingmaker Book 1: The Knights of Bretton Court by Maurice Broaddus (mass market paperback and ebook)

How to Eat Fried Furries by Nicole Cushing (paperback only)

Spellbent by Lucy A. Snyder (mass market paperback an ebook)

These are not only great books by awesome authors, but great people, too. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!