Monday, June 27, 2011

Rio Loco by Robert J. Conley (Barjack series Western)

When local outlaw Owl Shit Johnson commits his latest murder, he makes the mistake of doing it right in front of the town's marshal, Barjack. Owl Shit is used to being bailed out by his brother, Chugwater, but Barjack can't be bought off. He might be prone to extreme violence and heavy drinking, but the marshal of the town of Asininity upholds the law.

Because of a promise made to their mother to take care of his little brother, Chugwater is determined to break Owl Shit out of Asininity's jail before the county judge arrives to sentence Owl Shit to be hanged. And Barjack is determined that the murderer will be face his punishment. This results in an "irresistible force"/"immovable object" fight of near-epic proportions.

Author Robert J. Conley is a three-time winner of the Spur Award from the Western Writers of America, and his character Barjack is one of the most entertaining I've encountered. He has his own way of doing things, and his code is not above using dynamite to make a point when the outlaws just don't seem to get it.

Barjack tells the story, and his voice is its primary appeal. But I was never once bored, even though Rio Loco (whose title, strangely, never appears in the text) is mainly an attack-and-defense story all the way through. Chugwater hires cowhands to do his dirty work, and Barjack deputizes a selection of trusted gunmen and -women to defend their post at the jail.

Each must try to outshoot or outwit the other to get his way, and neither is willing to give up his own, to the death. The fact that both are fighting for his own deeply held moral code — Chugwater's promise to his mother, Barjack's upholding of the law — makes it hard to feel that either is completely "wrong."

Conley peoples this mostly traditional Western with interesting characters and balances moments of shocking carnage with others of light humor, so the reader never knows what to expect. This gives Rio Loco a very modern appeal. I liked it so much that I immediately acquired a copy of the preceding volume in the series, Barjack and the Unwelcome Ghost, available in both ebook and mass-market paperback — for a limited time, I'm sure — for around a buck and a quarter.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Blood Born by Matthew Warner (reproductive horror)

Daniella Connolly was on a date with boyfriend Eric Gensler when he tried to go too far with her. She ran away. Soon after, she was knocked unconscious and brutally raped. Gensler was immediately suspected, especially since his filed-to-a-point canine tooth seemed to be the source of nasty bites on Daniella's neck and shoulder.

Daniella's mother, Dr. Margaret Connolly, is a fertility specialist at the CalPark Fertility Clinic. Her supervisor's work in the experimental wing is so top secret that Margaret's supposedly all-access key card won't let her in.

When Detective Christina Randall gets involved with Daniella's case, she gets a big surprise. Daniella is only the latest woman to have been raped in a series of assaults. These have all resulted in pregnancies that are progressing at over 30 times the normal rate.

In just one week, during which the new mothers emaciate to astonishing proportions, the "baby" is born: a pseudo-primate whose first meal is the meatiest parts of Mommy. After another week, the new addition is fully grown and ready to start its own horrific procreation spree.

(Author Matthew Warner's regular readers may recognize Detective Randall from his first novel, The Organ Donor. And CalPark was featured in his second novel, Eyes Everywhere. I haven't read the former, but the latter is a truly excellent psychological thriller.)

Warner manages something all-too rare in modern horror: he writes about extremes without any trace of his tongue in his cheek. Every horrible event in Blood Born is told completely straight, even the ones that in other hands would be ridiculous. All disbelief is suspended as Warner takes his readers on a ride unlike any they've been on before. His combination of intelligence and confidence lets you know you're in solid hands, so you can just let him do his thing.

This results in a 500-page horror festival that flies by as Warner takes the reader into new territory. I sometimes wanted to stop and look around at all the details -- Warner is especially deft with all the medical information required for the plot to make sense -- but the narrative drive of Blood Born is such that it quickly became clear who was at the wheel, and it wasn't me.

Small press horror novels are numerous, and it can be hard to know which ones are worth your time, but my experience with the work of Matthew Warner -- with Eyes Everywhere and Blood Born in particular -- shows that he he delivers intelligent, visceral, and psychological horror of dependable high quality.

He seems to be always testing himself, not content with delivering another version of his last book. His book of essays, Horror Is Not a 4-Letter Word, displays his knowledge of the genre, inside and out. It sounds like a product endorsement, and I guess it is: Matthew Warner is a brand you can trust.

For more on Blood Born, read Matthew Warner's guest blog here on Somebody Dies.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Caretaker of Lorne Field by Dave Zeltserman (quiet horror)

Jack Durkin's family has been taking care of the menace in Lorne Field for three hundred years. Every day, he spends twelve hours extracting the plantlike Aukowies that continuously sprout from the ground. To the untrained eye, they look like simple weeds, but Jack knows that if allowed to grow, they become uncontrollable, ambulatory, and a threat to every living thing on the planet.

For a long time, the caretaker of Lorne Field was given a great deal of respect from the local residents. But this generation seems to have not been told of the importance of the position, because everyone below retirement age thinks Durkin's job is at best "a quaint tradition" and at worst a waste of the $8,000 annual stipend paid for by their taxes.

Durkin's first-born son, Lester, who is contracted to take over the job when he turns 21, is tired of being mocked (and called "Weedpuller") by his friends. And Durkin's wife, Lydia, is tired of barely scraping by on $8,000 a year — which was a lot of money when it was contracted for in 1869 but is half what Lester says he could make at McDonald's.

Lydia wants her husband to quit the ridiculousness and get a real job. And Jack wants to prove to the town that the blood-thirsty beasts he kills for twelve hours a day, six months a year, aren't just weeds.

The premise of The Caretaker of Lorne Field is a highly original one that grabs the reader from the first page. Author Dave Zeltserman also grounds his admittedly fantastic novel with fully human and relatable characters, especially Jack, whom you can't help but sympathize with as he meets persecution from almost everyone.

Belief in the Triffid-like Aukowies isn't necessary to the enjoyment of The Caretaker of Lorne Field, as Zeltserman leaves the truth open to interpretation. The appeal of the novel is in its ease of delivery, its confident voice, and its perfect length: relatively short for a modern novel.

Zeltserman has made quite a name for himself in the crime-fiction genre with his novels Outsourced, Killer, and Pariah among others. He shows an equally skillful hand at quiet horror with The Caretaker of Lorne Field.
Related Posts with Thumbnails