Thursday, October 31, 2013

Modern Halloween Classic: Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge (horror novella)

This is an expanded version of the review that was originally published in the now-sadly-defunct Down in the Cellar magazine. Copyright 2006. Reprinted with permission.

"He's the October Boy ... the reaper that grows in the field, the merciless trick with a heart made of treats, the butchering nightmare with the hacksaw face ... and he's gonna getcha! That's what they always told you ... he's gonna getcha so you know you've been got!!!!!" — from Dark Harvest

Every year around Halloween, I choose an old favorite set around the holiday to reread and get into the literary mood. Sometimes it's an entry in the Orangefield series by Al Sarrantonio, sometimes the anthology October Dreams, but this year it was Norman Partridge's high-octane horror novella Dark Harvest.

From the jack-o'-lantern on the cover, it's easy to tell that this novella is Halloween-related. But where most pumpkin-heads are fairly innocuous-looking, this one is positively threatening, which gives you some idea of the book's contents: intense effects in a short amount of time.

In fact, Dark Harvest is so much better than the early fiction that came out in the rerelease of his short-story collection Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales that it is hard to believe they were written by the same person.

You know this kind of story: it's the legend every small midwestern town has, and Partridge has managed to keep things familiar and yet fill this novella with surprises. It's got the nostalgia of Ray Bradbury's classic Something Wicked This Way Comes with a touch of The Twilight Zone and the kind of dark suspense that Partridge specializes in, but the author has also included a melancholy thread that adds depth.

It's that time again: Halloween night, the night when all teenage boys are released, after being locked in their rooms for five days, and set off to find "The October Boy," a midwestern nightmare with a jack-o'-lantern for a head and one thing on its mind: getting to the church on time (no, really). The boy who kills this awful creature (also known as "Sawtooth Jack") gets to leave town, or "jump the Line," something that has become increasingly more difficult, especially with Officer Jerry Ricks enforcing the border. But Pete McCormick thinks this is his year. He has stolen Officer Ricks's .45 and he is determined to get out of the town that has been holding him and his family, and everyone else in it, down for generations.

Dark Harvest is by turns frightening and sad, scary and tragic. It is a pure Halloween horror story, but one whose ripples extend past the time it takes to read it (only a few hours). The characters are people you know, only in a situation you couldn't have imagined that nevertheless feels entirely plausible given the right set of circumstances. I believe that Partridge has crafted a new Halloween classic, one that should find a permanent place on the shelf of every fan of the holiday who appreciates solid writing with no spare parts.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Death Troopers by Joe Schreiber (Star Wars zombie horror)

Trig Longo is a barely teenaged Cimarosan grifter imprisoned along with the rest of his family aboard the Imperial prison ship Purge, which is also home to five hundred other murderers, thieves, and rebel insurgents. En route to the detention moon, the Purge breaks down, its engines coming to a standstill.

The discovery of a seemingly abandoned Star Destroyer results in a scouting party being enlisted to search for salvageable repair parts. Only half return, and by the time they realize what they've brought back with them, it is too late: death is aboard the Purge — and it's contagious.

Before long, Dr. Zahara Cody and her 21B droid are dealing with over a dozen dead and a nearly 100 percent infection rate. Before long, only six of the living remain, surrounded by innumerable rank corpses.

But of course, these aren't your average dead bodies. These are the kind who make like Lazarus and get up and walk. And they're really, really hungry.

When I saw Death Troopers, my first thought was, "Wow, not even Star Wars can avoid jumping on the zombie bandwagon." And then I knew I had to read it. The cover image of a decapitated stormtrooper's bloody head hanging on a hook was simply too gruesome to resist.

I've always thought of Star Wars as relatively "clean" entertainment, so this addition of undead horror to the franchise was intriguing and exciting in its opening of a new world of potential storylines. Death Troopers is eerie from the beginning, and author Joe Schreiber (Chasing the Dead) uses his experience in the thriller genre to craft some genuinely scary scenes. The book doesn't really get moving for a while, but the surprise appearance of a pair of familiar faces one-third of the way in is a pleasing distraction.

Audiobook reader Sean Kenin adds to the gruesome nature of the disease by kindly providing appropriately wet coughs for the infected. Some poor choices, however, make the audiobook less than it could be. One is having Kenin describe a character's action (sighs, deep breaths, etc.) and then redundantly perform them. Another is just nit-picking, but I found it difficult to believe that a lab described in the text as "dead" and "abandoned" would require the use of mad scientist bubbling chemical sound effects.

The conceit of having the chapter titles screamed in a kind of electronic filtered echo starts out as a nicely disturbing counterpoint to the text but becomes laughable after only a few occurrences. (There are around forty chapters.) Death Troopers is in fact only the second time that I've felt an audio version detracted in some ways from the story. (See my review of Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven.) The crunching, slushy sound effects of a body being torn apart are quite nice, however, and the experience as a whole was altogether entertaining.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Dawson Black: Retail Merchant by Harold Whitehead

I have to admit that when I saw the title of this book at Project Gutenberg, I thought it was going to be a parody of some sort, the title playing in my head as read by a deep-voiced radio announcer. But the introduction by author Harold Whitehead quickly put that idea to rest, as it was obvious that this assistant professor of Business Method at the College of Business Administration at Boston University had serious intentions: to illustrate to those who feel that business is not a place for creative endeavor that the opposite is in fact true.

Whitehead does his job admirably in what is, I believe, his only novel. It is hard to find much information about him online, but he seems to have been best known for his nonfiction writing on business, including a popular, long-running column called "The Business Career of Peter Flint" (a collection of which is advertised in this book's pages).

Dawson Black: Retail Merchant is the story of a young and ambitious businessman, tired of working as a clerk, who buys a local hardware store. Black is a clever fellow full of creative marketing ideas, and the story shows his varying levels of success as he learns business management, sales, and advertising the hard way: on the job. His direct competitor, Stigler, is not happy about his new competition, however, and is determined to knock the youngster down a few pegs.

Luckily, Black left his previous employer (Barlow, the market leader by a long shot) on good terms, and the kindly gent is free with guidance. Black also has his highly supportive wife, Betty, to comfort and advise him as well.

Whitehead tells an absorbing yarn of drummers, jobbers, and endless opportunities told through the first-person experience of the title character. Dawson Black: Retail Merchant is one of the best books I've read this year, both in its narrative energy and its informative power.
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