Review: The Corridors of the Dead, by Jonathan D. Allen

I first met Jonathan D. Allen when he was interviewed by Paul Dail. I was intrigued by the premise for The Corridors of the Dead, but really taken in by Jonathan’s voice in the interview. When I discovered Jonathan’s blog is named ‘Shaggin the Muse,’ I knew I wanted to be friends. It turns out that not only is Jonathan a talented writer, but he is also highly approachable. Chat him up on Twitter (@crimnos)  – you’ll see, he’s one cool cat.

And now, my review… 

The Corridors of the Dead, a dark fiction novel by Jonathan D. Allen, is told from Matty’s point of view. Matty works the nightshift at a Circle K convenience store. With her misanthropic attitude and need for ‘time to escape people and work on [her] art,’ the graveyard shift is as perfect a fit as she was likely to find. In the dead of night Matty feels like an ‘inter-dimensional traveler’ and allows the weirdness of the time to give her glimpses into surreal worlds conjured by the media of her visual art. There is nothing random about Allen’s choice of a visual artist as protagonist; it turns out Matty has the ability to breach the illusion of reality in more ways than just through her drawings. Indeed, there is nothing random about the entire, wonderfully crafted introduction. Matty’s voice is authentic and brash. She is a cussing, independent, real person recounting events. Allen deftly leverages Matty’s authenticity to pull off early foreshadowing that is subtle enough not to detract from the narrative flow, but detailed enough to give a jolt of recognition on a second read.

The Corridors of the Dead is a feast for the omnivorous reader. Those who love the traveling-adventuring sections of King’s Dark Tower series will enjoy Allen’s take on the theme of group pilgrimage as way to individual knowledge of self. Allen excels at depicting the word play, intrigue, and tension generated by throwing together a band of travelers, each with their own motivations and secrets. Not that this journey is all talk! There are plenty of action scenes. Fights between cosmic factions take place in a variety of settings, including a fast-paced struggle on a train that exists in a world outside of time. It is in this space outside of time, surrounded by ancient decaying bodies, that Matty learns that her actions might somehow be responsible for a cataclysmic massacre.  This knowledge places Matty at the epicenter of an intractable moral dilemma and allows Allen to raise serious questions, especially around the idea of sacrificing one to save the many.

Matty’s voice carries the work, even through a section near the middle of the novel where the narrative is slower paced than the rocketing start and the mind-boggling revelations of the latter third. Throughout the book, Allen provides a largess of world building and historic back story. The Corridors of the Dead is part of a series, and any suspected excesses in the artificial scope of just one book need to be evaluated in the context of the overall arc of the series as a whole. I trust Allen to use this world and its history to give greater resonance to events in the subsequent installments. In fact, if his incredible use of foreshadowing in the introduction of The Corridors of the Dead is any indication, Allen’s probably already set us up to be wonderfully satisfied when we see how all of the pieces and parts eventually play out.

Allen makes surreal settings and situations feel believable. Whether journeying into alternate worlds or facing a too-close-to home assailant, the authenticity never falters. One of my favorite scenes involves a shotgun toting ‘Eureka Tweeka, a meth head of the lowest class.’  The Tweeka proceeds to rob the store then forces Matty into the trunk of her car with the intent of killing her. Matty’s description of  being inside the trunk? That it ‘smelled like a droid died in there.’  That is just one delightful example from a book replete with surprising metaphors that not only shock or amuse, but also work.

The Corridors of the Dead is a book you’ll want on your 2012 reading list. It combines an end-of-the-world theme with engaging dialog, memorable characters, and trans-dimensional adventure. Best of all, Matty will be back in the continuation of the series!

Go on an inter-dimensional adventure! Purchase THE CORRIDORS OF THE DEAD on Amazon or Barnes and Noble


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Review: The Well, by Peter Labrow

The Well was my introduction to indie published horror and assuaged any fears I had that excellent horror could be independently produced. I’ve since discovered that in addition to authoring an amazing novel,  Peter Labrow is friendly, approachable – and patient! It was weeks, if not a month or more ago, that I first mentioned to him my intent to write a review. Peter, please consider this my Winter Solstice gift to you! I’d like to remind everyone that it is possible to give e-books as gifts via Amazon!

Note: There are some mild spoilers scattered throughout.

On the outskirts of Bankside, the old Whitaker estate stands in ruins. The well has been capped with a metal grating, but the grating is in nearly as much disrepair as the “overgrown, crumbling” wall surrounding the estate. Not that it matters, since it is the legends that keep people away, not the wall. Although the place gives Becca the creeps, she goes there to be “properly alone” with Matt, who is both her stepbrother and her boyfriend. A flirtatious kiss on the well plunges the two of them into the dank water.

The Well, by Peter Labrow, could have been entirely focused on Becca’s experience of being injured and trapped in an abandoned well. The descriptions of her hunger, the lurid detail of how she manages her bodily functions, the horror of sitting with a corpse, and the torment of a vengeful spirit provides more than enough material for a satisfying ‘hit’ of dark fiction. Had Labrow chosen to keep his focus narrow, The Well would have been very, very good. Instead, Labrow seamlessly combines a cornucopia of horror that takes a broader, more frightening look at the evils of our world. The Well isn’t very, very good: it’s better than that. Labrow’s novel is a close call with a dark fiction overdose. The Well is a horror aficionado’s wicked good time.

Claustrophobia, pedophilia, supernatural malevolence, and relationships strained by extraordinary circumstances: The Well has uses all of these themes to examine the effect lies have on people. Becca and Matt would not have been in their predicament if Becca had not lied to her mother and her friend Hannah about her whereabouts. It’s unlikely they would have been together at the well if Matt had not lied about being a virgin, especially if Becca knew “the one girl he’d had sex with… didn’t exactly qualify as willing.” The supernatural cycle of the novel also is based in lies. Ages ago, when the Whitaker estate was still occupied, the Bankside apothecary’s wife lied to her husband as to the nature of how she knew the Whitaker witch was murdering children. In the modern day, the descendant of the apothecary’s wife lies to her young daughter when a vivid dream presages the reoccurrence of the Whitaker curse upon their lineage.

Granted, how is a mother supposed to tell her eight-year old daughter that it is their place to allow the sacrifice of an innocent? It is also true that if the apothecary’s wife hadn’t lied, she would have been branded a witch and slaughtered along with the Whitakers. Few condone date rape, and many wouldn’t condone premarital sex with stepsiblings, but almost everyone can understand how two hormonal sixteen year olds would lie to get a chance to make out. Therein lies a large part of the horror you feel upon reading The Well:  you understand the reasoning behind the lies, you get it. Then Labrow shows you the nasty consequences of the darkness unleashed by ‘understandable’ lies.

The characters in The Well are mostly well-crafted.  If you were to meet one of them in the grocery store, he or she would be indistinguishable from the ‘real’ shoppers.  When Labrow characters lie, love, or feel the entire spectrum of fear, they do it convincingly – except for one character. That character is Matt’s father, Jim.  Jim is presented as  “decent” albeit “slightly dull,” the type of man who, even “under pressure…[is] able to think straight.” When driving to see if their kids are in danger, Jim “drove as quickly as he could but – being Jim – not irresponsibly.” Instead of just showing us Jim being Jim, the narrative resorts to telling us facts about Jim. The scenes with Jim break the flow of the story, making me conscious of the fact that I am, after all, reading. This is a minor quibble; the other characters, especially the pedophile crossing-guard, are almost uncomfortably human.

What interests me about Jim is that he seems to be the only male character in The Well who is not a womanizing bully, cheater, drunk, or aspiring rapist. Instead, Jim is the poster-boy for calm and supportive love; he makes a conscious effort to touch his wife and offer her comfort despite his own fears. Although this review is not the place for an in depth analysis of any one facet of the novel, I think a book club would find a veritable treasure trove of discussion solely around the topic of gender and sexuality presented in The Well.

If The Well is about the consequences of lying, it is in equal measure a book about the dynamics of relationships.  Labrow presents several types of relationships, all at varying stages of intimacy, and each with their own set of problems. However, he doesn’t limit the narrative to examining only personal relationships. As with the choice to expand the work beyond just the events that take place within the well, Labrow expands the type of relationships he examines beyond everyday romance and friendship.  Labrow orchestrates situations to examine a variety of interactions including  the relationship of the accursed to the innocent; the relationship of a trusting community to a predatory school employee; and the relationship of police to possible suspects. The question of individual responsibility to a group or community is an understated yet dynamic theme in the novel. What is truly notable is that at no point does the weightiness of the questions posed drag down the story or interrupt the immediacy of the characters’ panic and fear.

The Well is a multifaceted, thematically rich horror novel you don’t want to miss!

After the holidays, you’ll want to curl up with a good book.  Why not make it THE WELL?  Purchase THE WELL from Amazon as an e-book or paperback!


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Review: The Imaginings, by Paul Dail

I met Paul Dail during the Halloween Hop. I visited nearly a hundred blogs over the course of that blog hop, but it was Paul’s site that resonated with me. He’s a kindred horror writing indie, but more than that, he is a genuinely engaged human being. If you comment on his blog, you’ll get a response from him; if you post something of value on your blog, he’ll be sure to share it with his readers; if you send him an email to ask about something as banal as Twitter, he’ll write back with sincere suggestions. He’s a good guy, who’s written a really good book, THE IMAGININGS. Here are my thoughts on this, his debut novel.

Note: there is a very slight spoiler in the second to last paragraph.

Paul Dail’s novel, The Imaginings, opens with a suicide. The deceased’s brother, David, comes to clean up the apartment and finds a note tucked in amongst turned food in the refrigerator. It is a short letter, cryptic: “never disregard your imaginings.”

The  note is David’s first indication that something out of the ordinary drove his brother to suicide. Unlike the reader, David has no idea that he is targeted by the same demon that tormented his brother. Dail quickly dispels David’s ignorance. Prior to the cataclysmic fire that launches the primary action, the demon taunts David by speaking through an unplugged television. Rather than whimpering in fear or running, David asks, “Why us? What did we do that was so wrong?” The demon Mashart answers, “That’s just it, boy… You haven’t really done anything.” Since David hasn’t done anything, there is no way he can undo or repent for an offense. David is, essentially, trapped.

David isn’t the only character who is trapped. Dail revisits this theme in many guises. One character is kept in something of a modern day orphanage, locked in after dark. Other characters work underground in a series of tunnels closed off by more than one door. With a hat tip to Poe, Dail even literally walls one character into a confined space. Through Mashart, we visit Hell. There the damned- and, it seems, some innocents unjustly stolen by Mashart – are tortured for what “…amounted to at least a century before …[they] dissolve into the frozen flesh of the Dark Lord for eternity.” The unrelenting claustrophobia experienced by another character crystallizes the horror of horror of being imprisoned and, and Dail hits his stride in the scenes involving that character.

Dail combines psychological anxiety and good, old-fashioned scary. There are plenty of dark, creepy moments. Even better, there is the chance that no one is who they seem to be because Dail has redefined the way demonic possession ‘works’. Mashart doesn’t settle into just one character Exorcist-style; no, he flows from character to character. Mashart has compelling reasons to return to David, but the demon isn’t picky: he’ll hop a ride in a handy real estate agent if it serves his purposes.

Like all good horror, The Imaginings lends itself to serious discussion about human nature. For example, the battle between David and Mashart for control of David’s ravaged body is a chilling reminder that our flesh can host evil. In Rosemary’s Baby, evil gestates, but in The Imaginings, evil is fully formed. Mashart is out ‘there’ but it can also be in ‘here’, within you, noticeable only when it wants you to know it is there. Mashart uses David’s body as an implement of torture and death, allowing Dail to imply some pretty weighty questions:  Is morality tied to the flesh, or to the soul? Can our bodies do evil, and our souls remain innocent? Are good and evil quantifiable and, if so, can the balance between the two be upset?

My primary gripe is with the ending. The description of Mashart leaving David’s body is exceptionally well-executed, and the spiritual climax is both surprising and fitting. However, the satisfying sense of completion it should have effected is diluted by sheer excess. A pivotal scene is repeated from different perspectives, and the repetition slowed the action. Dail can count himself in good company, though; I have the same gripe about Dostoyevsky’s epilog to Crime and Punishment.

Spiritualists, horror aficionados, and inquirers into human nature will all find something in Dail’s book to delight  – and ignite – their imaginings!

Treat yourself to a new voice in horror! Purchase THE IMAGININGS on Amazon or Barnes and Noble


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Review: SEED, by Ania Ahlborn

I found Ania Ahlborn’s blog when I was first considering indie publishing my novel. I found her writing style to be engaging and straight-forward and found her ‘How to Publish Your e-Book’ series to be informative. In addition, she’s also super helpful if you contact her directly. I was at a loss to find an editor, and wrote Ania. She responded with encouragement and a recommendation for Nick Ambrose of Everything Indie. It doesn’t hurt that Ania is a cutie-patootie and able to bake up a veritable storm of seasonal goodies. All things considered, I couldn’t wait to read her debut novel, SEED. I was not disappointed. In fact, I came away with an even higher opinion of Ania and a sincere excitement to read more of what she’s going to write!

Without further ado, here are my thoughts on SEED:

“The Saturn’s engine rattled like a penny in an old tin can.”

That is the opening line of Ania Ahlborn’s novel, Seed, a story about demonic possession.  It is no coincidence that the plot starts with a description of a car; escape, or lack thereof, is a central theme for Jack, the protagonist. How do you escape what you are? In Ahlborn’s Seed, the answer is simple. You don’t.

Jack makes a living “patching up flat-bottomed swamp boats.” He’s a member of Lamb, a small town band that “never missed a gig.” He is father of two daughters and husband to  a woman from a different – and higher – socioeconomic strata.  Jack seems like just about every guy you’ve ever met who’s happily married, but still holding onto the freedom of his artistic pursuits.  Jack’s different, though. He’s hiding a series of secrets, any one of which could destroy his family.

With Jack Winter, Ahlborn has done something brave. She has written a character that is hard, if not impossible, to like. Jack repeatedly avoids doing anything to help his daughter, Charlie. His first responses to the escalating situation are dismissive: “She’s got the flu or something” and, after the doctor finds nothing wrong, “isn’t it better she isn’t sick?”  This from a man who knows exactly what is wrong with his daughter. He intentionally misleads his wife about the situation, making it “his mission to find the shoddiest psychiatrist” so that his wife could “believe that Charlie was a schizophrenic.” Jack is more concerned about concealing his own past than helping his child – or so it seems.

Ahlborn alludes that there could be a more complex answer. For example, at one point Jack is “terrified by his bitter epiphany” that “[h]e was going to lose his daughter and he couldn’t do anything to stop it.” Jack isn’t sure there is a God, and posits that, “[f]or all he knew, wickedness was strong enough to exist in a world without good.” If Jack is possessed or seriously damaged by the demon Charlie dubs ‘Mr. Scratch’, then Ahlborn bravely penned a character who is true to his situation, namely, a person infested with evil and, by implication, hard to feel empathetic towards. Jack reminds me of Cass Neary in Elizabeth Hand’s  novel Generation Loss. Neither Cass nor Jack is someone I would want on my side in the apocalypse. Are both Cass and Jack excellent examples of non-standard and intriguing characters you can’t wait to see what they do next? Absolutely.

SEED is not strictly linear. There are significant portions of the story that take place during Jack’s childhood. While this could have been clunky or disruptive in the hands of a lesser writer, Ahlborn handles the transitions between the different timelines with aplomb. There is tremendous emotional payoff for the reader when past and present collide and Jack is able to finally piece together the full story of his past and how it relates to what is happening to his family.

My only real complaint about SEED is that the characters of Jack’s wife and oldest daughter are less participants in the action than they are stage props for Charlie and Jack to manipulate. The wife shows glimmers of individuality, and some of the scariest scenes happen in her presence, but she never gets a chance to take any risks or grow as a character. The older daughter has even less of a pivotal role, and except for the shock value and eerie symmetry with the Jack’s childhood cat incident, this character seems nearly extraneous.

It is likely you won’t notice that particular weakness as you are reading, though. Ahlborn does a fantastic job on delivering the scary. The poltergeist/popcorn scene and the thing moving under the covers scene are both well executed and creepy. The incident with the dog is horrifying. Ahlborn does not flinch when it comes to the emotional gore that is horror at its best.

Ahlborn’s storytelling demonstrates an understanding that horror should not be explained away fully, and that to over analyze would kill the mood, ruin the nightmarish effect, and diminish the purpose of writing something scary. For example, it is never revealed who the large bearded man at the gas station is, nor the nature of his relationship to the demon. Likewise, Ahlborn never reveals how the demon chose Jack or the mechanism by which the possession transfers to Charlie.  The one question I hope there will be a resounding and affirmative answer to is: Will there be a sequel?

Have you supported indie horror today? No? Pick up SEED on Amazon!


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Publishing Update & The 5-Sentence Pitch

The publication process is underway! After two years of writing and revision, my debut novel has entered the final stages before publication! My copy editor starts work on STOLEN CLIMATES next week and my cover artist has picked out a location to get reference images to use in sketching out some initial drafts. My goal is to release STOLEN CLIMATES in the first quarter of 2012. I have not firmed up prices or outlets yet, but I’m working on those details and will let you know as soon as I do.

Part of publishing is coming up with back cover matter and a pitch. I was stymied by this for a long time, and finally asked for advice from a fellow indie author who has been very successful. I wrote a pitch and put it out for the world to read, including my father, who has also read a draft of STOLEN CLIMATES. My father is a brilliant writer. I grew up hearing the quote, “If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.” When he read my pitch, my father suggested that I be a bit more pithy and capture the essence of STOLEN CLIMATES in five sentences. I agreed with his reasoning, and then panicked.

Have you ever tried to sum up an entire novel in five sentences? It is much more difficult than it sounds. I think there is a special challenge to summing up a horror novel, as the basic premise of most horror stories is a bit… silly.  My opinion is that just because the premise is absurd, doesn’t mean that there can’t be value and deeper meaning to a work. Yet, summing up my novel in five sentences left even me, the dedicated author, feeling like my book was… silly, even though I know that the story is not at all silly or trite or lacking in depth.  I kept working at it, and came up with five versions of the 5-Sentence Pitch. I’d love it if you’d tell me which one you feel is most effective!

5-Sentence Pitch

Option 1 (As Summer Solstice Nears…) : 

As Summer Solstice nears, a small Texas town prepares for a ritual that will give human form to Mother Nature. They will spill a mother’s blood, invoke a father’s lament, and ensure the continuation of ancient ways. Until then, carnivorous vines are growing out of control, the sacred orchard is dying of blight, and it isn’t safe after dark.  Mother Nature isn’t just a metaphor. She has a name – and a face!

Option 2 (Genny thought her hallucinations…) : 

Genny thought her hallucinations were from lack of sleep. Then her daughter started hearing the trees talking, too. Now they are being hunted by a cult who wants to use them in a deadly ritual. As carnivorous vegetation encroaches on the house where Genny and her daughter are trapped, their only hope of escape is a single ax and an acquaintance with his own set of debilitating issues. Mother Nature isn’t just a metaphor!

Option 3 (Mother Nature isn’t just a metaphor…) :

Mother Nature isn’t just a metaphor.  She has a name and a face. Every generation, the town of Breaker sacrifices a mother and offers her daughter to be the vessel for the powers of Nature. They need a new vessel, but there are no children. Then the Mercer’s arrive with their three year old daughter and not even the people of Breaker are safe from the bloodshed.

Option 4 (Genny and Malcolm Mercer are moving…) :

Genny and Malcolm Mercer are moving to Breaker, Texas. They hope living in a small town will alleviate Genny’s insomnia and the dangerous hallucinations it causes. As they look for a house to buy, the Mercers check into Breaker’s only hotel, eat at the only café, and discover there is only one little girl in the whole town: their daughter, Laney.  The town has noticed Laney, too, because they need a child to use in an ancient ritual to  incarnate the powers of other Nature. As Summer Solstice nears and  carnivorous vines grow out of control,  the Mercers learn that Mother Nature isn’t just a metaphor.

Option 5 (After losing his job…) :

After losing his job and his girlfriend, Prentice decides go West. He ends up in a Texas town where ancient  rituals are carried out to incarnate the powers of Nature.  When he overhears plans to abduct the child of the only other guests in the town motel, Prentice has to choose between the safety of a largely imaginary life he’s dreamed for himself or a dangerous reality. Will Prentice be able to rescue an innocent family? Or will he be subdued by a lack of confidence and a swarm of carnivorous vines?


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