Tag Archive for book review

Stephen Zimmer’s Hellscapes: Fantasies of Damnation

Hellscapes_1200X800For background on Hellscapes and an interview with Stephen Zimmer, see my author spotlight.

To launch the collection of Stygian narratives in Hellscapes, Volume 1, Stephen Zimmer cites three primary inspirations, maybe even masters: Dante Alighieri, John Milton, and Clive Barker. Zimmer is an accomplished writer with a voice all his own, so these citations are less acknowledgments of imitation than a map for readers who want to place where Hellscapes falls in the geography of literature: in one region, Dante and Milton, acknowledged world masters whom many remember hating in excerpts assigned during school, and in another, Barker, whose Books of Blood will (in this professor’s opinion) eventually get its due of immortality, but Barker ain’t in the mountains of Dante yet.

What does this first of several mapping devices in Hellscapes tell us about what the five interwoven tales have in store? Luckily, a little bit of everything. Zimmer delivers classical visions of punishment and despair ringed with silver-tongued demons, but he wraps them up in fast-moving, 21st-century-accessible prose and adorns them with legions of monsters (giant rats, spider-wolf hybrids, even some rotting ex-people that are particularly popular at present, and more), most of grotesque proportions I can imagine bringing a smile to Master Barker’s lips.

One of the things I like most about Hellscapes might turn off readers who expect short stories to follow the market formulae that still require narrative conflict-resolution arcs of the sort prescribed by Aristotle millennia ago. In other words, if a short story only makes you happy if the central character experiences some life-altering change that leads toward a satisfying conclusion, you might not be happy with this book. After all, most (not all–Zimmer’s got some surprises for you) characters are spiraling toward similar eternal destinies, even though the destinies outwardly take different and creative forms. However, if your happy comes not from rushing to endings but from vivid descriptions–moments that yield opportunities for felicities such as “sepulchral cacophony” and “surreal beast”–as well as thoughtful pepperings of metaphysics to spice up the plentiful eviscerations, then, my friends, Hellscapes is for you.

Perhaps the stories in Hellscapes manage this feat, they break the tried-and-true formula for dynamic characterization and conventionally satisfying closure yet still remain compelling, because they work together more like a Winesburg, Ohio or a Joy Luck Club. They gather meaning and intensity as they accumulate, and while the closure of most individual tales might lack traditional resolutions, “twisty” or otherwise, the closure of the collection feels like a larger canvas (or, perhaps more accurately, a medieval triptych… did they have quintychs?) coming together.

And for that reason, as readers go along, some might encounter a difficulty that I did. The stories mostly focus on the plights of the wealthy and powerful who have abused their positions and life, a fairly non-partisan political point that gives the book cohesion and moral force. However, the first three stories center on (in order) a woman, a man attracted to other men, and a man with a Hispanic name–all minorities in the halls of (American) money and power. Having minorities make up 3/5 of the damned who star in these tales made me… uncomfortable… but the decision makes more sense when the book as a whole comes together, and so does Zimmer’s discussion of those particular choices in our interview.

In my imagination, several types of people might be reading this review. If you’re the type of reader who shares my love of the gruesome imagery in the movie Martyrs (2008) but could fast forward through all the rest of the stuff, Hellscapes might not be for you. But if you like the gruesome imagery and also share my conviction that horror and grotesque imagery stand out among the oldest and most venerable artistic traditions for good reasons–involving philosophy, politics, and all the rest–as well as the coolness of nasty beasties, then give Hellscapes a try.


Michael West’s The Wide Game: Memorable Horrors

For background on The Wide Game and an interview with Michael West, see my author spotlight.


The Wide Game is a tense, well-structured page-turner that draws on regional flavor–the fictional town of Harmony in an atmospherically real Indiana–that earns it a place in American horror alongside other regionalists like Stephen King and Bentley Little, not to mention Poe and Lovecraft. In other words, West’s supernatural worlds, like the best we have, flow from the world he knows, not from some new twist on the latest trendy monsters. As a result, the casual reader who wants fast-paced scares as well as the horror fan who wants substance will find much of value in this reissue of the beginning of West’s Harmony cycle.

This paragraph is for the part of me who likes the frosted side. While far from qualifying as extreme horror, The Wide Game delivers some startling (narratively justified) gore that engaged my love of extreme aesthetics, i.e., the side of horror that pushes the boundaries of where art can and should take the imagination. Despite my general efforts as a reader not to anticipate plotlines, I did see the major twists coming–that said, West is courteous enough to deliver twisted plotting with tickle-torturing efficacy, something too often lacking in today’s straightforward subgenre ruts, and his attention to detail is careful enough to merit serious rethinking and rereading in order to admire the narrative elaboration as a product of true craftsmanship rather than cheap trickery.

My description so far might suggest labored prose, but West’s reads like the opposite. The regional flavor only appears in spare description and characters’ attitudes, and that craftsmanship is so admirable in part because the buttresses are all but invisible behind lean, easy prose. What’s interesting about the writing is that, mostly embedded within characters’ perspectives, it depends heavily on allusions, many of which are especially poignant given the book’s pervasive nostalgia, which begins with the dedication “For the Class of 1988.” Indeed, readers who didn’t either live through the 80s or see a lot of John Hughes movies will miss a great deal of the culture that West captures both through his narrator’s voice and in the dialogue of his characters, both in a 1988 timeline and in a class reunion timeline ten years later.

Now I get to the whole wheat side. The 80s nostalgia is part of what makes the book fun, but it also makes the book itself, particularly the 2013 reissue, a compelling commentary on “Gen X” as it ages and begins to assess where the attitudes that characterized its “cool” in the 80s had led the world by the late 90s (and now, by the early 2010s). Much as critics have interpreted the surge of horror in the 1970s as a reaction to a generation’s earlier idealism gone horribly awry, The Wide Game provides a confrontation between present and past and finds horror in the difference between what the present is and what characters thought it would be.

This historical perspective is especially keen in one exchange of allusions between characters in the 80s timeline. Skip, a bully, makes fun of some other boys for liking the band Duran Duran, whom he labels a “Bunch o’ queers.” To prove his own masculinity, Skip brags, “I listen to Judas Priest.” Historical perspective, of course, allows this little detail to join a few others that suggest that Skip himself might have some latent tendencies: the lead of Judas Priest eventually came out as gay. Other allusions are similarly layered with meaning, particularly an allusion to Stephen King’s The Stand, which West and I discuss in our interview–but like many of the other allusions, that one changes with the added (and perhaps subtracted) perspectives of time and memory as the narrative unfolds.

What might be even more fascinating than any given allusion is West’s systematic use of film language and film-derived imagery, which reflects his educational background. Some examples: “Her head might just do a Scanners.” “Some Fangoria-loving dweeboid is out here trying be Jason.” “You can drop the sledge hammer, Oliver Stone. I get the message.” Kevin-Williamson-like lines like these have a Kevin-Williamson-like justification, a central character who wants to make movies. At one point he thinks of a situation, “If it had been one of his movies, he would have used a slow fade to black. It was the language of film. Everything got fuzzy and the screen slowly grew dark. The reality of it had been closer to a jump cut.” Moments like this one suggest that the character’s memory and consciousness are themselves structured according to “the language of film,” and with such a suggestion, The Wide Game opens up a critique that even Oliver Stone has made a time or two.

The bottom line is that The Wide Game is a fun read even if you don’t care to think about issues of generational identity, history, memory, and the influence of art over the structure of thought. But if you care to think, the book has all that, too.


About Michael West:  Michael West is the critically-acclaimed author of The Wide Game, Cinema of Shadows, Spook House, Skull Full of Kisses, and the Legacy of the Gods series.  A graduate of Indiana University, with a degree in Telecommunications and Film Theory,  West has written a multitude of short stories, articles, and reviews for various on-line and print publications.  He lives and works in the Indianapolis area with his wife, their two children, their bird, Rodan, their turtle, Gamera, and their dog, King Seesar.

His children are convinced that spirits move through the woods near their home.

Author Links:

Website:  http://www.bymichaelwest.com

Twitter: @bymichaelwest


G.L. Giles, WATER VAMPS, and the Elements of Vampire Style

I picked up Water Vamps by G.L Giles on a recommendation. The line under the title, “a young adult adventure story,” would generally be enough to turn me the other way–just not my scene–but having been promised that these vamps, although very different from the traditional in many ways, stick to one rule that should never be broken–they do not sparkle–I decided to give it a try. The book’s slim length and easily accessible style made it ideal for an evening plane ride home from a conference. The risk was minimal, and the reward turned out to be far greater than I would have thought possible. Water Vamps delivers a young adult adventure story, kids coming of age and learning life lessons and discovering love as they face dangers and learn the value of teamwork, all the good stuff the line below the title promises, but it also delivers quite a bit more for us grownup horror fans.

WaterVampsCover(click the pic for more info on the book!)

Giles builds the supernatural side of her Charleston, South Carolina on a rejection of an absolute Christian world view that would easily classify goods and evils, Van Helsings and Draculas, etc. This rejection is manifest through the protagonist family’s pagan values, which narrative outcomes affirm, but it also provides one justification for a proliferation of creatures and perspectives within the novel (or novella’s) 84 pages. We have the titular water vamps, of course, but they have different sects and philosophies, as do land vamps, who have different powers that go with different philosophies. Furthermore, the water vamps’ (and presumably) others’ powers develop according to some judgment of their accomplishments that comes from some unspecified higher power, a higher power capable of accepting all creatures within Giles’s diversely populated world, whatever kind of vamp, human, siren, raven, or other being the creature might be, as long as it follows an ethic of self-authenticity and respect for others.

The moral is a little heavy at times, which is again appropriate for readers of a less sophisticated age group, but more interesting than the weightiness or contemporary relevance of an affirmation of monster diversity as an affirmation of human diversity (which we see in everything from James Whale’s Frankenstein to Clive Barker’s Cabal/Nightbreed to the Shrek movies) is how this morality seems to operate as a creative force within Giles’s work, giving us (or at least me, and I’ve lectured on the history of vampires across the country) a kind of grammar and vocabulary for vampires we’ve never seen before. And given how many goshed darned vamps have flooded this market since Louis and Lestat got castrated and turned into Mormon teens, that’s about the highest praise I can imagine giving a vampire tale.

The one thing I’ll say that’s somewhere between praise and constructive criticism is that the book contains a little too much. In a short span, we not only get a host of new vampire species and subspecies and some intrigue involving danger, romance, and teens, but we get a mysterious plot tying the present-day teens’ success to the fates of their ancestors, and we also get parallels with a an Ivanhoe-type Robin Hood that go largely unexplained. As I commented to the author in person, it’s hardly bad for me to put down a book and say–but, but, but, what about—!!! Where’s the next—!! As long as she writes more. So YA and vamp fans, brace yourself to be dazzled by creative thinking but left feeling eager for more.

Blog Tour Update: Seeing the Dark Sun!

I’m in the middle of a “blog tour.” The idea is that I write things–guest posts on any topic I like, answers to interview questions, or posts from the perspectives of characters from Burning the Middle Ground–or the blog reviews me, or the blog puts up an excerpt from the novel–and for about a month, one blog after another shows off something related to my work. I’m almost halfway done, and it’s way fun. And people I’ve never heard of are liking my Facebook author page (if you haven’t done that, please do!), so maybe it’s working. Unlike with big presses, people aren’t hearing about BTMG all at once… it’s a slow build… if it builds anywhere (that’s up to you; please, share this post!). Here’s the halfway recap.Click on the image to get to the blog.

1. Read 2 Review: Guest Character Post by Sara Cox


Sara, a minor character in this book (but I have plans for her, mwah-ha-ha), shares her opinions on protagonist Ronald and fellow antagonists Mike and Jake. Then she briefly gives her own perspective on Ronald’s visitation by the ghost of 10-year-old Fran McCullough.

2. Readings Sunshine: Book Review


I chose an image of the synopsis in English, but the page is in Portuguese first–I’d love to have a multilingual, multinational readership! Scroll down from this synopsis and see magical words like “I recommend it to everyone who likes horror stories and dark fantasy.”

3. Spellbindings: A Guest Post on Building Horror/Fantasy Worlds


Burning the Middle Ground is written to stand alone, but it’s part of a world I’ve been building for more than a decade. Little pieces like this one come closer to showing you how big that world has gotten than the glimpses you get in the novel… which, like I said, stands alone, but is intended as the first of a trilogy that gradually brings the details I’ve built in stories’ backgrounds into the foreground for epic confrontation.

4.Beagle Book Space: Tour Spotlight


It’s quasi-osmotic: puppy goodness leeches into book goodness.

5. SpecMusicMuse: Review


This guy is a sharp reader and says great stuff about my work. He also doesn’t like the fact that I’ve structured it how I do–with a significant backward time leap for part two before I resume the present-day action in part three–but for the most part, I feel warm and fuzzy, particularly since he’s right about the middle and end tying into the much larger universe.

5. Workaday Reads: Guest Post


So this is one of the guest posts by me, rather than by a character, and it addresses a question I often get–I’m a film professor, so is my writing cinematic? The answer of course, is both yes and no. Interestingly, I address exactly why I do the thing that SpecMusicMuse didn’t like… but of course I wrote this guest post before seeing that review. Small mental world, eh?

And that’s all for now. Coming soon: a guest post about why I think the smartest people like horror, a character post by Winston Beecher about the McCullough Tragedy and Brian McCullough in particular, an interview, and more reviews. Keep reading!

Auteur sans Auteurism: Why I Wrote DARIO ARGENTO

Okay, misleading title–I wrote Dario Argento because I love most of his movies. I’m a fanboy, but this blog is about why my book takes a very non-fanboy approach to his work.

Dario Arrgento book cover

A recent Facebook discussion, spurred by a not-particularly-flattering review by Clayton Dillard in the online Slant Magazine, has inspired me to elaborate a bit on why I bothered to write a book about a single director, published in a “Contemporary Film Directors” series, no less, while eschewing the “auteurist” approach traditional for categorizing films according to their directors and considering directors as films’ “authors.”

Quite reasonably, on Facebook, Mr. Dillard asks, “the idea of a book titled with the name of a director — that does NOT take an auteurist approach — is a fascinating one, without question. But, doesn’t the very structure of the book (having to talk about all of his films) resist this kind of desired examination?”

The series resists my approach, but I followed all the series’ rules: I focused on the majority (not the entirety) of a single director’s works, I provided some juicy biographical notes, and I showed chronological developments and trends, emphasizing critical perspectives without merely providing a chronological history of the director’s production. What I refused to do, however, is focus on questions of stylistic development over time, particularly as they pertain to the director’s personal relationships, psychological struggles, personal visions, or individual prejudices or hangups. I am not interested in what Mr. Dillard refers to as “a more existential explanation for Argento’s cinema.” I think Mr. Argento is someone I’d very much like to know, but I don’t know him, and I don’t feel like I need to know him to find meaning in his works. I see trends of meaning in his works without needing to delve into the mysteries of a singular human being behind them. I am interested in psychoanalysis as a phenomenon, but I am not a psychoanalyst. My goal in Dario Argento is to develop a methodology for approaching the oeuvre of an auteur for which the actual identity and interiority of the auteur is more or less irrelevant. I think I succeeded. If “Dario Argento” turns out to be a group of quadrupedal aliens posing as a single Italian man who likes to cast his daughter in strange roles, my arguments will not need to change significantly.

The bottom line is that auteurism, the politique des auteurs, was useful in its day, but that day was a long time ago, and it’s over. Its originators in the Cahiers du Cinema have more or less admitted that they exaggerated their cases for political ends. The idea that art was great depended on it coming from the imaginations of great men, so, in order to be treated as art, film had to be attributed to great individuals rather than great collaborations, hence the Godards and Truffauts and so on. Timothy Corrigan and others have usefully helped us to keep thinking about auteurs as marketing phenomena; the director as master artist is still a useful and meaningful concept. I mostly think of “Dario Argento” as a brand. In my book Dario Argento, “Dario Argento” is a brand that marks a series of films with common rhetorical strategies.

My book divides the strategies into four movements. The first movement pits the Argento brand against criticism, particularly feminist criticism, which I epitomize through Laura Mulvey and other commonly anthologized figures (after all, the book is supposed to be accessible to undergrads and layfolk). Mr. Argento may or may not be misogynistic (I think not, but I don’t know, and his films’ violence will always lay the films open to such accusation), but they rhetorically open dialogue with accusations of misogyny that are potentially productive. The second movement pits the brand against psychoanalytic interpretation. The third, against narrative. The fourth, against genre conventions. I feel my job was to give the most attention to the best-known works, so there’s more on Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) in relation to Psycho (1960), the intertextuality of which got Argento dubbed “The Italian Hitchcock”, than on lesser-known works. I also provide lots and lots of commentary on Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980). I do give Argento’s later works less space (but MUCH more space than Maitland McDonagh’s 2010 reissue of her 1994 book version of her master’s thesis). I think these works are worth consideration, and I do have things to say about them that I think indicate important contributions to film history, but proportions reflect market interests in addition to general assessment of the films’ importance. However much I may like Sleepless (2001)–which is brilliant–it’s nowhere near as important in film history as Suspiria, so I’m not going to apologize for giving it fewer pages in a book that’s supposed to give readers an intro to the director’s oeuvre.

If you really want a good auteurist take on Dario Argento, I can’t offer a strong enough recommendation of Alan Jones’s work. When working on my book, Jones’s was called Profondo Argento, but now he has Dario Argento: The Man, The Myth, & The Magic (2012). Jones has been right beside Argento through almost every step of the maestro’s career, so no one is likely to top his insights into what makes the man tick. If you want plot summaries, production notes, and trivia, James Gracey’s Dario Argento (2010) is pretty darned useful. There are lots of other popular books on the maestro out there, the only ones of which I can recommend are Chris Gallant’s Art of Darkness (2002) and Luigi Cozzi’s Giallo Argento (2006… pretty much have to order it directly from Rome). The only other academic book I know of in English is Maitland McDonagh’s, and other than it being first, I only commend its Jungian and Proppian analyses of the first two of the Three Mothers films. Otherwise, well, read my book instead.

I hope I’m not encouraging more bad reviews by responding at such length to them, but really, I appreciate Clayton Dillard for saying things that were smart enough to be worth responding to, agreeing in large enough part to disagree in small parts worth explaining. Thank you, Mr. Dillard. You are an insightful critic. I hope this dialogue is but a first.