Review of multiple short stories by Stephen A. North: “Forgotten”, “Nobody’s Hero”, “Undead In Vegas”, “Means To An End”, and “Stupid Train”
Stephen A. North has written several novels but he has a definite fondness for short stories. These stories, much like his novels, usually have flawed (sometimes very flawed) characters in them. They tend to be in a tough spot in life, and we drop in on them as things are coming to a head. Such is the case in Forgotten and Nobody’s Hero. Forgotten shares a brief bit of Private Henri Dragon’s experiences in Vietnam. Things are about to get ugly in a village where the Viet Cong have been spotted and he and his squad will be in the thick of it. Nobody’s Hero is a little more domesticated a story, where Sue is desperate to find a way out of an abusive relationship and is willing to do whatever it takes to break free.
In both stories, the author puts us in the middle of what is perhaps the most intense few minutes of two very different (but in some ways similar) people’s lives. I would dare say the titles of these stories are interchangeable. You don’t do the necessary things to be a hero. You don’t do them to be remarkable or remembered. You do the absolutely necessary things because living is better than being dead, even if we don’t think much of the lives we’ve led.
This is a gritty one, with no apologies made and none necessary by those involved. Not necessarily fun, but if you like North’s trademark run of bad luck type characters, this will suit you just fine.
Forgotten and Nobody’s Hero can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B086SKWJVW/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i1
Undead In Vegas is a return to zombie actioners for North, in a condensed format. His trademark sad sap, down on their luck characters are on display here, and not just with Wallace, the main character truck driver who has ended up in Vegas as the zombie apocalypse has kicked into gear. Wallace isn’t dislikable, but you may find him a bit of a sap with his efforts to be the good guy, or at least the nice guy here. Life has become pretty easy to discard when most folks are walking around trying to eat you, and Wallace seems pretty fatalistic. Still, he isn’t a man who likes to be without a purpose, or so it seems, even if the purpose of helping out a woman whose husband is a schmuck seems like a not so great idea. I might have felt a little more appreciation for the main character if he had a bit more desire to do something for himself earlier on and perhaps had prioritized things a bit different as the story progressed. Not that I’m not surprised at how he acted-you see people doing similar things every day. Fatalistically putting one foot in front of the other, grasping at what little bit of life is available why accepting the inevitability of death perhaps being right around the corner.
Undead In Vegas can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07YQ47RVZ/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i3
Means To An End and Stupid Train might be my least favorite short stories of Mr. North’s, but at the same time, they might be the ones that make me grit my teeth and admit that both stories are the slap in the face you occasionally need to remind you that not everything needs to be either happy, or a short story needs to come to a smooth or perhaps satisfying conclusion. In a way, both stories end before they have the chance to get very far, to get warmed up, or to get rolling along to some predestined conclusion. Instead, they are both like starting your old, reliable car on a very cold winters morning and not waiting for the car to warm up, but instead pulling out of the driveway when there is still ice on the windows, and getting flattened by a speeding garbage truck the instant your tires touch the street. It would have been different if the car had warmed up, the ice scraped away, and you got to the highway before being creamed by an out of control semi, but either way, the end result is the same-just a lot more jarring.
The characters are not likeable, but the writing style from North remains consistent. His fondness for writing unapologetically hard luck and sometimes very unlikeable characters is something I appreciate. Tammy, in Means, and Lou, in Stupid, are perhaps best described as predator and prey, in their own worlds-destined to their fates because of who they are, innately. To expect, or hope for more, is perhaps foolish, or pointless. Thankfully, I can handle my fatalism in small doses, and these two are like taking a couple of shots of hard liquor. They burn going down but you can appreciate them after you get past the bitter taste left in your mouth.
Means To An End and Stupid Train can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B078K4RGDW/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i2
Oblique by Neal Vandar, which is an anagram of the author’s actual name, Alan Draven, is his first foray into the mystery thriller genre. Much of what the author has written previously, under his real name, has been more in the horror/supernatural realm. While this story is firmly planted in reality, the characters and what happens to them does require the suspension of disbelief as they go through some pretty surprising events.
Our main character, and narrator, introduces himself by sharing an event that happened during his teen years, some twenty five years earlier. That was when he saved a female classmate who was being chased by a man in the woods. Acting quickly, the narrator bashes the man in the head with a rock, killing him. At the girl’s urging, they dump the body in a nearby river rather than notify the police to avoid any potential trouble. This event would have remained in the dark corridors of the main characters mind except the girl he saved has reached out to him recently, asking him to meet her for dinner at a local restaurant. Given that he hasn’t seen her since shortly after the gruesome event that brought them together so long ago, it seems a rather strange request. Stranger still, when they meet, things go awry very quickly when the narrator returns from the restroom during their meal to find the woman, and everyone else in the restaurant, dead at their tables, though there is no sign of foul play. Things only get weirder from there as our hero is pursued and assaulted by virtually everyone he comes in contact with, sending him on a quest to find out what is really happening to him and why he has been thrust in the middle of a murder mystery.
It’s clear that this is the author’s first attempt at a novel in this style and genre. This isn’t a disparaging critique as much as it is an indication of his enthusiasm for the genre. Influences abound here, with Hitchcock being the heaviest. Another movie from the same era, Charade, also appears to have left its mark upon the author. Weird occurrences, odd coincidences, and mysterious strangers fill most of the pages, almost to excess, with each reveal opening a door to another deeper and darker mystery. It would be easy for the narrator to hold to the belief that he should trust no one, but that would be limiting, especially since it’ll likely be hard for the reader to even trust him.
There are, of course, deceptions galore, some of which might irritate and annoy the reader because what they believed to be true is in fact, a double-cross or plot twist. Naturally, there is plenty of action, ominous characters of all sorts, and journeys back and forth across the map so our hero can figure out who is after him, who wants him dead, and who, perhaps, are his allies. The geography is kept purposefully vague. All we know is the story takes place in the United States and there are some shadowy people involved belonging to equally shadowy organizations.
There are a few elements that the reader might find a bit fantastical or plain hard to believe, but the author does a good job of fitting most of the puzzle pieces together by the end of the story. I say most because there are at least a couple that felt a bit forced, but I was willing to forgive those missteps for what I felt was an entertaining, and very twisty read.
Overall, a decent tale from an author new to the genre. Hopefully he will continue to refine his style here and come up with some new twists and turns in his next thriller.
Braineater Jones introduces the reader to the eponymous character while he floats face down in a swimming pool with the dawning realization that he has been shot and worse yet, has died from his injury. Not having a clue what happened to him, he realizes that he is in a mansion and does a quick search, finding a few clues to his possible existence.
Fleeing from a couple of men who he believes have returned to the scene of their crime, this newly created zombie finds himself in the Welcome Mat part of the town of Ganesh, or The Mat as everyone calls it. It is the hangout of deadheads and deadbeats alike-a place where the trolley cars don’t go and where the police don’t show up when a crime has been committed. With no memory, Braineater stumbles across a few other deadheads who are willing to help him, or at least set him up with alcohol, which is the only thing that keeps the sriffs from becoming true brain eaters. If they pickle their brains in booze, they don’t turn into the monsters we all know and love. With the help of a ‘sponsor’ who goes by the name of Lazar, the narrator dubs himself Braineater Jones and offers up his services as a Private Investigator. And if he does a few jobs here and there for Lazar, he’ll have enough booze to keep his brain moving and his unlife going forward and at the same time he can try and figure out who the hell he once was, before he was plugged and dumped in the pool.
Braineater has plenty of questions, and the fact that his memories aren’t coming back to him like the eventually do with the rest of the undead is pretty suspicious. With the help of a partner who is nothing more than a dead head with no body and despite plenty of other stiffs trying to stop him, including a hot (or rather cold) dame who spells trouble from the get go, he’ll get to the bottom of the mystery, even if he does end up double-dog dead for his troubles.
Braineater Jones is a pulpy noir mystery novel set in the back alleys of a strange city a few years prior to World War II, with all the slang and classic detective set ups you could ever want…with the added tidbit that the main character is dead. Braineater is a wise guy through and through, and while many of the other characters are also dead, they could fit perfectly into a classic mold of a Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett hard-boiled novel.
This is an interesting cross-genre tale that gives zombies some interesting slants. The author makes the main character as clueless as we are as to why he is up and walking around and makes him explore the reasons for that through his detective work, which allows us to learn as we go. There are hints to voodoo being the culprit, though Braineater’s fixation is on why he has come back and less on why there is a community of the undead as a whole. There are plenty of twists and turns to keep things interesting and a setup for a potential series of books. The zombie purist may not appreciate the liberties the author took with his depiction of the undead, though fans looking for a creative take on the classic zombie setup should appreciate how different the world of Braineater is and how entertaining both he and the rogues gallery of characters are in this story. This was a fun, easy read that made me smile and also had me rooting for a zombie, which isn’t something I do very often.
Braineater Jones can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Braineater-Jones-Stephen-Kozeniewski/dp/1940215188/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1389578672&sr=8-1
Nocturnal Offerings is another return (sort of) of the author’s town of Bitternest, a foggy city in Louisiana not too far from New Orleans. But this story, which is broken into two parts, starts out in Montreal, which happens to be the author’s hometown. Nick Kubrick, a radio host from Bitternest, has headed north to visit his brother Chris who has moved to Canada. But upon arriving at his brother’s house, he realizes that his sibling has disappeared-his house appears to be abandoned, mail from the past several weeks clogs his mailbox, and a little girl who lives next door said some men came by and took him away in a hearse some time ago.
While pondering this mystery, Nick stumbles across an acquaintance that he went to high school with that now also lives in Montreal. Lance is a successful architect who designed the gated community he and his wife lives in and he invites Nick to stay with him while he is in town. Nick soon discovers that the neighborhood is just a bit ‘off’. Everyone who lives there are beautiful, there are no children, no pets, and no one over the age of forty. His sense of foreboding is capped off with a midnight visit to a part of the neighborhood where the women who live there dance naked in the moonlight. But he isn’t quite sure whether it was a dream he was having or the start of an odd new mystery filled with witches and rituals making this strange place even stranger.
On top of these two puzzles, Nick stumbles across a young girl who is running from some strange creature, or so it seems, as he drives into Montreal. He later discovers that there have been three deaths in the city over the past few days-bodies are found with the skin peeled off and the hearts removed. A serial killer appears to be on the loose and he wonders if the girl he had come across could have been its next victim.
The first part of the book focuses on the mystery around the strange suburban neighborhood and its equally strange inhabitants whose sexual appetites are pretty over the top. Nick meets up with a librarian who he befriends that is willing to help him uncover what is going on in Elysium Cove, along with helping him try and figure out what has happened to his brother.
The book moves back to Bitternest later on, where the murders that happened in Montreal seem to lead to the possibility that a serial killer might be crisscrossing North America with Louisiana as its final destination.
The author has continued developing an intriguing world where Bitternest, Louisiana is the centerpiece. While it’s clear he has an appreciation for his hometown of Montreal, he seems more comfortable writing about this eerie, foggy place which dark forces call home. What brings Nick to Montreal-visiting his brother-seems quite secondary to what ends up being the driving force behind why he stays. Figuring out what happened to Chris takes a backseat to the odd neighborhood with the strangely beautiful women. It seems a tremendous coincidence that Nick stumbles across an old acquaintance so far from home. It almost seemed as if the author decided that a tale of a missing brother wasn’t all that interesting and dismissed it so he could devote his efforts to fun and games with the devilish women of Elysium Cove. Not that this particular tale wasn’t entertaining, but the stage was set for there to be more during Nick’s time in Montreal.
Nick is a rascal. That isn’t a term that is heard much these days, but that is perhaps the best way to describe him. His affection for the young, pretty librarian who helps him out doesn’t seem to temper his lust for the lascivious women who seduce him during his stay at the mysterious subdivision in Montreal. The fact that the librarian maintains her affection for him despite his admitted indiscretions with those strange women required a bit of suspension of disbelief, even if supernatural forces were the culprit for his dalliances.
The return to Bitternest for the second part of this tale felt like the more natural environment for overall story being told. The author has a fondness for Montreal that bleeds through in his descriptions of it and its inhabitants clashes with the gritty doom of his tales. Bitternest is a far more welcome abode for these dances into darkness. Bitternest isn’t just a setting; it is an ever present character whose moods and whims influence each story that takes place within its boundaries. It pulses with lifeblood of its own. That is the case here, even with this slight tale of a monstrous serial killer whose path may have led them from Montreal down to southern Louisiana in a strange cycle that takes place every twenty seven years. Nick is at home here-a character who does his best to debunk myths and rumors of monsters on his radio show-much like Kolchak from days of yore, but who seems to keep discovering that the things which go bump in the night are horribly real. He hooks up with a private detective hot on the trail of a serial killer with some secrets of his own, despite Nick’s promises that his hunting days are behind him.
Overall, this is a satisfactory entry into the Bitternest saga, though there was a desire for more from the Montreal side of things-especially with the missing brother side of the story. Bitternest is a fun place to visit and I look forward to future trips to this foggy, grim place chock full of nightmares.
Nocturnal Offerings can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Nocturnal-Offerings-Alan-Draven/dp/0615906842/ref=tmm_pap_title_0
Sunfall Manor tells the tale of Edgar, a ghost who has no memory of who he once was, living in a farmhouse divided into five apartments. This novella explores the inhabitants of those five apartments with Edgar, who is mostly repulsed by all of them, with each of them lost, sad, or sick in their own ways. We spend the night with him-a night where he has decided to intervene, to manipulate things when before he remained separated from the living, content to watch their lives fall apart night after night. Tonight will also take him on a journey of discovery about them and who he once was, and also how Sunfall Manor played a part in the life he once led.
Sunfall Manor reads like a slowly unraveling mystery, though most of the answers Edgar receives are in a sudden, dramatic burst near the end of the tale. Still, there are details to be discovered about him and about those around him before that-how perceptions can change shift in an instant as more is revealed. This is a well-crafted ghost story that is filled with sadness and regret that left me with a bittersweet aftertaste after the last page-echoes of what the story reveals on its pages.
With the author promising more tales of Sunfall in the future, I look forward to finding out more about this little town in the middle of nowhere and all its deep dark secrets.
Sunfall Manor can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1938644050/ref=cm_cr_thx_view
Infatuation: The Story of Snow Queen by Nathan J.D.L. Rowark is not a story that is all that easy to describe. In fact, for my period of reading at the beginning of this saga I wasn’t sure I quite understood what was going on in this fantastical tale of love, lust, and revolution, and wondered if I ever would.
The story begins with the introduction of Kay and Grace, a brother and sister who are in the Garden of Remembrance when a flight of snow bees separate them. This is a place where loved ones return from death in London, and where Kay will find his destiny in the arms of the icy Snow Queen, who will cause his demise but also receive his undying devotion.
We are granted a very slim understanding of how all these elements come together at the beginning of this tale-why there are these snow bees, which are both necessary to this world but are also a great menace to it-and why the dead come back to life.
Infatuation takes place in the far future, in a world where implants have tied the living together and granted them a form of immortality. Bodies are stowed away and the essence of a person can be transplanted into a new body after death. All of this is controlled by a mysterious religious leader who keeps everyone within the city under his control through the use of a pervasive social network.
When Kay and Grace get separated in the garden, they go on their own journeys-Kay with his new found love, the Queen, and Grace, in her efforts to find her brother, even though he has sacrificed his body for a new, dead one so that he can endure the touch of his icy maiden.
The story gets more complicated from there, but as with any intriguing story, much is revealed in time, and in the case of this tale, that is both a literal and figurative statement. The adventurers travel back and forth in time, with the meaning as to why this is happening to them not quite clear at first, or even throughout much of this tale. This story is a maze of alternate existences and discoveries of one mystery after another that intertwine Kay, Grace, Eternity (the Snow Queen), Reneta, the strange scientist who seems to be at the heart of much of the main mystery within the saga, and both her husband and son, who have rebelled against her and the religion-fueled government.
Describing this storyline in clear, precise details would be next to impossible, but at its heart, this story is about two souls destined for one another, despite so many seemingly good reasons for them not to be together. Nothing is as it seems in this story, which each chapter revealing a new twist and new surprise, both from the past, the present, and on into the future of the characters. This is a complex and layered mystery, which can be daunting at certain points, but once certain aspects of the tale were revealed, it kept me intrigued and fascinated to the very end of its pages.
Pigeon holing this story in a particular genre would be impossible. It is an amalgam of science fiction, fantasy, romance, horror, and adventure, with a frosty haze layered over all of that. Admittedly, there is plenty here to confuse, and I more than likely missed a few key details in my initial reading that may require further review to understand all its elements, but I grasped more than enough to feel satisfied with its ending, though as with any tale where time travel plays a part, there is no real beginning or end, just different cycles in time and the hope that things can be changed, perhaps for the better, as they repeat themselves.
This is a tale for someone who is willing to stick with a story to the end-someone who likes it when an author doesn’t reveal more than is absolutely necessary at any given point. It is for someone willing to embrace the fantastical and magical mixed in with the technological while it has an almost a fairy tale-like sensibility.
Infatuation: The Story of Snow Queen can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00946F0L0/ref=cm_cr_thx_view
Peter Clines is fast becoming one of my favorite new writing talents out there. He has written two of the best cross genre zombie tales and his Junkie Quatrain is the zombie story Quentin Tarantino should direct if he ever wants to take a swipe at the undead. 14 takes a different turn, leaving the undead behind and providing the reader with a mystery-thriller that is like a gift wrapped in countless layers of paper that you have to dig through with relentless determination to reveal the truth underneath.
Nate is a working class stiff living near Hollywood who is getting by on data processing temp work that barely pays the bills when his roommates decide to head off in different directions, leaving him searching for a new home with barely the funds necessary to get an apartment. A minor acquaintance suggests a place near Hollywood that has dirt cheap rent and covers the utilities. It seems almost too good to be true, but as Nate settles in and meets several of his neighbors, he begins to notice several strange things about the place. Certain light fixtures don’t work the way they should, apartments are locked up tight with no one living in them for ages, there is an elevator that has never worked, and a storeroom in the basement that is sealed up tight as a drum. Strange cockroaches scrabble across the floor, each apartment has a different floor plan, and it doesn’t appear as if any power lines are coming into the building. On top of it all is a building manager who urges everyone to avoid asking questions and just be grateful for the cheap place to live, which adds even more fuel to the fire and causes Nate and his new found friends to begin investigating everything strange about the place.
Finding out everything he can about the Kavach building becomes Nate’s overriding obsession and he leads what amounts to a Scooby Doo mystery squad of other neighbors on the hunt for the truth. And the truth, slowly revealed in bits and pieces until the whole mystery begins to unravel in faster and faster chunks kept me intrigued throughout. I liked how the story ties in alternative literature, supernatural elements and historical tidbits that gave the story plenty of heft. It is a grand, wide-spanning tale that makes Nate’s obsession make sense and kept me guessing every step of the way, especially as more and more is uncovered about the strange old place. There were plenty of twists and turns and the reveals as the story goes along that were quite satisfying.
Peter Clines has stepped away from the undead and superheroes to provide his audience with something new and fun that I enjoyed a great deal. The characters all had depth that made them feel genuine and real, Nate was a likeable lead and the way he connects with everyone else in the apartment complex was natural and their relationships believable. The creepy elements of the story were well thought out each one is approached with style and wit. A good read for anyone who likes mysteries with a supernatural bent to them. 14 is a blast.
The 5000 Fingers of Bob is a strange and creepy tale set in south during the Great Depression and tells the story of five men plotting the death of a local man they’ve dubbed Bob, even though they don’t know his real name. They call him Bob because that’s what he calls everyone around town. He is a man-child, a mentally handicapped man who is huge, eerie, but appears to be harmless on the surface. But when one of the men finds him leaning over his daughter’s bed one night and throws Bob outside, only to find giant back inside, he suggests to his friends that they kill Bob, or do something else to (at the very least) dissuade him from doing any other disturbing things. There are other rumors of Bob showing up in one place and then disappearing, and of things happening around him that are horrific, like the death of someone’s dog that is graphic and grotesque.
Things go wrong as the men continue to hatch their plot to put a stop to Bob and as they carry it out. While the truth is somewhat muddled, it is clear that there is more to Bob than meets the eye. This is a short story, and as such the author leaves out details that might reveal more about the nature of Bob and the supernatural shadowing effect that seems to surround him. That serves the purpose of keeping things a mystery, even as more is revealed about the man who seems to be everywhere and nowhere at once.
A good, creative short story. I do wish there were more details laid out there, but the author’s ability to set a scene and pull you into it as a reader gives this little tale a potent punch.
The 5000 Fingers of Bob can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/The-5000-Fingers-Bob-ebook/dp/B007FYBBQG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1340113984&sr=8-1&keywords=the+5000+fingers+of+bob
Blood Born starts out as a horror mystery, where victims of rape in the Washington D.C. area are all impregnated and the gestation period is accelerated to the point where it is forty times faster than normal. In other words, these women will produce a full term baby within one week. The case is being handled by Detective Christina Randall and we are introduced to her and Margaret Connolly, the mother of one of the rape victims, who also happens to be a fertility specialist working for a local fertility clinic that also does genetic research.
As with any mystery, we are given hints and details as to the M.O. of the rapist as the due date on the first few victims draws near and it becomes clear fairly quickly that the rapist is not quite human. The pieces of the puzzle begin to fit together, but then the book took a dramatic change.
This tale becomes an entirely different type of horror novel somewhere between a third and halfway through, where monsters run rampant, annihilating everything in their path. The transition was jarring, to say the least, though I don’t necessarily mean that as a negative. But be forewarned that while the mystery continues to unravel all the way up until the end of this tale, it takes a backseat to the violent and graphic action that dominates the second half of this book.
This story has a flavor of a patient zero type apocalyptic tale, with a significant build-up to the point where all hell breaks loose. When it does break lose, the story turns on the afterburners and blasts ahead at a hundred miles an hour. The author does a solid job working to explain the science behind the beasts in the story, though I was left with plenty more questions about them and how they would co-exist with the rest of the world. That is the challenge with diving into the science of something like this-there are often a lot of questions that are difficult to answer vs. making the creatures in question a complete mystery.
Overall, this is a fast paced book with a lot of surprising deaths and plenty of gruesome action. With rape being a key part of the story, it probably won’t appeal to certain chunk of audience out there, but it is a well written scientific tale of horror. While I was expecting it to be a more subtle mystery throughout, when the gears shifted and story changed from that to an adrenaline fueled nightmare, I was able to adapt my expectations. The author keeps things moving at a good clip throughout and this was an easy and entertaining novel to read. I do sense that there is a distinct possibility of a sequel based on the ending, though this book can definitely be considered a stand-alone tale.
Blood Born can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Blood-Born-Matthew-Warner/dp/0979234638/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1335452721&sr=1-3
Every once in a while, I like to reminisce about the stories I used to read as a kid that had a taste of spookiness to them but that didn’t give me nightmares. In many ways, despite the creepiness of the story elements, they were fun adventures that helped sate my passion for reading and left me wanting more of the same. Dr. Zombie Lives Next Door reminds me of those scary tales that I used to check out as a kid. My path to darker, more adult horror soon followed, but there will always be a desire for me to reach back to read something fun that I can share with my kids, who are at the right age for a story like this one.
The premise is simple. When new neighbors move in next door, young Jenny is fearful that the father is a mad scientist, with his crazy fly away hair and strange equipment he is moving to the basement. Against her better judgment, she is introduced to Victor, the strange man’s son, who is a scientific genius and helps this athletic Tomboy with her science fair project, while at the same time, the man she has dubbed Dr. Zombie toils away in his mysterious lab down in the basement…creating something she fears will take over the world!
My kids, who are 11 and 12, enjoyed this story. Given the fact that their dad loves to write and read adult horror, they don’t get to check out much of what I enjoy at their age, so sharing something like this with them, that combines a few good scares, some mystery, and quite a few laughs put a smile on my face. Dr. Zombie Lives Next Door is a fun story with a good heart that is great for preteens and anyone who enjoys a good spooky story.
Dr. Zombie Lives Next Door can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Zombie-Lives-Next-Door-ebook/dp/B0059Y4I0A/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1313634036&sr=8-1