Pandora’s Pick of the Week: “The Hand That Feeds”

THE HAND THAT FEEDS

by C. W. LaSart

Background: I met up-and-coming horror author C. W. LaSart through the Coffin Hop of other indie horror writers/bloggers. In fact, she won my Coffin Hop micro-fiction contest that provided a prompt and asked for a 50 word flash piece. As such, I was thrilled to find out about her debut book of short stories, Ad Nauseum, which contains 13 great tales. However, if I had to pick a favorite, it would probably be “The Hand That Feeds.”

What it’s about: It’s a story-within-a-story told by a grandfather to his grandchildren, the story their mother doesn’t want him to tell but that the kids are eager to hear for the umpteenth time. He used to work at a prison for the criminally insane, and there was one inmate in particular that was a problem.

The inmate in question was enormously fat, and with the meager portions the prisoners were given, he was always screaming for food. Nobody could stand to listen to him. What’s more, he hadn’t gotten out of bed for years because he was too large to stand, and the guards had to clean his rolling bugles of flesh, sometimes coming across maggots that had wormed their way beneath the folds.

He is a grotesque character, but the best part of the story comes when we learn what happened to him. There was a massive breakout, but rather than escaping the prison, the inmates chose to exact revenge… by cutting the fat inmate into pieces, cooking him, and having a grand feast. His bones were never found.

All of this adds up to a great story, but there’s another little twist when we come back to the grandpa telling the story that gives it a great punch at the end. Without spoiling too much, it would appear grandpa might not be telling quite the whole truth…

Why it will keep you up at night: The entire book of short stories can be described as gruesome, horrific, revolting, captivating, and powerful. LaSart’s overarching theme for the book seems to be a mixture of sex and bodily violence, which normally I wouldn’t be too interested in but which works quite well for the stories she has concocted. They are brutal, unrelenting, and badass.

In another story, a woman is bit by a spider: but her transformation isn’t nearly as fun and lighthearted as Spider Man’s. Others still involve sexualized cannibalism, a man who contracts eye-worms and evil African spirits, a woman who gets pregnant from a dead man, and a magical telephone made of human bone that plagues its owner with calls from the dead.

LaSart’s scenes are visceral and stomach-churning, but you won’t be able to tear your eyes away. “The Hand That Feeds” is actually kind of tame in comparison to some of the other stuff here. If you can deal with some extreme horror mixed into your psychological cocktail of dread, then do yourself a favor and pick up Ad Nauseam, because LaSart is surely on the rise in the horror genre.

You can find her website at http://www.cwlasart.com/.

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Pandora’s Pick of the Week: “The Raft”

THE RAFT

By Stephen King

Background: This short story is included in King’s 1985 collection, Skeleton Crew, but was first published in 1982 in Gallery magazine. Also, he may have been predicting the future with this one, since a similar-looking blob-like entity was seen near Alaska a few years ago. Freaky.

What it’s about: One of my favorite King short stories, this one has a fairly simple premise: a group of twenty-somethings decide to swim out onto a deserted lake to get to the raft that’s floating in the middle. Once they get out there, they spot a strange black blob in the water that they realize isn’t an oil slick when it moves towards them to feed.

Those who get caught in the water when the blob shows up are utterly destroyed in a glorious burst of gore as the thing feasts. The rest find themselves stranded on the raft and unable to swim back to shore because the thing is circling them, waiting for them to go in the water.

Of course, they can’t stay out there forever. Not to mention there are cracks between the boards in the raft…

Why it will keep you up at night: The image that has stayed with me through the years after first reading this story is what happens when they realize the blob can eat them through the cracks in the raft. One of them steps on a crack and gets his foot eaten right down to the bone. The blob is so powerful that it manages to contort and crush his foot until it actually gets completely sucked down through the crack, lending a whole new, terrifying meaning to the phrase “step on a crack and you’ll break your mother’s back.”

What follows is truly gruesome, as the blob manages to suck his entire body down through that narrow crack. As the blood balloons his chest with the crushing force of his lower half being pulled through a very narrow space, bits of him burst open, and he is sucked all the way down to his head, and then in the final crushing moment that disappears as well (he’s long dead by then, of course).

Yuck.

But it’s also completely awesome. I first read this years ago, in the dark, before going to bed, and I was so enraptured by the horror that it stuck with me through my dreams. The story’s simplicity lends to its success, I think, as we don’t need to know what the blob is, only that it will kill you if you go anywhere near the water, and at some point, you’re going to have to sit down and consider the possibility of getting your ass sucked down through the cracks.

Truly King at his finest. Get yourself a copy; all the other stories in the collection are excellent, too. It also includes one of my other favorites, “The Jaunt,” which I reviewed a while back.

Read Skeleton Crew, including “The Raft,” now!

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Pandora’s Pick of the Week: “Neverland”

NEVERLAND

By Douglas Clegg

Background: First published in 1991, this creepy book was one of Clegg’s earlier published works. I, for one, am looking forward to checking out all of Clegg’s other work after speeding through this one.

What it’s about: A family summer vacation on a peninsula off the Georgia coast turns deadly when a young boy, Beau, starts hanging out with his cousin, Sumpter. See, his cousin likes to play in this creepy, rundown shack he calls Neverland, and there he keeps a crate with something mysterious inside.

Sumpter gets Beau and his older sisters to join in on his “games,” which involve praying to the terrible, merciless god, Lucy, who demands that they steal, write swear words on the walls, and give blood sacrifices. Inside of Neverland is a nightmarish world where the children hallucinate and feed on each other’s blood.

Meanwhile, the adults pay little attention to the children, as they are too busy having their own drunken arguments and dysfunction. But Grammy Weenie, who is old and severe and confined to a wheelchair, reveals to Beau that there is something not quite right about the shack, and that he should stay away from his cousin Sumpter… that he should not “let it out to play.”

The dark and brutal history of Neverland unravels as ghosts are dredged up from watery graves and Sumpter turns on Beau in order to get his final sacrifice, which will raise Lucy and the other god, the dark god: The Devourer of All.

Why it will keep you up at night: Clegg’s narrative is captivating; you are instantly transported to this old-fashioned Southern world where the kids run around barefoot in the swamp and the carnival sits half-dead with the rusting husks of out-of-service rides. Slowly, insidiously, the creepiness begins, and by the time you get to the climax you are going head-to-head with all manner of supernatural grotesqueries.

Both the descriptions and the characters pull you into this story, which is ultimately about childhood and the loss of innocence. Though the narrator is a child, this is not a book for children. Definitely not a novel to pass up.

Watch the book trailer here:

Neverland

Pandora’s Pick of the Week: “IT”

IT

By Stephen King

Background: Published in 1986, this leviathan novel is over 1,000 pages. But, unlike The Stand (in my opinion), every one of those pages is well-earned. If you are interested in the story, don’t just watch the mini-series with Tim Curry; it pales in comparison.

What it’s about: Two narratives drive the story of a group of seven outcasts, one in the ’50s when they were kids, and one in the ’80s when they return to their hometown of Derry, Maine, all grown up, to face their childhood fears.

In the ’50s, they were terrorized by a shapeshifting monster that most often appeared as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. They dub the monster “It,” as it is so foreign a thing, and slowly their worst nightmares come to life. Of course, the adults don’t believe them, so the children are forced to contend with the beast on their own.

Meanwhile, in the ’80s, one of their number has committed suicide, and they are all asked to return home by the one who stayed in Derry. They converge, their memories of childhood fuzzy. Apparently, adulthood makes you forget about the psycho clown you once fought. But sure enough, Pennywise insinuates himself into their lives once again, and they are forced into the realization that they did not, in fact, best the creature back when they were kids.

The two narratives are woven together so that the climax of each of the timelines happens at the same time, doubling the tension as you scramble through the pages. The monster leads them down into its home, the sewers, for each final confrontation.

Why it will keep you up at night: Yes, the mini-series scared you when you were 5, but now it’s sort of silly, even (especially) the part where he turns into a giant spider. You are left thinking that Pennywise is a weird clown/spider, and that’s it.

Wrong.

Pennywise is a creature of Lovecraftian proportions and is much, much scarier in the book than in the movie. The creature’s real form cannot be perceived by our puny eyes, as the creature comes from a void outside of our universe. Its true form, which exists outside of our matter, is called the deadlights and appears to us as a swirling mass of orange light (and if you see it, you’ll promptly go insane).

In the book, the group must perform the Ritual of Chüd (which is a complicated way of metally biting on the creature’s tongue) to destroy it, and the climax is so surreal and outside of our perception that it is no wonder they didn’t try to render it visually in the movie, but instead left it as a silly face-off with a giant spider.

The book is so much more nuanced and complex than the movie, which is not surprising, as it is a long-ass book. It’s also creepy as hell. If you had nightmares about Tim Curry as Pennywise, just wait til you see all the horrifying stuff in the book that they left out. This one gets five stars from me, as it is my favorite Stephen King book.

Read It now!

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Pandora’s Pick of the Week: “Hell House”

HELL HOUSE

By Richard Matheson

Background: First published in 1971 by the author of I Am Legend, this book is known as the quintissential haunted house novel. Matheson, a well-known name in the horror genre, wrote many short stories and novels, as well as the screenplays for film adaptations and episodes of The Twilight Zone.

What it’s about: Hell House is an infamous house of horrors built on a remote, foggy piece of land beside a tarn. A wealthy but ill man, Deutsch, sends four people into the house to determine if there is an afterlife as he nears his own demise, including Dr. Barrett, a scientist; his wife, Edith; Florence Tanner, a spiritualist and mental medium; and Benjamin Fischer, a medium who was the only survivor of a previous journey into Hell House.

While Tanner becomes entangled with the sex-crazed ghosts, Dr. Barrett works on a machine that he believes will reverse the electromagnetic energy that is making the house appear haunted. As the danger increases, Edith comes to believe that there is more than science at play here, and Fischer must open himself up to the horrors that he once escaped many years ago.

The four different people all come together to try and learn the mystery of Hell House… but overpowering the deadly house is more than any of them bargained for.

Why it will keep you up at night: I admit, for the majority of the book I wasn’t terribly impressed. There were great moments of violence and creepiness, but the overemphasis on sexual debauchery, the point-of-view changes, and the one-dimensional characters fell a little flat for me.

However, the ending brought together these wandering elements and finally introduced some real horror into what was otherwise a rather lackluster haunted house. There is some great imagery and real mystery at the end, answering questions that were lost, or even unasked, in the first 200-some pages.

While a killer ending (no pun intended) can never make up for a meandering middle, I was entertained by the classic book nonetheless. The legend of Hell House lives on…

Read Hell House now!

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Pandora’s Pick of the Week: “The Postmortal”

THE POSTMORTAL

By Drew Magary

Background: Freshly published in August 2011, this novel explores the dystopian future of a world that discovers the cure for aging.

What it’s about: The framwork for the book is what works of realism have done for centures: the discovery of a document that contains someone’s personal narrative. In this case, John Farrell’s narrative is found, and we are subsequently immersed in it.

Covering 60 years, John chronicles the discovery of the cure for aging, getting the cure himself, and the politics surrounding it. The cure for aging basically stops you in your tracks at whatever age you currently are. You can still die of disease and starvation, but if you live well, you can live indefinitely. Of course, it has its detractors: pro-death groups bomb doctors performing the cure, and people that John cares about get caught up in this, leaving him alone.

At first, the cure seems wonderful. Everyone is excited at the prospect of eternal youth and throws elaborate cure parties at Las Vegas. But as years pass and resources become scarcer and scarcer for the ever-growing population, we find ourselves thrust completely into a bleak view of the future.

John ends up working as an end specialist: someone who basically murders those who no longer want eternal life, but want a legal way out that isn’t suicide. The journey culminates in total anarchy as nuclear war begins as a form of population control.

Why it will keep you up at night: The frightening possibilities presented in this book are made all the more so by its realism. Yes, Magary glosses over the details of how the cure actually works, making it seem a silly concept to us, but everything else is very much grounded in a possible near future. Everyone has a tablet, a WEPS (wireless-enabled projected-screening device), a screen name, and a personal feed. The internet has become synonymous with actual life and is used as a database for pretty much all information on everyone. Cars are also called plug-ins.

Clearly Magary thought carefully about what our worled will look like twenty, fifty, eighty years from now, and used that to draw us into this almost-familiar world… and then knock us off our feet with the horrifying implications of where our world will head. You’ll be left wondering about life and death, and what lies before us.

I had a few qualms with the book, one of them being the framing device. It was a good prologue of sorts, a way to introduce us to the world of John and provide some foreshadowing, but at the end of John’s narrative, so ends the book. It’s not a problem, really, but I like symmetry in writing and framing devices that are not simply used and forgotten. But maybe I’m just picky about conclusions. I also wasn’t sure how I felt about the time jumps. While necessary to convey the whole story, I always feel like I lose touch with the characters when we skip ahead, and on the whole, I felt a little distant from John. But these are relatively minor quibbles.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and I would recommend it. There are a lot of moments of dark comedy, but make no mistake, this is not a lighthearted book. It takes some very dark turns especially near the end that rather negate the humor.

Read The Postmortal now!

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Pandora’s Pick of the Week: “Perdido Street Station”

PERDIDO STREET STATION

By China Mieville

Background: A 710-page leviathan of a book, this alternate-world story was published in 2001 to rave reviews. Mieville is brilliant at world-building. If I had to put this book into a genre, I think I would call it dark-slip-sci-fantasteampunk-politico-occultcrime-horror fiction.

What it’s about: New Crobuzon is a sprawling, seedy city in some alternate universe in which there are multiple species of sentience: humans, the cactus people, khepri (women with giant scarabs in place of heads), garuda (bird-people), vodyanoi (fat blobs of people who live in water), and even, unbeknownst to those outside of the Construct Council, artificial intelligence.

Isaac Dan Der Grimnebulin is an outcast scientist working on something called crisis energy, which would basically allow him to manipulate anything in the world. He is in a relationship with a khepri, Lin, which is a big no-no in their society. One day, a garuda whose wings have been ripped off comes to him with the request to make him fly again. Meanwhile, Lin, an artist, is hired by a crime boss / drug lord to make a sculpture of him.

In his research, Isaac studies flying things and grubs which will grow wings, and comes across a unique caterpillar that subsists on the drug “dreamshit,” which basically makes you trip everyone’s dreams for a while. When the grub cocoons itself and transforms, it comes out a dangerous and near-indestructable demon-creature out to suck the minds from sentient beings everywhere.

Lin is kidnapped by the drug lord, who absurdly thinks that Isaac is trying to take over the dreamshit business. Isaac, with a few friends, finds himself pursued by the government militia, the drug lord, the demon he nurtured, and pretty much everything in New Crobuzon, and he is aided only by a few friends and the Weaver: a giant spider that dances over the worldweb across multiple dimensions.

While nightmares ravage the city, Isaac must find a way to destroy the demon and its kin before all of sentient race is turned into mindless zombies.

Why it will keep you up at night: Obviously, there’s a lot going on here. The demonic winged creature is pretty freaky in its total power over you if you look at its mesmerizing wings. There are giant spiders, hellspawn, and even a rotting body being used by a robot in order to communicate with people.

Halfway through, you’ll be captivated by the horrible majesty of this world and wondering how all of the storylines are going to come together. This book is filled with nightmares and suspense and some thrilling action, interspersed by lots of description.

Could it have been cut down by about 200 pages? Yes, probably. There are points that slow the book down almost agonizingly in their long, drawn-out descriptions of the city. But at the same time, these descriptions really make you feel transported into this world. There are pros and cons to the utter lack of brevity.

The ending is bittersweet; heroic and tragic; surprising, triumphant, and heartbreaking. But it’s really the journey that you’ll remember… that, and all those crazy half-human hybrids.

Read Perdido Street Station now!

Pandora’s Pick of the Week: “John Dies at the End”

JOHN DIES AT THE END

By David Wong

Background:What started as a bunch of faux-autobiographical internet vignettes by the editor of Cracked.com quickly became a cult sensation, culminating in a full book in 2009. According to David Wong (real name Jason Pargin):

“It was a tale that  required 150,000 words to tell and 36 of them were ‘boner.’ I called it John Dies at the End because I realized most people were busy and would want to know the most relevant facts right away.

SPOILER: John doesn’t die at the end.

What it’s about: A mysterious drug called Soy Sauce is introduced to our two less-than-heroic protagonists, Dave and John, who work at a video store and have a really terrible band. When the Sauce begins unlocking their minds to other dimensions and allowing them to slip through time, John and Dave are pulled into a gorey and otherworldly adventure involving people who spontaneously explode, body snatchers, and monsters made of meat (you heard me).

But John and Dave are special. Of the people who have tried the Sauce, they are the only two who not only survived, but continued to be in tune with other dimensions after the effects wore off. As such, they become paranormal experts of a kind, like a weird mashup of the Ghostbusters, the Winchesters from Supernatural, and the guys from Clerks.

All of the evil stuff going down seems to be connected to Korrok, a Lovecraftian god-like mastermind (apparently) out to destroy the world or some such. A whole bunch of hilarious and absurd shenanigans ensue, leading to the realization of the master plan when John and Dave finally travel to other dimensions and meet Korrok for themselves. This meet involves mortal danger and fart jokes.

Why it will keep you up at night: An excellent mix of horror and humor, this one will probably have you laughing more than screaming, but there are plenty of cringe-worthy moments, like the worm-like bugs that start swarming in people’s bodies. The absurd and surprisingly convoluted plot will keep you guessing the whole time, and there are even some poignant moments at the end when a certain dead body is revealed. It’s just as clever and bizarre and hilarious as you would expect from the editor of Cracked, and a highly-recommended read.

I hear the sequel, tentatively called This Book is Full of Spiders, is currently in the works. Also, the book has been made into a movie, debuting at the Sundance Film Festival in late January. From the trailer, I’d say it’s lookin’ pretty baller.

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Read John Dies at the End now!

Pandora’s Pick of the Week: “Mortality Bridge”

MORTALITY BRIDGE

By Steven R. Boyett

Background: Published in July 2011, Mortality Bridge is a glorious hodgepodge of Dantean, Miltonian, Greek, and Roman mythology centering on the archetypal quest into the underworld to retrieve a lost love. There’s also some Robert Johnson crossroads-deal stuff going on. The whole book was inspired when someone gave Boyett the idea of Charon, the ferryman into Hell, as a cabbie.

What it’s about: Niko is a rock star who sold his soul to a demon (Phil) for, you guessed it, success. Turns out the woman he falls in love with is part of the deal because his soul is tied to hers, and when she dies and is taken to Hell, he decides to make an unthinkable journey to get her back.

He’s ferried into the underworld by a plucky cab-driver and there must cross the various levels of Hell, wading through a sea of deformed and tortured dead and demons who want to fillet him. Some of the most gruesome stuff you can imagine appears here, from impalement to being crushed under giant rocks to having your spine bent back so your head is shoved up your own butt.

When at last he makes it to the Head Office, as it were, Niko must play the role of Orpheus and win over the devil with his epic guitar-playing (with a little help from a certain Blues legend). Except winning his love’s soul is only half the battle: remember, once you’re all the way in, you’ve still got to get back out, and the trick (as Lot’s wife knows only too well) is not to look back.

Why it will keep you up at night: I did a post about Dantean Hell-based fiction (“Fiction al Dante“) and asked if anyone had read literature with these themes. Well, Mortality Bridge is the motherload. Beautiful, vivid descriptions emerge from the well-executed prose, and yes, I did just connect “beautiful” with Hell. Perhaps not the right word, but Boyett has such finesse in his langauge that you feel like you’re right there with Niko traveling the underworld, and the strange, unmappable domain, though horrifying, is also awe-inspiring.

Of course, this means the menagerie of grotesqueries feel very real as you read. Boyett’s mind must be a deliciously haunted landscape, for his version of Hell is not for the faint of heart. Even so, I would highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a captivating read who has even the slightest interest in mythology. It really is one Hell of a ride.

(I thoroughly apologize for that last pun. Please still read the book.)

Read Mortality Bridge now!

Pandora’s Pick of the Week: “Zombie Ohio”

ZOMBIE, OHIO: A TALE OF THE UNDEAD

by Scott Kenemore

Background: Published just this past February, Zombie, Ohio is not Scott Kenemore’s first foray into zombies. He is also the author of the Zen of Zombies satire books and is a member of the Zombie Research Society. But this is not your average zombie survival book. Not at all…

What it’s about: Meet Peter Mellor. He wakes up after a terrible car crash with amnesia. He gradually learns that he is a college professor, a drunk… and a zombie.

Yet he is the only one of the hordes of undead springing from their graves that can think, talk, drive, and use a weapon. For a time, he can even pass for human, as long as he keeps on his hat covering the missing top of his head. While passing for human, he is taken to his girlfriend’s house, but ensuing trouble causes him to take his first bite of brain and run off.

Exploring the Ohio countryside, which has been ravaged by the hungry, stumbling, stupid undead, the zombie formerly known as Peter learns the ins and outs of his slowly decomposing body and acquires a little zombie gang. After returning to his girlfriend’s house only to find it in ruins, he decides to fully embrace his zombihood and leads an ever-increasing army of zombies in search of humans to devour.

His rampage is cut short when he finds out that his girlfriend is still alive, and he decides to do anything he can to help her get to safety. Of course, this is not without its personal risks, both physical and emotional, when literally everyone is out to get you.

Why it will keep you up at night: This novel is unlike any zombie story I have ever seen. Just when I thought the genre was getting tired and worn out, here comes a fresh and truly original tale. The narrator is a cognizant zombie; yes, he wants to eat as many brains as he can get a hold of, but really, he’s just looking for love. For a time, you even end up rooting for his pillaging zombie gang to satiate their urge for brains. I found Peter to be extraordinarily sympathetic for a former alduterous drunk turned killer zombie. Kind of like sympathizing with serial killer Dexter.

The story never leaves you with a dull moment, for even when Peter is wandering with only the subhuman company of other zombies, we are left contemplating philosophical ideas of the undead. Are they superior or inferior to humans? Are they natural? What does it mean to be alive, and what comes after? Is there a God? What’s the deal with the wild turkey?

Despite the heavy implications of the entire premise, the perfectly-pitched dark humor sprinkled throughout keeps you laughing amid all the gore. Peter is a well of bad puns, sharp quips, and hilarious asides on the absurdity of the whole thing. And yet, he’s still a zombie with a heart and a sort of sad personal story.

Check this one out as soon as you can. It might renew your faith in the zombie genre, and (dare I say it?), perhaps even in humanity.

Read Zombie, Ohio: A Tale of the Undead now!