December 17, 2019
The bar was raised quite high for me after reading The Shards of Heaven, the first installment in this trilogy. I thought the novel was absolutely brilliant. When my expectations are that high, the sequel generally doesn’t live up to my expectations. Not so with The Gates of Hell. I can’t decide if I liked it better than the first novel, but it’s a terrific and enjoyable book.
Part of it is the writing style. Michael Livingston is a terrific writer, a master of prose. His character development is truly something. An example of this is the character Octavian or Caesar Augustus, who was quite villainous in the first novel, but becomes more sympathetic and likeable in this book. Even the more loathsome characters like Tiberius and Thrasyllus are well done. But it’s also the way he blends fantasy with history in such a seamless fashion that sets this novel apart.
There are two separate story lines in this novel and they alternate from chapter to chapter. One storylines follows Juba and Selene as they journey with Augustus in Northern Spain, where they encounter a guerilla leader who controls another of the shards. The second storyline takes place in Egypt with the Ark of the Covenant. They are both compelling story lines with lots of drama and tension. I expected the two stories to eventually converge, but it never happened. My guess is that it will in the final installment of the trilogy.
This novel is well worth the read. It’s a winner and I can only hope that the final book in the trilogy can live up to the first two.
November 12, 2019
December Park is a dark, moody, atmospheric novel that is more psychological thriller and mystery than it is a horror novel. It takes place in the nineties in suburban Maryland. Angelo Mazzone and his group of outcasts obsess over a series of missing children in their area involving a potential serial killer called The Piper. Even though Angelo’s father is a detective investigating the case, he and his friends believe they can accomplish what the cops cannot, which is to find the killer and bring him to justice.
What I liked most about this novel was the quality of the writing. As I mentioned, it created a dark, brooding atmosphere that really added to the novel. I thought the characterization was also quite strong. Angelo and his friends were well done, not to mention Angelo’s father, who was a sympathetic and relatable character. The novel had a strong mystery component to it and a nice build up. What I didn’t like was the ending, in particular the reveal of the Piper. That didn’t make much sense to me and I didn’t feel it was adequately explained. It did bring the novel down a bit but overall, it was still a strong read.
November 3, 2019
The Fifth Profession is an interesting novel. It’s part espionage thriller and part sci-fi. The crux of the story is that Savage, a former Navy SEAL and executive protector on an assignment to rescue the wife of a wealthy businessman, encounters his Japanese counterpart, Akira, who he saw die when they were serving on an assignment together. Akira has the same memories, except he saw Savage die. They get together and piece together their jumbled memories and find out that many of the things they remembered didn’t actually happen. This leads them back to Akira’s homeland of Japan, where the mystery ensues.
I found this novel to be intriguing. The mystery component was captivating, and I wanted to see how it unfolded. There was action galore with plenty of fight scenes and some chases. It works at that level even without the added element of the jumbled memories. That part of the novel was problematic however, since the false memories storyline really strained believability. To further exacerbate the issue, the author never really explains in any detailed or believable way how the two main characters got their false memories. It was all kind of wave your hand behind the curtains hocus pocus type stuff. Although there was lots of good action, I thought the fight scenes could have been executed a little better. Getting past that, I thought the novel delivered. I was entertained from beginning to end.
October 26, 2019
Balak is a Cthulhian mythos style novel set in modern day Chicago. The novel starts off with the disappearance of a little boy, in part witnessed by Claire Challis, whose own child disappeared not long before that. This leads Claire and her boyfriend, Mike, into a dark church, whose members worship Balak, an ancient figure who serves an even more ancient god, who was around when the world was new in a typically HP Lovecraft motif. The Chicago police become involved. All of this leads to an end of the world scenario, where Balak is trying to use Claire to allow this ancient god to enter our world.
I’ve read a number of Lovecraftian type stories, and this kind of falls in the middle of the pack. There was nothing particularly bad about, but it also doesn’t rise above some of the others I’ve read. For me, the bar is set with Brett J. Talley’s work, whose take on Lovecraft is top notch. The situation is fairly ordinary. The characters are solid, but none of them fell into the category of someone I was rooting for too succeed. I just couldn’t latch on to them. The novel is very competently written and was a decent read. You could do a lot worse than this novel, but it’s not one that I feel as if I’ll remember a year later.
October 12, 2019
When I first started reading this book, I thought it would be a historical fiction novel featuring Edgar Allen Poe and the Usher family that he wrote about over a century ago. It turned out to be set in modern day. I was hoping for historical fiction given that McCammon is terrific as an author in that genre. Having said that, Usher’s Passing did not disappoint.
It was an interesting and imaginative tale. In this world, the Usher family is one of the wealthiest in the world, with their fortune tied to the sale of arms. Rix Usher is the outcast of the family. He’s a horror writer (I imagine Robert McCammon put some elements of himself into this character). He’s vehemently against the family business but returns to their compound in North Carolina with his father dying. Although Rix doesn’t want anything to do with the family business, he wants to write an expose/history of the family in sordid detail. But what lurks beneath the surface is the supernatural and how the family has been able to achieve the fortune through ties with otherworldly forces.
There are some nice twists and turns in this novel. The main baddie here is the Pumpkin Man, a supernatural character who has been abducting children for decades. When the reveal was finally made about the Pumpkin Man’s identity, I was surprised. It was a well delivered set up that made sense in retrospect but caught me off guard. I thought there was good character development in this novel, with a good many memorable characters. The writing was strong and purposeful. The supernatural elements mixed in well with the parts that were grounded in reality. My only negative was that I felt it dragged in certain parts and could have used some trimming to make it a tighter story.
September 27, 2019
The Second Part to It was fighting a losing battle from the start. First off, it had a lot to live up to. It Chapter One was perhaps the second best Stephen King adaptation ever made behind Jack Nicholson’s The Shining. It also had the issue that the source material from King’s novel was inferior. Almost all of the good parts from the novel took place when the protagonists were kids. I read the book many moons ago, and all of the stuff that was memorable were the flashbacks scenes when the kids took on Pennywise the first time.
So, this movie had quite a bit working against it. One thing was very clear. This movie was not nearly as good as Chapter One. Given how good the first chapter was, that doesn’t necessarily make this a bad movie. And ultimately, it wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t great.
The bad: The chills and creep factor, while admirable, didn’t quite measure up. There was a bit of redundancy to them, and there was no new ground being broken. Now for the really bad. What they did with Richie Tozier’s character was ridiculously stupid. It did not fit who he was, did not make a damn bit of sense after watching the first movie, and was just thrown in to appease special interest groups. It really brought the movie down for me. I also didn’t like how they portrayed Mike Hanlon’s character. He was jumpy and unstable, not at all the way his character is meant to be. In the novel, he’s the most rock solid of all the characters. Finally, the whole part with the Native American ritual was just dumb.
The good: I really enjoyed the selection of actors, in particular James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain. The actors overall were really top notch and delivered great performances. And the portrayal of Pennywise was terrific. The movie had some good laughs to break apart the seriousness of the movie. There were some good horror elements as well, and I thought a fitting ending.
July 28, 2019
I wasn’t the biggest fan of the first Spiderman movie with Tom Holland, and I seemed to be in the minority, since most folks liked it much more than I did. So, my bar was lower with this movie, but I thoroughly enjoyed Spider Far From Home. I’m still not enamored with Tom Holland in the lead role. I think he falls short of either Toby Maguire or Andrew Garfield. But this movie had a well-crafted plot with a great villain, lots of action, and good interaction between the various characters.
I think the star of this movie is Jake Gyllenhaal as Mysterio. Even though the trailers made him look heroic, I knew he had to be the movie’s bad guy given that Mysterio is an enemy of Spiderman in the comics. But the movie was well steeped in subterfuge and made me half think a couple of times that there was some other villain. The way Mysterio was portrayed in this movie hit the mark. The special effects were excellent, probably only second to Doctor Strange in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was a bit of an extreme coincidence that just about all of the characters in the first Spiderman movie got zapped into Netherland and did not age when Thanos snapped his fingers and wiped out half the population, but at least they addressed it. This movie was a winner that I recommend watching.
July 1, 2019
In The Rainbow Virus, the FBI and CDC are chasing a bizarre virus unleashed by Arthur Lupo, a strange little scientist. Instead of unleashing chaos and killing millions, the virus changes the color of the infected person. The colors are varied, across all spectrums of the rainbow (hence the name). The two primary people on the chase are FBI agent, Bobby Loudon, and CDC scientist, Kathleen Shinohara. It was clear from the beginning that these two would eventually become a couple, something that was too obvious and telegraphed from the beginning of the story. Their belief is that the change in colors is only the beginning, and that Arthur Lupo has mass extinction as his intent.
The writing in the novel was pretty strong. It was professional and competent, and I don’t have much to quibble about it. I really liked the whole concept of the Rainbow virus. Typically in novels of bioterrorism, the antagonist is sinister from the jump, but in this novel, the initial viruses were more light-hearted in nature. After all, nobody was truly getting hurt unless they were particularly offended by their shade of color. Although I generally like the characterization in this novel, I didn’t find Arthur Lupo to be a particularly credible character. His motivation for doing all he did was thin. It was explained that his parents died at an early age. Well, many people have their parents die but they don’t attempt to infect the world with virus. I also didn’t like “the faction”, which was a stereotypical nameless, faceless government organization with unbound ruthlessness consisting of high ranking members of government and law enforcement with nefarious intent. The good guys were better developed and more resembled real people with real motivations.
There was good tension and this novel was overall a fun read that I would recommend.
June 26, 2019
My first exposure to Apt Pupil was the movie starting Ian McKellen. While I remembered the premise, I didn’t really remember the details. Given that Stephen King is my favorite writer and greatest influence upon me as a writer, I thought I would give it a read. The end result was a bit mixed.
I liked the concept behind it. It’s a story of an old Nazi concentration camp warden, Dussander, being blackmailed by a boy, Todd Bowden, into telling him all sorts of luring World War 2 concentration camp stories. Todd, as it turns out, is a complete and utter psychopath. Dussander and Todd don’t particularly like each other. It’s really a relationship of each person using the other for their own needs. There are elements of it that are compelling, and the writing is vintage King, so it’s top notch, but there are some serious issues with it.
The first is characterization. Dussander and Todd dominate the book and neither of them are particularly likeable, although at least Dussander has a certain charm to him. Todd does not. Besides being a psychopath, he is also annoying and whinny. The other big issue is believability. The characters often don’t act in a believable manner. For one thing, they independently become serial killers preying on winos. Dussander is a feeble old man, and it’s not credible that he can overtake and kill all of these people. It’s also not believable that Todd can do all this while being a star athlete and valedictorian at his high school. The book has some definite plot holes. All in all, I would recommend reading it, but it’s nowhere near one of King’s better stories.
June 17, 2019
- Who has been your biggest influence as a writer?
I’m tempted to say Clive Barker because his work really shaped me and inspired me to find my own voice, but there’s just no denying that growing up a constant reader of Stephen King influenced me in ways that I’m probably not even conscious of. His books are the foundation of my storytelling DNA.
- What made you want to write fiction in the world of HP Lovecraft?
I’ve always been drawn to his mythology and cosmic vision. It’s an almost psychedelic worldview that breaks horror out of the traditional religious mold and offers a lot of freedom for telling new stories without just repeating what he did. There are plenty of horror subgenres that don’t resonate with me, but that one rings my bell.
- What current writing projects are you working on?
I have a few things in the pipeline right now. A supernatural noir novella and a few short stories that are looking for the right home, and a new novel I’m excited about—a mainstream thriller with a subtle weird horror undercurrent. It deals with the anxieties that come with raising kids in the digital age. But, ironically, even though I’ve started moving away from Lovecraftian themes after finishing the SPECTRA Files trilogy, probably the first thing I have in the works that will see publication is an illustrated SPECTRA Files novella I’m looking to release at NecronomiCon Providence this summer. That one is a historical fiction riff in which Becca’s grandmother meets pioneering rocket scientist/occultist Jack Parsons in the 1940s.
- When you first wrote Red Equinox, did you intend for it to be the start of a series?
I wanted it to work as a standalone book with its own resolution, but I hoped it would launch a series, so I made sure to leave the door open for that at the end.
- Is there an overall theme to your writing?
There are probably a few I’m not consciously aware of because I’m too close to the books, but I do tend to write about people with deeply personal motives who are up against larger historical forces. Mental health is often an element. I write about artists and outcasts who have internal struggles competing with their external challenges. But probably the most obvious recurring theme is the mystical power of music in my stories. I started out as a songwriter and recording engineer, and I’m still fascinated by how sound can alter consciousness and evoke emotion.
- What do you prefer, creating fiction or creating music?
These days fiction is my focus, but even when I was writing songs, they were stories, and I often write to a soundtrack, so it feels like I’m just focusing on a different side of the same creative process. Lately, I play guitar just to relax and blow off steam, but my son is starting to play instruments and write songs now, so teaching and helping him keeps the rust off.
- What made you start writing?
My sixth grade English teacher got me hooked on reading with The Hobbit. That led to the Lord of the Rings. When I finished it, a friend loaned me his dad’s copy of The Stand. He recognized it was the same kind of epic fantasy but set in modern America, which was pretty astute for a thirteen-year-old. Anyway, that blew the doors open for me to Poe and Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson. It was just like how listening to the Beatles made me want to pick up a guitar and have a go. If something creative looks fun, I have a hard time staying on the passive end of it.
- What makes Massachusetts the hub of paranormal activity as described in Red Equinox?
I was born on Long Island, but Massachusetts is where I’ve lived for most of my adult life, and it’s where Lovecraft set most of his mythos stories. My wife grew up in Newburyport, which inspired The Shadow Over Innsmouth, so I was well aware of the local Lovecraft connections. But I wanted to put the cosmic horror in an urban setting. That doesn’t happen much in Lovecraft’s stories, except for “The Horror at Red Hook” and “Pickman’s Model.” And when I lived in Boston, I remembered hearing a ranting homeless guy saying, “They call Boston ‘the hub,’ and when you at the hub of the wheel, you bound to see the cracks!” That stuck with me and ended up in the book. Along the way, I also found some interesting Masonic symbolism in Boston’s monuments that was fun to weave into the plot.
- Is there any subject that is off limits for you as a writer?
Nope. I think a sensitive writer can deal with any aspect of the human experience. That doesn’t mean there aren’t subjects I would be very careful with, and sometimes the research required to fill in your blind spots is daunting. But I think it’s all about how you approach the material. Empathy goes a long way in horror.
- If you could invite five people to a dinner party (alive or dead, real or fictional) who would you invite?
I’d probably have a better time if I limited it to a group of my favorite writers or rock musicians, but in a crazy attempt to have it all, I’m thinking: Buddha, Lao Tzu, Shakespeare, Beethoven and a really good translator.