Review: “The Mystery” by Peter Atkins

2 of 5 stars.

This quizzical vignette follows the narrator one afternoon as he explores a ghost hotspot in Liverpool. Spirits and scenes from the past century line the pathways of an old state house and grounds. While at first it’s unclear that the people met aren’t still living people, curiously the ghosts do not recognize the narrator as not being a ghost. The two worlds live one atop the other with little interaction.

Unfortunately, little is explored in the “lives” of the character ghosts before as is unraveled. The vignette falls short of providing a story.

This short story was included in the anthology The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2010 edited by Paula Guran.
 
 
 
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Review: “The Coldest Girl in Coldtown” by Holly Black

4 of 5 stars.

This is an addict’s tale. One of taking the days as they come, one at a time, and trying to do them all blindly drunk to the point of inactivity . . .

Matilda was drunk, but then she was always drunk anymore. Dizzy drunk. Stumbling drunk. Stupid drunk. Whatever kind of drunk she could get.

The man she stood with snaked his hand around her back, warm fingers digging into her side as he pulled her closer. He and his friend with the open-necked shirt grinned down at her like underage equaled dumb, and dumb equaled gullible enough to sleep with them.

She thought they might just be right.

Here, the addiction is to blood and being inebriated blocks the urges just enough to get by. Contemporary vampire urban fantasies romanticize the horror more than in the past. But this one strikes into new territory finding new mythos and variants to an old canon.

Matilda has been bitten, infected, but she’s not dead yet and thereby not a vampire. Infections only go septic when the victim feeds, then there is body-death, re-birth and eternal life. None of which Matilda wants. The infection was a lapse of judgment analogous to casual sex without a condom. She can outlast the infection, however, if she can get through 88 days of withdrawal and blood-craving. Then life goes back to normal. Until then, it’s drunkenness to dull the vampiric urges. And purposeful isolation from her boyfriend Julian and her family, lest she relapse and bite or kill them en route to eternal life.

But then on drunken day 57, Julian goes missing into the vampiric underworld along with a friend’s sister that longs to become a vampire. Matilda’s battle with her addition and helping others is tested . . .

This short story, not to be confused with this author’s novel-length urban fantasy of the same name published in 2013, was included in the anthology The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2010 edited by Paula Guran.
 
 
 
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Review: “A Delicate Architecture” by Catherynne M. Valente

3 of 5 stars.

This creative and charming tale re-imagines the life of a well-known folktale baddie. It is an origin story of a sort that I’d label as speculative folktale not unlike the way Tangled re-imagines Rapunzel, Wicked re-invents The Wizard of Oz, and Into the Woods toys with a half dozen traditional tales. However, this one does not offer up its more famous version willingly or quickly.

A girl, Constanze, grows up not knowing a mother and following in her father’s footsteps as a confectioner–the best confectioner. Their plates are butterscotch, her breakfast eggs are marzipan, and her pillows are spun sugar. Everything in her world is truly sweets and confections with the exception of her sugarplum fork made from a sparrow’s bones.

As she grows older, she wants to know about Vienna where her father made his fame, and about the emperors from whom he departed, and about her origin. About much hemming and hawing, the father makes Constanze a Dress-of-Many-Sugars and takes her to the royal court where she realizes her striking resemblance to the female emperor. However, she also learns that her eyelashes are licorice-flavored, her blood bleeds raspberry jam . . .

The enjoyable absurdity develops astonishingly as the Grimm tale emerges from this unexpected place.

This story was included in the anthology The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2010 edited by Paula Guran. I’ve previously reviewed this author’s “Urchins, While Swimming”.
 
 
 
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The Alpha Plague Box Set Release

In time for the holidays, The Alpha Plague box set has been released. This is perfect for guilty pleasure, zombie reading.

The Alpha Plague - Books 1 - 3: A Post-Apocalyptic Action ThrillerThe Alpha Plague – Books 1 – 3: A Post-Apocalyptic Action Thriller by Michael Robertson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Robertson condenses and stretches time, appropriately and necessarily, to capture the first minutes, hours and days in a zombie apocalypse. Falling within the broader category of zombie apocalypses, this take is toward the rage spectrum of “28 Days Later” rather than the lumbering Walking Dead variety, which makes it all the worse for protagonist, Rhys. The entire trilogy barely clocks in at 2 days in character time. Wonderfully, the narration style morphs as time goes on and characters have moments to consider their complicated pasts that overshadow their decisions and actions of the present. I’ve reviewed each book separately, too.

The Alpha Plague is an apocalyptic survival thriller that covers just the first few hours of a viral plague: Rhys and his kick-ass partner-by-circumstance Vicky in his quest to escape Summit City, the apocalypse epicenter, and save his 6 y.o. son, Flynn, who’s at school some miles away.

The Alpha Plague 2 picks up minutes after the end of the first book. Rhys promises his son to try to save his wife back in Summit City, thus launching this sequel which focuses on Rhys’ efforts while Vicky stays safely outside the containment zone with the boy. Rules for the behavior and spread of zombies start to emerge as Rhys logs more interactions and analyzes more without Vicky’s smarts to guide him. Also, the political intrigue storyline at the heart of the infection develops, broadening the world-view while layering on mysteries.

The Alpha Plague 3 keeps the frenetic pace of the previous ones, while weaving in back story for Vicky as Rhys and Larissa try to find Vicky and Flynn. In alternating chapters, over a year of backstory infills Vicky’s tale while only Rhys and Larissa’s tale furthers the present everchanging predicament. The unspooling of multiple time lines and shifting character relationships in Vicky’s political thriller thread reminded me of All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer.

This series is highly recommended.
 
 
 
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Review: “Strange Scenes from an Unfinished Film” by Gary McMahon

2 of 5 stars.

Through dodgy means, a man acquires a short unfinished film by a favorite director, murdered before a feature could be made of the idea. The man watches the uncanny VHS film that seems to almost show himself watching and reacting to something on a television screen in a living room not unlike his. In the film, a monster glides into view . . .

There are few mediums that this vignette would truly shine in, and print is not one of them. This tale would be appropriate fodder for an episode of Tales from the Crypt, or The Twilight Zone. Potentially, it’d work as a Korean style horror film. It doesn’t translate with the appropriate uncanniness here, unfortunately.

This story was included in the anthology The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2010 edited by Paula Guran.
 
 
 
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Review: “Headstone in Your Pocket” by Paul Tremblay

Headstones in Your PocketHeadstones in Your Pocket by Paul Tremblay
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This somber tale exhibits the reverberations of early trauma as it rears it’s head from the depth of memory. The situation is made all the worse by the characters less than joyous adult lives.

Joe Marquez works border patrol near the Arizona town he grew up in. A semi full of Mexican illegals, thankfully all alive, get searched before being deported. Joe absent-mindedly pockets a tinfoil-wrapped baby tooth found on one of the immigrants.

Joe likes to meet long-time friend Jody for drinks and food in their hometown when he’s in the area. She’s been an on-and-off again meth-head ever since a car accident killed her husband, well-being, and career. Her teeth have rotted out.

As kids, Joe and Jody witnessed a couple American teens playing near the border stone a young Mexican kid. They found his body, skull crushed, baby teeth scattered around him. . .

This story was included in the anthology The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2010 edited by Paula Guran despite being neither fantasy nor horror. I’ve previously read and reviewed this author’s “We Will Never Live in the Castle” short story.
 
 
 
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Review: The Walking Dead, Compendium 3 by Robert Kirkman

The Walking Dead, Compendium 3The Walking Dead, Compendium 3 by Robert Kirkman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This latest Compendium for the graphic series contains Chapters 17-24 [Issues #97-144]. As the television show catches up with the end of Compendium #2, this latest edition extends the plotline and scope of the world yet more. It must be stressed that the graphic series and the television series are not the same. Each has unique characters and sub-plots reassigned to different characters. Both are excellent and recommended.

Rick Grimes [former cop and now post-apocalyptic leader], son Carl, Glenn, Andrea and Michonne have made contact with Hilltop, with its wussy leader Gregory and bad-ass recruiter Jesus, at the opening of this collection. Hilltop and trading partner The Kingdom, under the leadership of King Ezekiel with his pet tiger, are in a trade network with the Santuary under Negan’s leadership and bullying. His bully-tactics weigh on the other communities in the network in ways that would make the governor blush.

Meanwhile, Glenn’s wife Maggie is pregnant, and their adopted daughter Sophia has adjustment issues. Abraham and Rosita are on the outs with the latter crashing at Eugene’s, while Eugene is figuring out how to start manufacturing ammunition as pre-apocalyptic supplies are getting scarce. The core survivors are melding well with the natives of Alexandria now that Rick is the leader there.

The trading communities are rebuilding civilization. The final 2 chapters add yet a new group into the world by showing territories beyond the trading network. The Whisperers, with leader Alpha, live a very different return-to-nature lifestyle that sees them wearing zombies skins to blend in with zombie herds . . .

Needless to say, major characters die as new ones are added to the cast. No less than 5 aforementioned characters don’t survive to the end of the compendium.

The continued exploration of the human condition and basics of civilization is astounding in this series. It is highly recommended. I have also reviewed The Walking Dead, Compendium 1 and The Walking Dead, Compendium 2.
 
 
 
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