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A fun four-pack of exotic destinations, taking hapless travelers far off the beaten path.
The first, “Bird of Wonder,” follows a couple having one of the classic age-old arguments … whether or not they need to stop and ask for directions. A touchy enough issue at the best of times, it becomes even touchier in a foreign country where language is an extra barrier. After some difficulty, Steve and Carmen do find their way to the exotic animal sanctuary, though they’ll soon wish they hadn’t.
“Strega” brings us to Tuscany, where another couple is attempting to enjoy a belated honeymoon. Elliot’s older, a professional, previously divorced, prides himself on his intelligence and education; Jen is almost half his age, a former dancer, more interested in shopping than history and archaeology. After an unpleasant encounter with an old local woman and a day trip with their handsome tour guide, Elliot isn’t sure if he’s being cheated on or cursed.
“Rogue Travel” sends a travel show crew on location to Belize, to film an episode of arrogant celebrity John Waite’s adventure series. He, along with his latest girlfriend/producer and their camera guy, accompany a guide to an enormous unmapped cave believed to have been a sacred site to the Maya. When things go wrong, Waite gets some harsh reminders about the difference between his on-screen adventuresome persona and reality.
Title tale “The Belly of Provence” is the last and also the longest piece, taking up about half the book. When a young woman who’d been kicking about on her own in France wakes, immobilized in traction at a quaint country estate, she has to sift through the fogs of pain and traumatic amnesia to retrace her steps. There was the elderly gentleman on the train, the one who claimed he was a sorcerer, who suggested she visit a particular village … and the more seasoned travelers who say they’ve never heard of the place … and how strange it seems when she gets there … and the charming Bastien … and something about an accident … but why isn’t she in the hospital?
There are zombie books that are your typical zombie books, following the formula, laden with the classic tropes. Then there are zombie books that aren’t your typical zombie books, twisting the formula, playing with the tropes.
And now there’s this one, which is unlike any other zombie book I’ve ever read. I’m not even sure it should technically be called a zombie book … or even a pandemic/infection/outbreak book … although that’s what it’s about.
Set mostly in England of a similar but alternate timeline, it involves a condition that comes to be referred to as “the Splits” … partly because of the way it causes the skin of its victims to split and ooze, and partly because of its ultimate (and scarier, more profound) effect.
The first documented attacks take place in 1969, with feral behavior, crazed biting, and fast-spreading contagion. Not so fast, though, that all society collapses etc.; the authorities are able to mobilize and get some procedures set up in time. Soon, there are government agencies, response teams, cleanup (and disposal) crews, quarantine facilities, and bevies of scientists investigating possible causes and cures.
There’s also the fear, and the stigma, and people trying to hide or deny their condition, or not report infected loved ones. And the dreams, and the claims of seeing ghosts, as if the spirits of the affected victims have somehow ‘split’ from their deteriorating bodies.
The story spans the next several decades, following a handful of primary characters whose lives become interconnected by the unfolding events. It’s presented in a variety of forms, from straight narrative to interviews, articles, and case file notes.
So, yeah, it IS a zombie book, but with a broader scope and wider, more long-term focus with build-up and slow-burn repercussions. If you’re looking for a chaos-fest of carnage and headshots and braaaaaain-eating, this won’t be for you … if you want something more psychological, sociological, and thought-provoking, you’ll likely be very satisfied.
THE HUMAN ALCHEMY by Michael Griffin (2018 Word Horde / 305 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
I’ve seen Michael Griffin’s name circulating for a while now among the weird fiction community, and read a couple of the stories from this collection when they originally appeared in anthologies. His work’s impressive in its smooth polish and subtle textures, always doing an excellent job involving the senses (physical and metaphysical as well).
Many of them are set in Portland, Oregon, and it really works. If there’s a west-coast version of Lovecraft country, it could well be that area. May not have as long a recorded history, but it’s got the grey and gloomy weather, peculiarities in its past … and not for nothing is the motto “Keep Portland Weird.”
These are also often ordinary-seeming people, these characters who find themselves dealing with uncanny mysteries as well as the normal troubles of everyday relationships and life. As is also the frequent case with Lovecraftian tales, many of the characters are troubled artists seeking (and finding) disturbing truths … unusual architecture and strange rituals abound … quests for ancient and obscure knowledge lead to dangerous paths …
“The Smoke Lodge” is extra fun for anyone involved with the weird fiction scene; not unlike in “I Am Providence” by Nick Mamatas, any similarities or resemblances to actual events or actual persons living or dead sure doesn’t seem purely unintentional.
The prevailing mood and tenor throughout the book is of a sort of beautiful doom. The vast cosmic horrors of emptiness and impressions of matters beyond human comprehension suggest that, however awful the state of ‘not knowing’ might be, sometimes getting answers actually can be worse.
If I have one minor silly gripe here, it’s that the name of one character kept throwing me off balance. Whenever I read “Noone,” my mind wanted to mispronounce it, thinking of Odysseus in the lair of the Cyclops. If I have a larger but more diffuse gripe, it’s how many of these stories end with a tantalizing vagueness, leading to inner wails of what-happens-next?
CONTRITION by Deborah Sheldon (2018 IFWG Australia / 244 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
How far would you go to make up for past wrongs? What would you endure to atone for something terrible that happened long ago? How strong is the binding power of love … and guilt … and shame? Is it worth upending your whole life to save someone else’s? Where’s the line between duty/obligation and self-preservation? What would you put yourself through to keep a secret?
When he discovers his high-school sweetheart homeless, John Penrose goes above and beyond. He doesn’t just try to help her. He takes her in. But, as he quickly learns from her disturbed and disturbing behaviors, he also has to keep her hidden. Hidden from his landlords, his neighbors, everyone.
And there are a succession of landlords and neighbors; Meredith has particular dislikes for traffic noises, yard work, neighborhood pets, kids, etc. Although she’s supposed to stay inside, she always eventually slips out, and there are only so many incidents people can overlook or pass off before they start getting suspicious.
They can’t stay in any one place long, frequently moving, hopping from one rental property to another as John struggles to hang onto his job and make ends meet. He has no social life. He can’t have anyone over. Maintaining his carefully-constructed story is its own challenge.
Also, more and more, he’s having a hard time getting past just how weird Meredith’s become. Spooky. Even dangerous. Her eating habits, for instance … the boxes she doesn’t want him to look in … the gaps in her memory … the peculiar scars.
The latest move brings a new complication. Her name is Donna, the friendly, attractive, single mom who lives across the street. John likes her. Meredith doesn’t. Plus, John is piecing together more of Meredith’s missing years, as well as confronting his own memories about their school years, and what happened to her brother.
Instantly intriguing, brimming with building psychological dread and tension, it’d be a gripping thriller even without the horrific creepy paranormal elements. Really enjoyable, if not entirely comfortable, making the reader look inward to wonder what he or she might do.
THE FIVE SENSES OF HORROR edited by Eric J Guignard (2018 Dark Moon Books / 313 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, & eBook)
As someone who was a psych major and has always been aware of the effectiveness of the use of sensory description in writing, I was all over this one and as interested in the scholarly introductions as by the stories themselves.
Dr. Jessica Bayless presents several excellent essays on the psychobiology of horror and the various senses, not only explaining how they function but how and why they affect our emotions – particularly relating to fear – the way they do. It’s brilliant stuff, not just informative but entertaining.
Although there are far more than five, those five are the biggies, the main ones we know about and rely on: touch, hearing, taste, sight, and smell. The book’s divided therefore into five sections, one for each, with three stories per. Not just stories about the senses, but the absence or loss of them, or ways they can go awry.
And what a lineup spread among those five sections! Ramsey Campbell’s in here, and Poppy Z. Brite. Richard Christian Matheson. Lisa Morton. Kathryn Ptacek.
As great as the rest of them are, picking my top fave was no contest this time: Lucy Taylor’s “In the Cave of the Delicate Singers,” in which a young woman with an unusual way of perceiving sounds ventures into a cave in search of missing explorers. I love stuff about caves and caving, it’s something I’d want to do if I were, y’know, young and fit and brave and athletic. This one does a fantastic job bringing the entire experience to life, trapped claustrophobic anxiety and all.
Lisa L. Hannett’s “Sweet Subtleties” is an exquisite decadence of dark fantasy, combining aspects of Pygmalion and Frankenstein with artistic confectionery and people of particularly demanding and distinguished tastes.
Editor Eric J. Guignard also contributes a preface and a follow-up essay, as well as handy lists for further reading and/or academic study. There’s an afterword by Dr. K.H. Vaughan on the connections and differences between sensation and perception. Illustrations by Nils Bross add the perfect final flourish throughout.