Monday, November 28, 2011

“Vampire Pastiche”: A Review of Gary Lee Vincent’s Darkened Hills

(Burning Bulb Publishing, 2010, ISBN: 9781453844854)

I’ve always enjoyed just a little more works of fiction that take place in locales with which I am familiar. It adds something special when I can not only visualize a place, but have actually been there.

Having lived and traveled extensively in the northern half of West Virginia since moving here a little over four years ago, I found the locales in which Vincent places his vampires to be perfectly suited to both their peculiar sensibilities and those of their typical victims.

Darkened Hills is the first installment of Darkened—The West Virginia Vampire Series (the second book, Darkened Hallow, is now available. It’s sitting on my shelf, ready to be read). It is the 2010 Book of the Year Winner from ForeWord Reviews Magazine and shares a publisher, Burning Bulb, with The Big Book of Bizarro, which I also recently reviewed. Vincent was a contributing editor. He has published several non-fiction books as well as the novel Passageway and has a background and Ph.D. in Computer Information Systems. In addition to being an author, editor, and publisher he is also a recording artist, with three albums to his credit.

For Darkened Hills, Vincent draws heavily on Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Stephen King’s de-/re-construction of it, Salem’s Lot. Being that he is so up front and obvious about it, the way King was, makes it solidly a pastiche in the tradition of Nicholas Meyer’s Sherlock Holmes books or Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula, making it all the more fun to read, especially with its West Virginia¬–centric settings (including the fictional town of Melas, a mirror image of the real town of Salem. Yes. Salem. It fits.).

Each section or chapter opens with a quote from Edgar Allen Poe, many of them from more obscure works and all chosen for their appropriateness to what follows. I enjoyed reading them as much as the book itself.

Within its well-known framework and cast of characters, Darkened Hills, both by virtue of its unique setting and the imaginative mind of its author, manages to stand on its own in the town-is-demonized-and-disintegrated-while-unlikely-heroes-fight-the-forces-of-evil subset of the vampire canon, and it left me eager to read the sequel. It is well-paced, deft in its handling of multiple storylines unfolding at once, and Vincent knows the geography and the way it plays on the minds of its inhabitants quite well.

Speaking of the inhabitants, Darkened Hills runs the gamut from small-town and backwoods folk, to occultists, clergy, police, mental health professionals, and, of course, the guy who returns to his hometown with dreams of buying its weird old mansion just in time to find its been bought by a mysterious man (who we later find out is a vampire).

Peppered with just the right amounts of graphic violence and sex (less than, say, True Blood but more than Bram Stoker’s Dracula), the novel has appeal to the vampire story enthusiast as well as the more casual horror reader looking for a quick read with easily understood characters and an uncomplicated storyline.

Look for my review of the sequel to Darkened Hills in the next few months.

Monday, November 7, 2011

“The Place to Get Your Freak On”: A Review of The Big Book of Bizarro

(2011, Burning Bulb Publishing,

by Joey Madia

This ambitious collection of over 50 “bizarro” tales, edited by West Virginia authors Rich Bottles Jr. and Gary Lee Vincent, is divided into three sections: Horror, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, and Erotica. There are many definitions for the ever-evolving genre of “Bizarro,” including one in the book, although I define it simply as taking graphic violence and erotica a little further than the mainstream would and then, once it’s there, pushing it just a little further.

The potential problem with this approach is that the violence and erotica wind up at times as being the whole point of the work, and there is no story; no craft. To the editors’ credit, there are few stories in this collection that fall into that trap and they stick out like a severed, rotting, puss-running thumb that had previously been up to no good in someone child’s back end (see how Bizarro works?).

In this reviewer’s opinion, the strongest stories are in the Horror section, which makes sense. A lot of violence and a little sex have been the tools of the trade for Horror from the start, so these writers have the clearest, cleanest path to success. Conversely, the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section is the weakest. It is here that it is most obvious that Bizarro was hot-forged into an at-best moderately interesting tale of aliens and the like. The Erotica section starts slowly, but builds over the last four or five stories to a satisfying crescendo of sound and breath and fluid (are you following this Bizarro thing?).

Before I get into some of the best of the stories, I have to mention that the book is impressively laid out, with many of the graphical elements that are missing from most small-press books. There are some interesting illustrations by Jon Towers and the front and back cover images are sure to draw the eye and get people talking. The stories themselves contain a one-line description (most of which are pleasantly clever) and an author bio right there on the title page. I much prefer this to having to constantly flip to the back of the book to a Bio section. The type is clean and large and makes for a fast, easy read. The typos are minimal, a credit to the editors’ work in putting together in a professional presentation 512 pages of layout.

And so, some of my favorites.

In the Horror section, there is “Whore of the Dartmoor” by editor Rich Bottles, Jr. I had the pleasure of hearing Rich read this story aloud at a writer’s group I host (well, most of it… he tactfully removed the sexier parts for our mixed audience of Bizarro and more circumspect writers) and his twisted take on the misuses of public domain works and the riotous wrath of a certain Holmesian author is both entertaining and thought-provoking. I also enjoyed Nikko Lee’s “Honey-Do” (most husbands will) and fellow NJ native Nelson Pyles’s “Decorations” (most wives will). My favorite stories in this section are Jesse Saxon’s “Karnivali” and Michael Migliore’s “Front Page,” both of which are well-researched, well-conceived, and well-executed. The Horror section ends with a poem called “Want” by Meself John, procured by the editors under interesting circumstances (which I will leave for you to read). This piece stands out because in a boundary-pushing landscape like the Big Book of Bizarro, this two-page rant-poem made me ask: “What would the rest of these authors say if they could truly say anything?”

The highlight of the Sci-Fi/Fantasy (and one of the best in the collection) is Kenzi Mathews’s “In Cocoon, I am Embryo,” which is written in a finely haunting, hyper-visual style. I also enjoyed Derek Tabor’s “The Only One to Save,” Sean Martin’s “False Idols,” and D. Harlan Wilson’s “Scotomization,” with its interesting take on the mythic clan that is the Kennedys. Another strong entry in this category is Michael C. Thompson’s “Diethylamide,” which is written in a Beat-like, stream of consciousness, painting-with-words style that includes a vispo-like typography. Like Mathews’ story, it is one of the highlights of the collection.

The Erotica section is, well, pretty erotic. And like the varied acts that are the coin of its realm, it builds slowly but steadily into a satisfying climax, which I might have mentioned earlier. It is in this section, in the first bunch of stories, that graphic writing for its own sake really dings the overall quality of the section, but from Reina Sobin’s “Womb with a View” on to the end (with one or two to-remain-nameless exceptions) there is some really good writing here. Other stories well worth the time are Andree Lachapelle’s “Love Bites,” “Pomegranate Moth” by Richard Godwin, and my favorite of the section, Peter Baltensperger’s “Sonata for Insects and Violins.” I also have to recommend “Fun House” by Kimber Vale, because, in a book of Bizarro, this might very well be the winner of the Weird Award.

Overall, this book is a fun trip with plenty of good writing. When not reading, leave it on the passenger seat of your car, on the coffee table, or by the water cooler at work. Let people know your ready to get your freak on.