Friday, July 20, 2012

“It’s a Helluva Place to Write About”: A Review of Rich Bottles Jr.’s Hellhole, West Virginia

 (2011, Burning Bulb Publishing, ISBN:9780615535791,
By Joey Madia
There are lots of West Virginias. To some it’s the redneck, backwards in-bred core of Appalachia. To others it is home to the powerhouse football and basketball teams of WVU (Go Mountaineers!), while, to legions of John Denver fans, it is “Almost Heaven,” an outdoor mecca of whitewater rafting, biking, and hiking.
In the five years I’ve been here I’ve seen a little bit of all of these pictures of West Virginia, and many more. The frontier spirit is alive and well, as are lots of examples of innovation and the ongoing controversy over coal, natural gas, and “fracking.” I’ve also noticed in my time here that West Virginia fascinates writers, whether natives or transplants like myself. Sooner or later, you just have to write about the place.
Rich Bottles Jr., a Pennsylvania native and “bizarro” author, is one of those whose fascination with all things West Virginia manifests prominently in his work. Like his novel Lumberjacked, Hellhole, West Virginia confluences fact and fiction, stereotype and the utterly unique in horrific and humorous ways.
His publisher, Burning Bulb, specializes in both Bizarro and West Virginia as a ripe setting for the horror and sex-filled tales their authors tell (I have previously reviewed the 50+ story collection called The Big Book of Bizarro that Bottles co-edited as well as Gary Lee Vincent’s Darkened vampire trilogy). Hellhole is the perfect storm of these foci. On the back cover the publisher gives a tongue in cheek but perhaps necessary warning to the reader about the “graphic sex and gratuitous violence” in Hellhole. I’m not going to dwell on either of these elements, as I frankly think they belong in this book and I’ve waded through worse in both content and execution in bizarro and other types of works and if that isn’t your cup of tea, well—you’ve been warned.
Hellhole is like Pulp Fiction, in the sense that it consists of several separate stories all tied together in a single thematic arc that wraps up neatly… and yet ugly… in the end. I’d like to comment on each separate story and then do a bit of wrap-up in order to parallel the structure Bottles employs.
The first story is titled “The Pussy Peddlers of Pendleton County” and tells the tale of an undercover cop fresh out of the WV Police Academy who is trying to find her predecessor, who has disappeared, while attempting to break the prostitution ring operating out of a seedy motel. This section is perhaps the most grotesque in terms of both violence and sex, because of the way they are so thoroughly inter-related in the Pendleton County Bottles presents to us.
The second story, called “At the Point of Unpleasantness,” takes as its raw material a subject near and dear to my heart and of which I am intimately acquainted, as I have spent the past 3 years researching for and writing a three-act play about the area—the Mothman sightings and Silver Bridge Collapse in Point Pleasant, WV in 1966 and 1967. Bottles takes the legends and the lore and intriguingly adapts them to the larger tale he is telling, both by filling in the gaps with his own crafting of events as well as twisting the facts to suit his purpose. It is clear that Bottles spent considerable time in the key locations where Mothman was seen, including the TNT area and its infamous “igloos,” and read all the requisite books concerning eyewitness accounts and the circumstances surrounding the collapse of the bridge. This story is a worthy addition to the growing catalog of Mothman tales.
The third story, “Zenra and the Art of Hummer Maintenance,” is perhaps the most complicated thematically and as far as source material is concerned. Beyond the title’s play on Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance the chapter pulls pieces from the WV Environmental scene, mashing them up with the Manson Family murders (appropriate given Manson’s connection to West Virginia). It is also in this chapter that the author’s technical writing skills shine brightest as he explains the nuances of energy company expansion versus the protection of indigenous wildlife. Having friends who live near the headwaters of the Potomac in eastern West Virginia, I have seen the rape of the landscape perpetrated by the energy companies. It’s easy to understand how some people take their passion for the environment to extreme and ugly places.
The fourth chapter, “The Winter of Our Discombobulation,” boldly goes where most authors dare not tread—interdicting themselves, warts and farts and all, into their own story. This can be polarizing for audiences, as in the case of Stephen King and the final two books of the Dark Tower series, but, like in all things having to do with Art, it only matters if it works for the story or not and in this case (as in King’s) it certainly does. I give Bottles credit for taking a twisted trip to the kinds of places only the late, great Hunter S. Thompson could and leaving his ego in the background to maximize the laughs and the bizarreness of the tale he tells. Kudos must be given for the insights he gives into both the creative and business sides of the novelist’s life. And, for all you fans of zombies, he does not disappoint!
The fifth and final section, “At the Mountains of Mayhem,” takes us back to the characters of Pendleton County while introducing a Buffy-esque new one and tying all of the stories together in a mounting climax (a few actually) and ending that undoes typical conventions and expectations.
Further tying the separate stories together are some recurring themes and scenes that one can only truly appreciate when the book is finished.
Although it’s not for everyone (and no style of writing should be), Hellhole, West Virginia provides ample entertainment and new takes on tried and true legends of the region.
And should you want to burn it, perhaps the publisher’s back cover advice should get the final word: “wear fire-resistant clothing.”

Sunday, July 8, 2012

“Of Floods, and Fires, and Vampires”: A Review of Gary Lee Vincent’s Darkened Waters

(Burning Bulb Publishing, 2012, ISBN: 9780615623511) The Horror (or Sci-Fi) Trilogy, based as it is on the classic three-act model, is a time-honored literary tradition. But as satisfying as it can be, it’s hard to pull off through the final act. To sustain the suspense, slowly unravel the details of and maintain interest in the central characters, tease the reader with cliffhangers without creating alienation—these are the obstacles to the successfully executed trilogy. It’s a well-known mantra in literary circles that “anyone can write a good first act”—it’s all Expectation, initial IOUs (as my college writing professor termed them), and the setting of the large and small events in motion. To those who have read my reviews of Darkened Hills (2010) and Darkened Hollows (2011)— the first two books of the West Virginia Vampire Series—the reasons why “act one” and “act two” of the trilogy work so well are clear: they serve as a wonderful homage to and pastiche of the oft-told tale of the vampire, mixing as they do the larger international lore with the idiosyncrasies and unique people and places of rural West Virginia. The best we can do as genre fiction writers is to bring something new to the prerequisites and symbol systems of the particular genre in which we write, and Gary Lee Vincent has done that and more, especially in this final installment, which goes from the local to the national to the truly universal (and therefore mythological). Darkened Waters covers several time periods and geographical bits and pieces, overlaying a mythological array of characters both familiar and unique to Vincent’s blood-drenched world in addition to the returning residents and visitors to Melas, WV and its environs. It breaks out well beyond the framework of the first book, which took many of its names and cues from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Stephen King’s de- and re-construction of it, ‘Salem’s Lot, and stakes its claim to its very own place in vampire literature. Similar to the strength of the mining scenes in the second book of the trilogy, Vincent’s detailed and vivid descriptions of landscape and its destruction rivet the reader as Nature is once again unleashed on the small towns of Melas and Tarklin, setting in motion an epic battle of Good vs. Evil, Simple Mortal vs. Massive Monster that moves relentlessly and entertainingly toward its climax. Complete with adult themes and dark matters, ample twists and turns, and a healthy dose of laughs, Darkened Waters delivers on the promise of Darkened Hills and Darkened Hollows and does so in a satisfying and memorable way. As always, I end with a few words about the multi-talented Gary Lee Vincent: 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 of Burning Bulb, he is also a recording artist, with three albums to his credit. I look forward to what comes next.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Review of Rosemary Ellen Guiley’s Guide to the Dark Side of the Paranormal

(2012, Visionary Living, Inc., From one of the foremost experts on the paranormal comes this introductory handbook to a selection of 20 different categories in the field. From Haunted Objects to Mirrors, from The Evil Eye to Moon Madness this quick-reading guide serves to both educate and protect the reader in its succinct chapters and 157 pages. Whether you are just curious or one of the growing numbers of people purchasing EMF meters, tape recorders, and digital cameras and going out into the field to try and experience ghosts, spirits, and other manifestations, this book does an excellent job of explicating the pleasures and pitfalls of experiencing the Unseen and Unusual. Opening with a chapter on Curses, the book goes into an array of physical objects (those mentioned above, as well as Haunted Houses) before moving on to supernatural beings, including: demons, djinn (Guiley has co-authored an excellent book on the subject, which I reviewed last year), Shadow People, and Skinwalkers. This is an important section to study, as these beings all have their specific strengths, weaknesses, and challenges should you be (un)lucky enough to encounter one! The Guide then examines the less-dangerous types of beings and manifestations, such as doppelgangers and ghosts. The book continues its exploration and education through excellent chapters on Dream Invasion, Sex with Ghosts and Entities, the Ouija (Guiley’s new book this often misunderstood spirit-communication tool just came out), Spirit Bargaining, Men in Black (there’s much more too them than what’s portrayed in the popular film trilogy!), and Vampire UFOs—in this case, the strangest is definitely left for the last. Chapters 17 and 18 and the Appendix are indispensible reading for those going out into the field to do their own paranormal investigations. Red Flags to Avoid, Psychic Protection, and Getting Help for Dark Side Problems are all covered. While my library is filled with highly detailed books on almost all of the subjects covered in this Guide (many written by Guiley), I will be turning to this book again and again for a quick reminder and some ready information, whether I am into a new writing project or heading out into the field with a group of investigators.