My Sweet Satan, for the Hal of it.

0

My Sweet Satan by Peter Cawdron

A review, just for the Hal of it.

My Sweet Satan cover

My Sweet Satan, by Peter Cawdron, is a science fiction novel with a whodunit twist.

My Sweet Satan begins with a young girl sitting on a porch. Jasmine is nineteen and busy calibrating the meaning of texts between her and Mike, her boyfriend. Did she say something wrong? What does his sending a smiley face mean?

Thank God I grew up before smart phones.

As she contemplates her future, Jasmine breathes in the summer air. She’s going to miss her home.

Soon, she and Mike will both go away to college. A brilliant student, Jasmine dreams that some day, she’ll be an astronaut. Mike has the same dream. Inside, her mother makes dinner as her dad and brother set the table.

“Stay with me Jazz!” Something jolts Jasmine away from the porch, shocking her back from edge of death into another reality.

Jasmine discovers that she’s part of a crew of six, on Copernicus a spaceship whose mission it is investigate Bestla, a small moon orbiting Saturn. As Jasmine struggles to connect with her surroundings, the last twenty years are a blank. She barely recognizes “her” Mike in the older man who revives her. Mike shows few traces of her hometown boyfriend. “Jazz,” the thin woman she sees in the mirror, is a stranger.

Jason, the ship’s AI, senses Jazz’s disorientation.

With Jason whispering instructions in her ear, she decides to keep her memory loss to herself. Jason sympathizes with her plight, sharing with her his dream of being human. After her vomiting ceases (remind me never to book a room on the Space Station), she explores her surroundings. Cawdron takes great pains in describing the ship as well what it would be like to navigate a place with little to no gravity.  He succeeds in putting the reader with Jazz as she makes her way around the ship.

In My Sweet Satan, Cawdron renders his few characters in broad strokes, including Jasmine.

Though some of the prose is lovely, you don’t know them as people, but more as a type. Still this serves a purpose. You’re more invested in the action than in any character’s fate.

There’s a major disagreement between crewmembers. An unmanned probe detected a message coming from Bestal: “My sweet Satan”. 

Mike wants to turn around; the others think it might be a miscommunication and are determined to investigate. Personally, thanks to those long ago catechism lessons, I’d be with Mike. Then, quicker than Ten Little Indians, accidents and deaths start to happen. Ultimately, as she fights for her life, it is Jazz who must confront the mystery of Bestla.

In his My Sweet Satan notes, Cawdron asks that any reviews not reveal the end of the book—meaning through the last page.

I agree that knowing the end would be a disservice to quite a good story.  There’s more to a mystery then simply discovering whodunit; there’s the resolution where we learn why, just for the Hal of it.

Helter Skeletons

0

Last Days by Adam Nevill

Adam Nevill’s Last Days

A Review of Adam Nevill’s Last Days

Dem Bones, dem Bones . . . A 2012 supernatural novel by British author, Adam Nevill, Last Days

is a page-turner, a cautionary scare fest about what can happen when you trade your free will to be part of a group. The story shifts between 2011 and the late sixties.

Ah, the sixties, a time of free love and brotherhood.

They gave us raised consciousness, flower power, great music and Twiggy. The sixties also brought us riots, a raging war in Viet Nam and Charlie Manson.

In 1969 London, The Last Gathering was in its third year.

Guided by Sister Katherine, The Gathering was a community of young people searching for a meaningful life. Sadly, all that peace and love went away when Sister Katherine changed her soothing tune. Then came the ghosts and “presences.” People started having out-of-body dreams. And those teary confessions made in therapy group? Sister Katherine, the bitch, kept records. No one could leave. Eventually, Katherine dubbed her flock “The Temple of the Last Days.” And they were. In 1975 the cult died in an orgy of murder and suicide.

Now, it’s 2011 in London. “Have you ever heard of Sister Katherine and The Temple of the Last Days?” asks movie producer, Max Solomon.

“Yes.” Kyle answers. Kyle is a guerrilla filmmaker, specializing in documentaries that highlight the bizarre and the supernatural. “Last Days,” Kyle knows, was a Manson-like cult, ending in the 1975 death of most of the flock and the beheading of their leader, Sister Katherine.

Max wants Kyle to make a documentary about the Last Days.

Kyle knows there’s something “off” about Max, but Kyle is in debt. Each cult survivor is to be interviewed at a location once occupied by the cult. Reluctantly, Kyle accepts. And Max makes the calls.

Quicker than you can say Gloria Swanson, Kyle’s first subject, Susan, arrives at the old house where it all started.

As Susan uses high drama to begin her account of the cult, Kyle and Dan, Kyle’s cinematographer, stifle a laugh. The flower child has wilted into a bony old crone. As Susan remembers the peace she found in the early days, her eyes shine. But when she recalls the change in Katherine, the “presences,” the dreams and the Last Days, it’s no longer funny.

After Susan leaves, it grows dark.

As Kyle and Dan begin recording footage of the empty rooms, they hear sounds—bumps, footsteps, shrieks and growls. Something has entered the house, something with teeth. Terrorized, they scramble out the front door and into the night air.

In his shabby flat, Kyle reviews his footage, hoping that what had scared him was all in his head.

It wasn’t. The camera caught a stain on a wall, an image of something bony. There was also a shadow, “ . . . a pair of haggard legs beneath a shriveled groin . . .” Does he want to continue the project? Dedicated to his craft, of course Kyle does and Dan agrees.

Nevill’s account of the filmmaking process impresses, making credible Kyle’s commitment to his film in the face of mounting danger.

The next interview is Brother Gabriel at a deserted French farmhouse. Things go south, especially when Kyle enters Sister Katherine’s boudoir. The merde really hits the fan. Along with seeing lots of stains, Kyle feels something touch him.

He discovers that he’s been tagged. He is “it“ (bony stain-wise), a marked man.

Though fascinated by what he learns, Kyle is repulsed, scared for his life and afraid to sleep. His dreams have become a front row seat to the bony stain games of Katherine’s little angels.

After confronting Max about the mess Max has dumped on them, Kyle begins to dream of a hellish landscape, full of death and hunger.

Stalked by nightmarish creatures bent on his death, or worse, taking him permanently into the awful landscape of his dreams, Kyle begins a frantic attempt to save himself. But from what? What is Max not telling him? Why does Dan still think it’s all in Kyle’s head?

They fly to Seattle to interview Martha, a former member and tabloid “It” girl whose beauty has faded into grim middle age.

Martha reflects on the cruelty members inflicted upon each other to gain favor. She wonders why. A look at the social media doings of any group of middle schoolers might answer Martha’s question.

Determined to finish the film, Kyle swings from excitement to despair.

Then Dan disappears. Remorseful for having exposed his friend to danger, Kyle accuses Max of using them as pawns. Max tells Kyle that he and Max can survive by working together to destroy something hidden in a hell on earth, where the Last Days goes on and on.

Months after reading Last Days, I found myself rereading and enjoying it.

On a personal note, should I discover any suspicious wall stains, they can say hello to my little friends, soft scrub and Mr. Clean.

American Elsewhere, a place where Lovecraft and Beaver Cleaver are always on the Tour

0

A review of American Elsewhere, a place where Lovecraft and Beaver Cleaver are always on the tour

***Spoilers***

Cover of Robert Jackson Bennett's American ElsewhereRecently, I read American Elsewhere, a 2013 novel by Robert Jackson Bennett.

Let me begin by saying that I really enjoyed this book. Shifting universes, lurking insanity and monsters make American Elsewhere a work of science fiction. In addition, Bennett explores the dark corners of relationships, the lie of eternal happiness and the aching need for unconditional love. Rather than an alien landscape, the heart of American Elsewhere lies elsewhere—in the complicated terrain of family values.

American Elsewhere begins with two deaths. One death is a murder.

Two men kidnap a third who is bound and confined in the trunk of a car. As they drive to a designated place, the men do their best to ignore the pleas of the third. The victim’s entreaties come through the car radio. Reaching their destination, they toss their victim into a ravine. As they walk away, they hear screams.

Embittered ex-cop Mona Bright has a heartbreaking past.

Traumatized as a young child by her mother’s suicide, Mona also carries the pain of a broken marriage and the loss of a stillborn daughter. Mona’s story begins with the death of her father. She won’t miss him. In fact, she is delighted to inherit his vintage muscle car, a vehicle that he had forbidden her to drive. And Mona inherits something else. Her dead mother left her the deed to a house. Soon, Mona is on her way to claim her mother’s house.

An unidentified character knows she’s coming and that Mona is bringing profound change.

The house is in the town of Wink, a place that would be right at home in The Twilight Zone. Mona can’t find it on any map. Regardless, using various clues, she locates Wink, where a funeral for the murder victim is taking place. Mona’s police instinct picks up the mourners’ agitation and fear.

Something is definitely weird in Wink.

Nestled in the valley of the paranormal, where realities slide back and forth, Wink makes it difficult to know what’s taking place. The town seems stuck in a period stretching from the late 1950’s to the early ‘60’s, an impression that’s not only due to the hair-do’s. They still watch Leave it to Beaver, along with other vintage TV. Wink citizens are wholesome folk, a collection guaranteed to trigger teeth grinding in any self-respecting cynic.

Wink’s history includes a now defunct research facility, a mysterious Frankenstein’s lab where her scientist mother, Laura Alvarez worked.

Several years earlier, a bizarre lightning storm destroyed several buildings and killed several of Wink’s citizens, an event commemorated by a statue in the town square, set next to a bizarre civic center. As she explores the town, what haunts Mona is the mystery of her mother. Laura Alvarez was a researcher at the abandoned lab.

And one more thing: Time passes differently in Wink, a place where the sun is often red, the sky is pink and on occasion, mountains move like a Lovecraft monster.

Living in her mother’s house, Mona discovers a time warp. In the upstairs bathroom, she witnesses what happened during the night of the lightening storm when she sees the charred corpse of a little girl. In the morning, it’s gone. Along with learning more about her mother’s past, Mona searches the attic. Reviewing old footage from an office party, she recognizes a Wink resident, the realtor who verified Mona’s ownership of the house. The realtor doesn’t look a day older than she did almost forty years earlier.

Why does nothing in Wink make sense?

Bennett gives us snippets of other Wink stories. The town fuels its economy by marketing cocaine through a roadhouse just outside of the town. The proprietor of the roadhouse turns a blind eye to frequent murders and offers prostitutes along with drinks. He also receives instructions via an old ticker-tape machine, hidden in a back room. On occasion, a cryptic message appears.

The most frightening messages concern small boxes.

The boxes, unnaturally heavy, contain tiny rabbit skulls and must be delivered according to instructions. Bennett amps up the dread here—these boxes are bad news for the unfortunate recipients. Bennett renders the citizens of Wink in short segments.

We learn what it costs to live in Wink.

There are rules—places you don’t go, especially at night. Live a “wholesome” life or face consequences. If asked, allow the use of your child by beings you never see unless they choose to allow it. There are citizens who know more and these characters aid Mona, giving her instructions and warnings to further her search for the truth.

What happened to Laura Alvarez here, in this town?

Soon, as Mona searches for answers, she becomes a pawn in a bizarre war. Grudges play out and powerful factions do battle in Wink, where the collateral damage becomes all too real.

As I mentioned, I enjoyed reading American Elsewhere, a novel of over six hundred pages.

I never skimmed or skipped. I enjoyed every word. If you explore the shifting landscape of Bennett’s American Elsewhere, remember that Lovecraft and Beaver Cleaver are always on the tour.

The Changeling: the changing road to nowhere

0

The Changeling: the long and winding road to nowhere   a review

Lavalles's The Changeling book coverThe Changeling, a novel by Victor LaValle and set in today’s New York City, is a dark fantasy like the grimmest of fairy tales. Despite its urban setting, the plot of The Changeling follows a torturous path of omens and hints, illusion and lies. Unfortunately, the novel’s ending belongs to another fantasy altogether. The ending seems unrelated to what happens before. Like the glass slipper and the stepsister’s foot, the fit is all wrong.

I admire LaValle’s no frills prose and was impressed by the sense of disorientation I shared with Apollo, his protagonist.

As I read Apollo’s history, his parents and their relationship, how he came to love and sell old books and the story of his new marriage and child, I settled in. The simplicity of the story and its appealing characters kept me turning the pages.

Then an abrupt change in the narrative of The Changeling knocked my socks off.

Apollo loses his child in the most horrific way I can imagine. Since I had already bonded with Apollo’s character, I identified with his desperation and the horror of his loss. Bewildered and unprepared, Apollo struggles to make sense of what happened. And why did his wife become someone else, then disappear? Was it his fault? Did the photos of his son, the ones he took and emailed cause the unimaginable? There were other photos, not taken by him, inexplicable images. Who took them? Apollo begins his journey in search of answers.

I followed Apollo down the rabbit hole of inner city reality and a nightmarish fantasy world.

His story mesmerized me until the trails and plot lines led to nowhere. Important characters like the island witches abruptly disappeared with little to no resolution, their compelling stories untold. Despite the novel’s supernatural underpinnings, the story’s end, in my opinion, was nonsensical and a disappointment. On the whole, the resolution did not live up to its beginning, Unfortunately, despite its great beginning and an appealing protagonist, The Changeling morphed from riveting, to confusing until finally it betrayed its promise.

Still, I’m open to reading more of LaValle’s spare, elegant prose.

I plan to explore his other novels, where perhaps other lost children and “wild things” await discovery.