Saturday, February 11, 2017

Review: Legacy by Wilde Blue Sky

First, a little warning. I didn’t want this review to turn into a political rant, and I have refrained from soap-boxing or calling names. But Legacy is a socially- and politically-charged novella with many chilling parallels to recent developments in the world (I’m writing this in January 2017). At several points the neo-Nazi protagonist, Peter, even says “I will make Germany great again!”; This novel was written in 2012, by the way, so the similarity to a certain right-wing rallying cry is coincidental but frightening. Legacy is primarily an alternate history story, but I believe it would be disingenuous to pretend that it is not also a social commentary in the vein of 1984 or The Grapes of Wrath.

The events move swiftly, painting a grand panorama of the life of Peter, the secret son of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun, as he rides a wave of neo-Nazi nationalism towards possible control of a post World War II Germany. The four co-conspirators who set the novel in motion are bitter and vindictive. Germany’s defeat by the Allies is a wound that has never closed up for any of them. They believe that that genetic “right” of the pure-blooded Aryan people to lead Germany has been stolen from them. Thus they turn to Peter, manipulating his fears of alienation and worthlessness to push him into becoming the charismatic figurehead for their movement. 

There is little subtlety to the dialogue. But then, there is little subtlety to the anger and fear that drives the sort of xenophobic nationalism this story warns of. The story reminds me, in style if not content, of the works of Fyodr Dostoyevsky such as White Nights or Notes From Underground. Like those works, the characters of Legacy broadcast their thoughts front and center through dialogue and private musings

I was struck by the few hints at Peter’s particular disgust for homosexuality. In general, the characters are painted in fairly broad strokes. They are mouthpieces for the plot. Thus this little glimpse into Peter’s psyche stood out to me, even though it was a relatively minor component to the overall story. There is a particularly poignant scene where a young grieving man reaches out to Peter for support, only to be rebuffed by his apparent discomfort with expressing compassion. I wonder if this is meant as a jab at the fragile hypermasculinity and homophobia that often accompanies hard-line nationalist movements, both right and left. This is particularly tragic in Peter’s case because one can see his own need for companionship- as well as a desperate need to feel like his life is worth something- glaring through the cracks of his hard shell. 

In the end, Legacy is a fast-paced and straightforward alternate history tale. But its clear warnings against nationalism and fear-mongering are potent and disturbing. You can get from Amazon.

Horror Book Review: The Cat-Dogs, edited by A. Finnis

Way back around Halloween 2016 I’d planned on doing a whole month of reviews on my favorite scary story collections that I’d read as a kid. Life got busy and I only got to one, so I figured I’d just continue on into November (autumn’s a pretty spooky season in general, so it’d still somewhat fit, right?) Welp, life got in the way some more and I only got to one other anthology. At this point I could just wait until next Halloween and try again... but heck, I like reading scary story anthologies. So I’ll just plow ahead with some more reviews and find something else for Halloween 2017 (because you know it’s going to be something big, considering how much I love the holiday).

The Cat-Dogs is one of the more unusual, dream-like anthologies I’ve read. The horrors in these stories aren’t clear-cut ghosts, werewolves, vampires or other conventional monsters. Each story in the anthology is written by a different author, and thus each has a slightly different tone. Based on the majority of the settings, it seems like this anthology originally came from the U.K.

The Cat-Dogs
by Susan Price

The titular story is about a girl, Liz, who finds an abandoned litter of odd baby animals and brings them home to her parent’s farm on an old English estate. The animals are something like felines and something like canines- hybrids, somehow. Biologically impossible, of course, but this is horror, so who’s paying attention? As the cat-dogs get older, they get more and more vicious and eventually murderous. The story climaxes with a slow, suspenseful chase through the dark woods as Liz and her father try to hunt down the creatures before they can cause any more death. And of course they’re being stalked themselves. A very simple- indeed, one of THE most basic horror plots- but done very effectively.

The Piano
by Diane Hoh

This one feels like a dark fairy tale. A teenage girl, Laura, is forced by her cruel stepmother to practice the piano for hours so that she can win a contest that will allow said evil stepmom to live in luxury. As Laura sits at the bench complaining to herself, the piano actually responds. It communicates through snippets of songs: “Black-hearted Woman”, “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?”, “Let It Be” and so on. Laura is surprisingly unfazed by this, which adds even more the fairytale logic of the story, and quickly develops a close bond with the supernatural instrument.  Then people that Laura hates start dying in bizarre accidents, which the story implies is being orchestrated (ha!) by the piano... somehow. 

 I’m pretty impressed that the author was able to create entire dialogues between Laura and the piano with the instrument only using the titles of songs. I like the fact that there is no explanation for what the thing actually is. Maybe it’s haunted? Maybe it’s alive? Maybe it’s like the car from Stephen King’s “From aBuick 8”- it only looks like a piano, but is actually something completely alien.

The Devil’s Footprints
by Malcolm Rose

A story set in the future world of 2004 (the book came out in 1994) where a rich kid named Darren throws a huge Halloween party at his technologically-advanced house while his parents are out of town. Seeing as how this is a horror anthology, you know someone is going to show up to kill all those dumb, unsupervised teenagers. And seeing as how the story is called “the Devil’s Footprints” you can probably guess who.

The interesting thing about the story is that it’s inspired by a real supernatural phenomenon that occurred in England around East and South Devon. Residents of the area awoke one cold February in 1855 to find eerie horseshoe-shaped prints running everywhere through the new fallen snow. In many places the prints seemed to defy normal physics. They would go right up to high stone walls, over the top, then continue on the other side. Other prints would go up to the walls of two-story houses, and immediately continue on the roof.

The future setting is a weird addition, though it seems that it was done so that the house could have an intelligent A.I. program that can’t record the Devil on any of its cameras to heighten the supernatural nature of the part-crasher.

by Stan Nicholls

One of the most bizarre stories in the anthology. The main premise is that everyone on Earth has a human-sized, sentient stuffed animal as a permanent Companion that follows them everywhere and always keeps them company. Problem is, despite being clearly intelligent beings with their own individual personalities and wants, Companions are treated as little more than slaves and property. And they’re not very happy about that...

So yeah, it’s a horror version of “Ted”

The premise sounds goofy, but there is something weirdly sinister and creepy about the tale. Maybe it’s the imagery of giant, sentient stuffed toys having dark thoughts of revenge. Like The Piano, it creates a grim, very fairy tale feeling.

The House That Jack Built
by Garry Kilworth

This one was my favorite of the bunch. The story that stayed with me all these years and got me to pick up a used copy of the book for a second look.

The story features another living inanimate object with malevolent intentions. This time it’s a living house that captures a lone drifter, Caleb,  and forces him to spend several years constantly repairing and maintaining its wooden facade by cutting and preparing boards from a nearby copse of trees.  Every time Caleb attempts to escape, he is dragged back by tough white roots- part of the house itself- that burst out of the ground. Like The Piano, the exact nature of the sentient dwelling is never explained, though it is clearly more than just a haunted house.

You actually get a good sense of the loneliness and desperation Caleb feels as he’s forced to work all day, every day, for over two years just to keep the house in good condition. The house won’t allow any furniture to touch its floors, so he has no bed or chairs. No comforts or distractions, which is in itself pretty nightmarish.

The Station With No Name
by Colin Greenland

Considering how surreal the majority of the stories in this anthology have been, the last tale is surprisingly conventional horror. A graffiti artist named Mark finds an old, forgotten train station and breaks in to cover it with his tags. While exploring, he runs into odd, possibly delusional people wandering around the station in rotting, ancient clothes. It’s briefly implied that they’ve been inhabiting the place since the onset of World War II, though it’s ambiguous as to whether they’re ghosts or people who have somehow survived in the darkness for decades, hiding from the war they still believe is going on around them.

As I’ve said before, The Cat-Dogs is a weird, dream-like anthology. It’s like that feeling you get when you’re lying half-awake on the couch at 2am and some obscure horror movie from the 80s comes on the TV and you half-watch it, drifting in and out of consciousness, so that your dreams start to meld with the snippets of plot. Yeah, just like that

Although The Cat-Dogs is out of print, you can still find plenty of copies on Amazon.