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Phantom Feast by Diana Barron (2001 Barclay Books.)  Read more about the author and the novel  here.

     Here’s a dude who’s been around the block in the world, impressively, from his days as a drummer for the Toronto-based band Photograph to employment as a microbiologist studying the HIV virus, to travels as a popular hypno-therapist throughout Australia and New Zealand (from which he crossed paths with many colorful individuals), and he heralds from Scotland.  Such is his life, or what I can make of it doing a little research, in a nutshell. 

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(All reviews copyright © 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 by Nicholas Grabowsky and Diverse Media, all rights reserved.   All book cover images are owned by their respective owners and used by permission.)

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Sounds like the sort of chap who, if I’d ever met him and prior to his more recent days as a working author, I’d have urged him to try his hand at writing, and at writing fiction, for subject matter abounds.  But of course, he didn’t need me to tell him that……

On the other hand, there does exist in this world many a poor soul who, try as they might, and in spite of their education or exploits, just can’t for the life of them tell a good story.  So the question here is:  does Applegate measure up?  Is he good enough for any reader to throw out a small wad of cash and precisely choose his stuff over seemingly countless others (because, let’s face it, we can’t read everything)?   His decision to choose writing as a serious direction to point his life towards is extremely recent, and as with any path one chooses to go down and take seriously there is at first that curious itching to do so, then there’s talent, then there’s ambition, and with these things going for you there then evolves the process of experience, perfection, finding your voice and becoming over the process of time real damn good, head-and-shoulders-above-most damn good.

And Norm Applegate is well on his way.

The novels I’m reviewing here represent the first two in a long series of “Kim Bennett Thrillers” penned by Applegate and published by the Florida-based small press Triad Publishing.  Into the Basement, the first, introduces the character of Kim Bennett, whom Applegate describes as “an unlikely hero……..in horrific situations.”  Unlikely she is, in that as a sexually-charged full-fledged working bondage-fetish Mistress in contemporary San Francisco she’s catapulted into a situation where a Chinese underworld lord hires a Russian hit man to kidnap and bring him ladies of the night into his basement lair.  It is there where he subjects the women to all the hell of real-thing snuff films where even his German Shepherd is involved.  When he’s finished with them, his hired help dumps their bodies and law enforcement is left scratching their heads and looking to Kim and her possible inside knowledge for help.

Into the Spell continues Kim Bennett’s exploits, relocating her to Tampa and involving her with a mayor desperate over her daughter’s murder and a psychopathic magician/hypnotist whose responsibility for many grisly 44. bulldog gunshot killings directly links him as the real force behind the infamous Son of Sam case.  While Into the Basement more thoroughly details the Kim Bennett character and makes her real, Into the Spell takes it for granted that we should already know her to some degree, which is the only noteworthy element lacking in the sequel.  What’s truly exciting as a horror reader is, while the first book caters more to the mystery/thriller crowd, the second goes down a darker alley, and down that alley, we have us some very readably interesting vampires that promise to be exploited more fully in the third installment. 

I can’t wait for that.

Norm Applegate’s writing truly delivers with all the raw force and prose of a top rate storyteller, seasoning his tales with a mixture of classic genre skill and infusion of intrigue and characterization that makes the stories move.  As he further explores his own world he creates with these books and further flexes his literary muscles, we can hope for many increasingly outstanding works to come in this series, and beyond that, from a writer we would all do ourselves right to keep a keen eye on for as long as long as this writer writes.    

 

   

 

 

 

Into the Basement / Into the Spell  by Norm Applegate (each 2007 Triad Publishing) Read more about the author & books  here.)

So what should I write about first, the author or the story?  I can sum both up in one word:

Brilliant.

As the person behind the writing, Diana’s worn a coat of many colors, is the white and dark meat of a Thanksgiving feast of creativity, talent, and imagination.  By no means has she gone as far as she’d like in the field of literature, but she’s on her way like a rocketship from a sling shot at the speed of light towards that destination, having already made a name for herself and climbing that horror literature ladder.  Her background has all the makings of a stellar author in the field, her life experience fertile ground for creating the same sort of story-weaving magic and energy as she’d put into, say, clothing design, for which she’d once owned an exclusive boutique and factory, or her magnificent art and illustrations.  Her efforts have made her a personality and a voice worthy of paying strict attention to.

So let’s get on with the business at hand, Phantom Feast.

“It’s a jungle out there” is a cliché often attached to large cities, or when one is about to sojourn into one, but in the small town of Hester in the state of New York, on one particular darkly psychedelic day, all one had to do was step out of his house, and it literally was a jungle, like a wormhole into darkest Africa, and he could get swallowed by an awaiting python.  In this book, likely, he will.

The jungle reality is unleashed through a dark magic of sorts surrounding a woman whose weight increases at a rapid rate who killed her parents and inherited their house that shares its property with a haunted circus wagon in the backyard that’s turned into somewhat of a guest house.  It’s really a house haunted by the spirits of turn-of-the-century poorly-treated circus animals who died in a long-ago fire, and they come to life again through their framed paintings exhibited on the walls inside the house.

The more the animals in the paintings come to life, the more capable they become of bringing their painted environments out into the world of the living with them, until the entire town becomes a very deadly surreal jungle.  As it turns out, it’s not merely the animals ghosts which are to blame for their escapades, but the dark will of Erin, the girl who killed her parents who’s gained so much weight she can’t move, who dreams herself a lioness and becomes so much at one with the animal spirits she joins them in spirit as a lioness and becomes capable of prowling about with a pride from one of the paintings and killing people throughout the town when the paintings come to life.

What’s more, Diana involves the characters of three dwarves, who separately come together to reside under Erin’s wing, who take care of her and live nice and comfy lives as roommates in her home.  Mickey and Isolde become a touching romantic sub-plot, and they as well as the cavalcade of minor characters shine vividly and blend well with the driving story which, as you could hopefully tell in this review, is refreshingly original and reads like the work of a writer who expertly crafts us stories that don’t sound like a reinvention of something else, for a change.   

 

I was first introduced to Diana Barron at the World Horror Convention in San Francisco, circa ’06, who eventually became a dear friend of mine along with her husband Phil, and yet it took me until recently to finally read examples of her work, like, for instance, as published as a regular contributor to the currently head-and-shoulder-above-them-all genre periodical Doorways Magazine, and her Stoker-nominated (finalist) first novel Phantom Feast, which I’m reviewing here.

 
 

 

The Evil Queen by Benjamin L. Perez (2005 Spuyten Duyvil.)  Read more about the author and the novel  here.

My first impression of this book, just by thumbing through it combined with my unfamiliarity with its author, was no more or less bias than with any book I normally receive from an author hoping to gain a favorable quote or reasonably enlightening advice.  But it looked like it was going to be an easy read, about two hundred-fifty pages or so of what appeared to be random thoughts,

poems, lackadaisically constructed idioms, a book I could flip through at a rate of four seconds per page, so being how oftentimes it seems to take me forever to actually write a review, I bumped this book up my reading schedule thinking I could get this one read and written about in no time.

And in spite of the fact that it contains a glossary at the end, which, as I’ve said in previous reviews, is usually a telltale sign that the book is going to require paying real attention to, I was still convinced it would be a breeze to get through.  I mean, just look at the words in the glossary anyway:  cunt, fellatio, asshole, necrophilia, whore.

I have to explain this in layman’s terms because I am no scholar, though I regularly choose my words as to make myself sound intelligent, and likely the majority of readers whose eyes grace this page have that aspect in common with me.   So let me say this:

The Evil Queen isn’t as simple as what you’d expect going into it.  On the surface it reads like a constructed series of head trips and angst-ridden ruminations influenced by hard feelings towards the opposite sex, an invidiousness towards organized religion both eastern and western but particularly towards Catholicism, an impressively learned educational background decorated with university degrees and theological studies, and an affected inclination towards anal sex.

I guess I’ve gone a little lower than just the surface there.

What makes the work as a whole impressive to me is that it is intelligent and intelligently written, by far anything but mere ramblings, and it stimulates the brain as well as the more primal natural urges.  Most of all, getting back to layman terms, although this is a work of fiction with no concrete story but more an assemblage of words crafted into something best described as anti-poetry, the exploits and character of the Evil Queen herself, as well as a handful of lesser characters, drives you to read further.  The absence of plot doesn’t matter, because you find yourself wanting to read more about what the characters are like, and, like some surreal and perverted but entertaining coffee table book, you can find out at your leisure.  There’s even a questionnaire in the middle and blank pages for notes towards the end.

It’s not for everybody, and it’s not intended for everybody.

But I do recommend it.  I think a copy of it should be found in the leisure reading area of anyone with an open mind and dark inclinations, even in restaurant lobbies and medical waiting rooms, though likely some deviant will make off with it and you’d have to order a new one.