Comics Review: SINK #6, a survival tale

ART: Stunning. Too good to glance over, so much detail. You’ll be forced to examine closely or miss the point of the story. But you’ll want to see it, even though you know you should look away. 

BUBBA HO-TEP AND THE COSMIC BLOOD-SUCKERS #1 (IDW Publishing, May 16 release date) Writer:  Joshua Jabcuga.  Artist: Tadd Galusha. Colorist: Ryan Hill.  Letterer: Tom B. Long.

If you’re a fan of either BUBBA HO-TEP, the weird fiction tale penned by Texas icon Joe R. Lansdale, or BUBBA HO-TEP the weird grind house movie directed by cult favorite Don Coscarelli – – – then you’ll want to check out the BUBBA HO-TEP AND THE COSMIC BLOOD-SUCKERS comic. If you’re unfamiliar with both of those antecedents, then pick up the comic and give it a try-out.  If you enjoy it, then make sure to read the original story and watch the movie. You’re going to be thrilled and entertained beyond anything the comic delivers. 

     I’m a big fan of both the printed story and the movie, but not as sure about the comic. While it makes a noble effort to stay true to the original spirit and maintain the wackiness of the original, it falls short and disappoints.  I’ll reserve final judgment until I’ve finished the saga, but at this point I have a few objections. 

     My main objection is how the comic departs from the original story and in doing so, in my opinion, takes some of the specialness away.

    Lansdale’s original story plays with the urban legend about Elvis sitings and reveals how The King never died.  The real Elvis Presley grew tired of his life and longed to go back to his roots, singing and performing in small clubs.  So he switches places with a skilled Elvis impersonator.  It’s the impersonator who, years later, dies while sitting on the toilet at Graceland. 

     The real Elvis becomes the best Elvis impersonator ever, but still never comes close to the notoriety or riches he once enjoyed. He lives in obscurity in a trailer park until, in declining health, he falls from the stage and breaks his hip.  He ends his days in a rundown nursing home.  There he meets a black man who says he’s the real John F. Kennedy.  Strange things begin to occur at the nursing home, and Elvis and JFK work together to take down the Egyptian mummy who roams the halls at night and steals souls of the residents. 

     Coscarelli’s film brought the craziness of the story to a vibrant visualization, playing on B-movie and horror film tropes, with some remarkable performances from Bruce Campbell as Elvis and Ossie Davis as JFK.  Their characters were just exploring their commonality and developing a friendship when the menace interrupted them. Their bumbling and inexperienced attempts to confront the terror were part of the charm of both story and film. 

     In BUBBA HO-TEP AND THE COSMIC BLOOD-SUCKERS the story takes place long before the nursing home events, in an earlier time before the real Elvis traded places with his imitator. Comic writer Joshua Jabcuga removes the charm when he postulates the notion that Elvis was an experienced monster hunter, having served in this capacity under the thrall of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, for years. That means that when Elvis met Bubba Ho-Tep he was a veteran of these conflicts and neither surprised nor inept.  Way to muck up the mythology, Jabcuga.

    When the development of a comic series was originally announced by IDW in 2017, Lansdale was mentioned as a co-writer. His name is strangely absent from the credits page. I wonder why.

   In addition, Bubba Ho-Tep was the name referring to the ancient monster. I seriously doubt that the mummy is going to step in and play a role in this comic, but his name is right up front in the title. Of course, fans of the original might not make the same association if the book was titled REAL ELVIS VERSUS THE COSMIC BLOOD-SUCKERS.

   Credit Jabcuga for introducing some weirdness of his own to this story.  However, his additions are just odd and wacky and lack the down-home charm that exudes through Lansdale’s original story.  Lansdale is a veteran story-teller whose style is easy to imitate but harder to duplicate.  Regardless of the genre he writes in, reading Lansdale is akin to sitting on the porch next to Grandpa in his rocking chair while he spins a favorite yarn of days gone by.  Fascinated and riveted at the same time. 

     In Jabcuga’s world, Colonel Parker runs a covert agency employed by the government to investigate otherworldly threats.  President Nixon gives him the “guess and find” mission of uncovering vampires in human guise who can only be seen through 3-D glasses. Parker gets around the Louisiana swamps on these missions via a huge steamboat crewed by zombies enslaved to him. Elvis has to go along with this because Parker holds his beloved mother’s soul in thrall. Elvis and his good ole boy bodyguard, Johnny Smack, get paired up with a blind man, a femme fatale, the descendent of John Henry, and a lumberjack-dressed logistics expert named Jack. 

   As crazy as the original Bubba Ho-Tep story was, you couldn’t read it without smiling.  Jabcuga does his best to match the craziness, but he can’t equal the humor as much as he tries.  The comic is weird, but it’s not very funny.  

     However, there were a few scenes that made me chuckle.  In the opening story, a homeless man sneaks into a Mississippi junkyard.  As he approaches the chain-link fence, the obligatory Beware Of Dog sign is displayed. Alongside it are two more signs.  One has a logo of a gun with the message “We Don’t Call 911.”  The other sign says “Can you make the fence in 6 seconds? The dog can.”

   Later, Elvis is having a conversation with the femme fatale, explaining why he’s allowing Parker to dominate his time and use him this way.  She remarks that she now understands “why the hit records stopped and you made all the bad movies.”

 

  RATING SYSTEM

STORY: Needs to win me over. Crazy alone won’t do it. 1.5 POINTS

ART: No quibbles here. The art is great and very appropriate to the story, in a pre-Comics Code EC Tales From The Crypt way.  2.5 POINTS

COVER: Not excited by the fat Elvis. But that Tim Truman double cover is a winner.  1 POINT.

READ AGAIN? I might, after I check out the rest of the story. But otherwise it’s not necessary, and somewhat painful to Lansdale fans. 0 POINTS

RECOMMEND? To fans of Bubba Ho-Tep: if you don’t check it out, you’ll always be wondering about it.  Spend a little on the first issue and go from there.  1/2 POINT. 

TOTAL RATING: 5.5 POINTS. Only for the dedicated or curious.

Cover A

HER INFERNAL DESCENT #1 of 5 (Aftershock Comics, April 18 2018 release date) Writers:  Lonnie Nadler & Zac Thompson.  Artist:  Kyle Charles.  Colorist:  Dee Cunniffe.  Letterer:  Ryan Ferrier.  Rating: 12+

       Writers Nadler and Thompson will guide us though a detailed journey into Hell in the pages of the HER INFERNAL DESCENT mini-series, using Dante’s Inferno as criterion. That’s both ambitious and bold!

     Dante’s Inferno is the opening part of 14th Century epic poem The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri.  It details the journey of Dante through hell with the ancient Roman poet Virgil as guide.  Dante explores the nine concentric circles of torment (as alluded to on Issue #1’s cover) that comprise the depths of Hell. 

 Co-writer Lonnie Nadler expanded on the concept during an earlier interview on the Comics Crusaders website:  “We really took a deep dive into Dante’s work and thought about how we could make this hellish landscape of sin relevant in a world where traditional, biblical sins have become commonplace.”  The interview goes on to hint at some of the things they intend to incorporate in their modern update of Dante’s Inferno: social media, online dating, sexuality, politics, religion, and self-gratification to name just a few. Seems to me to be very appropriate stand-ins for the original nine circles (Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, Heresy, Violence, Fraud and Treachery). It will be interesting to see how these fit in and compare. 

Issue #1 begins by introducing us to the main character, an elderly woman (not identified by name) distraught over the unexplained loss of her family. She struggles to cope and continue on with her life. Her lonely home reflects her mood: dead plants on a table cluttered by mail, papers, unfinished novels, notebooks, and cards of condolence. The kitchen is a total mess, littered with half-eaten meals and unwashed dishes.  The front room is nearly filled to capacity with moving boxes. The art, perfectly detailed in nine-panel pages, tells us all we need to know with very few captions.  She’s lost without her family. 

     As she climbs the ladder into an attic full of memories, we get a glimpse of the images going through her mind. Apparently, she’s missing a husband, twin boys, and an infant. Her husband appears to be middle-aged, much younger than she appears.  Has their absence aged her that quickly?  And what is the vision of the witch from The Wizard of Oz doing inside her thoughts?

Waiting for her in the attic is the ghost of English Romantic period poet and artist William Blake (Songs of Innocence), who speaks only in rhymes and makes her an offer: journey through Hell’s nine circles and be re-united with her family. It doesn’t take long before she accepts, a doorway materializes, and she and Blake step through it. 

  Strange colors and sights outline their forward progress, with odd twisted homes that appear inspired by graphic artist M.C. Escher and three-dimensional pathways. The woman comments upon the weird, surreal surroundings and Blake responds: “Dear, this is merely the beginning. The walls between worlds are now thinning.”

   So begins a long journey to the first circle, Limbo, including a boat ride with a grim and grumpy Charon, Death’s ferryman of legend. But not before the woman sees a vision of a van backing out of a driveway with a family inside (that vaguely resembles her own) and traveling off into the distance before she can catch up to them.  (Is this hinting at the event that led to their absence, a possible auto accident or catastrophe they encountered?) 

Limbo is inhabited by the souls of ancient philosophers and authors (Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Poe, Shakespeare, Milton).  Perhaps their vanity has kept them frozen in place there as they pepper the woman with questions, wondering if their works are still being studied. The woman with no name loses Blake along the way and comes face to face with Judge K  as the book ends.

Cover B

 RATING SYSTEM

STORY: Ambitious, captivating, and erudite. Above average in its theme and scope. I’m just having a little trouble completely empathizing with the main character. Perhaps a name and a clear idea of how she lost her family will help to bolster that. 2.5 POINTS

ART: Great layouts by Charles. The use of nine panel pages followed by five panoramic panel pages allows the story to show, not tell, what a surreal setting this occurs in. Facial expressions are very revealing on all the characters. The colors and choices of hues by Cunniffe help create the otherworldly atmosphere.  2.5 POINTS

COVER: Pull the reader in and give a great indication of what the contents hold in store.  2 POINTS

READ AGAIN? You need more than one reading to catch all the pop culture characters references dropped into the story.  Jimi Hendrix shows up in Limbo, quoting an appropriate line from Bob Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower.  1 POINT.

RECOMMEND? Absolutely.  I think this is only going to get better. We can always use more literary writers in comics to join the elite company of Moore, Gaiman, Milligan, Carey and others.  1 POINT.

TOTAL RATING: 9 POINTS. As near perfect as it gets. Don’t pass it up. 

Famous Birthdays on the Leo-Virgo Cusp

Some of the biggest names in genre were born on the Leo-Virgo cusp, from August 19 to August 25. Here’s a list of Famous people born on the Leo-Virgo cusp: , Gene Roddenberry, Ray Bradbury, H. P. Lovecraft, Greg Bear, as well as Robert Plant, Fred Durst, Connie Chung, Kenny Rogers, Wilt Chamberlain, Kim Cattrall, , John Lee Hooker,… Continue reading Famous Birthdays on the Leo-Virgo Cusp

English Title: The Chaser
Hangul Title: 추격자
Director: Na Hong-Jin
Writer: Hong Won-Chan, Lee Shinho, Na Hong-Jin
Producer: Choi Moon-Su, Jeong Seung-Ku
Cinematographer: Lee Seong-Je
Stars:  Kim Yun-SeokHa Jung-WooSeo Young-Hee

Release Date: February 14, 2008
Runtime : 123 min.
Distributor: Showbox

Director Na Hong-Jin’s complex film The Wailing (see review here) was not only one of 2016’s best horror films, but also — in this reviewer’s opinion — a masterpiece of modern suspense, defining just how good and intricate horror can be when done well.  Having been entranced by that film, I set my sights on viewing Na’s entire oeuvre.

First on the list was 2008’s The Chaser, Na’s debut feature film based on South Korea’s infamous serial killer, Yoo Young-cheol. In less than a one-year period, Yoo murdered and 21 people, mutilating and – in some cases – cannibalizing his victims. Yoo was convicted in 2005 of 20 murders (one case being thrown out on a technicality) and received the death penalty, a sentence which has not, as of yet, been carried out.

Now don’t get me wrong, The Chaser is not some dry bio-pic but rather an intense, Hitchockian thriller that maintains a remarkable level of suspense throughout and rivals The Silence of the Lambs as one of the best serial killer movies ever made.  Imagine if you will, the level of suspense from the last 30 minutes of Silence sustained over a 2-hour movie and you would have The Chaser.

Like in The Wailing, director Na gives us an unlikely hero as the centerpiece of our story. Jung-ho (Kim Yun-Seok of The Priests and Na’s The Yellow Sea), a middle-aged former detective turned pimp, finds himself in serious trouble (financially and otherwise) as two of his girls have gone missing while on professional calls. Jung-ho alternately believes that the girls are simply making off with his money or that someone is stealing and re-selling the young women. One night he sends Mi-jin, one of remaining girls and – unbeknownst to Jung-ho – a single mother of a 7-year-old daughter – out on a call.  Though clearly ill with the flu, Mi-Jin (Seo Young-Hee of Circle of Crime and The Accidental Detective) reluctantly takes the call and meets Ji Young-Min (Ha Jung-Woo of 2016’s Tunnel and The Handmaiden), a young man living in a disused, gated house in Seoul. Suspicious of Ji from the get-go, Mi-Jin still follows through, following him into a yard overgrown with weeds and into the house. Once inside, Mi-Jin knows she is in trouble (though she is not sure yet the exact nature of the danger) and excuses herself to the restroom where she finds a piece of skull with long black hair attached in the bottom of a dingy shower.  With no escape possible from the bathroom possible, Mi-Jin returns to the livingroom and finds Ji still seated where he was before.  But when she attempts to leave, she finds the front door padlocked shut.  In no time, a terrified Mi-Jin finds herself hog-tied in the restroom as Ji places a spike against the back of her neck and attempts to hammer it into her skull.

Meanwhile Jung-ho has realized that the number that Ji called from is the same number of the customer from the missing two girls.  Now convinced that Ji is stealing and re-selling the girls, Jung-ho goes to look for Mi-jin and calls on his buddies still on the police force to help. But when his buddies can’t assist because of a political mess with which they are involved, Jung-ho finds he is all on his own.  Will he find Mi-Jin before it is too late and, in the process uncover a serial killer, or will Ji go on killing and claim more victims?  The Chase is on.

From the earliest moments of The Chaser, director Na sets a level of suspense that he remarkably maintains and builds upon throughout the film’s two hour run time.  Dark and gritty (thanks to Lee Seong-Je’s subtle cinematography and locations ranging from the affluent to the red-light), the film expertly avoids genre-film clichés and makes unexpected and expert moves to keep the tension mounting throughout.

First and foremost, our anti-hero Jung-ho in not some trite movie creation.  He’s not a great guy…not some noble soul out to save the world from evil.  He isn’t motivated by anything but money and not losing his livelihood. And his livelihood are there women he exploits. This isn’t some crusade to save a young girl he cares about. She is commerce and throughout most of the film, Jung-ho doesn’t even realize the danger Mi-Jin is in. Does he soften during the film?  Is there a character arc?  Well, yes, to a degree, but Na is smart enough as a director to make sure it isn’t some grand reversal.  Jung-ho’s evolution is minor, perhaps even glacial. Any humanizing of Jung-ho occurs subtly and quietly when he discovers Mi-Jin’s young daughter (the impressively mature Kim Yoo-Jung, already a season professional at age 7). There is a nice moment when he seems to realize Mi-Jin was a real human being, but it is so underplayed that we, as an audience, never feel the director is trying to manipulate humanity into a rather despicable lead character.  But it is through Jung-Ho’s discovery of Ki-Jin’s daughter, that director Na wisely allows us to project something more noble onto Jung-Ho’s character without ever having the character’s main monetary motivation diminished.  In short, Jung-ho is a pimp and Na never explicitly tries to redeem him as a character.

Another way Na flaunts movie clichés is that he allows Jung-ho and killer Ji to meet very, very early on in the film and the resulting chase scene between the two is remarkably simple and realistic.  There are no great car chases; no fancy editing gimmicks.  These are two real men – one older and slightly over weight  and one younger — running through the streets.  They are frantic and winded and tired and Na shows it all.  It is a chase scene which rivals the best automotive chase scenes in Hollywood films.

What Na also does by having the two meet so early is ratchet up the suspense.  Jung-ho is so very, very close to discovering Mi-Jin that it is almost painful for the viewer.  One wants to shout at John-ho… “she’s right nearby!  Why can’t you see what we already know!”

Na also, smartly, does not delve into the psychology of his killer Ji.  We don’t get any scenes where you try to understand why he does what he does.  There no attempt at explanation.  And one must credit actor Ha Jung-Wo with a nicely understated performance.  While Ha is not one of my favorite Korean actors, he delivers nicely.  He’s good looking, but you never get a sense he is trying to go against his looks and create menace as so many pretty-boy Hollywood actors might.  He is an average Joe played very simply which makes his character all the more menacing without Ha having to chew up scenery.

Not enough credit for the success of this film has gone to actress Seo Young-He who plays Mi-Jin who, with very little screen time, manages to give us a character we as an audience deeply care about.  Seo spends most of the film screaming and frightened, but she is the soul of the film.  We never fear from Jung-ho’s safety.  We as an audience are focused solely on Mi-Jin and the reversals that keep her from being found.  While Na and his screenwriters deserve some credit for this – in two small scenes crafting a character we care about – it is Seo’s depth of performance which seals the deal.  There is real jeopardy here.  Yes, giving the “victim” a young child is a quick easy way to engender sympathy for a minor character, but without Seo’s utterly believable performance we as an audience would see the manipulation and the film would not be nearly as impressive.  And, surprisingly – or perhaps because of  — Seo’s performance, the role never once feels exploitative.

Now, Na is an expert at audience manipulation, by all means.  But it the subtle manner in which he does it that lets us buy it.  And that applies to all the twists and turns the movie takes.  Na makes expert moves and allows us as viewers to be close enough to the victim to know what Jung-ho does not.  In this way, Na maintains an achingly painful suspense.  We know Jung-ho is standing right outside the gate of the house that Mi-Jin is held captive in.  But Jung-ho does not.  We know – when Ji is arrested and confesses to his crimes – what the police don’t…we know where the evidence they lack lies.  And when they let Ji go, we are devastated.

Na plays with the audience and that allows him – in a debut directorial effort, no less – to deliver a pulse-pounding film.  We as viewers are almost another character in the film and Na is obviously aware of that and uses it – and us – to his advantage.

There is gore and blood but far less, I think, than other reviewers have noted.  Most of the violence and gore is implied rather than shown; I think the fact that so many reviews paint it as far more graphic than it actually is is a testament to Na and the imagination he has managed to evoke is his viewers.

In the end, The Chaser is not only a knock-out for a first time director, it is one of the best thrillers of probably the last two decades.  Relentless and unforgiving, The Chaser is what Hitchcock’s Frenzy should have been but would never have been allowed to be.

 

English Title:  Deranged
Hangul Title:  연가시)
Director:  Park Jung-Woo,
Writers:  Park Jung-WooKim Kyoung-HoonJo Dong-In
Cinematographer: Ki Se-Hoon
Release Date: July 5, 2012
Runtime: 109 min
Stars:  Kim Myung-MinMoon Jeong-HeeKim Dong-WanLee Honey

In South Korea there’s an epidemic underway. Out of nowhere, hundreds of people are throwing themselves into rivers, streams and lakes and drowning themselves. What is even more stranger is that one day all the victims seem fine (other than increased hunger and thirst), but when their bodies are pulled from the water they are desiccated, as if they had suffered from malnutrition for weeks prior to their death.

The government and top scientists are stumped as to what the cause is, but one thing is clear…the epidemic is spreading…rapidly.

Once the cause and a cure are discovered, the race is on to produce enough cure to treat the populace. But other forces stand in the way.

Deranged starts off very strongly, a creepy little film with generally strong performances. Though his character is extremely unlikable at first, Kim Myung-Min proves ever reliable and creates a generally sympathetic character. Kim Dong-Wan as his black-sheep brother (also a police officer) gives a good performance despite very little in the script to help him along. Former Miss South Korea, Lee Honey, again proves she has serious acting chops, excelling in a fairly thankless role.

While the film starts off strong, it becomes rather bloated and repetitive, lessening the effect of the film and the messages it wants to convey. Time and again, scenes are repeated over and over (especially with respect too Kim Myung-Min’s quarantined family) without adding anything to the narrative and serving only to drag out the pace and run time.

The screenplay wanders aimlessly at times and could have used some judicious editing. Kim Myung-Min’s transformation from unlikable to hero is forced and lightning fast.  Kim Dong-Wan’s brother character could have been interesting but the director and writers never quite seem to know what to do with him and there is a period of about 20 minutes (possibly more) where he just vanishes.  Lee Honey certainly delivers as best she can, but the screenwriters never really know what to do with her or her scientist character.

Because of the repetitive nature of the film, director Park has a difficult time maintaining any suspense or horror.  Technical elements such as cinematography and sound design are all competent but not groundbreaking or particularly inventive.  They serve the film but never serve to necessarily enhance the drama.

There is a lot of social commentary here: ineptness of government, greed of corporations, man’s inhumanity to man, one’s inability to appreciate family until it is threatened. But the commentary is delivered with a sledge-hammer rather than a soft touch.

South Korea has produced some amazing horror films in the past (and present), especially in the “infection” sub-genre; sadly Deranged suffers far too much from its ails to really rise above at the moniker of standard fare. It’s a fine enough diversion, but you are likely to find yourself more often than not wondering just when the hell it will end.

THE FINAL RECONCILIATION by Todd Keisling (Crystal Lake Publishing, release date February 03, 2017. Digital only formats)

Author Todd Keisling has created a horrific composition in THE FINAL RECONCILIATION, combining heavy metal music and horror mythos for a compelling configuration of a novella. It’s a quick-paced and captivating read that craftily builds tension right up to the final bloodbath.

Remove your Mask!

A progressive metal band from Southeastern Kentucky parlays a successful EP release into a two-record contract with a major music label. Outside forces, in the guise of an entrancing ethereal groupie, exert a subliminal influence on the creation of their first (and final) album. Their new music has the ability to effect a trance-like state among both performers and audience, and opens a doorway into an otherworldly realm. These events are foreshadowed early in the novella, and will come as no surprise to readers. Still, the final resolution is even more intense due to the power of the narrative and the suggestions that have been introduced along the way.

Keisling’s primary characters, the four members of the rock band The Yellow Kings, are convincing and realistic. In a question and answer video on You Tube, Keisling reveals that he is not a musician and does not have a background in rock music, aside from being a listener and fan. He acknowledged being influenced by the music of Opeth, Alice In Chains, and Tool in imagining the sound of The Yellow Kings. His characters are fully realized. Knowledgable music fans and readers will easily empathize with them, especially lead guitarist Aiden Cross, who serves as narrator of the story.

The novella is preceded by liner notes from The Yellow King’s unreleased album, The Final Reconciliation. Chapter titles correspond to the Track Listings of the album. The fourth chapter, entitled Track 4: The Usurper’s Ascent, also represents the point at which listeners of the sole live performance of the album begin to fall under the supernatural influence of the music.

Just before The Yellow Kings sign a major contract, lead singer and rhythm guitarist Johnny Leifthauser meets an alluring gypsy vixen and falls under her spell. The other band members are introduced to Camilla Bierce, who soon becomes their groupie and accompanies them to Los Angeles. During a night of drunken exotic debauchery at Camilla’s loft, she seduces all the band members and influences the future direction of their music. Her loft houses an otherworldly collection of art, artifacts and other supernatural curios, none more disturbing than the life-size statue of Hastur, a misshapen Elder God.

The story begins thirty years after the final appearance of The Yellow Kings. A news reporter arrives at a nursing home where lead guitarist Aiden Cross, the sole surviving member, tells for the first time of the events that led up to the studio recordings which culminated in the fatal concert.

Keisling was inspired by The King In Yellow, an 1895 story collection by Robert W. Chambers that also influenced the writing of H. P. Lovecraft. He pulls elements and themes from Chambers’ work, especially The Yellow Sign short story, and weaves them into THE FINAL RECONCILIATION. All the stories in Chambers’ collection include references to The King In Yellow, a play in book form which induces madness in those who read it.

Keisling takes many of Chambers’ concepts, including the mysterious city of Carcosa, the Yellow Sign, strange hooded figures on an eerie shore, and modifies and enhances them for even greater effect. The hooded figures hide behind pale whitened masks, under which coffin worms thrive. The description of Hyades, now a music club, the inhabitants of Carcosa, and the acolytes of Hastur are visualized in good and grisly detail. Camilla, Keisling’s deceitful muse, is named after a character in Chambers’ dangerous play.
Author Keisling also manages to include the scenes of sexuality and bloody, brutal violence through suggestion and summary rather than elaborate graphic descriptions. Yet, they will still remain vivid in the readers’ minds due to his narrative skills.

It’s an impressive story, and is scheduled to be included in a forthcoming anthology from Crystal Lake Publishing.

DISCLOSURE: A digital copy of this novella was provided by the publisher, with the hope of an honest and unbiased review.

WASTELAND GODS By Jonathan Woodrow. Horrific Tales Publishing. 362 pages. Trade Paperback edition, published February 29, 2016. $12.99.   ISBN-13: 9781910283103.

Disclosure: A digital copy of WASTELAND GODS was provided at no charge, with the hope of an honest unbiased review.

WASTELAND GODS entertains and engages the reader on multiple levels. It’s a character study of the effects of extreme grief and mourning on a solitary man, who soon becomes estranged from his family and lets his despondency take him in new and frightening directions.

It’s also a murder mystery as the main character, Billy, travels some unsavory roads in search of the brutal killer of his son. Nearly driven to mental breakdown by the intrusion onto his personal computer of the snuff video of his son’s death and taunting by the killer, Billy seeks to numb his consciousness with daily consumption of alcohol. And, in the latter part of the novel it becomes a story of redemption and transformation.

The savage murder of Billy’s son leads to a coincidental encounter with an otherworldly stranger, the mysterious Dr. Verity, who enlists him as her assistant in the Wastelands. The Wastelands occupy another plane of reality (or unreality), a vast barren landscape of sand, dirt and landfill detritus. Once the proper subject is identified (they kind of pop into the landscape), Billy has to perform the one task that Dr. Verity cannot do, that of cleansing before Verity executes the ending. These are supposedly extremely evil characters, whose cruel tendencies have been identified at an early age so that Verity and Billy can stop them before their damage is done. Verity extends a carrot to Billy to entice him to cooperate – – she may be able to help put him on the trail of his son’s killer.

Not everything is explained or reasons given. Both Billy and the reader have to accept some things on faith. The who, what, when, and why are part of the mystery and one of the story elements that kept us reading. Is the Wastelands part of another dimension? Is it an interpretation of Limbo, Purgatory, or even Hell? Is it all in Billy’s gin-soaked brain? Perhaps a visualization and symbol of his grief and self-loathing?

The sad state of Billy and his relationship with Dr. Verity engaged our attention, much more so than the opening of the story which was very jarring and disturbing. There are extreme scenes of brutality in several places of the novel. However, they are essential to the story and not splatter for splatter’s sake. It’s Billy’s agonizing journey into the depths and his attempts at recovery that will hook readers. Woodrow is a skilled writer and illustrates Billy’s circumstances so well that we feel sorry for him, and want to reach out and help find the answers. But we can’t. We can only keep reading.

Billy’s daily ritual of drinking at home, then drinking at the local bar while hoping to meet Verity again, coupled with a lack of acknowledgement and communication with his spouse, leads to separation. He turns to his aunt for comfort, and seeks a release for his pent-up feelings through painting. He later finds a new purpose in a small town that his investigations lead him to. It seems he may be off the wagon and ready to begin a new life. But his transformation is interrupted by the interference of Dr. Verity.

Midway through the novel, Woodrow introduces some themes that seem more appropriate to a science-fiction novel. However, he mixes them in with the horror for a clever and complicated blend of the two. The reader gets just enough detail to understand and accept it, but a full explanation is not provided. Rather than take the reader out of the story, it engages even further. We wanted to unravel the puzzle and kept reading.

Things come to a head quickly in the latter part of the novel, with an unexpected ending that disappointed at first. Billy has a decision to make as a final resolution, and it may not be the one that readers were expecting. After finishing the novel and trying to think about it from Billy’s point of view it then made perfect sense. As a final way to differentiate his work from others in the genre, Woodrow wraps it up with a positive message of hope rather than the standard downward spiral horror tropes.

Hopefully, Woodrow is not finished with the Wasteland. It’s a rich setting, ripe for further stories and a hope that the intriguing Dr. Verity will also return. Recommended.