Zebra Summer Item #2—Deadly Nature by V.M. Thompson

Book Review by Zakary McGaha

In Zebra Summer, Zakary McGaha (author of Locker Arms and Soothing the Savage Swamp Beast), chronicles a very specific portion of his summer reading schedule: horror novels published by Zebra Books.

For my second installment of Zebra Summer, I’m going to be discussing a book that, for the most part, I’ve already forgotten.

That’s not to say that it was a bad novel…there was just too much meaningless stuff thrown around the story. For me to say that is weird, however. I love flowery writing; I love detail; I HATE minimalism, except in rare cases.

I’m a Faulkner type of dude, as opposed to a Hemingway one.

Anyway, Deadly Nature by V.M. Thompson, who wrote a total of four books for Zebra (with the last two under the pseudonym T.J. Kirby) is a novel that has a lot of great things going for it, but it’s simply too long.

Once, in high school, I attempted to read this sucker, but ended up trading it in before finishing it. Flash forward to now, and I managed to get…and I’m ninety-nine percent sure of this…the SAME copy back from the same bookstore.

I couldn’t stay away from it. The qualities in it that are good drew me back.

Upon finishing it, I was actually satisfied. It’s flawed in many ways, but it’s fits the so-bad-it’s-good cliché to a tee…except for the fact that it takes a lot of time to get through.

I found myself not wanting to read it while I was reading it, and that’s because so much time is spent on Leave it to Beaver shit: this novel has sentimentality oozing from every page (even the ones where mutant animals are attacking people).

Small-town horror isn’t for everyone, because, in a lot of ways, it isn’t realistic. But, in another way, that draws people to it. The quaintness of the lives of the simple, small-town characters that populate these types of novels make for either: a). a cozy reading experience, or b). a fucking boring one. I’ve experienced both within this subgenre, and, as you’ve probably guessed, I’d say Deadly Nature falls into the latter category, although it has some shining moments.

Without spoiling anything, I will say that the “quaintness” of these characters’ lives definitely doesn’t prepare them for the horror that awaits them, but to say V.M. Thompson overdid it would be an understatement. You could easily excise every quaint passage from this book, and you’d have a whole novel, albeit a boring one, with the rest left over as a short story.

The “scary” parts of this novel are pretty good, although for a long time they’re underplayed, but this didn’t necessarily bother me. I love extreme horror, but I also love quiet horror. I’ve read novels with a lot less “action” than Deadly Nature and have loved them, because their other, more cognitive qualities superseded anything that mere “action” could have achieved. The problem, then, with Deadly Nature, is that there simply isn’t anything else to sink your canines into.

Deadly Nature is a novel full of fluff, in other words. Too much of nothing is going on. The small themes that do exist (Them sceintists better not mess with nature, because they might create somethin’ that they don’t want and that’s evil) would have been fine, had the story been fun, but it’s too bogged down with, as mentioned, nothing.

That’s not to say that the novel is unreadable, though. It simply takes patience. When things do get going, they get going pretty heavily. The good stuff that is there makes me want to read this author’s other stuff. This is the first novel V.M. Thompson published, so I’m sure there’s some improvement to be seen.

2.5/5 stars.

Be sure to check back for the next installment. You can’t talk about Zebra without discussing Ruby Jean Jensen! Stay tuned…

Zebra Summer—Item #1: Runaway by Stephen Gresham

In Zebra Summer, Zakary McGaha (author of Locker Arms and Soothing the Savage Swamp Beast) chronicles a very specific portion of his summer reading schedule: horror novels published by Zebra Books.

Most people don’t need to be introduced to Zebra Books as they’ve already been familiarized with them through Paperbacks From Hell, Will Erickson’s blog, etc. Zebra is the publisher with all the skeletons on their covers; Zebra is the 80s horror boom all rolled up into one publisher: a ton of so-so books with GREAT covers, mixed in with a few literary treasures. If you’re looking to be dazzled by importance, don’t read Zebra novels. Only read them if you want: a) a trashy horror fix, b) an authentic 80s or early 90s fix, and/or c) both.

I’ve been collecting Zebra novels since high school, so it was slightly before everyone jumped on the nostalgia bandwagon. Therefore, I bought most of them before they became expensive collector’s items.

Without a doubt, I have more Zebra-specific books in my library than books from any other publisher, however I haven’t read most of them. The fact of the matter is, I can’t read too many at one time. They just aren’t good: they’re uniformly written at a level that can only be described as in between adult and YA. My theory is that most Zebra authors were either pressured to write for kids just as much as adults, or Zebra’s editors had multiple field days.

Despite what I just said, Zebra novels are very charming when they’re read in the right light…preferably a soft orange or yellow (none of that harsh, white fluorescent shit). They’re also charming if you read them while in a sentimental frame of mind. Cozy small towns? Check. Old cars? Check. Antiques? On more than one occasion. Think of the Thorn trilogy in the Halloween franchise. That’s what Zebra books mean to me.

This summer, I happen to be in a very sentimental frame of mind, so I’m gonna read a ton of these forgotten, oftentimes bastardized (written for moolah) books.

First up is Runaway by Stephen Gresham.

Gresham is an author I’ve always enjoyed; I also think he’s been unfairly shat on, although, like every writer, some of his books are better than others. Runaway, to my delight, was one of his better ones.

This one centers on a young, rich lad who runs away from his upscale, beach town life because his parents are career-obsessed, money-grubbing scoundrels…which is how most people in the 80s were, if I’m to believe everything I’ve read.

In ‘Texas Chainsaw’ fashion, he winds up with a family…of sorts…that is comprised entirely of whackos, save for all the other runaways like him.

Said family is actually a shelter for homeless kids, and it’s run by religious nutjobs who are somewhat, and this isn’t a spoiler, manipulated by dark, supernatural forces as well as the usual human vice of power-lust.

Pretty much every character in this book was compelling; I wanted to keep reading about all of them…especially the runaways who are put in some pretty dire situations.

Runaway takes your typical “child in peril” Zebra plot and amps it up quite a bit. Usually, Ruby Jean Jensen is the one putting kids through the wringer, but damn! Gresham gives her a run for her money with this ‘un.

In most cases, I finish Zebra novels at a sluggish pace, because that’s how they’re written. But I finished this one in good time, despite its above average length for a Zebra book.

Do yourself a favor and pick this novel up. Sadly, there’s never a knife-wielding skeleton emerging for a gingerbread house between the covers of Runaway, but that hardly matters because what is between the covers is pretty awesome.

I would also like to take a second to recommend my favorite book by Stephen Gresham, Rockabye Baby. It, along with several of Gresham’s novels, has been re-released in ebook form.

For my next installment of Zebra Summer, I will review Deadly Nature by V.M. Thompson.

The Profane by Vincenzo Bilof – Book Review

by Ben Arzate

Lana, a woman possessed by an angel, has been kidnapped by a cult of Satanists who want to exorcise the angel for their own evil purposes. However, her lover Michael has infiltrated the Satanists. With the help of him and her training to use the angel’s power, the two plan to destroy the cult and take down the sadistic Satanic priest Father Willard.

The exorcist closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. The smell of human wreckage filled him, caused his lips to tremble on the verge of a smile. Yes. Shit and pain. The dungeon smelled like shit and pain, and this was good. It was like coming home.”

The Profane is an inverted exorcism story. Rather than a priest attempting to cast out a demon to save a person, it involves Satanists who engage in a parody of the exorcism ritual to harvest the power of an angel residing inside a person. The core of the story, however, is still one of a clash of good against evil. Lana, the possessed, is not tormented by the angel inside of her but by the cult that tortures her to bring out the hate and pain in her and eventually cast out the angel so the cult can use its power.

The book begins with Lana in the dungeon of the Satanists’ castle. The castle is above a fissure called “the abyss” which seems to be an entrance to Hell and creatures called “the damned,” humans corrupted into perverted monsters, wander the halls. To cope with the pain of their torture, Lana escapes to a mental landscape called “the garden.” There, she speaks with a manifestation of Father Dacius, the man who trained her to fight the cultists. She finds solace in the garden and in her memories of watching Star Wars with Michael. Michael, meanwhile, is acting as the dungeon jailer until the time is right to strike.

Much of the story is told in flashback, revealing the backstories of the various characters. We learn how Michael and Lana met as orphans, the man named Pa who recruited orphan children into the ranks of the Satanists, and how Father Dacius trained Lana to fight the cult. The battle between Lana and Father Willard is largely psychological. While Willard torments Lana to try to get to the angel inside her, Lana uses the angel’s power to show him images of his past and his long-lost brother. Throughout the story, Bilof gives us some very disturbing imagery.

Inside the old man’s long, wire bear, tiny creatures writhed. Tiny forms moved, twisting inside the mass of hair.

Maggots.


Inside of Pa’s fist, maggots.

Inside of Antonio’s orifices, maggots.”

The way Bilof tells the story make the experience of reading it like being shown a dark and hazy picture that gradually becomes clearer, its horrifying images becoming more apparent and its blood reds and burning yellow fires becoming more vivid.

In between its psychological aspects, the story also gives us action sequences of Michael fighting the damned with axes and firearms and countering Willard’s Satanic exorcism with a Catholic one. Bilof makes these various elements come together very well. The story is chaotic with a timeline that jumps around a lot, however, most of it feels controlled.

There are, however, a couple parts that didn’t work as well as they could have. There are parts that imply the Satanic cult is descended from Nazi occultists and intend to bring about a “Master Race.” This aspect is only ever partially explored and seems something that should have either been explored further or cut. There are also chapters which are journal entries written by Lana. These give insight to her mindset leading up to her capture by the Satanists, but don’t give much new backstory to Lana. They also end a little suddenly, making their inclusion feel somewhat anticlimactic. These don’t detract much from the overall story, however.

The Profane is a well-written work of supernatural horror. It’s a fresh take on an exorcism story full of vivid and disturbing imagery and engaging psychological drama. Fans of religious horror stories will especially get a lot of this.

The Unreprinted: Rabid by TK Kenyon

Welcome back to The Unreprinted, the series in which author Ben Arzate explores the finest and/or most fucked up in forgotten and out-of-print fiction. The title of this one may call to mind the classic Canadian body horror of filmmaker David Cronenberg, but don’t let it fool you. TK Kenyon has crafted something entirely different and every bit as mind-boggling with this one. Feast your eyes!

After Beverly Sloan discovers a pair of panties in her husband Conrad’s luggage that isn’t hers, she realizes he’s having an affair. With the help of Dante, the priest recently transferred to her church, she confronts her husband to try to save her marriage. Meanwhile, Conrad, a scientist working with diseases, works overtime on his research and tries to hide his affair with grad student Leila, the second one he’s having.

One thing I found odd was that one of the blurbs on the back refers to the book as a “medical thriller.” Maybe I haven’t read enough in that genre, but this novel seems to barely fit that description.

There is a subplot where Conrad is working on an experiment he’s hiding from his co-workers and the university he’s a professor at, and it turns out to be the with the rabies virus which ends up compromised and infecting people in the lab. However, the subplot is just that and really doesn’t factor in significantly enough to warrant the book being titled Rabid.

I would say this book doesn’t know what it wants to be, but it does. It wants to be a novel of ideas about the conflicts and overlaps between science and religion. It just doesn’t know how it wants to deliver those ideas.

There’s the subplot with the rabies virus, the soap opera-like domestic conflict, the priest Dante who’s a specialist in hunting down pedophile priests so they can be removed to a Vatican retreat for penance, and it becomes a courtroom drama after Beverly accidently kills Conrad.

That final plot point is especially annoying since the argument that resulted in Conrad’s death is told to us and then repeated again and again in the court scenes. There’s a lot of plot here, but it’s very unfocused and the various points seem to be battling for attention.

There are also extended scenes of scientific and philosophical discussion. Some of it is interesting, but several of them suffer from being stiff and unnatural as dialogue. There are discussions of virology here which could have been interesting but are filled with terms that only a virologist would understand. Kenyon herself is a virologist, but here she doesn’t do a good job of conveying information to people outside of her field.

I felt that the best part of the book was towards the end when it’s revealed Leila had been molested by a priest and Dante helps her to cope with it. To me, it seems like there’s a much better book of about 250-300 pages in this 460-page book. The first 150 or so pages are especially grating, as it seems like the story just spins its wheels with Beverly going to see Dante, Conrad working in his lab and going to sleep with Leila, and Beverly and Conrad arguing repeatedly and little else happening.

Other potentially interesting parts, like a young boy dealing with the trauma of abuse from the priest that preceded Dante, barely get any time.

Kenyon released another novel, also out of print, and self-published a few eBooks. Her site also hasn’t updated since 2013, so maybe she’s not even writing anymore. I may give her second novel, Callous, a chance as Rabid seems like a very unpolished first draft with some potential.

As for whether it deserves to come back into print, it doesn’t in its current form, but a heavily revised version certainly would. Kenyon has some interesting ideas and writes prose very well, but she needs a tighter and more focused story to deliver it.

The Story of the Y by Ben Arzate – Book Review

by Zakary McGaha

Up until now, Ben Arzate has only written shorter works of fiction and poetry. Now, his first novella-length work has been unleashed into the wilds of the small press scene. Although still rather short, The Story of the Y is written in a minimalistic, to-the-point way that makes it play out like a full-length, road trip comedy movie.

The Story of the Y will touch the hearts of all those who have ever collected stuff…in particular, rare/obscure stuff. In this book’s case, there is an album by one Y. Bhekhirst. Said album and artist are actually real…and completely unknown/obscure…but the book’s plot is a fictionalized account of a music writer setting out on an adventure in hopes of interviewing the “real” Y. Bhekhirst.

If that brief synopsis doesn’t make you want to read the book, then you’re probably lame.

The “adventure of the open road” aspect is where The Story of the Y shines, because the road in this case is surreal. Literally anything can happen in this bizarro sort of world, so you never know what to expect. Strangeness is thrown at you a mile a minute…yes, that was a road trip pun…but none of it ever feels annoying or tacky.

Instead, the effect makes you think you’re watching one of those trippy ass cartoons from the late 90s or early 2000s. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson also came to mind, and not just because someone mentioned it in one of the books’ blurbs.

The action, comedy, and forward-moving momentum all conspire to make it hard to stop reading The Story of the Y. I, for one, finished in two sittings (which is saying something because I started it late at night while already running on little sleep).

The characters were another strong point for this book. They were just as funny and memorable as the surreal aspects of the plot. There’s a ghost trapped in a record (my favorite character), a lovable conman/small-time drug dealer dude with a lobster claw for a hand, a couple anarchists, etc.

Some of the prose was a little deadpan (and, as mentioned before, minimalistic) in terms of dialogue, action, etc., but that isn’t necessarily a complaint considering it was a stylistic choice on Arzate’s part.

Overall, the book was a fun, short read that had the same effect on me that most of Arzate’s stories have: they make me want to stay in the universe longer. This one, in particular, could lay the groundwork for a surreal universe of books; we’ll have to wait and see. The characters and situations are interesting and unique enough to easily offer up more material.

Another thing I feel I should note is that Arzate walks the line between seriousness and silliness. Everything going on is insane, yet it’s all believable, compelling, and entertaining. In other words, he’s not writing for gags despite the silly aspects (I, of course, don’t use the word “silly” in a derogatory sense).

I give The Story of the Y 4/5 stars. I’m eager to read more of Arzate’s lengthier work.