Book Review: Forgotten Lives

Forgotten LivesForgotten Lives by Tristan Shaw

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Forgotten Lives by Tristan Shaw is a collection of short stories ranging from bizarre to horrific, and throughout all of the strangeness, there is dark humor to be had. This review contains many spoilers as there was much to critique, and it’s also a bit long due to this.

I enjoyed the campy feel of “The World’s Tallest Dwarf,” similar to reading short story collections like “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” The story is essentially about a dwarf who works in a carnival freak show, and he’s left to do cleanup work while others perform. A newcomer, Sergio, is ‘the world’s tallest dwarf.’ He takes over our narrator’s, the main character’s, tent and slowly gains favor, and everyone leaves the main character behind. The narrator is treated progressively poorer and is an outcast. I wish there was more of a reason for this. Was Sergio something more than a dwarf? How did his actions cause everyone to despise the main character? It’s an interesting story, but I’m left with too many questions.

In “Hagiography of a Corpse,” a man is killed for failing to have a license to wear shoes while living in an unnamed banana republic. Over time, his corpse is lifted and carried across the land, gathering many people to protest the injustices of a hateful president. A military general is even so intimidated that he flees ‘on a jet ski.’ Eventually, the president loses his mind due to the corpse being thrown through his office window, and he gives power to the corpse.

At this point, the story’s humor was getting a bit on the ridiculous side, but that may just be because it’s not my kind of humor.

In “Waiting,” Sophie, a young girl, is raised by her grandparents due to her mother leaving to go on various trips. Upon returning, the mother starts spending more and more time at night looking up at the stars. She confides in her daughter an alien secret, and that they are going home soon. The daughter rides with her mother out into a field, and they gaze up at the stars sitting on the car.

I liked this story a lot more than the previous one, but I still have many questions. Was the mother truly an alien? Did the mother a have mental illness and it caused a delusion, as it was mentioned she wasn’t supposed to even drive? This story has a lot of promise and I feel it should be expanded upon.

“The Society for the Preservation of Vice” is exactly as it sounds, a story about a society of deviants trying to preserve vice. It was clear, and especially upon the mention of the man’s name, that this was reminiscent of the Marquis de Sade. While I appreciated that, there were a few things in the story that lost me, such as the popular horror trope of Satanists dawning black robes, sacrificing virgins, and drawing evil pentagrams. This is a trope I heavily dislike and am tired of seeing, so my opinion on the story is tainted by that. Some may enjoy it where I did not.

In “A Gourmet’s Confession,” a gourmet finds himself suffering from a loss of taste. This leads him to try cannibalism, and he finds he’s able to taste again. So proceeds his gourmet adventures with human flesh written as a last letter.

There are a few jokes in this one that were a bit much, and while I’m not easily offended, others may be. Although the gourmet’s character is an awful, selfish one, comparing a loss of taste as being a worse tragedy than the bombing of Hiroshima or the loss of a woman’s only child was… we’ll just leave it at that. Taking that out, this was a good read.

In “Nostalgia,” a German man, August, leaves to become a mercenary. He’s known for his fine ability of dismemberment but is also described as a kind man who is loyal and diligent in his duties. He comes down with a case of nostalgia, and a doctor sends him home for a cure.

This had a very Twilight Zone feel to it. It was a well-rounded and complete story, and definitely quite odd, especially in the way the doctor practically beat his patient after failing with leeches to cure his ailment, but it fits with the darkly humorous theme and era (1600s).

In “The Adventure of My Uncle’s Murder,” a Sherlock Holmes style adventure unfolds as our main character becomes taken with the detective’s stories. They follow the path of their uncle’s murder and, due to their interest in police matters being solely based on literature, they end up on a wild goose chase.

I was lost on the foreign words for clothing pieces I didn’t understand. I would’ve had to look up a few definitions as the clothing wasn’t described in any other way, so this took me out of the story. There were also a few word choices that didn’t fit right, which caused me to pause in question. Overall, it was an enjoyable story despite the nuances.

In “The Spirit Photographer,” Vivian makes a living by fooling people into thinking she can photograph their dead family members. A quick bit of editing with a personal photo and the family has, what appears to be, a spirit photograph. One particular couple, however, wanders in and asks for a picture of their son, Knut. Vivian begins to see that ghosts are indeed real, and there is something about Knut.

I’m still wondering what happened to Knut and why the parents took forever to return for their photograph. I think it hinted at self-harm or abuse for the child, but I’m not sure. It was written in the form of journal entries, so this could be why we have questions. While I did enjoy the story, there were too many things unanswered.

“A Final Masterpiece,” I think, is an essay about an infamous theater performer, Evzen Svoboda. I’m not sure why this was included in the book since it doesn’t seem to be fiction, as it has reference notes throughout and at the end. It was genuinely shocking and strange in nature which fits the style of the book, but not knowing whether it was a genuine essay or not, I tried to look up some cited sources. I was mostly led to confusing foreign articles. At this point, I skimmed because I was unsure of why it was here and it read like a well-researched report in a book of otherwise fictional tales.

At last, “Eternal Glory” is about Tiamat, who watches helplessly as Inanna chokes to death on honey and dies, and after a time, seeks out a philosopher to tell him about his death, which is odd because as Tiamat is identified in this story as male, according to studies, Tiamat was a goddess. That aside, the philosopher mocks Tiamat and is put to death. This starts a war, and Tiamat ends up taking his own life. I’m assuming the characters are the goddesses Tiamat and Inanna, and not just people named after them, but I’m not familiar with much of their lore.

I had difficulty getting through “Eternal Glory” as it just isn’t a genre I’m a fan of. There was a war happening and then eventually Tiamat kills himself, which was ironic, but beyond that, this one lost me.

Overall, I feel that while the book started off rather well, regardless of leaving me with many questions for a few of the stories, it seemed to drag near the end with an essay thrown in before a story about a Babylonian war. The last two did not feel like they fit the overall theme of the book.

I encourage the author to continue writing, but to better organize and choose which stories should go in a collection. Strange and weird definitely go together and can cross genres if done well, but overall, while I understand the general theme of weirdness and dark humor, some of the stories left a lot to be desired.

As always, I give many kudos to the author for writing a book and putting it out there. There is always the chance that a particular book is just not for me, and others may enjoy it where I did not, but I highly recommend the author take more care in future books to be sure to answer the important questions posed by a story. I appreciate the chance to review this book and wish the author nothing but the best for their future.

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Book Review: The Gray Man of Smoke and Shadows

The Gray Man of Smoke and Shadows (Vampire Series of Extreme Horror)The Gray Man of Smoke and Shadows by Todd Sullivan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the second book in an extreme horror series about vampires, and as in the last book, these aren’t your ordinary vampires. This adds to the uniqueness of the series, and it most definitely stands out among other vampire stories because of its gruesome nature. I believe Todd Sullivan has hit upon something great for those who can handle a bit of gore. This review contains spoilers.

Hyeri is hellbent on killing her uncle, Sa-Hak, and for good reason.

As little girls go missing, Hyeri scours Korea for the man who traumatized her. Meanwhile, Min Jae, a member of the Natural Police employed by the Gwanlyo, an organization of vampires, is out for Hyeri’s head for breaking the Gwanlyo code. A human, Seok-Jo, who is to become paramount to both of them, is wasting away in his apartment when his daughter is targetted by Hyeri’s predator uncle.

These separate stories dance around each other as they all find a common goal, although nothing turns out as expected. Min Jae never saw himself working alongside the Man Killer, and his target, Hyeri, and neither of the two imagined a half-golem could even exist, let alone fight alongside them for his daughter’s life.

Linking them all together, however, is a dark and sinister force that has taken hold of Sa-Hak, the predator. The Gray Man of Smoke and Shadows can give power to a human not unlike immortality, and while this demonic entity enjoys being entertained by the cruelest of acts, hence targetting Sa-Hak for its amusement, it has its limits. And it messed with the wrong people.

In the beginning, our reintroduction to Hyeri is a great reminder of how ruthless she is. Sensual, sadistic, and powerful as she seduces a man and lures him into her arms, only for him to desire her so much he chases her, but is quickly crushed by an oncoming bus. I was really glad to see her as a main character in this book because she was my favorite in the last.

Although Hyeri has great power and it’s been many years, she still experiences the fear of her uncle that trauma would impose on anyone. This was a realistic touch that I appreciated. Although she’s done horrible things to others, it really made me sympathize with her regardless.

I want to take a moment to point out Todd’s wonderful ability to invoke a feeling of repulsion with descriptions, especially right in the beginning. He really has a talent for this, and that’s part of what really makes this book come alive.

As the story progresses, there is at least one action scene where I genuinely thought Hyeri was done for. This is when Min Jae shows up to make an attempt on her life for the first time. Her uncle is in the fray as well, and it was also a surprise that this initial confrontation happened so quickly. This was also a sign that the characters were certainly going to survive, and I couldn’t put the book down.

Again, as in the first book, Todd Sullivan really projects a thorough knowledge of Korea to progress the story, and it fully immerses the reader in the atmosphere. While I don’t personally know much about Korea, I did find it easy to become immersed with the characters due to the little details, such as building descriptions, city names, and right down to brand names in a convenience store.

Later in the book around chapters fourteen through fifteen, things shifted once more to add in Seok-Jo’s story, and I was beyond excited. I was definitely taken by surprise at this turn of events with him. The progression with Seok-Jo becoming a figure of half-stone half-man, a half-golem, seemed out of nowhere, but considering his past with an ominous stone garden embedded deep in his family’s history, it all worked together.

The fight at the end of the book was intense, blood-soaked, and full of gore promised by the series. The delivery was satisfying at the end of it, and I couldn’t help but chuckle when Min Jae got his own bit of revenge on Hyeri for her taking his foot earlier in the book.

While the first book was great and I really enjoyed it, this second volume is very engrossing and truly shows Todd Sullivan’s talent! I didn’t have any major, or even minor, complaints as I read through it. I was extremely impressed with how well it was written and how fast it sucked me in, and I highly recommend it to all who love horror. I am looking forward to more from Todd Sullivan, and I greatly appreciate the opportunity to review “The Gray Man of Smoke and Shadows.”

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Book review: He Digs A Hole

He Digs A HoleHe Digs A Hole by Danger Slater

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Harrison and Tabitha met in a Home Depot.

Ironically, after having hit it off very quickly due to an in-depth, philosophical conversation, they ended up living a very meaningless life. Your typical suburb, backyard barbecues, plastic smile, sickeningly polite, average life. They’d laughed at Brad and Jennifer Flatly, two of the most average and boring neighbors you could ever dread sharing a space with. Yet, they realized after being so dull and uninterested in their marriage, as well as losing their naughty bits due to a fading interest — likening them to a Ken and Barbie doll — they’d fallen victim to the same fate.

So one night, after eating a strange seed from a spleen fruit that grew on a horrific tree resembling arms and hands, Brad Moss replaced his arms with a trowel and a garden rake, and he began to dig. And the whispers in his head demanded he continue. It was more important than he could explain. There was definitely more to that odd tree in the Moss’s yard that was one of a kind.

What proceeds is an adventure unlike anything you would expect, but to be fair, nothing about this book is to be expected. A sea of blood, worm monsters, three introspective trials, and all of the body horror to make your stomach queasy follows a leap of faith into an ever-expanding hole. And despite the grotesquery and otherwise bizarre plot, there is a deeper message to be had here about relationships and maintaining enthusiasm for them. About the struggles and impossible ideals that can destroy them.

This is my second Danger Slater book, and I wasn’t disappointed. The way he weaves philosophical meaning into the craziest of bizarro plots is something I never knew I needed. It was the thing to refresh my love for reading, so I definitely give him huge props for that. As it’s bizarro fiction, you’re going to have to read with an open mind that is ready to accept anything. And I mean anything. This includes oddly sexy worms with slime and all. It was a fun ride that I sat back and enjoyed.

Danger truly does steer the ride for us, rather we want him to or not. The narrator and the reader, especially, are characters in this book. At times, Harrison and Tabitha are able to see what is being written and react to it, and it’s clear the main characters are not in control of the story, but helpless to the author’s whims. I genuinely love some good fourth wall breaking stuff, and while it did make the book campy and gave it a unique character, there were a few parts near the end where it seemed to get a bit too lengthy. Some people may not like being told what to think while reading, no matter how comical it may get, but if you’re open-minded to that, it doesn’t ruin the experience.

Everything in the book hit me out of nowhere in the way bizarro tends to, and I found myself genuinely surprised at each new chapter and scene. While time jumps around enthusiastically in this book, it works. It falls in line with the theme.

As I was expecting, the philosophical nature of this book made me happy. It made me think, which is a winning quality in my opinion. It made the ending feel that much more powerful and meaningful, and it really made me think about our ideas of a perfect relationship, what we expect out of them, and what the reality is. Underneath all of the craziness in this book, it’s heartwrenching and tugged at my emotions.

Overall, despite the author’s control over the book, I truly enjoyed it. I didn’t deduct a star because the overbearing narration, at times, became so comical and very much Danger that I forgave it. I’d recommend this book to those who are open-minded and willing to accept that rules are meant to be broken, and all of the rules were broken. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more Danger.

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June 2020 updates

It’s been a while since I’ve written about what’s going on in my life. The pandemic is still all around us and nothing is easing up, and my mental health has been awful for a few months at least. I’ve rarely left my apartment in ninety days and have mostly focused on self-care, coping with mental illness, and surviving to see a day when everything will get better. And everything has to get better eventually. I know that statement annoys a lot of people when I say it, but we have to hold onto some kind of hope.

In May, I finally got a laptop I’ve been after. Ironically, it was so I could take my writing with me to the coffee shop and get out of the apartment. I was doing so well and I felt the best I ever had before all of this, and my mental health was improving. I couldn’t stay home. Life was starting to go so well and so right.

Now, the laptop has found use in relocating to my bedroom to work on projects. Being stuck at home in an apartment building full of people who make a ton of noise, party, get drunk, or in the case of the person next to me, are even a bit dangerous, has been damaging to my creative drive. Usually, I would leave to my favorite coffee shop to escape all of this, but my bedroom and an open window on the cooler days will have to do.

Changing my writing environment at home did bring back my creativity. I managed to write a novella, a 26k-word memoir about my childhood with a small fantasy element added in. I finished it in about three days and edited it in one more day. I truly feel it’s one of my better stories I’ve written in a while, and every time I go back to it to do another self-conscious sweep, I fall in love with it a bit more. It’s with my editor now, so we’ll see what comes of it!

I’m also in the process of (finally) querying my first complete novel, STIGMA, after sitting on it since January. I was so intimidated by how difficult everyone said writing a query was that I put it off. I kept telling myself it wasn’t a good time because I needed to take care of my mental health. I found that once I actually started the damn letter, it wasn’t so bad after all. A wonderful agent on Twitter offered to help critique my letter once my first draft was done, and by the second draft, she said it was so much better! I also got recommended an agent to submit to from a pretty nice agency, so… yeah. This is happening.

The one thing hindering me now from actually submitting is the dreaded synopsis. I knew I’d hit another roadblock because synopses are hard as hell to write. I decided to just dive in like I did with the query. At least I have something now, and even if it’s bad or totally wrong, I’ve got more than a blank page staring at me with the threat of stopping my future writing career in its tracks.

Making myself get back to work was the best thing I could do. It gave my life meaning again and a hope for some kind of future, whatever that may be now. I’m dreaming again of things I most certainly will never see, but at least my head’s in a more dreamy, happy state, and it’s going to help me survive all this madness.