Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Ward by SL Grey

It is both the beauty and curse of the horror genre that it can take so many forms. Shirley Jackson's The Lottery is horror and taught (in my day) in high school English classes. It also might be my first twist ending. Henry James' The Turn of the Screw is the ghost story kind of horror. Literary horror, but horror nonetheless. It also gave us the "creepy kid"* theme which has become a horror trope. At the other end of the horror spectrum is a book I recently reviewed, Roger Smith's (writing as Max Wilde) Vile Blood, an exploration of evil and heavy on gore.

I'm going to use the terms upside and downside in this review. Upside is our world. Downside is the shadow world.

The Ward follows the authors' first book, The Mall (review here). The Ward is set in a poor public hospital in Johannesburg and not long after the events of The Mall. There are several small crossovers between the two books and I recommend  reading The Mall first. It takes place in that ubiquitous temple of communal worship dedicated to all things commercial, the urban mall. What they do with it is both humorous and horrifying.

The story is told from alternating first person, male and a female viewpoints. Josh Farrell is a pretentious, self-absorbed fashion photographer. Lisa Cassavetes suffers from a severe case of body dysmorphic disorder.

Josh returns to consciousness after two days, blind, in New Hope hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa. He learns that he collapsed at work with a severe case of measles. Almost a greater shock than his medical condition is where he is. His medical aid should have him in a first rate hospital, not No Hope as it is popularly called. Lisa is on the same ward. Unable to get any more plastic surgery in Durban, Lisa has conned her way into New Hope in her search for physical perfection. Both are in New Hope for reasons out of their control and when they find themselves in the downside Wards, the horror begins.

The first third takes place in New Hope/No Hope hospital and it paints a grim picture of public healthcare. Lack of cleanliness, bad attitudes, and scarcity of health-care staff have figured into reports on the state of public hospitals in South Africa this year. It is no wonder that the authors have Josh horrified to learn that he is in a public hospital instead of  the private facilities his medical aide should be paying for. The downside wards demonstrate a different view of health care. Let's just say that it's commodity based.

With The Mall and now The Ward, S.L. Grey (Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg) are exploring a form of horror somewhere between Jackson/James and Smith mentioned above. Because I'm a librarian and think in categories, I decided the books dealt with horror of the variety perversion of the familiar or the perversion of safe places.

I asked the authors how they see their books. Sarah said she would "nick China Miéville's term 'weird fiction'** as a category for the Downside books, as I'm not sure they fit fit under the 'horror' umbrella completely or what the term really means any more." 'Weird fiction' is a good description for their books. Wikipedia has an article on it, naturally. If you do a search on china mieville weird fiction I think you'll agree with Sarah.

Louis confirmed that I was on the right track:
We did deliberately set out to take everyday (and often boring, mundane) reality like shopping malls and add a frightening twist to it...If something looks just about real, but there's just something off about it, we both think that's more frightening than something completely fantastic....We wanted to put real, everyday people in weird situations and really try to ge our reders to imagine how they'd react if that implausible stuff were really happening to them.
 The Mall and The Ward are set in places that represent pleasure, comfort, and safety, and use those locations also to examine political and social issues while at the same time giving the reader a cracking good read and scare. The Mall It takes place in that ubiquitous temple of communal worship dedicated to all things commercial, the urban mall. What they do with it is both humorous and horrifying.  The Ward focuses on health care, with disparity in care as a subtext and does it in a darker and, I think, more cynical way. Louis said that they "deliberately set out to satirise certain injustices that are ripe for satirising in society. They seemed a good background for our novels, but it's the characters and situations that are in the foreground. The books are primarily for fun.""

The Ward advances our knowledge of the downside world and we see more of the Administration, those who run downside. I think the authors had a bit of fun creating a new bizarro-world bureaucracy. We also learn that downside interacts with the upside more than we expected from events in The Mall.

The Ward and The Mall are a fun, intelligent, read with a good blend of character, setting, humour, satire, and social commentary. They have a flavour of South Africa which adds a little spice for non-South Africans and probably gives the South African readers an "oh yea, I've been there" feeling. I love the "secret world" trope and the Downside series is one of the best. The third volume is in the works and I'm eagerly looking forward to seeing what aspect of Downside will be explored next.

As of this review you will have to purchase a copy of The Ward from Amazon UK. If you live in the UK you can get it also through Book Depository which will not ship it to the US at this time.

*I borrowed this from shmoop.com. They have a nice 4 paragraph "in a nutshell" essay on The Turn of the Screw.

**Wikipedia article on weird fiction.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Jack Hanger by James Fouché

Jack Hanger tells the story of six days in the life of Dave Matters set against the backdrop of the 2010 World Cup Soccer tournament in South Africa.

Dave is ex-muscle for a gangster, an ex-con, and former undercover operative for the police, all by the age of 27. During a high speed chase through Cape Town's busiest streets after a drug dealer who might lead him the elusive drug lord known as Joe Taxi, Dave crashes and suffers a serious head injury. He was never "right" after the accident and is now content to clerk in a video rental store.

When his little brother Joshua gets in over his head with the mob and murdered, Dave is compelled to take them down. It isn't just revenge, Dave says but "It's about dirt that needs to surface." His police detective friend Marsh won't sanction him going undercover again but is resigned that Dave won't let it drop and hopes that he doesn't do anything too stupid and will call him if he does.

Jack Hanger is a basic "one man seeking revenge against a criminal organization" story that we've read before but don't think that puts it into the tired cliche school of crime fiction. It is a solid story, compact, with a short time frame that pushes the story along, and a main character different from any I've encountered before. The Cape Town setting adds an interesting atmosphere to the action.

The main strength of the story, for me, is the character of Dave Matters. He has a form of obsessive compulsive disorder that compels him to keep both hands busy, often on different tasks, and his mind thinking of two or three things at the same time. The accident also left him not always able to link emotions, actions, thoughts, and senses. "He can't connect all the dots properly, so...he just doesn't connect them at all." He can be a teddy bear or a wrecking machine without comprehending what he is feeling or why. Fouché integrates Dave's neurological condition into the action and it adds layers of complexity to an otherwise straight forward story of a man seeking his brother's killers. He is a man who wants to find meaning in life but finds life confusing. I found Dave someone I'd like to know, likable and scary at the same time and this makes the relationship between Dave and the police detective Marsh more believable. If I can believe in Dave then so can Marsh.

This is the author's first book. He does have some odd word choices and phrasing that initially made me pause but I found a rhythm to the flow of words and decided that I was experiencing the world as Dave might.

Fouché is currently working on a white collar crime story.

Jack Hanger is available in paperback from Amazon

A Jack Hanger is also known as a butcher bird and is noted for hanging its food on barbed wire or  twigs and thorns.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Vile Blood by Max Wilde (aka Roger Smith)

Horror, red in tooth and claw. If this is how you like it then Vile Blood is the book for you.

Roger Smith's books all have a tinge of horror. Gatsby (Mixed Blood), Piper (Wake Up Dead), Inja (Dust Devils), Vernon Saul (Capture), all broken away from humanity, bringing fear and pain to anyone unfortunate to cross them. You look into their eyes and see a soulless void.

With Vile Blood, Roger moves into a different form of horror. Here "tooth and claw" is not a metaphor but actual limb rending, disemboweling horror. The easy way out with this sort of horror is to shock the reader as often as possible with gratuitous, grotesque violence. But Roger applies the same careful character building and plot development that you find in his South African crime thrillers.

Vile Blood takes place in an unspecified part of the American Southwest, a departure from the South African settings of Roger's previous books. This isn't the wide-open spaces, buffalo roaming, picture postcard west. It is poisoned earth, dead or dying towns, corruption. And a good man trying to stand against evil finding his principles tested.

Four soldiers of a drug lord are killed in savage, bloody, and gruesome ways, like a wild beast tore them apart. For Chief Deputy Sheriff Gene Martindale, the crime scene brings back memories he hoped would stay hidden. Has the beast that lies within his adopted sister Skye awakened? Gene protected his sister all those years ago but now Dellbert Drum, corrupt sheriff from the neighboring county, remembering what happened to Gene and Skye back then, pockets evidence at the crime scene. He sees a way to make Gene an accessory in his drug distribution network.

At the same time the beast is awakening in Skye, so does Junior Cotton from his coma in a mental hospital. Junior is pure, spawn of Satan evil, and has a primal, psychic connection to Gene and Skye that makes it inevitable that their lives will intersect.

Rounding out the cast of principle characters is the Reverend Jimmy Tincup, depraved, debased, and degenerate, running a meth lab in an abandoned motel with his whores. Tincup supplies the product for Drum's drug enterprise.

The horror elements are well done and well placed, contributing to the story without becoming repetitive. Roger also answers a question I hadn't considered before: what happens the morning after the beast feeds. Though this is is the first in a series, the reader isn't left hanging. We get enough satisfying details on Skye's background to get our interest but the complete picture will be developed in the sequels.

As with Smith's other books, he gives the reader a good foundation with the story but he also populates the story with memorable characters: the stolid Gene Martindale who you can see meeting the bad guy at noon on a dusty street in the old west; the virginal Skye Martindale trying to come to terms with what is happening to her; the outwardly genial, inwardly putrid Dellbert Drum; the evil psychopath Junior Cotton whose early life is as much horror as the scene that opens the book; and the Rev. Tincup as venal and unredeemable a character as has ever populated a story.

Roger has a background in film and one of his strengths is to give the reader graphic detail with which to build a mental image of the people, setting and action. For me, the stand-out is the Rev. Tincup and his decaying motel fiefdom. Fascinating and at the same time repellent, like an accident you can't look away from.

There will be sequels to Vile Blood and this is not the case where I am curious what happens next, I NEED to know what happens next to these people.

Vile Blood is available from Amazon for the Kindle.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

My James McClure Project

I was going through an exercise using web search tools and different search terms to see how deep I could go with a topic. Google Scholar has links to "Cited by" and "Related articles" which can help you do some deep drilling. My library also has a discovery tool called Summon which indexes many of the databases to which we subscribe as well as the library catalog. And, of course, there is the Google search.

Being that I am a fan of South African crime fiction I used James McClure and his Kramer and Zondi novels as my topic. I found more than I expected, everything from blog posts, scholarly articles, chapters in books, to brief mentions in various works and web sites. My bibliography is up to 25 items now and will grow.

Richard Peck's 1977 book, A Morbid Fascination: White Prose and Politics in Apartheid South Africa, was a significant find and gave me the idea of collecting everything I could about James McClure and turning it into a research project, sort of an everything you wanted to know about McClure and his detective stories. Our Interlibrary Loan Department is aces at getting me books and articles.

This is going to be a long term project, one I can dip into when the spirit moves me. I expect I will need to reread the seven Kramer and Zondi novels several times not to mention the need for background information on apartheid and South African politics.

I intend to post bits of my research as I go along and hope that knowledgeable readers will stumble upon this blog and correct me where I go astray and perhaps steer me toward more material.

And I hoping this will inspire me to make a dent in the backlog of reviews I want to write.