The monsters inside us: a review of The Isle of Blood

“You may think I’m stupid, you may call me a madman and a fool, but at least I stand upright in a fallen world. At least I have yet, like you, to fall off the edge into the abyss.”

The Isle of BloodRick Yancey’s third Monstrumologist book, The Isle of Blood, is my favorite in the series so far. I expected ghastly creatures, vile dissections, and the sick thoughts of morbid men — as usual — but I wasn’t prepared for the frightening transformation of a small boy.

The Isle of Blood is, from start to finish, one of Yancey’s best. I found the previous book, The Curse of the Wendigo, a little slower paced as it focused more on character than action. This novel maintains the quality of Yancey’s signature descriptions, so gruesome and rich in detail, but also seamlessly combines internal character developments with nonstop, heart-pounding events.

I was a little disoriented because The Isle of Blood doesn’t begin where I thought it would, given the previous novel’s cliffhanger. But I quickly traded confusion for fascination as a mysterious “nest” of human flesh and matter arrived on Dr. Pellinore Warthrop’s doorstep, along with the desperate man delivering it. This nidus, as it’s called, curses all who so much as touch it or someone afflicted by it. It blinds them, turns their flesh to rot, and carves their souls hollow. They become hungry creatures, servants of a foul master.

Will Henry, the doctor’s young assistant, almost becomes one.

Warthrop himself is absent for a portion of the book. He trots off in search of the source of the nidus, the magnificum, the Faceless One, with an eager colleague who seems to know much more about the doctor and his secrets than he should. But The Isle of Blood is Will Henry’s tale — a look at what envy and loneliness can do to a boy so consumed by the obsessions of a man who is the closest thing to a father he’ll ever know, only the role of parent and child are reversed: Will Henry too often the parent, Warthrop the child. They’ve become so tied to each other that even a taste of a normal life cannot free Will Henry or save him from his descent into darkness, where he chases after Warthrop and becomes lost himself.

Once again, Yancey continues to deepen the strange and pained relationship between Warthrop and Will Henry — their obligations and responsibilities toward one another, and their guilt. Warthrop, so cold and unlikeable, becomes a warmer and more human character in this book while Will Henry, only a boy, finds monsters in himself that never existed there before. Yancey doesn’t shy away from them; sadly, neither does Will Henry, who, having never enjoyed such freedom, embraces their sinister power.

Yancey’s real accomplishment of story here is the way he dissects the truth and meaning of monsters: Are the ones we hunt in the world, the creatures that go bump in the night, more horrible than what man himself is capable of? What does that dark compulsion to find them, that life-long pursuit of them, do to the mind — to the fertile imagination and fragile psyche of a young boy? What monsters do we create in the search for monsters? When do the footsteps we follow become our own?

Grade: A

Love bites and growls and howls at the moon: a review of Sharp Teeth

We are all china barely mended,
clumsily glued together
just waiting
for the hot water and lemon
to seep through our seams.

Sharp TeethI’ve never been the biggest fan of poetry. I think it’s beautiful, but I’m not a big reader of it, and I don’t write it. Sharp Teeth is that wonderful exception.

Written in free verse, Toby Barlow’s debut novel combines the mysteries, passion, and eloquence of poetry with the accessible storytelling of prose. The Wall Street Journal likened it to “Romeo and Juliet, werewolf-style,” which is partly accurate. The different lycanthrope packs of Los Angeles are like the familial houses that rule the city, the members brothers and sisters, bound by the magic in their blood and the secrets of their transformation. Between them are a pair of unlikely, star-crossed lovers: the dogcatcher and the wolf. Only he doesn’t know what she is, and that ignorance rubs against her bottled-up knowledge and heats the friction between them.

There’s tragedy, like with Romeo and Juliet, though not all is lost. The book is part modern crime drama. A cop named Peabody investigates a murder: the evidence a river of blood and the unmistakable trail of red paw prints that leads him into the heart of gang rivalries that are only human some of the time. An old pack, a wild pack, and a rebel pack. All three with different outlooks on life but one insatiable hunger to own the town, to devour it.

These werewolves don’t change by the cycle of the moon: “That’s as ancient and ignorant as any myth.” Rather:

The blood just quickens with a thought
a discipline develops
so that one can self-ignite
reshaping form, becoming something rather more canine
still conscious, a little hungrier.
It’s a raw muscular power,
a rich sexual energy
and the food tastes a whole lot better.

That’s Sharp Teeth in a nutshell. These people have reasons for turning wolf. They were recruited because of their strength and loneliness, the sense that the world had wronged them, abandoned them, and now is the time to rip its throat out. That desire turns to blood lust, as primal as the sexual drive that burns with it. Sex and love. Canine and human. Almost one and the same, and the beauty is how they flirt and intermingle, that violence and passion spilling out like guts on the page.

It’s a dog’s world. Barlow ponders the tameness of man’s best friend as much as he does the wolves those mutts might be as they wait and watch with knowing, human eyes. Blending in as regular dogs is how these packs stalk the town, how they get away with murder, how they infiltrate the enemy’s forces and convert and initiate or betray. They operate by animal rules and live by human needs for revenge and companionship and possession. Barlow weaves these two sides together with grace and sadness and a just a lick of happy-ever-after.

You’ll never look at your dog the same way again.

Grade: A

December’s comic book pick of the month: Witch Doctor: Malpractice

Witch Doctor: Malpractice #1

These last few weeks in December are great for sorting through tons of books, comics, television shows, etc., that you missed throughout the year. And it’s almost 2013 now! Better hurry. We all have a lot to catch up on, and this is one title you don’t want to skip.

If you read my open call for comics back in April, then you know I’ll be spotlighting current comic book series (in addition to my graphic novel reviews) every month or so to inspire discussion. I’m also taking requests, so please — leave a comment or drop me an email.

Check out November’s review of WHITE DEVIL.

I didn’t read the WITCH DOCTOR four-issue miniseries (plus the few extras that came out) when creators Brandon Seifert (writer, SPIRIT OF THE LAW, DOCTOR WHO, HELLRAISER) and Lukas Ketner released it last year. Actually, I had never even heard of it until the first issue of WITCH DOCTOR: MALPRACTICE hit last month. But I do know about the company behind it: Skybound Entertainment, an imprint of indie comics publisher Image, is owned by Robert Kirkman. He’s a pretty famous guy in the industry — known for creating THE WALKING DEAD, the zombie comic series that inspired the popular AMC TV show and some games.

Witch Doctor: Malpractice #2

The name Skybound itself doesn’t guarantee quality, but give MALPRACTICE a shot and you’ll find it has a certain The Monstrumologist vibe that’s irresistible. I can only imagine that Dr. Vincent Morrow’s (the eccentric occult physician and lead character in the comic) laboratory and all the gruesome experiments that go on there are as ghastly as they would appear in Yancey’s young adult book if it were a graphic novel.

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You got vampires in my ghost story: a review of Where the Dead Fear to Tread

“The dead are the past and we cannot escape the past. Without the past there will be no future.”

Where the Dead Fear to Tread by M.R. GottTake a look at the cover for Where the Dead Fear to Tread by M.R. Gott (sequel forthcoming) and you pretty much know what to expect. It looks like it could be an action movie poster, right? Unfortunately, that’s what the book most resembles — a movie. Maybe the author is in the wrong business because as a popcorn movie, this story might work. It doesn’t as a novel.

Where the Dead is about an antihero who punishes child abusers and tangles with ghosts, vampires, and werewolves. That might sound like a sensible, collected premise, but that’s not how the book reads. It wants to be both a detective story and supernatural fiction, and the result is a mangled hybrid between the two. There’s no consistency to its world — you have no idea what to expect next not because the plot is fascinating and unpredictable but because it feels like Gott is making it up as he goes along.

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Vampires, demons, and too much skin: a review of The Darkening Dream

She released Charles’ grip and the bloody tree vanished, in its place only the shadows of two young people who’d just shaken hands.

As far as I can tell, there’s been a decent amount of positive press for The Darkening Dream. Author Andy Gavin co-created the video game company Naughty Dog, and considering the minimal narrative template of games like Crash Bandicoot (and even the more story-driven Jak & Daxter), the transition between mediums must have taken work. Unfortunately, Gavin moves into troubled territory.

Pinning down exactly why I didn’t like The Darkening Dream wasn’t easy, but I knew something was off from the first few chapters. For a book set in the early 20th century, it doesn’t always show its age. Maybe it’s because the year 1913 wasn’t too long ago, but I had a hard time picturing old-fashioned young women running around an amusement park with men and then, scenes later, concealing their ankles and elbows with layers of clothing. And after that, frolicking in cosplay outfits.

This initial confusion as to the time period Gavin is portraying did wear off, but other problems ensued. I liked the author’s use of imagery (especially the bloody sycamore) and his demons, like the central vampire character. How often do vampires turn into bats anymore? Now that’s cool.

But every time I find myself liking the characters—and I do, honestly, like them—they’re reduced through awkward sexuality worthy of a good eye roll or two. Gavin clearly wants to write “modern” women here, but he’s not entirely sure what that is. To be frank, the trouble rests with the setting of the book—these are women still bound by old society’s rules, but they’re entering a world that’s more accepting of them. So at the same time Gavin is following outdated social standards in order to establish the times, he’s also trying to break free of them. For example, today’s age allows women to be more sexually free and active, but the events of the book still push the old idea: Women who openly engage in sexual acts are wicked (or, in some cases, in need of a good exorcism), while those who resist temptation are good. I don’t think Gavin is communicating that intentionally, but that’s what the prose is pushing.

Okay, here’s where things might get a little TMI, so read or skip this paragraph at your leisure—Gavin gets points for addressing menstrual cycles. Yes, you read that correctly. I completely believe his descriptions, too (down to the spot on the mattress, if you know what I mean), except for one crucial detail he leaves out every single time: When a woman stains her undergarments because of her period, she’s not just going to strip and be done with it—especially not women in the early 20th century, when Wal-Mart doesn’t exist in little old Salem. She’s going to wash her sheets and panties with soap and cold water. It was baffling to me that Gavin went to such lengths to realistically portray a monthly “accident” but never bothered to think the situation through to the end. Duh, you wash the thing! Ironically enough, these scenes always lead the character to the bathroom, where she wishes for hot water to clean herself off—but, of course, not cold water for a good soaking. /TMI

Another big issue for me was the overwhelming amount of sexual friskiness involved. Yes, I get that most of these characters are in their teens, and sex is on their minds even in the midst of demon-hunting and vampire-slaying, but Gavin can’t help but insert some perversion into nearly every scene. Not to mention he uses embarrassingly archaic phrases, like the “dark triangle” between a woman’s legs. I’m giggling right now, and not because it’s dirty—because it’s older than dust.

The pacing could use a little work toward the end of the book. Gavin rushes the story post-killing victory (you’ll know which one), and not much attention is paid to the remaining villains—especially not the Big Guy. Did I miss something? Is there supposed to be a sequel? Because it certainly feels like it should be, but apparently not. As a result, the ending resembles one big Hollywood “boo!” ending—you know the kind, where oh, they killed the zombies, but now there’s one more! Surprise! [Update: Yes, Gavin has confirmed a sequel. See the comments.]

Perhaps I sound a little bitter, but I was looking forward to The Darkening Dream with great enthusiasm. I love Gavin’s work in video games. In writing, he could use some guidance. But it’s not a bad first novel, all things considered. Just not one with enough foresight.

Okay! After I tackle another book for Kirkus Indie (sorry, can’t share the details), I’ll be back with a review of a nice, thick book that should appeal to Joss Whedon fans. Thanks for reading!