The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack




Wilders by Cass Kim

With the flood of “zombie apocalypse” style novels saturating the market these days, it is refreshing to find a new take on the old theme. Cass Kim’s book stands out from the pack for two main reasons. First, her equivalent of the zombies (and for the record, her story does not have zombies but the far more creative “wilders”) have not yet completely destroyed civilization. Humanity (at least in the United States) has adapted to what keeps getting referred to as the “half-pocalypse”. Life is not easy in the new normal, but it is livable. This provides a quite different story environment than the typical tale and that was very refreshing.

The second reason Kim’s book leads the pack of this subgenre is that it is not about simple survival but something much more important in the grand scheme of things. (It’s difficult to write about this without giving away an important plot twist.) There is plenty of action in the book, but larger issues than personal survival are dealt with on a very intimate level that really struck home with me.

So those are the big issues that can be summed up as Wilders has a unique flavor for this subgenre, but by themselves they would only have made this an interesting book—not a great one. Fortunately, Kim populates her world with a believable cast of teenagers who are trying to thrive in the half-pocalypse. It’s a difficult balance which Kim handles with a master touch dealing with the basic immaturity of young people when the consequences of teenaged rebellion can include being eaten alive by wilders. Add to that parents who are emotionally damaged by the civilization-threatening events and Kim has created a social environment that quickly builds sympathy for her cast and adds quite a bit of tension to the story.

Finally, every novel can benefit from superb narration and Liz Brand certainly does her part to bring this book to life—especially excelling at young, easily differentiated, voices.

I received this book from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

Wolf Hunt 2 by Jeff Strand

If you enjoyed Wolf Hunt you’re going to love Wolf Hunt 2. George and Lou are back and funnier than ever. They’re on the run after their problems in the first book but quickly get roped into helping Mr. Dewey capture another werewolf. They are made an offer they truly can’t refuse and that’s important because the werewolf is a fourteen-year-old girl and it’s only the threat of being burned to death that makes George and Lou violate their personal code against harming children. They justify it to themselves by promising that they will rescue the girl after she bites Dewey and turns him into a werewolf, but you can feel how much it bothers them that they are going after a child.

To make matters worse, everything goes wrong from the very beginning. The various criminal groups involved in the plot are nominally working together but act at cross purposes. George and Lou are trying to protect the girl (who understandably hates them) while keeping themselves alive. And in the background three very angry werewolves are getting closer and closer to making their own rescue attempt with a heap of vengeance against George and Lou thrown in for good measure.

These werewolves are one of many critical elements in the story. Will they be heroes, antiheroes, or outright villains? All the possibilities are open and Strand does a great job of crafting them into excellent three-dimensional antagonists. He also does some superb character development with George and Lou and the two new characters of interest, Eugene and the kidnapped girl. There’s a lot to love here and at times their struggles choked me up with emotion, just as their squabbles often doubled me over with laughter.

All of that beings said, I think it’s the surprises that solidified this book as a five-star experience. There were five or six times in the story where I thought—oh, that’s clever, I can see where this is going. Each of those times I was one hundred percent wrong and usually because Strand was even more creative that I had imagined. I admit that there were a couple of times when I wish I had been right—but that’s for emotional reasons—not because my idea would have made the novel better. This is simply an impressive book all around.

As was the case in the original Wolf Hunt, narrator Scott Thomas does an extraordinary job of capturing the humor and the pain in this story with his excellent characterizations. There is a lot more emotion in this book than in the first novel and Thomas seamlessly captures all of the nuance. His talents make a great story beautiful.

Wolf Hunt by Jeff Strand

George and Lou, the atypical heroes of Wolf Hunt, have just become two of my all-time favorite characters in fiction. They had me laughing right from the beginning of the novel and their banter was enough to take the gruesome edge off even the most horrendous crimes that Ivan the Werewolf commits throughout the book. They’re a little bit dumb, seriously stubborn, and surprisingly heroic and human as they try to make up for the admittedly stupid mistake that sets a seriously sadistic werewolf loose on the world. It seemed like a simple job—transport a caged man a few hundred miles—but we quickly figure out that nothing involving George and Lou ever goes smoothly. Things happen to them, and around them, and, unfortunately, to anyone in the vicinity.

There is a lot to love about this novel—but for the serious fan of werewolf books and movies two particular items stand out head and shoulders above the rest. First, Ivan, is a phenomenal werewolf villain. He is so clever in his psychological sadism that the author’s family might want to have him checked out by a mental health professional. Ivan gets in everyone’s head as he taunts them on his way to dismembering and killing them. It’s sick, but that’s what makes a great villain so fun to hate, isn’t it?

The other absolutely amazing thing about this book is the creative—but pretty untraditional—ways in which George and Lou continue to go after Ivan. It turns out that silver bullets just aren’t that plentiful in the state of Florida and that forces them to get clever—not A-Team clever by any means, but creative none the less. I was astounded by the miriad ways they managed to hurt this basically unkillable-by-conventional-means creature. All the while soaking up tremendous amounts of damage themselves.

As if these three characters were not wonderful enough, Strand adds an innocent victim—accidentally kidnapped along the way by George and Lou—and their handler who set them up with the job. Again, wonderful characters who had me laughing my posterior off throughout the book.

Now, lest I give you the wrong impression, Wolf Hunt is not a comedy. It’s a serious action/horror adventure, but the humor sure does add tremendously to the fun even while the action and the evil deeds of Ivan continue to ramp up the feelings of suspense until the very last page of the novel. Ivan is a serious monster on both a human and lycanthropic levels and you will want him to die just as badly as George does.

I suspect that this would be a great book in paper or electronic format, but it was my good fortune to encounter the audio version, so let me just add a few words of praise for the performance of Scott Thomas. All of the key figures in this book have totally unique voices that make them easy to identify. More importantly, Thomas really draws out the humor in the banter. I am really impressed that he did this without once breaking down into peals of laughter himself, as I did consistently while listening to it.

In summation, let me say that Wolf Hunt is a gem of an adventure novel, but it should come with a warning not to listen to it while operating a motor vehicle.

I received this book from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

Deep Night by Ambrose Ibsen

Deep Night is a supernatural detective story that plays fair with the reader even as it offers a healthy portion of make-the-hairs-stand-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck terror. As with all good horror novels, author Ambrose Ibsen builds the reader’s feelings of unease slowly and with a brilliant mechanism that absolutely everyone can relate to. A woman is awakened in the middle of the night by a tapping on her window. Just think about that for a moment. It’s almost midnight and she’s shaken from her sleep by a quiet tap tap tap on her bedroom windowpane When she builds the courage to peak outside, no one is at her window, but she catches sight of a figure watching her from the street. She quite sensibly calls the police, but the responding officer doesn’t find anything. The next night, matters progress further and when the police again come up empty handed, the woman goes in search of a private investigator to discover who is harassing her.

Enter Harlan Ulrich, formerly of Toledo. He’s lazy and uninterested in the case until his landlord increases his rent and he realizes if he doesn’t earn some money he’s going to lose his office. It was in many ways an unfortunate way to introduce the character because it made Ulrich initially unlikeable. We, the reader, knows this woman desperately needs help and he seems uncaring about her predicament. Fortunately, Ulrich quickly wins the reader back by sticking with the case when it immediately goes bad. You see, Ulrich quickly uncovers evidence that the client’s nocturnal visitor is not human.

From this point forward, the novel revolves around the investigation into why the client is being harassed by a supernatural creature. The creature’s appearance is quickly connected to a painting the woman has just acquired so Ulrich opens his investigation by looking into the painting’s origins and how it came into the woman’s possession. This investigation did not take the direction I initially assumed it would, and that’s always a good thing. Not all of the twists and turns in the rest of the novel were as surprising, but when an author fairly provides the clues to a mystery, he has to risk readers putting the pieces together faster than his detective does.

This novel is boosted by the excellent vocal talents of narrator, Kyle Tait. He provides excellent pacing and clearly discernable voices for all the characters. His low voice and quiet style added significantly to the tension Ibsen builds in the story as the scope of the supernatural problem is uncovered. If you like solid detective stories with a healthy (or should that be “unhealthy”) dose of the supernatural, you’ll enjoy Deep Night. I intend to read the next mystery in this series.

Extinct by Ike Hamill

Extinct presents a particularly creepy and isolating vision of the end of the world told from two very different points-of-view. Robby is an exceptionally intelligent thirteen-year-old with an unusual ability to analyze situations which gives him odd, but mostly credible, insights into what is happening around him. He is a thoroughly likeable character. He and his family are trapped on their island in a snowstorm on Thanksgiving when first the power goes out and then people start disappearing all over the islands—lots and lots of people. As they explore what is happening around them, they begin to witness people “disappear” and Robby and his family and a couple of neighbors decide to make a run for it. This storyline is totally engaging and utterly intriguing.

The second storyline (told in alternating chapters) did not work nearly so well for me. It is slow to develop, but the underlying mystery (starting with carnivorous plants and getting stranger from there) is a good one. The problem is that the story is told from the point-of-view of Brad. The kindest thing you can say about Brad is he is odd. He is also, despite the apparent effort to make him look intelligent, dull, uninteresting, and capable of repeated acts of ridiculous stupidity. He hides information from key people repeatedly for no reason that I could ever discern. He also passes up opportunities to learn information about what is happening just because he is obstinate. To make things worse, despite not appearing to be a particularly physical guy or having any combat training, he wins a fight with a monster of a man that more than strained credulity. I was never happy when the story returned to Brad’s perspective.

The first third of the novel is the best part of the book. Hamill does a great job of creating a truly perplexing and horrifying mystery that appears to be at least partly supernatural in character. There is a great deal of suspense and a lot of discovery without actually clarifying any of what happens. After this, the novel begins to lose its punch. Robby constructs a theory of what is happening that seems to come completely from left field and convinces a number of other survivors to help him enact a plan to save the world. The plan is strange and far-fetched, and I don’t think the now fourteen-year-old boy received enough push back on it, but it does set the stage for the last third of the novel when the excitement picks up again.

There are several genuinely creepy and frightening moments in this book and the conclusion basically worked, even having a heart-wrenching moment in which I (had I been in the book) probably would have made the wrong choice and gotten killed. In addition, I really liked a couple of the supporting cast members. In Extinct, Hamill has set the groundwork for a strange new world and I’m curious what he will do in the sequel.

I listened to this book in audio format so I’d like to conclude with a couple of comments on the excellent narration. For huge sections of this book, there isn’t a lot of dialogue. The pacing is slow and measured building suspense as the characters try to figure out what has happened to them. Kyle Tait does a superb job of cultivating the tension and helping the text build the atmosphere that Hamill obviously wanted to create. In addition, his voices are memorable. When one of the characters reappeared approximately twelve hours since we had last seen him, I knew who it was before the text identified him. That’s a pretty extraordinary accomplishment for a narrator.

I received this book from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

Ferocious by Jeff Strand

There are few genres in which characterization is more important than the horror genre. If you don’t care about the people to whom terrible things are happening, it’s hard to care deeply about the book. When I picked up Ferocious by Jeff Strand, I was a little bit worried about his ability to pull off the characters mentioned in the blurb—a recluse raising his niece off the grid in the middle of the wilderness. It seemed quite likely the author would slip into caricatures as he wrote about a zombie apocalypse in the backwoods. I could not have been more wrong. In the very first chapter he establishes Rusty Moss as both a hard man who hates people and someone that you absolutely have to love. In the next chapter he establishes Rusty’s niece, Mia, just as credibly. And this father-daughter style team will capture your heart as they struggle to survive one of the weirdest twists on the zombie apocalypse that I have ever read.

Strand is a master at building tension—not only with the ever-growing level of danger but with the very credible mistakes that Rusty and Mia make throughout the novel. They never do anything stupid, but many of their plans and reactions go badly awry. This makes them remarkably human as they deal with a horror they can’t quite believe is really happening to them.

One of the best distinguishing features of this novel is the vast array of zombie creatures that threaten Rusty and Mia. Strand has really thought out the strengths and weaknesses of the various undead forest animals so there is never a point in which the action gets routine. Even the smallest animals are dangerous and this gives the novel a decidedly different flavor from every other zombie story I have read.

Finally, I’d like to take a moment to talk about the vocal talents of narrator Scott Thomas. It’s not an easy thing for a man to craft a believable voice for a seventeen-year-old girl, but Thomas pulled it off and without his ability to do this, the audio book would not have worked nearly as well. He also catches the humor and affection in the back and forth banter of Rusty and Mia. His narration takes an excellent story and gives it that extra touch of magic to finish bringing it to life.

I received this book from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

Ararat by Christopher Golden

I’ve been reading Christopher Golden novels for more than twenty years starting with a couple of Buffy the Vampire novels, moving on to his Body of Evidence and Prowlers series, and quite a few others. I like the author and generally think he’s worth giving a try. Unfortunately, Ararat was not one of his better books.

After an earthquake causes an avalanche high up on Ararat in Turkey, a cave is opened up for the first time in millennia and inside is an object that might just be Noah’s ark. Everyone recognizes that it is too high up in the mountain to have ever been deposited there by a flood, but it does indeed appear to have been a vessel made for transport on the water some 5,000 years ago. It also contains a coffin with a horned humanoid in it. As the scientists and government representatives try to keep the archaeological exploration proceeding, many of the people fear they have discovered a demon. Then people start to disappear and die.

All of the build up works pretty well and I was greatly enjoying the novel, but when the couple of handfuls of survivors—convinced that a demon is hunting and possessing them—decide to run for it I started to lose my patience with the book. They all worry about bringing the demon back to civilization and they all run for it anyway to a totally predictable ending.

As if this wasn’t disappointing enough, there is never any real attempt to explain how the ark got up on the mountain in that cave and that was a great disappointment. In fact, I really didn’t think there was much of an effort to explain any of the “horror” elements. It just didn’t seem to me that this was up to Golden’s usual standards.

At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft

I think it’s important to start this review by recognizing how tremendously influential Lovecraft in general and At the Mountains of Madness is in particular has been. He basically created and popularized the whole Things Man Was Not Meant to Know subgenre of horror / fantasy / sf or whatever it really is. The Elder Gods threatening the very sanity of the planet comes from Lovecraft and not only do his motifs show up rather blatantly in works like Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October as well as more recent series like John Ringo’s Special Circumstances and Larry Correia’s Monster Hunters International, I suspect that you would never have gotten a TV show like the X-Files without Lovecraft.

So Lovecraft is hugely influential (the World Fantasy Award used to be a bust of Lovecraft) but that doesn’t mean that he’s an easy author to read. Most of the problem is that he was writing in the 1920s and 1930s and his fiction style comes off as slow moving and dated. At the Mountains of Madness takes the form of a narrative account of a disastrous expedition to Antarctica written long after the expedition’s survivors returned with the hope of dissuading the next expedition from beginning. It is filled with long and impressive descriptions of the geology of the continent and the remarkable discovery of a series of fossils the like of which have never been seen on the planet. Isolated from the rest of the world the scientists begin to discover that a wholly unanticipated species inhabited the earth tens of millions of years ago and the more they discover about this early life form the more horrific the story becomes.

And yet, while it is definitely creepy and Lovecraft has many subtle tricks to increase the reader’s understanding that things are going badly wrong, it is still a very slow moving story thanks to the narrative style. Today this book would have been written as a third person narrative following the expedition in “real time” and the action scenes that are quickly summarized in the original would have been fleshed out to play a much more significant role in the book, but that’s not how Lovecraft wrote and I think it makes the book harder to approach for today’s readers.

I listened to an audio version of the novella narrated extremely well by Edward Hermann who did a masterful job of bringing the text to life, but even so it remains a slow moving story. That being said, I still highly recommend it due to its influence over the decades since it was published.

On a Winter’s Eve by Chris L. Adams

This short story is flat out creepy. In it Adams consciously adopts the style of the pulp writers of the 1930s and 1940s and is so successful that you wouldn’t be surprised to learn this was a lost work of H.P. Lovecraft. The tension builds slowly as the other-worldly threat first makes itself known and then begins its haunting attacks on a family living far from civilization in wooded, snow-covered mountain lands. Since the story is told from a first person perspective years after the event, you know the narrator is going to survive, but it doesn’t feel that way as the danger mounts and the body count expands. This one will linger with you and give you second thoughts about looking out the window to watch the snow.

The Blonde Goddess of Tikka-Tikka by Chris L. Adams

Chris Adams continues his homage to the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 1940s with this quick novella about an adventurer who would fit well into a story by Robert E. Howard. The problem he encounters, however, is all H.P. Lovecraft and Adams does a very good job of building suspense as ancient horrors return to the earth. This is a fast moving tale which you’ll want to read in one sitting. There’s a tiny twist at the end of the story that gives some well-appreciated justification to the villains’ actions. I’d happily read a sequel.

Strangers by Dean Koontz

This is one of those novels that will linger in your thoughts for decades and I don’t just mean an image or two. From the very first chapter, Koontz starts cultivating feelings of suspense and ever increasing tension that will have you desperately turning pages, or, if listening to it in audio as I did this time, finding excuses to keep the book playing long after your commute is completed. What is especially impressive for an author who made his reputation in the horror genre is that it’s not even clear that there is going to be a supernatural element for half the book. It opens with a man who finds himself hiding in the closet after apparently sleep walking. He’s sore, he’s frightened, and he has no idea what is going on. But it isn’t until he pulls himself together and sits down at his computer to continue writing his new novel that things get really eerie. He finds that while sleep walking he has typed page after page of just two words: “I’m scared. I’m scared. I’m scared.”

Koontz then shifts focus to a young doctor on her day off who panics and flees in a fugue state when she notices a pair of black gloves. Next we meet a retired marine who is suddenly terrified of the dark and trying desperately to hide his fear from his wife. None of these people have any apparent connection, yet they are all showing evidence of psychological suffering they can’t explain. Later in the book we meet a young child who has become terrified of doctors and a priest whose deep and abiding faith suddenly collapses so that he throws the chalice in the middle of Mass. And the list goes on. What makes this all the more frightening is it is way too easy to imagine yourself suffering these almost normal problems which means that you will enjoy a high level of empathy with each of these very well drawn characters.

As we get deeper into the novel, elements of a vast conspiracy begin to be uncovered with the real possibility of danger to the people trying to find out why they are suffering these bizarre symptoms. This ramps up the tension to a whole new level as we also begin to meet people who have gone over the edge and even kill themselves as a result of the psychological harm they have suffered. At the same time suppressed memories begin to pop free in those suffering and they separately begin to evolve plans that will ultimately bring them together to find out what incredible event triggered all of this.

I don’t want to give away the end of this novel, but I found it to have a totally satisfying conclusion. The chief villain, when he is revealed, is both frightening and believable. This is a long book—nearly 30 hours in audio—but every page is worth reading.

Watchers by Dean Koontz

Thanks to some recent deals on audible, I’ve been listening to Dean Koontz novels again. I first read this one about thirty years ago when I was in college and I and my roommate both loved it. The novel revolves around a dog with human-level intelligence and the monster that’s trying to kill it. Along the way, a couple of humans get involved and move heaven and earth to try and save the animal. I’m not really a dog person, but who wouldn’t love Einstein in this novel? The strangest thing about this book is that, as in Strangers, this is a horror story that really isn’t about the horror. It’s about the bonds people forge in tough times and the lengths they are willing to go to out of love. This is a touching book with one of the best villains in literature. I’m not sure that I agree it is Koontz’s absolute best novel, but it certainly is a great one.

Lightning by Dean Koontz

Who keeps saving Laura Shane’s life and how does her special guardian know she’s in danger? It’s the question that dominates this intense thriller by Dean Koontz. The novel opens with a drunken doctor being called to deliver a baby (Laura) who’s birth is having complications. He stumbled to his car but is prevented from driving to the hospital by a mysterious stranger who ties him up, calls the hospital to tell them the doctor is drunk and not coming, and then waits with the doctor long enough to make certain he can’t escape and get to the hospital anyway. The baby is born alive and well under another doctor’s care and the stranger disappears.

He then continues to intervene in Laura’s life throughout her childhood, preventing her from suffering grievous harm, but not insuring she has a stress free life. As the novel progresses we come to know Laura very well and him somewhat well. It quickly becomes apparent that he is a time traveler who comes from a totalitarian state that he has lost confidence in and is determined to destroy. How Laura fits into his plans is not clear, but he is determined to make certain she survives to adulthood--until his plans are discovered by his superiors and everything goes to hell. Now Laura, her son, and the guardian must evade time traveling hit squads while they figure out how to save the world.

Time travel novels thrive or fail based on their ability to deal satisfactorily with paradox. This novel succeeds on this count. Koontz has created a deft set of time-travel rules that serve his plot well but appear to avoid the contradictions that so many authors fall into. And at the same time, he weaves into his plot some excellent surprises that greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the story. My only real complaint is that in this second reading--decades after my first reading--parts of the second half of the book seemed to drag and I wished it was shorter. That being said, the ending is superb and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Midnight by Dean Koontz

All is not right in Moonlight Cove—a secret that the reader learns in the first chapter of the book. Strange things are happening that will quickly embrace four strangers—an undercover FBI agent, a twelve year old girl, a crippled Vietnam veteran and a documentary film producer who wants to learn what really happened to her dead sister. The problem looks very different from each person’s perspective. The producer sees a cover up for her sister’s death, the FBI agent sees some sort of law enforcement conspiracy, the vet sees his neighbors acting increasingly strangely, and the young girl watches her parents go dangerously insane before hunting her across the wilderness on the outskirts of town.

These four individuals make a fine vehicle for exploring the problem of the town and beginning to understand just how outrageous they are, but it’s not until we get into the mind of one of the “converted” (the town’s police chief) that the novel really takes off and we start to learn just how crazy things really are. It’s this look from the inside that made this book work for me as the chief begins to understand that the “conversion” he has helped to force on the entire town has gone very badly off plan.

This novel would have been horrific enough if the bad guy’s plan had worked, but as it becomes increasingly clear that the conversion process is out of control, the tension goes through the roof. Midnight is a little slow getting started but by the end of the book you’ll be glad you stuck with it.