Book Review: Redbacks, by Aaron Crocco

It becomes increasingly tricky to innovate a fairly well-explored fiction genre, and the idea of a zombie apocalypse is no exception – zombies are fast or slow, voodoo or viral, after your brains or simply any iron-rich tissue of the body, a tool for a gorefest or an allegory for society. Sometimes it seems like, in the overal body of work involving zombies, it’s all been done.

Then +Aaron Crocco comes along and gives us something new.

_Redbacks_ is book 2 of his _As Darkness Ends_ series, but can be read standalone (although, having read it, I want to go back and read book 1). It begins with the world ending – or so it seems to some of the characters. An earthquake shakes not just most of Manhattan, where protagonist James Cole works, but the actual entirety of the earth. James manages to avoid upheaving streets and crumbling skyscrapers, and post-quake bands together with a survivor who saved his life in order to try to get through the city to make his way back to his estranged wife.

Then they discover that buckled streets and precarious architecture and infrastructure are far from their biggest worry – the eponymous, violent antagonists of the tale appear, wreaking havoc and killing survivors, moving in animal-like packs, though they clearly used to be human.

And all of this under a sky unnaturally darkening under a black cloud moving to cover the earth.

It’s a quick-paced adventure with roots in zombie literature and religious apocalyptica alike, and one I quite enjoyed – it grabbed me from the quaking get-go and dragged me along through the ruins of one of the great cities of the world, to a conclusion that I honestly never saw coming.

 

Amazon Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/Redbacks-As-Darkness-Ends-ebook/dp/B007ETKF2S
Amazon Paperback: http://www.amazon.com/Redbacks-Darkness-Ends-Book-Volume/dp/1470034441
Amazon Paperback of Book 1: http://www.amazon.com/As-Darkness-Ends-Book-One/dp/1466251654
Smashwords Book 1: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/82830
Smashwords Book 2: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/137369

See the author’s site at http://www.aaroncrocco.com/ for more links, info, and a way to purchase an autographed eBook!

Book Review: Big Chills, by John McDonnell

I recently downloaded Big Chills, one of 8 books currently available from John McDonnell, from Amazon.com as part of a free promotion. Big Chillsis a collection of 9 pieces of horror flash fiction from this (according to the Amazon blurb) master of psychological horror.With a claim like that, I was very eager to dig into the book and see what was being serve up on the altar er, platter.

Flash fiction, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is an ultra-short form of fiction writing that can be as small as under a hundred words (although that often falls into the subcategory of “drabble”), and up to no more than a thousand words. Obviously, therefore, that made this series of stories a quick read by form of length alone.

It was also a quick read for content. The first story, All The Time In The World, begins in the 1500s on a sugar plantation, in media res of a conflict between a Spanish plantation owner presented with an african slave prophet who is causing an uproar among the slaveworkers of his Canary Islands plantation. Urged by his priest, his solution is swift and brutal – but the retaliation that follows is equally as brutal, and with long-reaching consequences for such a short tale.

One thing that struck me as I read was the consistently recurring theme, from a fantasy kingdom with a giant to a parson’s clairvoyant wife in possession of a Thor’s Hammer necklace to a particularly snide babysitter, of revenge. In most of the stories, someone is done wrong, and in one way or another are made to pay a price for their crimes. Some tales, particularly the story of an aging former model with Beautiful Hands, accomplish this in such a way that you can perfectly imagine it as a tale being told while sitting around a s’mores-toasting campfire, while others such as The New Boy attain their resolution in a way that even an experience reader of horror and thrillers would not expect.

The New Boy as well as New Year are both tales that leave the reader almost with more questions than when the story began, and New Year in particular is one that I personally would love to see expanded into a longer work. The premise presented is incredibly engaging, and I desperately wanted more of it.

Quite likely my favorites in this volume are So Few Giants and The Bad Babysitter. So Few Giants is the only outright fantasy-set piece in the collection, and manages in quite a short time to accomplish several twists of who is the good guy, and who is the bad. The closing line, echoing the title, gives it a wonderfully cyclical feel, and leaves one to consider what constitutes a giant and conversely the smallness of mind and intent that plagues all too many people. The Bad Babysitter delighted me in dealing directly and unabashedly with children and monsters, and with a wonderful deconstruction in brief of what Satan is in terms of evil:

Melissa sat down on the couch. “It’s a primitive defense mechanism, actually. I’ve studied it. It makes people feel safer if they have this cartoon figure to give them an alibi when they do something wrong.”“Cartoon figure?”

“Yes. The long nose. The pointy beard. The horns. Like a Disney character, actually. It has nothing to do with real evil. We have more real evil in our basement than you’ll even find worshipping Satan. I still say you couldn’t go down our basement in the dark and stay there for a minute.”

It’s precisely this sort of wry, impudently cheeky sense of humor that really makes the collection, in my mind; set against the recurrent theme of revenge, it really underlines the horrors that happen to the victims and antagonists, and leaves the reader with a wonderfully smug sense of “I told you so.”

Ultimately, I quite enjoyed this collection, and look forward to reading more of Mr. McDonnell’s work.

 

Big Chills is available from Amazon for $2.99: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B005D2M72Y

John McDonnell’s blog: http://mcdonnellwrite.blogspot.com/

John McDonnell’s books on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/John-McDonnell/e/B004AXGYHQ

On Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/jaymack

31 Things In 31 Days: Day Eight

I hadn’t seen anybody in weeks.

That wasn’t entirely true. I saw Manny every day, if you call peering out the window at the fallen husk that had been his body “seeing.” He’d gotten tired of waiting, tired of wanting something to change, and he’d grabbed a shovel and crossed the lawn to the lichen-covered wooden fence, using the tool like an unwieldy axe to slice and chop and scrape at the lichen, trying to clear an area around the gate to get out. He wasn’t careful enough, I know that much. I couldn’t see what got him – maybe his hand slipped to far down the shovel, or maybe a bit flew into the air and he inhaled it. But I did see him stumble away from the fence, twisting as he fell.

The lichen was already starting to creep across his skin before he hit the ground, and I still haven’t decided if it was blessed or horrific that he never even screamed; he just squirmed and went still, while skin and hair disappeared beneath an uneven layer of mottling green. It crept out onto the grass as well, but once it hit the edge of the cement walk that rings the house, it halted.

Every day I check, and the lichen hasn’t moved from his body; it looks lower to the ground than it was. I’m not sure if its eating him, or if he’s decomposing. That was still unclear even after everything went into lockdown and quarantine, before all the television signals cut out.

Yesterday, though, I saw the bird.

I’ve never been very good with birds. It’s small, and brown, with a black head. I know enough to know things that it’s not – not an eagle, not a cardinal, not an owl, not a blue jay. Wrong size, wrong color. It’s a sparrow, maybe, or a chickadee. One of those small, forgettable birds that’s always there and you never really notice. I noticed it this time, because it was sitting on the fence. It was perched on some of the bare wood, where Many had scraped a swath of lichen off the top, and it was pecking blithely away at the layer of green as if it were made of a smear of worms or something. I watched it, waiting to see the stuff spread across it, waiting for a tiny lump of green to tumble off the fence.

It didn’t. The bird perched and pecked, nibbling bit by bit until the bare spot was all the way across the top of the board, instead of just a small section. Then its small head turned toward the house, and I could have sworn it was looking right at me. But birds can’t see through glass, right? They always flew into the windows when we had the feeders too close to the house, that’s why I’d moved them out under the apple tree last summer. I haven’t been out to fill the feeders since Manny left.

It looked like it was looking at me, though, and then launched itself, disappearing somewhere down the block.

This morning it came back, and it wasn’t alone. There was a second, and a third, and they’ve all been perching on the bare spots of the fence, nibbling and pecking at the lichen, clearing it bit by bit.

Another one just landed next to Manny. That’s why I’m writing this down instead of watching this. I don’t want to see what’s under the lichen there. But I can hear the flutter of wings outside the window, and I hope the birds get to the gate latch soon. I want to see if the whole world is green. If it’s not… I’m going to buy a lot of birdseed some day.

~~~~~

This was written as part of the 31 Things In 31 Days project, being run on the page of the same name on Google+. For more information or to participate, go there.

Day Eight Prompt:

 

31 Things In 31 Days: Day Seven

“…so what it really comes down to is not what religious-based system of morals you claim to adhere you, what your parents taught you to do, how well you please your boss, which charities you support, or stopping at that No Turn On Red when there’s someone on the sidewalk. True quality of life comes down to your answer of one simple question: How do you live your life when nobody’s watching?”

There was a long moment of silence, and then the room erupted into applause around me, to which the speaker smiled and nodded her head, then stepped aside form the podium to bow. After a moment, I joined in, but distractedly, mulling over the final punch of the presentation. How do you live your life when nobody’s watching?

That question bothered me, largely because I really hadn’t a good answer for it, and I couldn’t bring myself to make much more than the weakest effort at friendly smalltalk as I circulated through the crowd. There were a few folks I knew there, and I was acutely aware of a growing sensation of being on display as we made our old familiar greetings, chitchatting about the conference and the hotel and work and the hundred sundry things that give us common connection with our peers. It was hard to concentrate, with that question reverberating, forcing me to notice all the things I did because they were watching me – smiling just so, making this joke, adjusting my tie.

I excused myself and drove home, scowling at the dark streets, unable to not notice now how the passage of other cars forced me to alter my own driving; a blinker here, a careful slowing there. Even getting home was little relief, because I know how Mr. Watson liked to keep an eye on the folks down our little dead end road. I’d noticed once, when some of his mail had been mixed into mine and I’d brought it back to him, that he had a chair and a table with pens, notebooks, and binoculars, sitting under the curtained front window of his cape at the end of the cul de sac. Probably he could see nearly everybody’s comings and goings from there, kept note of it all. That was unnerving even before the presenter’s question got under my skin. How do you live your life when nobody’s watching?

Now my scalp practically prickled with the sensation of being watched as I hoisted my luggage from the trunk and rolled it behind me to the front door. The sensation did not go away as I let myself in and closed the door behind me, and I felt awkward walking down the hall to the bedroom. Each step felt strange and new, the step of my shoulders wrong, and the center of my back itched between the shoulder blades, even though I knew there was no angle that would let Mr. Watson see into my bedroom window from the front of his living room.

I walked around and pulled all the shades before opening my luggage and unpacking, a place for everything and everything in its place. Each movement felt stilted, like a performance, making me scowl at my own awkwardness.

Dinner was reheated leftovers, and as the microwave whirred I hunted up a roll of duct tape to tack down the edges of all the curtains, bending and stretching and with every motion feeling that unnerving sensation of being watched.

I ran out of tape before I could get the kitchen shades, so I shut the door and went to eat on the couch, frowning at the silent TV sitting opposite me, the unpowered screen cast grayish by the light slanting from the one lamp in the corner. Bite by bite I ate the warmed up chicken parm, and each piece felt heavy and too large in my mouth. My jaw felt badly hinged.

The fork rattled on the plate and the pasta slurmed in its sauce when I slammed it down on the table, and went to kneel in front of my armchair. She was silent and wide-eyed there, still rumpled from her trip in my suitcase, hands still tied to her thighs, ankles tied to the chair; it looked like perhaps it was wrenching her knees a little, with the pencil skirt allowing no give. It hadn’t let her curtsey on the stage, either. The cloth napkin still filled her mouth, and mostly muffled the cries as my knife dug between her eyelids, one and the other, gouging those bright eyes right out in a runnel of blood and grayish translucent jelly.

She struggled in the chair, screaming against the cloth in her mouth and lurching from one side to the other, while I returned to the couch and pulled my plate of chicken pram back into my lap. The knife hovered over it for a moment, smeared with the eye-stuff.

How do you live your life when nobody’s watching?

I cut off another chunk of chicken and swirled it in the pasta, scooping up some of the noodles. It was delicious, and I was finally able to let my mind wander as I chewed.

~~~~~

This was written as part of the 31 Things In 31 Days project, being run on the page of the same name on Google+. For more information or to participate, go there.

Day Six Prompt:

How do you live your life when nobody’s watching?

 

31 Things In 31 Days: Day Six

The gathering below started small, at first – just one or two of the tiny fae, not bigger than a blueberry any one of them. Then more came flitterfloating in from all directions, in pairs and bunches, and every last one of them a tiny glowing golden glow. I could hear the murmur of them, as much as one ever hears them – more that their worries and concerns trickled through the air to slip under the skin. Worry. Fear. Even anger, which is fairly rare from the lightfairies.

As good as their name, they lit this small section of deep and inaccessible woods as though it were not the dark of night, and what few curious lightningbugs came darting in were quickly shooed off like cats from a kitchen when a roast is cooling. Then the outcry began.

How many of their number had been lost?!

How long was this to go on?!

Why were there no protections to keep them safe in the pursuance of their duties?!

The outcry was raised and echoed on all sides, not only by the soundless shared voice they projected unto one another, but by the very movement of the lot of them. Where, as they gathered, they had floated largely upon a shared plane with some of them lifting from time to time to drive above the lot and settle down back in, now their concentrated, commingled, and heightened agitation swept through them like a wave, literally rising and crashing back down amongst the tree trunks. It prickled beneath my flesh, and I raised from my haunches.

I could not blame them, as I genteely freed my claws and unfurled my wings. None of the others seem to like it when I ate them, either.

~~~~~

This was written as part of the 31 Things In 31 Days project, being run on the page of the same name on Google+. For more information or to participate, go there.

Day Six Prompt:

 

31 Things In 31 Days: Day Five

It was the end of the world, they said.

It was the obliteration of life as we know it, they said.

It was inescapable, they said.

It was beautiful. It happened at night, where I was, the chunk of spacebody from some far distant system that had come trucking across the empty bits between stars and planets and comets and rock belts, cruising overhead not nearly as quickly as I expected because for all they said such doom and gloom I had expected it to zip across the sky in a thin white streak like shooting stars which aren’t really stars, they’re bits of rock or dust or martian shit on fire on the doorstep of our sky – but it wasn’t like that at all, brightening the one side of the horizon like the sun coming up except the sun doesn’t come up in the north by northwest, and the sun isn’t irregularly shaped, and doesn’t arc across the bowl of the sky above us like a thick and heavy flag being swung by a revolutionary, like a jet plane just big enough to watch trucking along but high enough to not hear its engines until it was well ahead of the sound, and there was only a little bit of sound to this, a hesitant hiss that I could have sworn crackled but maybe that was just because it looked like fire trailing yellow and red and orange against the stark dark blue, and it disappeared mostly behind some old broken walls that had gotten given up on as Never Getting Fixed long before the land was mine to bother taking care of, orange and blue just like my nephew was trying to show me was everywhere on posters and DVD covers and such, and since this had never happened before and was never going to happen again I stopped and watched it all the way across the sky, and when there was nothing but its feathery, burning tail left streaking past the stars, I hoisted my wheelbarrow to follow the old back road back up to the barn.

It was radioactive, they said, and we’d all be sterile, and in a hundred years nothing would be left born, and we’d all die out even before then maybe from starving. Maybe that was so, but the calf in my barrow was alive.

I don’t understand why they called it Phoenix.

~~~~~

This was written as part of the 31 Things In 31 Days project, being run on the page of the same name on Google+. For more information or to participate, go there.

Day Five Prompt:

31 Things In 31 Days: Day Four

“You don’t have to do this,” The words sounded hollow and ridiculous as soon as they left my mouth. They were false, and I knew it, and she knew it.

“I don’t want to do this,” she responded, and maybe it was just because her voice was so quiet that she sounded a little hoarse. Or maybe she was being just as honest as I wasn’t. Maybe that was why she was the one who was going to get out of this.

“We could just both stay,” I pleaded once more, one hand trying to lift, but still held firmly down by the vines she’d uprooted, tying me down at the base of the tilted-over tree with its roots flailing and exposed to the air like an upended turtle’s thick legs. The top of the tree actually brushed against the high, dark-leaved hedge.

“I can’t stay,” she said, and her voice cracked. She actually looked down, and my heart crumpled a little for her, watching the deep breath inflate her chest and lift her shoulders, and then slowly subside again. “I can’t stay, and I haven’t got enough for us both.”

I knew the knife; I’d seen it on the belt of the fae creature that had kept us both for so long. How she got her hands upon it I shall never know, but had I any doubt as to her determination even with all that regret, it was gone when I saw the intricately etched blade winking in the blue light of today’s sun. A thousand tortures unimaginably worse than what already we had suffered awaited her now if she went back – both of us, because I’d been gone long enough now that surely I’d be declared an accomplice, no matter what.

My blood ran cold; if she left me here, I’d be punished for her escape, regardless of the fact that I’d clearly been struck and bound, made to stay.

“But you can help us both get away,” I whispered, and lifted my chin from my chest to leave my throat bare. Wordlessly she set the point of the knife against the thick vein on one side, and in spite of being prepared for it the small jab made me hiss, my head jerking back. The spill of wet down the front of my shoulder and chest was immediate, and she hurriedly put a bowl underneath, murmuring words I did not know as used the knife to stir my blood into the herbs waiting there. with great care she painted the red mixture onto her eyelids, above and below, and then in a thick stripe between them across her nose, and from the sides away back across her temples. By the time she was done, I was growing dizzy, but I kept my eyes upon her, watching the mixture dry.

The air grew thick and prickly with the invisible gathering of power, and I could feel bits of it flitting past me to paste itself to her face, to her eyes. I surely wasn’t the only one who could feel it. I hoped the drying would go fast.

She watched me as well, occasionally testing the darkening stripe with her fingertips until it was dry, and then looked up past me, up the length of the tree at the hedge. A happy sob came from her lips, and I twisted weakly to see what it was. I saw only the top of the tree, nestling against the hedge.

“What is it?”

“The way home,” she whispered, voice thick, and I relaxed between the roots again, looking at her.

Distantly, there was the sound of a horn, and she went pale beneath her strange paint, though not as pale as I, tied down to be left for those who would come.

“Please,” I begged, and lifted my chin, pleadingly. A tear slid out of the corner of her eye, and though she glanced past me again at the top of the tree, she stayed her clear desire to flee, just long enough to cut me free of the world before our captors finished tracking us down.

~~~~~

This was written as part of the 31 Things In 31 Days project, being run on the page of the same name on Google+. For more information or to participate, go there.

Day Four prompt is courtesy of Eric Albee on Flickr, distributed under an Attributions-only Creative Commons license. http://www.flickr.com/photos/ericalbee/6632588919/: