Book Review: Demon Jack by Patrick Donovan

demon jack book cover

Demon Jack
by Patrick Donovan
Fable Press
Release Date: September 30, 2013
$12.59 (paperback, Amazon) | $3.92 (Kindle)
Pages: 328
Review copy purchased online

Plot Description:

Simple choice:

Stay dead and go to Hell,
Or sell your soul to a demon and keep breathing.

Fifteen years ago, Jack died and chose the latter. Now, a few years out of prison and living on the streets of Boston, Jack is perfectly content to keep a low profile and avoid his turbulent past.

Being a faceless “nobody” suits Jack just fine.

It’s working out until the only person he considers a friend turns on him, possessed by something far worse than the demon holding the contract to Jack’s soul. Now, he’s been recruited (some might say blackmailed) by an ancient order with roots in the Inquisition to hunt down whatever malevolent force is responsible for turning Boston’s homeless into ravenous killers. At the same time, someone from his past with a massive vendetta and nothing in the way of conscience, is looking for Jack, hoping to issue a little payback of his own.

Paired with a centuries old witch and the only person to survive the rampage thus far, Jack is in a race to track down whatever’s responsible for killing his people, all while staying one step ahead of the skeletons in his closet.

Review:

Jack, the protagonist, is a nice change of pace from the 6-foot-and-above lean-framed, muscle-bound hunky fighting machines that usually figure in urban fantasies (and paranormal romances, for that matter).

Jack is homeless. He’s partial to hoodies and dirty clothes as they’re all he can find. He’s also barely over five feet, which, for a guy, can be emasculating, but he Jack doesn’t let the limitations of his size get to him.

Jack is also not a well-oiled warrior. He has been around the block when it comes to demons and supernatural baddies, that’s for sure, but he isn’t the kind of protagonist who was forced into a life of hunting demons, or who is continuing a “family business” a la the Winchesters, so he’s missing that self-righteous “I’m a hero, I rock all the time” shtick that plagues so many urban fantasy protagonists, both male and female.

However, Jack is by no means a dull boy. He’s a refreshing change of pace. He’s also a very damaged human being who made a choice to live with a demon inside of him rather than to die. The demon inside of him, Alice, has marked him with thousands of tiny scars that do enhance his own abilities, but power always comes with a price, as they say.

It’s nice to have an urban fantasy protagonist that’s not just the same police officer/law enforcement official with conflicts between their work life and the supernatural life they lead. So, if you’re sick of those kinds of urban fantasies, then Demon Jack is a sign you’ve come to the right place.

The story, although fast-paced, takes its time to unravel what’s going on layer by layer and piece by piece, so you won’t find a break-neck speed here. As a result, there are more opportunities for characterization and character development to shine through along with the plot.

The main subplot involves Jack being found by an old vampire foe, Adam, who takes a girl, Lucy, with the ability to see supernatural creatures that others can’t, into a vampire against her will. Adam and his thralls (his obedient, unquestioning goons) are your standard, run-of-the-mill vampire, but they’re (thankfully) the kind that kill their prey and “turn” others, especially when it comes at great peril to someone else, like Jack. So, none of the sexy, sparkly variety here.

Although I felt the middle was where the pace slowed for me a bit as things got bogged down, especially the the introduction of the three “holy men” that Jack had to deal with, the big reveal from Alice on what the Big Bag that Jack is up against really is and why he should be a lot more terrified than he is, and the continuation of the Adam backstory and the vampire conflicts.

Still, the pace picks up again about three quarters of the way through, and although I thought this made it a bit of an uneven book in that respect, meaning that I thought the beginning and ending had great pacing but the middle lagged a bit, it’s still a good, strong read.

Essentially, the battle that Jack faces is much bigger than just his struggle to not get killed by Adam and his vampire minions, or the demonic activities that he gets involved with.

Although the Big Bad turns out to be one we’ve seen very often in recent years in urban fantasy and horror stories, author Patrick Donovan’s interpretation makes the demonic foe function in much the way it’s supposed to, and so that it serves its purpose.

The writing is good for the most part, particularly with the characterization of Jack as well as the dialogue. I was expecting something a bit more original than what turned out to be a supernatural conflict we’ve seen before many times, and that we’re continuing to see more of in books, film, and television shows, but it’s a book I would recommend to urban fantasy fans. I would say if you’ve enjoyed the Dresden Files novels from Jim Butcher, you should pick up Demon Jack and see if it’s up your alley.

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Hitting the Reset Button on the Horror Genre

In my recent review of Josh Malerman’s horror novel, Bird Box, I mentioned that it was as though he pressed the reset button on the horror genre in a manner of speaking. While I won’t rehash the plot details (for that you can read my review), the basic premise is that people find themselves in a world where going outside will kill them because there are creatures who, once seen, cause humans to go berserk and off others but usually go to such a point of craziness that the only option becomes offing themselves.

Blindness is the only solution–blindfolds, patching up any windows or other things that reveal the outside world to the interior of a house, or should you be so “lucky”, suffering from the affliction of blindness (in some cases, the option to blind oneself is presented as a recourse).

This piece isn’t going to be a historical comparison piece about how the glut of offerings in the horror genre exploded in the 1980s when the genre had a boom and several micro movements within it such as Splatterpunk. Nor is this piece intended to be a contributor to the tiresome and never-ending debate of “extreme horror” vs. “quiet horror” and trying to get everyone to come to a consensus as to which is deemed the more “legitimate” form of horror. All this rather than accepting that horror readers have different tastes.

The reason that Bird Box works so well is that it presents the humans in this book with an enemy that they know is there, but they don’t know when it will strike. It’s an enemy they can’t see, yet they’ve experienced firsthand the damage that the enemy has done and has the potential to do to them, as well, if they get caught. It’s an enemy against which there’s no known cure, no solution as to how to stop them, get rid of them, kill them, or send them back to wherever it is that they came from.

Even worse, it’s suggested that this is an enemy that may not be able to control the fact that it has such an adverse reaction in the creatures who make the mistake of looking at it. There’s a similar principle behind the concept of the Panopticon that Michel Foucault talked about. Prison guards and wardens stood at the top of a tower from which they could see everything that the prisoners were doing, but the prisoners themselves, even though they knew they were being watched, could never confirm this for sure.

But the knowledge that they were being watched, the threat that they could be punished, not knowing when and by whom, was disturbing enough to prevent them from acting out, so to speak.

It’s one thing if you can see the enemy you have to kill, but it’s entirely another to have the knowledge that they’re always out there, but never knowing when for sure. When Malorie first arrives at a safehouse and finds a group of people there, after they let her into the house, they slam the door shut and feel all around her to make sure that nothing came in with her. This is their protocol to make sure a creature didn’t accidentally sneak in with someone who they decided to let in. This is the way they have to live in order to survive. They have no choice. They can’t afford to take any risks as being wrong would cost them all their lives.

If you go back far enough to the roots of fear, probably one of the first things man was afraid of was the dark. Heck, whole songs have been written about it. Movies. TV shows. Books. The fear of darkness is evolutionary and primal. Children are often afraid of the dark. The Bible talks about how wise it is to fear the darkness, because no good can come from it. The solution, it preaches, is to embrace the light.

How many works of horror feature monsters who don’t like the light, claiming that it burns them, because they thrive in the darkness, not wanting to be seen? Part of the fear of darkness is the inability to see, which introduces the fear of the unknown. Human nature thrives on being able to know something for sure, to confirm that what we’re touching when we’re stumbling in the dark hallway to get back upstairs, for example, is what we think it is. Adding sounds that we don’t recognize enhances the sense of more unknown elements. The more a human being is deprived of that knowledge, that confirmation that everything is okay, the more heightened their sense of fear is.

Think about why people used to be so afraid in medieval times of legends about werewolves and vampires. Of course, you could argue that people were also far more gullible back then and didn’t have anywhere near the amount of knowledge the average person has now, but the fear of the dark and unknown were all too real back then when superstitions were king.

Have you ever tried listening to those old radio shows from the 20s and 30s, sometimes called Golden Age of Radio, that used to be an endless source of entertainment for people who loved their thrills and chills before the advent of film and television? Have you ever tried listening to an old horror radio show in the dark, with the lights out?

Although a lot of radio shows relied on camp and over-acting, the effect of listening to an old radio show that was directed and produced well, and listening to it in the dark, is startling. It evokes the fear of the unknown and ignites our psychological “fight or flight” response, often prompting us to go with the “flight” mechanism, or wanting to get the hell out of dodge.

Bird Box is the kind of book that reminds us just how easy it is for our imaginations to take over in the absence of light, and when you don’t have the option of turning on the lights, so to speak. In other words, Bird Box isn’t just another generic ripoff of the same variation of something we’ve seen a million times before. Bird Box thankfully doesn’t feel anything like the same blockbuster we see over and over again in theaters starring the most popular action star of the day that audiences flock to with the hopes of a good scare.

Bird Box doesn’t give humans the “yeah, we’ve figured out what the monsters are and what hurts them, so now we just have to hunt and kill them all before they finish us up” plot. In fact, in one of the cheekiest and most delightful moments in the horror genre, Louis de Pointe du Lac, Anne Rice’s protagonist from Interview with the Vampire, corrects the journalist to whom he’s dictating his life story, telling him that actually he loves the light and he’s quite fond of it, unlike some of the monsters of a bygone era that came before him. So, the variation that monsters don’t mind the light at all has also been done, and done well, by some authors, some, of course, better than others.

But it’s refreshing to see a novel in which humanity doesn’t have all the answers, in which there is no safety plan, there is no Plan A (there’s not even a Plan C or D), and it’s up to who is the most determined to fight and survive and to make the bold step to go outside. Bird Box forces the reader to face the same fear as the characters in the book, wondering not only if they will survive, and wondering if the mystery of what these creatures are will be unravelled (not to mention, finding out why they have this effect on living beings and if they can control it or if it’s out of their control).

It also forces the reader to try to figure things out while being left in the dark. It makes the reader think but keeps us on our toes, never quite knowing which direction the book will go in. It resists the conventions of a usual plot structure and, as such, prevents the reader from making witty quips or guesses as to how it will all end, or if they do, this is one book that ensures the reader will be dead wrong.

And for that, I salute Mr. Malerman for such a finely crafted, quality, horror novel that has taken the genre back to its roots. He has explored old territory, previously seemingly forgotten, like it was buried ages ago and only recently uncovered in an archaeological dig. I praise the author for showing us that something that made us afraid since the beginning of time is still bone-chilling when executed well.

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Book Review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman

bird box malerman cover

Bird Box
by Josh Malerman
Ecco (HarperCollins Publishers)
$16.43 (Amazon, hardcover) | $18.20 (Amazon Kindle) | $14.99 (eBook, HarperCollins)
Release Date: May 13, 2014
262 pages
Purchased copy of the eBook

Plot Description:

Something is out there . . .
Something terrifying that must not be seen. One glimpse and a person is driven to deadly violence. No one knows what it is or where it came from.
Five years after it began, a handful of scattered survivors remain, including Malorie and her two young children. Living in an abandoned house near the river, Malorie has long dreamed of fleeing to a place where her family might be safe. But the journey ahead will be terrifying: twenty miles downriver in a rowboat—blindfolded—with nothing to rely on but Malorie’s wits and the children’s trained ears. One wrong choice and they will die. And something is following them. But is it man, animal, or monster?
Engulfed in darkness, surrounded by sounds both familiar and frightening, Malorie embarks on a harrowing odyssey—a trip that takes her into an unseen world and back into the past, to the companions who once saved her. Under the guidance of the stalwart Tom, a motley group of strangers banded together against the unseen terror, creating order from the chaos. But when supplies ran low, they were forced to venture outside—and confront the ultimate question: in a world gone mad, who can really be trusted?
Interweaving past and present, Josh Malerman’s breathtaking debut is a horrific and gripping snapshot of a world unraveled that will have you racing to the final page.

Review:
You’re going to hear from a lot of people and reviewers that Bird Box is a must-read, a must-buy, a “get it now and find out what everyone else is raving about” type of book. The buzz is certainly going strong, and there is indeed a lot of hype surrounding how good the novel is. It’s rare for such levels of buzz and hype to translate to a good novel, but in this case, believe what you hear, readers.

People now live in a world where they can’t open their eyes. Blindness is the only known cure to this plague of creatures (which are never identified, heightening their scare factor), but essentially, if you open your eyes–if you’re not boarded up someplace–you’re screwed. One of the common things people have mentioned in reviews of Bird Box is the element of gritty realism that’s rooted in the fear. This novel is very much a product of its times, an extension of the Digital Age and all its terrors, something that doesn’t seem so far-fetched or fanciful. The spread of information in this day and age is lightning fast, unprecedented, and information is everywhere. It’s not news that we’re bombarded with messages from the media every day. News is everywhere. The element of “hoax news” is also something that’s present in this novel, along with the notion of people not taking something seriously until it hits home. At first, a news story breaks of a man in Russia who goes nuts and kills the guy next to him in a truck. Then a similar thing happens with girls in Alaska.

Amid all of this confusion and spreading panic, our protagonist, Malorie, finds out she’s pregnant (it wasn’t planned). In his narrative, Malerman interweaves past and present timelines to reveal to the reader her journey, always with the question up in the air of whether she will survive or not. Despite the potential for “Disaster Movie” type of elements, Bird Box is “quiet horror” at its finest. It doesn’t rely on cheap thrills or theatrics. It doesn’t give readers what we’ve seen a thousand times before. It doesn’t try to tack on some Biblical explanation for humanity’s downfall. Another common thread in each of the reviews of this book you’ll see if mentions of how original it is, and while that’s certainly true, I would argue that Bird Box is effective because in many ways it has hit the reset button on horror. What I mean by that is Malerman has gone back, way back, to the roots of true terror, which is fear of the unknown. Primar fear. Man is terrified of what he can’t see. The dark. Blindness. While Hugh Howey also explored the idea of the inability to go outside in his book, Wool, choosing to take on more of a science fiction bent with the atmosphere being toxic and uninhabitable for humans, Malerman goes full throttle with the horror elements, placing the blame on not being able to go outside with humans seeing beings known only as creatures. And in a book like this, I thought it worked fine not to reveal to the audience what exactly the creatures are, whether demons or aliens or something else entirely.

Back to Malorie. This woman is, I would argue, a true representation of a strong female character. Forget all the urban fantasy or other “kickass chicks” you’ve encountered in books, films and television shows. Malorie has more strength, true strength, than any urban fantasy heroine any day of the week. The things she has to do to survive are things that a lesser human would not survive. This includes spending four years raising her two children, known only as Boy and Girl, to sharpen their sense of hearing for the inevitable day when she knows she will have to go outside again.

Bird Box forces readers to question whether we could survive in such grim, bleak, desperate circumstances, to have to live in a world where one has to be blindfolded and protected from the outside world in all ways. What’s outside–the creatures–can look inside, and it’s all over.

Another reason why Bird Box is so effective is that it relies on good characterization and exploring what people do when they’re pushed past their limits rather than relying on high-octane, rollercoast type plotting. Malorie finds herself in the company of other survivors in a house that is slowly going mad from the inside out. The other characters each bring a new layer of complexity to the novel, keeping things interesting and the reader on the edge of his or her seat. Malorie doesn’t have time to wallow in self-pity or misery or any of the other things that afflict her. As if having to live and survive in a world with blindfolds, not being able to go outside, and all the rest isn’t bad enough, imagine having to do it while pregnant. The threat of impending delivery, knowing that she’ll have to have this child at some point but not knowing when and under what circumstances, also adds to the sense of doom and gloom in an effective way, ratcheting up the tension.

One of the interesting ideas that Malerman also explores is the effect that these creatures have on the already mentally ill, as well as animals. He makes suggestions, but whatever the case with these creatures, it’s clear that no one is immune. I won’t spoil for you the significance of the title, but when you find it in the novel, it will have a lot of resonance.

As I alluded to earlier, the worst feeling readers will get while read Bird Box is that the scenario doesn’t seem all that far-fetched. Authors have been scaring people about the future for a long time, even before George Orwell penned 1984. An author really doesn’t have to try that hard to scare readers when it comes to the world we live in, which is a pretty scary place in many ways. The Digital Age in which technology reigns supreme and governs everything we do is downright terrifying in some ways. But still, perhaps the worst part–and one of the most fascinating elements–about these creatures, as one of the characters conjectures, is that they may not know they have these terrible effects on everyone but themselves. In other novels and films, there’s usually a panel of scientists trying to break down how the enemy works and how to protect humanity, but I found it more effective not to have any of that, leaving the reader in the dark but no so much so that they can’t follow along with what’s going on.

Now, it’s not all “quiet horror.” In fact, some of the gruesomeness, especially toward the end of the book, would make Dario Argento himself blush. Malerman makes a much more impactful statement with the mystery shrouding the creatures, as well as the ominous sense of making the reader wonder who will make it out alive. In most cases, children depend on their parents for survival, and while that’s certainly also the case here, Malorie depends on the children for survival as much as they’re depending on her.

So, reader, look to Bird Box as a kind of a renaissance for the horror novel, a celebration of the genre’s roots, something that feels familiar enough that we want to read it but different enough that we’re engaged and captivated, needing to know what happens next. If you want a real page-turner, something you won’t be able to put down and will want to keep reading compulsively, look no further than Bird Box.

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Guest Post: Get More Done by Lee Thompson

a beautiful madness book cover

 
Welcome to Lee Thompson’s A Beautiful Madness blog tour!
Darkeva’s Dark Delights, and the others participating blogs, will receive a paperback copy to give to a random reader who leaves a comment and shares this post. Throughout the book tour, Lee will be sharing fun facts about his first Mystery/Thriller, and also offering dubious advice to novice writers. Lee also thanks all the bloggers and readers who participate.


Get More Done

Unless you’re a blockbuster author, you’re going to have to get a lot done if you want to write full-time. For me, being excited about the novel I’m writing is enough to keep me on track and I don’t put anything before it. But listening to a lot of other writers I know, it seems they get distracted by tweets, and likes, and this, and one of those.

If you want to write, if the story you’re telling truly excites you, I think you’re going to make time for it. You’ll be thinking about it all the time, you’ll be eager to get back to the keyboard to lock more of it down so it can’t get away and you can get it out of your head and into other people’s.

It’s not terribly complicated is it? It sounds like a lot of excuses to me. I know plenty of mothers who are raising children and still knocking out the work. My buddy Shaun drives truck seventy hours a week and still makes it happen. I’m pretty certain that those who cry about not having enough time waste a lot of time even if it’s under the guise of being busy, which isn’t the same as completing your most important tasks.

What’s holding you back? Do you think it’s all the activity around you or all the activity you create? Maybe a little of both? A lot of both?
If ten other things take up more of your time than writing, are all ten of them more important to you? Are they essential? I know writing a novel doesn’t always have the immediate gratification that online activities seem to have, but the long lasting gratification is surely, for me at least, much greater in completing and selling a novel.

Maybe it’s different for you. Maybe talking about writing instead of doing it is what gets your rocks off. Maybe you like to whine about how hard it is, we all need to vent our frustrations sometimes, but big whoop. That’s not some startling revelation.
And writers write through the hurt and the agony, don’t they? They use it, don’t they? Ask Stephen King, William Faulkner, James Lee Burke, and Dennis Lehane.

Accepting responsibility—that it’s all up to you and nobody else—you make the time to read, write, edit, learn—is more of a help than hindrance. It is more freeing than anything to admit you put everything else before writing. You do realize it’s your responsibility, don’t you? If you blame your spouse, or your boss, or your kids, or your mother-in-law, or your favorite television show, just quit. People will laugh at you less. If you want to tinker at writing, go for it. But if writing is really your dream, work that imagination muscle. It needs exercise to stay in top shape. Are you talking about writing more than engaging in the act of it? It’s silly to do that isn’t it? Look at the mechanic who never works on cars. Look at the pianist who never touches the keys. Look at the carpenter who never lifts a tool. Is that you?

This also applies to characters in your novel. It’s very easy to spot a timid writer by the characters he creates. They’re always on the verge of doing something but only act when they’re forced into a corner. Everything in their head is way worse than reality could ever be. They walk through the story world without making any commitments because they’re afraid (nothing wrong with being afraid, the courageous are often afraid, they just act in the face of it.) A timid writer who finally develops a character usually develops a weak character arc, because deep down they know their character has just been going through the motions and hasn’t really overcome anything. Bah. There’s not much of a story in that, at least for genre fiction.

So if you claim to be a writer, prove it.

Get writing.

I challenge you.

It kills me to spend time writing non-fiction when I could be spending that time working on a novel, but I’m hoping some of the insights I’ve gotten over the last few years will help someone on their way up. Sadly I don’t think it can make much of a difference. If you’re going to write, you’re already doing it. If you’re not, you won’t. Nothing I say can change either.

In A Beautiful Madness, my protagonist Sammy has to get a lot done in a short time because he believes someone is out to destroy what’s left of his family. Like me, he’s all about addressing the important things immediately, which is nice because immediate choices propel the story forward, create tension, and sometimes back fire, causing collateral damage.

See below for information on how you can win a free copy of A Beautiful Madness and have a chance to win more Darkfuse titles. Thanks to those who participate.

Happy reading!
–Lee

Amazon Kindle | Paperback

More about A Beautiful Madness, and a link to the Goodreads giveaway to maximize your chances of scoring a free copy (giveaway goes until August 5, 2014).

Author bio: Lee Thompson is the author of the Suspense novels A Beautiful Madness (August 2014), It’s Only Death (forthcoming, January 2015), and With Fury in Hand (forthcoming, May 2015). The dominating threads weaved throughout his work are love, loss, and learning how to live again. A firm believer in the enduring power of the human spirit, Lee believes that stories, no matter their format, set us on the path of transformation. He is represented by the extraordinary Chip MacGregor of MacGregor Literary. Visit Lee’s website to discover more.

Enter to win a paperback copy! There will also be a grand prize at the end of the tour where one winner will receive Lee’s novel and four other DarkFuse titles in Kindle format! To enter: Simply leave a comment on this blog and share the link.

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Book Review: Relic of Death by David Bernstein

relic of death book cover

Relic of Death
by David Bernstein
Darkfuse
$2.99 (Amazon Kindle)
Release Date: June 24, 2014
Review copy from NetGalley

Plot Description:

When two mob enforcers take care of a hit in the suburban countryside, they stumble onto a seemingly abandoned house. While searching the place, they find a simple leather briefcase full of what they think are priceless diamonds.

But things are never as they appear…

For the briefcase is a bringer of death. This ancient evil, once contained for centuries, is now unleashed. Those who come in contact with it will be granted their greatest desires at the even greater cost of their lives.

Review:
Bernstein’s latest book starts off in the back woods of New York state and two mobsters from Brooklyn who are up to no good. At 51, Sal is older than most mobsters. His daughter, Melinda, has breast cancer. Although it’s been caught early, there’s always a chance that things might get worse. He feels he should have it, not her. So, basically, he’s got a lot of things on his plate. He’s paranoid about any traces of DNA being tied back to him, so he carries around Ziploc bags in which to put his discarded cigarette butts.

They break into a high-security house in the middle of the woods and go into the basement where they find a safe, which Sal has a lifetime of experience cracking. What he finds inside is a briefcase filled with diamonds. But after the discovery, he starts to develop even worse paranoid thinking patterns, becoming convinced that only he must make off with them and that he should get rid of his partner, Bruno. The diamonds seem to have a supernatural hold on him.

The briefcase goes to a drug addict, then to a newly unemployed and soon-to-be-homeless woman, her disgusting landlord (disgusting is putting is mildly. There’s a reason Bernstein is good at gross-out horror), and each time it changes hands, with the exception of these three, who all see money in the briefcase, the ‘treasure’ inside changes depending on what the owner’s deepest desire is.

Eventually, the briefcase ends up in the hands of Gus, the son of the sleazy landlord, who it turns out has a cheating, manipulative, loathsome wife. She has shacked up with her lover, a high power attorney, and threatens to ensure she gets full custody of Jezebel, her daughter with Gus. This leads to the original owner of the briefcase with the high-security home in the first part of the book coming out of the woodwork so to speak. This leads to the big reveal of what the ‘relics of death’ are, how they work, why people see them and bad things happen when they come into possession of the briefcase.

A non-stop action thrill-ride, if you like your books with a breakneck pace that keeps you reading anxiously until the last page, pick up Relic of Death. If you’ve enjoyed his previous work, you’ll dig this one, too.

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