Christopher Rice’s The Vines: A Dark Entanglement

Cover of The Vines

The Vines was actually the first book by Christopher Rice that I have read, and while I have to admit I wasn’t completely blown away, there were quite a few things in this book to like.

The gist of the story is that a well-off, but less than attractive woman who is old Louisiana money, catches her husband cheating on her on her birthday. Distraught, she retreats to the outdoor gazebo, smashes a wine glass and prepares to slit her wrists. However, her first drop of blood awakens something in the soil, and it displays itself as a vine that grows up around her wrist, sucking the blood from her veins. The vine then proceeds to take care of her cheating husband problem. The woman starts to view it as an ally, a force to wield, but there are complications and the mysterious, deadly force cannot be contained.

This is most definitely a horror story, but there are also some elements of dark fantasy, or dark fairy tale, here. Not only is the presence unleashed a terrifying conceptualization of nature gone wild, but the back story of violence and mystery adds substantially to the darkness of the book. In my mind, it was never daylight in this story.

NOTE: SPOILERS AHEAD

So, here is what I liked about the book:

  • I liked that Rice went with a very different kind of menace in this book. It was an interesting combination of earth magic, blood curse, and actually there were some interesting old school sci-fi influences (think Little Shop of Horrors). And, I would also say that it was heavily influenced by the weird. We never really find out what the force is behind the vines – there are people identified as being in control of the situation (the old land owner) but it seems that he really wasn’t in complete control. He was more of a front man for whatever was working behind the scenes, whatever craved blood and revenge.
  • I also liked the character of Blake. I wasn’t prepared for him to end up being the hero of the story, and I love that this is an non-traditional hero. Blake’s scarring from the tragedy inflicted upon him because of his sexuality led him to become someone who was ready for the challenges that he had to face, and who may be able to control the forces for some time into the future. He is an interesting protector figure, and I would say one of the most interesting characters that I’ve encountered in some time.

If you are a fan of dark fantasy and the weird, then you will probably enjoy this book. I know that I will definitely be picking up more of Christopher Rice in the future.

The Grimscribe’s Puppets: Stories Inspired by Thomas Ligotti

Cover of The Grimscribe's PuppetsIf you’ve read some of my previous posts, you may know that I am a big fan of Thomas Ligotti. So, I was super excited to hear about The Grimscribe’s Puppets, a collection of Ligotti themed stories edited by Joe S. Pulver. I was definitely not disappointed by this book and highly recommend it!

As indicated by the title, the theme of this collection has to do with puppetry — manipulations both real and existential — and this theme is approached from a variety of perspectives. The stories here are often from the point of view of the puppet or the puppet-master, but many times this aspect is explored at the larger, more terrifying level, such as who is out there and how are they controlling me? The collection has a well-selected mix of this overall idea presented in ways that are a tribute to both Ligotti’s themes and his atmospheric settings.

My favorite in what I might call the “puppet viewpoint” category was Cody Goodfellow’s “The Man Who Escaped This Story,” in which a man discusses various dreams, or fugue states, with his psychiatrist where he seems to be just a player in a drama put on by some force greater than himself. This idea of being captive to the whims of an unknowable godlike creature and used for their amusement over and over again is unsettling and will stick with me. In “Furnace” by Livia Llewellyn, a young girl watches her town slowly eaten away by forces that she cannot understand, and it is only slowly that she comes to the realization of the role that she plays in a slow destruction of the world. Daniel Mills explores religious fervor with a twist in “The Lord Came at Twilight,” when a dangerous “revival” consisting of dark beliefs sweeps through a town. In “Diamond Dust” by Michael Griffin, a man slowly makes connections between strange occurrences and the odd art his girlfriend has been creating. And, Paul G. Tremblay’s “Where We All Will Be” explores the viewpoint of a single, clear-headed observer during a mass infiltration of human minds.

A few authors look at the topic from the viewpoint of the puppet-master, and the most clear-cut of these would be Jon Padgett’s “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism,” which provides some basic, and more advanced, how-to in puppet mastery. However, sometimes the role of puppet and puppet-master can dovetail, something that the puppet maker in Simon Strantzas “By Invisible Hands” comes to realize first-hand. And, Jeffrey Thomas’s “The Prosthesis” explores a situation in which the puppet created may have been a job done just a little too well.

I really enjoy some of the more grotesque elements of Ligotti, where we see characters that are either not quite human or so corrupted as to be verging on less than human. Two of the stories in this collection do this exceptionally well. Both involve female characters who struggle to survive, and who each somehow become both prey and predator. Kaaron Warren’s moth girl in “The Human Moth” has a hard time satisfying her basic needs, while Allyson Bird’s protagonist in “Gailestis” attempts to work out some more traditional methods for survival, but things don’t quite turn out as expected.

There are also some stories in which we see the familiar post-industrial landscapes from Ligotti’s work. Darrell Schweitzer’s protagonist in “No Signal” struggles to reach those he loves even as he watches his world change and fade. A young girl in Nicole Cushing’s “The Company Town” is uprooted by her father and moved to a strange new town where it seems that her future existence will be paid for on the installment plan. And, in “The Holiness of Desolation” Robert M. Price gives us the viewpoint of a man making his way through a strange, dystopian world where the end of humanity may be contained within the written word.

Possibly one of Ligotti’s most powerful areas of writing is that which combines a character’s alienation with loss of self, or someone close, in some existential or physical manner. My absolute favorite of these stories was the haunting contribution by Eddie M. Angerhuber,”The Blue Star,” in which a man takes us through his annual visit to a strange city where he lost his love to an alien force years ago. I also really enjoyed Gemma Files contribution, “Oubliette,” which used a variety of formats — diary entries, IMs,  emails, etc. — to tell the story of a suicide survivor haunted by cult member ghosts with a mission. John Langan’s “Into the Darkness, Fearlessly” puts a new twist on the idea of getting lost in a text, and Richard Gavin’s “After the Final” explores the inner workings of a fanatical and delusioned mind.

Some of these stories have some very dark, existential implications, such as “The Secrets of the Universe” by Michael Cisco, which relates a discussion on life, the universe, and everything between master and victim. “The Xenambulist: A Fable in Four Acts” by Robin Spriggs examines an increasingly strange and out of control world, one that the protagonist will not escape from. And, in “Eyes Exchange Bank,” by Scott Nicolay, a man on the verge of a breakdown over loss of love and a stagnant dissertation comes to the realization that there are darker things out there to fear. There are many dark things to fear in this book, many shadows. Michael Kelly’s character in “Pieces of Blackness” is haunted by a shadow from the past that won’t forgive or forget, and in “Basement Angels” Joel Lane’s character finds that his shadow is a much more important part of him than he ever realized.

The Grimscribe’s Puppets won the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award for Edited Anthology for good reason. Joe S. Pulver has selected some excellent authors and put together a significant contribution to the genre, which is packed full of stories that will challenge your assumptions and haunt you for years to come. Be sure not to miss this one!