Rena Mason’s The Evolutionist


My friend Rena Mason’s debut novel dropped almost two months ago, and I reviewed it for the New York Journal of Books. On a more personal note, one that wouldn’t have been appropriate for the NYJB…I am so goddamn proud of her for pushing this one out of the nest. I’ve known her since WHC ’11 in Austin, when she was just breaking onto the scene and I had debuted my third project (my novella, WILD) mere months earlier.

We have a pretty good relationship as a pair of writers who’ve critiqued each other’s work with brutal honesty and have advised each other on such peripheral matters as web design, social media and pitching. However, I wouldn’t have reviewed the book if I didn’t truly think it kicked ass. Nobody made me do it. She didn’t even send me the copy I read. And while it’s a bit surreal at times, and probably not to everyone’s taste (and honestly, I wouldn’t wipe my ass on some of the books the masses RAVE about), I dare somene to send me a 2013 debut science fiction or horror novel that tops The Evolutionist.

The Evolutionist is a perfect storm of life experience and talent, ending on a somber note with most of the loose ends tied up and just the hint or two of a question raised.


This Dark Earth by John Hornor Jacobs


CAVEAT: I’ve known the author for several years, and he consulted me regarding some of THIS DARK EARTH‘s military content. In exchange, he designed the cover to my 2009 short story collection, MAGICK & MISERY. I certainly got the better end of that deal–readers love that cover. He even sent me the copy of  the novel I read. Having said that, I wouldn’t have reviewed the book if it sucked, and that’s about all I figure I’d owe him. I think John would agree.

I’ve read a lot of zombie books, and I’ll probably never stop reading them. THIS DARK EARTH does contain a few of zombie fiction’s tried and true plot devices–mainly because acting as though the the zombie apocalypse WOULDN’T bring out the worst in humanity is the height of idiocy. It also contains several great characters–Lucy, Knock-out, Gus, Tessa, Broadsword and Wallis, to name a few. Every part of the book is heartfelt and possessed of a sensitivity I wouldn’t have expected from John–and which, along with John’s unique style of writing, sets the book apart from the rest of the zombie genre.

There’s a slim chance I’ve read a zombie book as good as this one before–like I said, I read a LOT of zombie fiction. THE RISING is probably this good, if you really need a comparison. The Woodbury (Governor) story arc of Kirkman’s WALKING DEAD (though that’s really comparing apples and oranges). But nothing comes to mind as being better. If you’re a horror fan, and even if you’re growing tired of the living dead, pick this one up.


My First King (or, Big Steve Goes to Catechism)


Like any serious horror author of my generation, I cite King as an influence and as a source of unlimited hours of enjoyable reading. While he’s written a small but quantifiable percentage of books that I didn’t really care for (Cell and Tommyknockers come immediately to mind) there are authors in the field just as prolific whose statistics are the mirror image of King’s, in my opinion (that is, only a small but quantifiable percentage of works enjoyed).

I picked up my first Stephen King book when I was thirteen—that is, they were in the house before, on my stepfather’s bookshelf (he who introduced me to Rush, and the fantasy books I wrote about in last week’s column—and who will be the subject of next week’s column, I’ve just decided), but I wasn’t allowed to read them due to the subject material. Once my cherry was popped, I began to read every Stephen King book I could get my hands from, in school and public libraries, mostly, but also through the very generous gift of several first-edition hardcovers by my Uncle Chuck, which I’m sorry to say were lost to me before I was old enough to buy my own cigarettes.

By the time I was fifteen or sixteen, I’d read every single King book published at that time, and I’ve kept up with each new release thereafter, with the possible exception of one or two (the only unread one I can think of, however, is The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon). I did the bulk of this reading in my Catholic school Religion class period, which greatly aggravated the Jesuit priest who taught the class. He couldn’t fail me, however—I aced every test and answered every question when called upon, having been trained as an altar boy years previously. Instead, he’d chuck the occasional eraser at me, and try to trip me up with questions, but that was about it.

Side Note: I attended that Catholic High School, Bishop Kearney in Rochester, NY, for exactly one year. I was invited not to return, mostly because when I wasn’t reading Stephen King, I was reading witchcraft spellbooks. Had I taken the entrance exam a month earlier, my scores would have qualified me for a four-year scholarship. Such is life.

The book that started it all, I’m sure you’re wondering by now, was The Talisman, written with Peter Straub and published in 1984, two years after my birth. I cannot think of a better introduction for a young adolescent to the work of Stephen King than this book—since I’ve only read a couple of Straub’s books (and need to fix that!), I can’t in good faith say the same about his.

A general synopsis is as follows: a twelve-year old boy is sent on a quest to retrieve a magic talisman that can cure his mother of cancer. In the process, he discovers a fantasy world that he can travel to, uncovers his uncle and deceased father’s involvement in that world, makes friends with a teenage werewolf, faces a variety of threats in both our world and the Territories that would make most grown folk shit bricks, teams up with his childhood best friend, saves his mother and avenges his father’s murder.

What kid could pass that up? At least, in a world before video games and reality television were the norm. What a spectacular lesson in world-building and plotting. I’d call it a perfect book, honestly. Any misgivings I have stem from the sequel, Black House’s, retroactive connection of the Territories to King’s Dark Tower mythos. I’m almost tempted to start reading it again now!

Feel free to reminisce about your first or favorite King book in the comments, or suggest something from Straub’s body of work that’s as magical as The Talisman.