Willy by Robert Dunbar

Willy begins with the arrival of an unnamed adolescent at his next stop in the institutional cycle, a school for boys with emotional problems. His last doctor has suggested that he keep a diary, and so begins the story of a withdrawn child shuttled to a school that is so decrepit it barely functions. There he meets his new roommate, a boy named Willy, whose charisma draws the other young men to him.

Within the first few pages, Robert Dunbar thoroughly places you in the young diarist’s head, and it is heartbreaking to read the thoughts of a child with such low self-esteem. No one encourages him or attempts to draw him from his shell, except for the principal of the school and eventually Willy.

With the arrival of Willy, the diarist begins a subtle transformation that Dunbar communicates with eloquent prose. I was reminded of Flowers for Algernon as I read the diarist’s words grow from those of an isolated child to become the thoughts of a young man. Yet Dunbar doesn’t overreach by creating an adult clothed in an adolescent’s body; he stays true to the diarist’s character and he shows us how love can transform and damn a soul.

This is the kind of novel that makes me yearn for a book club that discussed superior dark fiction. With Willy, the reader gets the best of both worlds–an excellent story for the casual reader, but if you’re like me and like to look a little closer, Willy is a tale of depth both in terms of story and characterization.

This is Robert Dunbar’s finest novel to date and certainly my favorite.

My rating:


Shadows: Supernatural Tales by Masters of Modern Literature [ed. by Robert Dunbar]

Robert Dunbar, an author of literary horror in his own right, has selected a group of chilling tales by some of the finest authors of dark fiction. Ten creepy tales by classic authors: Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Henry James, E.M. Forster, Willa Cather, M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Oliver Onions, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and D.H. Lawrence are combined into one chilling volume.

I found two of my favorite stories “The Empty House” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” in this collection, and re-discovered “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” Well chosen and arranged, the stories build to a wonderful climax at the end.

Prepare to be entertained, because Shadows is a lovely anthology for anyone who loves horror.


The Girls with Games of Blood by Alex Bledsoe

It’s 1975 in Memphis, Tennessee, and Alex Bledsoe returns with his Memphis vampires for a novel filled with fast cars, rock and roll, and steamy southern nights. Baron Rudolfo Vladimir Zginski has his eye on a car, and not just any car. He outmaneuvers a good old boy, Byron Cocker, to buy the 1973 Mach 1 Mustang of his dreams. Cocker is a former sheriff of some renown, who doesn’t appreciate being cheated by anyone, especially foreigners.

Cocker is determined to wrest the Mustang from Zginski, but Zginski has other worries. Life becomes more complicated when Patience Bolade, who poses as a folk singer, enters the scene. Zginski and the two young vampires he’s taken under his tutelage immediately recognize another vampire has entered their territory.

One of the infamous Bolade sisters, Patience has a history of her own in the form of a blood feud with her sister Prudence, also a vampire. Prudence has vowed to destroy Patience and anyone who stands in her way. Zginski, Leonardo, and Fauvette, soon find themselves drawn into the sisters’ feud with some surprising twists and disastrous results.

Bledsoe really hits his stride with his latest novel of love and betrayal amongst the undead. The pacing is superb and just when you’re sure you know how the plot will unfold, Bledsoe gives it a twist to keep you engaged.

Bledsoe’s characters are portrayed with layered personalities so that every scene reveals their inner struggles in more depth until you’re caught up in their lives and loves. Patience Bolade’s transition from dying woman to vampire evokes mystery beneath a full moon and remains the novel’s most poignant scene. Leonardo grapples with racism and his own motives as he seduces his latest victim while Fauvette tries to find her place in the world and Zginski’s life.

Zginski remains as repulsive as ever, unrepentant racist and misogynist — and those are his good qualities — but towards the end, Bledsoe gives you a clue that Zginski isn’t quite all that he seems, either. While the younger vampires seek to emulate their mentor’s stoic old world mentality, Zginski finds his humanity reawakening in ways that surprise even him.

Bledsoe ties it all together neatly and doesn’t miss a beat with either plot or prose. He serves up vampires for adult readers, so if you’re looking for horror with verve, check out The Girls with Games of Blood.

My rating:

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Inured to the writerly tricks of most horror novels, it’s rare the Dragon finds a tale so creepy that she jumps at noises in the night. With The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters delivers just such a story.

Dr. Faraday’s mother was once a maid to the Ayres family, and even as a child, Dr. Faraday had loved the Ayres’ family home, Hundreds Hall. In its day, it was a grand manse, but the Ayres family and Hundreds Hall have fallen onto hard times.

Post World War II society is changing, and the old families no longer command the respect or money they once did. Hundreds Hall reflects the decline of the Ayres family with its weed choked yard and crumbling plaster. Mrs. Ayres, her son Roderick, and her daughter Caroline, try to keep the deteriorating estate from falling into collapse, but money and circumstances are against them. Dr. Faraday is called to assist them one day and finds his life slowly intertwined with the fate of Hundreds Hall and its haunted residents.

Waters moves through her story with a languid  pace that is deceiving. While the reader may think nothing of import has transpired, Waters brings every event into sequence, laying the path for an ending that is as surprising as it is haunting.

Waters uses the power of language to evoke one creepy moment after another, building the tension toward a climax that is both astounding and perfectly fulfilling. If you enjoy your novels layered with complexity without cheap tricks, you’ll love The Little Stranger.

Just leave the lights on when you put it down for the night . . .

My rating:

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Quarantined by Joe McKinney

Quarantined If you enjoy dystopian novels, Quarantined is for you. Joe McKinney’s gritty prose brings San Antonio to life, or death, as the case may be. A new strain of the bird flu has mutated into the virus H2N2 and is killing San Antonio’s population by the thousands in a modern-day plague. While the World Health Organization (WHO) races to find a vaccine, the Federal Government seals San Antonio behind a wall patrolled by military personnel, who have orders to shoot potential escapees on sight.

Quarantined is about what goes on behind the wall when a WHO doctor is murdered, and San Antonio homicide detective Lily Harris tries to solve the case in an increasingly hostile environment. Between bureaucratic red tape and shrinking food drops, societal norms are breaking down and the black market burgeons.

Harris finds comfort in the presence of her family and steadfast partner. Yet she stands to lose both family and partner if they can’t find their way out of the city and tell the world about an even greater threat to humanity.

McKinney writes with a cutting edge, and he makes his future San Antonio so real, it could be happening today. The true horror of Quarantined is in McKinney’s ability to construct a plausible scenario for the H2N2 virus and the government’s response.

McKinney’s experience as a homicide detective gives Quarantined real bite as he guides the reader through departmental politics, both within WHO and the local police department. He manages to deliver a mystery with a dark bite, and also writes a believable female character with Lily Harris.

McKinney doesn’t have Harris shake off her cop persona and turn into Martha Stewart when she’s with her family. Her tension rides like a demon on her back, and though she loves her family desperately, she’s not always able to prevent herself from hurting them. She’s a woman torn between her duty as an officer to uphold the law and her need to protect her family, even if it means breaking the law.

Good conflict, a tight mystery, and a dark setting make Quarantined a summer read guaranteed to give you a chill.

My rating:

Martyrs & Monsters by Robert Dunbar

Martyrs & Monsters Come close, Wild Things – not too close, the Dragon has been known to bite – but do venture in, because she has a treat for you today. The Dragon never would have found this exquisite collection of Robert Dunbar’s short stories had this book not been recommended to her. Now the Dragon recommends it to you, because we all love to be frightened and we all love to love.

Robert Dunbar gives you the best of both worlds by bringing together fourteen stories with the unified themes of love and loss intertwined with the macabre. Relationships have many realities, and Dunbar manipulates those realities with skill to explore the darkest regions of love. The result is a collection of stories that you will want to savor again and again.

Reviewing any anthology is difficult, because I have to pick and choose which stories to highlight. If I had to choose my favorite example of Dunbar’s talent for distorting reality, I would tell you to read “Like a Story.” Young Kurt and his hero-worshipping follower, Max, are off to kill a monster. This is Bradbury gone terribly, terribly wrong. Dunbar’s prose pulled me so deep into these boys’ adventure that my heart was pounding by the end.

“Gray Soil” is vampires done right, gritty and dark, as a mother protects and nourishes her children even unto death. “Red Soil” continues the theme of familial love with the story of a young man who valiantly tries to save his sister’s life. Yet the crown jewel in this collection (for the Dragon, anyway) was “Mal de Mer.” Here is the tale of a woman slowly becoming unraveled, helpless before the loneliness ravaging her life.

Yet in all this Lovecraftian madness, Dunbar never loses sight of his characters’ humanity. This is dark fiction with a soul that will make you think about the characters and their moral dilemmas long after you put these tales aside.  Sometimes funny, more often poignant, and ever haunting, the Dragon found the stories in Martyrs & Monsters are worth reading again and again.

And so shall you.

My rating:

Twelve by Jasper Kent

Twelve Voordalak, voordalak, voordalak . . . ah, yes! Vampire. Hmm, even the Dragon is getting a little burned out on the vampire spin, but at least Kent does vampires right in his debut novel, Twelve.

The Grande Armée of Napoleon Bonaparte is poised on Moscow’s doorstep in the autumn of 1812. In a desperate bid to stop the French, Captain Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov and his comrades enlist the help of the Oprichniki. The Oprichniki are twelve mercenaries from Eastern Europe, each is named for one of Christ’s disciples, including the enigmatic Iuda. The Oprichniki promise they can stop the Russian advance with their unorthodox guerrilla warfare, and Aleksei and his comrades are desperate enough to accept their help.

Kent does an excellent job of writing about this period of the Napoleonic Wars and the French invasion of Russian. The historical aspects of the novel never overshadow or supersede Aleksei’s story, but instead enhance the supernatural portions of the tale to lend believability to the overall novel.

The vampires are not sparkly teenage stalking caricatures of young adult novels, but creatures of blood with a lust for killing. The entire novel is well written and accurate in both history and legend.

So why is the Dragon ambivalent about this novel?

Aleksei was a likeable character, all of Kent’s characters were well drawn, including Iuda. I certainly enjoyed the story; and I positively loved the historical setting of the novel. The sub-plot concerning Aleksei and Domnikiia never interested me, and I had difficulty believing there was actually anything between the pair other than lust. Aleksei proclaimed love, but his adoration was never accompanied by action. At one point, he couldn’t wait to be rid of her, so I didn’t buy into his angst over her well-being.

This is highly subjective, but I would have enjoyed Twelve better as a war story that focused on Aleksei, Maksim, Dmitry, Vadim, and their war against the French, then the Oprichniki. I would have liked to have seen a more focused approach on these four men and their betrayals without all the pretensions to romance with Domnikiia.

There was more than one occasion where I felt the scenes were ponderous with information. The plot and Aleksei’s thought processes were so meticulously detailed in some passages that Kent lost the emotion of the prose in lieu of an almost technical rendition of the facts.

In spite of this, Kent’s prose did have a very comfortable feel so that the novel’s defects did not prevent me from enjoying Twelve. I think that Twelve is well worth the read, and I will certainly look forward to Kent’s next novel.

My rating: