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Book Review: All that Withers by John Palisano

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All that Withers short story collection john palisano

All That Withers
by John Palisano
Cycatrix Press
December 2016 (paperback)
292 pages
View the Book Trailer
*** Review disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. *** 

The first John Palisano novel I read was one released a few years ago, Nerves, which I reviewed for Hellnotes. Since then, he has had numerous subsequent releases and his latest is a short story collection called All That Withers.

We start things off with a story called Happy Joe’s Rest Stop. As the title suggests, the main character, Greg, is at a place called Happy Joe’s, which is indeed a rest stop where people that are in transit from place to place drop in to get some food and freshen up before the next leg of their journey. It seems to have more of a buffet atmosphere and more of a self service customer type of experience. Greg notes that they are in Nevada. Everything seems normal until the lights go out. Then there is an explosion. Instead of Stephen King’s man in black from the Dark Tower series, this time it seems we have of the Man in White who we see at the very beginning of the short story as a man wearing a white cowboy hat. At first Greg thinks that it’s possibly an earthquake or a series of earthquakes, but then quickly thinks it has to be terrorists. Greg starts calling for his father.

It was at this point that I started to guess that perhaps our friend Greg is not of the mortal earth and he’s in heaven or some version of heaven. As things turn black outside, the Man in White sort of shrugs and says that this is how it’s supposed to be, which kind of led me to think if he is maybe some sort of angelic character or if he is a deity of some kind. There are creatures. But it is not quite clear what they are. It doesn’t take long for some pretty icky descriptions of violence to follow, but the story maintains its breakneck speed in amping up the reader’s interest. Things end on an interesting note with the reader scratching his or her head and wondering what has just happened, which is appropriate for a story like this.

Splinterette switches gears to a snowy landscape. A character is caught in some kind of a storm and thinks that he is seeing a demonic version of his wife. He nicknames this creature Splinterette. This story ends on a note that is surprising and definitely not what the reader would expect, and it is one of the most poignant pieces of the collection.

What might be twins or if not twins but people separated at birth begins The Geminis, which revolves around characters who have a close bond, although we do not learn the name of the narrator at first. We do know that the name of the similar character is Lia. She is a designer while the main character is a filmmaker. They seem to be harmonies or balances to each other. The language in this piece is very immediate, which gives this story a very active sense of pacing.

The narrator seems to have some kind of an out of body experience or a hallucination that is very resonant. For readers who like their horror mixed with music or just prefer the short stories with musical elements, this story will satisfy those. This story speaks about the magical connections we sometimes have with the people with whom we fall into romantic relationships with and can’t explain–of how it is possible to have such a seemingly deep and unique connection, which as any reader knows who has had this before, can be ripped away at any moment and made to disappear, often without any explanation. It is a very existential piece that poses philosophical questions about life and what it all means to the reader.

Next up, Available Light begins with a narrator who tells us that he or she became the neighborhood monstrosity by their 6th birthday. There has been some kind of early mishap with playing too much under the sun and as a result, this character is not meant to go out into the sun. To say this character’s family is unsupportive is an understatement. This individual’s mother also has issues, which is putting it mildly. Ultimately, the story is about how some forces are may be meant to return from where they came, and disturbances of the natural order.

Long Walk Home is great if you like military horror that’s also kind of existential while My Darkness Travels on Sunshine calls on the author’s experiences in the film world highlighted through the story of this budding filmmaker, Dana. To say that her professor is eccentric and difficult is an understatement. Despite the tremendous and very negative odds that Dana must overcome, she chooses to tackle them head-on rather than running away from them. She has a painful and scarring incident in her past but it’s not what the reader would assume. Healing takes on a different form here.

Switching gears, The Haven has shades of Clive Barker and is a more visceral story than the others, while To The Stars That Fooled You continues the Barker-esque themes and undertones with an almost biblical horror and Lilith feel but also has the author’s musical background and expertise thrown in. 

Mother You Can Watch marks a sort of fusion of the forms of the short story with the format of poetry. It’s a very short piece and seems to be an homage to the film Psycho. For a story to get you into a Halloween state of mind, look no further than Outlaws of Hill County.

Returning to the filmmaking theme is Welcome to the Jungle, intentionally named for the monster Guns N’ Roses hit. This time, we venture behind the curtain of the actors’ world and Hollywood exposing just a few of the seedy underbelly activities that go on with some beastly terrors thrown in. For fans who want more gore, you’ll get it in spades with this tale. 

Wings for Wheels is a fusion of music and motorcycles with a James Dean vibe while The Curious Banks of the Wabash River takes us all the way over to Salt Lake City and the confusion as to where it really is. Needless to say, the piece ends on a terrifying note. 

The Tennatrick proves that some beasts don’t go away that easily while Vampiro is a very clever take on a vampire story. X is for XYX is definitely on the creepier and more unsettling end of the spectrum. I feel like I should preface it with a trigger warning and mention that if you’re sensitive to issues dealing with suicide, you may want to proceed with caution. The story is about a suicide that shouldn’t have failed but does. What happens is slightly more psychedelic than that and also creepy but good because the ending is unexpected. 

Sunset Beach reminds me of an interesting episode of The X-Files while Forever seems to imagine what the afterlife is like, starting off with some good images, mentioning Valhalla, but it’s a very clever tale that pet owners will be struck by, and it’s written in second person present tense, which imbues this story with a striking sense of immediacy. Gaia Ungaia is a creative story that ends on a chilling note. 

Another thing I appreciated about the collection was that John included explanations at the end of the book for what inspired or prompted him to write each tale. This is a collection that is difficult to sum up because the stories are of an excellent calibre (some of which are award-winning and/or nominated) and the themes all range from so many different topics that reflect the author’s own experiences, making this a fascinating quilt of some of the most unique and eclectic horror fiction out there. If you have not read and discovered the wonderful work of John Palisano, start with his short fiction in this collection. It’s a wonderful place to begin and will only increase your appetite to devour more of his work. 

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TV Review: Vampire Diaries Season 8

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vampire diaries title card

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD. If you haven’t watched any of the Season 8 (final season) episodes of The Vampire Diaries and don’t want spoilers, skip this post and come back once you’ve seen the whole season.

The CW supernatural drama The Vampire Diaries has wrapped up its eighth and final season, the second one not to prominently feature series mainstay Elena Gilbert (well, until the end anyway). This season’s “Big Bads” were essentially two Sirens and a “Devil” (even though the character of Cade/Arcadius is called the Devil several times and is said to be in charge of Hell, he was more like a glorified demon rather than having the full-on gravitas of The Devil).

Also, just when you thought that a certain villain had been dead and buried for good after multiple instances of mysteriously always finding a way to scurry back to life, it turned out they weren’t in what would turn out to be one of the most over-the-top and pointless character returns in recent memory. I’m not going to rant about this character, but let’s just say they should be on a list of “Top 100 villains who started out as compelling characters but quickly became repetitive and annoying with each subsequent return.”

This time in the “let’s spin the wheel and see which brother will be evil for the season” it was Damon Salvatore‘s turn–well, for the first half of the season, then it was Stefan‘s turn. I will say that even though this was one of the more annoying parts of the entire season, Stefan had some good dialogue and quips here and there.

The mystery from the final episode of Season 7 revolves around what happened to Damon and Enzo when they stepped into the creepy tunnel room in the Armory, AKA Alaric’s Indiana Jones-inspired playground. We find out that a woman called Sybil is controlling Damon and Enzo and getting them to be her errand boys by virtue of her psychic abilities and mind control. Because both of their humanity switches are off, they don’t really care about the implications of all the terrible things Sybil is forcing them to do.

Eventually, we find out that Sybil is a (wait for it) siren. A siren. Seriously. I mean, I’ll give the show some credit for introducing the ability of mind control through song and adding a sort of almost shade of a dimension we haven’t seen to sirens before, but where it gets murky for me is when Sybil just becomes increasingly annoying and irritating. This is a problem that villains on The Vampire Diaries have had since Seasons 3 and 4 pretty much. After the Original vampires headed for their own show, the writers have had a tougher time making other villains stick. I’m not even going to get started on Kai/Malakai. The show has given us some truly awful villains, but in my mind he’s one of the absolute worst (and not in a good way).

So once we find out that Sybil is a siren, we find out that the innocent-looking nanny to Alaric’s children, Selene, is anything but. She’s the siren sister to Sybil, but it is also soon revealed that the two have something of a sibling rivalry and do not see eye to eye. The reason she has been keeping such a close eye on Alaric’s twin girls is because it turns out that she and Sybil work for an even douchier villain, a guy named Cade, who was accused of being a witch and then burned at the stake. But as he burned, he cursed the townspeople, blah blah seen-it-a-thousand-times-before blah. Just as a refresher, Alaric’s twin girls are part of the Gemini Coven and are siphoners of magic though they have no idea they’re doing it most of the time. The sirens were kicked out of their villages years ago for, basically, cannibalistic behaviour. This is how Cade found them. He got them to be his soul collectors. But Selene has wanted out of the gig for some time. Her scheme is to try to offer up Alaric’s twin girls to Cade as a switch.

But, oh, I haven’t mentioned the ever-sanctimonious and permanently in competition to see who can be the whinier martyr brothers, Damon and Stefan yet. While Damon’s Evil switch is still on, Stefan offers Cade a counter-bargain: he’ll take the place of Selene and Sybil if Cade will leave Alaric’s twin girls alone. Cade accepts. Stefan turns off his humanity switch. *sigh*

This season, witchy character Bonnie Bennett spends much of her time trying to get the love of her life, Enzo, to turn off his Evil switch. He does, but the consequences are that Sybil hounds him constantly. While Season 7 gave me a harder sell in terms of getting interested in the episodes, Season 8 was a bit of an improvement in that respect: the stakes were clear, and the adrenaline was always coursing.

Eventually (and you knew this was coming), Damon’s Evil switch starts flickering on and off and the goal for much of the second half of the season is to get Stefan to turn off his Evil switch and to stop being such a Ripper. It’s sort of cute that The Vampire Diaries has consistently tried so, so hard to make their version of a “Ripper” seem scary or distressing.

Some things I liked about this season:

  • This time around, the rumours started to float early on about the fact that Season 8 would be the show’s last. Vampire Diaries fans received confirmation of this at some point and so the rampant discussion became whether Nina Dobrev would return to reprise her role as the central character, Elena Gilbert. Well, spoiler alert, we knew with some certainty that she would. Still, it grated on my nerves in a big way that Elena Gilbert is one of those characters who can be the central focus of an entire season with barely being in it.
  • Stefan’s dialogue when he had his Evil switch on was entertaining in some parts.
  • The mystical Bell that was made by the Maxwell family (which filtered down to become the Donovans, i.e. Matt) in a sirenly attempt to destroy Mystic Falls. I thought the historical connection to this relic and its abilities were interesting, and the tie-in to the dimension of Hell was also intriguing. I also thought it was cool to bring in more of the Bennett witches into play again–they were always one of the most interesting aspects of each season, and I would have liked to see even more of them during the show’s run.
  • Even though the constant back and forth between Stefan and Damon about who would be the biggest martyr of them all annoyed me to no end, the lengths both of them were willing to go to in the name of destroying Hell and saving Mystic Falls was noble, and after shedding that much blood and causing centuries of pain and misery to countless people around the world, they both atoned in the end.
  • That this was the final season. My interest in the show began to wane sometime around Season 4 or 5, and the show hasn’t had a compelling villain since the Original vampires took a hike (see above). I know I’m supposed to be focusing on things I liked, so I’ll say it was good to get a sense of resolution with this story.

Some things I wasn’t so crazy about this season:

  • Bonnie’s constant insistence that she has lost her magic only for her to *gasp* magically have it after all. Can you sense the sarcasm? Just checking 😉 Also, just the fact that the show continued to screw with Bonnie in general and the whole thing where she tried to die a bunch of times but it wasn’t her time yet. Sure, it’s okay for Elena to have her happy ending with sunshine and rainbows, but Bonnie has to settle for some creepy Ghost scenario with Enzo. *sigh*
  • The string of one annoying villain after another. The writers have relied far too much on flashbacks and backstory to try to convince viewers why their villains are supposedly so epic, but instead of building sympathy in the minds of viewers for the whole “wronged baddie” schtick, it ends up turning viewers off (this is the thing where the villain in this series always seems to be the same variation of “I used to be good but people were cruel to me so I turned bad”).
  • “I’m so eeeeeeevvviiiilll” Damon (and Stefan): Because the show has overused this plot point so many times over the course of the entire series, it lost its impact a long time (and a few seasons) ago. When his Evil switch eventually stopped flickering and stopped at “off,” his next battle became to see who could be bigger martyr for their crimes: him or Stefan. They both lost, incidentally 😉 Although I hoped the return of Evil Damon would lead to a more interesting character arc this season, it disappointed in that regard. Of course I knew he would eventually go into full-blown good guy mode, but again, this is something that lost the impact because it happened so often on the show prior to this season.
  • That villain at the very, very end: No. Just no. My first reaction when I figured out where they were going with it was…you’ve got to be kidding me. Again? I understand the reason, but it felt like the actor was just going through the motions and as a result, it had no impact. The introduction of this villain was brilliant but after the events at the end of Season 6, that’s where things should have wrapped up. Nuff said.
  • In my review of Season 7, I had mentioned that I got a distinct Buffy the Vampire Slayer vibe from the entity in the Vault of the Armory. I had originally thought viewers would be treated to something similar to The First Evil. That, uh, well, that didn’t quite happen. And the funny thing is that also in that review, I’d lamented the recycling of the “Oh no, what are we doing to do? Stefan is evil!” plotline except for Damon and Enzo, but it turned out that they applied it to Stefan yet again. Suffice it to say, I did not find it interesting at all to see where they went with this because they had gone there so many times before.
  • There’s not really any way they could have ended the series except with a Happily Ever After, but most of it made me feel like I was watching the Hallmark channel and not the CW.

Throughout its history, The Vampire Diaries had a big habit of repeating itself and recycling its own plot devices and tropes. No show is perfect, but I think that at the end of the day, this is a show that was made by the same people who produced Dawson’s Creek (well, at least one of them anyway). The emphasis on the love triangle between the three characters, which then became the “will the two of them get their happy ending? and what about that other one?” continued into a narrative focused on wrapping everything up as neatly and as tidily as possible in the 16 episode span of the last season.

As their characters made the transition from high school to university, the show did its best to present efforts to more maturity and more serious plotlines. And in some ways, they did well, but by the end, the show became one increasingly ridiculous plot twist after another. The writers very much adopted the “everything but the kitchen sink” approach. Part of that stems from the fact that this was the last season, so the creators wanted to end on a high note and try to tie up as many loose ends as they could.

I think that in a sea of so many vampire shows and films that have saturated the airwaves and theatres for the past 40 years, the show tried its best to offer something different or in some way unique, and I would say that from Seasons 1 to 3, that’s when things were at their most interesting for the most part–the peak of the show’s overall story arc.

Although some of the villains this show has introduced such as Katherine, Klaus, and Silas provided much entertainment and suspense when they were first introduced, it’s difficult to sustain that kind of momentum for any character and there were only so many times the show could achieve the shock factor with them. Still, they produced some addictive storylines that kept viewers coming back for more, and it was a fun ride while it lasted.

What about you, readers? Did you tune in to Season 8? What did you think? What were your thoughts on the series as a whole? Sound off below!

 

Character Study: Damon Salvatore

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Damon Salvatore

Damon Salvatore the vampire diaries
Damon Salvatore, The Vampire Diaries, image from Wikimedia Commons

Name: Damon Salvatore
TV Show: The Vampire Diaries (2009-2017)
Role: villain-turned-protagonist

Update: Season 8 of The Vampire Diaries aired its last episode in March 2017. In the first half of the season, we got an “Uh oh, Damon is evil again” and the writers spun the chore wheel to decide that this time he and Enzo would turn off their humanity switches. So we got Evil Damon for the first half, which, spoiler alert, changed by the end of the season to make him a good guy once and for all.

I predicted that his return to his sadistic roots from Season 1 would be short-lived and not only was I right, but also it felt very much like “phoning it in” Evil Damon–he did all the things he was supposed to do, went on the murdering sprees, obeyed the commands of the Siren Sybil, etcetera, ad nauseum. (Side note: when the ‘big reveal’ turned out to be that she was a siren with psychic mind control abilities, let’s just say her schtick got old. Fast.) Getting back to Damon: for some people, the show ended for them at the end of Season 3 or 4. Damon started out as an interesting character but with each successive season became whinier, mopier, and ended things on one of the hokiest, most saccharine notes I’ve ever seen.

Having said that, I haven’t been in the target age group/demographic for the show for some time (and probably was not really in it to begin with when it started), so I will concede that the show’s primary audience wanted Happily Ever After, and there’s nothing wrong with that per se. While you folks are reading the character analysis, I’m just going to drink my Bitter Ale over in the other room 😉

What I learned about characterization:

  • Damon started off on The Vampire Diaries as the main villain or at least the main opposing force of season one. He is shown to be vicious, remorseless, and having a huge sadistic streak. Unlike his goodie-two-shoes brother, Stefan, Damon has no qualms about killing humans. In other words, he’s the “scary” brother.
  • The crow thing–the ability for Damon to either manifest in the form of a crow or to send a crow as his harbinger, signalling his presence/ability to spy, was a great addition to the first season. I’m sure the writers had their reasons for removing it, but both these things made Damon seem even more interesting.
  • His secretive nature and unwillingness to address the real reason for his return to Mystic Falls provides a lot of intrigue and makes him seem more dangerous at first because he could fly off the handle at any moment.
  • The “voice” of the Damon character–his dialogue in the first two seasons, but especially in season one, was gold. Funny one moment and emotionally intense the next, this helped his character stand out and come across as very entertaining to watch.
  • Damon used to have bite–and sass. As the show’s seasons have progressed, specifically from seasons four to six, Damon has dulled. Characters must, by definition, change in order for the story to move forward. Damon couldn’t remain a bad guy and work with the rest of the characters at the same time, but what started out as a soft spot or softer traits to his personality have completely taken over and I miss the Damon from the first seasons. Far more interesting.
  • The fact that he didn’t even want to be a vampire in the first place and that the normally goodie-two-shoes Stefan was the one who forced him to complete his transition and become a bloodsucker is one of the more intriguing elements of season one.
  • Unlike his brother, Damon is unapologetic about the fact that he’s a vampire. This kind of got muddled in the last few seasons and the second half of the last season especially, as he donned the mantle of White Knight–nonetheless, vampires are at their best when they aren’t apologizing for who and what they are.
  • Major repetition/theme in his arc: Throughout the seasons of the show, Damon and Stefan are always at odds in some way. As with Supernaturalthe relationship between the two brothers is really the central focus, and the plot question is: will there ever be a time when they can find peace and just learn to get along?
    • We eventually discover the full context of how their history has played out and why they hold on to the bitter grudges that they do. Initially, Damon is miffed at Stefan for two main reasons: forcing him to become a vampire, and bitterness/resentment that Katherine Pierce played both the brothers while always wanting Stefan.
    • As the seasons progress, the brothers keep hammering away over and over again at fighting a different kind of battle: seeing which one of them is the bigger martyr. They take turns, and often it involves one of their humanity switches being off and one brother having to save the other for the zillionth time. By the end of the last season, not only did this schtick feel completely repetitive and derivative of things that had already played out their shock value, but also it resulted in the plot  losing the impact the writers were going for because the audience had already seen much of the same in the previous seasons.

Throughout the eight seasons of The Vampire Diaries, Damon showed a range of complexity. He constantly duels with his vampire nature, his past wounds, and atoning for his actions along with his desire to do good and to be better. In the later seasons, he considers the effect his actions have had on others. While I miss the old Damon from the first two seasons, his agenda completely changed somewhere in season 3 or 4 and his priorities shifted to become entirely predictable. Season 6 was when the character fully committed to the character’s direction as emo White Knight who also doesn’t think he deserves happiness–something that provided intrigue the first 100 times he experienced this arc over the course of the latter seasons.

Women in Horror Month Feature: Teresa Frohock

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Teresa FrohockAbout the Author:

Teresa Frohock has turned a love of dark fantasy and horror into tales of deliciously creepy fiction. Teresa is the author of Miserere: An Autumn Tale and has a short story, “Naked the Night Sings,” in the urban fantasy anthology Manifesto: UF. Another story, “Love, Crystal and Stone” appears in The Neverland’s Library Fantasy Anthology. Her novella, The Broken Road, is available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Her most recent work is a novelette written with author Alex Bledsoe entitled Hisses and Wings.

Teresa lives in North Carolina where she has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying.

As part of a neat little twist to my Women in Horror Month coverage this year, I’m going to feature fun little interviews with a few women horror writers and I think readers will get a kick out of them.

The next feature is for Teresa Frohock, author of such books as Miserere and The Broken Road.

To offset the dark subject matter in her writing, she has great humour and quirkiness. Check our our interview.

1. First scary movie you watched

TF: Wow. You’re asking me to go waaaaaaay back in the wayback machine, but … the first movie that I can recall as being truly horrifying is Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. I don’t remember how old I was, but I had this little black and white television set in my bedroom, and they were running The Birds on as the Sunday afternoon movie of the week.

the birds movie poster

I was rapt throughout the whole film. I think it is one of my favorite Hitchcock movies, because The Birds proves that you don’t need gore to make a perfectly horrific movie. Hitchcock’s pacing and storytelling carried that movie by implanting all the right images in the viewer’s head and allowing my imagination to supply the rest.

I’m still scared of birds.

2. First scary book you read

TF: Carrie by Stephen King. I’m sure I read others, but Carrie was the first book that made such a deep impression on me that I knew I wanted to read more horror. I think it also hit home with me, because I knew of religious extremists like Carrie’s mother. So, in many ways (from being the high school outcast to living in a small town), Carrie resonated with me.

carrie stephen king cover

3. First scary Halloween costume you wore

TF: A witch. Of course.

4. First scary thing you wrote

TF: I think my first attempt at horror was a unicorn that ate corpses. He was kind of cool. He was short and stunted like a small pony and his horn was broken in half. He had wild, staring eyes and foamed at the mouth. I rather liked him and will probably use him again sometime. I had another unicorn story where the unicorn was essentially a pimp for a vampire.

Unicorns. All that sweetness is just a disguise for evil. Yes, it is.

5. First scary character you had a crush on

TF: Frank Langella in Dracula. I’ve always been a sucker for dark hair and eyes. Okay. I just love men, but Langella was beautiful in Dracula. I crushed on him hard. He’s still beautiful. It’s definitely the eyes.

dracula frank langella 1979

 


the broken road teresa frohock
Teresa released a novella called The Broken Road in September 2014.

Here’s a description:
The world of Lehbet is under siege. The threads that divide Lehbet from the mirror world of Heled are fraying, opening the way for an invasion by an alien enemy that feeds on human flesh.

Travys, the youngest of the queen’s twin sons, was born mute. He is a prince of the Chanteuse, nobles who channel their magic through their voices. Their purpose is to monitor the threads and close the paths between the worlds, but the Chanteuse have given themselves over to decadence. They disregard their responsibilities to the people they protect—all but Travys, who fears he’ll fail to wake the Chanteuse to Heled’s threat in time to prevent the destruction of Lehbet.

Within the palace, intrigue creates illusions of love where there is none, and when Travys’ own brother turns against him, he is forced to flee all that he has known and enter the mirror world of Heled where the enemy has already won. In Heled, he must find his true voice and close the threads, or lose everyone that he loves.

Further Reading:
Here are a few interviews Teresa has done that you can read through:

I hope you’ve all enjoyed this chat with Teresa or ‘T’ as she goes by. If you’ve never had occasion to read her work before, I hope you’ll give it a try and if you’ve been a longtime fan, then I hope you enjoyed our little exchange 🙂