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  • Writer's pictureCandace Nola

05/17/2024 Guest Reviews from Craig Brownlie

For this week, Mort is taking a short break, so we have a couple of guest reviews from author friend, Craig Brownlie! Greatly appreciated as always!


Enjoy!


 



 

Guest Book Review:

The Only Safe Place Left Is The Dark by Warren Wagner

Dehiscent by Ashley Deng

 

Reviewed by Craig Brownlie

 

Warren Wagner takes our hand and leads us into a zombie post-apocalypse, courtesy of a mutation in HIV which turns the infected into walking dead. Quinton Booker has carved out a survival camp with occasional forays to sustain his meds supply. He has HIV, but he won’t transform if he can suppress the virus.

 

Ashley Deng places us in the home of the Zhu family. They live on the edge of a community struggling to cope with the environmental disaster visible from our current world. Zhu Yi, school age and curious, tries to understand why her family appears to carry on a little easier than the rest of the townspeople.

 

Deng presents a world working its way back to pre-apocalyptic life, even if it remains generations away. Wagner gives a detailed backstory which turns his mini epic into something of a love story. Deng nails the eco-horror while Wagner nails the dystopian expedition.

 

Reading and watching the news as a pre-adolescent, I realized that we, as a society and probably a planet, planned to destroy ourselves. I arrived on the planet slightly too late for the barrage of bomb shelters and duck-and-cover films. Despite my tardiness, television, newspapers, and Time magazine happily provided information on likely targets of Soviet missiles as well as the presumed outcome of a warhead exchange.

 

Someone recommended Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank as a deep dive into life after the inevitable nuclear showdown. Nevil Shute (On The Beach) and H.G. Welles (The Time Machine) also scratched the itch which fear of the future created.

 

Then the long progression of dystopian movies and comics began in earnest. The Birds and Invasion of the Body Snatchers made it clear that things might go badly and only get worse. Zombies and pandemics have nothing on nuclear winter and radioactive fallout, but the persistence of some form of humanity-destroying storytelling paints a fascinating history of evolving fear fulfillment.

 

It’s difficult to think of two more different takes on the terrible future waiting like a psychopathic clown beside the carnival exit turnstile. At first glance, Dehiscent feels hopeful and The Only Safe Place reads as hopeless. One protagonist is desperate to learn the truth while the other knows all too many facts. Wagner gives us a lead character who has grown accustomed to perpetrating violence. Deng’s young lead struggles to process death, especially within her community.

 

Yet, both books are about the price we pay to be the survivors. Our presence here and now is at the cost of those who no longer stand with us. This burden affects equally the young and the experienced. Deng and Wagner push questions about remembering sacrifice as well as honoring it. Their protagonists struggle when they need to value life, both objectively and subjectively.

 

These are terrifying, heartbreaking stories. Deng writes about the loss of innocence while Wagner forces us to study hopelessness. In both cases, how do we continue? The answers are hard won, or we become part of the honored dead.

 

Of course, religions have sought converts with the threat of universal doom. Science provides a similar heartbreaking frisson. I remember an early visit to a planetarium where the presenter could barely contain his glee when he announced the sun would expand and swallow the Earth. He took an extended pause before reassuring his audience of elementary schoolers that we would be long dead before then. I don’t recall feeling reassured.

 

My point is that it is truly difficult to make these awful possibilities interesting and fulfilling. Call me thrilled and shocked to have two examples here which are worth cracking open. Also, I love a good novella.

 

Now for the first of two side trips. I own these books because I walked into a physical bookstore and said, “Hey, I liked Cassandra Khaw’s last book. What have you got for me like that?” That does not happen with the shambling book-pushing behemoth of the internet. I am never going to be able to keep track of all the book releases, so having professionals do it is pretty awesome. With a living human, I can request a sixth recommendation because I have read the first five. I can add qualifications about length. At the Strand in New York City, I can ask for book covers which will match my wallpaper. We need to put in some effort to keep the good things in this world. (By the way, the store was Little Ghost Books https://www.littleghostsbooks.com/.)  

 

Let’s take a final detour to highlight the publishers of these books because they are both independent and operate their own stores on their websites. Ghoulish Books (https://ghoulish.rip/) put out The Only Safe Place. Tenebrous Press is responsible for Dehiscent and you can support them directly at https://tenebrouspress.com/. We only get to have nice things if we take care of them.

 

Prepare for the apocalypse with the highly recommended books

 

 

Bio: Find Craig on the usual social media and who knows where else? He's been busy submitting stories and books. His collection Thick As A Brick is available on Godless. In the meantime, read his stories in Wands: Year of Tarot, Space and Time Magazine, Unspeakable Horrors 3: Dark Rainbow Rising, Jersey Devil Press, Lovecraftiana, Stranger With Friction, No More Resolutions, and Demons & Death Drops. Or talk to him at a convention. He hopes to be at Scares that Cares Authorcon IV in 2024.

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