Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Book Review: Draculas by Crouch, Kilborn, Strand and Wilson

So recently I got a message from JA Konrath saying that if I wanted, I could get a free ARC (or maybe call it a DARC) of the new project he was putting out with three other authors, Draculas (he uses one of his pseudonyms, Jack Kilborn, for this - I don't really know why). In return I agreed to put up a review on here and on Amazon. "Good or bad", said the email.

I should mention this wasn't exactly a personal communication, I've never met the man though I guess I will probably run into him someday. Is he doing WHC? Have to check that. But I guess I passed muster because the PDF showed up in my inbox a couple of days later after I figured he'd looked at this blog and said to himself  "are you kidding me? Are you f---ing kidding me? Go back to LiveJournal."

I've had some shit going on so it's been sitting on my thumbdrive for a while. But I had some free time and I knew I had to get to this thing, so I cracked it open.

I was a little excited. Filling out the roster along with Konrath (maybe I'll just call him 'K' because it's easier, I can't decide to stick with Kilborn or Konrath) are two guys I've read and enjoyed - Jeff Strand and F. Paul Wilson. Strand's humor and grasp of the human condition is obvious and I wish I could afford a copy of Dweller because I really want to read it. Wilson needs no introduction from me, for you newbies out there just check out his home page. I really liked the "Repairman Jack" books of his I've read. They are good thrillers, a cut above the average. The man should place higher in the lists, I can think of a few 'authors' who would better spend their time shining the man's shoes or ironing his dungarees and maybe taking a few pointers along with their twenty-five cent tip.

Blake Crouch, I never heard of him but then I'm a noob so don't take that to mean anything. There are a lot of guys I never heard of and it's my fault, not theirs. I figured this was a good chance to get to know him at least a little bit. In a four-man crew there's no room for scrubs, so if he can roll with J to the K, the Strand, and FPW, I figure he's good.

I'm dithering a bit because - well, I got to about page fifty-something and quit. I skimmed over the rest, and it was pretty much what I thought. Zip-zip - yep, they die. Zip-zip - yep, monster in the closet. Zip-zip - joke I saw coming from page ten finally pays off. You get the idea. Maybe I already know too much about this game.

I don't do negative reviews. What's the point unless you want to pick a fight and make enemies? Nothing wrong with having a good rivalry, I've considered it. Just not right now, I got a lot of s--t going on. But, I felt an obligation. To me it seems like scamming if I take the free book and don't give those involved a reach-around in some way to at least show I read it. I'm man enough that I'd rather get a negative review than silence and I think the pros would agree, though I guess it depends on the review. I'll also preface this by saying that all of these guys are in the Pro Clan and I'm still hanging out in the newbie chat room trying to find someone who's power level isn't over 9000 to play with.

Now, I'm a bit of a weirdo when it comes to books. If you were to pitch this to me as an idea I'd say it sounded great. It would be a hell of a drive-in flick. But as a book ... well, I'll start with what I liked.

You'd never be able to tell that four separate authors worked on this thing. They did a good job making it seamless. There was not much stuff that jumped out at me as being obviously by one writer or another (though they all had their moments). The pacing of the book is blazing fast, I tore through the part I read the whole way through in not much time, and I wasn't skipping anything. The writing was solid and comes off the page well, not many clunky sentences or odd word choices. The overall tone is fun, a book that doesn't take itself too seriously.

And the bonus content is great. I doubt I will go back and read through to the end (I got about a third of the way through), but I for damn sure will go back and read some of the short stories, and excerpts.  The "interview" was great though of course it was more of a discussion amongst the authors, still good though. And I will pore over the "Making Of" Feature - where K basically cropped together a bunch of emails between the authors as they worked (obviously with some light editing and cleanup to take out the cussing, personal references and other what-not that doesn't belong in something of this nature).  I thought this was intensely cool. In fact, if I had a Kindle or other similar device (HINT), I would've considered just that section worth the price of $2.99 alone and that goes double for those of us who want to be in the writing game. That's right. You get a 140-some page book and a bunch of other bonus content for this low, low price. The bonus content does have some padding but I guess access to bios and bibliographies is de rigueur. It's good marketing, anyway, I imagine on the Kindle if I clicked on the hotlinks in them I'd go straight to a page where I could snap up the book in either physical or digital form. Nothing wrong with good marketing.

So now you're saying, "OK, Jim, so obviously Draculas didn't exactly light your fire, anything I need to know about, because it's either this or a tasty, tasty chalupa." Good question, Reader, I can see how you'd make the comparison, the price point and what's on offer are similar in a lot of ways.

Well, I'll try to keep it to the point. First off, understand my bias. I'm not really a classic horror fan. In the email that K would send to me if he gave a damn he'd start with "Then why did you ask me to read it, a--hole?" Well, I figured with so many authors, with their kind of range, it would be bound to be a little cross-genre and thus more in my wheelhouse. This does not happen. Draculas is a down-the-line, straight up grindhouse horror book. Draw whatever comparisons you feel like, it feels a lot like a zombie story to me. Stories where you have about too many characters and all but two of them live while the rest are horribly murdered are not really the blue plate special in the diner of my mind.

Remember how I said that the style was seamless throughout? All the authors have been blended together until their special talents don't really shine through. Strand's humor is reduced to maybe one or two flat jokes (I'm guessing, doesn't say) and a rather unfunny evil clown. Wilson gets to talk a lot about various types of exotic weaponry (down to how many grains are in the cartridge - folks on the Internet are cheering right now). Crouch delivers one scene so messed-up I'd be surprised if it didn't get talked about (I think, I'd have to go back and confirm in the 'interview' section). K probably provided the rest of the crude jokes (e.g. the soon-to-be-infamous 'boner scene'). Struck me as too many cooks.

The book's structure doesn't help much. There are no chapter breaks, just a constant switching from one point of view to another, each break simply titled with the name of the character. I think this style encourages too many characters, and we get them aplenty, I lost track of them all by the time I quit, which was annoying, because I knew most of them would just end up with a belly full of fangs later anyway. This is what I call "Tom Clancy Syndrome" - no, I don't really need to enter the POV of yet another victim, reading their life story, their hopes and dreams, only to watch them get owned like a noob by a random fangbeastie on the next page. There's not too much of this, but it was enough for me.

The characters are all taken from central casting, pretty much. The aforementioned Evil Clown, the Lawman, the A-Hole, the Girlfriend, the Tragic Hero, the Slavering Monster (yeah, they try to do POV on him), I was never surprised, shocked, or even interested by anything anyone did in the pages I read through and the parts I skimmed over as I finished up. I'm not even a fan of goddamn horror movies and all these characters struck me as very by-the-book.

It doesn't help that the book is basically a zombie story with what I'd call "Type 2 Vampires" - the slavering fangbeastie kind, the ones that punch holes in doors and rip people apart and generally give carpet cleaners headaches with all the viscera and guts everywhere. They are not really vampires to me as I think that term implies a hell of a lot more. I kept thinking of the term "chupacabra" throughout as these are exactly the type of thing that runs around in the desert and kills livestock. Toss in the infection mechanism - whereby if someone is bitten or even gets goop say, in their mouth or an open wound, they turn in about ten or fifteen minutes - and you've basically got zombies that kick a lot of ass. I found characters referring to them as 'draculas' a bit grating as it didn't seem like a natural slang term to me, like something that would just spring to mind as you were thinking of what to call these things other than "these f---ing things". By coming up with these rules the mechanism of the book is pretty much set. Oh no, little Johnny got bit, the pathos. Boom in the head, it was the only way, I'll be haunted forever if I live. You get the idea. This is a bit funny considering that later in the inteview section K talks some shit about how this is no supernatural fluffy crap - yet the mechanism is essentially unimportant, considering. What neurotoxin/virus/neurotoxic virus can last 500 years in the dirt? This one, apparently. Whatever, K is going for the ballyhoo here as he joins the "F sparkly vampires" bandwagon that is picking up speed, so I let it go.

There's also a bit too much research dross in the book. You know what I mean. Yes, I'm sure that a RN would know and use all these medical terms. No, they are not really useful, interesting, or cool. I can learn all this shit in two minutes on the Internet - but I'm not going to stop to go look up where the subclavian artery is or whatever the fuck. This shit needs to be cut back and what is essential should be explained in the text. Otherwise it interrupts the flow and smacks of nonfictionism (where you try to get people to read your book by making them think they're learning something). Ditto for the gun stuff. I'm sure guys like Larry Correia really enjoy knowing that you got all the facts right on what grade shot to use in your autoshotgun, and just mentioning model numbers is good enough for them since they can immediately picture it. But otherwise, the information is not useful and serves only to clog up the story. If it REALLY matters, like if a gun nerd would point out to me that the caliber a character is using means something because of whatever reason - that should be mentioned. It sometimes is but my eyes were already glazing so I might have missed most of these times.

Overall what does this mean for the book? I don't think it's really bad. I've seen truly bad stuff and this isn't it. I think I just didn't like it. I'd bet a dollar against a dinosaur that tons of people will love the shit out of this book. And I'm not trying to set myself up as some gentleman scholar either, it's just hard not to use the usual cliche terms like I did above, "fun", "doesn't take itself seriously", "romp", etc. It's obvious the writers had a lot of fun working on it and didn't break a sweat, not that that's bad, God knows an easy one is nice every now and again. And for those who aren't as picky as me there's a lot to enjoy. Really, though, the only way I can say anything more good for the book is the DREADED SPOILERS. Those of you who get your panties in a wad about knowing anything about books, media, whatever are warned. I'm going to try to do spoilertext below - drag and highlight to read (if it works).

OK, like I was saying, this book's actions really kicks up once the Stalwart Deputy (who quotes movie lines like I'm supposed to think they're funny or he's awesome or both) brings in his ... yes, Gym Bag Full of Guns. It's an internet gun nerd's wet dream in there, with an auto-shotgun, a grenade launcher, even something from Ty's personal weapons locker, the Raging Bull. This helps A LOT as just watching people run around, scream and die is boring. The action keeps ratcheting up, mostly in the form of extreme gore, until finally ... yes, The Military Finally Gets There and they unleash a goddamn Giant Laser. (They call it an "autoclave", which I think is a stretch, but OK). That earns some points - the game was over for me at that point, but yeah, Giant Goddamn Laser, that was cool. Gorehounds will probably dig the extremely nasty ways people and monsters get killed in this book - this strikes me as where most of the work was put in. The "infamous scene" I mentioned that I'm pretty sure is Crouch's? A Pregnant Woman gets bit and ... yes, both her and the unborn child turn, and the damn thing eats its way out of her uterus. Enjoy that.

OK, looks like spoilertext is working. If you end up not buying the book because I just spoiled all the "best parts" you weren't going to buy the book anyway.

Basically what I'd say is this - Draculas is a polished, professional story that doesn't give you anything new or all that original, but it shouldn't disappoint people who are bigger horror fans than I. I know there are tons of people out there who like reading stories like this, and if it were in movie form I'd enjoy it. It's ballyhoo and hullabaloo from one end to the other, from the goofy, kinda unnecessary headlines at the beginning (though Drudge's copy reads nothing like that - OK, I'll stop) to the explosive ending and the COMING SOONs (I couldn't take the COMING SOON too seriously, I took it kinda like the trailers in Grindhouse), this book is a drive-in gorefest that seems like it could've been a movie produced by Roger Corman. K and Crew could probably actually write all three of those books (Draculas 2, Wolfmen, and Mummies) and more and there would be a huge market for them. There was nothing I saw that should notably dissapoint any of the many people I know who are bigger straight-up horror fans than I am. It's exploitation fiction, and I don't see it failing by any of those lights. All killer, no filler, and that's the truth, I'm just saying that this is Original Flavor and I like Spicy Ranch flavor, you get the idea. Or, to harken back to that choice between this book or a tasty chalupa, I think you'd get way more enjoyment out of this if it's your bag. I'm over here getting a burrito instead. That's the great thing about K's whole e-publishing movement - $2.99 is low enough that it's worth a shot. I wouldn't even have been pissed if I had bought the thing and not liked it that much, and that money will buy me a half-decent cigar. This is four writers cutting loose and just bullshitting, like if they were all in a room and had to write a story in an hour. The result is like a microwave dinner - filling, but if you're looking for anything more, unsatisfying. So don't look for anything more.

None of this review should be taken as me trying to damn with faint praise or set myself off as a great artiste. De gustibus, non disputandum. OK, maybe a little artiste-y there, just a bit, couldn't resist. In Vino Veritas. Not all of K's ballyhoo is off, either - this book gets really wild without a nervous publisher looking over their shoulder, this is the uncut version baby, so I know you'll wanna hear that. This book is 100% pulp, and I respect that. Hey, don't let my review turn you off - I loved Godfather Part III, so what do I know?

On Amazon, I'd give it: 3 out of 5 stars.
At WHC '11, I'll be packing: a Taser, just in case.

Apologies to the authors - I promised to get this out yesterday but I've been having computer problems, and, frankly, I wasn't sure I should post this as I sure as hell don't need 4 guys out there who don't like me. But a promise is a promise, so here it is. I'll get this on Amazon either later this morning or tomorrow. 

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