Some writers have a distinctive style and approach to their fiction. In fact, I'd venture to say that most do. But it becomes dull when writers become too predictable. That's why I love it when a writer whose work I like takes chances and goes in a different direction than their readers may expect. I read two such novellas last night.
I've been a fan of the work of John Little since I read his debut novel, The Memory Tree. John always delivers first rate fiction and his fans are never disappointed. However, I've come to expect things from him. When I contemplate reading a new one by Little, I think that I might be about to experience a Twilight Zone-type piece. John has used time and its mysteries more than once, and he has used the subject to excellent results. His work often bridges the gap between horror, fantasy, and science fiction. So when I heard that the new publication by John Little was called Ursa Major, I assumed that it would deal with the constellation. Boy was I wrong.
Ursa Major is the most brutal and unrelenting story I've yet read by John. Taking a cue perhaps from Stephen King's Cujo, Ursa Major is about a man and his stepdaughter alone in the Alaskan wilderness. They are trapped in a cabin by a ferociously large bear. The story becomes an exercise in grueling terror and suspense. The man and child have no food, no water, and no way out, and the bear seems to have infinite patience.
Yet this is no mere tale of survival in the wild. John Little's fiction is never that simple. He examines the lives and personalities of his human characters, and he shares with the reader the backgrounds of the family. He get us in their heads and it's a beautiful, yet horrifying place.
I called Ursa Major brutal, and it really is. I was shocked at the harshness of the story. I think readers will be too. Ursa Major is a departure for John Little to some degree, but it follows in the footsteps of his other work with its careful prose and genuine emotion.
I've been a fan of the work of Brian Keene since I read his debut novel, The Rising. Brian, along with 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake, is responsible for the current zombie craze. Or perhaps I should say that he is to be blamed for it. I can't fault Brian though. He did something different with The Rising. It isn't just a simple George Romero clone, as many writers are content to crank out. Brian gave his zombie novel a Lovecraftian slant.
And to Brian's credit, he could crank out sequels to The Rising one after another, but he chose to try new things with his work. Still, I've come to expect a blue collar sensibility in his fiction. Which is cool. Brian, like myself, came from a blue collar, working class background. There is usually a generous amount of violence in his work, if not outright gore. His readers like it and he's good at doling out the grue. I enjoy it.
That's why his Maelstrom Press novella, Alone, comes as such a surprise. This quiet, thoughtful piece seems like it could have been written by T.M. Wright. If not Philip K. Dick. I even see some Richard Matheson in the pages of Alone.
Alone begins with a man waking up, inexplicably alone. His partner and daughter are not home, though their belongings are. Food tastes funny. Noises sound off. There's a bizarre gray cloud outside. His neighbors are also gone. Is Daniel Miller dreaming, or is something more sinister going on?
Brian's lead character in Alone is gay, and it's refreshing to note that Daniel Miller's sexuality isn't used as some sort of hook for the story. The same character or situation could have just as easily been a straight guy. Or a woman, for that matter. Miller just happens to be a well-adjusted upwardly mobile gay man.
Alone isn't a lot like the majority of Keene's work, and had I not known that he was the writer when I read it, I would not have guessed that Brian Keene had authored the story. It's not necessarily better than his, say, mass market novels, but it has such a different feel.
Both Ursa Major and Alone represent some of the best writing that the genre currently has to offer. And it's nice that the small press makes it possible for novellas to be published. They are a great length for horror fiction, but the confines of the publishing world had made them a hard sell for writers in the past.
Ursa Major is available from Bad Moon Books, and you should buy a copy for yourself. Alone will be harder to find. It was part of the limited Maelstrom 2 set of books, and they are sold out. You can possibly find one in the secondary markets, but it will probably cost you.