Thursday, June 2, 2016

Kaiju Rising - Part 3

Kaiju Rising by various authors. Edited by Tim Marquitz & Nick Sharps. Originally published by Ragnarok Publications, Febraury 2014. Approx. 552 pages.

Moving along in this anthology at a brisker clip, today we look at stories 11-15...

Heartland by Shane Berryhill (23 pgs):
There is something rotten going on in the town of Heartland, located in America's heartland. This much is known from the get-go, as we meet desperate mother Carol Blevins, gun in hand, and husband handcuffed to the fridge. A complete and total egress from Heartland with her kids in tow is on the agenda, but what is the motivating cause?

And, how much credence can be given to a woman with such an extensive history of mental illness and reliance on anti-psychotic medication?

Heartland is a well conceived and executed story, which in the end is delivered in a fairly predictable manner. It's a shame; especially since the idea is that even though there is the promise of a kaiju, the real monster lies within us.

My main problem is that the story is told in way to straightforward a manner. Berryhill could have optimized Carol as the ultimate unreliable narrator: is she a woman with a legitimate concern who has finally "woken up", or is she a drugged-out menace to herself and her children? Some real, completely palpable tension could've been whipped up from that scenario, leaving readers on the edges of their seats. So why not? Is it to avoid portraying the mentally ill in a poor light? Maybe.

Either way; everything is rendered well, the characters are a bit cookie cutter, but a very satisfying payoff.

Side note: I am not an expert on these meds, but from what I know Zoloft is an anti-depressant that doesn't necessarily leave you "jonesing" for a dose. Missing a few days of it will not have a dramatic effect. If Carol was feeling that level of desperation for something to calm herself, she'd probably be looking for anti-anxiety medicine like Xanax.
Score: 7/10

Devil's Cap Brawl by Edward M. Erdelac (26 pgs):
This was a fun one. Devil's Cap Brawl is set in the Dead West universe (also published by Ragnarok, I've read a bit of the first book - Those Poor, Poor, Bastards - and really enjoyed it).

In this story, workers for a railroad baron literally unearth a long-buried miscreant monster as they go about blasting through the titular mountain. Luckily for them, they find that they have a rather unconventional ally on their side. I really don't want to get too much into it, for the sake of avoiding spoilers.

The writing here, as in the other Dead West books, is balls to the wall and full throttle. A lot of the stories in this anthology have curses, but this takes it to a new level, peppered throughout with some quite politically incorrect language. The fact that the protagonists nickname was bestowed upon him for the sheer volume of blasphemous language he uses is one clue. The fact that he is also a brash, back street brawling Irishman in the 1800's in charge of Indians and Chinamen should give you another hint of what kind of language is in store.

Erdelac does a great job in painting the scenery, fleshing out his monster, and choreographing the action. I had a bit of trouble at first with the "good guy", but he made it work. This story is the badass bastard offspring of the frantic coupling of classic Western pulp tales and good old fashioned giant monster stories.
Score: 9.5/10

Shaktarra by Sean Sherman (18 pgs):
Here we have the second story submitted by a Kickstarter backer. At first, I really did not care much for this story at all; but it kind of lingers with you, and you can see the pure heartfelt fun that serves as the underpinnings for the goings-on. That doesn't mean that the short story isn't pretty raw.

There are some truly weird things happening in Vegas. Even by Vegas standards. An EMP has shut down everything, and an ominous green haze hovers across the horizon. Two friends, Craig and Leslie, decide to head into this alien "forest". At the same time, a giant creature heads out of it, and begins to rampage through Vegas.

Ok, I really hate to be critical, but there are a few things that didn't sit right with me, as a reader. The dynamic between the two leads is never clarified or solidified; a notion of what constituted their bond would have helped immensely; be it work, long-term friendship, or relationship/flirtation. Second, there is a little too much narrative convenience going on here. Craig and Leslie are seemingly the only ones heading for this green alien light? And they just so happen to enter the forest at such a close proximity to the home of the elder of the alien race?

Also, the mechanics of the EMP attack are a little fuzzy. Did it render everything within it's range useless permanently? Was there a lingering EMP effect remaining? If so, how could the military move in?

I really don't want to keep nitpicking on small issues, however. Point is, when I finished the story, I really didn't like it. It just wasn't the type of story that appealed to me; and I didn't care for the tie dye and psychedelic monsters. The way the aliens were presented didn't do much for me either.

Then you get to the good stuff. This is another fan piece that is quite clearly made with love. Sherman tries to inject some levity into to proceedings as well. As a kaiju, Shaktarra is done nicely; and that is what really matters. Also, Sherman makes a clever choice in allowing his monster to rampage through Vegas -  it allows the creature a chance to destroy a slew of landmarks without leaving the area.

In the end, Shaktarra does not work as a short story. It works as a proposal for some sort of a visual piece; this might have made a nifty comic, cartoon or TV show. However, as a narrative work, its shortcomings are too glaring and it ultimately dooms it.
Score: 4.5/10

Of the Earth, of the Sky, of the Sea by Patrick M. Tracy and Paul Genesse (32 pgs):
For this little slice of alternate historical fiction, we move to Japan near the end of the Tokugawa Era. We meet a priestess named Shinobu as she confers with General Tokugawa Ichiro on how to repel hordes of gaijin invaders from Britain and the Netherlands. Ichiro knows that Shinobu heads up a triumvirate of priestesses that hold the key to unleashing Japan's most lethal tools of self-defense: ancient dragons, tied the the very elements of the land itself. With these creatures presenting the only tangible defense against the steampunk-inspired onslaught of metal ships, dirigible bombers, and men in mech-suits, Shinobu and Ichiro must decide if these uncontrollable forces of nature are worth unleashing.

So, this story has a lot of good things going for it. It is amazing, conceptually. It also manages to pack a large amount of kaiju into a small story. The action is pretty great, especially as the kaiju clash against the West's steampunk monstrosities.

However, for all of these good points, there is a lack of soul here. The characters and characterization is paper thin. It is as if Tracy and Genesse wrote their Japanese characters as Far East mystical Yodas with a perennial BGM of bamboo flutes.

There is no realness to Shinobu's account. I would think that someone who helped orchestrate the residual carnage would relay their account with a little more hardness, hurt, and shame; not flowery, fortune-cookie prose.

Either way, however, the good far outshines the bad here. I just wish we'd have seen a little more of the invaders up close and personal. There were so many interesting elements introduced for them.
Score: 7/10

The Flight of the Red Monsters by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam (9 pgs):
This is another of those very short tales that manages to pack a mean punch. The titular Red Monsters are simple in presentation; little more than giant lobsters from the ocean depths. However, they excel in execution. Stufflebeam turns their tale into a migration/revenge tale; and then creates direct parallels to the story of a young woman affected by the swarm of lobster kaiju. We have excellent first-person POVs for both Maria (the young girl), and one of the Reds. This gives us an opportunity to see how dramatic events sent them both on pilgrimages, and then missions of revenge.

Then, in the end, after a huge mutual realization, we come to a deviously ambiguous ending. Really don't want to give away more in what makes for a wonderful ten minute reading.
Score: 9/10

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