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The world is burning, one person at a time. A new sort of plague, a spore known colloquially as Dragonscale, is infecting hundreds of thousands around the globe. It begins with something small. It gets into your head. It grows. You feel fine until you see it on your skin-a small stripe, like a gold-flecked stain. You might even mistake it for a bruise at first. But then you know you have it. You know that you’re going to burn, and it’s only a question of when. No one knows exactly how it spreads, and there’s no sign of a cure short of being killed before you ignite. You’ll smoke a bit first, and then you’ll combust, unless someone decides to end your life before then.

In the midst of the chaos is Harper Willowes, a Portsmouth nurse who sincerely wishes for nothing more than to be able to help others through the crisis. She volunteers her services caring for the infected while her husband Jakob works for the Public Works Department, helping to clean up the devastation left behind by the burning infected. It’s at work that Harper first meets the Fireman. He brings a child in for treatment, not for the Dragonscale covering him, but for a ruptured appendix. After the boy, Nick, is taken in for surgery, the Fireman vanishes. A few days later, Nick is gone as well, leaving only questions in his wake. Then, disaster strikes and the Portsmouth Hospital burns to the ground. Harper escapes, but soon makes two discoveries. She’s pregnant and she has the ‘scale. Believing himself to be infected as well, Jakob snaps and Harper is forced to flee for her life and that of her unborn child.

When all seems lost, the Fireman intervenes. He rescues Harper from Jakob’s pursuit and secrets her away to a small camp where over a hundred and fifty infected are living in hiding, including Nick. Living and thriving, to Harper’s great surprise. While there’s no cure for the spore, the people of the camp have found a way to live in harmony with the Dragonscale, under the leadership of Nick’s grandfather. Harper’s medical skills quickly make her indispensable. The camp, however, is no paradise. As panic grips the nation, marauders seek to eliminate any infected. Harper only wants to survive long enough to deliver her baby, but internal power struggles in the camp threaten to expose them all to the roving Cremation Crews. The Fireman may be the only one who can save them all, but he hides a dark secret of his own.

Joe Hill takes on an apocalypse of his own, one that rivals The Stand in scope and violence (not to mention pop culture references). As the world around them burns, his characters must face the fact that other humans may be a greater threat to them than the Dragonscale ever was. The Fireman is a hell of a ride from beginning to end, and is every bit as intense as the flames it evokes.

The Fireman, hits store shelves on 5/17. Go check it out.

[My most sincere thanks to William Morrow for the Advance Reader Copy of The Fireman, acquired at PLA 2016]

In 1977, Stephen King chilled readers with a tale of a young couple and their son, and the worst winter to ever pass in a hotel in Colorado. That book, The Shining, was King’s third novel, and thanks in part to the brilliant work of Jack Nicholson and Stanley Kubrick, is widely remembered as the basis for one of the greatest horror films ever. Now, almost forty years have passed since The Shining first hit shelves, and we are granted a rare treat from the master of horror. On September 24th, 2013, Stephen King released Doctor Sleep, a sequel to one of his earliest and most famous novels.

One winter, long ago, one of Colorado’s finest hotels burned to the ground after the aging boiler exploded. Four people were at the Overlook Hotel at the time. Jack Torrance (the recently hired winter caretaker), his wife, Wendy, and their son, Danny (a young boy gifted with the titular “shining”, a type of psychic power), were living in the hotel for the season. Also on location was Dick Halloran, head cook of the Overlook, who had returned from vacation in Florida because of a growing concern for the safety of the Torrance family. Mr. Torrance was killed in the blast while the other three escaped with relatively minor injuries. Torrance had reportedly returned to the hotel’s basement in an heroic attempt to relieve the pressure in the boiler, albeit regrettably too late to save the hotel and himself. The truth of that winter is known only to the survivors.

Years later, Danny Torrance is a grown man struggling with ghosts, both literal and metaphorical. Having inherited his father’s propensity for alcohol, Dan tries to hide from his past, locking away the memories of the Overlook and drinking to numb his psychic abilities, always on the move from town to town. After a time on the road, bouncing from bottle to job and back again, Dan realizes that he has to get his life back together. In a small town in New England (surprise!), Dan finds an AA sponsor and gainful employment at a local hospice. Before long, he’s learning to use his shining to help those who are near death to cross over to the other side, earning the nickname “Doctor Sleep.”

Far across the country, a group of people known as The True Knot are stalking people with shining, feeding off of their powers and extending their lives. They soon set their sights on a young girl named Abra, whose latent shining is a blazing fire next to the flickering match that is Dan Torrance’s power. The True intend to find the girl, torture her to death, and feast and rejuvenate on her power, or “steam.” When she learns of their existence and their plans, Abra reaches out via the shining, attempting to find someone who can help her stand against the True, and finds Dan. Soon the two are communicating, planning a way to defend Abra from those who would do her harm and simultaneously lay Dan’s ghosts to rest once and for all.

King has crafted a delightful tale with Doctor Sleep, continuing the story of a tormented young boy as he passes into adulthood. He skillfully weaves new and old, tying details of The Shining into the present-day narrative. It’s not The Shining all over again, but rather a different, more mature type of horror. Dan is sympathetic, and overwhelmingly human, struggling to flee from the gifts that saved his life when he was a child. Abra is a bright spot in his life, reminding him of the hope his family once had.

If you’re a Stephen King fan, odds are that you’ve already at least considered giving Doctor Sleep a read. I devoured it, and as always, I wanted more when I was done. It’s a fascinating opportunity to see the evolution of King’s writing style and technique, and a great story in its own right.

I recently finished Chuck Wendig’s first novel for young adults, Under the Empyrean Sky. As a fan of Chuck’s blog over at Terrible Minds, I felt I owed it to myself to give one of his full-length books a read, and I’m damn glad that I did.

Under the Empyrean Sky introduces us to our intrepid young hero, Cael McAvoy, captain of a teenage scavenger crew in the Heartland. Cael and his friends sail a land boat across the seemingly endless fields of corn to salvage anything they might be able to sell in their home town of Boxelder, because any extra money they can bring in helps provide for their families.

See, only one thing grows in the Heartland. The Empyrean makes sure of it. Hiram’s Golden Prolific is a modified strain of corn that spreads anywhere it pleases, choking out any other potentially competitive life (and it’s not fond of people walking near it, either). It’s the only seed that the Empyrean distributes to the farmers in the Heartland, and the returns for working for the Empyrean machine are enough to barely survive.

So Cael McAvoy scavenges, but he and his friends are not the only crew at work. The mayor’s son has a crew, number one in salvage recovery in Boxelder, and Boyland Barnes Jr. brings daddy’s money to the fight to ensure that Cael’s crew remains in second place. With tensions running high as the Harvest Home festival approaches, Cael takes his ship out for a prime target, only to be shipwrecked in the corn by Boyland Jr. It’s then that he finds something out in the middle of the field, something no one in the Heartland could have predicted. Vegetables. Fruits. Things that have no right growing in the midst of Hiram’s Golden Prolific. The discovery could make them all rich enough to buy passage to one of the flotillas, massive hovering cities of the Empyrean, where the wealthy live in splendor floating over the Heartland like Cael’s boat over the corn. Or it could get them and everyone they’ve ever loved killed.

Wendig packs one hell of a punch into the pages of this book. Deep characters and rich world building blend seamlessly with gritty violence and some of the most honest dialogue to hit the pages of a young adult novel. While some things might come across as a bit heavy-handed (like Empyrean agent Simone Agrasanto‘s name), most of the novel is quick and sharp, like the leaves of the plant that lends its name to Wendig’s self-dubbed “cornpunk” genre. Under the Empyrean Sky weaves teenage love, sex, violence, and intrigue into a wild land boat ride that will leave you counting the days until the release of volume two.

I recently took the time out of my schedule to play through Injustice: Gods Among Us. I’m not normally one for fighting games, but this one boasted a full roster of DC Comics characters and a seriously compelling story, so I figured I’d at least give the story mode a go.

WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD (But please note that the game is three months old at this point)

Our story begins in an alternate universe (surprise!) in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion that has obliterated Metropolis. The Joker managed to get his hands on a nuke, and link the trigger to Lois Lane’s heartbeat. When he managed to drug Superman and convince him that Lois was actually Doomsday, Superman kills the love of his life and their unborn son, and triggers the nuke. In a fit of rage, Superman murders the Joker in revenge and establishes himself as High Councilor of Earth.

In our universe, the Joker is about to unleash a nuke as well. The Justice League is en route to stop him when he and several of the heroes are pulled into the aforementioned alternate universe. Parallel Batman has brought heroes from our world into his to help end Superman’s reign, and the fighting begins.

Each of the twelve chapters of the story allows you to play through several fights as a range of characters. Batman, Green Lantern, Cyborg, Deathstroke, Lex Luthor, The Flash, Green Arrow, Wonder Woman, The Joker, Aquaman, and Superman are all featured in the main story mode. Each has a standard set of light, medium, and heavy attacks, and various special moves. It’s hardly the most complex fighting game to come down the line (I’m looking at you, BlazBlue and Dead or Alive), but it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Voice acting is top-notch, character designs are spot-on, and the story is pretty damn compelling. I’d rate it almost perfectly, except for one glaring issue.

I have one major complaint about Injustice, and it applies to the story mode. While you have a wide range of characters to play as, especially in standard fighting modes, story mode only includes one female character. Wonder Woman is the only female character you play while in the story mode, and her character is placed in a less-than-ideal scenario. Story mode places her playable portion near the very end of the game. She has three story mode battles instead of the typical four (or more) given to the other characters. And finally, two of her three battles take place against other female characters, including a mirror universe version of herself. Injustice takes great strides to establish itself as a strong fighting game with a great roster of characters, but the story falls flat at including this level of equality. It’s worth a playthrough, but keep in mind that Netherrealm Studios could have done a better job of implementing more of DC’s female characters. Raven, Killer Frost, Catwoman, Hawkgirl, and Harley Quinn are all fought against, and Zatanna and Batgirl are available as downloadable content, so the overall roster isn’t lacking. You’ll still find plenty of DC’s ladies kicking ass and taking names in tournaments, but the plot really needed to showcase more of them as active heroes.

In October 2005, a video game was released that pushed the limits of the Playstation 2, a console then in the last years of its supported life. That game was Shadow of the Colossus. I never owned a PS2, and so I never directly encountered the game in its original run. Recently, however, my girlfriend received a PS3, and so I’ve been delving into the console’s library via my library. It turns out that a couple of years ago Shadow of the Colossus was given the high-def treatment for a PS3 re-release. I hope that you’ll all forgive my not writing much over the last week, because my free time has been devoured by this gorgeous game. 

Jaw-dropping.

This is the first enemy you encounter.

You play as Wander, a young man who has journeyed to a forbidden land to resurrect a girl named Mono. Your only companion on this journey is Agro, your loyal horse. Upon arriving in a temple, Wander speaks to a being of great power who offers to revive Mono. In order to do so, Wander must destroy the sixteen statues that line the temple, but it is impossible for him to do so directly. Instead, he must seek out and defeat the sixteen colossi represented by each statue.

As the writer over at New Gamer Nation so eloquently said, “It was and still is an awe-inducing game, littered with memorable moments from start to finish due to its grand scale and design.” The first foe, Valus, pictured above, is by no means the largest of the sixteen colossi that our protagonist, Wander, sets out to defeat. Each colossus is a unique puzzle to solve, combining platforming elements with combat.

There is an unshakable feeling of loneliness throughout the game, emphasized by the soundtrack and the sheer scale of the world, empty but for the colossi (and a scattering of lizards and birds). A somber tone pervades the entire game, and I felt a true sense of awe and sorrow as each colossus fell by my hand. I won’t say anything regarding the rest of the plot, but I will say this: I have never been so emotionally invested in a video game. What Wander is willing to do for Mono’s sake brought me to tears.

If you own a PS3 (or a PS2, and you can snag the original version), you owe it to yourself as a gamer to play Shadow of the Colossus. Trust me.

Over the weekend, my girlfriend and I took the opportunity to catch a couple of the latest theatrical releases. First up on the schedule was the latest Bond film, Skyfall.

Caught up in development hell (primarily caused by a bankruptcy filing two years ago), this film has been four years in the making. Franchise fans can rest at last, knowing that every day of waiting has been worthwhile. Daniel Craig is back as James Bond, his third film as Agent 007. The ever-graceful Dame Judi Dench reprises her role as James’ boss, M, making her seventh appearance in a Bond film (a role she first assumed alongside Pierce Brosnan’s Bond in Goldeneye in 1995). Starring as the antagonist of Skyfall is Javier Bardem. Bardem brings an eerie boyish energy to the role of Raoul Silva, a computer hacker with a dark connection to M.

Skyfall’s release marks the fiftieth anniversary of the film series, and I can’t imagine a more perfect present to mark the occasion. Daniel Craig’s performance is emotional and sincere as the movie’s plot forces Bond to revisit his past and secure MI6’s future in a rapidly changing world. When hacker and cyberterrorist Silva attacks the security agency’s headquarters, James must return to England to protect M, who is now facing queries and pressure from oversight organizations. Can 007 succeed in a world where a man can “do more damage on [his] laptop in [his] pyjamas than [Bond] can do in a year in the field”? Is everything as black and white as it seems? Bond travels around the world, from England to Macau, leaving no beautiful woman unseduced and no martini undrunk, and he does it all with impeccable fashion, but as Silva chases M and Bond chases Silva, there’s no telling who might get caught in the crossfire.

Skyfall had a lot to live up to, given the delay and the hype that always surrounds a new James Bond film, and the script and cast do not disappoint. Neither do the breathtaking visuals, fast car chases, intense action sequences (Craig has always been a more physical Bond, as he proved in his free-running intro back in Casino Royale), and beautiful score (headlined by Adele’s “Skyfall” theme). Ladies and gentlemen, break out the suits and cocktail gowns and dust off your martini glasses. Bond is undeniably back.

After braving the cold of a November evening in Colorado to make a trip to the nearby brewery (delicious local stout was had, as was, of course, a martini), we returned to the theatre for the second film of the evening, Wreck-It Ralph.

Wreck-It Ralph is the latest animated feature from Disney, and it is a wonderful tribute to video game lovers everywhere. The film is set inside an arcade, where some games come and go, but others, like the (sadly fictional) Fix-It Felix Jr. remain popular decades after their release. Ralph is the villain of Fix-It Felix Jr., and as such, he spends his days climbing to the top of an apartment building (built over his bulldozed forest home) to destroy it, threatening the homes and lives of the Nicelanders until Fix-It Felix Jr. can come to the rescue with his magic hammer. When the arcade closes for the night, however, Ralph and the other video game characters are free to gather in the Game Central Station, a massive terminal where the characters can mingle, have a beer at Tapper’s, or pass through the power cables into other arcade cabinets.

On the eve of the 30th anniversary of his game, Ralph leaves a support group (hosted by Clyde) after hearing from other villains, and realizing that he’s not thrilled with the idea of remaining a villain. After crashing a party thrown by the Nicelanders in Felix’s honor, Ralph sets off to a first-person shooter to win a medal, believing that becoming a hero in another game will earn him respect. While initially somewhat successful (Ralph does get a medal), his quest is derailed when he accidentally ends up in the racing game Sugar Rush. The childish Vanellope Von Schweetz steals Ralph’s medal, and working alongside her is the only way for Ralph to get it back. Unfortunately, Ralph’s game-jumping could spell disaster for his own game (what happens when the villain doesn’t show up for work?) and potentially the entire arcade.

Wreck-It Ralph is a fun ride, filled with great cameos and background events taken from the long history of video games. You’ll find yourself cheering for Ralph from the get-go, and learn that being a bad guy doesn’t necessarily make you a bad guy. The animation is phenomenal, as we get to see the evolution of gaming graphics from 8-bit to high definition (animators apparently had the most trouble making certain characters move jerkily, having trained their whole careers to strive for fluid motions). The voice acting is spot-on, with John C. Reilly as Ralph and Sarah Silverman (in what may be her most sincere and heartwarming role to date) as Vanellope, and the soundtrack includes catchy 8-bit-inspired tracks by Buckner and Garcia (of Pac-Man Fever fame) and Owl City. By the time the credits roll, you’ll be wishing you could put another quarter in the machine and do it all over again.

House of Leaves is an editor’s nightmare.

I love it. It’s a jumble of narratives, strange font choices and jarring shifts between them, footnotes that ramble on for several pages, and pages that suddenly switch direction as the labyrinthine house that serves as the main location for the book.

It is riddled with grammatical errors, and seems utterly nonsensical to anyone who picks the book up and flips through it, hoping to find some semblance of sanity within the pages. In short, it is everything that a novel about an eldritch abomination should be.

I recently finished reading the book, and I must say that while it was one of the most dense reads of all time, it was incredibly satisfying to be able to put the book down and know that it was complete. There’s nothing beyond the text whatsoever. There is nothing behind me, growling in my ears now that I’ve completed the book. 

In short, read the book if you’re looking for psychological horror. It’s not a quick read, but it will definitely make you think.

This morning I had the pleasure of viewing the local premiere of the latest foray into Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, The Avengers. I’ll warn you all in advance. This review may contain spoilers of the tie-in films, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, and Iron Man 2. If you’ve not seen any of them, odds are that you’re not that interested in The Avengers anyway. However, your Avengers experience will remain spoiler-free. See? You can’t say I don’t care about you.

Chris Hemsworth as Thor. Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man. Chris Evans as Captain America. Mark Ruffalo as The Incredible Hulk. Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow. Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye. Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. Tom Hiddleston as Loki. Written by Joss Whedon. It’s geek heaven.

Whedon directed an all-star cast and managed to give every one of the heroes (not to mention Hiddleston’s delightfully evil grinning villain) a good deal of screen time.

The Tesseract (the Cinematic Universe name given to the Cosmic Cube) used by HYDRA scientists to develop weapons during WWII was lost in the ocean during the events of Captain America: The First Avenger. Eventually, it was recovered by Howard Stark while he searched for the body of Steve Rogers and brought back to America. In the modern day, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are experimenting with the cube in an attempt to harness the potentially unlimited clean energy that it could provide. Soon, however, the Tesseract is activated from elsewhere in the universe, and Loki arrives on-scene at the S.H.I.E.L.D facility, mindcontrolling Dr. Selvig and Hawkeye and fleeing with the cube.

After surviving the destruction of the S.H.I.E.L.D. facility, Nick Fury pushes the reactivation of the Avengers Initiative, gathering heroes from around the world (and beyond, in the case of Thor) to defeat Loki and reclaim the Tesseract, which Loki wants to use to open a portal to another world, so that an alien army can conquer Earth. Pretty standard comic book fare. The heroes in question, however, don’t necessarily want to work together from the start, and a good portion of the film is dedicated to the working out of their own issues with one another before they can form a team strong enough to defeat Loki and his Chitauri army.

Along the way to the climactic showdown between the Avengers and Loki’s army in Manhattan, we’re treated to brilliant humor, courtesy of Joss Whedon’s writing, and graphics that rival everything that we’ve seen in the tie-in movies thus far. The Avengers is solid, with cohesive storytelling and equal emphasis on every character who has been a part of the buildup. I highly recommend going to see it. Go see it multiple times, because odds are that you’ll be laughing so hard at one of Whedon’s jokes or cheering so loud at the heroic action that you might miss something subtle.

Please be prepared for more sequels and tie-ins in the future, as well. Sequels to Captain America and Thor are in development, along with a 3rd Iron Man film, potentially Black Widow and Hawkeye movies, and Avengers 2. Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is just getting started, ladies and gentlemen. The Avengers is a fantastic step forward for Marvel, and for superhero movies, and cinema in general. Go see it. Watch through the credits. You won’t be disappointed.

Three and a half years ago, Stephen King released a short story collection entitled Just After Sunset. Twelve of the stories in the book had been previously published, leaving one new title to bring the total up to that wonderful number of thirteen. That story was N.

N. was one of the most terrifying stories that I’d read at the time I first encountered the book, and it still chills. King crafted a phenomenal series of layers of narrative. N. is the story of a psychiatrist named John and a patient referred to in his records only by his first initial, the titular N. N. is suffering from insomnia and severe obsessive compulsive disorder that he claims stem from a visit to a field near John’s home town. When N. eventually commits suicide, John is driven to investigate more, to see if there was something that he could have done to save his patient.

The outer layers of the story focus on John’s investigation and the impact that his own visit to the field has on his family and friends. It’s eventually revealed that part of the madness that comes upon the people who visit Ackerman’s Field derives from a series of standing stones in the middle of the field. There are seven stones (a bad number) there when the field is viewed by the naked eye. Gazing through a filter of some sort such as a camera, however, reveals an eighth stone. Is it there? Touching each of the stones in turn seems to prove that there are eight, but the other stone isn’t always there. N. believed that something, some Lovecraftian horror, lurked in the center of the stones, and as long as there were eight (a good number), it would be contained. “Eight stones would keep them captive, but if there were only seven…they’d come flooding from the darkness on the other side and overwhelm the world,” he said. Was he right, or is it only a delusion?

I recently returned to the world of N. Marc Guggenheim and Alex Maleev collaborated with Stephen King to transform his novella into a skillfully paced graphic novel.  If you’re a fan of well-written horror, I would highly recommend giving N. a read, in either format. The graphic novel maintains the delightful and terrifying prose that King is known for, and shows just how unsettling uncertainty can be.

King himself has said that, despite the Lovecraftian atmosphere of the story, it’s actually inspired by Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, of which Lovecraft himself said “No one could begin to describe the cumulative suspense and ultimate horror with which every paragraph abounds.” Time to add that to the list of stuff to read tonight.

Woody Allen has had a long, very…um…interesting career. I’m normally a little bit wary of his films in general, though the last one I saw was for class, and that was involving Gene Wilder and his less-than-typical affection for a sheep. That was back in the 70s, though. He’s come a long way since then. Allen’s latest offering is Midnight in Paris, a tribute to the titular city during what some would consider its best age: the 1920s.

Owen Wilson stars as Gil, a successful screenwriter who desires more than the typical Malibu life that his fiance has in mind for them. He wants to live la vie de bohème, and write the great American novel, as so many of his heroes did before. One night, while visiting Paris with his fiance and her parents, Gil goes for a walk in the middle of the night. After finding himself invited into a passing car for champagne, Gil arrives at a party where a young woman introduces herself as Zelda. The two discuss Gil’s career as a writer, and Zelda says that he should meet her husband, who is a writer as well. Gil is introduced to Zelda’s husband, Scott, and realizes that somehow, he has found himself in a club with the Fitzgeralds, watching Cole Porter playing the piano in the 1920s.

Gil returns to the past several nights in a row, discussing his manuscript with Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, meeting the great surrealists, and musing over his own happiness with his upcoming wedding. Throughout the film, exceptional performances from a stellar ensemble ensue, and Allen’s love for Paris is evident. All in all, I’d have to give the film 5 out of 5 stars, and rank it very high on my list of personal favorites. It has a romantic charm that I’ve not seen since Moulin Rouge. It may very well have supplanted Moulin Rouge as my all-time favorite movie. There’s something irresistible about films about writers. I can’t wait to see how Midnight in Paris performs at the Academy Awards next month, when it goes up for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Art Direction.

Pick it up, if you have the chance. If you have any fondness for the Lost Generation, you owe it to them to see this movie.