Book Review: Baby Powder and Other Terrifying Substances by John C. Foster

“Foster is quickly becoming a major voice in the horror community and he has further cemented his growing reputation with such wonderful stories. He is bound to find many new fans with this awesome collection, while keeping current fans satisfied.”

Baby Powder - John C. Foster - coverJohn C. Foster’s career certainly seems to be going from strength to strength. Picking up speed like a rocket headed for new heights, with short story credits in anthologies from highly-regarded publishers such as Grey Matter Press, Shock Totem and Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing as well as one novel (Mister White) from Grey Matter and another (Dead Men, Libros De Inferno Book One) from PMMP. Indeed, in PMMP, he seems to have found a publisher with which he can work to bring out some exciting and interesting stories. Which brings us to their latest release.

The opener, ‘Highballing Through Gehenna’, with its locomotive setting and surrounding barren landscape reads almost like it could have been set in the Old West. The language and tone adopted by the characters seems to hint at such. But this frontier land is far from old. Here the human race struggles to survive in a fight with an ever-changing force known as the Deformation (think Rob Bottin’s creations from The Thing, only more gruesome), which seems to be managed rather than fought at the time of the story. Foster shows great skill with his choice of language and dialogue. A captivating, entertaining and quick read.

In ‘Burial Suit’ we find ourselves in more familiar Foster territory with a dark and menacing tale of revenge. The noir drips from the pages in this story as the ailing protagonist sets out to avenge his father, though not without first retrieving his father’s lucky suit. And his father. The short, sharp bursts of inner-dialogue from the first person point-of-view is thoroughly entertaining and thoroughly genuine; he is a man of few words, a man of action, who is focused solely on making the bad guys pay. This is the kind of writing for which Foster is renowned.

That isn’t to say he is a one-trick pony. He can certainly handle the kind of creepy horror we find in the next story, ‘Talk to Leo’. It immediately brought to mind comparisons with Stephen King’s novella ‘N.’ from Just After Sunset, where it concerns one mental health professional seeking help from a colleague due to the troubling actions of a patient that could be construed as supernatural or weird. In this story, the patient will only communicate through a ventriloquist’s dummy. But who is really talking? And what significance have the novelty chattery teeth? Foster sets the eerie groundwork and then proceeds to expertly ramp up the creep factor until the brilliant chilling climax.

‘The Willing’ finds mankind decimated by an alien force and hiding in the caves and rubble of a fallen civilisation. One such group must fend off the natural paranoia when another group of strangers arrive, declaring they have the answer; a centuries-old creature of folklore that dwells in the caves below the very cave they call home. This is an excellent example of Foster’s ability as a master of his craft, effortlessly blending an invasion story with elements of supernatural horror to deliver a compelling and horrific tale. But it is also an exploration of human nature, asking the question, ‘How far would you go and how much would you sacrifice?’.

‘Meat’ takes place in the immediate aftermath of a spacecraft crash on a mysterious planet. The only two surviving crewmembers, protagonist Jackie and her brutish colleague Rake, must work together as they seek a beacon showing life on the planet presumed uninhabited. But Jackie has doubts about Rake’s intentions given previous friction on-board and soon she must decide where the real danger lies. Then they find the source of the beacon. Another fine example of Foster’s skill at delivering a riveting story, no matter the genre, or blend of genre.

‘Girl Six’ is a mixture of espionage and horror, reminiscent of Foster’s Mister White in theme. Here we have the interrogation of an American agent after the mysterious events at a Russian location involving sinister supernatural experiments on six young women. The horrific events begin to unravel. But, rather than hit us with everything in a straight narrative, Foster cuts back to the present interrogation, building suspense superbly until the explosive finale.

‘Red’ is another blend of alien invasion and horror, though in this instance the story does lean more towards science fiction with the preferred method of attack. It is written in a cinematic style, feeling very much like one of the better episodes of The X-Files as a government agent must race against time to uncover the truth behind the mysterious occurrences. A wonderful story.

Often viewed as the classic monster of horror that no-one should write about, zombies are the focus of ‘Dead on the Sunset Strip’. There are no signs that Foster is trying to reinvent the wheel here; he just wants to write an entertaining story involving everyone’s favourite shambling horde. And he delivers. The setup in the legendary music venue as it plays host to an unnamed British rock band and the hippie crowd (including Paul, recently returned from Vietnam) is perfectly described, from the sound of the deafening music to the burning sensation of the liquor. By the time the brown stuff hits the fan, we are fully absorbed in the scene and there is no escape. Unless the remaining humans inside can work together to find a way out.

The penultimate story, ‘A Lamb to Slaughter’, introduces us to the protagonist, Simon, a man with the unenviable career as a witness for the guilty at their executions. He takes a job, travelling between Texas and Missouri, visiting prisons to watch the final moments of convicted murderers and rapists before joining the prison warden for a meal to seal the deal. But he doesn’t realise the extent of the deal until much later. Foster handles the tension brilliantly, giving us just enough to keep us guessing, to keep us wanting more. It doesn’t take long before we are fully invested in Simon’s fate and we’re along for the ride, until the bitter end.

The final, longer, story, for which the collection is named, ‘Baby Powder’ finds a couple of would-be television ghost-hunters attempting to rid a mansion of a malevolent presence. But we soon discover that all is not as it seems as things quickly go South and one of the ghost-hunters, Sasha, disappears within the spooky house. Wracked with grief, her partner Gretchen, decides to use the experience as research for a book, ignoring the calls from the rich owner of the mansion that they have unfinished business. But the business soon catches up with Gretchen. A dark and increasingly creepy story, it is rich with atmospheric descriptions, every shadow taking on a new and threatening meaning. It is an excellent ending to an excellent collection.

Foster is quickly becoming a major voice in the horror community and he has further cemented his growing reputation with such wonderful stories. He is bound to find many new fans with this awesome collection, while keeping current fans satisfied. If only for a little while. With such an entertaining and welcoming style, we eagerly look forward to more from Foster in the not-too-distant future.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing
Paperback: 350pp
Release Date: 31 January 2017

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