Wednesday, October 19, 2011

REVIEW: Mark LaFlamme's Box of Lies

This review is really, really late in coming, because I wanted to do it up right, and I didn’t want to skimp on it. Chances are you wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t told you, because chances are you haven’t heard of the book, Box of Lies, even though it’s been out a full year as I write this. You may not have even heard of the author, Mark LaFlamme, unless you live in the Lewiston-Auburn area. Why this is, I can’t explain. LaFlamme has been steadily writing and releasing excellent horror and weird fiction books since 2005, and each one has had a slightly different but equally captivating overall character. I’ve liked and admired every single one of his books I’ve read, and that’s most of them. Why one of the big publishers hasn’t picked up his contract is beyond me.

LaFlamme was born in Waterville, Maine, and continues to live here with the rest of us loonies. Clearly this has affected his brain, and has fertilized his imagination to an ungodly level. As if that wasn’t enough, for the last 17 years or so he has been writing the Lewiston Daily Sun’s crime beat, and has been the author of their “Street Talk” column for many years. The influence of this journalistic work on his fiction is a straightforward approach that takes the reader on roads that would never have been taken otherwise (one hopes).

I know in the past I’ve compared some of his storytelling skills to Stephen King’s, but truly his voice is his very own, and a strong one at that. Unmistakable and somehow honest even though what he tells us word by word is a string of lies. That, I suspect, is because he knows the truth, intimately. Working the crime beat in Lewiston, Maine, is a hard way to learn about reality, yet that is what he does, every day, every late night shift. Yet somehow within him a spark of light still lives – though perhaps that light simply serves to throw darker shadows as he speaks in these stories.

Page by page in Box of Lies, LaFlamme giveth and he taketh away. Is what we imagine real? Is that which we think real imagined instead? In "Table for One," LaFlamme turns the fancies of the paranoid mind of the restaurant diner into solid worse-than-you-could-imagine reality. In "Pepper," a visiting alien finds out what makes Earthmen tick. In "The Bender Argument," LaFlamme gives us a scenario that posits what you might get if you like philosophy a little TOO much, a story which would make one hell of a nightmare movie, a perfect Twilight Zone episode, and would make Philip K. Dick himself proud.

Those of us who spend time musing about the unknown histories of our local street people may notice that LaFlamme has the talent to transmute these blanks into new stories, such as Elsy in "Find a Penny," wherein we find out what happens when you can’t tell a bad penny from a good one until its spell is woven in intractable time. Others of us who wonder what happens in communities after the press is done reporting on the latest icy winter sport fatalities will find out perhaps more than we wanted to know in "Bone Lake," where the search goes on for the dead that have left land for the cold dark waters.

The 28 stories in Box of Lies vary in size from 5 pages to 31 pages in length, which gives a wonderfully varied pace to the collection, and subject matter ranges from the graphically horrific to the futuristically normal, which reminds me of some of my favorite horror/weird fiction authors’ collections, like Ray Bradbury and Stephen King. But when I asked him if he prefers writing scifi or horror, LaFlamme answered, “I'm constantly telling people that I don't write either. I don't set out to write horror or science fiction. It's just that my characters tend to do things that are: A) horrifying, or B) in defiance of known physical laws. I like to think of myself as a perfectly normal writer whose characters misbehave. I even tried to write a romance once. The heroine ended up dead, hacked into a dozen pieces and shipped to Venus. Not really. But that sounds pretty good. I might write that one.”

As a Mainer, his stories are often set here in the Pine Tree State, but as he succinctly explains, “The slithering freak plants in Vegetation are no more creepy because they are set in Homefield, Maine. I could have set that book in Dork, Utah and the substance of the tale wouldn't have changed a bit.” Yet somehow his home state creeps its way into the tales, for whatever reason. It may have something to do with the long winters, which form the impetus for him to create: “I absolutely hate winter. It's cold. It's dark and it seems endless. I can't ride my motorcycle much and there's no point in going to the beach at all. Maine winters are harsh and long. With all that time spent indoors, it's easy to become introspective and gloomy. Which I do. If I didn't have fictional worlds to turn to, I'd probably go into my basement and never come out.” (Maybe that’s another story for you to write, Mark!)

Like me, he has pondered why Maine does seem to stand out from other settings. “There IS something about Maine. It's rugged. It feels isolated from the rest of the world. The people here have their own way of doing things. I think that gets overplayed in Hollywood sometimes, but there's no doubt that living here is conducive to creativity. And perhaps lunacy.”

Some folks who read LaFlamme’s work in the Lewiston Sun Journal develop the idea that he’s from away, but that may be due to the fact that he, like many Mainers, has felt the need to roam. “I spent some time in the south - Charlotte, NC and Newport News, Virginia, specifically - but didn't last long down there. Like so many others, I came back. It was almost a subconscious decision, some homing mechanism I don't fully understand. Someday, I'd like to move out to California or Arizona. Could I stay out there? Remains to be seen. In the meantime, I'm here in Maine, my roots getting thicker by the hour.”

Since I couldn’t figure myself out why none of the big publishers has picked LaFlamme up yet, I asked him directly. He said he hadn’t initially planned to stick with his independent publisher, Booklocker, beyond his first book The Pink Room, but “six years and four novels later, I have no plans to go anywhere else. Why would I? Right now, I have final say on things like title, cover and layout. Once my novel gets through tweaking, editing and design, it gets to the market fairly quickly. It's out there getting read and making money instead of sitting on some big publisher's slush pile along with five hundred others. It's the golden age of indie publishing, although too few people know that right now.” For LaFlamme, going indie has allowed him to focus his time on book writing instead of spending futile hours trying to craft proposals to big publishers and agents, a gamble which doesn’t often pay off in the floodtide of material coming through their office doors each day.

LaFlamme made an observation on the newly rejuventated state of independent publishing in a growing electronic book market: “A lot of authors are turning down respectable offers from traditional publishers these days because they like the freedom and earning potential of the indie way. And yet, a lot of people still believe that authors are self-published because they have no other choice. There's still that stigma, but I suspect it won't last forever. With more and more indie authors out there, chances are good that your next favorite book will be written by one of us. Hopefully by me personally. There are plenty of authors doing extremely well just by selling their books on Kindle. Look up Amanda Hocking, Joe Konrath or John Locke to find out just how well.”

In September 2011 he released his newest book, Delirium Tremens, which lands solidly in the horror genre. This latest accomplishment from LaFlamme leads readers into the terror-laden life of alcoholic Stephen Boone, soon to die if he doesn’t cease his liquor habit. Problem is, if he stops drinking, all the dead people that visit him when he’s sober will come back. A Catch-22 erupts when spirits of a mother and daughter involve him in the details of their murder, and there is no going back. You can find this book on Amazon in either print or electronic versions, along with his prior volumes, such as Box of Lies, Dirt, and The Pink Room. You might even find copies of a few of his titles at your local independent bookshop, such as Portland's Green Hand Bookshop. You never know!

1 comment:

Barry said...

I've been reading Mark LaFlamme in the Lewiston Sun Journal for about two years now, and I can tell you that his writing skills and imagination are on a par with ANY of the more established authors, including Stephen King.

He paints elaborate, meticulously detailed mental portraits with his writing style, and you find yourself in the middle of whatever his subject happens to be, whether it is lower Lisbon Street, Lewiston; Up Country, or down on the Coast.

I am a Native Mainer who is currently living in CT to be near my, now 20 month old, granddaughter, but he's correct about moving away. I'm in my mid 50's, I've moved away 4 times and moved back 3 times.

Who knows if I'll ever move back to Maine again because I do love Florida. We lived in Key West for 17 years just prior to coming back to Connecticut, but, as Mark said, the roots of a Native Mainer run deep. I've never specifically planned to move back, but somehow I just keep winding up there.

Marks' writings always bring me back home whenever I'm away and I'm grateful that he has chosen to grace us with his talent by telling us his "stories".

By the way, from Whispering Pines to Pirates, there are enough strange things related to Maine so that Mark would never have to write fiction if he chose not to.

Like they say, Truth is Stranger than Fiction, and Mark LaFlamme's "edge of your seat" fiction includes a great deal of truth.

L. Barry King
West Haven, CT