Book Review: The Quiet Game-Five Tales To Chill Your Bones, By Rami Ungar

This is my second experience with the works of Rami Ungar. My first experience was his novel Rose, a story about a woman who turns into a plant creature (you can find my review of that story on my YouTube channel DeathGroundReviews). Published back in 2013, The Quiet Game definitely shows its stretch marks. You can tell Rami’s still learning his craft and discovering his voice (of course, it’s arguable we are always learning our craft, even for the seasoned veteran), but don’t disregard this collection outright. It still has its charm. One thing I love about Rami Ungar is the robust exuberance of his imagination. You can tell he’s having a damn good time when he writes, and as a reader, I sense that as well. Even with some of the weaknesses in this collection, the charm of his excitement for the strange roads of his imagination pull you on through anyway. Rami’s not just writing because he thinks he can make a lot of money or attain a lot of fame. He loves it. He lives and breathes it. It’s who he is. Rami Ungar is a serious writer. I respect that.

“Addict” is the first story in this collection. It’s a story about a man struggling with a sex addiction who one day, after encountering a woman struggling with heroin addiction, becomes inspired to overcome his addiction. Using a video that guides him into a meditative state, he encounters symbolic and tormenting visions of his addiction, women he saw in porn videos, prostitutes, girls from high school that teased him. During this delirious process, the entity guiding him into the hypnotic state discloses the void in his life that he feeds with continuous consumption of filth. This is the definition of lust: one who greedily consumes but is never filled or gratified. This story surprised me. Rami handled it quite maturely, despite some moments that felt somewhat overly contrived. He illustrated well how temptation torments us.

The second story, “I Want To Be The Next James Bond”, was the weakest of the group for me, though it still has its charm. It’s a tale about a group of teenage kids encountering a haunted abandoned hospital. The main character Ronnie uses his James Bond fandom as inspiration to brave the ghosts they encounter. I related to ole Ronnie in this tale. When I was thirteen, I loved James Bond flicks (thanks to the N64 game Goldeneye, a gateway to James Bond for many my age). I spent many summer afternoons pretending I was the charming and sophisticated secret agent, defusing bombs, fighting villians atop moving airplanes, jumping out of high rise buildings as they exploded without a scratch, and don’t forget seducing the ladies with that magic line, “The names Bond, James Bond.” All this is part of my issue with the story. I was distracted by the Bond element. The haunting elements and possessed doll lost their punch. Maybe it could have worked better in the longer form of a novella or short novel, allowing more investment in Ronnie. Perhaps the James Bond fandom could have become a running theme throughout the story, his imaginative scenarios strengthening him against worse encounters with ghosts. Some of my issue was the humor, too. It ruined the horror effect for me, making it feel more like a Scooby Doo cartoon instead of a horror story. Though, maybe that’s my fault as a reader, expecting the story to be something it’s not. Perhaps Rami meant for it to be more like an adventure fantasy, not a horror story. The galumphing title suggests this.

“In The Lady Ogre’s Den” comes next, and now we’re talking. Rami hits a strong stride with this one, showing us the bizarre and disturbing experience of a young autistic boy named Jason. He suffers abuse at the hands of a nurse in the hospital and receives visits from a creature called a death wolf that preys on those nearing death. The story gives us an interesting view into the experience of someone suffering autism. Rami himself suffers with the disorder, though at a high-functioning level. He states in a postscript to the story that he dredged up “…long buried memories to write from the point of view of Jason Cambridge, along with calling upon my own personal experiences with autistic children.”

“The Quiet Game” was the first story Rami wrote for this collection, and it’s definitely a strong point. The girls at St. Dunstan wake up one morning to the eerie shock of not being able to hear. Everyone in the entire school is deaf, requiring them to resort to white boards and projector screens along with limited lip reading in order to communicate. Soon they learn that a mysterious force has overtaken the school, and it wants them to play a little game in order to escape this awful scenario. Can they solve the game and be released? Can they play within the rules to avoid elimination? This was a great story. It felt like something that would have fit perfectly as a Dr. Who episode. There’s also a hectic moment near the climax that brought to mind Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” This story is definitely a pleasure.

The collection finishes with a slam bang win. “Samson Weiss’s Curse” feels like a pure horror tale. Samson Weiss is a senator working hard on the campaign trail, meeting hectic appointments for speeches and interviews. Then one of the worst nightmares for a man in his position turns up: a stalker begins to hassle him. He soon discovers matters are much worse than your traditional stalker. This woman is a carrier, the carrier of a demanding message beyond the grave. This story is about a dybbuk, a wandering malevolent spirit that possesses the living until it can be exorcised. There’s a great moment in the story when a horde of hellish locusts invade the senator’s bedroom that had me grinning ear to ear, but in a good way. Rami also does a good job sprinkling in those background details of Samson’s life as a senator, adding in useful verisimilitude, which makes the extraordinary moments more impactful.

Overall, I rate The Quiet Game by Rami Ungar with a 3.5 out of 5. The stories are great. There’s nothing wrong with Rami’s imagination, but one big downside of this collection are the punctuation errors, especially when it comes to dialogue. There are so many moments when a sentence of dialogue should have ended with a comma followed by the dialogue tag. For example: ” ‘Well done.’ he said, clapping his hands theatrically.’ These kinds of little mistakes constantly pulled me out of these wonderfully woven tales. That’s a key reason I marked it down. However, as I said before, don’t disregard the collection. This is one of his earliest works, written eight years ago when he was discovering his craft. I still think you’re in for a great pleasure.

May I introduce you to the strange and exciting imagination of Rami Ungar? Please do meet him. You can find him here.

Book Review: Frankenstein- Prodigal Son, By Dean Koontz

This book has been on my reading list for some time. In fact, the paperback in the photo above has been on my shelf for nearly six to seven years, and finally I have gotten around to reading it. I’ve been hesitant with Koontz. Partly because my last reading experience with him was not good. The first of Koontz’s catalog to reach my hands was a novel called Tick Tock, which attempted to mix slapstick comedy with horror. For me it was the literary equivalent to smearing ice cream and cake into Spaghetti. Left a bad taste in my mouth. Plus, any time I would hear someone talk about his books, they always emphasized how hit or miss he is, and it seemed, at least based on the opinions I experienced, that he was more miss than hit. Well, I must say, with Frankenstein, I lucked out with a hit.

The story introduces us to Deucalion, a mysterious sleight-of-reality artist who has isolated himself in the Tibetan mountains for some time, living the lifestyle of a monk. Deucalion is well acquainted with suffering. “I don’t fear pain,” Deucalion says at one point before his departure from the Tibetan hideaway after receiving bad news from a messenger. “Life is an ocean of pain.”

Meanwhile, Detective Carson O’Connor and her partner Michael Maddison are investigating a string of victims in an ongoing serial killer case. Nicknamed the Surgeon, the killer removes different parts of the body with surgical precision, hoping to find the element of humanity he is lacking. When Deucalion and Detective Conner’s paths cross, they learn of a far greater threat to the city. As Deucalion describes it, Victor Helios (the scientist once known as Frankenstein who created Deucalion two hundred years prior in Austria), has created “machines of blood and bone”, an entire race of killers described by Victor as The New Race. Stripped of human passions and emotions, these beings are meant to replace the imperfect Old Race and assert a new society. However, many of Victor’s creations, once released into society, become confused as they realize they lack a completeness that the Old Race exhibits, which drives some of them to kill and dissect in the search of understanding the happiness and contentment they lack.

It’s truly an inspired play on the Frankenstein narrative, updated to a modern audience. Instead of creating this new race by harvesting body parts from corpses, Victor does it through synthetic biology. Yet Deucalion remains a link to the old Frankenstein narrative. Two hundred years ago he was formed using the body parts of criminals. Starting out as a brute monster, he develops humanity over time. His creator, Victor Helios, demonstrates a reversing arc. Originally a man, driven by his obsession, he becomes a monster. I really enjoyed the reverse dichotomy between the creation and creator. Victor views all passions, emotions, and religious beliefs to be imperfections, along with physical flaws. Using direct-to-brain downloading, he programs his creations to be free of human passions, running strictly on the program he designs. Even sex becomes merely a means of venting stress for the potential New Race, animalistic and instinctual, free of any feelings of love or infatuation.

The struggle between domineering rationality and emotional passions became a common conflict throughout the novel. Victor Helios reveres rationality as the path to enlightened perfection and sees human passions as a distracting pollutant to human progress. Even Detective Carson O’Connor, driven by a job that requires the proficient use of reason and analysis, struggles to repress her feelings for her partner Michael, believing such feelings will be a distraction, negatively effecting her job performance. A theme is pronounced from this conflict that seems to say that human passions and cold rationality lessen the human condition when one or the other is deprived of the other. One driven and possessed by human emotions alone becomes reckless and harmfully volatile. While one driven by indifferent rationality becomes the merciless, selfish tyrant represented in Victor Helios. Emotions of love and compassion temper the brute instincts and create a more enriching human experience. Meanwhile, rational proficiency motivates the competencey necessary for productivity in society. Both are needed for healthy function, but both must be bridled.

Overall, I give book one of Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein a 4.5 out of 5. I marked it down half a point because something seemed off concerning the narrative tone in the novel. Perhaps some of this had to do with the flippant banter between O’Conner and Michael throughout the story, which made it feel more like a cheap Hollywood cop movie at times. At one point, after O’Conner has opened up about her encounter with Deucalion, and they are on route to meet him at the old movie theater, Michael says, “Do his palms grow hairy when the moon is full?” O’Conner replies, “No. He shaves them just like you.” Har de har har. Roll your eyes. Perhaps I’m being too sturm und drang, which is something I’m guilty of in my own writing, but some of these quips didn’t work for me.

Overall, book one of Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein both thrills you and provokes thought, the chief delights of great fiction. I highly recommend it.

Frankenstein Prodigal Son is available on Amazon.