Kirkus Review
In McCandless’ debut horror novel, a ragtag crew sets out after a killer leaving a gruesome trail through the East Texas wilderness.

In 1911, something is killing people in the howling wilderness area of East Texas known as the Big Thicket, and it’s not just killing them in a conventional way—it’s ripping them apart, partially eating them and draining them of their blood. A motley posse not fit for a B-western, consisting of a slow-on-the-draw sheriff, an erudite black doctor, a mysterious Texas Ranger and a Forrest Gump-clone, among others, determines to hunt down the thing before it can get somewhere really remote and replicate in anticipation of an assault on humanity. What they discover on their quest, and who they discover is in league with the creature, adds even more spice to this entertaining and often creepy tale. McCandless wisely doesn’t burden the book with a typical main character/hero dripping with save-the-day traits and ironic one-liners; instead, the author fleshes out each of the characters that make up the not-so-merry band of hunters. Even the victims aren’t just dealt with in the one-chop-and-out method common to bad entertainment; they are given back stories and more purpose than just serving as creature fodder. The author channels his inner Bram Stoker at times and moves the story along via letters, newspaper accounts and other indirect narrative devices. A Texan himself, the author bases a lot of the story on studies of regional folklore and oilfield legends. The quickly paced tale is graphically gory in spots, and the book’s back cover contains a warning to that effect, as well as an advisory that the book is not recommended for readers under the age of 18.

A well-executed journey into the macabre that should give anyone pause before walking through a desolate area at night.

Pub Date: Jan. 10th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0615544861
Page count: 220pp
Publisher: Ninth Planet
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online: Feb. 17th, 2012

Houston Press
April 19, 2012
–Jef Rouner

I had a sliiiiiight overreaction to the last vampire novel I was sent to review because I honestly didn’t know it was supposed to be funny, and also because it was really bad. I was frankly in no mood to read anything more about bloodsuckers, but Bruce McCandless III set Sour Lake in the Big Thicket of Texas and hinted at some tantalizing looks at obscure folk legends, so I sighed and got reading…
And boy was I glad that I did, because if anybody is likely to equal Joe Hill as the master of modern horror, then McCandless is that man.Sour Lake pulled me in so deep and fast I’m not entirely sure I remember anything about the day I sat reading his incredible book other than the sound of rapidly turned pages.

Set in 1911 Texas, the story follows a set of grisly and bizarre murders in the Big Thicket section of Southeast Texas. Victims are torn limb from limb, with organs and blood removed. Initially packs of wild dogs are blamed, but a local sheriff and a doctor with a dark past slowly come to the conclusion that what is haunting the woods is not a normal animal.

The latest movement in horror novels is desperately trying to capture the gothic classics by setting them in the past and linking them to famous people or events. These are generally little better than fan fiction. McCandless does reference dozens of legends and bizarre bits of trivia from the early 20th century, but his incredible ability to build believable characters without resorting to parody or archetype turns those touches into their intended purpose of artful backdrop instead of cheesy cameo.

On occasion, he does try just a bit too hard to ape the style of Bram Stoker, though he does so with firm tongue in cheek. Indeed, at one point two doctors exchange letters about the happenings, and make it a point to blast Stoker for his poor, unimaginative writing. You have to be a very special kind of book nerd to laugh till you pee over an epistolary exchange bashing Dracula.

In practice, McCandless is more Lovecraft than Stoker. There are few women in the book, and our antagonists include sullen yokels, mysterious foreigners and a creature from beyond our Earthly realm. Yet he never falls into the senseless, hyperbolic style that plagues Lovecraft’s prose. Instead, he allows the storyline to smoothly flow along the page, exciting, but not typically in any hurry.

It was also refreshing to have a good old monster tale, something like Jeepers Creepers, that didn’t require an endless amount of exploring the mind of the horror itself. The vampire cutting a bloody swath through our heroes doesn’t need a monologue. He needs to kill and breed. Isn’t that enough? McCandless saves his examinations for the racist paranoia of the town, which believes an outcast black man is the culprit, and the righteous brutality of Texas Ranger Jewel Lightfoot, who joins the team as part of a brotherhood of Christian warriors dedicated to eliminating supernatural evil.

Sour Lake is a sleeper of a book. You start reading it and at first there’s nothing special. Then all of a sudden you realize that McCandless has stripped away all the pretentions that have slowly emasculated much of horror fiction since monsters were turned into sex symbols. He’s returned us to where we belong, crouching in the dark terrified of something we can’t understand. Texas deserves its monsters to be like everything else here, big and badass. McCandless delivers perfectly.

We sat down with McCandless to ask him a bit about Sour Lake:

AA: It’s pretty safe to say that you have a different take on the vampire than any other author currently out there. Was that a conscious decision to be different, or did you have another reason for choosing the monster you did?

Bruce McCandless: It came out of an earnest attempt to figure out how a monster could really exist on Earth. As much as I love vampires, it’s difficult to figure out how they could function. I always come around to the idea that what we’ve called vampires, werewolves, etc., in the past were imperfect understandings of something sui generis — something very difficult to categorize or understand. Lovecraft was the master of course at suggesting that even to try to understand one of his monster deities would lead to insanity. My creature is not that abominable, but I did want it to be unexpected.

AA: My absolute favorite part is when Walter and Daris are bashing Draculawhile writing in exactly the same style as Seward and Van Helsing. What’s your real opinion of Dracula.?

BM: I’m glad you noticed that! I have always loved Dracula. Couldn’t resist imitating the epistolary exchanges. I didn’t realize till I started doing it how efficient a way it is to move the plot along.

AA: Even though you have two very powerful black characters as protagonists, something that would’ve been unheard-of in gothic literature, you still make your antagonists foreigners (Turkish, Afghani and extraterrestrial). Isn’t the Lovecraftian xenophobic villain just as abhorrent as racism in gothic literature?

BM: I’m proud of my black characters, but I probably could have done better with my bad guys. It was a matter of timing. The Yazidi really do exist, and I was writing this around the time that cell phone video of the stoning of a young Yazidi girl was being circulated on the Internet. What I learned about the group — including their disputes with their neighbors, and their conception of the Peacock Angel — just seemed to make them an interesting “candidate” for bad-guy status. (Though even here, I tried to point out that Solomon was espousing a deviant brand of Yazidi philosophy, and therefore not representative of the group.)

I was trying to avoid using Moslems as the villains. I suppose Naguib could be construed as Moslem, but I was actually going for more of a northern Indian or Afghani type, possibly Hindu or something more exotic. There is a tantalizing reference in Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between to a long-lost Kingdom of the Turquoise Mountain, and I was looking to make a sort of connection there.

AA: Could you have told this story someplace outside of Texas? Someplace like the Bridgewater Triangle, for instance? Why here?

BM: I think Sour Lake could be set elsewhere with a similar — or maybe analogous — cast of characters. The advantage of using Texas for me was familiarity with the stereotypes, and trying to play off them a little bit. I mean, when you think of Texas, you don’t usually think of the swampy, vegetation-choked Big Thicket, and when you picture the Texas Rangers, you don’t usually think of a peppery little guy like Jewel Lightfoot who’s a little off his rocker. It also helps that in Texas, everyone can plausibly be expected to own at least one firearm! (Mind you, while this helps in fiction, I’m not so sure it helps with everything else.) The other element you probably wouldn’t get with a Massachusetts setting is the racial tension. Not that there haven’t been racial tensions up north, of course — but there wouldn’t have been the more or less constant threat of physical violence hanging over the characters as there was in East Texas at this particular time.

Blood Gushes in the Oil Fields
By Yvette Benavides
Updated 4:12 p.m., Friday, February 17, 2012

Sour Lake: or, The Beast

Bruce McCandless lives in Austin and studied folklore at the University of Texas. That’s where he learned about the surprisingly rich oil-field lore with deep roots as far back as 1911, the year in which the denizens of his latest novel, “Sour Lake: Or, The Beast,” set in East Texas, are fearing for their lives. Someone or something is terrorizing them and leaving in its wake bodies mutilated and bled dry.

There is a real Sour Lake still today that boasts a population of almost 2,000. In the early 1900s, it was known as a boomtown and eventually became the birthplace of Texaco. It remains the oldest continuously producing oil field in the world. In McCandless’ 1911 Ochiltree County, racial tensions simmer to boiling over and economic hardship is a constant companion.

Besides all that, the seemingly unstoppable Beast lies in wait.

Enter Sheriff Reeves Duncan. Amid the graphic details of the savagery that befalls a small cast of unfortunate characters, he is the one who must hatch a plan to solve the murders and find the impenitent killer.

He doesn’t ask for but gets the aid of one Capt. Jewel T. Lightfoot, Texas Ranger. Sheriff Duncan thought that “Rangers were a mixed blessing for a local lawman.” He thought they weren’t “precise” enough and “didn’t care what kind of mess they left behind when they got home.” A black doctor and an idiot savant are among others who round out the rough, though no less dedicated, investigators out to unravel the mystery of The Beast, but only after they penetrate the Big Thicket — a physical and metaphorical no-man’s land for its intolerance and poverty.

There is a lot that is historically factual in this novel. That’s part of the fun of reading “Sour Lake.” At least one of the characters is based on an actual person, and sordid, unimaginable true tales of blood lust make up the seedbed for some of the violence. McCandless scrupulously advances the narrative through epistolary digressions and actual newspaper accounts.

The back cover of the book warns that it is not intended for readers younger than 18, but even young fans of the horror genre could stomach the rough descriptions. The “fact-based story contains graphic descriptions of violence, terror, and gunplay.” And that’s all true. But it reminds us that not that long ago, this part of the country was a lawless, treacherous place.

“Sour Lake” is a cautionary tale for today. It reminds us that to fend off the worst of what can befall man, the rest of us should “unite” and “find the strength to fight” together.

Bruce McCandless reads and signs “Sour Lake” at the Twig Bookshop at Pearl Brewery, 200 E. Grayson, from 11 to 1 p.m. Saturday.

Read more:

Beatrice and the Basilisk

This brief but powerful dragon story soars.

In McCandless’ (The Krottkey Chronicles, 2013) novella, a young Texas girl of today must fight a terrifying dragon.

Since she witnessed the death of her father two years ago in a freak accident, 12-year-old Beatrice McIlvaine has been the glue that holds her family together. Now, besides juggling cooking, laundry, and school, Beatrice becomes aware that her dreams of a dragon are not just dreams, but warnings. Fortunately, Mrs. Knowles, a mysterious substitute teacher at Beatrice’s school, knows all about the basilisk, and she’s able to supply Beatrice with whatever weapons she wants to fight the creature. Astride the legendary winged horse Pegasus and armed with King Arthur’s magical sword, Excalibur, Beatrice ascends into the night sky to fight the fearsome beast. Though ostensibly about fighting a dragon, this brief, multilayered novella also depicts the power of perseverance, the strength of family, and a young person’s ability to believe in magic even after witnessing a horrible life experience. Beatrice and her younger brother, Frank, who is constantly searching for buried pirate treasure, represent the hope that wondrous things can happen in life, a notion that adults—as represented by their mother, Anne, who works a backbreaking schedule just to keep the family afloat—have long since abandoned. Beatrice, on the other hand, simply accepts that the dragon is real and implicitly trusts Mrs. Knowles, who somehow knows all about the monster. McCandless is a descriptive writer: “The soul eater lived on an island deep in the southern seas, where red fruit rotted on sagging branches and night drew a curtain of bats across the sky. The rusty frame of an old prop plane—a Lockheed electra 10E, from the looks of it—lay like a broken crucifix in the forest on the island’s north side.” Unfortunately, the story ends just as it draws readers in—perhaps not a bad thing when battling a basilisk.

Pub Date: April 23rd, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-615-60901-0
Page count: 66pp
Publisher: Ninth Planet
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online: Sept. 1st, 2015
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1st, 2015