Monday, February 11, 2019

Reviews for the Week of February 11, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're on a cell phone you probably can't see it. Bust out the laptop, baby...

STORY TIME WITH CRAZY UNCLE MATT by Matt Spencer (2018 Back Roads Carnival Books / 218 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Then there’s the books you’re not quite sure where they came from, no memory of having been sent a review copy or picking one up … it’s just in your e-reader thingie as if out of nowhere, but hey, what the heck, why not? Especially when it’s got a fun title. Got to be worth a try, right?

This was one of those books. But, however it happened, I’m glad that it did, because it proved to be well-written, entertaining, and more than a little bit delightfully wacky. The author makes clever use of a variety of writing styles and approaches, showcasing a range of skills.

A couple of settings feature prominently, with several stories taking place in each – a fictionalized Vermont town in a world otherwise pretty much our own, and a more fantastic realm of warring races (though with dialogue and language use fairly modern/slangy and familiar, giving those tales a “gaming group” kind of vibe; I don’t always enjoy that in otherworld settings, but here it worked).

“Kids Say The Wildest Things” was a particular favorite of mine, doing a good job capturing the way kids really think and talk, not to mention presenting a child’s-eye-view of religious rites in an interesting light. I also got a kick out of the ones that took sudden turns into cosmic horror or other surprise genres.

Interconnections weave throughout the collection: a weird little shop pops up a few times, characters recur in unusual ways across distances and eras. The end result brings everything satisfyingly together, and made for an overall engaging read.

-Christine Morgan

GIANTESS GLOBALIST SPERM WAR by Mandy De Sandra (2018 Clash Books / 102 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I picked up this book before the edition with the really super naughty censored-by-retailers Jim Agpalza cover art, but oh my goodness is it causing a stir! It’s fairly, um, gynecological to say the least … and in terms of judging a book by its cover or not, with this one, I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet.

There were these weird bombs, see, and they destroyed most of humanity and civilization, and caused the surviving women to grow to colossal size. Surviving adult males were eradicated, boys rounded up and penned in the ruins of famous Florida theme parks. There, largely left to fend for themselves Lord of the Flies style, they grow up as best they can in loose tribal groups, until the time comes when the giantesses make their selections for food and potential mates.

Potential MATES? But HOW? you might be wondering, and with good reason. Well, basically, in the same way as ever. Just that, instead of having sex, the men themselves go inside and make the dangerous reproductive journey to see which of them will merge with the egg. Competition and cooperation are required, it’s part death race and part obstacle course and part puzzle-room.

I do wish the text had received a more thorough editing treatment before being put into print; it’s a crazy-clever story with an attention-getting cover, bound to upset, offend, and annoy a lot of people (while amusing the heck out of others).

When it’s Mandy De Sandra at the helm, nothing is sacred and nothing’s off-limits; leave your polite sensibilities at the door, and brace yourself for sharp social commentary skewering sexist attitudes and taking vicious swipes at the MRA movement. One way or another, even with therapy, you won’t soon forget this book.

-Christine Morgan

COLD DEAD HANDS by Jeff Strand (2018 Amazon Digital / 73 pp / eBook) 

A group of misfits hellbent on making a political statement on gun control enter the local Save-A-Lot equipped with knives, daggers, and battle axes while you’re out on the town shopping for weekly groceries. What do you? Throw the gallon of milk, carton of eggs, and loaf of bread on the ground before you, and attempt to make an inside out breakfast massacre omelet? No, silly. Better guess again. Unless you want your insides cooked up and spit out in a death frying pan, you’d better make that mad dash for the walk-in freezer in the back of the store, am I right? Somewhere cold and dark and safe. Lock yourself in and hide away from the bladed assailants.

Strand’s comically dark writing here is top notch as usual. His dialogue and prose, sharp and quick to the gut. His characters are very well developed (there’s a lot of them in this one too), heartfelt, and perfectly executed (pun very much intended), as this book reads like one of those badass super ultra-violent action flicks, you know aside from our favorite horror films, the next best thing since sliced bread (oh, snap, another violent food pun intended).

Put all of this together and mix it with a clever statement about gun control and violence and today’s media, and we have yet again another quick and powerful release from an author who continues to shock and entertain and deliver time and time again.

-Jon R. Meyers

OCCASIONAL BEASTS by John Claude Smith (2018 Omnium Gatherum / 362 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

The first story I ever read from John Claude Smith is in this collection, and it is one I will never forget … it came in as a submission to an anthology call I was doing, and I flat-out could not believe it. Why in the world was someone sending something THIS good to ME? To my rinkydink nothing project? My first impulse, opportunistic and mercenary though it was, was to accept it at once, get the contract signed, and lock it down before the author realized he’d goofed.

The rest of his stories here prove to be of similar artistry and caliber. Why he hasn’t been snapped up yet by the big-name presses is beyond me. We’re talking intricate delicate word use but also a sense of dark grittiness, language like harpstrings and sudden thunder, mood and emotion and raw nerve-ending terrors interwoven.

Several of them touch upon cosmic horror; some do more than touch, they get right down in there and wallow in the weird, plunging the reader into it with a full immersion that would’ve had Lovecraft leaving the bedside light on. The unexplained often stays that way, as it should, as it must; that’s what makes it really work.

As for body horror and gore, even the most seasoned fans of the extreme may find themselves flinching over many of the descriptive passages. Humor has its place here, too; so does some fairly steamy sex. Most of all, though, it’s the use of language that consistently blew me away.

Special mention has to be made of “Personal Jesus,” in which a couple of road-tripping horror fans have the chance to stop in and meet one of their idols. When one asks THE question, their obliging host is all too glad – to their sorrow! – to answer. Anyone who’s been to cons or hung out with writers will likely be grinning and nodding throughout.

So, yeah … get this book, read the stories (maybe take more breaks than I did, to let your mind try to recover), and keep an eye on this guy, because he’s going to leave a definite mark.

-Christine Morgan

DAMNED FICTION by David Kempf (2018 Amazon Digital / 306 pp / eBook)

This book brings you stories within stories, constructed by way of a frame narrative in which the Devil himself challenges two authors – one of erotica, the other of extreme horror – to a writing contest. The ultimate prize will go to whoever proves their genre is the most sinful and corrupting.

So, not only do you get to witness the bargain and the interplay between the competing characters, you get to read the contest entries themselves. Which is more wicked? Graphic dirty kinky sex, or graphic bloody gory violence?

Unfortunately, fun though the premise is, the book itself doesn’t fully live up to its promise and potential. The writing’s on the rough side, fairly heavy on ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’, and the whole thing’s in need of some editorial polish … for stories in an ultimate-prize competition, neither the erotic nor the extreme entries seem all that erotic or extreme.

Plus, as someone who’s always been a little nitpicky about the whole issue of wishes (fine print, loopholes, letter of the law, sneaky interpretations, general rules-lawyering; what do you want, I was a gamemaster for many many years and ya gotta watch out for this stuff!), not to mention paradoxes, I did hit a pretty big stumbling block with a major plot element at the very start of the book. But maybe that’s just me.

-Christine Morgan


BLACK STATIC no. 67 (Jan-Feb 2019)

Opening commentary finds Lynda E. Rucker digging into how loss, in horror, can explore the human condition perhaps even more soberingly than the graphic stuff, and Ralph Robert Moore’s personal account of not fitting in at the workplace hit home with me on a grand scale.

This issue’s fiction features 2 short stories and 3 novelettes, the first being ‘Do Not Pet,’ also by Ralph Robert Moore. Karl is a suicidal older man, upset over the suicide of his son. When he takes an odd ghost-sighting tour, the people running it give him a most extreme option. Moore brings the chills in this original take on the afterlife and depression.

In ‘Shore Leave’ by Mike O’Driscoll, Nick Baptiste is third mate on a container ship currently ashore in Manila. He’s attempting to forget about a horrible incident that led to the loss of his son and separation from his wife and daughters, and manages to find supernatural help through a tricky Djinn. A somewhat familiar yet emotionally powerful and engaging entry.

Kristi DeMeester’s ‘The Silence of Prayer’ looks at devotion and worship through the eyes of a woman who finds a man in the woods. He becomes her God and she finally sees him for what he is when he brings her a young girl to be part of their congregation. Spooky and well written, this religious terror tale is my favorite this issue and another in a growing line of excellent DeMeester appearances in BS.

In Michele Ann King’s ‘In the Fog, There’s Nothing But Grey,’ a woman arrives at a bar that’s populated with suspicious patrons. Outside, a mysterious fog and noises dare anyone to investigate. Is this woman a protector or part of the unexplained situation King vaguely hints at? A brief but thought provoking piece.

Finally, ‘All We Inherit’ follows David and his young son Brad as they respond to reports of a break-in at David’s late father’s farmhouse. A buck visits Brad late at night, attempting to lure him outside. Despite a phone call from his aunt warning them to leave, David assures her they’re only staying until the break-in situation is resolved, but in the meantime David learns the dark truth about his father’s passing, a truth that could affect his son. I loved the atmosphere here as author Eric Schaller delivers a solid chiller.

Among the book reviews (now being handled by seven reviewers) are in depth looks at the latest from Stephen King, Rio Youers, Gwendolyn Kiste and Simon Bestwick, as well as a collection and anthology which both sounds like best bets.

In Gary Couzen’s Blu-ray/DVD reviews we find a 4-film box set of William Castle titles, new Blu-Rays of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and Argento’s OPERA, plus newer films such as CAM and LOST GULLY ROAD, both of which are now on my must see list.

Black Static’s first issue of 2019 continues to deliver some of the best short horror fiction around, and although I am a big fan of shorter works, the longer novelettes appearing lately have been outstanding.

Grab a subscription or single issue here: BLACK STATIC

-Nick Cato


Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Reviews for the Week of January 28, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're on a cell phone you probably won't be able to see it. Break out the lap top, baby....


THE VERY BEST OF CAITL├ŹN R. KIERNAN (to be released 2/7/19 by Tachyon Publications / 432 pp/ trade paperback & eBook)

I’ve read a story or two from Kiernan over the years, but never read a novel or collection (and she has many of both). So when given the chance to check out her latest collection I figured it was high time to dive in. While most of the tales here are dark fantasy or sci-fi, almost all have elements of classic, sometimes extreme horror.

‘Andromeda Among the Stones’ is an apocalyptic Lovecraftian chiller set in California during WW1. An astrologer attempts to bring about the end after studying an ancient book he has taken home from the Middle East. His young daughter manages to keep him at bay with the help of her ghost mother and dying brother. One wicked opener...

In ‘La Peau Verte,’ Hannah turns to alcohol to deal with the death of her sister...or was her sister taken by mythical creatures? A wondrous dark fantasy and one of my faves of the collection.

‘Houses Under the Sea’ is the story of Jacova Angevine, a Berkeley Professor who has been fired after her controversial book is published. A man investigates her story, which leads to romance and an ancient cult. A great Lovecraftian piece to get the chills going.

In ‘Bradbury Weather,’ lovers are affected by a weird cult on Mars, and although sci-fi, this one is a psychological horror novella at its core. Loved it.

‘A Child’s Guide to the Hollow Hills’ is an inventive (and dark) look at a fairie’s fate.

In ‘The Ammonite Violin (Murder Ballad No. 4),’ a serial killer, who also happens to be a Collector, hires a woman violinist to play his new, custom made instrument. A couple of surprise twists made this one of the best of the lot.

In ‘A Season of Broken Dolls,’ a couple living in a post “micro-nuked” NYC manage their loose relationship over an extreme downtown art scene. Interesting but felt like part of a bigger story.

‘In View of Nothing,’ finds an assassin taken hostage during a future war somewhere in Asia. Told in future then past events, this sci-fi thriller is as weird as it is darkly suspenseful.

‘The Ape’s Wife’ features alternate versions of what could’ve become of Ann Darrow, the forced bride of KING KONG. And if like me, you’re a fan of the original film, this will be one of your favorites. Kiernan’s prose here is fantastic.

‘The Steam Dancer (1896)’ is a character study of a dancer and her mechanic husband who takes off one morning with her mechanical leg. Held my interest and ends on a melancholy note, but doesn’t really go anywhere.

In ‘Galapagos,’ a scientist from earth is called to check out a spaceship that has changed its course after encountering a bizarre alien “cloud.” She recounts her experience from a psychiatric clinic and this sci-fi head scratcher ends on an unexpected note.

‘Fish Bride (1970):’ A woman, who is turning into an aquatic being, falls in love with a man she knows can’t come with her. Reminiscent of classic mermaid tales yet quite different, this is a depressing look at loneliness, family and accepting one’s destiny.

‘The Mermaid of the Concrete Ocean’ features an art journalist interviewing an elderly parapalegic woman who had modeled for a series of paintings by a late artist. As much a mystery as a fantasy, the author’s writing sings in this beautifully written collection highlight.

‘Hydrargurous,’ is another sci-fi tale about a drug transporter who’s convinced he keeps seeing people leaking an odd liquid. The ending had me a bit confused but the ride there was worth it.

In ‘The Maltese Unicorn,’ demons battle in Manhattan in an attempt to find a dildo (yes, a dildo) made from a unicorn horn. As funny as it sounds, this one is played straight (although there’s some dark humor—how can there not be?) and makes a way out there noir/Lovecraftian dark fantasy fans of weird tales will love.

‘Tidal Forces’ features my favorite ending of the collection, another dark fantasy about two women who live seaside when one develops a mysterious hole in her stomach that keeps expanding.

In ‘The Prayer of Ninety Cats,’ gothic horror is explored through a film about Countess Bathory who lives in her late husband’s castle. She now seems to prefer women over men, and stranger sexual fetishes, as she tortures victims. Despite her dwarf servant and believing her prayers will help, her destiny is literally sealed by members of the outraged state. Best of all, Kiernan managed to make this one interactive, if you will, putting the reader in the center of the story. Great stuff here.

‘One Tree Hill (The World as Cataclysm)’ finds a science journalist investigating a New England town where a home and its adjacent tree were struck by lightning. One of the spookier stories here, it reminded me a bit of 80s-era small town horror tales ALA Rick Hautala and TM Wright.

In ‘Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8),’ The Southwest becomes the killing grounds for two lesbian sisters in this nasty, sex-charged tale of mayhem.

And finally there’s ‘Fairy Tale of Wood Street,’ perhaps the strangest piece here (and that's really saying something), a dizzying account of a woman, returning from the restroom, observing what she sees from the back of a movie theater’s auditorium. The onscreen images hint the woman may or may not have a tail. Like a David Lynch film, the point of this one may decide to reveal itself to me (or any reader) at some point, but on this first read we’re with this woman and completely engrossed in the author’s odd visions and narrative.

These are 20 previously published stories, so this might not be of much interest to long time fans. But for this newbie, it has made me a fan, and a big one at that. Kiernan is easily one of the best writers of weird fiction working today and I'm looking forward to digging into her catalog.

-Nick Cato

1000 SEVERED DICKS by Ryan Harding and Matt Shaw (2018 Amazon Digital  / 76 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

There are the moments you’re about to head out for a doctor’s appointment and think to yourself, “Oh hey I should grab a book-book for the waiting room” and what happens to be next up on top of your literal TBR pile? Sorry, guys, I love ya but needless to say I took along another for that trip.

I did, however, read it pretty much straight through shortly after the appointment … which may have been its own sort of mistake because yeeee-owtch that was brutal! As if I hadn’t already been leery of pizza cutters to begin with!

There’s often community chatter about the hierarchies of various horror sub-genres; who’s king, who’s crown prince, etc. But here, working together, we have princes of TWO nations, in an alliance the likes of which would have turned medieval Europe on its ear.

I’m talking, making the darkest of the Dark Ages and the most violent of the Crusades look like a romp in Candyland. The contents of an inquisitor’s kit or indeed entire torture dungeon can’t stand up to what these guys manage with some simple household tools and kitchen implements.

The title alone should be warning enough, not to mention the cover. Imagine if you will, a vigilante whose one-man mission is to punish adulterers, to hunt down cheating husbands and unfaithful wives.

Out of town on a business trip? Carrying on a clandestine affair with a neighbor? Making use of no-tell motels and hookup apps on the sly? Well, catching his eye will make catching a disease the least of your worries. For a while. Not a very long while, maybe … but much too long a while when it’s actually happening, I’m sure!

-Christine Morgan

NOFACE by Andre Duza (2016 StrangeHouse Books / 296 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

On her way home from work, Erin Hopkins is assaulted until being saved by a mysterious figure whose face she can’t remember...except for the rows of long, jagged teeth which stuck out from its dark hood.

A month after the attack, Erin fights nightmares of her ghastly rescuer, and soon discovers a connection between the sharp-toothed thing and a local government research facility. Everyone in her life, from her boyfriend to her best friend, are now in danger as the strange stalker seeks revenge on those who experimented on him.

Told in multiple timelines, Duza packs this one with several surprising moments, some extreme violence, and a couple of decent twists. Kind of like a blend between Dean Koontz’ WATCHERS and Edward Lee’s MONSTROSITY, NOFACE is another solid offering from Duza’s dark arsenal.

-Nick Cato

GUIGNOL AND OTHER SARDONIC TALES by Orrin Grey (2018 Word Horde / 188 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

A few of the stories in this collection I’d had the pleasure of seeing before in their original anthology appearances (and called them out for special mention, more often than not, as I recall). But there’s definitely something to be said for having them gathered together to showcase the author’s consistently excellent quality and skill.

Various aspects of the Mythos are well-represented, though subtle. There’s not a lot of overt references, no visits to Arkham or Innsmouth. Mentions and shadows, a resonator here, a whisper of tattered yellow there, ominous cults, hints of madness. Several of the tales, written to order for themed calls, rise admirably to the challenges of diverse characters, eras, and settings

You’ll also find a very well-done and amusing choose-your-own-adventure, some dark and disturbing familial legacies, messages from the other side, and a particularly unsettling but beautiful take on a lesser-known fairy tale. Art is often a component, exploring the ever-haunting allure of finding mysterious lost films or pursuing the magic of movie-making, the effect of uncanny or forbidden melodies.

Now, if some of the stories also seem to touch uncomfortably upon elements semi-autobiographical ... it’s probably best not to speculate how much. But, going by my own experiences with the subgenre of weird fiction and Lovecraft fandom, I think I can safely say those are pretty much spot-on.

“Invaders of Gla’aki” deserves special mention for cleverness, not to mention sheer nostalgia factor and fun, deftly weaving together the works of the great Ramsey Campbell with old-school arcade games … we need a remake of The Last Starfighter done Gla’aki style!

-Christine Morgan

KRONOS RISING by Max Hawthorne (2016 Far From The Tree Press / 554 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

If I ever say I’m tired of toothy aquatic monster horror, it’s code that I’ve been kidnapped. And this one, aside from a few issues (one glaring, one minor, one trivial), is solid good high-octane chompiness from start to finish.

Summary-wise, it’s what you’d expect and want: hitherto-unknown hungry critter rises from the deeps, disrupts local oceanic ecosystem, nobody wants to believe it at first and then they have no choice, some want to capture, some want to kill, boats are smashed, havoc is wreaked, people are messily devoured.

Those issues, though … most glaringly, it’s a sausage fest. The ONLY main female character is the gutsy, brilliant, witty science-type, who also happens to be an exotic beauty. Although a doctor and leader of her crew, she’s the object of crass remarks and casual sexism from other characters, even ones who should know better. Then to add in the ugly abusive relationship with the mercenary-jerk baddie who shows up to take over the hunt for the monster is more sour icing on that particular cake than I could take.

As for the more minor issue, I did think there were a few too many conveniences of miraculous coincidences, worsening situations, nick-of-time rescues and narrow escapes to plausibly stretch disbelief. The trivial issue is a personal peeve of author description, in which instead of using a simple name or pronoun, we get ‘the lawman’ / ‘the cetaceanist’ / ‘the young deputy’ / etc. trotted out in the prose.

Must say, though, the havoc-wreaking, boat-smashing, people-devouring scenes are among the best I’ve read, hugely epic fun with no fiddling about. Middle of a press conference, just as everyone’s scoffing at the experts? Whammo, chaos and panic and destruction everywhere; doubt or deny THIS! Tons of marine-monster fun!

-Christine Morgan

SHEPHERD OF THE BLACK SHEEP by Kristopher Triana (2018 Blood Bound Books / 265 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

My previous experiences with this author’s work (particularly BODY ART) had me mentally braced for the most extreme of the extreme … and yet, having this one turn out to be much more quiet, subtle, emotional, suspenseful, and psychological was anything but disappointing.

It opens with two little girls playing in the woods, having whimsical fun, making up stories. Then something terrible happens, and only one little girl makes it home. This tragedy hits on the heels of being recently orphaned and sent to live with her widower grandfather, who’s dealing with his own grief as well as the unexpected challenge of trying to raise a pre-teen.

The last thing he wants is for her to endure more stress and trauma. But the investigation is underway, and she’s the sole witness, being questioned by detectives as well as therapists. There are mugshots and lineups to look at. The other girl’s distraught family is demanding answers, applying social and financial pressures, even making accusations. Then there’s the kids at school, how unkind they can be … and neighbors … people snooping around the house …

I read the whole thing in a single captivated sitting, eyes wide and almost breathless, repeatedly rocked and shocked even when I thought I knew where it was going. The loss and pain, the tension, the frustration, protective love, conflict, helplessness … this book hits strong on every mark.

Now, to be sure, when there are violent bits, they are VIOLENT violent bits, pulling no punches and taking no prisoners, not sparing the sensibilities about raw red horror and gore. And they work just so damn well against the gentler overall tone, making them all the more visceral and terrible.

-Christine Morgan


Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Top Ten Books of 2018 (Part Two)

In the second of our three annual Top Ten Lists, Jon R. Meyers picks his favorite books released in the last year.

10) RITUAL by Tim Miller. A first for me by the author. I was very impressed with the story being told here. RITUAL by Tim Miller is an originally dark and brutal tale that is accurately centered around those crooked religious beliefs and practices we all know and love, black and white magic, paganism, witches and witchcraft. This book keeps the reader engaged, while wanting more at all times, so much so, that I literally finished this book in one sitting after originally picking it up on a whim while looking for something new and dark and gory to read.

9) SEXTING GHOSTS by Joanna C. Valente. Joanna C. Valente’s collection is unique and creative and disturbing, it’s haunting, often thought-provoking, it’s brutal, has the power to mess with your head and emotions, it’s sometimes cute and cuddly, but don’t let it catch you off guard. It’s also just as dark and demented and depressing as it is all those other things. It’s got the right amount of psychological horror flair built up between this sort of new, hip, modern, and edgy prose.

8) GODS OF THE DARK WEB by Lucas Magnum. The dark web is the darkest of filth on the internet. One can search and find links containing some of the worst porn imaginable, think snuff films, think real life murder videos, think weapons, think the anarchist cookbook but with more pervasive filth lingering in an online community of black markets, that’s what the dark web is all about. This is where Mangum shows us just how low down and dirty he can get with his writing and trust me it’s just as beautiful as it is messed up and sick and demented, not to mention there’s a Lovecraftian creature from hell constructed of wires and computer monitors.

7) THE WINDOW by Glenn Rolfe. The author manages to knock this horror gem right outside the horror park, leaving you wanting to look behind you at all times. Whether it’s a trip down the hallway to the bathroom, past a mirror, or that godforsaken window after hearing a strange noise on the other side of the house, we as the reader embark on a flawlessly executed character-driven modern day horror tale centered around demonic seduction and possession unlike any other out there, whilst creatively joined by many of those classic horror tropes we all know and grew to love so goddamn much. I’m talking about all the alcoholic beverages, sloppy kinky sex and perversion, demonic possession, bikini babes, and those timeless teenage summer getaways, making this an epitome of the horror genre within itself.

6) COLD DEAD HANDS by Jeff Strand. I read this one a couple weeks ago. Strand’s writing instantly made the cut into my top ten of the year in this brutal supermarket survival tale. It is funny and dark and violent and all of the things I enjoy about the author’s writing in one fast paced and highly entertaining read.

5) THE SIREN AND THE SPECTER by Jonathan Janz. In his latest and arguably best work to date, Janz returns to the classic haunted house story, but with a much more modern approach. His prose is super tight and well-crafted, plot is original and unique even amidst such an overwhelming and overdone trope and is all-in-all an absolute pleasure to read. I want to also point out that I read this book in between binge watching episodes of “The Haunting of Hillhouse” and found myself preferring the plot here in this book far more than the limited daytime soap-esque of a storyline in that of the recently and highly trended horror series while embarking on a couple lazy days of “Netflix and Chill.” Tomato/banana, I know, but still… think about it. This is quite a feat in the year 2018, don’t you think? I feel like Brian Keene’s blurb on the cover says a lot about what this book really has to offer. “One of the best writers in modern horror to come along in the last decade.” This book, in my opinion, is no exception to that claim, having watched Janz hone up his skills from release to release before placing this haunted masterpiece of a gem in the palms of our dirty little horror hands.

4) A BETTER LIFE by Kyle M. Scott. The author shows us with ease he’s got the skills to spin yet another dark and twisted tale, filled to the brim with legendary occult and supernatural goodness, brutal violence, and unique nightmarish twists and turns at every turn of the page. Not everything is as it seems and not everything always goes according to planned out here in the Mojave Wilds. Some secrets are best kept in the dark where they belong.

3) ANIMALS EACH EACH OTHER by Ellen Nash. The author’s stunning and unforgettable debut found on the pages within are just as intriguing, creative, sexy, dark, erotic, heartfelt, honest, and amazing. Nash manages to deliver a brutally honest tale on the dark side of love and obsessive relationships through the eyes of Satanism, love, anti-love, and jealousy. ‘Animals Eat Each Other’ is a sadomasochistic anti-romance novel and modern late teen masterpiece that indirectly pays homage to the likes of Joel Lane’s Queer Punk Rock debut ‘From Blue to Black’, ‘Go Ask Alice’, or, maybe even a bit of Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower, but instead of making cute and cuddly mixtapes for Patrick, we’re listening to goth superstar Marilyn Manson, and taking fistfuls of synthetic drugs at a Rave Party, before embarking on an emotionally devastating and destructive rollercoaster of a relationship with more than one sexual partner.

2) A WINTER SLEEP by Greg F. Gifune. Not only is the author’s writing, storytelling, and craftsmanship top notch here, it’s engaging, sexy, haunting, eerie, unique, discomforting, emotional, suspenseful and all the above times a million. It’s a perfect modern-day horror story with enough darkness and suspense to last for days and then some. There’s even a bit of an underlying sci-fi twist present going on here that cryptically adds to the overall tension, leaving behind a beautifully horrific and tragic tale of lost love affairs, regrets, disloyalty and betrayal, psychosis, and madness. The author does an absolutely stellar job keeping us as the reader turning the page at all times to find out exactly just where the story is going. That’s where the true madness and darkness and the unknown prevails and spirals out of control before your very eyes. Just remember not everything is always as it seems. There may be a lot more than meets the eye going on in this one. And even then, you might not know exactly where to turn or who to trust, even yourself and your sanity is on the line here.

1) LIVE GIRLS by Ray Garton. The work of Ray Garton has always been a little guilty horror pleasure of mine. He’s one of my favorite working authors to date. I don’t think I’ve read anything he’s released that I didn’t like, and his stories just always seem to work, and they stick with me far after I’ve read them. This rerelease of his vampire cult classic, LIVE GIRLS from the 80s, is without exception. The author’s uncanny ability to spin an original tale different than anyone else, whilst managing to entertain, spook, shock, turn-on and terrorize the reader is beyond admirable. In this book, he manages to do the same while delivering to us his take on the vampire trope. Now, keep in mind… At the time, vampires weren’t these glittery teeny boppers high on sex before marriage with pretty boys with nice hair hailing from the glitter section in Outer Space like your kid sister’s bedazzled jewelry set. No, vampires were very different. Very scary. Very goth business casual, if you will. Secret society’s that consumed human blood and flesh and held sentient hierarchy very dear to their immortal blackened souls. This is easily one of my favorite vampire books to date. It’s an all-around great horror book jam- packed with flashy bright neon lights, trashy sex, suspense, gore, and mystery. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Top Ten Books of 2018 (Part One)

In the first of our three annual TOP TEN lists, Nick Cato picks his favorites released within the last 12 months...

"I read 43 novels this past year, far from my usual 60-80, but among those, these were the ones that stuck with me..."

1) TIDE OF STONE by Kaaron Warren. Warren rarely disappoints, and when she's on, few can come close. TIDE OF STONE is easily my favorite of all her works, and is a title I'll surely be revisiting. From my review: "TIDE OF STONE is a sublime fever dream of ever-building dread with some fantastic atmosphere and a dark fantasy slant that's only given to us in tiny bites as to keep the tale grounded in reality (the odd condition of the prisoners, for example, kept me flipping the pages to find out more). I haven't enjoyed a "quiet horror novel" this much since the classic T.M. Wright novels of the early 80s."

2) THE RUST MAIDENS by Gwendolyn Kiste. Kiste's debut novel more than satisfied those of us who became fans through her short stories. In the past year she has become one of my new faves and a must read author. From my review: "The novel is a depressing but powerful look at growing up facing a future that doesn't seem to hold too many chances, but somehow through the muck our protagonist manages to survive, and in Kiste's hands we're pulled along at a perfect pace. For those who complain there aren't enough female "coming of age" stories, THE RUST MAIDENS should satisfy, but there's a lot more to be mined here. A fantastic debut novel."

3) HALYCON by Rio Youers. Youers seems to make my lists often, but that shouldn't surprise anyone who has read him. Watching him grow as a storyteller over the years has been a pleasure, and this time he delivered one of his best yet. From my review: "This novel may be promoted as a "thriller," but Youers' use of the paranormal, along with a small-press level of brutal violence, makes HALCYON a solid horror novel with a lot to say about our society and how families cope with tragedy. I loved it."

4) FROZEN SHADOWS AND OTHER CHILLING STORIES by Gene O'Neill. This hefty short story collection is a real feast, no easy feat considering this is the author's 6th one! From my review: "FROZEN SCREAMS AND OTHER CHILLING TALES is a fantastic collection by a writer who is considered one of the best in the genre, and while I've read and enjoyed some of O'Neill's novels and stories over the years, this collection is proof of the praise given him. His ability to spin familiar themes and still keep the reader guessing until the last page is notable, as are the realistic people he creates to experience these horrors. This is the perfect place for newbies to start and a must read for long time fans."

5) THE GOAT PARADE by Peter N. Dudar. Occult horror is my favorite subgenre, and Dudar brings it here in spades. Best of all, this one delivers some serious chills. From my review: "THE GOAT PARADE is a solid old-school styled, no BS horror novel, with children in constant peril, a realistic cast, and a fresh feel to some familiar ground. The portrayal of Old Scratch doesn’t sensationalize him as many stories do, which adds to the impending sense of dread that builds in each chapter. And be warned: the author holds back NO punches during the finale. Makes a great triple-feature, rainy weekend read with Douglas Clegg’s GOAT DANCE and James Newman’s THE WICKED."

6) COCKBLOCK by C.V. Hunt. Hunt continues to come up with some of the wildest stories out there, this time taking on politics and current social issues. From my review: "Hunt brings us some of the craziest ideas in the genre, twisting tropes in ways you’d never expect. COCKBLOCK is full of social and political subtext and an urgent cry for justice, done in an irresistible way. Things may seem absurd one minute, and the next we wonder if this could possibly be where we're headed as a nation. With 15 titles under her belt, Hunt has become a force to be reckoned with, and COCKBLOCK is easily one of her best. It's an epic tale told in an easily digestible size."

7) WALKING ALONE by Bentley Little. Little's second full-sized short story collection is another platter of the macabre fans have come to expect, and contains what have become a couple of my favorites from him. From my review: "Bentley Little is often praised for his short stories, and while THE COLLECTION (2002) is still my favorite of his works, WALKING ALONE is an impressive display of his talent, his newer stories here testifying he has truly become a master of the macabre, the weird, the just plain “out there.” A couple of tales show Little perhaps a bit more “normal,” but those who may have an issue with this will be glad to know his deranged side is still very well represented. Long time fans will find much to love here (and not only for the nods to past stories and novels), while newcomers looking for no-holds-barred horror will undoubtedly leave satisfied"

8) THE MOORE HOUSE by Tony Tremblay. Like THE RUST MAIDENS above, I was a fan of Tremblay's short stories, and was thrilled to report his debut novel read like it was written by a seasoned vet. From my review: "I’m a big fan of religious-themed horror, and I enjoyed Tremblay’s approach to it. Father MacLeod is the last priest on earth who should be performing exorcisms, but when he does we cheer him on despite his hypocritical lifestyle. It’s also refreshing to see a couple of religious women (Agnes and Nora) still striving to serve God regardless of their excommunication and the fact they’re lovers. Celeste becomes a major player here despite being the newest member of the team, and what becomes of her and Father MacLeod in the final pages is quite disturbing. With plenty of haunted house mayhem (I was reminded of Simon Clark’s THE TOWER a couple of times), an interesting cast (I’d like to see more of the mysterious pawn store owner), and a flawed but likable crew of demon hunters, THE MOORE HOUSE is a fine debut and a quick read to get the chills going."

9) SKULLFACE BOY by Chad Lutzke. One of a couple of titles I read by Lutzke this year and easily my favorite. Out of the many newer authors I've been reading, Lutzke is developing a seriously fresh, unique voice. From my review: "Set in the 1980s, SKULLFACE BOY is more an emotional tale of self discovery than it is a horror story, but I think genre fans will enjoy this slick coming of age meditation on loneliness, trust, and destiny that’s told in an almost surreal manner. This is the second book I’ve read by Lutzke this year, and it’s definitely something special."

10) LAST DAY by Bryan Smith. Since bursting onto the scene with his novel HOUSE OF BLOOD 14 years ago, Smith has been churning out some of the more extreme horror novels in the genre, and LAST DAY is about as over the top as it gets. This pre-apocalyptic blood bath looks at what a few lunatics would do during the last hours of earth before an asteroid strike promises extinction. From my review: "LAST DAYS is a sick, hyper-violent, at times terrifying, and lightning-paced descent into madness. I actually held on to my junk a few times and winced, causing me to finish some sections through one eye. The violence gets so extreme it borders on the absurd, but Smith’s characters are relatable (whether we want to admit so or not) and it forces us to read on. I can only imagine, if anyone survives the asteroid strike, what Smith’s POST apocalyptic world will be like. Be very afraid."

Monday, December 17, 2018

Reviews for the Week of December 17, 2018

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're reading this on a cell phone you probably won't see it, so boot up the lap top...

WALKING WITH GHOSTS by Brian James Freeman (2018 PS Publishing / 236 pp / hardcover & eBook)

Simply seeing that this book had an intro by William Peter Blatty was enough to rock me back on my heels going “wow;” that’s a goal to which not many even dare aspire, so to actually score one? Saying such honest praise? Gave me goosebumps in a good way. And that was before I even got started on the stories.

Now, a few of them I had encountered before in their other appearances, but reading them collected together like this makes its own special magic. Many of them are interconnected, threads from some subtly woven through and into others, recurring characters glimpsed or referenced from other points of view, creating a vibrant and believable world a mere sidestep or so removed from our own.

It’s a world of dark chills and nail-biting suspense, with some sudden and very nasty surprise twists. An unexploded landmine … the imminent end of the world … grief turning to horrible discovery … the yearning desperation of nostalgia and lost hope … the fears here best touched upon aren’t so much fears of monsters but the monstrousness of the human psyche and condition, and of life itself.

Freeman demonstrates again and again a deft skill at building up empathy, then yanking the rug out from under your reading feet to drop you, shocked, into terrible realizations and truth. I literally gasped aloud on no less than three different occasions, though I won’t tell you which stories they were, so you can be just as blindsided as I was.

Great writing throughout, the horror often quiet and subtle but not always so (plus those moments of deep, chilling shock!) … and perhaps most potent of all, the encompassing reminder that whatever we go through, whenever it’s at its worst, we’re always along. Brrrr!

-Christine Morgan

RING OF FIRE by David Agranoff (2018 Deadite Press / 310 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I love extreme horror and cheesy natural disaster stuff, so the combination of the two seems like it’d be an automatic win for me; I dove into this one with considerable excitement. I wanted to enjoy it, I really did. I thought I would. But … well … sorry to say, it’s one of the few Deadite books that’s let me down.

The premise is good solid action-movie fare: it starts with what at first appears to be merely out-of-control wildfire season ravaging the environs around San Diego, only to reveal underlying man-made causes, conspiracies, and corruption, all leading up to something even deadlier.

And the timing’s right; I read it at the tail end of yet another summer when fires raged across half the country while the other half wallowed under floodwaters, the climate change debate raging just as fervently, distrust of FEMA and other organizations at a height. Throw in the shutting down of essential services, and an outbreak turning people into violent crazies, the chaos and panic and confusion …

With all those elements, it should have worked, drat it, and I’m disappointed it didn’t. There were too many characters, way too many with similar names and not nearly enough distinction or attention or chance to get to know them or care. Too much jumping around from one point of view or scene to another, to show the developments from many different angles, but that only made things seem sluggish. I found myself, hate to say it though I do, actually kind of bored. Even when it got to the full-on horror, it lacked oomph somehow, wasn’t nearly as ‘extreme’ as I expected or wanted.

So, yeah … not mad, just let down and disappointed. It could, and should, have been so much more!

-Christine Morgan

LIVE GIRLS by Ray Garton (2018 Macabre Ink / 268 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

The work of Ray Garton has always been a little guilty horror pleasure of mine. He’s one of my favorite working authors to date. I don’t think I’ve read anything he’s released that I didn’t like, and his stories just always seem to work, and they stick with me far after I’ve read them. This rerelease of his vampire cult classic, LIVE GIRLS from the 80s is without exception. The author’s uncanny ability to spin an original tale different than anyone else, whilst managing to entertain, spook, shock, turn-on and terrorize the reader is beyond admirable. In this book, he manages to do the same while delivering to us his take on the vampire trope. Now, keep in mind… at the time, vampires weren’t these glittery teeny boppers high on sex before marriage with pretty boys with nice hair hailing from the glitter section in Outer Space like your kid sister’s bedazzled jewelry set. No, vampires were very different. Very scary. Very goth business casual, if you will. Secret society’s that consumed human blood and flesh and held sentient hierarchy very dear to their immortal blackened souls.

Davey Owen embarks on quite a journey when stumbles onto the neon lights flashing on Times Square in NYC. Some lights flashing much brighter than others, when he stumbles into a trashy peep show, and is instantly drawn to the female behind the cage. After a bit of sexy time, he soon finds himself craving the mysterious woman like there’s no tomorrow. She’s all he can think about. Davey can’t get enough of her as the spot on his manhood begins to spin a much deeper, darker tale of love and hopeless despair, as the mysterious woman begins to lure him in deeper and deeper to her mystery with each and every acquaintance, as his life begins to quickly unravel at the seams.

Easily one of my favorite vampire books to date. It’s an all-around great horror book jam- packed with flashy bright neon lights, trashy sex, suspense, gore, and mystery. What’s there not to like about it!?

-Jon R. Meyers

WHITE FIRE by Brian Keene (2018 Deadite Press / 81 pp / trade paperback and eBook)

Captain Tom Collins and CDC Phil McLeod are transporting a military created virus through a small town in Illinois when a freak tornado damages their van and unleashes the bio weapon. The appearance of a mysterious white-haired man lends a supernatural element as the town is quarantined and the disease is attempted to be contained.

While the story is familiar, Keene’s fast paced writing keeps things exciting and the aforementioned supernatural angle brings up the author’s past stories, so fans are in for a treat.

A fine entry in the killer virus subgenre that can be read in a single sitting. Nifty ending, too.

-Nick Cato

OUR FRAIL DISORDERED LIVES by Mary M. Schmidt (2018 LuLu Publishing Services / 188 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I like the gamble of trying a book knowing little else about it but title and author … it’s akin to a blind date, or a grab bag … will it turn out to be a great time, or prove a dud? This one, definitely the former! Once I started to read, I was along for the ride with no looking back.

Even more, because the title somehow led me to expect a collection of moody, woeful, sepia-toned stories and vignettes (of which there’s not a dang thing wrong, make no mistake!) and instead I was dropped feet-first into the deep end of a delightful and irreverent devil-romp.

Roach is one of the OG fallen angels who’s been with Satan since the beginning. Which is a long time to stew over old grudges, particularly the bitterest pill of not having been allowed to get in on that sweet Divine Comedy action with Dante and Virgil. Instead of becoming a famed name, he’s forgotten, just another diabolical flunky. And he’s had enough.

Going rogue, escaping to the mortal world, Roach seeks to get some payback, corrupt a few souls, collect a few sinners, strike a few deals of his own. Aided on the sly by a friend back in the version of Hell’s IT department, he’s able to cover his tracks and stay a step ahead of the exorcists and bounty hunters long enough to whip up a little havoc.

At the center of Roach’s scheme is Larry, a liar and faker and all-around jerk who only cares about himself, as well as Larry’s put-upon wife, their kids, his wife’s sister, and the neighbor who’s been harboring a grudge against the sisters since grade school. A nudge here, a push there, one thing leads to another, and soon events have spiraled wildly into pure hilarity.

-Christine Morgan

REVENGE OF THE VAMPIR KING (THRONES OF BLOOD VOL. 1) by Nancy Kilpatrick (2017 Crossroad Press / 190 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, & eBook)

Remember way back when Anne Rice suddenly went from broody/bloody/moody vampire gothics to those spanky-bondage Sleeping Beauty books and everyone was real shocked, but then the gates opened and we entered a whole new world of paranormal smut?

This book reminded me of that startling turning-point moment in the genre; I went into it thinking it’d be epic dark fantasy combined with bodice-ripper-style paranormal romance … warring kingdoms, vampires vs. humans (called here Sapiens), a captive princess, a cruel king, their turbulent hate-at-first relationship turning into something else, against a backdrop of court intrigue and betrayal, you know how it goes.

Well, I did find all that, yes, to be sure, but with quite a bit of surprisingly graphic, harder-edged sex scenes than anticipated. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Just, y’know, be ready.

Summary-wise, Moarte is the vampir king mentioned in the title, who’s just received the daughter of his hated foe as a prisoner and decides to make her his bride as part of his plan for revenge. This decision doesn’t go over so well with many in his court.

Meanwhile, Valada, the princess, finds herself reevaluating the world as she knows it, and her relationship with her father in particular … but how much is real, and how much the unnatural manipulation of the vampirii?

The biggest problem I had with this book was how much of the plot hinged upon lack of communication, characters who for a slew of sometimes-feeling-really-stretched-and-contrived reasons can’t just talk to each other. Misunderstandings ensue, conclusions are leaped to, feelings are hurt, etc. Fine in a farce or goofy Three’s Company sitcom, tiresome and frustrating otherwise.

As the first in a series, it’s a strong and promising start, and I look forward to reading the others fairly soon.

-Christine Morgan