Monday, July 13, 2015

Reviews for the Week of July 13, 2015

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. Thank you.


THE CONSULTANT by Bentley Little (to be released 9/15 by Cemetery Dance Publications / 480 pp / trade hardcover and limited edition hardcover)

Craig Horne works for a failing company called CompWare. He's called into a staff meeting where the CEO explains they'll be hiring a consulting firm to help them get back on track. Regus Patoff, the firm's main consultant, arrives dressed a little odd and causing much of the staff to feel on edge. And before long he's getting a little too involved in everyone at CompWare's personal lives, going above and beyond what a standard consultant should be doing.

It doesn't take long for weird things to start happening: staff members are committing suicide, Patoff's comments become more personal and obscene, and the head of CompWare begins acting as if he's under a spell.

For some reason, Craig finds himself unable to be physically harmed by Patoff, and he learns his wife Angie's job is now being overlooked by BFG, Patoff's consulting firm, who also manage to bring their services to their young son Dylan's elementary school.

With CompWare's staff slowly being eliminated, and his family under constant threat by the mysterious Mr. Patoff, Craig and his friend/co-worker Phil are alone against this unusual threat ... that is, until Patoff makes Phil the new CEO of CompWare.

THE CONSULTANT is classic Bentley Little, in the vein of his novels THE MAILMAN and THE ASSOCIATION. Little brings some serious chills, but this time the tone is so darkly comic--and even absurd at times--that I found myself laughing out loud. But here the terror and the humor work well together, especially in light of Mr. Patoff (who I can envision being played in a film version by Steve Buscemi). He's one of the more interesting villains to grace a Little novel, and when total chaos breaks out in the final chapters, it's just so damn entertaining you can't help but sit there with a wicked, satisfed grin on your face, even as one burning question is left for the reader to decipher.

Little's twisted take on office paranoia is just what his fans have been waiting for.

Now get back to work!

-Nick Cato

END TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH by Ian Welke (2015 Omnium Gatherum / 282 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Okay, first off, LOVE the title! Were I a teacher, I’d give extra credit bonus points for that. And for the themes of the prom and the school play. I’d read a whole book about either of those alone. Brilliant. Great stuff.

So, yes, welcome to Ridgemont. It’s a lovely place. The school, the community, the church … the new church … that nice new Esoteric Order of Dagon church gaining such popularity …

Even Mr. and Mrs. MacIntire have converted, though their kids aren’t very interested. Son Tim is too busy trying to keep his job and save up for college; daughter Evelyn is about to start high school and much more concerned with friends and boys.

Soon, though, it’s hard to ignore the changes taking place in town. More and more kids are coming to school in church-inspired uniforms. The faculty members slow to adapt to the adjusted curriculum aren’t just risking their jobs. Behavioral problems may be at a low, but vandalism – particularly some strange and unsettling pieces of graffiti – are on the upswing.

If someone doesn’t do something, and quick, this year’s Ridgemont graduation class may be the last ever. That isn’t a future Evelyn and her friends are eager to see, so, they decide to be the someones to do something about it.

I lost track of a couple of the sub-plot threads along the way – hey, there was a lot going on! – but the references were hugely fun and the imagery was fantastic. Again, as mentioned above, in the bits involving the prom and the play were my far and away favorites.

-Christine Morgan

WET AND SCREAMING by Shane McKenzie (2015 Deadite Press / 220 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This new collection is packed with almost as much in the way of extra goodies as it is primary goodies, so that just makes for bonus win all the way around! An intro and bonus end stories by Jen and Sylvia Soska nicely bookend the volume.

Better yet, each story opens with a personal essay by the author to explain (or warn the reader) a bit about what they’re getting themselves into. I love this kind of thing, peeks inside the mindspace where some of my favorite people hang their creative hats. If nothing else, it helps make me feel better about my own muse’s living situation!

First up, obesity! The horror, the revulsion, the shame! In the eyes of many, fatness is The Worst Thing Ever; I remember a survey showing how many women would rather lose IQ points than gain pounds (admittedly, if I could just weigh my IQ, I’d be happy …).

“Fat Slob” hearkens back to King’s “Thinner,” but in a much more painful, gooshy, squicktastic way. And, like with “Thinner,” like with Wrath James White’s “Voracious,” as horrific as it is, the really evil and insidious part is, well, wouldn’t it still be kinda tempting?

“So Much Pain, So Much Death” I’d read before in the Fresh Fear anthology, and had almost successfully forgotten how disturbing it was … but here it is again, unsettling as ever! Maybe even more so on second read, because all those shivers just came rushing right on back.

Ouija board mishaps, the perils of distracted driving, Halloween hijinks, sport/trophy hunting, Ed Gein having a garage sale, dead kittens as just the tip of the hoarder iceberg, a troubled man’s unique deadly addiction, clowns, and all manner of weirdness make their way into the mix.

And then, it’s time for the grand finale, with the “Stab the Rabbit.” Damn near everybody I’ve ever known would agree with the first half of the intro; Jessica Rabbit defined sex-on-a-plate for an entire generation. But then it gets twisted. Deliciously, deviantly twisted. Cartoon universes are awesome, with their own rules and laws of physics that may or may not apply in our own … seeing them meet, in particularly unthinkable ways, is a sick, fun-filled ride.

The same can basically be said for the whole book. Does not disappoint, especially if you’re expecting gruesome hilarity with underlying depth, pathos and insight.

-Christine Morgan

CARRIER by Timothy Johnson (2014  Permuted Press / 322 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Sci-fi’s not usually my thing, but horror is … so, something billed as sci-fi horror, sure, I figured I’d give it a shot.

Overall, I’m not sorry, though I must admit I did find it a bit of an uphill slog to get into at the beginning. Lots of introductions and tech made for a dense and heavy first course to try and digest all at once.

The heavy density did continue throughout in terms of the writing style; a lot of detail, a lot of telling rather than showing. Maybe not to the point of outright info-dumps, but very much making sure you-the-reader “get” it.

First novel syndrome? Upon checking, I saw that yes, this is the author’s first. So, explainable and understandable. And, for a first, off to a pretty decent start nonetheless. Better than several I’ve seen. The plot feels sound, the characters are distinct, the tension holds up, and many of the descriptive passages or turns of phrase are really good.

The premise is your basic outbreak of crazy/infected with zombies. Set on a huge spaceship, it’s claustrophobic enough to have that no-escape sense while big enough to have room to maneuver. For the leading ensemble, there’s the security officer, the ship’s doctor to whom he’s married, the cracking-under-strain captain, the shifty corporate agent, and a rapidly-dwindling supply of supporting cast as the situation worsens.

The pace picks up considerably once things shift more from the sci-fi to the horror portions of the program, or maybe that’s just where more of my interest kicked in. Either way, it held me through to he end. A solid effort and worth a look.

-Christine Morgan


Monday, June 29, 2015

Reviews for the Week of June 29, 2015

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. Thank you.

WHEN WE WERE ANIMALS by Joshua Gaylord (2015 Mulholland Books / hardcover, eBook, and audiobook)

Oh, those classic small town youthful coming-of-age stories … are nothing like this. In THIS small town, when the youth come of age, everybody else stays inside with the doors locked. Forget normal parental worries about wild parties; here, the teenagers really go wild.

They call it “breaching,” and it happens during the full moon. Those three nights a month are devoted to running naked through the streets, engaging in violent, lustful, and/or destructive rampages. By day, they just patch up their injuries and either don’t remember, or try not to remember, what went on.

The whole town plays along in a gentle sort of look-the-other-way indulgence. It’s just one of those things, you know? Part of life. All the kids in town experience it, usually for about a year or so, before growing out of the phase and settling down.

All the kids except for Lumen, that is. She’s determined to resist, to not go breach, even if it only makes her more of an outsider.

But peer pressure is a powerful incentive. Adolescents have their cliques and tricks, and the girls especially can be vicious even when not under the effects of the moon. And something about Lumen draws both the town golden boy and the town bad boy to her in different, dangerous ways.

Intriguingly written as a sort of flashback confessional from the later-in-life Lumen who thinks she’s left all that behind her, this book performs a deft balancing dance between past and present, maintaining the mystery while building the tension of both.

My one complaint is that I wanted more resolution at the ending. We’re going along great, tingling with anticipation of what’s going to be revealed about Lumen’s childhood in the past, what’s going to happen with her husband and kid in the present, and then … then it’s over. Not on a cliffhanger, exactly, but more of a trailing off into the vague teasing speculation of letting you wonder.

-Christine Morgan

NOTHING'S LASTING by Glen Krisch (2014 Cemetery Dance Publications / 244pp / hardcover & eBook)

Now an adult, Noah Berkley returns to his hometown for his father's funeral. While visiting his old home, he thinks back to the events that changed his life at the age of twelve in 1984. With separated parents, he had lived with his dad and had to deal with his new girlfriend and her slightly off-balanced son, Derek. Both he and Derek became participants in a crime, and Noah knew to be quiet or face whatever craziness his future step brother would dish out ... despite Derek becoming increasingly unstable.

When Noah met (and fell in love with) his neighbor Jenny, he did all he could to to keep these things secret from her, until one night when she vanished, apparently the victim of a local child snatcher. Suspects abound.

Krisch spends much time developing his characters, and they're all realistic and interesting. NOTHING'S LASTING is a slow burner, but the payoff is fantastic as multiple surprises cap this Stephen King-like coming of age tale that, although familiar, manages to come off as fresh in the end.

This is a dark, emotional ride that'll get under your skin the more you let its events sink in. Good stuff.

-Nick Cato

TERRA INSANUS by Edward Lee (2015 Deadite Press / 108 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

So, on the same day, I read this whole book and watched that Blackfish documentary about the orcas … on top of other events in the news. You know what I did then? I turned off the television, stepped away from the internet, and spent the rest of the evening cuddling with my kitties.

Wow, we are an awful species. I mean, we go out of our way, WAY out of our way, to be vile. To commit atrocities that by rights should be unimaginable. And we do it a lot. A LOT a lot.

I’m telling you, as fun as most Edward Lee books can be – for those values of fun involving infernal torment, otherworldy abominations, and outrageously hilarious depravity – Terra Insanus is 75% not that.

25% yes; the last story, “The Sea-Slop Thing,” is classic Lee at his weird-sextastic gooshiness. Thankfully. How wrong is it to be RELIEVED to see a story about a lady who starts off doing something wildly inappropriate with a huge sausage from the deli where she works and goes on to find herself confronting a squelchy horror from beyond the deep?

Yet, there it was, and I was glad and relieved. Because the 75% prior to that was mighty damn bleak and altogether horrifying in a much-too-real way. Those vile atrocities that should be unimaginable, which we inflict and commit upon each other at a dismayingly regular basis, get a harsh spotlight of attention.

Well, okay, “The Stick-Woman” isn’t … uh … no, it IS that nasty, a tale of a woman held prisoner by a husband who goes far beyond any sane definition of abusive. But at least that one has more of a buffer, more of that only-a-story buffer.

“Sh*t House” and “The Ushers,” on the other hand … two fit-together pieces of a warped mirror casting fragmented reflections of the worst of the worst … part stream-of-consciousness, part uncomfortably autobiographical-seeming, part ripped-from-the-headlines … stuff like this (not Lee’s writing, but the subject matter and the fact of the truth of the subject matter) really can make a person think an extinction event can’t come soon enough.

Yeah. Bleak. Powerful, dark, despairing, and bleak. Even the diabolical brushes and undertones in “The Ushers” don’t allow for much fantastical wiggle-room. If anything, it serves to twist the knife. We can go on all we want about how the devil made us do it, but deep down we all know better.

-Christine Morgan

HOUSE OF SIGHS by Aaron Dries (2012 Samhain Publishing / 280 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

On a Sunday morning in 1995, bus driver Liz Frost woke up planning to kill herself. Instead, she ended up putting her passengers through hell. And once they realize they are now hostages to a woman on the brink of madness, it’s too late to get off the bus. 

I was browsing the Samhain table at the 2015 World Horror Convention in Atlanta last month, when I saw HOUSE OF SIGHS sitting there. The simple picture on the front - a hand covering the mouth of an obviously terrified person with the word “Help” written on her palm – intrigued me enough to read the synopsis. I was so taken by the description, I knew it was a book I had to read. I had no cash on me at the time, so I ran to my room. By the time I got back, the author was at the table, and he was thrilled I was buying his book.

Aaron Dries is so charming, so friendly and outgoing and just freaking NICE, that I wasn’t sure just how grim the book could really be.

It turned out to one of the most horrifying books I’ve ever read. I know it’s cliché to say you’re hooked from the first page, but it is absolutely true here. The first chapter packs a gut-punch that completely shocked me as both a reader and a parent. I read HOUSE OF SIGHS in just a few days, only putting it down when I had to.

Although it was published in 2012, the author is new to me. But after reading this book, I will make it a point to read anything he writes.

-Sheri White

BILLY AND THE CONEASAURUS by Stephen Kozeniewski (2014 Severed Press / 164 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I saved this one until closer to JURASSIC WORLD time, expecting lots of dinosaurs. In that aspect, I confess, I was a bit let down – there aren’t herds or packs of them running amok or anything. But, by the time I realized I wasn’t going to be getting dino rampage, I was way far past beyond caring.

Because the real story is just TOO FREAKIN’ BRILLIANT. It grabbed me from the first page and held me in such rapt fascination that I was almost halfway through and utterly hooked before the cloneasaurus itself appeared and reminded me, “oh yeah, there’s that, too!”

What can I say? I am a huge sucker for well-wrought extrapolatory world-building. Take even a single, simple change or premise, spin it out to see where the repercussions go, do it right, do it plausibly, do it with skill and flourish, and I am SO THERE! And this book, especially the whole first half, gives me all I ever wanted and more.

Welcome to a utopia where everyone’s equal because everyone really is the same. Everyone’s a William. Everyone’s a clone, in a nice tidy numbered series. Look alike, sound alike, dress alike, act alike. With a nice tidy place in life, role to play, and function to fulfill.

So, everyone’s got the same habits, the same tastes and traits. That day a particular William decides it’d be a good day to knock off work early and miss the rush hour traffic, there’s rush hour traffic anyway because all the Williams had the same idea. But it’s okay, because things all work out and go the way they’re supposed to.

Except, on this one particular day for this one particular William, things stop going the way they’re supposed to. It’s supposed to be his last day, the last day for him and the nine other Williams in his series. See, the population is cycled through every year – out with the old batch, in with the new. The last guy of a number is removed (courtesy of a machine known as The Whirling Fan of Death) and a freshly-made version is to step right in and take over where he left off.

But something goes wrong as William-789 is being slurried. The machine breaks down with the day’s last William left over. Here’s poor 790, a loose end until it can be fixed. Awkward. What’s a William to do? His replacement’s already set to begin his own year, but there’s his predecessor, still hanging around.

The sudden, drastic upheaval of 790’s whole worldview gives him some strange new perspectives. He begins to really think about his life and society. He begins to notice things he never had before. He’s becoming – gasp! – an individual, and he kind of likes it.

The latter half of the book, as 790 accelerates off the rails, is also fun but felt hasty to me. When so much attention, detail and import had been given to even the smallest differences earlier, I guess I hoped for the big major revelations to have even greater impact. I still enjoyed it greatly, but my own weird personal wiring had much more fun with the earlier day-to-day William stuff.

Of all the utopias and dystopias I’ve read – and I like to think I’m no slouch in that department – this one is a definite favorite and delightful good time.

-Christine Morgan


BLACK STATIC Issue #46 (May/June 2015)

I'll get right to the fiction: in this issue almost every tale is incredibly bleak, and a couple are truly horrifying. I'd say something like "If you're looking for an easy time look elsewhere," but honestly, how many horror fans are looking for an easy time? And right off the bat, author Steven J. Dines delivers 'So Many Heartbeats, So Many Words,' about a family dealing with a weird black mold that has infested their home. Young son Alfie has an underdeveloped voice (which, in Dines' hands, adds a whole new level of creepy in an already multi-leveled tale) that helps lead to a depressing and stomach-dropping conclusion. Starting an issue with a story like this is equivalent to being slapped in the kisser when you greet your grandfather and expect a hug.

In 'The Secret Language of Stamps,' Neil Williamson introduces us to Hilda, who begins to get close with her tenant Ernest. As their relationship grows, he's called away on a job overseas, but before leaving for an undetermined amount of time, he leaves her a book that deals with how stamps were used during Victorian times. And as she receives letters from Ernest from different countries on his trip, she begins to see why he left her with the book. This is easily the scariest tale not only in this issue, but in the past several issues I've read. Hats off to Williamson's slick prose and satisfying finale.

Damien Angelica Walters' 'Falling Under, Through the Dark,' about a mother trying to cope with the death of her son, is as depressing as it is eerie. Kara is not only dealing with grief, but suffers intense, all too real panic attacks where she envisions herself drowning. They strike at anytime, and there's nowhere she's safe. Here's a tale of a woman's breakdown that's short and (not so) sweet. I usually enjoy shorter pieces, but when they're this good I want it to go on. I'm looking forward to more from Walters.

The always reliable Gary McMahon returns to BLACK STATIC with 'My Boy Builds Coffins.' While cleaning her son's room, Susan finds a miniature coffin in his bottom drawer, fascinated at how realistic it looks, and disturbed at a brass plate on it that says Daddy. While his parents are blown away by their son's skills, young Chris looks at it as no big deal. And when they find another mini coffin with Mummy engraved on its plate, Sara and husband decide to find out what's going on and discover how he's able to do this. A slick, supernatural tale that had me thirsting for more.

The only slower piece here is Sarah Read's 'Magnifying Glass,' where a mother and son move into a new home and shortly after, young Warren claims he sees someone peeking in the windows (could it be his dad, who we learn is the child's true legal guardian)? One of the walls in the house is made of glass panes, which is probably symbolic of something, but I lost interest too quickly to figure out what it was. Read aims this tale in the right direction but in the end I was left wanting.

Final tale, 'Men Wearing Makeup' by Ralph Robert Moore is--hands down--the highlight here. Disgruntled worker Chris goes on a trip to the forest with his obnoxious boss Charles and some other employees and their families. While out in the woods, Chris gets lost and attempts to find his way back, but he runs into a man in a clown suit named Noisy Lips who invites him back to his camp, where other clowns live. Of course, being this is BLACK STATIC magazine, Chris isn't in for a friendly circus. He learns he must become a clown himself or become ... consumed. As I read this, I kept thinking this would've made a fantastic episode of "Masters of Horror," Showtime's heavily hit or miss series of several years ago. Despite Moore's second-person narrative (which I personally don't care for), this story shines and chilled me to the bone, no easy feat as I'm not scared of clowns. But it wasn't the clown factor that bothered me; read it and you'll see what I mean.

Immediately following the fiction is a fantastic 13-page interview with Ralph Robert Moore, as well as Peter Tennant's always in-depth book reviews and yet another batch of Tony Lee's DVD reviews (I couldn't agree more with him on his view of STARRY EYES).

Steven Volk's opening commentary on trends in recent horror films and Lynda E. Rucker's rant on the responsibility of horror fiction readers, writers, and reviewers not only kicks off a great issue, but gives the whole genre a great and always needed kick in the ass.

Don't miss this. Subscribe or buy a solo issue here:  BLACK STATIC subs


Monday, June 15, 2015

Reviews for the Week of June 15, 2015

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. Thank you.

CATTLE CULT! KILL! KILL! by MP Johnson (2015 Rooster Republic Press / 152 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

When his daughter goes missing, and the police in Catspaw, Wisconsin seem unconcerned, Morgan takes matters into his own hands and gets his local militia together. Up until now, the most the armed group has done is volunteer around their community, but now they're up against something that pales when compared to their darkest nightmares.

Johnson strikes yet again with this insane bizarro horror romp, featuring animal-masked cultists trying to summon a bovine deity. The level of strange here is parallel to the gruesome, and I'll assume vegetarians will want to approach with extreme caution. CATTLE CULT features several images I won't be shaking anytime soon, and I'm now officially finished with "O"-shaped cereals.

Johnson continues to carve out his place among weird horror writers, and this intense novella just may be the best place for newcomers to start.

-Nick Cato

SOMETHING TERRIBLE by Wrath James White and Sultan Z. White (2015 Blood Bound Books / 226 pp / trade paperback and eBook)

One of the greatest combined sense of pride and terror any parent can have is when your child shows signs of turning out JUST LIKE YOU. Or, worse, shows signs of outdoing you, the little stinkers. I know mine’s already a better writer than I was at her age. I can’t help but wonder if Stephen King feels the same way.

Now, consider if you will, Wrath James White. Wrath is one of the hardest-hitting, most brutal, most unflinching forces in the genre. Spurred on by any sort of collaboration or competition, he is not going to go easy on anybody. Not even, or especially not, his own son.

Talk about some shoes to fill, some legacy to live up to. Most of the writers I know are daunted by Wrath, and to have him as a father? That’s got to crank the intimidation factors up to damn near archetypal.

But, if this book is anything to go by, Sultan Z. White is more than up to it. Another precocious, talented brat. Just what we need! (though, sincerely, it IS what we need, and more of it, so, keep on bringing it, kids!)

Having them join forces in the same book? That’s a recipe for a tag-team powerhouse double threat, for sure. Neither of these guys takes any prisoners. The stories here, whether by one or the other or both … you know those movies where the fighters are training by pummeling a side of beef hanging on a meathook? The side of beef is your brain.

'Something Terrible,' the title story, is in itself the charming tale of a father and son willing to go to any lengths and then some to protect, or avenge, their family. It’s the ultimate in vindictive torture porn, and if you’re expecting things to lighten up after that, wow, are you in the wrong book.

What else will you find? Well, the themes of fathers and sons continue throughout, sometimes in terms of perpetuating the species at any cost, sometimes in terms of “as the twig is bent, so the tree is shaped.” You’ll also find sinister cults, sex and depravity, eternal enmities, and all kinds of good sick twisted fun.

-Christine Morgan

THE FINAL GIRL by Brandon Ford (2015 BF Books / 244 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

A midnight showing of a crappy slasher flick in an old run-down theater is always a fun time. Except this night, at The Colonial Theater. Life is going to imitate art for those unlucky enough to attend “Bloodletting,” and getting out alive will be a challenge.

The moviegoers are a diverse group – a reluctant reviewer, an exhausted waitress, two brothers who sneak out for the time of their lives. They, with several others, find themselves hunted down in the theater during the movie. Stalked in the dark, oblivious to the carnage around them, they will try to make it through the night.

THE FINAL GIRL reminded me of the opening scene of SCREAM 2 in that someone is murdered during the movie, but nobody really realizes what is happening. That scene creeped me out, and THE FINAL GIRL did as well. Even when you’re watching a comedy, you are vulnerable in the dark; who knows what kind of person is sitting behind you?

But once the few people who are still alive understand what is going on, they desperately try to get out of the locked theater. 

Who is killing the moviegoers? Why? And will the titular character get out alive?

For a slasher movie in book form, I actually became interested in several of the characters and upset at their fates. Even though most victims in body count movies are just there to die in horrible ways, the author managed to flesh out his characters enough to get invested in them. 

The ending was a bit of a twist and reminded me of a movie I recently saw, but I’m not going to name it because that would give it away. I was surprised at the ending, but it was perfect for this book.

I’ve read several of the author’s books, and I’ve yet to be disappointed. Check out THE FINAL GIRL, and have a fun time!

-Sheri White

CASINO CARCOSA by Mark McLaughlin & Michael Sheehan, Jr. (2015 Dunhams Manor Press / 24 pp / chapbook)

In this slick little tale, McLaughlin & Sheehan, Jr. introduce us to Mason Schell, a man heading to Vegas for one last romp before his terminal brain tumor does him in. But those familiar with the authors should know Schell discovers way more than he bargained for, and this "Tale of the King in Yellow" will delight fans of weird fiction across the board.

Considering this is such a short story I won't give anything else away, but kudos to artist Dave Felton for some great interior illustrationsand DMP for another fine publications Lovecraftian collectors will want.

-Nick Cato

AT HELL'S GATES VOL. II edited by Sheila Shedd, Terri King, and S. Kay Nash (2015 Amazon Digital / 471 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

The second installment of At Hell’s Gates offers up 22 more stories to benefit the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund. A great cause to support, and a lot of good reading in return! As I write this review, it’s Memorial Day in the U.S., which makes it all the more pertinent and poignant. Far too many have given their all, leaving their loved ones to struggle on without them, and too often without the recognition they deserve.

The book opens with 'Pulse' by Mark Tufo, which gave me mixed feelings right off the bat. I’m no fan of bugs, so, the prospect of a gadget to get rid of them does have its tempting side … but I’m also aware of their necessity. I really expected the story to go in that direction, when instead it surprised me by going somewhere else, and a whole lot further.

Among my other top fave picks from the lineup:

'Ink'” by James Crawford, is a really good example of why it’s important to trust your tattooist; those pics you see on the FAIL sites (“no regerts”) are bad enough.

Sean T. Smith’s 'Mirage' … wow, just wow … I’ve never read much sci-fi, but I’ve read some great bizarro, and the descriptives and alien otherworldly imagery in this one knocked me back a step.

'A Mother’s Nightmare' by J. Rudolph takes a theme often touched upon in zombie stories but explores it in more vivid and horrifying detail than is usually seen.

C.T. Phipps turns up the creepy with 'Cookies for the Gentleman,' which had nuances of the diabolical, the fae, and a nod to a certain sharp-dressed fellow of the modern monster age.

And last but not least, closing out the book is Paul Mannering’s 'The Gouger,' a gory piece of mechanical carnage that sheds a harsh red spotlight on aspects of the fishing industry I could have just as soon done without.

-Christine Morgan

THE RIDEALONG by Michaelbrent Collings (2015 Amazon Digital / 209 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

One of these days, this guy will produce a book that can be read at a mellow, relaxing pace. That day hasn’t come yet, and if THE RIDEALONG is any indication, that day still won’t be anytime soon. It is, as you might guess from the title, a cop-based action thriller.

But with more. Way more. THE RIDEALONG subject in question isn’t a reporter or researcher. It’s Officer Latham’s teenage daughter, Mel, who can’t bear to be apart from him now that he’s going back for his first day on the job after a terrible deadly shooting.

Mel is afraid of losing her dad, and why not? It’s been just the two of them against the world since her mother died, so long ago. How can she be expected to concentrate on school and boyfriend and such? Instead, they have a makeshift bring-your-kid-to-work-day. Neither of them expect Mel’s fears to be more than justified.

Someone else remembers the terrible deadly shooting, and wants revenge on the policemen involved. The most vehement, evil revenge looks to be planned for Latham in particular, who suddenly ends up framed and implicated in several crimes. Unable even to turn to his own brothers and sisters in blue, he and Mel are on their own in a desperate race to stay alive.

What is a dad to do? What is a girl to do? What is anyone to do, when you’re being taunted and manipulated by a mysterious voice over the radio, and things keep getting worse?

Aside from a couple early bloopers leading to some confusion about names, this one’s another solid win. An instant hook, engaging characters, unrelenting tension, some real hold-your-breath moments, gut-punching revelations, and enough to keep you guessing right up until the end.

-Christine Morgan


Sunday, May 31, 2015

Reviews for the Week of June 1, 2015

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. Thank you.

SONGS FOR THE LOST by Alexander Zelenyj (2014 Eibonvale Press / 514 pp / hardcover & trade paperback)

My first taste of Zelenjy's fiction was his 2009 collection, EXPERIMENTS AT 3 BILLION A.M. and I found it nothing short of incredible. Now he's back with another mammoth collection of 34 tales (only 15 having been previously published). This whopper took me quite a while to get through, but if I didn't have so much on my plate I'd easily have finished in a few sittings.

Opening tale 'The Fire We Deserve' pretty much sets the tone for the book. Zelenyj's literary prose is infectious and is as dark as it is beautiful. I can't remember the end of the world being written so ... attractive before. 'Or the Loneliness of Another Million Years' is another apocalyptic tale about a man convinced he's the last person alive, until he meets a young boy who tells him of a mysterious "door" that's supposed to open at a specific time. Great stuff.

In 'God-Eater,' we meet Barbara and Howard's most unusual baby, who causes their friends to commit suicide before heading out into the world. One of the shorter pieces here but also one of the most intense. 'Elopers to Sirius' tells the tale of a suicide cult and those who come after them, while in 'Motherlight Go to Sleep,' a farmer uses his guitar to summon animals and some things more mysterious in arguably the best piece of the collection.

The book closes with the title story 'Songs for the Lost,' a futuristic Western dealing with a father and son seeking paradise. They meet a strange race and several other travelers on their quest, my favorite being Harry Dalmar, who narrowly escapes execution to find he isn't nearly as bad a man as he might have thought. This one reads like a "mini-epic" and is a great way to conclude the collection.

Most of Zelenyj's tales straddle genres, but regardless if he's touching horror, scifi, fantasy, or blending them all, he keeps readers guessing and going back to make sure they're following the right path. And the paths in SONGS FOR THE LOST are not only dark, but full of surprises, especially in 'Love Me, Too, Black Flower' and 'Song of the Dream Cats.' 34 tales and (remarkably) not a dull one in the lot.

Here's another impressive collection from an author who not nearly enough people are reading, and the book itself is a real treat for book lovers thanks to David Rix's artwork and the unusual page designs. Don't miss this.

-Nick Cato

SEA SICK by Iain Rob Wright (2013 SalGad Publishing Group / 218 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Up to about the fourth or fifth book I’ve read so far by this author, gradually working my way through the many methods with which he seems determined to have fun destroying the world. So many possibilities! And even then, so many surprises!

SEA SICK is a great example of the surprises, and, probably my favorite yet. It starts off with a troubled cop – loner, anger issues, alcohol, hopelessness, bitterness, depression – boarding a cruise ship. Not because it’s his idea, but because his higher-ups have decided an enforced holiday might help turn him around, bring him back. If not, he’s likely to get fired.

Needless to say, Jack is not your usual carefree vacationer. He’s an island of outsider even in the throngs of passengers, viewing it all through his disgruntled lens. The obnoxious youths. The noisy children. The inappropriately smoochy old people. The crew. He doesn’t expect to spend much time enjoying the luxurious shipboard amenities. Mostly, he figures, he’ll hang out in his cabin and read and drink.

It doesn’t help that, despite the posted cautionary notices and hand sanitizer dispensers, there seems to be a nasty bug going around. Jack notices lots of people already coming down with it, before crashing for an extended nap (and I mean extended; I’ve been on cruises and one slight twinge to my suspension of disbelief was that anybody could get away with sleeping undisturbed for that long … where were the stewards coming in to do turn-down and maid service? what about mandatory lifeboat drills?)

When he wakes, he explores some of the other decks, settles in for a while by the pool, chats with a girl, gets into it a bit with her boyfriend, visits some bars, takes in a show, and dies a violent, gory death at the end of the second chapter.

Surprise! But wait! There’s more!

See, what you expect to be an ordinary outbreak scenario with infected psycho-crazies who even come back from the dead to attack and bite and kill … well, it is, but … that’s just the beginning. Or, not even the beginning, not even the main story but the backdrop around which the main story unfolds in ever-deepening layers and ever-widening spirals of weird.

I don’t want to give too many spoilers, so, I’ll just say I enjoyed this one very much. Which doesn’t mean it didn’t have a few issues; some of the plot points felt a little forced and now and then it fell into that obnoxious trope where a character with answers to important questions plays the “no time for that now” dramatic suspense card.

Neat read, though. Kept me interested and guessing right up to the end.

-Christine Morgan

CANNIBAL ISLAND by Michael Faun (2014 Dynatox Ministries / 65 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Originally released as a limited edition hardcover as part of Dynatox's "Cannibalsploitation" series, Faun's CANNIBAL ISLAND is now in a second edition trade paperback and ready to be devoured (full pun intended) by the masses.

Remember those gory "third world cannibal" films like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY? Here's Faun's homage to them in novella form, although unlike the films that inspired it this tale is set in the 1920's. A 4-week long expedition aboard a British boat leads a colorful cast of characters (my favorite being the frisky, obnoxious Ms. Fairweather) to an isolated island where a meteor has crashed. But when they finally locate and begin to examine the huge crater, the island's malnourished natives have other plans for them.

CANNIBAL ISLAND is a quick, gross, and entertaining read fans of exploitation cinema (or pulp horror tales) will love. Read it on the beach this summer (or better yet, an isolated island) for maximum effect.

-Nick Cato

REVIVA LAS VEGAS by Sean Hoade (2014 CreateSpace / 258 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

POKER!!! With zombies, yes, eight years after the outbreak, enclaves of survivors, privation and starvation, danger, the usual stuff you might expect … but this delightful post-zombpocalypse romp is only peripherally about that. It’s really all about the POKER!!!

Because, people are still going to have downtime amid their hardscrabble surviving. They’re going to need entertainment. There will still be games and gamblers. If cardsharps in the Old West could make a tidy living traveling from settlement to settlement, pitting their wits against the locals, hey, why not in the aftermath?

Chris Newman is more than a cardsharp. He’s a pro, a former World Series of Poker winner who’s faced the greats. What with most everyone else eaten, he figures he’s the best left alive. Just to play him is a feather in anybody’s cap; to beat him would be bragging rights for sure.

So, that’s how he gets by, roaming the desolation that once was California. With money meaningless, food and supplies and other useful items make the stakes. Then comes the day someone seeks Chris out with a message, an invitation for the biggest game of his life. In Vegas, the only city rumored to be a true safe haven.

You better believe he jumps at the chance. Walled off from zombies, the food’s plentiful, the power’s on, the water’s running. Of course, like most seeming utopias, there’s the dark secret undersides, but, who cares? Vegas, baby! Chris is glad enough to overlook the negatives … until he can’t, until he learns the real truth, until he remembers that vital adage about how the house always wins.

Now, me, I can’t play poker worth a damn. I enjoy watching it, though, and our household went through a serious televised Texas Hold ‘Em phase. The personalities, the jargon, the announcers, etc. I like to think I picked up a decent understanding along the way. And, from that, I quickly realized this author really does know his stuff. It all rings true, which is extra nice.

It’s also a tremendous hoot throughout, from start to finish. Or, from deal to river, if you rather. The zombies are handled in a deft way with some fun twists. The many-headed hydra of addiction in its various forms puts in several appearances and sneaks in some social commentary with the humor. Eminently readable, well-written, great fun!

-Christine Morgan


MERCY HOUSE by Adam Cesare (to be released 6/9/15 by Hydra / 259 pp / eBook)

Harriet is on the verge of dementia. Her son Don and his wife Nikki bring her to an isolated retirement home in Pennsylvania (or upstate NY, depending on how you read the second chapter!), and she's not too happy about it. In fact she thinks it's part of her Adaughter-in-law's plan to get rid of her. And from the second they step inside Mercy House, Harriet complains the place smells like "Rotten Milk."

It doesn't take long for chaos to ensue: as the trio are given a tour of the place, Harriet and the rest of the elderly residents turn into sex and violence-crazed lunatics. An orgy and bloodbath of epic proportions kicks off and doesn't stop until the final page of the bleak epilogue. Cesare throws all kinds of kooky characters into the mix, including retired war vet Arnold Piper (who delivers some hilarious dialogue) and "Queen Bee," one of the first of the senior residents to be affected by what's called "The Healing."

While Cesare never tells us what's causing the change in the patients, they have gained much physical strength and are putting their improved mental awareness to sinister use: the seniors are creating their own in-house structure (including a mock version of church), but unfortunately for the small nursing staff, much of their activities include cannibalism, murder, and porn-film level rape and torture. This novel is basically what the 1973 film DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT would be like if Richard Laymon had written the screenplay (and that will either scare you off or make you immediately order a copy).

MERCY HOUSE is a "survivor" type story, as Nikki (who happens to be African American and perhaps part of the reason for Harriet's anger), one of the doctors of the understaffed nursing home, and another man named Paulo attempt to get out of the maniac-infested home, that seems to have also become some kind of supernatural prison (it hasn't, but seems that way). The cannibalism may cause some to think the residents have become zombies, but that's not the case at all. I was frustrated for most of the novel, wishing the author would reveal what's causing the carnage, but by the end it works best that we don't fully know. To me it seems the "smell" or the essence of the place has somehow caused the elderly to accept their fate and simply snap, but whatever Cesare's intentions were, MERCY HOUSE is a title those into gory horror tales will savor from beginning to end.

-Nick Cato

CUDDLY HOLOCAUST by Carlton Mellick III (2013 Eraserhead Press / 172 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Every time I go to an event where Eraserhead/Deadite has a table, I can count on walking away with at least half a dozen new books. At that rate, I still won’t catch up with the backlist of the amazingly prolific Carlton Mellick III, because he keeps writing them faster than seems humanly possible.

What seems humanly possible or not is a fitting segue for this one. You know how freaked out we all got about Furby, even before they added the computer stuff? Combine that with the child-within-us resonance of Toy Story or Small Soldiers or any of those cartoons where toys come to life … add the fears of Terminator-style AI as we keep making things smarter and more independent… mix in a hint of the whole furry fetish fandom/phenom, crank it to mind-shattering levels, and the result would be something like Cuddly Holocaust.

These are not your benign, loving, whimsical toys. These are toys that don’t just mad, they get even. And they don’t just get even … they wage total war. As in, rise up, rebel against their former human masters, attack, destroy, pretty much eradicate. Only, it’s even worse than that.

Julie was a little girl when it all started, a little girl whose daddy had just given her a new stuffed smart-toy panda bear. Mom isn’t wild about the idea, and she’s less wild when Poro the Panda turns out to be a foul-mouthed, wise-talking, lecherous jerk (the baby from Roger Rabbit springs to mind, as does Futurama’s Bender).

But Julie loves Poro, and the feeling seems mutual. Right up until, that is, the war erupts. Julie escapes home from what used to be her school, only to find her parents missing. When Poro offers to take her to them, but betrays her instead, Julie’s life becomes a crusade of infiltration and revenge.

How, you might wonder, would you infiltrate an army of giant mad killer stuffed animals? Well, by becoming one, or at least undergoing convincing enough deep-cover surgery to basically turn yourself into a panda-girl.

Then there’s purple bunny snipers, katana-wielding kangaroos, the actual fates of human prisoners, mayhem, carnage, gore, squick, and so much more! Decidedly unforgettable, likely to make you think twice about whatever next high-tech toy fad they roll out for the holidays. Much more Holocaust than Cuddly, to be sure!

-Christine Morgan

Monday, May 11, 2015

Reviews for the Week of May 11, 2015

Note: Please see bottom of main page for submission info and take heed. Much thanks!

KEZZIE OF BABYLON by Jamie Mason (2015 Permuted Press / 190 pp / eBook)

Another zombie apocalypse novel … after the last few I’d read, I was a little nervous, but not ready to give up on the genre yet. I figured, every streak has to end some time. And, I’m glad to report, I was right. This one, Kezzie of Babylon, does it nicely.

For one thing, the opening like is a grabber. “Never fall in love with a stripper,” the book tells us, then goes on to unfold the messy series of unfortunate events in which our protagonist kind of accidentally helps destroy the world.

It’s a cautionary tale of how the perils of drug addiction can lead to increasingly bad decisions and worse crimes … until you’re somehow on the run to the wilds of Canada with a friend you hate, on the trail of a dream girl you’ve never met, and the place that seems like sanctuary turns out to be run by a complete psycho.

Welcome to Zack’s life. Oh, and by the way, now with zombies! Not even ones that can be dispatched with a sound headshot, either. Really persistent takes-a-licking-keeps-on-ticking zombies. It doesn’t help that Kazzie, the psycho leader, is wrapped up in a bundle of religious zealotry and the resurrected dead figure into her new worldview.

Fast-paced with fresh twists, well-written, an engaging bunch of dysfunctional characters stuck in an increasingly worsening spiral of crazy, this one was just what I needed to remind me again why I love a good apocalypse.

-Christine Morgan


TIN MEN by Chrstopher Golden (to be released June 23, 2015 by Ballantine Books / 352 pp / hardcover and eBook)

In the near future, America patrols the globe with "Tin Men," over-sized, super strong and armed drone robots run by soldiers from underground locations around the world. Each soldier's brain is "mapped" onto their robot's internal computer, essentially giving the 'bots the traits of their human controllers.

An economic summit in Greece (attended by the Presidents of the United States and Russia) comes under attack by "anarchists" at the same time an electromagnetic pulse throws the entire world back to the stone age. A platoon of Tin Men working in Syria have orders to rescue the president, and on their trip to find him they must protect the teenage daughter of an American ambassador as well as the head of the terrorists (or "anarchists" as they're refered to, although it's quite obvious they're Muslim extremists. And if they're not, they're uncannily close to being so).

Despite the world now being powerless, these sophisticated 'bots had safeguards, and have survived the EMP assault, although their human controllers are now "trapped" inside their metal shells until they can get back to the nearest base in Germany.

Golden's scifi thriller reads like a summer popcorn Hollywood blockbuster. It's filled with non-stop action, international intrigue, and a huge cast that may or may not be back for another installment (this seems like the start of a series). The novel digs into the hatred much of the world has for America's involvement in foreign affairs, and a surprise truce between America and Russia's presidents could lead to interesting storylines should the author continue with his latest creation. TIN MEN is a fun and exciting choice for your summer beach reading.

-Nick Cato

YOU MIGHT JUST MAKE IT OUT OF THIS ALIVE by Garrett Cook (2015 Eraserhead Press / 210 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Now, I’m not saying that the bizarro genre is the literary equivalent of recreational substance abuse … and I don’t have much personal experiences with recreational substances to begin with … but – bear with me, I’m going somewhere with this, I think.

Anyway, if it WAS, then the works of Garrett Cook would tend to be your high-end laboratory-grade LSD. Probably not something to start your experimenting with. Maybe need some gateway drugs first to ease into it.

Once you’re to that point, though, get this book and prepare for some serious bigtime Timothy Leary level psychedelic surrealism head-trips. You Might Just Make It Out Of This Alive is the title, and not inaccurate … chances for “alive” are pretty good, though “with your sanity and reality intact” are more iffy. And you will certainly be left questioning all of the above.

Nitty-gritty-wise, it’s a collection of stories that opens with one the author pitched as a diversionary joke but the publisher went for it, so he then had to write it – if there’s a moral to the whole bizarro genre, that may just be it. Money where your mouth is, pal, or keep your mouth shut.

That particular story is “Re-Mancipator,” a sweeping novella which is exactly what it sounds like … zombie Lincolns … and also exactly not like anything you’d ever expect.

And it’s followed with “Assorted Salesmen at the Birth of the Antichrist” at less than a page long … just to give you an idea of the variety here. You’ll find a selection of drabbles about Julie Newmar (yes, that Julie Newmar), and conjoined carnie porn. The end of the world, the ultimate sacrifice, allegorical abortion, an internet forum about the dangers of ‘shrooming in fairy rings … all this in one book.

“The Wake at the House of Dead Hogs” was when my brain just unraveled like a cheap sweater given to a litter of rambunctious kittens. I’m still trying to re-ball my mental yarn after that one. Wow.

“Along the Crease,” is a doomed love story and another of my favorites. Imagine being told you were about to meet your perfect soulmate, but, you couldn’t get together at all costs or it’d destroy the world. What a monstrous, beautiful, terrible, delicious work of cruelty!

Wonderful stuff. Wonderful and weird. No surprise this guy’s an award-winner! Okay, yeah, could be a bit much for beginners, or even seasoned readers, but don’t let that stop you!

-Christine Morgan

BAD BRATWURST by Jeff Strand (2015 White Noise Press / 28 pp / limited edition chapbook of 150 copies)

While White Noise Press usually delivers serious horror fare, in their latest offering they've unleashed another tale from the always twisted mind of Jeff Strand. This time we meet Klaus, who runs a meat store that makes the best bratwurst in Germany ... only for some reason sales have been horrible. His one employee, Stefan, tries to get him to change the recipe, but the idea angers Klaus.

One day a mysterious man arrives at the store and tries to convince Klaus to make bratwurst from human corpses he will supply, only to be kicked out when Klaus thinks the man insane. But when a patron accidentally gets his arm stuck in Klaus' meat grinder, things take a turn for the absurd and Strand amps the goofball sickness up to 10 ...

Yes, this here's some silly stuff. But I dare you not to laugh as BAD BRATWURST becomes a hilarious riff on EATING RAOUL, housed in another beautiful-looking White Noise chapbook any book collector will drool over (the end papers look like they came from an authentic butcher shop!). Strand completists, act now at White Noise Press.

-Nick Cato

EVE BRENNER, ZOMBIE GIRL by A. Giacomi (2015 Permuted Press/ 277 pp / eBook)

I tried to enjoy this one. Bits of it, I did. Some of the gore was pretty good. Overall, though, I just couldn’t get into it. I found more not to like than to like, and had to force myself to keep reading in hopes it’d get better.

My biggest problem was with the dialogue, or, more precisely, with the way the characters were constantly addressing each other by name every other sentence or so. People don’t really talk that way in real life, and it clangs of author nervousness.

Then there was the slow starting pace … a too-perfect heroine who spends most of the book being less “zombie girl” and more “that chick from Heroes only sometimes she eats people” … overwrought teen emotional angst … overall general implausibility …

But, anyway, story summary – Eve and her friends go on an archaeological dig, Eve sneaks off and gets bitten by something, then begins having unusual symptoms such as rapid healing and loss of appetite thanks to a nasty super-virus. She mostly manages to hide it at first, but things eventually get out of control, with conspiracies and cover-ups. Meanwhile, mean-girl rivalries and murders lead to campus-wide carnage, and only Eve can save the day.

I don’t know. Maybe the subsequent ones improve and this suffered from first-novel syndrome? I just couldn’t connect with it. Sorry. Your mileage may vary.

-Christine Morgan


THE HORROR FICTION REVIEW will return on May 25th with a look at the mammoth collection: