Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Reviews for the Week of November 17, 2014

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



SAPIENT FARM by Querus Abuttu (2014 Scary Dairy Press / 392 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

A secret project to engineer super-mutant pig people? Moral conflicts blurring the lines between what constitutes cannibalism, bestiality, and both? Working through the Mad Scientist checklist of no-nos, creating something more powerful/intelligent than us, thinking things won’t get out of control, even experimenting on oneself?

Even had I not been privileged to experience several of the author’s stellar performances at various convention Gross-Outs, Showdowns and such, I would have been all over this book. With what I already knew of her talents, I expected nothing less than brilliance from the phenomenal Q … and she did not disappoint.

The story begins with a difficult birthing, a sow’s litter of unusual offspring. Some are stillborn, others don’t live more than a few minutes, and it’s looking bad for the project. But, finally, the miracle twins are born. Unfortunately – for the scientists and their funding backers – disaster soon wipes out most of the notes and data, and the results might be impossible to replicate.

The siblings prove to be uncannily advanced for their age, maturing rapidly, demonstrating incredible intelligence and understanding. Soon, Gevu, the male, shows signs of outpacing his sister Binah in size and aggression. He also has quite the non-vegetarian appetite. Binah, however, develops early in other ways … ways that take an awkward turn with her mating options somewhat limited.

There are, of course, various factions at work behind the scenes. Some have medical motives, some have even more sinister ones, secrets are being kept on all sides, and then there’s those who are just out to get a profit.

What follows is a headlong rush of thrills and chills, conspiracies, betrayals, plots and counter-plots … plus truckloads of sex and violence, and looming doomsday triple-threats.

If I have any quibbles with this book, it’s that the romance storyline seems a little neglected; I was waiting for some awkward reactions, conversations or confrontations following certain key scenes, and felt kind of let down when they didn’t exactly pan out.

Aside from that, though? The characters are wildly fun, believable, sympathetic and/or despicable. The writing is wildly skilled and inventive, with humor and horror and some hard-hitting uncomfortable questions about what it means to be human.

-Christine Morgan



REVIVAL by Stephen King (2014 Scribner / 405 pp / hardcover, eBook, and audio book)

When I first read the synopsis of King's latest novel, I had expected something along the lines of Bentley Little's THE REVELATION or Richard Laymon's RESURRECTION DREAMS. And while REVIVAL does deal with religion and an underground scientist, it's nothing like either novel. 

In 1962, six year-old Jamie Morton meets his town's new preacher, a young-looking man who everyone quickly likes. The Rev. Charles Jacobs also has the unique ability to heal people, but not like your average everyday charismatic con man: he uses his love for science and electricity and even manages to help Jamie's older brother get his lost voice back. But when the Rev. Charles Jacobs' wife and son are suddenly killed in a car accident, he preaches a final sermon that has him banished from the local Methodist church, leaving everyone wondering if he'll ever get over the loss of his family.

Some years later, Jamie makes his living playing rhytym guitar in various bands, and he eventually meets up with Charles again, only this time the former minister is working his electric-magic at a carnival side show. And they meet yet again years later when he goes back into the ministry as a Peter Popoff-type faith healer, using his bag of electrical tricks. After Jacobs goes missing for a while, Jamie receives an urgent letter from him, claiming he needs his help and that he might be able to heal a former girlfriend who is suffering from cancer.

REVIVAL follows the lives of these two men from the1960s up to the present. We watch Jamie go from innocent youth to drug addicted musician to a senior with a heart of gold. Jacobs starts as a good-natured man who becomes a Frankenstein-meets-Carnie-meets-fallen preacher type who will do whatever is necessary to discover the mystery of what waits for us on the other side, and in the glimpses given it's not too pretty. During the suspense-filled finale, King ratchets his Lovecraft up to 11, yet the tale doesn't fall into what would be considered "mythos" lit even with the Old Ones being mentioned.

With side characters as interesting as the main cast and plenty of emotional and spiritual tension, REVIVAL might not be for all tastes (it's more a look at the baby boomer generation than a horror novel), but when the dark side is finally unleashed, King brings the goods and even delivers one of his darkest conclusions. One of his better recent titles and a thoroughly satisfying read.

-Nick Cato



DEADTOWN ABBEY BY Sean Hoade (2013 CreateSpace / 296 pp / trade paperback)

The instant I learned of this book, all other thoughts went out of my mind and I had to have it, had to read it, had to see if it was as delightful a romp as I dared to hope. And was it ever! Before the story even started, simply reading the cast list at the beginning, I was cackling with maniacal fangirl glee.

The cackling continued and intensified throughout the read. It’s a witty parallel parody of Downton Abbey, of course – and so spot-on that I heard the character voices clear as if I were yet again re-watching the series.

But it’s more than that. Much, much more. This is none of your cheatsy take-a-classic-and-just-add-zombies, oh no. This is a clever alt-history in which the lower classes still worship certain older deities, while the upper class elite follow the proper church … in which the sinking of the Titanic was due to nothing so simple as an iceberg … and the Great War is against a far worse foe than Germany.

This is also the story of the Shambley family, who face many trials and tribulations. Not only has the lord’s cousin and heir been lost at sea, putting some distant relation in line for the title (a stranger, and a pasty writer of occult thrillers, no less!), but the eldest Shambley daughter is at risk of vampiric seduction, the younger is developing some radical ideas about religion, and the middlemost’s unfortunate features give her just the most dreadful time in the romance department.

The household could never function without its capable, loyal staff, either. But what is a dedicated butler to do when important dinners are disrupted by werewolves running amok? How are they to cope with a young footman who comes home from battle badly damaged in body and mind? And never mind His Lordship’s crippled valet; the bigger problem is how to properly coordinate evening dress when one must wear special headgear to ward off psychic attack?

So, yes, it’s Downton with zombies (the manor was once an abbey, after all; graves surround the place!) but it’s also Downton with Lovecraftian mythos and traditional supernatural monsters and deals with the devil.

Best of all, it’s written in a style that kept me cackling all the way through. Wink-wink references, cameos and guest appearances by familiar names and characters, an author-narration voice that’s great fun, summary chapters and footnotes, and … oh, GET THIS BOOK, IT’S AWESOME!!!

-Christine Morgan



Monday, November 10, 2014

Reviews for the Week of November 10, 2014

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




EVERYONE HATES A HERO: A JOHNNY MIDNIGHT TALE by Gregory L. Hall (2014 Stygian Publications / 185 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Johnny Midnight is the "Elvis of the Paranormal World," an X-Files-type investigator who, when not chasing zombies and demons, is taking gorgeous models to Hollywood premieres and partying like it's 1999.

After a hilarious opening roll in the hay with an Amish girlfriend (!), Johnny finds out his ex fiance is in trouble: she has a four year-old daughter he didn't know about, and something evil is harassing her. But before he can lend his paranormal expertise to the situation, he has to deal with a pesky chupacabra, a pissed off zombie, and a co-worker who continues to flirt with him by talking dirty into his ear that has been partially damaged by a pencil-wielding psycho.

HERO has a couple of scenes that had me laughing out loud (Chapter Twelve is absolutely hilarious). Hall balances the comedy and supernatural happenings quite well, making this novel an irresistable blend of genres. If you're a fan of the humorous horror thing, I'm happy to report this delivers both in bundles, and the pace is relentless (in a good way). There's even a nifty twist in the final two chapters, and a promise of more adventures to come.

With a great cast and plenty of cool creatures, EVERYONE HATES A HERO is a satisfying introduction to a funky, freaky, funny world I'm looking forward to visiting again.

-Nick Cato



THE GHOUL ARCHIPELAGO by Stephen Kozeniewski (2013 Severed Press / 362 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Smugglers, drug cartels, exotic islands, renegade military vessels, pirates, religious fanatics, cannibalism, virtual-reality porn programs, political scheming, action, adventure, bloodshed, betrayal … this book would be jam-packed with excitement even without the zombie apocalypse going on!

But, it is! Which not only adds another layer of fun, but ties all the rest together into a cohesive package. In less capable hands, the large cast of characters and simultaneous but interweaving plot threads might get jumbled; here, it works smoothly and well.

In one corner, the opportunistic entrepreneurial businessman computer genius, who's invented the Sex Drive – a collar that taps into the nervous system to deliver ultimate immersive fantasy with a host of licensed celebrity images. His main concerns about the outbreak of the living dead have mainly to do with the possible impact on sales and delivery.

In the other, the evangelist who's taken his missionary work to a whole new level, and who sees the “Lazarenes” (great minds think alike, Mr. Kozeniewski!) as the new blessed, his flock. To help spread the gospel of what fast becomes a cult, he needs to strengthen and maintain his influence on the various scattered island communities.

And, cruising back and forth on the turbulent seas, are the various ships with their various allegiances. The chaotic collapse of civilization has left governments in shambles, chains of command disrupted. If might makes right, commanding an aircraft carrier makes a hefty amount of might … but then there's the converts, the shifting loyalties, stowaways, mercenaries, old grudges and fresh hatreds.

There's also plenty of drippy dismemberments, disembowelments, decapitations, and all the manner of gory good times one might reasonably expect from this combo of genres. High body count in vivid detail, quite a bit of clever humor, many good strong female characters even in what might seem like a natural testosterone-wallow, and some surprises to round it out.

All that said, it is a lot to keep track of and can make for something of a complicated read, requiring a bit of attention and work on the other side of the pages as well. Which I, for one, am in favor of!

-Christine Morgan




THE UNHINGED by David Bernstein (2014 Samhain Publishing / 205 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Aaron Dupree is a young guy who has recently gotten out of prison after serving six years for a stupid incident as a teen. He is pulled over for speeding on his way to work one morning, and knows this could put him back on the inside. However, Aaron tries to talk his way out of a ticket and fine, hoping the cop would give him a break.

Aaron isn’t given a ticket, but has to promise the cop he will do him a favor when asked, or risk getting put back in jail. Reluctantly, Aaron makes the promise, and from that moment on, his life becomes pure hell.

As the favors asked of him escalate horrifically, Aaron tries to protect his mother and his girlfriend from harm. Eventually, though, Aaron is asked to do something he is unable to do, and discovers his mother and the dirty cop have met before. Together, they decide to stop the cop before he completely destroys Aaron and everything he’s worked for.

THE UNHINGED starts out as a basic rejected guy/stalker story, but becomes so much more than that. This is one of the most brutal stories I have ever read, and that’s saying a lot. The atrocities inflicted by the dirty cop and his partner – the man with the scar – are the worst things humans can do to one another. 

I’ve been reading David Bernstein’s works for a couple of years now, and was taken by completely surprise with this one. With THE UNHINGED, Bernstein has firmly established himself as one of the current crop of great horror writers, and especially in the sub-genre of Splatterpunk.

-Sheri White




DEATH WARP by MP Johnson (2014 Holy Mountain Outreach / 30 pp / chapbook)

Jillane,a transgender former porn star, is saved from getting a beating by Bradley, who we eventually learn is a former racist skinhead. When Bradley offers to drive her to see her long lost family, she begins to fall for him, but is afraid to let him know her personal secret.

On their trip, they have a strange encounter with a giant albino ass, then things get even weirder when they stop for help at an isolated farmhouse and meet an old woman whose empty eye socket just might be the door to another dimension.

Johnson has been on a roll lately and is becoming a best bet for those into bizarre tales that offer substance along with the odd goings-on. DEATH WARP is another wild offering that's a load of fun and way off the beaten path.

-Nick Cato



TOILET BABY by Shane McKenzie (2014 Eraserhead Press / 138 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Remember that age-old myth / urban legend about how it's possible for a gal to get pregnant from a toilet seat? Well, what if it was the other way around? What if a guy could impregnate his toilet?

These are the kinds of questions that occur to some people. Some weird, weird people. People like Shane McKenzie. And, when such questions occur, there's nothing to be done for it but turn it into a most unforgettable book!

An oddly adorable, charming book, at that. An endearing, enduring family fable about acceptance, protectiveness, normality, the transformative powers of fatherly love … and toilet babies. Half-human, half-toilet, but kids nonetheless.

Grady, a lonely school custodian, is no stranger to cleaning up messes. Nor is he any stranger to toilets, until his own at home takes on a rounded bulge that doesn't seem possible for porcelain. His investigations online lead him to a website with a number to call but no other hints as to the problem. He calls, and before he knows what's happening, a plumber shows up to midwife the delivery.

The plumber is Herb, who has dedicated himself to finding and helping toilet babies and their hapless dads. Several of them live together, raising their children, and they welcome Grady and little Patty into their midst.

The best part of this twisted and brilliant book is the well-thought-out nature of the toilet babies themselves … their mix of features, their dietary needs (yes, it's just what you're thinking), their desire and struggle to fit in and be normal, and how that contrasts with their fathers' efforts to keep them safe and secret from those who might not understand.

The trouble with kids, though, as any parent knows, is that they grow up and start thinking they know more than they do. That's what happens when John, who's met a girl online and wants to meet her, ends up taking his toilet brothers and sisters on an adventure that goes terribly wrong.

It's like Joe Hill's fantastic and poignant tale, “Pop Art” … only, well, with toilet people instead of inflatable ones. With punny names, disgusting details, hilarity, humanity, and the strong likelihood that you'll feel uneasy about going to the bathroom for a while.

-Christine Morgan



THE BIG TREE by Rick Hautala (2014 Nightscape Press / 103 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Set in 1960, this tells the tale of a young boy who, along with his family, rides out Hurricane Donna in his home, worrying if they'll survive and further worrying about a big old tree he and the neighborhood kids play on. His older brother Bobby bullies him and makes the time inside drag.

But during the first night of the hurricane, the young boy goes outside and swears he sees someone climbing on the tree despite the brutal weather. After his father brings him back inside, he discovers the tree has lost a huge branch, and wonders if their treehouse will survive the storm. It turns out the figure he thought he saw on the tree is actually a young girl named Sylvia, who claims the storm has left her homeless. And when the hurricane finally passes by, he finds her alone in the woods, in pain, and learns her odd connection to The Big Tree.

Along with a supernatural element, Hautala uses the young boy's dealings with his older brother to turn him into a man before our eyes, making this somewhat of a coming of age tale. Fans of the late author's subtle scare-style will be satisfied, and it's nice to have this final tale from one truly missed veteran of modern horror fiction. This edition includes heartfelt pre-and post notes from Christopher Golden and Thomas Monteleone.

-Nick Cato

Monday, November 3, 2014

Reviews for the Week of November 3, 2014

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



PREVIEW:

PRISONER 489 by Joe Lansdale (to be released Nov. 18th 2014 by Dark Regions Press / trade paperback, 3 limited hardcover editions)

Ooh, an advance sneak peek at a new Joe Lansdale? Yes please! Sign me up! Judging by the Kickstarter campaign success, I’m not alone in being eager for this one to come out. And, now, I can safely say I don’t think anyone will be disappointed. 

An isolated island prison where the worst of the worst are held would make for a stressful enough place to work, and it’s no wonder most of the guards don’t re-up for another stint. But there’s another, smaller, even more isolated island where the executed criminals are buried, and that’s where Bernard, Wilson and Toggle serve as live-in caretakers. 

They dig the graves, bury the coffins, maintain the graveyard, and otherwise spend their time with books and movies. Except for occasional deliveries from the prison, they’re completely cut off from the outside world. 

Most of the time, a brief power flicker will tell them when the big job’s done, and they can get ready for the new arrival soon to be shipped their way. Every now and then, a particularly tenacious case requires an extra jolt of the juice, just to make sure, but even that’s not terribly unusual. 

Then comes the night that the power does more than flicker, and more than twice. When Kettle, the boatman, arrives with the cargo, he tells them that this one took four zaps … and they were still worried it might not have been enough. 

Bernard and his men would like to think it’s some kind of joke, especially once Kettle gets started telling them stories about how the prisoner never ate or slept. But, the chain-wrapped metal coffin seems a little excessive for a joke. They’re just glad to bury it and call it done, and go back to their routine. 

Their routine, as you might imagine, doesn’t last very long. Kettle wasn’t joking. The chains and coffin don’t hold. Whoever, or whatever, the prison tried to execute isn’t done for by a long shot. 

If armed guards and an electric chair couldn’t stop this thing, what hope do three guys on a tiny island have? With nowhere to hide, no way to leave, no chance to call for help? Prisoner 489, like a Terminator of the oldest old-school there is, can’t be bargained with, can’t be reasoned with, feels no pity, remorse or fear. 

In the midst of the high-tension pursuit and action, I couldn’t help but wonder … what else do they have over in that prison? What else is buried on the island? I want more! 

The story’s gripping and fantastic. The final product, once the book comes out in its illustrated glory, is sure to be a winner, and a definite keeper. Look for it this fall!

-Christine Morgan



NO SONGS FOR THE STARS by Mary SanGiovanni (2014 White Noise Press / 20 pp / limited edition chapbook)

Police Lt.'s Gina and Joe interrogate the stone-faced Owen over a series of child murders. He's guilty as sin, but claims he was following some writings left on the wall in a local crack house...and he swears the writing is from beings from different universes.

Gina and Joe decide to investigate the room in question, and begin to see what Owen was talking about.

Like most of SanGiovanni's shorts, this one is as creepy as it is thought provoking, and in White Noise Press tradition the tale is presented in an irresistible package.

-Nick Cato




DARK RISING by Vincenzo Bilof (2014 Severed Press / 190 pp / trade paperback & eBook) 

I had the opportunity to take a peek at a new jam from author Vincenzo Bilof. Now, before we get started let me just say this: the man can write. I’d be willing to say this with nothing but extreme confidence and zero regrets. He could probably sit down and write whatever genre he goddamn feels like. In the past we’ve seen a little Horror, Bizarro, Science Fiction, Zombies, some Poetry, some Japanese werewolves, and from everything I’ve read to date, the man delivers every single time. He’s just that good and versatile. With that being said, I was ecstatic to finally get my hands on a copy of this.

Within the first few pages our lines are cast out into the deep sea. We're instantly drawn into the story with a witty, clever, first person narrative, which somehow manages to gain depth while sucking you in at tide the more you read. The prose is often thick, delicate, poetic, and even acceptably vulgar at times (almost like the mouth of the murderer on board the ship with the crew). Or, perhaps the crazy, drunk Captain Whitmore, whose got more secrets lingering on the tip of his tongue than chunks of bad tuna. What I liked the most about this book was that it was written in a way where you have to really read what is going on, deciphering through clues in the dialogue as much as the context spun like a web in the back-story. When you put all the pieces of the puzzle together and solve the mystery rising in the dark, we’re left with a brilliantly woven masterpiece that was nothing more than a shit ton of fun to read.

So hang on to your hats and jackets because it might get a little bumpy on board the ship, as there is definitely something lurking out there in the deep blue sea. And it’s dark and it’s rising.

-Jon R. Meyers




COZZY'S QUESTION by Bob Booth & Matt Bechtel (2014 White Noise Press / 21 pp / limited edition chapbook)

Cozzy, a now homeless alley cat, is continually visited by a man who keeps asking her a question: "Do you want the world to end?" Cozzy communicates with the man by her thoughts, and he tells her that the world will indeed end if she so wishes it.

Bechtel gives us a bit of Cozzy's back story, and keeps the tale flowing quickly to a most satisfying conclusion. I'm sure the late Bob Booth would be happy with how this turned out, and I'm glad White Noise Press gave the tale a perfect home.

-Nick Cato




ANIMAL KINGDOM by Iain Rob Wright (2013 SalGad Publishing / 248 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Having just finished editing an anthology of nature-running-amok stories, I was all warmed up and ready for more. A full novel in which all the animals on the planet suddenly snap and attack humanity sounded like just the ticket.

Not only do they snap, they smarten up and organize. The normal order of things is promptly tossed aside. Forget that old predator/prey structure. Even the gentle herbivores are predators now, and people are the prey.

It's a bad day to be anywhere with animals in the vicinity. At the park, on a farm, even home with the loving pets. It's a worse day to be, as Joe and his son Danny are, enjoying a visit to the zoo.

The first attack they witness is shocking and horrible enough to send Joe rushing to the visitor's center, looking for someone in authority or with answers. He's not alone; there's considerable panic breaking out. Far more than a single incident should account for. But that's because it IS far more than a single incident, a point made very clear when the lions show up.

Within minutes, the visitor's center is a scene of bloodsoaked death and carnage. Only a handful of survivors are able to escape to a more secure part of the building. Joe and Danny are among them, and what follows is a tense siege and standoff. No help is coming, supplies are limited, they're surrounded by an army of angry animals led by an intelligent and vengeful general.

And then, of course, there's each other. Frightened strangers thrown together into a situation where nobody's going to be at their best, they soon find themselves at odds. Personalities clash, disagreements turn vicious. If it was cooperation, rather than thumbs and fire, that let humans rise to the top of the food chain, then it's no wonder they're about to end up at the bottom.

The story's fast-paced and non-stop, fun, very readable even when it slips over a little into convenient coincidence, dubious science, and occasional moments of “oh come ON!” There are some bonus shorts at the back, other scenes of the animal apocalypse, which are evidently tied in with other works.

I was delighted to discover, upon investigation, that the author's not contented himself with just destroying the world once, but has done so several times in various ways. I'll have to be sure to snag some of those next!

-Christine Morgan





COFFEE AT MIDNIGHT by Brandon Ford (2014 BF Books / 177 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I’ve read a lot of Brandon Ford’s work, and I have never been disappointed. Short fiction or long, his writing is great.

His newest collection isn’t strictly horror, but there are quite a few dark moments in these stories. Brandon takes ordinary people in ordinary situations and throws in twists and turns, showing the reader that anything can happen to any of us any time.

But Brandon takes it a step further and makes the reader laugh uncomfortably with the dark humor he weaves into these stories, even as the reader cringes in response to what is happening. There are also plenty of WTF moments, and maybe even a few of the stories will make a reader squirm with painful recognition or recollection of something similar he or she may have encountered in his or her past.

Brandon Ford doesn’t rely on blood and shock factor to tell a story. His words are mesmerizing because they are about anyone and everyone, and we can all relate to the characters and situations, even if we don’t want to.

If you haven’t read any of Brandon’s work yet, this is a great place to start. It’s a fantastic collection.


-Sheri White




IT WAITS BELOW by Eric Red (2014 Samhain Publishing / 265 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

A freaky undersea monster on the front cover and the promise of salvaging treasure from an old shipwreck on the back? Well, that hits on all sorts of my interests, so I went into it with high hopes.

I'm very sorry to report that those hopes were dashed even faster and sunk even deeper than anything in the actual book.

I mean, I wouldn't call myself an expert, but I like to think I know a little bit about the abovementioned topics … and there was just so much wrong here … not the least of which being certain rather key factual elements like, oh, the location of the Mariana Trench!

One of the appeals of this kind of story is, or should be, the claustrophobic, trapped, close-quarters nature of shipboard life, especially in the 19th century, and extra-especially on submersibles. Instead, there's the suggestion of all this room to maneuver and explore, giving more of an impression of video game maps than anything close to reality.

Then there were the characters. Or, rather, a whole cast of macho dudes with one token chick. Who also happens to be the sexbomb, regularly in need of rescuing despite author protestations of her badassery, and was so all-too-obviously written by a guy that I facepalmed on behalf of women everywhere. Ugh. The only saving grace was that, at least, she wasn't referred to just by her first name while all the others got last names and/or titles.

The writing was laden with “telling,” coming across more like a director describing what happens in each scene. Instead using simple names and pronouns, it's crammed with clunky beat-you-over-the-head terms to make sure you don't dare forget that so-and-so is “the pilot / the Russian / the Soviet / the Cossack” … stuff like that, throughout the book. Ugh again.

Now, I do love my adjectives, perhaps too much. But even I have to draw the line at strewing “alien/interstellar/extraterrestrial/whatever” several times a page. WE GET IT ALREADY. And I also enjoy a small amount of onomatopoeia, but having the action scenes done with sound effects spelled out all over the place?

It's a comic book in text format, a made-for-SyFy candidate ripping off elements of The Abyss, Deep Rising, Aliens, etc. For a target audience of straight, white, 14-year-old boys, okay, sure, maybe it's a winner. For the rest of us, though? No thanks.

-Christine Morgan





HAMMER WIVES by Carlton Mellick III (2013 Eraserhead Press / 152 pp / trade paperback)

I'd seen a few of these stories in anthologies before (in three of the encyclopedic doorstop book-monsters edited by the awesome John Skipp; great reads, just don't drop them on your foot!), but it was a nice treat to see them again.

“Lemon Knives 'n' Cockroaches” is nastygross even for a zombie story; “War Pig” was pitched as “a steampunk version of Fight Club with werepigs” and doesn't disappoint; and “The Man With The Styrofoam Brain” (previously published as “Stupid ****ing Reason to Sell Your Soul”) is a weirdly twisted look at some unfortunate deals with the devil.

The central showpiece is the title story, “Hammer Wives.” It's a take on one of the classic Gothic tropes, wherein our protagonist is contacted by a distant relation, summoned to the ancestral mansion, and promised a substantial legacy … with, of course, a dark family secret and a catch. The catch is where this one veers off into crazyland, because to claim his inheritance, hapless nephew Jacob also has to marry the immortal hammer-headed women who go with the house … and they are not inclined to take no for an answer. They just want to love him.

Of the other two, I found “Red World” kind of icky (post-apocalyptic-maybe with fish mutants, lake-sized swarms of insects, and shades of red the only visible colors left), but “Strange Machines” (guy discovers he's got a lot of little miniature hims living inside his body) both horrific yet quirkily cute and charming.

-Christine Morgan


PREVIEW:

THE NICKRONOMICON by Nick Mamatas (to be released Nov. 18th 2014 by Innsmouth Free Press / 161 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

One of the things about Lovecraftian fiction is that, well, honestly, some people take that ball and run with it and write it better than Lovecraft himself (this opinion has got me sent to sit in the corner before; I'm guilty of the Chambers Heresy among others).

No, come on, really, hear me out. Ol' HPL gave great concept … he took horror to a whole new level, a cosmic otherworldy level … as a visionary on that scale, I grant you he's pretty much unparalleled … he did good moody setting … but in terms of character, personality, dialogue? Even without touching on his “product of his time” traits? Not his strong point.

Fortunately, that's where the others I mentioned have their chance to shine, and to elevate the otherworldly to levels even beyond that. And, as this collection proves, Nick Mamatas is one of those others. He's not just the laser-scalpel razor-wit sarcastic many of us might have first encountered on this or that message board … the guy can WRITE.

This is some top-tier stuff here. Masterful vocabulary, intriguing characters, story threads interwoven in a subtle but striking tapestry of non-Euclidean geometry, wry humor, an unflinching approach to several problematic elements, and the vitally important ability to poke fun even while being serious … or be serious even while poking fun.

Of the stories assembled here, my personal favorite is “And Then, And Then, And Then ...” because of how its deceptive simplicity carries you along until it's too late to look back, yet the outcome is, for all its weirdness, strangely sweet and touching.

Perhaps the all-around most out-there is “Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Nyarlathotep,” a devious and clever look at why, really, when you think about it, a certain familiar video game could be the ultimate in cosmic horror …

“Jitterbuggin'” is uncomfortable to read, possibly all the more so because it's also kind of vindictively satisfying to read. “Hideous Interview With Brief Man” is difficult to read in an entirely different way; I kept remembering a quote from an online course, something about “And then you're in Footnote Hell, in GERMAN.” Okay, so, this one's not in German, but Footnote Hell in PDF is no picnic either!

By the time you get to the finale, in “On the Occasion of My Retirement,” your brain will have been worked and stretched like silly putty until it's all nice and supple, ready to bend in every weird way. And that's good, because you'll need it that way.

The interior artwork, postcards illustrated with a variety of eldritch imagery and peculiar symbols, is the perfect extra touch. They look so creepy-cool even on the screen that I can only go light-headed at the thought of how they'd look in a nice, aged, yellowed, antiquey volume.

Whether you're a casual reader of Lovecraftian fiction, or a scholarly dissecting pro, this book is a must-have for your shelf!

-Christine Morgan




NEXT WEEK:



Monday, October 13, 2014

Reviews for the Week of October 13, 2014

(Note: Please see bottom of main page for submission info)



HALFWAY HOUSE by Weston Ochse (2014 JournalStone / 292 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, & eBook)

The residential treatment facility where I work is often referred to as a halfway house, so, I went into this book with not a little trepidation. It gets weird and creepy enough there anyway, thanks; what, I wondered, would the Weston Ochse treatment add to it?

To my surprise (and indeed relief; I do night shifts by myself), what I found in this Halfway House was quite different to say the least … in all sorts of strange but cool ways. The actual halfway house is there, is mentioned as a neighborhood fixture, but more in the background than center stage at first.

Center stage, you see, is taken up by what feels like the wildest, quirkiest Saint's Row expansion yet. With gang wars. And surfers. And an orphan's quest for validation of his lineage by way of a stolen piece of Elvis memorabilia. And a witch-curse trapping the souls of the dead. And the upside-down footprints of invading WWII soldiers.

In lesser hands, that combination could turn to total confusing mush. But, here, it all fits together, it all makes sense no matter how incongruous some scenes seem at first. The cast of flawed characters are sympathetic even when not particularly likable. The little touches – like the Paper Dogs – carry powerful impact.

Some plot twists and shocking developments left me reeling, saying, “hey, no, wait, what, that didn't just happen!” and going back to make sure I'd read it right (I had, and no amount of re-reading was going to change the harsh reality).

The story extends far beyond the surface, deftly layered to leave the reader with the sense of having gained a whole lot of depth and history without realizing it. Entire ranges of emotional experiences and relationships are well-presented here: family, nobility, loss, redemption, tragedy, the desire to belong.

This book will make you think. It'll make you feel. And you might not even notice right away, because you'll be too busy being entertained.

-Christine Morgan



PREVIEW:

WHERE ALL LIGHT TENDS TO GO by David Joy (to be released 3/15 by Putnam / 272 pp / hardcover & eBook)

Perhaps not strictly horror, but horrifying to be sure, a realistic and gritty tale of hopelessness, struggle, betrayal, misery and despair … with nary a whiff of the paranormal, just the all-too-normal human condition … yeah, I think it qualifies!

Jacob McNeely is only eighteen but he's already about given up on life. His father is a hill country drug lord, his mother's addicted to the worst of what the operation produces, he's dropped out of school while the only girl he's ever loved is getting ready to chase her college dreams, and he doesn't see any sort of future for himself.

Then things get worse. A fight here, a run-in with the law there, and soon Jacob's being dragged deeper and deeper into the mire and mess that is his father's business. Too deep. Deep, as in deadly-deep, when he's sent to help the Cabe brothers deal with a certain problem client, but things get out of hand.

The title is Where All Light Tends to Go, and that's also where the book goes: into darkness, and nothingness, entropy, and death. Not too shabby for a first novel (though in this case, first novel does not equal novice writer; the author has quite a list of other credits).

Powerful stuff. A difficult read, emotionally taxing. Real-world (TOO real) horrific, the kind of thing that makes a person crave a nice monster movie or zombie book as an escape.

This is some bleak, grim storytelling here. There's none of the good-ol-boy Dukes of Hazzard comedy, none of the brooding V.C. Andrews gothic, no rustic but beautiful Appalachian romance. It's hardship, it's dirt, it's anger and spite, crooked county cops, murder, revenge, and the poison kind of hate that can only build up and boil over.

I can't say I exactly enjoyed it, because it isn't quite that sort of book. But I was certainly hooked by it, and pulled through the emotional wringer.

Look for Where All Light Tends to Go in March of 2015. A film adaptation close on its heels would not surprise me, though, like with THE ROAD, it would not be the feel-good movie of the year.

-Christine Morgan




HELL COMES TO HOLLYWOOD II edited by Eric Miller (2014 Big Time Books / 374 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

“Twenty-two more tales of Tinseltown terror,” promises the tagline, and it does not disappoint. True, not ALL of the tales are about movies and the silver screen, but most of them are, and even those that aren't are still about the dream-chasing and star-making, the magic and mystery, the glittery facade and the sometimes darker truths behind it.

My personal favorites of the bunch include:

“Culling the Herd,” by Eric Miller, takes many a loving jab at horror fans, the zombie genre, and well-meaning activists who should know better.

Heather E. Ash's “Method” delves into the dubious world of child casting, and how to walk the fine line between encouragement and exploitation.

In “Hot Tub,” the ever-entertaining Hal Bodner serves up a steamy endless feast of eager young hardbodies to whet the sinister appetites of a spirit nothing like I Dream of Jeannie.

“Mexican Clown Hands” by R. B. Payne is set contemporary but has an older feel, a gritty sepia-toned noir feel, resulting in a creepy and effective whodunit.

The archetypal sleazy director gets taken to new lows in “The Devil's Friends” by Ron Zwang, when a guy can't even sell his soul to get ahead in this town.

Daniel P. Coughlin's “From Script to Scream” will resonate with the writers who yearn to see their creations made real (and show all those doubters, ha!).

“Buried!” by Kelly Kurtzhals is all about desperation and the lengths some fading stars will go to in hopes of regaining some fame and fortune.

Eric J. Guignard's “Dreams of a Little Suicide” ends the book on a poignant kind of downer set against the grand backdrop of the making of a legendary classic.

As usual, I have to make myself stop listing favorites or I might as well just hand over the entire table of contents.

It's twenty-two very diverse tales, twenty-two different takes on various elements ranging from script-writing to special effects, from old-school stage plays to the latest in 'reality' television.

Some are funny, some are scary, some are disturbing, some are sad. All are memorable, lingering in the mind like the evocative and unique aroma of movie-theater popcorn. So, settle into your seat and let's start the show.

-Christine Morgan




THE HORROR FICTION REVIEW will return in November, 2014...

Monday, October 6, 2014

Reviews for the Week of October 6, 2014

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




HELL'S WAITING ROOM by C.V.Hunt (2014 Grindhouse Press / 122 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Greg and his wife (who goes by many names) find themselves without power in their home. Greg,a semi-conspiracy theorist, has been expecting something like this so isn't as worried as his wife. He knows they can live off the food in their garden, and cold showers don't bother him.

But when Greg becomes ill and needs medicine, his wife ventures to a neighbor's house and they make Greg a home remedy. The neighbors are a strange bunch, and no one knows if the power outage is a local thing or a larger problem.

As Greg's health worsens, his wife (whose viewpoint the story is told through) becomes more paranoid and Hunt reveals her true nature through several clever and surreal situations.

HELL'S WAITING ROOM is a nifty take on the end times, conspiracies, and mental health. It's a quick read, full of darkly comic situations and enough weirdness to satisfy anyone looking for an off-the-grid tale.

-Nick Cato



PANDEMONIUM by Warren Fahy (2013 Tor / 320 pp / hardcover, mass market paperback, & eBook)

You know the little joke going around about wanting to take this relationship to the next level, it’s an underwater level, (bleep) I hate those? Except for the hating it part, and if we mostly substitute ‘underground’ for ‘underwater,’ that fits this book. A direct sequel to FRAGMENT, it takes the experience to whole new levels! 

The tricky part for me, the reviewer, here … describing the second book without doing too much in the way of spoilers for the first. Go read it, or at least read my review. I’ll wait. 

Done? All rightie, moving on! We rejoin some of the survivors of the ill-fated explorations of Henders Island (but I won’t name names!) after the spectacular revelations at the end (which I won’t tell you here, neener-neener!). 

They’ve been invited to visit another hidden, separate, almost alien ecosystem on Earth … this one not in the middle of the ocean but half a world away, in a network of incredible caves deep below Russia. It’s more extremophile species to discover, more breathtaking natural wonders and terrors! 

Aaaaaaand it’s run by a megapowerful maniac who would make an excellent Bond villain. Once our protagonists have taken him up on his offer, they find out that leaving the subterranean cave-city complex may be a little harder than they anticipated. 

It is impressive, though. It’s also got a history of enforced labor worked to death, paranoia, revenge, ghosts, and other weirdness. Plus, windows into a vast underground sea where yet more strange bioluminescent life forms cruise through the silent dark. 

Obviously, things have got to go horribly wrong, and they sure do. Not the least of which is when organisms from Henders Island somehow get loose in the caves … and when a conspiracy unfolds to try and take out some of the more noteworthy survivors because of the threats they might represent to humanity. 

I can’t tell you more without giving too much away but it’s thrilling adventure, wild good fun, some squee-worthy moments, and a few bits of shocked “Oh-you-did-NOT-just-DO-that!” 

Get them both. Read them both. Then you’ll see why when I say ALL the thumbs-up, it’s a LOT of thumbs!

-Christine Morgan



BLACK HEART METAL MONSTER by Michael Faun (2014 Dynatox Ministries / 76 pp / limited edition trade paperback)

What does Black Metal and limited edition chapbooks from Dynatox Ministries have in common?  Well, the answer is quite simple. Absolutely nothing. But that’s not entirely true anymore. Not with a copy of Michael Faun’s Black Heart Metal Monster sitting gently in the palm of my hand.

The book description reads, “Black metal meets horror in this novella by Swedish Cult Author, Michael Faun. What inhumane acts cause an unblemished heart to grow black and putrid? How does Satan's influence manifest itself, when invoked where the Christian illusion has cracked? One Band, One House, One Heart Horror Fiction for Black Metal fans.”

But this doesn’t do the book enough justice. As I followed along a gripping tale about some dudes in a Black Metal band, I became aware of something.  One thing. And that is this; Michael Faun is an absolute beast of a writer. The guy eats, sleeps, and dreams visions only some of us wish we had (and the numbers are few and far between). But, not only does he do this, he writes with a heart of gold, expressing as much concern for the reader as necessary, and really knows how to craft a golden tale. He takes the reader on an epic journey alongside the band. Some real class acts by the name of Throatbutcher, Ateranimus, Skinreaper, and Nex. Faun manages to spin a tale as beautiful as it is unsettling, as black as it is metal, page after page. A couple things to expect in this novella would be, flailing guitars, DOOM, serpents, blood and guts, heart, and a soul blacker than perhaps the Devil himself, while snorting a pentagram into one of his nostrils.

If you’re looking for something to read with a literary value that pays refuge to Black Metal music, Darkness, or Satan himself, BLACK HEART METAL MONSTER hits just as hard as Joel Lane’s classic rock and roll/grunge debut BLACK AND BLUE. This dark little gem right here is your jam, especially if you’re in a band.

-Jon R. Meyers



HELL COMES TO HOLLYWOOD II edited by Eric Miller (2014 Big Time Books / 362 pp / trade paperback)

I missed the first volume of this tinsel town-themed anthology, but apparently it did well enough that a second helping of 22 (mostly) new stories was in order. Edited by Eric Miller (whose screenplays include ICE SPIDERS and DOG SOLDIERS II), most of the contributors here are screenwriters, but a few names will be familiar to horror fiction fans.

Among my favorites are 'The Crimson Marquee,' about a woman who finds her destiny at an old Hollywood revival theater (written by Anthony C. Ferrante, director of the infamous SHARKNADO films: he wields his pen much better than his camera). In Lisa Morton's slick 'She Devil a Go-Go,' a director with a secret meets his match, and in 'The Voice Coach Cometh,' an actress meets a strict voice coach and her failed students in one of the creepier stories of the lot.

In 'Buried!" a washed up actor gets another chance on a crazy new reality show. If you're claustrophobic stay far away from this, but man is it good. 'The Devil's Friends' is a hilarious comedic horror tale about a b-movie director making a deal with Satan to become one of the greats, while in Hal Bodner's 'Hot Tub' a malevolent entity turns a handsome guy into a star. It's another darkly comic yarn and one of the strongest of the book.

'Welcome to the Jungle' features an actress taking a job on a cheap horror film and discovering why the film's monster looks so authentic, and 'The Scottish Play' follows a couple as they open a haunted theater. It's one of several ghost stories here and also one of the best. Editor Eric Miller strikes with 'Culling the Herd,' where the owner and protege of a zombie ranch confront a creature-rights activist. It's quite funny and just plain fun.

The book ends with 'Dreams of a Little Suicide,' which any fan of THE WIZARD OF OZ will drool over. A midget from Wisconsin goes to Hollywood in 1939 to be a munchkin in the film. He falls in love but things don't work out the way he wished. Written by Eric J. Guignard, it's easily the one tale here you won't soon forget.

I found the majority of the other tales to be so-so and predictable (one titled 'Careful What You Wish For' doesn't even follow the book's theme), but the tales mentioned above are well worth your time. Good stuff, especially those featuring a comedic angle.

-Nick Cato



Monday, September 22, 2014

Reviews for the Week of September 22, 2014

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



PREVIEW:

THE FAMILY TREE by John Everson (to be released 10/7/14 by Samhain Publishing / 215 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

After his uncle dies, Scott Belvedere takes some vacation time from his job in Chicago to go see a historic Inn he has inherited in Virginia. The Family Tree Inn is run by a nice old lady named Ellen, and Scott assures her he isn't there to change things or fire anyone. This makes Ellen's pretty young daughter Caroline happy, and in no time Scott falls for her. But sexy Inn guest Rocky has taken a liking to him too, and so has the beautiful Sherrilyn.

Scott's nights at the Inn (which is built around a huge tree) become ale-fueled sex parties. Caroline, Rocky, and Sherrilyn have sex with him every night, and while he's having the time of his life, things start to get a lot stranger than having three women wanting him all the time, the least of which are two of the Inn's guests who Scott discovers chained to the base of the tree in the cellar.

THE FAMILY TREE has a typical horror novel set up that has been done thousands of times (city slicker finds ancient evil in rural town). But Everson is one of a handful of writers who is able to make this work and even seem fresh. Like most of his novels, this one is heavy on the sex, and the prose pulled me through in two quick sittings. The second half is suspense-filled and had me cheering for Scott until the final page.

This is Everson's eighth novel and it's a sure-fire hit for anyone who loves 70s/80s-styled pulp horror.

-Nick Cato




THE WHISPERER IN DISSONANCE by Ian Welke (2014 Omnium Gatherum / 157 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Insomnia is evil. Sleep deprivation is a proven torture technique. Messes with the body, the mind, and the soul. It can lead to hallucinations, paranoia, and full-blown psychosis. 

This book opens with insomnia and nails it. Nails it so hard that anyone who’s ever had trouble getting a good rest, who knows the intense personal agony of exhaustion, of being SO DAMN TIRED but unable to sleep … yeah, this’ll resonate. It’s like instant empathy. 

You FEEL for poor Annie, right from the first page. As she suffers through late-night infomercials, as she does the auto-math calculations each time she looks at the clock to see how much sleep she could get before the alarm went off if she fell asleep RIGHT NOW, as she’s already dreading the long day dragging herself to and through work. 

It’s hell. It’s a living, waking hell. And then it gets weirder. Or does it? Annie already has trouble fully trusting her senses and reason, thanks to exhaustion. When she starts noticing things that are decidedly odd, how can she be sure if they’re even real? Or if she’s just finally lost her last marbles? 

That uncertainty, that lack of reliability, carries on strong throughout the entire story. It’d be crazy to think that electronic viruses are infecting people, or that dreams can be hacked like computers. Wouldn’t it? It seems crazy. But doesn’t it also seem horridly plausible? 

It’d certainly seem crazy to think that Annie’s stumbled onto a vast conspiracy slowly taking over everyone and everything, or that an old college acquaintance is sending her secret messages, or that her mother and best friend are being corrupted. 

Except, things sure don’t seem normal, either, do they? How much of it can she blame on lack of sleep? What if she’s had a breakdown and is raving away in a madhouse? What if that’s what they WANT her to think? And doesn’t that itself seem crazy?

Insidious, paranoid, gripping, unsettling, and very well done … probably not something to read right before bedtime, though!

-Christine Morgan




FATAL JOURNEYS by Lucy Taylor (2014 Overlook Connection Press / 204 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Taylor (author of one of my all time favorite short stories) delivers her first collection in over ten years, and it was well worth the wait. Each tale takes place in a different part of the world, which is the running theme here.

After an introduction by Jack Ketchum, 'Summerland' gets things going in the Bahamas as a sister and brother meet a most unusual fate; 'Soul Eaters' is a pre-apocalyptic monster tale that begins aboard a cruise ship heading for Vancouver, Canada, while 'The Butsudan' finds a Westerner discovering dark secrets while in Japan.

In 'How Real Men Die,' Eddie is in Thailand on a mission to kill one of his friends, only to discover surprsing things about the both of them; 'Sanguma' deals with the moral issues of the natives in Papau New Guinea and one woman's fight to understand them. 'Tivar' follows an American couple on a trip to Iceland. This one's full of twists, turns, and a slick surprise ending.

'Nikishi' is a suspenseful shape-shifter tale set in West Africa, and while it's predictable, it's also well done and highly entertaining.

As good as the stories are at this point, the final three are easily the best of the bunch. 'Going North' is a fantastic revenge tale about a slightly off-balance aunt helping her neice overcome the adult human monsters in her life; 'The High and Mighty Me' follows a man searching for a fireworks vendor who he swears killed one of his friends when they were kids. What he finally finds is anything but what he expected. And capping the collection is 'Wingless Beasts,' a prime example of how to do a serial killer story the right way. Taylor keeps this one tight and adds a wicked spin you might not see coming.

Any horror fan will enjoy Taylor's FATAL JOURNEYS. I won't be forgetting a few of these tales anytime soon, and only hope it's not another ten years until her next collection.

-Nick Cato




NOTE: THE HORROR FICTION REVIEW will return in two weeks on October 6th.