Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Reviews for the Week of February 10, 2020

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STRONGER THAN HATE by Robert Essig (2019 Death’s Head Press / 169 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Must’ve been something in the zeitgeist, because it seemed all of a sudden I was seeing a bunch of sinkholes opening up! I’d say ‘scary’ sinkholes, but they are already freakin’ terrifying to start with. Once they get into the hands of horror authors, though, the stakes go even higher.

In this one, the sinkhole itself may be small-scale; it doesn’t devour buildings or neighborhoods or whole blocks of tarmac into bottomless caverns in the earth … it’s only a small and relatively shallow collapse in a backyard, going unnoticed by everyone except – at first – the old lady whose property it is.

Francine is a widow, a retired schoolteacher, living alone. Her garden is the only thing that still brings her joy. Until the ground gives way beneath her feet and she finds herself trapped several feet belowground in a deep pit of wet, crumbling earth.

The only other person aware of her plight is Greg, a former student who lives next door. A loner/loser type, instead of calling for help, he contacts some of his old classmates instead, thinking to up his status by giving them a laugh at seeing one of their strict high-school nemeses stuck in the mud.

Oh, they get more than a laugh out of it, all right. Bad boy Trevor and his trashy girlfriend Heather are in no hurry to let Francine out. In fact, Trevor has all sorts of nasty ideas to humiliate the helpless woman … then sees a way to monetize the opportunity, by charging admission to fellow scum and degenerates.

What follows is a worsening nightmare for Francine, and the reader might as well be trapped right down there with her. Meanwhile, Greg’s trapped in a hell of his own making, afraid to stand up to Trevor despite a guilty crisis of conscience and pity.

It’s a disturbing, difficult, highly effective read. As well as a good reminder to check in on your elderly relatives and shut-in neighbors from time to time.

-Christine Morgan




NIGHT CREEPERS by David Irons (2019 Severed Press / 177 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I got this one, and from the cover and title was anticipating a spooky creature feature … then read the back, which describes a scenario more akin to a cosy British mystery. The kind where some dying patriarch summons his beneficiaries to his country house to discuss the will, but then murder ensues and a host of long-standing family secrets are revealed.

Well, turns out, the book’s a little of both and neither at the same time, ends up something else altogether, and – sorry to say – falls short of its various potentials. The promise is there, but could’ve used fleshing out and elaboration to make the characters more vivid, the scenario more tense and frightening.

The usual suspects include the ex trophy-wife, the stepdaughter, and business associates ranging from the shady to the loyal. They’re almost too rote, lacking personality beyond their basic stereotypes, and hard to muster up much interest in. Instead of a country house, they’re summoned to a remote church, the powerful rich man already dead but having made specific arrangements for his funeral.

Very specific, as well as none too, well, beneficial. At first, it seems a snide last word from beyond the grave, a final controlling gesture. But the guests soon find themselves literally caught in a trap, having to navigate a course through the catacombs with various mechanisms to steer them along toward the real threat waiting in the darkness.

I think there really could’ve been something fun here, but none of the elements really shone and they didn’t combine enough to work as well together as they otherwise might. In general, an okay time-passer, just kind of bland.


-Christine Morgan



100 WORD HORRORS BOOK 4: AN ANTHOLOGY OF HORROR DRABBLE edited by Kevin J. Kennedy (2019 Amazon Digital Services, LLC / 109 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Drabble, drabble. I’ll see you when you drabble, drabble… Wait a minute, that’s not the lyrics to that Offspring song in the 2000s that nobody has stuck in their head right now. So, what is all that dastardly and godforsaken commotion you may be wondering right now? Well, let me just fill you in on a little secret, a hundred of them to be exact, much like the word count in these fun, little horror gems from KJK Publishing. The fourth installment of these great and fantastic and equally horrific bathroom reader digests more formally known as the 100 WORD HORRORS series is a powerful addition to the rest of the drabble family. This specific edition, in my opinion, has been very carefully laid out as far as format and order of stories goes. The book reads rather well, and collects some of the more serious of drabbles as far as content is concerned compared to some of the other anthologies found in this series.

Some of my personal favorites were ‘Chiaroscuro Morning’ by Kevin Wetmore, ‘The Wave’ by Andrew Lennon, ‘Livestock’ by RJ Meldrum, ‘Every Fifty Years the Roots Need Blood’ by Ellen A. Easton, ‘No Time Like the Present’ by Adam Light, ‘A Prison Inside Us’ by Sheldon Woodbury, ‘Wrath of the Old Ones’ by Kevin J. Kennedy, ‘The Coffin’ by Kevin Cathy, ‘Mine’ by Nerisha Kemraj, ‘Shingles on a Graham Cracker Roof’ by Chad Lutzke, and ‘Meal’ by John Boden.

For the record, book two still wins my heart as far as my love for eye-catching book cover art is concerned, but, overall, this is a great book full of some of our favorite, little 100 word horrors to date.

-Jon R. Meyers




CATFISH LULLABY by A.C. Wise (2019 Broken Eye Books / 118 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

You know those books that exist only within other books, in the forms of references, excerpts, and quotes? Fictional tomes like the Necronomicon, Koontz’s Book of Shadows, the actual Hitchhiker’s Guide, that seem so neat you wish they were real because you want to read them, too?

I’m adding one to my personal list. Each chapter of CATFISH LULLABY opens with a bit from something called ‘Myths, History, and Legends from the Delta to the Bayou’ (Whippoorwill Press, 2016). I love folklore and local legends; the closest I’ve ever been to the bayou is the start of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride but find it fascinating; I’d read the heck out of that.

Which isn’t to say ‘Catfish Lullaby’ itself is a disappointment, because it isn’t. Not so much southern gothic with mouldering mansions and plantation houses dripping with moss; we’re talking more small-town-swamp-gothic. Much more rustic, though still with all the humid secrecy and closed-off mystery.

For mixed-race Caleb, life in Lewis was always a bit challenging even as a kid. Dealing with bullies, having neighbors with unsavory reputations, being raised by a single dad who then takes in a strange orphan girl after a fire, all the rumors about someone (or something) called Catfish John, the secrets, the disappearances …

He may have thought, as an adult, he’d left all that behind him. But we know better, don’t we, folks? Returning as an adult, in a relationship with another man, he faces whole new levels of challenge, especially when he steps in as the new local sheriff. And when the strange girl who’d disappeared so long ago suddenly returns to his life, and bad things once again start to happen.

-Christine Morgan



AMERI-SCARES: WEST VIRGINIA, LAIR OF THE MOTHMAN by Stephen Mark Rainey (2019 Crossroad Press / 152 pp / trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)

The rising popularity of geocaching is a real godsend to the whole horror genre. Finally, a way to get more of the less-athletic, nerdier types out into the hostile wilderness, well off the beaten path, instead of just the usual hikers and wild party-in-the-woods crowd!

(If you’re unfamiliar with the hobby, it’s kind of a higher-tech puzzle game treasure hunt; fear not, the book’s intro explains the basics, and beyond that, well, that’s what google is for)

With “Lair of the Mothman” in the title, I do admit I was expecting more, well, more Mothman, more of the actual folklore and history, the legends and sightings. Which isn’t to say I was disappointed by the read, only that it was fairly geocaching-forward, with the Mothman aspects taking a back seat.

Our protagonist Vance Archer, who goes by ArcherV on the geocaching sites. He got into it thanks to his older brother, and has recently been joined on his quests by one of his schoolmates, Marybeth, aka Emerald Racer. Being kids, the duo is limited to local caches around their hometown.

Their hometown, however, is in a part of the country which, over the years, has had its share of the inexplicable: lights in the sky, Mothman sightings, and other strange events. Vance’s own family history includes a member lost to a disaster during one such spate of strangeness.

Now, those things are happening again. Cell phones start picking up messages that don’t show in the call record (what IS it about that? like in Lost, or 1408? how can mere numbers be so creepy?). Vance himself keeps seeing shadowy shapes and eerie red eyes. Something new and ominous seems to be gathering strength. And it might just be up to the intrepid young geocachers to find out what.

-Christine Morgan



TRUE CRIME by Samantha Kolesnik (2020 Grindhouse Press / 144 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

“Like all good monsters, I came not by force, but by invitation.”

Tired of being abused by her mother, Suzy, along with her brother Lim, leave their small town of Morris Grove and head for *anywhere* that will rid them of their troubled upbringing. But, the damage in both of these young people has been done and they wind up embarking on a killing spree, starting with their own mother.

The first half of TRUE CRIME may feel like a senseless exercise in extreme violence...yet if that’s not your thing, stick around, as Kolesnik turns this into a dark character study of a damaged young woman, attempting to find her purpose in the world among twisted adults, questionable clergy and her own growing urge to kill. The violence, which is shocking at times, serves the story, which quickly sets this apart from a host of similar novels/novellas. Having been raised on issues of True Crime magazine, her actions and mental condition begin to mirror the lurid stories she had spent so much of her young life enveloped in.

You often hear certain writers have that “Jack Ketchum or Richard Laymon” flair, but this stunning debut, while at times channeling both writers, ends up with a fresh voice, making us care for Suzy (and her brother) despite their lifestyles that are destined to be unrepentant. One scene in which Suzy learns a life lesson from an elderly man is as poignant as it is suspenseful, and Kolesnik’s short sentence style manages to deliver some serious mule kicks when you’re least expecting it.

TRUE CRIME is a powerful (if short) debut which will surely be embraced by not only the horror community, but I’m betting fans of crime fiction, too.

-Nick Cato



THE SERPENT'S SHADOW by Daniel Braum (2019 Cemetery Dance / 108 pp / eBook)

What I found most striking about this book was how well it showcased the dichotomy of opposites going together side-by-side, highlighting and contrasting each other by their very existence while depending on each other and being irrevocably enmeshed. Life and death. Wealth and poverty. The new ways and the old. The modern world and the ancient one. Love and fear. Good and evil.

Must say, it proved a surprising and refreshing takeaway from what I initially expected when a bunch of vacationing college kids sneak away from their Cancun hotels to party by the Mayan ruins. We’ve all seen that sort of thing play out often enough, you know? Obnoxious Americans trespassing somewhere forbidden, ignoring the cryptic warnings of taciturn locals, having no respect for local lore or mythology … awakening something evil … getting gruesomely picked off one by one …

Well, many of those elements do exist here, but they aren’t put together in the ways you might think. The result is quieter – though still with its bloody moments – and more intricate, ultimately almost cosmic-style horror.

David and Regina are spending Christmas in Cancun with their parents, but eager to slip out and investigate the local nightlife. This introduces them to Anne-Marie, who then introduces them to her friends for the aforementioned sneaking away to party by the ruins.

Soon, scholarly introspective David – already fascinated by the region and its history, troubled by dreamlike visions of winged serpents and tales of the vengeful White Lady – finds himself drawn into the mysteries of the lingering not-so-lost-after-all Mayan culture. When he and Anne-Marie participate in a solstice ceremony at a hidden temple, events are set in motion that will make him ultimately have to choose among those side-by-side opposites, and face the consequences.

-Christine Morgan



BLACK HEART BOYS' CHOIR by Curtis M. Lawson (2019 Wyrd Horror / 261 pp / trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)

Lucien Beaumont is a perfect example of a main archetype of our age – the entitled, arrogant, sulky white boy with privilege and resentment issues, prone to violent revenge-wank fantasies. You know the sort. We all know the sort. Way too many of the sort, these days. They’re ending up on the news all the time.

Okay, sure, the world’s dealt Lucien some rough turns lately. His dad’s died, he’s had to move from his big house and snobby academy, his mom’s withdrawn into a neglectful substance-dependent wreck, he has to get an actual (gasp) part-time job. The so-called school he has to go to now doesn’t even have a decent music program, let alone a proper choir. And his fellow students are brainless primitives who make fun of him for wearing nice suits. The few friends he manages to make are primarily through the bonding of fellow disaffected outcasts and rebels, and they form a small chorus club of their own.

Lucien’s only saving grace might be his musical talent, but even that’s corrupted by his better-than-everyone ego. When he discovers an unfinished collaboration by his late father and another composer, an ominous piece they apparently tried to destroy because of its dark power, you’d better believe he becomes obsessed with it. In a blackly amusing take on the battle of the bands teen trope, Lucien and his choir plan to perfect the forbidden Madrigal of the World’s End, and unleash it to show those glee club powers what’s for.

If he’s meant to be presented righteously striking back a la CARRIE, it didn’t work for me. I found him an unlikable snot from the word go. The language choices for his point of view reflect his attitude perfectly. I spent the whole time wanting to smack the crap out of him. Which means, whatever else, he certainly was written believably and effectively! Maybe too much so.

-Christine Morgan



CRISIS BOY by Garrett Cook (2018 Eraserhead Press / 190 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Writing this book must’ve been difficult. Researching it, even more so. And reading it is no picnic either. Inspired by the rash of terrible actual events plaguing our society, and inspired all the more by some of the ludicrous conspiracies around them, welcome to a world where we can’t believe anything we hear on the news or even see with our own eyes.

Welcome to a world where disasters really are staged. Shootings, bombings, assassinations, murders. A world where shadowy behind-the-scenes organizations really do plan it all. Where, no matter how wild the theories may seem, the truth is all that much stranger.

What if there were people, specially gifted and trained people, who got sent from tragedy to tragedy to ensure good optics of the carnage and suffering? People like John, a so-called ‘crisis boy,’ who has been critically injured at multiple incidents, but somehow heals up in time for the next one.

What if some of those message board nutjobs were right, spotting the similarities, making the connections? What if one such ‘crisis boy’ starts to question his role, as he’s put in place for the next massacre? What if he decides to try and change the script?

The subject matter is definitely not for everyone. It’s troubling and traumatic, approached in a way that by no means glorifies the awfulness of such events, while simultaneously throwing a wry light onto the lunacy that’d have to be going on behind the scenes. It reads at a fever pitch, almost manic, with an inherent wild-eyed-ness very fitting.

I do wish it’d had a more thorough edit (I know, I know, I gripe about that a lot). Sure won’t expect to see it on any high school reading lists soon, but, it provides a scary peek into certain modern mindsets. There are probably some who’ll swear it’s non-fiction, and that’s the scariest thing of all.

-Christine Morgan


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COMING SOON:






Monday, January 20, 2020

Reviews for the Week of January 20, 2020

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're on your cell phone you probably won't be able to see it unless you switch to "desktop view." Otherwise, boot up the lap/desktop...





TALES IN SOMBRE TONES by Sean Walter (2019 SP / 222 pp / trade paperback)

The cover and overall look of this book live up to the title, matte and eerie, hauntingly grim yet alluring. Add in the charcoal and carbon pencil illustrations of Drawing in Dark’s Karen Ruffles, and before you even get to the stories, the promised sombre tones are already delivered.

The stories themselves then carry on in theme. Two dozen of them in total, short and sweet (or not necessarily sweet, more of a bitter dark-chocolate kind of sweet), they offer a variety of spooky glimpses into the shadows, whether of the mundane world or with a more paranormal turn.

Among my favorites:

“Lost at Sea,” when a storm leaves a ship adrift in strange waters, only to find its way to an even stranger port-of-call;

“Finders Keepers” struck me as particularly poignant, beautiful in a sad way, as a young woman forms a powerful bond with some clever crows;

“Jinxed,” in which sightings of a black cat accompany one poor guy’s bad luck day getting worse and worse;

and “Name Your Poison,” set at a bar like no other, a bar where the bartender’s mixology skills involve much more than simple spirits.

Others include deals with shifty devils, what lurks in the dark woods or desolate farm-fields, childhood monsters we never quite escape, old lore with more than a grain of truth, some E.C. Comics or Twilight Zone table-turning comeuppances, the perils of taking souvenirs from graveyards or mysterious vendors, folklore come to life, and all-too-real nightmares.

I did notice quite a few little bloopers, another book that could’ve benefited from some stricter editorial attention. The writing style often comes across more passive than I’d like, and maybe too many of the stories open with the weather (I only noticed because I read them one after the other). Those minor quibbles aside, I found the experience nicely disquieting throughout.

-Christine Morgan




SLASHER CRASHER by David Nora (2019 Black Rose Writing / 357 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This book knows what it is and what it does, and just goes for it with an utter shamelessness that is simultaneously uncomfortable and refreshing. It’s packed to capacity with teen slasher-horror tropes, characters that transcend mere stereotype into full-blown caricatures (this is where a lot of the uncomfortable stuff factors in), crassness, raunchiness, deliberate movie references, and over-the-top goresplat kills.

So, there’s this escaped maniac who’s been locked up in an asylum since he murdered his babysitter’s boyfriend. His kook of a doctor is convinced he’ll make a beeline for home to finish the job, and enlists the aid of local law enforcement.

Which, in this case, is a grieving wreck of a sheriff at odds with his teen daughter. He’s trying to be protective, she thinks he’s strict and controlling. She’s also recently broken from her nerdier loser-type friends to get with one of the popular guys at school, though the rest of his crowd aren’t exactly keen on having her around.

Oh, and, it’s almost Halloween, because of course it is! And some of the cool kids are having an unsupervised party, because of course they are! Despite the sheriff’s sudden implementation of a curfew, as he’s out on the road with the kook doctor, trying to track down the maniac.

Naturally, the good girl daughter sneaks out with her popular guy boyfriend to go to the party, where she doesn’t find the warmest welcome from the other cool kids. Meanwhile, though, one of her loser-type friends (gross angry fat chick) has sworn to get back at her, and hooked the other loser-type friend (outrageously gay) into helping with the revenge plot.

Needless to say, their paths all converge and the total bloodbath commences, except with some surprising genre-defying twists to shake things up in entertaining ways.


-Christine Morgan




SHADOWS ON THE WALL by Steven Paulsen (2018 IFWG Pubishing / 220 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I am so glad to live in the age of the ebook and internet, where works by an entire global host of authors are readily available! Opens up whole new worlds, presents whole new perspectives. Not to mention, it’s a lot easier and cheaper than having to shell out for international shipping.

I gotta say, the folks in the Southern Hemisphere sure are knocking it out of the park. Many writers from Australia and New Zealand quickly made their way onto my list of those who never fail to deliver a solid good story.

Well, it’s time to add another name to that list, because this collection by Steve Paulsen displays strong talent, mastery of a wide range of genres, deft craftsmanship, and undeniable skill.

From military horror in the humid jungles of a past war, to a near-future where AI and waste-disposal make for a dangerous combination … an experimental but effective 50-word piece … haunting memories becoming all too real, and haunted legacies reaching from beyond … some updated takes on Lovecraftian lore, including an exotic pulp adventure … the amusing mythic saga of a reluctant hero and his talking sword … sinister explanations behind monstrous acts … these fourteen tales span a nice variety of settings and styles.

Among my favorites are “Two Tomorrow” and “Christmas Morning,” two of the shortest, sweetest pieces in the book, which convey such heartfelt love and emotion that the final punches land with wickedly devastating force.


-Christine Morgan




THE MUMMY OF CANAAN by Maxwell Bauman (2019 Clash Books / 136 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

In my introduction to Lorne Dixon’s 2011 mummy novel ETERNAL UNREST, I swore the genre was on the verge of mummies being the new “it” monster. Vampires and zombies were beyond played out at the time, especially in the small press, and there was this unofficial “bet” going on if werewolves or mummies would be the next big thing. Turns out the wolves were given more love, mummies didn’t have the resurgence I’d hoped for, but that didn’t stop a handful of authors from trying to bring them back to life.

The latest comes courtesy of Maxwell Bauman and follows a group of American teenagers taking a tour of Israel. After a member of the group goes off on his own and cuts his palm on the mummy’s tomb, it provides just enough sauce to awaken the ancient corpse, who then goes on a brutal killing spree (with triple the amount of gore about five of you saw in the 1981 Italian schlock-fest DAWN OF THE MUMMY). Detective Yosef Leib, fresh off listening to another tourist claim someone tried to steal his eyes while visiting a famous tomb, is quickly brought in on the case.

There’s some interesting Jewish history and folklore on display here, breaking up scenes of our tourists being mutilated, their blood drained, multiple innards being removed, and fleeing from one of the more pissed off mummies in recent memory. Those into the splatterpunk thing should enjoy this quick novella well enough, and anyone with a love for the bandaged ones should have fun. CANAAN manages to entertain despite its standard monster-romp set up and how (seemingly) easy this ancient curse is defeated.


-Nick Cato




KILLER LAKE by W.D. Gagliani and David Benton (2019 Deadite Press / 262 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Going by title alone, you might expect this one to be a slasher-flick-type book packed with packed with partying college kids, lots of drinking, lots of sex, and a fast-rising gruesome body count. In the woods, by the lake, at a remote and rustic cabin.

BUT WAIT! It’s not a slasher-flick-type … it’s sinister cultists! Whose plan to summon up their demon lord was thwarted years before but may now finally be ready to bear fruit! And it’s not a remote and rustic cabin, it’s a luxurious vacation home.

The lake, the woods, and the ‘packed with partying college kids, lots of drinking, lots of sex, and fast-rising gruesome body count’ parts, however? Oh, yes, that’s all there, in gloriously graphic profusion. Soon, characters are getting it on, getting off, and getting offed almost too rapidly to keep track of. To add to the fun, evil forces bring the slaughtered students back as ravenous undead, while the cultists gather their power to complete their sacrificial ritual.

Many of the classic tropes and archetypes – jocks, sluts, the nice girl, the rich boy, the bad boy, the misfit, the alcoholic wreck of a professor, the bumbling country cop – are well-represented, but with some surprising twists.

The structure takes a football game kind of format, with the pregame and replays giving us our flashbacks to what happened the first time the cult tried this, and the various quarters following the present-day action. There’s a halftime show, things go into overtime with a survivor meeting some bonus backwoods horror, and there’s even a bit of postgame wrap-up.

Entertaining, fast-paced, splattery, shameless, lowbrow and delightfully trashy. I read the whole thing in one day, during breaks while at jury duty. Not sure what that says about me, but at least nobody asked!

-Christine Morgan




DOORWAYS TO THE DEADEYE by Eric J. Guignard (2019 Journalstone / 312 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This may be the first novel-length work I’ve read by Eric J. Guignard, but he certainly proves he’s as strong there as he is with short stories and editing anthologies! The language here is beautifully handled throughout, often as grainy and sepia-toned as old photographs from past decades. Which fits, given its largely historical setting.

Not only historical, but historical-within-historical, and uniquely American in a way only a very few genres seem to manage. But, instead of the Old West, Colonial New England, or the gothic South, the main era presented here is that of the Great Depression, a bleak time in which jobs were scarce, hope was scarcer, and countless hobos roamed the rails in search of a little bit of livelihood.

One of the most fascinating things about those years is the way hobo culture developed its own secret language of signs and symbols, graffiti-style markings left so fellow travelers would know where work or charity might be found, or warned off from dangerous places.

That hobo code features prominently in this book, and I admit I worried it’d end up becoming an overbearing author show-offy brag thing, look how much I researched, like Koontz did with surfer lingo. It was a minor worry, given my previous experiences with this author, and I’m pleased to report it proved fully unfounded. The explanations flow naturally in the course and context of the story.

Along with the code, we get inside peeks at the hobo traditions of storytelling and legends and tall tales (referred to as “crossbucks”), the feared railroad ‘bulls’ who would roust travelers, and other customs and rail-riding traditions. Even if that had been all this book was, straightforward historical fiction, it would’ve been fascinating enough, but it gets taken to another level when one young hobo discovers deeper secrets behind some of those signs and symbols.

He’s soon able to do more than just hitch a ride on a train, finding ways to step into another world alongside our own … a world where the remembered dead linger, and attempt to remake reality by shaping the memories of the living. Once he’s gone into this world – called the Deadeye – our protagonist encounters key figures from other eras of American history, and they aren’t all what their reputations would have us believe.

-Christine Morgan



THE INVENTION OF GHOSTS by Gwendolyn Kiste (2019 Nightscape Press / trade paperback)

Everly and her best friend room together at college. Everly is not only fascinated by the occult, but uses "parlor tricks" to amuse other students. Her best friend isn't as crazy about the dark side, and sets some boundaries to try to keep herself safe. But when Everly decides it's high time to go home for a visit, she discovers things about herself, her friend, and both of their parents that lead to a life changing conclusion.

Kiste has delivered a couple of original ghost stories before, and this is another in her ever-growing catalog. With as much peer pressure in our protagonist's lives as there is mystery surrounding the weird rapping coming from their dorm room ceiling, this short but powerful story seamlessly brings the supernatural into an everyday situation, and gives the reader plenty to ponder. Fans of unusual ghost stories, don't miss out (and it's for a great cause).

This book is part of Nightscape Press' "Charitable Chapbook" series, is limited to 100 copies, and as of this writing there are only 25 left. Grab one here before they're gone: NS Charitable Chapbook Series

-Nick Cato



SPLATTER VON RAINBOW by Nicholaus Patnaude (2019 Nihilism Revised / 115 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This book seriously messed with my head in several admittedly interesting and unforgettable ways. The cover alone, clashing bright magenta and lime green, hurts the eyes even before you attempt to read the chiller-font lettering; it took me a few tries to even figure out what the cover image was supposed to be!

Don’t get me wrong, though. This isn’t one of those ones you’d see on a terrible-book-covers page full of badly photoshopped garbage. This is meant to be an eye-hurter, a warning as vivid as the coloration of certain varieties of mushrooms and little poison dart frogs, because the story inside is every bit as trippy as what you’d get from eating those mushrooms or licking those frogs.

Maybe not fatal. Maybe. I’m not sure yet. I finished reading it yesterday and my mind is still trying to fumble its way back to coherence. Haven’t felt so disoriented since I stopped the pain meds. This is bizarro of the most concentrated, distilled, compacted weirdness I’ve seen in a while.

At first, the story might seem like a random mish-mash of the craziest images and ideas thrown together, but the further you go, the more it fits together. There’s a sense of it making perfect sense just beyond comprehension, like I could almost grasp, almost grok, its ultimate message … but my brain wouldn’t let me, or wasn’t ready yet.

What’s it about, you might wonder? Good grief, I hardly know where to start. It’s a tragic love story, of sorts, a couple whose passion spans several past lives and dimensions in a half-fated, half-doomed kind of way.

But she’s trapped in the body of a manikin, and he has dinosaur genitals (not in the way that you’d think; just typing that sentence messed with my head again). There’s all kinds of kinky lingerie, and the title’s the name of a mystic rock-goddess (rock as in music), and a pervy voyeur magician-type offers the couple a chance to relive their past lives but only if he can watch them get it on, and …

… and then it gets REALLY out-there, so, yeah … nibble the mushroom, lick the colorful little frog, read this book … maybe don’t operate heavy machinery for a while …

-Christine Morgan



SHEPHERD'S WARNING by Cailyn Lloyd (2019 Land of Oz LLC / 398 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Sorry to say, I really struggled with this one. There’s nothing wrong with the writing; the writing is solid and sound, totally fine. Some of the historical and supernatural elements of the plot were different and interesting.

The characters, though, and their actions, reactions, and interactions … it’s a textbook case throughout of whatever the haunted house equivalent of climate-change deniers would be. Gosh, the locals are averse to the place. Gosh, inexplicable stuff keeps happening. Gosh, evidently there was some old hidden family secret. Gosh, a hundred other clues and red flags.

Let’s be typical obtuse white people, move right in, and start remodeling the place! Let’s go a step further and get it featured on one of those home improvement shows! Let’s none of us actually talk to each other about our disturbing experiences! Let’s ignore the way things move around, and the strange figures, and the dreams and personality changes! Let’s keep poking around and finding mysterious old books, gold coins, trap doors, but laugh it all off.

Until, surprise surprise, it’s too late and people are going crazy, getting hurt, having psychic flashes, fighting, lying. I wanted to smack them, honest I did. Even the professor who’s really a centuries-old immortal scholar and sorcerer, and might otherwise have been a fascinating character just came across as arrogant, entitled, and tedious.

Book 1 in a series, but I doubt I’ll be in a hurry to pick up the next installment.

-Christine Morgan


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COMING SOON:




Monday, January 6, 2020

Reviews for the Week of January 6, 2020

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're on your cell phone please switch to "desktop view" or you may need to view it on your lap/desktop. Ty.





GWENDY'S MAGIC FEATHER by Richard Chizmar (2019 Cemetery Dance Publications / 330 pp / hardcover, eBook, audiobook)

I hadn’t realized there was going to be a Button Box sequel until suddenly there was one, so rather than have to wait and anticipate, I got it as a nice surprise! This time, aside from an intro by King, it’s all Richard Chizmar’s work.

We rejoin Gwendy Peterson, now all grown up, gorgeous and successful, a novelist turned congresswoman, happily married. Her biggest problem is the worry over whether she earned all these blessings, or they’re some holdover from the button box’s powers.

Her next-biggest problems are having to deal with annoying politicians (including an obnoxious President; it’s a slightly alt-universe reality), her photojournalist husband getting sent on assignment to potential war-zones, and her mom’s ongoing battles with cancer.

She’s not expecting to have the button box (and its attendant silver dollars and exquisite chocolate animals) make a sudden surprise reappearance in her life. The temptation of those buttons now, with her inside knowledge, is greater than ever. But so’s her caution.

First things first, though … she’s going home for the holidays. Home to Castle Rock, that perpetually troubled little town, which is in the grips of fear after some girls have gone missing. While her mother’s health takes a turn for the worse. Where her father’s found an old keepsake from her childhood: a little white feather she always believed was magic.

It might be up to Gwendy to save the world from itself, and sometimes saving the world means starting small, in your own home town.

Admittedly, I was hoping for more connection to previous stuff, more references to earlier characters, instead of just appearances and mentions. I wanted (and still want) to know more about the aftermath of the whole Needful Things business and the rest of those folks. Aside from that slight disappointment, though, a fine and enjoyable thought-provoking read.

-Christine Morgan




THE CAVERN by Alister Hodge (2019 Severed Press / 207 pp / eBook)

Knew from the first glimpse that this book would be just my thing … caving, cave diving, cave monsters? Plus, local history of keeping them secret and placated? Risks, thrills, sensory deprivation, terror? Bonus opal mines? Heck, yeah!

And I was not proven wrong. Tense and intense, hitting all the right notes. My only quibble, minor though it is, is that it could’ve used a punchier title. Otherwise, it might be too easy to overlook or fade into the background, which would be a shame because this is an exciting and scary read.

With some REALLY nifty monsters, too. Far beyond the pallid subterranean cannibal mutants of The Descent. More like a cross between Alien-esque xenomorphs and chameleonic aquatic reptiles, black and sleek, luminous-eyed … with the ability to camouflage or disguise themselves, hunting by echolocation and other enhanced senses, loaded with vicious talons and lamprey-like teeth … I want toys of them. In fact, a whole cavern playset.

The locals talk of what they call the Miner’s Mother, which taps and raps like a tommyknocker, but likes its offerings of blood and fresh meat. Many of the little opal mines in the area still have shrines, and those who follow the old sacrificial custom, or even go further to conceal the truth.

When a sinkhole reveals part of the vast interlinked underground system, though, news gets around fast among the community of cavers, explorers, and adventuresome types. They’re all eager to be first to get a good look. Sometimes, eager enough to bend or break the rules …

Needless to say, it doesn’t go well. After one intrepid duo vanishes without a trace, another group ignores the warnings and objections, and venture down there themselves. Also needless to say, it doesn’t go well for them, either! Or for anyone else in the area, because what lives in the caves is far from pleased at these intrusions.

-Christine Morgan




KRONOS RISING DIABLO by Max Hawthorne (2016 Far From The Tree Press / 47 pp / eBook)

A brief prologue-type installment to the Kronos Rising series, this one is set on an isolated volcanic island, a Lost World type of setting where life and evolution have gone on largely undisturbed by outside influences.

It’s home to a tribe of Cro Magnon descendants, who’ve thrived for thousands of years and developed their religion centered around the massive marine reptiles inhabiting the island’s inland sea. These great beasts are their gods … though, lately, it’s seemed the gods are in decline. Maybe even dying out.

The tribe’s new shaman/chieftain must preside over the funeral ceremony of his predecessor, hoping to establish his place and regain the gods’ favor, as well as that of his promised bride. But, times have been changing. Strange craft have been seen near the island, strange visitors have come to their shores, and the forces of fate and of nature may have other plans.

My main issue with this one was in terms of storytelling and voice; it’s meant to be from the point of view of a member of this entirely separate offshoot society, so having the author including references to things that should not in any way be part of that society’s comprehension – terms of measurement, scientific classifications, art and history and culture, etc. – kept jarring me out of immersion.

-Christine Morgan

PREVIEW:

DEAD TO HER by Sarah Pinborough (to be released 2/11/20 BY William Morrow / 400 pp / hardcover, eBook, audiobook)

Pinborough is one of a few writers I've followed into the thriller field from their days churning out mainly horror, and while this one has all the elements of a blockbuster thriller, in the end it gets quite horrific and features a deliciously wicked cast.

Marcie marries into a ritzy community in Savannah, Georgia. Her husband, Jason Maddox, is now partners with his boss, William, who has recently become both a widower and the husband of a beautiful young woman from London, Keisha. When Keisha starts coming around to the private country clubs, Marcie swears she's flirting with her husband, and intends to friend her to not only keep up appearances, but keep an eye on her as well. Before long Marcie discovers Jason isn't the one Keisha wants, and she's thrown into an affair she could've never predicted.

As Marcie tries to stay faithful to Jason, worried she'll lose all she has gained and be forced to go back to a poor lifestyle, William is murdered, everyone is suspect, and as detectives work the case Jason and Marcie become the top suspects.

Like her previous thrillers BEHIND HER EYES and CROSS HER HEART, DEAD TO HER features plenty of twists and turns, lots of suspense and surprises, and a wicked twist ending that has become a staple of Pinborough's novels. And by wicked, I'm not only talking about who we discover is behind all the manipulation, but the entire cast, who are not only difficult-to-like elitists, but also some of the most downright evil people I've read in quite some time, which gives the novel a sense anything can happen (and for the most part, it does).

Told in four parts, this is a compulsive read featuring a slight voodoo element, giving it a flavor the author's fans from her horror days will appreciate.


-Nick Cato




SKINWRAPPER by Stephen Kozeniewski (2019 Sinister Grin Press / 80 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Of all the horrific things found in the author’s previous work, The Hematophages, the one that most captured my imagination was the concept of the skinwrappers – women who, dealing with cancer and other terrible terminal-type illnesses, have taken to space.

There, planetary factors such as gravity and environmental changes have less of an effect on their deteriorating conditions. Many of them missing skin or other body parts, being scrawny and wasted by disease and elongated by living under zero-G, they resemble living corpses, sometimes partially bandage-wrapped like mummies, often perpetually leaking blood and bodily fluids.

Icky, right? But, remember, these aren’t mindless undead. These are live humans, incurably ill, in constant pain. If their appearance alone doesn’t make them outcasts, their mental state isn’t the best, either. Between their suffering and their stigma, they’ve a right to be bitter.

Whether or not they have a right to band together, raiding for food and medical supplies, brutally killing whoever they can find after harvesting fresh blood and useful organs and body parts … well, it may be understandable; survival is survival … but it does make them some of the most feared pirates in the system.

This book, a tight, taut, tense thriller set in the Hematophages universe (a strongly feminist corporate-driven one where males are obsolete, btw, interesting and very neatly done), follows a desperate teenager trying to hide during a skinwrapper attack on her ship. It’s claustrophobic, nerve-wracking, grisly, and I read the whole thing in one sitting.

-Christine Morgan




HELL'S EMPIRE edited by John Linwood Grant (2019 Ulthar Press / 295 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

You often hear about anthology submissions that must’ve clearly been pre-existing stories altered to fit the call. Change this, add that, take out this other thing, voila and away we go, right? No one will ever know, right?

Well, that sure didn’t happen here. The theme is so narrow, so specific and precise, reworking a story would have been MORE work than writing a whole fresh new one. Which is good, and it shows. This entire book fits together so well it’s as if it was planned that way, coordinated, cooperatively written.

It’s like that WORLD WAR Z book, chronicling the events in a series of interlinked stories. Only, done by several different authors instead of just one. And instead of zombies across modern-day America, it’s England, toward the end of the Victorian age, with an incursion of the forces of Hell. Not the rest of the world, not other eras. Just that narrow zone.

Now, don’t see Victorian and automatically think ‘steampunk’. There are fantastical elements here and there – besides all the Hell stuff, that is – but it’s primarily historical, it’s military and mundane, it brings in aspects of the everyday. Above all else, delightfully so, it’s just SO British in tone and in feel throughout. There’s primness, a crispness, a propriety. The language. The aspects of class and national pride.

Although I enjoyed them all, I have to mention a few particular favorites:

“Hell at the Empire” by Marion Pitman, in which a showgirl singer initially figures the talk of people seeing demons must merely be something in the gin, until the theater she works at comes under attack.

Frank Coffman’s “Reinforcements,” told in the form of a soldier’s journal entries, well into the war, and the arrival of some unusual but far from unwelcome allies.

“The Singing Stones” by Charlotte Bond, taking a skewed look at things from the other side as a demon and his minion find their scouting mission gone awry.

Ross Baxter’s “The Mighty Mastiff” puts bravery and loyalty to the test when a tough old gunboat faces more than just the lonely isolation of the cold sea.

One of the poetic entries, Phil Breach’s “The Charge of the Wight Brigade,” would’ve had me by the title alone, but the poem itself more than lives up to its promise.

-Christine Morgan




BLOOD VERSE by Patrick James Ryan (2013 Black Bed Sheet Books / 398 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

A prevailing theme throughout this collection of 27 tales demonstrates that getting what you want isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be … meet a heavyweight champ facing some challenges that can’t be bested in the ring, a scientific genius learning some hard truths about the medical industry, an eternal reward that sounds awesome at first to one self-righteous soul.

Many of the stories get very grisly, including an example of desperate survival as an injured driver finds himself pitted against patient scavengers, some grit-and-blood revenge torture in the old West, a spelling bee where the stakes have never been higher, and the storm of the millennium giving a killer the perfect cover.

There are family secrets, bitter fantasies, colliding phobias, a much-put-upon assistant trying to help his boss’ parental goals, an ancient vampire’s reaction to certain brooding sparkly paranormal romance trends (hey, as monstrous as he is, it’s kinda hard not to sympathize, y’know?)

I wanted to give a particular shout-out to “Hair,” which starts off with a nasty discovery in a dumpster, seems like it’s going to be a monster-hunty police thing, and then veers into gagworthy body horror … I don’t know if ‘favorite’ is the word I want here, but it sure is effective and squicked me mightily.

Overall, the writing and editing could have used a bit more polish. Little stuff like overuse of names in dialogue, repetitive word use, over-detailed choreography description bogging down the action scenes. But, the spirit’s there, a good sense of energy and enthusiasm. Even when the characters are unlikable, or downright loathsome, they’re entertaining to read.

-Christine Morgan




IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 2202 by Edward Lee (2019 Necro Publications / 138 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Given his more usual settings, one might not be so inclined to think LEE IN SPAAAACE, but, here we go! In a future where religion has taken firm control of society, advancing their theocratic empire around the globe, a ship has been launched on the ultimate quest – to find the actual, physical Heaven.

An extraterrestrial anomaly has been detected. Which, scans indicate, appears to be of the exact compositions and dimensions laid out in the Book of Revelation by St. John the Apostle. It doesn’t take the shape of a planet or nebula; it isn’t made of gases or simple minerals. Is it walled in jasper? Gated in gold? Does it contain the souls of those who’ve passed on? Angels? God Himself?

The C.F.S. Edessa is on a secret mission to find out. Most of the crew doesn’t even know until well into the journey. Including Sharon, a humble data integrator with no idea how sheltered her life has been … an obedient, pious, virginal young woman who regularly goes to confession, diligently takes her supplements, and abstains from foul language or sinful thought.

Many of her shipmates, however, deviate from the rules. This is still an Edward Lee book, so you can rest assured there’s plenty of cussing and sex going on. There’s also sinister plans afoot, including sabotage and murder efforts by heretic cultists.

Sarah, drawn into the intrigues after surviving one such attack, suffers some rude awakenings when she learns more about what’s really going on aboard the Edessa. She’s disturbed by the influences of a civilian remote-viewer assigned to the mission, and by her own budding attraction to a security guard.

She’ll be more disturbed yet when the ship reaches its destination, and they find out the shattering truth of what’s waiting for them in Heaven. If, that is, any of them survive to tell the tale.

A masterful blend of philosophies, sci-fi action, and horror, featuring Lee’s trademark touches throughout, this book will entertain, offend, or maybe both.


-Christine Morgan



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COMING SOON: