Monday, November 23, 2015

Reviews for the Week of November 23, 2015

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

DOMINOES IN TIME by Matthew Warner (2015 Cemetery Dance Publications / 298 pp / eBook / also available as a limited edition hardcover from Thunderstorm Books)

Warner's latest collection features 18 horror and science fiction stories covering a wide range of topics (and time periods). The book is divided into 5 sections, and each one features a genuine gem or two.

After the author's foreword, the first 6 tales fall under the "Ain't it Romantic?" heading, and include 'Picture Perfect,' where a model's life is altered by a slick photographer and his unusual camera, then a father (who is on the brink of divorce) meets his fate at a children's library in 'Muralistic,' while an undertaker deals with the death of his wife in the spooky 'At Death We'll Not Part.' My favorite of this section was 'Springs Eternal,' about a man searching for the Fountain of Youth (but gets a ghastly surprise), then a son helps his father cope with his late wife at a ghostly party in 'Cocktail Party of the Dead.' Capping things off is 'Life Insurance,' where a family recovers from hurricane Katrina in a most unique way.

The book then shifts into "The Joys of Parenthood," an area where the author shines. In 'Cat's Cradle,' a man must deal with a strange feline as well as his newborn son, then in 'Second Wind' a man locates his ex-wife to help birth his son in a nasty post-nuked world, where on top of everything else a "were-virus" has infected the population. A man with "The Peering" develops a disease from eyeing his son in 'With the Eyes of God,' then a step mother sees a premonition on a baby's video monitor in 'Maybe Monitored.' Warner ratchets the suspense up high in 'It's Just Business,' as a father worries about his young son at a playground when a shady looking character arrives. Make sure to read the author's introduction to 'The Three Golden Eggs,' which is a prequel to Jack & the Beanstalk. Fun stuff.

It's "Intermission" time, and along with it comes my favorite story of the lot titled 'And That's When the Bathroom Exploded,' as a worker describes how an airport bathroom blew up on his watch. A wonderfully bizarre tale that's as darkly comic as it is strange.

Three historical tales arise in "Looking Back" starting with 'Backwards Man,' where the old saying "Everything happens for a reason" is played out between a newly homeless man and a Causer of events. In 'Bummers,' a woman sneak-joins the army during the Civil War after her lesbian lover leaves for a man, and in 'Monarch of the Mountains,' two silver miners in the old West encounter a freaky creature in one of the collection's more memorable offerings.

Both stories in "Looking Ahead" are simply fantastic: 'Noah's Temple' takes place in the distant future and looks at religion and science through the eyes of a female pope; one of the better religion-themed horror stories I've read in a while. And finally, 'Die Not in Vain' is a novella about Joe Merrill, an aerophobic man flying to the East Coast to make plans for his Alzheimer-stricken mother. But Joe is having "death trips" and continually sees himself dying. He thinks he's going crazy, as does his wife, and when he learns his mother has been dealing with the same issue, Joe's world becomes even more surreal.

DOMINOES IN TIME showcases Warner's ability to pen authentic paranoia from many different angles (his 2006 novel EYES EVERYWHERE will be of interest to those interested in the subject) and his blending of the macabre with some finely placed humor makes this collection sing. At times reminiscent of classic Twilight Zone episodes, Warner's stories are engaging and more often than not will take you places you didn't see coming.

-Nick Cato

SLUSH by Glenn Rolfe (2014 Alien Agenda Publishing / 110 pages / trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook)

This 12-pack collection draws inevitable comparisons to the short stories of Stephen King, and hey, that’s fair … it fits, and there certainly are worse writers to be compared to!

Elements of small towns, youthful characters coming of age or discovering dark truths, cultural references (and nods to King himself, always fun!), and simple home-style horrors lend them a simple but encompassing appeal.

'Ballad of the Best-Selling Author' gives voice to the eternal frustration many of us feel when something we don’t deem worthy becomes a popular or even mainstream phenom; in this one, the culprit is the zombie craze, as a true horror fan fights a lonely uphill battle to try and explain why famous hotshots don’t deserve the attention.

I particularly admired (I can’t say ‘liked,’ because it gave me SUCH uncomfy chills) the short but viciously effective 'I’m In Here”'… 'Jackie Boy' is a nicely nasty piece of work for sure, and 'Henry' will squick anybody right the heck out.

Some of the stories have been published before, others make their debut in these pages, and each of them stands strong. My biggest complaint with the book was that I could have done with another dozen more stories. So, Mr. Rolfe, hop to it!

-Christine Morgan


A PENNY SAVED by Sephera Giron (to be released 12/1/15 by Samhain Publishing / 107 pp / eBook)

Cora is an office worker, confined to her cubicle and dealing with her low place on the totem pole as she sees others around her advance. An avid penny collector, she finds a particularly shiny one in the street and is instantly transported to another dimension. She learns the penny is owned by a demon, and it doesn't take long for her life to change.

First her superior asks her to dinner, and she learns they both share the same unusual sexual interests. She willingly becomes his sex slave, and before long rises to the top of her company. Her co-workers stop talking to her, but she's not bothered as the money and promotions keep coming.

Despite being sexually abused by her two bosses, Cora eventually becomes the demon's right hand man, as well as a slave of an otherwordly kind.

Giron's sexually-charged novella is her take on the "deal with the devil" subgenre, this time employing underground goth culture and a heavy dose of fantasy-laced underworld mayhem to give things a fresh feel. A couple of scenes of Cora being transported to hell and back are quite creepy, and fans of kinky sex should be warned this makes 50 SHADES OF GREY look like a weak Sunday school lesson.

Enter at your own risk!

-Nick Cato

ROCK AND ROLL REFORM SCHOOL ZOMBIES by Bryan Smith (2010 Deadite Press / 124 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Ahhh, the 80s … when the various satanic panics about rock-and-roll and other teen pastimes really hit their stride. D&D for the nerdy kids, punk and metal for the cool ones. Parents whose own parents probably flipped out about the Beatles were all set to do anything to re-educate and de-metal their wild child.

The focus of this fun homage to that era is at a special school-slash-treatment-center designed to ‘cure’ teenagers. Of course, such programs are all too often not what they seem. At their best, it’s brainwashing in an attempt to make good little drones. At their worst, it’s rampant abuse of countless kinds.

The Southern Illinois Music Reeducation Center is not one of the good ones. Teachers and guards get away with anything short of murder under the auspices of a sadistic headmistress, and SHE, well, she gets away with more.

Until, that is the night a weird meteor lights the sky, and certain secret shallow graves disgorge their rotting occupants. The students and faculty, as well as a couple of guys on a mission to rescue one’s girlfriend, soon find themselves up to their necks in hungry flesh-chomping zombies.

A cheesy popcorn horror-comedy in book form, it’s pretty much everything you’d expect in all the right ways.

-Christine Morgan

DEAD RINGERS by Christopher Golden (2015 St. Martin's Press / 320 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook)

Nick and his ex-wife Tess are doing their best to raise daughter Maddie together. Nick is now with a younger girlfriend and is considering moving to England with her, which would put a strain on his already shaky relationship with his ex. Tess spots Nick in Boston one day and he snubs her, but she later finds out he was actually in New Hampshire at the same time.

Tess' friend Lili helps her look into things, and in the process discovers she has a doppleganger of her own.

It turns out Nick, Tess, Lili, and a couple of their aquaintainces have become targets of malevolent spirits who had been trapped in a mirror-filled spiritualist contraption called a psychomantuem. The spirits have managed to latch onto our protagonists and become flesh and blood versions with no physical imperfections, and the more they become human, the more Nick and co. begin to...fade away.

Golden gets major kudos here for taking a couple of tired tropes (demons, dopplegangers, ghosts) and giving them a fresh spin. For the first section of the novel I was expecting some kind of scifi/clone story, but was happy to see things come from an occult angle, which adds to the novel's relentless sense of dread. A side story dealing with a struggling alcoholic held captive in his basement adds depth to an already intense tale.

DEAD RINGERS is a wicked good time, complete with a horrifying conclusion reminiscent of the 1975 cult classic THE DEVIL'S RAIN. Check it out.

-Nick Cato


Sunday, November 8, 2015

Reviews for the Week of November 9, 2015

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

THE BOX JUMPER by Lisa Mannetti (2015 Smart Rhino Publications / 142 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Mannetti's novella is told by one of Houdini's former assistants (or "Box Jumpers"), Leonna Derwatt, and the story focuses more on Houdini's attempts to foil the con artist psychics and spiritualists of his day than it does his magic. But fans of the legendary magician need not worry: Mannetti's storytelling here, through the eyes of the aged Leonna, turns this slab of historical fiction into a wicked good time, with sections as creepy as they're surreal.

The author's attention to detail, especially during a seance scene, makes this tale shine, and as we see the reasons Leonna falls in love with (the married) Houdini, we too become more fascinated with him. When Leonna manages to slip a couple of items into Houdini's coffin, we begin to learn more about her and the mystery unravels until the last page.

From Leonna's earliest memories to her final glorified visions of Houdini, THE BOX JUMPER keeps us inside the mind of someone who was truly obsessed, and this dark, demented love story is written with razor sharp precision and an eye for detail seldom seen in horror fiction.

-Nick Cato

SICK PACK by M.P. Johnson (2015 BizarroPulp Press / 101 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

The life of a world-famous romance cover model is far from easy. Just ask Fabulo. Or, better yet, ask Fabulo’s abs. Go ahead, ask them, because in this gloriously outrageous bizarro romp, Fabulo’s abs take on lives of their own.

No, really, they do. As in, his beautifully toned and sculpted ab muscles are tired of the endless regime of crunches, of exercise and discipline, of being shown off glistening and shirtless. When the ab-obsessed Glub Gut shows up to free them, Fabulo’s abs gleefully seize the opportunity to escape and go their six separate ways.

If that sounds all a little too weird for you, then you’d be better off reading something else … it only gets weirder from there. Fabulo finds that, without his abs to restrain it, his stomach becomes a ravening beast with a monstrous hunger, and it will leap right out through the gap where his abs used to be to consume donuts or anything else it can reach.

Besides, without his spectacular abs, Fabulo’s whole career is in danger. He has to get them back! But how to track down runaway ab muscles in a city secretly overrun with rogue body parts? That’s how Fabulo meets Skidrina, a specialist bounty hunter.

Meanwhile, however, each of his abs are off having their own adventures … discovering their true callings, getting in danger, falling in love. It’s like the strangest fairy tale ever, a fairy tale not only with talking animals but animate severed heads, robot hands, booger torture, toilet faces, drugs, sex, violence, and revenge.

So far, everything I’ve read by M.P. Johnson has been sheer wonderful bonzo crazy win, and SICK PACK is yet another mind-melting delight. He’s definitely a fierce force to be reckoned with and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next!

-Christine Morgan

RITUALISTIC HUMAN SACRIFICE by C.V. Hunt (2015 Grindhouse Press / 200 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Architect Nick Graves is planning to divorce his wife Eve. But right before he does she drops a bomb on him: despite both of them claiming they never wanted kids, she confesses she's pregnant, and that she did so intentionally. Pissed beyond belief, Nick decides to buy an isolated house to get even--to make a major life decision without her permission, and she goes along with it.

Nick is able to work from home, and in their new small town with no schools, Eve is forced to quit her teaching job. While Nick is having fun "getting even" with his wife, a visit to the local doctor puts both of them on a path that builds to a genuinely disturbing finale.

Have you ever wonderred what a Bentley Little novel would be like if Little lost his conscience? Look no further. Hunt's latest novel is a brutal nightmare of sexual violence, small town terror, and marital warfare that might test the limits of even the most jaded genre fans. You may never look at a coat hanger--or a small town doctor--the same way again.

A quick, sick, nasty offering from the always entertaining C.V. Hunt.

-Nick Cato

18 WHEELS OF HORROR edited by Eric Miller (2015 Big Time Books / 258 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I was a kid in the era of trucker and road movies … Convoy, Cannonball Run … I remember Burt Reynolds and his ‘stache, BJ and his Bear … I remember wishing we could have a CB radio and be all cool … I remember making wild air-honk gestures at passing big-rigs on long road trips, and the glee with which we’d greet each successful blast.

The cover alone is everything it should be, doing what Maximum Overdrive aimed for (and missed by a mile). Gorgeous work, says exactly what it needs to, lets you know exactly what you’re in for. And the stories inside do a great job holding up their end of the bargain.

The book opens with Ray Garton’s taunting, spooky, vengeful “A Dark Road.” If Garton’s ever written a dud, I’ve yet to find it.

Other of my personal faves and stand-outs include:

R.B. Payne’s “Big Water,” in which a weird secret delivery gets weirder and more secret.

“Pursuit,” by Hal Bodner, a deep-skin-crawly piece of paranoia.

The reality-bending sly fun of Tim Chizmar’s “Cargo.”

“Siren,” by Eric Miller, updating an ancient seafaring myth for the land-bound highways.

Meghan Arcuri’s craving-inducing, nicely satisfying “Beyond the Best Seasoning.”

And last but not least, the closing story, the tense and gruesome “Roadkill” by Jeff Seeman, finishing things off with a nice gory splat.

This anthology took me right back. And for those who weren’t around in that era, it’ll take you right there too. Truck stops and CB lingo, the endless rumble of engines and wheels, the perceived romance and wearying lonely truths of the open road, the aspect of unique Americana, it’s all here.

-Christine Morgan

SLASHER CAMP FOR NERD DORKS by Christoph Paul (2015 Eraserhead Press /  / trade paperback)

Jason "Voorheesberg" is brought to a less than stellar slasher camp by his mother where he meets a host of low level slashers, and while some warm up to him, Jason eventually discovers he's on his own, especially when he falls for a girl who was sent to kill them all.

Adding difficulty to things is Jason's fear of slashing. Despite his size and strength, he can't bring himself to kill anyone. But things need to change when the camp is taken over by new, more violent counselors who place the campers in a do-or-die competition, where no one can be trusted and young Jason is forced to rely on his own prowess.

In this satirical world, everything is slasher-related. There's a Slasherbowl watched once a year on TV, the camp kids eat in the Slasheteria, and the nerds dream of going to one of the better slasher camps. The cast is hilarious, including one of Jason's new friends who has the ability to control bees (a nod to Argento's PHENOMENA?) and a bunch of "Final Girls" and other slasher film tropes that get turned upside down and inside out.

As silly as it is absurd, SLASHER CAMP FOR NERD DORKS is basically a bizarro re-telling of Jason's origin that should leave slasher film fans grinning from ear to bloody ear.

-Nick Cato

THE COLONY: RECKONING by Michaelbrent Collings (2015 CreateSpace / 474 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

FINALLY!!! Last time I reviewed one of these, I’d somehow gotten it into my head that it was the conclusion, so there wouldn’t be any more agonizing cliffhangers leading to me frothing and foaming and calling the author a booger.

But this time, really and for true, this one’s the last in the series. It’s the end, it’s over, the story gets resolved, questions are answered, things are explained, and …

Frothing. Foaming. Calling the author a booger. Not because of a cliffhanger this time, but because of the horrific heart-wrenching tension, the grim fates, emotional whipsaws and gory buzzing bonesaws, and the sustained anxiety of every parent’s worst fears/nightmares.

The relentless, breathless, break-neck pace of the previous books continues in this one, cramming the entire end of the world / fall of civilization / desperate scramble for survival against ever-increasing throngs of ever-more-monstrous enemies into a mere span of days. It takes a real toll on the characters, who barely have a chance to wrap their minds around the latest trauma before the next one strikes.

In ‘RECKONING,’ the POV has shifted from unlikely protagonist Ken to less-likely protagonist Christopher, whose careless, carefree, wisecracking ways are a fraying, frazzled lifeline as he somehow finds himself trying to keep the group together. They’re once again forced to leave a place of sanctuary, once again suffering terrible losses along the way.

And meanwhile, the hivemind mutant bugzombie menace is getting more powerful than ever. A central foe has coalesced, drawing other chosen doomed hosts toward a final confrontation. As before, I daren’t say too much for fear of giving spoilers, but whew, what a racing wild ride!

-Christine Morgan

FRESH MEAT edited by Leonard Perry (2015 Sinister Grin Press / 177 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

A selection of seven stories, like a deli sampler platter of cold cuts, there’s a little something here to satisfy most tastes … particularly carnivorous ones with a preference for the tender and juicy.

My favorite of the batch is Liam Dunson’s creepy hostage situation in “Find the Arise,” with its titular phrase that burrows into the underside of your mind and clings there like a nasty little pincery thing.

I also particularly enjoyed the ritual-gone-wrong of “The Spoiler” by Matthew Weber, and Neko Lily’s deep-down-twisted “The Kiss of Death.”

Some of the others, I found a bit uneven, but all entertaining and intriguing enough to keep me reading. A nice appetizer course, lean and flavorful.

-Christine Morgan


Monday, October 26, 2015

Reviews for October 26, 2015

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

THE DEATH HOUSE by Sarah Pinborough (2015 Titan Books / 284 pp / hardcover, trade paperback & eBook)

This heavily praised 2014 UK novel is now officially out in the U.S. and the wait was well worth it.

Children are given random blood tests. There's a fatal illness they can catch up to age 18. Those who test positive are labeled "Defective" and sent to what the kids have named The Death House, which is located on an isolated island. As their conditions worsen, patients are taken from their dorms in the middle of the night up to The Sanitorium from which no one ever returns.

The novel focuses on Toby, a teenager who has been taken from his family after testing positive. At The Death House, he lives his days like everyone else, which isn't much different from standard high school daily life. Cliques abound. And when he becomes friends (and eventually more) with new girl Clara, Toby is given a hope he never thought possible.

Pinborough delivers an irresistible cast here, from our main couple and their friends to antagonist Jake and his goons, to the mysterious Matron and her nurses who treat the children with little to no emotion. It has the feel of GIRL, INTERRUPTED mixed with OUTBREAK, and while the horror is latent in each scene, at its core THE DEATH HOUSE is a dark love story with a heart-wrenching finale that showcases Toby's integrity.

The author chose not to explain what the illness is or what causes it. She hints what it may or may not do ("I heard it makes your eyes bleed" cries one teenager), giving the tale an even deeper sense of dread. Kudos, too, for an incredibly realistic fight scene between Toby and Jake, and for making the reader feel attached to even the most least-mentioned characters.

I've read several of Pinborough's novels and this Is easily my favorite of the lot. Fantastic read here that's not to be missed.

-Nick Cato

ANSWERS OF SILENCE by Geoff Cooper (2015 Deadite Press / 292 pp / tradepaperback &eBook)

Some authors are prolific as heck; some make you wait for it. Geoff Cooper is one of the latter types, but not out of any sadistic streak. The introduction (by the late and much-lamented J.F. Gonzalez) and a glance through the ‘Story Notes’ section at the back of Answers of Silence will readily show why.

The guy is his own harshest critic. If he were to review his own book, he’d probably (and very unjustly) tear himself a new one. I mean, yes, okay, there’s self-deprecation and modesty, but come on! I can only imagine what he thinks of the stories he hasn’t let be published, which are still probably better than a lot of writers could hope to achieve.

I am, however, very glad Cooper let himself be browbeat, arm-twisted, bribed, and/or otherwise persuaded into making this collection available … because it’s really, really neat. The stories, for all their apparent surface differences, have connections, threads, and themes woven throughout. Some reference each other directly; with others, it’s a character name here, a place name there.

And they are good. They are good. The first one, “A Question of Doves,” is downright creepy in its chilling brilliance (chilliance?). It does not go the way you might initially expect, and the shivers linger a long time after you reach the end.

Next up in the book is a drastic but no less brilliant change of pace, as an out-of-practice artist tries to regain his inspiration in the gory, grisly “Incentive No. 43.” I would read a whole novel, or series, about “The Sheriff of Pensie Avenue,” because it’s a peek into a world of such fascinating strangeness, I want to see more.

Various genres get their chance in the spotlight, whether it’s “The Missive” from a doomed colony, or god-magic and revenge in “Jolerarymi’s Rose.” Lengthwise, they range from short vicious jabs (“Latex: Like a Glove”) to the intricate complexities of the finishing novella (“One-Eyed Jack”).

Each story evokes its own set of disturbing emotions. Love, faith, loss, pain, hatred, loyalty, and fear are examined … deconstructed … dissected. They stir on a deep level, in many different ways. I agree with everyone else who’s said, yeah, we need more from Coop!

-Christine Morgan

THE TELL TALE SOUL by Christopher Conlon (2015 Ramble House / 156 pp / hardcover & trade paperback)

This collection of two novellas uses classic tales as a springboard, and what Conlon comes up with will have you racing through the pages.

In the title story, told by an old man who Edgar Allan Poe based his classic 'The Tell Tale Heart' on, we get to see what "really" happened, and the author keeps us guessing from page one as to what is real and what is only part of the narrator's cloudy mind. Using Poe himself as a character is a nice touch, especially in a courtroom scene and what he eventually does for our storyteller. There are plenty of tales told from the viewpoint of someone living in a mental institution, but Conlon's is done in a fresh style.

Next up is 'Beyond the Silver Horizon,' a take on Eugene O'Neill's play 'Beyond the Horizon,' yet it seems to take place on either an alternate earth or on earth with an alternate history. Whatever the case, Conlon had me mesmerized with his young protagonist Andy and his strange brother, and the down and out new girl (Ruby) they befriend in their rural town. As in the first novella, we're never quite sure if we can believe our young narrator, which adds to the novella's overall weirdness. When government officials arrive later on to deal with Andy's unusual brother, the juxtaposition of modern-aged, strangely-dressed people against the story's 1920s setting left a vision in my head that refuses to leave. Part love story, part scifi, part horror, Conlon's take on O'Neill's classic play is literary bizarro at its finest.

Conlon's writing here is superb (which should come as no surprise) and his ability to keep the chills growing (especially in the first novella) is masterful. Here is one author who continues to get better with everything he does. Highly recommended.

-Nick Cato

THE IMMORTAL BODY by William Holloway (2014 Horrific Tales Publishing / 300 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, & eBook)

I really need to remember to remind myself when the book I’m reading is part of a series! Particularly if it’s the first one. That way, when I get to the end, my howl of agonized suspense will at least not come as a total surprise.

This IS one of those books, and a series off to a terrific start. A high-tension, high-mystery paranormal crime thriller, it’s got all the cop drama and action, with blended with dark magic and a subtly handled but pervasive and excellent theme of cosmic horror (don’t let the cover fool you, though; the squidgy tentacles are not the main element).

In Atlanta, a church service turns violent, and is followed by a spree of murderous ritualistic atrocities. In New Orleans, something similar happens at a graveyard séance. At the center of one, a troubled faith healer able to ease the pains of those he lays hands upon but plagued by his own addictions … at the center of the other, a young medium whose ability to speak with the dead is worked into her act.

The events are seemingly unconnected, but the nearly identical stylings of the atrocities – which is wonderfully handled, descriptive-wise; not in gory graphic detail but shown through the reactions of the characters and with just enough hints and glimmers to let the reader’s mind fill in the rest, far more effectively than even the scariest movie – suggest there must be more to it.

Among those convinced, or slowly and reluctantly dragged toward conviction: an FBI agent with a background in Satanic conspiracies, a former member of the SAS experiencing sudden flashbacks of forgotten occult experiences, one cop who’s lost everything that ever mattered to him, and another who is all too aware how far over his head he’s in.

Anything else might verge into spoilers territory, and I don’t want to do that, so I’ll just say the writing is excellent, truly top-notch stuff, subtle and understated in places, razor-sharp in others. There’s humor and pathos, powerful use of language and emotion, terrific characters who develop and respond like real people over the course of the story … just an all-around great job!

-Christine Morgan

A PICNIC AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS by Neil Baker, illustrated by Maya Sugihara (2014 April Moon Books / 40 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Poor Lovecraft … as if it wasn’t enough to have his eldritch horrors transformed into cartoon characters, plushies, toys … now one of his classic tales has been delightfully reimagined as a charming children’s book!

It’s the classic adventure format, too. A brother and sister, receiving a mysterious map in the mail from Uncle Howard, take a brave journey to Antarctica. There, they explore an abandoned campsite, a strange city, temples, and tunnels inhabited by peculiar creatures.
As with the best kinds of picture books, the artwork is as much if not more a part of the story as the words, filled with clever little details and amusing touches. The penultimate page, right before The End, is almost too adorable for the mind to bear.

My own daughter is all grown up now, but I totally would have read this to her when she was younger. Admittedly, my parenting technique may have always been a tad on the dubious side, but still.

This is a darling book, an ideal introduction for kiddies and a fun read for kids of all ages.

-Christine Morgan


MERCY HOUSE by Adam Cesare (2015 Hydra / 259 pp / eBook)

I work in a psych facility, not an old-folks home. I work in a psych facility, not an old-folks home. So I kept telling myself, alone on the overnight shift, as I read Mercy House. Did it help? Not a lot. Every weird noise made me jump more than usual, and doing the 2 AM bed-check rounds was extra fun.

This book is a highly effective nightmare, hitting the bullseye on several of our common fears. Fear of aging and infirmity … loneliness, abandonment … dementia, humiliation, loss of faculties and independence … the guilt of having to “put (beloved relative) in a home” … mistreatment and neglect by caretakers … financial screwing-over … and, of course, being torn to pieces in a violent bloodbath.

It’s COCOON meets LORD OF THE FLIES with a hint of ALTERED STATES, when the elderly residents of Mercy House suddenly find themselves healed of their various ailments, brimming with strength and energy, and overwhelmed by primal urges. Fighting urges, gorging urges, gambling urges, libidinous urges. If the idea of sex-crazed geriatrics makes you uncomfortable, well, be forewarned.

The transformation begins during a welcome dinner for the newest resident, the already-unpleasant Harriet, as she’s being dropped off by her doted-upon son and the daughter-in-law she detests. They, Don and Nikki, are caught in the carnage along with the staff members. Within seconds, the meal becomes a slaughter.

Factions form, leaders arise, territories are staked out, barters and battles ensue. For the unaffected – nurses, janitors, guests – the rest of the night is a desperate scramble for survival against bands of savage seniors.

As disturbing as it is, it’s also funny as heck. Squicks and kicks of all kinds, hosts of great characters, believable handling of the setting and situations, and wonderfully well-written to boot. Depending on your family, might make a great gift … or get you disowned in a hurry.

-Christine Morgan



Monday, October 12, 2015

Reviews for the Week of October 12, 2015

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


THE GREATEST ZOMBIE MOVIE EVER by Jeff Strand (to be released 3/1/16 by Sourcebooks / 272 pp / trade paperback)

15 year old Justin Hollow loves to make monster movies with his friends Gabe and Bobby. After a couple of shorts involving mummies, werewolves, and vampires, Justin gets the urge to shoot his first full-length feature, and is determined to make it The Greatest Zombie Movie Ever.

He manages to get a $5,000 loan from his quirky grandmother, gets the two best looking kids at school to star, and agrees to let one of his friends' slightly off-balanced uncle do the special effects. Being a Jeff Strand novel, you can imagine the mayhem that ensues, and this time the laughs come fast and furious. A couple of scenes had me laughing out loud, and it ends with a hilarious and satisfying finale.

Underneath the silliness there's a fine look at friendship, with one scene being quite touching (Justin's friends are willing to sacrifice their beloved possessions to help finish financing the project). But don't think the author is going soft: there's still an abundance of his trademark sarcasm, weird characters, and surprises around every turn.

This is another solid YA novel from Strand that can be enjoyed by anyone (especially zombie film fans) and it's easily his overall funniest work to date.

-Nick Cato

SNAFU: RECON edited by Geoff  Brown and Amanda J. Spedding (2015 Cohesion Press / 116 pp / eBook)

The SNAFU books are all about the military. These aren’t ordinary people caught up in violent life-or-death struggles … these are the troops, the dedicated men and women in uniform who do this sort of thing on purpose.

But, since the SNAFU books are also horror and sci-fi, they’re not just any ol’ war stories, either. Think ALIENS. Think DOG SOLDIERS. Think (that movie with Andy Serkis). Sometimes, even the best battle-hardened, armed and armored soldiers run up against foes or situations not covered in basic training.

The books themselves feature a variety of sub-themes, and the stories in them range across many eras and many worlds. Seasoned veterans such as Weston Ochse, James Moore, Jonathan Maberry, Greig Beck, and Joe Nassise lead the way for dozens of newer recruits.

This particular volume, RECON, is a sampler, a teaser, a tantalizing and enticing come-on to encourage you to enlist. It contains five diverse stories to showcase the range and span of the series, starting with R.P.L. Johnson’s “Taking Down the Top Cat,” in which a covert op to take out the head of a drug cartel pits the squad against something even more ferocious than they’d bargained for.

Next up is “War Stories,” by James A. Moore, a harrowing and heart-wrenching tale set not in the thick of the action, but in the long aftermath of those who came back alive to have to deal with the memories, and a society unable to fully understand their sacrifices.

Weston Ochse’s “Cold War Gothic” has a gritty almost-noir feel despite being set in the late 1960s, as Special Unit 77 handles another super-secret supernatural case. Also, the thing with the spiders? Pure genius, a head-smacker of the wish-I’d-thought-of-that caliber.

“Skadi’s Wolves” by Kirsten Cross had my attention right from the title, historical fiction in general and Viking-historical in particular being very much my thing. It’s a rousing tale of a Saxon and a Dane sent as emissaries to a Pictish tribe, only to find themselves threatened by beasts out of legend.

Last but not least is Jack Hanson’s “Fallen Lion,” an excerpt from his contribution to SNAFU: Survival of the Fittest. The most futuristic of the bunch, it’s got intelligent weaponized elite dinosaur warriors helping defend human colonies from aliens, and if that’s not cool enough for you, I don’t know what more to say.

-Christine Morgan

POINT HOLLOW by Rio Youers (2015 Chizine Publications / 310 pp /  trade paperback & eBook)

Youers (author of my favorite novel of 2012, WESTLAKE SOUL) returns with another descent into darkness, this time with a more classic feel.

Matthew Bridge and his family left Point Hollow, NY over 25 years ago after a traumatic experience found Matthew alone in the woods for three days. He went into a state that left him with no memory of the incident, but now, on the verge of getting divorced from his wife in Brooklyn, something is calling Matthew back home.

Hollow Point's favorite citizen, Oliver Wray, harbors a secret he does all he can to protect. A mountain near Point Hollow known as Abraham's Faith speaks to him...demands of him, and he learns he isn't the first one to become a servant to its barbaric requirements.

Youers' prose here is nearly flawless. I read this in two sittings. It's a tight, well crafted novel with plenty of genuine scares and a couple of intense suspense scenes. The story itself, however, falls into the "ancient evil in a small town" category that has been done countless times, and I found much of it predictable.

Despite the familiarity, POINT HOLLOW is a real page turner. It's done much better than most novels of its ilk, and hence recommended.

-Nick Cato

NIGHT'S NEON FANGS by David W. Barbee (2015 Eraserhead Press / 184 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This is a whole lot of dark, twisted bizarro packed into a single slim volume. It’s like a can of orange juice concentrate – strong, potent, and brain-puckeringly powerful, especially if you don’t dilute it. In this case, diluting it would probably involve adding time instead of water, taking a break between stories to allow each one’s impact to diffuse and mellow.

I didn’t do that, and I’m still reeling. Each of the four is its own unique wallop of weirdness, beginning with rains of mummies. Yes, mummies, the dried ancient Egyptian corpses. I mean, forget your rains of frogs or fish … offend Anubis, and the jackal-god’s going to call down one doozy of a curse.

The world adjusts as well as it can, but then, the world’s gone a ways beyond normal. This is something Buster Wade knows all too well, because he’s also cursed. He’s an electric werewolf (hence the title of the first story and the collection), hated and hunted, with an unfortunate tendency to short out appliances and an even more unfortunate tendency to go on savage killing-and-feasting sprees.

The theme of gods and curses carries on into the next story, “Noah’s Arkopolis.” Imagine if you will that, after all that stuff with the forty days and forty nights and the flood and the boatful of animals two-by-two, God decided not to have the waters recede after all. Now imagine Noah, drunk and angry, deciding to turn the ark into a floating city populated by generation after generation of crossbreeds.

“That Ultimo Sumbitch” is a weird-wild-western cyberpunkish sci-fi dystopia, in which ostrich-riding cyborg bounty-hunters track camel-riding sombrero-wearing outlaws, where herds of pandas graze and indentured hippies toil in the fields, where scattered civilized settlements huddle in the desert against reptiloids and mutants. Part Westworld, part King’s Gunslinger, part I-don’t-even-know … wow.

And then there’s “Batcop Outta Hell,” my favorite of the bunch (seizing the honor away from the Noah story and bumping it to second place). It’s like a young Tim Burton teamed up with Edward Lee to remake Robocop … with bats. I mean, the batpeople, I love the batpeople, their batsociety, everything.

Imaginative, horrific, quirky, gruesome, outrageous, crazy-seeming-random yet cohesive and well-designed believability of the unbelievable worldbuilding, and just basically huge amounts of weird fun.

-Christine Morgan

FRANKENSTORM by Ray Garton (2014 Pinnacle / 352 pp / mass market paperback & eBook)

Ah, Northern California that really IS Northern California, none of this Bay Area business (it’s in the middle of the state! that’s Central, if anything!). I went to college there, my ex-husband’s family is from there, my sister currently lives there, I am familiar with the area.

So is Ray Garton, and he destroys it. There I’d be, giddy with the nostalgia of mentions of places I knew well – the Samoa Cookhouse, with some of the best bread to be found anywhere; the iconic green Carson Mansion! – then along comes Hurricane Quentin to wipe them off the map.

And yes, technical quibbling about hurricanes vs. typhoons / Atlantic vs. Pacific, etc. But everybody knows what a hurricane is, sometimes it’s more important to be understandable, and let’s face it, Typhoon Whatever just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Battering the picturesque rugged redwood coastline is not enough, however. The storm, as powerful and dangerous as it is, serves to make things way, WAY worse for what else is going on at the supposedly-abandoned mental hospital. Which, in itself, is foreboding enough … not in a haunting sense, but in a secret experiments sense.

One of the doctors involved is having a crisis of conscience regarding the nature of the program and the rather unethical means of obtaining test subjects. A local conspiracy podcaster with a snoop on the inside is ready to blow the whole thing wide open. A gung-ho paramilitary type is also ready to blow the whole thing wide open, only, in a more literal manner.

Not to mention, the experiment itself has turned out to be a bit beyond the anticipated parameters in terms of effectiveness and contagion. In other words, they’re turning innocent people into highly infectious maniacs. A rescue-effort raid is maybe not the best idea, but, by then, it’s too late.

Also caught up in the action, violence, terror, wild weather, and mayhem are a single mom and an estranged dad, each just trying to do what they believe is best for their kids. Garton has a knack for handling huge casts of characters with aplomb (though the fast-rising body count probably helps) and does not play by the usual comfortable rules of who lives and who dies.

FRANKENSTORM is a riotous good read, clever and intense, a terrific combination of the weather-disaster and the fight-the-infected action thriller. It’s desperate survival on multiple levels, pretty much impossible to put down. I’m sure I will be reading it again very soon.

-Christine Morgan


BLACK STATIC Issue 48 (Sep-Oct 2015  / TTA Press / 96 pp)

This issue's opening commentary features Stephen Volk's look at SciFi television and its roots in films such as WESTWORLD, and Lynda E. Rucker digs into the parallels between horror and beauty, which leads to an interesting point on why (she believes) horror novels became so generic in the 80s.

The fiction opens with a novelette by Jeffrey Thomas titled 'Distinguished Mole.' Bendo, a doctor working in a run down clinic, experiments with cells in his apartment at night. After taking the mole of a monk, his life transforms in this bizarro multi-genre tale that brings the weird big time.

In Stephen Bacon's 'Bandersnatch,' a brother returns from 10 years in "exile" to meet up with his sister in the wake of their mother's passing. He still has incestuous feelings for her, and devises a plan to get rid of her live-in boyfriend. Despite a violent scene with a dog (that turned this animal lover off), Bacon's short tale is a real creep-fest.

A woman dealing with the death of her young daughter (and the end of her marriage) gives Steven J. Dines fertile ground for some disturbing revelations in 'The Suffering.' Here's a melancholy ghost story complete with an ending that's as slick as its prose.

In Andrew Hook's 'Blood for Your Mother,' a woman returns to her childhood home to see her dying father. Her parents never hid the fact she was unwanted, and when our protagonist discovers why, readers are in for a truly horrific treat (just don't let the author's overuse of the word "whilst" distract you).

Although doctors gave him six months, Olive's boyfriend dies a week later in Cate Gardner's engaging 'When the Moon Man Knocks.' Olive is then visited by Hector Wynter, who claims the dead live on the moon and communicate with their loved ones by sending him messages via origami birds. Olive needs to decide if she's being scammed or suffering from extreme grief. But what she learns about the dead becomes an eye-opener even for the mysterious Mr. Wynter. This is top-notch dark fantasy, showing off Gardner's ability to use emotion as a springboard for some serious chills. A fantastic novelette to cap this issue's fiction.

Tony Lee hits us with another massive round of dvd/bluray reviews (his look at the season 5 box set of THE WALKING DEAD is perfect for anyone who doesn't want to sit through hours of the show), and Peter Tennant provides an excellent interview with author Simon Kurt Unsworth. Among Peter's always detailed book reviews are a look at three re-released Lovecraft inspired anthologies, a good look at the latest two novels by Sarah Pinborough, and a batch of novellas, one from this issue's contributor Cate Gardner.

An all around excellent issue, and I welcome the weirder material. Subscribe or check out a solo issue here: BLACK STATIC 48

THE HORROR FICTION REVIEW will return on October 26th...

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Reviews for the Week of September 28, 2015

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

SUPERGHOST by Scott Cole (2015 Eraserhead Press / 112 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

The mysterious Dr. Rains offers Darren and Michelle (and a host of others) an experimental cure for their irritating phantom limb syndromes. By placing their arm or leg stubs into his machine, they are temporarily cured of their pain. But of course Dr. Rains has plans none of his patients could've ever guessed.

It seems Dr. Rains has invented a way to "steal" phantom limbs, and has invented an adhesive that can connect them together, a paranormal glue if you will. And to get back at the scientists who mocked him, he has created a fifty-foot tall "Superghost" comprised of the torso and head of a body builder with multiple legs and arms.

At a science convention, the Superghost goes on a rampage that begins to flatten the city (it's able to both walk through walls and become a solid killing machine at will). Thankfully, Darren and Michelle have come into contact with the equally as mysterious Dr. Franck, who has come up with a way to battle the Superghost. And it will require Darren and Michelle becoming part of an even stranger monstrosity.

SUPERGHOST is Cole's debut, a riff on mad scientists and ghost stories that's quite entertaining. I'll definitely be checking out whatever goodies this New Bizarro Author has up his translucent sleeve.

-Nick Cato

GOBLINS by David Bernstein (2015 Samhain Publishing / 210 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Roanoke Island in Virginia is usually a quiet town, a nice place to live and raise children. Until one afternoon when Jacob Brown disappears in the woods while chasing a baseball after a championship game. Shortly after, his parents are brutally murdered in their home. And soon, more children disappear, their families slaughtered.

Police Chief Marcus Hale begins to suspect that what is terrorizing Roanoke Island is not human. He resists the idea, but town drunk Jed Brewster knows about such things, and together they try to stop the creatures stalking the children.

GOBLINS was kind of a strange reading experience for me. I enjoyed the story very much; David Bernstein is a great writer who just keeps getting better with each book. But he described the children’s terror and pain so well that it broke my heart thinking of the horror they endured – even though they are fictional characters. 

But if you prefer your horror more visceral than emotional, there is something for you as well. Splatterpunk describes this story very well. The goblins spend a lot of time masticating eyeballs, disemboweling victims, and generally feasting on humans, and the author lovingly describes these actions. I cringed a lot.

If you’re looking for a good, creepy story for the Halloween season, GOBLINS is a perfect choice.

-Sheri White

ANDERSONVILLE by Ed Erdelac (2015 Hydra / 340 pp / eBook)

I love historical fiction when the language and feel of the era is spot-on, and from the very first page, this one nails it. The era in question is Civil War, the particular setting a train on the way to a hellish prisoner-of-war camp in Georgia.

It isn’t the sort of train anybody would want to be on, let alone deliberately sneak onto … and even less so for a black man dressed in Union blue. Yet that’s exactly what Bradley Lourdes does, to the point of taking on the identity of a less (or maybe more) fortunate deceased soldier.

Living or dead, black or white, none of them are going to find their situation improved by arriving at their destination. Inside the stockade is a mass of mud, filth, lice, brutality and despair. Shabby tents and ramshackle shelters crowd together in every available inch of space, and those who can’t manage such lodging find themselves scrounging out a place to sleep on the bare ground. Rations are few and far between. Clean water is a treasure beyond price.

Life is cheap, and the threat of violence is everywhere. Maybe from the sentries up on the walls of the stockade, rewarded for shooting anyone crossing the line. Maybe from the sadistic guards and their packs of vicious dogs. Maybe from the commander, always ready to order a lashing. Maybe from fellow prisoners; the tough prey on the weak, various factions maneuver for status, and there’s always the odd lone lunatic or two.

Yet, as horrible as the place appears … the truth is worse. Much, much worse. I’d been so caught up in the story already, the characters and their struggles, the atrocities, the grim and appalling and all-too-believable conditions, that it almost came as a surprise to discover there was an even more sinister, inhuman secret lurking behind the already inhumane facade.

So, you get the grittiness and horror of a Civil War prison camp, loaded with racism ranging from casual to monstrous, and you also get a hefty dose of the paranormal. Biblical, native, vodoun, occultism, a little of this, a little of that, mixing together to mean serious bad news.
It’s a great read, bringing together history and mystery, descriptions almost too vivid, plenty of compelling characters, and an expertly handled sense of time and place.

-Christine Morgan

THERE'S A BLUEBIRD IN MY HEART by Gary McMahon (to be released 10/14/2015 by White Noise Press / 26 pp / limited edition chapbook)

After losing his family to some kind of monster plague, Bill finds comfort in the bottle, even if it only leads to fistfights and more despair. And after a one night stand with his elderly landlady, he finds his way to another bar where he discovers he's able to see auras of sorts--strange blue glows coming from the other patron's chests--that leads him to an encounter with a strange beast that then leads to what is perhaps the ultimate kind of self-discovery.

While McMahon's tale only takes up 18 pages, its scope is epic; the hint that something worldwide is happening hides in the background of Bill's closed world, which is as depressing as it is exciting. BLUEBIRD is an incredibly satisfying read, although I could easily see it being expanded into a much longer piece.

If you've never seen a White Noise Press chapbook, this one's as beautiful as ever, complete with Keith Minnion's interior illustrations and packaging collectors will want on their shelf.

Another all-around excellent release from WNP. (This is limited to only 150 copies so grab one now at White Noise Press)

-Nick Cato

THE REBORN by Bryan Smith (2015 CreateSpace / 250 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Wow. I mean, just … wow. Serves me right for assuming this was going to be yet another zombie story. This is anything BUT yet another zombie story. This is a one-way ticket to a spiraling weirdness, becoming more impossible to put down with each passing page. I recommend setting aside enough time to read at a single sitting, because it has one of the highest what-happens-NEXT?! factors I’ve seen in a good while.

So, there’s this guy named Josh, who’s always sort of known that sooner or later, he’d kill someone. Probably several someones. He’s been fighting the urge since he was a kid and recognizes himself as definite serial killer material. Finally, he can’t resist any longer, and sets his sights on a woman he’s known since they were kids.

Mia. Beautiful Mia, not quite the girl next door but the girl whose mom still lives across the street from his grandfather (who’s his own barrel of fun; a mean, spiteful, bitter, abusive old bastard Josh can’t seem to escape).

It works. He gets her. He does the vile things he’s always wanted to do. He kills her. Even brings home a special souvenir, at least, as long as it lasts and he keeps it on ice. Josh is feeling pretty smug, pretty pleased with himself.

Except then, Mia comes back. Incredibly, impossibly, there she is. Back from the dead, with no memory of her own murder, and with a new, inexplicable fondness for Josh.

Fondness? Obsession, more like. It may seem like any guy’s dream, having a gorgeous woman utterly devoted to him, but it’s actually more than a little creepy. He can’t get rid of her. He doesn’t know what to do. It certainly promises to cramp his style for any future killings, too. Or does it? Mia really only wants to be there for him, take care of him. No matter what. If that means helping, well ...

Josh isn’t exactly your Dexter-style antihero, adhering to his own twisted kind of code. Josh is, honestly, kind of a jerk. Not to mention, a dangerous and depraved sociopath. And yet, in a peculiar sort of way, I found myself feeling sorry for him as he gets deeper and deeper into a mess of his own making, if beyond his understanding.

THE REBORN is part gory thriller with a supernatural twist, part hilarious screwball rom-com, and all awesome.

-Christine Morgan

A GOD OF HUNGRY WALLS by Garrett Cook (2015 Deadite Press / 164 pp / trade paperback)

Trust modern-day Renaissance genius Garrett Cook to not only reinvent the haunted house book, but discover it anew in whole hitherto unexpected dimensions.

I can’t help but be reminded of the immortal opening words by Shirley Jackson – Hill House, not sane, etc. I always thought those lines had such intriguing potential, and wanted more. How could a house be not sane? Aside, of course, from architectural wackadoo business like Winchester? But, in all my years of reading, I’d never found a satisfying answer.

Until now. This house is not sane, not by any human definition. And it isn’t anything so simple as “from the house’s POV.” Like in his stunning story in GIALLO FANTASTIQUE, this really is an imagining, an immersion of perspective, far beyond anthropomorphizing.

The house is fascinating in its alienness, its observation and manipulation of those within its area of influence. Some of them live there. Some of them, well, ‘live’ may not be the right term. There are those who currently rent rooms – Micah and Cythera with their turbulent relationship, troubled keep-to-herself Leah, feisty Kaz, and Brian-the-new-guy – and there are others. Those whose memories linger on in strangely vital ways. Antonia. Clarence and Maddy, and the shameful things they do to her.

The house knows their secrets. The house can put images into their minds, thoughts into their heads, urges into their bodies. Through therapy sessions with Doctorpuppet, and torture sessions in the basement, with subtle whispers and suggestions or outright physical manifestations, the house affects them, plays with them, uses them at its whim.

The house might as well be a god, but even gods sometimes have their devils. What IS the Closetsong? How is it exerting its own power, interfering, taking what should only belong to the house?

I can’t really give a synopsis because I think this is the kind of book that will resonate differently with each reader; it’s marvelously self-contained and inward-looking, it explains nothing but doesn’t leave a sense of unfulfilled un-explanation. As things begin to fall apart, the distress and confusion, the disintegration, are almost painfully empathic.

Masterful stuff. By no means a casual read; so much is going on, and on so many levels, it will require full concentration … and even then, probably several re-reads will be required, with new impact and new sinking-ins each time.

-Christine Morgan