Sunday, December 2, 2018

Reviews for the Week of December 3, 2018

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

THE BOY WITH THE CHAINSAW HEART by Carlton Mellick III (2018 Eraserhead Press / 182 pp / trade paperback)

Undisputed Bizarro master and unstoppable writing machine Carlton Mellick III is back again, with his own take on a rather different kind of unstoppable machine … it’s time to get mecha!

But these aren’t your ordinary giant-fighting-robot-vehicles. These are diabolical, biological Hell-mech demonesses, waging a perpetual war against the armies of Heaven. Each must be paired with a pilot, a damned soul who will provide fuel and determine the mech’s available weapons by what’s in their hearts.

It certainly isn’t the afterlife Mark anticipated, after blowing his brains out in a moment of grief-stricken despair. Suddenly, he’s in a strange place with other recently-deceased men, about to be chosen and assimilated. Mark is chosen by Lynx, who’s pleased to discover he brings her the ability to manifest a giant chainsaw.

The better, as they say, to kill angels with! As the latest battalion trains and marches off to confront their foes. Lynx gives Mark the real rundown on Heaven and Hell.

He’s shocked, but what horrifies him the most is the idea that his deceased wife – the reason for his grief-stricken despair – might end up a casualty. After all, someone as devout and good as Amy would’ve been bound to go to Heaven, and now here he is about to help attack it. Not to mention that Heaven sure doesn’t sound like such a nice place, either.

He wants to find her. To save her. Even if it means persuading Lynx to go against orders, even if Lynx insists he’s hers now forever … or as long as he lasts. It’s a tricky situation, made trickier by demonic rivalries and personality clashes, loyalty, betrayal, conflict, and questions of faith.

This one didn’t engage me as much as a lot of Mellick’s other works, felt a little rushed and the writing a little bland for what I’ve come to expect. Not that it’s BAD; I doubt he could write a bad book if he smashed his forehead against a keyboard for a couple hundred pages. Just … not so much my thing this time around.

-Christine Morgan

THE TERATOLOGIST by Ward Parker (2018 Pandamoon Publishing / 287 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Here’s another I went into without knowing anything about it beforehand but the title (NOT, by the way, to be confused with the one by Edward Lee and Wrath James White; VERY different stuff, both good, but VERY different!) And here’s another where I found myself utterly swept up and blown away.

It’s historical, for one, set in 1902, with high society spending the ‘season’ in Palm Beach Florida. We’re talking Gilded Age, shades of Wodehouse, the fancies and fashion … add in cameos by Vanderbilts, add in the ever-witty and charming Samuel ‘Mark Twain’ Clemens as a supporting character … yes please!

Even without disappearances and burned/mutilated bodies turning up to make a mystery of things, I’m there. But wait, there’s more! Because the protagonist is a teratologist. Not in the ‘monster hunter’ sense, but in the medical sense of studying birth defects and human oddities.

Doctor Frank Follett has come to Florida partly on vacation and partly because he’s still struggling with his traumas from the war and the loss of his young wife. While there, however, he can’t help but be intrigued by rumors of ‘Angel Worm,’ a little girl born without limbs, who’s also said to have the voices of the dead speak through her. He’s anticipating a new case. He’s not anticipating to hear his beloved Isabel, and find his beliefs in science and the rational world deeply challenged.

Nor is he anticipating being called in on another case, involving the son of a wealthy family … the youth appears to be suffering from hypertrichosis (the thing with the hair, like circus dog-faced boys, etc) as well as other ailments … and other unusual abilities, abilities of the mind.

Or is something else going on? Something with demons and dark forces? Can Dr. Follett and the urbane Twain figure it out before more lives are lost? I read the whole thing in a single night, unable to look away, captivated throughout. This was a welcome discovery of a treasure, and I was delighted to realize it’s the first in a series. Will be eagerly awaiting the next!

-Christine Morgan

THE SIREN AND THE SPECTER by Jonathan Janz (2018 Flame Tree Press / 288 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

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

“When David Caine, a celebrated skeptic of the supernatural, is invited by an old friend to spend a month in “the most haunted house in Virginia,” he believes the case will be like any other. But the Alexander House is different. Built by a 1700s land baron to contain the madness and depravity of his eldest son, the house is plagued by shadows of the past and the lingering taint of bloodshed. David is haunted, as well. For twenty-two years ago, he turned away the woman he loved, and she took her life in sorrow. And David suspects she’s followed him to the Alexander House.”

Check it out!

-Jon R. Meyers

PIZZA MAN by Bryan Higby and Rick Snyder (2014 BH Books / 258 pp / trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)

Subtitled “Or: The Pizza That Crawled Out Of My A-Hole,” this is not exactly a book of class or subtlety. It’s more a book of wacky grossness, crude juvenile humor and action, the kind of thing you might get from a bunch of teenage boys gaming far into the night hopped up on Mountain Dew and other substances.

Now, I don’t mean that in a bad way. Clearly, the authors had themselves a lot of fun writing this; it shines through on every page. What the book is missing, at least the draft I got, and DIRELY needs, is the stern and thorough attention of an editor. The energy’s there, the story, the characters; it’s lively, it’s tacky, it’s entertaining. But it’s pretty well laden with errors, some problematic language, and other issues. Given a good proper whip-into-shapedness and polish, it could be a treat.

Summary-wise, a town is beset by what initially appears to be the undead, then rampaging pizza-monsters, then demons … all on the eve of a comic-con with special guest Nic Cage … plus secret government plots, family conflicts, friend drama, even romance.

I was reminded of certain SyFy Channel and low-budget schlock features, most notably “Scouts Vs. Zombies” (mostly because I’d seen that one fairly recently). Again, not in a bad way. They have their own kind of guilty low-brow appeal, and that’s where this book fits. These authors have spirit and potential, and I’ll be interested to see what they do next.

-Christine Morgan

PREDATORS by Michaelbrent Collings (2018 Amazon Digital / 351 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Every so often, I think how amazing it would be to go on safari, to experience nature and see wildlife in all its untamed splendor. Then I remember I hate heat, bugs, camping, dust, and being outside in general, so the impulse usually passes long before I have to add in worries about being hideously mauled to death and/or eaten alive.

Then along comes a book like this to gleefully reinforce ALL those feelings, while being able to sit safe and comfy at home reading about hapless tourists doing it instead. Not just any hapless tourists, either, but some examples of the most obnoxiously entitled ‘ugly American’ types, spoiled celebrity brats, and all-around jerks getting what they deserve.

Of course, not every character is like that; some of them are nice, good, decent, worthy people you aren’t necessarily eager to see being chomped into bloody pieces while they scream. You root for them, you feel for their suffering. And then, in the case of this book in particular … there’s that one character … that one about whom I wasn’t sure how to relate.

Looking at you, Evie. I know I’m supposed to like you, to cheer you on as you find your strength and face adversity and overcome obstacles … but dang if I didn’t spend most of the book wanting to give you a good shaking and stern talking-to.

No opportunity for that, though. Evie, and her husband, and their fellow safari-goers, are headed out in hopes of seeing some lions to liven up their thus-far disappointing vacation. They’re going to get far more than they bargained for, leading to an epic alpha-female showdown when the queen of a hyena pack sets her hungry sights on dinner.

Red-in-tooth-and-claw survival horror, another winner from Michaelbrent Collings!

-Christine Morgan


Monday, November 19, 2018

Reviews for the Week of November 19, 2018

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. You may not be able to see it if you're reading on a mobile phone. Thank you.

HAUNTED by Jesse Jackson Lowe (2018 JJ Lowe / 234 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Okay, this one blindsided me … I went into it expecting (obviously) a haunting. Troubled family, strange old house, inexplicable events, etc. The popular athletic older brother, the precociously smart younger one, the distracted dad with obsessive interests, the dissatisfied mom who wants more out of life, odd architecture and history, the sounds in the walls, the weirdness in the cellar, is it all in their heads or is there more … you know, haunting stuff.

I did get all that, make no mistake. It was the extra stuff that came as a blindsiding surprise, one that in my case, personally hit close to home. Jacob, the smart younger brother and POV character, is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Talk about ‘is it all in your head’. The tone snaps from eerie horror to mind/body horror, the details taking him through treatment and radiation extremely legit. The procedures, the fatigue, the swept-along sense of powerlessness … yeah. Been through a lot of that myself all too recently and it gave me deeper chills even than the creepy stuff going on in the house.

Which stuff is, may I say, extremely creepy in a keeps-you-guessing kind of way. Masterful imagery, described just enough to let the imagination conjure. Mysteries hinted and tantalized without being conveniently explained or tidily wrapped up. Many of the common haunted-house tropes are simply absent, omitted with such skill you don’t even notice, and don’t miss them.

Best of all, I thought, was the way the story presented the relationships among the various characters, the changes they go through, the effects Jacob’s illness has on those around him, and on Jacob himself. The dynamic between him and his brother Oliver is vividly compelling and complex, sometimes at odds, sometimes supportive, challenging, conflicted, feeling very true to life.

This is not a happy book. This is a painful and difficult book. But a powerful one, and a real departure from run-of-the-mill.

-Christine Morgan

RABID HEART by Jeremy Wagner (2018 Riverdale Avenue Books / 250 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook)

Rhonda Driscoll lives with her Marine Colonel father and a bunch more survivors in a fortified military base. Victims of a Necro Rabies pandemic have taken over North America and most of the world. On a scouting mission, Rhonda sees her zombified fiancé and realizes her feelings for him haven’t changed.

After bringing him back to base wearing a ball gag, she learns her father plans to kill him and decides to make a run for it in a well equipped military Humvee. Her plan is to head south to Florida and try to start life over with her undead lover.

RABID HEART is another in a long line of road trip zombie tales, but this time Wagner relies heavily on a romantic angle which gives much of this a fresh feel.

Rhonda comes across a crazy family and manages to rescue two kids who join her on her journey, a journey that winds up inside a football stadium packed with Cujos (the name given to the zombies by government officials). Descriptions of zombified football fans getting their heads blown off brought a smile to my face, but your mileage may vary.

Rhonda’s undead fiancé, Brad, mumbles her name and provides some unintentional laughs, but this slight issue aside I think zombie fans will have a blast here, as the virus has also spread to rats and a gore-ious “Super Cujo” in one of the novel’s most suspenseful scenes.

Zombies and romance worked well in the 2004 film SHAUN OF THE DEAD, and here Wagner gives this sub-subgenre his own putrid flavor.

A quick read and a pulpy good time.

-Nick Cato

EMBRY: HARD-BOILED by Michael Allen Rose (2017 Eraserhead Press / 178 pp / trade paperback & audiobook)

Egg-noir. No, really. This is a book about anthropomorphic eggs. And chickens. And society. And prejudice. And murrrrr-der. Yes, there will be egg-jokes and egg-puns and eggy wordplay. Yes, there’s wonderfully egg-centric (ouch sorry, that one actually was unintentional, believe it or not) world-building.

It’s a world not that different from ours, with cities and churches, laws and law-enforcement, and law-breakers. It’s a world where there are the haves and the have-nots. Where there are crimes, drugs, corruption. You know, the usual.

It’s a world where a tough-talking wise-cracking detective from the bad part of town can suddenly find himself framed for a messy high-profile murder. Except, well, the detective is a chicken. Or, as they’re more commonly called, an ‘embry,’ a second-class citizen, an unfortunate accident as far as the elitist eggs are concerned.

Our detective doesn’t even have a name of his own, is just known as “Embry,” and he’s got to hustle if he’s going to solve this case and clear his … well, name … before the cops catch up with him, or the real culprits eliminate him as well as everyone else he cares about (does this list include a dame? you better believe it does; or a hen, as the case may be).

This story has all the noir trappings you might expect, as well as some deviously clever twists and takes you might not. Humpty Dumpty as a religious icon works way better than it should, there’s darkly ominous stuff with all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, the engineering of tofu “chick’n” monstrosities is creepy as could be.

Witty, gritty, delightfully well-written, cuttingly astute, and a lot of fun … this would make an amazing animated feature or series. Brilliant stuff!

-Christine Morgan

ELEVATION by Stephen King (2018 Scribner / 145 pp / hardcover, eBook, audiobook)

Scott Carey has noticed he's been losing weight, yet he continues to look the same size. Not wanting to go to a hospital, he trusts his old friend (and doctor) Bob Ellis with his story. Things quickly get strange, as Scott tries to understand what's happening to him as he attempts to befriend a new couple in town who run a health food restaurant.

Set in Castle Rock, King delivers one of his quieter, and dare I say it, sweeter stories of acceptance, prejudice, and ultimately, sacrifice. This quick read reminded me of a cross between the author's novel THINNER and his son Joe Hill's great short story POP ART. An enjoyable small town drama featuring just enough of a fantasy element to please King's legion of fans. Loved the ending.

-Nick Cato

TWISTED TALES OF DECEIT: THE FIRST BOOK IN THE BEYOND THE CHAMBER DOOR SERIES by P.D. Alleva (2018 Quill and Birch / 189 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

The first in an upcoming series, this collection of three novellas gets things off to a more than promising start.

First up is “The Calculated Desolation of Hope,” which conveys a total and deliberate ‘Hotel California’ vibe … a dark desert highway, a glimmer of light, a weary traveler stopping at a mysterious establishment … many quite familiar themes and snippets of phrasing occur throughout … on one level, it does detract a little from the storytelling since you soon find yourself playing spot-the-reference … on the other, it adds layers of depth and texture that work very well. And then it goes darker, weirder, more damning, and much more dangerous.

The second piece, “Somnium,” follows a daydreaming college student on a labyrinthine journey of psyche and personality as he pursues his ambitions to become a playwright. He’s soon lost in arguments with himself, at risk of losing far more than his opportunities and his mind.

“Knickerbocker” is the main course of this book-meal, and it is my personal favorite of the three. It’s a modern-day, self-aware revisiting of the legend of Sleepy Hollow with overtones of addiction and obsession. Complete with gangly schoolteacher Isaac Crane, no relation but strong resemblance, newly arrived in the quaint community to discover an interest in a lovely lady, a bitter clash with a bullying rival, the upcoming local Halloween festivities… and, looming like a shadow over all, the legacy of the infamous Horseman. Little does Isaac suspect what’s really going on in Sleepy Hollow, and what’s in store for him.

-Christine Morgan

A PLAGUE OF SHADOWS edited by JM Reinbold and Weldon Burge (2018 Smart Rhino Publications / 358 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This nifty anthology comes to you courtesy of Smart Rhino Press by way of the Written Remains Writers’ Guild, and opens with a poem that sure won’t make you yearn for the quaint good old days … “Starving Time, Jamestown 1609” by Jane Miller is a grim and bleak shiver to start things off.

My personal top picks of the book are:

“Bottom of the Hour,” by Phil Giunta, in which a guy with an unusual gift/curse to detect impending death acquires a car with its own deadly connections;

The slow-building chill and nasty shocking conclusion of Graham Masterson’s “Neighbors From Hell;”

Ever-clever Jeff Strand maintaining his place as the genre’s wicked jester with “The Fierce Stabbing and Subsequent Post-Death Vengeance of Scooter Brown;”

Maria Masington’s uncomfortably accurate depiction of those mean inner voices in “Bark of the Dog-Faced Girl;”

The hauntingly lonely and somehow beautiful hopeless horror of acceptance in “Finding Resolution” by Patrick Derrickson;

“The Angel’s Grave” by Chantal Noordeloos, when desperation leads a man to a grisly new career choice (that casual offhandedness of the phrase ‘coffin birth’!);

and Jennifer Loring’s “Dollhouse,” because come on, who can resist a good creepy-doll tale?

Those, though, aren’t even half of the table of contents. You’ll find a range of eras and settings, evils both human and inhuman, the gamut of the whole candybox sampler where some are sweet, some are dark, some are gooey, and some have crunch.

-Christine Morgan

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Reviews for the Week of November 5, 2018

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

WE SOLD OUR SOULS by Grady Hendrix (2018 Quirk Books / 336 pp / hardcover, eBook & audiobook)

In the 90s, heavy metal band Dürt Würk was on the brink of stardom. But after creative differences, their singer Terry Hunt embarked on a solo career that eventually saw him rise to the top of the music world.

Today, Würk’s former ace guitarist Kris works the night shift at a Best Western hotel, and she discovers Terry’s stardom may have come at a price she and her former band mates were never aware of.

What follows is a wild road trip tale full of conspiracies, endless heavy metal references, a dash of occultism, and one satisfying finale centered around an unreleased metal album.

Music fans and musicians will love some of the band situations here, and any horror fan will be happy with Hendrix’s addictive prose. I loved the sections with conspiracy nut JD, who steals every scene.

A fun ride worthy of two devil horns up!

-Nick Cato

OVERLORD by David Wood and Alan Baxter (2018 Adrenaline Press / 222 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

First, there was PRIMORDIAL (and have I forgiven them for the sheep? no, no I have not), which knocked it out of the park for toothy chompy monster goodness. Now, the team who took aquatic terror to new depths are turning their talented attentions to caves deep below the Antarctic ice, where ancient carvings and strange symbols have been found, as well as a potentially invaluable crystalline energy source.

If that sounds vaguely Lovecraftian to you, rest assured, you are in for a treat! Even one of the scientists on the expedition team is a devotee of HPL, referencing his works, bringing a refreshing level of self-awareness and cultural awareness to the book without any fourth-wall breaking; I always find that much preferable to the stories in which nobody’s ever heard of (whatever).

Documentarian Jo Slater and marine biologist Sam Ashton, survivors from the previous book, join forces again, though their reunion is anything but smooth sailing. She’s believed him dead, leaving her to bear the brunt of accusations and ridicule alone. He’s let her believe he was dead, let everyone believe he was dead. But, grudges will have to wait, because they have caves to explore.

For me, this whole book was pure win from the get-go. If there’s anything I like better than toothy aquatic monsters, it’s deep mysterious caving stories. If there are also monsters, even if not necessarily aquatic or toothy, it’s a definite plus. Then throw in deception and greed and a high body count and a surprising pang of pathos for the unspeakable ...

So, yeah, it’s part AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, part THE THING, part ALIENS … it’s another summer blockbuster waiting to happen, full speed ahead and damn the special effects budget. Also, no sheep were harmed in the making of this book (that I know of).

-Christine Morgan

THE WINDOW by Glenn Rolfe (2018 Amazon Digital Services LLC / 339 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

You ever stop dead in your tracks after catching a glimpse of a shadow in the dark? Or thought you saw something looking back at you in a mirror? Or, perhaps you thought you saw something standing outside, looking back at you through your window at home? Well, proceed with caution. This book takes that feeling and times it by a screaming hot one-hundred and eighty-seven and then picks you up by the collar of your shirt and shakes you on the corner as you spill out all your spare change while you’re standing outside the liquor store, leaving you questioning whether what you just saw was real or not. The author manages to knock this horror gem right outside the horror park, leaving you wanting to look behind you at all times. Whether it’s a trip down the hallway to the bathroom, past a mirror, or that godforsaken window after hearing a strange noise on the other side of the house, we as the reader embark on a flawlessly executed character driven modern day horror tale centered around demonic seduction and possession unlike any other out there, whilst creatively joined by many of those classic horror tropes we all know and grew to love so goddamn much. I’m talking about all the alcoholic beverages, sloppy kinky sex and perversion, demonic possession, bikini babes, and those timeless teenage summer getaways, making this an epitome of the horror genre within itself.

When James comes to stay with his father, Richie, for the summer after moving to a new town, it’s not all teenage love and puppy dog kisses as both he and his father are embarking on new found love and relationships. There’s something darker in the window. Things start to take a turn for the worse when he starts to notice his dad’s peculiar behavior. It’s not just the drinking after all ... he sees them too. The dark fiery eyes in the window. His dad being seduced by the evil within. How much longer until his father is entirely consumed by the darkness within the glass? Can he and his friends put an end to the madness? Can they stop the powers that be before they take another living soul victim to their seductive madness and perversion? 

I guess you’ll have to check it out for yourself and find out.

Highly recommended.

-Jon R. Meyers

TEETH by Kelli Owen (2018 Gypsy Press / 248 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

If you’re at all familiar with Kelli Owen, if you’ve read her work or listened to her podcast, you know she pulls no punches and takes no prisoners, and if you can’t handle it, too dang bad. These traits are very evident in her latest novel, TEETH.

It’s not your normal vampire book. For one thing, they’re called ‘lamians.’ For another, they’re not so different from the rest of humanity. Some dietary and health issues, that’s all. The rest is centuries of fear and lies and propaganda. This is our world, our modern society, with just one slight change. And this book holds a mirror up to it … which casts a stark, relentless, unflattering reflection.

Imagine it was a simple matter of genetics, of being born that way. Imagine struggling with or coming out, not as gay or lesbian or transgender as a teenager, but as a lamian … the dread and apprehension, the confusion, the denial … the possible reactions of your friends, your parents, your neighbors … negative depictions in the movies and media … the jokes and discrimination … the hate-speech, the hate-crimes.

Every bit of aghast horror, disbelief, anger at ignorance and bigotry, shame-by-proxy, frustration, sorrow, and pity that I’ve experienced when learning about such behavior from the news came so strongly into play that I was about ready to start smacking people. Well, characters. But also people who act like these characters. Particularly THAT one, most hateful awful, close-minded bigoted … grrrrr … okay, I’m getting mad all over again.

And we SHOULD be mad. We SHOULD be able to see how cruel and absurd it is. Other fictional universes have addressed it – the treatment of Professor Lupin in the Harry Potter books springs to mind, and of course the X-Men – but Teeth really makes the point.

-Christine Morgan

SKULLFACE BOY by Chad Lutzke (2018 Static Age Books / 204 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

16 year old Levi has spent all of his 16 years living at the Gramm Jones Foster Care Facility in Colorado. He’s just like the other residents with one major difference: his face happens to be a skull. And when he hears there is a man living in Hermosa Beach, California who looks just like him, Levi throws his few belongings in a back pack and takes off to find him.

Hitchhiking his way across four states, Levi encounters all kinds of weirdos and freaks, some friendly and some hiding dark secrets. In one hilarious episode, Levi unknowingly helps a crippled man rob a house, and in another is befriended by a used bookstore owner. There isn’t a dull character here, and Levi comes across many.

Set in the 1980s, SKULLFACE BOY is more an emotional tale of self discovery than it is a horror story, but I think genre fans will enjoy this slick coming of age meditation on loneliness, trust, and destiny that’s told in an almost surreal manner.

This is the second book I’ve read by Lutzke this year, and it’s definitely something special.

-Nick Cato

A WORLD OF HORROR edited by Eric J. Guignard (2018 Dark Moon Books / 344 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook)

Different perspectives, different experiences, different viewpoints. Sometimes, that’s what it’s all about, but it’s often easy to forget. It’s easy to fall into comfort zones and complacency, to stick with what we know, with what’s predictable and familiar … when, what we really need is to shake things up. To step outside the boxes, see through other eyes, walk in someone else’s shoes. It’s a bigger world than we realize, a wider one, full of more weirdness and variety than most of us will ever know.

Now, they say travel broadens the mind, and I believe it, but maybe that isn’t as true today as it used to be. A lot of vacations these days seem orchestrated to provide that safe familiarity, with carefully chosen hints of the exotic to add a dash of spice. Real travel, immersion in other countries and cultures, really opening the eyes and broadening the mind? Doesn’t get done as much as it should. Which makes its own sort of sense; there are risks and expenses, you need special documentation, maybe shots, who knows.

But, wait, here’s a handy shortcut! One of the best ways to get a feel for those other perspectives is through art, and art includes stories, and this book presents – for your entertainment and pleasure, with some education sneaking in on the sly – twenty-two tales by authors from all around the world. Authors of many nationalities, heritages, faiths, you name it.

Editors may be just as prone to liking those comfort zones as anyone, so, attempting an ambitious invite-and-recruit undertaking like this must’ve been a lot of extra work. Eric J. Guignard proves more than up to the task, though, assembling a roster of talent well worth your time and attention.

The table of contents lists each author’s country of origin, spanning a respectable chunk of the globe. The stories themselves (each also with bonus cool illustration) draw upon the world’s wealth of history, mythology, tradition, and folklore. There are fairy tales, living nightmares, alternate realities, body horror, spirits and monsters, human wickedness.

I approached the book as I might’ve approached a buffet table laden with appetizers from international cuisines (only, unlike in real life where I’m a food wimp and coward, here I actually DID sample everything), savoring and enjoying the differences as well as the similarities. As a result, I wasn’t looking to find a ‘favorite,’ I was looking to try new things … and found it enjoyable, exciting, and fascinating.

-Christine Morgan

A SHARP STICK IN THE EYE (AND OTHER FUNNY STORIES) edied by Rob Smales (2018 Books and Boos Press / 229 pp / traee paperback & eBook)

My grandmother, when faced with bad news or disappointments, always used to say, “well, it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.” Even as a very young child, this phrase haunted me, and probably contributed a lot to my eyeball-squickiness; I couldn’t think of much that’d be WORSE than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, thank you very much.

So, of course, a book with this title had my immediate interest and attention. The introduction, with the editor’s explanation of how said title was chosen, more than sealed the deal. It’s an anthology of horror/humor stories, with works by some of the most wackily demented minds in the genre, including the clown prince of dark comedy, Jeff Strand himself.

There are updated urban legends and twistedly re-told pieces from fairy tales and folklore, a weirdly plausible take on the zombie apocalypse, the fully understandable experience of wanting to murder the jerk roommate who ate your last yogurt (come on, we’ve all been there!), college hijinks at Miskatonic University, adventures in excessive partying and indulgence, corporate nightmares of difficult co-workers and tricky employment contracts, crazed senior citizens, a beard with a mind of its own, kids dealing with the perils of nocturnal monsters and adults confronting all-too-real childhood fancies, and the socially awkward ramifications of necrophilia.

Reading this book is kind of like playing Cards Against Humanity. You’ll gasp in shock, groan in revulsion, laugh out loud and then feel really guilty for laughing, hope no one heard, wonder what kind of sicko would find this funny, cringe in shame at the knowledge YOU are that kind of sicko, and be eager to share it with your similarly-inclined friends.

So, go on, you know you want to! And have fun … sicko. It’s way better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick!

-Christine Morgan


Monday, October 22, 2018

Reviews for the Week of October 22, 2018

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

TRAIN THOUGHTS by Jay Sigler (2018 Amazon Digital / 237 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

So often, we all just go about our business, our daily routines, with little to no idea what’s going on in the minds or lives of others around us.

Like this fellow here on the train … the one who goes to work every day, his regular commute … even after the devastating loss of his wife. In fact, loss is too soft a term; he came home to find her brutally murdered, and has been dealing with his grief the way plenty of people do – going through the motions, hiding his feelings, drinking too much, trying to dodge the well-meaning efforts of a compassionate co-worker.

Feeling cut off from everyone else, he develops imaginary relationships with fellow commuters who ride the same train. Then, one day, there’s a new guy in their usual car, and something about him seems not quite right. Seems sinister, even malicious. What can a struggling widower do when his new ‘friends’ simply stop showing up on the train? What about the horrible nightmares of their violent deaths?

He’ll follow the new guy, of course. He’ll get some answers. He’ll learn the hard way how far a person might have to go, when driven by desperation.

It’s an intense read, an up-close-and-personal descent into desolate madness. Those death-scene nightmares contain some seriously effective, creepy, disturbing imagery. Even when you think you know where the story’s going, surprise twists keep cropping up, and as soon as you finish (and catch your breath), you want to go back and read it again to see the hints you missed the first time.

-Christine Morgan

SLEAZELAND by Cody Goodfellow (2018 Eraserhead Press / 182 pp / trade paperback)

Don’t be fooled by the crudely-scribbled-looking d*ck on the cover; this book is intricate and complex, deeply bizarre, sharply insightful, and thought-provoking in a hundred different, startling ways.

Then again, we are talking Cody Goodfellow here, a deranged genius in good standing if ever there was one. He has a knack for slicing through reality like a surgeon with a laser-scalpel, folding back the tissues to expose its innermost workings.

SLEAZELAND depicts the Hollywood most of us never see, behind the glitz and glamor, behind the movie-making magic. It’s all about the constant hustle, scheming, greed, and desperation. The eternal quest for recognition and fame.

It also presents a fundamental truth about actors that I’d never even contemplated before … what a special, unique hell that must be; an artistic calling yet dependent on the creativity of others. Of everything disturbing about the story (of which, believe me, there’s plenty!), it’s a moment of cold-horror realization that left me shivering inside.

Summary-wise, things start off simply enough. Charlie wants to be somebody, and is determined to do whatever it takes to get there, no matter how dubious or skeevy. He lives on the streets and by his wits, picking up what roles he can, guided by a book about the sordid rise and fall of a child star. On its own, his story would be interesting enough, but ‘interesting enough’ isn’t going to cut it here.

After a strange encounter with a young pregnant woman, Charlie finds himself hurtling through a craziness of alternate versions of Hollywood, drastic funhouse-mirror different ones where movies are only educational, or religion is the true entertainment. Matters quickly take a turn toward the messianic, leading Charlie toward an ultimate confrontation for which he may not be prepared.

-Christine Morgan


THE RUST MAIDENS by Gwendolyn Kiste (to be released 11/16/18 by Journalstone / 218 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Kiste (author of last year's stellar novella PRETTY MARYS ALL IN A ROW) delivers her first novel, another dark fantasy, this time (mainly) set in a small industrial town in 1980 Ohio.

Phoebe and her friend Jaqueline were just out of high school when some of the girls in their neighborhood started...changing. They turned into something resembling the decaying landscape that surrounded them, hinting at an aimless, desolate future.

As Phoebe plans a way to move away from her hometown, news of the Rust Maidens spreads, and soon her neighborhood is invaded by everyone from government officials to tourists who otherwise would never be there, all tring to get a glimpse at the local phenomenon. To make things worse, the steel mill is shut down, sending most of the area's workforce into unemployment, and houses right on Phoebe's own block are marked for demolition...

Kiste divides her tale through two time frames (it actually begins 28 years after the events, when Phoebe returns to her hometown for closure), but keeps things tight so the reader is never lost. Phoebe slowly discovers what the Rust Maidens are all about, and is able to receive messages from them. The novel is a depressing but powerful look at growing up facing a future that doesn't seem to hold too many chances, but somehow through the muck our protagonist manages to survive, and in Kiste's hands we're pulled along at a perfect pace.

For those who complain there aren't enough female "coming of age" stories, THE RUST MAIDENS should satisfy, but there's a lot more to be mined here. A fantastic debut novel.

-Nick Cato

PRESSURE by Brian Keene (2016 Thomas Dunne Books / hardcover, eBook)

I picked this one up at a convention and read the whole thing on the first leg of my flight home. Now, it didn’t turn out to be entirely the deep-sea creature feature chompfest I was expecting from the title and the cover, but I wasn’t disappointed; while I do love me some deep-sea creature features, I also love me some taut, tight, action-packed science adventure thrillers. Besides, the title has many different interpretations and implications, from the literal to the metaphorical, so it works on several levels.

Celebrity free-diver Carrie Anderson on an expedition to the site of ancological crisis near Mauritius, where an underwater sinkhole dubbed the Mouth of Hell has opened, causing parts of the ocean floor to collapse, devastating the aquatic life, and threatening a populated island. With the eyes of the world on them, courtesy of news coverage, she and her partner descend to investigate.

Only Carrie returns to the surface, surviving thanks to her training but seriously shaken by what she experienced and witnessed. Leaving the hospital against medical advice, dodging the media and her corporate sponsors, she assembles a smaller team for a return visit to verify her suspicions.

But she’s not the only one who knows something even bigger than what’s being reported is going on, and is soon caught up in conflicts and conspiracies, hidden bases, politely sinister operatives, mercenaries, and all sorts of shifty double-dealings … plus, to add to the tension, an encounter with a former flame.

Fans of the author will notice a few familiar names popping up among the characters, the occasional reference or easter egg. And there’s one scene in a truck where you just know Keene was chortling like a fiend the whole time he wrote it.

-Christine Morgan

INTO THE SOUNDS by Lee Murray (2018 Severed Press / 263 / trade paperback & eBook)

Having greatly enjoyed the author’s previous Into the Mist, you’d better believe I was all over this sequel! It brings back Sergeant Taine McKenna of the New Zealand Defense Force and biologist Jules Asher, as well as now-assigned-to-desk-duty Trigger Grierson, and the aged mystic with whom Taine shares a spiritual bond.

This time, Taine and Jules think they’re just tagging along on a routine deer-culling expedition, where the most dangerous risks they’re likely to run into are poachers and opportunists looking to capture and sell endangered animals. To be sure, there are some of those about … but the discovery of a legendary tribe with unusual abilities quickly raises the stakes for everyone. Forget exotic rare birds coveted by collectors; there are people (and organizations) who’d pay a lot to get their hands on specimens like these.

Several of these groups cross paths, and as determined as the bad guys are to plunder this lost civilization, Jules and Taine and the rest of the good guys are equally determined to protect it. What follows is a captivating thrill-ride, deftly combining science, action, folklore, and fun characters; exciting and believable.

Into the Sounds has got many of the trappings of a classic cliffhanger adventure serial, but updated and refined, without the over-the-top melodrama. There are plenty of shoot-em-ups and impromptu wilderness traps, plenty of strong women who do more than need to be rescued, lively banter, hints of romance, fascinating well-thought-out anthropology … there’s a submarine, and the remains of a long-missing helicopter, and underwater passageways with very deadly guardians.

A great read, every bit as exciting as the first; I would already be clamoring for another sequel without the surprise emotional gut-punch at the end, so now I am clamoring for another sequel SOON. Murray has firmly established a spot on my must-read list.

-Christine Morgan


Sunday, September 30, 2018

Reviews for the Week of October 1, 2018

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

CROSS HER HEART by Sarah Pinborough (2018 Harper Collins / 374 pp / hardcover, eBook, audiobook)

Pinborough, author of 2017’s stellar BEHIND HER EYES, returns with another psychological thriller jam-packed with enough twists and turns for at least three novels.

Lisa is a single mother, doing her best to raise 16 year-old daughter Ava. She tries not to mention Ava’s father and is hiding a dark past as she attempts to get on with her life. But she’s starting to find things that make her believe someone is on to her, and the fear her new life will be unraveled leads to a growing anxiety.

Ava lives for her freedom and her friends, and like a normal teen is waiting for her mother to cut the cord. A star on the swim team, she even has a boyfriend (of sorts) her mom knows nothing about.

When Ava goes missing, Lisa discovers a promise made as a kid had long lasting consequences, and that her only help may be in the hands of her friend and co-worker Marilyn, who is dealing with (among other things) an abusive husband.

With a crime committed at a young age back to haunt her, Lisa faces an issue from her past that may claim not only her life, but her daughter’s as well.

CROSS HER HEART is a look at trust, friendship, and a family damaged by the mind of a dangerous psychotic. Readers may figure out some of the twists early on, but Pinborough employs twists on top of those to keep you guessing into the final pages. The short chapters (and high suspense level during the second half) makes this a compulsive page-turner that should satisfy long time fans and keep Pinborough’s growing legion thrilled.

-Nick Cato

THE SKIN THAT FITS by David Massengill (2018 Montag Press / 215 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Freaky murder cult with rituals steeped in sultry Southern magic? A surprise suicide, a guilt-ridden fiancee, and a last request fraught with family secrets, questions, and emotional baggage? A hot and hunky model who worries his best days might be passing, accepting a movie offer on a whim? Missing persons, paranoia, people with weird alligator tattoos? Steamy, moody, brooding, turbulent?

Yes please! At least, in this case, yes please right up until the ending; there’s all this beautiful buildup, tension, conflicts, you’re there craving the big dramatic final confrontations and resolutions … but then it just ends almost out of nowhere. Abrupt, convenient, and unsatisfying.

Up until then, though, it’s a great read, richly humid with atmosphere, tense, packed with paranoia. The characters are interesting and well-rounded, tackling some difficult social constructs. Subtle but distinct Lovecraftian undertones weave throughout.

Kim is the guilt-ridden fiancee, who’d been about to call things off with Eustace anyway and pursue a relationship with pretty Malia, until Eustace’s sudden death and request for her to take his ashes to divide among his relatives leads her on a troubling journey from Seattle to the South.

Todd, the model, is also taking care of his ailing mother, and when he’s approached about a movie, he accepts even though he’s not an actor. He needs the work. He can’t afford to be reticent or suspicious, even when the apparent movie people sure seem to be going about things a peculiar way.

What Kim and Todd don’t know, but are each about to find out in dangerous ways, is that the cult has plans for both of them. Plans involving old magic, possession, the revered crone called Maman, her predecessor Grandpappy, and her chosen successor.

So, yeah, quality writing, intriguing story … right up until that abrupt ending. I was hoping for a much bigger finish.

-Christine Morgan

OUR POOL PARTY BUS FOREVER DAYS by David James Keaton (to be released 10/24/18 by Comet Press / 300 pp / trade paperback)

The intro alone is worth the price of admission; it’s about car chases, listing and providing mini-essays on many of the best cinematic car chases in history … besides, c’mon, he had me at The Hidden. Anyone who can’t agree that opening chase scene isn’t awesome, I just don’t know what I can say.

Chases, driving, road stories, cars. It all works because those themes wend their way throughout most of the stories. Many are connected and interconnected in sometimes obvious, sometimes surprising ways. Some are direct, some follow a more scenic route, some turn out to be unexpected shortcuts. Or there’ll be that sense like when you wonder if you’ve taken a wrong turn, only to suddenly find yourself back in familiar territory.

Several share recurring characters as well as a strongly (and vaguely unsettling) autobiographical-seeming component. ‘A true story’? ‘Based on’ actual events? Or ‘inspired by’? Yes, no, both, all, neither? Reading it felt a little like having a front-row seat inside the head of coherent madness; you can’t tell what’s real and what isn’t, yet somehow it ties together and makes sense.

The stuff with the ducks, and the fly … Zero the (maybe) cat … the body in the guitar case and the bridges full of locks … a purgatorial party-bus … the perils of picking up hitchhikers … stolen ears and forced perspective … turnpikes and tollbooths, morbid memorial crosses … some dusty-trail type road stories of the wild West … clown cars and carnival rides gone off the rails … the troubles that might ensue if license plates were phone numbers … there’s just so much here, so much, and all of it so weird yet weirdly compelling.

Compelling, not to mention skillfully handled. The second-person stream of consciousness dialogue exchange whatevers in “Bad Reaction Shots” made me have to sit back several times, shake my head, and just do some recovery reaction shots of my own.

I have no idea how much of “A Dull Boy” is factual; it’s about the guy who, as a child actor, played Danny in The Shining and the hassles his association with the movie have caused him throughout his life. It certainly feels like it could be, and even if it’s not, feels like it should be.

-Christine Morgan

WE DON'T TALK ABOUT HER by Andersen Prunty (2018 Amazon Digital / 49 pp / eBook & audiobook) 

Hot off the horror press, here is another weird and horrific gem from an author that continues to shock, torment, humiliate, and entertain us with each and every creatively unique and original release. Yes, that is correct. I am talking about author Andersen Prunty and his new absurdly dark and demented tale WE DON'T TALK ABOUT HER, which is now available as an eBook or Audiobook. Now, don’t let the length of this put you off in any way, shape, or form, because trust me, although short, it packs quite a morbid punch to the ole’ gut and still manages to tell a much larger story within a very modest number of pages. The author continues to use his uncanny ability to unfold a devious plot, and, before it’s too late… BAM! We are doom-sucked right into the main character’s dead mother’s pelvis before we can even count to a rotting wet number ten.

Clint is a sociopathic stalker on the fritz of Venom energy drinks, bad outfits, and PTSD triggered by his dead mother. In fact, his deceased mother is actually still rotting and decaying and lying quite very dead on a bed within the confines of his home. But, Clint doesn’t really notice that she’s dead (she still talks to him and tells him what to do) until one of the females he stalks, flips the cards on him, and begins to stalk him instead. Stella, she’s in to win it, or steal all his government money (it’s kind of her thing after-all). Stella makes herself right at home and makes him get rid of the rotting corpse, gives him a hunny-do list while she’s off at work every day, as she continues to jump from relationship to relationship until her bank account is just as happy as she is. But, has she met her match here in this godforsaken house of putrid stench? What is she going to do? She’s not quite sure how much more she can even handle. Hopefully she can figure it out before it’s too late. Hopefully Clint decides to commit suicide and she doesn’t have to worry about any of it anymore (besides wasn’t he supposed to dispose of ALL the body? He can’t even do that right).

Hopefully she can hang in there a little longer. Maybe. Maybe then everything will be okay. But, maybe it won’t. Either way… WE DON'T TALK ABOUT HER.

Check it out!

-Jon R. Meyers

IN THE LAMPLIGHT by L. Jagi Lamplighter (2016 eSpec Books / 250 pp / trade paperbak & eBook)

I thought at first this collection was going to be fantasy. Then I started reading it, and soon discovered it was that and more … darkly, beautifully more. The fantasy and historical stories are dark, the sci-fi ones are packed with gore and horror, psychological and social fears are deftly played with and preyed upon.

Several of the tales tie into the author’s Prospero’s Children universe, which extrapolates upon Shakespeare’s The Tempest and brings it up to modern day. Imagine Miranda, and her half-brothers and various other servants and associates of the household, putting their magic to good use as paranormal investigators and troubleshooters. A familiarity with her longer works isn’t required to read them, especially if you know your Bard, but may quickly become required after reading them because the characters, their world, and the supernatural menaces they face are well-imagined and very fun.

I particularly liked the way many of the stories speculated on uncanny causes, uncanny effects, and other ties between our common everyday ailments and the otherworldly. Less-obvious health hazards of dating a vampire, for instance, or the disturbing nature of changelings.

I also really liked the powerful maternal and feminine elements woven throughout; a mother’s primal instincts can manifest in many forms. It reminded me strongly of the undertones present in a lot of classic fairy tales.

Tragic ghosts, grim space-faring angels, dimensions inhabited by strange demi-gods, necromancy, designer babies, magic mirrors, a dystopian cyber-future, flying pirates, forbidden books, time paradoxes, dolls once belonging to murdered queens … the stories here span a wide range, but each of them is a fantastic, delicious, unsettling read.

-Christine Morgan

FAT CAMP by James Sabata (2018 / 261 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Cabins, crafts, singalongs. The woods. The lake. Nature walks. Swimming. Making s’mores and telling spooky stories by the fire. All good clean wholesome pastimes, all idyllic fun, right? Summer camp, ah the memories, ah the associations!

Except, does anybody really think that? Or do we, by now, jump straight to rules and regimens, enforced exercise, homesickness, misery, and being stalked by crazed serial killers? To make things worse, how about having it be a weight loss and fitness ‘camp’ with strict diet and exercise, drill sergeant counselors, body shaming and mockery … AND being stalked by crazed serial killers!

That’s how Philip McCracken is unhappily spending his summer. He’s hating it, he’s not good at it, he’s hardly losing any weight. He’s a regular target for bullying. To make things worse, the best friend who accompanied him is doing great, breaking the camp records.

He’s had enough. He knows he’ll never stand a chance with the cheerleader of his dreams. When his sister comes to visit over the weekend, he’s planning to bail and have her take him home. But, poor guy, the universe has other plans. Including his sister bringing a surprise guest: that pretty cheerleader.

Soon, campers and counselors start disappearing or meeting gruesome ends. Can Phil survive? Can he become the camp’s most unlikely hero, save his friends, even get the girl? Or is he just another fat loser about to die?

A painful riot from start to finish, full of humor and hack-slash-blood-guts horror … but also hitting many a sensitive nerve and awkward memory for anyone who’s ever felt like a misfit or an outcast.

-Christine Morgan