Monday, May 6, 2019

Reviews for the Week of May 6, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're on your cell phone you probably won't be able to see it. Boot up the 'ol laptop, baby...

NO GIG IS TOO SMALL by Andre Duza (2018 Deadite Press / 148 pp / trade paperback)

Almost four years ago, I read and reviewed Duza’s shock-jock radio show zombie apocalypse book, WZMB, which presented the end of the world and the collapse of civilization through an assortment of clips, transcripts, eyewitness accounts, and other unusual narrative approaches.

Picking up NO GIG IS TOO SMALL and realizing it was a sequel, with a similar hodge-podge of nontraditional styles, made for a delightful surprise! This time, in a VH1-esque Behind the Music format, we follow the megastar 80’s band Serpentine on a reunion tour like no other.

Rockers Graeme, Jules, and Hollister are hitting the road in a doomsday prepper’s kitted-out ride, getting it all on video as they brave the dead-shambling ruins. It could be the biggest comeback ever. It could get them torn apart and eaten.

Or it could turn into something even weirder, as they notice the same figure appearing again and again … a woman in a Serpentine concert shirt, whose behavior proves strikingly unlike the other undead. She was a big fan who never got her fondest wish, and now someone is hoping to make her post-mortem dreams come true.

Told through video footage and voice-overs, descriptive fragments, script-like dialogue, flashbacks, omniscient camera overview, and so on, it isn’t the smoothest read … but it doesn’t have to be. Nor should it be. Like WZMB before it, the style works great for the story, and again lends a fresh, different take to the zombie genre.

-Christine Morgan

THAT WHICH GROWS WILD by Eric J. Guignard (2018 Cemetery Dance / 296 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, & eBook)

Prolific and excellent editor as he is, it’s sometimes easy to miss that Eric J. Guignard is an accomplished author in his own right. This gorgeous sixteen-story collection (blurbed by Ramsey Campbell no less!) certainly proves it.

The somewhat cumbersomely-titled but immediately gripping “A Case Study in Natural Selection and How it Applies to Love” starts things off with an all-too-plausible near-future where global warming has done just that, raising temps (but it’s a DRY heat!) to the point struggling survivors have to deal with spontaneous human combustion as well as chaos and drought. I’d happily read an entire novel set in that world!

Another favorite of mine was “Last Night ...”, which speculates what would happen if the planetary rotations and revolutions just suddenly stopped, tidally locking half the earth toward constant sunlight and the other under the sway of an eternally full moon … dire enough, even without a werewolf problem …

I also enjoyed “A Curse and a Kiss,” presenting a much darker-than-Disney take on Beauty and the Beast from the house servants’ point of view, with a different sort of Beast and a very different sort of Belle.

The others span a wide range of eras, settings, and styles. We get gritty gunslingers, debt and decadence, a run-in with Bigfoot, the remote horror of war, a dying mother’s dutiful son, Prohibition-era grim undertakings, a plane crash in the desolate desert, ominous sinkholes, strange plagues, love and loss in the fog, the risks of that business ‘power lunch’, a tsunami’s legacy returning from the sea, and an under-the-rainbow visit to Oz.

Some of these, I’d seen before in their original appearances. Others were brand-new to me. I found them all well-written and entertaining. Solid good stuff!

-Christine Morgan

WOUNDS: SIX STORIES FROM THE BORDER OF HELL by Nathan Ballingrud (2019 Simon and Schuster / 289 pp/ hardcover, trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)

Ballingrud’s second short story collection deals mainly with men who find themselves in dark, desperate situations, starting with ‘The Atlas of Hell,’ where a shady bookstore owner is forced by a crime lord to steal a book that’s reputed to be the gateway to hell itself. A suspenseful blend of horror, noir, and southern gothic gets this show off to a solid start.

In ‘The Diabolist,’ the daughter of a mad occultist learns the history of a summoned imp, as well as her and her father’s fate, then ‘Skullpocket’ delves into a town’s dark secret in a fairy tale-type style. Ghouls, a strange cult, child sacrifice and charnel houses are just part of what’s in store in this wickedly addictive tale.

‘The Maw’ finds an elderly man hiring a young girl to guide him through a city that has become a doorway to hell. Some images here will immediately get under your skin. I had read ‘The Visible Filth’ back in 2015 when it was released as a stand alone novella, and it made me an instant fan of the author. A bartender in New Orleans finds a cell phone that sets a creepy-crawler thriller into motion. Excellent.

WOUNDS ends with ‘The Butcher’s Table,’ a novella-length pirate tale featuring cannibal priests, Satanists, demons, double crosses, and enough schism to make even Blackbeard shudder. As someone not interested in pirate stories, this one ended up being my favorite here, and my favorite piece from the author so far.

With this and his previous collection, Ballingrud is well primed for take off.

-Nick Cato

THE BLOOD IN GUTHRIE by Kira McKinney (2018 IP / 218 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Ah, small Southern towns, their secrets, their struggles, their scandals! Some of the issues remain the same, whether modern or back in 1934. Clashes between the bible-thumpers and the roadhouse revelers, racial tensions, corrupt or incompetent officials, grisly decapitation murders …

Okay, that last one may be a little outside the curve, but, there it is. Welcome to Guthrie, where, lately, a lot of severed heads have been turning up. Just the heads, positioned at various points around town, and not much to go on in the way of clues.

Sheriff Elmer Avant, widely regarded as a bumbling idiot, is far more concerned with stuffing his face, taking it easy, and making passes at pretty blondes at the bar. His new deputy, recently relocated from the big city, is another matter. Jack McMann, overcoming his own troubled past, is determined to solve the crimes.

The problem is, hardly anyone else in town seems much to care, even as the death toll rises. Neither are they too keen on outsiders meddling in their business. Jack’s job is further complicated when suspicion and attraction collide in the form of diner-owner Minnie, a black woman with no patience for racist talk.

My biggest side-eye overall has to do with the relationship between Jack and Elmer. The level of insubordination Jack displays seems way out of place / out of line, even considering. However much a bozo Elmer might be, to put up with all that? I had a hard time buying it.

Jack’s investigations often strain suspension of disbelief, conveniently letting him overhear conversations or make huge CSI-type logic leaps. The tone strives for dark comedy but falls flat in places. Still, it was entertaining and held my interest, and I read the whole thing.

-Christine Morgan

a HFR second look:

RABID HEART by Jeremy Wagner (2018 Riverdale Avenue Books / 194 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook)

I’d not been acquainted with this author’s work before, and was a little weary/apprehensive about yet another military-vs-zombies book. That it featured a female protagonist, however, and was billed as much as a love story as a shoot-’em-in-the-head, intrigued me.

Turns out Rhonda Driscoll is far from your typical soldier. She’s a hair stylist whose father is in charge of a last-stand stronghold military base. Although she’s learned a lot in the months since the ravenous bitey undead rampage began, although she’s capable with guns and gear and all that, the prevailing vibe is more of a ‘Take Your Daughter To Work Day’ gone too far. She’s certainly not above using Daddy’s name and rank to get around the rules when necessary.

Of course, even Daddy has limits for how far she can push it. Limits that don’t include bringing her zombified fiance back from a search-and-salvage mission to her old neighborhood. The colonel didn’t like Brad much even when he was alive. He’s not about to accept a ‘Cujo,’ as they’re called, for a son-in-law. No matter how much his little girl insists Brad is not like the others.

So, Rhonda and ball-gagged Brad make a break for it, out into the hectic, devastated remains of civilization, where they not only have to worry about Cujos and unfriendly human survivors but whether Daddy’s going to give chase.

I did have a few issues with the ‘female character written by a dude’ vibe here; some of the word choices as well as Rhonda’s thoughts and reactions gave me that familiar yeah-no kind of eyeroll. Plus, the tech/military jargon sometimes felt tell-y and overdone with more detail than needed.

It was fun, though; the action scenes high-octane bang-bang-bang entertaining, the gore plenty splattering.

-Christine Morgan

BOOK HAVEN AND OTHER CURIOSITIES by Mark Allan Gunnells (2019 Crystal Lake Publishing / 219 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Welp, folks. Hot off the press is a new jam from author Mark Allan Gunnels, and this time it's in the form of the highly creative and unique title novella, ‘Book Haven’, as well as a barrage of various short stories to follow, showcasing the author’s versatility. As a personal fan of Gunnells’ previous work I knew I was in for a real trick and treat. Gunnells’ is the real deal, a wordsmith of sorts, who possesses the power of crafting unique stories time after time that continue to whole-heartedly shock, entertain, haunt and captivate. The author also excels in creating unique characters that the reader is able to fully empathize with throughout the entirety of his work, feeling their personal tragedy and triumphs, as if they were someone we’ve already personally known for a very longtime, or we’re sitting right there dying with them on the sidelines. 

Some of my personal favorites were the title novella, ‘Book Haven’, a futuristic landscape where the world’s literature has been lost, and a group of government agents are on the hunt for a vast secret library, ‘Book Haven.’ ‘C U Soon,’ a girl dies in a car accident while texting with her boyfriend, but after her funeral he continues receiving mysterious messages from her. ‘Human Bones in a China Cabinet,’ a young man has an unusual collection hidden away. ‘When Gas Was 52 Cents Per Gallon,’ a couple of friends on their way back to college stop off at an abandoned gas station with more than just car problems. And, ‘The Farm,’ a horror movie buff is in town and wreaking bloody havoc, while visiting a list (and checking items off another) of some of his favorite filming locations to some of his favorite horror movies ever made. A true gem to the horror community right here, folks. 

Check it out!

-Jon R. Meyers

AND HELL FOLLOWED compiled by Jarod Barbee and Patrick C. Harrison III (2019 Death’s Head Press / 244 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

If you’re gonna blaspheme, at some point it might as well be “go big or go home.” For the fiendish folks behind the newly-established Death’s Head Press, ‘at some point’ equaled ‘right from the get-go,’ because they decided to launch with an anthology of extreme horror, bizarro, and splatterpunk based around / inspired by the Book of Revelation.

The TOC includes some of the wildest, wickedest names in the genre. Wrath James White (who also does the intro), the Sisters of Slaughter, John Wayne Communale, Wile E. Young, K. Trap Jones, the distinct depraved horror-comic stylings of Jeff Strand, and many more!

(yes, including me, though after reading all the others I feel a little weird; they mostly went hardcore and I’ve got this sweary little brat of an angel because one part of Revelation always seemed so weirdly random and out-of-nowhere to me)

These stories do not hold back. Nothing is sacred. Much is savagely desecrated. The Four Horsemen make their appearances, so does the Whore of Babylon. So do the doomed sinners and damned souls by the millions. Devils and archangels, minions and monsters, the Mark of the Beast … the biblical prophecies of the end of days provide plenty of fodder for apocalyptic atrocity.

As for production value, weathered-looking matte cover gives the book a striking appearance and texture, Don Noble’s cover is a stark/sleek dash of evil. If the print’s maybe a little smaller than my aging eyes would have chosen, and it could’ve used one more proofread, it’s still one Hell of a debut, pun totes intended.

-Christine Morgan


Monday, April 22, 2019

Reviews for the Week of April 22, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're on a cell phone you're probably not going to be able to see it. Bust out the laptop, amigo...

POLYMER by Caleb Wilson (2018 Eraserhead Press / 82 / trade paperback & eBook)

Easy to see why this one made the cut for the New Bizarro Authors Series … it’s bizarro, all right, but it’s bizarro of the more elevated, experimental, avant-garde kind, while also being contemporary and current, with cutting observances on modern issues.

We already have reality shows, gameplay livestreams, and nonstop social media drama on tap 24-7. We can sit back and watch other people play video games, risk their necks in stupid stunts, ruin their love lives. We’ve always had the thrill of sporting events, gladiatorial combat, and larger-than-life celebrities.

Caleb Wilson takes all of those to the next level here, in a world where the entertainment-craving masses eagerly follow every move of their favorites to the point of hardly caring about anything else.

Favorites such as Polymer, the latest darling of the monster-hunting scene. With his shiny white jumpsuit, his sleek hairstyle, his expressionless blue neoprene face, and his deadly rapier, he’s a rockstar among rockstars. No one else can work the synth and destroy the withrons like Polymer. He’s hotter than the latest mutated-potato craze.

His fans will drop everything to follow and watch through the glass as he progresses through Sickleburg Castle. And, when new vents open between there and the outside world, his fans are pulled further into the adventure than ever before.

Like much of the genre, the more you try to logic and reason the setting, the less it works … but you don’t have to, and if you just roll with it, then the magic happens. It doesn’t need detailed explanations of the tech and such. It just IS, and what it is, is a whole lot of fast-moving fun.

-Christine Morgan

TEETH OF THE WOLF by by Lee Murray and Dan Rabarts (2018 Raw Dog Screaming Press / 236 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I went into this one somehow not having realized it was the second in a series (of which I’d also somehow missed the first!) but that quickly became very apparent as I read. Despite it being clear I was stepping into an ongoing story mid-stream, the characters were presented well enough to allow for mental filling-in of the blanks.

Scientist Pandora “Penny” Yee does some independent contract work for the local police, which lands her in the middle of some peculiar cases. Like this one, with bog bodies and mysterious tattoos and links to possible cults.

Given her life already has its peculiar aspects, mostly courtesy of her brother Matiu and his connections to underworldly and otherworldly elements, Penny’s pretty used to taking things in stride. Well, most things. She’s still at a loss whenever her parents are involved, especially when her parents are involved trying to play matchmaker at her. Or her erratic aunt goes off the rails in a family emergency.

Or Matiu, who’s got his own inexplicable events unfolding on the side, continues NOT TELLING HER STUFF. That was my biggest problem with the book (aside from the title never quite clicking for me for some reason), and it was purely interpersonal. A whole lot of trouble could’ve been avoided if they just TALKED. Kinda made me want to smack them both.

A fun read, but I recommend starting at the beginning if you can. Not necessary, but probably makes for a more satisfying experience overall. (important note, btw: it’s near-future, 2040s; took me a while to catch on. The first time I spotted a reference to the date, I thought it must be a typo; oops! my bad).

-Christine Morgan

100 WORD HORRORS: PART 2 edited by Kevin J. Kennedy (2019 KJK Publishing / 138 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Alright, folks! Step right up, read all about it. That is, if we’re talking about some of those little one-hundred-word long pieces of violent and macabre flash fiction called drabbles. That’s right, boys and girls. The first book of drabbles did so well it came back for round two and I’m not going to lie ... I’m drabbling a little bit out the side of my mouth right now, as I’m staring at that beautiful, sexy vintage horror paperback cover from yesteryear. The only difference in the concept of this anthology from the first one is this was invite-only, and I have to admit the lineup here is nothing short of admirable. I also found myself enjoying this installment much more than the first because I found it to be more fun and versatile overall, as well as a bit more violent and gruesome. From violent murder to exquisite mayhem, tough love and tragic tragedies, erotic sex and well also some not so erotic corpse sex, money, power, and fame this book of drabbles is sure to leave you wanting more, gasping for air from within your own grave, and the drabbles within are powerful enough to leave a blood-lasting imprint on the top of your mind for some time to come and then some. 

Some of my personal favorites were 'On the Second Date' by Mark Cassell, 'The Rash' by Justin Boote, 'Snow Angel' by Michael A. Arnzen, 'Instant Messaging' by Billy S. Juan, 'Haunted' by Amy Cross, 'Out of Tune' by Chad Lutzke, 'Just Like Your Grandma' by Pippa Bailey, 'My Pet Unicor'n by Sarina Dorie, and 'Laid to Rest' by Derek Shupert.

-Jon R. Meyers

THE PROSTITUTE'S PRICE by Alan M. Clark (2018 IFD Publishing / 244 pp / trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook)

Alan M. Clark’s beautifully bleak, haunting series about the victims of Jack the Ripper does something different in that it doesn’t focus on the killings or killer at all. The focus here is the women themselves, their stories and histories, their real lives, and what led those lives to the point where they crossed the maniac’s path to reach an untimely end.

And this one does something even more different; it’s got a companion piece, a book called THE ASSASSIN'S COIN by John Linwood Grant. I’ve not yet read that one, but I very much need and want to. They go together, facets of the same darkly fascinating historical jewel, presenting events from differing perspectives.

On this side of the story, we have Mary Jane Kelly, believed to be the Ripper’s final victim. Mary Jane Kelly, who also helped her sisters of the streets look out for each other, who became involved with some illicit activities, and who made the acquaintance of an ordinary-seeming but very dangerous man. He comes across almost as some sort of Victorian vigilante, putting the information Mary gathers for him to use.

It’s Mary Jane’s story, though, all the way from her struggling childhood and short-lived marriage through her introduction into her new trade and its rises and falls. It’s Mary Jane’s life, the friends and rivals she makes, the romances she doesn’t think she deserves. It isn’t about the terrible, bloody conclusion. It’s about the real person, and the tragedy of a desperate life.

Clark writes historical well, he writes women well, he does an excellent job capturing the atmosphere of the times and the emotions of the characters. Really good stuff, tragic but beautifully done.

-Christine Morgan

THE ASSASSIN'S COIN by John Linwood Grant (2018 IFD Publishing / 280 pp / trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook)

This one is the companion piece to Alan M. Clark’s most recent (and excellent) THE PROSTITUTE'S PRICE. Separately, they each weave compelling tales of life and death in 1880s Whitechapel. Together, they make a full, rich, complex story set against the backdrop of the Jack the Ripper killings but not focused on the Ripper himself.

Other people, other lives, are center stage here. While Clark’s books involve the often-tragic pasts of the victims, Grant’s protagonist is a struggling working woman of another sort. Catherine Weatherhead, estranged from her domineering father, makes her way as a practicing spiritualist.

Calling herself Madame Rostov, she isn’t into the table-rapping or ectoplasmic manifestations or channeling spirit guides, like many of her professional peers. Unlike them, however, she isn’t a total fraud. While she does rely on information and psychology, she also has a modest but legitimate psychic gift.

Modest, until she telepathically taps into the mind of a killer … not the infamous Jack, but another mystery man who also appears in Clark’s book. The Deptford Assassin, Whitechapel’s own anti-hero, is like an uneasy cross between Dexter and Daredevil, part vigilante, part killer-for-hire.

This connection is a serious distraction to her regular work, most of which involves doing sittings with grieving widows or young ladies curious about what lies Beyond the Veil. It then leads Catherine into an encounter with the assassin himself, and almost before she knows it, she’s engaged his services to help right an injustice.

From there, she continues bearing clairvoyant witness to his deeds, including his developing interest once the Ripper killings begin. That a cousin of Catherine’s is among the victims only leads to the logical next step – if it takes a thief to catch a thief, maybe it takes a killer to catch a killer.

Compelling on its own, totally enthralling when paired with its other half, great characters, great writing, excellent story, well done!

-Christine Morgan

DEVOURING DARK by Alan Baxter (2018 Grey Matter Press / 320 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Maybe it was because I’d recently finished binge-watching THE PUNISHER, but wow did this book make me think the Netflix people should get right on it right quick! Had all the elements for a perfect series in that format and style, only, set in London instead of New York.

Matt MacLeod is anything but a hero. He’s just a loner, trying to get by, living with a guilty secret and a terrible dark power. Although using it takes a toll on his health, letting the darkness build up is also dangerous. He tries to deal with this by, vigilante-like, only going after the worst of the worst, and so far has managed to not leave too many incriminating bodies in his wake.

One night, though, he’s spotted by a kid who works as a runner for local crime boss Vince Stratton, and Stratton is all too eager to add a new weapon to his arsenal. Matt has to play along if he’s going to protect his estranged family and friends. In the course of trying to find a way to fight back, he encounters a young woman with a similar ability.

Amy Cavendish, a hospice nurse, sees her darkness more as a gift. She’s far from the ‘angel of death’ type, easing the passing of her patients and then using what she collects from them to dispense retribution her own way. Soon, Matt and Amy are in a desperate rush to stay a step ahead of Stratton’s schemes, as Matt’s power nears its limits and Amy’s threatens to spiral out of control.

The characters are fantastic and fun, great evil-but-enjoyable villainy, excellent and compelling side characters, excellently believable supporting cast. The action moves right along, shifting angles from good guys to bad guys to police investigation. I read the whole thing in a single night, which only further proves my initial point: this story here is made for bingeing!

-Christine Morgan


Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Reviews for the Week of April 8, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're on a cell phone you're probably not going to see it. Bust out the laptop, amigo...

FULL BRUTAL by Kristopher Triana (2018 Grindhouse Press / 264 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Three for three now … three Kristopher Triana books I’ve read each at one awestruck sitting. My initial prediction that he’s destined for the extreme elite sure is proving true. I am just jawdropped. This book may very well be the most evil thing I’ve ever read in my entire life.

It’s perfect. The perfect evil, the perfect exploration of utter sociopathic monstrousness. Most evil of all, it could totally happen. Nary a breath of the paranormal to be found, either; it’s pure human nature at its most horrible.

Take every ‘mean girls’ movie or story throughout history, distill them down into a single droplet of ultra-concentrated nitroglycerine plasma MEAN GIRL, and that’s what we have here. Have said it before, will no doubt say it again … girls can be vicious. Spiteful, destructive, lethal, and cruel. Never mind simple serial killing. I’m talking sheer, absolute, utter destruction.

Meet Kim. Kim seems like she should have it all going for her. Pretty, popular, permissive single dad with adequate money, a good student, a star cheerleader, squad of friends, bevy of interested boys. But she’s not happy. She’s bored out of her mind. She wants to make a big change, and decides that losing her virginity is the way to go.

Only, she doesn’t want it to be the same dull story as everyone else, so she sets out to seduce an older man. A teacher. Then she discovers maybe sex isn’t such of a much, but the possibility of outright ruining lives and destroying people is a serious turn-on.

Soon, she’s deftly masterminding and manipulating, taking things further and further, playing people against each other, using the full dangerous powers of social media … there’s blackmail, murder, rape, cannibalism … you know, your basic classic tale of the tender sexual awakening of a young lady.

Most evil thing I’ve ever read. And that’s saying something. Wow.

-Christine Morgan

THIS IS A HORROR BOOK by Charles Austin Muir (2019 Clash Books / 140 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Okay, confession time, shame on me, I still haven’t seen Mad Max: Fury Road. But, after reading this book, I know by the time I eventually get around to it, the experience will now be weirder than the filmmakers perhaps intended. Thanks to Charles Austin Muir and his naughty obsession with Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, which features prominently throughout these interlaced tales.

First off, take any regular rules of expectation and reality and chuck them out the window. You’re in for a wild, clever, convoluted ride of fourth-wall breaking, author insertion (in more ways than one, see Furiosa reference above), second-person, genre references, names and in-jokes, and all kinds of craziness.

The first story is about a couple of guys who, while drinking and watching horror movies on Halloween, decide it’d be a good idea to read from this ominous old book one of them found outside the convenience store. Gotta love it when even people who by rights should know better go and do stuff like that, don’t you? At least then they don’t have the gall to act surprised when it all goes hideously wrong!

It’s followed by sinister goings-on at the local library, pop-culture slasher and action heroes on a mission that takes a different-kind-of-slashy turn, some uncomfortable insights into writer critique groups, creepy-guy obsessions, alien invasion, and more.

Definitely a book where the more you know / the closer you are to certain circles, the more fun you’ll have … but raucous and raunchy and fun either way!

-Christine Morgan


SECOND LIVES by P.D. Cacek (to be released 4/11/19 by Flame Tree Press / 304 pp / hardcover & trade paperback)

It has been a few years since the last full length novel from Cacek, and with SECOND LIVES she makes a powerful return to the form.

In this deep look at reincarnation, Cacek introduces us to four people (eight, technically) who have been declared dead, yet wake with new personalities. Nearly half the book is spent not only on the recently deceased, but we get backstory on the past lives whose souls are about to be brought into modern times. I think some will find this first half a bit confusing, but stick with it as Cacek manages to keep the reader interested and I found myself emotionally invested in each one.

I love how the author handled one character in particular, a Jewish man who had died back in the 1920s, and now has to deal with living as a person whose life wasn’t exactly in agreement with his own strict beliefs. Kudos for each of the other reincarnated souls, dealing with modern technology, illnesses, and other issues I’ve never seen dealt with in similar stories before. This here is no 70s b-movie...

While not scary in the traditional genre sense, the story’s third section is heartbreaking and forces you to consider some life and death issues that may not have occurred to you before, and hence makes SECOND LIVES one of those rare reads that becomes more than a standard horror novel. And for that, this is not only one of Cacek’s finest works but one any fan of supernatural fiction will savor.

-Nick Cato

THE QUEEN OF NO TOMORROWS by Matt Maxwell (2018 Broken Eye Books / 120 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Amateur historian-type that I am, I was hooked right away by the notion of a story about someone who’s not merely a restorer, copier, and translator of old tomes, antique books, and manuscripts … but a forger as well.

Cait, our protagonist, has kind of a Remington Steele gig going on with her career (talk about history, showing my age there, egads), playing ‘assistant’ to a reclusive expert who doesn’t actually exist, so her work will be taken seriously by the musty boys’ club of academia and collectors.

Heck, I would’ve gladly read the whole thing as a thriller, even if it hadn’t then gotten into the paranormal weirdness. But hey, paranormal weirdness is also good! Cait’s current project is her masterpiece, the rare Smoking Codex, about a mysterious Mesoamerican deity.

It’s so rare, in fact, that nobody’s ever heard of it. Which makes sense, because, like Cait’s mentor/boss, it doesn’t actually exist. Cait’s creating the whole thing herself, with an eye toward stirring up rumors of the discovery of a one-of-a-kind relic, to land the big sale and secure her reputation.

The problems really start when members of a gang/cult called No Tomorrows want the book before it’s finished, and know details from it they shouldn’t possibly know. Things Cait hasn’t even written yet. They want her, too. And, despite their scary reputation, despite a series of ritualized murders, Cait can’t help but be curious. Is she somehow predicting the future, or creating real magic? What is this power, where does it come from?

Neat characters, fascinating concept, solid writing. It did feel a little sparse and rushed overall, though. I wanted more detail, more depth, more fleshing-out and backstory. Really nice to see something in this vein that wasn’t yet another medieval relic!

-Christine Morgan

TWISTED TALES FROM TORNADO ALLEY by Stuart R. West (2018 Grinning Skull Press / 304 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Have never been to Kansas, and it’s perhaps just as well because just the very idea alone of tornadoes scares the everlovin’ heck out of me. The random capricious destruction! How could anyone stand to LIVE there, where it happens often enough to be seasonal??? Then again, I grew up in earthquake country and could never understand why people who didn’t were so freaked out. All what you’re used to, I guess!

This book, thankfully, is not about killer twisters. It is, however, about Kansas, as presented in short-story collection form from the mind of Stuart R. West. It opens with a folksy chat introduction, kind of like what King does in Needful Things to help set the stage and give some teasery previews of what you’re in for.

Though, after reading “Bagworms” I might almost have preferred killer twisters … a nice drive in the country when everything’s covered in cocoons and silken webbing? Eek yikes nope. Took forever for my skin to stop crawling, and that was even without considering what came out of those cocoons …

The other tales run a gamut of madness and murder, family tensions, small-town witchiness and wickedness, indignant local legends, purgatorial hauntings, the trials of adjusting to vampire life, strange things that grow in the basement, a quick dental checkup, and a journey into the depths of an underground city where terrible creatures do terrible things.

“Husk” in particular deserves special mention; it’s a powerful gut-punch beware-of-what-you-wish-for exploration of racism and privilege, teetering between uncomfortable humor and all-too-real painful unfunny.

As a bonus, it includes a peek at the opening of the author’s novel “Dread and Breakfast,” which is also a good one! Well worth checking this out.

-Christine Morgan

a HFR second look...

ALL HAIL THE HOUSE GODS by Andrew J. Stone (2018 Rooster Republic Press / 134 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This genre certainly does produce some peculiar post-apocalyptic settings! In this one, the remains of humanity exist in a strictly-structured society designed around couples producing children … not families, since the children are taken away to be raised in the Offspring Oasis … only seeing their parents during brief monthly visits …

… or when one of the children is chosen by lottery to be sacrificed to the House Gods. Which are, well, houses. Animate, living houses. That eat people. How? Why? Backstory? Never really explained, and, doesn’t really matter. It just is, that’s the world, that’s the way it works, that’s one of the neat things about bizarro.

Not all of the humans are happy with this arrangement. Kurt’s wife Katie is one of them, or becomes one following the sacrifice of their eldest son. She organizes a small group of resistance fighters with two main objectives: stop having babies, and find a way to destroy the House Gods.

Kurt, meanwhile, isn’t so sure. He doesn’t want to lose any more children, but he doesn’t want to get in trouble with the authorities for failing to couple. He’s also met Devin, a guy who believes there is another way to end the hostilities. There are, Devin says, GOOD House Gods, who could be convinced to stand up against their fellows.

So, Kurt and Devin undertake their own clandestine missions to find and talk to the good House Gods, while Katie and her cohorts are building weapons and planning their attack. And the time for the next lottery draws ever nearer …

Well-written and disturbing, taking some sharp and insightful pokes at various social issues, this is a book that will entertain but unsettle, and make you think.

-Christine Morgan


Monday, March 25, 2019

Reviews for the Week of March 25, 2019

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


BLACKER AGAINST THE DEEP DARK by Alexander Zelenyj (2018 Eibonvale Press / 376 pp / hardcover)

Zelenyj’s 3rd mammoth collection features 31 stories, 19 presented here for the first time. Having read and loved his first 2, I was eager to see what else he could come up with. Turns out, plenty.

Among my favorites were ‘The Priests,’ which is the name given to a conjoined triplet male, who finds sanctuary at an isolated church and friendship with its pastor. We hear some of its stories of surviving in freak shows, but learn of its miraculous nature when it aids a baby in desperate need. A familiar trope but given heartfelt new life by Zelenyj. ‘We Are All Lightless Inside’ finds a group of secret scientists and magicians locating and battling otherworldly manifestations of diseases. I think this could make an interesting novel. In ‘Loneliness the Hunter’ a boy manages to call an odd being into our world, changing his own life—and those around his—for good.

A counselor has an incredible affirmation among the people in his group in the emotion-driven ‘Angels, and the Daggers of Darkness,’ then the sci-fi novella ‘Journey to the End of a Burning Girl’ follows two detectives as they seek the origin and suppliers of a mysterious drug which causes users to vanish to another dimension. Reminded me of a psychedelic version of BLADE RUNNER yet offers much more.

A bookstore employee meets a most unusual customer in ‘The Bloodmilk People,’ a wrestler named Monster Rollinski befriends a young fan and discovers his destiny in the wonderful ‘From Parts Unknown,’ and ‘The Terror of Broken Places’ looks at sadness and overcoming through the eyes of three humans and two aliens who meet in a place that allows them to understand each other.

‘Kill Them and Kill Them (and Pray for Something Good) is one of the best here, as a controversial comedian rises to Messianic status. Things get extreme in ‘Hush Honey, and Give Daddy Back His War Hammer,’ a ghoulish piece that will make you squint. ‘Christ on the Sun’ gives a depressing (and frightening) look at religion, then the short but terrifying apocalyptic tale ‘The Sky Was a Window All Along’ delivers the end-times goods (or bads, depending on your world view!).

Two tomboy friends meet for drinks to discuss their careers and reminisce over an unusual sighting they shared as kids in the wondrous ‘The Children Who Saw the Universe,’ while ‘Private Poison’ follows a platoon and their miraculous takeover of an enemy stronghold during the Vietnam War (has the feel of a classic WEIRD WAR TALES story).

Think you’ve read enough creepy crawly tales? The humorous element in ‘Spiderpartment’ may change your mind. Demons contemplate humanity in ‘This Lustful Earth’ and Charles Chekpak’s extreme sex life takes him to godhood (and beyond) in the show-stopping ‘We, The Burning Stars.’

‘Engines of Forever’ takes a strange look at two young, reluctant terrorists, then a young girl is tempted by a demon in ‘Flowers of Heaven,’ a great, classic styled horror tale.

The collection concludes with the thought provoking ‘Love in Uncertain Times,’ as a young boy, watching his little sister, becomes enchanted by an amazing Time magazine article.

Horror, sci-fi, bizarro, fantasy, and some unclassifiables are on display here as Zelenyj delivers yet another barrage of tales, and while I’ve listed my personal favorites, every story is solid and enjoyable. BLACKER AGAINST THE DEEP DARK is yet another stellar collection from a seriously talented writer.

-Nick Cato

CURSED BY CHRIST by Matthew Warner (2018 MW Publications / 228 pp / eBook & audiobook)

Almost like an odd mix of brooding Southern Gothic, CARRIE, and mutant-power-origin-story, this book is about a girl named Alice growing up in the oncoming shadow of the Civil War. All she knows at first about her “difficult time” is that she inherited it somehow from the mother who believes she was cursed for stealing from an angel … while her father attributes it to a ‘poison rock’ that they saw fall from the sky when the were young.

Either way, Alice is the only one of their children who’s been able to survive, and as she reaches maturity, the episodes of ‘sickness’ have made her something of an oddity to the extended family. A series of tragedies puts her at the mercy of a predator, and escaping turns out to be its own frying-pan-and-fire situation.

Suddenly married, the mistress of a plantation in another state, Alice finds herself more and more discontented and alone. The closest she has to friends are among the slaves, and their secret religions and rituals help her control her abilities. Try though she might to have a warm relationship with her husband, her inability to produce a child drives them ever further apart … and then he’s called off to war.

The war years go by with no word; he’s missing and presumed dead. The end of the war brings drastic changes. Alice is just about to finally take control of her own life when her husband’s surprise return throws her plans into chaos. Not only that, her husband’s return is followed by rising tension between landholders and their now-freed workforce.

I found it a good read overall, historically interesting, though Alice’s passivity as a character got on my nerves pretty quickly. Was really hoping to see more about her abilities come into play, and some more satisfying resolutions.

-Christine Morgan

ERIE TALES VIII: HOLIDAY TERROR edited by Michael Cieslak and Nicole Castle (2015 Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers / 92 pp / trade paperback)

This time, the capable crew of the GLAHW take on holidays, and not just the usual big traditional ones you might expect. With the entire calendar to choose from, including observations of various countries and faiths, they were able to come up with some new and interesting takes on the theme.

The year opens with Peggy Christie’s “Brothers of Death” in which medieval monks deal with a particularly grim January holy day, then reminds us that the season doesn’t technically end in December with Shad Kelly’s fae masquerade “On the Thirteenth Day of Christmas.”

In “The April Fool,” editor Michael Cieslak contributes a comitragedy as an unlucky and inept would-be suicide picks the wrong day to try to end it all, while Cassie Carnage’s “Walpurgisnacht” shows the dangers of trying to ignore the old ways and rituals.

One of my favorites here is “The Boy Who Knew The Ending,” by Justin Holley. The frustrations of a budding teen romance is set on the 4th of July, though in this instance that doesn’t much seem to matter; it could just as easily have been done on any of a number of others.

Ken MacGregor turns in a dark look at the hidden truths behind the origins of a November feast in the nicely done historical piece, “Giving Thanks.” Montilee Stormer brings the winter chills with a cold night’s observance of St Lucy’s Day in “It Came Upon.”

Finishing things out, because it wouldn’t be the holidays without goodies, is Heather Kapusta’s “Granny’s Christmas Cookies,” with their special secret recipe. Yum!

-Christine Morgan

SAINT SADIST by Lucas Mangum (2019 Grindhouse Press / 98 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Alright, folks. Here’s that scoop. That good ole fashioned four-one-one, I think some like to say. But, there’s a catch, go figure. There’s always a catch, right? Well, I think I said it last time that this was an author we all needed to keep our eyes and ears peeled like paint on, and with this very new release from the fabulous folks over at Grindhouse Press. I couldn’t be any more enthusiastic and happier to have said that some number of months ago, and not to toot my own horn or anything like that, BUT I was right, and I told you so. Lucas Mangum is good, guys and gals. I can and will not say it enough. His writing is well-crafted and unique and original and just overall super powerful. He’s one of the few new greats out there who just seems to get it right and pull off whatever it is that he sets out to do. We saw this last time with ‘Gods of the Dark Web.’ The author built this dark and glitchy underworld of filth and perversion that was beautifully executed and ended up being one of my favorite books of yesteryear.

This time around, the author takes on a different approach, and, trust me when I say it: It’s honest. It’s dark. It’s compelling. It’s brutal AF. It’s well written. It’s unique. It’s powerful, in a more transgressive and violent sort of way, putting us in the shoes of a young girl going through some serious shit as she leaves home impregnated by her father and back into the arms of a religious cult leader. Mangum parks us right inside her head as she searches for happiness and survival in a world full of past demons and terrible role models where she doesn’t want to be any longer. The heartbreak, pain, and suffering bleed out of every word on the page perfectly. The author deals with gruesome subjects that are often hard to write about with a shockingly admirable, creative, and honest ease that is the real and true art to be found in this book.

Definitely recommended. Proceed with caution.

-Jon R. Meyers

MURMANSK-13 by Richard-Steven Williams (2018 Amazon Digital / 419 pp / eBook)

In this ambitious but struggling mega-book of sci-fi horror, it’s Aliens meets the zombie apocalypse, with shades of LIFE FORCE and GHOST SHIP and PITCH BLACK thrown in … a mysterious space station appearing on none of the charts, secret experiments gone wrong, survivors of a crashed prison transport ship, another ship with the crew awakening from cryo-sleep to find they’ve been taken way off course on an unknown errand … it’s a lot to tackle, a lot to take in.

Kind of like a big sprawling video game with several intersecting objectives and side-quests, and multiple playable POV characters as well as NPCs with intricate backstories. There’s the troubled captain slowly losing his grip, the tough chick, the newbie cadet, the trash-talking wise guy, the noble loner rogue, the damsel in distress, the shady scientist, the sleazy bad guys.

And plenty of perils, from supplies and survival to spacewalks to crawling through ducts, fighting the infected, fighting each other, dealing with sudden disasters, isolation, no way to send for help, dwindling resources, betrayal, romantic entanglements.

I did have some problems with the way certain issues were handled (sexism, icky rape stuff, unrealistic emotional aftermaths, for instance). The editing, as well, needed definite work. I found myself wondering several times if the book had initially been written in another language and then translated. Many wrong words and mistakes, further knocking me out of the story.

Overall, entertaining enough if you’re into that sort of thing, but not particularly innovative or gripping to me; and yeah, a LOT of it. 400+ pages, made for quite a trudge.

-Christine Morgan

GAME CHANGERS OF THE APOCALYPSE by Mark Kirkbride (2019 Omnium Gatherum / 299 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

You think YOU’RE having a bad day? Try being Greg, who, in a moment of waking-up grogginess happens to admit to his fiance he’s not all that excited about or involved in the actual wedding plans. Just the sort of thing you want to say to a stressed-out bride-to-be with the big day looming.

Next he knows, he’s out on his ear with a bag of his stuff. All he can do is go to work, and hope a friend will give him crash space while he figures out what to do. He loves Polly, he wants to be with her; it was poor phrasing, that’s all. Maybe he can find a way to smooth things over?

A nice idea in theory, except he’s not through screwing up yet. An email goof and some ill-chosen words later, he’s also out of a job. And accidentally locked out of his friend’s place. And the weather takes a sudden nasty turn.

And all that? All that’s still only the first chapter, only the beginning. It’s about to get a whole lot worse. As in, suddenly, everyone else is just … GONE. He’s alone in a deserted city of abandoned cars, as if all the people simply *poof* vanished.

What follows is a frantic adventure that gets weirder and weirder, as Greg searches for any sign of what happened (and, desperately, for any sign of Polly). Eventually, his search brings him back to his former workplace, where the fax machine seems to be printing drafts of what’s happening even as it happens … even before it happens … predictions, faxes of the future, dire warnings … and each time he changes his actions, a new draft appears.

Too much more would be spoilers, so, you’ll just need to read it yourself. I found it fresh and fun, well-written, highly enjoyable.

-Christine Morgan


Sunday, March 10, 2019

Reviews for the Week of March 11, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're reading this on your cellphone there's a good chance you're not going to see it. Break out the Mac, Jack. Or the Dell...

2003 - 2019

WOLVZ: WHISPERS OF WAR by Toneye Eyenot (2018 Luniakk Publications / 129 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

The reputation of vampires may have taken some severe hits in recent years, what with the sparkly angsty tormented stuff … but at least werewolves have for the most part been spared. Even the surge in urban fantasy and shifter romance lets them still, overall, be beasts (however sexy). Hungry, violent, often moon-ruled beasts.

In the were-world according to Toneye Eyenot, there are pure-blooded Lycans and mixed-blood Werewolves, living in packs according to strict hierarchies and laws. There may be power struggles, territorial disputes, feuds, rivalries, but for the most part they’ve been content to lead their mostly secret lives alongside humanity. Humans are prey, food, sometimes useful as thralls, and occasionally recruited into the change by tooth and claw.

For the most part. Until now. Until Claude, alpha of the Wolfhaven pack, decides the time has come for Wolfkind to take their undisputed place at the top. Driven partly by revenge for the death of beloved wolf matriarch Pharo, he rallies his pack and their nearest allies for war.

Shona, one of Pharo’s daughters, is all too eager to join the slaughter. Even in her grief, she’s able to enjoy finally unleashing the full fury of her wrath and hate, killing with impunity, feasting to her heart’s content, making the humans suffer for what they did to her mother.

As word spreads, neighboring packs put aside their disputes to join the cause. Nothing less than total domination will do. They must strike hard and fast before their hapless enemies have a chance to organize. It’s thousands of years of folklore nightmares made real as the growing army moves from town to town.

And it is a bloodbath. This is not a sexy-beast werewolf story. This is carnage, particularly when some opportunistic packs and pack-leaders have their own ideas of how things should be done.

-Christine Morgan

A GOD OF FLIES AMONG THEM by Philip LoPresti (2018 Dunhams Manor Press / 82 pp / trade paperback)

LoPresti's latest novella finds Jessop Thorn returning to his childhood home to deal with a seriously dark past: his entire family had gone missing, one at a time, over the years, yet he was the only one to get out of his small town. Now trying to find answers and closure, Jessop gets help from an old crush (now prostitute), an old friend, and a local witch, although he senses everyone is hiding something from him, and is worried the dead children who haunt his dreams may actually kill him...

Like his previous novella WYTCHCULT RISING, LoPresti's strength is in hinting at potential terrors, making us form our own understanding of what has been going on in the small town of Cedars Parish. With ghosts, incest, and a possible cult or ancient religion at large, A GOD OF FLIES AMONG THEM is a tight read that delivers chills and will leave you checking over your shoulder.

-Nick Cato

THE FOREVER BIG TOP by Jeremy Thompson (2019 Necro Publications / 59 pp / eBook)

I can just imagine the elevator pitch … Dante’s Inferno with clowns. Boom. Mic drop. Sold.

Clowns are already bad enough on their own. Clown Hell? Descending through the worsening levels of it, witnessing hideous torments and punishments? The concept is just so twisted and wrong, even readers who aren’t fond of clowns (though, is anyone, really?) will get a kick out of this.

Okay, yes, the cover’s creepy, almost creepy enough to be off-putting on its own. Flip past that quick and you’ll be okay. Jump right into a concert with clown-rappers Sirkus Kult, fronted by Freshy Jest and Criminal Prankstah. They’re riding high, doing shows, making money, taking their pick of the clowngirl groupies.

It’s certainly better than Freshy’s ‘real life.’ As Franklin Jasper, he’s a scrawny loser. As Freshy, he’s got it all. Then he meets up with a hot little harlequin called Sally Slitz for some post-show R&R, only to learn the hard way that Sally’s got some strange ideas about bonding with her perfect man.

Ideas that include double-suicide. Or, when he hesitates but she won’t be denied, murder-suicide. Next thing Freshy knows, he’s waking up in the circus tent to end all circus tents, the first level of the Forever Big Top, a hell of and for clowns.

Partly by accident, partly out of a desire to find an escape back to the land of the living, Freshy undertakes a journey lower and lower through the levels, encountering every type of clown from mimes and mummers to modern mascots. It’s a carnival of craziness, wackily entertaining, wildly envisioned, wickedly clever, tons of fun.

-Christine Morgan

PUNKTOWN by Jeffrey Thomas (2018 Forma Street Press / 244 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook)

Okay, folks. Here’s the scoop. I had the pleasure of speaking with the author to better clarify a couple of things before diving into the review for this kindle re-release of the original 2005 edition with just under twenty stories of the author’s epic Horror and Science Fiction and Cyberpunk-esque infused masterpiece that is PUNKTOWN. In which, the prior genres seem to compliment each other so well, unlike anything else available on the market, with a beautifully written introduction by Michael Marshall Smith and an introduction to the Punktown mythos and city by the brilliant man himself. PUNKTOWN is a place where only the darkest and wildest dreams may spark to life whether you want them to or not. So, what exactly do we have here before our glowing and radioactive eyes set to kill and murder and create so dark and beautifully on the grimy streets of electric oblivion? The answer… well, what we basically have here is the definitive version of each of the stories collected prior in print from yesteryear. This is exciting for a number of reasons but mainly because the universe, prose, and characters, and alienlike creatures created in the Punktown universe are just so highly enjoyable and unforgettable within themselves and now we can enjoy them even more, so on the electronic platform, as we as the reader impatiently keep awaiting the forthcoming Omnibus’ set for release with Centipede Press, in which, all Punktown stories are being collected and put into one hot spot to restore faith in humanity within. I also thought now would be an appropriate time to put out a little shout out for the new ‘Transmissions from Punktown’ anthology edited by Brian M. Sammons, as this anthology was a collection of stories inspired by the revolutionary world and vision created by Jeffrey Thomas’ beautifully surreal, dark, enigmatic, and extremely versatile sci-fi megalopolis known as ‘PUNKTOWN’. You’ve been warned. Proceed with caution. What happens in Punktown, stays in Punktown. If you’re even able to make it out alive.

There’s too many favorites to list here so let’s start at the beginning to give you a little taste of what’s in store. ‘The Reflections of Ghosts,’ a unique tale where a squatting, hopeless romantic street artist engage in a different sort of art form. His works of art are far more personal as his blank canvas refers to cloning versions of himself, selling them to high dollar clients, and is currently sitting on a beautifully rendered female version of himself, so much as to where he is unsure of wanting to give her away to the client as they begin a more hot, steamy, and intimate relationship that eventually spirals into madness and chaos and out into the grimy streets of Punktown, where one can see dead clones hanging in the gutters, laying on the streets covered in graffiti. The tale touches on some deep and sentimental undertones that are almost too hard to try to explain but we get a deep sense of abandonment and love and the power an intimate and emotional relationship can grab hold of someone when sharing with someone else, and thus even more so when trying to love one’s self, being a prisoner in your own mind, demons under your own skin, and don’t forget about those bony skeletons piled up to the ceiling in your closet. In ‘Pink Pills,’ a woman with a mysterious tumor seeks medical attention unlike anything you’ve ever seen befor. Not everything is as it seems as her dreams spiral out of control and onto a conveyor in a factory where there’s way more than meets the eye going on. Think aliens. Think eggs. Think national pandemic and pandemonium on the mean streets of Punktown as the slow jazz blares up through the soils of this vast sci-fi metropolis of corruption and wires and the sound of static drowns out all hopes of making it out alive. Other favorites, ‘The Library of Sorrows’, ‘Dissecting the Soul’, and ‘Precious Metal’.  

If you haven’t already read this book or any other works by the author, do yourself a favor and check them out. This would be a great place to start. This would be a fantastic place to end it all.

-Jon R. Meyers

a HFR second look...

THE FIREMAN by Joe Hill (2016 Harper Collins / 768 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, eBook, audiobook)

I did not read this whole book in one day. But I came close. 690 pages in one day, the rest on the next day. Now, I always read obnoxiously fast anyway, but even for me this might’ve been a record. I freakin’ devoured this tome, hooked from the very first line. (it probably helped that I took it along to the hospital for my most recent surgery, to pass the time in pre-op and recovery; it also made me all the more determined not to croak under anesthesia and leave it unfinished!)

Storywise, it’s a global end-of-days civilization-breaking epic, but with pinpoint focus. We don’t get, and we don’t need, a cast of thousands or scenes from everywhere else as the outbreak unfolds. What we do need to know about the rest of the world is conveyed naturally, expertly, almost seamlessly.

The outbreak is of a terrifying condition which causes people to spontaneously combust. Society disintegrates into fear and paranoia; someone might ignite and burn at any time. The main outward indication is a blackish-goldish tattoolike patterning on the skin (hence, dragonscale, the name for the disease).

Harper Grayson is a school nurse when it begins, then attempts to aid the response teams. She and her husband have a pact in event of infection – given her line of work, a foregone conclusion. But, discovering she’s pregnant causes her to rethink that plan. Trying to escape her husband, she encounters a group who claim to be not just surviving the illness, but mastering it, learning to harness and use its fiery powers.

For all the heft, for being a tome with the hardcover of which you could club someone to death, let me assure you … it’s all muscle. No fat, no bloat, no padding, no sprawl. We’re talking rock-solid powerhouse muscle here, a tank of a book, a warhorse of a book. My favorite thus far of Hill’s longer works. I kind of wish I’d read it sooner, but I’m also glad I didn’t because it helped me sail through an otherwise rough day.

-Christine Morgan

THE FEN by Michael Baeyens (2018 Independently Published / 522 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Initial impression from the synopsis made this seem like one that should’ve been right up my alley … an academic-type paranormal thriller linking back to Viking times, I mean, come on … that hits several buttons.

The prologue, in which two surviving raiders are fleeing through the woods so terrified of what pursues them that they eagerly seek refuge at a Christian abbey, does a good job with atmosphere and ratcheting up the tension. I was ready to see what happened next, expecting some grisly historical horror.

Unfortunately, then the story jumps ahead to modern day and loses a lot of its promise and momentum. There’s too much mundane detail of routine activities, bogging things down, making what could have been interesting very dry and even dull instead.

Hanna Stevenson is a PhD student of early medieval history, focusing on the eventual distribution of wealth from Viking attacks on the Church. She visits abbeys, looks at manuscripts, uncovers some intriguing leads about an ancestral family that doesn’t seem to appear in other records from the era, and is gradually drawn down the trail of investigating.

Then weird stuff starts to happen; there’s a mysterious old mansion that clearly isn’t what it seems, remnants of that family are still around and have a strange power over the locals, people snooping too closely have fatal accidents, etc. When Hanna becomes too involved, a colleague picks up the trail and finds himself also enmeshed.

Occasional action scenes – particularly inside the mansion – are spooky and well-done but all too brief and lack follow-through, which makes the rest all the more disappointing because the potential for cool story is there, just lost amid the rest of it.

-Christine Morgan