Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Reviews for the Week of September 16, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're on a cell phone it may not be visible. Boot up the lap top, amigo ...


THE PALE WHITE by Chad Lutzke (to be released 9/27/19 by Crystal Lake Publishing  / 85 pp / eBook)

For the past year, Stacia has been the captive of a demented predator who keeps her locked in an attic. Along with goth girl Alex and a young mute named Kammie, they're only allowed to come down to the second floor to be used as sex toys for a host of pedophiles and other lowlifes. Alex and Kammie have been there much longer than Stacia, until one day when Alex comes up with a plan to escape their perverted pimp.

This short but powerful story is a dark coming of age tale that reminded me a bit of Jack Ketchum, but at this point Lutzke has created his own voice, and the second half of the story, while suspenseful, will leave readers hopeful and satisfied. Most of THE PALE WHITE deals with the aftermath of a tragedy, and I see many tears being shed through this journey, and what our girls go through is the fuel of every parent's worst nightmare.

Brutal, exciting, disturbing and heartbreaking, Lutzke has become a master of the horror novella form. No filler, a strong cast, and plenty to say about family relationships (both biological and chosen) makes this a must read.

-Nick Cato

DARK LANTERN OF THE SPIRIT by Max Beaven (2019 IP / 168 pp / trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)

Weird western cosmic horror, always fun! Buddy-cop style with recurring characters, extra points! Everything told first-person in a sort of nesting doll frame narrative with letters and such, a little confusing overall but it more or less works.

The place is Casper, Wyoming, a rough-and-dusty frontier town. The year is 1897. Transplanted New-Englander Arthur Wilson is still considered something of an outsider even after six years as a deputy sheriff. Now, with some unknown menace threatening the locals, he has to call in another outsider for help.

Scholar and occultist Benjamin Hathorne, comfortably at home in Massachusetts, may be ill-suited to venture out west, but for the sake of an old friend and a mystery to solve, he’ll do it. Even loaded up with arcane knowledge and some useful items, however, he’s not quite prepared for what’s waiting in the wilderness.

Add in gutsy ranchers, helpful natives, a winsome young lady who might be the key to unlocking Arthur’s broken heart, and the eldritch stirrings of an ancient and terrible power, and the duo have got their work more than cut out for them.

-Christine Morgan

THE CRYMOST by Dean H. Wild (2019 Blood Bound Books / 278 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

There’s just something so compelling about the small town with mysterious secrets I never get tired of, and this book provides another solid addition to the sub-genre. I picked up comfortable notes of King’s work, Castle Rock and Salem’s Lot and the one from Under the Dome in particular, that feeling the town itself is a living and ensouled entity, a character in its own story.

This time, the town in question is called Knoll, a quaint and charming peaceful little place. Some of the local families date back to its founding, enjoying their position of history and tradition, maybe a tad resistant to new things and change, but not necessarily unfriendly to newcomers.

They mostly all keep to their own business, with occasional flare-ups of petty grudges and scandals, and events like an upcoming vote involving the fate of the old mercantile are the big all-consuming news. Humble and prosaic, right?

Except then there’s the Crymost … a peculiar feature up in the hills out by the landfill … a rearing limestone ledge overlooking a drop into a deep spring-fed pool … where the people of Knoll bring their offerings. Part sacrificial cenote, part wishing well, part memorial to the dead, there’s no telling what items of strong personal meaning may end up dropped from the height.

And, now, items are reappearing. Items that have been gone for years, even decades, to the depths of the pool. A dark-suited stranger has been seen around. Inspections at the landfill turn up a problem that may bring in hosts of outsiders. Odd messages and odd occurrences lead some of the Knollfolk to realize something powerful is building, and they’re in a race against time to solve the mystery before it’s too late.

Entertaining and intriguing, with many interesting characters who often do surprisingly sensible things (and some who make entirely understandable bad choices); I particularly liked the visuals and poignant touches of the various offering items.

-Christine Morgan

THE SHADOWS BEHIND by Kristi Petersen Schoonover (2019 Books and Boos Press / 301 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Seventeen unsettling, well-written, strongly female-themed stories make up this collection. For the most part, they seem to range between the exotic to the everyday, but every now and then along comes a surprise turn toward bizarro.

For the exotic: archaeologists at a volcanic ash dig site, Egyptian antiquities extending their dangerous influence, hula hauntings and haunted Hawaiian art (hey, for me, Hawaii counts as exotic!), the addition of a rare Madagascar plant to a suburban garden, and an occult oracle in the form of a mummified fish.

For the everyday: a small-town librarian troubled by omens and visions, kid disappearances and a family with a secret, a guilty return to the ol’ swimming hole, a grieving mother no longer fitting in with her friends, a too-creepy flash piece about fearing the dark, a town overrun by kudzu.

As for the bizarre, 'Snake in the Grass' has this irresistible grabber of an opening line: "Twenty-one years after I was the first girl to get boobs in fifth grade, I woke up with a penis." I mean, whoa hello what? Then there’s the post-apocalypticy bizarro of 'Deconstructing Fireflies,' in which a farmer’s wife is concerned about her son’s interests … and 'How I Stopped Complaining and Learned to Love the Bunny,' because those plastic holiday statues aren’t disturbing enough already.

I had two tied-for-faves this time around, though maybe not so much because I enjoyed them as because I found them powerful, painful, emotionally difficult reads. One was 'Doors,' maybe because I too am getting on in years and facing the uncomfortable eventual contemplation of having to clear out the ancestral hoarder-home some day; daunting enough even without there being secret purpose to the clutter. The other, 'The Thing Inside,' is a difficult and potentially painful read, involving a couple mourning their stillborn baby, but then adds in alcoholism and jackalopes and possible insanity.

All in all, potent stuff, well-written, with characters it’s easy to empathize with even as they’re doing terrible things.

-Christine Morgan

TERMINAL by Michaelbrent Collings (2019 Written Insomnia Press / 329 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

The “bunch of random people thrown together in a bad situation” is one of the most fun tropes out there to play with. It’s not knowing who people are and what they’re capable of. It’s how much to hide, how much to reveal, how much to cooperate, how far to go, how much to everyone-for-him/herself.

Usually, these work best when set in common neutral-ground or liminal in-between travel places, where anybody could be for whatever reason.

This time, it’s a small out-of-the-way bus terminal, in the dragging late hours. A few of the characters work there or are locals, but the others are unknown elements just passing through. Or so it seems at first; sometimes there are hidden connections, invisible threads linking lives.

Just imagine, there you are, waiting at the bus terminal. Waiting for your shift to end, waiting for a bus to arrive, waiting and waiting. Observing the people around you but not really interacting with them … until, suddenly, (bleep) gets real. Instead of a place for waiting, the terminal becomes a prison, a trap.

Not by any natural disaster or ordinary danger, either. Paranormal things are afoot. Ominous messages suggest the only way to get through the night is to do the ultimate vote-off. One person may live. Everyone has to decide. It’s got to be unanimous. All in favor.

Collings, always deft and adept with characters, does a fantastic teeth-gritting job of building sympathy and intrigue, suspicion and suspense, growth and change even within. Secrets are revealed, and stark nasty truths. And, for even the most decent among them, the idea of making the choice easier by eliminating the competition is a short and tempting logical leap.

Another gripping white-knuckler, I read it at one sitting, kept changing my mind who I was rooting for, and gasped aloud several times at expertly-done twists.

-Christine Morgan

THE FAITHFUL by Matt Hayward (2018 Sinister Grin Press / 269 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook)

The “small town creepy cult” is another of the most fun tropes to play with, and this time it’s Matt Hayward’s turn to bring the rustic inexplicable weird. The small town in question is Elswich, North Carolina, very much off the beaten track, where grubbiness, poverty, intolerance, abuse, and plain downright meanness are pretty much the rule of the day.

So, not the nicest of places to start with, even before factoring in disappearances and bloody sacrifices and horrible physical abnormalities. Into this charming scene arrives Jonesy, a rambling long-haired type with a guitar … needless to say, he doesn’t receive the best welcome from the locals.

He’s got a particular reason for being here, though: tracking down the ex he ran out on when she got pregnant twelve years ago. Meeting his biological son starts off difficult and goes downhill from there, until Jonesy is on the run with the kid, trying to get them both out of town before anyone’s killed.

Meanwhile, retiring comedian Leo Carmichael has just done his final show and is ready to hit the road in his new RV. After a cryptic but intriguing meeting with a disabled fan, he decides to follow up on those rumors of dreams and strange occurrences in Elswich, and finds a reception no warmer than Jonesy did.

Eager to leave, he’s nonetheless kind enough to stop to pick up a guy and his kid, and then they’re all in it together with half the town’s monstrous population hot on their heels. They soon realize the only way to escape is to turn around and confront the evil at its source, because the dark powers at work in Elswich have already marked them all.

-Christine Morgan

DAHMER'S NOT DEAD by Edward Lee and Elizabeth Steffen (2011 Necro Publications / 248 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook)

Ashamed of myself, diehard Lee fangirl that I am, that this one had slipped by me unnoticed for so long. But, with it being the book club discussion title of the month on “The Horror Show With Brian Keene” (yes, plug for the podcast; if you’re not listening, you should be, it’s excellent!), I knew I had to set things right and pronto.

Now, some might think the combination of one of the flat-out freakydeakiest and feared serial killers of our time with the no-holds-barred graphic language and singular style of Edward Lee would make for a gooshy gory graphic splatfest like none other. And some might be turned off by the idea, tempted to give this one a miss no matter how popular all those murder shows are now.

Well, let me assure you, as Lee stuff goes, especially given the subject matter here, the results are tempered and balanced (Ms Steffen’s influence, I presume) and milder than one might expect. Milder, but still, we are talking about murder and cannibalism here, so let’s not get too comfy, okay?

Our protagonist here is Helen Closs, a police captain facing maybe a few too many stereotypical struggles – career woman trying to prove herself and be taken seriously in a male-dominated field, commitment and trust issues with her boyfriend and her therapist, plus OMG she’s forty so menopause so end of sexuality and looks going downhill (though we are informed of her bra size; that’s probably Lee’s doing). I kinda wanted to smack her.

Her latest case involves Dahmer’s apparent death in prison, beaten to an unrecognizable pulp by a fellow inmate. But there are questions and concerns, discrepancies, right from the start, beginning with getting a positive ID of the body. Further complications quickly arise with new murders. A copycat, obviously … or is it? The evidence suggests otherwise. Was there a switcheroo? Did Dahmer escape and immediately start up his old tricks again?

Helen’s own part in the investigation is further complicated by the fact her boyfriend, who she’s just accused of cheating on her and thrown out, is the medical examiner in charge of the autopsy … a little extra workplace awkwardness. There’s also the media furor, especially once the killer – copycat or the real deal? – starts leaving notes, and various persons of interest turn up missing or meet convenient bad ends.

IS Dahmer dead? Read and find out!

-Christine Morgan

EXPERIMENT NINE by Eric Ian Steele (2018 Solstice Publishing / 342 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

A little disconcertingly, the word “vampire” doesn’t seem to appear in this book. Not even in a “there’s no such thing as” speech by some blustering disbeliever after the exsanguinated bodies start turning up, although it’s presented in other ways as our own usual world.

Now, granted, these aren’t your traditional folklore cape-and-coffin vampires, but the blood-drinking is there, the near-immortality, the vulnerability to sunlight, the ability to create others of their own kind, the compelling mental powers, etc. But their origin here is more clinical and sinister, the results of science that turned out to work a little too well … then, of course, they get out.

The original escapees from the Tower have no memories of their former lives or selves. They go on the run, needing to feed and stay hidden, and to increase their numbers to replace those they’ve lost. Trouble is, there are only so many ways to cover up a growing string of grisly deaths and mysterious disappearances.

Detective Mike Hanlon (the name, same as a King character, admittedly kept throwing me off) is a Brooklyn cop relocated to Iowa, dealing with his difficult issues. This bizarre case gives him a goal, and he’s determined to track down the killers even as more and more bizarre evidence piles up, no matter the risks to his career and his life.

Throw in shadowy agencies trying to bring the situation back under control, a survivor/witness who’s lost his entire family, and the dark history of the doctors behind the experiments, and it’s no wonder the trails all eventually lead back to a final confrontation where it all began.

-Christine Morgan


Monday, September 2, 2019

Reviews for the Week of September 2, 2019

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

IN THE SCRAPE by James Newman and Mark Steensland (2019 Silver Shamrock Publishing / 108 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

In this engrossing novella, two young brothers live in an isolated North Carolina community with their abusive father. He has told them their mother left for California because she no longer wanted to be a mom, but neither boy is buying it and they plan to run away and find her. Jake begins stealing to afford bus tickets, and younger brother Matthew goes along with him apprehensively, until he realizes they need to get away from their dad before his beatings become fatal.

Also causing problems is neighborhood bully Caleb, who Jake eventually puts in the hospital, which leads to further complications once the brothers put their escape plan into action.

Part coming of age story, part thriller with some genuinely tense moments, IN THE SCRAPE is another solid tale from the writing team of Newman and Steensland (whose previous novella, THE SPECIAL, is currently being made into a film). I blasted through this in one manic sitting and found everything had an authentic feel, even the slight hint of the supernatural.

-Nick Cato

GHOST STORIES: CLASSIC STORIES OF HORROR AND SUSPENSE edited by Lisa Morton and Leslie Klinger (2019 Pegasus Books / 260 pp / hardcover & eBook)

Every now and then, it’s good to go back and appreciate our roots, get a better appreciation of where we are and where we came from. Especially when the subject is horror, so often undervalued and overlooked in literary circles.

Where better to begin than the classic ghost story? This volume collects seventeen of the earliest published tales, as well as opening with an example of the kind of haunting poetic ballad where the sub-genre used to mostly hang its spectral hat.

Many of these were familiar to me, even if I hadn’t read them in years. Others, somehow, I’d entirely missed, and was glad to finally catch up on. We’ve got Poe’s “Ligeia,” of course … works by M.R. James and Wilkie Collins, Dickens himself. We’ve got stories by Edith Wharton, Olivia Howard Dunbar, Georgia Wood Pangborn, Charlotte Riddell, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, further proving the shouldn’t-have-to-be-proved-anyway point that ladies have ALWAYS been doing this as long and just as well as the gents.

In fact, it’s Phelps’ “Since I Died” that takes the prize for my top pick of the book; wonderfully written, can’t believe I’d never seen it before, some fantastic use of first- and second-person perspective, fabulous descriptions, really hits home with the chilling emotional resonance.

Readers only accustomed to contemporary fast-paced hard-hitting fiction might find these oldies a bit on the slow and rambling/meandering side, but they make up for it with mood, atmosphere, stylishly beautiful turns of phrase, and artfulness the likes of which it’s rare to see these days.

The introduction, and helpful footnotes included throughout, serve to provide a more scholarly academic touch. The history of ghost stories, mediums, and the Spiritualism movement add an extra dimension, making for a satisfying educational experience as well as an entertaining one.

-Christine Morgan

I DREAM OF MIRRORS by Chris Kelso (2019 Sinister Horror Company / 158 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I tell ya, I like to think of myself as fairly smart and savvy and generally together in the brainmeats department, until along comes a book like this and I end up feeling mighty out of my depth. In a good way, though; a profound makes-you-think way. This one isn’t a casual time-passer or idle distraction.

I read it all the way through in one studious sitting, and still came out the other end wondering how much had gone whoosh right over my head. Complex and multi-layered with social satire and commentary, it may seem on the surface to be a survival struggle in a digital-era dystopia … at least, that’s how it seemed to me … but maybe not.

So, do be aware I could be getting it all entirely wrong. This is all only as I perceived it, for whatever that’s worth.

Our main character is a narrator so unreliable even he no longer knows who he is, existing as one of the few remaining ‘dark-dwellers’ not yet indoctrinated into the mindless zombie-like personality cult worshipping a charismatic new leader and slavishly serving the new world order. He’s teamed up with, and secretly fallen for, a tough young woman named Kad. They seek shelter and supplies in abandoned parts of the city, trying to avoid being taken into the fold by any new broadcasts or transmissions.

When a mistake leads to their partnership breaking, our ill-prepared protagonist is suddenly out on the streets on his own. In true and openly-acknowledged Ahab-allegory fashion, he sets out to confront the would-be messiah, only to find out that reality is even weirder than he could have suspected.

-Christine Morgan

SUSPENDED IN DUSK II edited by Simon Dewar (2018 Grey Matter Press / 282 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Gorgeous book. Dean Samed cover, so, no wonder … sometimes that tired old adage about judging just plain doesn’t work. His art is mind-blowing in all the right ways, helping to set the perfect mood and tone for the stories gathered herein.

Those stories – of which there are seventeen – share a common general theme of ‘change,’ of the between, times and spaces and places of transition and crossing. Beyond that, they range from quiet to visceral, smoothly spanning eras, settings, and genres with masterful skill.

Masterful, and no wonder on that either! The authors included are some definite top-tier pros. Just glancing over their “about the” sections, the well-earned and well-deserved credentials, education, accolades and accomplishments are sure to impress (or intimidate, or make-one-feel-inadequate, but I digress).

Editor Simon Dewar’s foreword, and Angela Slatter’s introduction examining how we’re the only species to deliberately seek to scare ourselves on purpose (what is *wrong* with us?), also nicely help set the tone, as well as establish the professional creds of the book.

And then, let the unsettlings begin! Starting off with Karen Runge’s “Angeline,” which swiftly goes from an innocent-enough-seeming-but-also-kinda-creepy first line to decidedly creepy, to deeply creepy, to downright screaming eeks. Yow.

Next up is a terrifying tale of an all-too-real fear courtesy of Damien Angelica Walters, and if I repeat too many more times how she has yet to write anything less than amazing, she’ll probably take out a restraining order. Then Alan Baxter, whom I fully expect to have a movie or Netflix deal soon, takes on teens and the darker corners of the internet.

Plus more, so much more … poetic graveyard art, followed by a little loving cannibalism … ghost walks and terrible bargains … the trapped doom of claustrophobia … lost children, strange legacies … demon-summonings gone awry and sacrifices demanded … folklore, fairy-tales and mythology reaching into the modern world …

Yeah, this one’s another winner!

-Christine Morgan

NIGHT OF THE POSSUMS by Jacob Floyd (2018 Nightmare Press / 296 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

A pivotal, formative part of my childhood was nature-run-amok creature-feature horror, thanks to a shelf of paperbacks my grandmother made my grandfather keep out in the garage. I spent a lot of time out there, reading about dogs and rats and snakes and slugs. In later years, I edited an anthology of similar tales with some less-likely critters (geckos, chihuahuas, crabs, platypuses, murderous blades of grass even!).

So, you better believe it, when a book called Night of the Possums comes along, I am totally there! Whether reviled as trash-goblin vermin, underrated as helpful bug-eaters, or simply misunderstood urban wildlife, they have one of the most divisive reputations in the animal kingdom as far as we humans are concerned.

Not so surprising, then, if they might eventually decide they’d had enough. Enough scrounging through our garbage. Enough being trapped by exterminators and targeted for roadkill. Welcome to a world where possums – or opossums, depending; the distinction is addressed in the book – are plenty pissed, and ready to serve up some payback.

Anybody who might scoff over how much damage a possum would do has clearly never cornered one in an alley or basement. In numbers? And we’re talking NUMBERS, no mere pack of possums but the full-on possum apocalypse. We’re also talking some possums that are far from ordinary in other ways. Bigger. Smarter. Purposeful.

For the people of one small town, what at first seems like random bear maulings or even a roving psycho soon proves to be far more than anyone could have bargained for. It’s a hissing, clawing, biting, screeching bloodbath fight for survival. Total B-movie schlock from start to finish, exactly as it should be.

-Christine Morgan

POP THE CLUTCH: THRILLING TALES OF ROCKABILLY, MONSTERS, AND HOT ROD HORROR edited by Eric J. Guignard (2019 Dark Moon Books / 356 pp / eBook)

Rockabilly horror stories? ROCKABILLY HORROR STORIES!!! Really, is there anything more that needs be said? I mean, I’ll say more anyway because it’s how I roll.

Maybe it was your scene, back in the day. Maybe you grew up hooked on Grease, or watched Cry Baby one too many times, or wanted to be Fonzie when you grew up. For my own fondness, I blame Brian Setzer and the Stray Cats.

However it happened, there’s just something so ridiculously 50’s Americana about it all, so over the top and outrageous, malt shops and car hops, hep cats and hot-rods, so brash, so loud, so tacky. These eighteen stories embody all of it, plus delving into the darker side where drag races and drive-ins turn deadly, but rock and roll will never die … ever … no matter what you do.

And look at this lineup! These are the total T-Birds and Pink Ladies of the genre, the cool kids in school. They got the Lansdales! Both Weston Ochse AND Yvonne Navarro! Class clown extraordinaire Jeff Strand! David-freakin-SCHOW! Lisa-freakin-MORTON! Seanan-are-you-kidding-me-MCGUIRE!!!

But, honestly, it’s simple enough – if you like rockabilly (with or without horror), you need this book. And if you don’t, well, your loss, squares and sad-sacks!

-Christine Morgan

AFTER THE CHANGE by Michael J. Moore (2019 MKM Bridge Press / 286 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

It’s not zombies, though, even if the book’s protagonists have a hard time convincing anybody else of that. As far as teenagers Wes, Cali, and Diego are concerned, the unfortunate victims of the mysterious event are just ‘changed.’

Well, not just changed. It’s a murderous infected/crazies pandemic scenario. The reader doesn’t get much in the way of explanation, which makes sense because neither do the characters. The cause, the contagion vector, none of that matters. What matters is staying sane, staying safe, and not getting killed or eaten.

With a military/mercenary group scouring the countryside for resources and recruits, and a cultish bunch with a charismatic leader holed up in a grocery store, the teens soon learn it’s not only the changed that pose a threat.

The main characters seem awfully mature for fifteen-year-olds, even under the circumstances … the supporting characters are for the most part pretty bland, and there are a few too many convenient nick-of-time or lucky saves for my taste. But it’s decently written and sound enough.

Best part for me was seeing an apocalypse-survival story set in the area north of Seattle; I used to live in Everett WA, so all those familiar locations and placenames made for an entertaining journey.

-Christine Morgan


Capturing the spirit of those late-night, low-budget, monstorama-theater creature features, hearkening back to the days when ghoulish hosts would introduce the fright night chills and thrills, this is a collection of several little stories written as homage to those.

Like their inspirational source material, these aren’t the most tightly plotted or plausible tales, nor do they have to be. They’re goofy fun, written in a way that brings them to grainy, black-and-white life … with the static of an old television set, or the film-sputteriness of a bargain matinee.

You’ve got your basic mad scientists, absent-minded professors, run-down castles, winsome beauties, intelligent inspectors, manly military men, folksy locals whose warnings go ignored, aliens and weird experiments, plucky kids with pluckier robot friends, rampant patriotic fervor, jet-packs, gloomy moonlit woods, tough teens pitting hotrods against unnatural menaces, the works.

Even for what it is, the book maybe could’ve used a little more editor-type polish, but its charm makes the flaws almost like seeing the wires holding the tin plate spaceships or the zipper down the monster’s back. Light-hearted popcorn fun. I’d watch any of these for a cheesy movie party night.

-Christine Morgan


Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Reviews for the Week of August 19, 2019

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


A SICK GRAY LAUGH by Nicole Cushing (to be released 8/27/19 by Word Horde / 290 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I'm always thrilled to receive something new from Cushing, and her latest novel A SICK GRAY LAUGH is highlighted by an unreliable narrator whose bizarre history lessons and dark sense of humor kept me glued to the pages.

Noelle Cashman is an award-winning writer whose depression and anxiety have brought her to a place where she needs to start taking a new medication. And despite the success she's had with her weird fiction, she now finds herself inspired to write a non fiction book about her small Indiana town. Feeling like a new person (she now jogs and has lost seventy-five pounds), Cashman sets out to tell the history of Naumpton, Indiana and as she begins to take notice, she discovers a "grayness" seems to be everywhere … and she's gung ho to find out why this is.

Set up in three sections, LAUGH first introduces us to Cashman and her plight, then the second gives us insights into her town's bizarre religious heritage (and it's here where we learn about a group known as The New Israelites, along with their charismatic leader and his right hand man, who give the novel an edge that will come back to haunt you). And in part three, subtitled "The Cure," we discover Cashman's findings in her studies of Naumpton's history, and her involvement in a 5K charity race which had me laughing out loud while simultaneously disturbing the shit out of me.

Being the unreliable story teller that she is, Cashman has us convinced of certain things than has us doubt them within a sentence or two later. Have the new meds truly helped her? Is she a descendent of one of her town's religious cults? Or is she perhaps even grayness incarnate? The beauty of A SICK GRAY LAUGH is we really don't know, and Cushing (or is it Cashman?) pulls us along like students in a bizarre Sunday school class, forced to listen and face the darkness while making us laugh uncomfortably while we do so.

With images and ideas that have been stuck in my head for weeks, Cushing has once again delivered an original story that's hard to define, yet manages to bring the chills in a way all its own and seldom seen in genre novels. Don't miss this.

-Nick Cato

VICTORIA by Jason Parent (2018 Bloodshot Books / 204 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

My only real frustration with this book was never finding out how Chester got her name! Well, and that I wanted more story, more backstory and history and mythology. But I’m greedy that way.

Plot-wise, there is a lot to unpack, but the upshot is, sometimes the little voice in your head may actually be a demonic spider who crawled into your ear and made a nest in your brain.

A demonic brain spider who then encourages you to become an expert thief, team up Leverage-style with a like-minded group of daring rogues, and pull a heist at the Vatican … where you run into a Kingsman-type special agent priest on his own secret mission to hunt down the demonic brain spiders.

No, wait, really, stay with me here, because this is how the book goes, and it’s fantastic throughout! Much better than any of the Dan Brown stuff (also self-aware enough to make jokes about it; I love that touch).

In a way, it could even classify as YA, with the adventuresome young protagonist, but it’d definitely be YA with a harder edge. Not a lot of sex, but the body count gets pretty impressive and the fight scenes are great.

The best fights of all, though, are the ones between Victoria and Chester, who come to some ethical disagreements and personality clashes. As they say, the toughest battles are the ones that take place inside our own heads, even if it’s not usually meant quite like this.

Terrific read, fast-moving and fun! Though when you then develop an ear infection or see those stories online about people finding bugs living in their faces …

-Christine Morgan

GODS AND MOBSTERS by Adam Millard (2019 Amazon Digital / 260 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I’m so glad the author decided to make this one available after all! It’s an absolute blast, mixing genres with wild and gleeful abandon. Starting off a la Aesop’s fables, with a drunk fox playing checkers with an arrogant squirrel … and only accelerating into sheer wackiness from there on out.

Imagine the Iliad, only, instead of interfering with the Trojan War, the gods are mostly loafing around Olympus being petty and snarky at each other as usual, until Artemis the huntress decides she wants to check out how the mortal half lives. Just her luck, she’s got the physical form of a pre-teen Girl Guide, but she’s still got her arrows and her attitude.

Uncle Poseidon ends up sent after her, but instead of bringing her promptly back home, they run into an old-school noir gumshoe working his latest case (hired by a dangerous dame, of course, to get the goods on her cheating mobster husband).

Some misunderstandings and arrow injuries later, the pieces are falling into place for an East London smackdown between immortal goons, undercover cops, and wayward Olympians. While that same poor hapless drunk fox keeps simply trying to skitter out of the line of fire.

Loaded with pop-culture references and social commentary, giving some amusing spins and updates to mythology, and bringing hilarious footnotes back into style, I enjoyed everything about it.

-Christine Morgan

MANNEQUIN: TALES OF WOOD MADE FLESH edited by Justin A. Burnett (2019 Silent Motorist Media / 169 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

That occasional bias of mine about certain anthologies comes into play here again; I love themed calls and can rarely resist an intriguing challenge. And the theme for this one certainly hits upon what may be a universal truth – dolls are freakin’ creepy.

‘Dolls’ being a broad category in this case, including not just childrens’ toys but ventriloquist dummies, mannequins (of course), and even scarecrows. They tend to give us an instinctive approach/avoidance reaction … we’re drawn to them because of the ways they resemble us, but disturbed by them because of the unsettling ways that they don’t.

Or maybe they do, when we’re not looking. Maybe they move. Maybe they think. Maybe they’re far less fond of us than we are of them. Maybe they resent the way we play with and treat and use them. Maybe they want some payback. To punish us. Or to become us, take our places. Who can know what’s going on behind those often-painted-on eyes?

See? Creepy. Creeeeeepy. And here, for your goosebump fodder, are a whole bunch of stories sure to stir unease in the back of your mind or make you do double-takes from the corner of your eye. From horrormaster Ramsey Campbell’s vintage chiller “Cyril” to Daulton Dickey’s experimental weirdness in “Allegory of Shadows and Bones,” from a giant-marionette-apocalypse staggeringly imagined by C.P. Dunphey to tiny trinkets locked away with memories in Austin James’ “Fugue,” they run a varied gamut while all still adhering to that central disturbing theme.

-Christine Morgan

THE PULP HORROR BOOK OF PHOBIAS edited by MJ Sydney (2019 Lycan Valley Press / 636 pp / hardcover, trade paperback)

I can never get enough anthologies about weird phobias. Always helps me feel at least a little better about my own assorted quirks (though, sometimes, it gives me new things to freak out about I hadn’t thought of before).

This particular volume wanted to push far past the basic ordinary run-of-the-mill phobias, really digging deep for the weirder the better. And did so in entertaining A-to-Z order, each author being assigned a different bizarre fear starting with a different letter of the alphabet.

26 stories does make for one hefty tome, some 630 pages. If big honkin’ books scare you (what would that be? megabibliophobia?), you might not want to pick this one up in print. Heck, 630 pages, some might not be ABLE to pick it up in print! But I digress. Moving on!

With cover art by Kealan Patrick Burke and interior illustrations courtesy of Luke Spooner, it’s already a star-studded production even without taking a skim of the table of contents. Doing that, seeing names like Richard Chizmar, John Skipp, Sephera Giron, Tim Waggoner, Gabino Iglesias, Mehitobel Wilson, Ray Garton, Ed Erdelac, and Hank Schwaeble (among others, remember, 26 stories!), you know you are in for some serious quality stuff.

There are far too many winners to choose from to pick a favorite, or even a top five, but I do have to give special mention to Jonah Buck’s “Just Desserts” for sheer genre-blending wackiness (like a hardboiled Murder She Wrote meets Lovecraftian cult meets cooking network) … and Mehitobel Wilson’s “True Confessions of the Happiest Pistachio” for telling it too much like it is, or like it will be if society keeps on at this rate.

Give it a whirl … maybe discover you have phobias you never even knew existed … enjoy!

-Christine Morgan

MAYBE THE DREAM KNOWS WHAT IS REAL by Steve Grogan (2018 Amazon Digital  /  74 pp / eBook)

This is a very well-written but incredibly uncomfortable read … like a book-length version of one of those petulant letters to an online advice columnist or ranty MRA blog or incel forum post, basically boiling down to an entitled awful person blaming everyone else for his problems and expressing horrible views about women while complaining how girls never give Nice Guys a chance.

So, if that was the author’s intention with this character, consider the nail hit right on the head. Hit all too well right on the head. We get the nameless protagonist’s entire history as the loner, the outcast even among outcasts, who acknowledges this but nonetheless considers himself better than everyone else, we get a front-row seat to the way he treats others, and we’re helplessly dragged along for the ride when he finally snaps and goes total revenge fantasy porn.

Now, don’t get me wrong, like I said before, it IS very well-written. Almost too much so, maybe. But not in a fun, escapist, entertaining way. More in the sick-morbid-fascination way, like we view manifestos by someone who shoots up a school or a mall because hot chicks don’t date him.

So yeah, incredibly uncomfortable. It’s all there: the objectification, the misogyny, the crude attitudes toward sex, the resentment, the superiority … the whole skin-crawling grossness of realizing some people actually DO think like this protagonist. When we’ve already got a plethora of that stuff in the news every day, it just left me feeling kind of queasy.

-Christine Morgan

THE DAMNED by Kirk Kilgrave (2018 IP / 228 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Reality show meets haunted house, when two teams of ‘experts’ compete to rid a spooky mansion of malevolent forces, for the promise of a big cash prize. One team is composed of ghost-hunters, brash mouthy dudes loaded down with equipment and skepticism. The other team consists of psychics and spiritualists, including the gifted crone, her young apprentice, and our gutsy protagonist who’s had a previous run-in with demons.

Of course, the house IS haunted, plagued with more (and worse) than ordinary ghosts. Of course, it’s remote and they have no way to call for help if anything goes wrong. And of course, things quickly go wrong. One by one, they’re picked off, as they realize they’ve been brought here under false pretenses.

For alleged ‘experts,’ most of the characters are dumb-stubborn in the head-desking obnoxious unrealistic way of so many horror movies. They also spend way too much time info-dumping and tediously explaining things to each other. Heavy on the “telling,” light on emotion and reaction, pretty much meh overall.

-Christine Morgan

SKIN by Dr. Circus (2019 Amazon Digital / 88 pp / eBook)

Um, okay then. Not sure how I ended up with this one, but thought I’d give it a whirl. Never know, right? Might discover a gem, right? Or not.

Sorry to say, this time the answer’s more over on the side of ‘not.’ While there’s a definite enthusiasm to it, some wildly-imagined descriptions and visuals, and some really wildly-imagined really really graphic demon smut, the writing needs a LOT of work and I don’t think an editor or even so much as a beta-reader had a look at it before it was made available.

Do I think it has potential? Possibly. Like I said, there’s definite enthusiasm and creativity, the author was clearly having fun, but the result is far from final-draft-worthy. I only kept reading partly because it’s a very short book and partly out of morbid curiosity.

Several storylines intertwine, centering around a girl named Luna who runs an online business selling occult stuff – books, spells, curses, etc. They’re surprisingly effective, because Luna’s got a direct connection to Hell, though Luna’s finding out that dealing with devils has its own dangerous side effects.

The other storylines follow some of her customers. Such as Emma and Cory, who’ve gotten their hands on an evil book that leads them into a nightmare landscape of flesh … and Anya, who’s ordered up a visit from an incubus to sate her most depraved desires … and an expectant father who’s neglected to mention buying a fertility spell to his wife.

So yeah, it’s dirty, it’s nasty, there’s blood and gore and the abovementioned demon smut. It has the imagination and enthusiasm, but the writing seriously needs work. Might have better luck browsing the “erotic horror” category on Literotica in the meantime.

-Christine Morgan

THE ADVERSARY by Mauricio Limeira / translated by Fabiola Lowenthal (2017 Amazon Digital  / 285 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Then there are the days you get an envelope covered with international postage stickers and it’s a nifty-looking paperback from Brazil, with really cool built-in flyleaf cover design (why don’t all paperbacks have that? brilliant!)

Even better, it turns out to be a really cool read. Admittedly, not the easiest one; the translation from Portuguese is far from perfect, and might throw some readers off. Me, language-loving weirdo that I am, I found it extra-fascinating to compare and contrast, and see how various concepts came across. I think I enjoyed that aspect as much as I enjoyed the story itself.

I think it also helped that it’s in first-person point-of-view (well, mostly; halfway through it does inexplicably switch to third for the rest of the book). Makes the tone very conversational and natural, like listening to someone who’s not a native speaker nonetheless do a great job getting their point across.

Story-wise, our protagonist, Zeca, is on the run. It’s a mess he got himself into by, in a moment of grief-stricken desperation, hiring a killer to seek revenge on his behalf. Casimir, however, turns out to be no ordinary assassin, and his interest in Zeca quickly becomes a deadly, even supernatural, obsession. To save himself and his rapidly-dwindling list of loved ones, Zeca will have to confront his own inner dark side, while trying to stay a step ahead of evil.

Most impressive of all, this is the author’s first novel, and if this is how good of a debut they’re making, the rest of us better look out! Even taking the language/translation issues into account. I’ve seen far rougher works from more experienced native English speakers. Definite kudos to the author and translator!

-Christine Morgan


Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Reviews for the Week of August 5, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. You probably won't be able to see it on a cell phone. Fine time to dust off that laptop...

KINFOLK by Matt Kurtz (2018 Grindhouse Press / 167 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
site: https://grindhousepress.com

Gotta love it when it’s bad guys vs. worse guys in an all-out gory smackdown fight to the finish, and you don’t know who to root for!

In this case, the bad guys are a pair of brothers, Eric and Ray, who share a criminal history … except, Ray is trying to put the past behind him by drowning himself in booze, while Eric thinks Ray still needs closure and revenge. Their reunion begins with attempted armed robbery and assault of a cop, their frantic escape leaves them stranded by the side of a road in the middle of who-knows-where, and when a passing driver stops, it’s far from a rescue.

Because, cue the worse guys … your classic depraved backwoods clan of human monsters and semi-human mutants, with hideous habits and deviant appetites! They’re normally accustomed to picking up normal hitchhikers and other lost travelers, and aren’t quite ready for having their prey fight back with guns and total ferocity.

What ensues is sheer chaos and carnage and high-octane wall-to-wall splatter, a thoroughly nasty, blood-soaked, action-packed murder spree where horrible people get what they deserve, deserve what they get, and nobody comes out clean.

If you’re looking for quiet, elevated, or literary horror, this is not the book for you. If you love a good wet-zone mutilation kill-fest, however, settle right on in and have fun!

-Christine Morgan

MY AMERICAN NIGHTMARE: WOMEN IN HORROR edited by Azzurra Nox (2017 Twisted Wing Productions / 244 pp / eBook)

I’m not sure how I acquired this one; none of the names were very well known to me. But, I’ve never let that stop me before. It’s always good to give new things a try, expand those ol’ horizons. Besides it was probably during Women in Horror month, fittingly enough … what better time than to pick up an anthology done entirely by female authors?

There are nineteen tales in all, with an editor’s note at the end, followed by some author bios and a bit about how each piece came to be inspired, and then, as an unusual but very cool bonus feature, some author Q&A.

Another element I hadn’t realized up front was the project’s theme. As I was reading, I kept thinking “Wait, this sounds like a take on (whatever)” and finally realized that was because, yes, it was on purpose! Taking some well-known works – of various types, not just literature but film and music as well – and reinventing them in new, sometimes updated, sometimes feminist ways.

Therefore, so as not to spoil anyone else’s guessing game, I won’t go into particulars. Some, the penny will drop right away, others may take a bit longer to recognize. All together, they make for an odd but interesting read. I expect to be seeing more from many of these ladies very soon.

-Christine Morgan

SOMETHING BORROWED, SOMETHING BLOOD-SOAKED by Christa Carmen (2018 Unnerving / 242 pp / trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)

I’d only had the pleasure of running across one of these thirteen tales before, but something with a title like “The Girl Who Loved Bruce Campbell” wasn’t going to be something I’d forget. Reading it again was as enjoyable as ever.

But several of its companion pieces in this collection are where some honest pain and bravery really comes shining through. Set in a shared universe, with recurring characters and places, and events seen from different points of view, they work together to bring forth a journey through addiction and recovery that must’ve been very difficult to write at all … let alone write so well. The struggles, the emotions, the relationships, and the reality all ring very true.

Others are more stand-alone, and more supernatural/sensational. You’ll find a spooky babysitter with some even spookier revelations for her young charges, malevolent mystery pics on a cell phone, exquisite flowers, and a Halloween take on Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” unlike anything you’ve seen before.

In fact, Halloween crops up in other tales as well. At a fall farm haunted harvest hayride type attraction, where one of the workers is persuaded to step out from her usual behind-the-scenes role … and as a bride’s special day at an infamous hotel.

And, I must just say, the book opener, “Thirsty Creatures,” has a bang-up attention grabber of a first line: ‘The trees were fire and the skies were panicked birds and the horse was made of bone.’ I mean, dang, how can you NOT read on after a hello like that?

-Christine Morgan

MY PRETTIES by Jeff Strand (2019 Amazon Digital Services / 263 pp / trade paperback & eBook) 

Alright, folks. We all know this author has become one of my personal favorites in the past couple of years and with the release of this new dark Crime/Horror/Thriller mash-up, I stand by that statement 100%. This is arguably and quite possibly Strand at his finest. Dark and twisted, sad and traumatic, funny, violent, and entertaining with a number of brilliant plot twists, all of the usual characteristics found in the author’s previous work and then some.

Two new friends from work embark on a dangerous quest to pursue the whereabouts of a missing family member they believe was kidnapped by a sick and perverted serial killer. As they begin to troll the area in hopes of finding this deranged man, that’s where things begin to get, well, interesting, as they might just find out exactly what they set out to do. Which, I guess in a perfect world, might be all fun and games, but not when you’re dealing with somebody that gets off on kidnapping and caging women to simply sit back and watch them starve to death! But, we all know you can’t have your sadistic cake and eat it too… Or, maybe you can. I guess you’ll have to read it and find out for yourself.

My Pretties is a Horror and Crime Thriller that's sure to provoke and entertain the darkest of minds. Proceed with caution.

-Jon R. Meyers

ERIE TALES X: MASQUERADE edited by Michael Cieslak (2017 Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers / 94 pp / trade paperback)

The tenth anniversary installment from the GLAHW only includes five stories, but one of those was so downright fantastic it blew me away, and is alone more than worth the price of admission, and so I am just going to start off raving about it.

“Rites of Passage,” by Cassie Carnage, is a dystopian vision of the future that the alt-right thinks the liberal snowflake SJWs want. Emotions are strictly regulated, ‘triggering’ is a crime, misgendering or assuming someone’s gender is a dreadful offense, all opinions must be respected and validated, all communications are monitored, and everyone must be protected from anything even potentially hurtful.

To accommodate this, children all wear identical masks to hide facial expressions and reactions. At age 13, those masks are surgically replaced with permanent ones to ensure conformity and compliance. Told from the perspective of an apprehensive kid on the eve of the pivotal birthday, it is terrifying and excellently written and just phenomenal.

Doesn’t help that the subject matter only makes it more ironic I feel bad about my fair-to-middlin’s responses to the others, but, here we are. The other stories are fine, each delivering their own take on the anthology’s ‘masquerade’ theme of secrets, concealment, and hiding in plain sight.

Which, as it happens, is the title of Peggy Christie’s fun book-opening story – “Hiding in Plain Sight” – about how having a job at a cemetery can be both useful and economical when you’re a creature of unconventional appetites.

J.M. VanHorn’s “Promise” has a young girl looking for her lost dog run into a helpful stranger in an abandoned house, only to then find out the stranger isn’t as helpful as she seems.

In “Sea of Hats,” by Montilee Stormer, the view from the church balcony conceals some unpleasant truths about the congregation.

Finishing things off is Mark Matthews’ “Mask of Sanity,” exploring the wonderful world of psychiatry, medications, and those persistent pharmaceutical reps.

-Christine Morgan

WORSHIP ME by Craig Stewart (2017 Hellbound Books / 356 pp / trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)

I’m pretty sure I was supposed to sympathize with the character who starts off this book running over a feral mama cat and just being relieved at least it wasn’t one of the kittens and driving along while tossing a half-eaten muffin out the window as a ‘sorry my bad’ … but daaaang. All the negative reacts. The character’s later behavior, no matter how played-up-as-heroic/noble/self-sacrificing, did zilch to ameliorate that.

Nor, really, did the behavior of many of the other characters. What an awful group of people! Church people, no less, gathering for their Sunday service, but almost every single one of them was icky or unlikeable one way or another. Sanctimonious, hypocritical, hiding their own sins, gossipy, unkind, the list goes on.

When they all get trapped in the church by a malevolent force claiming to be their new god, you know right off the bat they are going to turn on each other with vicious quickness. And they sure do. With shades of King’s Storm of the Century, they’re given a time limit and a harsh decision to make. Pick one to offer up, or everyone dies.

In the meanwhile, anybody who tries to escape gets brutally, bloodily punished. Even those who give themselves over to this new god are mutilated and marked in blood. The gory sequences are very gory indeed, graphic and wallow-in-it, with some grisly creative maimings in the best splattery tradition.

Here and there, I had a few logistical problems with the setting … for a single building, even one with a large basement, there sure was a lot of screaming and destruction and other noise going on … and the scenes with the fire didn’t seem terribly plausible.

The ending delivers an interesting not-what-I-expected twist, and, if nothing else, pretty much all the awful characters get what they deserve, so it’s quite satisfying on those levels.

-Christine Morgan

KRONOS RISING: KRAKEN by Max Hawthorne (2018 Far From the Tree Press / 555 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook)

Arrrrgh I knew it I knew it, reading along getting closer and closer to the end with more and more buildup and that looming sense of “To Be Continued incoming in 3, 2, 1 ...” and sure enough there at the end is the coming soon Volume 2 announcement. AAAARRRGH.

Then again, I had a feeling, since KRONOS RISING is an ongoing series, this one taking place a generation after the original (reviewed earlier; I seem to have missed a few in the interim but was able to fill in the blanks well enough).

Upside, though, there’s a whole ‘nuther book to look forward to next, one with all the pieces in place for some of the biggest blockbuster special effects sea-monster chompiness of all time. There’s always a bigger fish, right? Or shark. Or marine reptile. Or cephalopod. Or all of the above.

Even on its own, that’d be fun, but when humans have to get involved, you know things are going to get even wilder. Maybe more sci-fi high-tech dino thriller than horror, it takes some of the lessons nobody ever learned in Jurassic Park about thinking we can control nature, and putting too much faith in our technology, and ups the voltage exponentially.

There’s also a whole lot of testosterone in this book, but the manliness of the manly-mens is more than matched by the assertiveness and sexual aggression of the take-no-crap Amazon womens (a critique I had of the earlier one had to do with its sausage-fest-ness). Everyone’s larger than life, exaggerated in one way or another. The sexy people are insatiable sex-beasts, withy plenty of equal-opportunity ogling. The sleazy people are gross almost to the point of absurdity.

It’s got secret bases and giant octopi and submarines and neural implants to use pliosaurs like mechas, it’s leading up to the ultimate aquatic smackdown, and it’s gonzo good action fun.

-Christine Morgan

THE WATCHFUL DEAD by Joe Pawlowski (2019 Glint Media / 199 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

It’s probably typical to see a title like this and more often than not think “zombies,” but in this case the assumption would be way off base. There’s only technically one reanimated corpse, which doesn’t appear until fairly late in the book, and even then is far from your usual zombie.

Ghosts, on the other hand … and the more general presence of the dead in terms of respecting the wishes of those who’ve passed … those feature much more prominently. But even so, this is no more a ghost book than it is a zombie book.

Well okay then, you might be thinking, what the heck kind of book IS it? That’s where things get tricky, because it’s hard to classify. Not cosmic horror per se, but with strong Mythos elements. Cosmic dark fantasy? Cosmic post-apocalyptic dark fantasy? It’d be perfect for gaming in, anyway.

A medieval-ish society’s arisen in the wake of the return of the Old Gods (including Dagon, though interestingly depicted as a female). Mythos-type monsters like night gaunts are mentioned, as are familiar names from the lore. Magic is rare but real. People have been broken into tribes of more diverse races and castes.

In the city of Hastur, Ring’s family are slavers, but his father and uncle have loftier ambitions. Political ambitions, which they hope to attain by some fairly sneaky, roundabout methods involving pirates and a captured island witch with the power to awaken the dead.

Little do they anticipate the wider fallout that’ll ensue, not only from deceased relatives but murder victims, the slaves they’ve sold who came to untimely ends, and the greater repercussions when it stirs the notice of the gods.

Now, it might also be an easy leap to expect Ring’s the classic chosen-one destined hero type who’ll undertake the big quest to save the world and all, but it breaks away from that tired old trope too. All in all, it’s a gutsy, ambitious, skillful exploration of cosmic/epic dark fantasy that brings something new to both facets of the genres.

-Christine Morgan

SUBJECT 11 by Jeffrey Thomas (2014 CreateSpace / 114 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook)

You know those little sleeper indie films that get hardly any buzz but when you watch them on a whim or a recommendation, it turns out to be a stunningly brilliant, eerily effective, blow-your-socks-off solid gold winner?

This is one of those, only in book form. For now. It NEEDS to be a movie. It wouldn’t even need a big budget. A rundown derelict hospital-type facility, some creepy graffiti paint, minimal props, less than a dozen actors, and boom. Winner. Someone get on that.

So you’ve got ten people who signed up as test subjects, the way people do … seems like a good deal at first, right? Spend a while in an abandoned building with no external contact or communications, adhering to rules of anonymity even among themselves (going by numbers instead of names), taking daily unknown medications, etc. At the end, four thousand dollars compensation.

Nothing too strange about that. Minus the medications, we’ve seen reality shows aplenty along those lines – and c’mon if there was a mystery drug trial version of Big Brother or something, it’d probably be mad popular.

Then, of course, things start to go weird. They start to question their own memories and perceptions. None of the participants know if it’s the medications, if it’s psychological tricks being played on them by their unseen test-masters, or what. But didn’t there used to be more of them? Was the graffiti always like that? What’s with the room with the creepy doll’s heads?

Just as the characters are questioning and second-guessing, so too will be the reader. I found myself wanting to skip back and check on continuity details, sure that such-and-such COULDN’T be a mistake because this author is a stone-cold pro who doesn’t make bloopers; it HAD to be deliberate …

Packed with insidious tension and unfolding paranoia, gripping, brilliantly written, a definite winner.

-Christine Morgan