Sunday, September 4, 2011

September, 2011 Reviews

SEPTEMBER 2011 REVIEWS

(NOTE: The "smell ratings" at the end of some reviews rate the actual SMELL of the book and have nothing to do with the story.  Smell Ratings: 5 = excellent, 1 = odorless, 2-4 = you figure it out.  Book Key: hc = hardcover / tp = trade paperback / mmp - mass market paperback / rarer forms described.  Unless otherwise noted, all reviews are by Nick Cato).


IT'S FOR YOU & OTHER DARK SPECULATIONS by Keith Minnion (2011 White Noise Press / 304 pp / tp)

For the past several years I've been enjoying the artwork of Keith Minnion; he's one of those artists whose style is instantly recognizable.  He has also designed and produced some of the best-looking chapbooks I've ever seen through his small press.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered this busy artist was also a writer.  Don't you just HATE show-offs?

It turns out Minnion's stories have been published in some top-notch markets (dating back to the late 70s) and the best of his chops are collected here in IT'S FOR YOU & OTHER DARK SPECULATIONS.

After an introduction by Norman Prentiss, we're thrown into 19 stories that span several genres (most with a dark edge).  Among my favorites are 'On the Midwatch,' a creepy scifi tale set at sea in the North Atlantic; 'Up in the Boneyard,' about an old man who had accidentally discovered a strange portal while flying in 1913--and in 1986 has found a way to get back to it; 'Empire State,' an apocalyptic yarn set in 2238 on a post-flooded earth; 'Bushidio' deals with odd goings-on aboard an interstellar ship (and reminded me of a classic tale you'd find in HEAVY METAL magazine).  'Room to Let,' while similar to 'Up in the Boneyard,' is another take on a mystical doorway, this time full of interesting oddballs.

The final story (which was also released this year as a chapbook by Cemetery Dance Publications), 'Island Funeral,' is easily the best of the crop.  Great atmosphere and a solid cast drive this heart-breaking account of a man trying to keep his deceased wife's final wish.

Minnion's pen is as sharp as his pencil (most stories here are even accompanied by a character's portrait, drawn by the author) and his prose as smooth as his strokes.  IT'S FOR YOU is a fine showcase of one truly talented individual; BUT...can he also dance?  (It wouldn't surprise me in the least at this point).

Smell Rating: 2


URSA MAJOR by John R. Little (2011 Bad Moon Books / 88 pp / tp)

Little follows a string of fantastic time-travel novellas with a suspense-filled action yarn, this time pitting a man and his girlfriend's six year-old daughter against an 8-foot tall grizzly bear at an isolated cabin.  In classic Little style, we get plenty of great writing jammed into this 70-paged novella, and an ending that'll rip your heart out.  But that's all I can say about this short work without giving anything away.

There's also a 10-paged (!) introduction by Gene O'Neill and Gord Rollo that's quite funny, but at $15.00, few outside of the serious collector's market will get to read this.

Smell Rating: 2


SHOULD HAVE KILLED THE KID by R. Frederick Hamilton (2011 LegumeMan Books / 300 pp / tp and eBook)

Pick this one up, it looks promising … apocalyptic cover of stark etched-looking city skyline engulfed in roiling flames … I have a weakness for end-of-the-world stories … intriguing title …

Turn it over to see what the back cover copy has to say? 

One word. 

FUCK …

Okay then. Sure, it expresses “uh-oh” and dismay, which would be natural enough for an end-of-the-world story, but I just don’t know if it’s the only thing you’d want on the back cover. 

As I later theorized, upon reading, maybe they did a word cloud of the manuscript and that was the one that popped up most often? Once or twice in every line of dialogue, it seemed like. Fuck this and shit that and the other fucking thing … I kept getting knocked out of the story, wondering if the excessive use was to pad the word count, or because it was supposed to prove how ooh-harsh-badass-hardcore the characters were, or shock value, or what. Seemed kind of sad, really.

That aside, there’s an okay enough story here. Not what I was expecting, the cataclysm and collapse of civilization and all. There’s some of that at the beginning, as survivors are huddling in shelters, but the attempts to show how quickly people become savages just felt like more shock value, exaggerated crassness and grossness.

So, the world’s ended. Some kind of nasty extradimensional rift has been torn open, allowing shadowy monsters to come through and start shredding people. Military response failed; now there’s just these groups barricaded in office buildings and bunkers. 

One of the survivors is a guy named Dave, and the disaster is apparently all his fault. He’s the one who “should have killed the kid” but didn’t. A gatekeeper thing, sacrifice to keep the rifts closed. Why the previous gatekeeper tried to recruit Dave, I have no idea … Dave’s not much of an engaging protagonist, but then, none of the characters are. 

All in all, while this book did help to pass a slow night at work, and I kept reading mostly to see what eventually did happen, it didn’t thrill, scare, or shock me. I’d give it a C- at most.

-Christine Morgan


DARK SURGE by Gina Ranalli (2011 Dark Regions Press / 214 pp / tp)

Tess lives with her six year-old daughter (Hmmm--that's the 2nd book I've read this month to feature a six year-old girl!) in the wake of her husband Josh's unloyalty.  His new live-in girlfriend, Gillian, puts up with Tess coming around and Josh's love for his daughter, but it seems deep down she doesn't care for his baggage.

As Tess tries to get on with life, her home starts to become infested with flies...so bad that she eventually baits the entire first floor is with fly strips, only to see them covered in the annoying buggers.  Meanwhile, Josh has a strange incident during urination: a painful spray of blood causes him to look down and find a maggot worming its way out of his penis.  Thinking he has some kind of flu or food poisoning, Gillian keeps him in bed, but things begin to get worse when he discovers pimple-sized boils on his back that start hatching more maggots.

Tess encounters a group of homeless street kids at a library, and when she shares her problem with them, one tells her she believes it could be some kind of curse (the teen turns out to be a practicing Wiccan).  Tess reluctantly goes back to them as a last-resort help, and the stage is set for a squirming, action-packed finale.

DARK SURGE has all the elements of a classic creature-feature, only this time there's the hint of an occult edge that's never fully explained: but like an episode of TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, the missing information (especially during the conclusion) only enhances the creepiness of the tale.

Ranalli once again delivers a quick, satisfying horror tale that'll leave you squirming for more.

Smell Rating: 3


CENTURIES OF JUNE by Keith Donohue (2011 Crown Publishers / 346 pp . hc)

A man wakes on his bathroom floor, naked and bleeding profusely from a head wound.  He finds a man waiting for him that reminds him of his father.  The young man sees eight women sleeping in his bed, but one by one, each woman visits the men in the bathroom.  Each woman attempts to kill the young man, but ultimately tells a story of betrayal.  The women come from various points in history and each story of betrayal revolves around a man.  From Dolly the Tlingit woman whose husband turns out to be a bear; Marie the slave who was promised an elusive freedom; Alice who was hanged as a witch; and Flo who prospered and lost during the gold rush of 1849.
  
Seven women and their stories of betrayal at the hands of the men in their lives.  And how did the young man end up on the bathroom floor with blood everywhere?  Was it murder or an accident?  There is an eighth woman in his bed whose story will also be told and bring everything to its conclusion.
CENTURIES OF JUNE is an amazing story of love, betrayal and death told from several different points in history.  Character development is spot on and doesn’t take away from the story at all.  Keith Donohue has weaved a tale of revenge and female empowerment that would rival any feminist writer.  They are ghosts but so much more.  The entire story takes place in the bathroom of a house that changes as the night drifts on.  Is the young man dead?  Is he merely unconscious?  Nothing is given away too soon and the story is extremely engaging.  I was almost sad when it ended because I wanted more of the stories from these women.  If paranormal thriller is your thing then CENTURIES OF JUNE is a definite get.

-Colleen Wanglund


HUNTING THE MOON TRIBE by David Agranoff (2011 Little Lotik Books / 261 pp / tp)

Erich is a young American student of kung fu, under the teaching of Yuen Wong.  He keeps having vivid dreams of a gorgeous Chinese woman, and eventually sees her in real life.  Of course his friends think he's nuts...but not Wong.  It turns out Erich is being called into a mystical battle between humans and vampires, and is eventually led on an adventure across the sea to a mystical Chinese realm where all kinds of creatures dwell, including dragons, headless giants and possessed trees.

It turns out the woman of Erich's dreams, Azeya, is a vampire under the control of Huwan Tu, the ruthless, power-mad leader of a vampire army bent on destroying Erich and his crew of vampire slayers, which includes turncoat Azeya as well as Yuen Wong's (now) vampiric wife.

Agranoff's novel reads lightning fast...but perhaps a bit TOO fast.  The action comes at such a rapid pace the reader might get a bit dizzy (but then again, like the classic kung fu films that inspired this tale, perhaps that was the author's intention).  While I enjoyed the epic feel of the plot (and thought Erich was a fine protagonist), the writing could have used a serious edit, as some of the prose could have been tightened up.  But thankfully there's so much going on here you hardly have time to notice the grammatical flaws.

The sword play and vampire-bloodshed come rapidly, and the stage is set for a second novel.  HUNTING THE MOON TRIBE is a neat blend of genres and Chinese mythology that'll remind you of a Saturday afternoon movie of yester-year.  Fun stuff.

Smell Rating: 4


SCREAM FOR ME by Brian Rosenberger (2011 Panic Press / 134 pp / tp)

I normally leave the Smell Rating to Nick, book-huffer that he is, but in this case I feel I must mention that this one must have had perfume spilled on it or something … it was like those magazines with fragrance samplers stuck between the pages, only there were none. Just … whew … permeated. Not sure what was going on with that. Hopefully a fluke and they’re not all scented volumes?

Scream For Me is a poetry collection, and the production value leaves something to be desired above and beyond the perfume aroma. Awful interior layout, ugly cover. 

Then there’s poems. I am not a huge poetry fan, but I did my best to give these a fair shake. Once I did, I found some of the language to be skillful, some nice evocative imagery. Some of them I liked well enough. Others had a warped Shel Silverstein flavor, or seemed like something you’d find scribbled in the notebooks of that one creepy kid at the junior high. I also think I detected a strong gamer influence throughout, overtones of D&D / WoW.  None were Vogon Poetry Appreciation Chair bad, at least. 

Maybe I just don’t “get” it. I’m certainly willing to consider that as a possibility. Therefore, if you’re one that does “get” it, if poetry is your thing, you might deem this one worth a look. There’s 75 or so of them. 

Among the ones I did like were: “Clown White” (circus ghoulishness), “Waiting for the Train” (goodbye with a twist), “Missing the Muse” (I could relate to that one a little too well, probably), “Wings of Love” (bug sex), “Dogs and Ticks” (a cautionary tale) and “Magic Words” (trick goes awry). 

-Christine Morgan




DOMINION by Scott Baker (2011 Pill Hill Press / Digital Edition)

In the final installment of THE VAMPIRE HUNTERS, Drake, Alison and the rest of the team are regrouping after the battle at the Freer Gallery with the daywalker Chiang Shih and her masters.  The battle was for possession of the memoirs of Inquisitor Antonio Ferrar.  His memoirs contain clues to the whereabouts of the Vampyrnomicon, the book that contains the history of the vampires, the power to give them dominion over the human race, and the means to destroy them for good.

The police chief, Roach, still refuses to acknowledge that Washington D.C. is under siege from vampires, even though he has acquired a paramilitary unit to aid in getting the city under control.  Jim meets Sarah, a lone hunter out to avenge her mother’s death and brings her to Drake to potentially join the team.  At the same time Drake is visited by Cushing, another hunter who is descended from a line of hunters….or is he?  Cushing is not what he seems but Derek is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Drake’s friend Professor Reese is making some headway with Ferrar’s memoirs and thinks he may have found the location of the book and the means to destroy the vampires once and for all.  Unfortunately there is a spy in the midst who is determined to get the book for Chiang Shih in exchange for eternal life.

When the siege on D.C. finally begins, it is all-out war and a potential suicide mission to end it.  Who will win?

As I’ve said in my reviews of the previous two books in THE VAMPIRE HUNTERS trilogy, Scott Baker writes vampires the way they should be written.  No sparkly, good-looking vamps that leave young girls and women swooning.  They are monsters without souls whose only desire is to feed on and destroy humans.  They are truly a product of Hell.  The entire series is well-written with excellent character development and an easy flowing narrative.  The book reaches a climactic ending that is as unexpected as it is heartbreaking.  Baker’s vampires are reminiscent of the monstrous Radu from the “Subspecies” vampire flicks (which I also recommend).  DOMINION; THE VAMPIRE HUNTERS BOOK 3, as well as the first two in the trilogy, is a bright spot in a literary sub-genre that has seen a glut of “romantic vampires”.  More of those authors should follow Scott Baker’s lead.

- Colleen Wanglund


ILL AT EASE by Stephen Bacon, Mark West, and Neil Williams (2011 PenMan Press / 38 pp / e-book)

This mini-collection (co-titled "Three New Stories of the Macabre") features some genuinely chilling moments, especially in the opening tale.  Stephen Bacon's 'Waiting for Josh' is a quiet-type creeper, about a man who returns to his hometown where a young man had gone missing when he was a kid.  Bacon's tight prose will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Mark West's 'Come See My House in the Pretty Town' is another one about a man who returns to his hometown, this time reminding me a bit of The Wicker Man. It's okay, but forgettable. 

'Closer Than You Think,' by Neil Williams is a spine-tingler dealing with a haunted child's car seat (!).  The idea sounds a bit silly but Williams makes it work.

ILL AT EASE is a decent little collection, featuring three well written stories and a couple of goosebumps.  Mostly routine, but good.


SWALLOWED BY THE CRACKS edited by Bill Breedlove and John Everson (2011 Dark Arts Books /  260 pp / tp and e-Book)

The 7th multi-author collection from Dark Arts Books is a mixed bag of ideas, but almost every one of these 16 tales is a hit.

Lee Thomas gets things off to a wild start with 'Appetite of the Cyber Tribes,' about a man who comes across a gruesome net-based group, then delivers three more winners, one a tense police prodecural and one a deeply psychological chiller about a woman who deals her own way with with an unfaitfhul spouse.  GREAT stuff  all around.

Next up, Gary McMahon delivers four supernatural-tinged tinglers, including 'A Night Unburdened,' about a pizza delivery man who delivers a pie to the home of his old English teacher: it's funny, sexy, and in the end downright chilling.  'The Ghost in You,' is a wonderfully different type of ghost story, as heartbreaking as it is spooky.  Each McMahon tale is thoroughly satisfying.

This is the first time I've read anything by S.G. Browne, and his contributions reeled me right in.  'Dream Girls,' is a humorous look at a future time when alien DNA helps mankind to produce living sex slaves, and the one man who takes his new obsession with them way too far; 'Lower Slaughter' follows two tourists who go missing after visiting an isolated town populated with strange creatures; 'The Lord of Words' is a dark fantasy that will appeal to anyone who loves to write, and 'Dr. Lullaby' features a group of men who become unique super heros after becoming human guinea pigs for pharmaceutical companies.  I LOVED Browne's comic take on things and look forward to reading more from him.

Michael Marshall Smith (another author I read here for the first time) closes the book with 'Death Light,' about a UK screenwriter who has a most unusual ordeal with the police while trying to sell a screenplay in Hollywood; I didn't know what to make of 'The Stuff that Goes on in Their Heads,' about a father trying to get to the bottom of a bully bothering his son in school.  It hints at child abuse one second then abruptly ends in a way that could be taken from a few different angles.  Not a bad story, but one that seems pointless.  'REMTemps' is one of the best stories of the collection, about a down and out man who learns he has the ability to "take" other people's dreams and thoughts, and is paid well for it by a mysterious company.  It's dark scifi done right.  'Dave 2.0b2' is told in a chat room-style log, and deals with people attempting to get an unusual software upgrade.  It's short, strange, but should have come BEFORE 'REMTemps' as it wasn't the best piece to end things on.

SWALLOWED BY THE CRACKS is another solid DARK ARTS collection, and a fine introduction to four authors who might not be familiar to everyone.


HOUR OF THE BEAST by C. Michael Forsyth (2011 Outskirts Press  312 pp / hc, tp, & eBook)

Fast-paced, rip-snorting, action-packed sexy campus romp, with werewolves!

Hour of the Beast doesn’t play coy. The cover hearkens back to those classic horror movie posters of yore, burly wolfman with helpless torn-clothes damsel unconscious in his grasp … drippy red lettering … you know what you’re getting, definite truth in advertising, and the book delivers. 

We begin with Young Newlywed Couple setting off on their honeymoon, but they never arrive at their destination. The groom ends up dead. The bride is not so lucky. She survives, and eventually gives birth to twin boys. 

Fast forward eighteen years, and those boys are off to college. Though twins, they have little in common. One Joshua, is the big buff athlete, with a record of impressive scores on the field and off. The other, Joseph, is the scrawny intellectual nerd, whose success with girls has been limited to say the least. 

Jason’s duty his entire life has been to look after his brother, keeping Joshua out of trouble whenever his temper gets the better of him. Their mother has never told them her terrible secret. 

But, once away from home and at a university with its own strange supernatural history, Jason starts to suspect there may be more than temper going on. Sightings of a large doglike creature … disappearances … gruesome deaths … piece by piece the puzzle forms. 

Jason’s investigation gets help from his folklore and science teachers, his adrenaline-junkie roommate, a handful of friends, and the gorgeous girl that he and Joseph both want. They soon find themselves hot on the trail of the beast, a quest that will mean confronting the boys’ mother about the truth of the past.

This is a good meaty read, well-written and fun. I give it two thumbs up and a lusty howl at the moon. 

-Christine Morgan


GIFT OF THE BOUDA by Richard Farnsworth( 2011 Salvo Press 2011 / 250 pp / tp)

Special Forces Captain John Rogers returned from the War on Terror with more than the usual issues of a soldier returning to normal life.  Captain Rogers was bitten by a shapeshifter and after surviving the transformation is now a shapeshifter, himself.  Divorced and living in a trailer on the outskirts of Reno, John keeps to himself in a solitary existence for fear of hurting someone close to him.  While out hunting in the desert one night, John runs into a wolf pack who mean to drive him out of their territory.

Honey, while supplementing her income as a prostitute and stealing from her customers, has made a terrible mistake.  She has stolen an object meant for a werewolf pack and they mean to get it back.  When John shows up to work at the strip club and runs into Honey he can sense that something is wrong.  He can smell the werewolf who has come looking for Honey.  When she disappears John knows the werewolves have her and he is determined to try and save her.  John goes to find the pack he had his run in with, but soon discovers there is another, more dangerous pack of werewolves in Reno.

GIFT OF THE BOUDA is an excellent story that serves as a metaphor for the crap and post-trauma that soldiers experience upon their return to a “normal” life.  John is a likeable and very sympathetic character.  All of the characters in the book are well developed without distracting from the flow of the story.  I really like that John isn’t a werewolf, but another were-creature that is just as dangerous.  It’s a nice twist on the usual tales of lycanthropy.  While the main story revolves around John trying to protect his friends and family, there is a clear subtext of John still coming to terms with his Gift.  Even if you’re not necessarily a fan of the sub-genre of werewolves, GIFT OF THE BOUDA is a character study worth reading.

-Colleen Wanglund


TALES OF SIN AND MADNESS by Brett McBean (2011 Legume Man Books / 334pp / tp)

Tales of Sin and Madness is a collection of twenty-one short stories of varying themes. Some are scary, some are sad and others are horrifying.

“The Beautiful Place” is the first story in the collection, and it’s a great story to start with.  Simon Fletcher is determined to complete his journey to the town of Coober Pedy, a supposedly beautiful place in a world filled with the living dead. The ending of “The Beautiful Place” will break your heart.  It’s an amazing story.

Ray is with his friend Jerry when he receives the worst call of his life in “Stolen Lives.” His wife and daughter have been kidnapped and will be killed if he notifies the police. But the instructions Ray receives are nightmarish - he must choose which one is killed if he wants to see the other alive again. How do you make such a horrible choice?  “Stolen Lives” is a suspenseful story with a completely twisted ending.  I loved it.

Jackson is riding the elevator up to his apartment, but begins to experience odd happenings each time the elevator stops on a floor.  He sees a baby sitting all alone when the elevator makes its first stop; he is confused, but not alarmed yet.  He sees kids on the third floor bullying a small boy, and he angrily yells at them to stop. But they carry on as if they can’t hear him.  Each stop is worse than the last, until he finally reaches his floor.  Relieved, the doors open and he sees a man stabbing a woman. The killer comes towards Jackson and shows him his deepest, darkest secrets.  “Hearing the Ocean in a Sea Shell” is a very creepy story that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go.

“A Question of Belief” is a fantastic zombie story that is different from the usual zombie tales. Reverend Blight is walking the cliffs by his home when he happens upon a man who is injured and mute.  The reverend takes the man into his home to nurse him back to health, but he finds himself in the middle of a nightmare instead.

If you’re at all claustrophobic like I am, “The Coffin” will have you squirming in your seat while the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.  Doug is hiding in a duct from men he owes money to. He gets stuck and no matter how he tries, he just can’t move.  He can move enough to flick on his lighter, though, but regrets it in a big way.

If there’s something your child wants in a big way, you may just want to give it to him. In “The Project,” Hartford has been nursing resentment ever since he was a kid. He decides to build the item he wanted as a boy and then show it to his father, who had denied him. Seriously, buy your kid the toy.

I could comment on every story in this collection; they are all very good.  “Christmas Lights” will have your heart aching, “The Cycle” have you rethinking your decision to stop at that old out-of-the-way store on your next road trip, and “Who Wants to Be a Survivor” will completely mess with your head.

Brett McBean’s collection belongs on every horror lover’s bookshelf.

-Sheri White


GRUNDISH & ASKEW by Lance Carbuncle (2009 Vicious Galoot Books / Digital edition)

Grundish and Askew have been best friends forever.  Grundish protected Askew, and even served prison time for his friend.  He knew Askew would never survive in prison.  While teens, Askew made Grundish promise that if it ever looked like they were going to prison, Grundish would put a bullet through Askew’s head.  The two friends were losers working dead end jobs and living in a trailer park full of other losers.  Askew had a nasty temper and unfortunately for the two friends, Askew lost control and beat a man to death in the trailer park.  Taking Askew’s Aunt Turleen, the men go on the run and find a temporary safe place with a friend of Turleen’s.  Grundish is worried because Askew has been different since the murder.  Now they have been discovered and Grundish is afraid he may have to keep his promise.

There are many things I liked about this story.  The character development is so thorough that Carbuncle elicited a real reaction to his characters from me.  I really liked Grundish and felt sorry for him and thought he was a decent guy.   Askew I disliked immensely.  I felt he was Grundish’s cross to bear in life and that as long as they were together Grundish would never catch a break.  There is a conversation that takes place between the two men that brought to mind George and Lennie from Steinbeck’s OF MICE AND MEN.  Grundish and Askew display the same tragic relationship.

I liked the wise-ass but perceptive Turleen and her dreams.  Vividly described, they are prophesies of the situation they all find themselves in and its inevitable outcome.  I also liked Lance Carbuncle’s self-effacing humor in a scene where two TV news anchors, while reporting on the police hunt for the fugitives, give a sort of review of GRUNDISH & ASKEW that almost pans the book.  GRUNDISH & ASKEW is well-written and the pacing is excellent.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book and even though the paranormal aspect is subtle, I do highly recommend it.
-Colleen Wanglund


JASMINE AND GARLIC by Monica J. O’Rourke (2011 Biting Dog Press / Digital edition)

A young homeless woman goes to see a doctor about her pregnancy.  It is after-hours and there is no one in the clinic besides the woman and the doctor.  Unfortunately for this young woman, the doctor has one very sick fetish.  I can’t say anything else without giving the story away but I will say that I loved it.

JASMINE AND GARLIC is a quick read that packs quite the visceral punch.  Monica O’Rourke has penned a wonderfully twisted and horrifying story that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go until the final sentence.  Get this book!

-Colleen Wanglund

NEXT MONTH:

The reviews continue with a look at Tobe Hooper's MIDNIGHT MOVIE and a couple of new titles from Thunderstorm Books...

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