Thursday, December 1, 2011

DECEMBER, 2011 REVIEWS

DECEMBER, 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).


LAST STAND IN A DEAD LAND by Eric S. Brown (2011 Grand Mal Press / 132 pp / tp)

Eric S. Brown is a writing machine.  It seems he has a new title out every time I turn around.  And it's not often his novels or short stories don't satisfy.  His latest novella, LAST STAND IN A DEAD LAND, is no exception.

In this nearly non-stop monster/action adventure, Brown combines zombies, bigfoot, and an interesting array of heroes.  The blood flies almost as quickly as our survivors run, from a tense opening sequence in an office up to the nifty ending (which brings in yet another creature).  I'm getting as tired of zombie stories as anyone else, but when they move this fast and feature this many surprises in such a short space, I welcome 'em with open arms.  Perhaps the undead should inhabit more novella-length tales?

Either way, LAST STAND throws everything at you at a non-stop pace.  Brown's latest monster-mash is one of his best yet and an incredibly fun time.

-Smell Rating: 1



THE CREEPING KELP by William Meikle (2011 Dark Regions Press / 158 pp / tp)

Remember that segement in CREEPSHOW 2 where a bunch of teenagers go on a raft in an isolated pond and get attacked by a mysterious, floating black mass?  THE CREEPING KELP brings this skit to mind, only on an epic scale.

Noble and Suzie are two scientists working near London in the North Atlantic.  After discovering a strange, black tar on the motor of his boat, Noble makes it back to the main ship just as all hell breaks loose.

As an ever-growing mass of black, tendril-sprouting seaweed attacks England's shores, Noble and Suzie uncover this phenomenon by reading through journals left by recent military persons, then older texts dating back to the 1500s by a Catholic priest and a ship captain.

While Meikle gives a few head-scratching ideas as to what this Creeping Kelp is (everything from an ancient God to a human-engineered military weapon is cited), this short novel is packed with so much cheesy scifi/horror fun it was easy for me to overlook the monster's unclear origin.

Like a better film on the SyFy Channel, THE CREEPING KELP delivers the creature-feature goods despite it's goofy, 'Spongebob'-sounding title.  It starts out as an ecological warning (the beast feeds on plastic consumer waste) yet ends on a Lovecraftian, action-packed note with plenty of dazzling visuals.  Its environmental edge is quickly forgotten in place of major Kelp attacks and latent conspiracy theories.

KELP is an uneven read that tries to make a point or two, but those seeking some classic 1950s-style monster mayhem should be able to ignore the confusion and have a good time.  I did.

Smell Rating: 1


THE STRAIN by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (2009 William Morrow / 416 pp / all formats)

It’s way past time for vampires to take back the night! 

(Admittedly, given how late to the party I am on reading this one, it’s even MORE way past time! The second and third in the series are already out, and on my holiday wish list)

Yes, we could go on about the angstiness that eventually led to porn and sparklification … let’s not, though, ‘kay?

Yes, we’ve got our zombie apocalypses, more of those than you can shake a stick at – and don’t get me wrong, I never get tired of them. 

But the plague nature of vampires so rarely gets any attention. These modern, careful, civilized ones out to avoid detection and operate in solitary secret or well-organized clans … enough of that! How about a vicious, insatiable, invasive, pandemic breed of vampire? Vampire-as-virus, out to replicate and spread, contaminate and take over?

We got some of it with Stephen King’s SALEM’S LOT, and we’ve got it on an even larger scale with Robert McCammon’s THEY THIRST (still uncontested as my personal favorite vampire book ever). Both wonderful examples, by all means. Still, don’t you want more? I know I do. 

With THE STRAIN, the first in a trilogy from authors Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Toro (yes, the PAN’S LABYRINTH guy, who made a “fairy tale” spookier and freakier than any horror novel in years!), we get it. 

The premise is given reasonably plausible-enough scientific explanations to trigger the whole wonderful stew of fears about contagion and loss of essential humanity that makes a good outbreak story so shivery, while also not disappointing the superstitious part of us that craves the arcane and unnatural. 

In THE STRAIN, a routine day at the airport goes suddenly awry when a landing plane just stops dead on the runway, with systems non-operational, no communications, no signs of life. Not good. Terrorists? Mary Celeste style ghost ship? What do you do?

What they do in this case is call in the CDC response team to check for possible biological or chemical agents … and what the CDC finds is a plane full of dead people. 

Or are they? *cue ominous music* Spoilers: it’s much, much worse. 

And, as usual in these situations, the authorities don’t want to give any credence to the increasingly bizarre evidence mounting right before their eyes. Only an old man with a dark history realizes the truth, and only the CDC investigator on the case can help try to stop it before it’s too late. 

The cast of main characters turns out to be fairly typical of the genre, that small group of reluctant believers brought together by circumstance, fate, coincidence, or a bit of literary stretching. But the familiarity is comforting, and the sub-plots with minor characters make for the most fun. 

All in all, I found The Strain to be a creepy, exciting, good read. Looking very much forward to the next ones!

--Christine Morgan


THE CRANSTON GIBBERER by Martin Mundt (2011 Bad Moon Books / 65 pp / tp)

In a story told entirely through letters between H and his friend X, THE CRANSTON GIBBERER tells of a writer (H) who is asked by his boss to investigate and write a newspaper article about a local monster called the Cranston Menace.  H discovers the monster—also known as the Cranston Gibberer--is centuries old and has some connection to a family called Dirge…one of which is the publisher of the newspaper that H writes for.  Unfortunately for H, the monster has decided to change his target.

Mundt tells a humorous story about H’s decent into madness and yet still discussing inanities such as visiting a tailor for a new suit, although even that common occurrence becomes somewhat bizarre.  The writing is funny and clever and Mundt will leave you wondering if the monster was real or was H really one crazy SOB?  A quick and enjoyable read, THE CRANSTON GIBBERER is one of those rare stories that I can read over and over again.  Get this book!

-Colleen Wanglund


CROOKED HILLS (BOOK ONE) by Cullen Bunn (2011 Earwig Press / 248 pp. / tp, eBook, and limited edition hc)

After their father passes away, Charlie and his younger brother Alex are taken on a trip to the small town of Crooked Hills by their mom.  Charlie's a bit upset as he was looking forward to spending the summer with his friends, but it doesn't take long for him to gain interest in their planned 6-week vacation.  Charlie's mom gives him a book about the haunted legends of Crooked Hills, and before long his cousin Marty and a red-headed tom boy named Lisa are exploring the back woods and its chilling legends.

When each kid has a nightmare about a legendary local witch--and discover young Alex has been kidnapped by a woman bent on resurrecting that witch--the stage is set for plenty of action and suspense.  Along the way our little heroes grapple with all kinds of creepy crawlies, ghosts, a nasty dog, and two teenage bullies.  Bunn doesn't shy away from having these children deal with death and dark situations, and does so in a manner that shouldn't freak out the more impressionable young readers.

Cullen Bunn's first book in the CROOKED HILL series is aimed at the 9-12 year-old market, and if given a proper push there's no reason this shouldn't take off.  It's loaded with fun, is written at a great pace, and is a good way to introduce the kids to the horror genre.  I'll surely be getting a copy for my nephew...


ACHERON by Bryon Morrigan (2011 Permuted Press / 258 pp / tp)

While operating on the front lines of Iraq, Captain Nate Leathers’ unit is attacked and he is captured.  Kept in what amounts to a stone hole in the wall for who-knows-how-long, Leathers hears the sounds of what he first thinks is battle.  He quickly realizes something is wrong when an eerie green mist envelopes his prison.  Managing to escape and find shelter with an Iraqi named Muhammad, Leather’s realizes there is something terribly wrong.  Zombies are walking the streets and monstrous creatures are also on the hunt for any humans left in the city of Basra.

Leathers and Muhammad make their way to a well-lit police station where they find other Iraqis, a handful of archaeologists, and some private security mercenaries.  They are surrounded by the pervasive green mist and monsters that should not exist.  The archaeologists think they inadvertently released something from the ruins of a dig outside of the city.  Unfortunately for everyone holed up in the station, the mercenaries believe it is the biblical End Times and believe it is their sacred duty to stop the minions of Hell.  Leathers is forcibly recruited by the mercenaries but things go horribly wrong for him and his mission.  Now Leathers must complete the mission given to him and try to get the few survivors out of the city ASAP.

Bryon Morrigan has written a fantastic supernatural/zombie story and throws in some religious zealots to boot.  The characters are well-developed and quite engaging.  Pacing is quick and even, giving a nice flow to a rather compelling novella.  The ending is left open for a possible sequel, which I look forward to.  I thought Leathers “passed out” a bit too much, but I understand it to be a device to advance the story.  All in all a great book to add to your horror collection.

-Colleen Wanglund


THE YEARS OF MAGIC by J. Lyndon Hickman (2011 / 234 pp / tp)

Set in 1934, Hickman's debut novel deals with what might have happened in the spirit world if electricity ceased to exist at that time.  His two protagonists (a gentleman named David Rancliff and his new friend Winston Thomas Guildersleeves--who turns out to be David's guardian angel) are likeable enough, but after setting up its quirky premise,THE YEARS OF MAGIC quickly looses logic and steam and its base intention seems all but forgotten.

When the world's electricity supply is taken away, the small town of Gallatin becomes host to a group of vampires who build an army through a huge, fancy, corrupt church.  David and Winston also encounter werewolves, zombies, ghosts, and just about anything else the author could think to throw in.  Apparently the absence of global electricity has caused these legendary monsters to come forth as MAGIC's story becomes an uneven, unintentionally funny tale that bounces all over the place and is further marred by some of the worst dialogue I've read in years.

This is a fine example of a self-published title that could've used a seriously professional edit.  I have no idea how I made it to the end.

Smell Rating: 0


SYMPHONY OF BLOOD: A HANK MONDALE SUPERNATURAL CASE by Adam Pepper (2011 Amazon Digital Services / eBook)

Hank Mondale is a private detective who loves to drink and gamble, and is bad at both. He hasn’t paid his rent, can’t pay his secretary, and is in debt from gambling on various sports games. But salvation seems to arrive in the form of a rich man, Thomas Blake, who needs someone discreet to investigate the murders of his daughter’s friends.  Mackenzie, a spoiled rich girl, insists that it was a monster who killed her friends, eating them from the inside out, and now it’s after her.  She calls the creature “Symphony.“  Skeptical, but desperately needing the large payment Blake promises, Mondale takes the case.

After Mondale begins to check out leads and clues with the help of his friend Vic from the Homicide Department, he finds similar murders that defy rational explanation.  Mackenzie is either strung-out or in shock, and can’t help him very well. And Mondale also discovers that Blake isn’t to be trusted, either.   What is he hiding? And why are some of his employees disappearing as well?

SYMPHONY OF BLOOD starts out as a normal mystery story, but soon turns into a creepy horror story. A little dark humor sprinkled throughout adds a little levity, but doesn’t distract from the story in any way.

The characters are very well fleshed-out and come across as real.  There are many suspenseful moments with a few gross ones thrown in for good measure.  

I am looking forward to reading more of Adam Pepper’s work; SYMPHONY hooked me from the first couple pages.  Keep an eye out for Adam Pepper’s work; you won’t be disappointed.

-Sheri White


APOCALYPTIC ORGAN GRINDER by William Todd Rose (2011 Smashwords / eBook)

The Gabriel Virus, released by religious fanatics brought civilization to its knees.  Two distinct cultures have arisen out of the ashes which despise and fear each other.  There are the Settlers, or the clear skins, those that are uninfected and the People or the Spewers, who carry the virus and are made sick but who do not die from it.

Each culture has their own historical perspective on how the remnants of humanity came to be this way.  Each mythology is different and each culture demonizes the other.  The novella focuses on two main characters—Tanner, a Sweeper for the settlements of the uninfected and Lila, a hunter for the infected clans.  Both Tanner and Lila view each other as an enemy that must be destroyed.  Unfortunately the hatred held for each other will lead to an inevitable and deadly conclusion.

APOCALYPTIC ORGAN GRINDER is a psychological study of human nature and the inherent nature of distrust and fear of what is different or unknown.  Instead of attempting to live separately and in relative peace, these two cultures inevitably wish to destroy each other.  Whose version of history is accurate?  It ultimately doesn’t matter because that history has been ingrained in the generations since the Gabriel Virus took its toll.  It is a bloody and heartbreaking story that I loved reading.  It is a quick and entertaining read, and can be had for free courtesy of William Todd Rose.  He is a wonderful writer and you should be reading him.

-Colleen Wanglund


DEVILS' DRUMS by Vivian Meik (2011 Medusa Press / 214 pp / limited edition hc)

Continuing to find and re-release seldom-heard horror authors of old, Medusa Press delivers yet another fine collection from a fascinating writer.

After an informative introduction (Meik truly lived an amazing life), the original ten stories that made up DEVIL'S DRUMS in 1933 are presented, followed by three more tales (one actually a non-fiction piece).  Meik spent several years in Africa, his love and admiration for the country and culture showing in each tale.

The first two stories, 'Devil's Drums' and 'White Zombie' introduce us to African voodoo, complete with witch doctors, slave-zombies, and plenty of eerie atmosphere.  'An Acre in Hell' is one of the better moments here, dealing with the ultimate in voodoo evil and human sacrifice.  'The Doll of Death' is a spooky little yarn that was even turned into a short film forty years later when it appeard on one of the last episodes of 'Rod Serling's Night Gallery' in 1973.

'White Man's Law' shows what happens when the west intervenes where it shouldn't, and acts as a catalyst for the stories to follow (Mein uses most of the same characters in this collection, making the shorts seem almost like a single, long story).  'L'Amitie Reste' brings Meik favorites Geoffrey Aylett (an action commissioner) and Padre Vaneken (a Catholic missionary) closer together, this time in one of several tales that uses letters to unravel the happenings.

'The Man Who Sold His Shadow' is easily the best of the bunch, an eerie, heart-breaking account of a recently married white couple and their dealings with a local witch doctor.  It's the best example of Meik's horror writing, mixing a compelling supernatural plot with social intrigue.  'R.A.' finds our heroes Aylett and Padre Vaneken trying to get to the bottom of a series of gruesome murders along the local villages that leads them to a mysterious old woman and a legendary snake god.  'A Honeymoon in Hate' takes another look at a young couple and their life in Africa, complete with a surprise, brutal (for its time) ending.

The collection isn't called DEVILS' DRUMS for no reason: voodoo drum beats reverbeat throughout each tale, bringing a sense of dread whenever they appear.  'Domiria's Drum' ends the original ten-stories of the collection, once again taking a look at yet another cursed couple.

'The Two Old Women' (the first of three extra stories included in this edition) features not only characters from Meik's Africa horror tales, but also Meik himself.  This time the voodoo has come to London.  I'm assuming 'Chiromo' is the non-fiction piece mentioned in Douglas A. Anderson's introduction, as it starts off like a memoir then turns into a bizarre ghost story.  'I Leave it to You' ends the collection and is told from the Padre's point of view, and again deals with a woman who may or may not be what she seems.

I found Meik's writing to be filler-free and to the point.  Perhaps he used the word "horror" a bit too often, but otherwise he was gifted at building dread and atmosphere while crafting likeable characters in a minimalist manner.  Medusa Press has also (once again) created an absolutely beautiful book here, one that any serious fan of horror fiction history will want on their book shelf.

Smell Rating 5


BEAUTIFUL HELL by Jeffrey Thomas (2011 Dark Regions Press 2011 / 118 pp / tp)

First published as part of UGLY HEAVEN, BEAUTIFUL HELL by Carlton Mellick III and Jeffrey Thomas in 2007 by Corrosion Press, BEAUTIFUL HELL is now released by Dark Regions Press as a stand-alone novella.

There is only one Creator of both Heaven and Hell.  Frank Lyre is a writer who was sent to Hades as punishment for not believing in the Creator.  He has suffered torment for an unknown period of time.  Things are changing, though.  Humanoid demons and the Damned alike are rebelling and new races of demons are being created.

The Creator has come to Hades because he is having an epiphany of some kind.  Among his entourage is Frank’s wife who is an angel.  Torn between the love for his wife and the attraction he has for a female demon, Frank decides to watch what is happening and document it for others to read.

Jeffrey Thomas has created a beautiful but frightening vision of Hades and its denizens.   BEAUTIFUL HELL is imaginative, intelligent and twisted, and populated with some very interesting and at times scary characters.  Pacing is excellent….I was able to read it in a single sitting.  I recommend picking this book up.

-Colleen Wanglund


IDOLS AND CONS by S.S. Michaels (2011 / 254 pp / eBook)

John is a drug-dealing (and taking) punk living in a seedy section of Los Angeles, sketching and playing his guitar.  His neighborhood has been overrun with yuppies and celebrities looking to be hip.  John's also a voyuer, and Damien--the singer for a popular boy band--lives right across the street.  John's used to watching Damien bring home groupies for sex romps, but one day things go a little overboard and the singer accidentally kills a teenage girl.  He wraps her in a carpet and throws her in a dumpster--and makes eye contact with the peeping John as he does so.

While furhter spying the neighborhood, John witnesses his artist-neighbor Patrick walking into his apartment with the carpet/body.  He unwisely decides to go over there and confront him, only to find himself stuck in a world of murder and a growing art project that's beyond gruesome.

But Patrick is the least of John's problems: when John's kidnapped by two thugs, he winds up in the presence of Damien, whose manager had suggested they kill John for his knowledge before he rats and destroys the pop star's career.  But Damien can't bear to kill his friend (and drug supplier), so he manages to make John a part of In Dreams, his huge boy band.  John accepts (having no other choice), and before long takes to his new role, becoming the most popular member of the band while simultaneously becoming part of a huge art show.

S.S. Michaels' debut novel is nearly impossible to put down.  She blends the seedy L.A. underground drug and art world with pop music fame, adds a crime element, and makes us cheer-on her rags-to-riches character despite his low-life personality.  And best of all, IDOLS AND CONS is heavy on the suspense and has just the right amount of humor thrown in.

With its message of how far some will go for fame (and the ways people deal with it), the novel is as cautionary as it is entertaining.  One of the finest debuts I've read in a long time...


KILLERS: A Prosper Snow Novel (Volume 2) by Shaun Jeffrey (2011 CreateSpace / 282 pp / tp)

Even though KILLERS is the second in a series of novels following the same main character (begun with the novel THE KULT), the book is a stand-alone story.  Prosper Snow is a police investigator who is being repeatedly pulled off some very brutal murder cases by a mysterious MI5 operative (the equivalent of our FBI).  What spooks Prosper into taking the man’s job offer is the fact that this man knows something about the events on a prior case involving the hatchet Man.

Prosper takes the offer and joins the special and secret investigative unit.  It seems that an experiment using human subjects into the question of nature versus nurture and what breeds a killer has lost one of its test subjects.  It is that subject that seems to be behind all of the brutal but random murders.  Things, however are not what they initially seem.  Can Prosper figure out the real story before it’s too late?

Fast paced and well executed, Shaun Jeffrey has taken the idea of behavioral experimentation and run with it.  He has drawn from real experiments from the past that were cut short and adds a sadistic twist.  I thought character development was just adequate, but I did not read THE KULT so I can’t necessarily speak to the main character.  There are plenty of references to the nature of the first novel so you not necessarily need to read that one to keep up with KILLERS.  Overall it is an enjoyable and engaging read with an unpredictable ending, which I love.

-Colleen Wanglund


DEVIL TREE by Steve Vernon (2011 Macabre Ink Digital / 289 pp / eBook)

Former preacher Lucas Sawyer and his wife Tamsen are seeking a new life, heading south down the Greensnake River.  They nearly drown when their raft capsizes, but are rescued by a burly man named Jonah Duvall, who takes them back to his home in an isolated valley.  Duvall's wife Jezebel helps nurse them back to health as their son looks on, and before long Lucas is helping Duvall with the daily chores. And in time Lucas and Tamsen will discover a strange, gigantic tree that sits in the middle of the woods, a tree that seems to be in control of Duvall.  A tree that is beginning to call to each of them...

In Vernon's 19th-century-set horror tale, isolation and the impossibility of escape--coupled with supernatural elements--enhance the chills with each page that goes by.  While the plot may seem a bit familiar, Vernon's natural talent for infusing believablitiy into each of his characters helps give things a fresh feel.

Vernon is well known for his ability to blend horror and humor (his 2004 novella LONG HORN, BIG SHAGGY being one of my all-time favorites), but here he paints a pitch-black serious tale that'll make you increasingly apprehensive.  With Cronenberg-esque body terror, a Wendigo-type sub plot, and a wicked tree that would give the vegetation in the original EVIL DEAD a run for its money, DEVIL TREE is a best bet for horror fans tired of not being scared by horror fiction.

This one delivers the goods.


THE FIELDS by Ty Schwamberger (2011 The Zombie Feed {Div. of Apex Publications} / eBook)

Set in the post-Civil War south, THE FIELDS tells the story of Billy who is trying to make his dead father’s tobacco farm a success.  Unfortunately he is failing miserably.  Billy is barely able to earn a living to sustain himself through the coming winter.  One day Mr. Stratford pays a call to Billy, explaining that he knew Billy’s father and was there to help with the farm.  Billy is unsure of Mr. Stratford’s offer but decides to sleep on it.

Mr. Stratford returns the next morning and Billy accepts his offer of help.  The first thing Billy must do is dig up the dead slaves buried on the farm’s property and place the bodies in the barn overnight.  Billy does what he is told but doesn’t understand why he’s doing it.  The next morning Billy finds Mr. Stratford with the reanimated corpses, ready to do the work they used to do while alive.  Billy convinces himself that what he is doing is okay, he won’t treat them the way his father did.  Unfortunately for Billy, his good intentions go horribly awry.

While I like the idea of THE FIELDS, I was disappointed in its execution.  There are far too many unnecessary details and ramblings.  The story is all over the place.  There is obviously a message here, with Billy’s dead father having abused his slaves and beating some to death, but the message gets lost.  Billy wants to be better than his father but it doesn’t work out that way.  There are a couple of weird dreams that Billy has, but they seem out of place in the story.  This novella might have been better as a short story or chapbook.  I recommend that you pass on this one.

-Colleen Wanglund

NEXT MONTH:

2012 looks to be another promising year for horror fiction, and the HFR staff is already busy checking out some forthcoming releases as well as finishing up the tail end of 2011's gruesome offerings.  Have a GREAT holiday season!

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