Sunday, July 1, 2012

July, 2012 Reviews

JULY, 2012 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)




STARVELINGS by S.D. Hintz (2012 Aristotle Books / 58 pp / eBook)


A bestselling horror writer (!) and his family move from the city to an isolated part of the country.  Their dog goes missing and the young son thinks a weird creature he swears he saw in a barn on their property is responsible.  Before long the Paget family is up against two menacing figures who look like white-washed, malnourished skeletons.


STARVELINGS is a standard horror romp with an over-used plot, but Hintz makes it fun and even gets the goosebumps going a few times.  Cool creatures and a fast pace make this a fun and quick--if familiar--read.


ALL-MONSTER ACTION! by Cody Goodfellow (2012 Swallowdown Press / 216 pp / tp )

You know those gloriously cheesy movies in which some ginormous monster goes on a stompy rampage of destruction through a major metropolitan area? Complete with goofy special effects, guys in rubbery or furry suits, lizards with fake fins superglued to them, and tarantulas crawling over tiny model homes? The military mobilizes to little effect, the scientists spout jargon and theories, and there’s always some moral or message about interfering with nature, nuclear testing, radioactive waste, etc.?

This is basically one of those. A tacky-fun drive-in B-movie kind of thing, tongue-in-cheek and self-parodying, while at the same time turning it all topsy-turvy. 

The book makes no pretense about it, either. Right there in the table of contents, the bonus short stories are listed as COMING ATTRACTIONS. 

“Doorway to the Sky” is a war-movie with a cliffhanger/pulp-adventure feel, complete with airstrip on a Pacific island, cargo cult natives, and what shows up in answer to their ceremonial prayers. 

“Venus of Santa Cruz” is the story of the ironically-named Officer Friendly, a scuzzball abuse-of-the-badge cop who discovers a bizarre piece of evidence at a crime scene: a bulbous female torso-thing exuding addictive pheromones. 

“The Wage of Dinosaurs” presents a dystopian near-future / aging society nightmare in which miraculous advances in medicine and genetics go awry in the quest to recapture youthful memories. 

“The Care & Feeding of Sea Monkeys” presents a different near-future, where climate change and ecological catastrophe combine with other forces to make a whole new pervy world for those who never expected mermaid sex to be quite like this. 

Then it’s time for OUR FEATURE PRESENTATION, the titular All-Monster Action shown in three episodes. 

“Episode I – Kungmin Horangi: The People’s Tiger” wonders what the world would be like if the arms race was less to do with bombs and chemical weapons, and more to do with which nation had tactical Giant Monster superiority … complete with an epic battle between North Korea’s regenerating Kungmin Horangi and America’s super-colossus controlled by a pilot from a cockpit inside the skull. 

“Episode II – The Island of Dr. Otaku” takes the Kaiju arms race even further, as fallout in several senses of the word spills over into new developments and advances. If an All-American super-colossus is good, why, a spliced and souped-up one must be even better! Meanwhile, a genius mad scientist unleashes his master plan, and new monsters are arising all over the world. 

“Episode III – All Cities Attack!” kicks it up another five or six notches, because hideous transformations and giant mosnters stomping cities are no longer enough … the cities themselves become mobile animated behemoths. First they start to fight each other, then they start to breed, and by then if you’ve got any brain left from the weirdness barrage, how about a trip to the moon?

Okay, now, I have read some bizarre stuff, but in terms of sheer scope of over-the-top outrageous imaginings – something that they’ll NEVER be able to afford the special effects budget to film and if they did it’d make Michael Bay go “dude, too much!” – ALL MONSTER-ACTION! utterly takes the cake. 

-Christine Morgan


HEINOUS by Jonathan Moon (2011 Library of the Living Dead Press /200 pp /tp)

Gavin and his best friend Joshie are inseparable…..until the day they find a strange hidden hole in the ground of the forest they’ve played in for years.  They also find a weird stone that Gavin is unusually attracted to and the two boys fight over.  Gavin becomes possessed by something living in the stone, and the demon that possesses him is only sated through violence and suffering.

The story of what becomes of Joshie and Gavin is told in a fairly linear fashion but is interspersed with the horrifying dreams of Gavin.  Heinous, the name Gavin gives to the evil entity inside of him takes over and commits gruesome acts, but Gavin knows everything that is happening and that unfortunately will happen to the people closest to him.

Jonathan Moon has crafted a unique story of demon possession and added extreme and grotesque imagery in the chapters dealing with Gavin’s nightmares.  HEINOUS is a violent story, and bloody as all hell.  The characters of Joshie and Gavin are well developed and even after succumbing to the mysterious stone, Gavin is a sympathetic individual.  Moon’s prose flows smoothly and is highly descriptive and has a mostly unpredictable and satisfying ending.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

-Colleen Wanglund


CLOWN IN THE MOONLIGHT by Tom Piccirilli (2012 Crossroads Press / 137 pp / eBook)

I'm always happy when Piccirilli takes a break from his current crime noir tales to deliver a horror story...ESPECIALLY when it's an occultic one.

Based around the events of infamous "Acid King / Satan" killer Ricky Kasso that went down in Long Island in 1984, Piccirilli's tale centers around a mysterious protagonist who hangs around Kasso's crew and a few of his girls.  In section one there's some brutal happenings in the unnamed protagonist's life that lead up to Kasso's suicide, then he's haunted by Kasso's ghost in the second part, and in the strange final act, we learn he has become a cop.  While I found the short finale a bit strange here, everything leading up to it will thrill fans of the author.  The writing is crisp and tight with plenty of tension and the sense ANYONE can fly off the handle at any moment.

I think this could have easily been stretched into a novel, but I'm happy with the little chunks Tom tosses his horror fans now and then.  Good stuff.


DARK INSPIRATION BY Russell James (2012 Samhain / 248 pp / tp)

This is a complex and truly beautiful haunting-story. It takes the usual elements – small town, scandals, dark history, new couple moving in – and combines them in unusual ways with fresh, refreshing writing. 

The new couple, Doug and Laura, make the major change from their big-city lives to small-town Tenessee when they relocate to Galaxy Farm, a former horse-ranch built by a wealthy 1920s candy baron. Doug leaves his job as a sleaze reporter to concentrate on his dream of being a novelist; Laura trades schoolteacher venues from metal detectors and getting shot at for the much more peaceful surroundings of Moultrie Elementary. 

Up front, of course, it all seems perfect. The house is gorgeous. But the initial impression is marred by Laura’s instinctive uncomfortable reaction to the turret room she hoped would be her ideal home office. She relenquishes it to Doug instead, and he feels an immediate affinity for it. 

Their first night is also marred by Doug spotting an intruder on the property, and Laura waking in tears from a dream about twin girls who could have been her own lost children. The next day, they start finding out that Galaxy Farm isn’t exactly well-regarded in the town, and they aren’t getting the warmest welcomes from the neighbors. 

But, they do their best to put misgivings aside and settle in. Their strained relationship begins to improve. Laura bonds with her students. Doug dives into his novel and picks up a new hobby he doesn’t share with his wife. They try to ignore the little problems. Until the problems become too numerous, and too spooky, to ignore. 

As the history of the house’s former occupants unfolds, taking some twisted turns along the way, Doug and Laura get pulled deeper into the trap. Each of them has reasons for not wanting to stop what’s going on at Galaxy Farm, and things build toward a gripping finale. 

DARK INSPIRATION provides solid writing, good characters, and a very satisfying read. Thumbs up!

-Christine Morgan


UNDEAD by John Russo (2011 Cemetery Dance Publications /282 pp /limited hc)

This limited edition of UNDEAD from Cemetery Dance contains two stories by John Russo, co-writer of the screenplay for George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968).  The first is the novelization of the movie, from Barbara and Johnny’s first encounter with a walking ghoul in the graveyard, through the trials of Ben and the others trying to survive the night in the farmhouse.  We are also told more about Sheriff McClellan and his organized posse trying to clear out the ghouls from the farmland in Pennsylvania.

The second story is RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, but it has no relation whatsoever to the 1985 horror/comedy.  Russo’s RETURN is a straight sequel to NIGHT, taking place ten years after the first zombie incidents.  McClellan is still sheriff and recalls vividly what happened during the first outbreak, and how they were able to contain it.  There has been a church congregation that has performed certain rituals on the dead to ensure that they don’t reanimate.  Both McClellan and members of the church respond to a horrific bus accident.  The church members have not been able to treat all of the dead and McClellan now has another outbreak on his hands.  What’s worse is that there are gangs of looters and criminals roaming the countryside, as well as the reanimated dead.

What I really liked about NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (besides the fact that it’s the novel of my favorite horror film ever) is the detail John Russo was able to add to the story.  We learn more about Ben, in particular, and an incident that was not in the original film and adds a different spin on the familiar ending.  One of my favorite scenes from the movie doesn’t quite have the same effectiveness in print, but it still works overall.

RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD is a completely new story, though it takes place in the same county and the sheriff is still in office.  It is just as gruesome and hopeless as NIGHT, and the newer characters and their situations are equally compelling.  If you’re a fan of zombie lit, and movies, for that matter, UNDEAD is one book you should add to your collection.

-Colleen Wanglund


THE WICKED by James Newman (2012 Shock Totem Publications / 342 pp / tp)

The Little family--in an effort to rebuild their lives after a sexual assault--move from New York City to the small town of Morganville, North Carolina.  David's a popular book-cover artist, his wife Kate both pregnant and taking care of their 7-year old daughter Becca.  Kate's nrother Joel had moved there a few years earlier and is now the town's coroner.

Almost as soon as they move in, bodies begin to pile up, some victims of strange insect stings, others in brutal car crashes.  And when a department store Santa gets a little too close to young Becca, the idealic town of Morganville begins to reveal dark secrets that drag David, his family, and their elderly, ex-Marine neighbor George into a dark world of occultic violence and ancient mysteries.

THE WICKED is James Newman's homage to the generic horror novels of the 80s, and in the hands of a lesser author this could have been a real cheese-fest.  But Newman manages to give the tired old "Evil in a Small Town" thing a real kick in the pants, placing both children and religious institutions into frightening peril that's anything but campy.  The blood flows as freely as any classic Laymon or Garton novel, but unlike many stories THE WICKED pays tribute to, there's a real sense of impending doom throughout, as well as two protagonists we truly care for.  The compulsively-readable prose yanked me through it's 325 pages in 2 manic sittings.

Shock Totem's gore-geous retro-80's-looking cover design made me yearn for my teenage years, and Newman's bonus short, 'Boaracle,' is a fine way to top off what is easily going to be the most fun-to-read horror novel of the year.  Even those who read the limited edition hardcover from Necessary Evil Press a few years ago will want this nifty, extras-packed edition.

GREAT stuff.


VIKING DEAD by Toby Venables (2011 Abaddon Books / 320 pp / tp and eBook)

I confess I almost ditched this one within the first couple pages of the prologue, because there were crossbows. I’m not even as big a history geek as the husband (don’t get him started on the historical accuracy of stirrups) but the crossbows almost did it for me. Horned helmets, and it would have been flung across the room. 

What can I say, I’ve got a thing for Vikings. And zombies, of course, but especially Vikings. 

Crossbows. I gritted my teeth and figured I’d better at least give it a chance. See what the other works in the sub-genre were like. I expected to be left howling in agony. Yet, while I found Viking Dead to be not spectacular, I found it to be not unbearable either. 

The rest of the research and setting seemed sound, the language and tone were okay – no Bernard Cornwell or Robert McCammon in terms of really making you FEEL it, really having that immersive historical VOICE – and I decided to let the crossbow thing slide. 

Besides, the weapon technically DID exist at the time, it just would have been hardly known, largely unheard of, and certainly not in common casual use throughout the Scandinavian countries … geek, I know, geek, Viking snob … 

The Dirty Dozen of player-character buddies to the protagonist were much the composition of your typical D&D adventure or body-count action movie. As if, the dungeonmaster said, “okay, we’re going to do a Viking campaign” and then there’s always those couple of players who insist on being ninjas or witch-doctors. One of them was even a cleric … the group’s token Christian, and their healer. 

Once you get past all that, there’s an enjoyable enough story underneath. This shipful of Vikings are doing raids along the coasts and islands, having regular and frequent run-ins with a rival crew. At one stop, they pick up a stowaway, the plucky young farm kid who soon becomes a favorite sidekick. 

Then they reach a cursed land where the dead have been rising up to chew on people. Some survivors holed up in a fortress beg for their help but the Vikings sensibly decline and sail off … only to find that the curse went with them and now their own dead are coming back. The only way to save themselves is to find and put an end to the curse, and the dark magic behind it. 

I probably would have liked it more if I didn’t know better, or if I was a thirteen-year-old boy with fantasies of badassery. 

That is, right up until this bad feeling I started to get in the final couple chapters, and then about eight pages from the end came this GOTCHA twist a la M. Night … and I uttered a lot of words of Anglo-Saxon origin and threw it down in irritation. 

-Christine Morgan


NIGHT FIGHTERS by Rob Smith (2011 Wild Wolf Publishing / 362 pp / tp)

It is 1941 and England is taking a beating from the German bombing raids.  Seven vampires are recruited by the Royal Air Force to fly fighter planes at night.  The vampires’ heightened senses, especially sight, and quicker reflexes make them perfect for flying night missions either attacking the German planes or protecting English heavy bombers.

Among the vampires are Crowe, who was abandoned as a child and tortured by doctors; Morgan, who grew up in a wealthy and loving family; and Raithe, who believes vampires are superior and the next evolutionary step for humans.  Vampirism, in this case, is a hereditary medical condition—and few view the vampires as anything but freaks.  Crowe has an especially difficult time dealing with the squadron’s bullies because of his anger toward humans for being treated as an experiment before escaping into the underground.  Crowe, Morgan and the other vampires just want to fly but circumstances may prevent that from ultimately happening.

I think Rob Smith gives a fresh and interesting perspective on vampires in NIGHT FIGHTERS.  They are still powerful creatures, but they can die like regular humans….and they have their weaknesses.  The character development is excellent and the origin of vampirism is quite brilliant.  Some of the characters were kept vague enough to really keep you guessing as to their motives and loyalties.  The story flows smoothly and Smith’s way of writing kept me reading—I didn’t want to put the book down!  My only real beef with NIGHT FIGHTERS is that the end, although raising some intriguing possibilities was a bit too neat and tidy for my taste.  I generally like my horror messy and unpredictable, but overall it was a great story and something different when it comes to vampires.

-Colleen Wanglund



REDSHIRTS by John Scalzi (2012 TOR / 317 pp / hc)


Like a couple of the author's previous novels, REDSHIRTS begins with a bunch of newbies becoming part of an intergalactic spaceship crew.  Weird stuff starts happening to them, and in the case of the crew of the Intrepid, the newbies seem to be the first (and only) ones to die on away missions.  Ensign Andrew Dahl eventually discovers that his crew--his ship--and his entire life has been written BACK in the 20th century by a hack scifi writer on a bad scifi TV show.


Unlike the author's previous novels, REDSHIRTS is a parody of the scifi genre, and although it brings films like GALAXY QUEST and THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO to mind, it has its own flavor.  The newbie crew of the Intrepid kidnap one of the Intrepid's main officers and time travel back to 2012 where they plan to confront the writer of the show, in hopes they won't die in their all-too real future.  The back-in-time section reminded me of STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME, albeit much funnier.  This is quite entertaining, and is told in three codas, one from the point of view of the screenwriter, one showing the outcome of the screenwriter's ill son, and the final from one of the future character's pretend wives (which ends the novel on a serious but satisfying note).


REDSHIRTS takes a while for the laughs to kick in, but is never slow.  I was expecting it to be funnier considering some of the blurbs on the back cover, but even so still recommend this solid spoof of scifi TV geek culture.


BLOODTHIRST IN BABYLON by David Searls (2012 Samhain / 328 pp / tp and eBook)

I love how, for every proverb, saying, or pearl of folk wisdom, there’s an equal and opposite proverb, saying, or pearl of folk wisdom. 

Never look a gift horse in the mouth, for instance … and how if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Beggars can’t be choosers … but be careful what you wish for. 

Welcome to Babylon, Michigan. A nice little town well off the beaten track. A town that’s really welcoming to certain outsiders, and very unwelcoming to others. A place where you might just want to look that gift horse in the mouth, because it has sharp teeth … and the beggars can’t be choosers if the locals have anything to say about it.

To the modern-day Dust Bowl nomads, roaming the highways in hopes of finding work, it’s like a dream come true. Plentiful job offers, easy work, incredible wages, dirt-cheap lodgings at the local motel. What could be the catch? Okay, except for the weird way reasons keep coming up to make sure they stay, when a person would have to be crazy to walk away from such a sweet deal. 

To the upper-class family who, through a fluke of real estate luck, manage to buy and move into one of the fancy Babylon homes, it’s another story. They get offers of much more than they paid to sell the house back. They get pressured to move. Eventually even threatened. 

Something strange is going on in Babylon, and it gets stranger after dark. That’s why all those people with their nice cushy jobs hurry to be home by sundown, keep their heads down, don’t talk about it, and don’t ask questions. 

Welcome to Babylon, indeed. Have a nice day, because you’re going to have a BAD night.

-Christine Morgan


SKELETAL REMAINS: A GRISLY COLLECTION edited by Keith Gouveia (2012 Rymfire Books / 115 pp /  tp and eBook)

SKELETAL REMAINS is a cool little collection of nine short stories that center on the human skeleton.

“Mr. Marrow” by Lorne Dixon is a creepy story about what happens when a sadistic biology teacher’s classroom skeleton is stolen by a student as a prank, and has a very different outcome from Lisamarie Lamb’s “Anatomy” about another biology class’ skeleton which apparently has something to hide.  “The Bone Thief” by Keith Gouveia is horrifying with the unexpected outcome after a boy messes with a skeleton, voodoo and a bully.  Suzanne Robb’s “Lucky Thirteen” recalls the horrors of the plague and a woman who uses it to hide her true intentions, and “A Frontier Banquet” by Jonah Buck is a cautionary tale that takes place during America’s push west.

“In the Name of Science” by Giovanna Lagana deals with a professor and the supposed fountain of youth who deceives a student; “Flotsam” by Rebecca Snow is pretty frightening in its warning against picking up strange things lying on a beach; “Rainforest of Bones” is eerie and peculiar about a reporter looking for an enigmatic man who disappeared in the rainforest; and Matt Peters’ “A Dirty Dozen” is quirky in its telling of a man attempting to reanimate twelve skeletons from the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

All of the stories are well written and Gouveia has done an excellent job with the editing.  The stories all have a nice flow and very unique subject matter.  SKELETAL REMAINS is a quick yet enjoyable read.

-Colleen Wanglund

BOOK OF THE MONTH:


THE LAST KIND WORDS by Tom Piccirilli (2012 Bantam Books / 320 pp / hc)

One of the most rewarding things as a reader is to see a writer you admire continue to get better.  With his latest crime noir novel, THE LAST KIND WORDS, Tom Piccirilli proves he has not only mastered the genre, but also made it his own.

After leaving his family in Long Island five years ago to work out west as a ranch hand, Terry Rand is called back home two weeks before his brother, Collie, is scheduled to be executed after being convicted of a brutal killing spree.  While Collie has admited to murdering seven people, he inisists he wasn't responsible for the eighth.  He's not looking for mercy or pity, but  wants to be cleared of the eighth victim for his own reasons.  Terry is relucatantly dragged back into the New York underworld to discover the truth, sending him into a violent and emotionally-charged tale of gangsters, thieves, and the power of family ties.

The scenes between Terry and his 15 year-old sister Dale rank among Piccirilli's finest writing, while his cast of crooked cops, health-in-decline old men, stupid young punks, new-school gangsters and sexy newswomen make the pages fly by at a frantic pace.  The sense anyone can snap at anytime keeps the tension at full throttle, even during the quieter moments.

The Rands are a family of thieves who have survived for generations relying more on their craftiness than their seldom-used weapons, and like Mario Puzo's classic GODFATHER saga, here's a family of undesirables we can't get enough of and often find ourselves cheering for.  Even the family dog (an American Staffordshire terrier, taken during one of Terry's father's heists) has more character than most humans you'll find in popular crime fiction.

I can't recommend THE LAST KIND WORDS enough, and can't wait for its forthcoming sequel.  This is one of Piccirilli's finest novels.


ALL YOU CAN EAT by: Shane McKenzie (2012 Deadite Press / 128 pp / tp )

The fact that our favorite local Chinese buffet had just recently reopened after being closed for remodeling did NOT help my mental state as I read this smorgasboard of gluttony, cannibalism and fat. I mean, talk about morbid obesity!

Juan is just off the truck from an illegal border crossing into America, hoping to find work and save up to bring his family across for a fresh start at the good life. His cousin Manuel helped make the arrangements, and introduces Juan to his boss, Mr. Chan. 

So far, so good, even if Mr. Chan is an abusive petty tyrant to his employees. He can get away with it because they don’t dare complain, and just lately, business at the Paradise Buffet has been booming. The customer base is growing exponentially – so are the customers, who’ve packed on the poundage from gorging themselves. Even Manuel and his fellow employees have developed a fondness for Mr. Chan’s new secret recipe. 

It’s out-of-control binge eating, to the point where people are bankrupting themselves just to keep visiting the restaurant. They turn to begging, and devouring whatever they can in hopes of sating the insatiable cravings … even when “whatever they can” ends up being the flesh of their nearest and dearest. 

Meanwhile, police officer Lola has her own problems. She’s no fan of the overweight, thanks to issues in her past. Her revulsion is compounded by being partnered with a fat, lecherous slob. 

Soon enough, the troubles in Paradise spill over. A disturbance call leads to Lola and her partner having to cart off a man who started chowing down on other customers, and he’s still hungry when they get him to the station. Suffice to say, the situation deteriorates from there. 

The writing is gleefully gross, as fun to read as it is disgusting. Makes a marvelous diet aid, since you certainly don’t want to be sitting there snacking. You might even be left thinking you’ll never eat again. 

If you look beneath the surface, this story far more than just a “LOL Fatties!” gross-out fest. It contains clever themes about rampant addiction in general. The fatties are foodies, yes … but a flip side of skinny druggies is also presented … and there’s alcoholism, and compulsive exercising, and consumerism in countless forms.

-Christine Morgan


THE REAWAKENING: THE LIVING DEAD TRILOGY BOOK 1 by Joseph Souza (2012 Cactus Tree Publishers / 307 pp / tp)

Thom and his daughter Dar drive up to his brother, Rick’s farmhouse for a weekend visit, leaving Thom’s wife and son in Boston.  While at the farm, Thom, Dar, Rick and Rick’s wife Susan notice that the animals begin actin funny….almost rabid.  Susan is bitten by one of the animals and becomes very ill.  Now, dead animals and humans are reanimating and eating the flesh of the living.  An odd side effect for the human corpses bitten by infected animals it that they mutate into something both human and animal—though still very dead.

Rick, Thom and a few survivors fortify the farmhouse and surrounding property.  As the days turn to months and winter has provided a natural barrier to the dead, Rick has been studying a corpse in his basement laboratory.  Rick was a geneticist and microbiologist before fleeing to the country.  He discovers some truly bizarre things about the reanimated corpses, while the survivors discover some things about themselves and each other.  Unfortunately for them all, the spring thaw is coming and the dead are on the move again and very hungry.

When I started reading THE REAWAKENING I thought it would turn out to be a predictable and average zombie tale.  The book opens with a letter to Congress from a Dr. Douglass Trowbridge warning of the impending dire consequences to the human population by allowing the cultivating and consuming of genetically modified foods.  I thought I knew what was coming.  While I did find some aspects that were a bit predictable and somewhat average, the story is actually a really solid one, overall.  Character development is pretty good, although at times seems to include some unnecessary details, as does the story as a whole.  However, this is the first book in a trilogy so some of what I perceive as unneeded details may come up in later parts of the story.  I especially enjoy the use of gene manipulation as a possible cause for the outbreak….pretty scary stuff since it’s becoming common practice.  There’s also an interesting twist to the whole science versus religion thing.   I ended up liking THE REAWAKENING more than I initially though I would and I look forward to reading the next books in the trilogy.  Let’s see if John Souza can keep it interesting.

-Colleen Wanglund


A REQUIEM FOR DEAD FLIES by Peter N. Dudar (2012 Nightscape Press / 280 pp. / tp)

Lester MacAuley decides to take a brief break from his peachy private school teaching position to help his brother Gordon build a distillery at their late grandparents' farm.  Gordon has dreams of brewing his own bourbon for a living, and Lester feels it's his duty to help him...but for more reasons than the physical work involved.  Despite being in their early 20s, the MacAuley brothers are haunted by a deep, dark past, particularly one summer they had spent at the farm as young boys, where their grandmother's dementia nearly cost them both their lives.

Dudar's debut novel is a psychological ghost story with plenty of family drama, revealed in tight layers as Lester recollects his life from a mental institution.  The bond shared bewteen him and Gordon is both loving and tragic, and the more we learn about their grandparents, the more everyone's sanity comes into question.

A REQUIEM FOR DEAD FLIES is a fine look at family secrets, the bond of brotherhood, and is a refreshing take on the classic ghost story.  Just make sure to have some bourbon (and a fly swatter) on hand for maximum effect.


BEDLAM UNLEASHED by Steven L. Shrewsbury and Peter Welmerink (2012 Belfire Press / 232 pp / tp and eBook)

Presented as a compilation of stories collected from old sources and edited together into a book by an ambitious class of students at Miskatonic University, this is a sweeping epic of dark fantasy, historical horror, mythology and folklore all rolled into one. 

Erik Bedlam is the rarest and most feared of Norse warriors – the berserker, known for unstoppable killing fury. He is a huge man with wild red hair and a chunk of blade embedded in his skull. He’s hounded by visions of demons. He needs no armor or weapons, even charging into the fight naked. During times of non-battle, he’s kept chained and caged to prevent him from being a danger to his companions. 

Only one man, Alanis Johansson, is more or less able to control Bedlam, and communicate with him even through his rages. They are bound together by war, blood, and secrets. In a way, they are friends. And they are certainly odd traveling companions as they make their way as mercenaries across the early Medieval landscapes of northern Europe and the British Isles. 

There follows a series of adventures right out of the sagas. Witches, dragons, shipwrecks, monsters, magic, the living dead, a touch of Shakespeare here and a smidge of Arthurian legend there, a hint of Poe and Lovecraft, several flavors of myth and religion. 

The action scenes – and there are plenty of them! – are as action-packed as could be wished for, gripping combat that never bogs down the way descriptions of fights sometimes do in books. Violence and carnage and gory details abound but do not overwhelm. 

And, okay, you could quibble over some of the dates and historical accuracy … you might get the impression it reads a little like a novelization of someone’s best roleplaying campaign ever … it’s adventure pulp in the best tradition. In fact, if I was still running games, I’d probably lift scenarios right from these pages.  

A neat touch is the inclusion of a quote at the beginning of each chapter, from sources as varied as Napoleon, John Quincy Adams, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Thucydides. There’s also a bonus chapter at the end, which chronicles the pair’s eventful return from a visit to far Africa. 

All in all, BEDLAM UNLEASHED is a fun, enjoyable melting pot of manly warrior goodness.

-Christine Morgan


A BAD DAY FOR VOODOO by Jeff Strand (2012 Sourcebooks / 266 pp / tp and eBook)

Tyler and his friend Adam are high school sophomores.  Adam plans a way for them to get even with their strict history teacher, Mr. Click: he buys a voodoo doll, and despite Tyler being skeptical, things go overboard when they stick a pin in the doll's leg (during class) and Mr. Click's leg blows off and turns the classroom into a gruesome blood bath.  Afraid Tyler will rat him out, Adam buys a voodoo doll of Tyler for insurance, but it gets stolen, sending our two buddies and Tyler's cute but tough girlfriend Kelley on a cross-city race to track down the voodoo doll before Tyler looses any body parts...or worse.

A BAD DAY FOR VOODOO is Strand's second YA novel, and is easily one of his all-around funniest.  A cab-chase scene had me in stitches, as did the cab's insane driver, and when our young friends come across a demented family of multi-religious fanatics, you'll have a hard time not laughing out loud regardless of where you might be reading it (this one isn't recommended for doctor office waiting rooms).

Despite being a YA title, there's still plenty of over-the-top comic sarcasm, violence and situations Strand's fans have come to expect, and the author's prose has never been smoother.  A total blast from start to finish regardless of what grade you're in (or out of).


THE DARK ONES by Bryan Smith (2012 Deadite Press / 302 pp / tp)

Sometimes, if you’re like me, you just get in the mood for the sort of book where all hell breaks loose in an ordinary little town, plunging its inhabitants into a chaotic nightmare of sex and violence. 

This is one of those books. It’d fit nicely alongside works such as Laymon’s ONE RAINY NIGHT, or Little’s DOMINION, with overtones of Gary Brandner’s classic (and finally returning to print!) HELLBORN. 

The ordinary little town in this case is Ransom, Tennesee. It’s seen an influx of new folks lately, new businesses bringing new people, new kids at school, and new problems. Chief among those problems are the group who call themselves the Dark Ones. They’re the weirdos, but not of the weak, geeky sort. They’re tough-ass goths and metalheads who make even the local jocks think twice. 

Underneath, though, they’re also a bunch of mixed-up kids with difficult home lives and assorted troubles. They band together the way outcasts do. And, one night when they’re out drinking, they decide it might be cool to explore the boaded-up house where nobody ever goes. 

As you might guess, this turns out to be a bad idea. There’s a bad influence contained in the old house, and the closer they get, the stronger it gets, until it’s able to make them effect its escape by way of an involuntary orgy. 

For the next couple of weeks, the Dark Ones are busy avoiding each other, trying to move past the nasty events of that night. What they don’t know is that the force in the house has hitched a ride home with one of them. The demon Andras begins taking over Ransom, person by person, in a spreading web of depravity. 

Then, with the help of the only person in town who knows the truth about that house and the evils in it, the remaining Dark Ones find that it’s up to them to try and stop the demon before it’s too late. 

Sadly, a few editing errors sneaked past … there’s one scene where a character’s name changes back and forth several times, for instance … but overall, the story is a wicked treat in which nothing’s safe and nothing’s off-limits. 

-Christine Morgan


SHIVERS by Selena Kitt (2012 eXcessia Publishing  230 pp / tp and eBook)

SHIVERS is a collection of well-written stories that, for the most part, aren’t so much erotic horror per se as good ol’ solid horror with extra added spicy sex scenes. 

“The Ride” is a cautionary tale about hitchhiking, lonely roads, and what can happen to a pretty girl out looking for a lift … or the handsome stranger who offers one. 

In “The Laundry Chute,” a kids’ daredevil game goes awry with tragic consequences … and a little boy’s new imaginary friend tempts him into trouble while the babysitter is otherwise occupied. 

“Silent Night” is the story of a wronged husband left to take care of the kid, when he really just wants some peace and quiet.

“Mercy” is an edgy urban paranormal in which a vampire tries to make the best of her afterlife, which isn’t easy when some of the same old problems – like your roomie having her boyfriend over – never go away. 

“The Gingerbread Man” steps in to rescue a stranded traveler on her way to her fiance’s house one snow-stormy Christmas Eve, and even though she jokes about Hansel and Gretel, she’s not prepared for the tasty treats awaiting her. 

“Advent Calendar” is a tale in which a not-so-nice guy’s latest girl gives him a present… at first, he thinks it’s a joke, when the doors open on nothing but vague scents … then he finds he can’t seem to get rid of it … with several days yet to go.

“Pumpkin Eater,” a Halloween story of a creepy farmer, his pumpkin patch, and his unwilling assistant, is the gooshiest and goriest of the crop, making it my personal favorite.

“The Velvet Choker” is a sensual take on the classic gothic tradition, with all the elements – mansion, mystery, the eccentric old widower, the lovely innocent, the artist, the temptations and desires and betrayals – and beautifully done. 

“Hunting Season” is the bonus piece, co-authored by Selena Kitt and Blake Crouch, in which a bigshot rich man’s trophy wife and the childhood sweetheart she spurned end up stuck at the butcher shop together, in a confrontation twenty years overdue. 

So, not a smut-book, but a horror-book with smut … and a good read throughout!

-Christine Morgan

NEXT MONTH:

The dog days of summer will be well upon us, and the HFR staff will continue to get through this past spring's HUGE batch of submissions.  See ya in 31 days!

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