Tuesday, July 31, 2012

August, 2012 Reviews

AUGUST, 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

THE MOTH SONG AND OTHER STORIES by Elliott Mabeuse (2008 eXcesscia Publishing / 131 pp / eBook)

I'm not a big fan of erotic horror, mainly because I often find the eroticism stamps out the horror and vice versa...although there's times the two can work well together.  Mabeuse's collection features some hit-or-miss offerings, beginning with 'Leaves,' a familiar and forgettable dark fantasy. But I decided to continue as the writing was quite good.

'Life in Deep Rock' is light on the erotica but heavy on the chills as a couple of scientists discover an unusual life form living within rocks; 'The Devil's Lesson' is a nice spin on the Crossroads thing, this time featuring a devil who's tired of souls and wants a pretty young guitair player's body; The title story, like 'Leaves,' seemed a bit too familiar, and 'Incubus' is basically an XXX version of the film 'The Entity.' Pass.

'The Donor' was a so-so vampire tale, as is 'Vampires on a Train.' The next to last tale, 'Hole,' is my favorite; it has great atmosphere and despite the graphic sex keeps the reader interested due to its thought provoking subtext.

I'm guessing fans of the erotic stuff may enjoy this more than I did, but Mabeuse writes well and works better for me when dealing with the less erotic pieces.


IN THE MISO SOUP by Ryu Murakami (translated by Ralph McCarthy) (2006 Penguin Books /original pub 1997 / 224 pp / tp)

Kenji is a nightlife guide in Tokyo.  His job involves taking tourists to the sex clubs in the Kabuki-cho district.  Frank, an American, has hired Kenji for three nights.  Kenji finds Frank to be a very strange man and begins to imagine him as the killer of a teenage girl whose body was found raped and mutilated in the sex district.  Kenji relays his thoughts to his girlfriend Jun, but decides he’s going to continue as Frank’s tour guide, despite his reservations.  On their second night out, Frank kills the patrons of a club but keeps Kenji alive.  When Frank lets Kenji go, he doesn’t go to the police to report the murder.  Instead he goes with Frank to a squat and listens to Frank’s story of his life and how he ended up the killer that he is.  Frank wants Kenji to do one more thing for him—take him to hear the gongs struck on New Year’s Eve.

Much like his novel AUDITION, Murakami has created flawed and broken characters trying to cope with their existence.  Frank is a savage killer who feels no remorse for what he has done.  Kenji, it seems, has fallen under a kind of spell that keeps him with Frank, even when he fears Frank will kill him as well.  Jun stands as the voice of reason that ultimately helps keep Kenji grounded and saves his life.  Murakami is a master at delving into the worst of humanity, regardless of where they come from.  I love IN THE MISO SOUP as much as I love AUDITION (both the novel and movie).  

-Colleen Wanglund

BLACKOUT by Mira Grant (2012 Orbit Books / 672 pp / tp, mmp, eBook, and Audio book)

The third in the gripping Newsflesh trilogy, which began with FEED and continued in DEADLINE, wraps things up with a serious punch. Okay, the series has become less and less zombie books and more and more sci-tech spec-fic near future thriller WITH zombies … but, in this case, it’s no bad thing. 

The post-zombie-apocalypse world established in the beginning – a viral infection causes any mammals bigger than about the size of a small dog to ‘amplify’ and return from the dead as mindless, ravenous, nearly unstoppable eating machines – is set not during the outbreak but thirty years later. A new generation has grown up with blood tests, security precautions, preparations, constant vigilance, and the fact that most of them have homage-type names drawn from the classics of the zombie movie genre. 

Such as Shaun (of the Dead) and his sister Georgia “George” (for Romero) Mason. Their adoptive parents were among the first survivors who used the internet to spread the word, and as civilization crumbled, they and bloggers like them became a major news source. Shaun and George carried on that tradition, establishing themselves and exceeding even their parents in terms of ratings and success. George got a reputation for unrelenting truth, Shaun as one of the best of the “Irwins” (a type of blogger dedicated to taking risks and poking things with sticks; named for Steve)

BLACKOUT picks up where DEADLINE left off, with Shaun and the rest of his news team on the run and in hiding. Shaun’s still hallucinating that George talks to him, and even sees her sometimes, though he knows that’s impossible … after all, he did shoot her in the head to keep her from turning into a zombie. He killed her. George is dead and gone. 

Or is she? Because, in a top-secret CDC facility, Georgia Mason wakes up to find herself a prisoner. She soon realizes that there’s a conspiracy afoot, the powers that be are afraid her brother will uncover it, and they want to use her as bait or insurance to stop him. Needless to say, loyal truth-hound George is not at all on board with this plan. 

There are zombies, yes … there’s some great fight scenes, some action and gore, even a zombie bear attack.  There’s a new infection vector that could threaten what’s left of society. The real story, though, is Shaun and George. 

One of the best aspects of these books is the all-too-plausible heightened state of fear and meek submission as The Price Of Safety. Couldn’t happen, we tell ourselves. Yeah, right. Been to the airport lately? Sure, they don’t subject us to blood tests. Yet. But, really, would it surprise anybody if that was next?

-Christine Morgan



TAUG by Matthew House (2001 / 421 pp / tp and eBook)

The author recently re-released this in 2012 but it was all new to me.  Here's an apocalyptic novel that refreshingly features zombies only as a side-note: At a secret military lab, a scientist releases a most unusual creature after experimenting with human consciousness (but believe it or not, this idea actually WORKS!). A war of angelic/demonic beings then ensues among a cast of well-crafted characters, my favorite being an Indian Shaman who has ties to other-wordly dimensions. Despite the lengthy page count, the prose moves along quickly and I wasn't bored for a minute. House also uses Christian themes in a slick way that won't make non-believers feel like they've been bashed over the head with a bible.

The only thing that hurts TAUG are the usual self-published dilemmas (in particular, much of the dialogue could've used a work-over), and being this is a re-released version for the eBook age, the author should have taken the time to have a professional edit done. But if you can look past this, TAUG is a fun end-of-days beach read that mixes horror and scif and goes down quite smoothly.

Smell Rating: 0


LORE edited by Rod Heather and Sean O’Leary (2012 The Lore Firm/ Volume 2, No. 1 / 170 pp  / tp)

LORE is a collection of short stories of speculative fiction. The cover itself is a beautiful wrap-around piece by famed artist Richard Corben.

I must first mention a story called “Splash”, a round-robin effort with each writer keeping to a thousand words and the ability to rewrite two sentences from the previous part.  The authors involved are Don Webb, Richard Lupoff, Scott Cupp, Michael Kurland, Michael Mallory, Paul DiFilippo, and Jim Kelly.  “Splash” is a weird science fiction tale surrounding three alien creatures—T’eela, Aul, and Radiant—and the state of the universe after multiple galactic wars and the destruction of Old Earth.  It’s an interesting story but one that had me confused at times.  For a round-robin story I felt the prose should have been a little tighter.  It wanders at times and doesn’t always seem to go together….but it was an admirable effort.

There is also a story by the late Brian McNaughton.  It is an unfinished tale titled “The Deposition of Leodiel Fand” about political intrigue and witchcraft that plague a Palace Guard.  It is part of a fantasy series THE THRONE OF BONES that takes place in another world.  Having never read McNaughton’s series I went into the story as a stand-alone novella and liked it.  I’m not necessarily a fan of fantasy, but the story is so well written that it doesn’t seem as though it is unfinished.  The prose is detailed, imaginative and dark, creating an eerie and somber atmosphere.

Other stories include “Toll and Trouble” by David A. Hill about revenge on a galactic scale involving the stars and the music they can make; “She Wanted to go into the Trees” by Patricia Russo about people referred to as the Sorry who are invisible to the rest of society and how one managed to move into a different plane of existence; and “Fairt Gold” by Peadar O’Guilin about places in the world where humans and fairies can interact, but the fairies have decidedly sinister reasons for meeting with the humans.

Overall LORE is a good collection of multi-genre stories full of darkness, depression, eeriness, and a somber tone.  I’m a fan of horror over scifi and fantasy so I would give the book a three out of five rating…I found it average, although I didn’t dislike any of the stories included.  If you are a fan of speculative fiction then this one is for you.

-Colleen Wanglund



WITCH WATER by Edward Lee (2012 Necro Publications / 250 pp / tp and eBook)

Ed Lee’s take on the good ol’ days of colonial witch trials? Awesome, gimme! Okay, my reaction to just about anything he writes is “awesome, gimme!” but this one was extra fun because you just know those uptight repressed wacky Puritans were REALLY into stripping and whipping women ONLY for the right reasons. 

I’d consider WITCH WATER a good starter to suggest for someone new to Lee’s work … not AS out there, depraved and hardcore as some of his other books … a fine stand-alone while giving a definite taste of what his style is all about. 

Stew Fanshawe is a big-city, high-profile successful type whose life and career are in shambles now that he’s been caught and exposed as a perv. In a move that’s part therapy (getting him away from sources of temptation) and part simply running and hiding from the shame, he takes an extended vacation in a quiet New England town that bills itself as “the Salem of New Hampshire.” 

It’s a picturesque place, especially if you want pictures of the authentic pillory in the square, the unhallowed graveyard, the inn’s museum of confession-aides and coven memorabilia, and similar cheerful touristy sightseeing opportunities. There’s also the local fortune teller, the local lager, the historic shopping district, and the visiting convention of professors of the paranormal in town. 

The inn itself was once the home of a notorious warlock and his wicked daughter, who were known to have conducted all manner of salacious and vile rituals. The longer Stew stays at the inn, the more fascinated he becomes with the place’s sordid past. It also feeds into his fetishes and perversions, having a less than optimal effect on his therapy. 

Soon, the lines between then and now get blurred. Stew’s fascination becomes obsession. There’s a gruesome murder, the discovery of an old diary, visions, nightmares, the works. 

So, yeah … a twisted history of orgies, sacrifices, blood, occultism, incest … and this is my idea of a good starter Lee novel to introduce new readers without totally plunging them into the deep end? Well … 

Well, yes, actually, yes it is. I recommended it to my husband, who’s been Lee-curious (and wanting to see why I’m so nuts about his books) as well as a history geek with an interest in Lovecraft, but hasn’t quite been able to bring himself to dive headlong into, for instance,TROLLEY NO. 1852 or the Mephistopolis right off the bat. 

He only looked at me a LITTLE bit nervously after reading it …

-Christine Morgan


BIGFOOT HUNTERS by Rick Gualtieri (2012 / 345 pp / tp and eBook)

While some think werewolves or mummies may be the next "it" monster in horror fiction, there seems to be a steady flow of Bigfoot novels/short stories being released lately, and while BIGFOOT HUNTERS may not be as memorable as Eric S. Brown's BIGFOOT WAR series, there's lots of fun to be had with this all-out monster romp.

Gualtieri's story is simple: a group of teenagers go camping in the Colorado woods and discover a  bigfoot who is much more violent than those of legend. Before long they're involved in a masive battle against the beast and a horde of others, and are eventually aided by men known as Bigfoot Hunters, who seem to have a deep knowledge of what makes these creatures tick.

While the set up here is not unlike your standard b-monster movie, Gualtieri adds a couple of surprises and keeps the reader interested due to the nearly non-stop action and carnage (in fact, some of the killings here are beyond brutal so fans of the extreme stuff might want to take a look). While some may find the gore and destruction repetitive at times, the huge cast of characters (which I understand may distract some) keeps things interesting, and the author kills some people you'd never think he would.  We also get to read the thoughts of the lead bigfoot here, something that at first I found silly but ended up enjoying. Gualtieri also manages to squeeze some nifty twists in-between all the carnage.

Despite some formatting problems, BIGFOOT HUNTERS is a fine self-published novel Sasquatch fans will have a real blast with.

Smell Rating: 0


THE BACK OF BEYOND by Alan Peter Ryan (2011 Cemetery Dance Publications / 181 pp / hc)

THE BACK OF BEYOND is a collection of four novellas that all have the idea of loneliness in common.

“Sexual Exploration is a Crime” is about Jerry, a rather dull man who goes to Brazil where he meets Renata, a professional girlfriend.  On a drive to another part of the country Jerry and Renata are in a terrible car accident and she is killed.  Once the police are done questioning Jerry and investigating the accident, they give Jerry an alarming piece of Renata’s personal property.

“The Winter’s Tale” tells the story of a man living alone next to an old churchyard, who became suddenly lonely in the middle of winter.  He decides to venture out and bring some food to a family that lives some ways down the road.  The couple is afraid of the man and they drive him away, rather violently.  The man makes it back to his home but begins to wonder about what might be inhabiting the desolate churchyard next door.

“Starvation Valley” follows an estranged father and son who decide on a whim to take a cross-country road trip from Los Angeles to New Jersey.  The trip goes slowly downhill, with each man expecting something very different.  The father remembers an isolated diner called Janey’s some years before the failed road trip.  He remembers every detail about his brief stay at Janey’s, but soon discovers Janey’s has something in common with the man’s relationship with his grown son.

“Mountain Man” is about what happens when Trask, a ranch foreman discovers old Hiram in the woods covered in blood and incoherent.  Hiram seems possessed and Trask decides to take him back to the ranch and get some help for him from the doctor.  In a moment of lucidity Hiram tells Trask that he is going to eat him.  The men decide the best course of action is to take the mountain man back to the mountain where they found him but the ride devolves into a supernatural violence.

All of the stories seem to explore the strange possibilities when people are dealing with profound loneliness.  Ryan’s prose is descriptive and flows nicely, moving each novella from weird to downright creepy.  “The Winter’s Tale” and “Starvation Valley” are dark and eerie, along the lines of psychological horror with a somber mood.  “Sexual Exploration is a Crime” and “Mountain Man” are just as dark, but quite bloody with a nod to the grotesque.  I thoroughly enjoyed THE BACK OF BEYOND and think there is something here for everyone.

-Colleen Wanglund 



DUELING MINDS edited by Brian James Freeman (2012 Cemetery Dance Publications / 152 pp / limited hc)

One piece of artwork. Six authors. It’s like a literary episode of IRON CHEF. Here’s your theme ingredient, GO! See what kind of inspirations and evocations you can come up with! Then, the six dishes will be assembled into one anthology and presented to please the palates of the judges!

Except there are no judges and everybody wins, especially the readers who get treated to half a dozen different and unique tastes. 

The piece of artwork is by Alan M. Clark, and is nicely spooky all on its own. No wonder it spurred and stirred the imagination of the talented lineup so well! 

First up is Brian Keene’s “Purple Reign,” full of fun gruesome mayhem when an ordinary town gets doused in mysterious chemical goop that turns normal people into raving maniacs.

“Bargain,” by Gary Braunbeck, takes a quick change of pace into the territory of more serious, haunting, thoughtful, emotional horrors of sorrow and regret. 

Tom Piccirilli’s “Between the Dark and the Daylight” is a terrifying thriller wherein heroes try to stop a runaway hot air balloon and go for the ride of their lives. 

“Falling off the World,” by Tim Lebbon, is another runaway-balloon story of a very different kind, hitting an uneasy nerve between Twilight Zone and Shel Silverstein. 

Jenny Orosel’s “That Which Binds” presents a disturbing and eerie tale of life, death, lost loves and second chances. 

The book finishes up with “The Breath of Bygone Spirits,” by Gerard Houarner, in which a bitter, unhappy man is drawn home to deal with familial obligations and a lot of old ghosts. 

All in all, DUELING MINDS is a good read as well as a neat example of how different writers respond to the same prompt with very diverse but all fascinating results.

-Christine Morgan


THE DEVOTED by Eric Shapiro (2012 Ravenous Shadows / 178 pp / tp)

Matthew is a member of a suicide cult.  Edgar Pike is their leader.  At one time the cult had many members but at one point most of the members left and Pike took the remaining eight members into hiding.  The press has referred to them as the Missing Nine and the police and family members are looking for them.  Pike has taken away their cell phones, but in a moment of doubt Matthew found and took his phone back.  A former member has been calling and when he speaks to Matthew, he tells him the truth….that Pike isn’t some kind of messiah.  Matthew wants to marry to Jolie and discovers a truth about Jolie and Pike that devastates him and makes his next actions clear.  

THE DEVOTED is a scary look into how a scam artist can hold sway over people and drive them to do things they might not normally do.  Shapiro’s vision of the Missing Nine and their impending suicide is beautifully detailed and quite frightening.  The story itself is told from the viewpoint of Matthew, and includes diary entries of Pike which lead to a disturbing but inevitable conclusion.  The pace is steady and sucks you into the story with an ending that is both expected but unpredictable at the same time.  An excellent read if you like the dark side of human behavior.

-Colleen Wanglund


THUNDERSTRUCK by Erik Larson (2007 Broadway Paperbacks / 480 pp / hc,tp, eBook, and audio book)

Following on the heels of THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, Larson delivers another amazing rendition of actual events and non-fiction presented in such a readable format that it’s easy to forget you’re not reading a great made-up story.

The two main threads that entertwine in THUNDERSTRUCK are Tesla and the invention of the wireless, and the Crippen murder case. What might the connection be, you could ask or wonder … I did … between the eccentric young Italian genius and the meek-seeming English doctor? 

Admittedly, I didn’t know much about either of them going into it, beyond what’s bopping around in the general Jeopardy category kind of cultural knowledge. I had no idea that Tesla was such a jerk! (or, indeed, a psychopath with mood and personality disorders, as he sure comes off in this book; though, I had read that others of history’s top inventors and geniuses were ‘eccentric’ to the point of madness). I didn’t know the full backstory or gory details of the Crippen case, or that the same investigator’s career began with Jack the Ripper and concluded with this one. Truth, fiction, stranger than, etc. Really bizarre, sometimes, the way things fit together. 

Now I do know more, and wow, what an incredible read! The way it all comes together, these two seemingly disparate series of events … the coincidences and stuff no self-respecting writer would dare make up for fear of being called on it … 

On the one side, there’s all these struggles within the scientific community, the academic rivalries and feuds, setbacks, sabotage … on the other, there’s the inside peek at a toxic marriage gone hideously wrong, and a murder that captured the attention of both sides of the pond. 

Since I’ve also been on something of a steampunk-writing kick lately, this was yet another great resource for what was going on at at time when electrical power and modern innovations were taking hold, when the pace of everything was speeding up, when communication became instantaneous, information was more readily available, and the world was getting smaller every day. 

THUNDERSTRUCK is the title and thunderstruck is what it’s liable to leave you. Certainly did me. I’ll continue to snap up anything Larson does. Being able to take all those snippets of history, all those excerpts from letters and interviews, and put them together into a damn compelling, eminently readable narrative is a kickass accomplishment.

-Christine Morgan


THE WHISPER JAR by Carole Lanham (2011 Morrigan Books 2011 / 196 pp / tp)

THE WHISPER JAR is a collection of nine stories combining a wonderful mix of horror and fantasy.  Easily my favorite of the bunch is “The Blue Word” which takes place inside a mountain fortress run by the Church for orphan children.  A zombie virus has ravaged society, although the government has managed to get it under control.  Salvation House provides a sanctuary for children deemed “special” until their eighteenth birthdays when they return to the world.  Salvation House comes under attack at times and the nuns and the children must fend off the attackers.  One young woman named Esther discovers the truth about who she is and what really happens when the special orphans leave the only home they’ve known for most of their lives.  Lanham keeps you guessing through the entire story and then hits you in the gut with and unexpected and heartbreaking ending.

Other stories include “Keepity Keep” about a pair of brothers who discover a fairy and over the years the brothers become competitive and jealous in their relationship with Petaloo the fairy, leading to a devastating conclusion; “The Good Part” about Etta who becomes a vampire and how she uses and manipulates her brother Gideon through an incestuous relationship; and “The Forgotten Orphan” about a boy who becomes a doctor’s assistant in an orphanage and discovers a secret.  There are also two poems, “The Whisper Jar” about a village in which the townsfolk keep their darkest secrets in jars; and “The Adventures of Velvet Honeybone, Girl Werewuff” about how a girl became a werewolf.

Carole Lanham writes with a touch of whimsy that draws you into what ultimately are very dark and macabre stories.  She is also able to flawlessly meld a childlike innocence with an eerie eroticism that for me really makes THE WHISPER JAR a major standout.  The stories are at times playful and then move into an almost unpredictable darkness.  This is one collection that I highly recommend if you like your horror weird and disturbing.

-Colleen Wanglund


TRIBESMEN by Adam Cesare (2012 Ravenous Shadows 2012 / 174 pp / tp)

In the 1980s Italian horror was at its height in popularity.  Producer Roland Pressberg is sending a small movie crew to a small Caribbean island to make a horror/exploitation movie using the natives as extras.  When the cast and crew arrive, the village is deserted and they stumble upon a mass grave of bones.  The natives were slaughtered and the matriarch cursed the island and anyone who set foot upon it. 
 
When they begin filming, things go from make-believe to gruesomely real with the death of a crew member on camera by another actor who seems to be possessed.  American actress Cynthia flees into the jungle to avoid becoming another victim in what is quickly becoming a snuff film.  Will anyone make it out alive?  More importantly, what will happen to the movie?

I’m a huge fan of Italian horror/exploitation films and I loved this book.  It took an amazing film genre and turned it into a real horror story for the small cast and crew involved.  TRIBESMAN was just as bloody and grotesque and any 80s Italian horror film and included a major dose of the supernatural.  Cesare writes without the pretense of being a cinema know-it-all….the book is about the characters and what drives their actions while trying to film a low-budget horror film.  I think any fan of horror will appreciate TRIBESMAN for what it is—a very entertaining read.

-Colleen Wanglund


THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE by Stephen King (2012 Simon & Shuster / 309 pp / hc)

If any of you have read The Dark Tower series by Stephen King, then you know how excited I was to get this book.  If you haven’t read and of the Tower books, you can still enjoy THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE, as it is a stand-alone book in its own right. 
 
Falling between books four (WIZARD AND GLASS) and five (WOLVES OF THE CALLA), KEYHOLE finds the gunslinger Roland, Eddie, Suzannah, Jake and the bumbler Oy seeking shelter before they are overrun by a deadly storm.  They hunker down in a stone church in an abandoned town and not being able to sleep, Roland tells the group about a time when he was still a rookie gunslinger and sent to investigate a possible shape shifter.  The town is on the very edge of the inhabited world and someone or something is tearing people apart.  The only witness to the carnage is a scared young boy who saw his father killed.
  
In order to help the boy relax, Roland tells him a story that his mother used to him when Roland was a boy.  That story is about Tim Stoutheart, who ventures into the most dangerous part of the forest around his village to avenge his father’s murder.  In the telling of the story, Roland hypnotizes the boy so he can tell what he knows, helping Roland catch the murdering shape shifter.  Roland finishes his story and the storm has passed, enabling the group to continue on their journey.

Like the rest of the Dark Tower series, KEYHOLE weaves a detailed and imaginative story (or in this case stories) that fits perfectly with the series while still maintaining stand-alone status.  It is dark but hopeful, relaying a strength found in the young boys (and young Roland himself) that leads to an optimistic ending for the group listening.  If you’re a King fan and especially a Dark Tower fan then THE WIND THROUGH THE KEYHOLE is a must-have book.

-Colleen Wanglund

NEXT MONTH: 

The HFR staff continues to chew through a recent influx of review material...

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!