APRIL, 2013 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 AFTER-LIFE STORY OF PORK KNUCKLES MALONE (2013 Bizarro Pulp Press / 93 pp / eBook & tp)
Daryl is a young man with a very special pet pig. He lives on a Wisconsin farm with his father Albert, and all's well until Albert decides his son is too close with a mere swine: he murders the poor pig with a chainsaw, breaking his son's heart in the process.
But now the pig (nick-named Pork Knuckles) is back, albeit in the form of a glazed ham. Daryl decides he can't take his dad's abuse anymore, so he places Pork Knuckles in his back pack and hits the road on his bicycle. It doesn't take long for things to go completely off-the-wall from there in MP Johnson's hysterical, demented road-trip tale that takes a look at the strength of friendship through a bizarro lense.
Daryl and his pet pig (ham) are soon confronted by a strange trucker, steroid-enhanced drag queens, are taken in by his aunt and uncle who are very twisted old school punks, and one chapter (told from the point of view of a fly named Zzz) had me laughing out loud. There are surprises on nearly every page, and the pace is completely frantic.
But what makes PORK KNUCKLES MALONE so different (besides it's obvious weirdness) is what becomes of the main characters: Daryl goes through a most unusual metamorphosis while his father and Pork Knuckles become something way out there... culminating in a several-chapter conclusion that combines a wacky look at creationism and a punk rock show to end all punk rock shows.
Having read most of Johnson's catalog, I can say this is easily his best work to date.
BLACK MAGIC by Russell James (to be released May 7, 2013 by Samhain Publishing / 280 pp / tp & eBook)
The small Florida town of Citrus Glade is in desperate need of some new businesses before it dies a slow death. Lyle Miller comes to town and opens a magic shop, but he has no intention of adding to the revival of Citrus Glade. Miller cons four teenage boys into practicing magic tricks, but gets them addicted to the black magic for his own ends. Now Hurricane Rita has formed directly over South Florida, threatening to wipe the whole area off the map. Andy, a war veteran, Autumn, a biologist working in the Everglades and a few nursing home residents, including Andy’s mom Dolly are the only ones who can stop Miller’s plans.
While BLACK MAGIC is overall a good story, I was a bit disappointed with this one. Character development was good, with a few exceptions. Miller’s background was too vague, as was the goal of his Grand Adventure. I never really understood what his purpose was. I liked Andy, who is a flawed man, suffering from guilt and probably PTSD from his tour in Afghanistan and I liked his mom, as well. I really liked Walking Bear and felt he was fleshed out pretty well, but I thought development of Autumn fell a bit short. I knew more about Vicente who turned out to be a minor character. The build-up of the plot was efficient but it had some holes that I wasn’t happy with and the end was a bit innocuous, although Miller’s fate was a bright spot. It’s an average story that has so much potential but fell somewhat short.
ZIPPERED FLESH (Books 1 and 2) edited by Weldon Burge (2012, 2013 Smart Rhino Publications / 284 pp, 324 pp / tp & eBook)
Stating up front that there’s partial bias here, since a friend and I each have stories in the second volume of these squicktastic stories of body modification. I read both anthologies back to back of the span of a couple of days, then needed twice that long to recover from the wincing and flinching.
Basically, I’m a total wuss. A baby when it comes to needles and sharp things; though I’ve watched people get tattoos and nose-piercings, I have to look away when it’s me getting the fingerstick or blood draw. I knew these books would test me, and they definitely did.
Two books. Forty-two stories. Authors ranging from seasoned veterans to promising newcomers. Stories from the distant past to the fantastic future, from the visceral and grotesque to the transcendant and exalted.
And, most of all, so very many endlessly creative ways to alter the flesh! For so many reasons … voluntarily or otherwise … for personal expression or improvement, for art, for religion, for fun, for profit, for science, for savagery … transplants, implants, spare parts, experiments … fetishes and freaks … to elevate us past humanity or revert us to beasts … just about anything you could imagine, and some things you’d wish you couldn’t.
With so many tales to choose from, I had a hard time narrowing it down to a few faves to mention specifically. They’re ALL creepy; I mean that in a good way. But, after having a stern talk with myself, I
Charles Colyott’s “Comfort,” in which obesity run amok and one man’s mommy issues make for a feeling that’s anything BUT comfortable. Eew. Just, eew.
“Taut” by Shaun Meeks STILL has me squirming. The hooks, the thought of the hooks, I can’t even …
“Skin Deep” by Carson Buckingham and “Locks of Loathe” by Jezzy Wolfe are two terrific spins on the perils of vanity, and Graham Masterson’s “Sex Object” has lost none of its impact in the years since its debut in the Hot Blood books.
Jonathan Templar’s “Babydaddy” absolutely needs to be made into a double feature to be shown with John Skipp’s “Stay At Home Dad” … maybe mandatory viewing for teenage boys, during that time when the girls have to go watch their special wonders-of-womanhood film strips.
“Marvin’s Angry Angel,” also by Jonathan Templar, knocks it out of the park in terms of where we’re headed when fad and fashion move beyond trendy purse dogs and third world orphans.
Doug Blakeslee plays with recurring characters by bringing his Uncommon Assassin back for another go-round in “Perfection,” confronted with some possible killing-machine competition.
Editor Weldon Burge also contributes the tragic but amusing “Hearing Mildred,” in which an old man’s hearing aids subject him to wifely nagging from beyond the grave.
And, really, if I don’t stop myself now I’ll just keep listing until I’ve listed the complete tables of contents … so, take a look at these twisted tales and decide for yourself. May also make a great gift for that rebellious teenager you want to discourage from getting some work done!
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR by Michael Arruda (2013 NECon Ebooks / 295 pp / eBook)
While I've been a fan of Michael Arruda's movie reviews for many years, this was my first exposure to his fiction. Here are 15 tales (half of them new) that are tied together by the intertwining story of Keith and Erin, lovers who recall how they met and their love for horror stories.
Opening story, 'Little Boys With Frogs' tells of the time Keith an Erin survived an encounter with a giant; 'That Thing Which Can Never Be Satisifed' deals with two roomates, one of their girlfriends, and a really weird sexual experience. 'Black Heart of the Wolf' is a quick but satisfying werewolf yarn, while 'The Horror Curse' takes a look at how all types of horror media feed horror fans as well as certain...creatures (the author brings this theme back in two other tales).
'Good to the Last Drop' is a humorous look at coffee addiction, while 'Kisses' features our couple Keith and Erin dealing with the sinister advances of Keith's friend, Glenn. In 'The Painting,' a grandson and his grandfather deal with some strange occurences around an art collection, then ghosts run wild in 'Friends Forever.' 'On the Rocks' deals with a man wishing his wife death, only to have it come true in a most slithery way.
Next up is 'Reconciliation,' easily the best story of the lot, about a 62 year-old priest who hears a confession from a ... vampire. The entire story takes place within a confessional booth, and the ending is not only timely but gives the piece a real kicker.
"Curse of the Kragonaks' digs deeper into the theme opened up in 'The Horror Curse,' then 'The Monster Who Loved Women' warns men that the woman they may have a thing for might not be who they think she is. Got that?
'The House of Mr. Morbidikus' is one bed and breakfast you'd do well to stay away from, while 'He Came Upon a Midnight Clear' features a ghost who intervenes with a dysfuctional family on Christmas Eve.
The collection concludes with 'For the Love of Horror,' where our loving horror couple, Keith and Erin, face off against Glenn and his mysterious powder one last time.
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR is a mixed bag: a couple of stories go nowhere, and most of them have the feel of an old EC horror comic ... which is good if you're a horror comic fan (which I am). Some readers may find the constant use of exclamation marks to be a bit too comic-like, while others should get a kick out of Arruda's old-school, Hammer-film-feel of story telling. I like how classic monsters (especially vampires and werewolves) are used, and the added wrap-around story ties the book together quite nicely.
Arruda's collection is a fun--if uneven--read.
SKIN MEDICINE by Tim Curran (2009 Severed Press / 276 pp / tp)
Tyler Cabe, former Civil War soldier and current bounty hunter has come to the Utah Territory in 1882 to hunt a brutal killer dubbed the Sin City Strangler. Who he finds is old war enemy Jackson Dirker, the Territory’s sheriff, Mormons who are the subject of persecution and victims of local vigilantes, mysterious creatures called Hide Hunters that hunt humans, and an outlaw who is supposed to be dead. The Wild West apparently never had it this wild.
My brief synopsis doesn’t do this novel justice. It is a complex story that involves not just supernatural horror, but the very real psychological damage of PTSD. Tyler Cabe is a fully fleshed-out character with serious baggage since the end of the Civil War. He has hung on to a grudge that he ultimately discovers wasn’t worth carrying around all these years later. Jackson Dirker also witnessed and participated in some real-life horrors during the war, but has dealt with it differently—in a more constructive way. Weaved seamlessly into the lives of these two veterans is a serial killer reminiscent of Jack the Ripper and Cabe won’t stop until he catches his killer.
Whisper Lake, the central town in SKIN MEDICINE is a sprawling mining town on the verge of chaos—between the Sin City Strangler and some of the residents mistrust and misunderstanding of the Mormons who live nearby. Jackson Dirker has so far been able to keep things in check, but the vigilantes led by Caleb Callister are planning something big. There is also the not-so-little matter of the werewolf-like creatures that have come to the Territory. Curran manages to keep the story flowing at a nice pace without getting bogged down in too many details. There is much going on but at no time did I lose interest or get confused about what was happening. This is another great book from Tim Curran that any horror fan should read.
MUERTE CON CARNE by Shane McKenzie (2013 Deadite Press / 194 pp / tp)
Just when I’d recovered from ALL YOU CAN EAT enough to brave the Chinese lunch buffet again, Shane McKenzie returns, this time to make sure I don’t stop by any taco trucks for the forseeable future.
Lucha Libre to the ultimate extreme, plus illegal immigration issues, equals violence even before you get to the whole messy business of the butchering and the cannibalism and the other nasty surprises in store.
Marta is a fiesty, stubborn young woman determined to uncover and expose what really goes on at the border, decides to put herself on the line in the most real way possible. Her plan is to pretend to be sneaking across, get caught, and record the results via concealed miniature camera.
Felix, her boyfriend, thinks it’s a bad idea but resolves to help out anyway, if only in hopes of patching up their relationship. Or sort-of relationship … or sort-of boyfriend … between the two of them, they’re a bundle of mood swings, temper, hot sex, commitment issues, and general dysfunction.
The prospect of them on a long drive together, into a stressful and dangerous situation, is a disaster waiting to happen even without any help from murderous, sadistic kidnappers. There’s definitely no shortage of atrocities in store!
From a purely artistic standpoint, some of the descriptive phrasing in here is of such gloriously depraved beauty that I found myself having to stop several times to marvel aloud. In, of course, the sort of way that devotees of this kind of thing can’t really share with those around them without risking getting those uneasy looks.
This book might also cost me a friend whose signature MMO character was a mighty luchador. I can’t NOT get him a copy, it’s like a sign. Will just have to see if he’ll still speak to me later …
RED MOON by Benjamin Percy (to be released May 7, 2013 by Grand Central Publishing / 530 pp / hc and eBook)
Patrick is the only survivor of a werewolf attack aboard an airplane. He's known in the media as the Miracle Boy and the students at his new high school don't know if he survived by luck or because he may be a wolf himself. In Percy's epic RED MOON, werewolves have been living among us all along, and the book reads like an alternative history tale with the wolves sitting in for (add the religion/minority/gender of your choice).
We also see things through the eyes of Claire, who is on the run when the government invades her house and kills her Lycan parents. She finds her aunt Miriam, and has a safe house until a wolf-led terrorist plot changes the entire course of the United States.
After high school, Patrick joins the army and heads to an American-occupied wolf country, searching for his father. But after he finds him, he comes back to America to help deal with the after-effects of a devastating attack on a nuclear plant that has left America's west coast in chaos. The Lycan race is now using this for an uprising, and a gang of skinheads known as The Americans are waging their own war against the shape-shifting creatures.
RED MOON is a fine take on the werewolf mythos (even our new president is one of them) that suffers only from over-writing. A better edit could easily have taken 150 pages off this one, but regardless, Percy has created a real page turner that I'm hoping isn't a stand alone novel (there are several unanswered questions at the end). I'm not a big werewolf fan, but this one kept me reeled in despite it's minor flaws.
Smell Rating: 3
THE COLOR OF BONE by Carol Weekes (2012 Genius Publishing / 287 pp / tp)
THE COLOR OF BONE is a nice-sized collection of twenty-six disturbing short stories by Carol Weekes.
Some of my favorites include “Clowning Around,” a disquieting story about a young woman on a date with a carney who isn’t as he appears; “Black Limousine,” about Death’s visit to a small town; the super creepy “Smoke and leaves” about what happens to a man and his family while visiting an October carnival; “Two Hours, Two People, and a Box,” an entertaining story about two opposites stuck in an elevator; “An Eve of Fine Crystals” about a distraught man who wants to be with his dead wife; and “Cured,” about a woman given a cure for her cancer—and retribution for past abuse.
Other fantastic stories include “A Song of War” about how children learning to play music can defeat War; “The House that James Built,” a sad story about a disabled boy that just wanted a friend; “Maybelline,” about three boys who meet a lonely girl in an old, abandoned boxcar; and “Wary Be the Traveler,” a nod to Lovecraft about a couple who claim they can see other realms. This one in particular spooked me because it involved ventriloquist dummies and I fear those more than clowns.
Carol Weekes has an amazing collection of stories in THE COLOR OF BONE. All are thoroughly creepy in their own way. From “Standing Water,” about strange eel-like creatures, to “Weather System,” about a literally deadly storm, every story held my attention. I can honestly say there isn’t a bad story to be had here. There are a few that aren’t as good as most, but they were still entertaining. A dark and gruesome addition to any horror fan’s library.
ODD PLACES by Guy Anthony DeMarco (2013 Yurei Press / 194 pp / tp)
Very short stories and flash fiction fascinate me in the same way that many athletic pursuits do … I admire the skill, envy and appreciate the grace and economy of movement, and know that if I tried anything like that I’d probably hurt myself.
ODD PLACES is a collection that’s like watching a sports highlights clip reel. You don’t have to sit through the whole game, complete with commentary, instant replays and slo-mo, to get the exciting action.
There’s more than thirty stories in this book – and it’s a slim book, too! Some of them take up no more than a single page, but pack a serious punch in that single page. Books like these are great ones to carry around for those occasions when you have some spare minutes waiting and need a quick read to help pass the time.
It opens with the nicely creepy “A Case of Curiosities” and goes many (aptly enough) odd places from there, from the haunting to the hilarious and beyond. Little bit of everything, at least something for everyone.
Some of my favorites include “Dead Meat” (zombie cows!), “Home” (one of the abovementioned pack-a-punches), “Death Grip” (liked this one best of all!) and “To-Do List” (ouch, knife-twister).
FALSE MAGIC KINGDOM / BAD ALCHEMY / THE GOG AND MAGOG BUSINESS / YOUR CITIES, YOUR TOMBS by Jordan Krall (2012/13 Copeland Valley / 87 pp / 86 pp / 47 pp / 227 pp / limited edition chapbooks & trade paperback)
This epic 4-book saga had me skeptical at first: the first three installments come in three separate chapbooks, and while they held my interest, I wasn't sure where they were headed or what the point was. It's wonderfully weird and featured some amazing ideas and visuals, but I didn't know if the author would tie everything up in a way that would make these early sections valid.
Then I read the final installment, the novel-length YOUR CITIES, YOUR TOMBS, and was completely blown away.
This tale is told from mutliple viewpoints but isn't distracting. Each one reveals a little bit more about what's going on during a city-wide terrorist attack. Through three slightly off-balanced doctors, a married couple with a failing sex life and mental illness, to a woman searching for the truth about her father's suicide, Krall takes us on a surreal nightmare fueled by an ever-present and growing paranoid phobia that leads to a horrifying finale that may be a bit too real for some readers. The author's influences are evident, but the series as a whole takes on its own feel.
This intense study of fear and conspiracies uses shadow and suggestion and allows the reader to savor and discern every bit of information and ultimately feel deeply for its cast (especially one reluctant terrorist) as the tale comes into light; a shaded light, but a light nonetheless.
As far as bizarre fiction goes, Krall's "False Magic Kingdom" series is a true masterpiece and easily his finest work to date.
Smell Rating: First three books: 2 / YOUR CITIES, YOUR TOMBS: 3
BIGFOOT CRANK STOMP by Erik Williams (2013 Deadite Press / 156 pp / tp)
This book is what might happen if you took all the scenes they couldn’t show on television from a bunch of Discovery, History, Learning, and other no-longer-aptly-named channels’ subgenre of “extreme redneckin’” programming and made a SyFy movie.
Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on your personal perspective. And, as for my personal perspective, I found it unabashed trashy fun that knows full well how tacky and over the top it is.
First, you’ve got your back-country meth trade, complete with guns, addicts, dealers, corrupt law enforcement, the works. Then you’ve got your random hapless others … the troubled veteran gone hermit, the amateur porn makers, the campers. And then you’ve got Bigfoot.
But wait! Bigfoot’s hooked on meth! And when he doesn’t get it, he goes on a total crazypants craving-fueled murderous rampage!
Really, with that, I don’t know what more needs be said or can be said. If this is your thing, you’ll enjoy the heck out of it. If not, you should know better by now than to be picking up anything from Deadite … unless you like making people ask, “what the (bleep) are you reading?!?”
MILTON'S CHILDREN by Jason V. Brock (2013 Bad Moon Books / 85 pp / tp)
In Brock's quick novella, a group of scientists returning from the Antartica decide to make a stop at some uncharted islands. One of them features strange creatures and plant life no man has seen before. The explorers break up into two groups, and one goes missing. The other group waits for their colleagues on the beach, and also for a helicopter pick up the next morning. But when the helicopter crew come, they finds the beachfront campiste a bloody mess, and discover tapes and notes recorded by the lost scientists of what they have discovered. And eventually they themselves learn these strange creatures have an uncanny ability to communicate...
While MILTON'S CHILDREN is a decent monster romp, the first chapter commits a cardinal sin (that'd be preaching to the point of irritation, this time about vegetarianism, which I'm still not sure had anything to do with the plot). If you can get by this flaw, Brock brings the creature feature goodness in a nice, well written, compact size.
Smell Rating: 1
FUSE by Julianna Baggott (to be released in the US April, 2013 by Headline Press / Grand Central Publishing / 480 pp / hc and eBook)
It’s been said that the YA dystopian genre is getting played out, and maybe in most cases that’s true … but the bizarre-mutations aftermath setting of this series, which began with PURE, is more than captivating enough to sustain interest.
Basically, there was this nuclear-type apocalypse, called the Detonations. The survivors not killed outright were ‘fused’ with whatever or whoever they happened to be in contact with at the time, leading to a devastated landscape filled with people who’ve been melded together in hideous living patchwork with inanimate objects, animals, or other people.
The select few who were sheltered in the Dome escaped all that, and had been living their own happy climate-controlled human terrarium life since the blasts. But, in the first book, Partridge, the son of the Dome’s leader, winds up outside. He joins forces with some of the ‘wretches’ and they set out to discover the truths behind the lies … including that of the death of Partridge’s mother and brother, and the existence of his half-sister.
Now his father and the Dome-folk want him back, and take a carrot-and-stick approach – the stick involves swarms of boobytrapped robots that latch on like ticks, and the carrot involves the promise of a new serum that will ‘cleanse’ the wretches of their deformities. All they have to do to is hand over Partridge.
FUSE does suffer a bit from the usual second-in-a-trilogy-it is, as the plot spins out, the rebellion gets organized, the conspiracies thicken, the political structure within the Dome begins to crumble, and of course the relationship troubles and love triangles between various characters hit crisis points. And, as is almost a required part of the formula by now, it ends on a frustrating “augh no not yet!” cliffhanger note.
The best bits of these books, in my opinion (and there are no bad bits, either), continue to be the inventive and creative ways the setting is presented, the fusings and the societies that evolve around them … as fascinating as they are creepy … disfigurement and mutation … body horror at its most chronic.
Until Next Month . . .