THE FAMILY TREE by John Everson (to be released 10/7/14 by Samhain Publishing / 215 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
After his uncle dies, Scott Belvedere takes some vacation time from his job in Chicago to go see a historic Inn he has inherited in Virginia. The Family Tree Inn is run by a nice old lady named Ellen, and Scott assures her he isn't there to change things or fire anyone. This makes Ellen's pretty young daughter Caroline happy, and in no time Scott falls for her. But sexy Inn guest Rocky has taken a liking to him too, and so has the beautiful Sherrilyn.
Scott's nights at the Inn (which is built around a huge tree) become ale-fueled sex parties. Caroline, Rocky, and Sherrilyn have sex with him every night, and while he's having the time of his life, things start to get a lot stranger than having three women wanting him all the time, the least of which are two of the Inn's guests who Scott discovers chained to the base of the tree in the cellar.
THE FAMILY TREE has a typical horror novel set up that has been done thousands of times (city slicker finds ancient evil in rural town). But Everson is one of a handful of writers who is able to make this work and even seem fresh. Like most of his novels, this one is heavy on the sex, and the prose pulled me through in two quick sittings. The second half is suspense-filled and had me cheering for Scott until the final page.
This is Everson's eighth novel and it's a sure-fire hit for anyone who loves 70s/80s-styled pulp horror.
THE WHISPERER IN DISSONANCE by Ian Welke (2014 Omnium Gatherum / 157 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
Insomnia is evil. Sleep deprivation is a proven torture technique. Messes with the body, the mind, and the soul. It can lead to hallucinations, paranoia, and full-blown psychosis.
This book opens with insomnia and nails it. Nails it so hard that anyone who’s ever had trouble getting a good rest, who knows the intense personal agony of exhaustion, of being SO DAMN TIRED but unable to sleep … yeah, this’ll resonate. It’s like instant empathy.
You FEEL for poor Annie, right from the first page. As she suffers through late-night infomercials, as she does the auto-math calculations each time she looks at the clock to see how much sleep she could get before the alarm went off if she fell asleep RIGHT NOW, as she’s already dreading the long day dragging herself to and through work.
It’s hell. It’s a living, waking hell. And then it gets weirder. Or does it? Annie already has trouble fully trusting her senses and reason, thanks to exhaustion. When she starts noticing things that are decidedly odd, how can she be sure if they’re even real? Or if she’s just finally lost her last marbles?
That uncertainty, that lack of reliability, carries on strong throughout the entire story. It’d be crazy to think that electronic viruses are infecting people, or that dreams can be hacked like computers. Wouldn’t it? It seems crazy. But doesn’t it also seem horridly plausible?
It’d certainly seem crazy to think that Annie’s stumbled onto a vast conspiracy slowly taking over everyone and everything, or that an old college acquaintance is sending her secret messages, or that her mother and best friend are being corrupted.
Except, things sure don’t seem normal, either, do they? How much of it can she blame on lack of sleep? What if she’s had a breakdown and is raving away in a madhouse? What if that’s what they WANT her to think? And doesn’t that itself seem crazy?
Insidious, paranoid, gripping, unsettling, and very well done … probably not something to read right before bedtime, though!
FATAL JOURNEYS by Lucy Taylor (2014 Overlook Connection Press / 204 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
Taylor (author of one of my all time favorite short stories) delivers her first collection in over ten years, and it was well worth the wait. Each tale takes place in a different part of the world, which is the running theme here.
After an introduction by Jack Ketchum, 'Summerland' gets things going in the Bahamas as a sister and brother meet a most unusual fate; 'Soul Eaters' is a pre-apocalyptic monster tale that begins aboard a cruise ship heading for Vancouver, Canada, while 'The Butsudan' finds a Westerner discovering dark secrets while in Japan.
In 'How Real Men Die,' Eddie is in Thailand on a mission to kill one of his friends, only to discover surprsing things about the both of them; 'Sanguma' deals with the moral issues of the natives in Papau New Guinea and one woman's fight to understand them. 'Tivar' follows an American couple on a trip to Iceland. This one's full of twists, turns, and a slick surprise ending.
'Nikishi' is a suspenseful shape-shifter tale set in West Africa, and while it's predictable, it's also well done and highly entertaining.
As good as the stories are at this point, the final three are easily the best of the bunch. 'Going North' is a fantastic revenge tale about a slightly off-balance aunt helping her neice overcome the adult human monsters in her life; 'The High and Mighty Me' follows a man searching for a fireworks vendor who he swears killed one of his friends when they were kids. What he finally finds is anything but what he expected. And capping the collection is 'Wingless Beasts,' a prime example of how to do a serial killer story the right way. Taylor keeps this one tight and adds a wicked spin you might not see coming.
Any horror fan will enjoy Taylor's FATAL JOURNEYS. I won't be forgetting a few of these tales anytime soon, and only hope it's not another ten years until her next collection.
NOTE: THE HORROR FICTION REVIEW will return in two weeks on October 6th.