Monday, November 3, 2014

Reviews for the Week of November 3, 2014

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. Thank you.


PRISONER 489 by Joe Lansdale (to be released Nov. 18th 2014 by Dark Regions Press / trade paperback, 3 limited hardcover editions)

Ooh, an advance sneak peek at a new Joe Lansdale? Yes please! Sign me up! Judging by the Kickstarter campaign success, I’m not alone in being eager for this one to come out. And, now, I can safely say I don’t think anyone will be disappointed. 

An isolated island prison where the worst of the worst are held would make for a stressful enough place to work, and it’s no wonder most of the guards don’t re-up for another stint. But there’s another, smaller, even more isolated island where the executed criminals are buried, and that’s where Bernard, Wilson and Toggle serve as live-in caretakers. 

They dig the graves, bury the coffins, maintain the graveyard, and otherwise spend their time with books and movies. Except for occasional deliveries from the prison, they’re completely cut off from the outside world. 

Most of the time, a brief power flicker will tell them when the big job’s done, and they can get ready for the new arrival soon to be shipped their way. Every now and then, a particularly tenacious case requires an extra jolt of the juice, just to make sure, but even that’s not terribly unusual. 

Then comes the night that the power does more than flicker, and more than twice. When Kettle, the boatman, arrives with the cargo, he tells them that this one took four zaps … and they were still worried it might not have been enough. 

Bernard and his men would like to think it’s some kind of joke, especially once Kettle gets started telling them stories about how the prisoner never ate or slept. But, the chain-wrapped metal coffin seems a little excessive for a joke. They’re just glad to bury it and call it done, and go back to their routine. 

Their routine, as you might imagine, doesn’t last very long. Kettle wasn’t joking. The chains and coffin don’t hold. Whoever, or whatever, the prison tried to execute isn’t done for by a long shot. 

If armed guards and an electric chair couldn’t stop this thing, what hope do three guys on a tiny island have? With nowhere to hide, no way to leave, no chance to call for help? Prisoner 489, like a Terminator of the oldest old-school there is, can’t be bargained with, can’t be reasoned with, feels no pity, remorse or fear. 

In the midst of the high-tension pursuit and action, I couldn’t help but wonder … what else do they have over in that prison? What else is buried on the island? I want more! 

The story’s gripping and fantastic. The final product, once the book comes out in its illustrated glory, is sure to be a winner, and a definite keeper. Look for it this fall!

-Christine Morgan

NO SONGS FOR THE STARS by Mary SanGiovanni (2014 White Noise Press / 20 pp / limited edition chapbook)

Police Lt.'s Gina and Joe interrogate the stone-faced Owen over a series of child murders. He's guilty as sin, but claims he was following some writings left on the wall in a local crack house...and he swears the writing is from beings from different universes.

Gina and Joe decide to investigate the room in question, and begin to see what Owen was talking about.

Like most of SanGiovanni's shorts, this one is as creepy as it is thought provoking, and in White Noise Press tradition the tale is presented in an irresistible package.

-Nick Cato

DARK RISING by Vincenzo Bilof (2014 Severed Press / 190 pp / trade paperback & eBook) 

I had the opportunity to take a peek at a new jam from author Vincenzo Bilof. Now, before we get started let me just say this: the man can write. I’d be willing to say this with nothing but extreme confidence and zero regrets. He could probably sit down and write whatever genre he goddamn feels like. In the past we’ve seen a little Horror, Bizarro, Science Fiction, Zombies, some Poetry, some Japanese werewolves, and from everything I’ve read to date, the man delivers every single time. He’s just that good and versatile. With that being said, I was ecstatic to finally get my hands on a copy of this.

Within the first few pages our lines are cast out into the deep sea. We're instantly drawn into the story with a witty, clever, first person narrative, which somehow manages to gain depth while sucking you in at tide the more you read. The prose is often thick, delicate, poetic, and even acceptably vulgar at times (almost like the mouth of the murderer on board the ship with the crew). Or, perhaps the crazy, drunk Captain Whitmore, whose got more secrets lingering on the tip of his tongue than chunks of bad tuna. What I liked the most about this book was that it was written in a way where you have to really read what is going on, deciphering through clues in the dialogue as much as the context spun like a web in the back-story. When you put all the pieces of the puzzle together and solve the mystery rising in the dark, we’re left with a brilliantly woven masterpiece that was nothing more than a shit ton of fun to read.

So hang on to your hats and jackets because it might get a little bumpy on board the ship, as there is definitely something lurking out there in the deep blue sea. And it’s dark and it’s rising.

-Jon R. Meyers

COZZY'S QUESTION by Bob Booth & Matt Bechtel (2014 White Noise Press / 21 pp / limited edition chapbook)

Cozzy, a now homeless alley cat, is continually visited by a man who keeps asking her a question: "Do you want the world to end?" Cozzy communicates with the man by her thoughts, and he tells her that the world will indeed end if she so wishes it.

Bechtel gives us a bit of Cozzy's back story, and keeps the tale flowing quickly to a most satisfying conclusion. I'm sure the late Bob Booth would be happy with how this turned out, and I'm glad White Noise Press gave the tale a perfect home.

-Nick Cato

ANIMAL KINGDOM by Iain Rob Wright (2013 SalGad Publishing / 248 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Having just finished editing an anthology of nature-running-amok stories, I was all warmed up and ready for more. A full novel in which all the animals on the planet suddenly snap and attack humanity sounded like just the ticket.

Not only do they snap, they smarten up and organize. The normal order of things is promptly tossed aside. Forget that old predator/prey structure. Even the gentle herbivores are predators now, and people are the prey.

It's a bad day to be anywhere with animals in the vicinity. At the park, on a farm, even home with the loving pets. It's a worse day to be, as Joe and his son Danny are, enjoying a visit to the zoo.

The first attack they witness is shocking and horrible enough to send Joe rushing to the visitor's center, looking for someone in authority or with answers. He's not alone; there's considerable panic breaking out. Far more than a single incident should account for. But that's because it IS far more than a single incident, a point made very clear when the lions show up.

Within minutes, the visitor's center is a scene of bloodsoaked death and carnage. Only a handful of survivors are able to escape to a more secure part of the building. Joe and Danny are among them, and what follows is a tense siege and standoff. No help is coming, supplies are limited, they're surrounded by an army of angry animals led by an intelligent and vengeful general.

And then, of course, there's each other. Frightened strangers thrown together into a situation where nobody's going to be at their best, they soon find themselves at odds. Personalities clash, disagreements turn vicious. If it was cooperation, rather than thumbs and fire, that let humans rise to the top of the food chain, then it's no wonder they're about to end up at the bottom.

The story's fast-paced and non-stop, fun, very readable even when it slips over a little into convenient coincidence, dubious science, and occasional moments of “oh come ON!” There are some bonus shorts at the back, other scenes of the animal apocalypse, which are evidently tied in with other works.

I was delighted to discover, upon investigation, that the author's not contented himself with just destroying the world once, but has done so several times in various ways. I'll have to be sure to snag some of those next!

-Christine Morgan

COFFEE AT MIDNIGHT by Brandon Ford (2014 BF Books / 177 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I’ve read a lot of Brandon Ford’s work, and I have never been disappointed. Short fiction or long, his writing is great.

His newest collection isn’t strictly horror, but there are quite a few dark moments in these stories. Brandon takes ordinary people in ordinary situations and throws in twists and turns, showing the reader that anything can happen to any of us any time.

But Brandon takes it a step further and makes the reader laugh uncomfortably with the dark humor he weaves into these stories, even as the reader cringes in response to what is happening. There are also plenty of WTF moments, and maybe even a few of the stories will make a reader squirm with painful recognition or recollection of something similar he or she may have encountered in his or her past.

Brandon Ford doesn’t rely on blood and shock factor to tell a story. His words are mesmerizing because they are about anyone and everyone, and we can all relate to the characters and situations, even if we don’t want to.

If you haven’t read any of Brandon’s work yet, this is a great place to start. It’s a fantastic collection.

-Sheri White

IT WAITS BELOW by Eric Red (2014 Samhain Publishing / 265 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

A freaky undersea monster on the front cover and the promise of salvaging treasure from an old shipwreck on the back? Well, that hits on all sorts of my interests, so I went into it with high hopes.

I'm very sorry to report that those hopes were dashed even faster and sunk even deeper than anything in the actual book.

I mean, I wouldn't call myself an expert, but I like to think I know a little bit about the abovementioned topics … and there was just so much wrong here … not the least of which being certain rather key factual elements like, oh, the location of the Mariana Trench!

One of the appeals of this kind of story is, or should be, the claustrophobic, trapped, close-quarters nature of shipboard life, especially in the 19th century, and extra-especially on submersibles. Instead, there's the suggestion of all this room to maneuver and explore, giving more of an impression of video game maps than anything close to reality.

Then there were the characters. Or, rather, a whole cast of macho dudes with one token chick. Who also happens to be the sexbomb, regularly in need of rescuing despite author protestations of her badassery, and was so all-too-obviously written by a guy that I facepalmed on behalf of women everywhere. Ugh. The only saving grace was that, at least, she wasn't referred to just by her first name while all the others got last names and/or titles.

The writing was laden with “telling,” coming across more like a director describing what happens in each scene. Instead using simple names and pronouns, it's crammed with clunky beat-you-over-the-head terms to make sure you don't dare forget that so-and-so is “the pilot / the Russian / the Soviet / the Cossack” … stuff like that, throughout the book. Ugh again.

Now, I do love my adjectives, perhaps too much. But even I have to draw the line at strewing “alien/interstellar/extraterrestrial/whatever” several times a page. WE GET IT ALREADY. And I also enjoy a small amount of onomatopoeia, but having the action scenes done with sound effects spelled out all over the place?

It's a comic book in text format, a made-for-SyFy candidate ripping off elements of The Abyss, Deep Rising, Aliens, etc. For a target audience of straight, white, 14-year-old boys, okay, sure, maybe it's a winner. For the rest of us, though? No thanks.

-Christine Morgan

HAMMER WIVES by Carlton Mellick III (2013 Eraserhead Press / 152 pp / trade paperback)

I'd seen a few of these stories in anthologies before (in three of the encyclopedic doorstop book-monsters edited by the awesome John Skipp; great reads, just don't drop them on your foot!), but it was a nice treat to see them again.

“Lemon Knives 'n' Cockroaches” is nastygross even for a zombie story; “War Pig” was pitched as “a steampunk version of Fight Club with werepigs” and doesn't disappoint; and “The Man With The Styrofoam Brain” (previously published as “Stupid ****ing Reason to Sell Your Soul”) is a weirdly twisted look at some unfortunate deals with the devil.

The central showpiece is the title story, “Hammer Wives.” It's a take on one of the classic Gothic tropes, wherein our protagonist is contacted by a distant relation, summoned to the ancestral mansion, and promised a substantial legacy … with, of course, a dark family secret and a catch. The catch is where this one veers off into crazyland, because to claim his inheritance, hapless nephew Jacob also has to marry the immortal hammer-headed women who go with the house … and they are not inclined to take no for an answer. They just want to love him.

Of the other two, I found “Red World” kind of icky (post-apocalyptic-maybe with fish mutants, lake-sized swarms of insects, and shades of red the only visible colors left), but “Strange Machines” (guy discovers he's got a lot of little miniature hims living inside his body) both horrific yet quirkily cute and charming.

-Christine Morgan


THE NICKRONOMICON by Nick Mamatas (to be released Nov. 18th 2014 by Innsmouth Free Press / 161 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

One of the things about Lovecraftian fiction is that, well, honestly, some people take that ball and run with it and write it better than Lovecraft himself (this opinion has got me sent to sit in the corner before; I'm guilty of the Chambers Heresy among others).

No, come on, really, hear me out. Ol' HPL gave great concept … he took horror to a whole new level, a cosmic otherworldy level … as a visionary on that scale, I grant you he's pretty much unparalleled … he did good moody setting … but in terms of character, personality, dialogue? Even without touching on his “product of his time” traits? Not his strong point.

Fortunately, that's where the others I mentioned have their chance to shine, and to elevate the otherworldly to levels even beyond that. And, as this collection proves, Nick Mamatas is one of those others. He's not just the laser-scalpel razor-wit sarcastic many of us might have first encountered on this or that message board … the guy can WRITE.

This is some top-tier stuff here. Masterful vocabulary, intriguing characters, story threads interwoven in a subtle but striking tapestry of non-Euclidean geometry, wry humor, an unflinching approach to several problematic elements, and the vitally important ability to poke fun even while being serious … or be serious even while poking fun.

Of the stories assembled here, my personal favorite is “And Then, And Then, And Then ...” because of how its deceptive simplicity carries you along until it's too late to look back, yet the outcome is, for all its weirdness, strangely sweet and touching.

Perhaps the all-around most out-there is “Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Nyarlathotep,” a devious and clever look at why, really, when you think about it, a certain familiar video game could be the ultimate in cosmic horror …

“Jitterbuggin'” is uncomfortable to read, possibly all the more so because it's also kind of vindictively satisfying to read. “Hideous Interview With Brief Man” is difficult to read in an entirely different way; I kept remembering a quote from an online course, something about “And then you're in Footnote Hell, in GERMAN.” Okay, so, this one's not in German, but Footnote Hell in PDF is no picnic either!

By the time you get to the finale, in “On the Occasion of My Retirement,” your brain will have been worked and stretched like silly putty until it's all nice and supple, ready to bend in every weird way. And that's good, because you'll need it that way.

The interior artwork, postcards illustrated with a variety of eldritch imagery and peculiar symbols, is the perfect extra touch. They look so creepy-cool even on the screen that I can only go light-headed at the thought of how they'd look in a nice, aged, yellowed, antiquey volume.

Whether you're a casual reader of Lovecraftian fiction, or a scholarly dissecting pro, this book is a must-have for your shelf!

-Christine Morgan


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