Monday, February 16, 2015

Reviews for the Week of February 16, 2015

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

THE BELL WITCH by John F.D. Taff (2013 Books of the Dead Press / 266 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Something about phrases like “based on actual events” in anything with a modern setting … hauntings, possessions, other such ‘paranormal activities … rarely fill me with confidence. Yet, give me the same thing with a historical setting, where decades or centuries have had a while to build up the legend-making and mystique, and I’m all for it.

Maybe it’s the weight of time, the enduring power of folklore and just what hangs on to linger in the psyche of successive generations. The ones that are good, gripping, and compelling are the ones that hang around. Or maybe I’m just a history geek. Either way. The Bell Witch, a fictionalized account of a American ghost story, hits the right notes of tradition and nostalgia.

That said, my being a history geek DID give me a few stumbles here and there on this one, mostly in terms of what’s described as frontier life in the 1820s but depicted as being rather more modern and comfortable. Plus some too-modernish dialogue and attitude nitpicks (use of “okay,” for instance, is one of my peeves).

I was, however, able to overlook those issues in favor of an engrossing, intriguing tale with classic elements – sin, shame, secrets, redemption, revenge.

At the center of it is the Bell family, reasonably prosperous landowners. If patriarch Jack has a temper, and a reputation with certain other local ladies … if his wife Lucy and eldest son John have been able to turn a blind eye to their suspicions … if there are rumors among the slaves … well, it’s no one else’s concern, is it?

Except that strange things begin happening at the Bell homestead. Things that the doctor can’t explain. Nor can the learned schoolmaster, or the reverend. Before long, everybody knows about the maladies daughter Betsy is suffering, and the way objects move or get broken, and the sounds.

Before long, the presence, or spirit, or whatever is begins to speak up. She wants to be called the Witch, she causes exotic items to materialize, she gives visions of what she says is the future, resists all efforts to get rid of her, and is pretty blatant about her intention to punish and destroy Jack Bell.

With some predictable elements and some nice surprises, and the Witch presented as a full character both sympathetic and menacing, it’s a change of pace from the usual, and well worth a look.

-Christine Morgan

HEAVEN, HELL, OR HOUSTON by Thom Erb (2014 Severed Press / 167 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Former marine and current Texas Ranger Jay McCutcheon may have just lost his job. As he speeds back to Houston to deal with his wife, he rescues a runaway teenaged girl at a truck stop and decides to further help her out.

Elsewhere, Mexican gang banger Isandro escapes the jail cell McCutcheon put him in. He's back with his old crew, partying and heading a mindless killing spree. And as fate would have it, he comes face to face with McCutcheon at a roadside diner. Chaos ensues.

Oh, there's also one other little problem: it seems terrorist attacks on all major American cities have gone down at the same time of Isandro's escape, and whatever was in those bombs is causing the dead to come back to life (don't roll your eyes. Stay with me for a second...)

Erb's debut novel reads like Tarantino directing a zombie film, but the zombies in this author's apocalypse play second fiddle to the crime drama that drives the story. McCutcheon is a booze-fueled antihero dealing with his demons while trying to do the right thing as his young side kick Stacy Jo provides just the right amount of blooming badassness to compliment his antics. Here's a duo with a promising future despite it being the beginning of the end.

I'm looking forward to the promised sequel, and hoping we get some answers (such as why this "apocalypse" is happening in 1985). But either way, Erb has me hooked with this fun, brutal, and fast-paced tale even those tired of the undead can appreciate.

-Nick Cato

OCTOBER DREAMS II edited by Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish (2015 Cemetery Dance / 400 pp / trade hardcover, limited editions to be released later in 2015)

Why isn’t it Halloween again yet? Yeah I know I know other months other holidays etc. and Halloween is only supposed to be apportioned a small segment of the calendar. Fortunately, for those of us who do sort of a weird variation of end-movie Scrooge and keep it in our hearts all the year, there are books like this to help.

October Dreams II: A Celebration of Halloween, is a wonderful mingling of fiction and non from some of the top names in the genre. Several are essays on the prompting theme of “My Favorite Halloween Memory,” and oh wow did those hit close to home!

Maybe part of it’s a generational thing. I was a kid in the 1970s and 80s, as were many of the contributors. Reading their essays overwhelmed me with nostalgia and poignant lament. THIS is the way Halloween WAS, for us, back then. Before the internet. Before seatbelt laws and helmet laws and helicopter parents (we grew up to become them, which is creepy when you think about it).

But yeah, wow, the memories. Those cheap plastic costumes with the stupid elastic-band masks … the kind of peanut-butter-flavored taffy chews in orange and black twists of wax paper … being that one weird kid into monster movies … except, don’t you have to wonder, how many of us there were, hiding it from each other? A lot more, I now suspect, than we ever imagined.

The essays will, if you were an American kid of that certain age, take you back. If you’re of a later generation, hey, maybe it’ll help you understand us old fogeys. Or, you can just point and laugh and eyeroll, the way my own daughter does when we watch “I <3 the 70s/80s.”

Speaking of stuff to watch on TV, Lisa Morton is a triple-threat in this book, because not only does she contribute a great story and an essay, but a comprehensive write-up on the history of Halloween in television.

And the stories, oh, the stories! A Ray Bradbury, obviously – and to whom the book’s rightly dedicated. A Dean Koontz I somehow had never read before. John Skipp. Gemma Files. Whitley Striber. Robert Bloch. The lineup of all-stars just goes on and on.

When I saw that one of the tales was from horror-master Robert McCammon, I confess I was a little extra nervous; an earlier Halloween story of his results in recurring nightmares whenever I read it. Not that I was going to let that stop me, of course, and I’m glad. “Strange Candy” is a thing of subtler, deeper, quieter fright … the kind of fright also tinged with weird awe and beauty.

Is it peculiar to say that I could see this book having a place in high school or college courses? Literature, folklore, sociology, cultural studies, psych … it’s all here. So much to enjoy, so much to make you think and reflect.

-Christine Morgan

CRACKED SKY by Ben Eads (2015 Omnium Gatherum / 99 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Eads' novella is a powerful tale of two parents, Stephen and Shelley, dealing with the death of their young daughter. Killed in a car accident, we learn there was more behind things than a mere tragedy. And when Stephen begins to get signals that his daughter may still be alive (albeit in another dimension), he comes up with a plan to rescue her.

The author does a great job showing the parent's grief, especially with Stephen. The first half of the story reminded me of early Gary Braunbeck, then the second delves into some serious dark fantasy and even bizarro territory (despite NOT being a bizarro novella). Good stuff even if a bit familiar.

-Nick Cato

WZMB by Andre Duza (2014 Deadite Press / 290 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Bringing you the end of the world, live on the airwaves!

Martin Stone, radio talk-jock, is in his studio, in the middle of his show, when it begins. At first, he and everybody else think it must be a hoax – the call-ins, the videos, the reports of sudden attacks, savage bites, the dead getting back up to continue the rampage.

Yep, it’s the zombie apocalypse. In the blink of an eye, society’s gone mad, disintegrating into chaos. People scatter, trying to find their loved ones, trying to escape, trying to survive.

Skip ahead a few months, and the Martin Stone Show is back on the air … courtesy of the patronage of the Brand Compound, one of the strongest remaining fortified settlements. Martin may be popular with his listeners, but his outspoken attitude doesn’t win him a lot of friends with the higher-ups in the compound. Their broadcast goes out to other scattered enclaves and groups of survivors, delivering vital news and updates along with their regular programming.

Well, okay, the regular programming may have changed some from the old days. They still get their callers and kooks, but their interviews are with security guards, doctors, specialists. “Closest Call” is a popular segment, in which guests relate their – you guessed it, closest calls, most harrowing encounters, etc.

And, as is often the case in these kinds of books, no matter how strong and secure a compound against the legions of zombies is … something’s always going to give, something’s going to go wrong. There are other factions: crazies and saboteurs, religious fanatics, looters, scum, and just plain ol’ bad guys. Not all of them are on the outside, either.

The appearances of the characters, as is fitting for radio, is pretty much left to the reader’s imagination, as inspired by their speech. I know I formed vivid images in my mind of Martin, Raven, Larry, Ted, Dave, and the others.

The story’s told in the form of radio show transcripts, descriptions of clips, eyewitness accounts, and so on. It’s a clever, condensed, effective style that works well. You might not think so, especially when it gets to the high-action scenes and dramatic finale, but it does. Really well.

-Christine Morgan

SS DEATH SIMULATION by Michael Faun (2014 Dynatox Ministries / 105 pp / paperback)

Show of hands here: how many of you either rented (during the VHS days) or traveled to the seedy side of town to see films with titles such as SS HELL CAMP or ILSA: SHE WOLF OF THE SS? Well, even if you didn't, I DID and am thrilled about this new series of "Nazisploitation" novellas from Dynatox Ministries. The first by Michael Faun is everything fans of this genre could hope for.

It's 1942 in Sweden. A local Mortician learns a woman named Signhild may be harboring SS members for a potential invasion from Germany. She's also the headmistriss of a brothel that caters to the SS, but little does Signhild know that her two latest sex workers are in cahoots with the Mortician and his small band of rebels.

SS DEATH SIMULATION is a violent, campy, and at times terrifying look into the perversions of the SS. This homage to the Nazisploitation films of yesteryear also stands on its own as a nasty yet entertaining slab of b-movie madness. An exciting, fun ride for those with the stomach for it.

-Nick Cato


BLOKE'S TERRIBLE TOMB OF TERROR (Issue 10 / 56 pp / magazine-sized print and pdf edition available / find issues here: TOMB OF TERROR)

This independent horror comic brings the classic EERIE and CREEPY style of storytelling back to the masses. The 10th issue is the first I've read and I'll surely be catching up on what I've missed.

Presented here are 5 tales of old-school comic fun, including the scifi horror hybrid PARASITE (that reminded me of a classic Wally Wood), a second scifi horror, followed by my favorite of the issue, ONE BOY'S QUEST that's highlighted by some great artwork courtesy of Juan Carlos Abraldes Rendo. You can't go wrong with some underwater terror, and BENEATH THE SURFACE brings the goods and again brings the great Wally Wood to mind. Capping things off is COPYCAT, a futuristic tale of mankind's progress and one woman's unique way of fighting cancer. Fun, spirited stuff from authors Jason "The Bloke" Crawley and Mike Hoffman, along with a host of artists. Check 'em out.

-Nick Cato


COMING EVENTUALLY (this sucker's HUGE!):


  1. What was the McCammon Halloween story that scared you? That must've really been something.

  2. Nice review of OCTOBER DREAMS 2, even if you don't mention me. ;) (Actually, not mentioning my story makes it easier to comment on the review; commenting on even favorable reviews is generally a foolish thing for writers to do).

  3. The Ripley's Believe or Not comic book story of the Bell Witch gave me nightmares back in the 60s. That's also where I first encountered the vampire of Croglin Grange (I know I'm misspelling that) and the Beast of Gevaudan.


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