THE HORROR FICTION REVIEW: NOW IN OUR 12TH YEAR!
THE LOST LEVEL by Brian Keene (2015 Apex Publications / 171 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
Aaron Pace was a typical young man from Minnesota who happened to get involved with unusual things. His interest in mysticism and the occult helped him discover a way to travel to another dimension. In Keene's first novel in a planned series, Aaron finds himself in 'The Lost Level,' a place where anything and everything can and does happen.
Aaron becomes friends with a warrior woman named Kasheena and a hairy creature named Bloop (who looks like Beast from the X-Men). Together they travel across the unpredictable landscape trying to get to Kasheena's village. Along the way they are confronted by everything from a T-Rex to a giant robot, lizard men to nazi flying saucers and all sorts of animals and monsters. As with most Keene novels, the action comes fast and furious and doesn't let up until the final page. There's even some humor thrown in for good measure, my favorite a scene dealing with ... socks.
No, this isn't a horror novel, but fans of the author will want to take note as things from his past novels are brought into the story, and may be included in future installments. There's plenty of horrific goings-on amidst the action, and it reads so quickly it feels more like a novella than a novel.
THE LOST LEVEL is a fun homage to old comics such as THE WARLORD, TV shows like LAND OF THE LOST, and all time travel type tales. This ends on a bit of a cliffhanger so be forewarned.
Are you ready for fifty MORE quick little rabbit-punches to your various nerve-endings? Because, if so, here they are in this latest – fifth! – installment of the prolific Demonic Visions series. Some familiar names and some new ones can be found among the lineup, and the stories offer another fun variety of reads.
As usual, I had a hard time narrowing my top picks to just a few, but, here goes:
“Muse Sick” by Shaun Avery will speak to the creative and artistic types among us … it’ll speak, and what it has to say may be tempting, but is also kind of clammy, cold, and skin-crawly repulsive. Meanwhile, Mike Leon’s “The Break Up” and Kerry G.S. Lipp’s “Broken Glass” bring two different but very squickworthy doses of graphic gore to make even the seasoned splatterhound flinch.
Jay Wilburn’s “Angels Looking Out For Us” is a view of the End of Days from a side not often seen: the thankless side of those stuck with the fiddly nuisance finishing touches and cleanup of a big job.
“The Eleventh Piper” by Rebecca Fung gives the twisted fairy tale treatment to a classic holiday carol, with evilicious results. Rick A. Carroll’s “Smoke” is like folklore of another sort, a darker sort, beautifully written.
Max Booth’s “A Moment of Silence” hit a particular nerve; they may say people don’t talk anymore, only text, but imagine if speech was suddenly not an option.
“Swarm” by Nicholas Paschal was one I’d been privileged to read beforehand; a real treat to see it here and know that the clattering bones found a good home! Likewise Shenoa Carroll-Bradd’s “Made to be Broken,” a touching tale of beyond mere until-death-do-us-part.
Vince Liberato’s “The Devil’s Spotlight” shines harsh and unforgiving on the nature of self-sacrifice vs. self-preservation, in a hungry world gone mad, while “Believe” by Marc Shapiro wonders what we’d lose if we started getting proof that the wackjob conspiracy theorists had it right all along.
One of the things I’ve always enjoyed the most about the horror genre are anthologies. You have to sort through the bad stuff to get to the good, but I like to call this good stuff gold. It’s harder to find, it’s haunting and priceless, and you remember the moment of pure horror forever. In this case, I stumbled upon a memorable collection called DARK HARVEST from Crossroad Press. This is one of those anthologies that manages to creatively blur the lines between reality, horror, fantasy, and dark fiction alike. With authors such as Amy Lee Burgess, Anna Reith, Autumn Christian, Carrie Clevenger, DC Petterson, Don Webb, Liz Strange, Nerine Dorman, Rab Fulton, Sarah Lotz, SL Schmitz, Sonya Clark, and Toby Bennett, we have a mad piece of horror gold on our hands.
From butterflies to craniopagus conjoined siblings with arsenic and rat poison slipped in their baby formula at birth, metal teeth, dead skin, and maggots, to pits of darkness, tentacles, and terror this anthology delivers top notch dark fiction and horror that soars right up there at the with the best of them. Some of my favorite stories from this collection were CRYSTALMOUTH by Autumn Christian, a story so dark and haunting as it is clever and uncomfortable, leaving the dialogue lingering in your head for days after reading. ATHAG by Don Webb, a brilliant author that makes the depths of hell look like a bucket of ice in the freezer. THE WEEPING BLADE by Anna Reith, calm, soothing, and depressing read in the dark, and ON THIS NIGHT WE REMEMBER by Amy Lee, a beautifully crafted tale, in which, one may want to harvest their soul in the dark.
-Jon R. Meyers
THE TROOP by Nick Cutter (2014 Simon & Schuster / 528 pp / all formats)
So, I’d picked up a free copy of this one somewhere and just sort of added it to the pile, not really thinking about it, figuring I’d get to it eventually but no rush, unfamiliar author and all. Then I started seeing rave review posts from friends and was all, “wait, that looks familiar.”
*headsmack* And to think, I could have read this WEEKS ago!
Plotwise, it’s basic enough – a Patient Zero test subject goes on the run, and tries to hide out on a remote, normally uninhabited island. Normally uninhabited. Bad luck for the Scoutmaster and the boys of Troop 52, who’ve just arrived for a nature hike weekend.
All Scoutmaster Tim, who’s also a doctor, knows when he finds the stranger is that the man’s obviously sick. Feverish, thin, and hungry. Just so very, very hungry. Hungry enough to be eating dirt. Tim wants to help, but also doesn’t want to endanger his troop.
Then things, already going wrong, get worse. The radio gets damaged, the boat’s not working, there’s no way to reach or contact the mainland. And the stranger is not just sick. He’s contagious with a horror the likes of which nobody’s ever seen.
Soon, the five boys realize they might be on their own. Their previous social hierarchy breaks down fast, neatly-done interludes flesh out their various personalities (as well as giving hellish peeks into the creation of the contagion, and the military quarantine response). Really, any sort of accident or disaster stranding them would have seen them slide into Lord of the Flies territory in a hurry; the added elements of infection and paranoia only heighten the tension.
Goes to show ya, folks. Pay attention. That book you’ve been putting off, thinking it might do when you’ve got nothing else to read, you could be doing yourself a real disservice.
Everything they’ve been saying about The Troop is true. It’s mindblowingly good, impossible to put down, great from the get-go. The writing is phenomenal, the sort of wordsmithing skill that made me instantly bump Nick Cutter to my mental list of will-read-anything-by!
ORPHANS OF WONDERLAND by Greg F. Gifune (to be released 3/3/15 by Samhain Publishing / 224 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
During the 80s heyday of the "satanic panic" outbreak, Joel Walker wrote a book about a local ritual murder that quickly became a best seller. He was seen on every TV talk show discussing his theories. But things eventually cooled off and Joel married and moved away from his hometown to a quiet life.
Katelyn, the daughter of one of Joel's childhood friends, shows up at his doorstep one day to tell him her father, Lonnie, was shot dead in the street, the victim of an apparent random crime. But she believes there's more to it, and convinces Joel to investigate for her. What Joel discovers goes back to an incident he and his friends shared when they were children, an incident that he's now determined to get to the bottom of.
A mix of devil worship paranoia and X-Files type government conspiracies, ORPHANS OF WONDERLAND is a truly horrifying look at childhood secrets, demonic activity and what may wait for all of us in the beyond. Fans of occult horror will eat this up as quickly as I did, and those tired of the subgenre will still be drawn in by the author's fresh take on what could have easily been a by-the-numbers thriller. Capped off with an incredibly dark conclusion, here's a great place to start if you've yet to try one of Gifune's always reliable terror fests.
JAGGER by Kristopher Rufty (to be released 3/15 by Sinisher Grin Press / 200 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
Our treatment of animals in general is a tricky mess of a moral quandary, whether we’re eating them, training them to work or perform, keeping them as pets, etc. Everybody has their own lines drawn. But I wish more people had their lines drawn somewhere short of making innocent creatures fight for our amusement.
(heck, I’m dubious about the entire concept of Pokemon-type scenarios, and those are imaginary cartoon critters … though I do love me some robotic combat; we should have more of that, bring back BattleBots, Deadblow forever!) (edited to add, OMG, the very day I wrote this review, the news broke, YESSSS!)
Dogfighting seems like its own special brand of pure evil, and it’s at the heart of this story. Jagger is a good dog, loyal and loving, devoted to his person. Amy, in turn, is devoted to her dog; he’s not just best friend and companion but her family and whole life.
JAGGER’s also a huge dog, and when a desperate jerk needs to make back some money after his previous star fighter gets killed, well, someone who’d do dogfights wouldn’t be above dognapping, either. Or above some, ah, performance enhancing treatments. Then there’s the training, which of course has got to be cruel to bring out the meanness, to give the beast the taste for blood.
This is an agonizing, uncomfortable read for anybody with any sort of animal-loving conscience. As with another literary big dog, Cujo, you can’t blame Jagger for what happens … it isn’t his fault … he’s only reacting to betrayal and mistreatment. You’re simultaneously rooting for him when he turns on his tormentors, and in anguish for him.
This is also, to add a tangential note, a totally breast-obsessed story in the most written-by-a-dude Laymonesque tradition. I don’t know any women who spend as much time thinking about their bosoms – every movement, every jiggle, every contact with clothing – as do the female characters in this book. Also Laymonesque is the amount of rump-mentioning and other such overall T&A.
For sheer carnage, all out violence and gore with a healthy helping of sex thrown in, you won’t go wrong with JAGGER. It’ll probably enrage you if you have any sort of a conscience, and if you’re a dog-person, you’ll be a wreck.