Monday, June 29, 2015

Reviews for the Week of June 29, 2015

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

WHEN WE WERE ANIMALS by Joshua Gaylord (2015 Mulholland Books / hardcover, eBook, and audiobook)

Oh, those classic small town youthful coming-of-age stories … are nothing like this. In THIS small town, when the youth come of age, everybody else stays inside with the doors locked. Forget normal parental worries about wild parties; here, the teenagers really go wild.

They call it “breaching,” and it happens during the full moon. Those three nights a month are devoted to running naked through the streets, engaging in violent, lustful, and/or destructive rampages. By day, they just patch up their injuries and either don’t remember, or try not to remember, what went on.

The whole town plays along in a gentle sort of look-the-other-way indulgence. It’s just one of those things, you know? Part of life. All the kids in town experience it, usually for about a year or so, before growing out of the phase and settling down.

All the kids except for Lumen, that is. She’s determined to resist, to not go breach, even if it only makes her more of an outsider.

But peer pressure is a powerful incentive. Adolescents have their cliques and tricks, and the girls especially can be vicious even when not under the effects of the moon. And something about Lumen draws both the town golden boy and the town bad boy to her in different, dangerous ways.

Intriguingly written as a sort of flashback confessional from the later-in-life Lumen who thinks she’s left all that behind her, this book performs a deft balancing dance between past and present, maintaining the mystery while building the tension of both.

My one complaint is that I wanted more resolution at the ending. We’re going along great, tingling with anticipation of what’s going to be revealed about Lumen’s childhood in the past, what’s going to happen with her husband and kid in the present, and then … then it’s over. Not on a cliffhanger, exactly, but more of a trailing off into the vague teasing speculation of letting you wonder.

-Christine Morgan

NOTHING'S LASTING by Glen Krisch (2014 Cemetery Dance Publications / 244pp / hardcover & eBook)

Now an adult, Noah Berkley returns to his hometown for his father's funeral. While visiting his old home, he thinks back to the events that changed his life at the age of twelve in 1984. With separated parents, he had lived with his dad and had to deal with his new girlfriend and her slightly off-balanced son, Derek. Both he and Derek became participants in a crime, and Noah knew to be quiet or face whatever craziness his future step brother would dish out ... despite Derek becoming increasingly unstable.

When Noah met (and fell in love with) his neighbor Jenny, he did all he could to to keep these things secret from her, until one night when she vanished, apparently the victim of a local child snatcher. Suspects abound.

Krisch spends much time developing his characters, and they're all realistic and interesting. NOTHING'S LASTING is a slow burner, but the payoff is fantastic as multiple surprises cap this Stephen King-like coming of age tale that, although familiar, manages to come off as fresh in the end.

This is a dark, emotional ride that'll get under your skin the more you let its events sink in. Good stuff.

-Nick Cato

TERRA INSANUS by Edward Lee (2015 Deadite Press / 108 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

So, on the same day, I read this whole book and watched that Blackfish documentary about the orcas … on top of other events in the news. You know what I did then? I turned off the television, stepped away from the internet, and spent the rest of the evening cuddling with my kitties.

Wow, we are an awful species. I mean, we go out of our way, WAY out of our way, to be vile. To commit atrocities that by rights should be unimaginable. And we do it a lot. A LOT a lot.

I’m telling you, as fun as most Edward Lee books can be – for those values of fun involving infernal torment, otherworldy abominations, and outrageously hilarious depravity – Terra Insanus is 75% not that.

25% yes; the last story, “The Sea-Slop Thing,” is classic Lee at his weird-sextastic gooshiness. Thankfully. How wrong is it to be RELIEVED to see a story about a lady who starts off doing something wildly inappropriate with a huge sausage from the deli where she works and goes on to find herself confronting a squelchy horror from beyond the deep?

Yet, there it was, and I was glad and relieved. Because the 75% prior to that was mighty damn bleak and altogether horrifying in a much-too-real way. Those vile atrocities that should be unimaginable, which we inflict and commit upon each other at a dismayingly regular basis, get a harsh spotlight of attention.

Well, okay, “The Stick-Woman” isn’t … uh … no, it IS that nasty, a tale of a woman held prisoner by a husband who goes far beyond any sane definition of abusive. But at least that one has more of a buffer, more of that only-a-story buffer.

“Sh*t House” and “The Ushers,” on the other hand … two fit-together pieces of a warped mirror casting fragmented reflections of the worst of the worst … part stream-of-consciousness, part uncomfortably autobiographical-seeming, part ripped-from-the-headlines … stuff like this (not Lee’s writing, but the subject matter and the fact of the truth of the subject matter) really can make a person think an extinction event can’t come soon enough.

Yeah. Bleak. Powerful, dark, despairing, and bleak. Even the diabolical brushes and undertones in “The Ushers” don’t allow for much fantastical wiggle-room. If anything, it serves to twist the knife. We can go on all we want about how the devil made us do it, but deep down we all know better.

-Christine Morgan

HOUSE OF SIGHS by Aaron Dries (2012 Samhain Publishing / 280 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

On a Sunday morning in 1995, bus driver Liz Frost woke up planning to kill herself. Instead, she ended up putting her passengers through hell. And once they realize they are now hostages to a woman on the brink of madness, it’s too late to get off the bus. 

I was browsing the Samhain table at the 2015 World Horror Convention in Atlanta last month, when I saw HOUSE OF SIGHS sitting there. The simple picture on the front - a hand covering the mouth of an obviously terrified person with the word “Help” written on her palm – intrigued me enough to read the synopsis. I was so taken by the description, I knew it was a book I had to read. I had no cash on me at the time, so I ran to my room. By the time I got back, the author was at the table, and he was thrilled I was buying his book.

Aaron Dries is so charming, so friendly and outgoing and just freaking NICE, that I wasn’t sure just how grim the book could really be.

It turned out to one of the most horrifying books I’ve ever read. I know it’s cliché to say you’re hooked from the first page, but it is absolutely true here. The first chapter packs a gut-punch that completely shocked me as both a reader and a parent. I read HOUSE OF SIGHS in just a few days, only putting it down when I had to.

Although it was published in 2012, the author is new to me. But after reading this book, I will make it a point to read anything he writes.

-Sheri White

BILLY AND THE CONEASAURUS by Stephen Kozeniewski (2014 Severed Press / 164 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I saved this one until closer to JURASSIC WORLD time, expecting lots of dinosaurs. In that aspect, I confess, I was a bit let down – there aren’t herds or packs of them running amok or anything. But, by the time I realized I wasn’t going to be getting dino rampage, I was way far past beyond caring.

Because the real story is just TOO FREAKIN’ BRILLIANT. It grabbed me from the first page and held me in such rapt fascination that I was almost halfway through and utterly hooked before the cloneasaurus itself appeared and reminded me, “oh yeah, there’s that, too!”

What can I say? I am a huge sucker for well-wrought extrapolatory world-building. Take even a single, simple change or premise, spin it out to see where the repercussions go, do it right, do it plausibly, do it with skill and flourish, and I am SO THERE! And this book, especially the whole first half, gives me all I ever wanted and more.

Welcome to a utopia where everyone’s equal because everyone really is the same. Everyone’s a William. Everyone’s a clone, in a nice tidy numbered series. Look alike, sound alike, dress alike, act alike. With a nice tidy place in life, role to play, and function to fulfill.

So, everyone’s got the same habits, the same tastes and traits. That day a particular William decides it’d be a good day to knock off work early and miss the rush hour traffic, there’s rush hour traffic anyway because all the Williams had the same idea. But it’s okay, because things all work out and go the way they’re supposed to.

Except, on this one particular day for this one particular William, things stop going the way they’re supposed to. It’s supposed to be his last day, the last day for him and the nine other Williams in his series. See, the population is cycled through every year – out with the old batch, in with the new. The last guy of a number is removed (courtesy of a machine known as The Whirling Fan of Death) and a freshly-made version is to step right in and take over where he left off.

But something goes wrong as William-789 is being slurried. The machine breaks down with the day’s last William left over. Here’s poor 790, a loose end until it can be fixed. Awkward. What’s a William to do? His replacement’s already set to begin his own year, but there’s his predecessor, still hanging around.

The sudden, drastic upheaval of 790’s whole worldview gives him some strange new perspectives. He begins to really think about his life and society. He begins to notice things he never had before. He’s becoming – gasp! – an individual, and he kind of likes it.

The latter half of the book, as 790 accelerates off the rails, is also fun but felt hasty to me. When so much attention, detail and import had been given to even the smallest differences earlier, I guess I hoped for the big major revelations to have even greater impact. I still enjoyed it greatly, but my own weird personal wiring had much more fun with the earlier day-to-day William stuff.

Of all the utopias and dystopias I’ve read – and I like to think I’m no slouch in that department – this one is a definite favorite and delightful good time.

-Christine Morgan


BLACK STATIC Issue #46 (May/June 2015)

I'll get right to the fiction: in this issue almost every tale is incredibly bleak, and a couple are truly horrifying. I'd say something like "If you're looking for an easy time look elsewhere," but honestly, how many horror fans are looking for an easy time? And right off the bat, author Steven J. Dines delivers 'So Many Heartbeats, So Many Words,' about a family dealing with a weird black mold that has infested their home. Young son Alfie has an underdeveloped voice (which, in Dines' hands, adds a whole new level of creepy in an already multi-leveled tale) that helps lead to a depressing and stomach-dropping conclusion. Starting an issue with a story like this is equivalent to being slapped in the kisser when you greet your grandfather and expect a hug.

In 'The Secret Language of Stamps,' Neil Williamson introduces us to Hilda, who begins to get close with her tenant Ernest. As their relationship grows, he's called away on a job overseas, but before leaving for an undetermined amount of time, he leaves her a book that deals with how stamps were used during Victorian times. And as she receives letters from Ernest from different countries on his trip, she begins to see why he left her with the book. This is easily the scariest tale not only in this issue, but in the past several issues I've read. Hats off to Williamson's slick prose and satisfying finale.

Damien Angelica Walters' 'Falling Under, Through the Dark,' about a mother trying to cope with the death of her son, is as depressing as it is eerie. Kara is not only dealing with grief, but suffers intense, all too real panic attacks where she envisions herself drowning. They strike at anytime, and there's nowhere she's safe. Here's a tale of a woman's breakdown that's short and (not so) sweet. I usually enjoy shorter pieces, but when they're this good I want it to go on. I'm looking forward to more from Walters.

The always reliable Gary McMahon returns to BLACK STATIC with 'My Boy Builds Coffins.' While cleaning her son's room, Susan finds a miniature coffin in his bottom drawer, fascinated at how realistic it looks, and disturbed at a brass plate on it that says Daddy. While his parents are blown away by their son's skills, young Chris looks at it as no big deal. And when they find another mini coffin with Mummy engraved on its plate, Sara and husband decide to find out what's going on and discover how he's able to do this. A slick, supernatural tale that had me thirsting for more.

The only slower piece here is Sarah Read's 'Magnifying Glass,' where a mother and son move into a new home and shortly after, young Warren claims he sees someone peeking in the windows (could it be his dad, who we learn is the child's true legal guardian)? One of the walls in the house is made of glass panes, which is probably symbolic of something, but I lost interest too quickly to figure out what it was. Read aims this tale in the right direction but in the end I was left wanting.

Final tale, 'Men Wearing Makeup' by Ralph Robert Moore is--hands down--the highlight here. Disgruntled worker Chris goes on a trip to the forest with his obnoxious boss Charles and some other employees and their families. While out in the woods, Chris gets lost and attempts to find his way back, but he runs into a man in a clown suit named Noisy Lips who invites him back to his camp, where other clowns live. Of course, being this is BLACK STATIC magazine, Chris isn't in for a friendly circus. He learns he must become a clown himself or become ... consumed. As I read this, I kept thinking this would've made a fantastic episode of "Masters of Horror," Showtime's heavily hit or miss series of several years ago. Despite Moore's second-person narrative (which I personally don't care for), this story shines and chilled me to the bone, no easy feat as I'm not scared of clowns. But it wasn't the clown factor that bothered me; read it and you'll see what I mean.

Immediately following the fiction is a fantastic 13-page interview with Ralph Robert Moore, as well as Peter Tennant's always in-depth book reviews and yet another batch of Tony Lee's DVD reviews (I couldn't agree more with him on his view of STARRY EYES).

Steven Volk's opening commentary on trends in recent horror films and Lynda E. Rucker's rant on the responsibility of horror fiction readers, writers, and reviewers not only kicks off a great issue, but gives the whole genre a great and always needed kick in the ass.

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