Monday, October 26, 2015

Reviews for October 26, 2015

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

THE DEATH HOUSE by Sarah Pinborough (2015 Titan Books / 284 pp / hardcover, trade paperback & eBook)

This heavily praised 2014 UK novel is now officially out in the U.S. and the wait was well worth it.

Children are given random blood tests. There's a fatal illness they can catch up to age 18. Those who test positive are labeled "Defective" and sent to what the kids have named The Death House, which is located on an isolated island. As their conditions worsen, patients are taken from their dorms in the middle of the night up to The Sanitorium from which no one ever returns.

The novel focuses on Toby, a teenager who has been taken from his family after testing positive. At The Death House, he lives his days like everyone else, which isn't much different from standard high school daily life. Cliques abound. And when he becomes friends (and eventually more) with new girl Clara, Toby is given a hope he never thought possible.

Pinborough delivers an irresistible cast here, from our main couple and their friends to antagonist Jake and his goons, to the mysterious Matron and her nurses who treat the children with little to no emotion. It has the feel of GIRL, INTERRUPTED mixed with OUTBREAK, and while the horror is latent in each scene, at its core THE DEATH HOUSE is a dark love story with a heart-wrenching finale that showcases Toby's integrity.

The author chose not to explain what the illness is or what causes it. She hints what it may or may not do ("I heard it makes your eyes bleed" cries one teenager), giving the tale an even deeper sense of dread. Kudos, too, for an incredibly realistic fight scene between Toby and Jake, and for making the reader feel attached to even the most least-mentioned characters.

I've read several of Pinborough's novels and this Is easily my favorite of the lot. Fantastic read here that's not to be missed.

-Nick Cato

ANSWERS OF SILENCE by Geoff Cooper (2015 Deadite Press / 292 pp / tradepaperback &eBook)

Some authors are prolific as heck; some make you wait for it. Geoff Cooper is one of the latter types, but not out of any sadistic streak. The introduction (by the late and much-lamented J.F. Gonzalez) and a glance through the ‘Story Notes’ section at the back of Answers of Silence will readily show why.

The guy is his own harshest critic. If he were to review his own book, he’d probably (and very unjustly) tear himself a new one. I mean, yes, okay, there’s self-deprecation and modesty, but come on! I can only imagine what he thinks of the stories he hasn’t let be published, which are still probably better than a lot of writers could hope to achieve.

I am, however, very glad Cooper let himself be browbeat, arm-twisted, bribed, and/or otherwise persuaded into making this collection available … because it’s really, really neat. The stories, for all their apparent surface differences, have connections, threads, and themes woven throughout. Some reference each other directly; with others, it’s a character name here, a place name there.

And they are good. They are good. The first one, “A Question of Doves,” is downright creepy in its chilling brilliance (chilliance?). It does not go the way you might initially expect, and the shivers linger a long time after you reach the end.

Next up in the book is a drastic but no less brilliant change of pace, as an out-of-practice artist tries to regain his inspiration in the gory, grisly “Incentive No. 43.” I would read a whole novel, or series, about “The Sheriff of Pensie Avenue,” because it’s a peek into a world of such fascinating strangeness, I want to see more.

Various genres get their chance in the spotlight, whether it’s “The Missive” from a doomed colony, or god-magic and revenge in “Jolerarymi’s Rose.” Lengthwise, they range from short vicious jabs (“Latex: Like a Glove”) to the intricate complexities of the finishing novella (“One-Eyed Jack”).

Each story evokes its own set of disturbing emotions. Love, faith, loss, pain, hatred, loyalty, and fear are examined … deconstructed … dissected. They stir on a deep level, in many different ways. I agree with everyone else who’s said, yeah, we need more from Coop!

-Christine Morgan

THE TELL TALE SOUL by Christopher Conlon (2015 Ramble House / 156 pp / hardcover & trade paperback)

This collection of two novellas uses classic tales as a springboard, and what Conlon comes up with will have you racing through the pages.

In the title story, told by an old man who Edgar Allan Poe based his classic 'The Tell Tale Heart' on, we get to see what "really" happened, and the author keeps us guessing from page one as to what is real and what is only part of the narrator's cloudy mind. Using Poe himself as a character is a nice touch, especially in a courtroom scene and what he eventually does for our storyteller. There are plenty of tales told from the viewpoint of someone living in a mental institution, but Conlon's is done in a fresh style.

Next up is 'Beyond the Silver Horizon,' a take on Eugene O'Neill's play 'Beyond the Horizon,' yet it seems to take place on either an alternate earth or on earth with an alternate history. Whatever the case, Conlon had me mesmerized with his young protagonist Andy and his strange brother, and the down and out new girl (Ruby) they befriend in their rural town. As in the first novella, we're never quite sure if we can believe our young narrator, which adds to the novella's overall weirdness. When government officials arrive later on to deal with Andy's unusual brother, the juxtaposition of modern-aged, strangely-dressed people against the story's 1920s setting left a vision in my head that refuses to leave. Part love story, part scifi, part horror, Conlon's take on O'Neill's classic play is literary bizarro at its finest.

Conlon's writing here is superb (which should come as no surprise) and his ability to keep the chills growing (especially in the first novella) is masterful. Here is one author who continues to get better with everything he does. Highly recommended.

-Nick Cato

THE IMMORTAL BODY by William Holloway (2014 Horrific Tales Publishing / 300 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, & eBook)

I really need to remember to remind myself when the book I’m reading is part of a series! Particularly if it’s the first one. That way, when I get to the end, my howl of agonized suspense will at least not come as a total surprise.

This IS one of those books, and a series off to a terrific start. A high-tension, high-mystery paranormal crime thriller, it’s got all the cop drama and action, with blended with dark magic and a subtly handled but pervasive and excellent theme of cosmic horror (don’t let the cover fool you, though; the squidgy tentacles are not the main element).

In Atlanta, a church service turns violent, and is followed by a spree of murderous ritualistic atrocities. In New Orleans, something similar happens at a graveyard séance. At the center of one, a troubled faith healer able to ease the pains of those he lays hands upon but plagued by his own addictions … at the center of the other, a young medium whose ability to speak with the dead is worked into her act.

The events are seemingly unconnected, but the nearly identical stylings of the atrocities – which is wonderfully handled, descriptive-wise; not in gory graphic detail but shown through the reactions of the characters and with just enough hints and glimmers to let the reader’s mind fill in the rest, far more effectively than even the scariest movie – suggest there must be more to it.

Among those convinced, or slowly and reluctantly dragged toward conviction: an FBI agent with a background in Satanic conspiracies, a former member of the SAS experiencing sudden flashbacks of forgotten occult experiences, one cop who’s lost everything that ever mattered to him, and another who is all too aware how far over his head he’s in.

Anything else might verge into spoilers territory, and I don’t want to do that, so I’ll just say the writing is excellent, truly top-notch stuff, subtle and understated in places, razor-sharp in others. There’s humor and pathos, powerful use of language and emotion, terrific characters who develop and respond like real people over the course of the story … just an all-around great job!

-Christine Morgan

A PICNIC AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS by Neil Baker, illustrated by Maya Sugihara (2014 April Moon Books / 40 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Poor Lovecraft … as if it wasn’t enough to have his eldritch horrors transformed into cartoon characters, plushies, toys … now one of his classic tales has been delightfully reimagined as a charming children’s book!

It’s the classic adventure format, too. A brother and sister, receiving a mysterious map in the mail from Uncle Howard, take a brave journey to Antarctica. There, they explore an abandoned campsite, a strange city, temples, and tunnels inhabited by peculiar creatures.
As with the best kinds of picture books, the artwork is as much if not more a part of the story as the words, filled with clever little details and amusing touches. The penultimate page, right before The End, is almost too adorable for the mind to bear.

My own daughter is all grown up now, but I totally would have read this to her when she was younger. Admittedly, my parenting technique may have always been a tad on the dubious side, but still.

This is a darling book, an ideal introduction for kiddies and a fun read for kids of all ages.

-Christine Morgan


MERCY HOUSE by Adam Cesare (2015 Hydra / 259 pp / eBook)

I work in a psych facility, not an old-folks home. I work in a psych facility, not an old-folks home. So I kept telling myself, alone on the overnight shift, as I read Mercy House. Did it help? Not a lot. Every weird noise made me jump more than usual, and doing the 2 AM bed-check rounds was extra fun.

This book is a highly effective nightmare, hitting the bullseye on several of our common fears. Fear of aging and infirmity … loneliness, abandonment … dementia, humiliation, loss of faculties and independence … the guilt of having to “put (beloved relative) in a home” … mistreatment and neglect by caretakers … financial screwing-over … and, of course, being torn to pieces in a violent bloodbath.

It’s COCOON meets LORD OF THE FLIES with a hint of ALTERED STATES, when the elderly residents of Mercy House suddenly find themselves healed of their various ailments, brimming with strength and energy, and overwhelmed by primal urges. Fighting urges, gorging urges, gambling urges, libidinous urges. If the idea of sex-crazed geriatrics makes you uncomfortable, well, be forewarned.

The transformation begins during a welcome dinner for the newest resident, the already-unpleasant Harriet, as she’s being dropped off by her doted-upon son and the daughter-in-law she detests. They, Don and Nikki, are caught in the carnage along with the staff members. Within seconds, the meal becomes a slaughter.

Factions form, leaders arise, territories are staked out, barters and battles ensue. For the unaffected – nurses, janitors, guests – the rest of the night is a desperate scramble for survival against bands of savage seniors.

As disturbing as it is, it’s also funny as heck. Squicks and kicks of all kinds, hosts of great characters, believable handling of the setting and situations, and wonderfully well-written to boot. Depending on your family, might make a great gift … or get you disowned in a hurry.

-Christine Morgan



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