Monday, December 21, 2015

Reviews for the Week of December 21, 2015

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

THE VISIBLE FILTH by Nathan Ballingrud (2015 This Is Horror / 68 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Will is a bartender working in New Orleans. He finds a cell phone on the floor after a brawl ends. Figuring he'll bring it back to work with him the next day, the phone buzzes a text message as soon as he gets home, and he decides to read it. A desperate, spooky message has Will wondering if someone is breaking his chops or if the texter truly needs help.

From this simple set up, Ballingrud builds the suspense slowly but never loses the reader's interest, and by throwing in a side plot dealing with cockroaches, this slick thriller meshes into a creepy-crawly nightmare that should please anyone looking for a solid single-sit read to knock off an hour or so.

This is the first tale I have read from the author and am quite impressed.

-Nick Cato

FAT ZOMBIE; STORIES OF THE UNLIKELY SURVIVORS OF THE APOCALYPSE edited by Paul Mannering (2015 Permuted Press / 170 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

We all know those people who are convinced they’d do just fine in any sort of survival or post-apocalyptic situation. Some of us even are those people, or wish we were (I’m in the wish-I-was category, but since I don’t even camp well, am fat and squeamish, and depend on eyeglasses and meds, I realize I’d likely be zombie chow in short order).

In reality, while hardly anybody’s truly capable and ready, just like in real life there are advantages and disadvantages. Some are, for whatever reason, going to have it harder than others. And not simply in terms of not being an Olympic athlete or expert marksman.

This book is for those characters, the unlikeliest of survivors, the ones who already face burdens and struggles in their everyday lives that the average person might not even have to think about. Each of these eleven clever tales presents a different unusual take on the theme.

It opens with the painfully tragic and well-handled heart-wrencher, 'Denial,' by Jay Wilburn. Senility, Alzheimer’s, and dementia are terrible. High on my own list of worst-ever fears, emotionally agonizing after seeing loved ones decline.

'Perfect,' by Rachel Aukes, strikes a similar painful, poignant note, deftly dealing with the chaos and fear of the outbreak from the point of view of a little kid with Down’s Syndrome. Strongly done, impressive and effective.

Others high on my list here would have to include the Don-Quixote-esque glory days of 'El Caballero Muerte' by Martin Livings, Dan Rabarts’ wickedly devious 'Endgame,' and the brilliant resourcefulness of 'Mr. Schmidt’s Pet Emporium' by Sally McLennan.

The anthology closes with the ever-awesome Stephen Kozeniewski’s 'The New Dark Ages,' sure to strike some familiar chords with every gamer geek and LARPer among us … a funny/gross tale that takes a sudden, dark, sick turn toward the end.

-Christine Morgan

FLOWERS IN A DUMPSTER by Mark Allan Gunnells (2015 Crystal Lake Publishing / 314 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

First of all I’d like to say that I am a huge fan of this man’s work. I’ve read a couple of other titles by him, and, from what I’ve seen so far, he delivers something unique and clever every time. This book is no exception, boasting a highly promising blurb from horror legend, Clive Barker himself. Gunnells manages to write every story from the bottom of his heart, in a way that the reader can connect to at all times even whilst managing to leave you in fear of wondering why you can connect with them from the start. This may even lead to some sort of psychosis you should probably get checked out sometime sooner than later.

According to the book description, here are “Seventeen Tales to Frighten and Enlighten. Gunnells will take you on a journey through landscapes of light and darkness, rapture and agony, hope and fear." 

This book delivers just as it promises. It kept me wondering what kind of story was coming next. I literally didn’t want to stop reading this book. The stories are all beautifully crafted and well written, Gunnells really managing to show us a genuine knack for the overall power that can be unleashed in a good old fashioned short story.

My personal favorites were 'Welcome,' a hard hitting in your face story of a legendary haunted house, in which a curse just so happens to consume the patrons inside for as long as necessary, or until the next lucky contestants just happen to come knocking, leaving those few inside the walls with no chance in hell of ever escaping it.  In 'The Possession,' Gunnells shows us in first person what it’s like to be a blossoming male pornstar in the big city, and not only does he do this with precision, he does this with an almost humorously first-hand account of a demonic possession. This wasn’t the only tale the author used sex and humor to sell us a horrific masterpiece either. He takes on a similar theme in 'Transformations,' although instead of being an up and coming pornstar in the big city (yes, pun intended. I’m sorry), the protagonist summons a homosexual demon, and he has to feed this man demon thirteen of his hot and bothered one night stands in exchange for something fiery and unforgettable. Our main character lures his dates home, shoves them back in the closet, and feeds them to this mysterious homosexual demonic entity. The author shows us just how prolific of a writer he really is by knocking out of the park 'The Bonadventures,' which reads somewhere between doomsday horror and science fiction, with a little of that old fashioned Goonies humor, and a plethora of glowing eyes amidst a haunted cemetery on a real live ghost hunt.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys their reading material well-written, dark, doomy, bizarre, grimy, witty, clever, and post-apocalyptic. A real gem for fans of horror and dark fiction alike.

-Jon Meyers

THE ALGERNON EFFECT by Gene O'Neill (2015 White Noise Press / 28pp / deluxe limited edition chapbook)

First time novelist Timothy Scully has a runaway best seller that's set to become a motion picture. His agent takes him to see a jazz concert at a secluded home for special needs people in the Napa Valley. Timothy falls for their house guide Ellie, and he eventually moves to 'The Mountain Farm' and becomes romantically involved with her. Timothy's agent learns Ellie is actually a resident and not just a worker there, and when he reads the first 75 pages of Tim's second novel, he is disturbed by how terrible it is.

A homage to Daniel Keyes' classic novel FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON, O'Neill delivers a story that brings the weird in a meloncholy manner and the slick prose is highlighted by White Noise Press's always beautifully designed layouts.

Fans of the author don't want to miss this, and collectors are directed to WNP / The Algernon Effect

-Nick Cato

SING ME YOUR SCARS by Damien Angelica Walters (2015 Apex Book Company / 200 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

From the very beginning, with her debut novel, it was easy to see that Damien Walters was going to be an author to watch. This collection of her short stories only further proves the point. She is good. Really, really good. Not just a practiced wordsmith, not just a natural talent, not just an artist, but a genuine master artisan of the craft.

I mean, it’s kind of obnoxious, how good she is. Terms like ‘lyrical,’ ‘poetic,’ ‘evocative,’ and ‘powerful’ instantly spring to mind. Beautifully vivid descriptions, a deft but firm touch to the emotional harpstrings on any note from joy to dread.

A few of these stories, I’d seen before in their original appearances, but it was a treat to see them again. And even more of a treat to experience ones I hadn’t seen before. The real challenge came when it was time to write a review and try to single out my top picks. I don’t know if I can narrow it down much beyond: “they’re ALL terrific!”

Well, that and any sort of honorable mention is ever going to have to go to 'Always, They Whisper,' because it’s a mythology story, it’s a Medusa story, it’s an amazing, chilling, tragic, wonderful Medusa story. I love it.

The title tale is a haunting take on the Frankenstein theme, setting the tone for several explorations on the concept of self, of what makes us what we are – our physical form, our minds, our souls, our actions?

Others delve into the nature of family, of parenthood and parental influences for good or for ill, pain and loss and love and wonder in their myriad forms. And femininity, in its deepest essence, without being the least bit ‘girly.’

This is strength, and power, unseen mysteries, dark-secret magic. This is some Major Arcana High Priestess next level stuff here.

Did I mention, it’s kind of obnoxious, how good she is?

-Christine Morgan

HALFWAY DOWN THE STAIRS by Gary A. Braunbeck (2015 JournalStone / 576 pp / hardcover, trade paperback & eBook)

Usually, when I read a collection that features some stories I've read before, I tend to skim or skip them and focus on the new material. I attempted to do that here, but as I discovered, re-reading a tale from Braunbeck--in most cases--is actually beneficial. I intended to skim through the several I've read before but couldn't, and in fact found myself getting more out of them than I did the first time around.

In his foreword, Braunbeck explains what HALFWAY DOWN THE STAIRS (the title) is all about before launching into the fiction that's divided into three sections.

Part One, titled 'Throw it Against the Wall and See What Sticks' features what the author claims are stories from "All over the place," and among my favorites are 'Crybaby Bridge #25,' where an unnamed man deals with a past mistake on one of 25 legendary "bridges." Here's one powerful opener. 'House Hunting,' which is only five sentences long, is actually quite terrifying; 'All the Unlived Moments,' stars a de-programmer who uncovers a sinister group after saving an old woman's son from a cyber cult in this near-future noir; A sheriff takes in an old man with the mind of a 7 year-old in the beautiful 'Consolation'; Keeping with the old man theme, a senior citizen contemplates his life in the metaphorical epic, 'Bargain.'

'Patience' is a story I've now read three times, and it shows horror can be extreme without getting overly graphic: a man avenges his wife's suicide, caused by a hypocritical marriage counselor. If the conclusion doesn't make you cringe, you need some serious help. In the creepy 'Always Something There to Remind Me,' a couple watching DVD transfers of old home movies see life events that never actually happened. Serious goose-bump city here, folks.

Part Two, 'With a Little Help From My Friends,' features 16 stories, each introduced by different authors. We open with the incredible 'The Great Pity,' a disturbing look at memorial vigils and how different people view and use them; one of my favorites follows, titled 'In Hollow Houses,' about a junkie prostitute who is used to breed aliens by the Men In Black. The point of view here is fantastic. 'Afterward, There Will Be a Hallway' is arguably one of the all-time best short stories dealing with the afterlife--this is another tale that gets better with each reading. Bram Stoker and Charles Fort are characters in the excellent 'Curtain Call,' a vampire yarn as only Braunbeck can do it. 'Tales the Ashes Tell' is yet another great look at the afterlife as a girl tells us how she helped her dad deal with his wife's death.

In 'Just Out of Reach,' a real estate agent shows a man his future with an old-style Polaroid camera, then things get brutal in 'El Poso Del Mundo' as a Mexican thug tries to go big time but is hindered by a sleazy American. Did I menton this one was b-r-u-t-a-l?

'Redaction' features an office worker who can't remember his name, which has even vanished from all his I.D. cards. But that's only the begining of the weirdness in store for him; 'Chow Hound' is possibly the strangest tale of the collection, and easily one of the best; then we're treated to Braunbeck's 2005 Stoker-winning novella 'We Now Pause for Station Identification,' which I had the pleasure of hearing Gary read at the 2005 World Horror Convention in NYC. I think this was the 4th or 5th time I've read it, and it just never gets old. One of the best zombie stories of all time, and it wasn't until this latest revisit that I realized just how damn scary it is. Add a plus here for an encouraging introduction from Jonathan Maberry.

Part Three, 'Sometime When,' closes the collection with 12 tales the author considers to be among his best work, and the first two stories alone can easily be considered a part of that: 'Rami Temporales' (which I first read in the classic BORDERLANDS 5 anthology) tells the story of a helpful man who meets a strange character who has been assigned the task of making a face for God. Incredible doesn't even begin to describe it; In 'The Sisterhood of Plain-Faced Women,' an ordinary woman becomes beautiful, but learns there's more to life than looks. A surreal, beautiful narrative makes this a true standout.

'Union Dues' introduces us to a young man who becomes a factory worker in the wake of his father's death in this gripping look at family loyalty and blue collar hardship. Braunbeck adds brief but chilling elements to amazing effect here; In 'Dinosaur Day,' a man befriends his co-worker's abused, misfit son in an unforgettable tale with a finale to die for.

'Iphigenia' is a study in paranoia as a man attempts to attend a concert with his girlfriend and another couple. He's haunted by the death of his kid sister who died under his watch at another concert, and the author uses this springboard to crank the surreal terror up to 11; If you've never read 'Duty' before, get ready for an emotionally devastating time as siblings must keep their promise to pull the plug on their mother who is on her deathbed in ICU. This one will shake you to the core no matter how many times you read it.

For those who may have never read Gary Braunbeck, just be warned he has a way of digging into your soul like few others can. His ability to scare as he brings you to the point of tears is no easy feat, and despite how hard you may think you are, several offerings here have the power to reduce anyone into a bawling, shaking basket case. While a few genres are explored in these 40 tales, they all meet on a dark edge where, often, things are far from what they seem on the surface.

HALFWAY DOWN THE STAIRS will easily be cherished by fans of the author, and those who write dark fiction would be wise to pay close attention to Braunbeck's style and structure. Here's one thick volume that I'll surely be reaching for again and again.

-Nick Cato

SMARTER THAN THE AVERAGE WEREWOLF by Mark Orr (2012 Belfire Press / 246 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

So, over roughly the same couple-week span of time, my sporadic recreational entertainment consisted mostly of this book and Netflix’s Jessica Jones. Is it possible to get super-noir overload? Super-powered in the viewing case, super-natural in the reading case, but dang, what a ride!

Plenty of grit, plenty of drama, dangerous attractions, secrets, scandals, violence, wisecracks, and witty banter … what’s not to love? Best of all, in both, the actual flamboyance of the genre tropes was downplayed to take a backseat to the detective angles instead of being center-stage. Here are main characters with unusual abilities that certainly come in handy in their respective lines of work, but aren’t made a big flashy deal of.

Or even really explained, in the course of things. Just isn’t needed. We can accept without being given all the info dump history right up front that Jessica has extraordinary strength … and we can accept, without being told a reason, that Harvey Drago can go insubstantial. That’s just the way it is, and it isn’t the main focus of the story.

Neither, despite the title, is lycanthrope. Yes, there’s been a series of grisly murders, courtesy of what the press has dubbed The West-End Werewolf, and yes, Drago’s been hired to look into them. But what follows isn’t a monster hunt. It’s a mystery, and unraveling the various clues and connections like any good gumshoe is the whole point.

Along, of course, with complicated entanglements involving the ethics of involvement with clients, professional detachment, working with (or around) the police, etc. The more Drago pokes into the case, the more he’s led into deeper trouble, and the more enemies he makes along the way.

The glut of minor characters did bog me down a few times, and some of the relationships between them came off a bit forced, but overall Drago presented as a likable and sympathetic guy, troubled but not broken, unable to get close to anyone for not quite the usual reasons.

The setting’s modern and Tennessee, but the noir-nostalgia factor is there, and it still feels in many ways like an old black-and-white movie. And the ending leaves opportunity for further adventures, which is always aces in my book.

-Christine Morgan


1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.