Sunday, December 31, 2017

Top Ten Reads of 2017 (Part One)

Nick Cato's top 10 for 2017:

Due (once again) to several writing projects, my reading time this past year was drastically cut down, but I still managed to read and review over 35 books. There were many titles that made several other Best Of lists that I planned to read and hope to get to early in 2018, but out of the crop I read these are the ten that stuck with me the longest. I've included a snippet from my review from each book and then an updated thought:

Counting down from 10:


10) THE FORGOTTEN GIRL by Rio Youers

From my review: "THE FORGOTTEN GIRL features a serial killer side plot, fantastic villains, a relentless pace, and a host of colorful people who elevate the story far beyond the norm. The last three chapters (no peeking!) had me cheering Harvey on out loud, and despite the novel's serious tone, Youers uses some clever, humorous similies among his spectacular prose. I winged through this in two manic sittings and so will you."


-Youers' first mainstream novel made smile from ear to ear: after following him throughout his small press days it was satisfying to see him bat in the big leagues (and belt it out of the park). Very impressive work.



9) BURIED IN BLUE CLAY by LL Soares

From my review: "Like Soares' previous horror novels (the Stoker winning LIFE RAGE and the grossly underrated ROCK 'N' ROLL), BURIED IN BLUE CLAY is a weird and original tale that kept me guessing until the last chapter. I had no idea where this was going even into the third act, and while Soares throws everything at you including the kitchen sink, he ties everything up during the satisfying finale. Part monster mash, part strange occult sex drama, and with a feel all it's own, Soares' latest novel is a refreshing treat in a genre flooded with rehashes."

-It's always weird listing one of your friends on these top ten lists, but Soares has been consistently coming up with the most original ideas out there. Horror fans sick of the same old thing are advised to check this out.



8) THE TEARDROP METHOD by Simon Avery

From my review: "Avery's story is a dark and tense thriller, set against a cold Hungarian back drop. The reconnection between father and daughter gives THE TEARDROP METHOD melancholy in light of the father's declining health, and the handling of the supernatural element is done so latently it feels authentic and hence, genuinely spooky. The prose here is compulsively readable and even the stranger members of the cast pop off the page."

-Avery is another writer I became a fan of through his short stories in Black Static magazine, and this impressive novella shows off his talent to keep readers glued to the pages.



7) THE HANDYMAN by Bentley Little

From my review: "I've been saying for years (in light of some of Little's short stories) that he'd surely be able to write an EPIC all-out bizarro novel...but until that day comes, THE HANDYMAN should easily suffice fans of weird horror fiction. For the hardcore Little fan, this one falls somewhere between his "industrial" novels and his more experimental work, and with all fan boy-ness aside, it's a solid offering from one of the genre's favorites."

-Little is one of my all time favorite writers, and after a few more experimental novels, he has been back on track with his "industrial" style stories we old school fans live for. Last year's THE CONSULTANT was great, but I enjoyed THE HANDYMAN even more.



6) THE NOCTUARY: PANDEMONIUM by Greg Chapman

From my review: "PANDEMONIUM keeps the scares coming and the peril alive on every page. A couple of scenes inside a mental institution raise serious goosebumps, and the impending sense of doom is relentless. This delivers the goods and should chill even the most jaded reader."

-It's not too often a sequel triumphs the original, but Chapman manages to do so and also create what I believe was the scariest story of the year. The original novella is included in this edition for those not familiar with it.



5) ARARAT by Christopher Golden

From my review: "While ARARAT reminded me somewhat of Lee Thomas' excellent 2006 debut novel STAINED, it stands on its own as a page turning action adventure/horror hybrid. Golden's past three novels, DEAD RINGERS, TIN MEN, and SNOWBLIND, were all excellent, and now with ARARAT he's 4 for 4 in a big way. A best bet for fans of religious-themed horror."

-I've been a fan of Golden's work for a long time but the past few years he has really been on fire. ARARAT is another fantastic, satisfying read that'd make one hell of a movie.



4) PRETTY MARY’S ALL IN A ROW by Gwendolyn Kiste

From my review: "Kiste's dark fantasy grabbed me from the first sentence and forced me to finish in one sitting. This highly imaginative novella features some incredible imagery, gorgeous prose, and a satisfying finale that could easily lead to a sequel. I loved it."

-After reading (and falling in love with) one of Kiste's stories in Black Static magazine, I couldn't wait to read more, and this fine novella delivers big time. Looking forward to her short story collection which also came out in 2017.



3) SYCORAX’S DAUGHTERS edited by Kinitra Brooks, Linda D. Addison and Susana Morris

From my review: "SYCORAX'S DAUGHTERS is a massive undertaking delivered with style and substance. Many of the stories here would work well in any speculative anthology, not just one showcasing black female authors, and that's the beauty of this project: These stories and poems suck you in and take you to their own worlds, making the reader forget, at times, that this is a themed anthology. There's some serious talent on display here, and here's hoping to see more from those involved."

-Anthologies come and go but here's one with serious staying power. It was great to read such a big collection featuring so many writers I had not heard of before, many of which I'm now keeping my eye on.



2) BEHIND HER EYES by Sarah Pinborough

From my review: "..But the highlight here is the ending. OH MY GOD the ending. I know endings aren't the most important thing to a lot of readers, but they are to me, and this is one of the finest to come down the pike in years. It's to-die-for good. This is like GONE GIRL on speed, with a slight supernatural leaning to push it more into the horror realm, keeping it a creepy arm's distance from your standard "thriller." Needless to say this is highly, highly recommended, and if you're a fan of killer finales, get this before some Internet troll ruins it for you."

-Sarah is one of those authors who seems to get better with each book. Few writers make novels move like novellas like she does. She recently signed a fantastic book deal and I can't wait to see what she comes up with next. Did I mention this has a to-die-for ending?




And now, drum roll please ...



1) BEYOND THE GREAT, BLOODY, BRUISED, AND SILENT VEIL OF THIS WORLD by Jordan Krall

From my review: "Krall's latest novella is a trippy, dark science fiction story dealing with a group of mentally unstable men on their way to an already colonized Mars. As with many of the author's stories, we're never sure if we're actually on a shuttle or on Mars, or in a psychiatric ward. The mystery and constant guessing keeps things moving, eerie, and unsettling. As we journey along with our main untrustworthy protagonist, the story expands into the life of a Messianic figure, terrorism, and a look at industry that's as obscure as the main scifi story. And in the end, things are (sort of) tied up with a chilling note. BEYOND is told in short sections, making it very easy to digest in one sitting, and Bizarro Pulp Press's page layouts enhance an already fantastic tale that's way out of the ordinary."

-More so than any title I read in 2017, Krall's latest kept coming back to haunt me. It may be scifi on the surface but the underlying sense of horror and paranoia is priceless, and the writing itself sings. Krall is another writer I've been following for a while and he continues to find new ways to dig into his readers' minds. Enter at your own risk...




So there you have it, folks! Looking forward to a new year of more great reads.

Our second  2017 Top Ten List will be published soon...

Monday, December 11, 2017

Reviews for the Week of December 11, 2017

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





THE NOCTUARY: PANDEMONIUM by Greg Chapman (2017 Bloodshot Books / 250 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This novel-length sequel to Chapman's 2011 novella THE NOCTUARY takes some familiar tropes, twists them, and becomes a creepy-as-it-gets tale I read in only two sittings.

For those not familiar with the novella, it's included here as an opening bonus. In a nutshell: author Simon Ryan literally becomes hell's newest scribe, his words able to change the destiny of every living soul. In PANDEMONIUM, Ryan's former psychiatrist, Dr. Desmond Carter, receives a manuscript allegedly written by the now missing Ryan. His destiny quickly snowballs as his boss, a crazed patient, and a detective all fall victim to Ryan's otherworldly words.

PANDEMONIUM keeps the scares coming and the peril alive on every page. A couple of scenes inside a mental institution raise serious goosebumps, and the impending sense of doom is relentless.

Towards the end, Chapman spends perhaps a bit too much time on backstory, although he does create his own hellish version of history that could easily be built upon in future projects.

 PANDEMONIUM delivers the goods and should chill even the most jaded reader.

-Nick Cato




ENGINES OF RUIN by Lucas Mangum (2017 Doom Kitten Press / 180 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Okay, this guy is officially one to keep an eye on, still fairly new to the game but already displaying the kind of talent and skill that will go a long, long way. Not to mention, proving that good writing isn't a lost or dying art in this modern age; the current crop of rising stars will more than carry on into the future!

Opening with an intro by extreme-horror powerhouse Shane McKenzie, Engines of Ruin is a tidy collection of eight unsettling tales. Some touch on the supernatural, many have religious aspects, but most deliver their chills simply by delving right into the darker undersides of the human psyche.

"Hell and Back," in which a pastor-turned-bartender faces the conflict of helping a friend who's done a terrible thing, has a gritty noir feel and reads like it should be a starkly done black-and-white graphic novel.

The passion and poison of twisted relationships take center stage in stories such as "Worlds Colliding" and "Video Inferno," while painful histories, forbidden urges, and deadly secrets refusing to stay quiet are the focus of "A Killing Back Home" and the haunting "Waters of Ruin."

"The World Asunder" manages the deft trick of being a zombie apocalypse story without on-screen zombies, and "Occupy Babylon" brushes up against the end of days in a subtly sneaky surprise.

The full-on weirdest of the set is "Our Lady of the Sea," maybe not Lovecraftian in a lore sense but (to me) very much so in a feel sense, atmospheric and eldritch and somehow beautifully bleak.

So, yeah, all right, sometimes I may grump about these kids being so much better than I was at that age, but I mean it with affection. They've got the stuff. We won't need to despair for ongoing good reads, and that's what really matters.


-Christine Morgan




PRETTY MARYS ALL IN A ROW by Gwendolyn Kiste (2017 Broken Eye Books / 90 pp / trade paperback)

Rhee is a ghostly hitchhiker who haunts the same isolated stretch of highway night after night, freaking drivers out and having her own otherworldly fun. But at the end of each day she is transported back to a house she shares with four sisters, each of them a ghost, too.

But it turns out these ladies aren't your ordinary specters: Rhee is actually the legendary Resurrection Mary, one of her sisters the infamous Bloody Mary, another Mary Mack, etc., Urban Legends whose afterlives are about to be challenged but the ultimate incarnation of darkness.

Rhee's world is also beginning to merge with human love interest Dave and his young daughter Abby, as well as twin sisters who have a knack for contacting the spirit realm.

Kiste's dark fantasy grabbed me from the first sentence and forced me to finish in one sitting. This highly imaginative novella features some incredible imagery, gorgeous prose, and a satisfying finale that could easily lead to a sequel. I loved it.


-Nick Cato




THE WILDRENESS WITHIN by John Claude Smith (2017 Trepidatio Publishing / 258 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I went into this one with no idea of what I was going to read, and I came out the other end some days later, blinking like a mole in the sunlight, trying not only to figure out what I'd just read but what was real and what wasn't.

A shifting unreality, to say the least! Over the course of the book, several times right when I'd finally think I had a grasp, that grasp would slip away like a handful of smoke. If it's like King's The Dark Half, it's the origami version, so intricate and folded in on itself the eye can barely comprehend and the brain is left guessing.

Summary-wise, it starts off with a couple of middle-aged author types heading out for a restful cabin vacation, but from the get-go there's some Lynchian not-quite-rightness going on about the woods. Our POV guy, Derek, soon becomes concerned about his buddy Frank. Their reminiscences about the old days, including absent friend Izzy, gradually make Derek wonder how much of Frank's writing is drawn from imagination and how much from real life.

And, of course, things take a swiftly spiraling dreamlike descent from there ... fiction and reality intertwine ... Derek has to confront the true-life inspiration for one of his own literary creations ... Izzy shows up, or does he? ... some strange force in the forest is calling ... much more than sanity and safety are at stake.

Now and then, things side-wander with a bit more info dumping about music and such than I particularly cared for, but the lavish sensory immersion and richness of description more than makes up for it. Not a book for casual pick it up / put it down reading, though; you've got to pay attention or you will soon be lost in the woods.


-Christine Morgan



PREVIEW:

WIDOW'S POINT by Richard and Billy Chizmar (to be released January 28, 2018 by Cemetery Dance Publications / 156 pp / hardcover)

The Harper's Cove lighthouse has a dark and troubling history, and famous supernatural investigator Thomas Livingston is about to spend a weekend there. His aim is to get material for yet another bestseller, and with over two dozen confirmed deaths over the years, he's sure there will be plenty to write about. To make matters spookier, he's locked in by the groundskeeper with no phone or Internet service. Of course it doesn't take long for the hauntings to begin, which grow in intensity after he finds the journal of a 12 year old who once lived there with his family...

While WIDOW'S POINT is a familiar story (1408 immediately comes to mind), it's told through a series of voice and video recordings that give it its own feel, and the four post endings make it seem like an authentic episode of Unsolved Mysteries. In the hands of these skilled authors (a father and son team), a typical genre tale manages to raise some serious scares and proves there's always room for a well told, solid ghost story.

A no nonsense, tight, filler-free novella perfect for a late night read.


-Nick Cato




THE TEETH OF THE SEA by Tim Waggoner (2017 Severed Press / 180 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

As a reviewer, I strive to be detached, aloof, and professional -- hey! what are you laughing at? Okay, okay, fine, my reaction upon learning of this book was giddy glee and something like "OMG YES freaky sea monster chompy aquatic horror is my JAM bring it on gimme!"

What can I say? I love this kind of stuff. And I'm delighted to report that The Teeth of the Sea does not in any way disappoint. It's got everything I look for in oceanic creature-features and then some! Great action, fun characters, interpersonal conflict, glorious carnage, terrific writing, believable critters with personality and motivation ... an exhilarating adventure from start to finish!

It opens with a small pod, two males and two females, returning by instinct to their ancestral spawning/hatching ground after long years in the deep. Only, there's a problem. During the intervening time, the island's been made into a prime vacation destination of luxury hotels, casinos, canals, and resorts.

This doesn't stop the pod for long, because they quickly discover that this means a veritable bounty of tasty soft-skinned morsels. Soon, videos of gory attacks are all over the internet, but every public-relations nightmare has its silver lining. Cue monster-watching boat tours, a special episode of a cryptid-hunter show, a disgraced professor hoping for redemption, a comedian looking to become a real-life action hero, and the stage is set -- so they think -- for success.

So they think. Needless to say, it doesn't go as planned. In fact, the situation keeps getting worse for the idiot soft-skins with their cameras and phones and selfie-sticks. But it's all-you-can-eat time for the pod, unless their violent competitive urges get in the way.

Top-notch chomping, plausible science (often a rarity in creature-features, must admit), tons of fun, and a fully satisfying read!


-Christine Morgan




MAGAZINES:



BLACK STATIC no. 61 ( Nov/Dec 2017 / TTA Press)

Opening commentaries feature Lynda E. Rucker's thoughts on ghosts in light of the Christmas season, then Ralph Robert Moore discusses the loneliness of the writer's life as well as carrying on despite those who may be against you.

This issue's fiction is once again among the best in the business, and includes:

-THE ANNIVERSARY by Ruth EJ Booth: In just 4 short paragraphs, Booth delivers a powerful piece on spousal abuse. A grim tone is quickly set...

-FOR WHOM THE DOGS BARK by Ralph Robert Moore: an old man named Hans, who lives alone, grows weary as he faces cataract surgery. Late at night the dogs next door wake him with their barking, but when Hans investigates he finds three naked men on all fours pretending to be dogs. We learn a bit of Hans' back story but only enough to hint at where his mind is currently at. A weird and unsettling study of aging.

-THE BOOK OF DREEMS by Georgina Bruce: A dazzling look at an abusive relationship where the abused's (Kate) cloudy memory leads to her man's (Fraser) downfall. Bruce's symbolism makes the piece almost feel sci-fi but the underlying horror will chill you to the core.

-DO NOT GOOGLE by Andrew Humphrey: a cheating husband is asked by co-worker Vince to take a piece of paper containing a series of words that, when Googled, lead to a loved one's death. Being said husband doesn't love anyone, he takes the paper...and discovers the hard way he most certainly does. An idea that reminded me of CURSE OF THE DEMON (1957), and I'm sure much earlier stories, but here Humphrey gives it a fresh spin.

-A SMALL LIFE by Carly Holmes: An alcoholic man, running from his past, arrives in a small town and joins a rowing team to help keep his mind off his demons. He does fine, until almost capsizing the boat one day after seeing a strange creature jump at him from the woods. And when Jess, a team mate's sister, joins the team and shows interest in him, our unnamed protagonist begins to spiral way out of control in this engrossing novelette.

-TANCHO by Mel Kassel: Laurie, an old woman on dialysis, is kidnapped and murdered by her neighbor, Jameson. He has a customized pond where he keeps her spirit (or something like it) with occult symbols on the walls that keep her a submerged prisoner. It seems Jameson has found a way to breed rare koi fish for a demanding market, which he needs Laurie for. But Laurie figures out a clever way to turn the tables on her captor. Kassel's aquatic terror tale brings to mind classic EC comics although with none of the campiness. This is seriously strange (and disturbing) stuff.

Gary Couzens delivers another batch of dvd/bluray reviews, including a look at the latest box set of George Romero films from Arrow, the seventh season of The Walking Dead, and Arrow's real pretty deluxe edition of John Carpenter's THE THING.

Among Peter Tennant's book reviews are seven anthologies/collections, six chapbooks from Nightjar Press, and a detailed look at a Hap and Leonard graphic novel. Among the six novel reviews is 'Kill The Next One' by Federico Axat, a complex sounding thriller that has shot to the top of my must read list.


Grab your copy (or better yet, a subscription) here: Black Static

-Nick Cato


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COMING SOON: