Monday, January 8, 2018

Reviews for the Week of January 8, 2018

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





PREVIEW:


THE LISTENER by Robert McCammon (to be published 2/27/18 by Cemetery Dance Publications / 380 pp / hardcover)

I admire the heck out of Robert McCammon and have repeatedly gone on record opining he's one of the most underrated writers of his generation. I still stand by that, but have to say, for me, this newest offering is just kind of ... okay.

It's well-written, make no mistake. It has the genuine immersive feel and detail McCammon brings to his historical fiction (if maybe somewhat overly cautious when touching on the racial issues and ugliess of the era). The characters are interesting and seem like real people, the story's solid enough. It's just missing the full depth and punch and wow factor I've come to expect.

The historical era in question is the Great Depression, and the book opens with a con-artist type Bible salesman plying his trade (definite shades of Greg Stillson in King's The Dead Zone). Then the salesman crosses paths with a couple who run a traveling sex-ed show (shades of Ed Kurtz's The Rib From Which I Remake the World).

One thing leads to another and there's some murder and betrayal and shady deals, and before long the criminals have hatched the notion for a big kidnapping score. Little do they know, a young black man with an unusual ability has a mysterious connection with one of their targets (and yes, more shades of King, The Shining in particular ...).

I guess I just wanted more from this book. I wanted more backstory on the kidnappers, I wanted more conflict and tension and resolution. I wanted more than the slightly winceworthy 'magical Negro' trope, while at the same time I wanted to know and see more of his abilities, wanted more proactivity.

Maybe I'm just greedy and spoiled when it comes to my favorite authors; I expected so much more. Wasn't a waste of my reading time or anything like that. Just wasn't what I think it could and should have been.


-Christine Morgan



UNDER THE SHANGHAI TUNNELS AND OTHER WEIRD TALES by Lee Widener (2017 Strangehouse Books / 136 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I knew Lee Widener was a weird writer, and a writer of weird fiction, but somehow it took until now for me to realize he was also a writer of "weird fiction" in that sense, and it makes me wonder what else I've been missing!

UNDER THE SHANGHAI TUNNELS AND OTHER WEIRD TALES certainly sets things straight on that account. The opening tale (fittingly titled "Under the Shanghai Tunnels") appealed to me instantly because I have been on the underground tours in both Portland and Seattle; they're fascinating combinations of urban spelunking and often-sordid history (smuggling, bootlegging, prostitution, kidnapping, etc), with more than a whisper of the paranormal.

This story, though, takes it to new levels ... deeper levels ... when the descendant of someone who went missing long ago discovers remains, and a journal in the classic Lovecraftian descent-into-horror-and-beyond, and the all-too-real truth.

Then, in a jarringly hilarious change of page, we get my personal favorite of the collection, "At the Shoe Shop of Madness." I love twists on fairy tales and twisted fairy tales; this one delivers bigtime as a struggling shoemaker turns his business around with the help of a foul-mouthed drunkard of an elf, only to have his success turn out to be its own nightmare.

The next two stories continue that drastic veering back and forth in style and tone. "Eternal Beauty," about a flower of haunting perfection, is smooth and subtle and eerie ... while "The Thing That Came to Haunt Adamski" just kicks out the gonzo stops and goes for the bizarre.

"KONG-Tiki" and "Sleeper Under the Sea" are connected, set late-50's/early-60's as a band leader goes from the eventful opening of a happenin' new club (complete with hula girls, caged gorilla, and carved tiki god) to the investigation into a medium whose seances touch something other than the spirit world. Both are pulpy good fun, and I would gladly read more such adventures.


-Christine Morgan



And now another HORROR FICTION REVIEW LOOK at:


PRETTY MARYS ALL IN A ROW by Gwendolyn Kiste (2017 Broken Eye Books / 92 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

There's a particular shivery kind of dark nostalgia you get when something you'd forgotten so completely you didn't even know you'd forgotten it is brought rushing back complete. Something like a ghostly urban legend, a creepy party game, a nursery rhyme, old tradition, or (and this is the one that got me like whoa) a jump-rope chant.

I mean, woo. Hadn't thought of her in YEARS, that Mary. I wasn't even a good jump-roper. Wouldn't have had any reason for thinking of her. But suddenly, with a single simple touch, and there it all is. Yeesh. Gave me goosebumps.

She's not the only Mary in this book -- the others, I knew or had never heard of -- but that feeling, that shivery dark nostalgia rush, was worth the price of admission on its own. Even now, typing this, the nape of my neck's all prickly. Maybe she won't have the same effect on everyone, but maybe one or more of her sisters will.

Because, you see, those Marys ... here, they're real. Or as real as they can be, trapped in a repetitive night-cycle of haunting and a mysterious house where they gather to share the fruits of their labors, gathered from human fear.

Until one of the Marys begins to wonder about her real life, and develops suspicions about the force holding them to their grim tasks. Until she tries to find ways to break the cycle, in hopes of freeing her sisters and herself.

A clever, twisted melding of modern myth and folklore, resonating way down deep to the schoolyard childhood, slumber parties, and whispered campfire tales, Pretty Marys All In A Row brings that nostalgia factor while also spinning a tense new take, a unique sort of ghost story. Very nicely done.


-Christine Morgan

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Top Five Reads of 2017 (Part Two)

Our second year-end Best Of list comes from HFR staff writer Jon R. Meyers. Jon shares his Top Five Favorites for 2017.


Counting down from 5-1:



5) CARTOONS IN THE SUICIDE FOREST by Leza Cantoral


Leza Cantoral’s debut collection Cartoons in the Suicide Forest from Bizarro Pulp Press is a phantasmagorical sex blob of pink literary color jelly for your fragile horror mind, body, and soul. The writing is highly versatile, fresh, hip, and creative in all the right ways. Think old school Bizarro Fiction when it first came out. Think Horror double-dipped in the heart of the Beat Fiction era. Think about watching your favorite Saturday Morning cartoons while eating a bowl of sugar coated cereal in your favorite pair of underwear, while still candy-flipping from last night’s psychedelic rave party. We as the reader are introduced to a number of memorably bizarre and horrific circumstances, sexy adult themed fairy tales, and eerily black-ink bleeding cartoons.



4) THE CLUB by Kyle M. Scott 


The book tells the twisted story through the eyes of five separate characters. Four of them amidst a murderous rampage, an over-the-road-trip killing spree across the darker parts of the U.S, and one of their helpless hostages; a gorgeous girl that the leader of the group of misfits, Jason, wants to save all for himself, going into depth the special plans he has for her after he kills and his way with her sister. And, although we as the reader never really get a clear description of any of the characters’ appearance, we do get a strong sense of their emotion, impending doom as the plot thickens, and their overall character, enabling us to connect with them very much the same through their different POV’s on what is going on at the time and how they’re feeling about their overall missions and objectives. The crew hits the deep woods after the cops thicken in town, there are too many risks. After a falling out with one of their members of the team, Conner, he’s wanting to leave before getting caught by the cops, the hostage escapes, as the others hold him over the fire and put an end to his cowardly weakness. Now Jason has the girls all to himself. This is where things really start to get bloody and interesting. After everything the girl and the crew has been through leading up to this point, it only takes a turn for the worse. Her character develops into much more of a fighter, and the content of the book picks up heightened levels of dark and sexual depravity, as the crew stumbles upon a mansion in the middle of the woods and gets a literal taste of their own medicine as they fight for survival of the fittest. The fancy driveway is full of fancy, black luxury vehicles, and there appears to be quite the gathering going on inside. It has to be safe, right? After all it’s a club constructed of some of the richest and wealthiest men and woman in the country.



3) THIS TOWN NEEDS A MONSTER by Andersen Prunty


The book introduces us to a man who miserably lives in a small town in Ohio. When he manages to leave the house to visit a friend who’s threatened to commit suicide, he runs into a little situation that ends up turning into a much bigger one by the end of the book. What happens is literally the reason behind how he has always managed his daily social interactions; keep them limited, short, sweet, and straight to the point. Getting involved with others is sometimes a doomsday when having to care about more than just yourself, it’s a cold fact, but very true indeed. Had he just stayed at home and slept it off, nothing in this book would have ever happened, or at least he’d have not known or cared about it as it was happening. So, after his car breaks down and he runs into an underage girl asking him to buy her booze, in exchange for giving him a ride to avoid the long walk home. He slowly realizes that everything in the town is connected and premeditated, including the strange inhabitants there as everything spirals out of control and turns into mass sticky green chaos before his eyes as he gets closer to seeking the truth behind the town monster. Not everything is what it seems throughout the entirety of this book.



2) HOME IS WHERE THE HORROR IS by C.V. Hunt


Evan Lansing makes a living as a photographer. He photographs unusual birth defects, abnormalities and deformities. After a recent breakup, he moves in with his brother, wife, and their kid, until he feels out of place and unwanted. So, he pitches an idea to go stay at their mother’s cabin in the woods. His brother is too busy miserably trying to keep his snobby wife and daughter happy all the time, he hasn’t been able to finish up the remodeling so they can sell the property. Evan decides he could stay there, do the work for rent, and fix the place up to sell. While working on repairs there’s a lingering sadness on the property, and it only gets stronger when the neighbors are around. Upon first glance, there’s two people living next door. An old violent man and a young, bizarre and perverse teenager. But, later we discover a third and much darker entity. Things for Evan start to make a turn for the worse when the neighbors start visiting and coming around more frequently, even managing to ruin his new-found love with a woman he’d met while photographing her rare birth defects on her hands. Evan begins to question his own sanity and reality as his life begins to spiral out of control. He should’ve never came to his mother’s cabin in the woods. There’s much more than the death of his childhood lingering in the woods around him.



...And drum roll please:



1) THE ENDLESS FALL AND OTHER WEIRD FICTIONS by Jeffrey Thomas

The Endless Fall and Other Weird Fictions is as of recently now one of my favorite short story collections to date. Thomas is a brilliantly talented author, who without error manages to engage the reader into the heart and soul of his characters, often taking them along for the wild ride through his unique imagination as these fourteen weird tales of hopeless horror, cosmic dread, and perverse despair unfold before our eyes. There are many powerful stories here that will perhaps stay with you, like they did for me for some time to come, keeping you on the edge of your dream feet and peeking your head around the corner of the next dark alcoves of your mind as the unknown happens before your very eyes.


Amongst my favorites in this collection were ‘Jar of Mist’, where a distant father seeks out answers to his daughter’s sudden death. At first, he believes it has something to do with her strange boyfriend that up and left her behind for a place called Sesqua Valley, but upon further inspection discovers the truth in a jar of mist at the mysterious antique shop located below her apartment. ‘The Prosthesis’, I found this story very entertaining and accurate as I personally know somebody in this line of work, and it made for a great and pleasurable reading experience as we see a more humorous side of the author here. ‘Ghosts in Amber’, this one is going towards the top as one of my favorite short stories of all-time list! The main character takes us on a trip down memory lane in his boring marriage when he stumbles upon some old memories, something odd leaking from the rooftop, and much more in the old factory across the street. ‘The Spectators’, otherworldly obsidian black creatures pay earth a little visit to check-in and tell you they are still out there watching. While most fear their initial arrival, as they just show up in the corner of a room in your house out of nowhere— the main character in this story embraces its presence, pours himself a glass of bourbon, and has nightly talks to the entity about some of the finer things in life until he goes back to wherever it is that he came from.