Monday, July 30, 2018

Reviews for the Week of July 30, 2018

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

THE VERY INEFFECTIVE HAUNTED HOUSE AND OTHER STRANGE AND STUPID STORIES by Jeff Burk (2018 Clash Books / 140 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Hey, you! Yeah, you. No, not you. Behind you. No, not you. C’mon, why would I want to talk to you? Behind you. Yeah, you. Okay, I’ll stop as this could literally continue on and on forever, but, perhaps, you’re in the mood to lighten the mood lighting a little bit, turn things down a notch, you know? And what better way to do so than the latest from Jeff Burk and Clash Books? It’s a riotous romp through the haunted hands of time and space. A little bit bizarre. A little bit comedy. A little bit Horror. A little bit of poetry to be found in this new short story collection.

My favorite story was the main one, 'The Very Ineffective Haunted House.' The story was well-written in a way that was very easy for the reader to read, following along and written from the POV of an aging haunted house with a new family that has just moved inside of it. This is a clever hammer of a story that packs a mean little nail punch to the head (pun intended). All is well and good as long as the new family leaves the house alone in the attic where it can keep working on its drawing and coloring skills. Maybe, when it gets bored enough it will mess with them a little bit, but only if it can remember how. It’s not easy being a haunted house. Other personal favorites in this collection were 'The Dog Who Stared' and 'The Satanic Little Toaster.'

All in all, there’s a little bit of something strange and stupid for everybody in this extremely versatile and humorous collection worth checking out from Clash Books. Check it out for yourself!

-Jon R. Meyers

Jeff Burk may be mostly known as the head editor of Deadite Press, but the guy writes too, and not just about William Shatner! In fact, the Shat doesn’t appear in any of the dozen stories forming this nifty new collection. Plenty of other weirdness, however, does.

The title tale is oddly both demented and sweet, when the ghost of someone who wanted to be an artist (but wasn’t a very good one) finds himself haunting an unfamiliar house. Having little in the way of personal memories, drawing mainly upon what he recalls from the movies, he sets out with the best of spooky intentions once the nice young family moves in. Except, it turns out, he’s not very good at haunting either … embarrassing, especially when his house is right down the street from a certain God of Hungry Walls (in-joke, see Cook, Garrett). A smattering of illustrations accompany the whimsical recounting; I particularly like the pic of the cat.

Cats, btw, do tend to feature prominently in Burk’s work; he’s a crazy cat person in good standing. The second story, revealed in the notes to have been drawn from a dream, is an autobiographical peek into his everyday life … well, until “The Window That Shouldn’t Be There” makes an appearance. You’ll get to see his house and garden, meet the housemates, the girlfriend, the many cats.

You’ll also find a Clickers story from the J.F. Gonzalez tribute anthology, a sideways look at the possible effects of drug use, a decidedly left-handed nod to GG Allin, possessed household appliances, a weird tattoo infestation, a Lynchian easter-egg hipster hunt, some unusual tentacle porn (wait, there’s usual tentacle porn?), and more.

“The Dog Who Stared” is probably my personal fave of the batch, even if it’s about a dog instead of a cat. We’ve all known those pets who stare at things we can’t see; in this one, a cultish following forms around one, to the confusion of its owners.

Burk’s main strength here, aside from his innate sense of fun and playfulness, is in taking a wry but astute look at many aspects of modern society. From bronies and collectors/collectibles to click-bait articles and the punk scene, the absurdity is all around us.

Also, the essay “Mother[bleep]ing Dinosaurs: An Ode to Dinosaurs Attack!”? Totally true. I even have a whole set thanks to him.

-Christine Morgan

DERBY CITY DEAD by Darren Madigan (2014 CreateSpace / 328 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

One thing that often gets done to death in zombie books, so to speak, is having the characters be supposedly of our current modern world yet utterly clueless about what’s happening. In Derby City Dead, that’s not a problem … thanks to pop culture, nearly everyone’s familiar with the classics and the basics. The term “zombie apocalypse” is brought up early and readily accepted. People have seen Walking Dead and Zombieland. They know something of the rules, of how this works.

Except, that’s where the REAL problem arises, because the classics and the basics and the usual rules don’t apply. When you’ve been taught that “shoot ‘em in the head” is the only way, or that they’re mindless shamblers easily fooled, or that a bite is an automatic death-and-turning sentence, suddenly finding out the hard way it isn’t necessarily so can be a bigger stumbling block than the fact of zombies themselves.

As a result, when the (bleep) hits the fan, many of the survivors are both more, and less, prepared to deal with it. The primary goals are the same either way – survival, shelter, weapons, water, food, family.

This is when practicalities and preparedness come into play, the common sense issues of defensible buildings and supplies. Learning more about the nature of the zombies leads to makeshift plans of attack. And, of course, there’s dealing with the other groups of survivors who might not be so friendly.

The main hitch for me is that some of the characters, the ‘bad guys’ in particular, are presented as so glaringly unpleasant – racist, sexist, homophobe, religious wackadoo – as to come across almost as caricatures, making them too easy to despise.

Aside from that, though, it’s action-packed and clever, poking fun at the tropes and presenting some new twists.

-Christine Morgan

DEATH OBSESSED by Robert Essig (2018 Grand Mal Press / 294 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

If you can't tell by the cover art, DEATH OBSESSED is aimed at fans of gruesome horror films of the VHS era, and while it took a bit to get going, Essig, for the most part, delivers the goods wrapped in a gore-soaked loved letter.

As a kid, Calvin was a major horror film freak. He managed to see everything he could, the sicker, the better. He was especially fond of the real-life (or supposed real-life) mondo films like Faces of Death and anything he could get his hands on. Today, he works a humble job as an electrician's apprentice and has a pregnant girlfriend who wants him to better himself. But he's still very much in his own world, more concerned about his dark hobby than the idea he's about to be a father. Essig makes it clear Calvin's entire being is sold out to horror, and after he gets his hands on a mysterious, unmarked VHS tape, his world takes a grisly and supernatural turn.

With a host of unsavory characters (goth chick Hazel gives Calvin a run for his money), some truly disturbing images (one sex scene will test even fans of the extreme stuff), and the true feel of a low budget Z-level horror film, DEATH OBSESSED, despite a few minor flaws, is a lot of gruesome fun, even with a cast who seem like the lowest form of scum on the planet. But, perhaps that was the author's intent: we may despise some of these people for the things they say and do, yet doesn't that mirror the films Calvin and others here are obsessed with?

DEATH OBSESSED is not for everyone, but it should be enjoyed by anyone who has a love for the darker side of cinema...and cult horror fiction.

-Nick Cato

MIDNIGHT'S ETERNAL PRISONER by Matthew Pungitore (2018 BookBaby / 50 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This slim novella reads rather like a gothic adult video game, in which our protagonist (Moneo) is trapped in a magical/haunted castle being slowly consumed by darkness as its master seeks to bring his dead lover back to life. A demon/goddess, also trapped, offers Moneo a deal – if he helps her, they can escape together.

He accepts, and the story follows this main quest with various objectives, side quests, and wisecracking NPC sidekicks along the way. Keys to collect, spells to cast and break, a succession of increasingly difficult boss battles, and unfolding backstory all come into play. Some passages even read like cut scenes.

The writing style is unusual, shifting tenses from present to past and back again, sometimes as often as every other sentence. I did stumble over that a few times, unable to determine how intentional it was, and with what purpose. A few too many non-said dialogue tags for my taste, too.

But the descriptions in particular are gorgeous, lavish visuals and lush scene-setting, broody atmosphere, fantastical creatures and monsters. I don’t play many video games myself, but I would watch the heck out of someone else playing it. I kept thinking about Ravenloft and classic D&D modules from years past; it just has that kind of FEEL.

-Christine Morgan

GLASS SLIPPER DREAMS, SHATTERED by Doungjai Gam (2018 Apokrupha / 79 pp / eBook)

Gam’s first collection may be short but there’s plenty going on here to show off the skills of this fresh newer voice.

The first batch of flash fiction comes fast and furious. There are a few pieces about scorned lovers and a couple of end times tales that manage to feel epic despite being only a few sentences long. Some stand outs are ‘I’ll Make You Famous,’ ‘Swallowed in Pieces, Consumed n Whole,’ ‘Torn,’ ‘The Key is the Key,’ ‘Light Box,’ ‘Candy Apple,’ and ‘Dead Weight.’

Among the slightly longer stories are ‘What Remains,’ a real Chiller about an adult still suffering with childhood fears, ‘Thy Ink is Thy Blood,’ finds a depressed author getting a most unusual psychological revenge on her boyfriend, and ‘That Girl With the Hair’ is a clever take on a famous mythology.

A quick and solid read, Gam gives her own flavor to some classic tropes and managed to spook me out a couple of times. Fans of flash fiction will surely eat this up.

-Nick Cato

THE ORGAN DONOR by Matthew Warner (2017 Bloodshot Books / 316 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

15th anniversary and I only now learned about this one? Medical/body horror combined with mythology? Sheesh, I must not have been paying attention! This is seriously good stuff!

We’ll start off by saying the organ donor of the title isn’t exactly, um, willing. Not someone carrying the little card in his wallet. More of an involuntary harvestee. And this isn’t the old urban legend of waking up in a motel bathtub full of ice with a kidney missing, or the desperate poor selling their own organs on the black market … it goes even darker.

Executed prisoners, for instance. Executed prisoners for whom the execution might even have been put on an accelerated schedule (or whose sentence hadn’t included it in the first place). But, when you’ve got a rich client with a tight timeline and loose morals, well, hey …

Paul and Tim Taylor don’t quite fit that bill, but their father once did a favor for a very influential Chinese ‘businessman’ who is eager to repay the debt. The brothers fly to China, where Tim is set to get a new kidney, and Paul, injured in a terrorist attack while there, suddenly needs some drastic medical care of his own.

Their benefactor is happy to let them think their donor was a voluntary match who just happened to die at the right time. They don’t know about prisons and executed criminals and teams of surgeons operating (literally!) outside the law. They certainly don’t know about Shen, the source of their new spare parts, who turns out to be far from any ordinary prisoner. And far from happy about being shot and cut up.

Shen wants back what is his, even if it means following the Taylors home to America and retrieving his missing pieces personally. Before he gets there, his connection to the brothers is having bizarre effects, but Paul has a hard time convincing anyone that something strange is going on … until the violent, inexplicable deaths begin … until it seems a figure out of Chinese mythology is on the hunt … until Paul himself might have to fight for more than his life.

-Christine Morgan

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