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O'Neill's 6th and latest collection features two novellas and eight short stories, covering a few genres but in the end they all safely fall under the umbrella of horror.
FROZEN SHADOWS is a great coming of age novella, dealing with three young people whose lives are affected when a strange man comes to their town. Among his powers is the ability to not cast a shadow, but as our trio learn, that may be the most normal thing about him, and he just might have something to do with a wave of illnesses that have stricken the town’s children. A solid chiller with a surprisingly positive ending.
I read THE ALGERNON EFFECT a few years ago as a limited edition chapbook, and was glad to see it included here. 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 melancholy manner, and the prose sings.
Lucas, a veteran wounded by an IED in Afghanistan, has an odd experience at his new job in a California hotel in TRANSFORMATIONS AT THE INN OF THE GOLDEN PHEASANT. After watching the comings and goings of two prostitutes, he befriends one at a diner and has an unusual time with the other in the same room they turn tricks in, and in the process Lucas finds his physical war scars healed and witnesses a most unusual transformation between the ladies. If they ever made a graphic novel of the old DC comic WEIRD WAR TALES this would surely make a great script for it.
In ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE ROAD, Jamie Connelly starts having wicked headaches that lead to visions. Not able to get the meds prescribed to him, his visions become exceedingly strange as does everything around him. A great bizarre tale with one hell of a finale.
BLACK TAR/RED ALIEN features two junkies who, after scoring a few fixes, break into a warehouse to steal the piping. But they encounter a spider-like alien who follows them home and forever alters their already downward spiraling lives. A dark but fun monster romp that may or may not be a monster romp at all.
The BROKEN LADY is Ellie, a 49 year old singer with a semi famous past who now works in seedy San Francisco bars. Alcohol has led to her current situation, that gets worse when she’s almost raped by a young cowboy. A frank look at addiction and the down side of the music industry, this one’s a memorable, gripping tragedy.
THE SHAKING MAN centers around a black man nick-named “Shake,” who began showing signs of Tourette’s right after an auto accident when he was a child. The crash took the lives of his mother and brother and forced him into the foster care system where he grew up street wise, dropped out of school, and eventually earned money as an enforcer for a loan shark, and then found himself in prison. In a twist of fate, Shake undergoes an experimental treatment to rid his Tourette’s, which leads to another great ending. One of the best tales here.
O’Neill dives into some sci-fi with 3-DOT PEOPLE, another weird one set in the seedy underworld of San Francisco. A man with amnesia experiences the city in a way that'll fry your brain, and most likely chill your spine.
In A FAINT SCENT OF MUSKY LIME (which I had read a couple years ago in DARK DISCOVERIES magazine), after his girl leaves him, a man finds himself living in a story written by one of his favorite authors. A bit familiar, but O'Neill brings his own flavor and as is the case with this collection, a dark and satisfying conclusion.
The final piece is a novella titled AT THE LAZY K, and it's one of the finest ghost stories I've read in quite some time. A rehabilitation clinic (which was a former brothel located on the grounds of an old ranch), becomes the battle ground between the current owners and ghosts of the past. A curse brought on by the hanging of an innocent man a hundred years ago may bring films like BLACK SUNDAY to mind, but here the author employs a cast of incredibly troubled and deep characters to life and had me hanging on every single sentence. This is superb story telling only a master of the craft could pull off, and is a fine example of a classic horror trope given a fresh feel. Excellent.
FROZEN SCREAMS AND OTHER CHILLING TALES is a fantastic collection by a writer who is considered one of the best in the genre, and while I've read and enjoyed some of O'Neill's novels and stories over the years, this collection is proof of the praise given him. His ability to spin familiar themes and still keep the reader guessing until the last page is notable, as are the realistic people he creates to experience these horrors.
This is the perfect place for newbies to start and a must read for long time fans.
TIM E. LESS by Lucas Milliron (2018 CreateSpace / 226 pp / trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)
Having worked nearly 30 years now in the field of residential psych, I’m always a little squinty-suspicious about stories set in asylums … the behavior of patients, the way the place is run, the handling of medications, etc. … but in this case, I was able to overlook those aspects, because it quickly becomes apparent this is far from any ordinary asylum.
Title character Tim E. Less (the E. stands for Edwin) gets himself admitted with traumatic amnesia, a condition that keeps reoccurring because they tell him he’s been there a while, and everyone else seems to know more about him and his past than he does himself. All he really remembers is arguing with his wife about drinking and work vs. being around for their son. Now, the police are claiming his wife and son are missing, and Tim arrived at the asylum covered in blood.
He can’t imagine hurting them, but he can’t remember what really did happen. A risky form of therapy might help unlock those buried memories, though the truth might prove to be worse than the not-knowing. Then there’s the weird incidents going on at the asylum: a patient’s inexplicably violent death, a foul smell only certain people can detect, rooms suddenly collapsing in on themselves.
Plus, Tim himself is having unusual encounters, dreaming what might be memories or what might be madness … or what might be something else altogether. Drawn deeper as he tries to figure out what’s going on, he finds himself undertaking a bizarre, deadly quest through a nightmare place of demons and monsters that appears to overlap, or parallel, his real world.
The copy I received did include many sneaky past-the-spellcheck errors that hopefully got chased out before publication. But the vivid imagery and descriptive turns of phrase throughout are rich and fantastic, both horrific and hilarious – I went "eew" and "LOL" in fairly even measure. Even when it’s hard to sympathize with Tim or some of the other characters, they are easy to empathize with and relate to.
ALL HAIL THE HOUSE GODS by Andrew J. Stone (2018 Strangehouse Books / 134 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
In Stone's dystopian novella, humans exist for the soul purpose of providing children to sacrifice to living houses, who we've lost a major world war to. One such couple is Kurt and Katie, who become fed up with only being able to see their children when the powers that be say so. They each come up with a plan to overthrow the House Gods (Katie by starting a radical group, as Kurt attempts to do things rationally by befriending one of the House Gods he believes is not evil). While Katie sticks to her plan and becomes increasingly passionate, it's Kurt whose transformation makes this story shine: eventually at odds with his wife and his own plan, his plight leads him to what is arguably the most terrifying (and satisfying) finale of any book I've read this year.
I've attempted to read epic novels with similar themes only to be bored and let down. In novella form, Stone keeps his prose tight and manages to deliver an exciting socio-political message without bashing you over the head. And best of all, ALL HAIL THE HOUSE GODS forces you to think.
For those who may be tired of the bizarro thing, here's a smart, weird, end-times tale rich with allegory and a believable cast that will stay with you longer than your average genre tale.
FULL ECLIPSE (TOOTH & NAIL #1) by K. H. Koehler (2018 KH Koehler Books / 72 pp / eBook)
This one has all the makings of a Netflix show … a dark paranormal police procedural in an urban fantasy universe where the monsters are often inhuman and all too real … headlined by somewhat of an odd-couple mismatched buddy cop duo … going up against malevolent enemies and dealing with various issues of politics, bigotry, and personal conflict.
She is Ina Green, a gutsy black woman in a male-dominated field, with a lot of familial obligation weighing heavy on her shoulders and an arranged marriage breathing down her neck. He is Etienne Lamont, rugged charmer, tough guy, man of mystery and long history, with some rather unusual appetites and abilities.
They’re partners, operatives for the Praetorian Guard, a covert organization dedicated to taking on the weird supernatural cases. They’re also each far more than they appear, in this secret side of New York where vampires, fae, and shapeshifters are not unusual.
Lately, several young women seem to have fallen under the sway of a charismatic figure and disappeared, only to turn up dead. The investigation will lead Green and Lamont through an underworld of were-rats, cults, and necromancy, trying to find the so-called ‘Master’ before any more lives are lost.
Highly engaging and entertaining, very readable, loaded with bantering witty dialogue and action … familiar without being a trite rehash, throwing in several nifty twists … Tooth & Nail #1 looks like the start of what promises to be a fun, satisfying series.
MOUSE AND OWL by Bracken MacLeod (2018 An Adversary Publishing / 40 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
When her lover is wrongly executed in the public square, Nergui turns to a magic heirloom to get revenge on the fortified, corrupt city where she lives in poverty and despair. To say anymore would spoil this finely crafted tale.
MacLeod, better known for his horror and crime novels, shows off his diversity in this dark fantasy that while brief, had me completely engrossed. And by dark fantasy, I mean DARK, as this novelette is full of brutal violence and an ending that's reminiscent of Poe. Great stuff.
SEX, GORE, & MILLIPEDES by Ken MacGregor (2017 Dragon’s Roost Press / 218 pp / trade paperback)
If you’re going to pick up a book titled SEX, GORE, & MILLIPEDES, you’d darn well better be prepared for what you’re going to get. Basically, sex, gore, and millipedes. Not for the squeamish, not for the prudish, not for the easily shocked or offended. Definitely for the deranged, twisted, and perverse.
Me, I loved it. From the very first story, “F*** Bunny,” (which is about a gal and her oversized chocolate Easter treat; things quickly turn messy, sticky, and surprisingly grim), there was no turning back. Anybody reading that far has no excuse. You know what you’re getting yourself into.
Quite a few more lusty ladies and lecherous gents reach bad ends in pursuit of their thrills within these pages. Whether it’s finding a tree with a rather unique orifice, going on a dinner date with a particular gourmand, dabbling in amateur filmmaking, picking up a heart in a jar at a yard sale, or even having a more-than-scholarly interest in archaeology, most of the stories are unflinchingly strong on the nasty smutty-smut.
The ones that aren’t smut-heavy make up for it with extra-gross gore: up-close-and-personal body horror, psychotic nursery rhyme fallout, the hazards of dating a werewolf, a pet-owner’s nightmare, and a little classic E.C. Comics style murder/revenge.
And let us not, of course, forget the millipedes! In “Bed Bugs,” an expedition team is researching the curious habits of some jungle lemurs, who use secretions from injured millipedes as insect repellents and narcotics (weirdly, an article about this very subject crossed my Facebook earlier today!). Well, you just know someone on the team’s going to try it … and you just know the effects on humans will be very different than on the lemurs!
The last story in the book, “Starter Home,” goes full-bore on both sex and gore. When a couple thinks they got a really good deal on a fixer-upper foreclosure, only to find that a previous owner is not wild about the sale … and some really unpleasant ways of using power tools … even the most stoic fan of extreme horror will likely wince, cringe, and cross his/her legs.
Serious good stuff. Where, by ‘good,’ I mean utterly demented, disturbingly hot, and horrifically sick. MacGregor is going on the short list of authors whose anything-they-write will likely jump to the top of my reading queue.
Did you see that? Yes, over there silly, lurking in the dark shadows and just atop the blackened hills. What was it? A two-legged goat creature from the fiery nether below? A piece of space junk from an unknown space colony solely inhabited by anal-probed artificial intelligence, master-mindedly created by a top-secret militia of scaly extraterrestrial lifeforms that feed on the darkest of souls? No way, a drabble, you say? Well, folks. Yes, that is correct. They’re just drabbles, a short form of fiction that is exactly one-hundred words long, an excellent challenge for an author to hone and craft and master the art of storytelling. Over a hundred of them to be exact, drabbled here in a collection of drabble horror for our very eyes here in this anthology of Horror Drabbles. Now, before we go any further: Yes, this has been done a million times in Flash Fiction anthologies and collections across the board, so nothing really and truly new to be found here, but what we do have is a nicely compiled list of stories that tackles the concept of the drabble rather well. Not all, but most stories packing a feisty horror punch to the drabble-gut, whilst fitting the overall horror theme of the anthology very drabbling well, if I do say so myself.
Some of my personal favorites were 'The Dead Thing' by Lisa Morton, 'Just a Game' by Christopher Motz, 'Baby Steps' by Michael A. Arnzen,' Heart Shaped Box' by Pippa Bailey, 'Street-Hearts' by Chris Kelso, 'The Man in the Black Sweater' by Richard Chizmar, and 'The End of the Pier' by Amy Cross.
With over a hundred drabbles to be found here and written by some of the best-selling indie horror authors, Bram Stoker award winners, and featuring the likes of Amy Cross, William F. Nolan, Gord Rollo, Mark Lukens, Rick Gualtieri, Jeff Strand, Kevin J. Kennedy, P. Mattern, Lee Mountford, Ike Hamill, Michael Bray, Andrew Lennon, Craig Saunders, Matt Hickman, Glenn Rolfe and many more, there is definitely a little bit of something for everyone to be found here. Check it out!
-Jon R. Meyers
SHEET MUSIC TO MY ACOUSTIC NIGHTMARE by Stephanie M. Wytovich (2017 Raw Dog Screaming Press / 166 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
Okay, I probably should not have settled in to read these all at once … this collection of free verse, vignettes, and flash fiction could just as easily have been titled “Poems To Cut Yourself To.” I don’t mean that in a bad way; they are exceptionally well-done, but daaang.
Not talking happy fun time here. Talking much more pain, emo/goth despair, bleakness, and tragedy. Content warnings for suicide, abuse, rape, death, abandonment, murder, drugs, alcohol, self-mutilation and more.
Dark stuff. Heavy stuff. Powerful stuff. Some with touches of the supernatural, others a brutal examination of the human condition. Recurring themes, such as driving, convey a sense of rootlessness and wandering woven throughout, a sense of not-belonging. So do themes of damaged love and loneliness, betrayal, and heartbreak.
There’s a lot of blood in these pieces. A lot of sex, but not the sexy kind of sex, if you get my drift; more like the hollow, desperate, joyless kind. There’s cruelty, both deliberate and casually indifferent. I think this book falls into the ‘beautiful suffering’ category. Far from cheerful and uplifting, but unforgettable.