Sunday, March 10, 2019

Reviews for the Week of March 11, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're reading this on your cellphone there's a good chance you're not going to see it. Break out the Mac, Jack. Or the Dell...

2003 - 2019

WOLVZ: WHISPERS OF WAR by Toneye Eyenot (2018 Luniakk Publications / 129 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

The reputation of vampires may have taken some severe hits in recent years, what with the sparkly angsty tormented stuff … but at least werewolves have for the most part been spared. Even the surge in urban fantasy and shifter romance lets them still, overall, be beasts (however sexy). Hungry, violent, often moon-ruled beasts.

In the were-world according to Toneye Eyenot, there are pure-blooded Lycans and mixed-blood Werewolves, living in packs according to strict hierarchies and laws. There may be power struggles, territorial disputes, feuds, rivalries, but for the most part they’ve been content to lead their mostly secret lives alongside humanity. Humans are prey, food, sometimes useful as thralls, and occasionally recruited into the change by tooth and claw.

For the most part. Until now. Until Claude, alpha of the Wolfhaven pack, decides the time has come for Wolfkind to take their undisputed place at the top. Driven partly by revenge for the death of beloved wolf matriarch Pharo, he rallies his pack and their nearest allies for war.

Shona, one of Pharo’s daughters, is all too eager to join the slaughter. Even in her grief, she’s able to enjoy finally unleashing the full fury of her wrath and hate, killing with impunity, feasting to her heart’s content, making the humans suffer for what they did to her mother.

As word spreads, neighboring packs put aside their disputes to join the cause. Nothing less than total domination will do. They must strike hard and fast before their hapless enemies have a chance to organize. It’s thousands of years of folklore nightmares made real as the growing army moves from town to town.

And it is a bloodbath. This is not a sexy-beast werewolf story. This is carnage, particularly when some opportunistic packs and pack-leaders have their own ideas of how things should be done.

-Christine Morgan

A GOD OF FLIES AMONG THEM by Philip LoPresti (2018 Dunhams Manor Press / 82 pp / trade paperback)

LoPresti's latest novella finds Jessop Thorn returning to his childhood home to deal with a seriously dark past: his entire family had gone missing, one at a time, over the years, yet he was the only one to get out of his small town. Now trying to find answers and closure, Jessop gets help from an old crush (now prostitute), an old friend, and a local witch, although he senses everyone is hiding something from him, and is worried the dead children who haunt his dreams may actually kill him...

Like his previous novella WYTCHCULT RISING, LoPresti's strength is in hinting at potential terrors, making us form our own understanding of what has been going on in the small town of Cedars Parish. With ghosts, incest, and a possible cult or ancient religion at large, A GOD OF FLIES AMONG THEM is a tight read that delivers chills and will leave you checking over your shoulder.

-Nick Cato

THE FOREVER BIG TOP by Jeremy Thompson (2019 Necro Publications / 59 pp / eBook)

I can just imagine the elevator pitch … Dante’s Inferno with clowns. Boom. Mic drop. Sold.

Clowns are already bad enough on their own. Clown Hell? Descending through the worsening levels of it, witnessing hideous torments and punishments? The concept is just so twisted and wrong, even readers who aren’t fond of clowns (though, is anyone, really?) will get a kick out of this.

Okay, yes, the cover’s creepy, almost creepy enough to be off-putting on its own. Flip past that quick and you’ll be okay. Jump right into a concert with clown-rappers Sirkus Kult, fronted by Freshy Jest and Criminal Prankstah. They’re riding high, doing shows, making money, taking their pick of the clowngirl groupies.

It’s certainly better than Freshy’s ‘real life.’ As Franklin Jasper, he’s a scrawny loser. As Freshy, he’s got it all. Then he meets up with a hot little harlequin called Sally Slitz for some post-show R&R, only to learn the hard way that Sally’s got some strange ideas about bonding with her perfect man.

Ideas that include double-suicide. Or, when he hesitates but she won’t be denied, murder-suicide. Next thing Freshy knows, he’s waking up in the circus tent to end all circus tents, the first level of the Forever Big Top, a hell of and for clowns.

Partly by accident, partly out of a desire to find an escape back to the land of the living, Freshy undertakes a journey lower and lower through the levels, encountering every type of clown from mimes and mummers to modern mascots. It’s a carnival of craziness, wackily entertaining, wildly envisioned, wickedly clever, tons of fun.

-Christine Morgan

PUNKTOWN by Jeffrey Thomas (2018 Forma Street Press / 244 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook)

Okay, folks. Here’s the scoop. I had the pleasure of speaking with the author to better clarify a couple of things before diving into the review for this kindle re-release of the original 2005 edition with just under twenty stories of the author’s epic Horror and Science Fiction and Cyberpunk-esque infused masterpiece that is PUNKTOWN. In which, the prior genres seem to compliment each other so well, unlike anything else available on the market, with a beautifully written introduction by Michael Marshall Smith and an introduction to the Punktown mythos and city by the brilliant man himself. PUNKTOWN is a place where only the darkest and wildest dreams may spark to life whether you want them to or not. So, what exactly do we have here before our glowing and radioactive eyes set to kill and murder and create so dark and beautifully on the grimy streets of electric oblivion? The answer… well, what we basically have here is the definitive version of each of the stories collected prior in print from yesteryear. This is exciting for a number of reasons but mainly because the universe, prose, and characters, and alienlike creatures created in the Punktown universe are just so highly enjoyable and unforgettable within themselves and now we can enjoy them even more, so on the electronic platform, as we as the reader impatiently keep awaiting the forthcoming Omnibus’ set for release with Centipede Press, in which, all Punktown stories are being collected and put into one hot spot to restore faith in humanity within. I also thought now would be an appropriate time to put out a little shout out for the new ‘Transmissions from Punktown’ anthology edited by Brian M. Sammons, as this anthology was a collection of stories inspired by the revolutionary world and vision created by Jeffrey Thomas’ beautifully surreal, dark, enigmatic, and extremely versatile sci-fi megalopolis known as ‘PUNKTOWN’. You’ve been warned. Proceed with caution. What happens in Punktown, stays in Punktown. If you’re even able to make it out alive.

There’s too many favorites to list here so let’s start at the beginning to give you a little taste of what’s in store. ‘The Reflections of Ghosts,’ a unique tale where a squatting, hopeless romantic street artist engage in a different sort of art form. His works of art are far more personal as his blank canvas refers to cloning versions of himself, selling them to high dollar clients, and is currently sitting on a beautifully rendered female version of himself, so much as to where he is unsure of wanting to give her away to the client as they begin a more hot, steamy, and intimate relationship that eventually spirals into madness and chaos and out into the grimy streets of Punktown, where one can see dead clones hanging in the gutters, laying on the streets covered in graffiti. The tale touches on some deep and sentimental undertones that are almost too hard to try to explain but we get a deep sense of abandonment and love and the power an intimate and emotional relationship can grab hold of someone when sharing with someone else, and thus even more so when trying to love one’s self, being a prisoner in your own mind, demons under your own skin, and don’t forget about those bony skeletons piled up to the ceiling in your closet. In ‘Pink Pills,’ a woman with a mysterious tumor seeks medical attention unlike anything you’ve ever seen befor. Not everything is as it seems as her dreams spiral out of control and onto a conveyor in a factory where there’s way more than meets the eye going on. Think aliens. Think eggs. Think national pandemic and pandemonium on the mean streets of Punktown as the slow jazz blares up through the soils of this vast sci-fi metropolis of corruption and wires and the sound of static drowns out all hopes of making it out alive. Other favorites, ‘The Library of Sorrows’, ‘Dissecting the Soul’, and ‘Precious Metal’.  

If you haven’t already read this book or any other works by the author, do yourself a favor and check them out. This would be a great place to start. This would be a fantastic place to end it all.

-Jon R. Meyers

a HFR second look...

THE FIREMAN by Joe Hill (2016 Harper Collins / 768 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, eBook, audiobook)

I did not read this whole book in one day. But I came close. 690 pages in one day, the rest on the next day. Now, I always read obnoxiously fast anyway, but even for me this might’ve been a record. I freakin’ devoured this tome, hooked from the very first line. (it probably helped that I took it along to the hospital for my most recent surgery, to pass the time in pre-op and recovery; it also made me all the more determined not to croak under anesthesia and leave it unfinished!)

Storywise, it’s a global end-of-days civilization-breaking epic, but with pinpoint focus. We don’t get, and we don’t need, a cast of thousands or scenes from everywhere else as the outbreak unfolds. What we do need to know about the rest of the world is conveyed naturally, expertly, almost seamlessly.

The outbreak is of a terrifying condition which causes people to spontaneously combust. Society disintegrates into fear and paranoia; someone might ignite and burn at any time. The main outward indication is a blackish-goldish tattoolike patterning on the skin (hence, dragonscale, the name for the disease).

Harper Grayson is a school nurse when it begins, then attempts to aid the response teams. She and her husband have a pact in event of infection – given her line of work, a foregone conclusion. But, discovering she’s pregnant causes her to rethink that plan. Trying to escape her husband, she encounters a group who claim to be not just surviving the illness, but mastering it, learning to harness and use its fiery powers.

For all the heft, for being a tome with the hardcover of which you could club someone to death, let me assure you … it’s all muscle. No fat, no bloat, no padding, no sprawl. We’re talking rock-solid powerhouse muscle here, a tank of a book, a warhorse of a book. My favorite thus far of Hill’s longer works. I kind of wish I’d read it sooner, but I’m also glad I didn’t because it helped me sail through an otherwise rough day.

-Christine Morgan

THE FEN by Michael Baeyens (2018 Independently Published / 522 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Initial impression from the synopsis made this seem like one that should’ve been right up my alley … an academic-type paranormal thriller linking back to Viking times, I mean, come on … that hits several buttons.

The prologue, in which two surviving raiders are fleeing through the woods so terrified of what pursues them that they eagerly seek refuge at a Christian abbey, does a good job with atmosphere and ratcheting up the tension. I was ready to see what happened next, expecting some grisly historical horror.

Unfortunately, then the story jumps ahead to modern day and loses a lot of its promise and momentum. There’s too much mundane detail of routine activities, bogging things down, making what could have been interesting very dry and even dull instead.

Hanna Stevenson is a PhD student of early medieval history, focusing on the eventual distribution of wealth from Viking attacks on the Church. She visits abbeys, looks at manuscripts, uncovers some intriguing leads about an ancestral family that doesn’t seem to appear in other records from the era, and is gradually drawn down the trail of investigating.

Then weird stuff starts to happen; there’s a mysterious old mansion that clearly isn’t what it seems, remnants of that family are still around and have a strange power over the locals, people snooping too closely have fatal accidents, etc. When Hanna becomes too involved, a colleague picks up the trail and finds himself also enmeshed.

Occasional action scenes – particularly inside the mansion – are spooky and well-done but all too brief and lack follow-through, which makes the rest all the more disappointing because the potential for cool story is there, just lost amid the rest of it.

-Christine Morgan


Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Reviews for the Week of February 25, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're reading this on a cell phone you're probably not going to see it. Break out the laptop, baby...

THE BELLY OF PROVENCE by Ray Zacek (2018 Zhombre Publishing / 134 pp / eBook)

A fun four-pack of exotic destinations, taking hapless travelers far off the beaten path.

The first, “Bird of Wonder,” follows a couple having one of the classic age-old arguments … whether or not they need to stop and ask for directions. A touchy enough issue at the best of times, it becomes even touchier in a foreign country where language is an extra barrier. After some difficulty, Steve and Carmen do find their way to the exotic animal sanctuary, though they’ll soon wish they hadn’t.

“Strega” brings us to Tuscany, where another couple is attempting to enjoy a belated honeymoon. Elliot’s older, a professional, previously divorced, prides himself on his intelligence and education; Jen is almost half his age, a former dancer, more interested in shopping than history and archaeology. After an unpleasant encounter with an old local woman and a day trip with their handsome tour guide, Elliot isn’t sure if he’s being cheated on or cursed.

“Rogue Travel” sends a travel show crew on location to Belize, to film an episode of arrogant celebrity John Waite’s adventure series. He, along with his latest girlfriend/producer and their camera guy, accompany a guide to an enormous unmapped cave believed to have been a sacred site to the Maya. When things go wrong, Waite gets some harsh reminders about the difference between his on-screen adventuresome persona and reality.

Title tale “The Belly of Provence” is the last and also the longest piece, taking up about half the book. When a young woman who’d been kicking about on her own in France wakes, immobilized in traction at a quaint country estate, she has to sift through the fogs of pain and traumatic amnesia to retrace her steps. There was the elderly gentleman on the train, the one who claimed he was a sorcerer, who suggested she visit a particular village … and the more seasoned travelers who say they’ve never heard of the place … and how strange it seems when she gets there … and the charming Bastien … and something about an accident … but why isn’t she in the hospital?

-Christine Morgan

THE SPLITS by MV Clark (2017 Shark Claw Books / 299 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

There are zombie books that are your typical zombie books, following the formula, laden with the classic tropes. Then there are zombie books that aren’t your typical zombie books, twisting the formula, playing with the tropes.

And now there’s this one, which is unlike any other zombie book I’ve ever read. I’m not even sure it should technically be called a zombie book … or even a pandemic/infection/outbreak book … although that’s what it’s about.

Set mostly in England of a similar but alternate timeline, it involves a condition that comes to be referred to as “the Splits” … partly because of the way it causes the skin of its victims to split and ooze, and partly because of its ultimate (and scarier, more profound) effect.

The first documented attacks take place in 1969, with feral behavior, crazed biting, and fast-spreading contagion. Not so fast, though, that all society collapses etc.; the authorities are able to mobilize and get some procedures set up in time. Soon, there are government agencies, response teams, cleanup (and disposal) crews, quarantine facilities, and bevies of scientists investigating possible causes and cures.

There’s also the fear, and the stigma, and people trying to hide or deny their condition, or not report infected loved ones. And the dreams, and the claims of seeing ghosts, as if the spirits of the affected victims have somehow ‘split’ from their deteriorating bodies.

The story spans the next several decades, following a handful of primary characters whose lives become interconnected by the unfolding events. It’s presented in a variety of forms, from straight narrative to interviews, articles, and case file notes.

So, yeah, it IS a zombie book, but with a broader scope and wider, more long-term focus with build-up and slow-burn repercussions. If you’re looking for a chaos-fest of carnage and headshots and braaaaaain-eating, this won’t be for you … if you want something more psychological, sociological, and thought-provoking, you’ll likely be very satisfied.

-Christine Morgan

THE HUMAN ALCHEMY by Michael Griffin (2018 Word Horde / 305 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I’ve seen Michael Griffin’s name circulating for a while now among the weird fiction community, and read a couple of the stories from this collection when they originally appeared in anthologies. His work’s impressive in its smooth polish and subtle textures, always doing an excellent job involving the senses (physical and metaphysical as well).

Many of them are set in Portland, Oregon, and it really works. If there’s a west-coast version of Lovecraft country, it could well be that area. May not have as long a recorded history, but it’s got the grey and gloomy weather, peculiarities in its past … and not for nothing is the motto “Keep Portland Weird.”

These are also often ordinary-seeming people, these characters who find themselves dealing with uncanny mysteries as well as the normal troubles of everyday relationships and life. As is also the frequent case with Lovecraftian tales, many of the characters are troubled artists seeking (and finding) disturbing truths … unusual architecture and strange rituals abound … quests for ancient and obscure knowledge lead to dangerous paths …

“The Smoke Lodge” is extra fun for anyone involved with the weird fiction scene; not unlike in “I Am Providence” by Nick Mamatas, any similarities or resemblances to actual events or actual persons living or dead sure doesn’t seem purely unintentional.

The prevailing mood and tenor throughout the book is of a sort of beautiful doom. The vast cosmic horrors of emptiness and impressions of matters beyond human comprehension suggest that, however awful the state of ‘not knowing’ might be, sometimes getting answers actually can be worse.

If I have one minor silly gripe here, it’s that the name of one character kept throwing me off balance. Whenever I read “Noone,” my mind wanted to mispronounce it, thinking of Odysseus in the lair of the Cyclops. If I have a larger but more diffuse gripe, it’s how many of these stories end with a tantalizing vagueness, leading to inner wails of what-happens-next?

-Christine Morgan

CONTRITION by Deborah Sheldon (2018 IFWG Australia / 244 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

How far would you go to make up for past wrongs? What would you endure to atone for something terrible that happened long ago? How strong is the binding power of love … and guilt … and shame? Is it worth upending your whole life to save someone else’s? Where’s the line between duty/obligation and self-preservation? What would you put yourself through to keep a secret?

When he discovers his high-school sweetheart homeless, John Penrose goes above and beyond. He doesn’t just try to help her. He takes her in. But, as he quickly learns from her disturbed and disturbing behaviors, he also has to keep her hidden. Hidden from his landlords, his neighbors, everyone.

And there are a succession of landlords and neighbors; Meredith has particular dislikes for traffic noises, yard work, neighborhood pets, kids, etc. Although she’s supposed to stay inside, she always eventually slips out, and there are only so many incidents people can overlook or pass off before they start getting suspicious.

They can’t stay in any one place long, frequently moving, hopping from one rental property to another as John struggles to hang onto his job and make ends meet. He has no social life. He can’t have anyone over. Maintaining his carefully-constructed story is its own challenge.

Also, more and more, he’s having a hard time getting past just how weird Meredith’s become. Spooky. Even dangerous. Her eating habits, for instance … the boxes she doesn’t want him to look in … the gaps in her memory … the peculiar scars.

The latest move brings a new complication. Her name is Donna, the friendly, attractive, single mom who lives across the street. John likes her. Meredith doesn’t. Plus, John is piecing together more of Meredith’s missing years, as well as confronting his own memories about their school years, and what happened to her brother.

Instantly intriguing, brimming with building psychological dread and tension, it’d be a gripping thriller even without the horrific creepy paranormal elements. Really enjoyable, if not entirely comfortable, making the reader look inward to wonder what he or she might do.

-Christine Morgan

THE FIVE SENSES OF HORROR edited by Eric J Guignard (2018 Dark Moon Books / 313 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, & eBook)

As someone who was a psych major and has always been aware of the effectiveness of the use of sensory description in writing, I was all over this one and as interested in the scholarly introductions as by the stories themselves.

Dr. Jessica Bayless presents several excellent essays on the psychobiology of horror and the various senses, not only explaining how they function but how and why they affect our emotions – particularly relating to fear – the way they do. It’s brilliant stuff, not just informative but entertaining.

Although there are far more than five, those five are the biggies, the main ones we know about and rely on: touch, hearing, taste, sight, and smell. The book’s divided therefore into five sections, one for each, with three stories per. Not just stories about the senses, but the absence or loss of them, or ways they can go awry.

And what a lineup spread among those five sections! Ramsey Campbell’s in here, and Poppy Z. Brite. Richard Christian Matheson. Lisa Morton. Kathryn Ptacek.

As great as the rest of them are, picking my top fave was no contest this time: Lucy Taylor’s “In the Cave of the Delicate Singers,” in which a young woman with an unusual way of perceiving sounds ventures into a cave in search of missing explorers. I love stuff about caves and caving, it’s something I’d want to do if I were, y’know, young and fit and brave and athletic. This one does a fantastic job bringing the entire experience to life, trapped claustrophobic anxiety and all.

Lisa L. Hannett’s “Sweet Subtleties” is an exquisite decadence of dark fantasy, combining aspects of Pygmalion and Frankenstein with artistic confectionery and people of particularly demanding and distinguished tastes.

Editor Eric J. Guignard also contributes a preface and a follow-up essay, as well as handy lists for further reading and/or academic study. There’s an afterword by Dr. K.H. Vaughan on the connections and differences between sensation and perception. Illustrations by Nils Bross add the perfect final flourish throughout.

-Christine Morgan


Monday, February 11, 2019

Reviews for the Week of February 11, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're on a cell phone you probably can't see it. Bust out the laptop, baby...

STORY TIME WITH CRAZY UNCLE MATT by Matt Spencer (2018 Back Roads Carnival Books / 218 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Then there’s the books you’re not quite sure where they came from, no memory of having been sent a review copy or picking one up … it’s just in your e-reader thingie as if out of nowhere, but hey, what the heck, why not? Especially when it’s got a fun title. Got to be worth a try, right?

This was one of those books. But, however it happened, I’m glad that it did, because it proved to be well-written, entertaining, and more than a little bit delightfully wacky. The author makes clever use of a variety of writing styles and approaches, showcasing a range of skills.

A couple of settings feature prominently, with several stories taking place in each – a fictionalized Vermont town in a world otherwise pretty much our own, and a more fantastic realm of warring races (though with dialogue and language use fairly modern/slangy and familiar, giving those tales a “gaming group” kind of vibe; I don’t always enjoy that in otherworld settings, but here it worked).

“Kids Say The Wildest Things” was a particular favorite of mine, doing a good job capturing the way kids really think and talk, not to mention presenting a child’s-eye-view of religious rites in an interesting light. I also got a kick out of the ones that took sudden turns into cosmic horror or other surprise genres.

Interconnections weave throughout the collection: a weird little shop pops up a few times, characters recur in unusual ways across distances and eras. The end result brings everything satisfyingly together, and made for an overall engaging read.

-Christine Morgan

GIANTESS GLOBALIST SPERM WAR by Mandy De Sandra (2018 Clash Books / 102 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I picked up this book before the edition with the really super naughty censored-by-retailers Jim Agpalza cover art, but oh my goodness is it causing a stir! It’s fairly, um, gynecological to say the least … and in terms of judging a book by its cover or not, with this one, I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet.

There were these weird bombs, see, and they destroyed most of humanity and civilization, and caused the surviving women to grow to colossal size. Surviving adult males were eradicated, boys rounded up and penned in the ruins of famous Florida theme parks. There, largely left to fend for themselves Lord of the Flies style, they grow up as best they can in loose tribal groups, until the time comes when the giantesses make their selections for food and potential mates.

Potential MATES? But HOW? you might be wondering, and with good reason. Well, basically, in the same way as ever. Just that, instead of having sex, the men themselves go inside and make the dangerous reproductive journey to see which of them will merge with the egg. Competition and cooperation are required, it’s part death race and part obstacle course and part puzzle-room.

I do wish the text had received a more thorough editing treatment before being put into print; it’s a crazy-clever story with an attention-getting cover, bound to upset, offend, and annoy a lot of people (while amusing the heck out of others).

When it’s Mandy De Sandra at the helm, nothing is sacred and nothing’s off-limits; leave your polite sensibilities at the door, and brace yourself for sharp social commentary skewering sexist attitudes and taking vicious swipes at the MRA movement. One way or another, even with therapy, you won’t soon forget this book.

-Christine Morgan

COLD DEAD HANDS by Jeff Strand (2018 Amazon Digital / 73 pp / eBook) 

A group of misfits hellbent on making a political statement on gun control enter the local Save-A-Lot equipped with knives, daggers, and battle axes while you’re out on the town shopping for weekly groceries. What do you? Throw the gallon of milk, carton of eggs, and loaf of bread on the ground before you, and attempt to make an inside out breakfast massacre omelet? No, silly. Better guess again. Unless you want your insides cooked up and spit out in a death frying pan, you’d better make that mad dash for the walk-in freezer in the back of the store, am I right? Somewhere cold and dark and safe. Lock yourself in and hide away from the bladed assailants.

Strand’s comically dark writing here is top notch as usual. His dialogue and prose, sharp and quick to the gut. His characters are very well developed (there’s a lot of them in this one too), heartfelt, and perfectly executed (pun very much intended), as this book reads like one of those badass super ultra-violent action flicks, you know aside from our favorite horror films, the next best thing since sliced bread (oh, snap, another violent food pun intended).

Put all of this together and mix it with a clever statement about gun control and violence and today’s media, and we have yet again another quick and powerful release from an author who continues to shock and entertain and deliver time and time again.

-Jon R. Meyers

OCCASIONAL BEASTS by John Claude Smith (2018 Omnium Gatherum / 362 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

The first story I ever read from John Claude Smith is in this collection, and it is one I will never forget … it came in as a submission to an anthology call I was doing, and I flat-out could not believe it. Why in the world was someone sending something THIS good to ME? To my rinkydink nothing project? My first impulse, opportunistic and mercenary though it was, was to accept it at once, get the contract signed, and lock it down before the author realized he’d goofed.

The rest of his stories here prove to be of similar artistry and caliber. Why he hasn’t been snapped up yet by the big-name presses is beyond me. We’re talking intricate delicate word use but also a sense of dark grittiness, language like harpstrings and sudden thunder, mood and emotion and raw nerve-ending terrors interwoven.

Several of them touch upon cosmic horror; some do more than touch, they get right down in there and wallow in the weird, plunging the reader into it with a full immersion that would’ve had Lovecraft leaving the bedside light on. The unexplained often stays that way, as it should, as it must; that’s what makes it really work.

As for body horror and gore, even the most seasoned fans of the extreme may find themselves flinching over many of the descriptive passages. Humor has its place here, too; so does some fairly steamy sex. Most of all, though, it’s the use of language that consistently blew me away.

Special mention has to be made of “Personal Jesus,” in which a couple of road-tripping horror fans have the chance to stop in and meet one of their idols. When one asks THE question, their obliging host is all too glad – to their sorrow! – to answer. Anyone who’s been to cons or hung out with writers will likely be grinning and nodding throughout.

So, yeah … get this book, read the stories (maybe take more breaks than I did, to let your mind try to recover), and keep an eye on this guy, because he’s going to leave a definite mark.

-Christine Morgan

DAMNED FICTION by David Kempf (2018 Amazon Digital / 306 pp / eBook)

This book brings you stories within stories, constructed by way of a frame narrative in which the Devil himself challenges two authors – one of erotica, the other of extreme horror – to a writing contest. The ultimate prize will go to whoever proves their genre is the most sinful and corrupting.

So, not only do you get to witness the bargain and the interplay between the competing characters, you get to read the contest entries themselves. Which is more wicked? Graphic dirty kinky sex, or graphic bloody gory violence?

Unfortunately, fun though the premise is, the book itself doesn’t fully live up to its promise and potential. The writing’s on the rough side, fairly heavy on ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’, and the whole thing’s in need of some editorial polish … for stories in an ultimate-prize competition, neither the erotic nor the extreme entries seem all that erotic or extreme.

Plus, as someone who’s always been a little nitpicky about the whole issue of wishes (fine print, loopholes, letter of the law, sneaky interpretations, general rules-lawyering; what do you want, I was a gamemaster for many many years and ya gotta watch out for this stuff!), not to mention paradoxes, I did hit a pretty big stumbling block with a major plot element at the very start of the book. But maybe that’s just me.

-Christine Morgan


BLACK STATIC no. 67 (Jan-Feb 2019)

Opening commentary finds Lynda E. Rucker digging into how loss, in horror, can explore the human condition perhaps even more soberingly than the graphic stuff, and Ralph Robert Moore’s personal account of not fitting in at the workplace hit home with me on a grand scale.

This issue’s fiction features 2 short stories and 3 novelettes, the first being ‘Do Not Pet,’ also by Ralph Robert Moore. Karl is a suicidal older man, upset over the suicide of his son. When he takes an odd ghost-sighting tour, the people running it give him a most extreme option. Moore brings the chills in this original take on the afterlife and depression.

In ‘Shore Leave’ by Mike O’Driscoll, Nick Baptiste is third mate on a container ship currently ashore in Manila. He’s attempting to forget about a horrible incident that led to the loss of his son and separation from his wife and daughters, and manages to find supernatural help through a tricky Djinn. A somewhat familiar yet emotionally powerful and engaging entry.

Kristi DeMeester’s ‘The Silence of Prayer’ looks at devotion and worship through the eyes of a woman who finds a man in the woods. He becomes her God and she finally sees him for what he is when he brings her a young girl to be part of their congregation. Spooky and well written, this religious terror tale is my favorite this issue and another in a growing line of excellent DeMeester appearances in BS.

In Michele Ann King’s ‘In the Fog, There’s Nothing But Grey,’ a woman arrives at a bar that’s populated with suspicious patrons. Outside, a mysterious fog and noises dare anyone to investigate. Is this woman a protector or part of the unexplained situation King vaguely hints at? A brief but thought provoking piece.

Finally, ‘All We Inherit’ follows David and his young son Brad as they respond to reports of a break-in at David’s late father’s farmhouse. A buck visits Brad late at night, attempting to lure him outside. Despite a phone call from his aunt warning them to leave, David assures her they’re only staying until the break-in situation is resolved, but in the meantime David learns the dark truth about his father’s passing, a truth that could affect his son. I loved the atmosphere here as author Eric Schaller delivers a solid chiller.

Among the book reviews (now being handled by seven reviewers) are in depth looks at the latest from Stephen King, Rio Youers, Gwendolyn Kiste and Simon Bestwick, as well as a collection and anthology which both sounds like best bets.

In Gary Couzen’s Blu-ray/DVD reviews we find a 4-film box set of William Castle titles, new Blu-Rays of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and Argento’s OPERA, plus newer films such as CAM and LOST GULLY ROAD, both of which are now on my must see list.

Black Static’s first issue of 2019 continues to deliver some of the best short horror fiction around, and although I am a big fan of shorter works, the longer novelettes appearing lately have been outstanding.

Grab a subscription or single issue here: BLACK STATIC

-Nick Cato


Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Reviews for the Week of January 28, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're on a cell phone you probably won't be able to see it. Break out the lap top, baby....


THE VERY BEST OF CAITL├ŹN R. KIERNAN (to be released 2/7/19 by Tachyon Publications / 432 pp/ trade paperback & eBook)

I’ve read a story or two from Kiernan over the years, but never read a novel or collection (and she has many of both). So when given the chance to check out her latest collection I figured it was high time to dive in. While most of the tales here are dark fantasy or sci-fi, almost all have elements of classic, sometimes extreme horror.

‘Andromeda Among the Stones’ is an apocalyptic Lovecraftian chiller set in California during WW1. An astrologer attempts to bring about the end after studying an ancient book he has taken home from the Middle East. His young daughter manages to keep him at bay with the help of her ghost mother and dying brother. One wicked opener...

In ‘La Peau Verte,’ Hannah turns to alcohol to deal with the death of her sister...or was her sister taken by mythical creatures? A wondrous dark fantasy and one of my faves of the collection.

‘Houses Under the Sea’ is the story of Jacova Angevine, a Berkeley Professor who has been fired after her controversial book is published. A man investigates her story, which leads to romance and an ancient cult. A great Lovecraftian piece to get the chills going.

In ‘Bradbury Weather,’ lovers are affected by a weird cult on Mars, and although sci-fi, this one is a psychological horror novella at its core. Loved it.

‘A Child’s Guide to the Hollow Hills’ is an inventive (and dark) look at a fairie’s fate.

In ‘The Ammonite Violin (Murder Ballad No. 4),’ a serial killer, who also happens to be a Collector, hires a woman violinist to play his new, custom made instrument. A couple of surprise twists made this one of the best of the lot.

In ‘A Season of Broken Dolls,’ a couple living in a post “micro-nuked” NYC manage their loose relationship over an extreme downtown art scene. Interesting but felt like part of a bigger story.

‘In View of Nothing,’ finds an assassin taken hostage during a future war somewhere in Asia. Told in future then past events, this sci-fi thriller is as weird as it is darkly suspenseful.

‘The Ape’s Wife’ features alternate versions of what could’ve become of Ann Darrow, the forced bride of KING KONG. And if like me, you’re a fan of the original film, this will be one of your favorites. Kiernan’s prose here is fantastic.

‘The Steam Dancer (1896)’ is a character study of a dancer and her mechanic husband who takes off one morning with her mechanical leg. Held my interest and ends on a melancholy note, but doesn’t really go anywhere.

In ‘Galapagos,’ a scientist from earth is called to check out a spaceship that has changed its course after encountering a bizarre alien “cloud.” She recounts her experience from a psychiatric clinic and this sci-fi head scratcher ends on an unexpected note.

‘Fish Bride (1970):’ A woman, who is turning into an aquatic being, falls in love with a man she knows can’t come with her. Reminiscent of classic mermaid tales yet quite different, this is a depressing look at loneliness, family and accepting one’s destiny.

‘The Mermaid of the Concrete Ocean’ features an art journalist interviewing an elderly parapalegic woman who had modeled for a series of paintings by a late artist. As much a mystery as a fantasy, the author’s writing sings in this beautifully written collection highlight.

‘Hydrargurous,’ is another sci-fi tale about a drug transporter who’s convinced he keeps seeing people leaking an odd liquid. The ending had me a bit confused but the ride there was worth it.

In ‘The Maltese Unicorn,’ demons battle in Manhattan in an attempt to find a dildo (yes, a dildo) made from a unicorn horn. As funny as it sounds, this one is played straight (although there’s some dark humor—how can there not be?) and makes a way out there noir/Lovecraftian dark fantasy fans of weird tales will love.

‘Tidal Forces’ features my favorite ending of the collection, another dark fantasy about two women who live seaside when one develops a mysterious hole in her stomach that keeps expanding.

In ‘The Prayer of Ninety Cats,’ gothic horror is explored through a film about Countess Bathory who lives in her late husband’s castle. She now seems to prefer women over men, and stranger sexual fetishes, as she tortures victims. Despite her dwarf servant and believing her prayers will help, her destiny is literally sealed by members of the outraged state. Best of all, Kiernan managed to make this one interactive, if you will, putting the reader in the center of the story. Great stuff here.

‘One Tree Hill (The World as Cataclysm)’ finds a science journalist investigating a New England town where a home and its adjacent tree were struck by lightning. One of the spookier stories here, it reminded me a bit of 80s-era small town horror tales ALA Rick Hautala and TM Wright.

In ‘Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8),’ The Southwest becomes the killing grounds for two lesbian sisters in this nasty, sex-charged tale of mayhem.

And finally there’s ‘Fairy Tale of Wood Street,’ perhaps the strangest piece here (and that's really saying something), a dizzying account of a woman, returning from the restroom, observing what she sees from the back of a movie theater’s auditorium. The onscreen images hint the woman may or may not have a tail. Like a David Lynch film, the point of this one may decide to reveal itself to me (or any reader) at some point, but on this first read we’re with this woman and completely engrossed in the author’s odd visions and narrative.

These are 20 previously published stories, so this might not be of much interest to long time fans. But for this newbie, it has made me a fan, and a big one at that. Kiernan is easily one of the best writers of weird fiction working today and I'm looking forward to digging into her catalog.

-Nick Cato

1000 SEVERED DICKS by Ryan Harding and Matt Shaw (2018 Amazon Digital  / 76 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

There are the moments you’re about to head out for a doctor’s appointment and think to yourself, “Oh hey I should grab a book-book for the waiting room” and what happens to be next up on top of your literal TBR pile? Sorry, guys, I love ya but needless to say I took along another for that trip.

I did, however, read it pretty much straight through shortly after the appointment … which may have been its own sort of mistake because yeeee-owtch that was brutal! As if I hadn’t already been leery of pizza cutters to begin with!

There’s often community chatter about the hierarchies of various horror sub-genres; who’s king, who’s crown prince, etc. But here, working together, we have princes of TWO nations, in an alliance the likes of which would have turned medieval Europe on its ear.

I’m talking, making the darkest of the Dark Ages and the most violent of the Crusades look like a romp in Candyland. The contents of an inquisitor’s kit or indeed entire torture dungeon can’t stand up to what these guys manage with some simple household tools and kitchen implements.

The title alone should be warning enough, not to mention the cover. Imagine if you will, a vigilante whose one-man mission is to punish adulterers, to hunt down cheating husbands and unfaithful wives.

Out of town on a business trip? Carrying on a clandestine affair with a neighbor? Making use of no-tell motels and hookup apps on the sly? Well, catching his eye will make catching a disease the least of your worries. For a while. Not a very long while, maybe … but much too long a while when it’s actually happening, I’m sure!

-Christine Morgan

NOFACE by Andre Duza (2016 StrangeHouse Books / 296 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

On her way home from work, Erin Hopkins is assaulted until being saved by a mysterious figure whose face she can’t remember...except for the rows of long, jagged teeth which stuck out from its dark hood.

A month after the attack, Erin fights nightmares of her ghastly rescuer, and soon discovers a connection between the sharp-toothed thing and a local government research facility. Everyone in her life, from her boyfriend to her best friend, are now in danger as the strange stalker seeks revenge on those who experimented on him.

Told in multiple timelines, Duza packs this one with several surprising moments, some extreme violence, and a couple of decent twists. Kind of like a blend between Dean Koontz’ WATCHERS and Edward Lee’s MONSTROSITY, NOFACE is another solid offering from Duza’s dark arsenal.

-Nick Cato

GUIGNOL AND OTHER SARDONIC TALES by Orrin Grey (2018 Word Horde / 188 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

A few of the stories in this collection I’d had the pleasure of seeing before in their original anthology appearances (and called them out for special mention, more often than not, as I recall). But there’s definitely something to be said for having them gathered together to showcase the author’s consistently excellent quality and skill.

Various aspects of the Mythos are well-represented, though subtle. There’s not a lot of overt references, no visits to Arkham or Innsmouth. Mentions and shadows, a resonator here, a whisper of tattered yellow there, ominous cults, hints of madness. Several of the tales, written to order for themed calls, rise admirably to the challenges of diverse characters, eras, and settings

You’ll also find a very well-done and amusing choose-your-own-adventure, some dark and disturbing familial legacies, messages from the other side, and a particularly unsettling but beautiful take on a lesser-known fairy tale. Art is often a component, exploring the ever-haunting allure of finding mysterious lost films or pursuing the magic of movie-making, the effect of uncanny or forbidden melodies.

Now, if some of the stories also seem to touch uncomfortably upon elements semi-autobiographical ... it’s probably best not to speculate how much. But, going by my own experiences with the subgenre of weird fiction and Lovecraft fandom, I think I can safely say those are pretty much spot-on.

“Invaders of Gla’aki” deserves special mention for cleverness, not to mention sheer nostalgia factor and fun, deftly weaving together the works of the great Ramsey Campbell with old-school arcade games … we need a remake of The Last Starfighter done Gla’aki style!

-Christine Morgan

KRONOS RISING by Max Hawthorne (2016 Far From The Tree Press / 554 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

If I ever say I’m tired of toothy aquatic monster horror, it’s code that I’ve been kidnapped. And this one, aside from a few issues (one glaring, one minor, one trivial), is solid good high-octane chompiness from start to finish.

Summary-wise, it’s what you’d expect and want: hitherto-unknown hungry critter rises from the deeps, disrupts local oceanic ecosystem, nobody wants to believe it at first and then they have no choice, some want to capture, some want to kill, boats are smashed, havoc is wreaked, people are messily devoured.

Those issues, though … most glaringly, it’s a sausage fest. The ONLY main female character is the gutsy, brilliant, witty science-type, who also happens to be an exotic beauty. Although a doctor and leader of her crew, she’s the object of crass remarks and casual sexism from other characters, even ones who should know better. Then to add in the ugly abusive relationship with the mercenary-jerk baddie who shows up to take over the hunt for the monster is more sour icing on that particular cake than I could take.

As for the more minor issue, I did think there were a few too many conveniences of miraculous coincidences, worsening situations, nick-of-time rescues and narrow escapes to plausibly stretch disbelief. The trivial issue is a personal peeve of author description, in which instead of using a simple name or pronoun, we get ‘the lawman’ / ‘the cetaceanist’ / ‘the young deputy’ / etc. trotted out in the prose.

Must say, though, the havoc-wreaking, boat-smashing, people-devouring scenes are among the best I’ve read, hugely epic fun with no fiddling about. Middle of a press conference, just as everyone’s scoffing at the experts? Whammo, chaos and panic and destruction everywhere; doubt or deny THIS! Tons of marine-monster fun!

-Christine Morgan

SHEPHERD OF THE BLACK SHEEP by Kristopher Triana (2018 Blood Bound Books / 265 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

My previous experiences with this author’s work (particularly BODY ART) had me mentally braced for the most extreme of the extreme … and yet, having this one turn out to be much more quiet, subtle, emotional, suspenseful, and psychological was anything but disappointing.

It opens with two little girls playing in the woods, having whimsical fun, making up stories. Then something terrible happens, and only one little girl makes it home. This tragedy hits on the heels of being recently orphaned and sent to live with her widower grandfather, who’s dealing with his own grief as well as the unexpected challenge of trying to raise a pre-teen.

The last thing he wants is for her to endure more stress and trauma. But the investigation is underway, and she’s the sole witness, being questioned by detectives as well as therapists. There are mugshots and lineups to look at. The other girl’s distraught family is demanding answers, applying social and financial pressures, even making accusations. Then there’s the kids at school, how unkind they can be … and neighbors … people snooping around the house …

I read the whole thing in a single captivated sitting, eyes wide and almost breathless, repeatedly rocked and shocked even when I thought I knew where it was going. The loss and pain, the tension, the frustration, protective love, conflict, helplessness … this book hits strong on every mark.

Now, to be sure, when there are violent bits, they are VIOLENT violent bits, pulling no punches and taking no prisoners, not sparing the sensibilities about raw red horror and gore. And they work just so damn well against the gentler overall tone, making them all the more visceral and terrible.

-Christine Morgan