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 lap top, amigo ...
Golden's 2017 novel ARARAT made my top ten favorite horror novels that year (and won a Bram Stoker Award, too), so I was thrilled to hear he had written a sequel featuring its main character, Ben Walker. This time Walker is called to check out a find made by archaeologist Sophie Durand and her crew in Northern Iraq. Sophie has discovered a jar in an underground city that may contain either ancient curses or blessings, and hence their site is not only put under tight security but the crew are rushing to get their find out of there before anyone can intercept their work. The fear is this "Pandora's Box" may contain a plague of biblical proportions. As Walker arrives from a mission in Greenland, Jihad terrorists attack and all hell breaks loose.
The action and suspense begin on the first page, as Sophie is trailed back to the dig site by two mysterious figures. Golden wastes no time delivering a fresh twist on the Pandora's Box myth, and this time instead of demons, our explorers face a deadly plague while trying to stay safe from ISIS soldiers … while trapped below ground. If you're claustrophobic, THE PANDORA ROOM will freak you out as much if not more than the 2005 horror film THE DESCENT. Yep, this one captures that same sense of dread (and throws a mysterious disease into the mix for good measure!).
While it was nice to see Ben Walker back in action, I really liked Sophie's extreme yet serious nature. She's not afraid to risk life and limb for her passion and we believe she'd do just about anything to find out just what's in that ancient jar she has unearthed. Here's hoping we see more of her. I also liked the classic monster movie-type post-ending.
I've mentioned it many times, but it bears repeating: Christopher Golden is one of the most consistent writers out there, and THE PANDORA ROOM is one of those novels you hate to put down. It's fast paced, suspenseful, full of fantastic characters, and reads like a popcorn-munching summer blockbuster. A best bet for a beach read this summer.
Went into this one without knowing anything about it, certainly without knowing it was the origin/prequel … I really need to start paying more attention sometimes, because then certain elements might not come as such a "wait, what?" surprise.
It starts off with a Native American woman who’s a retired military general, a wendigo attack, and a helicopter rescue, okay. Then the storyline jumps to a girl whose brother is turning into a monster (well, he always was a monster, just, now it’s literal). More, he’s at the epicenter of an outbreak, but it’s no normal outbreak. Combining viral-infectious stuff with possession/supernatural stuff, it’s starting to look like the beginning of the end. Which it is.
From there, things jump again to Liz and her pal Bennie, who realize bad stuff is seriously going on. The cast of characters grows rapidly, with Liz’s sister, and their lesbian neighbors, one of whom’s a witch ...
Then the jumps become cosmic quantum leaps, as suddenly there’s this whole other fantasy magic world Harry Potter thing where Liz has to go to find out about her true parentage, and meanwhile all these other mythic beings from various cultures are joining the fray, and … yeah.
Nit-picky, not sure if a formatting glitch or what, but apostrophe issues throughout also made me half-crazy. The writing was lively and energetic, could have used a little more editorial love. The violent gory scenes are quite gooshily violent and gory.
There’s a whole lot of everything at once going on here, thrown at the reader’s face in a dizzying barrage. Heavily feminist, heavily LGBTQ and POC, and vegan, etc; soon I could only think of all those “this is the future that liberals want” memes you see around the internet.
The GLAHW crew return again, this time with ten tales of transformation with a twist.
In “Feathers,” Montilee Stormer starts us off with an adult after-dinner take on a game normally reserved for tween slumber parties, in which the familiar ‘light as a feather, stiff as a board’ turns out to be just the start of a complicated and dangerous ritual.
Christian Klaver’s “Day of the Blood Tigers” feels like an odd fit for the theme, not so much about actual shapeshifting as it is about weird paranormal hunters and disappearances.
“The Howling Wolf” by Peggy Christie flips the werewolf legend on its head in a fun way, though I had some trouble with the logistics of it all with the moon phases and just how it was supposed to work.
The always-entertaining Ken MacGregor opens “The Grunt” with the line “You had sex with a WEREWOLF?” and really, what more do you need? Well, stronger condoms, maybe …
“Uninhabited” by Wayne C. Wescott presents a grim future where our new shapeshifting alien overlords frown on people eating their dead, and with good reason, as one hungry guy finds out.
H.R. Boldwood’s “The Good Life” has a drifter after a rough night at the bar make the acquaintance of a wise stranger with a secret, offering a new opportunity.
Next up is “Tadpole” by Janice Leach, for a quick, poetic, oddly pretty change of pace, with nicely done descriptive elements.
“Sanctuary in a Small Town” by Essel Pratt looks at the homesick loneliness of being separated from your pack, and the struggles of trying to lead an ordinary life … until the past catches up.
Cassie Carnage’s fun “Of ‘Squatch and Men” explores what can happen when a weekend camping trip goes badly awry for a bunch of beer-drinking buddies.
Closing the book out is “The Shifter of Shapes” by Justin Holley, a cautionary lesson on the we-never-learn dangers of messing with magic.
UNDER ROTTING SKY by Matthew V. Brockmeyer (2019 Black Thunder Press / 342 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
So, with the month of May being International Short Story month in mind, this was a first for me by the author as I usually like to read short story collections and various horror anthologies throughout the typical work week, and I couldn’t be happier to have spent the time to have checked out this collection recently available from Black Thunder Press. Overall, the stories were extremely versatile and well versed for fans of Dark, Extreme, Horror, and Transgressive Fiction, leaning more towards the extreme side of the above-mentioned genres as far as the prose and content itself is concerned. As with most collections not every story is going to be a homerun but, out of the twenty or so stories there’s actually quite a lot to offer inside this monster of a collection.
Some of my favorites were ‘Joyride’, a delve into a homeless couple living under a bridge, whilst suffering from heroin addiction and withdrawal, as the ghost of a little girl haunts one of the main characters to his hopeless plummet into the depths of his own demise, darkness, and despair. This was a great display of the author’s extreme versatility. ‘Nightingale’, the last known survivor of a notorious inferno that took place in 1910 gets interviewed and unleashes the dark and grim secrets of what really happened on that fateful night. In ‘A New Man’, a man has the internet to thank in more ways than one for teaching him the ways of transorbital lobotomies as he himself becomes an entirely new man.
Other honorable mentions: The Gym Teacher, Under Rotting Sky, Have a Heart, Bubblegum Cigarettes, and The Number of Darkness.
-Jon R. Meyers
KILLING POPPY by William Perk (2018 Apocalypse Party / 147 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
So I’m just standing there and this guy comes up and slips me something, no charge, first hit’s free. Turns out it’s a book about addiction, and if that isn’t one of the most fitting things ever, I don’t know what is.
Unlike many bizarro books that are their own wild drug trip, Killing Poppy is a brilliant and troubling journey through a junkie’s struggle to get clean … though certainly not by any of the usual therapeutic ways. No clinics here, no meetings and step programs. But there is, in a sense, involvement of a higher power.
Gust Ivey lives rambling around the urban weirdness of Portland, Oregon. I haven’t lived here long or spent much time in the areas described, but even so, his random encounters with fellow denizens as described ring true enough to me.
Then he meets an old guy who’s peculiar even by Portland standards. Calling himself Salo, the old guy claims to be an angel whose current assignment is to get Gust off the stuff, one way or another, Gust has two choices: LIFE or DEATH. Ironically, the LIFE choice still involves death, in a way. Gust needs to symbolically kill his dependence by killing it personified.
He names her Poppy, this representation, and at Salo’s instructions carries on writing a letter to her about their shared history. Only, there’s a catch. If Poppy is a stand-in for addiction, at some point a real person is going to have to be the stand-in for Poppy.
What follows is an increasingly hectic semi-accidental crime-spree scramble, with robberies, street-fights, gun-fights, goats, severed heads, social media, breaking news updates, and more. Oh, and the scene with the turtle? Just about broke my heart. I’m seriously upset about the turtle.
The book itself is an artful experience, with illustrations and unusual use of typesetting and many other break-the-rules things to make it far more than a simple bunch of text on a page. It’s also the author’s first book, and as such, is one doozy of a talented debut!
IMPOSSIBLE JAMES by Danger Slater (to be released 6/15/19 by Fungasm Press / 224 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
There’s a lot of bandying-about right now of the term “elevated horror,” which, like with “literary,” just seems to me like a silly face-saving way of letting regular people not feel ashamed of enjoying what’s usually and should-be seen as wrong tacky lowbrow trash. (for the record, I love wrong tacky lowbrow trash and am proud to say so)
Can something similar apply to bizarro? Is there “elevated bizarro”? So it’s ‘okay’ somehow to get a kick out of the weird [bleep], because it’s not all Nazis and dildos and talking butts? (again, not that there’s anything wrong with those, either!) The answer is yes, of course. Authors like Violet LeVoit and Jeremy Robert Johnson have been doing it for YEARS.
And so’s this Slater guy. Didn’t I say last time he keeps getting better and better? Well, it’s true, and he’s proving me right yet again with this new one. If anything, Impossible James takes his work to an even higher level than his previous achievements.
Yes, okay, the story’s about this terminally ill dude who gets a screwdriver stuck in his head, impregnates himself with his own clone, bloats into a weird house-sized behemoth, and destroys the world while survivors try to escape through pandimensional folding geometry, but … y’know, in a brilliantly written, seamlessly logicked (I’ll make up words if I want, hush), insanely insightful way.
Astute readers may notice some familiar names and places; I asked the author outright if he was going to carry on for an entire Sycamore Lane alternate reality trilogy after this, but he just did one of his puckish devious grins.
The phrase that irrevocably came to my mind while reading it was “ominous maturity.” I’m not entirely sure what that’s supposed to mean, but, I’m more eager than ever to see where Danger Slater goes from here.