Monday, May 6, 2019

Reviews for the Week of May 6, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're on your cell phone you probably won't be able to see it. Boot up the 'ol laptop, baby...

NO GIG IS TOO SMALL by Andre Duza (2018 Deadite Press / 148 pp / trade paperback)

Almost four years ago, I read and reviewed Duza’s shock-jock radio show zombie apocalypse book, WZMB, which presented the end of the world and the collapse of civilization through an assortment of clips, transcripts, eyewitness accounts, and other unusual narrative approaches.

Picking up NO GIG IS TOO SMALL and realizing it was a sequel, with a similar hodge-podge of nontraditional styles, made for a delightful surprise! This time, in a VH1-esque Behind the Music format, we follow the megastar 80’s band Serpentine on a reunion tour like no other.

Rockers Graeme, Jules, and Hollister are hitting the road in a doomsday prepper’s kitted-out ride, getting it all on video as they brave the dead-shambling ruins. It could be the biggest comeback ever. It could get them torn apart and eaten.

Or it could turn into something even weirder, as they notice the same figure appearing again and again … a woman in a Serpentine concert shirt, whose behavior proves strikingly unlike the other undead. She was a big fan who never got her fondest wish, and now someone is hoping to make her post-mortem dreams come true.

Told through video footage and voice-overs, descriptive fragments, script-like dialogue, flashbacks, omniscient camera overview, and so on, it isn’t the smoothest read … but it doesn’t have to be. Nor should it be. Like WZMB before it, the style works great for the story, and again lends a fresh, different take to the zombie genre.

-Christine Morgan

THAT WHICH GROWS WILD by Eric J. Guignard (2018 Cemetery Dance / 296 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, & eBook)

Prolific and excellent editor as he is, it’s sometimes easy to miss that Eric J. Guignard is an accomplished author in his own right. This gorgeous sixteen-story collection (blurbed by Ramsey Campbell no less!) certainly proves it.

The somewhat cumbersomely-titled but immediately gripping “A Case Study in Natural Selection and How it Applies to Love” starts things off with an all-too-plausible near-future where global warming has done just that, raising temps (but it’s a DRY heat!) to the point struggling survivors have to deal with spontaneous human combustion as well as chaos and drought. I’d happily read an entire novel set in that world!

Another favorite of mine was “Last Night ...”, which speculates what would happen if the planetary rotations and revolutions just suddenly stopped, tidally locking half the earth toward constant sunlight and the other under the sway of an eternally full moon … dire enough, even without a werewolf problem …

I also enjoyed “A Curse and a Kiss,” presenting a much darker-than-Disney take on Beauty and the Beast from the house servants’ point of view, with a different sort of Beast and a very different sort of Belle.

The others span a wide range of eras, settings, and styles. We get gritty gunslingers, debt and decadence, a run-in with Bigfoot, the remote horror of war, a dying mother’s dutiful son, Prohibition-era grim undertakings, a plane crash in the desolate desert, ominous sinkholes, strange plagues, love and loss in the fog, the risks of that business ‘power lunch’, a tsunami’s legacy returning from the sea, and an under-the-rainbow visit to Oz.

Some of these, I’d seen before in their original appearances. Others were brand-new to me. I found them all well-written and entertaining. Solid good stuff!

-Christine Morgan

WOUNDS: SIX STORIES FROM THE BORDER OF HELL by Nathan Ballingrud (2019 Simon and Schuster / 289 pp/ hardcover, trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)

Ballingrud’s second short story collection deals mainly with men who find themselves in dark, desperate situations, starting with ‘The Atlas of Hell,’ where a shady bookstore owner is forced by a crime lord to steal a book that’s reputed to be the gateway to hell itself. A suspenseful blend of horror, noir, and southern gothic gets this show off to a solid start.

In ‘The Diabolist,’ the daughter of a mad occultist learns the history of a summoned imp, as well as her and her father’s fate, then ‘Skullpocket’ delves into a town’s dark secret in a fairy tale-type style. Ghouls, a strange cult, child sacrifice and charnel houses are just part of what’s in store in this wickedly addictive tale.

‘The Maw’ finds an elderly man hiring a young girl to guide him through a city that has become a doorway to hell. Some images here will immediately get under your skin. I had read ‘The Visible Filth’ back in 2015 when it was released as a stand alone novella, and it made me an instant fan of the author. A bartender in New Orleans finds a cell phone that sets a creepy-crawler thriller into motion. Excellent.

WOUNDS ends with ‘The Butcher’s Table,’ a novella-length pirate tale featuring cannibal priests, Satanists, demons, double crosses, and enough schism to make even Blackbeard shudder. As someone not interested in pirate stories, this one ended up being my favorite here, and my favorite piece from the author so far.

With this and his previous collection, Ballingrud is well primed for take off.

-Nick Cato

THE BLOOD IN GUTHRIE by Kira McKinney (2018 IP / 218 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Ah, small Southern towns, their secrets, their struggles, their scandals! Some of the issues remain the same, whether modern or back in 1934. Clashes between the bible-thumpers and the roadhouse revelers, racial tensions, corrupt or incompetent officials, grisly decapitation murders …

Okay, that last one may be a little outside the curve, but, there it is. Welcome to Guthrie, where, lately, a lot of severed heads have been turning up. Just the heads, positioned at various points around town, and not much to go on in the way of clues.

Sheriff Elmer Avant, widely regarded as a bumbling idiot, is far more concerned with stuffing his face, taking it easy, and making passes at pretty blondes at the bar. His new deputy, recently relocated from the big city, is another matter. Jack McMann, overcoming his own troubled past, is determined to solve the crimes.

The problem is, hardly anyone else in town seems much to care, even as the death toll rises. Neither are they too keen on outsiders meddling in their business. Jack’s job is further complicated when suspicion and attraction collide in the form of diner-owner Minnie, a black woman with no patience for racist talk.

My biggest side-eye overall has to do with the relationship between Jack and Elmer. The level of insubordination Jack displays seems way out of place / out of line, even considering. However much a bozo Elmer might be, to put up with all that? I had a hard time buying it.

Jack’s investigations often strain suspension of disbelief, conveniently letting him overhear conversations or make huge CSI-type logic leaps. The tone strives for dark comedy but falls flat in places. Still, it was entertaining and held my interest, and I read the whole thing.

-Christine Morgan

a HFR second look:

RABID HEART by Jeremy Wagner (2018 Riverdale Avenue Books / 194 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook)

I’d not been acquainted with this author’s work before, and was a little weary/apprehensive about yet another military-vs-zombies book. That it featured a female protagonist, however, and was billed as much as a love story as a shoot-’em-in-the-head, intrigued me.

Turns out Rhonda Driscoll is far from your typical soldier. She’s a hair stylist whose father is in charge of a last-stand stronghold military base. Although she’s learned a lot in the months since the ravenous bitey undead rampage began, although she’s capable with guns and gear and all that, the prevailing vibe is more of a ‘Take Your Daughter To Work Day’ gone too far. She’s certainly not above using Daddy’s name and rank to get around the rules when necessary.

Of course, even Daddy has limits for how far she can push it. Limits that don’t include bringing her zombified fiance back from a search-and-salvage mission to her old neighborhood. The colonel didn’t like Brad much even when he was alive. He’s not about to accept a ‘Cujo,’ as they’re called, for a son-in-law. No matter how much his little girl insists Brad is not like the others.

So, Rhonda and ball-gagged Brad make a break for it, out into the hectic, devastated remains of civilization, where they not only have to worry about Cujos and unfriendly human survivors but whether Daddy’s going to give chase.

I did have a few issues with the ‘female character written by a dude’ vibe here; some of the word choices as well as Rhonda’s thoughts and reactions gave me that familiar yeah-no kind of eyeroll. Plus, the tech/military jargon sometimes felt tell-y and overdone with more detail than needed.

It was fun, though; the action scenes high-octane bang-bang-bang entertaining, the gore plenty splattering.

-Christine Morgan

BOOK HAVEN AND OTHER CURIOSITIES by Mark Allan Gunnells (2019 Crystal Lake Publishing / 219 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Welp, folks. Hot off the press is a new jam from author Mark Allan Gunnels, and this time it's in the form of the highly creative and unique title novella, ‘Book Haven’, as well as a barrage of various short stories to follow, showcasing the author’s versatility. As a personal fan of Gunnells’ previous work I knew I was in for a real trick and treat. Gunnells’ is the real deal, a wordsmith of sorts, who possesses the power of crafting unique stories time after time that continue to whole-heartedly shock, entertain, haunt and captivate. The author also excels in creating unique characters that the reader is able to fully empathize with throughout the entirety of his work, feeling their personal tragedy and triumphs, as if they were someone we’ve already personally known for a very longtime, or we’re sitting right there dying with them on the sidelines. 

Some of my personal favorites were the title novella, ‘Book Haven’, a futuristic landscape where the world’s literature has been lost, and a group of government agents are on the hunt for a vast secret library, ‘Book Haven.’ ‘C U Soon,’ a girl dies in a car accident while texting with her boyfriend, but after her funeral he continues receiving mysterious messages from her. ‘Human Bones in a China Cabinet,’ a young man has an unusual collection hidden away. ‘When Gas Was 52 Cents Per Gallon,’ a couple of friends on their way back to college stop off at an abandoned gas station with more than just car problems. And, ‘The Farm,’ a horror movie buff is in town and wreaking bloody havoc, while visiting a list (and checking items off another) of some of his favorite filming locations to some of his favorite horror movies ever made. A true gem to the horror community right here, folks. 

Check it out!

-Jon R. Meyers

AND HELL FOLLOWED compiled by Jarod Barbee and Patrick C. Harrison III (2019 Death’s Head Press / 244 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

If you’re gonna blaspheme, at some point it might as well be “go big or go home.” For the fiendish folks behind the newly-established Death’s Head Press, ‘at some point’ equaled ‘right from the get-go,’ because they decided to launch with an anthology of extreme horror, bizarro, and splatterpunk based around / inspired by the Book of Revelation.

The TOC includes some of the wildest, wickedest names in the genre. Wrath James White (who also does the intro), the Sisters of Slaughter, John Wayne Communale, Wile E. Young, K. Trap Jones, the distinct depraved horror-comic stylings of Jeff Strand, and many more!

(yes, including me, though after reading all the others I feel a little weird; they mostly went hardcore and I’ve got this sweary little brat of an angel because one part of Revelation always seemed so weirdly random and out-of-nowhere to me)

These stories do not hold back. Nothing is sacred. Much is savagely desecrated. The Four Horsemen make their appearances, so does the Whore of Babylon. So do the doomed sinners and damned souls by the millions. Devils and archangels, minions and monsters, the Mark of the Beast … the biblical prophecies of the end of days provide plenty of fodder for apocalyptic atrocity.

As for production value, weathered-looking matte cover gives the book a striking appearance and texture, Don Noble’s cover is a stark/sleek dash of evil. If the print’s maybe a little smaller than my aging eyes would have chosen, and it could’ve used one more proofread, it’s still one Hell of a debut, pun totes intended.

-Christine Morgan


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