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Gotta love it when it’s bad guys vs. worse guys in an all-out gory smackdown fight to the finish, and you don’t know who to root for!
In this case, the bad guys are a pair of brothers, Eric and Ray, who share a criminal history … except, Ray is trying to put the past behind him by drowning himself in booze, while Eric thinks Ray still needs closure and revenge. Their reunion begins with attempted armed robbery and assault of a cop, their frantic escape leaves them stranded by the side of a road in the middle of who-knows-where, and when a passing driver stops, it’s far from a rescue.
Because, cue the worse guys … your classic depraved backwoods clan of human monsters and semi-human mutants, with hideous habits and deviant appetites! They’re normally accustomed to picking up normal hitchhikers and other lost travelers, and aren’t quite ready for having their prey fight back with guns and total ferocity.
What ensues is sheer chaos and carnage and high-octane wall-to-wall splatter, a thoroughly nasty, blood-soaked, action-packed murder spree where horrible people get what they deserve, deserve what they get, and nobody comes out clean.
If you’re looking for quiet, elevated, or literary horror, this is not the book for you. If you love a good wet-zone mutilation kill-fest, however, settle right on in and have fun!
MY AMERICAN NIGHTMARE: WOMEN IN HORROR edited by Azzurra Nox (2017 Twisted Wing Productions / 244 pp / eBook)
I’m not sure how I acquired this one; none of the names were very well known to me. But, I’ve never let that stop me before. It’s always good to give new things a try, expand those ol’ horizons. Besides it was probably during Women in Horror month, fittingly enough … what better time than to pick up an anthology done entirely by female authors?
There are nineteen tales in all, with an editor’s note at the end, followed by some author bios and a bit about how each piece came to be inspired, and then, as an unusual but very cool bonus feature, some author Q&A.
Another element I hadn’t realized up front was the project’s theme. As I was reading, I kept thinking “Wait, this sounds like a take on (whatever)” and finally realized that was because, yes, it was on purpose! Taking some well-known works – of various types, not just literature but film and music as well – and reinventing them in new, sometimes updated, sometimes feminist ways.
Therefore, so as not to spoil anyone else’s guessing game, I won’t go into particulars. Some, the penny will drop right away, others may take a bit longer to recognize. All together, they make for an odd but interesting read. I expect to be seeing more from many of these ladies very soon.
SOMETHING BORROWED, SOMETHING BLOOD-SOAKED by Christa Carmen (2018 Unnerving / 242 pp / trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)
I’d only had the pleasure of running across one of these thirteen tales before, but something with a title like “The Girl Who Loved Bruce Campbell” wasn’t going to be something I’d forget. Reading it again was as enjoyable as ever.
But several of its companion pieces in this collection are where some honest pain and bravery really comes shining through. Set in a shared universe, with recurring characters and places, and events seen from different points of view, they work together to bring forth a journey through addiction and recovery that must’ve been very difficult to write at all … let alone write so well. The struggles, the emotions, the relationships, and the reality all ring very true.
Others are more stand-alone, and more supernatural/sensational. You’ll find a spooky babysitter with some even spookier revelations for her young charges, malevolent mystery pics on a cell phone, exquisite flowers, and a Halloween take on Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” unlike anything you’ve seen before.
In fact, Halloween crops up in other tales as well. At a fall farm haunted harvest hayride type attraction, where one of the workers is persuaded to step out from her usual behind-the-scenes role … and as a bride’s special day at an infamous hotel.
And, I must just say, the book opener, “Thirsty Creatures,” has a bang-up attention grabber of a first line: ‘The trees were fire and the skies were panicked birds and the horse was made of bone.’ I mean, dang, how can you NOT read on after a hello like that?
MY PRETTIES by Jeff Strand (2019 Amazon Digital Services / 263 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
Alright, folks. We all know this author has become one of my personal favorites in the past couple of years and with the release of this new dark Crime/Horror/Thriller mash-up, I stand by that statement 100%. This is arguably and quite possibly Strand at his finest. Dark and twisted, sad and traumatic, funny, violent, and entertaining with a number of brilliant plot twists, all of the usual characteristics found in the author’s previous work and then some.
Two new friends from work embark on a dangerous quest to pursue the whereabouts of a missing family member they believe was kidnapped by a sick and perverted serial killer. As they begin to troll the area in hopes of finding this deranged man, that’s where things begin to get, well, interesting, as they might just find out exactly what they set out to do. Which, I guess in a perfect world, might be all fun and games, but not when you’re dealing with somebody that gets off on kidnapping and caging women to simply sit back and watch them starve to death! But, we all know you can’t have your sadistic cake and eat it too… Or, maybe you can. I guess you’ll have to read it and find out for yourself.
My Pretties is a Horror and Crime Thriller that's sure to provoke and entertain the darkest of minds. Proceed with caution.
-Jon R. Meyers
ERIE TALES X: MASQUERADE edited by Michael Cieslak (2017 Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers / 94 pp / trade paperback)
The tenth anniversary installment from the GLAHW only includes five stories, but one of those was so downright fantastic it blew me away, and is alone more than worth the price of admission, and so I am just going to start off raving about it.
“Rites of Passage,” by Cassie Carnage, is a dystopian vision of the future that the alt-right thinks the liberal snowflake SJWs want. Emotions are strictly regulated, ‘triggering’ is a crime, misgendering or assuming someone’s gender is a dreadful offense, all opinions must be respected and validated, all communications are monitored, and everyone must be protected from anything even potentially hurtful.
To accommodate this, children all wear identical masks to hide facial expressions and reactions. At age 13, those masks are surgically replaced with permanent ones to ensure conformity and compliance. Told from the perspective of an apprehensive kid on the eve of the pivotal birthday, it is terrifying and excellently written and just phenomenal.
Doesn’t help that the subject matter only makes it more ironic I feel bad about my fair-to-middlin’s responses to the others, but, here we are. The other stories are fine, each delivering their own take on the anthology’s ‘masquerade’ theme of secrets, concealment, and hiding in plain sight.
Which, as it happens, is the title of Peggy Christie’s fun book-opening story – “Hiding in Plain Sight” – about how having a job at a cemetery can be both useful and economical when you’re a creature of unconventional appetites.
J.M. VanHorn’s “Promise” has a young girl looking for her lost dog run into a helpful stranger in an abandoned house, only to then find out the stranger isn’t as helpful as she seems.
In “Sea of Hats,” by Montilee Stormer, the view from the church balcony conceals some unpleasant truths about the congregation.
Finishing things off is Mark Matthews’ “Mask of Sanity,” exploring the wonderful world of psychiatry, medications, and those persistent pharmaceutical reps.
WORSHIP ME by Craig Stewart (2017 Hellbound Books / 356 pp / trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)
I’m pretty sure I was supposed to sympathize with the character who starts off this book running over a feral mama cat and just being relieved at least it wasn’t one of the kittens and driving along while tossing a half-eaten muffin out the window as a ‘sorry my bad’ … but daaaang. All the negative reacts. The character’s later behavior, no matter how played-up-as-heroic/noble/self-sacrificing, did zilch to ameliorate that.
Nor, really, did the behavior of many of the other characters. What an awful group of people! Church people, no less, gathering for their Sunday service, but almost every single one of them was icky or unlikeable one way or another. Sanctimonious, hypocritical, hiding their own sins, gossipy, unkind, the list goes on.
When they all get trapped in the church by a malevolent force claiming to be their new god, you know right off the bat they are going to turn on each other with vicious quickness. And they sure do. With shades of King’s Storm of the Century, they’re given a time limit and a harsh decision to make. Pick one to offer up, or everyone dies.
In the meanwhile, anybody who tries to escape gets brutally, bloodily punished. Even those who give themselves over to this new god are mutilated and marked in blood. The gory sequences are very gory indeed, graphic and wallow-in-it, with some grisly creative maimings in the best splattery tradition.
Here and there, I had a few logistical problems with the setting … for a single building, even one with a large basement, there sure was a lot of screaming and destruction and other noise going on … and the scenes with the fire didn’t seem terribly plausible.
The ending delivers an interesting not-what-I-expected twist, and, if nothing else, pretty much all the awful characters get what they deserve, so it’s quite satisfying on those levels.
KRONOS RISING: KRAKEN by Max Hawthorne (2018 Far From the Tree Press / 555 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook)
Arrrrgh I knew it I knew it, reading along getting closer and closer to the end with more and more buildup and that looming sense of “To Be Continued incoming in 3, 2, 1 ...” and sure enough there at the end is the coming soon Volume 2 announcement. AAAARRRGH.
Then again, I had a feeling, since KRONOS RISING is an ongoing series, this one taking place a generation after the original (reviewed earlier; I seem to have missed a few in the interim but was able to fill in the blanks well enough).
Upside, though, there’s a whole ‘nuther book to look forward to next, one with all the pieces in place for some of the biggest blockbuster special effects sea-monster chompiness of all time. There’s always a bigger fish, right? Or shark. Or marine reptile. Or cephalopod. Or all of the above.
Even on its own, that’d be fun, but when humans have to get involved, you know things are going to get even wilder. Maybe more sci-fi high-tech dino thriller than horror, it takes some of the lessons nobody ever learned in Jurassic Park about thinking we can control nature, and putting too much faith in our technology, and ups the voltage exponentially.
There’s also a whole lot of testosterone in this book, but the manliness of the manly-mens is more than matched by the assertiveness and sexual aggression of the take-no-crap Amazon womens (a critique I had of the earlier one had to do with its sausage-fest-ness). Everyone’s larger than life, exaggerated in one way or another. The sexy people are insatiable sex-beasts, withy plenty of equal-opportunity ogling. The sleazy people are gross almost to the point of absurdity.
It’s got secret bases and giant octopi and submarines and neural implants to use pliosaurs like mechas, it’s leading up to the ultimate aquatic smackdown, and it’s gonzo good action fun.
THE WATCHFUL DEAD by Joe Pawlowski (2019 Glint Media / 199 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
It’s probably typical to see a title like this and more often than not think “zombies,” but in this case the assumption would be way off base. There’s only technically one reanimated corpse, which doesn’t appear until fairly late in the book, and even then is far from your usual zombie.
Ghosts, on the other hand … and the more general presence of the dead in terms of respecting the wishes of those who’ve passed … those feature much more prominently. But even so, this is no more a ghost book than it is a zombie book.
Well okay then, you might be thinking, what the heck kind of book IS it? That’s where things get tricky, because it’s hard to classify. Not cosmic horror per se, but with strong Mythos elements. Cosmic dark fantasy? Cosmic post-apocalyptic dark fantasy? It’d be perfect for gaming in, anyway.
A medieval-ish society’s arisen in the wake of the return of the Old Gods (including Dagon, though interestingly depicted as a female). Mythos-type monsters like night gaunts are mentioned, as are familiar names from the lore. Magic is rare but real. People have been broken into tribes of more diverse races and castes.
In the city of Hastur, Ring’s family are slavers, but his father and uncle have loftier ambitions. Political ambitions, which they hope to attain by some fairly sneaky, roundabout methods involving pirates and a captured island witch with the power to awaken the dead.
Little do they anticipate the wider fallout that’ll ensue, not only from deceased relatives but murder victims, the slaves they’ve sold who came to untimely ends, and the greater repercussions when it stirs the notice of the gods.
Now, it might also be an easy leap to expect Ring’s the classic chosen-one destined hero type who’ll undertake the big quest to save the world and all, but it breaks away from that tired old trope too. All in all, it’s a gutsy, ambitious, skillful exploration of cosmic/epic dark fantasy that brings something new to both facets of the genres.
SUBJECT 11 by Jeffrey Thomas (2014 CreateSpace / 114 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook)
You know those little sleeper indie films that get hardly any buzz but when you watch them on a whim or a recommendation, it turns out to be a stunningly brilliant, eerily effective, blow-your-socks-off solid gold winner?
This is one of those, only in book form. For now. It NEEDS to be a movie. It wouldn’t even need a big budget. A rundown derelict hospital-type facility, some creepy graffiti paint, minimal props, less than a dozen actors, and boom. Winner. Someone get on that.
So you’ve got ten people who signed up as test subjects, the way people do … seems like a good deal at first, right? Spend a while in an abandoned building with no external contact or communications, adhering to rules of anonymity even among themselves (going by numbers instead of names), taking daily unknown medications, etc. At the end, four thousand dollars compensation.
Nothing too strange about that. Minus the medications, we’ve seen reality shows aplenty along those lines – and c’mon if there was a mystery drug trial version of Big Brother or something, it’d probably be mad popular.
Then, of course, things start to go weird. They start to question their own memories and perceptions. None of the participants know if it’s the medications, if it’s psychological tricks being played on them by their unseen test-masters, or what. But didn’t there used to be more of them? Was the graffiti always like that? What’s with the room with the creepy doll’s heads?
Just as the characters are questioning and second-guessing, so too will be the reader. I found myself wanting to skip back and check on continuity details, sure that such-and-such COULDN’T be a mistake because this author is a stone-cold pro who doesn’t make bloopers; it HAD to be deliberate …
Packed with insidious tension and unfolding paranoia, gripping, brilliantly written, a definite winner.