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THE PALE WHITE by Chad Lutzke (to be released 9/27/19 by Crystal Lake Publishing / 85 pp / eBook)
For the past year, Stacia has been the captive of a demented predator who keeps her locked in an attic. Along with goth girl Alex and a young mute named Kammie, they're only allowed to come down to the second floor to be used as sex toys for a host of pedophiles and other lowlifes. Alex and Kammie have been there much longer than Stacia, until one day when Alex comes up with a plan to escape their perverted pimp.
This short but powerful story is a dark coming of age tale that reminded me a bit of Jack Ketchum, but at this point Lutzke has created his own voice, and the second half of the story, while suspenseful, will leave readers hopeful and satisfied. Most of THE PALE WHITE deals with the aftermath of a tragedy, and I see many tears being shed through this journey, and what our girls go through is the fuel of every parent's worst nightmare.
Brutal, exciting, disturbing and heartbreaking, Lutzke has become a master of the horror novella form. No filler, a strong cast, and plenty to say about family relationships (both biological and chosen) makes this a must read.
DARK LANTERN OF THE SPIRIT by Max Beaven (2019 IP / 168 pp / trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)
Weird western cosmic horror, always fun! Buddy-cop style with recurring characters, extra points! Everything told first-person in a sort of nesting doll frame narrative with letters and such, a little confusing overall but it more or less works.
The place is Casper, Wyoming, a rough-and-dusty frontier town. The year is 1897. Transplanted New-Englander Arthur Wilson is still considered something of an outsider even after six years as a deputy sheriff. Now, with some unknown menace threatening the locals, he has to call in another outsider for help.
Scholar and occultist Benjamin Hathorne, comfortably at home in Massachusetts, may be ill-suited to venture out west, but for the sake of an old friend and a mystery to solve, he’ll do it. Even loaded up with arcane knowledge and some useful items, however, he’s not quite prepared for what’s waiting in the wilderness.
Add in gutsy ranchers, helpful natives, a winsome young lady who might be the key to unlocking Arthur’s broken heart, and the eldritch stirrings of an ancient and terrible power, and the duo have got their work more than cut out for them.
THE CRYMOST by Dean H. Wild (2019 Blood Bound Books / 278 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
There’s just something so compelling about the small town with mysterious secrets I never get tired of, and this book provides another solid addition to the sub-genre. I picked up comfortable notes of King’s work, Castle Rock and Salem’s Lot and the one from Under the Dome in particular, that feeling the town itself is a living and ensouled entity, a character in its own story.
This time, the town in question is called Knoll, a quaint and charming peaceful little place. Some of the local families date back to its founding, enjoying their position of history and tradition, maybe a tad resistant to new things and change, but not necessarily unfriendly to newcomers.
They mostly all keep to their own business, with occasional flare-ups of petty grudges and scandals, and events like an upcoming vote involving the fate of the old mercantile are the big all-consuming news. Humble and prosaic, right?
Except then there’s the Crymost … a peculiar feature up in the hills out by the landfill … a rearing limestone ledge overlooking a drop into a deep spring-fed pool … where the people of Knoll bring their offerings. Part sacrificial cenote, part wishing well, part memorial to the dead, there’s no telling what items of strong personal meaning may end up dropped from the height.
And, now, items are reappearing. Items that have been gone for years, even decades, to the depths of the pool. A dark-suited stranger has been seen around. Inspections at the landfill turn up a problem that may bring in hosts of outsiders. Odd messages and odd occurrences lead some of the Knollfolk to realize something powerful is building, and they’re in a race against time to solve the mystery before it’s too late.
Entertaining and intriguing, with many interesting characters who often do surprisingly sensible things (and some who make entirely understandable bad choices); I particularly liked the visuals and poignant touches of the various offering items.
THE SHADOWS BEHIND by Kristi Petersen Schoonover (2019 Books and Boos Press / 301 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
Seventeen unsettling, well-written, strongly female-themed stories make up this collection. For the most part, they seem to range between the exotic to the everyday, but every now and then along comes a surprise turn toward bizarro.
For the exotic: archaeologists at a volcanic ash dig site, Egyptian antiquities extending their dangerous influence, hula hauntings and haunted Hawaiian art (hey, for me, Hawaii counts as exotic!), the addition of a rare Madagascar plant to a suburban garden, and an occult oracle in the form of a mummified fish.
For the everyday: a small-town librarian troubled by omens and visions, kid disappearances and a family with a secret, a guilty return to the ol’ swimming hole, a grieving mother no longer fitting in with her friends, a too-creepy flash piece about fearing the dark, a town overrun by kudzu.
As for the bizarre, 'Snake in the Grass' has this irresistible grabber of an opening line: "Twenty-one years after I was the first girl to get boobs in fifth grade, I woke up with a penis." I mean, whoa hello what? Then there’s the post-apocalypticy bizarro of 'Deconstructing Fireflies,' in which a farmer’s wife is concerned about her son’s interests … and 'How I Stopped Complaining and Learned to Love the Bunny,' because those plastic holiday statues aren’t disturbing enough already.
I had two tied-for-faves this time around, though maybe not so much because I enjoyed them as because I found them powerful, painful, emotionally difficult reads. One was 'Doors,' maybe because I too am getting on in years and facing the uncomfortable eventual contemplation of having to clear out the ancestral hoarder-home some day; daunting enough even without there being secret purpose to the clutter. The other, 'The Thing Inside,' is a difficult and potentially painful read, involving a couple mourning their stillborn baby, but then adds in alcoholism and jackalopes and possible insanity.
All in all, potent stuff, well-written, with characters it’s easy to empathize with even as they’re doing terrible things.
TERMINAL by Michaelbrent Collings (2019 Written Insomnia Press / 329 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
The “bunch of random people thrown together in a bad situation” is one of the most fun tropes out there to play with. It’s not knowing who people are and what they’re capable of. It’s how much to hide, how much to reveal, how much to cooperate, how far to go, how much to everyone-for-him/herself.
Usually, these work best when set in common neutral-ground or liminal in-between travel places, where anybody could be for whatever reason.
This time, it’s a small out-of-the-way bus terminal, in the dragging late hours. A few of the characters work there or are locals, but the others are unknown elements just passing through. Or so it seems at first; sometimes there are hidden connections, invisible threads linking lives.
Just imagine, there you are, waiting at the bus terminal. Waiting for your shift to end, waiting for a bus to arrive, waiting and waiting. Observing the people around you but not really interacting with them … until, suddenly, (bleep) gets real. Instead of a place for waiting, the terminal becomes a prison, a trap.
Not by any natural disaster or ordinary danger, either. Paranormal things are afoot. Ominous messages suggest the only way to get through the night is to do the ultimate vote-off. One person may live. Everyone has to decide. It’s got to be unanimous. All in favor.
Collings, always deft and adept with characters, does a fantastic teeth-gritting job of building sympathy and intrigue, suspicion and suspense, growth and change even within. Secrets are revealed, and stark nasty truths. And, for even the most decent among them, the idea of making the choice easier by eliminating the competition is a short and tempting logical leap.
Another gripping white-knuckler, I read it at one sitting, kept changing my mind who I was rooting for, and gasped aloud several times at expertly-done twists.
THE FAITHFUL by Matt Hayward (2018 Sinister Grin Press / 269 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook)
The “small town creepy cult” is another of the most fun tropes to play with, and this time it’s Matt Hayward’s turn to bring the rustic inexplicable weird. The small town in question is Elswich, North Carolina, very much off the beaten track, where grubbiness, poverty, intolerance, abuse, and plain downright meanness are pretty much the rule of the day.
So, not the nicest of places to start with, even before factoring in disappearances and bloody sacrifices and horrible physical abnormalities. Into this charming scene arrives Jonesy, a rambling long-haired type with a guitar … needless to say, he doesn’t receive the best welcome from the locals.
He’s got a particular reason for being here, though: tracking down the ex he ran out on when she got pregnant twelve years ago. Meeting his biological son starts off difficult and goes downhill from there, until Jonesy is on the run with the kid, trying to get them both out of town before anyone’s killed.
Meanwhile, retiring comedian Leo Carmichael has just done his final show and is ready to hit the road in his new RV. After a cryptic but intriguing meeting with a disabled fan, he decides to follow up on those rumors of dreams and strange occurrences in Elswich, and finds a reception no warmer than Jonesy did.
Eager to leave, he’s nonetheless kind enough to stop to pick up a guy and his kid, and then they’re all in it together with half the town’s monstrous population hot on their heels. They soon realize the only way to escape is to turn around and confront the evil at its source, because the dark powers at work in Elswich have already marked them all.
DAHMER'S NOT DEAD by Edward Lee and Elizabeth Steffen (2011 Necro Publications / 248 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook)
Ashamed of myself, diehard Lee fangirl that I am, that this one had slipped by me unnoticed for so long. But, with it being the book club discussion title of the month on “The Horror Show With Brian Keene” (yes, plug for the podcast; if you’re not listening, you should be, it’s excellent!), I knew I had to set things right and pronto.
Now, some might think the combination of one of the flat-out freakydeakiest and feared serial killers of our time with the no-holds-barred graphic language and singular style of Edward Lee would make for a gooshy gory graphic splatfest like none other. And some might be turned off by the idea, tempted to give this one a miss no matter how popular all those murder shows are now.
Well, let me assure you, as Lee stuff goes, especially given the subject matter here, the results are tempered and balanced (Ms Steffen’s influence, I presume) and milder than one might expect. Milder, but still, we are talking about murder and cannibalism here, so let’s not get too comfy, okay?
Our protagonist here is Helen Closs, a police captain facing maybe a few too many stereotypical struggles – career woman trying to prove herself and be taken seriously in a male-dominated field, commitment and trust issues with her boyfriend and her therapist, plus OMG she’s forty so menopause so end of sexuality and looks going downhill (though we are informed of her bra size; that’s probably Lee’s doing). I kinda wanted to smack her.
Her latest case involves Dahmer’s apparent death in prison, beaten to an unrecognizable pulp by a fellow inmate. But there are questions and concerns, discrepancies, right from the start, beginning with getting a positive ID of the body. Further complications quickly arise with new murders. A copycat, obviously … or is it? The evidence suggests otherwise. Was there a switcheroo? Did Dahmer escape and immediately start up his old tricks again?
Helen’s own part in the investigation is further complicated by the fact her boyfriend, who she’s just accused of cheating on her and thrown out, is the medical examiner in charge of the autopsy … a little extra workplace awkwardness. There’s also the media furor, especially once the killer – copycat or the real deal? – starts leaving notes, and various persons of interest turn up missing or meet convenient bad ends.
IS Dahmer dead? Read and find out!
EXPERIMENT NINE by Eric Ian Steele (2018 Solstice Publishing / 342 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
A little disconcertingly, the word “vampire” doesn’t seem to appear in this book. Not even in a “there’s no such thing as” speech by some blustering disbeliever after the exsanguinated bodies start turning up, although it’s presented in other ways as our own usual world.
Now, granted, these aren’t your traditional folklore cape-and-coffin vampires, but the blood-drinking is there, the near-immortality, the vulnerability to sunlight, the ability to create others of their own kind, the compelling mental powers, etc. But their origin here is more clinical and sinister, the results of science that turned out to work a little too well … then, of course, they get out.
The original escapees from the Tower have no memories of their former lives or selves. They go on the run, needing to feed and stay hidden, and to increase their numbers to replace those they’ve lost. Trouble is, there are only so many ways to cover up a growing string of grisly deaths and mysterious disappearances.
Detective Mike Hanlon (the name, same as a King character, admittedly kept throwing me off) is a Brooklyn cop relocated to Iowa, dealing with his difficult issues. This bizarre case gives him a goal, and he’s determined to track down the killers even as more and more bizarre evidence piles up, no matter the risks to his career and his life.
Throw in shadowy agencies trying to bring the situation back under control, a survivor/witness who’s lost his entire family, and the dark history of the doctors behind the experiments, and it’s no wonder the trails all eventually lead back to a final confrontation where it all began.