Monday, September 2, 2019

Reviews for the Week of September 2, 2019

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IN THE SCRAPE by James Newman and Mark Steensland (2019 Silver Shamrock Publishing / 108 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

In this engrossing novella, two young brothers live in an isolated North Carolina community with their abusive father. He has told them their mother left for California because she no longer wanted to be a mom, but neither boy is buying it and they plan to run away and find her. Jake begins stealing to afford bus tickets, and younger brother Matthew goes along with him apprehensively, until he realizes they need to get away from their dad before his beatings become fatal.

Also causing problems is neighborhood bully Caleb, who Jake eventually puts in the hospital, which leads to further complications once the brothers put their escape plan into action.

Part coming of age story, part thriller with some genuinely tense moments, IN THE SCRAPE is another solid tale from the writing team of Newman and Steensland (whose previous novella, THE SPECIAL, is currently being made into a film). I blasted through this in one manic sitting and found everything had an authentic feel, even the slight hint of the supernatural.

-Nick Cato

GHOST STORIES: CLASSIC STORIES OF HORROR AND SUSPENSE edited by Lisa Morton and Leslie Klinger (2019 Pegasus Books / 260 pp / hardcover & eBook)

Every now and then, it’s good to go back and appreciate our roots, get a better appreciation of where we are and where we came from. Especially when the subject is horror, so often undervalued and overlooked in literary circles.

Where better to begin than the classic ghost story? This volume collects seventeen of the earliest published tales, as well as opening with an example of the kind of haunting poetic ballad where the sub-genre used to mostly hang its spectral hat.

Many of these were familiar to me, even if I hadn’t read them in years. Others, somehow, I’d entirely missed, and was glad to finally catch up on. We’ve got Poe’s “Ligeia,” of course … works by M.R. James and Wilkie Collins, Dickens himself. We’ve got stories by Edith Wharton, Olivia Howard Dunbar, Georgia Wood Pangborn, Charlotte Riddell, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, further proving the shouldn’t-have-to-be-proved-anyway point that ladies have ALWAYS been doing this as long and just as well as the gents.

In fact, it’s Phelps’ “Since I Died” that takes the prize for my top pick of the book; wonderfully written, can’t believe I’d never seen it before, some fantastic use of first- and second-person perspective, fabulous descriptions, really hits home with the chilling emotional resonance.

Readers only accustomed to contemporary fast-paced hard-hitting fiction might find these oldies a bit on the slow and rambling/meandering side, but they make up for it with mood, atmosphere, stylishly beautiful turns of phrase, and artfulness the likes of which it’s rare to see these days.

The introduction, and helpful footnotes included throughout, serve to provide a more scholarly academic touch. The history of ghost stories, mediums, and the Spiritualism movement add an extra dimension, making for a satisfying educational experience as well as an entertaining one.

-Christine Morgan

I DREAM OF MIRRORS by Chris Kelso (2019 Sinister Horror Company / 158 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I tell ya, I like to think of myself as fairly smart and savvy and generally together in the brainmeats department, until along comes a book like this and I end up feeling mighty out of my depth. In a good way, though; a profound makes-you-think way. This one isn’t a casual time-passer or idle distraction.

I read it all the way through in one studious sitting, and still came out the other end wondering how much had gone whoosh right over my head. Complex and multi-layered with social satire and commentary, it may seem on the surface to be a survival struggle in a digital-era dystopia … at least, that’s how it seemed to me … but maybe not.

So, do be aware I could be getting it all entirely wrong. This is all only as I perceived it, for whatever that’s worth.

Our main character is a narrator so unreliable even he no longer knows who he is, existing as one of the few remaining ‘dark-dwellers’ not yet indoctrinated into the mindless zombie-like personality cult worshipping a charismatic new leader and slavishly serving the new world order. He’s teamed up with, and secretly fallen for, a tough young woman named Kad. They seek shelter and supplies in abandoned parts of the city, trying to avoid being taken into the fold by any new broadcasts or transmissions.

When a mistake leads to their partnership breaking, our ill-prepared protagonist is suddenly out on the streets on his own. In true and openly-acknowledged Ahab-allegory fashion, he sets out to confront the would-be messiah, only to find out that reality is even weirder than he could have suspected.

-Christine Morgan

SUSPENDED IN DUSK II edited by Simon Dewar (2018 Grey Matter Press / 282 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Gorgeous book. Dean Samed cover, so, no wonder … sometimes that tired old adage about judging just plain doesn’t work. His art is mind-blowing in all the right ways, helping to set the perfect mood and tone for the stories gathered herein.

Those stories – of which there are seventeen – share a common general theme of ‘change,’ of the between, times and spaces and places of transition and crossing. Beyond that, they range from quiet to visceral, smoothly spanning eras, settings, and genres with masterful skill.

Masterful, and no wonder on that either! The authors included are some definite top-tier pros. Just glancing over their “about the” sections, the well-earned and well-deserved credentials, education, accolades and accomplishments are sure to impress (or intimidate, or make-one-feel-inadequate, but I digress).

Editor Simon Dewar’s foreword, and Angela Slatter’s introduction examining how we’re the only species to deliberately seek to scare ourselves on purpose (what is *wrong* with us?), also nicely help set the tone, as well as establish the professional creds of the book.

And then, let the unsettlings begin! Starting off with Karen Runge’s “Angeline,” which swiftly goes from an innocent-enough-seeming-but-also-kinda-creepy first line to decidedly creepy, to deeply creepy, to downright screaming eeks. Yow.

Next up is a terrifying tale of an all-too-real fear courtesy of Damien Angelica Walters, and if I repeat too many more times how she has yet to write anything less than amazing, she’ll probably take out a restraining order. Then Alan Baxter, whom I fully expect to have a movie or Netflix deal soon, takes on teens and the darker corners of the internet.

Plus more, so much more … poetic graveyard art, followed by a little loving cannibalism … ghost walks and terrible bargains … the trapped doom of claustrophobia … lost children, strange legacies … demon-summonings gone awry and sacrifices demanded … folklore, fairy-tales and mythology reaching into the modern world …

Yeah, this one’s another winner!

-Christine Morgan

NIGHT OF THE POSSUMS by Jacob Floyd (2018 Nightmare Press / 296 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

A pivotal, formative part of my childhood was nature-run-amok creature-feature horror, thanks to a shelf of paperbacks my grandmother made my grandfather keep out in the garage. I spent a lot of time out there, reading about dogs and rats and snakes and slugs. In later years, I edited an anthology of similar tales with some less-likely critters (geckos, chihuahuas, crabs, platypuses, murderous blades of grass even!).

So, you better believe it, when a book called Night of the Possums comes along, I am totally there! Whether reviled as trash-goblin vermin, underrated as helpful bug-eaters, or simply misunderstood urban wildlife, they have one of the most divisive reputations in the animal kingdom as far as we humans are concerned.

Not so surprising, then, if they might eventually decide they’d had enough. Enough scrounging through our garbage. Enough being trapped by exterminators and targeted for roadkill. Welcome to a world where possums – or opossums, depending; the distinction is addressed in the book – are plenty pissed, and ready to serve up some payback.

Anybody who might scoff over how much damage a possum would do has clearly never cornered one in an alley or basement. In numbers? And we’re talking NUMBERS, no mere pack of possums but the full-on possum apocalypse. We’re also talking some possums that are far from ordinary in other ways. Bigger. Smarter. Purposeful.

For the people of one small town, what at first seems like random bear maulings or even a roving psycho soon proves to be far more than anyone could have bargained for. It’s a hissing, clawing, biting, screeching bloodbath fight for survival. Total B-movie schlock from start to finish, exactly as it should be.

-Christine Morgan

POP THE CLUTCH: THRILLING TALES OF ROCKABILLY, MONSTERS, AND HOT ROD HORROR edited by Eric J. Guignard (2019 Dark Moon Books / 356 pp / eBook)

Rockabilly horror stories? ROCKABILLY HORROR STORIES!!! Really, is there anything more that needs be said? I mean, I’ll say more anyway because it’s how I roll.

Maybe it was your scene, back in the day. Maybe you grew up hooked on Grease, or watched Cry Baby one too many times, or wanted to be Fonzie when you grew up. For my own fondness, I blame Brian Setzer and the Stray Cats.

However it happened, there’s just something so ridiculously 50’s Americana about it all, so over the top and outrageous, malt shops and car hops, hep cats and hot-rods, so brash, so loud, so tacky. These eighteen stories embody all of it, plus delving into the darker side where drag races and drive-ins turn deadly, but rock and roll will never die … ever … no matter what you do.

And look at this lineup! These are the total T-Birds and Pink Ladies of the genre, the cool kids in school. They got the Lansdales! Both Weston Ochse AND Yvonne Navarro! Class clown extraordinaire Jeff Strand! David-freakin-SCHOW! Lisa-freakin-MORTON! Seanan-are-you-kidding-me-MCGUIRE!!!

But, honestly, it’s simple enough – if you like rockabilly (with or without horror), you need this book. And if you don’t, well, your loss, squares and sad-sacks!

-Christine Morgan

AFTER THE CHANGE by Michael J. Moore (2019 MKM Bridge Press / 286 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

It’s not zombies, though, even if the book’s protagonists have a hard time convincing anybody else of that. As far as teenagers Wes, Cali, and Diego are concerned, the unfortunate victims of the mysterious event are just ‘changed.’

Well, not just changed. It’s a murderous infected/crazies pandemic scenario. The reader doesn’t get much in the way of explanation, which makes sense because neither do the characters. The cause, the contagion vector, none of that matters. What matters is staying sane, staying safe, and not getting killed or eaten.

With a military/mercenary group scouring the countryside for resources and recruits, and a cultish bunch with a charismatic leader holed up in a grocery store, the teens soon learn it’s not only the changed that pose a threat.

The main characters seem awfully mature for fifteen-year-olds, even under the circumstances … the supporting characters are for the most part pretty bland, and there are a few too many convenient nick-of-time or lucky saves for my taste. But it’s decently written and sound enough.

Best part for me was seeing an apocalypse-survival story set in the area north of Seattle; I used to live in Everett WA, so all those familiar locations and placenames made for an entertaining journey.

-Christine Morgan


Capturing the spirit of those late-night, low-budget, monstorama-theater creature features, hearkening back to the days when ghoulish hosts would introduce the fright night chills and thrills, this is a collection of several little stories written as homage to those.

Like their inspirational source material, these aren’t the most tightly plotted or plausible tales, nor do they have to be. They’re goofy fun, written in a way that brings them to grainy, black-and-white life … with the static of an old television set, or the film-sputteriness of a bargain matinee.

You’ve got your basic mad scientists, absent-minded professors, run-down castles, winsome beauties, intelligent inspectors, manly military men, folksy locals whose warnings go ignored, aliens and weird experiments, plucky kids with pluckier robot friends, rampant patriotic fervor, jet-packs, gloomy moonlit woods, tough teens pitting hotrods against unnatural menaces, the works.

Even for what it is, the book maybe could’ve used a little more editor-type polish, but its charm makes the flaws almost like seeing the wires holding the tin plate spaceships or the zipper down the monster’s back. Light-hearted popcorn fun. I’d watch any of these for a cheesy movie party night.

-Christine Morgan



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