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THE KING OF THE WOOD by J. Edwin Buja (2019 Haverhill Press / 320 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook)
After Tom Bender notices a man tied to a tree in his backyard, and is questioned about it by the local sheriff, he's brought into a magical world that has existed right under his nose. Unbeknown to him and his friends, he has caught the eye of the title King, who is apprehensive about losing his followers as well as his position. And so begins the first installment in Buja's series which blends fantasy and horror and a wonderful dose of the good 'ol weird.
As people go missing from Tom's town, birds are now communicating with him, a garden he tends has began to grow out of control, and the whole world seems to be on some kind of apocalyptic shift … and as if this wasn't enough, we're introduced to a corrupt evangelist and an unusual cult, while occasionally visiting one of the more charismatic mechanics to come down the pike in ages. The entire cast here are very well drawn, and you'll eagerly read on to see what's happening to even the smallest player.
Buja has me impatiently awaiting the second novel, as several mysteries arise during the already strange proceedings, and the little glimpses we're given of The King of the Wood keeps him cleverly shrouded for what's to come. An addictive page-turner full of mystery, magic, and a seriously disturbing cult that will have horror and dark fantasy fans yearning for more.
For a post-apocalyptic wasteland where mutant animals are constantly on the hunt and the scattered remnants of humanity eke out bare-bones survival, this is a surprising and delightful heart-warming tale of family and the bonds of affection. Like if the team who made Ice Age did an animated Fallout movie.
I mean, yes, packs of hairless wolf-monsters biting peoples’ heads off … “clicker” style crab-scorpion-lobster things all pinchers and stingers … cities as radioactive hellhole ruins … freaky toxic plants … nuclear lightning strikes ... and of course the titular “screechers” … but go with me, here.
Oh, and what’s a screecher, you might wonder? I did too, since we’re never really given a complete taxonomy. From the descriptions of their scale-armored hides, muscular bodies, claws and teeth, and ability to rise up on hind legs or go on all fours, the image that formed in my head was somewhere around ‘anthropomorphic pangolin;’ make of that what you will.
Anyway, so, there’s this screecher who’s lost his whole family and thinks he’s alone in the world and sets off, not knowing that a hatchling survived and is following along, hoping to prove its little self to the adult. Along the way, the little one encounters and befriends a trio of humans, helping them fend off dangers, touching on the boy-and-his-dog trope for added emotional impact.
We don’t get a bunch of backstory about what happened to the world, and we don’t need it. By now, we all know that basic drill, so it’s easy to slide right on in without info dumps or explanations. The bit about names, though, I thought was a particularly nice touch. Maybe the combination of ‘awww’ sweetness with sheer bloody rip-em-up carnage won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it and am hoping for more!
THEY COME AT NIGHT by Nick Clausen (2019 Amazon Digital / 101 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
I got this one as a PDF without seeing the cover, so, going solely by the title, I was thinking vampires at first. Which is not to say I’m disappointed it turned out to be something different; far from it! The menace here, as the cover actually does show, emerges from the sea rather than the grave.
The book itself is ten years old and was originally in Danish, so this is its English-translation ebook debut. There are a few places in the language, word use, and references where it shows, but only a few, and in a way that adds to rather than detracts from, giving it a refreshingly unique tone.
Group of teens, sneaking off to island vacation cottage for a fun party weekend, the one guy with a crush on his friend’s hot sister, the reclusive locals with quirky customs and cryptic warnings … the beach, the beers, the bikini … the weird happenings at night … footprints in the wet sand, clumps of seaweed, scratches at the window … no phone service, car troubles …
This right here is a ready-made horror movie, hitting all the right buttons, familiar but done well enough to stay entertaining and fun. I read it all in one sitting and enjoyed every page.
NETHERKIND by Greg Chapman (2019 Omnium Gatherum / 240 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
Opening strong with a gory combination of cannibalistic cravings, tormented I’m-a-monster self-loathing, and really icky skin-sloughing parts-rotting peel-your-flesh-off body horror, the initial impression here is that we’re dealing with some sort of a ghoul.
Not that the character, Thomas, knows what he is. He only knows his urge, his irresistible hunger, what happens to him if he neglects to feed, and the gradual physical changes that occur when he does. He thinks he’s the only one of his kind, isolated and alone.
When new neighbor Stephanie moves in and wants to be far more than friendly, Thomas isn’t sure how to handle it. Could he have a shot at a normal life? Short answer: nope. She’s not what she seems, and he’s soon torn between loathing and obsession.
He also discovers he was wrong about being alone. There are more monsters in the city and under it, a literal underworld of warring factions, and he’s suddenly plunged into their midst. Not that anybody will tell him what’s going on or answer his questions, keeping him and the reader in the baffled frustrating I-know-something-you-don’t fog for a long time.
That’s when the story veers off into big sweeping Game of Thrones epic-supernatural-fantasy territory, with kings and prophecies and god-visions, political schemings, betrayals, leading up to the final massive battle. Which is fine and well and all, but I personally would’ve preferred more of the modern/surface stuff.
The writing’s very good, the characters are entertaining, the descriptions (especially of the splattery visceral carnage and earlier flesh-peely body horror) are great. I may’ve had a few minor nits and quibbles here and there, but overall, a differently imagined, highly entertaining read.
THE HALF-FREAKS by Nicole Cushing (2019 Grimscribe Press / 89 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
Cushing's latest novella features the author herself being harassed (I guess that's safe to say) by one of her own creations, an everyday guy named Harry Meyers, who is busy planning funeral services for his mother as the sky literally starts falling down. Yep...this here is as weird as it gets, but in the hands of Cushing we're never "ass-confused" and the bizarre goings-on are a treat for those who love their horror on the strange side.
While Harry has some unappetizing fetishes and habits, Cushing paints him as a latently humorous guy who just wants what's his, even if he has to threaten Cushing herself with some of her past bad ass characters. While I'm a hard sell on any meta-type story, here it's done in a way that doesn't insult the reader, and in fact gives fans a deeper love of the author's work and creative process.
As with her latest novel A SICK GRAY LAUGH, I'm enjoying the dark humor rearing its head in Cushing's work, and this short but sweet blast of meta-insanity is a fine addition to her growing catalog.
UNAMERICA by Cody Goodfellow (2019 King Shot Press / 448 pp / trade paperback)
It’s sometimes hard to categorize Cody Goodfellow’s works as ‘fiction,’ when they’re often presenting all-too-plausible cutting observations and social commentary on current events, and a wickedly harsh but accurate portrayal of the state of the world as we know it.
UNAMERICA does that, with no holds barred. Okay, maybe it seems far-fetched to think some shady government/corporate organization supervises a secret underground city-sized detention center enclave where human lives are cheap and disposable … but … c’mon … would it really surprise anyone?
Upon arrival (usually involuntary!), you get a bar code and access to resources, but you’re also being monitored. Being used for market research and product testing. Being experimented on in dozens of ways: physically, psychologically, pharmaceutically, you name it. They’re tracking what you eat, drink, watch, whatever. They’re releasing viruses to see what happens. They’re harvesting organs. They’re monitoring trends and behaviors.
Populated by prisoners, addicts, drug lords, gangs, derelicts, religious fanatics, renegades, and consumers of every possible type, this subterranean Skinner box is not so much a melting pot as it is a powder keg and a pressure cooker. Racism, sexism, violence, crime, substance abuse, desperation, divisiveness, power, fear, arrogance, control, and excess run rampant.
Into all this ventures a guy calling himself Nolan Hatch, looking to do some drug-lording and product testing of his own, courtesy of a rare strain of psychedelic mushroom. He claims he wants to help people, enlighten them, awaken them, free them. Even the best intentions, however, can go awry … and Hatch’s certainly do.
Although clearly meant to be satire, although written to highlight that sense of over-the-top extremism, the ongoing state of real-world affairs makes it a little hard to read this book for pleasure or entertainment. It’s well done to the point of squirming too-true discomfort, and a few years from now we’ll probably be holding it up as an example the way we are doing today with 1984.
THE NIGHT IT GOT OUT by Patrick James Ryan (2015 Black Bed Sheet Books / 220 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
If you took Dean Koontz’s book WATCHERS, cut out all the parts with the superdog, and focus on the genetically engineered Outsider/monster secret military project angle … but amped the brutality and violence to goresplat levels, add some Laymonesque beasty-rapey stuff, turn it loose on an unsuspecting town, and throw in tough-talking tough-guy types trying to hunt it down … the results might look quite a bit like this.
Okay, there’s icky content; there’s kids and pets being savaged along with the adult body count. Okay, most of the female characters are passive victims at best and a lot of the tough-guy tough-talk seems overdone on the dickswinging. Okay, it’s a lot more ‘tell’ than ‘show’ and could have used more editorial fine-tuning, but …
But, clearly, the author was having a blast, and that comes through on every page. Fun with words, self-referential in-jokes, just a brashly gross and gleeful wild ride throughout. And, for that, I can overlook many of the aforementioned issues. Enthusiasm and fun go a long way with me.
Which is a good thing, because I have several more by him on the list, including one that’s referenced in this story. Stay tuned!
I'M NOT EVEN SUPPOSED TO BE HERE TODAY by Brian Asman (2019 Eraserhead Press / 88 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
I guess I should mention up front that I barely know who Kevin Smith is and have never seen any of his movies, so, many of the finer points of this book were likely lost on me. Still, it didn’t stop me from getting right into the story, following along just fine, and enjoying the read!
Scot is a surfer dude who works at an electronics store, installing car speakers and sound systems when not ducking out to catch a few waves. He also fought a demon once before, but, y’know, these things happen. He’s just not expecting it to happen AGAIN.
He’s also not expecting to get a call from his boss, informing him that his idol Kevin Smith is currently at his very place of employment to spruce up his ride. Preparing to rush right over, he just needs to pop into the Fasmart for a cool refreshing Slushpuppy first. He’s in such a good mood he even offers to buy a Gatorade for the homeless guy outside.
Trouble is, by the time Scot gets back to the parking lot, the homeless guy is having a seizure. The convenience store clerk is no help, nor are the skater kids who only video the episode with their phones. To make matters worse, the gibberish spewing from the guy’s mouth suddenly isn’t gibberish at all, but a language sounding all too familiar.
It’s an incantation, boiling the blacktop and bringing up a ferocious denizen of Hell to tempt and torment the handful of trapped survivors. And Scot is their only hope!
THE DEAD WAKE by Ellie Douglas (2017 Amazon Digital / 196 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
This collection knows what it is and embraces the schlock whole-heartedly; all you have to do is skim the table of contents to see that. With sections called “Space Zombies” and “Oh Sh*t! Zombies!” and “Pimp My Body,” among others, there’s no room for pretension.
The writing may not be the most polished, the language a little on the rough side, but the author seemed to be having a good time, particularly with the splattery stuff. Lots of fun descriptions of carnage, plus some fiendishly gory artwork.
The stories span eras from the dusty Old West to the farflung starfaring future to the 1930s on the Alaskan tundra. More familiar modern settings include a nursing home, a big-city subway, a playboy’s mansion, the ever-popular shopping mall, a maternity ward, a fat camp, and a cruise ship.
Overall, could use some more editorial TLC, maybe a few historical and reality checks, but it’s okay.