Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Reviews for the Week of August 5, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. You probably won't be able to see it on a cell phone. Fine time to dust off that laptop...

KINFOLK by Matt Kurtz (2018 Grindhouse Press / 167 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
site: https://grindhousepress.com

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!

-Christine Morgan

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.

-Christine Morgan

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?

-Christine Morgan

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.

-Christine Morgan

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.

-Christine Morgan

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.

-Christine Morgan

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.

-Christine Morgan

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.

-Christine Morgan


Monday, July 15, 2019

Reviews for the Week of July 15, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're on a cell phone you probably won't see it unless you click "switch to desktop" or break out your actual desk/laptop. How's THAT for mansplaining?


THE PLACE OF BROKEN THINGS by Linda D. Addison and Alessandro Manzetti (to be released July 19, 2019 by Crystal Lake Publishing / approx. 50 pp / eBook)

In this team-up collection of 35 poems, Addison and Manzetti cross genres, pay tribute to some of their influences, and create verse where the haunting, the beautiful, and the sublime often become one.

Among my favorites, the title story 'The Place of Broken Things' which examines the haunted thoughts of a parent contemplating their child's death in a car crash. I read this one a few times and it managed to dig itself deep under my skin. 'City Walkers' gives a slick look at the werewolf mindset, while 'Animation' plays like a cyberpunk version of an apocalyptic scenario. 'Cathedral Lane' humanizes the plight of the homeless while keeping things mysterious, and 'Like Japanese Silk,' one of several pieces dealing with faith and religion, excels in its use of suggestion to create irresistible atmosphere.

Like all good poetry collections, THE PLACE OF BROKEN THINGS is full of short but powerful prose, each author showing off their skill as a team and on their own, with everything gelling together incredibly well. A fine, highly enjoyable collaboration that will hold up well to repeat readings.

-Nick Cato

STRANGE COMPANY & OTHERS by Peter Rawlik (2019 Gehenna and Hinnom Books / 224 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

“Is Lovecraftian pulp-punk a thing? Because that’s what Rawlik’s doing here, at its action-packed, cinematic best!” – Christine Morgan, author of Lakehouse Infernal

Yes, that’s me, blurbing this book all official and stuff! An honor to be asked, a pleasure to do. I’ve shared many a Mythos anthology TOC with Peter Rawlik, and his stuff has always been among the books’ bests. He’s got a way of taking a genre that’s normally overbloated with dense stuffy wordiness and making it both accessible and entertaining without losing any of the cosmic horror feel.

This collection proves it beyond any shadows-over-innsmouth of a doubt. The stories are grouped into three sections – “Mainstream Mythos,” “Other Horrors,” and “Alternate Mythos,” each encompassing a different sub-style but all carrying the same skill, immersion, and talent.

The opening tale deftly combines a classic carnival freakshow with a familiar name in reanimation circles … repercussions and characters of which also appear in some of the subsequent stories for that nice same-universe feel. Connections to certain famous works, including Frankenstein and Jekyll & Hyde, appear throughout, as do references to others of the author’s projects.

Some are done epistolary-fashion, told via letters and journals, transcripts, statements, etc., as is fitting for the genre. Setting-wise, there’s everything from the dusty Old West to the gritty noir city streets, from sleepy seaside towns with secrets to the post-Biblical-apocalypse, from the cold Arctic to airships on high. There are monsters galore, eldritch and indescribable (yet wonderfully described!)

My favorites include “Things Change” (cosmic on a cosmic scale and timetable indeed!), “The Gumdrop Apocalypse” (an odd departure into twisted fairy tales, another I always enjoy!), and the truly outstanding “The Nomenclature of Unnameable Horrors.”

-Christine Morgan

MIDNIGHT SOLITAIRE by Greg F. Gifune (2019 Bloodshot Books / 156 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This author’s work has become a favorite over the years. Book after book, Gifune’s dark words crawl from out of the woodwork and continue to shock, torment, and entertain us. This rerelease of Midnight Solitaire from Bloodshot Books tailored with a more fitting cover is no exception to this.

There’s a sadistic serial killer on the prowl amidst a massive snowstorm in New England when four strangers become a part of something much more horrific and sinister than their typical day-to-day. How does this stranger know so much about the killer on the loose? That’s easy as he’s been following him around for a longtime. Why not stop him? That’s where things begin to get a little more interesting. Simple answer, because he can’t. The Dealer is far more powerful than that. Think blood sport. Think demonic rituals. Think how do you even kill something that is not essentially alive? A little different than the author’s other work. It’s kind of a dark, psychological thriller that puts you alongside the main characters as they’re running from their own personal hells … and they’re kicking and screaming along the way.

Check it out!

-Jon R. Meyers

GARDEN OF ELDRITCH DELIGHTS by Lucy A. Snyder (2018 Raw Dog Screaming Press / 184 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This collection from Lucy A. Snyder demonstrates her range of genre-hopping talent, often with a cosmic/Lovecraftian twist (as the title suggests) but also including more standard horror, sci-fi, fantasy both traditional and dark, and expert meldings of all of the above.

There are a dozen stories in all, drawn from an impressive list of anthology appearances and including a Year’s Best honorable mention nod. Reading them, it’s not at all hard to see why.

Particular favorites of mine included: “Fraeternal,” a tale of twins and experiments and uncanny abilities and insidious twisting destiny, a truly outstanding piece of work, one of the best short stories I’ve read in quite some time;

“The Gentleman Caller,” in which a disabled phone-sex operator has the opportunity to reinvent her life, only to find that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side;

“That Which Does Not Kill You,” a graphic and grisly bit of betrayal body horror told in rare and unusually well-done second person POV;

and “Executive Functions,” where a callous corporate sleazeball gets a rude awakening to the true nature of reality.

From small-time crime with a touch of witchery, to high-stakes crime with a cyberpunk edge … from the intimately personal to the end of the entire world … from the alternate past to possible futures and other places far removed … this book has a little something for everyone, all well worth the read.

-Christine Morgan

HORNWOLF by Evan Romero (2019 Blood Bound Books / 112 pp / eBook)

The third entry in Blood Bound Books' "Redline" series will be of interest to fans of the extreme stuff, this time with plenty of twisted humor thrown in.

When mutilated bodies start popping up around the small town of Ashwood, Cynthia Carver figures they're nothing more than animal attacks. Is a bear on the loose? Maybe even an unusually irritated, malnourished coyote? But when our lovely police chief discovers one of the bodies has been sexually assaulted, Carver takes a closer look into things and quickly realizes whatever is doing this is unlike anything that's ever been reported...

HORNWOLF is written at a lightning fast pace, it seeks to offend at every turn (and does), yet despite the hardcore nature of the narrative we're right there with Carver as she ends up fighting for her life against one of the more bizarre versions of a werewolf story to come down the pike in quite some time … or I should say, to come down the sewer. Loaded with redneck humor, some inventive transformation scenes, and enough splatter to satisfy even the most jaded of gorehounds, make sure you buckle up before strapping on (full pun intended) this wickedly insane novella.

Like the sleaziest pulp novel from the 70s, HORNWOLF is massively offensive, twisted, politically incorrect, and guaranteed to piss off nearly everyone. This is a nasty, dark tale for those who can handle the extreme side of extreme. All others, take cover.

-Nick Cato

BEDTIME HORRORS by Nic Kristoffer Black and Jorge Gonzalez (2016 Internegative / 50 pp / hardcover)

I got this one as a PDF and found it something of a challenge at first to read, thanks to the layout and choices of design (black background, pale text) but the overall unconventional look of it is both striking and potent. And the illustrations! Oh! The illustrations are lavish and lovely even when they’re horrific and grim.

Billed as “for adults and young adults,” it contains ten short stories of a thousand words each. As for their suitability at bedtime … that depends on how well anybody hopes to sleep. There’s not a lot of room here for bloat and meandering, giving the stories a nice quick campfire feel, dark gooey sweet treats to end the night, like sinister s’mores.

Monsters in the closet make their appearance, as do horrors from the depths of the sea and beyond the stars. Sometimes the monsters and horrors are all too human. Other times, they’re unimaginably Inhuman.

If I had to pick a favorite story, it’d be “Spare Parts,” a fun take on a classic, in which a disgruntled teenager tires of being ignored and belittled by his father.

And if I had to pick a favorite illustration, the ones accompanying “Glass Jars” are simply beautiful uses of color and light, luminous and alive, right off the page (or screen, as the case may be).

-Christine Morgan

WHERE THERE ARE DRAGONS edited by James Jakins, Austin James, & J.L. Mayne (2019 Robber’s Dog Pub / 179 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Okay, this is another in which I’m privileged to have a story, so, am admittedly biased. Especially because one of the editors liked my story so much from elsewhere, he sought me out and requested to include it. How can I say no to flattery like that?

Besides, dragons! Besides, amazing Luke Spooner cover. 21 cool stories and poems. AND interior illustrations for each by Betty Rocksteady!

Also, most important of all, the book is for a cause. Proceeds go to support suicide prevention and awareness; the real dragons all too often are inside us. With all of that, it’d be hard to go wrong … and it doesn’t.

My personal favorite, Eric James Stone’s “Accounting for Dragons,” starts things off with delightfully fun tax tips and hoard-managing advice, sure to bring a grin to all the D&D and gamer types out there.

Other top picks include:

Bo Herno’s “The Dragon’s Tear,” presented in an interesting and well-done omniscient/tell style, with bonus points for pitting a techno-dragon against a horror from the deep;

“Dancing With Fire” by Dr. Benjamin Anthony, taking addiction to deadly new levels with the transformative power of powdered dragon’s bone;

Melanie Bowling’s “Ashes From the Beast” presents a sort of northern-backwoods-gothic in journal form, in which a small town houses a chimney attached to no ordinary furnace;

and “Dragonspeak,” a short but gorgeous poem by Ashley Dioses.

Spanning genres and settings, with tones and emotions from silly/fun to deep/serious, with dragons both literal and metaphorical, the combined result is a strikingly varied anthology of really cool stuff.

-Christine Morgan


EARTHQUAKES IN CANDYLAND by Jennifer Robin (2019 Fungasm Press / 320 pp / trade paperback)

I used to think Jennifer Robin just *had* to be exaggerating and taking creative liberties with her observational recountings of life on the weird streets of Portland. Then I went to one of her readings, thought I’d take public transit like a true city person, and on that trip alone witnessed a guy in a teddy bear onesie lugging a huge garbage bag full of aluminum cans. On that one MAX trip! Not even on the bus!

So, okay, I take it back, I eat my words. It really *is* like that out there. And in her latest work, she goes far beyond the Pacific Northwest, examining this great nation of ours in insightful detail by the unflattering lights of our own flame wars and dumpster fires.

It’s over 300 pages of mostly short essays and memories, interspersed with occasional longer travelogues and narratives as well as a few single-line thought-provoking zingers right out of an existentialist’s fortune cookie. Inside perspectives of recent Portland protests and riots are included, as are reflectively intimate personal stories.

There are far too many to go into detail here, but I will say that if you read the whole thing in one sitting, you just might be overwhelmed with frustration and despair and the determination to *do* something (or the wild urge to burn it all the hell down). The ones that cover statistics about war, politics, and social injustice are soul-wrenching. Drugs, sex, religion, abuse, menstruation, guns, health care, racism, and countless other issues are unflinchingly addressed.

Are these works fictional? Some, sorta, maybe so / maybe no. Allegories abound. The language is both poetic and frank, starkly honest in a starkly beautiful way, taking no prisoners. Bizarro? Horror? Yes, and yes, and all the more so because they’re born of our modern reality.

If you’ve ever had the privilege of attending one of her performances (readings are what ordinary authors do; Jennifer Robin is living performance art), you’ll probably hear this entire book done in her voice and rhythm, which is exactly as it should be.

-Christine Morgan


Sunday, June 30, 2019

Reviews for the Week of July 1, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're on your cell phone switch to "Request Desktop Site" or you probably won't see it.

ONE FOR THE ROAD by Wesley Southard (2019 Deadite Press / 100 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I’d only recently (and finally!) gotten around to watching the excellent movie GREEN ROOM, so as soon as I started reading this book, a set of expectations built themselves up in my mind. A struggling indie band going from gig to gig, ending up in deadly trouble … well, can you blame me?

But I got much more than I bargained for from this fast, fun, headbanging wild ride. Much, much more. Told up-front-admittedly unreliable narrator style in the form of a crayon-scribbled journal, guitarist Spencer chronicles the final tour of metalheads Rot in Hell as their situation goes from bad to worse to downright unthinkable.

It doesn’t help that the six of them are already having problems amongst themselves … personality clashes, jealousy, dislikes, secrets. Spencer and Vinnie are planning to quit, just as frontman and all-around jerk Steve announces a big career-making opportunity … Steve’s girl Shelly has the hots for Spencer and woe to them if anyone finds out … add in spoiled rich-kid bassist Les and the silent, violent D-rail, and the drama’s approaching full boil even before they find themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere.

But this is no ordinary middle-of-nowhere. This is a place that changes from sandy desert to dense jungle to frozen wasteland without warning. And forget merely running afoul of an enclave of violent, heavily-armed skinheads in the remote backwoods; there are nightmarish creatures here that would make heavily-armed skinheads look cuddly.

So yeah, those initial expectations and comparisons to Green Room are pretty quickly right out the window. The members of Rot in Hell all too soon find themselves at risk of living up to their actual band name. Or maybe ‘living up to’ is the wrong phrase. Living at all might be optimistic!

-Christine Morgan

THE MURDER OF JESUS CHRIST by John R. Little (2019 Bad Moon Books / 309 pp / trade paperback)

This one came to me as an uncorrected proof, and was still cleaner than a lot of finished final editions, so, start off with mad kudos to everyone involved on that! I’m kind of curious to see what the eventual cover design will be, but, weirdly, at the same time, this stark and plain no-frills look works surprisingly well.

The story is a strikingly weird mix of genres, hard to classify. A paranormal religious thriller with sci-fi, historical, and psychological elements … a time-travel “what if” with repercussions changing everything for two thousand years.

Photographer David Abelman has always been a science guy. He’s never gotten into his ancestral Jewish faith, he broke up with his astronaut girlfriend over matters of her faith, and he certainly never would have expected to experience first-hand proof of past lives.

Yet, when his grandmother bequeaths him a host of family lore – including how many relatives met their fates in concentration camps – and shares a magical secret, he’s compelled to investigate despite his skepticism.

He discovers he can visit his previous selves, going back through the ages. He can change things. He can change history. Now, the classic question is usually to do with Hitler, obvious choice would seem obvious, but David takes it much further. If no Christianity, no Holocaust, right?

But, of course, as is the way with changing history, sometimes even with the best of intentions, you make things worse. That’s what happens to David, who then also discovers his deed coming back to haunt him in an entirely new way – a teenage black girl claiming she’s the messiah, with modern technology and social media to spread her message.

I love extrapolatory stuff like this, where the author’s clearly given thought to the fallout and repercussions. My main nit was that I wanted to see more of it, such as, what about the various other polytheistic faiths displaced by Christianity? (okay and a very minor nit about the reference to Santa).

Wowser of a book; fascinating and well written. Dan Brown should eat his heart out.

-Christine Morgan

BROKEN SHELLS by Michael Hicks (2018 High Fever Books / 124 pp / trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)

Sometimes, you just know it’s a scam, it’s a deal too good to be true, but you can’t help looking into it anyway. For Antoine DeWitt, it arrives in the form of a mailbox scratch-off ticket from a local car dealership, suggesting he’s won five thousand dollars.

He sure could use it. Not only is he already struggling to make ends meet, not only does he have a kid and baby-mama depending on him, but he just lost his job (for, btw, reasons that make him an immediately sympathetic and satisfying protagonist). So, he decides to go check out this offer, even though he figures it’ll only lead to a big sales pitch.

It leads to something much worse than a sales pitch. Turns out, the guy who runs the dealership is also custodian of a deadly ancient evil hive of monsters. When hopeful candidates show up to ask about their five grand, he determines if they’re likely to be missed … and he makes that determination about Antoine.

Next thing Antoine knows, he’s waking up bruised and battered in the dark, cocooned into some horrible nightmare. He manages to break loose, only to find himself surrounded by previous victims, and hellish creatures ready to eat him … or worse.

With overtones of Lovecraftian/Aliens and tons of good ol’ gonzo creature-feature skittering bloodbath action gore, it’s a fun quick wild ride of a read. Definite treat; I will be on the lookout for more from this author in the future.

-Christine Morgan

DARK RIDE by Iain Rob Wright (2019 Amazon Digital Services, LLC / 203 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

DARK RIDE: A Novel of Horror & Suspense? Check. Yep. You can say that again. And it’s funny because I wasn’t sure at first because we started out with some pretty stereotypical horror tropes in the beginning, but, let’s face it, for a successful story an author needs to deliver us the story goods, and, as the reader, we need to be able to engage with our characters, relate to and have empathy for. Love, hate, or even worse loathe entirely. Once the story is setup this is where the author really begins to shine and he knocks it out of the park, so to speak. This book pretty much has it all, as well as one of the most intense endings I’ve read in a while. I could honestly actually see this being a decent new wave horror movie and I really enjoyed the latter parts. 

A pro wrestler has more than a secret to share with his friends when they embark on one last trip of a lifetime together. The crew packs up without a spare tire, heeding all warnings, and visit an old, abandoned amusement park, where one ride specifically has a more than tragic history. The notorious Frenzy, a Viking helmet shaped water-ride like a rollercoaster. But, there’s a catch. There’s always a catch, right? It’s haunted as all get out years after a crazed employee set fire to the building, leaving nine people dead, and nothing is quite like it seems. After the ride was condemned and the amusement park closed, the building has sat vacant and overgrown in the middle of the woods. That is, until now when AJ and his friends cut the fence, climb through, and have a terror filled anti-party of a lifetime. Is their friendship strong enough to make it to the end of the Dark Ride? 

Do yourself a favor, check it out and find out for yourself.

-Jon R Meyers

TWIN LAKES: AUTUMN FIRES by Melissa Lason & Michelle Garza (2018 Sinister Grin Press / 238 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

It is, of course, very fitting that the Sisters of Slaughter should have a setting called Twin Lakes … and that it should also be a rather Twin Peaks kind of place: a small, remote, quaint Washington town where things aren’t always as they seem.

AUTUMN FIRES takes place as everyone is gearing up for the annual harvest festival, but alongside the old traditions, a new evil has cropped up. Several mutilated bodies have been discovered out in the surrounding woods, with evidence suggesting ritualistic natures to the murders.

As it happens, though, whispers of the paranormal are nothing so strange around here. Bring in a consulting medium to help with the case? The local sheriff himself secretly being no ordinary lawman? An entire secret town council of elders with their own long histories and uncanny gifts? Maybe the everyday citizens of Twin Lakes have no idea, but the inner circle is ready to take a supernatural threat in stride.

Liz is neither. Liz is a rambling young hitchhiker who accepts a ride from a not-so-nice guy, only to escape and stumble onto the scene of an even-worser guy. Thinking she’s found help at a campfire, instead she finds a body, and horrible dark tentacles intent on claiming her next.

Overall, the story’s entertaining, the descriptions are good. There’s a bit much telling rather than showing for my tastes, a lot of background info and a lot of sometimes-hard-to-distinguish characters, and the dialogue at times feels fairly stiff and lacking personality. The potential’s still there, though, and each book I see by this duo gets progressively better.

-Christine Morgan

LASER HOUSE ON THE PRARIE by David W. Barbee (2019 Excession Press / 164 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Every geek on the internet is going to feel personally attacked in this book, and it’s hilarious. I’m not sure if the author used a random fandom generator or what, but, as absurd as everything gets, it’s really only holding a funhouse mirror to what we already have.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, because that wackiness comes later … and the wackiness the book starts off with is also deserving of admiring note. Whatever you might expect from the title, trust me, you have NO idea. It’s SO much further out there. I mean, the kind of thing that would have to be animated by the Futurama team or illustrated by Phil Foglio, and either way cranked past eleven.

On the surface, it’s sunset Western meets sunset heist, when a retired former-badass gunslinger is approached for one last big job. He doesn’t want to take it, he’s happy now with his quiet new life on the prairie with his husband. But his old associates aren’t going to take no for an answer, so he must once again strap on his guns and saddle up (figuratively speaking).

About that ‘surface,’ though? This is a neon dayglo garishly bright world where laser energy powers everything from nature to weapons, where sharks swim through laser grasslands and ramshackle buildings float above it. The colors will make your eyes hurt, even just reading the plain black words.

Our reluctant gunslinger, once known as Sexy Jeph, goes along with Classic Bill’s plan to retrieve the super-powerful Red Orb (gave me Brisco County Jr flashbacks, that), even fully realizing that the other members of the team will kill each other and/or destroy everything to get it.

What Jeph’s not prepared for is their quest to take them far from the prairie. To another dimension, in fact. To the fabulous city of Obscuria, where opinion is everything, everyone’s a cosplayer, grognard, gatekeeper, raging nerd, true-fan warrior, faddish bandwagon jumper, you name it.

And THAT is when Barbee just kicks open the saloon doors of internet fandom culture to start some s***, with riotous if-the-shoe-fits results.

-Christine Morgan


BLACK STATIC no. 69 (May-June 2019 / 96 pp / print and digital editions available)

Before this issue's 5 new stories and headlining novelette, Lynda E. Rucker flies the flag high for the future of horror, discussing both fiction and two recent, original films, and Ralph Robert Moore gives an encouraging and uplifting message for horror writers using his own background as an example. Both commentaries will leave fans excited and refreshed about the state of the genre.

This issue's fiction begins with 'Where it Ends, Where it Begins' by Erinn L. Kemper. Mac runs a sea side salvage shop where he sells hand made items. But his serene life has a dark side, which is fueled when he finds an amputated body on the beach. Kemper brings the chills and shows a gruesome story can have a lot of redeeming value.

In Joanna Parypinski's 'Beach People,' Carmella is still mourning the death of her brother as her parents try to get her mind off it with a trip to her aunt's lakeside home. She refuses to join them at the beach and watches her parents interact with others from the house, eventually taking notice of a girl about her age talking with them. But her parents act as if there is no other girl there, and Parypinski takes us on a disturbing ghost ride (of sorts). Easily my favorite story of the issue.

A brother goes in search of his sister on her 18th birthday in 'Hunting by the River,' Daniel Carpenter's look at discovering who your sibling really is. I love shorter pieces that pack a wallop, and this one delivers a real punch to the gut.

'Pomegranate, Pomegranate' by Jack Westlake is an apocalyptic tale ALA 'The Silence' or 'Bird Box,' this time following a girl looking for her sister in a world where speaking can have dire consequences. Familiar, but well done with a heartbreaking conclusion.

'When You Decided to Call' by Daniel Bennett is a subtle, haunting look at a man reconnecting with his father, with the latent help of his neighbor, in a most unique way. Much of Bennett's prose had a dream-like feel, giving the story a surreal edge.

In Simon Avery's 'Messages from Weirdland,' we meet Franklyn, a widower for the past year. While walking his dog Luna on the beach he finds a bottle with a note inside, and is startled to see it is written in his late wife's handwriting. Stranger yet, the note is a short story that reads like his own published fiction, and he soon discovers a couple of more bottles also written by his wife. A lot of stories in BLACK STATIC have dealt with loss and grief, and here Avery gives the subgenre (if you will) his own flavor. Excellent.

In this issue's book reviews, Gary Couzen looks at three film books from Electric Dreamhouse (John Connolly's tome on 1972's cult classic HORROR EXPRESS looks especially promising), Daniel Carpenter has me psyched for Georgina Bruce's debut collection 'This House of Wounds,' and Laura Mauro sold Alma Katsu's take on the Donner Party, 'The Hunger' to me by the third paragraph.

Among Gary Couzen's blu-ray reviews is a detailed look at Arrow Video's box set for the original 'The Ring' series, New Zealand classic 'Death Warmed Up,' a couple of third world cannibal films, and the Second Sight release of Fassbinder's 'World on a Wire' (which was released here in the US a few years ago in a beautiful edition by Criterion).

Another solid issue wrapped in great cover art by Joachim Luetke, order your copy (or subscribe) here: BLACK STATIC

-Nick Cato


Monday, June 17, 2019

Reviews for the Week of June 17, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're on a cell phone you probably won't see it. Break out the lap top amigo...


SCUM OF THE EARTH by Cody Goodfellow (to be released 7/1/19 by Eraserhead Press / 164 pp / trade paperback)

The latest offering from the always wild Cody Goodfellow is a sex-charged, post-apocalyptic sci-fi romp wheremost of humanity has been exterminated save for small groups who are hiding across the galaxy on strange planets. We learn aliens have been stealing human brains for hundreds of years and selling them (apparently our brains/imaginations give a better high to extraterrestrials than super crack). Mankind's only hope is a motley crew of space pirates, led by a former stripper (and insatiable nymphomaniac) named Callista Chrome, and MAN does she like to get busy in the sack regardless of who it's with (there are a few great gags with her shape-shifting first mate that had me laughing out loud).

Our crew travels on a gigantic ship that's actually a starfish, and getting it to go in certain directions requires some witty planning by Callista and co. And as they try to rescue the remaining humans, they come up against some of the craziest obstacles in the universe, including space Vikings, intergalactic drug dealers, sex-charged platypuses and a host of characters who'd make George Lucas blush and possibly commit suicide.

Goodfellow's writing (if you've never read him) is frantic (in a good way) and never lets you rest. The humor level is fantastic and I cracked up a few times, even during some of the more disgusting sexual situations. SCUM OF THE EARTH is definitely not for everyone, but those with a taste for dark humor, bizarro and some great meta-style jokes will eat this up as fast as I did. If you enjoyed Christopher Rowley's "Pleasure Model" trilogy, you'll probably enjoy this, but be warned this one's a lot more extreme … and weird.

Grab this on July 1st and try reading it on the beach … those sunbathing around you will definitely hear you laughing (or gagging).

-Nick Cato

THE BONES OF THE EARTH by Scott Hale (2015 / 308 pp / trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)

This book – the start of a series, I’m pleased to see – nicely manages to meld post-apocalyptic with paranormal, sweeping dark fantasy, and touches of cosmic horror. It’s our world, but well into the future, after humanity’s crossed the inevitable destructive border. Although relics and language (including slang) and ruins have survived, new societies and beings of various types have developed.

Most of surviving humanity has become what’s called Corrupted, marked by a tell-tale discoloration of one arm. Vrana is not one of them. Her people, though largely human in appearance, take on masks and characteristics of various other creatures. Vrana is the Raven, and has just come of age to undertake the trials of adulthood set to her by the village elders.

What follows is an epic adventure of exploration, discovery, stirring up ancient evils, uncovering hidden truths, the classic hero’s-journey with strong overtones of semi-YA dystopia. There are monsters to fight, menaces to overcome, mysterious places to venture into, strong action scenes, and cultural references that don’t feel as out of place as they otherwise might.

Vrana as a character is gutsy, believable, and fun; she doesn’t suffer from most of the annoying YA heroine traits; her capabilities and flaws are nicely balanced, and her relationships with other characters ring natural and true. We get just enough backstory and tantalizing foreshadow to hint at further story developments as the series progresses, but without any sort of chosen/destined one vibes.

The writing style is particularly well-done, lavish and beautiful, featuring some truly stunning turns of phrase. On several occasions, I’d have to take a moment to just sit there and silently wow. I was reminded more than once of the gorgeously-turned prose of Damien Angelica Walters. Definitely a potent start to what’s sure to be a solid series.

-Christine Morgan

TOXIC LOVE by Kristopher Triana (2019 Blood Bound Books / 164 p / eBook)

Remember the show DIRTY JOBS? Mike Rowe’d be out there doing stuff all eew and gross and disgusting and awful? Septic stuff, veterinary, hoarders, cadaver farms? Well, even that show didn’t tackle the job THIS Mike has.

Mike Ashbrook cleans up places where bad things happen. Messy, biological, terrible things. Crime scenes, accidents, the home of that neighbor nobody’s seen for a few weeks, you get the idea. Worst of the worst, bodily fluids and rot, mangled corpses, etc. But, the pay’s good, and he’s pretty good at dealing with the horrors, and at this point in his life he’s feeling too old and burned out to change careers yet again.

Then, along comes Sage, his new partner. She’s young, vibrant, gorgeous, smart. Her family’s got money; she doesn’t even need the job. But she enjoys her work. REALLY enjoys it. A lot. A LOT a lot. We’re not just talking mildly turned on. We’re talking full-blown sex-maniac fetish. This is the only way she can satisfy her cravings, and she’s not adverse to sharing her fun.

And Mike, though initially hesitant for a variety of very good reasons, can’t resist the temptation. Soon, they are right down there wallowing in it, each new job pushing them to wilder and freakier extremes … until they get caught, and fired, and lucky not to land in jail.

By then as hooked on Sage as she’s hooked on gore, Mike is desperate to find a way to continue their relationship. Even if it means breaking a few laws, and not just the laws of common decency. Even if it means shedding some blood, or worse.

What follows is a fast, slippery (very slippery) slope into absolute depravity. No level of hazmat suits will help. No amount of showers in scalding bleach will let you feel clean again. The final scenes will stain your brain in a way that is NEVER coming out.

Each book I read by this guy only further convinces me he’s one of THE names to watch, an extreme horror superstar in the making. Can’t possibly say enough good things!

-Christine Morgan

DIRTY ROTTEN HIPPIES AND OTHER STORIES by Bryan Smith (2019 Grindhouse Press / 256 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This new collection by Bryan Smith is jam-packed with unique short stories, the novelette ‘Some Crazy Fucking Shit That Happened One Day’, and a mini-collection referred to as ‘Seven Deadly Tales of Terror’, both previously only available in eBook format. The first thing I noticed upon reading was the author can spin a unique and original zombie tale, a once highly over-indulged sub-genre of horror fiction, but there’s no worries in that department here, folks, because he’s just that good of a writer and he pulls it off with ease and then some. From EC and Creepshow comic book-esque horror, creature features, and unique tales of the undead. This highly universal collection has a little bit for everyone. 

‘Dirty Rotten Hippies’, the main novella in this collection, is an action-packed Woodstock-era NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD but with more sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. A mystery drug sickens the entire crowd, and it’s not just the classic tunes of The Grateful Dead that start to rise from the ground that keep these groovy fans screaming for more. 

‘Some Crazy Fucking Shit That Happened One Day,’ my personal favorite from the entire collection is a novelette that features a guy stepping outside for a smoke, when a mysterious bus full of Satanic cheerleaders stop to pick him up. After, realizing this wasn’t just another strange trip, the main character fears for his life as they are heading to the cemetery to summon Nazi era zombies, and this far out groovy tale of terror only gets much weirder and more enjoyable from there. A good old-fashioned blood-soaked hoot and holler.

Other honorable mentions: 'Chainsaw Sex Maniacs from Mars', 'We are 138 Golden Elm', and 'Bloodsucking Nuns for Satan.' 

Do yourself a favor and check this one out!

-Jon R. Meyers

A HAWK IN THE WOODS by Carrie Laben (2019 Word Horde / 270 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

A HAWK IN THE WOODS takes the ominous atmosphere of dysfunctional families with secrets, combines it with a mysterious half-rustic kind of southern gothicness, add in supernatural abilities and ties to cosmic horror / eldritch magic, and then modernize the whole deal with a good social media kick in the pants.

Abby Waite is even more of an attention-junkie than everyone else on Twitter and Instagram. As a kid, she realized she not only had a knack for making people do what she wanted, but she could feed off their attention. Positive or negative, didn’t matter; as long as they were thinking about her and directing emotional energy her way, she’d get that needed rush.

She comes by it naturally – well, sort of. Her mom and grandfather and Waites going back as far as their New England roots have similar abilities, up to and including fully taking people’s bodies over, or coming back from the dead, or summoning things best not summoned.

Her twin sister Martha, however, takes more after their grandmother, with a different sort of gift. Martha can alter the flow of time, making hours or days pass in a flash, resetting and altering events … as long as she can hold onto it.

Thing is, for Abby, time is suddenly a concern. She’s been diagnosed with something terminal, and her only hope is to unlock the rest of the family secrets. To do that, she needs the help of her sister, whom she has to bust out of prison. And there are other forces at work that don’t want them to succeed.

It’s a strange sort of chick flick sister adventure, paranormal THELMA AND LOUISE on the road and on the run, trying to stay ahead of the powers out to stop them, while working out the issues in their own relationship. An odd mix, but it works very well!

-Christine Morgan

THREE DAYS IN ASHFORD by Ty Tracey (2018 Bowker / 349 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I’m sorry to say I had a hard time slogging through this one. The writing’s fine for the most part, but it is very detailed and precise, particularly for something done mainly through first-person perspective as well as letters and transcripts … the expected immediacy and intimacy is not much to be found.

The dialogue, as well, comes across as really stiff, stilted enough to be dressed as Uncle Sam in a 4th of July parade, rarely sounding like the way real people would talk, except for the occasions when characters attempt banter, but even then tend to come off as arrogant or unreal.

That’s all even before getting into the plot, which is on the face of it promising enough: the crew of a popular paranormal-investigation show get invited to a town that, although it apparently doesn’t exist on any map or in any legal record, has multiple disappearances and a long history of weird occurrences.

So, naturally, they decide to go check it out. Despite things going off-the-charts bad wrong before they even GET there, things like being tracked by a total men-in-black rig, or like, oh, one of the team suddenly shouting in Sumerian and trying to bite the face off another of the team …

Daniel Hollowell, the show’s lead, is the one relating most of the story, though other parts are brought in through later court transcripts and what he reads in an old journal. While the descriptions are strong, the best bits of the book are the bits not even directly connected to the main storyline – flashbacks involving other cases, and Daniel’s relationship with his wife and daughter, for instance.

It then basically goes full Twin Peaks / X-Files / cults / government conspiracies / meta-religion / time displacement / legal drama, as if an entire fall lineup from one of those documentary channels was crammed together. I suppose, under the right circumstances, it’d make for an interesting backdrop or setup for a roleplaying campaign, but as was, the dryness and blandness sucked the life out of the story.

-Christine Morgan

MOONLIGHT SERENADES by Thom Carnell (2018 Macabre Ink / 306 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This collection spans several years, including pieces previously appearing in various issues of Carpe Noctem Magazine as well as several until-now-unpublished tales. In the author’s foreword, he’s open and candid about the loss of his mother, his resultant writer’s block, and eventual return to the page. Each story also features a small introduction, and mood-setting/amplifying quotes throughout to enhance the impact.

From organized crime in exotic foreign cities to teens at a small-town carnival to an old woman on her lonely mountain … from poignantly beautiful tales of love and loss to the perils of self-pleasure in a post-apocalyptic world … from a couple of cleverly-twisted takes on a familiar horror classic to a parent’s nightmarish revenge … they run a strange but engaging gamut. With lots of zombies, but not all zombies!

Many of the stories, particularly those involving recurring character and general tough guy Cleese, showcase the author’s extensive studies and practice of martial arts. While I appreciate the technical aspects of this, I’ve always found too much detailed precision and play-by-play choreography somewhat tedious and off-putting in combat and other action scenes. Important for the author to know, maybe, but for the reader it can often bog things down and turn what’s meant to be exciting into a skim-past-it or a slog.

My personal favorite of the collection is the gleefully-imagined “Clown Town.” It’s clown noir. Yes. Clown noir. In which society is structured of every type of clown you can think of, from the elite Harlequins at the top down on through rodeo clowns, keystone-cop clowns, and mimes.

-Christine Morgan