Monday, January 6, 2020

Reviews for the Week of January 6, 2020

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GWENDY'S MAGIC FEATHER by Richard Chizmar (2019 Cemetery Dance Publications / 330 pp / hardcover, eBook, audiobook)

I hadn’t realized there was going to be a Button Box sequel until suddenly there was one, so rather than have to wait and anticipate, I got it as a nice surprise! This time, aside from an intro by King, it’s all Richard Chizmar’s work.

We rejoin Gwendy Peterson, now all grown up, gorgeous and successful, a novelist turned congresswoman, happily married. Her biggest problem is the worry over whether she earned all these blessings, or they’re some holdover from the button box’s powers.

Her next-biggest problems are having to deal with annoying politicians (including an obnoxious President; it’s a slightly alt-universe reality), her photojournalist husband getting sent on assignment to potential war-zones, and her mom’s ongoing battles with cancer.

She’s not expecting to have the button box (and its attendant silver dollars and exquisite chocolate animals) make a sudden surprise reappearance in her life. The temptation of those buttons now, with her inside knowledge, is greater than ever. But so’s her caution.

First things first, though … she’s going home for the holidays. Home to Castle Rock, that perpetually troubled little town, which is in the grips of fear after some girls have gone missing. While her mother’s health takes a turn for the worse. Where her father’s found an old keepsake from her childhood: a little white feather she always believed was magic.

It might be up to Gwendy to save the world from itself, and sometimes saving the world means starting small, in your own home town.

Admittedly, I was hoping for more connection to previous stuff, more references to earlier characters, instead of just appearances and mentions. I wanted (and still want) to know more about the aftermath of the whole Needful Things business and the rest of those folks. Aside from that slight disappointment, though, a fine and enjoyable thought-provoking read.

-Christine Morgan

THE CAVERN by Alister Hodge (2019 Severed Press / 207 pp / eBook)

Knew from the first glimpse that this book would be just my thing … caving, cave diving, cave monsters? Plus, local history of keeping them secret and placated? Risks, thrills, sensory deprivation, terror? Bonus opal mines? Heck, yeah!

And I was not proven wrong. Tense and intense, hitting all the right notes. My only quibble, minor though it is, is that it could’ve used a punchier title. Otherwise, it might be too easy to overlook or fade into the background, which would be a shame because this is an exciting and scary read.

With some REALLY nifty monsters, too. Far beyond the pallid subterranean cannibal mutants of The Descent. More like a cross between Alien-esque xenomorphs and chameleonic aquatic reptiles, black and sleek, luminous-eyed … with the ability to camouflage or disguise themselves, hunting by echolocation and other enhanced senses, loaded with vicious talons and lamprey-like teeth … I want toys of them. In fact, a whole cavern playset.

The locals talk of what they call the Miner’s Mother, which taps and raps like a tommyknocker, but likes its offerings of blood and fresh meat. Many of the little opal mines in the area still have shrines, and those who follow the old sacrificial custom, or even go further to conceal the truth.

When a sinkhole reveals part of the vast interlinked underground system, though, news gets around fast among the community of cavers, explorers, and adventuresome types. They’re all eager to be first to get a good look. Sometimes, eager enough to bend or break the rules …

Needless to say, it doesn’t go well. After one intrepid duo vanishes without a trace, another group ignores the warnings and objections, and venture down there themselves. Also needless to say, it doesn’t go well for them, either! Or for anyone else in the area, because what lives in the caves is far from pleased at these intrusions.

-Christine Morgan

KRONOS RISING DIABLO by Max Hawthorne (2016 Far From The Tree Press / 47 pp / eBook)

A brief prologue-type installment to the Kronos Rising series, this one is set on an isolated volcanic island, a Lost World type of setting where life and evolution have gone on largely undisturbed by outside influences.

It’s home to a tribe of Cro Magnon descendants, who’ve thrived for thousands of years and developed their religion centered around the massive marine reptiles inhabiting the island’s inland sea. These great beasts are their gods … though, lately, it’s seemed the gods are in decline. Maybe even dying out.

The tribe’s new shaman/chieftain must preside over the funeral ceremony of his predecessor, hoping to establish his place and regain the gods’ favor, as well as that of his promised bride. But, times have been changing. Strange craft have been seen near the island, strange visitors have come to their shores, and the forces of fate and of nature may have other plans.

My main issue with this one was in terms of storytelling and voice; it’s meant to be from the point of view of a member of this entirely separate offshoot society, so having the author including references to things that should not in any way be part of that society’s comprehension – terms of measurement, scientific classifications, art and history and culture, etc. – kept jarring me out of immersion.

-Christine Morgan


DEAD TO HER by Sarah Pinborough (to be released 2/11/20 BY William Morrow / 400 pp / hardcover, eBook, audiobook)

Pinborough is one of a few writers I've followed into the thriller field from their days churning out mainly horror, and while this one has all the elements of a blockbuster thriller, in the end it gets quite horrific and features a deliciously wicked cast.

Marcie marries into a ritzy community in Savannah, Georgia. Her husband, Jason Maddox, is now partners with his boss, William, who has recently become both a widower and the husband of a beautiful young woman from London, Keisha. When Keisha starts coming around to the private country clubs, Marcie swears she's flirting with her husband, and intends to friend her to not only keep up appearances, but keep an eye on her as well. Before long Marcie discovers Jason isn't the one Keisha wants, and she's thrown into an affair she could've never predicted.

As Marcie tries to stay faithful to Jason, worried she'll lose all she has gained and be forced to go back to a poor lifestyle, William is murdered, everyone is suspect, and as detectives work the case Jason and Marcie become the top suspects.

Like her previous thrillers BEHIND HER EYES and CROSS HER HEART, DEAD TO HER features plenty of twists and turns, lots of suspense and surprises, and a wicked twist ending that has become a staple of Pinborough's novels. And by wicked, I'm not only talking about who we discover is behind all the manipulation, but the entire cast, who are not only difficult-to-like elitists, but also some of the most downright evil people I've read in quite some time, which gives the novel a sense anything can happen (and for the most part, it does).

Told in four parts, this is a compulsive read featuring a slight voodoo element, giving it a flavor the author's fans from her horror days will appreciate.

-Nick Cato

SKINWRAPPER by Stephen Kozeniewski (2019 Sinister Grin Press / 80 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Of all the horrific things found in the author’s previous work, The Hematophages, the one that most captured my imagination was the concept of the skinwrappers – women who, dealing with cancer and other terrible terminal-type illnesses, have taken to space.

There, planetary factors such as gravity and environmental changes have less of an effect on their deteriorating conditions. Many of them missing skin or other body parts, being scrawny and wasted by disease and elongated by living under zero-G, they resemble living corpses, sometimes partially bandage-wrapped like mummies, often perpetually leaking blood and bodily fluids.

Icky, right? But, remember, these aren’t mindless undead. These are live humans, incurably ill, in constant pain. If their appearance alone doesn’t make them outcasts, their mental state isn’t the best, either. Between their suffering and their stigma, they’ve a right to be bitter.

Whether or not they have a right to band together, raiding for food and medical supplies, brutally killing whoever they can find after harvesting fresh blood and useful organs and body parts … well, it may be understandable; survival is survival … but it does make them some of the most feared pirates in the system.

This book, a tight, taut, tense thriller set in the Hematophages universe (a strongly feminist corporate-driven one where males are obsolete, btw, interesting and very neatly done), follows a desperate teenager trying to hide during a skinwrapper attack on her ship. It’s claustrophobic, nerve-wracking, grisly, and I read the whole thing in one sitting.

-Christine Morgan

HELL'S EMPIRE edited by John Linwood Grant (2019 Ulthar Press / 295 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

You often hear about anthology submissions that must’ve clearly been pre-existing stories altered to fit the call. Change this, add that, take out this other thing, voila and away we go, right? No one will ever know, right?

Well, that sure didn’t happen here. The theme is so narrow, so specific and precise, reworking a story would have been MORE work than writing a whole fresh new one. Which is good, and it shows. This entire book fits together so well it’s as if it was planned that way, coordinated, cooperatively written.

It’s like that WORLD WAR Z book, chronicling the events in a series of interlinked stories. Only, done by several different authors instead of just one. And instead of zombies across modern-day America, it’s England, toward the end of the Victorian age, with an incursion of the forces of Hell. Not the rest of the world, not other eras. Just that narrow zone.

Now, don’t see Victorian and automatically think ‘steampunk’. There are fantastical elements here and there – besides all the Hell stuff, that is – but it’s primarily historical, it’s military and mundane, it brings in aspects of the everyday. Above all else, delightfully so, it’s just SO British in tone and in feel throughout. There’s primness, a crispness, a propriety. The language. The aspects of class and national pride.

Although I enjoyed them all, I have to mention a few particular favorites:

“Hell at the Empire” by Marion Pitman, in which a showgirl singer initially figures the talk of people seeing demons must merely be something in the gin, until the theater she works at comes under attack.

Frank Coffman’s “Reinforcements,” told in the form of a soldier’s journal entries, well into the war, and the arrival of some unusual but far from unwelcome allies.

“The Singing Stones” by Charlotte Bond, taking a skewed look at things from the other side as a demon and his minion find their scouting mission gone awry.

Ross Baxter’s “The Mighty Mastiff” puts bravery and loyalty to the test when a tough old gunboat faces more than just the lonely isolation of the cold sea.

One of the poetic entries, Phil Breach’s “The Charge of the Wight Brigade,” would’ve had me by the title alone, but the poem itself more than lives up to its promise.

-Christine Morgan

BLOOD VERSE by Patrick James Ryan (2013 Black Bed Sheet Books / 398 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

A prevailing theme throughout this collection of 27 tales demonstrates that getting what you want isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be … meet a heavyweight champ facing some challenges that can’t be bested in the ring, a scientific genius learning some hard truths about the medical industry, an eternal reward that sounds awesome at first to one self-righteous soul.

Many of the stories get very grisly, including an example of desperate survival as an injured driver finds himself pitted against patient scavengers, some grit-and-blood revenge torture in the old West, a spelling bee where the stakes have never been higher, and the storm of the millennium giving a killer the perfect cover.

There are family secrets, bitter fantasies, colliding phobias, a much-put-upon assistant trying to help his boss’ parental goals, an ancient vampire’s reaction to certain brooding sparkly paranormal romance trends (hey, as monstrous as he is, it’s kinda hard not to sympathize, y’know?)

I wanted to give a particular shout-out to “Hair,” which starts off with a nasty discovery in a dumpster, seems like it’s going to be a monster-hunty police thing, and then veers into gagworthy body horror … I don’t know if ‘favorite’ is the word I want here, but it sure is effective and squicked me mightily.

Overall, the writing and editing could have used a bit more polish. Little stuff like overuse of names in dialogue, repetitive word use, over-detailed choreography description bogging down the action scenes. But, the spirit’s there, a good sense of energy and enthusiasm. Even when the characters are unlikable, or downright loathsome, they’re entertaining to read.

-Christine Morgan

IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 2202 by Edward Lee (2019 Necro Publications / 138 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Given his more usual settings, one might not be so inclined to think LEE IN SPAAAACE, but, here we go! In a future where religion has taken firm control of society, advancing their theocratic empire around the globe, a ship has been launched on the ultimate quest – to find the actual, physical Heaven.

An extraterrestrial anomaly has been detected. Which, scans indicate, appears to be of the exact compositions and dimensions laid out in the Book of Revelation by St. John the Apostle. It doesn’t take the shape of a planet or nebula; it isn’t made of gases or simple minerals. Is it walled in jasper? Gated in gold? Does it contain the souls of those who’ve passed on? Angels? God Himself?

The C.F.S. Edessa is on a secret mission to find out. Most of the crew doesn’t even know until well into the journey. Including Sharon, a humble data integrator with no idea how sheltered her life has been … an obedient, pious, virginal young woman who regularly goes to confession, diligently takes her supplements, and abstains from foul language or sinful thought.

Many of her shipmates, however, deviate from the rules. This is still an Edward Lee book, so you can rest assured there’s plenty of cussing and sex going on. There’s also sinister plans afoot, including sabotage and murder efforts by heretic cultists.

Sarah, drawn into the intrigues after surviving one such attack, suffers some rude awakenings when she learns more about what’s really going on aboard the Edessa. She’s disturbed by the influences of a civilian remote-viewer assigned to the mission, and by her own budding attraction to a security guard.

She’ll be more disturbed yet when the ship reaches its destination, and they find out the shattering truth of what’s waiting for them in Heaven. If, that is, any of them survive to tell the tale.

A masterful blend of philosophies, sci-fi action, and horror, featuring Lee’s trademark touches throughout, this book will entertain, offend, or maybe both.

-Christine Morgan


Sunday, December 8, 2019

Reviews for the Week of December 9, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main blog page for submission info. If you're on your cell phone switch to "Desktop View" or you probably won't be able to see it. If this is the case, break out the laptop, baby...

SLASHVIVOR by Stephen Kozeniewski and Stevie Kopas (2017 Sinister Grin Press / 296 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Not sure how I hadn’t reviewed this one yet, since I know I read it a while ago! At any rate, buckle up, keep your assorted limbs inside the vehicle, and hold on tight, because here we go … it’s time for post-apocalyptic America’s favorite game show, TRY NOT TO DIE!!!

Remember THE RUNNING MAN? Not the novella, which still would make a neat flick on its own, but the movie adaptation with Arnie? The big televised obstacle course deathtrap arena with over-the-top pro-wrestler-style maniacs trying to hack up condemned prisoner contestants as a smarmy host commentates?

Start with that … only, replace the condemned prisoners with ‘randomly’ selected citizens … stick the arena in a giant caged dome with a live studio audience … and instead of pro-wrestler-style maniacs, it’s a roster of the most fiendish and brutal serial killers in the world.

The world which, by the way, is a blasted hellscape of destruction with cyborgs and nuclear mutants and repurposed homicidal animatrons, so, that roster includes far more than your classic slashers … but those are quite well-represented too. Especially the debonair cannibal, the gifted experimental surgeon … you get the idea.

Most people are thrilled to be Selected, a moment-of-fame televised death preferable to their ongoing dismal existence. Dawn, a scrappy young scavenger and thief from the wastelands, feels differently. But the powerful Producers don’t take no for an answer, and as the game gets underway, Dawn finds herself a reluctant celebrity.

As if the situation wasn’t already all-around bad enough, this particular episode of Try Not To Die is in for some nasty surprises even the Producers haven’t anticipated. The body counts and splatter factor will go off the charts, not to mention the ratings … if there’s anyone left alive to care.

A wild, gory, riotous ride, packed with great hate-to-love-’em and love-to-hate-’em characters throughout. Forget THE HUNGER GAMES; here, the odds are NEVER gonna be in your favor.

-Christine Morgan

THE MONSTROUS FEMININE: DARK TALES OF DANGEROUS WOMEN edited by Cin Ferguson and Broos Campbell (2019 Scary Dairy Press / trade paperback & eBook)

Anyone who doesn’t know by now that women can so write horror has either been living under a rock or playing willfully ignorant. That argument should be over. But, since it still does keep cropping up from time to time, here’s another stellar example of female writers showcasing their dark and deadly sides.

I was particularly pleased to notice how many of the names among the contributors were new to me; more proof (not that it was needed) that there’s plenty of us out there, more and gaining momentum all the time.

These fourteen stories examine many different sides of what it means to be (or identify as) a woman, from the expectations inflicted by society to what we take upon ourselves. The creative, the destructive, the protective, the passionate, the vengeful, the loving … it’s all in here, because it’s all in each of us.

You’ll find female-focused tales herein of familial obligation that may make you think twice about your next holiday gathering … of professional obligations keeping a doctor on the job well above and beyond the call of duty … of ancient relics and ancestral secrets.

You’ll share the daily eternal struggles of dealing with boys-will-be-boys, workplace harassment, body image, that time of the month, and finding confidence in sexual empowerment. You’ll witness uncanny transformations from the Stepford-esque to the Jekyll-and-Hyde.

If you’re a gal-type, you’ll have plenty to relate to, strongly resonating with life experiences. If you’re a guy-type, and tempted to skip this book because it might make you feel guilty or uncomfortable or left out, well, really, ask yourself, isn’t that all the more reason to read it?

-Christine Morgan

CLUB CLOUD AND QUEEN by Victor O’Neil (2019 Omnium Gatherum / 321 / trade paperback & eBook)

Based on the cover, I thought I was in for a rockabilly rodeo of a weird western. What I got was something with, admittedly, a few weird western elements, but overall was altogether wilder, weirder, epic, mythic, and full-tilt bizarre.

Were I to blurb it (*innocent look*), I would go with something like this: “Joseph Campbell himself couldn’t have imagined the classic hero’s journey as depraved as this … a cosmic, dystopia, hedonistic Narnia with shades of the Matrix and the wild West … monstrously good … will turn your brain into a balloon animal!”

Trying to explain this book would be a monumentally complex undertaking that’d still fall far short of encompassing the sheer mind-warpingness. If you insist on some sort of summary, there’s this guy named Jed (an unreliable narrator in an unreliable reality to begin with) who appears to live in a struggling post-fall society, or maybe it’s all in his head. Then a snake comes out of a ceiling fan and suddenly Jed’s being wet-nursed by an angel when a Burt Reynolds lookalike rolls up in a muscle car …

Wait. Let’s try that again. You know how, in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, those four kids cross over into a different world and become royalty? Kind of like that, only, instead of fauns and talking lions, there’s super-drugs and wild orgies …

Or, how about this … if instead of discovering he was a wizard, Harry Potter found out he and his siblings were powerful godlings, their mother a decadent wicked fourth-dimensional queen slowly becoming a monster …

See? See what I mean? It defies summarizing. Just read it. Read it and see for yourself. Do be warned, though, there’s a lot of, ahem, adult content (wasn’t kidding about using ‘hedonistic’ and ‘depraved’ in that blurb!) Tell you this; I fully expect to see it on the Wonderland Awards ballot next year.

-Christine Morgan

INTO BONES LIKE OIL by Kaaron Warren (2019 Meerkat Press / 90 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

While mourning the deaths of her two young daughters, Dora finds herself at a sea-side boarding house, which happens to be haunted by the spirits of those killed during a nearby shipwreck. But the "hauntings" here aren't your standard genre tropes, and to say more about them would do this gripping novella a major disservice.

The owners of the Inn try to persuade Dora to do something that could potentially set her mind back or even destroy it, and her recovery, as it is, is continually challenged by odd situations and hints of the supernatural that we're never quite sure aren't just figments of Dora's imagination and fears.

Like her previous novel TIDE OF STONE, Warren again employs some fantastic atmosphere and keeps the reader guessing as to what's actually going on inside our protagonist's head. I've said before Warren's style reminds me a bit of the late, great T.M. Wright, but with this latest novella she continues to carve out a quiet-horror path that's all her own and uniquely frightening.

-Nick Cato

LUCIFER SAM by Leo Darke (2019 Grinning Skull Press / 290 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Heavy metal and horror are like chocolate and peanut-butter! They don’t just go together, they belong together! And every now and then, along comes something right up there with not merely a Reese’s, but a Reese’s Halloween pumpkin. Something like this book, for instance.

Our narrator, Kirk, is front man for a band called Lucifer Sam, rife with their own struggles, drama, and personality conflicts. Except, the story he’s telling isn’t so much Lucifer Sam’s story as the story of how Lucifer Sam got swept up in a bigger, far stranger, deadlier one. The story of the hugely popular and successful band Cat O’ Nine Tails, and what happened after their mysterious disappearance … and even more mysterious return …

With Bermuda-Triangle shades of Lost and other such thrillers, Cat O’ Nine’s plane vanishes without a trace, only to reappear in the same spot, six months later. There’s no accounting for the missing time, no explanation, no answers given. All anyone knows is, they were gone and now they’re back. And planning an album and big show.

They seem different, though. It isn’t just the way they look younger and fitter. Their behavior is different. Flat-affect, unsettling, devoid of emotion even toward their loved ones. As if they’re changed somehow. A change that also shows in their music. Those listening to the early demos of their new stuff react in crazed, violent, self-destructive ways.

Kirk was never much of a fan of their work, but when his obsessed girlfriend starts showing the signs, he takes it upon himself to try and find out the truth. Even if it means convincing the other guys in Lucifer Sam to help, and even if it means tracking down an aging former rocker with his own ties to Cat O’ Nine Tails.

And maybe you only meant to eat one Reese’s Halloween pumpkin, but before you know it, you’ve gone through the whole bag of chocolatey peanut-buttery goodness, and should feel bad about it, but probably won’t!

-Christine Morgan

TO WALLOW IN ASH & SORROWS by Sam Richard (2019 Nihilism Revised / 165 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Extra, extra. Read all about it. I found a new author that you’re going to want to read and will probably be all about it. First things first, two words: Sam Richard. If that doesn’t ring a bell, you may already know him as the mastermind, owner, and operator behind a couple of already unique and compelling mashups of Weird Fiction, Horror, and Bizarro Fiction style punk rock tribute anthologies put out through his press, Weirdpunk Books. With a literary tribute to David Cronenberg in THE NEW FLESH, The Misfits in HYRBID MOMENTS, and another zombie punk rock spectacular titled ZOMBIE PUNKS FUCK OFF, his eclectic barrage of loud and zany literature has already begun to make some noise in the not so distant past. But, after reading this debut collection, I discovered something even better, the man and his writing himself. Let’s all say it out loud together again: Sam Richard, whose writing is not only unique within itself but strong enough to standout in a world of already great and fantastic micro and small press authors of the weird. His writing is brutally honest in this unforgiving and relentless sort of punk rock, weird fiction, horror kind of way. Often thought-provoking and deep, often with a unique blend of looming sadness, impending doom, and hopeless dread. I loved every word on every turn of the page.

There’s a lot to take in on this one, folks. You might want to do yourself a favor and read it slowly, let the words soak in, or you may take on more than you can chew, or in this case spit out and regurgitate slow into the mouths of corpse like birds with skeletal wings. Yes, it’s that heavy. The words are sincere amidst the dark, and often beautifully dreadful imagery abounds. For example, the author kicks things off in this collection with a story that’s almost indirectly written very closely to home titled ‘To Wallow in Ash,’ a tale about a widow who takes the ashes of his deceased wife and mixes them in with the ink of a new tattoo, before realizing that she and the time they had were more powerful than ever, and to consume their memories together was simply not enough by form of permanent ink, so the narrator begins to consume her ashes in more conventional and lasting ways… think, by physically ingesting them. To hold and to preserve within, to digest and to take part of her again to not only feel but to also hold onto that eternal love they shared together. Like I said, there’s some super powerful stuff going on here, folks! Am I right? 

It only keeps getting better the more you read into it. Please do yourself a favor and pick this one up. Make sure you read the introduction first to see what this book is really all about. I randomly picked this one up one day when the cover caught my eye and I literally could not put it down after I started reading it. It's that good!

-Jon R. Meyers

#HORRIBLE by KJ Moore (2019 Blood Bound Books / 101 pp / eBook)

The introduction warns that these “are not nice stories.” It warns of possible shock, offense, and transgression. There’s a system of hashtags, including spoilers and potential triggers. Some may seem silly – ‘poorly loaded dishwasher,’ ‘cheese not used as intended,’ ‘mechanical bull’ – but then, if you’ve ever lived with someone who LOADS THE DISHWASHER WRONG …

Ahem. Sorry. Got me with that one, I guess. Anyway. Yes. Each story has its hashtags and warning labels listed. While that may seem sensationalistic and gimmicky, well, so what? Besides, some of these? Oh yes, they are warranted. Are they ever!

Body horror stuff. Genitals. Scissors. Pedophilia. Abortion. Dead animals. Rape. Remember the “not nice stories” thing? NOT JOKING. Some seriously dark, awful, uncomfortable, cringeworthy content here. Stuff that will curdle the soul and sicken the stomach.

We’re talking stuff that … let’s just say, I enjoy extreme horror, but even I was thinking, okay, the title has it right. Horrible. People are horrible, the asteroid can’t eradicate us soon enough, what the hell is WRONG with us, I hope the meerkats or octopi or whatever takes over next does a better job, because really, WTF, humanity.

This, by the way, was all still just leading up to the last story in the book. Which is called “Tasteless,” for very good reason. Which has a hashtag advising the reader to skip it. Which would have been the right idea, but I didn’t.

Which, if you’re at all familiar with a certain controversial performance at a certain convention, and were traumatized by the content, um, yeah … this involves a similar atrocity. Heed the warnings. For the sake of your sanity, heed the warnings.

-Christine Morgan

ZOMBIE PUNKS FUCK OFF by Sam Richard (2018 CLASH Books / 160 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

When people say punk is dead, they probably didn’t mean it quite like this. Same for people saying zombies have gone mainstream. Here, gathered in a fun and fast-reading little paperback, are fourteen stories flipping the finger to all those people, combining zombies and punk in diverse, wild ways.

The book also serves as a memorial to Mo Richard, the editor’s wife, a dear lady who was taken from us suddenly and far too soon. If it seems ironic or tacky for a bunch of zombie stories, well, how punk is that? Sam Richard, in the intro, even suggests she would have wanted it that way. His own contribution, concluding the book on an emotional note, is a definite punch in the feels.

The stories themselves, like zombies, also rise to the occasion. Featuring the talents of big-name bizarros such as Danger Slater, David W. Barbee, Emma Johnson, and Brendan Vidito, it’s packed with gigs, guts, grodiness, and attitude.

On a nitpickier note, I do wish a little more care had been taken with the edits and proofreading. Love the folks at CLASH but this isn’t the first time I’ve noticed that issue. Everything else looks great, the cover unabashedly trashy, the layout sharp, all that good stuff.

Particular shout-out to Madison McSweeney’s “Re-Made,” my personal favorite of the lot, which takes jabs at the arrogant idiocy of conversion therapy. Troubled teen? Send them to punk camp! Turn them into productive, wholesome members of society! Or, hey, into zombies; six of one, half a dozen of the other!

-Christine Morgan

UNTIL THE SUN by Chandler Morrison (2019 Death’s Head Press / 293 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

You know how, in certain Olympic events like gymnastics, diving, or skating, the judges will factor the difficulty of the routine into their scoring? So, doing well at something easier is good but doing well at something really challenging is better? As soon as I started reading this book and saw Morrison was attempting the difficulty setting of “second person present tense,” I knew the bar was set high. Ballsy. Ambitious. Pushing it for a relatively young and new writer?

Heh. He freakin’ NAILED it. All tens. Across the board. And stuck the landing like WHOA. Flawless performance. Give him the gold. Give him the awards. Everyone else can just pack it in for this year. This guy’s got mad talent and mad skills.

As for the actual book, I should mention, this is not ‘that’ book, the one embroiled in a genre-shaking controversy. This is what the South Park goth kids wished Twilight had been. THIS is the perfect almost-YA (I say ‘almost’ because there’s a LOT of sex and a lot of violence) vampire book … and more … and then some.

Laden with references to lore both classic and modern – oh I saw that haunted Plymouth in there, don’t think I’d miss it! – the story starts off with a disaffected youth whose foster parents are butchered by a trio of blood-drinkers. When they invite him to come meet their Sire and possibly join them, he figures why not, and goes along for the ride.

What follows is a thoroughly riveting, thrilling, dark, twisted adventure of backstories, secrets, and all-around can’t-put-it-down brilliance. Skillfully interwoven, character-rich, utterly believable.

Found myself thinking as I read, not only is he already way better than I was at that age (literally half mine, for the record), he’s already way better than I am NOW. If he keeps it up, which I have no doubts he will, he’ll blow the rest of us out of the water within a few years. It’d be easy to be grouchy about that, but I for one am delighted. Future of the genre’s in damn good hands, folks!

-Christine Morgan


Sunday, November 24, 2019

Reviews for the Week of November 25, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main blog page for submission info. You might not be able to see it if you're on your cell phone. Select "Desktop View" or break out your laptop, baby...

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.

-Nick Cato

SCREECHERS by Kevin Kennedy & Christina Bergling (2019 Amazon Digital / 88 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

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!

-Christine Morgan

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.

-Christine Morgan

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.

-Christine Morgan

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.

-Nick Cato

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.

-Christine Morgan

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!

-Christine Morgan

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!

-Christine Morgan

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.

-Christine Morgan


Monday, November 11, 2019

Reviews for the Week of November 11, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're on your cell phone you probably won't be able to see it unless you switch to 'desktop mode,' or better yet, break out your laptop, baby...

MERCILESS by Bryan Smith (2019 Grindhouse Press / 163 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Bryan Smith has recently become one of my favorite extreme horror authors. I’ve been hooked ever since I read and watched the movie 68 KILL, which while I’m on the subject, felt as if this title could also easily become a great setting for another violent horror thriller much in the same light. Smith has a very bold, original, and unique voice, as well as an uncanny ability to tell one hell of a dark and violent and twisted tale. From his short stories to his longer works, the author victoriously manages to bring us something morbidly nice and eerily original time and time again. 

When a newlywed couple hits the road for their honeymoon things quickly take a turn for the worse. Well, maybe the better? For better or for worse? Isn’t that how these types of marital relationship things usually go? Well, whatever the case is…this couple turns their honeymoon into something much more memorable. Like a bloodbath when they kidnap a total stranger and take him to a cabin in the woods to torture him. Together. For better or for worse with this violent prenuptial agreement. Do they both have what it takes to show their undevoted love for each other? Are they even being completely honest with each other? Only time will tell when you pick this one up and read it for yourself.

With plenty of sadistic, violent twists and turns, this one is sure to have you turning those dirty, sticky, stuck together pages rather quick.

-Jon R. Meyers

THE NIGHT AND THE LAND by Matt Spencer (2019 Back Roads Carnival Books / 362 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

My suppositions and expectations bounced me all over the place going into this one. By the title, I was thinking it’d be dark fantasy, but then the first line’s about a Jeep and murders, so then I thought slasher, but then there’s hints about a hidden war so I leaned toward some kind of vamps-vs-wolves thing … and by the time I realized it wasn’t exactly any of those, I was hooked.

Story starts with Rob, whose dad has a secretive past and mysterious friends he’s worked to keep from his son, even though said past is very much a part of Rob’s own life and future. Then we skip ahead a few years to meet Sally, a runaway with her own secret-laden past, struggling to survive on the streets and stay ahead of who’s chasing her.

Now, my guess that they’d end up the classic star-crossed lovers did prove true, when their chance meeting and attraction proves curiously disturbing yet irresistible to them both. What Sally knows but Rob doesn’t is that they’re each from opposite sides of that hidden war, and should by rights be mortal enemies.

Seems like everyone else Rob runs into also knows way more about his bloodline and place in the world, not to mention the powerful potentials he’s only accidentally begun to tap. Once he and Sally have connected, everything speeds up and escalates into all sorts of violent mayhem.

In the normal scheme of things, his kind is driven to fight, destroy, and devour hers. Something’s different about her, though, and he finds himself protecting her from her own murderous (and kind of delightfully screwed-up psychotic) family.

My personal favorite character is Puttergong, a wisecracking smartass potty-mouthed impish ‘familiar’ who gets assigned to Rob but seems to have his own sometimes less-than-helpful agenda.

-Christine Morgan

THE LONG SHADOWS OF OCTOBER by Kristopher Triana (2019 Grindhouse Press / 250 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

What would you get if you combined a raunchy teen-sex-romp party movie with a haunted house ruled by a vengeful lust-fueled evil? You’d get an unforgettable NC-17 read packed with tempted virgins, tormented spirits, grisly surprises, and the ultimate showdown of female-empowered sensuality. In other words, you’d get this book!

When rebel Joe and jock Danny hatch a plan to get Joe’s little brother finally laid, they never could have predicted how it’d all end up. The offer to housesit at Snowden Manor, complete with pool and hot tub and access to the wine cellar – and for generous pay to boot! – seems way too good to be true, but you’d better believe they jump at the chance.

It IS too good to be true. Mrs. Snowden has a darker reason for hiring on some virile youths to look after the place. The time of power and sacrifice is rolling around again, and like any caring mother, she only wants the best for her dear daughter. She also prefers to be well out of town for a solid alibi.

As soon as the guys settle in, it’s open season on their hormones and desires. It’s also open season on their girlfriends, because what walks in Snowden Manor has a really nasty jealous streak and doesn’t want to share her boy-toys. It might just be up to the innocent ones to save the day … if they can.

I remain greatly impressed by how well Triana writes female characters, even and especially in the extreme horror/smut arenas. They are the real driving force here, believable and relatable, from the elderly lady to the kid sister, from the school slut to the squeaky-clean good girl. (that said, though, my absolute favorite character in the whole book was Horace!)

Didn’t I say a few reviews ago that here was a rising superstar, an author to watch? With THE LONG SHADOWS OF OCTOBER, I’m proved right once again.

-Christine Morgan

CHILOPODOPHOBIA by Paul McMahon (2019 Grinning Skull Press / 156 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

As if anyone needed another reason to not drink and drive, along comes CHILOPODOPHOBIA (say that 5 times fast!) which should be required reading for those taking their learner permit exam (or any horror fan looking for a satisfying creep-out).

Several years after causing an auto accident that claimed an innocent life, Cady (who has started his life over in another part of the country) agrees to meet his girlfriend's uncle, who happens to be her only living relative. Although he agrees to go, he's apprehensive one or both of them may question him about the accident he was miraculously not held responsible for, and tension builds as he wonders what he would say to them. And shortly after arriving at the uncle's home, Cady discovers answering questions about his past life will be the least of his worries.

While the cover art (not to mention the title) for this one had me expecting a HUMAN CENTIPEDE-type tale, McMahon goes off in a different direction and evokes the spirit of classic creepy-crawly terror films such as SQUIRM and KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS, albeit with more dread than any of those types of films would be envious of.

McMahon delivers a fine blend of suspense and gross-out horror that's definitely not for the squeamish, and while McMahon's work has been featured in several anthologies, his first book has announced a rising talent who's obviously taking no prisoners.

-Nick Cato

EARWORM by Aaron Thomas Milstead (2019 Blood Bound Books / 224 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Don’t get too comfy anticipating this is going to just be about getting catchy little songs stuck in your head. Oh, no. No, no, no. This is a more literal kind of earworm. The crawls-in-gets-comfy psychic kind, moving from host to host. Think Star Trek, think The Hidden, you get the idea.

Our protagonist, ironically enough, is an exterminator who’s already having a rough time. Not only is he separated from his wife and rarely allowed to see his daughter, he’s recently been diagnosed with a terminal condition. Keeping the news to himself to avoid pity, he goes on about his business, showing up at a routine pest-control call.

But there’s nothing routine about finding a freshly-killed corpse. While checking to see if the guy’s really dead, he feels a weird little tickle by his ear but thinks nothing of it … mostly because just then the murderer comes in with a gas can, and our protagonist decides to make himself scarce without realizing he’s picked up a little hitchhiker.

Then he does start experiencing the catchy-tune kind of earworm, plus odd dreams, as his passenger attempts to establish mental contact. Soon enough, he’s getting the whole story. It turns out the relationship isn’t strictly one-sided; that whole terminal disease thing stops being a problem, for instance.

But they aren’t the only such duo around, and not all of the earworms inhabiting people are so benign. One in particular is quite old, quite evil, and all-too-close to home.

Blending life-sucks with body horror and fears of possession and loss of self, bringing a skewed sense of humor occasionally reminiscent of the works of Jeff Strand, this is a fun read that builds to a surprisingly sweet (if kinda twisted) conclusion.

-Christine Morgan

100 WORD HORRORS BOOK 3: AN ANTHOLOGY OF HORROR DRABBLES edited by Kevin J. Kennedy and Brandy Yassa (2019 Amazon Digital / 110 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

We're fresh out of spooky season, horror folks, and headed for that dreadful winter, but we’ve got ourselves another Drabble Anthology on our hands. First of all, I’d like to say I’m a big fan of these anthologies. I was excited to see there was a third installment coming out and I immediately put it on my list. This series is packed with a whole bunch of great, quick witted reads that are well-written, powerful enough to paint a very quick image in the mind, and just overall a lot of fun to read. This time around there are over a hundred 100-word stories in the Drabble mix. These books would make great bathroom readers, coffee table, tabletop decorations, you know some of those great in-your-face locations to stir up some of those more meaningful conversations to be had. Scary, spooky, violent, bloody, and thought-provoking, these little gems pack quite the horror punch.

Some of my personal favorites were ‘Hack’ by Jim Goforth, a bloody take on how much blood one will shed whilst cutting off their own foot. ‘Narrative’ by Kevin Cathy, a drab author's recent decent into the depths of hell after making a deal with the devil himself. ‘The Midnight Circus’ by Sheldon Woodbury, a shadowy caravan of horrors makes it way down dark country roads. ‘Dreams’ by Andrew Lennon, a man invaded by ghastly dark shadow figures in the twilight hours. ‘Nothing’ by Chad Lutzke: light up the incense to cover up the scent of nothingness and death. ‘Used Parts’ by Theresa Derwin, where a loved one transfers to preserve a dying sibling’s human consciousness into a foreign object whilst lying on his death bed. ‘Wooden Suit’ by Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason, just remember, don't move... it'll leave room for moisture and worms. ‘Machines of War’ by Ron Davis, I mean c'mon, we all know I'm a sucker for robots. Shout-out to these machines of war really quick. ‘Mine’ by Justin Hunter, because we've all thought about purchasing a soul on eBay, haven’t we? But what happens when you don't have a return policy in place. ‘Three O'clock A.M.’ by Eric J Guignard, the witching hour is upon Sam Rockland in the shape of a priest.

Check it out!

-Jon R. Meyers 

STRING OF PEARLS by Thom Carnell (2018 Macabre Ink / 242 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Following up his previous collection, Moonlight Serenades, Thom Carnell returns with some new stories written after triumphing over that insidious bane of us all, writer’s block. It’s such a joy when the words start flowing again!

Like before, some of these initially appeared in Carpe Noctem, and they display a wide range of genres and mood. First up is “Sorority,” a gritty little survivalist vignette with a girls-only stand against the zombie apocalypse … and next is a sharp turn into government agencies and demonic possession and a rather unusual weapons-toting priest.

Speaking of weapons-toting, yes, in this book we do get another installment of the adventures of Carnell’s all-around tough guy action hero Cleese! This time, it’s a tantalizing teaser Expendables-style as he and several other mercs, military types, and soldiers of fortune are whisked away on a helicopter ride to a mystery destination for hush-hush but likely life-or-death purposes.

In “On the Ice,” we get a chilling and desolate peek into the mind of Dr. Frankenstein’s unfortunate creation, while “Under Ice” is just simply breathtaking and beautiful in its descriptions.

“House Haunted” hearkens back to the fraught overwrought gothic ghost-stories of old. But then there’s the sinister and far-too-plausible righteousness and poisonous rhetoric of “Family Man,” which I found the scariest of the entire set.

The big centerpiece of the book is the lengthy “Song of the Dragon,” a sprawling Japanese fairytale/folklore adventure that reads like the novelization of an entire season of a fantasy anime. Well-written but not really my thing; I skimmed a lot of that one.

Several of the less-fanciful tales are more introspective and personal, musings on death and dying, philosophy, thought, going home, facing mortality, moving on, and seeking closure or resolution. “Prodigal Son” in particular is a difficult but potent, cathartic read.

-Christine Morgan

THE DEATH CHUTE by Ambrose Stollicker (2019 Aurelia Leo / 118 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

In the arena of creepy old buildings, few can compare with the hospital or asylum. You know the type of place, with the long history, the troubled patients, lots of deaths, possible abuse or neglect or other horrible goings-on. Often voted most-likely-to-be-haunted in the yearbook. 

But with this one, it’s a little different. Rather than the derelict ruins left to gloomy decay, where intrepid urban explorers or ghost hunters might go, the former Glastenbury Mountain tuberculosis sanatorium has been spruced up and revitalized as a posh rest/care home for the elderly.

TV producer Jake Porter isn’t thinking new show when he first visits. He’s looking for a place for his ailing mother. Glastenbury seems to have it all: luxurious accommodations, attentive staff, price tag to match. It doesn’t hurt that Jake develops an attraction to the lovely and intelligent director.

So, he moves Mom in – the scenes between Jake and his mom, as she struggles with dementia, are heartbreakingly well-done, and all-too-true to anyone who’s had to deal with that terrible thief of memory and self! – despite being slightly uneasy about the place’s past and the behavior of some of the other residents (in another cuttingly deft touch, their accounts are generally disregarded as senile ramblings.)

It doesn’t take long before ‘slightly uneasy’ becomes ‘seriously unnerved,’ when Jake catches glimpses of nurses in old-timey uniforms, his mother starts talking about the little boy who visits her, and an old graveyard on the property seems to corroborate the legends. There’s even rumors of a ‘death chute,’ through which bodies could be clandestinely removed without upsetting any of the other patients or drawing too much attention.

Jake starts thinking there might be reality show fodder here after all, which doesn’t bode well for his budding romance. The vengeful spirits, meanwhile, are reaching a paranormal boiling point, and soon the living will be lucky to make it out alive.

-Christine Morgan

PART-TIME ZOMBIE by Gerald Rice (2019 Melted Brain Books / 218 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Not sure how well the title here fits the actual book; although it starts off with a mindless and inexplicable craving to eat human flesh, what follows goes way beyond and far afield from your typical ‘zombie’ tropes. By the end, we’re well into more medical-weirdness and almost cosmic-type horror, with religious/mythic overtones.

Alice is just doing her humdrum day job, shuffling paperwork for a couple of doctors who run their practice out of a little strip-mall office. Hungry, but not sure what for, she heads out to the nearby Dairy Queen, but a run-in with some tough teens turns into a fight and one thing leads to another and people get bitten and messily dissolved by spewed gastric acids and hit by a car.

Waking up in the hospital, Alice feels fine and checks herself out against medical advice. But she’s struck again by her hunger on the Uber ride home, and it doesn’t go so well for the driver. Or his car. Or Alice, who gets promptly hauled back to the hospital after what appears to be a deadly crash.

Meanwhile, Detective Lazarus (yes, that’s his name) has been called in to investigate the bizarre incidents. He’s trying to track down the mystery woman for questioning but keeps just missing her, talking to her neighbors, revisiting the hospital only to find Alice has left again, etc.

When he does catch up with her, he’s startled by her uncanny resemblance to his late wife, and that’s when the story really gets on the crazy train. Starting with how his wife was killed and partly eaten by a deer walking on its hind legs (? could have used some more info on that).

From there, the weirdness really keeps on rolling, leading to Frankensteinian levels of mad science and possible links to reincarnation and all kinds of stuff. Interesting to read, and enjoyable, if occasionally a little muddled … but yeah, didn’t seem to quite fit the title.

-Christine Morgan

IN THE MIDST OF THE SEA by Sean Padraic McCarthy (2019 Pace Press / 332 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Oh the red flags, so many red flags … I wanted to feel sorry for Diana, I really did, but dang, between her dysfunctional family and abusive husband, this was a whole red flag drill team long before we even get to the stuff about the hauntings.

Other characters KNEW it, too, and kept TRYING to tell her, and SHE knew it, but STILL … and she’d keep going back, giving another chance, doing what it’s hard not to call ‘stupid’ things that then go hideously wrong and make matters worse …

So, yeah, in terms of being written true-to-life with the trappedness and rationalizations and gaslighting and stuff, it was extremely effective. The urge to just grab her and shake her, or call the cops, or child protective, was overwhelming to the point it sometimes distracted me from the rest of the story. Very well done; flinchingly, wincingly so.

Diana’s mother, too, wow what a piece of work. Again, all too believable, horrible, controlling. The whole dynamic there gave me a creepy V.C. Andrews matriarchal secrets-and-lies vibe, with the rest of the family going along with whatever she wants to avoid her wrath.

Summary-wise, Diana and her daughter, and her new husband Ford (temper and alcohol issues, whose own family background is a mess) move into a house left to Ford by a great-aunt, on a remote island. A house that comes complete with creepy dolls, a troubling journal, and unquiet spirits.

Overall, I found it well-written modern gothic, doing a good job tracing parallels between the past and the present, but yeah, difficult and frustrating and often uncomfortable in terms of the characters.

-Christine Morgan