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


Sunday, May 26, 2019

Reviews for the Week of May 27, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're reading this on a cell phone you're probably not going to see it. Break out the lap top, amigo ...

THE PANDORA ROOM by Christopher Golden (2019 St. Martin's Press / 320 pp / hardcover, eBook, audiobook)

Golden's 2017 novel ARARAT made my top ten favorite horror novels that year (and won a Bram Stoker Award, too), so I was thrilled to hear he had written a sequel featuring its main character, Ben Walker. This time Walker is called to check out a find made by archaeologist Sophie Durand and her crew in Northern Iraq. Sophie has discovered a jar in an underground city that may contain either ancient curses or blessings, and hence their site is not only put under tight security but the crew are rushing to get their find out of there before anyone can intercept their work. The fear is this "Pandora's Box" may contain a plague of biblical proportions. As Walker arrives from a mission in Greenland, Jihad terrorists attack and all hell breaks loose.

The action and suspense begin on the first page, as Sophie is trailed back to the dig site by two mysterious figures. Golden wastes no time delivering a fresh twist on the Pandora's Box myth, and this time instead of demons, our explorers face a deadly plague while trying to stay safe from ISIS soldiers … while trapped below ground. If you're claustrophobic, THE PANDORA ROOM will freak you out as much if not more than the 2005 horror film THE DESCENT. Yep, this one captures that same sense of dread (and throws a mysterious disease into the mix for good measure!).

While it was nice to see Ben Walker back in action, I really liked Sophie's extreme yet serious nature. She's not afraid to risk life and limb for her passion and we believe she'd do just about anything to find out just what's in that ancient jar she has unearthed. Here's hoping we see more of her. I also liked the classic monster movie-type post-ending.

I've mentioned it many times, but it bears repeating: Christopher Golden is one of the most consistent writers out there, and THE PANDORA ROOM is one of those novels you hate to put down. It's fast paced, suspenseful, full of fantastic characters, and reads like a popcorn-munching summer blockbuster. A best bet for a beach read this summer.

-Nick Cato

THE BONES BENEATH THE FLESH by Shain Stodt (2018 IP / 177 pp / trade paperback)

Went into this one without knowing anything about it, certainly without knowing it was the origin/prequel … I really need to start paying more attention sometimes, because then certain elements might not come as such a "wait, what?" surprise.

It starts off with a Native American woman who’s a retired military general, a wendigo attack, and a helicopter rescue, okay. Then the storyline jumps to a girl whose brother is turning into a monster (well, he always was a monster, just, now it’s literal). More, he’s at the epicenter of an outbreak, but it’s no normal outbreak. Combining viral-infectious stuff with possession/supernatural stuff, it’s starting to look like the beginning of the end. Which it is.

From there, things jump again to Liz and her pal Bennie, who realize bad stuff is seriously going on. The cast of characters grows rapidly, with Liz’s sister, and their lesbian neighbors, one of whom’s a witch ...

Then the jumps become cosmic quantum leaps, as suddenly there’s this whole other fantasy magic world Harry Potter thing where Liz has to go to find out about her true parentage, and meanwhile all these other mythic beings from various cultures are joining the fray, and … yeah.

Nit-picky, not sure if a formatting glitch or what, but apostrophe issues throughout also made me half-crazy. The writing was lively and energetic, could have used a little more editorial love. The violent gory scenes are quite gooshily violent and gory.

There’s a whole lot of everything at once going on here, thrown at the reader’s face in a dizzying barrage. Heavily feminist, heavily LGBTQ and POC, and vegan, etc; soon I could only think of all those “this is the future that liberals want” memes you see around the internet.

-Christine Morgan

ERIE TALES IX: TRANSFORMATION edited by Michael Cieslak (2019 Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers /  99 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

The GLAHW crew return again, this time with ten tales of transformation with a twist.

In “Feathers,” Montilee Stormer starts us off with an adult after-dinner take on a game normally reserved for tween slumber parties, in which the familiar ‘light as a feather, stiff as a board’ turns out to be just the start of a complicated and dangerous ritual.

Christian Klaver’s “Day of the Blood Tigers” feels like an odd fit for the theme, not so much about actual shapeshifting as it is about weird paranormal hunters and disappearances.

“The Howling Wolf” by Peggy Christie flips the werewolf legend on its head in a fun way, though I had some trouble with the logistics of it all with the moon phases and just how it was supposed to work.

The always-entertaining Ken MacGregor opens “The Grunt” with the line “You had sex with a WEREWOLF?” and really, what more do you need? Well, stronger condoms, maybe …

“Uninhabited” by Wayne C. Wescott presents a grim future where our new shapeshifting alien overlords frown on people eating their dead, and with good reason, as one hungry guy finds out.

H.R. Boldwood’s “The Good Life” has a drifter after a rough night at the bar make the acquaintance of a wise stranger with a secret, offering a new opportunity.

Next up is “Tadpole” by Janice Leach, for a quick, poetic, oddly pretty change of pace, with nicely done descriptive elements.

“Sanctuary in a Small Town” by Essel Pratt looks at the homesick loneliness of being separated from your pack, and the struggles of trying to lead an ordinary life … until the past catches up.

Cassie Carnage’s fun “Of ‘Squatch and Men” explores what can happen when a weekend camping trip goes badly awry for a bunch of beer-drinking buddies.

Closing the book out is “The Shifter of Shapes” by Justin Holley, a cautionary lesson on the we-never-learn dangers of messing with magic.

-Christine Morgan

UNDER ROTTING SKY by Matthew V. Brockmeyer (2019 Black Thunder Press / 342 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

So, with the month of May being International Short Story month in mind, this was a first for me by the author as I usually like to read short story collections and various horror anthologies throughout the typical work week, and I couldn’t be happier to have spent the time to have checked out this collection recently available from Black Thunder Press. Overall, the stories were extremely versatile and well versed for fans of Dark, Extreme, Horror, and Transgressive Fiction, leaning more towards the extreme side of the above-mentioned genres as far as the prose and content itself is concerned. As with most collections not every story is going to be a homerun but, out of the twenty or so stories there’s actually quite a lot to offer inside this monster of a collection. 

Some of my favorites were ‘Joyride’, a delve into a homeless couple living under a bridge, whilst suffering from heroin addiction and withdrawal, as the ghost of a little girl haunts one of the main characters to his hopeless plummet into the depths of his own demise, darkness, and despair. This was a great display of the author’s extreme versatility. ‘Nightingale’, the last known survivor of a notorious inferno that took place in 1910 gets interviewed and unleashes the dark and grim secrets of what really happened on that fateful night. In ‘A New Man’, a man has the internet to thank in more ways than one for teaching him the ways of transorbital lobotomies as he himself becomes an entirely new man. 

Other honorable mentions: The Gym Teacher, Under Rotting Sky, Have a Heart, Bubblegum Cigarettes, and The Number of Darkness.

-Jon R. Meyers

KILLING POPPY by William Perk (2018 Apocalypse Party / 147 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

So I’m just standing there and this guy comes up and slips me something, no charge, first hit’s free. Turns out it’s a book about addiction, and if that isn’t one of the most fitting things ever, I don’t know what is.

Unlike many bizarro books that are their own wild drug trip, Killing Poppy is a brilliant and troubling journey through a junkie’s struggle to get clean … though certainly not by any of the usual therapeutic ways. No clinics here, no meetings and step programs. But there is, in a sense, involvement of a higher power.

Gust Ivey lives rambling around the urban weirdness of Portland, Oregon. I haven’t lived here long or spent much time in the areas described, but even so, his random encounters with fellow denizens as described ring true enough to me.

Then he meets an old guy who’s peculiar even by Portland standards. Calling himself Salo, the old guy claims to be an angel whose current assignment is to get Gust off the stuff, one way or another, Gust has two choices: LIFE or DEATH. Ironically, the LIFE choice still involves death, in a way. Gust needs to symbolically kill his dependence by killing it personified.

He names her Poppy, this representation, and at Salo’s instructions carries on writing a letter to her about their shared history. Only, there’s a catch. If Poppy is a stand-in for addiction, at some point a real person is going to have to be the stand-in for Poppy.

What follows is an increasingly hectic semi-accidental crime-spree scramble, with robberies, street-fights, gun-fights, goats, severed heads, social media, breaking news updates, and more. Oh, and the scene with the turtle? Just about broke my heart. I’m seriously upset about the turtle.

The book itself is an artful experience, with illustrations and unusual use of typesetting and many other break-the-rules things to make it far more than a simple bunch of text on a page. It’s also the author’s first book, and as such, is one doozy of a talented debut!

-Christine Morgan


IMPOSSIBLE JAMES by Danger Slater (to be released 6/15/19 by Fungasm Press / 224 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

There’s a lot of bandying-about right now of the term “elevated horror,” which, like with “literary,” just seems to me like a silly face-saving way of letting regular people not feel ashamed of enjoying what’s usually and should-be seen as wrong tacky lowbrow trash. (for the record, I love wrong tacky lowbrow trash and am proud to say so)

Can something similar apply to bizarro? Is there “elevated bizarro”? So it’s ‘okay’ somehow to get a kick out of the weird [bleep], because it’s not all Nazis and dildos and talking butts? (again, not that there’s anything wrong with those, either!) The answer is yes, of course. Authors like Violet LeVoit and Jeremy Robert Johnson have been doing it for YEARS.

And so’s this Slater guy. Didn’t I say last time he keeps getting better and better? Well, it’s true, and he’s proving me right yet again with this new one. If anything, Impossible James takes his work to an even higher level than his previous achievements.

Yes, okay, the story’s about this terminally ill dude who gets a screwdriver stuck in his head, impregnates himself with his own clone, bloats into a weird house-sized behemoth, and destroys the world while survivors try to escape through pandimensional folding geometry, but … y’know, in a brilliantly written, seamlessly logicked (I’ll make up words if I want, hush), insanely insightful way.

Astute readers may notice some familiar names and places; I asked the author outright if he was going to carry on for an entire Sycamore Lane alternate reality trilogy after this, but he just did one of his puckish devious grins.

The phrase that irrevocably came to my mind while reading it was “ominous maturity.” I’m not entirely sure what that’s supposed to mean, but, I’m more eager than ever to see where Danger Slater goes from here.

-Christine Morgan


Monday, May 6, 2019

Reviews for the Week of May 6, 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. Boot up the 'ol laptop, baby...

NO GIG IS TOO SMALL by Andre Duza (2018 Deadite Press / 148 pp / trade paperback)

Almost four years ago, I read and reviewed Duza’s shock-jock radio show zombie apocalypse book, WZMB, which presented the end of the world and the collapse of civilization through an assortment of clips, transcripts, eyewitness accounts, and other unusual narrative approaches.

Picking up NO GIG IS TOO SMALL and realizing it was a sequel, with a similar hodge-podge of nontraditional styles, made for a delightful surprise! This time, in a VH1-esque Behind the Music format, we follow the megastar 80’s band Serpentine on a reunion tour like no other.

Rockers Graeme, Jules, and Hollister are hitting the road in a doomsday prepper’s kitted-out ride, getting it all on video as they brave the dead-shambling ruins. It could be the biggest comeback ever. It could get them torn apart and eaten.

Or it could turn into something even weirder, as they notice the same figure appearing again and again … a woman in a Serpentine concert shirt, whose behavior proves strikingly unlike the other undead. She was a big fan who never got her fondest wish, and now someone is hoping to make her post-mortem dreams come true.

Told through video footage and voice-overs, descriptive fragments, script-like dialogue, flashbacks, omniscient camera overview, and so on, it isn’t the smoothest read … but it doesn’t have to be. Nor should it be. Like WZMB before it, the style works great for the story, and again lends a fresh, different take to the zombie genre.

-Christine Morgan

THAT WHICH GROWS WILD by Eric J. Guignard (2018 Cemetery Dance / 296 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, & eBook)

Prolific and excellent editor as he is, it’s sometimes easy to miss that Eric J. Guignard is an accomplished author in his own right. This gorgeous sixteen-story collection (blurbed by Ramsey Campbell no less!) certainly proves it.

The somewhat cumbersomely-titled but immediately gripping “A Case Study in Natural Selection and How it Applies to Love” starts things off with an all-too-plausible near-future where global warming has done just that, raising temps (but it’s a DRY heat!) to the point struggling survivors have to deal with spontaneous human combustion as well as chaos and drought. I’d happily read an entire novel set in that world!

Another favorite of mine was “Last Night ...”, which speculates what would happen if the planetary rotations and revolutions just suddenly stopped, tidally locking half the earth toward constant sunlight and the other under the sway of an eternally full moon … dire enough, even without a werewolf problem …

I also enjoyed “A Curse and a Kiss,” presenting a much darker-than-Disney take on Beauty and the Beast from the house servants’ point of view, with a different sort of Beast and a very different sort of Belle.

The others span a wide range of eras, settings, and styles. We get gritty gunslingers, debt and decadence, a run-in with Bigfoot, the remote horror of war, a dying mother’s dutiful son, Prohibition-era grim undertakings, a plane crash in the desolate desert, ominous sinkholes, strange plagues, love and loss in the fog, the risks of that business ‘power lunch’, a tsunami’s legacy returning from the sea, and an under-the-rainbow visit to Oz.

Some of these, I’d seen before in their original appearances. Others were brand-new to me. I found them all well-written and entertaining. Solid good stuff!

-Christine Morgan

WOUNDS: SIX STORIES FROM THE BORDER OF HELL by Nathan Ballingrud (2019 Simon and Schuster / 289 pp/ hardcover, trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)

Ballingrud’s second short story collection deals mainly with men who find themselves in dark, desperate situations, starting with ‘The Atlas of Hell,’ where a shady bookstore owner is forced by a crime lord to steal a book that’s reputed to be the gateway to hell itself. A suspenseful blend of horror, noir, and southern gothic gets this show off to a solid start.

In ‘The Diabolist,’ the daughter of a mad occultist learns the history of a summoned imp, as well as her and her father’s fate, then ‘Skullpocket’ delves into a town’s dark secret in a fairy tale-type style. Ghouls, a strange cult, child sacrifice and charnel houses are just part of what’s in store in this wickedly addictive tale.

‘The Maw’ finds an elderly man hiring a young girl to guide him through a city that has become a doorway to hell. Some images here will immediately get under your skin. I had read ‘The Visible Filth’ back in 2015 when it was released as a stand alone novella, and it made me an instant fan of the author. A bartender in New Orleans finds a cell phone that sets a creepy-crawler thriller into motion. Excellent.

WOUNDS ends with ‘The Butcher’s Table,’ a novella-length pirate tale featuring cannibal priests, Satanists, demons, double crosses, and enough schism to make even Blackbeard shudder. As someone not interested in pirate stories, this one ended up being my favorite here, and my favorite piece from the author so far.

With this and his previous collection, Ballingrud is well primed for take off.

-Nick Cato

THE BLOOD IN GUTHRIE by Kira McKinney (2018 IP / 218 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Ah, small Southern towns, their secrets, their struggles, their scandals! Some of the issues remain the same, whether modern or back in 1934. Clashes between the bible-thumpers and the roadhouse revelers, racial tensions, corrupt or incompetent officials, grisly decapitation murders …

Okay, that last one may be a little outside the curve, but, there it is. Welcome to Guthrie, where, lately, a lot of severed heads have been turning up. Just the heads, positioned at various points around town, and not much to go on in the way of clues.

Sheriff Elmer Avant, widely regarded as a bumbling idiot, is far more concerned with stuffing his face, taking it easy, and making passes at pretty blondes at the bar. His new deputy, recently relocated from the big city, is another matter. Jack McMann, overcoming his own troubled past, is determined to solve the crimes.

The problem is, hardly anyone else in town seems much to care, even as the death toll rises. Neither are they too keen on outsiders meddling in their business. Jack’s job is further complicated when suspicion and attraction collide in the form of diner-owner Minnie, a black woman with no patience for racist talk.

My biggest side-eye overall has to do with the relationship between Jack and Elmer. The level of insubordination Jack displays seems way out of place / out of line, even considering. However much a bozo Elmer might be, to put up with all that? I had a hard time buying it.

Jack’s investigations often strain suspension of disbelief, conveniently letting him overhear conversations or make huge CSI-type logic leaps. The tone strives for dark comedy but falls flat in places. Still, it was entertaining and held my interest, and I read the whole thing.

-Christine Morgan

a HFR second look:

RABID HEART by Jeremy Wagner (2018 Riverdale Avenue Books / 194 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook)

I’d not been acquainted with this author’s work before, and was a little weary/apprehensive about yet another military-vs-zombies book. That it featured a female protagonist, however, and was billed as much as a love story as a shoot-’em-in-the-head, intrigued me.

Turns out Rhonda Driscoll is far from your typical soldier. She’s a hair stylist whose father is in charge of a last-stand stronghold military base. Although she’s learned a lot in the months since the ravenous bitey undead rampage began, although she’s capable with guns and gear and all that, the prevailing vibe is more of a ‘Take Your Daughter To Work Day’ gone too far. She’s certainly not above using Daddy’s name and rank to get around the rules when necessary.

Of course, even Daddy has limits for how far she can push it. Limits that don’t include bringing her zombified fiance back from a search-and-salvage mission to her old neighborhood. The colonel didn’t like Brad much even when he was alive. He’s not about to accept a ‘Cujo,’ as they’re called, for a son-in-law. No matter how much his little girl insists Brad is not like the others.

So, Rhonda and ball-gagged Brad make a break for it, out into the hectic, devastated remains of civilization, where they not only have to worry about Cujos and unfriendly human survivors but whether Daddy’s going to give chase.

I did have a few issues with the ‘female character written by a dude’ vibe here; some of the word choices as well as Rhonda’s thoughts and reactions gave me that familiar yeah-no kind of eyeroll. Plus, the tech/military jargon sometimes felt tell-y and overdone with more detail than needed.

It was fun, though; the action scenes high-octane bang-bang-bang entertaining, the gore plenty splattering.

-Christine Morgan

BOOK HAVEN AND OTHER CURIOSITIES by Mark Allan Gunnells (2019 Crystal Lake Publishing / 219 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Welp, folks. Hot off the press is a new jam from author Mark Allan Gunnels, and this time it's in the form of the highly creative and unique title novella, ‘Book Haven’, as well as a barrage of various short stories to follow, showcasing the author’s versatility. As a personal fan of Gunnells’ previous work I knew I was in for a real trick and treat. Gunnells’ is the real deal, a wordsmith of sorts, who possesses the power of crafting unique stories time after time that continue to whole-heartedly shock, entertain, haunt and captivate. The author also excels in creating unique characters that the reader is able to fully empathize with throughout the entirety of his work, feeling their personal tragedy and triumphs, as if they were someone we’ve already personally known for a very longtime, or we’re sitting right there dying with them on the sidelines. 

Some of my personal favorites were the title novella, ‘Book Haven’, a futuristic landscape where the world’s literature has been lost, and a group of government agents are on the hunt for a vast secret library, ‘Book Haven.’ ‘C U Soon,’ a girl dies in a car accident while texting with her boyfriend, but after her funeral he continues receiving mysterious messages from her. ‘Human Bones in a China Cabinet,’ a young man has an unusual collection hidden away. ‘When Gas Was 52 Cents Per Gallon,’ a couple of friends on their way back to college stop off at an abandoned gas station with more than just car problems. And, ‘The Farm,’ a horror movie buff is in town and wreaking bloody havoc, while visiting a list (and checking items off another) of some of his favorite filming locations to some of his favorite horror movies ever made. A true gem to the horror community right here, folks. 

Check it out!

-Jon R. Meyers

AND HELL FOLLOWED compiled by Jarod Barbee and Patrick C. Harrison III (2019 Death’s Head Press / 244 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

If you’re gonna blaspheme, at some point it might as well be “go big or go home.” For the fiendish folks behind the newly-established Death’s Head Press, ‘at some point’ equaled ‘right from the get-go,’ because they decided to launch with an anthology of extreme horror, bizarro, and splatterpunk based around / inspired by the Book of Revelation.

The TOC includes some of the wildest, wickedest names in the genre. Wrath James White (who also does the intro), the Sisters of Slaughter, John Wayne Communale, Wile E. Young, K. Trap Jones, the distinct depraved horror-comic stylings of Jeff Strand, and many more!

(yes, including me, though after reading all the others I feel a little weird; they mostly went hardcore and I’ve got this sweary little brat of an angel because one part of Revelation always seemed so weirdly random and out-of-nowhere to me)

These stories do not hold back. Nothing is sacred. Much is savagely desecrated. The Four Horsemen make their appearances, so does the Whore of Babylon. So do the doomed sinners and damned souls by the millions. Devils and archangels, minions and monsters, the Mark of the Beast … the biblical prophecies of the end of days provide plenty of fodder for apocalyptic atrocity.

As for production value, weathered-looking matte cover gives the book a striking appearance and texture, Don Noble’s cover is a stark/sleek dash of evil. If the print’s maybe a little smaller than my aging eyes would have chosen, and it could’ve used one more proofread, it’s still one Hell of a debut, pun totes intended.

-Christine Morgan


Monday, April 22, 2019

Reviews for the Week of April 22, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're on a cell phone you're probably not going to be able to see it. Bust out the laptop, amigo...

POLYMER by Caleb Wilson (2018 Eraserhead Press / 82 / trade paperback & eBook)

Easy to see why this one made the cut for the New Bizarro Authors Series … it’s bizarro, all right, but it’s bizarro of the more elevated, experimental, avant-garde kind, while also being contemporary and current, with cutting observances on modern issues.

We already have reality shows, gameplay livestreams, and nonstop social media drama on tap 24-7. We can sit back and watch other people play video games, risk their necks in stupid stunts, ruin their love lives. We’ve always had the thrill of sporting events, gladiatorial combat, and larger-than-life celebrities.

Caleb Wilson takes all of those to the next level here, in a world where the entertainment-craving masses eagerly follow every move of their favorites to the point of hardly caring about anything else.

Favorites such as Polymer, the latest darling of the monster-hunting scene. With his shiny white jumpsuit, his sleek hairstyle, his expressionless blue neoprene face, and his deadly rapier, he’s a rockstar among rockstars. No one else can work the synth and destroy the withrons like Polymer. He’s hotter than the latest mutated-potato craze.

His fans will drop everything to follow and watch through the glass as he progresses through Sickleburg Castle. And, when new vents open between there and the outside world, his fans are pulled further into the adventure than ever before.

Like much of the genre, the more you try to logic and reason the setting, the less it works … but you don’t have to, and if you just roll with it, then the magic happens. It doesn’t need detailed explanations of the tech and such. It just IS, and what it is, is a whole lot of fast-moving fun.

-Christine Morgan

TEETH OF THE WOLF by by Lee Murray and Dan Rabarts (2018 Raw Dog Screaming Press / 236 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I went into this one somehow not having realized it was the second in a series (of which I’d also somehow missed the first!) but that quickly became very apparent as I read. Despite it being clear I was stepping into an ongoing story mid-stream, the characters were presented well enough to allow for mental filling-in of the blanks.

Scientist Pandora “Penny” Yee does some independent contract work for the local police, which lands her in the middle of some peculiar cases. Like this one, with bog bodies and mysterious tattoos and links to possible cults.

Given her life already has its peculiar aspects, mostly courtesy of her brother Matiu and his connections to underworldly and otherworldly elements, Penny’s pretty used to taking things in stride. Well, most things. She’s still at a loss whenever her parents are involved, especially when her parents are involved trying to play matchmaker at her. Or her erratic aunt goes off the rails in a family emergency.

Or Matiu, who’s got his own inexplicable events unfolding on the side, continues NOT TELLING HER STUFF. That was my biggest problem with the book (aside from the title never quite clicking for me for some reason), and it was purely interpersonal. A whole lot of trouble could’ve been avoided if they just TALKED. Kinda made me want to smack them both.

A fun read, but I recommend starting at the beginning if you can. Not necessary, but probably makes for a more satisfying experience overall. (important note, btw: it’s near-future, 2040s; took me a while to catch on. The first time I spotted a reference to the date, I thought it must be a typo; oops! my bad).

-Christine Morgan

100 WORD HORRORS: PART 2 edited by Kevin J. Kennedy (2019 KJK Publishing / 138 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Alright, folks! Step right up, read all about it. That is, if we’re talking about some of those little one-hundred-word long pieces of violent and macabre flash fiction called drabbles. That’s right, boys and girls. The first book of drabbles did so well it came back for round two and I’m not going to lie ... I’m drabbling a little bit out the side of my mouth right now, as I’m staring at that beautiful, sexy vintage horror paperback cover from yesteryear. The only difference in the concept of this anthology from the first one is this was invite-only, and I have to admit the lineup here is nothing short of admirable. I also found myself enjoying this installment much more than the first because I found it to be more fun and versatile overall, as well as a bit more violent and gruesome. From violent murder to exquisite mayhem, tough love and tragic tragedies, erotic sex and well also some not so erotic corpse sex, money, power, and fame this book of drabbles is sure to leave you wanting more, gasping for air from within your own grave, and the drabbles within are powerful enough to leave a blood-lasting imprint on the top of your mind for some time to come and then some. 

Some of my personal favorites were 'On the Second Date' by Mark Cassell, 'The Rash' by Justin Boote, 'Snow Angel' by Michael A. Arnzen, 'Instant Messaging' by Billy S. Juan, 'Haunted' by Amy Cross, 'Out of Tune' by Chad Lutzke, 'Just Like Your Grandma' by Pippa Bailey, 'My Pet Unicor'n by Sarina Dorie, and 'Laid to Rest' by Derek Shupert.

-Jon R. Meyers

THE PROSTITUTE'S PRICE by Alan M. Clark (2018 IFD Publishing / 244 pp / trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook)

Alan M. Clark’s beautifully bleak, haunting series about the victims of Jack the Ripper does something different in that it doesn’t focus on the killings or killer at all. The focus here is the women themselves, their stories and histories, their real lives, and what led those lives to the point where they crossed the maniac’s path to reach an untimely end.

And this one does something even more different; it’s got a companion piece, a book called THE ASSASSIN'S COIN by John Linwood Grant. I’ve not yet read that one, but I very much need and want to. They go together, facets of the same darkly fascinating historical jewel, presenting events from differing perspectives.

On this side of the story, we have Mary Jane Kelly, believed to be the Ripper’s final victim. Mary Jane Kelly, who also helped her sisters of the streets look out for each other, who became involved with some illicit activities, and who made the acquaintance of an ordinary-seeming but very dangerous man. He comes across almost as some sort of Victorian vigilante, putting the information Mary gathers for him to use.

It’s Mary Jane’s story, though, all the way from her struggling childhood and short-lived marriage through her introduction into her new trade and its rises and falls. It’s Mary Jane’s life, the friends and rivals she makes, the romances she doesn’t think she deserves. It isn’t about the terrible, bloody conclusion. It’s about the real person, and the tragedy of a desperate life.

Clark writes historical well, he writes women well, he does an excellent job capturing the atmosphere of the times and the emotions of the characters. Really good stuff, tragic but beautifully done.

-Christine Morgan

THE ASSASSIN'S COIN by John Linwood Grant (2018 IFD Publishing / 280 pp / trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook)

This one is the companion piece to Alan M. Clark’s most recent (and excellent) THE PROSTITUTE'S PRICE. Separately, they each weave compelling tales of life and death in 1880s Whitechapel. Together, they make a full, rich, complex story set against the backdrop of the Jack the Ripper killings but not focused on the Ripper himself.

Other people, other lives, are center stage here. While Clark’s books involve the often-tragic pasts of the victims, Grant’s protagonist is a struggling working woman of another sort. Catherine Weatherhead, estranged from her domineering father, makes her way as a practicing spiritualist.

Calling herself Madame Rostov, she isn’t into the table-rapping or ectoplasmic manifestations or channeling spirit guides, like many of her professional peers. Unlike them, however, she isn’t a total fraud. While she does rely on information and psychology, she also has a modest but legitimate psychic gift.

Modest, until she telepathically taps into the mind of a killer … not the infamous Jack, but another mystery man who also appears in Clark’s book. The Deptford Assassin, Whitechapel’s own anti-hero, is like an uneasy cross between Dexter and Daredevil, part vigilante, part killer-for-hire.

This connection is a serious distraction to her regular work, most of which involves doing sittings with grieving widows or young ladies curious about what lies Beyond the Veil. It then leads Catherine into an encounter with the assassin himself, and almost before she knows it, she’s engaged his services to help right an injustice.

From there, she continues bearing clairvoyant witness to his deeds, including his developing interest once the Ripper killings begin. That a cousin of Catherine’s is among the victims only leads to the logical next step – if it takes a thief to catch a thief, maybe it takes a killer to catch a killer.

Compelling on its own, totally enthralling when paired with its other half, great characters, great writing, excellent story, well done!

-Christine Morgan

DEVOURING DARK by Alan Baxter (2018 Grey Matter Press / 320 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Maybe it was because I’d recently finished binge-watching THE PUNISHER, but wow did this book make me think the Netflix people should get right on it right quick! Had all the elements for a perfect series in that format and style, only, set in London instead of New York.

Matt MacLeod is anything but a hero. He’s just a loner, trying to get by, living with a guilty secret and a terrible dark power. Although using it takes a toll on his health, letting the darkness build up is also dangerous. He tries to deal with this by, vigilante-like, only going after the worst of the worst, and so far has managed to not leave too many incriminating bodies in his wake.

One night, though, he’s spotted by a kid who works as a runner for local crime boss Vince Stratton, and Stratton is all too eager to add a new weapon to his arsenal. Matt has to play along if he’s going to protect his estranged family and friends. In the course of trying to find a way to fight back, he encounters a young woman with a similar ability.

Amy Cavendish, a hospice nurse, sees her darkness more as a gift. She’s far from the ‘angel of death’ type, easing the passing of her patients and then using what she collects from them to dispense retribution her own way. Soon, Matt and Amy are in a desperate rush to stay a step ahead of Stratton’s schemes, as Matt’s power nears its limits and Amy’s threatens to spiral out of control.

The characters are fantastic and fun, great evil-but-enjoyable villainy, excellent and compelling side characters, excellently believable supporting cast. The action moves right along, shifting angles from good guys to bad guys to police investigation. I read the whole thing in a single night, which only further proves my initial point: this story here is made for bingeing!

-Christine Morgan