Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Reviews for the Week of April 8, 2019

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

FULL BRUTAL by Kristopher Triana (2018 Grindhouse Press / 264 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Three for three now … three Kristopher Triana books I’ve read each at one awestruck sitting. My initial prediction that he’s destined for the extreme elite sure is proving true. I am just jawdropped. This book may very well be the most evil thing I’ve ever read in my entire life.

It’s perfect. The perfect evil, the perfect exploration of utter sociopathic monstrousness. Most evil of all, it could totally happen. Nary a breath of the paranormal to be found, either; it’s pure human nature at its most horrible.

Take every ‘mean girls’ movie or story throughout history, distill them down into a single droplet of ultra-concentrated nitroglycerine plasma MEAN GIRL, and that’s what we have here. Have said it before, will no doubt say it again … girls can be vicious. Spiteful, destructive, lethal, and cruel. Never mind simple serial killing. I’m talking sheer, absolute, utter destruction.

Meet Kim. Kim seems like she should have it all going for her. Pretty, popular, permissive single dad with adequate money, a good student, a star cheerleader, squad of friends, bevy of interested boys. But she’s not happy. She’s bored out of her mind. She wants to make a big change, and decides that losing her virginity is the way to go.

Only, she doesn’t want it to be the same dull story as everyone else, so she sets out to seduce an older man. A teacher. Then she discovers maybe sex isn’t such of a much, but the possibility of outright ruining lives and destroying people is a serious turn-on.

Soon, she’s deftly masterminding and manipulating, taking things further and further, playing people against each other, using the full dangerous powers of social media … there’s blackmail, murder, rape, cannibalism … you know, your basic classic tale of the tender sexual awakening of a young lady.

Most evil thing I’ve ever read. And that’s saying something. Wow.

-Christine Morgan

THIS IS A HORROR BOOK by Charles Austin Muir (2019 Clash Books / 140 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Okay, confession time, shame on me, I still haven’t seen Mad Max: Fury Road. But, after reading this book, I know by the time I eventually get around to it, the experience will now be weirder than the filmmakers perhaps intended. Thanks to Charles Austin Muir and his naughty obsession with Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, which features prominently throughout these interlaced tales.

First off, take any regular rules of expectation and reality and chuck them out the window. You’re in for a wild, clever, convoluted ride of fourth-wall breaking, author insertion (in more ways than one, see Furiosa reference above), second-person, genre references, names and in-jokes, and all kinds of craziness.

The first story is about a couple of guys who, while drinking and watching horror movies on Halloween, decide it’d be a good idea to read from this ominous old book one of them found outside the convenience store. Gotta love it when even people who by rights should know better go and do stuff like that, don’t you? At least then they don’t have the gall to act surprised when it all goes hideously wrong!

It’s followed by sinister goings-on at the local library, pop-culture slasher and action heroes on a mission that takes a different-kind-of-slashy turn, some uncomfortable insights into writer critique groups, creepy-guy obsessions, alien invasion, and more.

Definitely a book where the more you know / the closer you are to certain circles, the more fun you’ll have … but raucous and raunchy and fun either way!

-Christine Morgan


SECOND LIVES by P.D. Cacek (to be released 4/11/19 by Flame Tree Press / 304 pp / hardcover & trade paperback)

It has been a few years since the last full length novel from Cacek, and with SECOND LIVES she makes a powerful return to the form.

In this deep look at reincarnation, Cacek introduces us to four people (eight, technically) who have been declared dead, yet wake with new personalities. Nearly half the book is spent not only on the recently deceased, but we get backstory on the past lives whose souls are about to be brought into modern times. I think some will find this first half a bit confusing, but stick with it as Cacek manages to keep the reader interested and I found myself emotionally invested in each one.

I love how the author handled one character in particular, a Jewish man who had died back in the 1920s, and now has to deal with living as a person whose life wasn’t exactly in agreement with his own strict beliefs. Kudos for each of the other reincarnated souls, dealing with modern technology, illnesses, and other issues I’ve never seen dealt with in similar stories before. This here is no 70s b-movie...

While not scary in the traditional genre sense, the story’s third section is heartbreaking and forces you to consider some life and death issues that may not have occurred to you before, and hence makes SECOND LIVES one of those rare reads that becomes more than a standard horror novel. And for that, this is not only one of Cacek’s finest works but one any fan of supernatural fiction will savor.

-Nick Cato

THE QUEEN OF NO TOMORROWS by Matt Maxwell (2018 Broken Eye Books / 120 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Amateur historian-type that I am, I was hooked right away by the notion of a story about someone who’s not merely a restorer, copier, and translator of old tomes, antique books, and manuscripts … but a forger as well.

Cait, our protagonist, has kind of a Remington Steele gig going on with her career (talk about history, showing my age there, egads), playing ‘assistant’ to a reclusive expert who doesn’t actually exist, so her work will be taken seriously by the musty boys’ club of academia and collectors.

Heck, I would’ve gladly read the whole thing as a thriller, even if it hadn’t then gotten into the paranormal weirdness. But hey, paranormal weirdness is also good! Cait’s current project is her masterpiece, the rare Smoking Codex, about a mysterious Mesoamerican deity.

It’s so rare, in fact, that nobody’s ever heard of it. Which makes sense, because, like Cait’s mentor/boss, it doesn’t actually exist. Cait’s creating the whole thing herself, with an eye toward stirring up rumors of the discovery of a one-of-a-kind relic, to land the big sale and secure her reputation.

The problems really start when members of a gang/cult called No Tomorrows want the book before it’s finished, and know details from it they shouldn’t possibly know. Things Cait hasn’t even written yet. They want her, too. And, despite their scary reputation, despite a series of ritualized murders, Cait can’t help but be curious. Is she somehow predicting the future, or creating real magic? What is this power, where does it come from?

Neat characters, fascinating concept, solid writing. It did feel a little sparse and rushed overall, though. I wanted more detail, more depth, more fleshing-out and backstory. Really nice to see something in this vein that wasn’t yet another medieval relic!

-Christine Morgan

TWISTED TALES FROM TORNADO ALLEY by Stuart R. West (2018 Grinning Skull Press / 304 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Have never been to Kansas, and it’s perhaps just as well because just the very idea alone of tornadoes scares the everlovin’ heck out of me. The random capricious destruction! How could anyone stand to LIVE there, where it happens often enough to be seasonal??? Then again, I grew up in earthquake country and could never understand why people who didn’t were so freaked out. All what you’re used to, I guess!

This book, thankfully, is not about killer twisters. It is, however, about Kansas, as presented in short-story collection form from the mind of Stuart R. West. It opens with a folksy chat introduction, kind of like what King does in Needful Things to help set the stage and give some teasery previews of what you’re in for.

Though, after reading “Bagworms” I might almost have preferred killer twisters … a nice drive in the country when everything’s covered in cocoons and silken webbing? Eek yikes nope. Took forever for my skin to stop crawling, and that was even without considering what came out of those cocoons …

The other tales run a gamut of madness and murder, family tensions, small-town witchiness and wickedness, indignant local legends, purgatorial hauntings, the trials of adjusting to vampire life, strange things that grow in the basement, a quick dental checkup, and a journey into the depths of an underground city where terrible creatures do terrible things.

“Husk” in particular deserves special mention; it’s a powerful gut-punch beware-of-what-you-wish-for exploration of racism and privilege, teetering between uncomfortable humor and all-too-real painful unfunny.

As a bonus, it includes a peek at the opening of the author’s novel “Dread and Breakfast,” which is also a good one! Well worth checking this out.

-Christine Morgan

a HFR second look...

ALL HAIL THE HOUSE GODS by Andrew J. Stone (2018 Rooster Republic Press / 134 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This genre certainly does produce some peculiar post-apocalyptic settings! In this one, the remains of humanity exist in a strictly-structured society designed around couples producing children … not families, since the children are taken away to be raised in the Offspring Oasis … only seeing their parents during brief monthly visits …

… or when one of the children is chosen by lottery to be sacrificed to the House Gods. Which are, well, houses. Animate, living houses. That eat people. How? Why? Backstory? Never really explained, and, doesn’t really matter. It just is, that’s the world, that’s the way it works, that’s one of the neat things about bizarro.

Not all of the humans are happy with this arrangement. Kurt’s wife Katie is one of them, or becomes one following the sacrifice of their eldest son. She organizes a small group of resistance fighters with two main objectives: stop having babies, and find a way to destroy the House Gods.

Kurt, meanwhile, isn’t so sure. He doesn’t want to lose any more children, but he doesn’t want to get in trouble with the authorities for failing to couple. He’s also met Devin, a guy who believes there is another way to end the hostilities. There are, Devin says, GOOD House Gods, who could be convinced to stand up against their fellows.

So, Kurt and Devin undertake their own clandestine missions to find and talk to the good House Gods, while Katie and her cohorts are building weapons and planning their attack. And the time for the next lottery draws ever nearer …

Well-written and disturbing, taking some sharp and insightful pokes at various social issues, this is a book that will entertain but unsettle, and make you think.

-Christine Morgan


Monday, March 25, 2019

Reviews for the Week of March 25, 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 be able to see it. Bust out the laptop, baby...


BLACKER AGAINST THE DEEP DARK by Alexander Zelenyj (2018 Eibonvale Press / 376 pp / hardcover)

Zelenyj’s 3rd mammoth collection features 31 stories, 19 presented here for the first time. Having read and loved his first 2, I was eager to see what else he could come up with. Turns out, plenty.

Among my favorites were ‘The Priests,’ which is the name given to a conjoined triplet male, who finds sanctuary at an isolated church and friendship with its pastor. We hear some of its stories of surviving in freak shows, but learn of its miraculous nature when it aids a baby in desperate need. A familiar trope but given heartfelt new life by Zelenyj. ‘We Are All Lightless Inside’ finds a group of secret scientists and magicians locating and battling otherworldly manifestations of diseases. I think this could make an interesting novel. In ‘Loneliness the Hunter’ a boy manages to call an odd being into our world, changing his own life—and those around his—for good.

A counselor has an incredible affirmation among the people in his group in the emotion-driven ‘Angels, and the Daggers of Darkness,’ then the sci-fi novella ‘Journey to the End of a Burning Girl’ follows two detectives as they seek the origin and suppliers of a mysterious drug which causes users to vanish to another dimension. Reminded me of a psychedelic version of BLADE RUNNER yet offers much more.

A bookstore employee meets a most unusual customer in ‘The Bloodmilk People,’ a wrestler named Monster Rollinski befriends a young fan and discovers his destiny in the wonderful ‘From Parts Unknown,’ and ‘The Terror of Broken Places’ looks at sadness and overcoming through the eyes of three humans and two aliens who meet in a place that allows them to understand each other.

‘Kill Them and Kill Them (and Pray for Something Good) is one of the best here, as a controversial comedian rises to Messianic status. Things get extreme in ‘Hush Honey, and Give Daddy Back His War Hammer,’ a ghoulish piece that will make you squint. ‘Christ on the Sun’ gives a depressing (and frightening) look at religion, then the short but terrifying apocalyptic tale ‘The Sky Was a Window All Along’ delivers the end-times goods (or bads, depending on your world view!).

Two tomboy friends meet for drinks to discuss their careers and reminisce over an unusual sighting they shared as kids in the wondrous ‘The Children Who Saw the Universe,’ while ‘Private Poison’ follows a platoon and their miraculous takeover of an enemy stronghold during the Vietnam War (has the feel of a classic WEIRD WAR TALES story).

Think you’ve read enough creepy crawly tales? The humorous element in ‘Spiderpartment’ may change your mind. Demons contemplate humanity in ‘This Lustful Earth’ and Charles Chekpak’s extreme sex life takes him to godhood (and beyond) in the show-stopping ‘We, The Burning Stars.’

‘Engines of Forever’ takes a strange look at two young, reluctant terrorists, then a young girl is tempted by a demon in ‘Flowers of Heaven,’ a great, classic styled horror tale.

The collection concludes with the thought provoking ‘Love in Uncertain Times,’ as a young boy, watching his little sister, becomes enchanted by an amazing Time magazine article.

Horror, sci-fi, bizarro, fantasy, and some unclassifiables are on display here as Zelenyj delivers yet another barrage of tales, and while I’ve listed my personal favorites, every story is solid and enjoyable. BLACKER AGAINST THE DEEP DARK is yet another stellar collection from a seriously talented writer.

-Nick Cato

CURSED BY CHRIST by Matthew Warner (2018 MW Publications / 228 pp / eBook & audiobook)

Almost like an odd mix of brooding Southern Gothic, CARRIE, and mutant-power-origin-story, this book is about a girl named Alice growing up in the oncoming shadow of the Civil War. All she knows at first about her “difficult time” is that she inherited it somehow from the mother who believes she was cursed for stealing from an angel … while her father attributes it to a ‘poison rock’ that they saw fall from the sky when the were young.

Either way, Alice is the only one of their children who’s been able to survive, and as she reaches maturity, the episodes of ‘sickness’ have made her something of an oddity to the extended family. A series of tragedies puts her at the mercy of a predator, and escaping turns out to be its own frying-pan-and-fire situation.

Suddenly married, the mistress of a plantation in another state, Alice finds herself more and more discontented and alone. The closest she has to friends are among the slaves, and their secret religions and rituals help her control her abilities. Try though she might to have a warm relationship with her husband, her inability to produce a child drives them ever further apart … and then he’s called off to war.

The war years go by with no word; he’s missing and presumed dead. The end of the war brings drastic changes. Alice is just about to finally take control of her own life when her husband’s surprise return throws her plans into chaos. Not only that, her husband’s return is followed by rising tension between landholders and their now-freed workforce.

I found it a good read overall, historically interesting, though Alice’s passivity as a character got on my nerves pretty quickly. Was really hoping to see more about her abilities come into play, and some more satisfying resolutions.

-Christine Morgan

ERIE TALES VIII: HOLIDAY TERROR edited by Michael Cieslak and Nicole Castle (2015 Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers / 92 pp / trade paperback)

This time, the capable crew of the GLAHW take on holidays, and not just the usual big traditional ones you might expect. With the entire calendar to choose from, including observations of various countries and faiths, they were able to come up with some new and interesting takes on the theme.

The year opens with Peggy Christie’s “Brothers of Death” in which medieval monks deal with a particularly grim January holy day, then reminds us that the season doesn’t technically end in December with Shad Kelly’s fae masquerade “On the Thirteenth Day of Christmas.”

In “The April Fool,” editor Michael Cieslak contributes a comitragedy as an unlucky and inept would-be suicide picks the wrong day to try to end it all, while Cassie Carnage’s “Walpurgisnacht” shows the dangers of trying to ignore the old ways and rituals.

One of my favorites here is “The Boy Who Knew The Ending,” by Justin Holley. The frustrations of a budding teen romance is set on the 4th of July, though in this instance that doesn’t much seem to matter; it could just as easily have been done on any of a number of others.

Ken MacGregor turns in a dark look at the hidden truths behind the origins of a November feast in the nicely done historical piece, “Giving Thanks.” Montilee Stormer brings the winter chills with a cold night’s observance of St Lucy’s Day in “It Came Upon.”

Finishing things out, because it wouldn’t be the holidays without goodies, is Heather Kapusta’s “Granny’s Christmas Cookies,” with their special secret recipe. Yum!

-Christine Morgan

SAINT SADIST by Lucas Mangum (2019 Grindhouse Press / 98 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Alright, folks. Here’s that scoop. That good ole fashioned four-one-one, I think some like to say. But, there’s a catch, go figure. There’s always a catch, right? Well, I think I said it last time that this was an author we all needed to keep our eyes and ears peeled like paint on, and with this very new release from the fabulous folks over at Grindhouse Press. I couldn’t be any more enthusiastic and happier to have said that some number of months ago, and not to toot my own horn or anything like that, BUT I was right, and I told you so. Lucas Mangum is good, guys and gals. I can and will not say it enough. His writing is well-crafted and unique and original and just overall super powerful. He’s one of the few new greats out there who just seems to get it right and pull off whatever it is that he sets out to do. We saw this last time with ‘Gods of the Dark Web.’ The author built this dark and glitchy underworld of filth and perversion that was beautifully executed and ended up being one of my favorite books of yesteryear.

This time around, the author takes on a different approach, and, trust me when I say it: It’s honest. It’s dark. It’s compelling. It’s brutal AF. It’s well written. It’s unique. It’s powerful, in a more transgressive and violent sort of way, putting us in the shoes of a young girl going through some serious shit as she leaves home impregnated by her father and back into the arms of a religious cult leader. Mangum parks us right inside her head as she searches for happiness and survival in a world full of past demons and terrible role models where she doesn’t want to be any longer. The heartbreak, pain, and suffering bleed out of every word on the page perfectly. The author deals with gruesome subjects that are often hard to write about with a shockingly admirable, creative, and honest ease that is the real and true art to be found in this book.

Definitely recommended. Proceed with caution.

-Jon R. Meyers

MURMANSK-13 by Richard-Steven Williams (2018 Amazon Digital / 419 pp / eBook)

In this ambitious but struggling mega-book of sci-fi horror, it’s Aliens meets the zombie apocalypse, with shades of LIFE FORCE and GHOST SHIP and PITCH BLACK thrown in … a mysterious space station appearing on none of the charts, secret experiments gone wrong, survivors of a crashed prison transport ship, another ship with the crew awakening from cryo-sleep to find they’ve been taken way off course on an unknown errand … it’s a lot to tackle, a lot to take in.

Kind of like a big sprawling video game with several intersecting objectives and side-quests, and multiple playable POV characters as well as NPCs with intricate backstories. There’s the troubled captain slowly losing his grip, the tough chick, the newbie cadet, the trash-talking wise guy, the noble loner rogue, the damsel in distress, the shady scientist, the sleazy bad guys.

And plenty of perils, from supplies and survival to spacewalks to crawling through ducts, fighting the infected, fighting each other, dealing with sudden disasters, isolation, no way to send for help, dwindling resources, betrayal, romantic entanglements.

I did have some problems with the way certain issues were handled (sexism, icky rape stuff, unrealistic emotional aftermaths, for instance). The editing, as well, needed definite work. I found myself wondering several times if the book had initially been written in another language and then translated. Many wrong words and mistakes, further knocking me out of the story.

Overall, entertaining enough if you’re into that sort of thing, but not particularly innovative or gripping to me; and yeah, a LOT of it. 400+ pages, made for quite a trudge.

-Christine Morgan

GAME CHANGERS OF THE APOCALYPSE by Mark Kirkbride (2019 Omnium Gatherum / 299 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

You think YOU’RE having a bad day? Try being Greg, who, in a moment of waking-up grogginess happens to admit to his fiance he’s not all that excited about or involved in the actual wedding plans. Just the sort of thing you want to say to a stressed-out bride-to-be with the big day looming.

Next he knows, he’s out on his ear with a bag of his stuff. All he can do is go to work, and hope a friend will give him crash space while he figures out what to do. He loves Polly, he wants to be with her; it was poor phrasing, that’s all. Maybe he can find a way to smooth things over?

A nice idea in theory, except he’s not through screwing up yet. An email goof and some ill-chosen words later, he’s also out of a job. And accidentally locked out of his friend’s place. And the weather takes a sudden nasty turn.

And all that? All that’s still only the first chapter, only the beginning. It’s about to get a whole lot worse. As in, suddenly, everyone else is just … GONE. He’s alone in a deserted city of abandoned cars, as if all the people simply *poof* vanished.

What follows is a frantic adventure that gets weirder and weirder, as Greg searches for any sign of what happened (and, desperately, for any sign of Polly). Eventually, his search brings him back to his former workplace, where the fax machine seems to be printing drafts of what’s happening even as it happens … even before it happens … predictions, faxes of the future, dire warnings … and each time he changes his actions, a new draft appears.

Too much more would be spoilers, so, you’ll just need to read it yourself. I found it fresh and fun, well-written, highly enjoyable.

-Christine Morgan


Sunday, March 10, 2019

Reviews for the Week of March 11, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're reading this on your cellphone there's a good chance you're not going to see it. Break out the Mac, Jack. Or the Dell...

2003 - 2019

WOLVZ: WHISPERS OF WAR by Toneye Eyenot (2018 Luniakk Publications / 129 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

The reputation of vampires may have taken some severe hits in recent years, what with the sparkly angsty tormented stuff … but at least werewolves have for the most part been spared. Even the surge in urban fantasy and shifter romance lets them still, overall, be beasts (however sexy). Hungry, violent, often moon-ruled beasts.

In the were-world according to Toneye Eyenot, there are pure-blooded Lycans and mixed-blood Werewolves, living in packs according to strict hierarchies and laws. There may be power struggles, territorial disputes, feuds, rivalries, but for the most part they’ve been content to lead their mostly secret lives alongside humanity. Humans are prey, food, sometimes useful as thralls, and occasionally recruited into the change by tooth and claw.

For the most part. Until now. Until Claude, alpha of the Wolfhaven pack, decides the time has come for Wolfkind to take their undisputed place at the top. Driven partly by revenge for the death of beloved wolf matriarch Pharo, he rallies his pack and their nearest allies for war.

Shona, one of Pharo’s daughters, is all too eager to join the slaughter. Even in her grief, she’s able to enjoy finally unleashing the full fury of her wrath and hate, killing with impunity, feasting to her heart’s content, making the humans suffer for what they did to her mother.

As word spreads, neighboring packs put aside their disputes to join the cause. Nothing less than total domination will do. They must strike hard and fast before their hapless enemies have a chance to organize. It’s thousands of years of folklore nightmares made real as the growing army moves from town to town.

And it is a bloodbath. This is not a sexy-beast werewolf story. This is carnage, particularly when some opportunistic packs and pack-leaders have their own ideas of how things should be done.

-Christine Morgan

A GOD OF FLIES AMONG THEM by Philip LoPresti (2018 Dunhams Manor Press / 82 pp / trade paperback)

LoPresti's latest novella finds Jessop Thorn returning to his childhood home to deal with a seriously dark past: his entire family had gone missing, one at a time, over the years, yet he was the only one to get out of his small town. Now trying to find answers and closure, Jessop gets help from an old crush (now prostitute), an old friend, and a local witch, although he senses everyone is hiding something from him, and is worried the dead children who haunt his dreams may actually kill him...

Like his previous novella WYTCHCULT RISING, LoPresti's strength is in hinting at potential terrors, making us form our own understanding of what has been going on in the small town of Cedars Parish. With ghosts, incest, and a possible cult or ancient religion at large, A GOD OF FLIES AMONG THEM is a tight read that delivers chills and will leave you checking over your shoulder.

-Nick Cato

THE FOREVER BIG TOP by Jeremy Thompson (2019 Necro Publications / 59 pp / eBook)

I can just imagine the elevator pitch … Dante’s Inferno with clowns. Boom. Mic drop. Sold.

Clowns are already bad enough on their own. Clown Hell? Descending through the worsening levels of it, witnessing hideous torments and punishments? The concept is just so twisted and wrong, even readers who aren’t fond of clowns (though, is anyone, really?) will get a kick out of this.

Okay, yes, the cover’s creepy, almost creepy enough to be off-putting on its own. Flip past that quick and you’ll be okay. Jump right into a concert with clown-rappers Sirkus Kult, fronted by Freshy Jest and Criminal Prankstah. They’re riding high, doing shows, making money, taking their pick of the clowngirl groupies.

It’s certainly better than Freshy’s ‘real life.’ As Franklin Jasper, he’s a scrawny loser. As Freshy, he’s got it all. Then he meets up with a hot little harlequin called Sally Slitz for some post-show R&R, only to learn the hard way that Sally’s got some strange ideas about bonding with her perfect man.

Ideas that include double-suicide. Or, when he hesitates but she won’t be denied, murder-suicide. Next thing Freshy knows, he’s waking up in the circus tent to end all circus tents, the first level of the Forever Big Top, a hell of and for clowns.

Partly by accident, partly out of a desire to find an escape back to the land of the living, Freshy undertakes a journey lower and lower through the levels, encountering every type of clown from mimes and mummers to modern mascots. It’s a carnival of craziness, wackily entertaining, wildly envisioned, wickedly clever, tons of fun.

-Christine Morgan

PUNKTOWN by Jeffrey Thomas (2018 Forma Street Press / 244 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook)

Okay, folks. Here’s the scoop. I had the pleasure of speaking with the author to better clarify a couple of things before diving into the review for this kindle re-release of the original 2005 edition with just under twenty stories of the author’s epic Horror and Science Fiction and Cyberpunk-esque infused masterpiece that is PUNKTOWN. In which, the prior genres seem to compliment each other so well, unlike anything else available on the market, with a beautifully written introduction by Michael Marshall Smith and an introduction to the Punktown mythos and city by the brilliant man himself. PUNKTOWN is a place where only the darkest and wildest dreams may spark to life whether you want them to or not. So, what exactly do we have here before our glowing and radioactive eyes set to kill and murder and create so dark and beautifully on the grimy streets of electric oblivion? The answer… well, what we basically have here is the definitive version of each of the stories collected prior in print from yesteryear. This is exciting for a number of reasons but mainly because the universe, prose, and characters, and alienlike creatures created in the Punktown universe are just so highly enjoyable and unforgettable within themselves and now we can enjoy them even more, so on the electronic platform, as we as the reader impatiently keep awaiting the forthcoming Omnibus’ set for release with Centipede Press, in which, all Punktown stories are being collected and put into one hot spot to restore faith in humanity within. I also thought now would be an appropriate time to put out a little shout out for the new ‘Transmissions from Punktown’ anthology edited by Brian M. Sammons, as this anthology was a collection of stories inspired by the revolutionary world and vision created by Jeffrey Thomas’ beautifully surreal, dark, enigmatic, and extremely versatile sci-fi megalopolis known as ‘PUNKTOWN’. You’ve been warned. Proceed with caution. What happens in Punktown, stays in Punktown. If you’re even able to make it out alive.

There’s too many favorites to list here so let’s start at the beginning to give you a little taste of what’s in store. ‘The Reflections of Ghosts,’ a unique tale where a squatting, hopeless romantic street artist engage in a different sort of art form. His works of art are far more personal as his blank canvas refers to cloning versions of himself, selling them to high dollar clients, and is currently sitting on a beautifully rendered female version of himself, so much as to where he is unsure of wanting to give her away to the client as they begin a more hot, steamy, and intimate relationship that eventually spirals into madness and chaos and out into the grimy streets of Punktown, where one can see dead clones hanging in the gutters, laying on the streets covered in graffiti. The tale touches on some deep and sentimental undertones that are almost too hard to try to explain but we get a deep sense of abandonment and love and the power an intimate and emotional relationship can grab hold of someone when sharing with someone else, and thus even more so when trying to love one’s self, being a prisoner in your own mind, demons under your own skin, and don’t forget about those bony skeletons piled up to the ceiling in your closet. In ‘Pink Pills,’ a woman with a mysterious tumor seeks medical attention unlike anything you’ve ever seen befor. Not everything is as it seems as her dreams spiral out of control and onto a conveyor in a factory where there’s way more than meets the eye going on. Think aliens. Think eggs. Think national pandemic and pandemonium on the mean streets of Punktown as the slow jazz blares up through the soils of this vast sci-fi metropolis of corruption and wires and the sound of static drowns out all hopes of making it out alive. Other favorites, ‘The Library of Sorrows’, ‘Dissecting the Soul’, and ‘Precious Metal’.  

If you haven’t already read this book or any other works by the author, do yourself a favor and check them out. This would be a great place to start. This would be a fantastic place to end it all.

-Jon R. Meyers

a HFR second look...

THE FIREMAN by Joe Hill (2016 Harper Collins / 768 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, eBook, audiobook)

I did not read this whole book in one day. But I came close. 690 pages in one day, the rest on the next day. Now, I always read obnoxiously fast anyway, but even for me this might’ve been a record. I freakin’ devoured this tome, hooked from the very first line. (it probably helped that I took it along to the hospital for my most recent surgery, to pass the time in pre-op and recovery; it also made me all the more determined not to croak under anesthesia and leave it unfinished!)

Storywise, it’s a global end-of-days civilization-breaking epic, but with pinpoint focus. We don’t get, and we don’t need, a cast of thousands or scenes from everywhere else as the outbreak unfolds. What we do need to know about the rest of the world is conveyed naturally, expertly, almost seamlessly.

The outbreak is of a terrifying condition which causes people to spontaneously combust. Society disintegrates into fear and paranoia; someone might ignite and burn at any time. The main outward indication is a blackish-goldish tattoolike patterning on the skin (hence, dragonscale, the name for the disease).

Harper Grayson is a school nurse when it begins, then attempts to aid the response teams. She and her husband have a pact in event of infection – given her line of work, a foregone conclusion. But, discovering she’s pregnant causes her to rethink that plan. Trying to escape her husband, she encounters a group who claim to be not just surviving the illness, but mastering it, learning to harness and use its fiery powers.

For all the heft, for being a tome with the hardcover of which you could club someone to death, let me assure you … it’s all muscle. No fat, no bloat, no padding, no sprawl. We’re talking rock-solid powerhouse muscle here, a tank of a book, a warhorse of a book. My favorite thus far of Hill’s longer works. I kind of wish I’d read it sooner, but I’m also glad I didn’t because it helped me sail through an otherwise rough day.

-Christine Morgan

THE FEN by Michael Baeyens (2018 Independently Published / 522 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Initial impression from the synopsis made this seem like one that should’ve been right up my alley … an academic-type paranormal thriller linking back to Viking times, I mean, come on … that hits several buttons.

The prologue, in which two surviving raiders are fleeing through the woods so terrified of what pursues them that they eagerly seek refuge at a Christian abbey, does a good job with atmosphere and ratcheting up the tension. I was ready to see what happened next, expecting some grisly historical horror.

Unfortunately, then the story jumps ahead to modern day and loses a lot of its promise and momentum. There’s too much mundane detail of routine activities, bogging things down, making what could have been interesting very dry and even dull instead.

Hanna Stevenson is a PhD student of early medieval history, focusing on the eventual distribution of wealth from Viking attacks on the Church. She visits abbeys, looks at manuscripts, uncovers some intriguing leads about an ancestral family that doesn’t seem to appear in other records from the era, and is gradually drawn down the trail of investigating.

Then weird stuff starts to happen; there’s a mysterious old mansion that clearly isn’t what it seems, remnants of that family are still around and have a strange power over the locals, people snooping too closely have fatal accidents, etc. When Hanna becomes too involved, a colleague picks up the trail and finds himself also enmeshed.

Occasional action scenes – particularly inside the mansion – are spooky and well-done but all too brief and lack follow-through, which makes the rest all the more disappointing because the potential for cool story is there, just lost amid the rest of it.

-Christine Morgan


Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Reviews for the Week of February 25, 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 laptop, baby...

THE BELLY OF PROVENCE by Ray Zacek (2018 Zhombre Publishing / 134 pp / eBook)

A fun four-pack of exotic destinations, taking hapless travelers far off the beaten path.

The first, “Bird of Wonder,” follows a couple having one of the classic age-old arguments … whether or not they need to stop and ask for directions. A touchy enough issue at the best of times, it becomes even touchier in a foreign country where language is an extra barrier. After some difficulty, Steve and Carmen do find their way to the exotic animal sanctuary, though they’ll soon wish they hadn’t.

“Strega” brings us to Tuscany, where another couple is attempting to enjoy a belated honeymoon. Elliot’s older, a professional, previously divorced, prides himself on his intelligence and education; Jen is almost half his age, a former dancer, more interested in shopping than history and archaeology. After an unpleasant encounter with an old local woman and a day trip with their handsome tour guide, Elliot isn’t sure if he’s being cheated on or cursed.

“Rogue Travel” sends a travel show crew on location to Belize, to film an episode of arrogant celebrity John Waite’s adventure series. He, along with his latest girlfriend/producer and their camera guy, accompany a guide to an enormous unmapped cave believed to have been a sacred site to the Maya. When things go wrong, Waite gets some harsh reminders about the difference between his on-screen adventuresome persona and reality.

Title tale “The Belly of Provence” is the last and also the longest piece, taking up about half the book. When a young woman who’d been kicking about on her own in France wakes, immobilized in traction at a quaint country estate, she has to sift through the fogs of pain and traumatic amnesia to retrace her steps. There was the elderly gentleman on the train, the one who claimed he was a sorcerer, who suggested she visit a particular village … and the more seasoned travelers who say they’ve never heard of the place … and how strange it seems when she gets there … and the charming Bastien … and something about an accident … but why isn’t she in the hospital?

-Christine Morgan

THE SPLITS by MV Clark (2017 Shark Claw Books / 299 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

There are zombie books that are your typical zombie books, following the formula, laden with the classic tropes. Then there are zombie books that aren’t your typical zombie books, twisting the formula, playing with the tropes.

And now there’s this one, which is unlike any other zombie book I’ve ever read. I’m not even sure it should technically be called a zombie book … or even a pandemic/infection/outbreak book … although that’s what it’s about.

Set mostly in England of a similar but alternate timeline, it involves a condition that comes to be referred to as “the Splits” … partly because of the way it causes the skin of its victims to split and ooze, and partly because of its ultimate (and scarier, more profound) effect.

The first documented attacks take place in 1969, with feral behavior, crazed biting, and fast-spreading contagion. Not so fast, though, that all society collapses etc.; the authorities are able to mobilize and get some procedures set up in time. Soon, there are government agencies, response teams, cleanup (and disposal) crews, quarantine facilities, and bevies of scientists investigating possible causes and cures.

There’s also the fear, and the stigma, and people trying to hide or deny their condition, or not report infected loved ones. And the dreams, and the claims of seeing ghosts, as if the spirits of the affected victims have somehow ‘split’ from their deteriorating bodies.

The story spans the next several decades, following a handful of primary characters whose lives become interconnected by the unfolding events. It’s presented in a variety of forms, from straight narrative to interviews, articles, and case file notes.

So, yeah, it IS a zombie book, but with a broader scope and wider, more long-term focus with build-up and slow-burn repercussions. If you’re looking for a chaos-fest of carnage and headshots and braaaaaain-eating, this won’t be for you … if you want something more psychological, sociological, and thought-provoking, you’ll likely be very satisfied.

-Christine Morgan

THE HUMAN ALCHEMY by Michael Griffin (2018 Word Horde / 305 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I’ve seen Michael Griffin’s name circulating for a while now among the weird fiction community, and read a couple of the stories from this collection when they originally appeared in anthologies. His work’s impressive in its smooth polish and subtle textures, always doing an excellent job involving the senses (physical and metaphysical as well).

Many of them are set in Portland, Oregon, and it really works. If there’s a west-coast version of Lovecraft country, it could well be that area. May not have as long a recorded history, but it’s got the grey and gloomy weather, peculiarities in its past … and not for nothing is the motto “Keep Portland Weird.”

These are also often ordinary-seeming people, these characters who find themselves dealing with uncanny mysteries as well as the normal troubles of everyday relationships and life. As is also the frequent case with Lovecraftian tales, many of the characters are troubled artists seeking (and finding) disturbing truths … unusual architecture and strange rituals abound … quests for ancient and obscure knowledge lead to dangerous paths …

“The Smoke Lodge” is extra fun for anyone involved with the weird fiction scene; not unlike in “I Am Providence” by Nick Mamatas, any similarities or resemblances to actual events or actual persons living or dead sure doesn’t seem purely unintentional.

The prevailing mood and tenor throughout the book is of a sort of beautiful doom. The vast cosmic horrors of emptiness and impressions of matters beyond human comprehension suggest that, however awful the state of ‘not knowing’ might be, sometimes getting answers actually can be worse.

If I have one minor silly gripe here, it’s that the name of one character kept throwing me off balance. Whenever I read “Noone,” my mind wanted to mispronounce it, thinking of Odysseus in the lair of the Cyclops. If I have a larger but more diffuse gripe, it’s how many of these stories end with a tantalizing vagueness, leading to inner wails of what-happens-next?

-Christine Morgan

CONTRITION by Deborah Sheldon (2018 IFWG Australia / 244 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

How far would you go to make up for past wrongs? What would you endure to atone for something terrible that happened long ago? How strong is the binding power of love … and guilt … and shame? Is it worth upending your whole life to save someone else’s? Where’s the line between duty/obligation and self-preservation? What would you put yourself through to keep a secret?

When he discovers his high-school sweetheart homeless, John Penrose goes above and beyond. He doesn’t just try to help her. He takes her in. But, as he quickly learns from her disturbed and disturbing behaviors, he also has to keep her hidden. Hidden from his landlords, his neighbors, everyone.

And there are a succession of landlords and neighbors; Meredith has particular dislikes for traffic noises, yard work, neighborhood pets, kids, etc. Although she’s supposed to stay inside, she always eventually slips out, and there are only so many incidents people can overlook or pass off before they start getting suspicious.

They can’t stay in any one place long, frequently moving, hopping from one rental property to another as John struggles to hang onto his job and make ends meet. He has no social life. He can’t have anyone over. Maintaining his carefully-constructed story is its own challenge.

Also, more and more, he’s having a hard time getting past just how weird Meredith’s become. Spooky. Even dangerous. Her eating habits, for instance … the boxes she doesn’t want him to look in … the gaps in her memory … the peculiar scars.

The latest move brings a new complication. Her name is Donna, the friendly, attractive, single mom who lives across the street. John likes her. Meredith doesn’t. Plus, John is piecing together more of Meredith’s missing years, as well as confronting his own memories about their school years, and what happened to her brother.

Instantly intriguing, brimming with building psychological dread and tension, it’d be a gripping thriller even without the horrific creepy paranormal elements. Really enjoyable, if not entirely comfortable, making the reader look inward to wonder what he or she might do.

-Christine Morgan

THE FIVE SENSES OF HORROR edited by Eric J Guignard (2018 Dark Moon Books / 313 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, & eBook)

As someone who was a psych major and has always been aware of the effectiveness of the use of sensory description in writing, I was all over this one and as interested in the scholarly introductions as by the stories themselves.

Dr. Jessica Bayless presents several excellent essays on the psychobiology of horror and the various senses, not only explaining how they function but how and why they affect our emotions – particularly relating to fear – the way they do. It’s brilliant stuff, not just informative but entertaining.

Although there are far more than five, those five are the biggies, the main ones we know about and rely on: touch, hearing, taste, sight, and smell. The book’s divided therefore into five sections, one for each, with three stories per. Not just stories about the senses, but the absence or loss of them, or ways they can go awry.

And what a lineup spread among those five sections! Ramsey Campbell’s in here, and Poppy Z. Brite. Richard Christian Matheson. Lisa Morton. Kathryn Ptacek.

As great as the rest of them are, picking my top fave was no contest this time: Lucy Taylor’s “In the Cave of the Delicate Singers,” in which a young woman with an unusual way of perceiving sounds ventures into a cave in search of missing explorers. I love stuff about caves and caving, it’s something I’d want to do if I were, y’know, young and fit and brave and athletic. This one does a fantastic job bringing the entire experience to life, trapped claustrophobic anxiety and all.

Lisa L. Hannett’s “Sweet Subtleties” is an exquisite decadence of dark fantasy, combining aspects of Pygmalion and Frankenstein with artistic confectionery and people of particularly demanding and distinguished tastes.

Editor Eric J. Guignard also contributes a preface and a follow-up essay, as well as handy lists for further reading and/or academic study. There’s an afterword by Dr. K.H. Vaughan on the connections and differences between sensation and perception. Illustrations by Nils Bross add the perfect final flourish throughout.

-Christine Morgan