Friday, December 30, 2011



(NOTE: The "smell ratings" at the end of some reviews rate the actual SMELL of the book and have nothing to do with the story.  Smell Ratings: 5 = excellent, 1 = odorless, 2-4 = you figure it out.  Book Key: hc = hardcover / tp = trade paperback / mmp - mass market paperback / rarer forms described.  Unless otherwise noted, all reviews are by Nick Cato)

MAL CONTENTS (v/a) (2011 Grand Mal Press / 189 pp / tp)

This collection of four novellas begins with Randy Chandler's HOWLER, about a hairy girl (nick-named Wolf Girl) who leaves a brothel to work as a circus side-show freak.  She becomes close with a pair of Jewish performers until a gang of redneck Nazis attack, all the while being mentally tormented by a strange, squid-like creature.  It's a violent, heart-breaking tale that gets things off to a great start.

Next up is THE MUSHROOMS by Gregory L. Norris, where TV cooking show host Sunny Weir is assaulted by a would-be chef who failed to make it onto a competition program.  When Sunny goes to an isolated house to relax and heal from her injuries, her assailant takes revenge in a supernatural way.  Norris gets the chills going and (amazingly) manages to make a mushroom-creature anything but campy.

My favorite of the bunch is Ryan C. Thomas' CHOOSE, about a computer store owner who is almost killed when someone enters his store and puts a gun to his temple, claiming he has made his life a living hell.  But instead of shooting, the mysterious gunmen gives him a choice: by midnight this night, he must shoot and kill either his wife or teenage daughter, or he'll kill all three of them.  A cop sent to protect the family is quickly dispatched, and despite hiding in another town there seems to be no escape from this otherwordly psycho.  Thomas' tale is tight, full of nail-biting suspense and is one of the darker short stories I've read this year.

Ending things is David T. Wilbanks' THE OUTSIDER TRIO.  After two years, a man returns to proclaim his love for his girlfriend only to find she has been missing for six months.  Malcom learns Violet (a professional violinist) has been kidnapped by some kind of cult-like musician, and with the help of an occult practicioner, manages to track her down, being held prisoner in another dimension.  TRIO features some dark humor and all kinds of weird monsters, making for a fun way to wrap up a satisfying collection.

Smell Rating: 2

A PACK OF WOLVES by Eric S. Brown (2011 Grand Mal Press / Kindle Edition 176 KB)

A family is reunited and on a mission.  Graham, Zed, Yule, Sarah and Shannon are looking for their brother Samuel who is trying to raise an army.  This is no ordinary family.  They are a pack of werewolves—pure blooded.  Samuel has a very deep hatred of humans since witnessing his parents’ murder when just a boy.  That hatred has led him to seek out dark magic and a very powerful spirit that will allow Samuel to enact his revenge. 

Samuel is making his way across America’s Western frontier, slaughtering most and creating his army out of the strongest humans he comes across.  They are called the Created and they are inferior to the pure werewolves.  Samuel also has the help of a mysterious man dressed in white with the voice of an angel.  The family is on his trail…but can they stop Samuel before his plans reach fruition?

Set in the American Old West, A PACK OF WOLVES is a fast-paced, action-packed novella full of memorable characters.  Eric S. Brown has differentiated between pure werewolves and those created by accident or happenstance, endowing each family/pack member with a different strength, besides the obvious.  Character development is excellent and the story contains a few surprises, some that will be recognizable to regular readers of Brown’s work.  The prose is tight and flows easily and Brown keeps things unpredictable, which is a huge plus in my book.

Having already helped redefine the zombie sub-genre, Eric S. Brown continues to push the boundaries of the horror genre.  Brown has revitalized zombies, Bigfoot and aliens, and now seems to be expanding on the phenomenon of Western horror.  A PACK OF WOLVES is a must-get for any horror fan’s collection.

-Colleen Wanglund

NORTHWOODS DEEP by Joel Arnold (2011 Studio City Media Endeavors / 374 pp / tp)

Books like this are a big part of why I’ll never be the outdoorsy type. 

Isn’t that enough, without also having to hike, camp, canoe, or otherwise endure the miseries of blisters, mosquitos and lack of indoor potties before you even GET to the REALLY bad parts? Like, hey, having a miserable time yet? Let’s make it WORSE!!!

Let’s bring on a spooky little cabin in the middle of nowhere, some creepy psychos, demonic dogs, mutilations, murders, unspeakable violations … 

Yep, NORTHWOODS DEEP is one of those books. This is the stuff a low-budget indie summer horror movie could be made of.

It even goes a step further, because one of the characters – Carol – is looking to escape an already miserable situation. She’s being stalked by her abusive jerk of an ex-husband, who’s got his buddies and even his mother helping in the harrassment. To Carol, a back-to-nature getaway with her sister seems like a reprieve, a real improvement. 

Except, of course, her ex finds out about her travel plans and decides to surprise her along the way … only, he’s in for a surprise himself … as are the sisters’ brother and dad, who go looking for them … and a friend they meet along the way … there’s surprises in store for everybody, and none of those surprises are very nice. 

The cover’s eye-catching, it’s a solid 360-ish pages of good-looking book with minor editorial/proofreading problems here and there. Some of its story threads seem to trail off at loose ends – there’s a moment where one of the characters thinks “It all makes sense now, it all makes sense” and as I read it I remember wishing it made sense to me. 

So, overall, I found NORTHWOODS DEEP to be an okay read, entertaining, with several flinch-inducing scenes and a general aftertaste of eew. No Richard Laymon, of course, but then what else is? 

-Christine Morgan

THE NOCTUARY by Greg Chapman (2011 Damnation Books / 56 pp / tp)

Chapman's latest novella is a sort-of homage to Clive Barker, but unlike other "homages" this one has its own voice and style.

Struggling writer Simon Ryan falls into the hands of creatures who are the incarnations of dark muse: they offer him a chance to re-write his abusive life story, but things don't turn out the way Simon had intended.

And just when Simon thinks he'll forever be a scribe for the underworld, a former captive of these creatures helps him escape...although his new-found reality could be darker than ever before.

THE NOCTUARY blends supernatural and real-life horrors quite well.  Kudos to Chapman for dealing with a side-plot of child abuse in a non-exploitative (but still chilling) manner.

SANTA STEPS OUT by Robert Devereaux (2011 Deadite Press / 294 pp / tp)

You know how people sometimes bemoan that this or that is “ruining” their childhoood? 

Maybe it’s some remake or sequel to something they cherished as a kid … the 2010 Clash of the Titans, for instance … or 2008’s A Miser Brothers Christmas. Maybe it’s any of the countless Rule 34 violations (for which there are no exceptions), presenting beloved iconic characters in a whole new light. Maybe it’s a Weird Al parody or an episode of South Park. 

Whatever it is, you know how when it tarnishes, despoils, drags down and utterly debases in unspeakable ways something held near and dear to the heart, people say that thing about it ruining their childhood?

From now on, whenever I hear that complaint, I will think of this book and I will just LAUGH. Because, honey, you think your childhood’s been ruined already? Oh, dear me, you haven’t seen anything yet. 

Robert Devereaux’s SANTA STEPS OUT Steps Out is a nonstop sex-romp slathered in gore. It takes the cherished, benign, commercially-sanitized, popular images of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, and corrupts them in ways that have to be read to be believed. 

Check those fond memories at the door and get ready to be startled … shocked … horrified … maybe even offended and outraged … though really, if you think those latter two might apply, you may want to consider saving your sanity. 

At this most wonderful time of the year, when the news is full of histrionic war-on-holidays hoopla, there’s always eventually the mention of how much of current religion and tradition is taken from pagan roots anyway. That’s the underlying element in this book as well: the gods, myths, and mythic figures of old have been transformed. 

Santa Claus and his cheery band of elves used to be older, wilder powers, forces of nature … the lusty Pan and his faun-followers. The side of Santa that has been subsumed, buried, and blocked off is reawakened when he crosses paths with the Tooth Fairy, once a nymph, one Christmas Eve. 

To call it an affair is putting it mildly. The resulting relationship spans decades and leads to all kinds of troubles, not the least of which occurs when sweet Mrs. Claus finds out and demands he gives up his mistress. That thing about how hell hath no fury like a woman scorned gets kicked up a few notches when immortals are involved. The jilted Tooth Fairy recruits the already-teetering-towards-depravity Easter Bunny as an accomplice in her revenge plot, the hapless elves find themselves put to work in a far different capacity than toymaking, and to top it off, Santa falls in love with a mortal woman, a nice single mom. That’s when it really hits the fan. 

So, yeah. Nonstop sex-romp slathered in gore. It’s sickeningly fun, squickeningly hot, hilariously disturbing, childhood-ruining holiday porn. 

Worst of all, not only did I greatly enjoy this book, I have several friends for whom it’d make the ideal present! 

-Christine Morgan

(EDITOR'S NOTE: SANTA STEPS OUT was originally published in hardcover in 1998 and mass market paperback in 2000.  Next month, Christine takes a look at the long-awaited sequel, SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE HOMOPHOBES.  We kid you not.  -Nick)

BEYOND THE BARRIERS by Timothy W. Long (2011 Permuted Press / 221 pp / eBook)

Erik Tragger is ex-military, divorced and living in a small Oregon town when the dead start to rise.  Erik gathers up some supplies from his home and decides to ride out the end of the world in a secluded cabin in the mountains.  After months of isolation and hearing no news from the world Erik decides to try to make it back to his town and see about getting more supplies, which are beginning to run dangerously low.

What he finds upon his return is not what Erik expected.  It seems there are more than just your run of the mill zombies to contend with.  Saved from certain death by a group of survivors in an abandoned Walmart, Erik discovers that the ghouls he encountered were humans who fed on the flesh of zombies.  At first it was out of desperation but it has quickly become apparent that these ghouls want to make more of their kind—a freakish zombie/human hybrid.

After helping the group from the super store get away so they can head to Portland, Erik ends up back at the cabin with Katherine, another survivor.  After some months they are attacked and forced back to the town they originally fled from.  What ultimately awaits Erik in this new and dangerous world is beyond anything he could have imagined.
BEYOND THE BARRIERS is another book that attempts to take the zombie sub-genre in a new direction and Long succeeds in that effort.  BARRIERS sets up a very frightening scenario for the end of the world and it is a book that I could not put down.  Characters are well-developed and have a depth that enables the reader to connect to them.  The ending is rather unexpected and left intentionally vague….I’m hoping that means a sequel?  Anyway, having seen a glut of zombies in the horror genre, I am pleased to see writers like Timothy Long taking risks and their zombies into new directions.  Get this book.

-Colleen Wanglund

THE RED EMPIRE AND OTHER STORIES by Joe McKinney (2012 Redrum Horror / 356 pp / tp)

McKinney, best known for his Dead World zombie novels, here delivers a collection featuring a novella and seven shorts, most with a police-theme.

In the novella THE RED EMPIRE, a secret military bio-weapon is accidentally unleashed on a small town where a woman and her young daughter (who is recovering from having cornea implants) are trying to get home during a heavy rain storm.  Adding to the problem is an escaped cop killer, who seeks refuge in the woman's isolated home.  While the story is action-packed and will give you the willies, it's almost as if the killer-ant thing takes a back seat to the psycho/hostage drama.  Good, if a bit uneven.

'Blemish' is a love/ghost story dealing with a cop who ends up leaving the force, and while I didn't find it spooky, McKinney's take on ghosts and lost love is well done.  'Cold Case' deals with a rookie cop who becomes fascinated with the story of a cop who was slain during his second day on the force...back in 1900.  Why this short tale (which originally appeared on a true crime blog) was included in a horror fiction collection is anyone's guess.

My favorite piece here is titled 'The Old Man Under the Sea,' an addictive tale featuring Ernest Hemmingway in Cuba--fresh off a boxing match with Louis Lamour--who becomes enticed by a young girl, only to have her father threaten his life if he doesn't help him with a dangerous diving expedition.  The suspense and mystery here never lets up, and McKinney handles this classic literary figure in a slick way.

'The Millstone' is a pointless trailer-trash outing about two sisters, their wacky neighbor, a cheating boyfriend, and an axe.  Likewise, 'Empty Room' is a sort-of ghost tale about a suicidal would-be father.  And a pistol.  Both tales are forgettable.

The very-well done 'Burning Finger Man' pits a cop assigned to a housing project against an impossible-to-grab freak who molests women in the hallways then seemingly vanishes. Its cast of crackheads and hood rats gives it a genuine hood-film feel. The collection concludes with 'Eyes Open,' an apocalyptic/Lovecraftian yarn about a cop who becomes "enlightened" by a schziophrenic homeless man about a coming calamity.  I'm a sucker for cult-themed stories and this one's quite satisfying.

THE RED EMPIRE AND OTHER STORIES is all over the place, which is fine; but coming from a new small press dedicated to horror fiction, I was surprised to see so many non-genre stories in the mix.  The good tales heavily outweight the bad (and thankfully, the longer stories are the more memorable), so it's still worth your time.  This is the first I've read from McKinney and it's easy to see why he has so much material out there.

INHERENT DARK by Thomas James Brown (2011 Thomas Jane Brown / 94 pp / tp)

INHERENT DARK is a sort of fairy-tale retelling, with the Deadly Sins personified as entities not demon and not fae but reminiscent of both. The book contains one story for each of the seven, with the stories more or less interlinked. 

There’s nice use of description, and the language strives to be stylistic of the classic fairy tales. Some are more strongly written than others, with some clever twists. Overall, though, the writing is passive, a little stuffy, not as vibrant as the underlying idea seems to call for. 

The book opens with a series of authorial notes on the origins of each story, which probably should have been presented at the end rather that the beginning … partly for spoiler reasons, mainly because they’re on the pompous, self-congratulatory side. 

For a self-published book, it’s not bad. I’ve certainly seen worse. But I’ve also seen better. 

-Christine Morgan

RETURN TO DARKNESS by Michael Laimo (2011 Bad Moon Books / 337 pp / tp)

This sequel to the author's 2004 DEEP IN THE DARKNESS picks up right where things left off seven years ago.  The backstory: Dr. Michael Cayle--who has moved his family from Manhattan to a small town in New Hampshire--becomes a slave to a race of small creatures known as Isolates.  They hold his wife and daughter prisoner as they force Michael to heal their sick and mend their wounded in their underground lair.  The creatures have control of everyone in town, and five surrounding towns are also under their spell, making escape impossible.

RETURN TO DARKNESS finds Dr. Michael about to committ suicide, when the thought of his wife and daughter out there in the woods convinces him to go on with the hellish ordeal.  His wife--having been raped by an Isolate and given birth to a demon baby in the first novel--now has Isolate DNA running through her veins.  She appears to Michael as a half human/half monster...but his young daughter Jessica still seems to be all human.  The only way for Michael to get his family back is to have a different person sacrifice an animal to the creatures...a feat that was put on him by an alleged friend, a ritual that has been the town's dark tradition for centuries.

A family of four move in to the neighborhood, and before long Michael plans ways to get one of them to take his place.  But the father is a drunk lunatic, his wife and teenage son no better.  The eighteen-year-old daughter Shea, however, takes a liking to Michael, and before long helps him find his daughter while he helps her to get revenge on her father who has raped and abused her since she was a child.

What follows is a bloody horrific time as Michael--with increasingly poor health due to struggles with the Isolates--plots a way to escape the cursed town with his daughter, all the while wondering what to do about his possessed wife and his feelings for the young girl who risks life and limb to help him.

Like DEEP IN THE DARKNESS, RETURN is chock-full of suspense, plenty of scares and creepy atmosphere, and an impending sense of doom that'll leave readers breathless.  Laimo gives the "ancient evil in a small town" thing a fresh kick in the pants here, delivering a sequel that's every bit as frightening as its predecessor.  This is MUST reading for fans of DEEP, and while newbies will get a better effect if they read DEEP first, there's still enough background given to make it work as a stand alone novel.

The seven year wait for RETURN was well worth it, from its fast paced opening right up to the darker than dark finale.

Smell Rating: 2

DEAD HUNGER by Eric A. Shelman (2011 Dolphin Moon Publishing / 268 pp / tp)

When the zombie apocalypse happened Flex Sheridan was on the phone with his sister Jamie.  Flex knows something is very wrong so he makes his way to Jamie’s house only to find she is a zombie and her husband and daughter Jesse are dead.  Flex does find his niece Trina as well as his lost love Gem.

A virus has attacked the living and turned them into zombies by destroying the brain.  The main symptom is a migraine-like headache.  Flex and Gem decide to make their way to the CDC in Atlanta to look for other survivors and hopefully find a cure so they can save Jamie.  Along the way they pick up Hemp, a scientist who is determined to find the cause of the apocalypse.  What they ultimately discover about the zombies is truly frightening.

The first in a planned series of zombie apocalypse novels, DEAD HUNGER reminds me of a pulp novel.  Some of the scenarios were a little too-good-to-be-true as were the main characters, but it is very entertaining.  The novel is well-written and a fast-paced read.  Character development is very good as is Eric Shelman’s curve ball where the zombies are concerned.

DEAD HUNGER has some interesting twists and an unpredictable nail-biter of an ending, which is a great thing in my opinion.  Overall I enjoyed DEAD HUNGER and believe Shelman has penned a cool addition to zombie apocalypse lit.

-Colleen Wanglund


PURE by Julianna Baggott (to be released February 8, 2012 by Grand Central Publishing / 448 pp / hc & eBook)

Since this one came to me as a proof copy, I don’t know if the cover it had will be the final cover it ends up with on the shelves … if so, it’ll be a risky choice in terms of marketing. Because it’s a matte-white, with the title on the front and the author on the spine in lettering of shiny white, no images, no text at all. It does make a statement, I’ll give it that, but both of my test subjects (the husband and the teen) said they’d be disinclined to pick it up based on such a cover.   (EDITORS NOTE: We've FOUND the cover art!  -Nick)

That said, the story inside is fantastic! It lands somewhere in the territory between McCammon’s Swan Song and Collins’ The Hunger Games, a near-future post-holocaust setting meant for the YA set but entirely accessible and engrossing to the older reader. 

In Pure, society is divided into the haves and the have-nots, several years after a devastating event called the Detonations. 

The haves were those who reached the Dome in time, sheltered from the blasts and radiation inside its controlled environment. They live regimented, orderly lives where their resource-consumption / usefulness ratio is considered, where their fates are decided for them, where likely boys are “coded” for enhancements in intellect and athleticism, where girls are designated worthy of reproducing or not, all depending on aptitude and genetics. To them, the people outside are “wretches,” the savage and insane who refused sanctuary. 

Outside of the Dome, it’s all very different. They view the people of the Dome as “Pures,” the lucky untouched, because their world is a blasted hellscape where survivors exist as best they can, each sporting a different disfigurement or mutation as a result of the Detonations. That bit, I found, was the best, most haunting, most creatively imagined aspect of the whole book. The oh-wow-too-cool factor, which hearkens to the Wild Card novels and the entire spectrum of ace and joker abilities. 

Some wretches are “fused” with whatever they happened to be in contact with at the time, resulting in strange living amalgams of human and inanimate object, or animal, or other human. These range from mild (a speckling of glass fused with a person’s skin) to bizarre (one character has living birds embedded in his back, another’s lower leg is fused with the spine of a dog so he has a dog-foot) to severe (“Groupies” are masses of conjoined people stuck forever together, “Dusts” are scraps of sentience merged mostly with the ground, “Beasts” are so animalistic they’ve lost any semblance of humanity). 

Our main characters are Pressia and Partridge. Pressia, whose fist is fused with a doll’s head (the eyes still blink when she tips her hand back and forth, one of the creepiest touches ever!), lives in the wreckage with her grandfather and ekes out a living trading little sculptures she makes from debris. Partridge is a Pure, the son of a Dome leader who should be destined for a productive place but finds himself unfit for coding, and unsettled when he begins to realize that the histories he’s been told are far from the truth. 

So, Partridge finds a way to escape the Dome … he runs into Pressia … with her help as well as that of rebellious conspiracy freedom-fighter Bradwell, they seek to uncover the truth, expose the conspiracy, and find the facts. Which, as they soon discover, are a lot farther-reaching than they had ever imagined. 

Their adventures and a cast of engaging sub-plots with secondary characters (the Dome’s treatment of Partridge’s accidental accomplice, Lyda … the dysfunctional relationship of soldier el Capitan and his fused younger brother) make for a rich and engaging read. I will definitely be on the lookout for the sequel, and told the teen enough about it to win her over despite her initial reaction to the cover. 

I stand envious of Ms. Baggott’s vision as well as her ability to carry it off with such deft skill. Heck, I was 350 pages into it before it dawned on me that the whole thing was in present-tense, too, and that is a hard trick to pull off smoothly! 

Awesome stuff. Very recommended.

-Christine Morgan

BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE APOCALYPSE DONKEYS (2011 Copeland Valley Press / 174 pp / tp and limited edition hardcover)

While there's no squids, living sex dolls, or obscure foot fetishists in Krall's latest novella, it turned out to be one of the author's strangest (and best) offerings to if you're a bizarro lover pay attention:

Gary Lancaster reviews obscure films exclusively for print publications.  He's on a mission to find a rare film---one he had seen bits and pieces of at a young age.  He manages to track down a crude VHS copy of THE APOCALYPSE DONKEY, his journey taking him to a modern day nudist colony where he meets a sexy older woman in a donkey mask, who he hooks up with.  Trouble starts when her jealous husband (a professional daredevil) finds out and tries to kill him.  Things take a wicked turn when daredevil "Big" Bill Stapleton tries to run Gary over in a diner before he teams up with a flamboyant Mexican chef.

The rest is classic Krall, combining cult film camp with surreal situations and plenty of off key humor.  If you're a fan you'll want this...if you're new to bizarro you just might lose your mind.

There's also plenty of nifty extras here, especially in the limited hardcover edition (a preface, introduction, and foreword from three different authors, as well as a hysterical afterword by Matthew Revert and Krall's interesting notes on the text of each chapter PLUS another Krall short story).  BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE APOCALYPSE DONKEYS gives the feel of a 60s/70s H.G. Lewis/Russ Meyer nudie movie meshed with a classic underground midnight cult film.

You gotta love it...

Smell Rating: 4

HEART OF GLASS by David Winnick (2011 Bad Moon Books / tp)

This slim little volume contains a single story that, while well-written, only served to whet the appetite. The characters – Adam and his disaffected wife, Sonia – are vivid and sympathetic enough that you really want to get to know them better, you want to find out more about what brought their marriage to its empty, going-through-the-motions state. 

And, of course, you want to know lots more about the peculiar glass jigsaw puzzle Adam brings home one day from an antiquing outing (presumably the Heart of Glass of the title). 

But, just when all this is warming up in your mind, just when things are nicely spooky in a psychological and emotional sense, the story takes a sudden Twilight Zone turn and then it’s over. 

Kind of disappointing, really. A sample, a taste, and that’s it. Maybe if there’d been more stories to make a collection, I might’ve felt more satisfied. A forty page book of which the story takes up twenty-six pages … I read it in a matter of minutes and was left with a sense of “well, NOW what?”

-Christine Morgan

THE BRAINPAN CONCERTO by Kurt Newton (2011 Sideshow Press /  123 pp / tp)

A musical maniac is kidnapping those with extrodinary musical talent, removing their skull caps and tapping into their brains to record some of the most original music ever heard by human ears.  With the help of a computer hacker, a young music fan manages to track  the lunatic down, only to become another hostage.

On the case are detectives Saul and Gwen, both with their own jaded pasts, an annoying, sexist boss, and they currently happen to be falling for each other.  Along with the young boy, Saul eventually becomes hostage to the maniac's musical scalpel, leaving no other choice but for Gwen to come to the rescue.

THE BRAINPAN CONCERTO features a nifty idea for the killings and has some truly gruesome moments, and despite the standard police fare, I found Newton's quick novella a fine way to spend an hour or so.

Smell Rating: 1


ENORMITY by W.G. Marshall (to be released February, 2012 by Night Shade Books / 280 pp / tp)

Manny Lopes is an American working in Korea, is sort-of married and is sort-of having an affair with a co-worker.  One day an accidental (or is it?) quantum explosion occurs, turning Manny into the size of a of the BIGGEST characters ever to appear in a novel.

While Korea is dealing with him (every step he takes causes tsunamis and destroys entire towns), a second giant is spotted near Japan.  It turns out she's a North Korean assassin named Yoon-sook, who worships The Wizard of Oz, and as Manny goes to meet up with her, her government makes her change course for the United States.  Manny's allies manage to hook up to his ear drum and speak with him, guiding him on his cross-planet trek.

Manny and Yoon-sook met up in an odd confrontation at the Grand Canyon; Manny tries to convice her that since they're the only two giants on the planet, they should unite.  His sweet talking leads to one of the more bizarre sex scenes in recent memory, although Yoon-sook uses it to her advantage.

With another strange creature emerging from this unusual meeting, some great side characters, dark humor and plenty of social commentary, ENORMITY is a fun homage to the sci-fi creature features of the 50s.  The detail that Marshall gives in explaining what such a large person might be like (from the aforementioned walking effects down to the germs on his skin) makes this quite an imaginative read, and one you'll whiz through in no time.  KUDOS for a politically incorrect Muslim named Salim Ali, who rides inside Yook-sook's ear and does something that might have Islamic groups up in arms...yet I laughed my ass off.

Don't miss this.

SUBJECT SEVEN by James A. Moore (2011 Razorbill {an imprint of Penguin Group} / 328 pp / tp)

Some years ago a private company established a secret facility in order to create the perfect weapon for the military.  Initially the experiments proved a failure but one of the test subjects escaped.  Over the years Subject Seven has used his unique abilities to survive and track down the people responsible for his existence.  He has also discovered that there are others like him living in total ignorance of what they really are.  Subject Seven has sent out a command and awoken the other teens from their long slumber.  As Joe Bronx, Subject Seven has gathered the other teens in Boston and told them what they really are.  However, he has decided to keep his true motives a secret for the time being.  Now Evelyn Hope, one of the few survivors from the night of Seven’s escape, is determined to stop them and bring them back alive.

SUBJECT SEVEN is Moore’s first Young Adult novel but it is just as appealing for adults.  The story is compelling, and more violent than I would have expected from a YA title.  Character development is excellent and the teens’ personalities are diverse and relatable.  They are average kids from different backgrounds but once transformed become dangerous and almost indestructible monsters….for that is what they were created to be.  They are also sympathetic characters—they had no control or say in what was done to them by adults that were supposed to protect them.

SUBJECT SEVEN is a frightening page-turner that ends with quite the cliffhanger, as it is the first in a series…and I am greatly anticipating the next novel.  It is a fantastic read for older teens and adults alike.

-Colleen Wanglund

DAWN OF WAR (BLOOD WAR TRILOGY) by Tim Marquitz (2011 CreateSpace / 218 pp / tp)

On the planet Ahreele a devastating war has begun.  The savage and animalistic Grol have recently acquired powerful magic weapons from the land of the Sha’ree, a mystical people long thought to be dead.  Arrin, a man living in exile for the last fifteen years has seen the devastation first hand and has gone back to his home of Lathah to warn them of the approaching doom.  

Cael is a young boy whose home of Nurin has been overrun and destroyed by the Korme, who are loosely allied with the Grol using the same magic weapons.  While making a desperate run into the Dead Lands he meets two Sha’ree who are on a mission to warn civilization as well as gather together the bearers of far older magic to defeat the enemies of peace.  Cael carries one of these ancient devices.

Domor of the Vel attempts to make his way through the Dead Lands as well to find his family in Nurin.  He, along with his blood companion run into other enemies with magic weapons but are saved by the two Sha’ree and the Pathra, cat people who are allies of the human Lathans.

Can a small band of people from different lands join with their allies and defeat their enemies?  And who is Sultae of the Sha’ree and what of the plague that supposedly killed them all?  The band of hopeful heroes must also contend with the Tumult, a time when the two moons cross paths and wreak havoc on the planet.

DAWN OF WAR, book one of the trilogy is Tim Marquitz’s first foray into fantasy fiction and he has done an exceptional job.  There is a lot going on and there are many points of view to follow but Marquitz keeps it all tight and easy to follow.  Character development is very good, keeping each race of people easily identifiable.  This first book introduces the various points of view and ends on just the proper note, leaving the reader wanting to read more.  I’m not generally big on fantasy, but I enjoyed DAWN OF WAR immensely.  I think you will, too.

-Colleen Wanglund 

DEAD TIDE RISING by Stephen A. North (2010 CreateSpace / 270 pp / tp)

In DEAD TIDE, Stephen A. North introduced us to various people attempting to survive and escape the newly begun zombie apocalypse in Pinellas Park, Florida.  DEAD TIDE RISING continues with those chaotic first few hours and days of the collapse of civilization.  The president’s wife and children were in St. Petersburg when it all went to Hell.  A cruise ship was attacked by the military for violating the quarantine imposed on the city and surrounding suburbs.  Two groups of people, including public servants, attempt to make it out of the station and get to one of the supposed safe evacuation zones.  Another group who escaped the carnage at the harbor is assessing their situation in a boat on the bay.  And one soldier has gone completely off the deep end.  

Not everyone will survive.  The military initially issued a shoot to kill order for both infected and uninfected alike.  The government is in shambles and dealing with mutiny in the ranks.  Not even the president is safe in his hidden bunker.  People are dying at the hands of the zombies and each other.  Will anyone make it out alive?

I really liked North’s first book DEAD TIDE and now love its sequel DEAD TIDE RISING.  The book seamlessly continues the initial chaos from the first book and in the same tone.  There are no scenarios that would or could be considered too ridiculous even for apocalyptic fiction.  Character development is just right for the run and gun style of North’s writing.  The story’s pacing is quick and even and keeps the attention to the unpredictable events throughout the story.  No character is sacred.  Stephen A. North once again does a great job with the zombie sub-genre.

-Colleen Wanglund


Jeff Strand returns with the long awaited 4th novel in his ANDREW MAYHEM series...

Thursday, December 1, 2011



(NOTE: The "smell ratings" at the end of some reviews rate the actual SMELL of the book and have nothing to do with the story.  Smell Ratings: 5 = excellent, 1 = odorless, 2-4 = you figure it out.  Book Key: hc = hardcover / tp = trade paperback / mmp - mass market paperback / rarer forms described.  Unless otherwise noted, all reviews are by Nick Cato).

LAST STAND IN A DEAD LAND by Eric S. Brown (2011 Grand Mal Press / 132 pp / tp)

Eric S. Brown is a writing machine.  It seems he has a new title out every time I turn around.  And it's not often his novels or short stories don't satisfy.  His latest novella, LAST STAND IN A DEAD LAND, is no exception.

In this nearly non-stop monster/action adventure, Brown combines zombies, bigfoot, and an interesting array of heroes.  The blood flies almost as quickly as our survivors run, from a tense opening sequence in an office up to the nifty ending (which brings in yet another creature).  I'm getting as tired of zombie stories as anyone else, but when they move this fast and feature this many surprises in such a short space, I welcome 'em with open arms.  Perhaps the undead should inhabit more novella-length tales?

Either way, LAST STAND throws everything at you at a non-stop pace.  Brown's latest monster-mash is one of his best yet and an incredibly fun time.

-Smell Rating: 1

THE CREEPING KELP by William Meikle (2011 Dark Regions Press / 158 pp / tp)

Remember that segement in CREEPSHOW 2 where a bunch of teenagers go on a raft in an isolated pond and get attacked by a mysterious, floating black mass?  THE CREEPING KELP brings this skit to mind, only on an epic scale.

Noble and Suzie are two scientists working near London in the North Atlantic.  After discovering a strange, black tar on the motor of his boat, Noble makes it back to the main ship just as all hell breaks loose.

As an ever-growing mass of black, tendril-sprouting seaweed attacks England's shores, Noble and Suzie uncover this phenomenon by reading through journals left by recent military persons, then older texts dating back to the 1500s by a Catholic priest and a ship captain.

While Meikle gives a few head-scratching ideas as to what this Creeping Kelp is (everything from an ancient God to a human-engineered military weapon is cited), this short novel is packed with so much cheesy scifi/horror fun it was easy for me to overlook the monster's unclear origin.

Like a better film on the SyFy Channel, THE CREEPING KELP delivers the creature-feature goods despite it's goofy, 'Spongebob'-sounding title.  It starts out as an ecological warning (the beast feeds on plastic consumer waste) yet ends on a Lovecraftian, action-packed note with plenty of dazzling visuals.  Its environmental edge is quickly forgotten in place of major Kelp attacks and latent conspiracy theories.

KELP is an uneven read that tries to make a point or two, but those seeking some classic 1950s-style monster mayhem should be able to ignore the confusion and have a good time.  I did.

Smell Rating: 1

THE STRAIN by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (2009 William Morrow / 416 pp / all formats)

It’s way past time for vampires to take back the night! 

(Admittedly, given how late to the party I am on reading this one, it’s even MORE way past time! The second and third in the series are already out, and on my holiday wish list)

Yes, we could go on about the angstiness that eventually led to porn and sparklification … let’s not, though, ‘kay?

Yes, we’ve got our zombie apocalypses, more of those than you can shake a stick at – and don’t get me wrong, I never get tired of them. 

But the plague nature of vampires so rarely gets any attention. These modern, careful, civilized ones out to avoid detection and operate in solitary secret or well-organized clans … enough of that! How about a vicious, insatiable, invasive, pandemic breed of vampire? Vampire-as-virus, out to replicate and spread, contaminate and take over?

We got some of it with Stephen King’s SALEM’S LOT, and we’ve got it on an even larger scale with Robert McCammon’s THEY THIRST (still uncontested as my personal favorite vampire book ever). Both wonderful examples, by all means. Still, don’t you want more? I know I do. 

With THE STRAIN, the first in a trilogy from authors Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Toro (yes, the PAN’S LABYRINTH guy, who made a “fairy tale” spookier and freakier than any horror novel in years!), we get it. 

The premise is given reasonably plausible-enough scientific explanations to trigger the whole wonderful stew of fears about contagion and loss of essential humanity that makes a good outbreak story so shivery, while also not disappointing the superstitious part of us that craves the arcane and unnatural. 

In THE STRAIN, a routine day at the airport goes suddenly awry when a landing plane just stops dead on the runway, with systems non-operational, no communications, no signs of life. Not good. Terrorists? Mary Celeste style ghost ship? What do you do?

What they do in this case is call in the CDC response team to check for possible biological or chemical agents … and what the CDC finds is a plane full of dead people. 

Or are they? *cue ominous music* Spoilers: it’s much, much worse. 

And, as usual in these situations, the authorities don’t want to give any credence to the increasingly bizarre evidence mounting right before their eyes. Only an old man with a dark history realizes the truth, and only the CDC investigator on the case can help try to stop it before it’s too late. 

The cast of main characters turns out to be fairly typical of the genre, that small group of reluctant believers brought together by circumstance, fate, coincidence, or a bit of literary stretching. But the familiarity is comforting, and the sub-plots with minor characters make for the most fun. 

All in all, I found The Strain to be a creepy, exciting, good read. Looking very much forward to the next ones!

--Christine Morgan

THE CRANSTON GIBBERER by Martin Mundt (2011 Bad Moon Books / 65 pp / tp)

In a story told entirely through letters between H and his friend X, THE CRANSTON GIBBERER tells of a writer (H) who is asked by his boss to investigate and write a newspaper article about a local monster called the Cranston Menace.  H discovers the monster—also known as the Cranston Gibberer--is centuries old and has some connection to a family called Dirge…one of which is the publisher of the newspaper that H writes for.  Unfortunately for H, the monster has decided to change his target.

Mundt tells a humorous story about H’s decent into madness and yet still discussing inanities such as visiting a tailor for a new suit, although even that common occurrence becomes somewhat bizarre.  The writing is funny and clever and Mundt will leave you wondering if the monster was real or was H really one crazy SOB?  A quick and enjoyable read, THE CRANSTON GIBBERER is one of those rare stories that I can read over and over again.  Get this book!

-Colleen Wanglund

CROOKED HILLS (BOOK ONE) by Cullen Bunn (2011 Earwig Press / 248 pp. / tp, eBook, and limited edition hc)

After their father passes away, Charlie and his younger brother Alex are taken on a trip to the small town of Crooked Hills by their mom.  Charlie's a bit upset as he was looking forward to spending the summer with his friends, but it doesn't take long for him to gain interest in their planned 6-week vacation.  Charlie's mom gives him a book about the haunted legends of Crooked Hills, and before long his cousin Marty and a red-headed tom boy named Lisa are exploring the back woods and its chilling legends.

When each kid has a nightmare about a legendary local witch--and discover young Alex has been kidnapped by a woman bent on resurrecting that witch--the stage is set for plenty of action and suspense.  Along the way our little heroes grapple with all kinds of creepy crawlies, ghosts, a nasty dog, and two teenage bullies.  Bunn doesn't shy away from having these children deal with death and dark situations, and does so in a manner that shouldn't freak out the more impressionable young readers.

Cullen Bunn's first book in the CROOKED HILL series is aimed at the 9-12 year-old market, and if given a proper push there's no reason this shouldn't take off.  It's loaded with fun, is written at a great pace, and is a good way to introduce the kids to the horror genre.  I'll surely be getting a copy for my nephew...

ACHERON by Bryon Morrigan (2011 Permuted Press / 258 pp / tp)

While operating on the front lines of Iraq, Captain Nate Leathers’ unit is attacked and he is captured.  Kept in what amounts to a stone hole in the wall for who-knows-how-long, Leathers hears the sounds of what he first thinks is battle.  He quickly realizes something is wrong when an eerie green mist envelopes his prison.  Managing to escape and find shelter with an Iraqi named Muhammad, Leather’s realizes there is something terribly wrong.  Zombies are walking the streets and monstrous creatures are also on the hunt for any humans left in the city of Basra.

Leathers and Muhammad make their way to a well-lit police station where they find other Iraqis, a handful of archaeologists, and some private security mercenaries.  They are surrounded by the pervasive green mist and monsters that should not exist.  The archaeologists think they inadvertently released something from the ruins of a dig outside of the city.  Unfortunately for everyone holed up in the station, the mercenaries believe it is the biblical End Times and believe it is their sacred duty to stop the minions of Hell.  Leathers is forcibly recruited by the mercenaries but things go horribly wrong for him and his mission.  Now Leathers must complete the mission given to him and try to get the few survivors out of the city ASAP.

Bryon Morrigan has written a fantastic supernatural/zombie story and throws in some religious zealots to boot.  The characters are well-developed and quite engaging.  Pacing is quick and even, giving a nice flow to a rather compelling novella.  The ending is left open for a possible sequel, which I look forward to.  I thought Leathers “passed out” a bit too much, but I understand it to be a device to advance the story.  All in all a great book to add to your horror collection.

-Colleen Wanglund

THE YEARS OF MAGIC by J. Lyndon Hickman (2011 / 234 pp / tp)

Set in 1934, Hickman's debut novel deals with what might have happened in the spirit world if electricity ceased to exist at that time.  His two protagonists (a gentleman named David Rancliff and his new friend Winston Thomas Guildersleeves--who turns out to be David's guardian angel) are likeable enough, but after setting up its quirky premise,THE YEARS OF MAGIC quickly looses logic and steam and its base intention seems all but forgotten.

When the world's electricity supply is taken away, the small town of Gallatin becomes host to a group of vampires who build an army through a huge, fancy, corrupt church.  David and Winston also encounter werewolves, zombies, ghosts, and just about anything else the author could think to throw in.  Apparently the absence of global electricity has caused these legendary monsters to come forth as MAGIC's story becomes an uneven, unintentionally funny tale that bounces all over the place and is further marred by some of the worst dialogue I've read in years.

This is a fine example of a self-published title that could've used a seriously professional edit.  I have no idea how I made it to the end.

Smell Rating: 0

SYMPHONY OF BLOOD: A HANK MONDALE SUPERNATURAL CASE by Adam Pepper (2011 Amazon Digital Services / eBook)

Hank Mondale is a private detective who loves to drink and gamble, and is bad at both. He hasn’t paid his rent, can’t pay his secretary, and is in debt from gambling on various sports games. But salvation seems to arrive in the form of a rich man, Thomas Blake, who needs someone discreet to investigate the murders of his daughter’s friends.  Mackenzie, a spoiled rich girl, insists that it was a monster who killed her friends, eating them from the inside out, and now it’s after her.  She calls the creature “Symphony.“  Skeptical, but desperately needing the large payment Blake promises, Mondale takes the case.

After Mondale begins to check out leads and clues with the help of his friend Vic from the Homicide Department, he finds similar murders that defy rational explanation.  Mackenzie is either strung-out or in shock, and can’t help him very well. And Mondale also discovers that Blake isn’t to be trusted, either.   What is he hiding? And why are some of his employees disappearing as well?

SYMPHONY OF BLOOD starts out as a normal mystery story, but soon turns into a creepy horror story. A little dark humor sprinkled throughout adds a little levity, but doesn’t distract from the story in any way.

The characters are very well fleshed-out and come across as real.  There are many suspenseful moments with a few gross ones thrown in for good measure.  

I am looking forward to reading more of Adam Pepper’s work; SYMPHONY hooked me from the first couple pages.  Keep an eye out for Adam Pepper’s work; you won’t be disappointed.

-Sheri White

APOCALYPTIC ORGAN GRINDER by William Todd Rose (2011 Smashwords / eBook)

The Gabriel Virus, released by religious fanatics brought civilization to its knees.  Two distinct cultures have arisen out of the ashes which despise and fear each other.  There are the Settlers, or the clear skins, those that are uninfected and the People or the Spewers, who carry the virus and are made sick but who do not die from it.

Each culture has their own historical perspective on how the remnants of humanity came to be this way.  Each mythology is different and each culture demonizes the other.  The novella focuses on two main characters—Tanner, a Sweeper for the settlements of the uninfected and Lila, a hunter for the infected clans.  Both Tanner and Lila view each other as an enemy that must be destroyed.  Unfortunately the hatred held for each other will lead to an inevitable and deadly conclusion.

APOCALYPTIC ORGAN GRINDER is a psychological study of human nature and the inherent nature of distrust and fear of what is different or unknown.  Instead of attempting to live separately and in relative peace, these two cultures inevitably wish to destroy each other.  Whose version of history is accurate?  It ultimately doesn’t matter because that history has been ingrained in the generations since the Gabriel Virus took its toll.  It is a bloody and heartbreaking story that I loved reading.  It is a quick and entertaining read, and can be had for free courtesy of William Todd Rose.  He is a wonderful writer and you should be reading him.

-Colleen Wanglund

DEVILS' DRUMS by Vivian Meik (2011 Medusa Press / 214 pp / limited edition hc)

Continuing to find and re-release seldom-heard horror authors of old, Medusa Press delivers yet another fine collection from a fascinating writer.

After an informative introduction (Meik truly lived an amazing life), the original ten stories that made up DEVIL'S DRUMS in 1933 are presented, followed by three more tales (one actually a non-fiction piece).  Meik spent several years in Africa, his love and admiration for the country and culture showing in each tale.

The first two stories, 'Devil's Drums' and 'White Zombie' introduce us to African voodoo, complete with witch doctors, slave-zombies, and plenty of eerie atmosphere.  'An Acre in Hell' is one of the better moments here, dealing with the ultimate in voodoo evil and human sacrifice.  'The Doll of Death' is a spooky little yarn that was even turned into a short film forty years later when it appeard on one of the last episodes of 'Rod Serling's Night Gallery' in 1973.

'White Man's Law' shows what happens when the west intervenes where it shouldn't, and acts as a catalyst for the stories to follow (Mein uses most of the same characters in this collection, making the shorts seem almost like a single, long story).  'L'Amitie Reste' brings Meik favorites Geoffrey Aylett (an action commissioner) and Padre Vaneken (a Catholic missionary) closer together, this time in one of several tales that uses letters to unravel the happenings.

'The Man Who Sold His Shadow' is easily the best of the bunch, an eerie, heart-breaking account of a recently married white couple and their dealings with a local witch doctor.  It's the best example of Meik's horror writing, mixing a compelling supernatural plot with social intrigue.  'R.A.' finds our heroes Aylett and Padre Vaneken trying to get to the bottom of a series of gruesome murders along the local villages that leads them to a mysterious old woman and a legendary snake god.  'A Honeymoon in Hate' takes another look at a young couple and their life in Africa, complete with a surprise, brutal (for its time) ending.

The collection isn't called DEVILS' DRUMS for no reason: voodoo drum beats reverbeat throughout each tale, bringing a sense of dread whenever they appear.  'Domiria's Drum' ends the original ten-stories of the collection, once again taking a look at yet another cursed couple.

'The Two Old Women' (the first of three extra stories included in this edition) features not only characters from Meik's Africa horror tales, but also Meik himself.  This time the voodoo has come to London.  I'm assuming 'Chiromo' is the non-fiction piece mentioned in Douglas A. Anderson's introduction, as it starts off like a memoir then turns into a bizarre ghost story.  'I Leave it to You' ends the collection and is told from the Padre's point of view, and again deals with a woman who may or may not be what she seems.

I found Meik's writing to be filler-free and to the point.  Perhaps he used the word "horror" a bit too often, but otherwise he was gifted at building dread and atmosphere while crafting likeable characters in a minimalist manner.  Medusa Press has also (once again) created an absolutely beautiful book here, one that any serious fan of horror fiction history will want on their book shelf.

Smell Rating 5

BEAUTIFUL HELL by Jeffrey Thomas (2011 Dark Regions Press 2011 / 118 pp / tp)

First published as part of UGLY HEAVEN, BEAUTIFUL HELL by Carlton Mellick III and Jeffrey Thomas in 2007 by Corrosion Press, BEAUTIFUL HELL is now released by Dark Regions Press as a stand-alone novella.

There is only one Creator of both Heaven and Hell.  Frank Lyre is a writer who was sent to Hades as punishment for not believing in the Creator.  He has suffered torment for an unknown period of time.  Things are changing, though.  Humanoid demons and the Damned alike are rebelling and new races of demons are being created.

The Creator has come to Hades because he is having an epiphany of some kind.  Among his entourage is Frank’s wife who is an angel.  Torn between the love for his wife and the attraction he has for a female demon, Frank decides to watch what is happening and document it for others to read.

Jeffrey Thomas has created a beautiful but frightening vision of Hades and its denizens.   BEAUTIFUL HELL is imaginative, intelligent and twisted, and populated with some very interesting and at times scary characters.  Pacing is excellent….I was able to read it in a single sitting.  I recommend picking this book up.

-Colleen Wanglund

IDOLS AND CONS by S.S. Michaels (2011 / 254 pp / eBook)

John is a drug-dealing (and taking) punk living in a seedy section of Los Angeles, sketching and playing his guitar.  His neighborhood has been overrun with yuppies and celebrities looking to be hip.  John's also a voyuer, and Damien--the singer for a popular boy band--lives right across the street.  John's used to watching Damien bring home groupies for sex romps, but one day things go a little overboard and the singer accidentally kills a teenage girl.  He wraps her in a carpet and throws her in a dumpster--and makes eye contact with the peeping John as he does so.

While furhter spying the neighborhood, John witnesses his artist-neighbor Patrick walking into his apartment with the carpet/body.  He unwisely decides to go over there and confront him, only to find himself stuck in a world of murder and a growing art project that's beyond gruesome.

But Patrick is the least of John's problems: when John's kidnapped by two thugs, he winds up in the presence of Damien, whose manager had suggested they kill John for his knowledge before he rats and destroys the pop star's career.  But Damien can't bear to kill his friend (and drug supplier), so he manages to make John a part of In Dreams, his huge boy band.  John accepts (having no other choice), and before long takes to his new role, becoming the most popular member of the band while simultaneously becoming part of a huge art show.

S.S. Michaels' debut novel is nearly impossible to put down.  She blends the seedy L.A. underground drug and art world with pop music fame, adds a crime element, and makes us cheer-on her rags-to-riches character despite his low-life personality.  And best of all, IDOLS AND CONS is heavy on the suspense and has just the right amount of humor thrown in.

With its message of how far some will go for fame (and the ways people deal with it), the novel is as cautionary as it is entertaining.  One of the finest debuts I've read in a long time...

KILLERS: A Prosper Snow Novel (Volume 2) by Shaun Jeffrey (2011 CreateSpace / 282 pp / tp)

Even though KILLERS is the second in a series of novels following the same main character (begun with the novel THE KULT), the book is a stand-alone story.  Prosper Snow is a police investigator who is being repeatedly pulled off some very brutal murder cases by a mysterious MI5 operative (the equivalent of our FBI).  What spooks Prosper into taking the man’s job offer is the fact that this man knows something about the events on a prior case involving the hatchet Man.

Prosper takes the offer and joins the special and secret investigative unit.  It seems that an experiment using human subjects into the question of nature versus nurture and what breeds a killer has lost one of its test subjects.  It is that subject that seems to be behind all of the brutal but random murders.  Things, however are not what they initially seem.  Can Prosper figure out the real story before it’s too late?

Fast paced and well executed, Shaun Jeffrey has taken the idea of behavioral experimentation and run with it.  He has drawn from real experiments from the past that were cut short and adds a sadistic twist.  I thought character development was just adequate, but I did not read THE KULT so I can’t necessarily speak to the main character.  There are plenty of references to the nature of the first novel so you not necessarily need to read that one to keep up with KILLERS.  Overall it is an enjoyable and engaging read with an unpredictable ending, which I love.

-Colleen Wanglund

DEVIL TREE by Steve Vernon (2011 Macabre Ink Digital / 289 pp / eBook)

Former preacher Lucas Sawyer and his wife Tamsen are seeking a new life, heading south down the Greensnake River.  They nearly drown when their raft capsizes, but are rescued by a burly man named Jonah Duvall, who takes them back to his home in an isolated valley.  Duvall's wife Jezebel helps nurse them back to health as their son looks on, and before long Lucas is helping Duvall with the daily chores. And in time Lucas and Tamsen will discover a strange, gigantic tree that sits in the middle of the woods, a tree that seems to be in control of Duvall.  A tree that is beginning to call to each of them...

In Vernon's 19th-century-set horror tale, isolation and the impossibility of escape--coupled with supernatural elements--enhance the chills with each page that goes by.  While the plot may seem a bit familiar, Vernon's natural talent for infusing believablitiy into each of his characters helps give things a fresh feel.

Vernon is well known for his ability to blend horror and humor (his 2004 novella LONG HORN, BIG SHAGGY being one of my all-time favorites), but here he paints a pitch-black serious tale that'll make you increasingly apprehensive.  With Cronenberg-esque body terror, a Wendigo-type sub plot, and a wicked tree that would give the vegetation in the original EVIL DEAD a run for its money, DEVIL TREE is a best bet for horror fans tired of not being scared by horror fiction.

This one delivers the goods.

THE FIELDS by Ty Schwamberger (2011 The Zombie Feed {Div. of Apex Publications} / eBook)

Set in the post-Civil War south, THE FIELDS tells the story of Billy who is trying to make his dead father’s tobacco farm a success.  Unfortunately he is failing miserably.  Billy is barely able to earn a living to sustain himself through the coming winter.  One day Mr. Stratford pays a call to Billy, explaining that he knew Billy’s father and was there to help with the farm.  Billy is unsure of Mr. Stratford’s offer but decides to sleep on it.

Mr. Stratford returns the next morning and Billy accepts his offer of help.  The first thing Billy must do is dig up the dead slaves buried on the farm’s property and place the bodies in the barn overnight.  Billy does what he is told but doesn’t understand why he’s doing it.  The next morning Billy finds Mr. Stratford with the reanimated corpses, ready to do the work they used to do while alive.  Billy convinces himself that what he is doing is okay, he won’t treat them the way his father did.  Unfortunately for Billy, his good intentions go horribly awry.

While I like the idea of THE FIELDS, I was disappointed in its execution.  There are far too many unnecessary details and ramblings.  The story is all over the place.  There is obviously a message here, with Billy’s dead father having abused his slaves and beating some to death, but the message gets lost.  Billy wants to be better than his father but it doesn’t work out that way.  There are a couple of weird dreams that Billy has, but they seem out of place in the story.  This novella might have been better as a short story or chapbook.  I recommend that you pass on this one.

-Colleen Wanglund


2012 looks to be another promising year for horror fiction, and the HFR staff is already busy checking out some forthcoming releases as well as finishing up the tail end of 2011's gruesome offerings.  Have a GREAT holiday season!