Saturday, October 1, 2011

October, 2011 Reviews


(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).

MIDNIGHT MOVIE by Tobe Hooper with Alan Goldsher (2011 Three Rivers Press / 316 / tp)

There's always a roll of the eyes when a famed horror film director tries his hand at a novel (Wes Craven, anyone?).  When I heard Tobe Hooper--director of my all time favorite horror film, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE--had written one, I couldn't wait to get my hands on it, especially after hearing that one of my buddies HATED it and another LOVED it.

For the first 100 pages, MIDNIGHT MOVIE had me hook, line, and sinker.  The pace was nice, the initial idea seemed great (a screening of an unseen Hooper film shot in his teenaged years somehow causes America to become a zombieland)  But right after this set-up section, the novel goes in several different directions, and I spent most of the time wondering if Hooper (and co-writer Goldsher) could bring it all together in the final act.

They do and they don't.

While I enjoyed Tobe Hooper as the protagonist (as well as the group of misfits who help him re-film his lost epic), and REALLY liked how the zombies are so in the background you hardly know they're there, there were so many other things going on I had a hard time staying focused on the story: besides the zombies, why did the screening of the film cause mass terrorist attacks and outbreaks of sexual frenzy?  And just who were carrying out these attacks?  The zombies, or some kind of splinter cells?  Is not a zombie invasion enough?  The authors seriously should've trimmed this thing down a bit (even at just over 300 pages, 75 could've easily been chopped without losing anything).

While the novel works fine as a metaphor for Hooper's views on the Hollywood system, and will make independent film makers proud of what they do, MIDNIGHT MOVIE--in the end--is a so-so offering that starts out fantastic then looses steam as it unfolds (the quick and blah conclusion doesn't help, despite some ends being decently tied up).

For Hooper fanatics only.

Smell Rating: 4

SAMSON AND DENIAL by Robert Ford (2011 Thunderstorm Books / 126 pp / tp)

Ford's supernatural crime novella is a quick, tight read with absolutely ZERO filler.

When Sammy (a Philadelphia street kid who now owns a pawn shop) finds his brother brutally murdered at the hands of the Russian mob (who have also kidnapped his wife), he's on a mission to get her back regardless of the overwhelming odds.  Along with his huge Desert Eagle handgun, Sammy's surprise weapon turns out to be a mummified head a junkie unloaded at his shop.

With smart street-wise dialogue, brutal violence, and even an all-female underground religious cult right out of a Jodorowsky film, SAMSON AND DENIAL reads like a pulpy b-movie without the unintentional laughs; it's a serious tale that'll appeal to horror and crime fans alike.  Great stuff.

Smell Rating: 1

BLACK LIGHT by Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan, and Stephen Romano (2011Mulholland Books / 327 pp / tp)

Buck grew up in an orphanage with no memory of his life prior to the age of seven.  At the age of twelve he discovered a natural ability to deal with the spirits of the dead.  He is also able to see the plane of existence where the dead go and hear their voices.  Buck has been nagged by the thought that his parents were murdered by something horrible and he seems to have been given the chance to find out along with the missing pieces of his life.

Buck has been hired by a billionaire businessman to “protect” the passengers on his new bullet train as it moves through a very spiritually active area of the desert known as the Black Triangle.  Buck had been there before and almost died on a case involving the Blackjack Nine.  He swore he’d never go back, but believes it is the chance to have his questions answered.  What Buck doesn’t know is that there are others involved and everyone has their own agenda.  Buck is the key to unleashing something terrifying, IF things go according to plan.  Buck knows that he will either do his job and discover the key to his past or die trying.

For a debut novel, BLACK LIGHT is an entertaining and interesting read.  I liked the main character, Buck Carlsbad and his development is well-done and to the point.  I thought his abilities and what he did with them made for quite an original story.  I was a bit disappointed with the development of other characters, including some of the protagonists, as well as their motives.  While I did enjoy the book for the most part, I thought the climax of the story was a bit overblown and half expected the end to play like something out of SON OF ROSEMARY by Ira Levin (which to me turned out to be a huge letdown).  I also think there were too many players in the final mix.  I would have preferred a story that focused more on Buck and his quest for answers and less on a movie-style ending—but two of the authors wrote for the SAW movie franchise so that explains some things.   Buck comes across as being very subdued and I think the grandiose happenings in the last third of the novel don’t really fit around him.  BLACK LIGHT is entertaining but just slightly above average.

-Colleen Wanglund

PHOENIX ROSE by Michael Bailey (2009 CreateSpace / 366 pp / tp)

Ever watch a big lavish movie and get the idea that you’re seeing three or four cool stories trying to be told all at the same time? With the result being that none of them really get their full due, and you’re left with this lingering sense of wondering what was going on? 

That’s how I felt reading PHOENIX ROSE. Three or four cool stories, wrapped around and framed within one another, with some obvious ties to a previous work I hadn’t read, and by the time I reached the last page, I realized I still wasn’t entirely sure what was going on. 

I think, and hope, that was the author’s intention. The whole thing reads like someone else’s delirium dreams, reminding me of the time my father confused teaspoons for tablespoons once when I was sick. 

The actual writing is good quality, excellent language use and descriptions. Some of the reality checks may have bounced for me; I found myself wondering if that’s really how foaling is handled (not that I’d have any idea; my experiences with horses are limited), and having my doubts about the psychiatric angles. But that’s a bit beside the point. 

So, there’s these three or four stories. One is about an injured little boy whose family can’t cope with the aftermath of an awful accident, another is about a guy who may or may not be kind of almost sort of a werewolf, then there’s the brothers who are faking crop circles, and a zombie/vampire priest who interrupts a convenience store robbery … and a semi-suicidal man in an amnesiac insane asylum …

Hell, I don’t know WHAT this book was about. It was interesting; some of the ideas and many turns of phrase were downright amazing, but overall, I was (and still am, referring back to it now), pretty well totally baffled. 

If you enjoy that sense of drifting disconnect, and don’t expect to reach the end and close a book with any measure of finality and satisfaction, then you could give this one a whirl. 

-Christine Morgan

BESTIAL: WEREWOLF APOCALYPSE by William D. Carl (2008 Permuted Press / 298 pp / tp)

I finally got around to reading Carl's 2008 action-packed monster novel, close to the eve of its re-release through Simon & Schuster this December, 2011.

When a bunch of hoods hold up a bank in Cincinatti, things take a wickedly bad turn when the city is attacked by werewolf-like creatures.  Head thug Rick and head bank teller Chesya manage to survive the assault inside the bank's vault.  But when they emerge the next morning, they find their city in ruins.

Across town, a teenage runaway squatter named Christian thinks he knows what's going on.  It seems one of his Johns was a wealthy Frenchman who also worked at a bio lab.  When things seem safe outside of his building, he locates the man's lab and finds a notebook that may hold some answers to the devastation.  And finally, a middle-aged housewife is on a mission to find her lost son after receiving a telephone call from him amidst the chaos (while several end-time novels use this search-for-the-missing-kid subplot, this time it's done quickly and doesn't take much space).

Despite a couple of end-of-the-world scenarious that will be familiar to fans of the subgenre, BESTIAL has a relentless pace that forced me to finish it in two sittings.  And the werewolves aren't your typical werewolves; they also show signs of being part bear and part tiger, giving them a faster, stronger, and more lethal edge.  Carl also manages to flesh out his characters while keeping the action flying at a nearly non-stop pace, making me long to see more of them in the two promised sequels.

Apocalyptic novels have saturated the horror fiction scene over the past eight years or so...but when they're as well done as BESTIAL, it's easy to see why fans keep begging for more.

ETERNAL UNREST: A NOVEL OF MUMMY TERROR by Lorne Dixon (2011 Coscom Entertainment / 240 pp / tp)

Prior to America’s involvement in World War II England endured heavy bombardment by the German Luftwaffe and so decided to send its most valuable artifacts from the British Museum to the Smithsonian Institute.  Unfortunately for Priscilla Stuyvesant, who is overseeing the transport of the artifacts, a bomb has reduced three truck-loads to one.  Priscilla and her two companions, Mason and Brigham barely escape with their lives and have now picked up some refugees.  One of the refugees decides to ride in the back of the truck but Priscilla senses something is wrong with their cargo.

After a harrowing night at a military refueling station, the group finally makes it to the docks and the cargo ship, but with two less people than they had the night before.  Once on board things go from bad to worse rather quickly.  Priscilla senses the power emanating from the mummies’ crates, but while attempting to dump them overboard the crap really hits the fan.  Not only are these former assassins returning to life but the ship has now been boarded by Nazis on the run from their own government, including a doctor who performed unauthorized experiments on his own people.  Priscilla and her companions must find a way to survive murderous Nazis and powerful mummies all in the enclosed spaces of a cargo ship on the Atlantic Ocean.

If there was ever a story to begin the reign of the mummy in the horror genre, ETERNAL UNREST is it.  Dixon has weaved together a tale of war, murder, and revenge—of two powerful civilizations separated by thousands of years and the magic and horror that has connected them.  ETERNAL UNREST wastes no time getting into the meat of the story, which is bloody and brutal and the very claustrophobic atmosphere makes for a truly scary read.  For diehard fans of Hammer Studios’ mummy flicks, this is the book we’ve been waiting for!  With a great introduction by author Nick Cato who sums up the lack of mummy love perfectly and amazing cover art by C.J. Hutchinson and Jesus Morales, this is a highly recommended must-read.

-Colleen Wanglund

IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER by M.R. Sellars (To Be Released November, 2011 by Willow Tree Press / 327 pp / hc, tp, and eBook)

Special Agent Constance Mandalay is assigned to a case in the small town of Hulis, Missouri.  She's the latest in a string of FBI agents who have spent the past seven Christmas seasons attempting to uncover a murder that occurs each year--each one identical to a brutal crime that happened at the same location back in 1975.

Agent Mandalay has her share of suspects as everyone in Hulis seems to be holding back information.  Sheriff Addison "Skip" Carmichael (who was a rookie deputy at the time of the '75 murder) seems helpful and friendly enough, but Mandalay fears he, too, isn't telling her everything he knows about the case.

This is the first novel from Sellars to feature Constance Mandalay as a main character (she has appeared in Sellars' best-selling "Rowan Gant Investigation' series), and while she's not a typical over-the-top crime-novel detective, the author does a fine job with her as a straight-shooting agent (it was actually refreshing to see a cop without heavy past or present demons or addictions for a change).  Perhaps after the odd events she has endured in this novel, Sellars now has a bit more of a dark edge to grow the character from.

IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER is a well written mystery with a paranormal slant.  The gruesome murders and child-abuse back story will keep the attention of any fan of dark fiction. It's difficult to put down and will make a satisfying, spooky ready on a cold night this coming holiday season.

I'm looking forward to more from Sellars and Special Agent Mandalay.

THESE STRANGE WORLDS by Daniel Powell (2011 Distillations Press / tp)

THESE STRANGE WORLDS: FOURTEEN DARK TALES is a collection of short stories that run the gamut from sorta-scifi to sorta-horror. And, while they’re not badly written, while they’re engaging enough, I could not shake the feeling that I was reading the equivalent of a made-for-TV movie just dissimilar enough to some blockbuster to avoid being TOO obvious, or eating the generic store brand of a snack cake. 

“Oh,” I’d think as I read, “this one’s his take on …” or “Hmm, seems heavily influenced by …” or “hey, just like …” and so on. I was reminded over and over of other stories. Not necessarily in a bad way, but often in a watered down way. 

Yeah, I know, there’s only so many plots, so many ideas, and the difference is in the storytelling. Not what ya got but how ya use it. Etc. Still, I came away from this book wishing I’d spent the time re-reading Stephen King’s collections instead. 

So, the fourteen dark tales are okay … not great, not awful … mostly bland with an occasional flash of stirring imagery or artful word use. The ones I liked best in here were “The Scheme,” “The Usurper” and the title track, “These Strange Worlds.”

-Christine Morgan

FOR EMMY by Mary SanGiovanni (2011 Thunderstorm Books / 107 pp / tp)

Dana is Emmy's older sister, and they spend their after-school hours helping their father around his small book store.  One day Emmy goes missing from right under there noses.  With this simple premise the author takes us on a crash course of missing persons cases that branches into issues many may have never considered.  Within these short 107 pages I found more food for thought and downright eeriness than in just about all of the 60+ books I've read so far this year.

SanGiovanni's novella dealing with a missing five year-old girl did something few horror stories do (even of its ilk): it actually scared me.  And after all, isn't that what horror fiction is supposed to do?  Try reading this one alone late at night and you just might agree.  I can't recommend this one enough.

NOWHERE HALL by Cate Gardner (2011 Spectral Press / 28 pp / cb)

One in a limited edition series of chapbooks released by Spectral Press, NOWHERE HALL introduces us to Ron, a man contemplating suicide because he’s lost his job.  While wrestling with his decision Ron is drawn to The Vestibule, a hotel that is either beautiful and bustling or derelict and haunted, depending on the state of Ron’s fragile psyche.  Once Ron has entered he is forced to play the game, one he doesn’t know the rules to.

Cate Gardner has penned a surreal and spooky story in less than 30 pages.  It’s a quick but very entertaining read.  At times the prose seems more like poetry and the imagery is almost dream-like.   Gardner allows the reader to come to the answer to Ron’s dilemma right along with the character.  I liked Ron and empathized with him immediately.  I also like that Gardner didn’t explain everything; I don’t necessarily want everything explained.  Did Ron make his final decision when he entered the building?  Read NOWHERE HALL to find out.

Colleen Wanglund

THE DRIVER'S GUIDE TO HITTING PEDESTRIANS by Andersen Prunty (2011 Lazy Fascist Press / 98 pp / tp)

Prunty (a man who is happiest while napping in his tennis shoes) deilvers this collection of Bizarro short stories that range from the TRULY bizarre to the truly hysterical (and usually a combo of the two).

Among the more memorable are the epic title story, a sort-of take on DEATH RACE 2000 featuring an odd guy who spends most of his life in his van; 'Architecture' deals with a man who decides to build something truly different; 'Napper" is one of the funniest pieces here as Prunty shows off his classic Bizarro chops; 'The Balloonman's Secret' features an oddly out-of-place happy ending; I couldn't get enough of the idea behind 'Reading Manko' and neither will you if you're cool; 'Rivalry' takes neighborly scuffles to a new level, and 'Divorce' is classic Bizarro that readers either get or run away from crying.

Even the couple of semi-predictable tales fit in here and are satisfying.

While I enjoy prunty's novels, his shorts make for some good rapid-fire reading until the next one is unleashed.

Smell Rating: 2

THE FIVE by Robert McCammon (2011 Subterranean Press / 520 pp / hc)

My stream of thoughts upon seeing this one on the shelf went as follows:

“Ooh! A new McCammon?” *grab*

*look at cover* “Aww, obviously not a Matthew Corbett … but okay.”

“Eeee! GARGOYLES font!” *fangirl moment*

By then I already knew I’d be buying it, whatever it turned out to be about. Which, in this case, happens to be a band. Called “The Five,” reasonably enough, since it’s the title and since there’s five members. Even if there are six of them riding in the van on their latest tour, five plus their manager. 

Though, in a more meta sense, the book is also about the current cultural climate, how the internet affects artists of all stripes, and the fickle price/nature of fame and success. Which, speaking as one of the struggling multitudes of would-bes, makes for a fairly nerve-hitting, depressing, shaming read. Ouch. 

The Five are an odd mix of musical archetypes. Nomad is the bad boy, the tough guy, the shades-and-smokes lead singer. Ariel is the ethereal quirky hippie-chick, the gentle soul of the group. Keyboardist Terry, despite his shaved head, is the geeky genius. Berke, the drummer, has chip-on-the-shoulder, angry, in-your-face issues. Bass player Mike is, fittingly, the steady rock the rest can depend on. 

And the sixth, manager George, takes care of all the mundane details. Gigs, hotels when they can afford it and crash space when they can’t, merchandising, interviews, etc. Right up until the day he announces that at the end of the tour, he’s leaving for a more stable career. That opens the door for Terry to make a similar announcement, and that heralds the crumbling of The Five. 

As a last-ditch gesture, either to hold them together or to be a final project, they decide to collaborate on one more song. A bizarre experience on the road provides some inspiration, but a maliciously-handled interview on local TV brings The Five to the attention of a dangerous man who appoints himself their personal stalker and hitman. 

That’s when it stops being about their farewell tour as a band, and starts being about matters of life and death. That’s also when they discover that nothing gets attention – not to mention publicity and sales – faster than violence, tragedy, bloodshed and horror. 

Before they can even begin coming to terms with the loss of some of their own, the surviving members of The Five find themselves catapulted to stardom. They also find themselves as bait for the killer, not to mention caught up in something that seems even bigger, some sort of showdown of good versus evil. 

Basically, THE FIVE is five hundred pages of rock and soul, and when you sit down to read it, make sure you’ve provided adequate time … you won’t want to close the book until the end, and maybe not even then. 

-Christine Morgan

THE BONE WORMS by Keith Minnion (2011 Cemetery Dance Publications / 156 pp / eBook)

Having recently raved over Minnion's short story collection, IT'S FOR YOU, I was happy to see one of my favorites ('Up in the Boneyard') turned into a short novel.  Minnion takes a classic horror set up (an ancient evil comes back to haunt the present day) and makes it work.

In 1921 and 1922, two young boys are affected by The Boneyard, a mystical realm that exists about twenty stories in the air over a certain section of Pittsburgh.  Flash ahead to 1983, where a series of grisly (and strange) murders have police baffled: it seems some lunatic is managing to steal his or her victims' bones while leaving the flesh behind with precision-neat slices in the skin; first responders to the crime scenes are also discovering organs and muscles neatly stacked in a separate corner of the room.  Enter Detective Sergeant Francis Lomax, a straight-up cop haunted by his father's lack of faith in him.  Francis happens to see things at each crime scene others don't, and with the help of a geeky librarian, manages to get on the tail of the killer...or killers...or thing(s).

THE BONE WORMS can be read in a sitting or two, will give those afraid of heights the willies, and supplies plenty of suspense and gut-wrenching violence.  In the hands of a lesser author, this standard plot could have easily gone south, but somehow Minnion makes it seem fresh.  Check it out.

THE ARMAGEDDON CHORD by Jeremy Wagner (2011 kNight Romance Publishing / 254 pp / tp)

Helmut Hartkopff is an Egyptologist who finds an ancient song written in hieroglyphics while exploring the pyramid of an evil pharaoh, Aknaseth.  If this song is played, it will bring about the end of the world and Satan will rule the Earth.

Helmut is working for Festus Baustone, a billionaire looking for relief from the pain of dying from bone cancer.  The song is said to bring immortality, which peaks Festus’s interest greatly. Not only would he be free from pain, but he’d also become more powerful than he already is.

But first he must find someone to perform the song.

Kirk Vaisto is the “God of Guitar” according to his fans. When he is approached by Festus to translate the hieroglyphics into the song, Kirk is wary but agrees.  But when he plays the song in his studio, he is assaulted by evil sights and sounds that destroy his equipment. His fingers bleed from playing, and he is left with the conviction that the song must never be played again.  

However, Festus doesn’t take no for an answer. Kirk has fallen for Festus’s daughter Mona, and Festus uses that as leverage to make Kirk play the song in Egypt, broadcasted live all over the world. If Kirk doesn’t play, Festus will kill his own daughter.

Could the “Armageddon Chord” really bring about the Apocalypse and allow Satan to rule the world with Festus at his side?  

This is Jeremy Wagner’s first novel, and it’s fantastic. Besides being an author, Jeremy is also a talented heavy metal musician and songwriter. It is obvious while reading The Armageddon Chord that Jeremy is passionate about music and guitars - there is a lot of interesting information throughout the book about both subjects. 

The Armageddon Chord is a fun and thrilling combination of heavy metal music and horror.  Jeremy Wagner has written a great story including angels and demons, good guys and bad guys, suspense and a little bit of romance.  This is a book that is hard to put down; I read it in about a day. 

Jeremy Wagner has hit the ground running with his debut novel. I can’t wait to see what he has in store next.

-Sheri White

HIGHWAYS TO HELL by Bryan Smith (2011 Deadite Press / 200 pp / tp)

What do you do when you wake from a blackout and find a murdered stripper in the back of your car? Or, rather, in a story called “Living Dead Bitch,” what do you do when the murdered stripper in the back of your car starts trying to take chomps out of you and your buddy?

Such questions are the sort posed to the unfortunate characters in Bryan Smith’s Highways to Hell collection.

Others might include: How do you get back at the obnoxious brats at the ball park? (“Slugger,” and given my own ongoing feud with the local Little Leaguers, I’d best not answer that one) Or: Where do you get your story ideas? (“Brain Worms Crave Soul Food” … those of you who write, and who view real life as fodder for your creativity, you gotta agree with me here … please don’t tell me I’m the only one who feels that way … that would be awkward …)

Or: You think being a pizza delivery guy is a sucky enough job to start with? How about if you walk in on a crime in progress? (“Pizza Face”) Or: Would you take back the most heinous act of your life if you still had to live with the memory of it? (“Remorse”)

The best question and best answer of all, in my opinion, has to be the one presented in “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be” … What’s it like, being allowed to play with someone else’s coolest toys? I envy the living daylights out of any writer who gets to dabble in the Mephistopolis, and Smith’s contribution to an Edward Lee tribute anthology only proves how damn much fun it is!

In fact, all the stories in this book are fun, albeit in an often dark, warped, or twisted kind of way. They are the product of someone having a wild good time doing something he loves to do, and it shows. 

-Christine Morgan

TATTERED SOULS 2 edited by Frank J. Hutton (2011 Cutting Block Press / 218 pp / tp)

In Hutton's second second anthology aimed at introducing newer writers, there are more hits than misses and each of the eight stories are long enough to get a true taste of each author's style.

Among my favorites are Elias Siqueiros' 'The First Stroke,' about a retired dollmaker who finds one of his cutomized creations (which happens to resemble his son) has a bunch of people after it.  I found it to be the eeriest story here, if somewhat familiar.

Stephanie Shaw shines with 'Mademoiselle Guignol,' about an actress in 1913 paris who has grown tired of dying off in countless performances.  When she tells the theater's owner she wants to quit, things take a dark turn.  Of all the authors featured in TATTERED SOULS 2, Shaw is one I'll surely be keeping my eye on.

Other winners include Steve Ruthenbeck's 'I Was A Teenage Zombie Apocalypse,' another familiar yet well done yarn of the undead; the opening sci-fi-tinged 'Yellow Called and Mom was There,' by Tim W. Burke, set in a world where everyone is continually hooked up to computers to receive daily injections (and Burke takes it in a direction I didn't expect); and the most disturbing of the lot easily goes to Forrest Aguirre, whose 'The Arch: Conjecture of Cities,' about a man who searches for a legendary book, discovers it's much more than he had originally thought.  Things are revealed at a fine pace, building to a most satisfying conclusion.

TS2 is a fine introduction to 8 authors, only one who I had heard of (that'd be Forrest Aguirre).  And while not every story is memorable, they're all well written and should hold most horror fan's interest.

Kendare Blake's ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD and HELLHOLE, Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson's first installment of an epic trilogy, PLUS more reviews than you can shake a stick at!