Saturday, December 29, 2012

January, 2013 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)

REVIVAL HOUSE by S.S. Michaels (2012 / 200 pp / eBook)

Caleb is a young man who takes over his uncle's funeral home in Savannah, Georgia. He's a tall, pale-skinned loner in love with an overweight goth girl named Scarlet. But Scarlet has eyes for Caleb's old college buddy Avery, who has come to Savannah to continue his reanimation experiments on local pets. Taking all this in is Caleb's friend, the oddly named Four, who runs a haunted attraction tour.

When Scarlet dues after a bad fall, Avery convinces Caleb they could bring her back. Caleb reluctantly agrees and the operation is sort-of successful until Scarlet escapes with some minor brain damage (and a scalpel) into one of Four's haunted tunnels and injures one of the tourists. Now Caleb is going crazy trying to track her down, and a popular ghost-hunting TV show comes to town to see the strange tunnel-dweller for themselves.

REVIVAL HOUSE is a quirky horror tale, a cross between HEATHERS and REANIMATOR with plenty of dark humor thrown in.  Michaels develops Caleb quite nicely, making us care for this dark, gloomy freak, and while we feel bad for Scarlet, it's hard not to laugh at the thought of a fat goth girl in a dirty sheet running around the tunnels with a cage on her head.

If you have a twisted sense of humor or a taste for some horror from a different angle, check out REVIVAL HOUSE.

DEADWEIGHT by Robert Devereaux (2012 Deadite Press / 214 pp / tp)

This is an extremely uncomfortable read, packed with squicks and eews, guaranteed to elicit cringes, shudders, and outright recoilings. In other words, great stuff! If, that is, you’re into voluntary emotional scarring-for-life. 

My main obstacle was in drumming up some empathy for Karin. Sympathy, yes, in the prologue, which depicts scenes from her childhood in horrific detail … and I definitely developed a seething futile fury for Karin’s mother, despite understanding the psychology behind her inactions. 

But, skip ahead several years to a grownup Karin, and my feelings changed. I wanted to root for her at first, the Karin who’d finally had enough and struck back at her abusive husband. Who’d killed the bastard, and remarried, and seemed poised to start her life anew. 

Silly me. Despite all that, there’s Karin, visiting the graveyard every day, bringing flowers, sitting by Danny’s grave, missing the bastard, loving him, wishing for another chance, wishing they could try again only without the angry outbursts. SERIOUSLY?!??!?! 

Again, I understand the psychology behind it, but even understanding the psychology behind it doesn’t make me any less frustrated. In this sense, I was reminded of the mom from Cujo and how, much as I enjoy the bulk of the story, her character has me gnashing my teeth. Sign of a good writer, though, when someone can just GET to you that bad, argh! Devereaux certainly has that nailed.

Anyway! So, here’s Karin, grieving widow and newlywed. Who’s always known she had a green thumb, but never knew the true extent of her abilities … until the day she realizes the cut flowers that should have been dead are restored, and she can unwither them with a touch. It’s more than a green thumb, it’s healing and life energy. 

What Karin does not realize, then, is that her gift is reaching deeper into the earth. Into the grave of her murdered husband. That wish she had for another chance, without the angry outbursts? About to come halfway true. 

Revived, driven by twisted rage, Danny is not very pleased with Karin. He’s ready to take his gory revenge, not only on her but anybody else who gets in the way, or otherwise presents an opportune target.

-Christine Morgan

A BIG BOOK OF STRANGE, WEIRD AND WONDERFUL VOLUME II edited by D.L. Russell and Sharon Black (2012 Strange, Weird and Wonderful Publishing / 422pp / tp)

A BIG BOOK…. is chock full of the best horror, fantasy and science fiction short stories that had been previously published in Strange, Weird, and Wonderful Magazine.

Among my favorite stories is “The Interim Weaver” by Paul Breaux about a special weaver of bonds needed on the annual day of execution, who has the power to hold the most dangerous prisoners—in this case The Mark; “The Bus Stop” by Jeani Rector about a murderer at a creepy bus station in the middle of nowhere on Halloween night; “The Dying Time” by Sabrina West about a settlement on a faraway world where the children are “buried” for the summer, and two of those children escape the burial and discover the truth; and “Inheritance for Dummies” by R.A. Keenan about a strange inheritance involving witchcraft and ventriloquist dummies—this one thoroughly creeped me out as I have a fear of ventriloquist dummies (even more than clowns!).

Other notable stories include “A Test of Fate” about a mandatory blood test that predicts how a person will die; “A Few Minutes of Euphoria for Miss Mattibelle” by M. Francis Patterson about a woman who loves to attend funerals for the booze and gossip and what ultimately becomes her undoing; “Old Fashioned Police Work” by Matt Adams about a police force full of young recruits with super powers but the one cop who can save them all has none; “Drag Show” by Eric Garrison about a most unusual drag show attended by a woman and her husband; and “That Ain’t No Chicken” by D.L. Russell about and alien attempting to invade earth who is thwarted by the rooster Mr. Mudfoot.

As with all anthologies, not every story is going to be appealing to every reader.  I thought “Moffit Maley” by Sharon Black was a good story but a little on the boring side.  “When Hell Fell From the Sky” by Tiffany Carrier was a confusing story about either aliens or demons—I wasn’t sure which.  “The Return of Richard Vanek” by Jeffrey Scott Sims was a very promising story with a great premise—parasitic aliens attempting to invade Earth by using the body of an astronaut thought to be dead on a disabled space station.  The problem with it was that it was far too verbose.  I was being told the details instead of having things described for me.  It just wasn’t fun to read.

Overall, A BIG BOOK OF STRANGE, WEIRD AND WONDERFUL VOLUME II is a great collection full of interesting and entertaining stories.  The editors did a good job with their selections, for the most part and I enjoyed reading the stories.  It’s a good mix of horror, science fiction and fantasy for fans of those genres.

-Colleen Wanglund

NO OUTLET by Matthew Warner (2012 Thunderstorm Books / 164 pp / limited edition hc & tp)

Steve and Tanya are shopping at a mall. They have their share of marital problems that get worse when they discover they can't find any exit doors. The mall becomes an endless maze of countless stores and seemingly miles of back hallways, always shifting. When they finally accept the fact they're somehow trapped, Steve begins to wonder if they're on another planet or even in hell.

Whenever they ask someone for help or directions to an exit, security guards arrive and adminster various punishments. Eventually Steve and Tanya meet another couple who are in the same situation, but things only start to get worse and more bizarre.

NO OUTLET is like a classic episode of TWILIGHT ZONE amped up to 10. Warner creates a genuinely claustrophobic nightmare full of suspense and chills that concludes with a lot of heart.

A quick, satisfying read that works its growing sense of paranoia to the max.

AN OCCURRENCE IN CRAZY BEAR VALLEY by Brian Keene (2012 Deadite Press / 108 pp / tp)

Old West horror is fun. It’s just fun. There’s something about the combination that … yeah. It’s just FUN. 

In this case, it’s lawless, gritty, Deadwood-language, coarse and violent fun. A gang of bad guys on the run from a posse detour into a densely wooded valley with the idea of hiding out there for a couple of days. It means dealing with the lumberjacks who have a camp there, but, hey, never bring an axe to a gunfight …

The ‘jacks have a cabin, not the nicest place but it’s shelter, with some provisions laid in and a girl tied to a post, and the outlaws are glad enough to settle in. True, there’s a weird smell in the valley, but they’re none too fragrant themselves, so can’t complain much. 

They also don’t lend much credence to the girl’s story that the reek is from what the lead lumberjack told her were the ‘crazy bears’ … a pack of huge, hairy creatures living in the woods nearby. That is, until a crazy bear shows up, prowling around in the night. 

Naturally, they shoot it. Naturally, this pisses off the rest of the crazy bears. And from there, it’s gunfire and bloodshed all the way to the end. 

As a bonus, this book also includes the novella “Lost Canyon of the Damned,” an alt-Keene-history piece in which Hamelin’s Revenge takes place about a century and a half early. 

It’s zombies in the 1800s, and the few who manage to escape the dusty little town of Red Creek do so with a shuffling horde in slow but steady pursuit. They can’t keep going forever without rest, and the more their horses tire, the closer the zombies get. 

A rise of hills offers hope of refuge, but when they find a lush river valley sheltered in a canyon, they can hardly believe their luck. It’s not on any map, but it’s green, the water’s clear and cold – then it gets a lot worse than running from zombies. 

Brian Keene never disappoints, and AN OCCURRENCE IN CRAZY BEAR VALLEY is no exception.

-Christine Morgan

CANNIBAL CORPSE, MC by Tim Curran (2012 Permuted Press / 260 pp / tp)

A major pandemic of apocalyptic proportion has wreaked havoc on most of the country.  West of the Mississippi River is now known as the Deadlands, a place where corpse worms rain from the sky, turning anyone caught outside into zombies.  This is also a place where the government dropped nuclear weapons in a desperate attempt to destroy the worms and zombies.  They made things worse with the resultant radiation creating mutants that feed on human flesh.

Slaughter, a one percenter with a warrant for his arrest for murdering two cops, has decided to head into the Deadlands—feels as though something is calling him.  Along the way he is captured by the military who want Slaughter and the remaining six Devil’s Diciples to rescue a scientist being held by the terrorist group The Red Hand at what is left of the NORAD complex.  She may be the key to ending the reign of the corpse worms.  Along the way, the bikers wish to avenge the deaths of their brothers at the hands of Cannibal Corpse, a gang led by Coffin and his right-hand man Reptile.  Slaughter meets an old man who clues him into the fact that there is something sinister and supernatural going on with the zombies.  The answers to all of Slaughter’s questions will be found at NORAD.

Another amazing book by Tim Curran, CANNIBAL CORPSE, MC takes the zombie apocalypse and throws a major curve.  These aren’t ordinary zombies but in my opinion they are just as scary, if not more so.  Curran’s characters aren’t necessarily likeable people, but they are definitely interesting and sympathetic.  You will be rooting for the bad bikers when all is said and done.  I love the supernatural twist on top of the government conspiracy.  There is a depth to this story that will keep you on the edge of your seat and in the end, wanting more.  The worms made my skin crawl and the rest scared the hell out of me.  Curran always manages to elicit a visceral response every time I read one of his books, and CANNIBAL CORPSE, MC is no different.   I strongly encourage horror fans to pick this one up.

-Colleen Wanglund

BOWL OF HEAVEN by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven (2012 Tor Books / 412 pp / hc)

Benford & Niven, two masters of "hard" scifi, kick off a new series dealing with the starship SunSeeker, launched from earth for a light-years-long journey to a mysterious, newly-discovered planet that has been named 'Glory.' But when fuel concerns bring the mission into question, the ship's captain allows a chosen few to be awoken from their sleep chambers to help deal with the problem.

The crew then discover a gigantic, bowl-shaped artifact on basically the same course as themselves. They decide to gamble a shuttle and see if they can get help. Husband and wife biologists Cliff and Beth lead the expedition to the odd man-made planet that turns out to be 100-times larger than earth.

Super intelligent, ostrich-like aliens (called Astronomers) run the planet. They capture Beth and five others while Cliff and another four crew members manage to escape. Each person is a specially skilled scientist or engineer and both groups rely on their skills to survive on this oddly earth-like new world.

Benford & Niven pack this tale with an abundance of thought provoking scientific possibilities and deep philosophical ideas while keeping the suspense level high and introducing us to countless alien life forms. Some sections of the Astronomers contemplating man go on for a bit too long, but are entertaining nonetheless.

While there are many characters, the authors keep things tight by focusing on a few. I found Cliff's issues to be the most interesting; besides being thrown in charge of the expedition, he begins a "utility" affair with fellow biologist Irma and is first to friend a cat-like species of aliens who are also trying to get off the artificial planet. SunSeeker's captain, 'Redwing,' is like an old fashioned sea captain who's as tough as nails, smart in ways his scientific crew isn't, and is quite likeable despite his hard-edged ways. He keeps this futuristic story ground in the past and gives the ship a familiar feel.

BOWL OF HEAVEN is a smart, monster-filled scifi romp that promises great things to come. Book two, 'Shipstar,' can't get here fast enough.

Smell Rating: 4

MR. GRAY (THE MERIDIANS) by Michaelbrent Collings (2011 / 351 pp / eBook and tp)

This book is very much the kind of thing Dean Koontz could have written, back in the days of LIGHTNING and FROM THE CORNER OF HIS EYE, when he was on his stride and at the top of his game. It has all the elements … a good man overcoming a broken past, a strong but vulnerable woman, a child of rare specialness, a sociopathic villain with uncanny abilities, and an otherworldly mystery drawing them together in a life-or-death struggle. 

Well, okay, it doesn’t have the dog. But neither does it have the elements that drove me away from Koontz after many years of dedication. Reading MR. GRAY was like not realizing you’re thirsty for a particular beverage until you take the first drink and suddenly feel that quenching satisfaction of it being JUST THE RIGHT THING and nothing else would have done. 

The story opens with a hitman assigned to murder a cop and his family. The cop is Scott Cowley, his family are his beloved wife Amy and their adorable son Chad, and they are the picture-perfect ideal of happiness and togetherness. 

Then comes the gunfire. It goes as planned right up until the moment a stranger’s inexplicable arrival saves Scott’s life. The questions start then, inconsistencies in the evidence, the stranger’s unknown identity, the hitman’s bizarre disappearance. But none of that matters to Scott, who’s lost everything in the world that mattered to him. 

Meanwhile, young couple Robbie and Lynette Randall are about to welcome a new baby into their family. All their hopes and dreams take a shattering blow when sudden complications send Lynette into labor early. It’s a miracle she survives, and more of a miracle that little Kevin does. The Randalls face a rough road of one medical complication after another, and the challenge of dealing with autism, and have no idea that in just a few more years, things are going to get a whole lot worse. 

Because Mr. Gray, the hitman, has returned, and this time he’s after Kevin. Scott can’t stand to see what happened to his family happen to anyone else. The chase is on, and I won’t say anything else about the plot because SPOILERS. 

I will say, though, that once again this author demonstrates an excellent grasp of skill, craft, description and character – especially parents. What’s that make this? Five for five, rave reviews of every book of his so far that I’ve read. At this rate, my other faves had better start looking over their shoulders!

-Christine Morgan

DEAD OF WINTER by Brian Moreland (2012 Samhain Publishing / 328 pp / tp)

In the interior of 1870’s Ontario, colonists are disappearing.  Inspector Tom Hatcher is sent to investigate the weird happenings at Fort Pendleton and the Manitou Outpost, including insanity and cannibalism.  Hatcher was part of the team that caught Gustave Meraux, the Cannery Cannibal who terrorized Montreal.  Father Xavier is called to the asylum because the warden thinks Meraux is possessed.  Could the same thing be happening at the settlement?
Hatcher must discover the reason for the death and gruesome bloodshed occurring at this remote trapping outpost in the icy frontier of Ontario. The businessmen in charge think it’s some sort of disease, but is it that simple?  The natives believe it’s a Wendigo.  Who is right? Can Anika, a native scout, help Tom hatcher discover the truth before he also succumbs to whatever has taken hold of the settlers?

A very well-written story, DEAD OF WINTER is bloody, violent, and frightening.  Moreland manages to create a suitably claustrophobic atmosphere, even though the story takes place in the wide open wilderness.  There is a bleakness that runs through the entire novel and stays with you, much as the cold temperatures the characters are dealing with.  Character development is perfectly concise and will have you empathizing or disliking them.  I especially enjoyed the dynamic between Tom Hatcher and Anika.  It was an entirely believable relationship.  DEAD OF WINTER is a very entertaining read. 

-Colleen Wanglund

SEAL TEAM 666 by Weston Ochse (2012 Thomas Dunne Books / 310 pp / hc)

SEAL cadet Jack Walker is almost done with his training when he's taken away to join a top secret group, consisting of four others and one dog. While he feels guilty about gaining SEAL status without completing his course, Walker earns his stripes quickly enough as his elite team encounter all types of supernatural creatures and situations. Everyone in the group has a special skill, but Walker's is most unique: he's able to tell when something other-wordly is near, and Ochse slowly develops why he's able to do this with each mission.

When an ancient demon god takes over a human body, he begins a series of brutal, multiple human self-sacrifice rituals and awakens powerful spider-like creatures that could destroy the United States and even the world. SEAL Team 666 are on the case, and Ochse brings the action fast without taking any prisoners. Walker's team are the best the U.S. military has to offer, and I especially liked the relationship between Yaya (the team's latest recruit after Walker) and Hoover, their intelligent dog who provides much help along the way.

I'm hoping we get to see more of Walker's relationship with Jen; their busy schedules leave little time for each other, but even their brief meetings in this first novel have already changed the way Walker sees the world.

A cross between Tom Clancy's RAINBOW SIX (without pages of pointless tech-babble) and THE X-FILES, this is the start of what should be a fun, action-packed series. Addictive stuff.

Smell Rating: 5

ART IS THE DEVIL by John Skipp (2012 Fungasm Press / eBook)

This short story (or “quickee” in the publisher’s parlance) by John Skipp is a delightful gory romp that manages to poke fun at art scene snobbery, flash-in-the-pan celebrity hijinks, pretentious devil-worship, and the entire pop culture scene with a few deft slices. 

I mean, c’mon, when the very cover depicts a demonically possessed Charlie Sheen, you have to have a pretty good idea what you’re in for. 

It starts with Kristy and Drea, a couple hot chicks who’ve just left a gallery show when they’re approached by an old creep in a black car. The creep invites them to his own exhibit and pre-launch party. They’re not impressed, until the creep’s driver turns out to be an even hotter hot chick who convincs them to give it a try. 

So, they do. And, at first, they’re still impressed. The exhibit is really something, more carnival house of horrors than art gallery. But, once things start getting a little too real, the ladies decide it’s not much fun after all. 

By then, of course, it’s too late … 

ART IS THE DEVIL is a great maniacal-chuckle kind of pick-me-up. It might not hold up so well in a few years; we go from scandal to nostalgia pretty fast in this day and age. But, for now, it’s a zingy little treat.

-Christine Morgan

ROTTEN FLOWERS by Leslie Hopen (2012 Createspace / 204 pp / tp)

ROTTEN FLOWERS is a short story collection encompassing death, sex, religion and selfishness.

One of my favorite stories is “Peek-a-boo” about an unassuming girl and a stalker who grows increasingly hostile.  Another favorite is “The Guide to a Perfekt You” about a young man who wants to be a girl.  He is guided in murder by the goddess, who has her own agenda.

Other really good stories include “Camp Capacocha” about the bizarre lengths parents will go to receive the attention they crave; “A Different Sort of Love” about a couple and their obsession with bondage sex; “Scenesters” about four teenage girls used in an experiment to see if the original Sodomites can be brought to this plane—most of this one is told through chat room conversations between the girls; and “(Im)mor(t)ality Play” about Maxwell who lives as a hedonist and teaches others to follow suit, and then decides his own mortality.

While there are usually a few misses within an anthology, there isn’t a bad story in the bunch.  They are all very well-written with an almost dream-like quality to the stories.  Hopen also gives the reader a nice little curveball with “Foreward” and “Afterword”.  This is a self-published book that is edited almost flawlessly.  I definitely recommend snagging ROTTEN FLOWERS.

-Colleen Wanglund

BEAUTIFUL SORROWS by Mercedes M. Yardley (2012 Shock Totem Publications / 196 pp / tp & eBook)

BEAUTIFUL SORROWS made its debut at Killercon in Las Vegas back in September with 50 pre-lease copies. It sold out.  After reading it myself, I can understand why.

The first story, “Broken,” is only a few words, but tells a complete and horrifying story. 

“Black Mary” follows “Broken,” and is not only a horror story, but a very sad one as well. A girl who has been held captive and abused talks to a girl who was there before she was, and a girl that has recently arrived. Are they ghosts, or real girls?

One of the more poetic stories in the collection, “The Boy Who Hangs Stars,” reads like a fairy tale for adults. It’s beautifully written, telling a tale of a boy who hangs the stars in the sky, and the girl who loves him. 

“The ABCs of Murder” is pretty creepy. Jake is visited by his dead friend Bobby every night, who insists that Jake must kill him to put his friend to rest permanently. Jake tries many things, but Bobby keeps coming back. Jake wants desperately to get rid of Bobby, but it seems as if Bobby just can’t be killed for  good.

“Stars” will tug at your heart, and make you feel both happy and sad. A star protects Sam from the Universe’s plan to kill him. It’s a tiny little star, but its love for Sam is a force to be reckoned with.

The last story, “Big Man Ben,” tells the story of an unusual affair and its effect on Ben as he grows from teen to man. I think Mercedes saved the best for last, because while all the stories in BEAUTIFUL SORROWS were wonderfully well-written, “Big Man Ben,” wrung more emotion from me than the others. It was a love story that was doomed from the beginning. It was a very powerful story.

Full of haunting stories, BEAUTIFUL SORROWS is one of the best collections I’ve read this year, and I look forward to reading more of the author’s work.

-Sheri White

JEREMIAH BLACK by Jason Gehlert with Joe Rutigliano (2012 Black Bed Sheets Books / 306 pp / tp & eBook)

Gehlert's ambitious novel spans over a century as he throws a semi-alternate history / deal with the devil theme into the blender and comes up with a wickedly entertaining tale.

In the late 1800s, Jeremiah Black  saves his family from a serial killer, but soon finds himself in hell. The devil offers him a way not only to escape, but to become immortal...but it's a hard one: Jeremiah must not only murder his wife, but his entire bloodline. But his first task is to kill the serial killer who almost murdered his family. Hot on his trail are two inspectors, one of whom Jeremiah thinks is dead, but has become immortal himself after some of Jeremiah's blood gets into his own bloodstream. And this is all within the first few chapters.

We're then taken aboard the Titanic in 1912, then to New York City in 1996, where Gehlert continues the madness which began in London. While there, the devil begins to add more names to Jeremiah's kill list, which includes granchildren he wasn't aware of. There's another exciting encounter with Inspector Granger in Grand Central Station, and the action builds with each passing chapter.

With werewolves and Jack the Ripper thrown in for good measure, JEREMIAH BLACK is a "kitchen sink" novel that manages to work despite so much going on. I like what becomes of Jeremiah in the end, and despite some campy dialogue, fans of supernatural serial killer stories should eat this one up. Fun stuff.

THE UNDERDWELLING by Tim Curran (2012 Delirium Books / 85 pp / limited edition hc and eBook)

Boyd, in desperate need of a job, goes to work for the Hobart Mines like his father had done.  While working the graveyard shift, Boyd is given the chance to finally go underground.  He has a feeling of uneasiness that he can’t shake.  Digging in the lowest level of the mine to look for ore, the men stumble upon a shaft that leads into an odd cavern.  McNair, a paleobiologist from the local university is called in to help the miners determine if they can continue digging.

Boyd, McNair, miners Maki and Breed, and the boss Jurgens volunteer to enter the shaft and see what’s there.  They find an immense cavern….another world with a seemingly abandoned prehistoric city and a petrified forest.  Unfortunately for the men, that’s not all they find in the cavern.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Tim Curran is an amazing writer….one of my favorites.  He has a way of scaring the crap out of me with everything I’ve read and THE UNDERDWELLING is no different.  Curran has obviously done his research on mining to make the details as realistic as possible.  His character development is succinct and I found myself really liking Boyd and Jurgens.  THE UNDERDWELLING, with its deep underground setting, complete with the ever present fear of a cave-in embodies the epitome of claustrophobia and it made my skin crawl.  I read this book in one sitting because I couldn’t put it down! 
-Colleen Wanglund

BLEEDING THE VEIN by T.G. Arsenault (2012 Gallows Press / 360 pp / tp)

Navy Officer Eddie Townsend, while on deployment in the Philippine Islands, falls in love with a mysterious and beautiful woman. Under Jasmine’s spell, Eddie performs strange things in return for sex. But when Eddie realizes she isn’t human after watching her do something disgusting and horrific, he kills her to prevent her from hurting anyone else.

Now Eddie is an alcoholic, practically homeless, living in his small hometown of Shadow Creek, Maine. He keeps to himself mostly, only emerging from his shed to drink at the Troubled Waters. He notices a dense fog covering the town, as well as a foul smell permeating the air. He knows that Jasmine is back, and that she’s preying on the town.

Soon, pregnant women are being attacked and a little boy disappears. Eddie must kill Jasmine again to save the town and redeem himself in the eyes of its citizens.

I really enjoyed BLEEDING THE VEIN. The author described the little seaside fishing town so well, I could picture it clearly in my mind. Eddie’s despair and self-loathing, little Bobby’s terror, and the pain of the pregnant women were palpable.

The story of Jasmine is based on a real Filipino legend, the Aswang. A vampire-like creature that preys on pregnant women and children, it sucks the life out of its victims. 

BLEEDING THE VEIN will keep you in suspense and creep you out at the same time. As someone who has had three children, the attacks on the pregnant women struck a nerve. Detailed and gruesome, every mother who reads this will clutch her belly in sympathy and hold her child tightly, especially when Bobby is attacked.

T.G. Arsenault has a winner here. Keep an eye out - I think we’ll be reading a lot more of his work in the future.

-Sheri White

RED SKY by Nate Southard (2012 Deadite Press / 214 pp / tp and eBook)

An action/horror movie just waiting to happen, RED SKY opens with a bank robbery that takes a turn for the worse. One minute, Danny Black and his crew have everything under control, even with the new additions they had to take on. The next, it all goes to hell. 

Suddenly, instead of their well-planned heist and clean getaway, they’re in the middle of a shootout, followed by a crazy car chase. One of their own’s dead, another badly injured, and they’re burdened with a hostage they didn’t expect to have. 

Once they switch vehicles and elude their pursuers, they think they’re in the clear. If, that is, they can find help for their wounded buddy or a place to hide out. After a quick stop for gas and snacks at a middle-of-nowhere place (which also features a bizzare little roadside oddities attraction), they find themselves at the abandoned factory of Red Sky Manufacturing. 

If they thought their day had gone to hell before, that was nothing compared to what’s in store for them now. The factory’s not so abandoned after all. It’s been home to a pack of creatures for generations. The pack is hungry. The pack is eager to get their teeth into some fresh meat. 

Soon, the bank robbers and their hostage are in a fight for their lives. It’s a fun adrenaline-fueled bloodbath, though it could have used a final edit … spotted several typos that distracted me from the story.

-Christine Morgan


We're just about caught up with submitted review material but are still closed to submissions. News to follow soon.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

December, 2012 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)

PENETRALIA by Jordan Krall (2012 LegumeMan Books / 104 pp / tp)

Siblings Philip and Elizabeth live in their father's large Victorian mansion, continuing the scientificwork of he began on unsuspecting victims. Although Philip is gay, he's involved in an incestuous relationship with his sister as she helps him with his experiments. While we're never quite told what this mysterious work is, we do learn their father was once a plague doctor who eventually took to using his plague mask for obscene practices with his daughter...and he's coming back home soon to see how their research is going.

When their father returns home a day earlier than expected, both Philip and Elizabeth are faced with past terrors and family secrets they each are now forced to deal with.

PENETRALIA is Krall's tribute to (among other things) the films of Andy Milligan (google him if you must), and the atmosphere here is dead-on perfect. The incest and torture brought several of his films to mind, but Krall throws so much more into the mix here (bicycle-riding giraffes, anyone?) that the tale goes from a b-movie homage to an all-out bizarro-feast, complete with a Jodorowsky-like interlude and heart-wrenching finale.

This novella's not for everyone: the sex scenes and violence are graphic and dark, and when Krall turns the strange on you'll be wondering if some kind of drug hasn't been introduced into your body through the pages. Fans of Milligan, Edward Lee, and the darker side of bizarro will eat this up.

WORLD’S COLLIDER: A SHARED WORLD ANTHOLOGY edited by Richard Salter (2012 Nightscape Press / 472 pp / tp & eBook_

What a cool idea for an anthology - give a premise and let the writers take it from there. I know there have been shared-world anthologies before, but this one is a little different. It actually reads like a novel more than an anthology - the stories seam together flawlessly to create a chilling story, yet each individual tale can be read and enjoyed separately.

So you know that Large Hadron Collider that everyone was convinced would cause the end of the world? Well, it pretty much does in this anthology. The Collider has a huge explosion, thereafter known as “The Collision.” It blows a chunk out of the Earth in Europe. Millions of people die. But the worst comes later - things begin to crawl and slither out of the giant hole.

What follows is a fantastic set of stories that convey just how horrible the event was. The first story after the LHC Collison is “Innervisions,” by James Moran, which sets the tone for the anthology. A man with a brain tumor is suddenly able to communicate with some kind of creepy insect, and he knows the end of the world is coming. But nobody believes him; they think he’s insane. He is helpless to share his awful knowledge.

I think the more interesting stores were those that followed people in the everyday lives, and how they are dealing with the terror they are now living daily. People are still working, playing, having sex. They try not to think about what is happening - but then are suddenly confronted by some other-world thing, they just can’t cope with. For example, the “Toothfish” that swim through the air, using their razor-sharp teeth, as imagined by David N. Smith and Violet Addison in “Keep Calm and Carry On: Part Two.”

A black hole appears in the desert, spewing insects that looked like chiggers, but with a lethal bite. Cats with tentacles threaten two children left alone without food. And a scream that only certain people can hear drives them insane. All these things and more threaten humanity’s existence. 

If you’re one of the people who is terrified that the LHC is going to spell our doom, I wouldn’t suggest reading this. It is vivid, creepy, and full of nightmares. But if you love science and don’t get nervous easily from what you read, grab this one and enjoy the ride.

-Sheri White

AMONGST THE DEAD by David Bernstein (2012 Samhain Publishing / 206 pp / tp & eBook)

Years into the zombie apocalypse, twelve-year-old Riley has just lost her father to the plague and she is now alone.  Trying to survive in a well-stocked cabin in the woods, she is soon found by a local militia and must now leave before they kill her—or worse.  Jack, a former militia member who wants to redeem himself, gets Riley away, but unfortunately not without losing his life.  Once again on her own and sick, Riley is found by a family who takes her in and makes her one of their own.
Things seem to be going well for a while but then the Milners receive some unwanted visitors who take them to Poughkeepsie, a city run by gangs.  Riley is taken to the Sisters of Life, a glorified breeding center where the Hag who is in charge tells Riley she is special.  Riley refuses to break under the Sisterhoods psychological bombardment and in her attempt to escape discovers something about herself that no one was expecting.  With her new family, Riley leaves the city and makes her way to a settlement where she may finally get some answers about who she really is.

David Bernstein has given the zombie apocalypse a neat twist with AMONGST THE DEAD and his character Riley.  She’s a strong female character, as is her adopted mother Joanne which is nice to see in apocalyptic fiction.  The story is solid and believable and characters are well-developed.  I was kind of freaked out by the Sisters of Life and their disturbing ways.  Riley has a great depth to her and doesn’t read like a twelve-year-old girl.  She is wise beyond her years but craving human contact and love.  Samhain has a huge hit on their hands with AMONGST THE DEAD and it’s refreshing and not-so-bleak take on the zombie apocalypse.

-Colleen Wanglund

SUDDEN DEATH OVERTIME by Steve Vernon (2012 Crossroad Press / 52 pp / eBook)

I’ve only recently been introduced to hockey, attended a couple of games with an out-of-town friend when his team’s visiting here or ours is visiting there. I went into it expecting that my preconceived notions – speed, mayhem, noise, violence, BLOOD AND TEETH ON THE ICE, that sort of thing – would prove cinematically unfounded. 

Well, I didn’t see any teeth on the ice, but the rest of it was all there. And what a change from the other sports I’d seen … leisurely baseball in wide-open spaces, football in quick clashes followed by long dull minutes of ho-humming around. Hockey has no patience for that. Hockey is all action, all movement, a lot going on in a hurry and you better pay attention or you’ll miss the best bits. 

Steve Vernon’s SUDDEN DEATH OVERTIME is a hockey book. It’s about hockey, and it’s like hockey. Speed, mayhem, noise, violence, ice, blood, teeth … the works. It’s a quick and action-packed read

It opens with a mysterious black van pulling into the sleepy coastal town of Hope’s End, and before you know it, people are missing, carnage is erupting, and the fate of the whole town might just be in the hands of three old men whose remaining joy in life is keeping a local hockey rink in working order for the youngsters. 

They aren’t what anybody would normally think of as heroes, but, when they find themselves face to face with a pack of hungry vampires, they don’t hesitate in the least. They rise to the challenge, take to the ice, and it’s game on. 

I greatly enjoyed the story, which repeatedly hits the weird nerve juncture between funny and tragic. As a bonus, the book includes “Time Out,” another hockey-themed story to speak to the iconic/nostalgic memories of a childhood easy to relate to even if it’s not your own. Plus, there’s a preview of NOTHING TO LOSE, which looks to be a different sort of superhero story that I’ll have to check out!

-Christine Morgan

WORKING STIFFS by Lucy Leitner (2012 Necro Publications / 241 pp / trade paperback)

The Pro-Well Pharamceutical Company resides in a 4-story building on Pittsburgh's south side. CEO Marshall Owens--in an attempt to cure all disease in the world--has created a drug that turns people into flesh-hungry walking dead. With his small crew, Owens kidnaps Pittsburgh's homeless and dreg population and turns them into undead factory workers. But the drug doesn't completely take to one homeless man known as The General; unknown to Owens, he now has an intelligent zombie on his hands who manages to get his undead brethren to follow him in a ghoulish homage to NORMA RAE.

Meanwhile, goth-chick wannabe Janice lands a job at the Pro-Well office and barely has time to meet her motley crew of co-workers when the place comes under attack by zombies.

WORKING STIFFS is a fun zombie comedy, despite some flaws (characters show up late and for no reason and the interaction among the large cast gets confusing at times). Leitner also references some already-dead TV shows that may get lost on some readers, but if you can overlook these typical first-novel problems, there are some solid laughs and chills to be had and the pacing is quite good.

This reminded me somewhat of Lorne Dixon's excellent "Breakfast Club" zombie novel, THE LIFELESS, only with a humorous twist. WORKING STIFFS is nothing new, but should be enjoyed by zombie completists and anyone who wants to see what the cast of THE OFFICE would arm themselves with during a zombie outbreak...

(THIS review originally appeared on THE CROW'S CAW)

DEAD TROPICS by Sue Edge (2012 Permuted Press / 240 pp / tp & eBook)

The zombie apocalypse has come to Cairns, Australia—however the government is telling the residents that there is an outbreak of encephalitis among miners.  Lori Nelson is a nurse at the hospital and sees firsthand what is really going on.  A widow and mother of three, Lori is determined to protect her family at any cost and see them through this catastrophe.  In a desperate attempt to escape the area, Lori, her kids and some other survivors try to flee but are stopped by an Army checkpoint.  The realization of what the government plans to do about this outbreak forces Lori and the others to attempt to leave by some other means—and it won’t be easy.

A well-written novel, DEAD TROPICS is another viewpoint on the beginnings of a potential apocalypse.  I’ve read many books about zombies; some have been great and others have been disappointing and cliché.  While DEAD TROPICS has a lot of the core pieces of any zombie story, I really like the main character Lori.  She is a strong female who will do whatever she can to save her children.  She is like a lioness protecting her cubs.  The development of all the characters is excellent and I will say that the end had a twist I was not expecting—which is always a good thing, as far as I’m concerned.  DEAD TROPICS is a really good zombie novel for fans of the genre.

-Colleen Wanglund


YOU ARE MY EVERYTHING by Edward Lee (2012 Necro Publications / 72 pp / eBook)

A chapbook is kind of like a 100-calorie snack pack, just enough of a nibble to get the full flavor and take the edge off the cravings!

If, that is, you have cravings for incest, murder, raunch, dark magic, mutilation, and the odd ‘header’ … 

Easter Cutler loves her husband. A lot. He’s, as the title says, her everything. She’ll do whatever it takes to keep him from straying, even if it means dipping into her grandpop’s old book of spells. 

70 pages that you won’t soon forget. In fact, the more you’d want to forget, the less likely you’ll be. Edward Lee tends to have that effect on people!

-Christine Morgan

CREEKERS by Edward Lee (2009 Necro Publications / 270 pp / mmp, tp, hc, eBook)

Of course, if you are in the mood for more than a chapbook-size helping of freaks, kinks and carnage, Ed Lee’s got you covered there, too. As in, for example, Creekers. 

After a suspicious on-the-job shooting incident, metropolitan cop Phil Straker has no choice but to take whatever job he can. Even if it means becoming a small-town cop in his childhood home of Crick City, home of hicks, good ol’ boys, drugs, and a rowdy roadhouse/strip club with a secret back room where clients can get a special show. 

The backwoods around Crick City also home to the Creekers, an ancient inbred clan/cult marked by red eyes, black hair, and assorted deformities. Some of the Creeker girls provide that special show in the strip club’s back room, and local legend has it there’s a rundown old house where other services are available. 

Straker, who has scattered memories of seeing that house when he was a kid, finds himself smack in the middle of an investigation of a drug-running ring involving missing persons, gruesome murders, and a Creeker crime lord. It’s further complicated by the fact that Straker’s ex, with whom there are unresolved feelings and issues, is the crime lord’s top earning girl.

As if that’s not enough, Straker’s also found a possible new romantic interest in one of his fellow Crick City officers … who might not be all that understanding if he starts spending a lot of time with his ex … or about him going undercover to scope out the secret Creeker strippers … 

It’s a mess from the get-go, and the more Straker digs, the messier it gets. Skinnings, violations, cannibalism, sacrifice; it’s a spiraling path into dark and bloody horror, and at the core of it, Straker will come face to face with a terrible, unearthly truth. 

All presented, of course, with Edward Lee’s inimitable style and panache. Nonstop nastiness and gore galore!

-Christine Morgan

CRYPTO-SQUAD (Volume One) by Eric S. Brown and Jason Brannon (2012 / 98 pp / tp and eBook)

A cult known as The Unending are bent on reviving their snake-god. Their leader, Sandoval, uses black magic to reanimate the dead and creates a huge zobie army. Yes, it's zombie apocalypse time again folks...but before you roll your eyes and groan, check this out:

Standing in the cult's way is a secret government group headed by Jimi, who happens to be a Moth Man. His team is comprised of all types of legendary creatures, including  some Sasquatch, El Chupacabra, and even Mongolian death worms, all semi-controlled using hi-tech microchips. While Jimi & co. are able to keep the cult at bay, things eventually start to turn in Sandoval's favor, causing Jimi not only to summon every creature who can hear his psychic call, but to make a pact with a beast so deadly it nearly cost him his life upon their first meeting.

CRYPTO-SQUAD is a no-holds barred monster-mash, written in a frantic comic book style that features nearly non-stop action. I challenge anyone not to get a thrill during the final epic batle as a skyscraper-sized snake god and its legions of snake men and zombies go up against the Crypto-Squad and a horde of other creatures, including countless Bigfoots, all types of flying and aquatic monsters, backed-up by the Jersey Devil who manages to bring along a couple of dark surprises.

Brown and Brannon have created an exciting comic book-style creature feature that's impossible to put down. I can't wait to see what they come up with for Volume Two as they pretty much threw everything imaginable into the mix here.

LOADS of fun.

STORIES AND POEMS OF A TWISTED KIND by Shane C. Mess (2012 / 91 pp / tp)

STORIES AND POEMS OF A TWISTED KIND is a nice little collection of poems and stories with a bit of a Gothic feel.  

“The Spider’s Web” is a creepy poem about a girl that gets her comeuppance after killing a web full of baby spiders.  Let’s just say momma wasn’t happy.  “Delicious Meat Soup” is a very dark tale about a man who decides to get some revenge on his decidedly hard-to-please employer, while giving the employer’s friends a taste of his soup, as well.  “Man’s Best Friend” is a story that I will admit, freaked me out.  An old man isn’t happy about being disturbed by a dog who just wants to play fetch, but the old man doesn’t want to play—and the dog isn’t very happy about that.  Some of the other poems include “Eyeball Stew” and “My Shrunken Heads” that have an almost childlike quality, but just as creepy as any of the others.

Overall STORIES AND POEMS OF A TWISTED KIND are just that—twisted.  Shane Mess has also given a sweet little nod to the old Tales from the Crypt series. The book is a fun read for horror fans aged teens to adults.  The book is well-written and the layout of stories and poems works nicely.  All in all, a very good read.

-Colleen Wanglund

THE HAUNTED by Michaelbrent Collings (2012 CreateSpace / 238 pp / tp and eBook)

Anything but “ho-hum another haunted house book,” The Haunted opens with a stylish nod to the all-time classic Hill House. The house should just be left alone. The locals know that, and for the most part respect it. 

But someone, or something, must not agree … because when the old ‘For Sale’ sign out front eventually falls down, it’s mysteriously replaced … and from time to time, outsiders move in. 

The latest outsiders to do so are Sarah and Cap, who’ve put everything they’ve got into making this new start. They’ve got a baby on the way, and they’re eager to escape a painful past that Sarah refers to as The Before. 

This is of course a maddening tease most skillfully handled by an author who really knows his stuff. You’re wild to know what tragedy and trauma constitutes The Before, while at the same time you’re desperately worried for Cap, Sarah and the baby. 

The house starts in on them when they haven’t even gotten all the boxes out of the moving truck yet. They go through the usual, logical mental steps that anybody would take to try and explain the first few weirdnesses – imagination, stress, crazy pregnancy hormones, etc. – but they’ve barely begun unpacking when those excuses are no longer options. 

Vivid nightmares, creepy phenomena, terrifying images on the nursery monitor … they know they should leave, they want to, but they can’t. They can’t for mundane reasons (money) and personal territorial/stubborn ones (this is THEIR house!), but also because, while the house is seemingly demanding they go, it also won’t let them get away. 

It might seem like straightforward haunting fare up until that point, albeit exceptionally well-written haunting fare because Collings is one prizefighter of a writer who should, in a just world, be raking in the fame and big-money book deals by now. 

Then he finally hits you with The Before, and it’s a TKO. Bam. Down. Kissing the canvas. Little stars and tweety birds wheeling around your head. I mean seriously, I got chills and goosebumps, I had to step away from the book a moment and walk around going, “wow … damn … oh wow.”

Superstar. I’m telling you. This guy deserves to be a superstar. Wow. 

-Christine Morgan

THE AWAKENING by Brett McBean (2012 Tasmaniac Publications / 477 pp / hc)

Toby and Frankie are best friends living the “perfect” town with an almost zero crime rate.  The summer has just begun for the boys who will begin high school in the fall and life is good…..until the night the boys are viciously attacked in the woods and left for dead.  Waking in the hospital almost a month later, Toby finds out that his best friend is dead and no one knows who attacked the boys.  Toby also learns that his life was saved by Mr. Joseph—a strange old man whom the neighborhood children have made fun of and tormented for years.

Toby is lost, not understanding why his almost idyllic life has been shattered in such a brutal manner.  Sure he was spending a lot of time with Gloria, the girl of his dreams, but Frankie was dead and Toby’s life is changed forever.  He makes his way over to Mr. Joseph’s house to thank him for saving Toby’s life and discovers a kind but lonely old man who has taken the awful pranks and property destruction quietly and without complaint.  Toby begins spending time with Mr. Joseph, learning about his life in Haiti before coming to America.  What he eventually discovers about Mr. Joseph will shock Toby and test his loyalty to his new friend.  However what Toby discovers about his “perfect” little town is even more shocking and ugly than anything he has ever known.

THE AWAKENING is a beautifully written story that involves Haitian zombies, racism and the ugliness of the human race.  The zombies, it turns out, are not the real horror of McBean’s novel.  Toby and Mr. Joseph are deeply human and sympathetic characters that I really felt something for.  I was fully invested in these people.  While the identity of Toby and Frankie’s attackers wasn’t surprising to me, the town’s reaction to Toby’s situation and to Mr. Joseph is most disturbing.  THE AWAKENING is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.  I highly recommend you pick this one up.

-Colleen Wanglund

NIGHTWHERE by John Everson (2012 Samhain Publishing / 266 pp / tp and eBook)

Mark and Rae are a young married couple living in Chicago. Rae's desire for something more leads them to an open relationship among the local swinger scene. But in time, even different partners leave Rae unfulfilled. Mark is enjoying things, although he'd be more than happy remaining monogamous with his wife if she so chose. What she chooses are at first trips to tamer S&M clubs, and eventually, they are invited to NIGHTWHERE, an invite-only, urban legend of a club where it's reported one can live out their deepest, darkest fantasies.

Of course, there's a catch. NIGHTWHERE is divided into 3 sections: a blue room for newbies, a red room for those who commit themselves to the ways of the club...and a black room that few have seen. Rae quickly becomes obsessed with the place but Mark grows weary. He doesn't care for the hold NIGHTWHERE has on his wife, or the level of depravity it allows her to indulge in, but Rae claims to love it and says this is the place she's always dreamed about.

After a few visits, Mark comes home from work one day to find his wife gone and a solo invite with her name on it left behind.

What follows is a trip through an uncanny underground as Mark attempts to get back in the club without an invitation to save his wife. But when he finally manages to get there (the place changes location each time for its monthly meetings) his worst nightmares begin to materialize in ways he could've never imagined.

Everson once again combines kinky sex, occultic themes, and extreme horror into a perverse, macabre yarn about the levels one man will go through for the woman he loves. Gorehounds will rip through the pages in unbridled glee, and countless scenes will have readers cringing along with the atrocities. Everson's realistic characters give this one a real kick that forced me along until the gut-wrenching conclusion. Rae's sexual evolution is particularly disturbing, and the fine balance between reality and supernatural is very well done.

You'll feel filthy after this one, but it's not a novel you'll be forgetting anytime soon. This is hardcore horror not for the timid.

Smell Rating: 1

THE WOMAN by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee (2012 Cemetery Dance Publications / 208 pp / hc, tp, and eBook)

Picked this one up at KillerCon, attended a screening of the movie at the after-party, and decided to wait a bit before reading to let it all sink in. Plus, this gave me the opportunity to go back and re-read Off Season and Offspring first, the first two books in the savage series leading up to The Woman. 

They were as gruesomely fun and violent as I remember, a tribe of feral cannibals creating their own society and superstitions as they hunt, scrounge, and scavenge. To their victims, they are murderous monsters. Animals that need to be rooted out and eliminated. 

Which almost works, except that one gets away. This is The Woman, who escapes the slaughter of her tribe despite being wounded, betrayed, and losing everything but her sheer tenacious will to survive. 

The progression of her character from monster to respected adversary to sympathetic victim is masterfully done, as Jack Ketchum once again shows us that the most vile monsters of all are the ones that live among us wearing normal faces and leading seemingly normal lives. 

Meet the Cleeks. An ordinary-enough family, right? Dad works, Mom takes care of the house, Big Sis is in high school, Bro is working on his free throws, Little Sis is a precocious darling. They’re established, respected members of their community. 

If they have their private secrets and shames, well, that’s nobody else’s business, is it? Why Big Sis has been missing so much school, for instance. What Bro does when he’s not shooting baskets. What Mom conveniently overlooks and ignores. That thing about the dogs, for instance. 

Every family has their personal matters. So, it’s not weird at all when Dad, out hunting, spots The Woman bathing in a stream and decides he needs to capture her, bring her home, and lock her in the fruit cellar. It’ll be a fun project for the whole family, taming this wild woman! Like having an exotic pet! They’ll wash her, dress her, civilize her … 

Use and abuse her … 

Until someone’s had enough. By then, you’re firmly in The Woman’s corner and just about want to cheer as each of the Cleeks begin getting what they deserve. 

Book includes a bonus story, “Cow,” that is a more than fitting finale; movie contains some incredible performances, mostly from the actresses playing The Woman and the little girl. 

Book and movie both are awesome, and highly recommended!

-Christine Morgan


We're still plowing through mid-2012's massive influx of review books, so please be patient and you'll see your submission here soon. We're still closed to new review material.