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.

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