Sunday, September 1, 2013

September, 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.) 
THE SCHOOL THAT SCREAMED by William D. Carl (2013 Necon e-books / 178 pp / e-Book & tp)

Carl (author of the Werewolf Apocalypse series) delivers this grindhouse-style tribute to the euro-exploitation horror films of the 70s and 80s. And while there are a lot of "homage" type novels and novellas out there, this one throws several tropes into a bloody blender and spews forth a concoction that will challenge you to put it down.
Laura Pennington is the new student at Dolly Elliot's School for Girls. It's the place for the worst of the worst, a place where rich parents send their unmanageable teenagers where no one will find them. Located in the middle of a London forest, we learn it was once a convent with a a dark past, and is now home to ghosts that the staff and students see ... but when one student is admitted to a psychiatric ward and becomes possessed by a dead nun, new teacher Sarah Stallworth learns the dark secrets of the School and eventually teams up with a few of the girls to try and put an end to a most unholy reign.

With gruesome killings, demonic babies, possessed nuns, a fine cast of juvenile delinquents and a colorful staff, and in true euro-film style, a weird, wild conclusion that adds a fine dose of dark humor.

THE SCHOOL THAT SCREAMED recalls not only grindhouse cinema but also the early days of VHS-renting when everything and anything was available for your lurid enjoyment. Fans of this stuff don't want to miss it ... just stay far away from any mirrors while reading!

-Nick Cato


VORACIOUS by Wrath James White (2013 Sinister Grin Press / 136 pp / tp & eBook)

A fast, effective, sure-fire, dramatic weight loss treatment? Oooh! Involving a retrovirus? Umm … And pygmy shrew DNA? Well … But you lose HOW much weight HOW fast? Dang … But it turns you into a ravenous, cannibalistic, psychotic eating machine? Huh …

Gotta admit, it’s a tough choice. Obvious though it seems, there’s that little whispery voice of temptation … easy and effortless quick-fix … maybe if there was a temporary option, or reversible …

I remember some quiz going around a few years back, asking how much IQ you’d sacrifice for various degrees of weight loss, or, conversely, how much weight gain for an increased IQ. I never could give a satisfactory answer to that, since, really, my personal dream goal would be to weigh my IQ anyway.

Evil. It’s just evil. Our culture, our social pressures, obsessions with thinness and standards of beauty. Evil, and awful, and destructive, and damaging. The lengths people will go to – and have gone to – in hopes of attaining some perfect, elusive ideal. No matter how dangerous, or even deadly. Evil.

It makes, however, for one damn riveting read. Maybe not the healthiest one in terms of fostering the ol’ self-image, being a vivid reminder of how gross and disgusting it is to be fat, but also how gross and disgusting it is to be vain.

VORACIOUS opens with supermodel Leilani Simms, whose best years are already behind her at age thirty-six. Desperate to maintain her figure, she sought the help of a new and pricey clinic that promises results. Results are what she gets, all right. Results that have her, within a few days, reduced to a scrawny montrosity who’s already cleaned out the larder but is still starving for more. Much to the misfortune of the family cat … and her fiance …

Turns out Leilani is by no means the clinic’s only customer. Others – the rich and famous, celebrities, politicians – have made their own discreet visits. The characters range from sympathetic (the chubby daughter of a movie star) to reprehensible (the movie star mother of the chubby girl). At first, it’s all they ever dreamed of, the pounds just evaporating. But, before they know what hit them, they’re chowing down on their nearest and dearest, or attacking people live on television.

Bad. Very, very bad. Bad enough? Not hardly, when Wrath James White is at the helm. The hunger pangs are written so as to be physically tangible, the carnivorous wallowing in flesh and blood and entrails is vivid to say the least. And that’s still not all!

Because, see, the thing about viruses is that they’re adaptable … they’re voracious themselves … they mutate, and transmit … so then you’ve got an epidemic … and one that, thanks to our screwed-up mentalities, some people are going to actively WANT.

-Christine Morgan


READ THE END FIRST edited by Suzanne Robb (2012 Wicked East Press / 278 pp / tp & eBook)

READ THE END FIRST is an anthology of the apocalypse. Every story tells about the end of the world, no exceptions. Each story takes place in a different time zone, but begins at midnight in that specific time zone.

The best stories include "The Midnight Moon" by Gregory L. Norris that follows a young man pondering life as the moon crashes into Earth; "Like A Man" by Stephen North about monsters from below, genetically related to humans who have come to kill everyone on the surface; the very original "The Earth Died Screaming" by William Todd Rose about something—maybe a virus?—that caused everyone, everywhere to involuntarily drop to their knees screaming, eventually dying from starvation and/or the elements; "Blood and Soil" by Hollie Snider which is a truly scary story about environmental terrorists bent on killing everything and moving to a colony on Titan; "Testament" by Michael S. Gardner about a serial killer during the zombie apocalypse; and "Hammered and Nail" by Emma Ennis about an aggressively contagious form of tetanus with no cure.

Other notable stories include the very creepy "Stormfront" by Henry Snider about sick birds of all types attacking and infecting humans; "What Rough Beast?" by Patrick D’Orazio about two people hidden in the Church of the Nativity to be God’s prophets during the End Times; "Best Intentions" by Rebecca Snow about a man travelling to the past in the hopes of saving his people, but things go horribly wrong; and the heartbreaking and frightening "Not With A Bang" by Brooke and Scott Fabian about a family spending their last hours alive together before a destructive ant-matter wave destroys everything.

All of the stories are smartly written and suitably frightening. Suzanne Robb did a great job selecting for this large anthology. Also included is a great introduction by Graham Masterton titled "Armageddon Oudda Here!" and an essay by Joe McKinney titled "Modern Apocalypse: An Introduction" in which he compares apocalyptic literature, including the Bible and WB Yeats. If you like stories of the apocalypse, or stories with no hope then READ THE END FIRST is definitely one for your collection.

-Colleen Wanglund


MOUNTAIN HOME by Bracken MacLeod (2013 Books of the Dead Press / 134 pp / tp)

Joanie Myer is a retired veteran who served her country in Afghanistan and Iraq. She's a master sniper and just wants to live the rest of her life in peace at her isolated Idaho home. But someone else doesn't want her there and builds a diner right across the street in an attempt to drive her away.

But unfortunately for him, Joanie doesn't budge.

MOUNTAIN HOME is a seige/revenge thriller that gets in your face before the second page ends and never lets up. MacLeod slowly reveals what makes Joanie tick, and the suspense level is nearly non-stop.

Among the people Joanie has trapped, waitress Lyn goes from quiet worker to taking over the situation while somehow managing to help others in the process. We like her from the moment we meet her and cheer her on every second afterwards.

MacLeod's debut novel is a quick, well-crafted tale that reads as if it were written by a seasoned vet (full pun intended). Joanie Myer would surely give John Rambo much to worry about.

Great Stuff Here.

-Nick Cato


DARK MUSE by Dave Simms (2013 Fire and Ice / Melange Books / 214 pp / tp & eBook)

If someone did a YA novelization of a comic based on kids playing a Brutal Legend expansion with shades of Clive Barker and Silent Hill, the results might be something like this.

Every high school has its assortment of misfits and outcasts, the special ed students, the ones with emotional issues or troubles at home, and so on. Sometimes, they become friends. And, in this case, a shared love of music takes them a step further, into forming their own band.

Edgar "Muddy" Rivers is among them. He’s lost his mom, dyslexia makes it impossible for him to enjoy his famous father’s books, and his brother is a budding rock god. There’s also Poe, the mostly-blind girl with the abusive father … and Otis, with his medical problems … and Corey, from a bad part of town.

Together, they’re "The Accidentals," and when Muddy’s brother Zack vanishes under bizarre circumstances, their music teacher gives them a lead that sets them on a path to a crossroads between the world they know and a world they never suspected.

It’s a world where magic and music intersect, where some of the greatest musicians in history have drawn their inspiration. Where songs can be weapons and melodies power. It’s a dangerous world full of tricks, treachery, and musical monsters.

To save Zack, the Accidentals will need all their talent, courage and skill. They’ll find themselves in a battle of the bands unlike anything they ever faced at school. They’ll have to confront the fearsome Dark Muse, who seeks to control all.

Oh, yeah, and when there’s a little problem at the crossroads, they’ll have to deal with the forces of that other world spilling over into their own. No big, right?

I think I glean what the author was going for here, but, for me at least, it just didn’t really pan out. Maybe to someone more into music, it’d be a better match. I found it cool enough in premise but kinda lackluster in execution. Not badly written, just … not one that wowed me. YMMV.
-Christine Morgan


THE GUNS OF SANTA SANGRE by Eric Red (to be released 11/5/2013 by Samhain Publishing / 280 pp / tp)

Tucker, Fix and Bodie are wanted men—rustlers, thieves, killers—hiding out in Mexico. Low on money and nowhere to go, the three gunslingers are hired to protect a small village by Pilar, who has disguised herself as a boy. The church in the village, Santa Tomas, which is now called Santa Sangre due to the massive bloodshed, has been taken over by werewolves and they are holding the villagers as a food source. Pilar needs the gunslingers to get the silver from the church so it can be melted down for bullets, and then they can kill the werewolves.

I have to say, I really like the trend combining horror with Westerns and THE GUNS OF SANTA SANGRE increases my confidence in this surprisingly popular sub-genre. Red’s story is well-written and moves at a very good pace—I felt as though I were reading a novella, it went so quick. Character development is excellent with real depth to all of the main ones, including Mosca, the leader of the werewolves. I could feel Tucker’s conflicting emotions. The gunslingers have committed many crimes over the years, but are they really bad men? I didn’t necessarily think so. Pilar is a strong and positive female character, following her duty to her people and her faith. There is some sexual content (for the squeamish) but it is in context with the story and the time. The origin story of the werewolves is brutal and heartbreaking and almost makes you feel sorry for them—almost. I thoroughly enjoyed THE GUNS OF SANTA SANGRE with its flawed heroes and the savagery of the werewolves. If you have yet to read a horror Western, this is a good book to start with.

-Colleen Wanglund


THE COLONY by Michaelbrent Collings (2013 CreateSpace / 244 pp / tp & eBook)

A pet theory of mine is that, sooner or later, we all want to destroy the world. Well, we writer-types, particularly of the action, horror or thriller varieties. And not DESTROY-destroy, as in, the actual physical planet. But, the world as we know it. Humanity. Civilization. That sort of thing.

Extinction event, global pandemic, natural disasters, zombie apocalypse, what have you … there’s such a go-big-or-go-home ambitious appeal about it that, sooner or later, we gotta give it a try. King’s done it more than once. So has Keene. I know that I hope to tackle it myself, one of these days.

But, right now, it’s Michaelbrent Collings’ turn. And he just WOULD have to be a booger about it, presenting THE COLONY in serial cliffhanger installments (not only that, but, he says it was his wife’s idea so don’t blame him). Volume 1 is "Genesis," and I barely had time to buckle my mental seatbelt before the pedal hit the metal.

You won’t get much of the leisurely intro and build-up here. A quick scene-setter to find out that Ken, our protagonist, is a high-school teacher, family man, generally decent all-around well-liked guy, and – hey what’s with those bugs on the window? is that plane crashing? – then BAM total crazy carnage time with students attacking each other in wild berserk rage and blood everywhere and there’s no time to question and there’s no time to think. Just react, and try to survive.

Poor Ken. One minute, it’s another normal day in the classroom. The next, he’s scrambling through body parts, looking for a way out. Not that he’ll find much help there, since whatever happened was not limited to campus. As far as he can tell, the entire city’s in chaos. The only goal burning in his mind is to find his wife and kids, who’d gone downtown to deal with some bank stuff.

As he sets out on his horrific and probably doomed journey, he finds a few other shocked survivors. The more details emerge, the more they mostly just add to the mystery. What’s with the swarms of ants and bees? What set off this crisis? It wasn’t a ramping up plague, it was immediate and out of nowhere. Why do the affected ones sometimes stop and do that creepy upward staring thing?

This is not one of those span-of-time books, either, with harrowing days of travel and shelter-seeking. From start to finish, in story-time, it all takes place in a single relentless, non-stop afternoon. A few hours. Maybe twice as long as it took me to read it in real-time.

The one problem with this volume – besides the abovementioned cliffhanger ending – is that it maybe could have benefitted from another good going-over for proofreading and some minor mistakes. This brings me to an agonizing place of wanting the next book NOW, while also not wanting it to be rushed too slipshod.

I mean, yes, I could have waited until the entire series was out before diving in. But that would mean having to wait until the entire series was out before diving in! Fortunately, Collings is almost as fast as he is good, so it shouldn’t mean having to suffer TOO long until the next one!

-Christine Morgan


REDHEADS by Jonathan Moore (to be released 11/5/2013 by Samhain Publishing / 312 pp / tp)

Chris Wilcox’ wife Cheryl was murdered six years ago and he is determined to find her killer. In his quest, Chris along with his Private Investigator friend Mike, has uncovered a string of murders—over 30—all with the same hallmarks as Cheryl’s death. All of the victims were killed near a waterway that’s close to the ocean, all of the women were brutally killed and mutilated, and all are redheads.

Now Chris and Mike have the help of Aaron, whose wife was also murdered by the killer, and Julissa, whose sister is the latest victim. Armed with the DNA profile of whatever is responsible for all of these brutal murders, the four set out on an international manhunt to find it and kill it. The killer is aware of the foursome’s intentions and does what it needs to survive.

REDHEADS is an entertaining story that is both thriller and horror. I like the idea behind the reason for the killer targeting redheads, but I would have liked knowing more about the killer. Character development is pretty good for the four main characters and their chase of the killer moves at a swift and steady pace. While I liked REDHEADS overall, I was a bit disappointed in the minimal use of horror or the lack of development of the killer. When the group finally finds their quarry, the unveiling is rather abrupt and limited. REDHEADS makes a good read for fans of thriller revenge stories.

-Colleen Wanglund


KUTTER by Jeff Strand (2010/2013 (Cargo Cult Press LE hardcover, Amazon digital / 139 / 111 pp)

I’ve read a lot of books about serial killers and the one reaction I never expected to find myself having was “D’awwwww!”
Yet that’s what this one does. It’s bent. It’s adorable. It’s profoundly, twistedly, endearingly disturbing. It’s the timeless story of a guy and his dog. Sure, the guy has this bad habit of torturing and murdering women in his basement, but does that make him a monster?
Okay, well, yes. Yes it does. But that’s beside the point.

Charlie tries to be controlled about it, restricting himself to one victim every two months, choosing and disposing of them carefully, leaving no trace. The rest of his life is pretty much just marking time between victims. He’s got a humdrum job, co-workers he avoids, no friends, no family. He doesn’t care. All he cares about is the thrill of the hunt, the catch, the extended period of torture, the kill.
Until his latest victim up and dies too soon, which throws everything off-kilter. He wants another to make up for it. He’s frustrated, disappointed, unsatisfied and unsettled. It seems like too long to have to wait until the next, but, he’s got to keep to his routine or else he’ll be taking too big a risk.

Then, one winter day, he finds an injured Boston terrier under a bench in the park, and that’s when Charlie’s life really starts to change. Thinking that there might be a reward for someone’s lost pet, he takes the dog home and patches it up.

He’s never had a pet. He’s never needed or wanted a pet. He certainly is not about to get attached to some dog that he’ll probably end up having to take to the animal shelter anyway. He’ll buy it food, but not toys or treats. It’s going to stay in the basement. All right, it can stay upstairs but isn’t going to sleep on the foot of his bed … well, just this once … and what would a couple of toys and treats hurt?

Might as well give the dog a temporary name, too. Like Kutter, why not? And take it for walks. And – oh, hey, a cute dog is just the thing to make even Charlie seem less creepy and more trustworthy. Could be really helpful in getting close to prospective victims!

Funny, though … he’s been so busy with the dog, he almost forgot about his obsessive need to kill … just doesn’t seem as big a deal anymore … he’s getting along better at work … making friends … fixed up with a date … things are seeming pretty darn good.

Which of course is the cue for someone to respond to that ‘Found Dog’ poster after all.

KUTTER is the weirdest, sweetest, strangest peek into the psyche of a serial killer that I’ve ever read. It’s delightful. So wrong, but just so delightful!

-Christine Morgan


THE OTHER PLACE by Ken Knight (2013 Author House / 180 pp / tp)

Raleigh Garrett is a skinhead white supremacist who was just sentenced to one year probation for assaulting a mixed-race couple. Originally from North Carolina, Raleigh is stuck in Binghampton, NY for the next year of his life. He needs to find a place to live and a job or he’ll end up in jail. And his probation officer Deanna Marquez is a real hardass.
Raleigh gets a job with a landscaper and meets people that are friendly to him, even though they seem to know he’s a skinhead, especially young Sophie. Raleigh is even invited to an end of the summer barbeque at the home of a wealthy interracial couple. What Raleigh doesn’t know is that these people have plans for him related to some of his past crimes, as well as a horrible crime that he didn’t even know he influenced.

THE OTHER PLACE has an intriguing concept. Allow a person’s victims to get their revenge—but don’t tell him until it’s too late. Character development is good, as is the changes we see going on in Raleigh and how he begins to see everyone around him as people as opposed to race. There is quite a bit of gratuitous sex and adult language, so if that makes you squeamish then THE OTHER PLACE is not for you. Besides that, THE OTHER PLACE is a good example of speculative fiction.

-Colleen Wanglund


BAD SEEDS edited by Steve Berman (2013 Prime Books / 349 pp / tp & eBook)

We’ve dreamed up some damn scary monsters over the millennia, we humans. We’ve dreamed up dragons, giants, trolls, aliens, zombies, eldritch things from beyond time and space. Nature itself provides some mighty freaky, horrifying critters – scorpions, wasps, goblin sharks, to name a few. We’ve produced more than our share of psychos, serial killers, maniacs.

But, really, when you get right down to it, is there anything in all the world or our imaginations that can top the creepy little kid? The still and solemn gaze of their wide eyes … inexplicable silence from the nursery … the innocent laughter of a child … the lilting sing-song of a jump-rope chant … doesn’t that bring on the goosebumps?

Maybe they’re inhuman or undead, Damien, Samara, those blondies from the Village of the Damned. Maybe they’re just plain rotten, born or bent that way. Maybe circumstances show them at their worst, Lord of the Flies style. One way or another, they freak us the hell out.

Why? Is it because we know how close to the truth those fears really live? The truth that, basically, kids are evil? Most of them grow out of it, sure. Some never really dip into that potential. But it’s there. You were one, once. Think back. It can’t be just me, right?

At any rate: creepy little kids. 27 stories of them in one great book. Some are classics from the masters, "Children of the Corn" by Stephen King and Robert McCammon’s "Yellowjacket Summer," for instance. Others are all-new (including one of mine, stunned though I am to be in such company!)

Among my personal favorites are "My Name is Leejun" by John Schoffstall, Hal Duncan’s "The Disappearance of James H___," "If Damon Comes" by Charles L. Grant, and Gary Raisor’s "Making Friends."

Whether school’s in session or it’s summer vacation … trick-or-treaters at the door … hellraisers and mommy’s angel-darlings … tea parties, invisible friends, rites of passage, fairy tales … BAD SEEDS has enough twisted tots and toddlers to pack even the most overcrowded amusement park.

-Christine Morgan


BLOOD ON THE PAGE: THE COMPLETE SHORT FICTION OF BRIAN KEENE VOLUME ONE by Brian Keene (2013 CreateSpace / 264 pp / tp & eBook)

I had one big problem with this collection of short stories, which is, now I really want to go back and re-read again ALL the Keene books, when I’ve got so much ELSE that I’m supposed to be doing!

Some of these, I’d seen before. Others, I hadn’t. Some revisit the world of THE RISING (my mind wants to call it the Ob-verse), others return us to LeHorn’s Hollow. And some are entirely their own. They all, though, serve to remind just how and why this guy’s so cool.

"Portrait of the Magus as a Writer" hits way too close to home for us creative types with obsessive/destructive relationships with our muse; I know I’ve had mental conversations a lot like that, and I’ve experienced the effects it can have on real life.

"Golden Boy," which was a new one to me, is also one of my favorites. Always liked mythology, always did wonder about some aspects of the Midas legend, and this was both a fun and insightful way of looking at it.

Many of the stories involve children, and the threats thereto or loss thereof; these always pack a particular punch. "Burying Betsy" is creepy as hell. "Bunnies in August" is beautiful in its compelling agony.

These stories run the gamut from gut-wrenchingly serious ("Dust" and "Babylon Falling," for example) to the hilarious self-referential fun-poking ("Fast Zombies Suck"). Speaking of zombies, the author’s notes are just as fun, especially the ones where Keene keeps insisting that he’s done with zombies, he’s run out of stories to … well, okay, this one’s the last … no, this one … for reals!

While the e-book edition does have some formatting and other minor bloopers, the stories themselves are solid good reads. Even when the author himself cautions us to bear in mind that they’re from early on, so, don’t be too harsh … pff … early on, but still far and away better than a lot of what comes out.

So, yeah, BLOOD ON THE PAGE VOLUME ONE, good stuff! I’ll be waiting for Volume Two, and in the meantime, I think I need to make some space in the schedule for a re-reading binge!

-Christine Morgan


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