Tuesday, October 1, 2013

OCTOBER, 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 INFLUENCE by Bentley Little (to be published October 29, 2013 by Cemetery Dance / 416 pp / hc & limited edition hc)
Karma? What a crock of shit.

As opening lines go, that’s a good ‘un, all right. The chapter goes on to introduce us to Ross Lowry, a decent guy who’s gone above and beyond to help out his relatives when they’ve hit hard times. A loan here, a ride to or from the airport there, crash space, legal assistance … he’s done what he can.

And, as they say, what goes around comes around, right? When Ross loses his job and needs someone to fall back on, they’ll be there for him, right? Yeah … riiiiight. Or, actually, wrong.

I first thought this book would prove to be Little’s take on the current state of the economy and unemployment, bringing the kind of cutting social commentary we saw in THE STORE, THE IGNORED, THE POLICY and THE ASSOCIATION. I hoped so, but, sadly, it wasn’t to be so much the case.

Instead, the story heads into more traditional small-town horror territory. The small town in this case is Magdalena, Arizona. Ross finds refuge with his cousin Lita and her husband, who have a modest chicken ranch. It’s not much, but it’s a place to be, a chance to try and get his life in order.

Every community has its troubles, of course … its secrets, its tragedies, its scandals, its feuds … the disparity and disagreement between the haves and the have-nots. Magdalena’s no different, at least, at first. It starts on New Year’s Eve, with the traditional drunken revelry and midnight gunfire. This year, the bullets don’t just sail off into the sky or fall harmlessly somewhere out in the desert. This year, they strike something flying overhead, and bring it crashing to earth.

Hiding it in a rancher’s smokehouse seems like a good idea at the time, sloshed as they are. Then the dreams start, and the strange disturbances. People find their luck beginning to change. Windfalls and accidents, monkey’s paw style trades, curses, blessings, lottery winnings and lost children, their fortunes swing from one extreme to another.

Matters swiftly worsen. Some of the townsfolk want to destroy what’s in the smokehouse, while others are determined to protect it. Some just want to escape, but the longer the situation goes on, the stronger and more far-reaching the effects grow.

In the end – as is pretty much the standard for Little novels – Ross has to find a way to confront the sinister evil before it’s too late. So, overall, I’d give this one a B, a decent passing grade, but I’d add a teacherly note in the margins about not living up to potential.

-Christine Morgan


DEAD CLOWN BARBECUE by Jeff Strand (2013 Dark Regions Press / 251 pp / tp & limited edition hardcover)

Strand's second collection (featuring twenty-nine humorous horror tales) includes seven published here for the first time, and although I'm a big fan I missed several of the stories that were reprinted, so was happy to catch up on the demented goodness.

Opening tale 'Pet Semmuteary' is a funny riff on the classic King novel, 'Comeuppance' looks at bullying taken to the extreme, and 'The Apocalypse Ain't So Bad' features a very positive guy facing the end of the world.

'The Bell...From Hell!' follows an object that may or may not be of satanic origin, while the hysterical 'Work/Life Balance' deals with "causal dress Fridays" taken to an absurd degree: I also found it to be the funniest story in the book. 'Stop Stabbing Me' is classic Strand, as two brothers play a most dangerous game. 'Eight-Legged Vengeance' gets the giggles going as two idiots try to bake a tarantula into a cake as a revenge gag. This one is full of some serious slapstick-style madness!

'The Drop' features the short & sweet last thoughts of a doomed sky diver, while 'Here's What Happened' brings the insanity during a diner massacre. 'Pregnancy Test' is another short & sweet silly diddy, then 'Mr. Twitcher's Miracle Baby-Chopping Machine' proves after all these years that Strand is still in need of some serious counseling. You'll feel bad for laughing at this one, but it ends on quite a positive note.

In 'The Carver,' a victim manages to annoy the hell out of his killer, then a genie-type character gives a most tempting offer in 'Push the Button.'

'My Knife Collection' features two serial killers...but only one winner, then a young boy worries he has hurt his baby sister in the quirky-yet-crazy 'Drain Bamage.' If you can get through 'Gramma's Corpse' without wincing, you're a seasoned (or jaded) horror fan, but you'll question your sanity for laughing at 'Burden,' where a brother contemplates killing his handicapped sibling.

I found 'Rough Draft' to be the only weak story in the lot, but things quickly get back on track with 'Fangboy and the Troll,' where a troll tries to get Fangboy to finally use his teeth (and if you haven't read Strand's novel FANGBOY, you'd best get on that). 'Dead in the Water' centers around a zombie attack under a Tampa bridge, while the short 'Immunity' is a great look inside the mind of a man turning into one of the living dead.

My second favorite here is 'The Big Bite,' about a 65-foot tall vampire running amuck in a small town. It's as funny as it is ridiculous (and yes, that's a compliment). 'Specimen 313' is like LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS amped up on super-crack (complete with a heart-felt ending), while 'We Believe' is quite the funny take on the "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" thing. Strand's classic character Andrew Mayhem returns in the hysterical 'Poor Career Choice,' in which an attempt on Mayhem's life by a newbie assassin ends with goofy results.

In 'Hero,' a man who rescues a young girl from a serial killer is driven nuts by reporters asking asanine questions, then 'Chomp (A Cautionary Tale)' follows a bunch of greedy treasure hunters as they meet their fates.

The book ends with two gems: one is the novella 'The Severed Nose,' about a mob mistake that leads to a wild and painful experience for an innocent young man, and 'Dummy,' which is a funny and creepy take on the possessed ventriloquist-dummy thing.

Not every story in DEAD CLOWN BARBECUE will have you in stitches, but they're all entertaining even when not bringing the laughs. Strand fans will definitely be satisfied, and newbies looking for something different are in for a treat. Strand has truly mastered the art of comedic horror, as few authors are able to pull off without being too silly or not scary enough. Strand blends both like a seasoned chef--albeit a psychopathic chef--and will leave you with a big, bloody grin on your face. You'll rip through these tales in no time. Great stuff.

-Nick Cato


BUDDHA HILL by Bob Booth (2013 Create Space / 74 pp / tp & eBook)

Part of the Necon Novellas series, Bob Booth’s BUDDHA HILL tells the story of a young man serving in Vietnam. Just outside the base where the main character is stationed lies Buddha Hill, an old cemetery and abandoned monastery of the Cult of Kali, which is believed to be haunted. The young soldier and his superior, Peranzzi, discover the remains of a mutilated dog soldier—they patrol with dogs—after a strange series of events. The men are sent to Saigon on leave, where they witness a Buddhist monk immolate himself in protest of the war. After they return, the base comes under attack by something that is not alive, but not entirely dead. The young soldier races into the nearby village in hopes of stopping the attack, but can he?

Zombies lie at the supernatural heart of BUDDHA HILL but it is so much more than a zombie story. Having served in Vietnam himself, Booth takes us through the difficulties of a green soldier arriving in a warzone for the first time. He does so in such a way that allows the reader to almost feel the heat that our characters feel, and smell the same stench. It is a story about deep belief and what the peaceful Buddhist monks would do to try and stop a war that killed tens of thousands of people on both sides. The scene involving the monk who immolates himself in protest is disturbing but goes to the motivations of what happens later on. BUDDHA HILL is an excellent read that I highly recommend, with a fantastic introduction by Weston Ochse, who is also a member of the military serving overseas.

-Colleen Wanglund


FAT OFF SEX AND VIOLENCE by Shane McKenzie (2013 Deadite Press / 144 pp / tp & eBook)

The author warned me that, even after ALL YOU CAN EAT and MUERTE CON CARNE, I might not be ready for this one. I can understand why. Not even because of the monstrousness of the demon-child creatures who feed off of the most depraved urges of humanity … but because of the monstrousness of their master.

Meet Gary. He’s THAT guy. THAT guy from conventions, from the comic and game stores, from The Simpsons, from the "fat nerd guy" meme.

In certain circles, his type is referred to as "the cat-piss man." In others, terms such as "basement dweller" and "mouth-breather" and "neckbeard" might be bandied about. Socially awkward, hygenically challenged. A creep. A geek. A loser. You know. Mooches living space off of Mom, despised by stepdad, has a crappy job to keep him in junk food and tentacle porn, never had a date, hates everyone. Yeah, Gary is THAT guy.

He’s maybe supposed to be the ultimate, exaggerated, extreme, most ludicrous caricature thereof … but, same as with a certain Carlton Mellick III squickfest of gaming, it’s a little too close to the truth to be funny. Even as it is funny. A perfect storm of sick hilarity and shame.

Really, such a character is a total reprehensible gross-out horror story all on his own, before any of the other elements even enter the picture. Gary himself is just so nasty, so EEW. And that, in all its fetid glory, is what makes reading this book so disturbing and uncomfortable.

By the time Gary ends up accidentally summoning greedy little Mary-Jane and discovering her rapey mind-control powers can not only get him laid but get him revenge on those who’ve snubbed or slighted him … let alone by the time her violence-hungry brother joins the party … yeah, it’s way too late to empathize with or feel sorry for him.

Of course, Shane McKenzie isn’t going to let any of us off the hook that easily. We’ve got front row seats to the entire grisly spectacle. It’s a cavalcade of mental flinches. Almost every time you might try to reassure yourself by thinking he won’t really go there, he won’t take it that far … well, sorry, but, I got some bad news for you.

I’m not saying that it’s the kind of thing that makes you want to screen kids in middle-school and stop them before they can get too bad. But I’m not NOT-saying it. Should be required reading for all geeks. Look out for the Garys. Don’t put up with them. Don’t enable or excuse their vile behavior. And for crying out loud, don’t BE a Gary.

-Christine Morgan


BREW by Bill Braddock (2013 Permuted Press / 221 pp / tp & eBook)

In the Pennsylvania town of College Heights, things start off typical one Saturday night: the football fans are celebrating a win, the partiers are filling up the local bars, and it seems every college student is on a mission to get drunk and have sex...and the beer of choice is a local microbrew called Cougar Beer, or "Cougar Piss" as the locals call it. But it seems a slightly disgruntled chemistry student has used an environmental activist group to unknowingly plop his deadly concotion into the town's beer supply. And within a short period of time, College point goes from party town to hell town, as the thousands affected by the beer begin to go on sexual and murderous rampages, raping, killing, and even eating their victims.

Welcome to Bill Braddock's debut novel, which follows likeable drug dealer Steve and his new, tough girlfriend Cat as they fight to survive this night of utter chaos. There's also an older black man named Demetrius who is trying to bring back help to his friends trapped in one of the wings of the college. And then there's Herbert Weston, the lunatic responsible for the whole mess who sets up shop atop the college and takes shots at both infected and non-infected alike as he takes out his self-righteous revenge while tormenting a low-level pornographer named Joel.

BREW (which reminded me a lot of Richard Laymon's classic novel ONE RAINY NIGHT) keeps the apocalyptic-goodness contained to a small town, but the suspense level and sense of impending doom come through on every page. The violence gets extreme and the action is nearly non-stop, yet Braddock manages to craft some memorable characters, several of whom I hated to see go. The book (and the chaos) ends a bit quickly, but considering how rapidly things happen from the first page, I doubt anyone will mind.

If you like your horror fast, furious, and as gory/violent as it gets, definitely grab this BREW. But you may think twice before partaking of a local beer again...

-Nick Cato


THE JACK IN THE GREEN by Frazer Lee (2013 Samhain Publishing / 272 pp / tp & eBook)

THE JACK IN THE GREEN doesn’t open with the tired old "woman in the fridge" trope, but, it does set up a miscarriage backstory as an all-purpose explanation for a marriage in trouble. Even though in this case it actually fits what the eventual plot and story turn out to be, my initial sighing eyeroll made for an off-putting way to begin the read.

I soldiered on and gave it a chance, and it turned out tolerably okay, in a Lorax-meets –Wicker-Man kind of way … industrial corporate behemoth wanting to expand its biofuel division into unspoiled Scottish forests.

Tom McCrae works for said industrial corporate behemoth, and is sent to the quaint village of Douglass to scope things out, smooth things over, and make nice with the locals. It also gives him a chance to get away from the bleak situation back home (see above).

The only drawback is being stuck with a traveling companion, Dieter, one of the company’s charming pretty-boys. Well, that and his recurring nightmares about what happened that Christmas when he was a little boy, but he’s always had those. Aside from those problems, however – and not counting the unfortunate thing with a co-worker’s suicide – everything should go okay.

So he tells himself. Reality has other ideas. For one thing, there’s the protesters. For another, there’s the locals, some of whom aren’t keen on seeing their ancestral homes taken over or their way of life changed. A way of life that includes some rather, um, unusual rituals, pagan customs, and dat ol’-time religion.

All in all, decently written with some fun twists and interesting takes on folklore.

-Christine Morgan


VAMPIRE’S SONG by H.I.M. (2009 Amazon Digital Services / eBook)

Fifteen years after the disappearance of her brother Steven, Helena while working as an intern at an architectural firm has just been presented with the opportunity of a lifetime. Atilla Szabo wants Helena to head up the design for a castle he wants built in Connecticut. She agrees to take the job, but after a meeting with Atilla and his two brothers, some strange things begin to happen to Helena. She no longer needs her glasses; she can’t stand the taste of her cigarettes; and she can drink without the alcohol affecting her. Those are the least of the changes. Helena may be what the vampires have been waiting for—a savior that has been talked about for centuries. But will Helena help the vampires or destroy them all?

VAMPIRE’S SONG is about vampires, but with an engaging and fairly unique story. Helena is a timid young woman who is thrust into the middle of a power struggle. As her powers grow, she becomes stronger in character and less intimidated by the vampires around her. The Szabo brothers are all interesting in their own way, with Elek being my favorite. The book is well-written and has a good flow, along with some nice surprises. It is the first book in a two-book set and I look forward to reading the next installment.

-Colleen Wanglund


RUN by Michaelbrent Collings (2013 Amazon Digital / 352 pp / tp & eBook)

How about a tense and intense scary sci-fi chiller/thriller that deftly juggles elements of WESTWORLD, THE MATRIX, THE TERMINATOR, THE TRUMAN SHOW, Dean Koontz’ LIGHTING, Stepford, dystopian madness, conspiratorial dread, and small-town horror all at once?

Yes please! That’s this book, one hell of a juggling act of epic what-IS-reality scope while maintaining a very personal close-up on the terrors of self-discovery and one’s own humanity … or possible inhumanity. Who can you trust? What can you believe? When your own senses, your own memories, and even your own thoughts are suspect?

At age six, John witnesses his father’s murder and is nearly killed himself by someone he can only think of as Skunk Man. Decades later, in the hellish midst of a military operation, he sees the same man again, seemingly unchanged … and watches him die. Impossible as that was to begin with, it therefore is even more impossible when Skunk Man, still unchanged, reappears as the father of one of his new students.

Something is going on, something inexplicable and sinister. As John tries to investigate, he finds his own friends and neighbors behaving in odd ways, turning against him. His only island of normalcy is Fran, new to town and starting her life over … but Fran’s had her own run-ins with strange experiences, including an encounter with Skunk Man.

Soon, it’s the two of them on the run (hence the title), pursued by determined assassins, helped by unknown allies, betrayed by those closest to them, in a desperate life-or-death battle … except, that life-or-death line has gone askew, because those who SHOULD be dead have developed this unsettling way of getting back up …

RUN is a winner, as fast-paced as it should be, cinematic and gripping, lots of fun but with moments of poignancy and disturbing paranoia. I can’t say too much more because they might be listening – I mean, because, no spoilers! – so, get this one and find out the rest for yourself!

-Christine Morgan


SLAUGHERHOUSE HIGH by Robert Devereaux (2010 Deadite Press / 304 pp / tp & eBook)

This needs to be a movie. Maybe an indie student film. It’s the perfect prom-slasher archetype taken to a wonderfully bizarre and twisted yet weirdly plausible extreme.

The Demented States of America. Dystopian near-future? Funhouse mirror alternate universe? Parody? Cautionary tale? You be the judge.

In this nation, Prom Night is a rite of passage, a big event, the biggest. Ball gowns and rented tuxes, limos, crepe-paper decorations in the gym, the works. One school is selected for special reality-TV broadcast.

It’s also a time of ritual sacrifice. By secret lottery at every high school, one member of the faculty is chosen to be the slasher, and one prom-going couple the designated victims.

Who will it be? Will the teens somehow get the better of their would-be killer and survive? Or will their bodies be ceremonially laid out, to then be equally ceremonially hacked to pieces by their classmates? That’s the tradition, after all. You need a scrap of skin or body part to preserve as a memento, alongside your pressed corsage or boutonni√®re.

As if all that’s not enough, the real treat in this book is the ironic, sardonic, sharp-edged cutting social commentary on the often-ludicrous and arbitrary attitudes we have toward sexuality, sexualization of body parts, relationships, and marriage.

For instance, in this society, a marital threesome is the accepted norm … a man and two women, or a woman and two men … but by NO means an all-same-sex group because THAT would be an abomination! And THE absolute sexiest, naughtiest, tantalizing feature, which mustn’t be flashed about unclothed or shown on television, which must only be reserved for adults in a mature relationship? The left earlobe. Only the left. The right one is all about friendship and affection. The left is your NO-NO BIT.

Sound crazy? Maybe, yeah, but think about it. Think about screwed-up cultures throughout history and some of what was once deemed acceptable or not. And, indeed, the way things still are now.

But for now, come and live the American Dream … where butchery and vice are taught as part of the core classroom curriculum … where ditching out on your prom is one of the worst social stigmas imaginable … where there are still the school jocks, nerds, queen bees and rebels, the popular and the unpopular … where the most important night of your budding young life may also be the last.

-Christine Morgan


TATTERDEMON by Steve Vernon (2012 Crossroad Press / 371 pp / eBook)

Any story that opens with a prologue about an old-fashioned witch trial gone wrong and then skips merrily ahead three hundred years to an abused wife letting her husband have it with a frying pan has got my attention. By the time she’s buried him, all the while with the glowing blue ghost of her creepy father keeping her company, I was hooked.

Turns out that violence and dark secrets are nothing new to the quiet little town of Crossfall. A witch’s curse will do that, even if the evil forces have remained largely dormant until now. When Maddy Harker plants Vic’s corpse out in the field, she has no idea what she’s unleashing on herself and her neighbors. Her neighbors have no idea, either.

But, to be fair, they’re caught up with their own dramas. Like the former sideshow fat lady, and the peeping mailman, and the police dispatcher into voodoo, and the police chief whose wife isn’t away after all. Or the fussy hardware store owner, or the would-be preacher trying to crucify himself …

The unlucky few just passing through also have no idea what they’re getting into. Like the broken-hearted trucker with the romantic streak, or the thug in the red Mercury who needs a place to hide out after shooting up a convenience store.

Yeah, there’s no shortage of strangeness going on in Crossfall, even before Maddy’s dead husband comes back from the field as something new, something remade and terrible. He’s Tatterdemon now, a walking nightmare mishmash of flesh, bone, dirt, roots, twigs and straw.
Settling old Vic Harker’s score with his murdering wife is only part of the fun. The more bodies Tatterdemon can bury in the field, the more scarecrow zombies he can raise, until he’s got an army.

That on its own would make for a compelling enough read, but there’s much more. There’s the other ghosts, like Maddy’s daddy, who’ve appeared around town. There’s the witch herself, waking to find Tatterdemon resisting her control and neither of them being very pleased about it. There’s mangled corpses, possessions, gunshots, car crashes, explosions … and just when you think you’ve reached the conclusion, some new twist gets thrown in.

What really binds this book together, much in the way the straw binds together the scarecrow zombies, is a style of writing that is clever and funny even when describing violence, mutilation and gore. Some of Vernon’s turns of phrase … as the kids say, I LOL’d. Several times. A highly enjoyable read!

-Christine Morgan


CRADLE LAKE by Ronald Malfi (2013 Medallion Press / 400 pp / tp & eBook)

Young couple, troubled marriage, fresh start, new house, small town, nice neighbors, so far so good.

Cue the secrets, spookiness, and weird stuff!

In this case, the young couple are Alan and Heather, who’ve moved to Groom County, North Carolina, after inheriting his uncle’s place. Things have been rocky for them, what with the miscarriages and the suicide attempts. They need a change.

They’ve barely unpacked when Alan witnesses an accident – kid hit by a car – and a seeming miracle as several of the local men carry the injured boy to the lake hidden in the nearby woods. Moments later, the kid’s fine, but the neighbors have some explaining to do.

Alan gets quite the earful, a story about a lake with healing properties. But he also gets a warning, a la Pet Semetary, about how such power always comes with a price. He can see for himself that there’s something strange and different about the amazingly recovered child.
Of course, if characters actually heeded warnings and stayed away from things that aren’t their business, we wouldn’t have as many stories, now, would we? A healing lake, hey, who wouldn’t be tempted? Especially when Alan thinks of his wife, so broken after their tragedies. Could the lake help her?

And once you start down a road like that, it’s easy to get hooked. You might tell yourself about willpower, moderation, only in case of emergencies or real need, etc. Alan soon finds himself on the slippery slope of addiction, taking Heather with him.

Everything is hunky-dory, at first. Well, except for how their good ol’ dog no longer likes them … and the nasty buzzards that keep showing up … and suspicions from the neighbors … and other unsettling developments. Alan tells himself those don’t matter. What matters is him and Heather, and their new baby on the way.

The horrific imagery is very vivid, but the characters are so-so (and the Magical Native American interlude might bring some winces). Still and all, CRADLE LAKE is an all-right read, another of those that would be good to take along on vacation or to the park or beach, for some lazy page-turning amid other summer distractions.

-Christine Morgan

Jake Helman returns for his fifth supernatural adventure in Gregory Lamberson's STORM DEMON! (plus plenty more...)


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