Saturday, November 30, 2013

DECEMBER, 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.)

SNOWBLIND by Christopher Golden (to be released 1-21-14 by St. Martin's Press / 320 pp / hc, eBook, and audiobook)
Twelve years ago in the small New England town of Coventry, a wicked blizzard brought with it an unusual terror that took several lives and affected the entire populace, even those who haven't lost loved ones.
Now there's another storm heading to Coventry, one forecasters are saying could be as bad or worse as the one from 12 years earlier. Among the townsfolk we meet a photographer named Jake, who had lost his brother Isaac during that terrible night. But when he wakes one morning shortly before the next big storm approaches, he finds a young boy wandering around his home, sounding eerily like his late brother. There's detective Joe Keenan, who is still haunted by a young boy he wasn't able to save during the big storm; this time he's determined to locate a missing child no matter what it takes, even as the snow begins piling up at a rapid pace. And then there's Doug, who still has no idea how his wife Cherie died back then. He's now working with two crooks in an attempt to rob the richer homes in the area come the next storm, and is also in a new relationship with a promising future. But paranoia as well as unusual figures in the storm end up standing in his way.
SNOWBLIND takes these characters (and a few more) and throws them into a suspenseful tale that blends ghosts and possession into something fresh; and as if that wasn't enough, there are unusual supernatural creatures added to the mix to make sure no one is safe at any moment.
This one takes a bit to get going, but is never boring; the horror builds slowly but the payoff in the final act is well worth it. Golden brings each person of Coventry to life and makes the snow as much a character as the people. And best of all, he delivers a genuinely spooky ghost story that also happens to be one of the more original takes on ghosts since T.M. Wright's 1984 classic A MANHATTAN GHOST STORY. Save this one for a snowy day for maximum effect...
-Nick Cato
400 DAYS OF OPPRESSION by Wrath James White (2013 Blood Bound Books / 173 pp / tp & eBook)

Of all the emotionally-taxing, soul-shredding, blood-chilling, gut-wrenching, mind-blowing, painful, difficult, and challenging-but-vitally-important-and-necessary-to-read books that Wrath James White has thus far produced, this one is THE utmost.

As much as I admire his skill, I almost don’t know if I can really recommend this one with any sort of clear conscience. It HURT to read. It left me feeling a whole darkly poisonous muddle of emotions. I don’t know if I’d want to subject anyone else to that. I don’t know if I wanted to subject myself to it. Yet it’s too important NOT to read.

It’s incredibly well written, of course. That’s part of its power. It’s not a spewing incoherent rant. It’s very coherent. Extremely so. It’s both sharp and blunt, and … okay, know what? Let’s just say this is not a book to be read for fun, pleasure, or thrills. This is a LEARNING EXPERIENCE, especially for anybody all comfy in their privilege. Those blinders get RIPPED off your FACE with NO MERCY.

What’s it about, you might be wondering? Sex and violence, right? Well, yes, of course, obviously. But it’s really about racism, slavery, abuse, self-loathing, and all sorts of really dark, really grim, really hardcore object lessons and social, societal, physical and emotional PAIN.

But, to summarize, there’s this woman named Natasha who’s in love with a man named Kenyatta. And in order to prove herself worthy and capable of understanding, he puts her to this test – to go through a personal, modified, condensed experience of what his ancestors went through. She voluntarily becomes his slave, subjected to variations on many of the ugliest aspects of America’s history.

If Natasha can get through 400 days of this, Kenyatta will marry her and it’s happily ever after time. If, however, she decides she can’t take any more, she can end the experiment whenever she likes … all she has to do is say the safeword … which is THAT word … which will also end their relationship forever.

Wrath pulls no punches. This book is one long utter beating from start to finish. The anger, the guilt, the shame, the bitterness, the injustice, the lust and hate and toxicity … these will put you through such a wringer you might never recover.

-Christine Morgan
PHOENIX ISLAND by John Dixon (to be released 1-21-14 by Gallery Books / 320 pp / hc & eBook)

Sixteen year-old boxing champ (and orphan) Carl Freeman is the type of guy who likes to stick up for the weaker kids against bullies: he has a sense of justice handed down from his father but as noble as it is, he often goes overboard and gets into trouble. After too many instances (taking out an entire football team single-handedly now pushing the limit), a judge takes Carl away from his current foster home and sentences him to Phoenix Island, a military-style boot camp designed to straighten-out teens like Carl. But within the first few minutes on the island, Carl and his fellow recruits discover the isolated place (located off the coast of Mexico in the Pacific Ocean) holds many secrets, and it doesn't take long for them to realize they're all in a fight for their very lives.

While this set up may bring BATTLE ROYALE or THE HUNGER GAMES to mind, PHOENIX ISLAND is more like a combination of the 1983 Sean Penn juvenile prison film BAD BOYS, LORD OF THE FLIES, ROCKY, and any mad scientist film. Dixon blends action, scifi, and horror into a tale that had me flipping pages to the point I finished in two rapid sittings. Dixon (a former Golden Gloves boxer) gives vivid descriptions of the boxing mindset, hence making the hand-to-hand fight scenes edge-of-your seat exciting (especially Carl's fight with a taser-wielding drill sargeant). The violence level is quite high (considering this is a YA novel) and Dixon's cast of good and bad guys & gals are to die for.

The second book in this series can't get here fast enough (and I hope the forthcoming CBS TV series, 'Intelligence,' based on this novel, is even a quarter as good as its source material). There are plenty of surprises at every turn, and like any good story featuring a boxer as the main protagonist, this one is completely full of heart and just may have you cheering out loud. Don't miss it.

SPLATTERLANDS edited by Anthony Rivera and Sharon Lawson (2013 Grey Matter Press / 204 pp / tp & eBook)

Once again, it’s disclosure time … I have a story in this one too. Nastiest, grossest thing I’ve ever written. I asked myself what it’d be like if Edward Lee did a Viking story, and then tried my best to measure up. The resulting tale, "The Defiled," is in some good company here.

Well, by ‘good’ I mean horrific, disgusting, squicky, squirmy, and all-around vile. A scan of the table of contents should give you some warning, which includes titles such as "Violence for Fun and Profit," "Amputations in the Key of D," and "The Viscera of Worship."

There’s gun-lust, blood-lust and sex-lust. There’s flesh in art, and art in flesh. There are professional killers, talented hobbyists, murderers, demons, devils and deviants. Wallow in mayhem, body parts, and twisted sex! Visit other realities and realms!

My personal top pick for best of show would have to be "Party Guests" by Chad Stroup, in which a big teddybear invites friends over whether they like it or not. It is brilliant and phenomenally written, really great stuff, blew me away!

Other particular stand-outs:

Ray Garton’s "Housesitting," exposing some secrets behind normal life; it might make you start giving your neighbors some weird looks.

J. Michael Major’s agonizing revenge-porn fantasy, "A Letter to My Ex," which is horrible and heinous in a dark, dark, all-too-plausible way.

This anthology aspires to "reawakening the splatterpunk revolution," and, in my opinion, it’s certainly up to the task.

-Christine Morgan

CANDY HOUSE by Kate Jonez (2013 Evil Jester Press / 256 pp / tp & eBook)

Roland is a 28 year-old scientist who is forced to move back in with his parents after his nasty temper almost causes him his career. He teaches at a local university and has self-published an undocumented book his colleagues (and boss) tell him just might destroy his future. But Roland presses on, going so far as to do unusual cell research on himself when he can't get the okay for a grant.

Next door to Roland is a house full of strange characters, headed by the sexy, cougar-like Hesperia, who is attempting to lure Roland over "Hansel and Gretel" style. Her home is full of witches, demons, and all manner of supernatural beings who like to barbeque humans. Hesperia begins to get ticked when Julia moves into Rolands house. His parents take her in as a favor, but soon she is sent back to a mental institution and eventually escapes to discover Roland has become captive to his weird neighbors. A most unusual struggle takes place leading up to a slick conclusion.

CANDY HOUSE reads like an adult fairy tale, is full of very bizarre situations, and blends fantasy and horror into an interesting mix. Much of the story is seen through Roland's eyes, and at times becomes a bit confusing, but stay with it as Jonez eventually clears some things up.

For a debut novel, this is quite good despite Jonez throwing an awful lot of "is it real or not" at the reader that at times can get a bit frustrating. If not for the colorful cast I might not have enjoyed this as much as I did, but Jonez is one author I'll definitely be keeping my eye on. Fans of strange fiction should eat this CANDY HOUSE up...

-Nick Cato

THE COLONY: DESCENT by Michaelbrent Collings (2013 Amazon Digital / 199 pp / tp & eBook)

The Fastest Keyboard in the West is back with the third installment of his full-bore, fast-paced zombie-mutant outbreak! I’m reluctantly forced to admit that, okay, maybe releasing them in serials like this is a good move … much as I tend to fall into the greedy GIMME NOW camp, the relentless intensity would have gotten overwhelming and exhausting.

The already-cranked stress levels increase as our small group of survivors continues their seemingly-doomed race to escape or at least stay ahead of the persistent throngs. Heck, they’re still trying to get out of the building from the second book.

Descent, as this one is called, lives up to its name. It makes the harrowing elevator shafts of Book II look almost pleasant by comparison … when your best route leads down the tilted, smoldering fuselage of an airliner that crash-landed sticking partway through the wall …

Things aren’t looking good for the group. They’ve already suffered some terrible losses, and some terrible near-misses. Worse yet, something’s happening to the kids, threatening to further tear apart the family that protagonist Ken has fought so hard to reunite. Are they contaminated? Changing? Possessed?

No time to try and find out. Must keep going. Must pick through the damaged airplane, which still has many of its unfortunate passengers strapped into their seats – GAH then they’re getting up too, it’s a cramped-quarters zombie chase with spilled luggage, and even if they can reach the bottom, that’s where it looks like the FIRE is …

Yeah. Whew. Relentless intensity, the wrenching torment of parents trying to protect their children from unknowable fates, the hideous helplessness of being stuck having to watch as those around you sacrifice themselves …

And then, for those who actually do reach the street, having to descend further yet … having to go underground … where even that turns out not to be much of a refuge …

Of course, then the book up and ENDS again and we gotta wait for the NEXT one and aaaaaaaaaaaagh!

-Christine Morgan

BROKEN SIGIL by William Meikle (to be released January, 2014 by DarkFuse / 55 pp / eBook & limited edition hc)

Joe Connors is called to investigate a murder in a seedy building. He discovers the body belongs to his ex-partner, who was also a close childhood friend ... as well as the man who had an affair with his wife, Brenda. As Joe questions people in the building, he begins to uncover dark secrets about his late and his old friend, and finds himself drawn into a supernatural world that he simply can not deny.

Meikle's novella is a quick read that blends modern crime noir with occultic themes, and delivers a couple of solid chills in-between the hard-as-nails investigating. To reveal any more about this short tale would do it a diservice, but those into haunted houses (and The Maltese Falcon) will enjoy the author's take on the subgenre. Add a plus for the most chain-smoking I've ever seen a detective partake in...

-Nick Cato

ESCAPE FROM SHIT TOWN by Sam W. Anderson, Shane McKenzie, Erik Williams (2013 Thunderstorm Books / limited edition hardcover)

Sometimes, you might think that even in this genre, the weirdness bar’s been raised as high as it can possibly go. Then along swagger these guys with their story-within-a-story of a freaky movie within a freakier theater, and that weirdness bar clangs up a few more notches like the salmon ladder in Ninja Warrior.

I think I read the whole thing blinking increasingly wide, agog eyes. I mean, until my face hurt. The bones of my face, my orbital sockets, HURT from the boggled expression.

Now, granted, with a name like ESCAPE FROM SHIT TOWN, nobody’s going to be expecting subtlety. That’s good. That’s wise. This is a grindhouse bloodbath of outrageous proportions. This is goretastic shock-o-rama in technicolor and 3-D.

The movie-within is an acid-burn tale of a vicious old patriarch who decides, in the best moustache-twirling tradition, to pit his heirs against one another in a battle-royale duel to the finish. Winner inherits all. While he, attended by his personal naughty nurse, watches the show and enjoys his combined special Halloween/birthday celebration.

His grandkids and their friends have no idea what they’re in for when they find themselves dropped off in the charmingly-named Shit Town. The entire neighborhood belongs to Grampa, who’s evacuated it and then dispatched a choice group of psychos and maniacs to hunt them down. The target group consists of the jock and his buddy, the sexbomb psychic twins, and a trio of costumed gamer nerds. The hunters include a father/son Cowboy and Indian team, a couple crazy clowns, two bickering pervs, and more.

Cue the body count. In graphic detail. To add to the fun, the kids’ parents are summoned in to join the old man … and find themselves with their own lives on the line. Teach them to disrespect their elders, the ungrateful brats!

The framing story, of the movie theater where this cinematic tour de force is being shown, well, let’s just say it isn’t very upscale or sanitary. The clientele are dubious and the employees even more so.

ESCAPE FROM SHIT TOWN is as wildly disgusting and outrageous as its title suggests. The Thunderstorm Books edition is, I’m told, sold out … but a new edition is on the way from Deadite Press. So, don’t miss it!

-Christine Morgan
THE DEAD SHERIFF: ZOMBIE DAMNATION (Volume 1) by Mark Justice (2012 Evileye Books / 218 pp / tp)

There is a rumor around the West that a dead lawman has risen from the grave to exact justice for those wronged. Richard O’Malley, a crime writer for a Boston newspaper has come to West Texas seeking the truth about this dead sheriff and gets more than he bargained for. The dead sheriff exists and he has an Indian helper named Cheveyo. O’Malley sees the dead sheriff in action and wants to write a book about him—not the pulp Westerns being churned out en masse, but the truth. Cheveyo and the dead sheriff run into some trouble and O’Malley helps them out so Cheveyo—who is really named Sam and only one-quarter Indian—lets O’Malley tag along for a while.
In the meantime, Reverend Skaggs pretty much runs the town of Damnation, Texas but has grander plans for Dallas. Skaggs discovers that the dead sheriff is on his way to Damnation so along with his henchmen, devises a plan to "save" the town from the Devil himself. No one could imagine what would happen in Damnation when the dead sheriff, Sam, and O’Malley finally arrive looking for someone else entirely.

Before this recent mix of horror and Westerns, the only Western I had ever read was Zane Grey’s RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE—and I thought it was pretty good. Now, I’m really enjoying this new sub-genre taking place in the Wild West, where gunfighters meet werewolves, zombies, or any other manner of the supernatural. Mark Justice has written a fantastic story in THE DEAD SHERIFF. There are unexpected twists, well-rounded characters, and no end to the possibilities of directions this series could take. I love the unexpected in a story and I love THE DEAD SHERIFF. Justice’s prose brings the Western genre to life—the action and characters feel real—while adding an effectual horror story that keeps things entertaining. The imagery is quite powerful—there is no doubt in my mind what the dead sheriff looked like or smelled like. I particularly enjoyed the easy flowing dialogue and quick pacing of the story. I look forward to reading more about these particular bounty hunters and their future shenanigans across the impossibly hot American Southwest.

-Colleen Wanglund

BONE WHISPERS by Tim Waggoner (2013 Post Mortem Press / 269 pp / tp)

This collection of 18 short stories features some of the strangest horror tales you're likely to read this year, and shows off the author's knack for making the surreal come to life.

After a slick introduction from Michael A. Arnzen, 'Thou Art God' gets things rolling with a cautionary tale about a man who gains the mind of God; title story 'Bone Whispers' finds a man visiting a graveyard where he had encountered a groundhog-like creature when he was a kid, and 'Some Dark Hope' deals with a most unusual prostitute, while 'Harvest Time' is a short and funny take on the zombie thing...

'Surface Tension' explores the fear of ... puddles (!), while 'Best Friends Forever' gets the creeps going as a father and his young daughter encounter a life-like stuffed dog. 'No More Shadows' finds two high school aquaintances running from shadow-creatures, and 'Unwoven' looks at an author facing a strange dilemma.

'Skull Cathedral' is a mind-boggling masterpiece of bizarro horror (and I'm not just saying that because my press originally published this in 2007), 'Do No Harm' looks at a female doctor trying to survive after a nanobot virus destoys the world, and 'Country Roads' gives the good old-fashioned ghost story a fresh spin.

'Darker Than Winter' is one of the best here, about a struggling artist who is pestered by a detective after pretending to murder a snowman for a photo shoot; 'Swimming Lessons' is a short & sweet creeper, while the fantastic 'Conversations Kill' finds an abducted woman trying to remember who she is.

"Long Way Home' is a great apocalyptic tale featuring blood-rain and insect-like creatures, then Waggoner brings the super-strange with 'Sleepless Eyes.' 'The Faces That We Meet' looks at a dad trying to understand his teenaged daughter in the wake of a spree of dog mutliations, and things conclude with the thought provoking and truly frightening 'The Great Ocean of Truth.'

Waggoner's prose sucks you in in each story, and whether the tale is straight-forward or bizarre, there's not an entry here that can be ignored. If you like horror on the weird side, this is a must read, and even if you don't, give BONE WHISPERS a try anyway. It's a refreshing alternative to your by-the-numbers horror fiction.

-Nick Cato
Smell Rating: 2
PROTECT ALL MONSTERS by Alan Spencer (to be released 12-3-13 by Samhain Publishing / 293 pp / tp & eBook)

If the monsters were real … the vampires, the werewolves, the zombies … if they’d been among us all this time but the government had been keeping it a secret … a conspiracy, a cover-up, the way more people believe in cover-ups than in whatever’s supposedly being covered up … how would that work?

Well, it might go part Jurassic Park, part Men in Black, part Alcatraz and part luxury custom-catered all-inclusive resort. There, the monsters can be kept and cared for. They can be studied instead of hunted and destroyed. A truce, of sorts, if the monsters will go along with it.

Of course, if they DO, then such a place has to be staffed. That’s where people like Addey Ruanova come in, ‘recruited’ from her mundane job and life. Or maybe ‘drafted’ would be a better word. Shanghaied. She doesn’t have a choice. She’ll be presumed dead, and will work on the island for the rest of her life.

On that island, the rest of your life may not be very long. There isn’t exactly a retirement plan. They don’t even bother having one of those job safety signs telling how long since the last accident. It’s pay and perks at high risk. They always need new employees.

Besides, the place also needs to be supplied. Regular shipments of blood, cadavers, and the unfortunate condemned prisoners, addicts or homeless will only go so far. Why waste a perfectly good source of extra inventory for the kitchen?

And what happens when there’s trouble? When there are renegade rebel factions among the staff, when there’s infiltrator spies from outside? When the monsters themselves have been up to something, plotting their escape?

All that is the premise of this book, and it’s a fun enough one. It has some problems with the plot feeling rushed and the character stuff seems really forced under pressure and a little all-too-convenient … toward the end some of the scenes slip into dialogue tag hell … but the action and descriptions are wacky, schlocky fun, the setting itself is amusingly thought out, and the higher-functioning zombies are a total hoot.

-Christine Morgan

NEPTUNE'S BROOD by Charles Stross (2013 Ace / 325 pp / hc)

While not a sequel, Stross' latest takes place in the same "universe" as his 2008 novel SATURN'S CHILDREN. It is, however, the continuation of the author's Space Opera saga, dealing with androids who have far outlived their human creators. This time we meet Krina Alizond, a metahuman trying to locate her missing sister. She learns she was last seen on a water planet named Shin Tethys, and she manages to get onboard a church/starship that's headed there, albeit slower than other ships that have already departed. This intergalactic church is filled with some of the most interesting characters/creatures Stross has come up with yet. The first 100 pages take place aboard this vessel, and this opening segment is filled with a surprising amount of humor, a castaway look-a-like assassin hot on Krina's heels, and the craziest deacon this side of Waco.

Stross develops a confusing but interesting plot about the workings of intergalactic currency, and like the technobabble that killed SATURN'S CHILDREN for me, at times the over-long explanations of how these finances work become tedious. In fact, once our space-church-ship is confronted by pirates (actually bat-creature accountants!), the story quickly slows down for a bit. But when we finally reach Sin Thethys, it picks up again (albeit without the humor that made the first section so much fun) as we join Krina for her aquatic body modification, learn what's going on with her sister, and while Krina's escape from the water planet is exciting, the ending itself comes to a dead halt, making me think Stross enjoyed the final episode of the SPORANOS a bit too much.

NEPTUNE'S BROOD features a lot of great ideas and some to-die-for androids, but like the first novel in this Space Opera series, it's bogged down by a mid-section that will test the patience of the author's fans, and will most likely cause newcomers to stop reading. If the entire novel moved as well as the first 100 pages, this would've been one of Stross' best. As it is, it's a bit disappointing, but worth sifting through the slow parts.

-Nick Cato

Smell Rating: 4

CLUSTERFUCK by Carlton Mellick III (2013 Eraserhead Press / 252 pp / tp)

CLUSTERFUCK takes place a few years after 2009’s APESHIT (Mellick’s tribute to 80s grindhouse films) not with the same characters (for obvious reasons) but connected via some people who used to go to school with them and know about their mysterious disappearances. Since it is a few years later, we’ve now got college students, but instead of a cabin in the woods, the theme is another of the classic horror movie tropes … the great uncharted outdoors in the form of caving!

Caving, frat-boy style. Caving in accordance with the "bro code." Four frat brothers – the hot shot BMOC, the stoner, the reluctant token minority, and the ultimate dudebro – and most of them are so obnoxious that you just want to bludgeon their skulls in with a beer keg partway through the first chapter.

But, what’s a weekend in the wilderness with your bros unless you’ve got some chicks along? Like the hot shot’s girlfriend, and her gorgeous friend that the hot shot sets his sights on instead, and the gorgeous friend’s more-than-plus-size sister who’s already been the object of frat boy ridicule?

Really, what could possibly go wrong with such a scenario? Especially when one of the party’s also claustrophobic, they don’t tell anybody where they’re going, the first drunken fun they have involves tossing their spare batteries into the fire to see if they explode, the one who packed the food has some disturbing too-personal recipes …
You’d better believe it all goes hideously wrong. Again, it’s headed that way well before they discover what else is down in the caves, when it’s already way too late.

CLUSTERFUCK more than lives up to its title, that is for sure. And Carlton Mellick III continues to more than live up to his reputation! If you know what you’re getting into, you will not be disappointed. If you don’t know what you’re getting into, well, you still won’t be disappointed. Traumatized, scarred, and fatally offended perhaps, but not disappointed!

-Christine Morgan


THE SUMMER JOB by Adam Cesare (to be released 1-7-13 by Samhain Publishing / 245 pp / tp & eBook)

Clair is a goth,metal college grad from Boston who is tired of her loser boyfriend and her dead-end job. With the help of her friend Allison, she finds a want ad for a job at an isolated hotel in Mission, Massachusetts. When the hotel's owner explains the details, Claire decides to take the position, and it doesn't take long before things start to get weird.

Shortly after arriving, Allison abruptly leaves, the hotel's owner and staff act like conservatives from the 1950s, and a group of teenagers who party in the woods are led by a hippie-like guru named Davey. And strangest of all is a badly-burned former priest who lives alone at the hotel after surviving a church fire.

Claire begins to see Tobin, one of the local teens. He tells her that Brant (the hotel's owner) and her staff are part of an underground Satanic cult, and when she finds a dog belonging to a couple staying at the hotel skinned alive, Claire decides something has to be done.

THE SUMMER JOB has a wickedly tense opening, then slowly unravels its mysteries; we never know if the hotel staff or Davey's teens are the enemy, and the final pages ratchet the suspense level up to 10. I like how Cesare handles the whole "devil worshipper" thing, and you'll truly feel for not only Claire, but a couple of side characters, too.

A fine offering from an author who's beginning to make a serious mark in the genre.

-Nick Cato

Smell Rating: 1


BLOOD BETRAYAL by Alison Beightol (2012 Charles River Press / 400 pp / tp)

Eamon, one of the oldest vampires in the world, is obsessed with Lauryl, a ballet dancer with a bad attitude. Eamon follows her career before buying the dance company and eventually turning Lauryl into a vampire, to be his companion. What he didn’t count on was Lauryl’s positively stubborn nature and her resourcefulness. Lauryl runs away to be with her human lover, much to Eamon’s chagrin. In his search for her, he discovers he has fallen in love with Amelie and she brings out feelings in Eamon that he thought he had lost after all of his centuries as a vampire. Eamon also discovers other vampires of his bloodline, and the vampire hunters that murdered his former companion Irina.
I am not typically a fan of paranormal romance. I actually avoid the genre like the plague. However, every once in a while a book comes along in that sub-genre that sucks me in saying "read me!" BLOOD BETRAYAL is one of those rare para-romance novels. The characters are well-developed and come across as almost real people. The vampires are interesting and reminiscent of Anne Rice’s vampires with their somewhat regal bearing and desire to be around humans. I enjoyed the way Lauryl and Eamon constantly butted heads, and the way Amelie seemed to make Eamon act human when he was with her, wanting to be a better person—well, vampire. Overall the story was a good one, with humans and vampires interacting at an underground club —which encompasses an existing sub-culture. BLOOD BETRAYAL was an enjoyable read and I recommend it to anyone who likes paranormal romance or vampires, in general….and I don’t do it lightly.

-Colleen Wanglund

THE HORROR FICTION REVIEW thanks all of our readers for the TEN YEARS of support! See you in 2014...

Friday, November 1, 2013

November, 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.)
STORM DEMON by Gregory Lamberson (2013 Medallion Press / 406 pp / tp and eBook)

Private Eye Jake Helman returns in his fifth epic adventure and the series shows NO signs of losing steam. This time we pick up fresh off the violent revolution that went down on Pavot Island in TORTURED SPIRITS, with a now hand-less Jake and detective Maria bringing Edgar back to New York (in human form, now cured of a shape-shifting curse).

But of course things quickly go downhill (despite Jake and Maria taking their relationship to the next level): it seems someone has their eye on Laurel, Jake's clairvoyant neighbor, and that someone turns out to be an ancient demon who is able to control the weather ... and she's bringing a massive hurricane to the Big Apple in an attempt to get Laurel and finally rid the world of Jake Helman.

STORM DEMON features plenty of action (a staple of the series), plenty of occult happenings, an apocalyptic rat attack, some wild monsters, and all manner of obstacles for our favorite anti-hero to grapple with; but there's also a side story involving a rising in the drug underworld and Maria's attempt to protect an innocent child from it. Like the others in the series, it's pretty much a perfect blend of occult horror and gritty street-crime goodness. And the ending this time is total edge-of-your-seat fun ...

The Jake Helman series has been very consistent; each installment is hard to put down (no easy feat considering the high standard set with the first book, PERSONAL DEMONS), and STORM DEMON does not disappoint. Those new to the series are urged to read what came before, yet first timers might not be too lost despite many references to what came beforehand. I'm chomping at the bit waiting for the sixth and final novel ...

-Nick Cato

Smell Rating: 2


PREY DRIVE by Wrath James White (2013 Sinister Grin Press / 239 pp / hc)

Some guys appreciate ladies with a little meat on their bones … but not usually like this, not the way cannibalistic serial killer Joseph Miles does. For him, full-figured is like super-sizing, and the line between BBW and BBQ is on the hazy side.

This sequel to SUCCULENT PREY picks up with Joe being sent to prison for his previous crimes, as well as being studied by a psychiatrist. Joe still believes his urges come from some affliction or curse, that it’s only a matter of finding a remedy. Maybe treatment, maybe drugs, maybe hunting down and killing whoever’s responsible.

In the meantime, he’s the most infamous inmate in supermax. The guards are nervous around him, with good reason, but that doesn’t stop them pitting Joe against other convicts in illegal after-hours fights. He gets piles of letters, some hate mail but mostly quite the opposite, fan mail from admirers, would-be emulators, and even would-be entrees.

The newest guard on the cellblock, Cindy Addison, is far from immune to Joe’s mix of magnetism, danger, charm, and vulnerability. He’s the ultimate bad-boy, and she – overweight, lonely, unhappy – is easy prey. Joe’s soon got her wrapped around his little finger and his big something else.

He also has the love-struck Selene on the outside, doing her best to get his sentence reduced so that they can find ways to be together. She believes that Joe holds the secret to unlocking her own pent-up cravings.

Nobody else writes hunger for the flesh the way Wrath James White does. Lust, gluttony, sheer physicality, the sensory, the tactile, the raw primal power … it’s all there.

And really, there’s something about cannibalism, isn’t there? You kind of have to wonder, sometimes, don’t you? People eat some pretty weird stuff already. Why not each other? We used to. We tell ourselves we’re above that, we’re DIFFERENT from animals somehow, but are we? Are we really?

I saw a comic online just the other day, about STAR TREK type replicators and a crew member ordering human flesh. Wouldn’t you try? Aren’t we all thinking it? Haven’t we considered it, at least once? What YOU would do, in a Donner Party situation?

Maybe you wouldn’t rip chunks out of someone with your teeth, but, if the meat was prepared … this book even features a selection of recipes … don’t they seem at least a little bit tantalizing? Aren’t you … curious? Just a taste, just a bite, just to see what it’s like?

PREY DRIVE is the kind of book that will make you ask yourself those sorts of uncomfortable questions. Or make you shy away and avoid them as hard as you can.

It’s also packed with sex. Hot sexy wild sex that might at any moment tip over into deadly carnivorous sex. Just, y’know, to add some extra spice. You’ll need plenty of stamina and constitution to get through this feasting orgy, which will probably leave you queasy, groaning, and over-sated later … but well worth it!

-Christine Morgan


OUT OF STONE by John G. Rees (2013 Black Water Books / 388 pp / tp & eBook)

Twenty years after the revolution in Romania, an ancient evil is trying to come back into the world through sculptures commemorating the horrors committed against the gypsies. Sechra was so traumatized by what she witnessed that she embraced the darkness and channeled the damage to her psyche into stone. On the opening night of her art show a riot breaks out and some are killed. Tensions continue to rise across the country. As Sechra’s sculptures tour Europe, they are taking on a life of their own with new horrors being mysteriously added to the pieces. Sechra rides into the mountains to find the source of the country’s impending troubles but is captured and forced to sculpt the piece of her life out of the stone brought to her by the evil entity. Her guardian Karuna, meanwhile, attempts to help Sechra and Romania by delving into the past through some magical tile mosaics, but Karuna’s vampire nature is beginning to surface after years of being kept hidden and in control. Can Sechra save her country and herself from the impending darkness? Can Karuna do anything to help?

Taking place twenty years after the events of HALOCLINE, the final novel in a trilogy of vampires, Megacorp, and the survival of a country and its’ people, OUT OF STONE follows up with Sechra a little girl saved by Jake, Johnny and Karuna in their war against Vlad Tepes. Another well-written and meticulously researched story, OUT OF STONE is rich with history, combining the horrors of war with the supernatural. One of the aspects I enjoyed is that the vampires are in the background, kept just under the surface but still important to the story. Character development is excellent, especially with Ahmed whose loyalties and motives change unexpectedly—I felt a real disappointment in Ahmed as an individual. I was very fond of Sechra and wanted her to succeed in the noble quest she takes on. Karuna’s trip into the past was compelling and ended with a most interesting and unforeseen twist. OUT OF STONE is a fantastic stand-alone novel, but I encourage you to read the trilogy that inspired it.
-Colleen Wanglund


THE WALLS OF THE CASTLE by Tom Piccirilli (2013 Dark Regions Press / 124 pp / deluxe limited edition, limited edition, & eBook)

The "castle" of the title is a humongous hospital that employs over 9,000 people and has a long history dating back before the American Revolution. We learn about the place through the eyes of Kasteel, a haunted man who spends his time helping others there in the wake of his son's death. No one writes hurting heros like Piccirilli, and Kasteel is no exception.

In his quest to come to terms with the loss of his young son, Kasteel finds himself at the center of a mystery: it seems someone called Abaddon has been visiting certain patients late at night, and when it's finally revealed who this is the tale takes on an even darker tone.

Part mystery, part horror, part mind-bending thriller, this is everything fans of the author have come to expect. Classic Piccirilli at his finest.

The limited edition hardcover reviewed here (and pictured above) also contains the bonus short titled 'Face Blindness,' about an older detective dating a teenage celebrity and trying to solve a thirty-year old murder case despite being a part of his rich young girlfriend's family's reality TV show (trust me, it works). The ending will have you standing up and cheering, and makes for a great double-feature with the title tale.

-Nick Cato

Smell Rating: 4



THE SEVENTH EQUINOX by Matthew Warner (to be released 11/6/13 by Raw Dog Screaming Press / 208 pp / hc & tp)

Don’t be fooled by the name "Robin Goodfellow" into thinking this will be a quirky, Puck-ish merry trickster Shakespearean type of urban fantasy … it goes back further, delving into the older, primal, pagan type of mythology and folklore for its inspiration.

And I like the results very much. It’s earthy. It’s dark. It’s THE SEVENTH EQUINOX, and the fate of the world hangs in the balance as an age-old cycle comes around again.

Not that anybody in the friendly town of Augusta, Virginia, knows much about that. They go about their lives with no idea of the ancient force that slumbers nearby, or that their own jovial mayor is not what he seems. That he hasn’t been what he seems for … well … several successive mayors now.

He’s determined to keep his secret, and his powers, at any cost. Even if it means getting rid of anyone who might be getting suspicious. He’s certainly not pleased when a drifter calling himself Robin Goodfellow turns up, looking to fulfill his own part in the ritual.

Meanwhile, the freshly-divorced Bessie has been looking for a place to start her life over, and Augusta might just be that place. Something about the town appeals to her. She rents a great house, befriends the sweet old neighbor lady (an odd but charming mix of spiritualist and Southern belle), and …

… and then she finds this hot, handsome, wounded, mysterious, half-naked stranger hiding in her basement. Hello! He needs her help, and the healing energies only attraction can provide.

With a cast of amusing, well-rounded characters to bring the rest of the story to life, THE SEVENTH EQUINOX is a lively and entertaining read, clever, sexy, and fun.

-Christine Morgan

THE FRIENDLY HORROR & OTHER WEIRD TALES by Jessica Burke and Anthony Burdge (2013 Myth Ink Books / 146 pp / tp)

A heavily Lovecraftian influenced collection, the title THE FRIENDLY HORROR is deceptive but appropriate. What also impressed me was all of the stories were written in tandem except for the two opening poems. "The Odor" by Anthony Burdge is a beautifully dark poem about how scent affects us; especially the scent of death and decay. "Pockets" by Jessica Burke is a fun fantasy with nods to Mary Poppins, Alice in Wonderland and Doctor Who.

Among the stories are "A Daddy and Me Day" about a father taking his son to work, with a twist; "Keepsakes" tells about a serial killer’s strange collection from his victims; and "Concerning the Storm" about Mr. Pink’s questioning of Cassie about the role her parents may have played in Superstorm Sandy. Taking center stage is the novella "The Friendly Horror", a quiet and deliberate story of the Old One’s descendants using something as innocuous as ice cream to transform humans and bring Y’ha-nthlei back from the ocean depths. The story contains some wonderful histories of Rhode Island, Staten Island in NYC and H.P. Lovecraft, himself.

THE FRIENDLY HORROR is a very well-written collection and as I’ve said, I was impressed that the stories were written in tandem. Burke and Burdge’s writing styles are so in sync that the stories are seamless. If you like Lovecraft and the strangely fantastic, you will love this collection.

-Colleen Wanglund


DOCTOR SLEEP by Stephen King (2013 Scribner / 528 pp / hc, audiobook, eBook)

King's sequel to his 1977 classic THE SHINING picks up shortly after the destruction of the Overlook Hotel, then flashes forward a couple of decades to find Danny Torrance working in a hospice in New Hamsphire and dealing with his alcoholism through AA meetings. He still has the ability to "shine," but not as strongly as when he was younger. His unusual skills do help the dying at his new job to pass over to the other side in peace and feeling redeemed, hence earning him the nickname 'Doctor Sleep.'

Dan is contacted (spiritually/psychically) by a thirteen year-old girl named Abra, who happens to have the shine, too, and much stronger at that. It seems a group known as the True Knot are after her; they feed off children who have the shine to stay young and healthy, torturing them to death as they absorb their life's essence (or "steam" as the novel puts it). The True Knot look like your average vacationers, roaming the country in RV's, but they're no longer human. Their leader, Rose, has been around a long, long time, and her beautiful features are merely a mask for an ancient creature. And when they learn of Abra's intense power, they'll stop at nothing to find her ... especially after feeding off a young boy who has infected their ranks with the measles.

Fans will love the many references to THE SHINING here (my favorite being Danny learning how to deal with the female ghost from Room 237), and there's also some interesting cross-references to Joe Hill's latest novel N0S4A2. I like that the True Knot have made their home base on the grounds where the Overlook once stood, as it provides a great place for the inevitable final confrontation. But, when Dan, Abra, and Dan's senior friend Billy finally confront Rose and co., their plans go off a little to easily, and what could have been an epic battle winds up being awfully short. But this is only a minor flaw in what I feel is one of King's better novels in quite some time.

I don't think anyone will find DOCTOR SLEEP scary, but I found myself engrossed in Danny Torrance's struggle with the bottle as well as his mentoring of the young shiner, Abra. There's also a great scene where Dan speaks with the Overlook's now deceased chef Richard Halloran through the body of a dying French woman, and the True Knot's feeding of a young little league player was quite disturbing.

This has the feel of some of King's older works, and while not perfect, is one of his more satisfying recent novels.

-Nick Cato

Smell Rating: 5

THE SHINING was one of those pivotal books for me. I still even have that same ratty old paperback with the peeling silvery film cover that I found in Boompa's garage, on the shelf out there where Grandma made him keep those awful horror novels he liked. I was ten years old. An aunt told my parents it'd warp me for life, letting me read that stuff. Happily, she was right.

Like many of us for whom that book was a major influence, I had mixed feelings of trepidation and joy about the prospect at long last of a sequel.

My biggest worry was that, love most of King's work though I do, he'd turn it into yet another Dark Tower tie-in and I'd be sad because I've tried many times but just can't get into those. But a single "there are other worlds than these" reference was all I caught. In every other way, I found DOCTOR SLEEP to be a very satisfying follow-up, beautifully connected back to the first one.

For everyone who ever wondered, "what ever happened to Danny Torrance and his mom after the Overlook burned down?" … here at last is the answer and then some. Unlike many King characters, Danny hasn’t forgotten all about the uncanny events of his past. I’m glad, because that trope has gotten kinda old and annoys the crap out of me now.

He hasn’t lost his shine, either. It may have dimmed somewhat over the years, and he hasn’t had the best life – in some ways, despite his best intentions, he can’t escape his father’s legacies. We join Danny as he’s struggling back up from rock-bottom, starting over with AA, a new job, new friends, and new purpose at a hospice, where he can help the dying make their last crossing with painlessness and peace.
Meanwhile, he’s also developed a strange bond with a little girl named Abra. If Danny was a searchlight shine to the flashlight of his mentor, Dick Hallorann, Abra makes Danny look like a flashlight. Abra’s also being hunted by the True Knot, a group of psychic vampires who live on what they call "steam," an energy given off by suffering … particularly that caused by the torture and death of children with the shining.

DOCTOR SLEEP is not "classic" King, but it is awesome King, it is his best in years. It brings a feeling of completion, a sense of come-full-circle … while also opening up new doors. Is it an official passing of the torch, what with the ties to Joe Hill’s NOS4A2? Maybe, maybe not.

Is it a wonderful read? Definitely. I expect that I will soon re-read THE SHINING and DOCTOR SLEEP again, back to back, the better to appreciate the experience of both. Awesome stuff.

-Christine Morgan


VILLAGE OF THE MERMAIDS by Carlton Mellick III (2013 Eraserhead Press / 136 pp / tp)

Don’t let the deceptively sane and mild title fool you. This is a Carlton Mellick III book, and that means these are NOT your Disney mermaids. Not even the creepy ones from the 2003 version of Peter Pan, or Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

They ARE seductive, but don’t be fooled. Those beautiful feminine torsos amd intoxicating pheromones are a predator’s adaptations. Even the term "mermaid" is misleading; the males and females of the species are indistinguishable to humans.

Guess what they eat? Yep. They’re highly specialized to lure and kill their prey, particularly those young healthy men.

And guess what happens when well-meaning environmentalism and animal rights activism goes a little too far? When the Endangered Species Act doesn’t just protect them, but prioritizes them to the point that it’s not only illegal to kill them even in self-defense, but punishable by death? When Food People have been genetically created to provide for the mermaids’ dietary needs?
Makes for a kind of creepy slippery slope, doesn’t it? Thing is, a slippery slope is never enough for Carlton Mellick III. Only a greased-up flume ride into bizarroland  will do the trick.
Because, in the aptly-named Siren’s Cove, the mermaids have stopped eating the proffered Food People … they only want the real thing … worse, there seems to be a new kind of mermaid moving into the local waters, even more deadly and dangerous … worse still, something’s up with the Food People themselves …

Needless to say, the inhabitants of Siren’s Cove are in a bad spot. They can’t fight back without facing execution, but they can’t just let themselves and their families be slaughtered. Their leader has gone strange. The expert sent to investigate has his own problems.

Flume ride. Into a bizarroland of hybrids, disease, mutations, freaky sea monsters, fish nookie, and feeding frenzy. This IS a splash zone. You WILL get wet.

-Christine Morgan


DAMAGED SOULS by David Bernstein (2013 Samhain Publishing / 232 pp / tp)

John’s daughter is killed by a drunk driver, after John let that same driver go earlier in the night after a fender bender. In his grief—and blaming himself for his daughter’s death—John shoots himself in the head, but doesn’t die. His body in a coma, John’s soul is in Purgatory. John is then given a chance to redeem himself when he is sent back to stop a demon from opening a portal to Hell and bringing on Armageddon. The demon has taken over the body of has-been artist Guy Duvall whose skills are needed by the demon to open the portal.
Upon his initial return, John believes his time in Purgatory was just a dream. Events prove to John that his experience was very real. With the support of his wife Carla, John—using the powers given to him while in Purgatory—races to find Guy/the demon and kill it. The demon has gone on a killing spree and is already being hunted by police. John doesn’t have much time.

DAMAGED SOULS is an impressive and entertaining read. I found the concept of Purgatory without necessarily having to die very interesting, and I really empathized with John. John’s wife Carla was sympathetic to a point, where I then found her to be grating in her push for John to kill the man who killed their daughter. After an impressive and brutal twist in the story, Carla comes back down to earth, so to speak. DAMAGED SOULS is a fascinating read that I found difficult to put down. Bernstein has written a fresh take on demons while turning an insignificant decision by an ordinary man on its head. I highly recommend it.

-Colleen Wanglund

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE DARKNESS by Monica O’Rourke (2013 Sinister Grin Press / 265 pp / limited edition hc)

Bombs fall, but not everybody dies. That’s one of those things about war, one of those taking-it-from-bad-to-worse things. Usually, the survivors forget caring about politics real quick, and just focus on the business of food, shelter, and staying alive.

Usually, but in Monica O’Rourke’s version of the aftermath, the bombs are followed by invading ground troops … and the nation’s last line of defense turns out to be something that nobody ever expected.

We’re talking vampires, here, people. A secret installation where the military’s been holding a small group of the bloodsuckers captive for decades … only to unleash them now with the objective of destroying the enemy. Remember those statistics showing how more people believe in government cover-ups of alien contact than actually believe in aliens? Kind of like that … maybe you don’t believe in vampires, but if there WERE such things, you KNOW some faction would be wanting to use them for their own ends.

And while you’re at it, remember the one about the little old lady who swallowed a fly? Then a spider to catch the fly, and so on and so on, each cure being more dangerous than the problem it was meant to solve? Or the matter of trying to get the genie back in the bottle? Wellllllll … that’s what happens here.

After all, even a small group of vampires won’t be enough to take on an army. They’ll need recruits. Who will then need to be fed, and who might object to being rendered obsolete once they’ve done their job.

That’s one half of this story, on a big sweeping scale of alliances, betrayals, human-against-vampire, human-against-human, vampire-against-vampire. But there’s the other half of the story, in which one tough and scrappy twelve-year-old girl makes her way through the devastation.

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE DARKNESS starts off a little slow but picks up steady speed until it races along to a surprising finish. I’m thinking action-packed A&E mini-series. Janelle could kick that Carl kid’s sociopathic little butt any day.

-Christine Morgan


WITCHES, STITCHES, AND BITCHES edited by Shannon Page (2013 Evil Girlfriend Media/ 282 pp / tp and eBook)

Fair warning, this is another anthology I’m biased about, because I’m lucky enough to have a story in it – how could I resist a publisher called Evil Girlfriend Media? I always wanted to be an evil girlfriend! – and the entire experience has been nothing but awesome!

Look at this book. This is a damn gorgeous book. In all ways. The layout, the cover art, the fonts, everything. The stories are none too shabby, either! It’s one of the company’s "Three Little Words" projects … the words in this case being witch, stitch and bitch … with tales revolving around the three.

Of course, each of the words has various interpretations, so the resulting stories come from various creative and clever places. They’re also words with strong associations to the feminine, so, it’s no wonder the book features a lot of women authors and a lot of strong, powerful female characters.

There’s witches of the old crones-with-warts school, there’s the Wicca-esque type, the fairy tale type … stitches in fabric, stitches in flesh … bitches who are called that by insult and bitches who reclaim the term in a proud, ferocious way.

There’s also a fair amount of revenge stories here, abused and mistreated women escaping or getting back at those who hurt them (usually men), which may make for uncomfortable reading. Or cathartic. Or deeply satisfying. Or any combination thereof.

My personal faves include "Forgetting Tomorrow" by Bob Brown, which puts a wicked twist on the idea of the fairy godmother, and Rebecca Fung’s delightful and darkly comic take-THAT-Hogwarts "Dresses of Fur and Fangs."

The overall result is a very satisfying read, perfect for this witching-season time of year. I look forward to reading (and submitting to!) many more fine projects from the Evil Girlfriends in the future.

-Christine Morgan

For submission info, please see note at the bottom of this blog page. Thank you. See you next month...