Sunday, February 2, 2014

February, 2014 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.)

(NOTE: Authors and/or publishers looking for submission info, please see the very bottom of this blog page. Thank you).
THE WAY OF ALL FLESH by Tim Waggoner (to be released 4/1/14 by Samhain Publishing / 248 pp / tp and eBook)

If anyone can give the zombie apocalypse a much needed kick in the pants, it's Tim Waggoner, who has a knack for taking conventional horror tropes and giving them a deliciously bizarre spin. THE WAY OF ALL FLESH is no exception.

One of our main characters is David, a man trying to understand why he's suddenly in a strange new world full of two kinds of creatures: one that looks human but are on a constant hunt for human food, and the other a demonic spawn who seem to want nothing more than hunt the human-like folks for sport. We learn right away that David is a zombie, and like Philip Nutman's classic 1994 novel WET WORK, much of this tale is told from the zombie's point of view, although fans of Nutman's book need not worry; this is done from a completely different angle, as David is guided on a quest to find his family by a strange young kid in a Megadeth T-shirt who seems to know why everything is happening.

A small group of people who weren't infected by the "Blacktide Virus" reside in a reinforced high school. Among them is David's sister Kate, who can sort-of communicate with her brother psychically, and her girlfriend who studies the zombies. The group is led by Joe, who had spent his time before the apocalypse playing zombie survival video games ... and his skills are actually used in a big way now that fantasy has become reality. And most interesting here is Nicholas, who just happened to have been a serial killer in the old world. But his urges have returned, and now he's getting tired of torturing the undead in an isolated shed and has his eyes set on the remaining humans.

THE WAY OF ALL FLESH offers some interesting ideas (one which was brilliantly used in Simon Clark's 1995 gut-muncher BLOOD CRAZY), but the ultimate reason for the zombie outbreak will cause hardcore fans (and writers) of this subgenre to slap themselves in the head and say "Why didn't I think of that?!" With plenty of gross zombie mayhem fans of this stuff have come to expect, several neat twists, and a conclusion that is as absurd, bizarre, and original as things can be while still being believable, here's one zombie novel that, while familiar at times, manages to unleash new things every time the reader thinks it won't.

-Nick Cato


INNOCENCE by Dean Koontz (2013 Bantam Books / 352 pp / hc, eBook, audioBook)

As long-time readers of the HFR may recall, I’ve occasionally had some less-than-stellar things to say about the later works by Dean Koontz. I’ve expressed the opinion that he peaked around the era of STRANGERS, LIGHTNING, and PHANTOMS … cruised along for a while, and then …

And then, well, he started overdoing it. Overwrought, over-poetic, over-written, over-preachy, over-everything. Lofty holier-than-though good-vs.-evil themes, wringing THE most obscure words from the thesaurus, beating the reader over the head with show-offy infodumps, etc.

Not always, though. That’s the hardest part. Some of the recent ones haven’t been that bad. It’s put me in a weird spot. Here’s one of my once-favorite authors, but I can’t quite bring myself to buy his books new, but I hold onto enough hope and nostalgia that if I find ‘em paperback at the used bookstore I might snag a copy (unless they’re Odd Thomas, in which case NO).

So, when I received INNOCENCE as a holiday gift, I decided to give it a try. At first, I thought it was going to be Koontz’s take on Beauty and the Beast fanfic – not the Disney movie; I mean the series with Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton.

We’ve got this moody broody dude living in the sewers because he can’t show his face aboveground without fear of being attacked, and a mystery manic pixie dream girl, and secrets, and angst, and pining away. Plus, supernatural forces flitting about, a cariacature bad guy after the girl, magic items, freaky marionettes, and a whole lot of really squiky and uncomfortable rapey elements to prove how bad the bad guy is.

Urk. All that and the smug sort of I-know-something-you-don’t-know authorial taunting and teasing and withholding answers, which can be mighty annoying. Also, right about maybe when you’re thinking you’ve gotten through the book without too much quasi-saintly sermonizing and pure-perfect saintly angel dogs … guess what?

Mostly, though, what struck me about this book was that there’s a scene in which a character dies by ingesting poisonous creamed honey … and that pretty well describes what reading the prose is like. Thick, cloying, excessively rich and sweet, lavish, pretentious, and, honestly, kinda sickening and toxic.

-Christine Morgan

GRAVITY COMICS MASSACRE by Vincenzo Bilof (2013 Bizarro Pulp Press / 131 pp / tp)

Brian, or Brain as he is called by his friends, is on a road trip with Jack, Miko, Kirk, and Jamie. They are headed to the abandoned town of Hooksville, Arizona to see Gravity Comics, at one time the best comics store around and then the scene of some grisly multiple murders committed by the owner, Damien. While Brain is fascinated with Damien’s story, Jack, a drug dealer, has got it in his head to start a large-scale drug operation out of the empty ghost town.

When the group arrives in Hooksville, they find a lone man living on the streets, presumably homeless. One by one, the friends become victims of whatever is still surviving in the town, and more specifically, in Gravity Comics. Was Damien a psycho? Are aliens involved, as Brain believes? Is Brain a psycho?

GRAVITY COMICS MASSACRE is an excellent horror/bizarro story, with plenty of weird and gore to go around. The character development is fantastic. You almost feel sorry for everyone, even Damien at some point. Bilof’s book is schizophrenic, blurring the line between reality and delusion. You do not have to be a fan of Bizarro to enjoy GRAVITY COMICS MASSACRE, as it appeals to especially dark horror fans, as well.

-Colleen Wanglund


WHEN THEY CAME BACK by Christopher Conlon (2013 Bear Manor Media / 110pp / tp)

Here's a poetic tale set in 1899, Nebraska, dealing with a strange black rain that not only burns people's skin, but manages to bring the dead back to life. However, this is no zombie story and it's anything but a typical apocalyptic romp; it's yet another fresh creation that can only come from the mind of Christopher Conlon. Highlighted by Roberta Lannes-Sealey's moody and eerie photographs, Conlon's irresistible storytelling pulled me through this in one sitting. Short, sweet, and highly recommended.

-Nick Cato


TURN DOWN THE LIGHTS edited by Richard Chizmar (2013/14 Cemetery Dance / 200 pp / hc and limited edition hc)

"It was December 1988" … the first line on the back cover and in the introduction to this book, celebrating twenty-five years of Cemetery Dance.

Hits like a hammer-blow, doesn’t it? Wow. Does it make you feel old? It should. It sure does for me. A quarter of a century. Time enough for an entire generation to grow from gleams in parental eyes to responsible (we hope) adults.

So much has changed in the world since then! We’re living now in a future not quite like what anybody back then was imagining, some of it positive and others less so, highs and lows, ups and downs. But one thing, fortunately, has never changed all that much. We still – maybe not enough of us, to be sure – love a good story. And a good scare.

Horror has definitely seen its share of that highs-and-lows rollercoaster, and for these past two and a half decades, Cemetery Dance Magazine has been along for the ride. TURN DOWN THE LIGHTS is an anthology celebrating several of the great authors who’ve been there from the beginning and helped make it all possible.

And not in a best-of retrospective clip show, no. For one thing, after seventy issues and almost 300 books, such a best-of would end up being a gigantic cinderblock of a book (though really, who’d complain? not me!). For another, how would you ever be able to decide?

No, instead, TURN DOWN THE LIGHTS brings us ten original tales by some of the biggest names in the biz. Running the gaze along the Table of Contents is like scanning a Hall of Fame plaque. Or a horror fan’s dream Jeopardy category-board.

Seriously, look at this lineup: Stephen King, Norman Partridge, Jack Ketchum, Brian James Freeman, Bentley Little, Ed Gorman, Ronald Kelly, Steve Rasnic Tem, Clive Barker, Peter Straub.

The introduction by Richard Chizmar and the afterword by Tom Monteleone take us on a time-capsule flashback tour of how it all began, back in the day when some of you whippersnappers might not even have been born yet (I myself, being only a year or so younger than Mr. Chizmar, was also in college … but while he was launching what would be the start of a genre media empire, I was in charge of our gaming club newsletter).

The stories between introduction and afterword make a grand, fitting tribute to honor Cemetery Dance. Any one of them alone is well worth the cover price. As a package deal? You can’t get your hands on this book fast enough!

-Christine Morgan


HELL GATE by Elizabeth Massie (2013 DarkFuse / 251 pp / tp)

After a brutal murder in a hotel room in 1909 Coney Island, Suzanne Heath is asked by Lt. Granger to aid in the investigation. Suzanne has visions of a person’s life when she touches them, and had previously helped Granger’s daughter, Coralie, after the girl had been viciously attacked. Suzanne has had this ability ever since she was a child, but her mother believed her to be evil. Sending her away to school, Suzanne makes friends with girls who have similar "powers", but after a major incident, Suzanne runs away. Now living in Coney Island with her friend Cittie, who rescued her after she ran from the school, Suzanne is determined to discover the cause of the murder. She discovers a link with a "hidden" show full of zombie-like people and the propietor’s sinister motive. Suzanne is now in danger.

First of all, I love the setting for HELL GATE. It contrasts the innocence of the time against the brutality of what is going on with a seemingly innocuous side show, in a place full of distractions from everyday life. Suzanne is complex character, despising her powers on the one hand, yet determined to help solve the crime that the police have arrested her friend Cittie for. And she holds her own when forced to go up against a cop whose views on women are less than complimentary. As the story unfolded, I thought I knew who was who and what was going to happen. I thought wrong. Massie throws quite a curve ball that I never saw coming. HELL GATE is a supernatural thriller that is sure to make your hair stand on end.

-Colleen Wanglund


THE LAST NIGHT OF OCTOBER by Greg Chapman (2013 Bad Moon Books / 104 pp / tp & eBook)

Nifty tale of a 70 year-old man who dreads Halloween. He suffers emphysema, and when a substitute house nurse comes by to check on him, she lets a trick-or-treater in who causes both their worlds to meet with a dark destiny.

Chapman's novella takes familiar Halloween tropes and twists them into something fresh ... even his back story section is exciting and well done. A fine seasonal read and a great horror tale for anytime of the year.

-Nick Cato


CRIME SEEN by Michaelbrent Collings (2014 Amazon Digital / 233 pp / tp and eBook)

Dark, gritty, haunting and spooky … it’s paranormal cop drama action movie time! In book form, okay, but the writing is so visual it’s easy to forget you’re reading and not experiencing it in the theater.

In fact, it’s better this way, because you’re not getting gouged at the box office and again at the snack bar, you have your choice of comfy seats, are less likely to be surrounded by obnoxious strangers, and don’t have to endure 20 minutes of pre-preview ads, then previews, then more ads and a snarky reminder to turn off your phone.

Saying all that makes it sound like I’m against movies, which presents a problem because this book would really make an awesome film. It deserves to be. Someone get on that.

Crime Seen is the story of Evan White, a police detective on the trail of his wife’s murderer. Desperate for answers, he’s willing to follow up on any lead, no matter how bogus or weird. That’s how he and his partner, tough-but-gorgeous scrapper Angela Listings, end up waiting at a bar to meet a possible informant … who then turns out to be much more than he seems.

Next thing you know, they’ve got a dead drunk, and a killer with uncanny reflexes and the apparent ability to ignore gunshot wounds as well as vanish without a trace. Who also likes making cryptic, taunting remarks about White’s dead wife. While Listings wants to do this by-the-book (or, by HER book, which differs in certain respects from the official law-and-order book), White’s investigation takes him to an occult shop … and from there it just keeps on getting weirder.

For example, the shop’s security videos, which are distorted but somehow compelling. Or White’s discoveries about his wife’s secrets, including a mysterious connection to a mysic from the occult shop. Or what really happened the night that she died.

A great read with creeping insidious chills and sudden gut-punches, CRIME SEEN is another winner from an author who’s yet to let me down.

-Christine Morgan

IN DARK CORNERS by Gene O’Neill (2012 Genius Publishing / 320 pp / tp)

With an introduction by Scott Edelman and an afterword by John R. Little, IN DARK CORNERS is a collection of Gene O’Neill’s short horror and scifi fiction.

Among my favorites include "Metempsychosis", a funny but darkly creepy story about a man who has killed his business partner, only to have that man’s soul transfer into the body of a fly, which torments the businessman for the rest of his days; "Return of the Iceman", a bleak dystopian story in which reading, writing, and science have been outlawed in the wake of economic and ecological collapse; "Masquerade" about a party held by the decadent and cruel Uppers while below the Commoners struggle for survival; "A Fine Day at the Zoo", an immensely scary story about the lone survivor of a mass Ebola outbreak; and "When Legends Die" about an incubus hiding out in a mental hospital.

Other great stories include "Jackie" about a woman with Multiple Personality Disorder that is passed from person to person; "10th St. Wolfpack is Bad!" about a weird post-apocalyptic world where cities are run by gangs implanted with chips that allow them to change into animal/human hybrids, and what happens when one gang finds a vampire in their lair; "The Hitchhiking Effect", a frightening story about a crew "rescued" by aliens, only to turn them into an experiment on human emotional responses; and the heartbreaking "In the Big Window" about a man who jumps from the Golden Gate Bridge in suicide attempt, only to find himself trapped inside of a mannequin.

IN DARK CORNERS is an excellent collection, without a bad story in the bunch. If you like the horror/scifi mix, then O’Neill’s collection is a definite read.

-Colleen Wanglund

DOWN by Nate Southard (2012 Sinister Grin Press / 144 pp / tp & eBook)

It might be impossible these days not to compare something that starts with a plane crash and involves grim survival against inexplicable monsters and mystery to LOST so, I’ll just go ahead and get that out of the way right from the start.

Like LOST, only good! Much gorier, much scarier. Best of all, a compact story, tightly written and complete. Weirdness, yes, plenty of weirdness. A couple questions left tantalizingly unanswered, but in a way that makes sense.

The Frequency Brothers are a rock band, with a name that doesn’t quite fit since two of the three members are female, and they’re the only ones who are related … sisters instead of brothers. Accompanied by one of the women’s husbands, their manager, and a Rolling Stone reporter doing a feature, they board a chartered jet to fly from one gig to the next.

That’s when it all goes wrong. Or, when it starts to go wrong. Their plane doesn’t just crash, but crashes in a spectacular wreck of twisted metal and blazing debris. Smack in the middle of the wilderness. Killing some, injuring most, not leaving anybody in good shape to seek help.

Bad enough, right? Oh, never! Not when the crash site is nearly on top of a strange bloodsoaked sinkhole littered with carcasses … not when something big, roaring and hairy is trying to tear its way into the crumpled fuselage to get at the fresh meat … not when there are messages and strange symbols carved into the trees …

Besides, stressful situations tend to bring out the worst in people, even people who might normally have their act together. For people struggling with addictions, or secrets that have been weighing heavy on their minds, or urgent business elsewhere, it doesn’t take much to hit the breaking point.

Fun, exciting, at-one-sitting read … spine-tinglery for sure, especially if you’re not a fan of flying, or being stranded in the woods. So yeah, maybe NOT one to read on an airplane.

-Christine Morgan

MIDNIGHT ECHO ISSUE 8 The magazine of the Australian Horror Writers Association (edited by Mark Farrugia, Amanda J. Spedding, and Marty Young)

From the Australian HWA, MIDNIGHT ECHO is a magazine dedicated to bring the reader the best tin horror fiction, poetry, and artwork, as well as interviews and articles. Issue 8 includes interviews with artist Glenn Chadbourne, Australian writer Marty Young, and the iconic Jack Ketchum. There are also interesting articles on viral and bacterial disease in fiction, mysterious lights seen in the Australian interior for hundreds of years, as well as a poetry column that seeks to educate readers about poetry’s history and necessity to human expression, and a column about horror comics.

Some of the fiction include "A Visit with Friends" by Joe R. Landsdale, a quiet but intense story about a man so disgusted by his friends’ sexual abuse of zombies, he leaves them open to danger; "Hello Kitty" by Jason Mahrung, a disturbing story about a man who rapes Japanese girls, although one manages to get some revenge; "Jar Baby" by Michelle Jager about a girl who gets an abortion but asks to take the parts home in jar, which is another deeply disturbing story about a young woman who seems to lose her mind; "Squirrely Shirley" by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee, a funny but cautionary tale about the dangers of relationships; and "Pigroot Flat" by Jason Fischer, a twisted story about strange zombie behavior and an abused woman left on her own.

I enjoyed all of the stories, poems, and articles. The magazine is professionally done with a very good layout. The artwork, too, is gorgeous. I highly recommend checking out this great quarterly magazine.

-Colleen Wanglund


MIDNIGHT ECHO ISSUE 10 (Edited by Craig Bezant)

Magazine? Issue? Don’t be misled by those terms. Don’t go thinking you’ll run into some fluff and filler you can just flip past, skip and skim. You could try, I suppose, but you’ll be sorry. Not to mention doing yourself, as well as the writers, a great disservice.

The theme of the issue is ghost stories, and it’s a promise fully delivered. The quality of the writing throughout is top-notch. Thirteen chilling tales, plus articles and interviews, and not a flat note from cover to cover.

The winners of the AHWA’s Short Story and Flash Fiction Competition are in here. There’s a fascinating column on Australia’s haunted history, and another on the abandoned Aradale Asylum, now home to ghost tours … and now on my must-see list if I’m ever able to visit. Or, how about a friendly chat with the creator of iconic character Jason Voorhees (and, more importantly, his devoted mother?)

With a theme of ghost stories, it might seem like they’d have to get samey after a while, but no. How each one managed to find a fresh nerve to brush with an icy finger … you’ve got to be impressed … I certainly was. Halfway through, I already knew I’d be having a rough time selecting any representative top faves, and I was right.

Though I do have to give a shout-out of envy and admiration and wish-I’d-thought-of-that for "Stillegeist." So headsmackingly perfect and obvious in retrospect, I can’t believe I’d never run across the term before. But why not? If a poltergeist is a noisy ghost, stands to reason there’d be the other side of the coin … some poor spirit who just wants to keep things quiet and be left alone. Brilliant.

Many of the stories involve children and/or child-ghosts, which are at least ten times creepier than the adult kind. The hauntings are hauntings in the ‘haunting’ sense of being more tragically frightening, poignant, unsettling and sad than malevolent … mostly … some of the spectres here are indeed malevolent, and downright disturbing.

Lost love, grieving parents, betrayal, murder, madness, revenge … a few more physically substantial monsters thrown in … horror with classic Gothic tones, and with satisfying EC Comics tones … from the subtle to the startling, with a dash of exotic dark fantasy thrown in …

Now, I know it’s not a competition, no need to get all regionalistic; we don’t have like the Horror Writers Olympics or anything. But if we did, and this is the kind of team the AHWA can field, the rest of the world better step up their game and quick.

Midnight Echo 10 reads, and feels, much more like an anthology, maybe a Year’s Best drawn from a whole wide array of magazines. All I know is it convinced me to rush right on over and subscribe, so, expect more reviews in the future!

-Christine Morgan

Now in our 11th Year!