Monday, July 28, 2014

Reviews for Week of July 28th, 2014

SUBMISSIONS NOTE: Please see bottom of our main page. Thank you.


BURNT TONGUES edited by Chuck Palahnuik, Richard Thomas and Dennis Widmeyer (to be released August 12, 2014 by Medallion Press / 400 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

A collection of transgressive fiction, selected by one of the names who basically defines the genre? If you think, “Well, THAT’S gotta be a disturbing bunch of stories,” then, guess what? You’re right!

If you might further think there’ll be stuff in here that will wreck your mind, twist your gut, and crush your spirit … hey, good news, you’re right again!

For me, the main one that did it, the story so grueling and agonizing and affecting that I will NEVER read it again – that I can hardly bear even contemplating as I write this review – was early in the book. I could barely bring myself to finish it yet couldn’t tear myself away, and worried that if the rest were all like that, I wouldn’t be able to read much more.

Chris Lewis Carter, you go sit over there, with Jack Ketchum. “Charlie” made me cry in much the same way that “Returns” and “Red” did. If anybody needs me, I’ll be huddling in a blankie fort with my kitties.

Fortunately for my soul and sanity, the others – while of similar top-notch quality – managed to be not AS personally tormenting, so I was able to carry on reading. And wow, what a ride! 
From a triple-teen suicide plot (Neil Krolicki’s “Live This Down”) to a high-risk undercover exposé (“Zombie Whorehouse” by Daniel W. Broallt), there’s basically nothing sacred left un-messed-with between these covers.

Among my … you know, I’m hesitant to say ‘favorites’ … among the ones that stood out for me the most would also have to be:

“Mating Calls” by Tony Leibhard, in which a simple attempted good deed turns into endless hassle.

Tyler Jones’ “F for Fake” takes the concepts of plagiarism and identity theft and turns them on their head.

“Bike,” by Brian Howie, short and sweet and so normal-seeming, right up until the moment it all goes so, so wrong.

Keith Buie’s “The Routine,” speaking to the world-weary retail workers and customer service clerks within us all.

And of course “Heavy Petting” by Brian Piechos, deftly tricking the unsuspecting reader into thinking over and over that it won’t really go there, will it? … then it does … and further yet …

So yeah, suffice to say, Burnt Tongues might just mess you up. And if it doesn't, there’s probably something wrong already.

-Christine Morgan

DEAD TRASH by Ed Kurtz (2013 Evil Jester Press / 192 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

The tagline promises “A Zombie Exploitation Quadruple Feature,” and does not let the reader down. If you’re looking for the tackiest raunch of 70’s schlock lovingly distilled in a nutshell, this is the book for you. Shameless stereotypes abound in all their strutting, swaggering glory.

It starts in a womens’ prison. Not just that, it starts with a shower scene that turns catfight in a womens’ prison. Irma is one tough redhead doing time for murder. Her best friend is an Afro-sporting Amazon who goes by Arkansas. They’re on bad terms with boss butch Pam and Pam’s right-hand woman Big Lou. The altercation gets Irma hauled in front of the warden, then sentenced to solitary.

Which turns out not to be such a bad thing when the outbreak happens, and the prison gets overrun by ravenous hordes of cannibalistic corpses who just don’t want to stay dead. In the chaos, Arkansas frees Irma and the two make a break for it.

At first, their only concern is survival. Then a shocking message informs Irma that the man she was jailed for killing isn’t dead after all – or wasn’t – and the end of the world turns into a personal crusade to finish the job for real.

From prison movie to biker gangs, from biker gangs to inner city brothers, and from inner city brothers to gonzo kung fu carnage … all set against the backdrop of a gore-tastic zombie apocalypse … guns, gold chains, bell bottoms and bare breasts, short-shorts, motorcycles and muscle cars …

It’s brash. It’s trash. It’s all the jive and then some. You can damn near see the grainy film quality and hear the musical score. Preferably, on a drive-in movie screen with one of those ancient metal speakers hooked on your car window.

Nothing about this book disappoints. Unless you’re some kind of highbrow classy literary type, in which case you might be in for some pearl-clutching shocks to the sensibilities.

-Christine Morgan

And now, please welcome the newest member of our staff, JON R. MEYERS:

THE SUMMER OF WINTERS by Mark Allan Gunnells (2013 Evil Jester Press / 164 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Just in case you missed this in the past. Here we have a unique little gem of a horror novella written by the great and fantastic Mark Allan Gunnells.

The book description reads, “Some kids have it all—wealthy, loving parents, lots of friends, self-confidence. But not Mike Guthrie, a friendless, awkward boy who has recently been abandoned by his father. The only thing Mike’s not short of is creativity, spending most of his time in the backyard making up games. The summer of 1983 begins on a promising note when new neighbors move in. In walks Paige, a sassy girl who takes an immediate shine to Mike. They become fast friends, and everything seems to be looking up for Mike. She shares his love for games and begins teaching him important lessons about friendship. A whole new world of hope, until… Mike and Paige discover a dead girl in the cemetery. And nothing will ever be the same again.”

First we have this amazing storyteller on our hands and he’s honest, too. The prose is sincere, delicate, and so moving that the reader is literally sucked into the story and characters as if they were there on those old stomping grounds in Gaffney. But, don’t let all that sensitive stuff fool you. Underneath the emotion lies a series of horrid events. We’re reading alongside an author whose voice is so strong you can tell that even though this is fiction, some of the events triggered an emotional spark within while writing and they shine through his words personally with this haunting and memorable tale. I watch a lot of movies and this book was like one of those scenes where you have that classic car driving down the road, perhaps, through a wooded area, maybe swerving through some erratic lane changes or two, as overly dramatic season changes come and go quickly. The clouds are rolling in and out and the characters voices are in the background whispering depth into the storyline. This book is like one of those moments, but, with this progressive plot based around a flashback of horrible events that digs deep into the past and gets down inside your bones. Then to come home and find out you have to carry it around with you for the rest of your life. That kind of baggage is heavy. Especially when the blood drips out of it and the remaining secrets are neatly buried six feet underground.   

This was one of the first titles to date that I’ve read by the author. It definitely won’t be the last.

-Jon R. Meyers


a preview of 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Reviews for Week of July 21, 2014

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. Thank you.

DREAMS OF THANATOS by William Cook (2014  King Billy Publications / 211 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This collection of fifteen tales displays a wide range of weirdness, from the everyday to the unearthly.

A few common themes weave their way through, primarily the all-too-real horrors that come with abuse, neglect, drugs, madness and human cruelty. Those ones are often difficult to read; a lot of bad parents and partners doing very, very bad things.

Others take a side trip into the ghostly and beyond, with hauntings and possessions and the even more inexplicable.

My favorites of the bunch include:

“The Reader,” in which a new dad’s new obsession combines with his wife’s postpartum depression to have insidious, awful results for the whole family.

“’Til Death Do Us Part” is the ultimate love story and then some, when a husband is determined to keep his marriage together by whatever means necessary.

“Dead And Buried” and “Blinded By The Light” start off with some striking similarities and then diverge off in vastly different directions. To be honest the opening lines of “Blinded” hit one of my personal squick buttons so hard I almost skipped it, but I soldiered on through the whole gruesome finale. “Buried” takes some surprising twists on its way to some satisfying revenge.

“Aspects of Infinity” is … hard to describe … a surreal journey, beautiful and dark, creepy and profound … after multiple readings I’m still not a hundred percent sure what it meant but bits of it keep not wanting to leave my mind.

-Christine Morgan

DEAD IN THE USA by David Price (2013 Third Cove Press / 108 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

After going out clubbing with her roommates, Kim gives her number to one of the dancers at a male strip club where they end the evening. He calls shortly after she gets home, and she invites him over. But unfortunately, the stripper turns out to be The Scalper, a serial killer who has been murdering young women and taking their scalps as a souvenir.

But Kim finds herself "alive" in the afterlife, looking at her dead body and watching the killer escape on a motorcycle as her roomates discover her body.

Before long, two cops are on the case, and Kim manages to communicate with one of the officers as well as one of the members of a reality TV show crew who have been assinged to accompany the cops.

Despite the novella's title, this is a ghost story that reminded me somewhat of the short-lived comic book series iZOMBIE (which featured a ghost character); Kim is on a Grim Reaper-approved vengeance streak, and does all she can to communicate with the living. I found some scenes quite funny (the killer is a Bruce Springsteen fan, and the title itself is a spoof on one of his hits), and while everything happens quite quickly (including our "human" characters accepting --perhaps a bit too easily -- the fact they are being contacted by a spirit), DEAD IN THE USA is a fun little tale that should appeal to fans of quirky ghost stories and Boston locations.

-Nick Cato

THE CONCRETE GROVE by Gary McMahon (2014 Solaris / 432 pp / trade paperback, mass market paperback, & eBook)

“Estate” is one of those words that can have very different meanings depending on location and perspective. To your typical American, it’s something associated with wealth and luxury, mansions, acreage, described with terms like ‘palatial.’ In England, as it took me until only a decade or so ago to understand, it’s something more like what I’d think of as housing projects, shabbiness, low incomes, and despair.

Let me tell you, it certainly shed that line in “Come Dancing” by the Kinks in a new light. As an 80’s teenager, I thought when he sang about how his sister was married and lived on an estate, she’d done really well for herself. Fantasy bubble burst, there.

Anyway! THE CONCRETE GROVE, serving as both title and setting for this book, is the English kind of estate, and a particularly grim, wretched one at that. Drugs, crime, poverty, squalor, and dilapidation predominate. It isn’t a place anybody wants to end up.

For widowed Lana, the situation quickly becomes all but unbearable. She’s deep in debt to the local loan shark, who is more than happy enough to send his goons around to send messages and make sinister threats. Even as sleazy loan sharks go, this one is abnormally twisted and cruel.

Lana’s teenage daughter Hailey seeks refuge and privacy at the abandoned old building known as the Needle, but what she finds is a remnant of a strange power far older, a power dating back to when the estate was a real grove. A power that latches onto her in ways she can’t begin to describe.

Meanwhile, from a nicer part of town, a man named Tom seeks his own forms of escape … escape from a marriage that has turned into an endless, dreary routine of caregiving and resentment. A chance good-Samaritan encounter with Hailey brings him into her and Lana’s lives, right as things take another turn for the weird.

The writing’s strong, the characters vivid – in some cases, almost too vivid, such nasty and horrible people! – and the scenes revealing more and more of the truth behind the Grove are spectacularly gorgeous and well-done. As the author has continued the series with at least two more books, I expect to be adding them to my reading list very soon!

-Christine Morgan

Monday, July 14, 2014

Reviews for Week of July 14, 2014

(NOTE: For submission info, please see BOTTOM of main page. Thank you).

MARTUK THE HOLY: PROSEUCHE by Johnathan Winn (2014 ADC / 249 pp / eBook)

Movie announcer voice guy says: In a world of sprawling, lavish, Biblical epics … a world of dark faith, sinister demons, blood, and belief … 

Only this is not today’s kind of Biblical epic, with badass Noah vs. CGI floodwaters, or whipping crucifixion torture porn. This is not your tepid dumbed-down Da-Vinci-Codified history/conspiracy mush. 

This is deep, dense, intelligent, complex. This could only be more elaborate if it were an illuminated medieval manuscript with all the gilding and calligraphy. This is really, really cool. 

This is also the second in the series, which I somehow failed to realize until after the fact, and it didn’t matter because it’s well-written enough that I read right along without feeling like I was missing chunks of the background. 

But, of course, it makes sense. An immortal’s life story isn’t going to be told in just one book. Not when it spans pretty much everything from early Rome to modern day, but focusing primarily (not to mention intimately and personally) on the turbulent times around the dawn of Christianity. 

The author’s skill shows in one of the better-handled frame narratives I’ve seen, skipping back and forth between past, present, paster-past, and way-past-past without leaving the reader lost. That’s a hard technique to master, and an easy one to bungle badly, and one that works very well in this kind of sweeping historical story-within-story multilayer drama. 

I stand impressed (well okay, I sit on my couch with a cat impressed as I type this, but, you get the drift). And this being the second book in no way detracts from a desire to read the first one; instead of feeling like you’ve already got the spoilers, it’s an encouragement to want to flesh out the details. 

Besides, on a purely horror-fan level, the evil scenes in particular are amazing. Lush descriptions, beautiful detail. Not only was I reminded of illuminated manuscripts, I was reminded of oil paintings, those old and classic manuscripts that, even in their depiction of terrible things, are as breathtaking as they are creepy.

-Christine Morgan

WITCH! Edited by Jordan Krall (2014 Dynatox Ministries / 232 pp / trade paperback)

For those thinking of picking this up (which at this point will only be on the secondary market), be assured these aren't your standard witch stories. In fact, most are off the wall, bizarro, and quite violent, which will either lure you in or scare you away. I had a blast with most of it, and among my faves were Vincenzo Bilof's 'Pazuzu Combo Meal,' about a witch gone nuts inside a McDonalds Restaurant, Jess Gulbranson's 'Witchfucker Genreal,' about a slick monster hunter, and 'Metal Witch' by Jon R. Myers, a hysterical bizarro/scifi romp.

Among all the weirdness there are some traditional-style witch tales, and 'Her Presence' by Joseph Bouthiette Jr. is actually one of the finer pieces here. Throw in some poetry and even a very short tale by a 4 year-old writer (!), and this benefit anthology will make your next Halloween a bit stranger than usual.

-Nick Cato

THE TICK PEOPLE by Carlton Mellick III (2014 Eraserhead Press / 126 pp / trade paperback)

The author’s note at the beginning warns that it had been a while since he did a weird sex book, so maybe it was due … and this one certainly fits the bill. Not just weird sex, but really gross nasty squelchy sex. Special kudos to cover artist Ed Mironiuk. For what must have been a dubious “you want WHAT?” assignment, the results are staggeringly awesome in a sanity-destroying way. 

Which is about the same as can be said for the book itself. The setting has an almost Seussian quality; a complete civilized society built on a giant sad dog. They have to keep the dog sad so that no happy frolicking destroys their cities. Fernando Mendez is one of the Stressmen, the people in charge of maintaining misery. It’s not a fun job. His is not a good life. 

He’s also single, to the annoyance of his sister. In their day and age, finding your true mate is not just some ego-fancy. Certain body parts have, in fact, evolved to the degree that, unless you’re with your matching partner, sex is difficult at best and reproduction impossible. With your match, however, it’s damn near a biological imperative. 

Luckily for society, they’re able to register and find each other. Unluckily for Fernando, when he gives in to his sister’s pressure, he learns that his already-wretched life has just gotten worse. 

See, his people aren’t the only species to make their homes on the back of the big sad dog. The big sad dog has ticks, which have themselves evolved, living as second-class citizens. And guess who – or what – Fernando’s match turns out to be? 

I’ve never been a fan of the whole destined-one thing, or any kind of overriding urge that forever bonds or forces two people together regardless of their own will and choice. Looking at you, ElfQuest, Pern, Sholan Alliance, etc. Even in stories I might otherwise enjoy, that’s always bothered me. So, it’s nice to see an author take it on in a way so abhorrent, repellent, and all-around disgusting. 

Nobody’s ever been paired with a Tick-Person before. The scandal is too juicy not to make the news. Fernando, when he makes the mistake of seeking out his match to tell her it’ll never happen, discovers that as revolting as she is, as much as he hates her, his body has other ideas. 

What follows is … well … see what I said above about sanity-destroying, nasty, gross, and squelchy. I got through it with several instances of involuntary shudders and sickly cackling noises, then promptly added it to the small list of books that it’s probably much safer to warn certain of my friends against rather than recommend to them. 

Certain other of my friends, however, are depraved enough to get a huge kick out of this one. So, if that’s you, go to it and enjoy!

-Christine Morgan

SAVAGING THE DARK by Christopher Conlon (2014 Evil Jester Press / 207 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Mona Straw is living the perfect American life. She has a faithful husband, a cute young daughter, and is a beloved school teacher. But when one of her students--an eleven year old boy named Connor Blue--catches her eye, she begins to drift into territory even she can't explain. Young Connor, like herself, is a huge fan of old films and books about film, and before long they become involved. Connor even claims to be in love with her, and she with him.

I usually avoid stories dealing with child abuse or adults preying on children, and I almost stopped reading this one a few times (it does get a bit graphic). But Conlon handles his characters and situations in a way that we just can't stop reading. It's interesting to see the tidal wave of emotions Mona goes through on this unusual journey. Her paranoia that Connor will tell someone about them grows at a relentless pace, bringing to mind some classic Hitchcock (which is fitting as our couple are fans of the late director).

SAVAGING THE DARK isn't a pleasant read nor is it for everyone. There's a lot of horror fiction that claims to be dark and disturbing, but this actually is. Conlon crafts a human monster in Mona Straw, yet even I hate to admit that we also see her human side and at times I actually felt for her. The book is told from her point of view, but in the clever epilogue that's told from Connor's, the tale comes together in a most surprising way.

This is a challenging, horrifying portrait of a seemingly ordinary woman that won't be leaving my mind any time soon.

-Nick Cato

Monday, July 7, 2014

Reviews for Week of July 7th, 2014 (a.k.a. WE'RE BACK!)

After a 4 month hiatus, THE HORROR FICTION REVIEW is back, and we're no longer monthly. Expect reviews at least weekly and possibly more. We've also dropped the "Smell Rating" feature as the majority of our review material comes via eBook. It was fun while it lasted, but, y'know, technology and all (I'm sure it will be snuck in due to habit at times so don't lose all hope).


Onto our latest reviews. Enjoy ...

FALLOW GROUND by Michael James Farland (2014 Blood Bound Books / 340 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

You know those posts you see going around the internet where someone’s baked a Reese’s peanut butter cup inside a brownie, or encased an Oreo in chocolate chip cookie dough, or added the words “deep-fried” and/or “bacon-wrapped” to something already delicious? 

That’s what this book is like. It’s a ghost story wrapped in a zombie story … it’s reanimator mad science stuffed with paranormal revenge … it’s good plot and fun characters wrapped in excellent writing, battered and on a stick. Bring your appetite, and a napkin, because the last few bites might get a little gooey. 

It starts with an old barn, finally being torn down before it falls down, and the discovery of a secret crime scene 20+ years old. Margaret Campbell, the widow currently living on the farm with her two kids, doesn’t know the history of the previous family. But the local sheriff, who worked the case back then, does. He always felt there’d been something unresolved about the fate of the Taylor twins, and now it’s finally coming to light. 

What even the sheriff doesn’t know, however, is the REAL story behind those twins … little Samuel and Caroline … where they came from, why they disappeared the way they did, and who was responsible. He doesn’t know about the deal Mr. Taylor made, the mysterious strangers, the big crate. He has no idea that, when Mrs. Campbell calls in to report harassment from some guy claiming to be a ghost hunter, things are about to get seriously, dangerously, fatally weird. 

The flashbacks and time-jumps between past and present are deftly handled. The twists are refreshing, clever and unexpected. Engaging from the first page, engrossing throughout, a skillful and believable blending of some diverse elements … really good stuff … and, Margaret is great!

-Christine Morgan

GREEN TSUNAMI by Laura Cooney and L.L. Soares (2014 Smart Rhino Publications / 160 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Cooney and Soares strike with this strange, incredibly bleak apocalyptic novella. After a mysterious tsunami destroys most of the world, scarce survivors contact each other over the Internet. This tale is told in corresponding emails between a husband and wife. Aaron was at home and Joy was at work when the world changed, and it keeps changing with each passing day. Adding to the growing darkness, Aaron discovers their young son is changing into a caterpillar-like creature that feeds off other children holed up in their school.

In GREEN TSUNAMI, not only are people changing in all kinds of ways due to whatever it is that has hit the planet, but inanimate objects as well. No one is safe, no one can be trusted, and the bizarro/SciFi imagination of the authors is on full freak-out display here.

Fans of apocalyptic stories will enjoy this fresh, truly unusual take on the End Times.

-Nick Cato

PLEBS by Jim Goforth (2014 J. Ellington Ashton Press / 600 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Any book purportedly influenced by the writings of Richard Laymon is a book I want to read. The man was a master of the nasty and inspired many of my current faves. So, seeing that tagline on Plebs, I grabbed it right up. 

I may, however, have to call mild shenanigans … just shy of 600 pages, and the word “rump” only  appears TWICE? And one of those is in reference to a GUY’S rump? Pff and you call this Laymonesque? (I kid, I kid; and rest assured – so to speak – that other terms for and admiration of the feminine posterior are quite well-represented!)

Laymonesque, however, in terms of sex, gore, nudity, violence, bloodspatter and subhuman atrocities? Okay, well then, this book has gotcha covered, in plenty of vivid up-close-and-personal detail!

It begins as a typical lad’s night out. The trio of Corey, Lee and Tim end up out by a lake, thinking to finish the evening in style with some weed and a little more booze and maybe a ride in a ‘borrowed’ rowboat. The only thing missing is hot chicks. 

Until a bunch of them appear. What follows is a perfect example of how male and female mindsets can differ. These women show up, dressed in black and leather, toting WEAPONS, and the guys experience only minor apprehension easily shrugged off because, well, HOT CHICKS. Try reversing the sexes in the same situation, or even a similar situation without the weapons and the alone-at-the-dark-lake, and the reactions would be rather different, to say the least. 

Things just get weirder and weirder from there. Amazonian village, feud with clan of neighboring freaks, murder, mayhem, mutilation, betrayal … and that’s just within the first third or so of the book. Right when a reprieve seems possible, there’s this creeper van and a dismembered corpse and vigilantes … then an arming montage right out of an action movie … culminating in total all-out video game body-count carnage. 

My only problem with this book is the title. Or, not so much the title itself, but the fact that the title is Plebs, and the Plebs themselves – being the clan of neighboring freaks with whom the hot chicks have their feud – don’t really seem to feature all that much in the story. They’re there, but sort of as a background obstacle/hazard in addition to the main conflicts. 

Aside from that minor quibble, however, I found it a very enjoyable read, fun and engaging, with some delightfully over-the-top moments. I’d be glad to see a sequel, or prequel, that concentrated more on the Plebs themselves, their origin, their culture, and their eventual fate.

-Christine Morgan

GRUNT LIFE: A TASK FORCE OMBRA NOVEL by Weston Ochse (2014 Solaris / 298 pp / mass market paperback and eBook)

I've been on a military SciFi kick the past few years, and Weston Ochse's GRUNT LIFE satisfied that hunger quite well.

This time a secret organization collects suicidal war veterans and turns them into soldiers for a coming alien invasion they somehow know about. The author's military background (as in his SEAL TEAM 666 series) once again shines here as we get to know several kick ass soldiers who begin to understand they may be the world's only hope for survival.

But the "Cray" are what make this one so addictive. They're an alien race sent here to inflict even more damage after most of the world's cities are destroyed. Horror fans will be thrilled with the amount of creature action going on here, and the action in general is nearly non-stop.

If you like alien invasion tales, you'll probably enjoy this, and there's a promise of more to come. Despite similarities to other tales in the subgenre, Ochse keeps things fresh, especially during the first phase of the soldiers' training.

-Nick Cato

Until Next Week ...