Monday, January 19, 2015

Reviews for the Week of January 19, 2015

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

SECRET THINGS by Stacey Longo (2013 Books and Boos Press / 170 pp / trade paperback)

This collection of 13 tales (8 presented here for the first time) deals with secrets that can sometimes have fatal consequences, and along with chills you'll find some finely-blended in humor.

The opening title tale is a short and sweet revenge yarn with a neat twist ending. 'Good Night, Francine,' shows what can happen to a snobby old woman, while 'Time to Let Go' is a solid, quiet ghost story about lost love.

'Cliffhanger' is not recommended for those afraid of heights (::raises hand::) and 'Josephine' features another elderly protagonist as she contemplates a former crush. I keep saying I'm sick of zombie stories, but 'Love Stinks' brings the laughs along with the grue. One of my faves of the collection.

SECRET THINGS is then interrupted by 'Interlude: a Tale That Failed,' a neat little rib-tickler that leads us into 'Trapped,' yet another one featuring an elderly woman who finds herself in a desperate situation during a major blizzard. 'Max Elliott, Exterminator' shows us what a zombie hunter does now that the apocalypse has ended, then we get into my favorite of the collection, 'People Person,' about a young woman who can't seem to fit in anywhere ... even on a sparsely populated, isolated island. It's like a mix of THE WICKER MAN and EATING RAOUL...

'Mother's Day' is another undead-fueled caper featuring a very stubborn antagonist, then 'Denny's Dilemma' is a heartbreaker about a relationship that could have been. Longo wraps things up with 'Woman Scorned,' where a cheating boyfriend is dealt with in a clever manner.

A couple of stories in SECRET THINGS might not be considered "horror," but the author keeps everything dark and mysterious. Even when something feels a bit familiar (such as in 'Mother's Day,') Longo manages to pull an ace at the last minute and give things her own angle. Good stuff.

-Nick Cato

CRADLE OF THE DEAD / DARK WAVES by Roger Jackson / Simon Kearns (2014 Blood Bound Books / 244 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I’m old enough and hoarder enough to actually still own several of those ancient twofer paperbacks, the kind with two stories in and you’d turn the book over. Being asked if I was interested in reviewing a modern take on that, you can believe I wasted no time saying yes.

Now, you might wonder if this would get tricky, given ebooks and all. Would I have to upend my screen? Read upside down? As it happens, no. And, bonus, it removes any angst over which way to shelve it!

What it does mean is two quick, pulpy-fun reads in one! They share a similar overall theme of places with bad and/or haunted histories – an abandoned asylum in CRADLE OF THE DEAD, and a quaint old inn in DARK WAVES – and the ways the evils of the past can reach out for revenge.

I initially thought, based on title alone, that DARK WAVES would turn out to be one of those oceanic horror stories, with adrift lifeboats, sharks, starvation, etc. Instead, I got The Dawlish Inn, and since I’m a history geek with a particular fondness for the British Isles, hey, that was even better! I lingered, reading and re-reading the descriptions and details of the inn, far longer than any normal person probably would have done.

The inn, of course, is believed to be haunted. The protagonist is not exactly a ghost-hunter, but a scientific acoustic engineer – those waves? sound waves, durr – who’s been studying the physical effects certain vibrations can have. By disrupting those, he’s ended more than a few ‘hauntings.’ He expects that his new assignment to check out this inn will be no different.

(also, the chocolate? brilliant, love it; a legit psychopharmalogical explanation for post-Dementor treatment!)

CRADLE OF THE DEAD takes the abandoned-asylum setting but doesn’t toss in urban explorers or anybody digging into whatever atrocities went on there … it’s a handy, isolated place for a local crime boss to bring the people he needs to deal with. There’s even a potter’s field for body disposal.

Of course, when the crime boss decides one of his own men has to be eliminated, that poor guy already has a good idea of what’s waiting for him. But, little do any of them know that Alderville Asylum has been harboring its own other secrets, and the time has come for those secrets to be revealed. Soon, the chase is on, as would-be victims try to escape their captors, and the captors themselves are beset by worse threats.

Each book alone is a worthy, enjoyable read. Together as a package deal, you definitely won’t be going wrong.

-Christine Morgan

SPLATTERPUNK #6  (edited by Jack Bantry)

SPLATTERPUNK is a fairly new ‘zine published in the UK.  It’s not fancy – it’s just plain printer paper stapled together, like so many ‘zines back in the “old days” before the Internet. But make no mistake – this publication packs a nasty punch.

Issue #6 boasts stories by some great writers – James Newman, Bracken MacLeod, Ryan Harding, and Kit Power, to name a few. There are also columns and book reviews.

The stories are nasty, disgusting, and offensive. I loved them all. Ryan Harding’s “Threesome” had a few gruesome twists, and had a wonderful nod to the delightfully horrific 80s movie Re-Animator. Bracken MacLeod’s “The Texas Chainsaw Breakfast Club OR I Don’t Like Mondays” is an obvious tribute to The Breakfast Club, and it works perfectly. James Newman’s “Big Girls Help Their Mommy” is disturbing, but as a mom myself, sad as well. Great story.

“Fuck Shock” by Brendan Vidito and “Lifeline” by Kit Power are both stories that will make the reader’s skin crawl – and both have consequences in regards to sex, either having it or thinking about it. But which character gets it worse?

The columns are fun to read. From Kit Power writing about extreme horror as a squeamish fan, James Newman giving a list of non-horror movies with unsettling moments, to John Boden’s journey as a horror fan from childhood to now, all are interesting and well-written.

The editor, Jack Bantry, gives a list of his favorite splatterpunk novels throughout the years, which should inspire readers to check them out.

I hope this ‘zine grows – it deserves a wide audience. It’s encouraging that there are already six issues, and I don’t see any signs of it folding. The small press is tough, so check this ‘zine out. Buy it, and tell your friends!

This issue was dedicated to the memory of J.F. Gonzalez, a wonderful horror writer who recently left us way too soon.

More info here: Splatterpunk

-Sheri White

THE BONEYARD by Keith Minnion (2014 Bad Moon Books / 354 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

In Minnion's novel THE BONE WORMS, Detective Fran Lomax is investigating a series of unusual and gruesome murders in the Philadelphia area. Mutilated bodies are being discovered with their bones missing, and the corpses are left with precision-quality scars that suggest a master serial killer is at work. But the more Lomax digs in, the stranger the case becomes.

On the other side of town, two senior citizens (who have been friends since they were children) share an apartment, one protecting the other from a bizarre situation they shared back in the early 1920's. Like the victims Lomax is dealing with, each of these men are physically scarred, and each one knows who (or what) is responsible for the recent rash of murders.

Minnion's blend of supernatural horror and police procedural is packed with suspense, gut-wrenching violence, and good, old-school horror that will keep fans glued to the pages. As a bonus, the short story on which the novel was based, UP IN THE BONEYARD, is included. With cover and interior artwork by Steven Gilberts, THE BONEYARD is a slick package that's highly recommended.

-Nick Cato

FLOPPY SHOES APOCALYPSE edited by Alex S. Johnson and John Ledger (2014 JEA Wetworks / 232 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

“A Clown Horror Anthology” is what it says, and yes indeed that’s what you get. Clowns. Yeesh. I mean really, think about it, loads of people are scared of spiders or snakes, too … but you don’t generally have them at your birthday party, featured prominently in toys and nursery d├ęcor, or cavorting down Main Street in a parade.

There’s a strong tendency to blame Stephen King for it. Exhibit A: Pennywise; case closed. Except, no, we’re shooting the messenger there. King didn’t create or cause the phobia; with Pennywise, he tapped into what was already there. Same with that awful cymbal monkey. I was scared of those long before I read his story.

But, I digress. I am not writing an intro for this book. Nor do I need to, because it’s already got one, a bang-up good one by Magan “Lovey” Rodriguez. Who is – prepare yourselves – one of them. An actual clown. The introduction delivers such an entertaining slice of history with psychological and literary overviews that I for one would read an entire book on the subject. I learned some stuff! I was intrigued enough to want to go learn more stuff! In the intro to a clown horror anthology! Maybe it’s just me, but I found that pretty cool.

And then there are the stories, seventeen of them, beginning with a bouncy little poem. Mary Genevieve Fortier’s “Every Nine and Twenty” has such a catchy rhyme and rhythm that you could easily imagine it being chanted at skip-rope, if you like your skip-rope rhymes featuring blood, blades, eyeballs and entrails.

Many of the stories share some common elements – beyond, y’know, that of clowns, which is a given. There are greasepaint serial killers, characters with memories of horrible things done to them as kids by clowns, evil traveling carnivals, circuses of the damned, and so on.

But there are also were-clowns … clown cults … clown contagions … some truly disturbing cotton candy scenes (and balloon animals, oh, the balloon animals!) … kinky clown sex … hellish/clownish future dystopias …

One of my personal standout pieces is Aaron Besson’s “Fool Moon,” a terrific and original noir piece in which a couple of Mimetown detectives are on the trail of a murderer. It’s got the whole cop-drama aspect, a weird sort of Roger Rabbit vibe in places, and tons of cleverness with the pantomime and attention to detail.

Some of the splashiest, gooshiest scenes appear in “Under the Clown Moon,” by Jim Goforth; I had a bit of trouble suspending my disbelief over the actual moon part – TA to an astronomy professor in college, I had earth-moon-sun diagrams embedded in my brain – but the chaotic goresplat made for tons of fun.

So. If you are already disturbed by clowns, this book offers plenty to make you shiver and flinch … if you are not already disturbed by clowns, quite possibly you will be by the time you’re done. You’ll smell the popcorn and hear the calliope music, so step right up, ladies and gents, step right up! Ringside seats for the first of what will be a whole three-ring circus!

-Christine Morgan


Monday, January 5, 2015

Reviews for the Week of January 5, 2015

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

THE MARIONNETTISTE OF VERSAILLES AND OTHER ODDITIES by Adam Millard (2014 Crowded Quarantine Publications / 218 pp / trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook

I confess, I picked up this collection on a whim without realizing it was by the same author responsible for the holly-jolly-bomination of THE HUMAN SANTAPEDE … my delight and surge of anticipatory confidence upon making that connection was substantial.

And it was not in vain. While the stories herein do not go for the same all-out outrageousness, they are all gorgeously written and contain several gem-like moments of description and artful turns of phrase. If a few of them do turn out the way you might expect, they do so with smooth style. The ones that don’t, the ones that throw in some twists, are creepy-good fun.

With 25 such well-done stories to choose from, I found it harder than usual to single out only a few favorites. “Lythalia Calling” is definitely high among them, though. It’s a beautiful piece about a man who sees a strange girl dancing in his garden midnight after midnight, and what happens when he finally decides to approach.

“Hair” is one with the above-mentioned twist ending; it’ll keep you guessing and second-guessing, even though you’re sure you know, right up to the finish. So is “What’s She Got That I Haven’t?” in which a two-timer thinks he can get away with hosting both ladies at the same party.

“Bug Boy” is compellingly nasty, sickening but somehow hard to look away from. And “Sparrows” would have been right at home in my Teeming Terrors anthology; I loved the vivid, visual, visceral scenes of fluttering, pecking carnage.

“7:17 From Suicide Station” is, itself, a lot like the train in the story … a building tension like gathering steam and speed on its inexorable one-way course. By contrast, “Nyogtha of the Northern Line” is another kind of train story altogether, part Barker and part Lovecraft but ultimately something else altogether.

In “Food of Love,” the relationship between a devoted husband and his bedridden wife conveys the oddest, most unsettling overlap of sentimentality and revulsion. Try and say, “Awww!” and “Eeww!” at the same time. Not easy. But this one invokes it.

The stories here range from history and mystery to sci-fi and otherworldly, a nice mix of something for everyone … provided ‘everyone’ is maybe a little morbid or bent … then again, well, aren’t we?

-Christine Morgan

PLAGUE OF DARKNESS by Daniel G. Keohane (2014 Other Road Press / 252 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Gem Davidson's new neighbors live in a house that was once a church called Saint Gerard's. It had been closed down by an Episcopal bishop eight months earlier, its altar removed in a "deconsecration" service. While not religious, Gem wonders how a church could be taken away so easily, and wonders what the inside now looks like.

But when Gem and a few others (including Saint Gerard's former pastor) visit the new home of Bill and Seyha Watts, they find themselves surrounded by an invading darkness so deep they're unable to leave ... until they begin to confront ghosts from each of their pasts. But even when they begin to reveal their secrets, the darkness grows, causing them to question whether or not they may already be in hell...

Keohane's latest religious-themed thriller will make those afraid of the dark squirm in their seats, as he makes darkness (both literal and figurative) as creepy as Lucy Taylor made the abscence of sound in her classic short story 'The Silence Between the Screams.'

PLAGUE OF DARKNESS is easily Keohane's best novel to date. It's a solid, intelligent horror novel that will have you thinking long after you finish it.

-Nick Cato

THE FINAL WINTER by Iain Rob Wright (2014 SalGad Publishing Group / 252 pp / trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook)

There are so many, many ways our world can end … and Wright seems to be having a lot of fun working his way through the list. And since I can’t get enough of that kind of thing, I’m happy to keep right on reading along.

The culprit this time is the cold, a global deep-freeze in which it just suddenly starts snowing. Everywhere. Never mind climate or season or any of it; just cue the inexplicable blizzards! It’s The Day After Tomorrow but bigger, taking over both hemispheres. Though, in this story, the larger scope of the rest of the world is pretty well left to fend for itself off-screen.

The focus stays up-close and personal on a struggling English neighborhood. With the roads closed, the power out, and the phones not working, those stranded at their shops seek refuge at the local pub along with the bartender and her regulars, and the odd jovial stranger passing through.

It is not the most convivial gathering right from the start. Even if these were all folks who enjoyed each other’s company under normal circumstances, well, these are anything but normal. Tensions pile higher as the snowdrifts do. Personalities clash. Secrets and resentments fester. Backstories unfold in skillfully-handled twists and layers. They’re running low on fuel for the fireplace, not to mention food. The beer is going frozen solid.

As if all that’s not recipe enough for trouble on its own, the weirdness leaps to new levels. Some survivors come in with tales of seeing bizarre, deadly figures in the storm. Eerie flames appear to dance atop the snow. Hallucinations, they’d like to think; delusions brought on by the stress and the extreme cold.

Until a mangled, bloody body comes crashing through the window with an ominous message carved into its flesh, and the people trapped in the pub realize they are rapidly running out of time. Survival might not be an option, let alone salvation.

A chilling read in more than one way, perhaps best enjoyed while bundled up in comfy jammies by a cozy fire, with a nice big mug of something warm.

-Christine Morgan

SLUSH by Glenn Rolfe (2014 Alien Agenda Publishing / 115 pp / eBook)

This is a collection of twelve short horror stories by a relative newcomer in the genre. From gross to somewhat poignant, there is something for everyone who is a fan of horror fiction. And while many of the stories are predictable, they are written well enough for even a jaded reader to enjoy.

The first story, ‘Skull of Snakes,’ is a cursed-object tale, but the characters make the reader care about what happens to them. It’s the summer of 1989 in a small town, and a group of friends are hanging out at the train tracks when one of them finds a coin. Soon after, tragedy befalls them, and they try to find out the coin’s history and what is happening to them. 

‘The Curse’ reminded me a bit of the film THE CRAFT, with teen girls who are wronged and plan revenge. It’s a little far-fetched, but still a fun read.

‘Something Lost’ is a sweet, tear jerker tribute to the author’s father, lost at too young an age. Sad, but also moving and sweet.

Anybody who has had severe acne will feel both sympathy and horror for the title character in ‘Henry.’ While seeing a dermatologist would have been Henry’s best bet, he takes care of the problem in his own twisted way.

The rest of the stories are enjoyable, some disturbing and twisted, but nothing wrong with that! If you’re looking for a new author in horror, Glenn Rolfe is a good one to check out.

-Sheri White

SWEET STORY by Carlton Mellick III (2014 Eraserhead Press / 120 pp / trade paperback)

The author’s introduction warns that, despite the innocuous title and charming cover, this is not a children’s book. Do believe him, and how! SWEET STORY takes a simple wish, generous in spirit, and extrapolates it into a cataclysmic nightmare extinction event.

Things start off idyllic enough, at least for little Sally. She’s a happy girl, maybe a bit spoiled by her whimsical daddy, maybe a bit neglected by her aloof mother and ignored by her totally-goth-and-stuff teen sister … but she’s got dollies with the secret abilities to move and talk .. and she loves nothing more than to chase after rainbows.

One of these days, she’s sure, she’ll find the end of a rainbow, which is where magic happens and wishes are granted. When that day comes, she’s even willing to follow it into the blurry, sad part of town, and to put up with the obnoxious lazy fat boy from next door tagging along (though she’s very much not thrilled with the wish that HE makes).

The poverty and despair she found in the blurry part of town makes Sally all the more determined to do something nice. So, when her chance comes, she wishes for something she thinks will delight everyone – that it will rain candy! What could possibly be bad about that?

At first, she’s not sure it worked. Days go by without any rain at all. But then, strange clouds appear in the sky, and the next thing she knows, candy comes raining down. People are loving it! Dancing and cheering, scrambling to scoop it up from the streets like kids at the world’s biggest pinata party –

Except, well, it does rain kind of hard. You think hailstones are bad? And there are limits to the amount of candy anybody can eat before feeling sick; even four-year-olds given free rein on a Halloween trick-or-treat bucket are going to have their fill sooner or later. Not to mention the widespread panic, ecological effects, and societal collapse that soon follow.

This one goes to some dark, very dark places. However insidiously sinister and creepy you may have considered Willie Wonka (original book and Gene Wilder film versions), it’s not got much on this beautiful black-humor twist on ruining innocence and destroying dreams.

-Christine Morgan