Monday, February 16, 2015

Reviews for the Week of February 16, 2015

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

THE BELL WITCH by John F.D. Taff (2013 Books of the Dead Press / 266 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Something about phrases like “based on actual events” in anything with a modern setting … hauntings, possessions, other such ‘paranormal activities … rarely fill me with confidence. Yet, give me the same thing with a historical setting, where decades or centuries have had a while to build up the legend-making and mystique, and I’m all for it.

Maybe it’s the weight of time, the enduring power of folklore and just what hangs on to linger in the psyche of successive generations. The ones that are good, gripping, and compelling are the ones that hang around. Or maybe I’m just a history geek. Either way. The Bell Witch, a fictionalized account of a American ghost story, hits the right notes of tradition and nostalgia.

That said, my being a history geek DID give me a few stumbles here and there on this one, mostly in terms of what’s described as frontier life in the 1820s but depicted as being rather more modern and comfortable. Plus some too-modernish dialogue and attitude nitpicks (use of “okay,” for instance, is one of my peeves).

I was, however, able to overlook those issues in favor of an engrossing, intriguing tale with classic elements – sin, shame, secrets, redemption, revenge.

At the center of it is the Bell family, reasonably prosperous landowners. If patriarch Jack has a temper, and a reputation with certain other local ladies … if his wife Lucy and eldest son John have been able to turn a blind eye to their suspicions … if there are rumors among the slaves … well, it’s no one else’s concern, is it?

Except that strange things begin happening at the Bell homestead. Things that the doctor can’t explain. Nor can the learned schoolmaster, or the reverend. Before long, everybody knows about the maladies daughter Betsy is suffering, and the way objects move or get broken, and the sounds.

Before long, the presence, or spirit, or whatever is begins to speak up. She wants to be called the Witch, she causes exotic items to materialize, she gives visions of what she says is the future, resists all efforts to get rid of her, and is pretty blatant about her intention to punish and destroy Jack Bell.

With some predictable elements and some nice surprises, and the Witch presented as a full character both sympathetic and menacing, it’s a change of pace from the usual, and well worth a look.

-Christine Morgan

HEAVEN, HELL, OR HOUSTON by Thom Erb (2014 Severed Press / 167 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Former marine and current Texas Ranger Jay McCutcheon may have just lost his job. As he speeds back to Houston to deal with his wife, he rescues a runaway teenaged girl at a truck stop and decides to further help her out.

Elsewhere, Mexican gang banger Isandro escapes the jail cell McCutcheon put him in. He's back with his old crew, partying and heading a mindless killing spree. And as fate would have it, he comes face to face with McCutcheon at a roadside diner. Chaos ensues.

Oh, there's also one other little problem: it seems terrorist attacks on all major American cities have gone down at the same time of Isandro's escape, and whatever was in those bombs is causing the dead to come back to life (don't roll your eyes. Stay with me for a second...)

Erb's debut novel reads like Tarantino directing a zombie film, but the zombies in this author's apocalypse play second fiddle to the crime drama that drives the story. McCutcheon is a booze-fueled antihero dealing with his demons while trying to do the right thing as his young side kick Stacy Jo provides just the right amount of blooming badassness to compliment his antics. Here's a duo with a promising future despite it being the beginning of the end.

I'm looking forward to the promised sequel, and hoping we get some answers (such as why this "apocalypse" is happening in 1985). But either way, Erb has me hooked with this fun, brutal, and fast-paced tale even those tired of the undead can appreciate.

-Nick Cato

OCTOBER DREAMS II edited by Richard Chizmar and Robert Morrish (2015 Cemetery Dance / 400 pp / trade hardcover, limited editions to be released later in 2015)

Why isn’t it Halloween again yet? Yeah I know I know other months other holidays etc. and Halloween is only supposed to be apportioned a small segment of the calendar. Fortunately, for those of us who do sort of a weird variation of end-movie Scrooge and keep it in our hearts all the year, there are books like this to help.

October Dreams II: A Celebration of Halloween, is a wonderful mingling of fiction and non from some of the top names in the genre. Several are essays on the prompting theme of “My Favorite Halloween Memory,” and oh wow did those hit close to home!

Maybe part of it’s a generational thing. I was a kid in the 1970s and 80s, as were many of the contributors. Reading their essays overwhelmed me with nostalgia and poignant lament. THIS is the way Halloween WAS, for us, back then. Before the internet. Before seatbelt laws and helmet laws and helicopter parents (we grew up to become them, which is creepy when you think about it).

But yeah, wow, the memories. Those cheap plastic costumes with the stupid elastic-band masks … the kind of peanut-butter-flavored taffy chews in orange and black twists of wax paper … being that one weird kid into monster movies … except, don’t you have to wonder, how many of us there were, hiding it from each other? A lot more, I now suspect, than we ever imagined.

The essays will, if you were an American kid of that certain age, take you back. If you’re of a later generation, hey, maybe it’ll help you understand us old fogeys. Or, you can just point and laugh and eyeroll, the way my own daughter does when we watch “I <3 the 70s/80s.”

Speaking of stuff to watch on TV, Lisa Morton is a triple-threat in this book, because not only does she contribute a great story and an essay, but a comprehensive write-up on the history of Halloween in television.

And the stories, oh, the stories! A Ray Bradbury, obviously – and to whom the book’s rightly dedicated. A Dean Koontz I somehow had never read before. John Skipp. Gemma Files. Whitley Striber. Robert Bloch. The lineup of all-stars just goes on and on.

When I saw that one of the tales was from horror-master Robert McCammon, I confess I was a little extra nervous; an earlier Halloween story of his results in recurring nightmares whenever I read it. Not that I was going to let that stop me, of course, and I’m glad. “Strange Candy” is a thing of subtler, deeper, quieter fright … the kind of fright also tinged with weird awe and beauty.

Is it peculiar to say that I could see this book having a place in high school or college courses? Literature, folklore, sociology, cultural studies, psych … it’s all here. So much to enjoy, so much to make you think and reflect.

-Christine Morgan

CRACKED SKY by Ben Eads (2015 Omnium Gatherum / 99 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Eads' novella is a powerful tale of two parents, Stephen and Shelley, dealing with the death of their young daughter. Killed in a car accident, we learn there was more behind things than a mere tragedy. And when Stephen begins to get signals that his daughter may still be alive (albeit in another dimension), he comes up with a plan to rescue her.

The author does a great job showing the parent's grief, especially with Stephen. The first half of the story reminded me of early Gary Braunbeck, then the second delves into some serious dark fantasy and even bizarro territory (despite NOT being a bizarro novella). Good stuff even if a bit familiar.

-Nick Cato

WZMB by Andre Duza (2014 Deadite Press / 290 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Bringing you the end of the world, live on the airwaves!

Martin Stone, radio talk-jock, is in his studio, in the middle of his show, when it begins. At first, he and everybody else think it must be a hoax – the call-ins, the videos, the reports of sudden attacks, savage bites, the dead getting back up to continue the rampage.

Yep, it’s the zombie apocalypse. In the blink of an eye, society’s gone mad, disintegrating into chaos. People scatter, trying to find their loved ones, trying to escape, trying to survive.

Skip ahead a few months, and the Martin Stone Show is back on the air … courtesy of the patronage of the Brand Compound, one of the strongest remaining fortified settlements. Martin may be popular with his listeners, but his outspoken attitude doesn’t win him a lot of friends with the higher-ups in the compound. Their broadcast goes out to other scattered enclaves and groups of survivors, delivering vital news and updates along with their regular programming.

Well, okay, the regular programming may have changed some from the old days. They still get their callers and kooks, but their interviews are with security guards, doctors, specialists. “Closest Call” is a popular segment, in which guests relate their – you guessed it, closest calls, most harrowing encounters, etc.

And, as is often the case in these kinds of books, no matter how strong and secure a compound against the legions of zombies is … something’s always going to give, something’s going to go wrong. There are other factions: crazies and saboteurs, religious fanatics, looters, scum, and just plain ol’ bad guys. Not all of them are on the outside, either.

The appearances of the characters, as is fitting for radio, is pretty much left to the reader’s imagination, as inspired by their speech. I know I formed vivid images in my mind of Martin, Raven, Larry, Ted, Dave, and the others.

The story’s told in the form of radio show transcripts, descriptions of clips, eyewitness accounts, and so on. It’s a clever, condensed, effective style that works well. You might not think so, especially when it gets to the high-action scenes and dramatic finale, but it does. Really well.

-Christine Morgan

SS DEATH SIMULATION by Michael Faun (2014 Dynatox Ministries / 105 pp / paperback)

Show of hands here: how many of you either rented (during the VHS days) or traveled to the seedy side of town to see films with titles such as SS HELL CAMP or ILSA: SHE WOLF OF THE SS? Well, even if you didn't, I DID and am thrilled about this new series of "Nazisploitation" novellas from Dynatox Ministries. The first by Michael Faun is everything fans of this genre could hope for.

It's 1942 in Sweden. A local Mortician learns a woman named Signhild may be harboring SS members for a potential invasion from Germany. She's also the headmistriss of a brothel that caters to the SS, but little does Signhild know that her two latest sex workers are in cahoots with the Mortician and his small band of rebels.

SS DEATH SIMULATION is a violent, campy, and at times terrifying look into the perversions of the SS. This homage to the Nazisploitation films of yesteryear also stands on its own as a nasty yet entertaining slab of b-movie madness. An exciting, fun ride for those with the stomach for it.

-Nick Cato


BLOKE'S TERRIBLE TOMB OF TERROR (Issue 10 / 56 pp / magazine-sized print and pdf edition available / find issues here: TOMB OF TERROR)

This independent horror comic brings the classic EERIE and CREEPY style of storytelling back to the masses. The 10th issue is the first I've read and I'll surely be catching up on what I've missed.

Presented here are 5 tales of old-school comic fun, including the scifi horror hybrid PARASITE (that reminded me of a classic Wally Wood), a second scifi horror, followed by my favorite of the issue, ONE BOY'S QUEST that's highlighted by some great artwork courtesy of Juan Carlos Abraldes Rendo. You can't go wrong with some underwater terror, and BENEATH THE SURFACE brings the goods and again brings the great Wally Wood to mind. Capping things off is COPYCAT, a futuristic tale of mankind's progress and one woman's unique way of fighting cancer. Fun, spirited stuff from authors Jason "The Bloke" Crawley and Mike Hoffman, along with a host of artists. Check 'em out.

-Nick Cato


COMING EVENTUALLY (this sucker's HUGE!):

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Reviews for the Week of February 2, 2015

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

BLACK MELT by Indy McDaniel (2013 CreateSpace / 194 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

In terms of snappy patter and witty banter, I was familiar with the screwball caper and screwball comedy … I’d not previously encountered this level of screwball horror. Not slapstick horror-comedy like Evil Dead, but really icky, nasty-bad-dark stuff. With snappy patter and witty banter.

What a combo! And it works! The characters deliver dialogue in a way that is both believable (because it doesn’t feel like created characters in a book) and not (because we all WISH we could be that sassy and clever in real life!). I found myself enjoying that and would have read a whole book of it even without the smut and gore.

But ohhhh is there smut and gore. Lots of both. Lots of graphic, very graphic both. The story opens with our protagonist, Madison, walking in on her cheating husband … and her sister. Her reaction is a perfectly reasonable tirade of swearing, followed by a perfectly reasonable bout of rebound revenge nookie.

My only criticism of the sex scenes isn’t even a criticism, more of an observation; sometimes, you can just kinda tell when it’s a female-POV written by a guy. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. I noticed it, though, and figured it was worth a mention.

Anyway! Skip ahead a few years. A meteorite has been recovered, carrying what appears to be some sort of extraterrestrial fungus. Madison, a noted mycologist, is part of the small, elite team chosen to study this incredible find. It does mean being shut away in a secure lab deep below ground, with nobody but her teammates for company.

Well, her teammates, and her friend with the rechargeable batteries. The close quarters and security monitors don’t allow for a lot of privacy; even if they did, Madison is, uh, noisy. She soon strikes up a special relationship with another of the team, as well … one that takes a nightmarish turn as some problems develop with their test samples.

They discover the fungus from the meteorite is far from dead, far from inert. It’s very lively. Fast. Hungry. It has a terrible, voracious, contaminating effect. As long as they can keep it quarantined in the subterranean lab, the world might be safe … but to do that means they’re unable to leave, or send for help from outside.

This is a squishy, gooshy, squelchy story about ravenous appetites of many descriptions. The writing is great fun, both talented and skillful. I know a lot of writers who’d be tempted to sneer it off because it began as a NaNo … but it was a NaNo from a couple years ago and has been given the proper finishing treatments and touches. This is how it should be done. This is an author to watch.

-Christine Morgan


DOLL FACE by Tim Curran (to be released 3/15 by DarkFuse / 264 pp / eBook)

A group of friends are driving home after a night of partying and find themselves in a small town named 'Stokes.' The place seems to be deserted, and worse, they can't find their way back to the main highway. As they look for a way out, our six friends are about to come face to face with a supernatural force that will test their mental and physical endurance in ways they never dreamed of...

At first they are confronted by what seems to be human dolls/mannequins, crudely stitched together and, after one nasty incident, they learn the dolls have hybrid flesh/mechanical innards. And when they find themselves split up, they encounter creatures also comprised of doll and human parts, one of which turns out to be among the most wicked creatures to come down the pike in ages.

The strongest character here is Ramona, who decides to follow a siren sound to an industrial complex that's apparently creating Stokes' monstrosities. Once there, she comes closer to understanding what they're up against, and eventually meets up with Lex, another one who followed the siren and they're now faced with battling the mastermind behind the cyberflesh evil that has entrapped them.

DOLL FACE is like an extreme episode of THE TWLIGHT ZONE. It begins with a familiar but spooky set up then quickly shifts into the violent madness Curran has become known for (what becomes of poor Chazz had me squinting worse than chalk being dragged across a black board). I think some of the second half could have been trimmed a bit, but overall this is a satisfying read that blends horror, cyberpunk (or steampunk, I'm not sure!), and good old fashioned scares into a hearty brew that will have fans racing to the final chapter.

-Nick Cato

MADNESS ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS edited by James Lowder (2014 Chaosium / 288 pp / trade paperback)

If there’s a hierarchy to the realm of Lovecraftian fic, I’m not sure where I’d stand, but I know when I recognize the names of some real heavy-hitters. Ken Hite, Robin Laws, Christopher Golden, Lucien Soulban and Cody Goodfellow are only some of those whose work appears in this classy book edited by James Lowder.

And speaking of classy, is there anything more evocative of class, of the golden age of the good old days of high-end travel and prestige, not to mention mystery and intrigue, than the fabled Orient Express? What a central setting to serve as a theme for any anthology; giving it an eldritch twist only enhances the experience!

A train might seem like a limitation; there’s only so much to do with the same route, right? Wrong. Each of these tales bring something different. Some are set during the glorious heyday of the Orient Express, others in later days when nostalgia comes up against the inevitable decay of time, still others transcend or step out of time altogether.

One of my stand-out favorites of the set is James L. Sutter’s “The God Beneath the Mountain,” which is set before the train ever makes its maiden voyage. After all, the tracks must be laid, tunnels must be hewn and blasted from the rock. It’s hard work, grueling, expensive, frightening and dangerous. Even more frightening and dangerous, as one young doctor is about to find out, than anyone ever imagined.

“Stained Windows,” by Joshua Alan Doetsch, is my other top fave (it was a close battle). It’s both nightmarish and dreamlike, a journey of true madness, brilliantly written and the best possible close to the book to make for maximum lingering unreality and can’t-stop-thinking-about-it effect.

I’ve sometimes had trouble getting into the writing style of Kenneth Hite, but in this one, I found his “La Musique de l’Ennui” surprisingly readable, refreshing, and fun. Besides, it takes a few affectionate jabs at the whole fandom phenom, and I can never resist a clever punny title.

A couple of other mentions before I end up listing the whole table of contents: “A Finger’s Worth of Coal,” by Richard Dansky, appealing to my interests in more-ancient-than-ancient history, time, horror, and destiny … as well as my fondness for really spectacular description. And Christopher Golden’s “Bound For Home,” in which Houdini attempts an escape more daring than even he’d bargained for.

The sixteen stories contained in this book are, let’s face it, pretty much riding in the first class cars. As one would have every reason to expect, from authors of this caliber. Well worth a look, and well worth a place on any Mythos afficionado’s shelf.

-Christine Morgan

WHAT ROUGH BEAST by James A. Moore and Charles R. Rutledge (2015 White Noise Press / 26 pp / limited edition chapbook)

The latest slick-looking chapbook from White Noise Press is a Western werewolf tale that (I'm assuming) takes place in the early 1900s. Deputy Tom Morton puts together a posse to find his wife when the stagecoach she's on goes missing. Among his crew are two strangers who help in ways Tom could've never imagined, especially when the wolves attack.

While I found the story here okay (werewolf fans will probably like it more than non wolfites, and it is exciting for such a short tale), WNP's presentation is once again to-die-for and includes different stocks of paper, beautiful artwork from Keith Minnion, and signatures from the authors and artist. Book collectors take note as this one's a real beauty.

-Nick Cato

CUPID IN BONDAGE by Wrath James White (2014 Deadite Press / 132 pp / trade paperback)

So, I’ve heard that a certain big online book retailer has some objections to listing this book because of the cover. Even with particular naughty bits blocked out, it’s, uh, quite a cover. Which we aren’t supposed to judge books by, but, in this case, it might be a safe bet … I mean whoa … this is some graphic smutkink goresmut kinkgore above and beyond.

The dedication, though, is the ultimate priceless touch. Simplicity itself, simplicity and beauty, a classic, so wonderfully wrong and wonderfully right, one can’t help but be amazed.

Much the same can be said for many of the artful turns of phrase found throughout. A few words here, and I didn’t think my soul would ever stop screaming. A different few words there, and the artistry is stunning. Yet a different set of words, and the room around you will just about melt from the hotness.

The intro, “Coming out Kinky,” is a maybe-TMI must-read, serving both as a warning of what you’re getting yourself into, and a stark, insightful, honest glimpse into the author’s life. Into parts of his life and soul and self where most of us might never be brave enough to turn an introspective eye.

Then there’s a whole lot of spanking. And bondage. And cutting. And blood, as well as bodily fluids of every other sort.

A couple of the stories were almost too extreme even for me – in fiction, that is; in real life I am a total squicky wuss who bruises at the drop of a hat, so, the lifestyle and world within them is WAY beyond my comfort zone. I almost had to stop reading more than once; with “Razor Blade F*** Toy,” I probably should have because halfway through was too much but by then horrified fascination and compulsion would not let me look away, and it still kept going further and further beyond all sane endurance.

But this is by no means mere torture porn, not shock for shock’s sake and gratuitous grossness. The psychology of domination and submission is not just revealed but dissected (for that matter, so are several of the characters). Religion, faith, need and belief are examined as well, along with control, power, death, sex, escape, and freedom.

In prose and in poetry, and in detail that is the very meaning of excruciating and exquisite, Cupid in Bondage brings 124 pages of pleasure and pain, terror and turn-on. Your bottom may not be paddled sore and bright red by the time you’re done, but your mind probably will be.

-Christine Morgan