Sunday, March 29, 2015

Reviews for the Week of March 30, 2015

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

SLOWLY WE ROT by Bryan Smith (2015 Bitter Ale Press / 393 pp / trade paperback, eBook, and limited edition hardcover by Thunderstorm Books)

I'm beyond burned out on zombies, both in films and fiction. But when I heard Smith was writing a new zombie novel, I knew it'd be worth the wait. While SLOWLY WE ROT isn't as different as his 2006 novel DEATHBRINGER, ROT turned out to be an emotional roller coaster ride that countless "zombie authors" would be wise to take note of.

It's about 7 years after the undead have claimed the world. Noah lives on the east coast of the United States in an isolated mountain cabin, spending his days reading pulp westerns and living off the land. He sees few zombies, but the ones that come around his property are easily dispatched.

His quiet life changes when his thought-to-be-dead sister Aubrey shows up with an older, ex-marine named Nick. She's in a rage and forces him away from the house. Noah decides to trek west and look for a lost college love, whose California address and picture he kept saved.

On his trip, Noah encounters a psycho survivalist, a small army and a sheltered community where things go in directions you'll never see coming, and although this novel focuses mainly on the humans, there's plenty of gory zombie action to satisfy the most hardcore of horror fans.

There are a LOT of road trip zombie apocalypse novels, but few can touch the depths of SLOWLY WE ROT. Noah's battle with the undead pales to his pre and post apocalyptic struggle with alcohol, and I found myself cheering him on at every turn. Aubrey is also nicely fleshed out, as is Nick. These three characters won't be leaving my mind any time soon.

Whether zombies are your thing or not, SLOWLY WE ROT is an exceptional novel and will easily be regarded as a classic of the subgenre. Don't miss it.

-Nick Cato

SHUTDOWN by Shaun Meeks (2014 J. Ellington Ashton Press / 286 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

It starts with the archaeological find of the century, an Egyptian tomb older than any previously recorded. Naturally, the thing to do is open it even though the people paying for the dig are explicit in their orders not to. Naturally, what’s inside is a bad surprise … if a brief one.

Skip ahead, and the contents of the tomb have been taken away to a corporate genetic research super-lab where a world-changing experiment is underway … a rival company hires some experts to try and get the secrets … and, of course, the experiment itself goes dangerously wrong.

Enter a hacker called Mouse, whose job is to infiltrate the building security and computers. He already fears he’s in over his head, and his employers will probably try to kill him after, but the offered money is too good to pass up. Little does he, or anybody – except for us readers! – know, but the situation’s about to become a whole lot worse.

The head of security is paranoid with good reason, one of the employees has a psycho abusive husband who doesn’t like her being late home from work, and when the SHUTDOWN happens earlier than intended, it not only strands Mouse and several others in the building, it releases the test subjects.

Plenty of ingredients for a big bowl of bad-stuff-gonna-happen stew! With a couple of dubious questions left nagging at my brain – for instance, if security is so top-notch, how does the psycho abusive hubby expect to get in? or is he too raged-up to think about it and just lucks out by happenstance?

Is it weird that my favorite characters actually were the test subjects, Adam and Eve? I really liked them, especially their powers and the descriptions as they finally fully cut loose.

My biggest issues with the book were an excess of omniscience and narrator voice instead of sticking to character POV, and a lot of fleshed-out backstory for characters who don’t have a lot to do or aren’t around much. It also could’ve used a good final edit pass for little bloopers.

That said, overall it served up a cinematic and fun read, with plenty of action, twists, turns, exciting special effects, and fun.

-Christine Morgan

CRYSTAL ROSE by T.S. Roberts (2014 Dark Silo Press / 84 pp / eBook)

You ever watch one of those creepy ghost shows on T.V? You know, like, Ghost Hunters International, Paranormal Home Inspectors, or The Dead Files? One of those badass shows with the team of paranormal investigators with all that high-tech audio and visual equipment, usually led by a somewhat attractive clairvoyant much like, Amy Allan or Nadine Mercey from two of the shows mentioned above.

Crystal Rose is just that. She’s smart, witty, and beautiful with an equally devastating past as to why she even possesses the psychic powers she has in the first place, and, the business is even named after her, Crystal Rose and Associates (and, boy, do they have some guts when it comes to paranormal investigations). But, much like the family members of a loved one involved in the impending doom abound, she doesn’t remember the horrid events that may or may not have transpired, or in what specific order they happened (if at all). The story unfolds when she and her friends (Leah, Julie, Owen) are called to a certain house, a historic home in Savannah, Georgia, in which she is immediately overwhelmed by the entity haunting it. Just so happens that the dark power haunting it turns out to be one of her ex-boyfriends, who decides to let her in on a little secret about herself as he tells her how much love they were in before he died and that her real name is Sarah. After the accident, Crystal Rose lost it all. The one and only true love of her life and her memory. Not even the rest of her crew knows who she really is. So, they more than anybody can tell when she starts acting funny and keeping secrets from them. And, maybe this isn’t quite the right time or place to be falling in love, or to be the one keeping secrets from each other.

This book has a lot going on at all times and it keeps the pace moving quickly. There’s an evil arch nemesis, Madame Zephyra, who is trying to take all the fame and glory for solving their paranormal cases in a more mainstream media sort of light, a family history buried so deep beneath the soils of some old haunted stomping grounds, and a love story sob-thick enough to peel the paint of the walls and make some of the biggest and baddest demons turn puppy soft. The house feels all too familiar, and the crew is really starting to realize what it takes to lend a helping hand to a friend in the time of need. Crystal Rose needs help and comfort and guidance, just as much as she needs to remember what really happened on August 27th.

These books from Dark Silo Press are a lot of fun, very well written, creative, and unique in all the right ways, and I can’t wait to dig into some of the other horrific books they have to offer.

-Jon R. Meyers

ABRAM'S BRIDGE by by Glenn Rolfe (2015 Samhain Publishing / 85 pp / eBook)

Li’l Ron makes a new friend, Sweet Kate, and soon comes to realize she is dead. He wants to help her find peace, but to do that, he will need to delve into the small-town secrets nobody wants to talk about or reveal. When he discovers his father may have been involved, Li’l Ron pushes on to learn the truth, no matter how hurtful.

ABRAM'S BRIDGE is a ghost / coming-of-age story. It has been done many times, but the author handles it beautifully, creating a tale that draws the reader in and leads to a satisfying ending. There are clichés and tropes throughout, but the writing is good enough to overlook them.

At 85 pages, it’s a short read, but still packs a lot of story into few words. I’ve read short stories by the author before, and he’s very talented, so I’m looking forward to longer works by him.

-Sheri White

INTRUDER by Dan Foley (2015 Necon eBooks / Six StarTree Publications / 116 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

1970. The USS Hancock, a submarine armed with nuclear warheads, is about to depart for a three month patrol with a few new sailors among its crew. As the newbies adjust to undersea life, the Hancock's radar indicates a Russian sub is nearby. To avoid it, they dive to almost unheard of depths, and while down there, the angered spirit of a drowned German sailor from WW2 manages to board the sub.

Men on lonely watches begin to see things, and before long the entire crew of the Hancock understands something supernatural has taken up an unwelcome residence, and that it has found a way to drive each one of them out of their minds.

INTRUDER is a tense, claustrophobic thriller filled with a constant sense of impending doom, plenty of chills, and one wicked antagonist. There's a lot of military tech talk, but it doesn't slow down this quick-paced tale that even includes some finely placed (but brief) comedic relief.

Nazi zombies are so 2010. Bring on the Nazi ghosts!

-Nick Cato

THE RISING: DELIVERENCE by Brian Keene (2015 Deadite Press / 108 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Love this series, love this author, love this publisher … but just one thing … whoever had proofreading detail might’ve maybe dropped the ball a few too many times. I kept getting jarred out of the story, which is really too bad because it’s otherwise great.

THE RISING: DELIVERANCE takes us back in time to the very first days of The Rising itself, this time filling us in on how Reverend Martin ended up hiding out in his church before meeting Jim. We get to see more of the events from his perspective, which is able to look at things less as a personal crisis and more as a philosophical problem.

Here’s a good man, a man of faith, a man who’s served God for decades, who’s believed. Now this, and this is not much like what he’s been led to expect of the end times. It throws a lot of questions at him, and not a lot of comfort. It also shows his own struggles with despair, loyalty, courage and temptation.

As a bonus, this reissue of the 2010 edition includes two short stories. As a bonus, I say (and the author’s note says), but they’re far more than a bonus. They’re two VERY different takes on that bad ol’ Siqquism and everybody’s favorite legions-of-the-undead mastermind, Ob.

The first is “The Resurrection and the Life,” a historical piece going back to the first Rising … the one-man show involving Lazarus. Only, as a rather troubled Jesus soon realizes, his good friend Lazarus isn’t quite the same. It’s almost as if someone else, some other spirit, occupies his corpse …

The second brings us a fun bit of silliness holiday special in “The Siqquism Who Stole Christmas.” Sorry to say, this was where my inner proofreader had the most fits over the wrong homonym (but at least it was consistent, there’s that). Ob finds himself in another newly-deceased host, several miles up in a sleigh on a crisp winter night. From there, well, from there it just keeps on getting wackier.

Keene doesn’t want to be known as The Zombie Guy. That’s fair enough, and he’s woven satyrs, Lovecraftian nightmares, urban horrors and hauntings, primitive island savages, and more into the elaborate and expanding tapestry of his literary mythos. He’s certainly not JUST a zombie guy. But there’s something familiar and comforting about a revisit every now and then, and I was glad to see this one happen.

-Christine Morgan

THE ADHD VAMPIRE by Matthew Vaughn (2015 Bizarro Pulp Press / 74 pp / trade paperback)

As a fan of humorous horror, I love the premise of this one: Horace Dracul, the half brother of Dracula, gets loose on a cruise ship filled with geriatric sex addicts. He begins to feed off the elderly staff, but eventually meets his match in the form of a female (former) spy who also happens to be a cyborg.

While there are a couple of scenes that had me laughing out loud, Vaughn spends a bit too much time on adult diaper and feces gags, at times to the point you'll think he believes the only thing old people do is shit themselves. Yet with its over abundance of poop jokes aside, Vaughn's debut novella is full of cult-film style heart and is ridiculously entertaining.

I'll be keeping my eye on Vaughn. Once a few kinks are ironed out I can see some funny (and strange) stuff coming our way...

-Nick Cato

BURIED (THE COLONY, BOOK 6) by Michaelbrent Collings (2015 Amazon Digital / 217 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I thought this one was the conclusion of the series, and let me tell you, that had my anxiety levels spiking the closer I got to the last few pages. I wasn’t seeing ANY good way for the story to end, was expecting some hideous kill-everybody rocks-fall gotcha.

My relief upon discovering that there’ll be a next one … was only exceeded by my snarly frustration at another teasing cliffhanger. Aaaaaaaaaaargh!

So, where were we? At the end of Book 5, things had gone from already way beyond worse to really really really bad. Book 6 undergoes some drastic character and POV changes; if you’re all caught up so far, you’ll understand why. We last saw our ever-diminishing group of survivors pinned down in another doomed-looking scenario, about to all be wiped out.

Lucky for them, and for us too because otherwise there wouldn’t be much more story, a timely rescuer intervenes.

(by the way, for those of you just tuning in, the premise here is not just the zombie apocalypse but freaky mutating evolving xenomorph zombie monsters with some sinister hive-mind thing going on, and the entire series is taking place over a dizzying span of a few days)

The surviving survivors – I don’t want to give too many spoilers about who’s made it this far, but they are not in good shape, rocked by their ordeals and loss and despair – are taken to an underground survivalist bunker/shelter. For the first time since the world went insane, they could almost start to feel safe … if not for the disturbing psychic connection between some of their own number and the ravening hordes outside.

And, of course, as is the way with these things, no sanctuary can stay that way for long. There are some reasons to still need to venture outside. There’s the possibility – or certainty – that the undead menace will find them sooner or later, and be able to adapt enough to break in.

Keeping up the relentless high-octane action pace of the previous books, this one zooms right along with no pit stops or potty breaks until the above mentioned sudden to-be-continued end. By now, I really do think the author just enjoys tormenting us ...

-Christine Morgan

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Reviews for the Week of March 16, 2015

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

MISERY AND DEATH AND EVERYTHING DEPRESSING by C.V. Hunt (2014 Grindhouse Press / 98 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

When an Author Starts their latest collection with a story titled 'To Say Mother Teresa Was Shocked When She Woke Up in Hell Would be an Understatement,' chances are you're in for an unusual time. What follows this brief, lurid opener are five tales written from (mainly) angst-filled angles.

In 'Last Woman on Earth,' our narrarator goes to extreme lengths to ensure her title, then 'The Quarry' is a crime-gone-wrong piece that turns into a classic EC Comics-styled horror yarn. 'No Room for a Child' is another solid horror story with (for this collection) a semi-positive conclusion.

'Baby Hater' is a wickedly fun tale I had previously read in chapbook form, but enjoyed it even more the second time.

'Human Contact' features a loner who discovers love in a way he never expected, and finally 'The Last Entry' shows us what might happen should half of a cojoined twin die.

Hunt's six tales deliver the spooky, the weird, and even the heartfelt, often in ways most readers won't see coming.

-Nick Cato

RAVAGE by Iain Rob Wright (2014 SalGad Publishing Group / 265 pp / trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook)

Iain Rob Wright destroys the world again! I like seeing someone do what they enjoy, and he must be having fun because he’s still going strong. His books so far have proved fast-paced rollicking reads, good crunchy entertainment

This time, it’s sudden-onset plague. Starts off simple enough, just a cold, maybe the flu, but before anybody knows what’s happening, everything’s being overrun by infected crazies who attack anybody, even their nearest and dearest. One moment, people are fine; the next thing you know, it’s a rampaging free-for-all.

One of these, Nick, is already having a crappy day at work. Sales are miserable, and then some sick guy wanders into the store … then, delirious, bites one of his co-workers. All Nick wants is to get home and spend a nice evening with his family. But, when he gets there, it’s to find a sick kid and a frazzled wife.

Naturally, things get worse from there. And fast. The infected aren’t just infected. Nick has to face some of the most terrible decisions anybody ever will. He ends up on the run with some other unaffected people, random folks who lucked into a bus driver headed anywhere but here.

Their ultimate destination, after some troubles along the way – and some additions and subtractions to their party – proves to be a little wooded mountaintop resort with hotel, amusement park, and modest zoo. (some of the absolute best, most touching, most wrenching scenes in the book involve the zoo’s orangutans, though that may also have to do with me being a sucker for animals)

Another group of refugees are there, including the hotel manager and the zoo’s vet. Of course, as in any season of Survivor, when the tribes merge, the personality clashes, politics and jockeying for position increase exponentially. Alliances shift, betrayals happen.

Some standard stuff, some unexpected stuff, but all in all I think this is one of my favorites yet from this author.

-Christine Morgan

THE WRETCHED WALLS by Brian Kaufman (2015 Dark Silo Press / 95 pp / eBook) 

THE WRETCHED WALLS is as great of an adaption of vintage era pornography as it is a well-crafted modern day ghost story. The book keeps you on the edge of your seat at all times, leaving you left alone and dying to know what happens next as the mystery unravels just as fast as Garrett Jenkins’ life before his very own twisted eyes.

It all started with a Victorian home purchased for renovation. The Wretched Walls inside has just as much a story to tell as the protagonist in the story when he stumbles upon a box of nude photographs dated back to the 1920s and a dead squirrel with a shiny valuable stitched inside its rotting corpse, and the woman in the photographs looks just as familiar as she does dashing and entertaining, wearing leather and accompanied by vintage bondage gear and some of the first sex toys ever made. This house has history, man. Prohibition era alcohol and tobacco smuggling, family ties, failed relationships, abuse, all inside a once hopping “talk of the town” bordello with some of the finest girls around. It was one of the biggest, baddest, and most active of its time.

Garrett quickly becomes obsessed with the house and its story and his life begins to unravel at the seams when Molly breaks up with him, winter passes like it was yesterday, and everything falls apart as time appears to pass faster on the outside than it does on the inside, leaving the reader wondering what’s going to happen next, or if maybe the whole thing was just something he’d conjured up in his sick and demented head with his own imagination.

-Jon R. Meyers

HUMAN MONSTERS by Gregory Lamberson (2015 Meadllion Press / 406 pp /eBook out now, trade paperback to be released on 3/17/15)

The sixth and final installment in Lamberson's Jake Helman series finds former NYPD detective-turned-PI up against a bioengineered clone of Nicholas Tower, the foe who nearly killed him back in the first book, PERSONAL DEMONS.

NYC is recovering from the destruction caused in the last novel by the STORM DEMON. Helman is temporarily living with girlfriend (and badass detective) Maria Vasquez in Queens, trying to recover from his battle with the weather-manipulating goddess. But it seems some shady characters Jake has killed are showing face again, and when his former secretary is found murdered, security footage shows the perp to be ... Jake Helman.

While "clone" stories can be tiring, Lamberson works it well here, especially when a bioengineered version of his murdered wife appears, not to mention a duplicate of the soul-stealing serial killer who took her life.

Fans of the series should be satisfied, as old friends make appearances, imaginative monsters attack at full force, and the action level gets amped up to 11, making this final chapter a violent blast of pulp action horror that sends Helman out on top. I'm going to miss this guy.

Now where's the movie?

-Nick Cato


GIALLO FANTASTIQUE edited by Ross Lockhart (to be released 5/15 by Word Horde / 240 pp / trade paperback and eBook)

Trusting the editor, recognizing almost all of the contributor names right off the bat, I knew I was in for a great read … and was not let down. If anything, my expectations were surpassed and left humbled. Not only did I learn a lot merely from the introduction, I found the stories to be a lavish, sumptuous tapestry of luxurious surrealism and strangeness.

The ‘giallo’ portion of the title refers to yellow not so much as a color but as a feel, as a literary and cinematic theme involving crime, mystery and decadence. The ‘fantastique’ part is where elements of the eerie and paranormal come into play.

The result is a book of thirteen stories that hit all the right notes of the uncanny, executed with the effortless-seeming skill of creative talents who aren’t afraid to let their minds wander down mysterious paths and take yours along for the ride.

I mean, come on, here; it’s got stories by Adam Cesare, John Langan, Cameron Pierce … it’s got a Brian Keene tale about The Exit, a character kind of like a spider at the intersecting web-strands of the author’s various universes … sordid crimes and passions from Michael Kazepis … Anya Martin delving into a world of more-than-musical transcendence … a multi-layered, multi-leveled investigative exposé from Ennis Drake … and so very much more.

My personal favorites:

Garrett Cook’s “Hello, Handsome,” just the most wonderfully-crafted piece of unusual POV brilliance, rich with sensuousness, sensory detail, desire and obsession.

The chilling, erotic, and evil “Terror in the House of Broken Belles” by Nikki Guerlain; familiar with her from cons and social media, this was the first time I’d read one of her works. Daaaaang, wow, spectacular, I’ve been missing out!

MP Johnson’s “The Strange Vice of ZLA-313,” a striking departure yet fitting companion to the rest of the book, delivering deft world-building, humor, cleverness, and well-thought-out sexy robots.

Now, it may be fair to warn you that GIALLO FANTASTIQUE is not an easy read. You’ll have to pay attention, you’ll have to think and work, you can’t just coast along. Well, okay, maybe you could, but you’d likely get lost, and miss out on a lot of luxurious texture and depth. Don’t do that. You’ll be doing yourself, and these stories, a real disservice. Indulge. Enjoy. They ARE decadence.

-Christine Morgan

NECROSAURUS REX by Nicholas Day (2015 Bizarro Pulp Press / 64pp / trade paperback)

Martin is a mildly challenged janitor who loves dinosaurs and has a fascination with the film Jurassic Park. Imagine his surprise when he meets two scientists who have created a time machine; he begs them to send him back to the time of the dinos, but things take turns that get stranger by the minute.

About halfway into this debut novella, the tale becomes a twisted, violent version of the creation story. Day's tale delves into some deep issues yet never loses the reader with its outrageous scenarios. In fact the whole thing is ridiculously entertaining and a welcome addition to the continually growing bizarro world.

Fans of the weird will want this.

-Nick Cato

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

Deputy Tom Morton is waiting at the saloon for his wife Hanna to arrive home by stagecoach during a raging snowstorm. He asks some of the townsmen to join him in searching for the late stagecoach, worried it had run into trouble. But nobody wants to go due to recent wolf attacks. But then Kharrn, a stranger in town, volunteers, and so does Tom’s friend Deke. As they head out into the dark, they are joined by Crowley, a mysterious man Kharrn seems to know.

When they are set upon by wolves, Kharrn and Crowley don’t seem surprised at all. They are also not surprised to see that the wolves aren’t just wolves, but something far more dangerous  - and evil.

WHAT ROUGH BEAST is very short, but packs a wallop of a story in its few pages. Gruesome and terrifying, but also somewhat melancholy, you are left to wonder which species is truly cursed in its existence.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention just how gorgeous this chapbook is. Intricately-patterned tissue paper, beautiful fonts, textured paper, and fantastic illustrations are the perfect touches to this story. The chapbook to 150 copies for sale, so buy it before it’s sold out. You will regret missing out.

-Sheri White

PLAGUE OF THE UNDEAD by Joe McKinney (2014 Pinnacle / 432 pp / mass market paperback, eBook, and audiobook)

I’d been eagerly awaiting this one since I first heard of it at World Horror Con. While I enjoy the immediate post-outbreak civilization collapse as much as anybody, the prospect of seeing something set way later was bonus-points intriguing. I really want to read about what kind of societies would develop, years or generations on.

In that particular regard, I have to admit I was a little disappointed. Plague of the Undead is set thirty years after, but in a lot of ways, it’s hard to tell. Most of the various groups and enclaves of survivors could just as easily have formed and functioned pretty much the same way just within the first few months.

Now, don’t get me wrong; in THAT sense it’s a slam-dunk solid read. It just isn’t the whole cultural, anthropological, world-buildingy kind of thing I was craving. But c’mon, it’s Joe McKinney here. The guy couldn’t write a bad book on a bet.

The sheltered had-it-safe folks from the community of Arbella venture out into the wider world to see what’s what … and find it to be even uglier and more dangerous than they’d imagined. Their discussions about how to handle first contact – not with zombies, but with other living people – is made a moot point.

It’s another hard awakening for Jacob, who’s been groomed to take over as sheriff and already had to do some unhappy things in the course of duty. But even he is not prepared for the harsh realities of being captured, abused, enslaved.

And none of them are prepared for the sight of giant futuristic airships … or millions-strong herds of shambling undead following some strange almost-migratory compulsions … and they’re least of all prepared to discover hidden evil in their very midst.

The book features, in addition to the actual title novel, four bonus stories taking different looks at this falling-apart world. “State of the Union” is the harrowing adventure of a team of young diplomats caught on the other side of the world when the outbreak begins … “Jimmy Finder and the Rise of the Templenauts” looks at some of the scientific efforts to bring the world back under control … “Resurrecting Mindy” is a touching tale of tragic romance … and “Bury My Heart at Marvin Gardens” takes dedication to a loved one’s last wish to a surprising extreme.

-Christine Morgan


Monday, March 2, 2015

Reviews for the Week of March 2, 2015

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


THE LOST LEVEL by Brian Keene (2015 Apex Publications / 171 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Aaron Pace was a typical young man from Minnesota who happened to get involved with unusual things. His interest in mysticism and the occult helped him discover a way to travel to another dimension. In Keene's first novel in a planned series, Aaron finds himself in 'The Lost Level,' a place where anything and everything can and does happen.

Aaron becomes friends with a warrior woman named Kasheena and a hairy creature named Bloop (who looks like Beast from the X-Men). Together they travel across the unpredictable landscape trying to get to Kasheena's village. Along the way they are confronted by everything from a T-Rex to a giant robot, lizard men to nazi flying saucers and all sorts of animals and monsters. As with most Keene novels, the action comes fast and furious and doesn't let up until the final page. There's even some humor thrown in for good measure, my favorite a scene dealing with ... socks. 

No, this isn't a horror novel, but fans of the author will want to take note as things from his past novels are brought into the story, and may be included in future installments. There's plenty of horrific goings-on amidst the action, and it reads so quickly it feels more like a novella than a novel.

THE LOST LEVEL is a fun homage to old comics such as THE WARLORD, TV shows like LAND OF THE LOST, and all time travel type tales. This ends on a bit of a cliffhanger so be forewarned.

-Nick Cato

DEMONIC VISIONS 5 edited by Rob Smales (2014 Christopher P. Robertson / 254 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Are you ready for fifty MORE quick little rabbit-punches to your various nerve-endings? Because, if so, here they are in this latest – fifth! – installment of the prolific Demonic Visions series. Some familiar names and some new ones can be found among the lineup, and the stories offer another fun variety of reads.

As usual, I had a hard time narrowing my top picks to just a few, but, here goes:

“Muse Sick” by Shaun Avery will speak to the creative and artistic types among us … it’ll speak, and what it has to say may be tempting, but is also kind of clammy, cold, and skin-crawly repulsive. Meanwhile, Mike Leon’s “The Break Up” and Kerry G.S. Lipp’s “Broken Glass” bring two different but very squickworthy doses of graphic gore to make even the seasoned splatterhound flinch.

Jay Wilburn’s “Angels Looking Out For Us” is a view of the End of Days from a side not often seen: the thankless side of those stuck with the fiddly nuisance finishing touches and cleanup of a big job.

“The Eleventh Piper” by Rebecca Fung gives the twisted fairy tale treatment to a classic holiday carol, with evilicious results. Rick A. Carroll’s “Smoke” is like folklore of another sort, a darker sort, beautifully written.

Max Booth’s “A Moment of Silence” hit a particular nerve; they may say people don’t talk anymore, only text, but imagine if speech was suddenly not an option.

“Swarm” by Nicholas Paschal was one I’d been privileged to read beforehand; a real treat to see it here and know that the clattering bones found a good home! Likewise Shenoa Carroll-Bradd’s “Made to be Broken,” a touching tale of beyond mere until-death-do-us-part.

Vince Liberato’s “The Devil’s Spotlight” shines harsh and unforgiving on the nature of self-sacrifice vs. self-preservation, in a hungry world gone mad, while “Believe” by Marc Shapiro wonders what we’d lose if we started getting proof that the wackjob conspiracy theorists had it right all along.

-Christine Morgan

DARK HARVEST edited by Nerine Dorman (2014 Crossroad Press / 198 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed the most about the horror genre are anthologies. You have to sort through the bad stuff to get to the good, but I like to call this good stuff gold. It’s harder to find, it’s haunting and priceless, and you remember the moment of pure horror forever. In this case, I stumbled upon a memorable collection called DARK HARVEST from Crossroad Press. This is one of those anthologies that manages to creatively blur the lines between reality, horror, fantasy, and dark fiction alike. With authors such as Amy Lee Burgess, Anna Reith, Autumn Christian, Carrie Clevenger, DC Petterson, Don Webb, Liz Strange, Nerine Dorman, Rab Fulton, Sarah Lotz, SL Schmitz, Sonya Clark, and Toby Bennett, we have a mad piece of horror gold on our hands.

From butterflies to craniopagus conjoined siblings with arsenic and rat poison slipped in their baby formula at birth, metal teeth, dead skin, and maggots, to pits of darkness, tentacles, and terror this anthology delivers top notch dark fiction and horror that soars right up there at the with the best of them. Some of my favorite stories from this collection were CRYSTALMOUTH by Autumn Christian, a story so dark and haunting as it is clever and uncomfortable, leaving the dialogue lingering in your head for days after reading. ATHAG by Don Webb, a brilliant author that makes the depths of hell look like a bucket of ice in the freezer. THE WEEPING BLADE by Anna Reith, calm, soothing, and depressing read in the dark, and ON THIS NIGHT WE REMEMBER by Amy Lee, a beautifully crafted tale, in which, one may want to harvest their soul in the dark.

-Jon R. Meyers

THE TROOP by Nick Cutter (2014 Simon & Schuster / 528 pp / all formats)

So, I’d picked up a free copy of this one somewhere and just sort of added it to the pile, not really thinking about it, figuring I’d get to it eventually but no rush, unfamiliar author and all. Then I started seeing rave review posts from friends and was all, “wait, that looks familiar.”

*headsmack* And to think, I could have read this WEEKS ago!

Plotwise, it’s basic enough – a Patient Zero test subject goes on the run, and tries to hide out on a remote, normally uninhabited island. Normally uninhabited. Bad luck for the Scoutmaster and the boys of Troop 52, who’ve just arrived for a nature hike weekend.

All Scoutmaster Tim, who’s also a doctor, knows when he finds the stranger is that the man’s obviously sick. Feverish, thin, and hungry. Just so very, very hungry. Hungry enough to be eating dirt. Tim wants to help, but also doesn’t want to endanger his troop.

Then things, already going wrong, get worse. The radio gets damaged, the boat’s not working, there’s no way to reach or contact the mainland. And the stranger is not just sick. He’s contagious with a horror the likes of which nobody’s ever seen.

Soon, the five boys realize they might be on their own. Their previous social hierarchy breaks down fast, neatly-done interludes flesh out their various personalities (as well as giving hellish peeks into the creation of the contagion, and the military quarantine response). Really, any sort of accident or disaster stranding them would have seen them slide into Lord of the Flies territory in a hurry; the added elements of infection and paranoia only heighten the tension.

Goes to show ya, folks. Pay attention. That book you’ve been putting off, thinking it might do when you’ve got nothing else to read, you could be doing yourself a real disservice.

Everything they’ve been saying about The Troop is true. It’s mindblowingly good, impossible to put down, great from the get-go. The writing is phenomenal, the sort of wordsmithing skill that made me instantly bump Nick Cutter to my mental list of will-read-anything-by!

-Christine Morgan


ORPHANS OF WONDERLAND by Greg F. Gifune (to be released 3/3/15 by Samhain Publishing / 224 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

During the 80s heyday of the "satanic panic" outbreak, Joel Walker wrote a book about a local ritual murder that quickly became a best seller. He was seen on every TV talk show discussing his theories. But things eventually cooled off and Joel married and moved away from his hometown to a quiet life.

Katelyn, the daughter of one of Joel's childhood friends, shows up at his doorstep one day to tell him her father, Lonnie, was shot dead in the street, the victim of an apparent random crime. But she believes there's more to it, and convinces Joel to investigate for her. What Joel discovers goes back to an incident he and his friends shared when they were children, an incident that he's now determined to get to the bottom of.

A mix of devil worship paranoia and X-Files type government conspiracies, ORPHANS OF WONDERLAND is a truly horrifying look at childhood secrets, demonic activity and what may wait for all of us in the beyond. Fans of occult horror will eat this up as quickly as I did, and those tired of the subgenre will still be drawn in by the author's fresh take on what could have easily been a by-the-numbers thriller. Capped off with an incredibly dark conclusion, here's a great place to start if you've yet to try one of Gifune's always reliable terror fests.

-Nick Cato


JAGGER by Kristopher Rufty (to be released 3/15 by Sinisher Grin Press / 200 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Our treatment of animals in general is a tricky mess of a moral quandary, whether we’re eating them, training them to work or perform, keeping them as pets, etc. Everybody has their own lines drawn. But I wish more people had their lines drawn somewhere short of making innocent creatures fight for our amusement.

(heck, I’m dubious about the entire concept of Pokemon-type scenarios, and those are imaginary cartoon critters … though I do love me some robotic combat; we should have more of that, bring back BattleBots, Deadblow forever!) (edited to add, OMG, the very day I wrote this review, the news broke, YESSSS!)

Dogfighting seems like its own special brand of pure evil, and it’s at the heart of this story. Jagger is a good dog, loyal and loving, devoted to his person. Amy, in turn, is devoted to her dog; he’s not just best friend and companion but her family and whole life.

JAGGER’s also a huge dog, and when a desperate jerk needs to make back some money after his previous star fighter gets killed, well, someone who’d do dogfights wouldn’t be above dognapping, either. Or above some, ah, performance enhancing treatments. Then there’s the training, which of course has got to be cruel to bring out the meanness, to give the beast the taste for blood.

This is an agonizing, uncomfortable read for anybody with any sort of animal-loving conscience. As with another literary big dog, Cujo, you can’t blame Jagger for what happens … it isn’t his fault … he’s only reacting to betrayal and mistreatment. You’re simultaneously rooting for him when he turns on his tormentors, and in anguish for him.

This is also, to add a tangential note, a totally breast-obsessed story in the most written-by-a-dude Laymonesque tradition. I don’t know any women who spend as much time thinking about their bosoms – every movement, every jiggle, every contact with clothing – as do the female characters in this book. Also Laymonesque is the amount of rump-mentioning and other such overall T&A.

For sheer carnage, all out violence and gore with a healthy helping of sex thrown in, you won’t go wrong with JAGGER. It’ll probably enrage you if you have any sort of a conscience, and if you’re a dog-person, you’ll be a wreck.

-Christine Morgan