Sunday, April 26, 2015

Reviews for the Week of April 27, 2015

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. Thank you. And we really, really, really mean what's said in it so don't be sending further hate mail if you don't read the bottom of this page for submission info. Thank you again.

CHILDREN OF THE MARK by Michael W. Garza (2015 Severed Press / 196 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Checking back now, I see that the age of the characters is given right there in the second paragraph of the opening scene, so I guess I have nobody but myself to blame for my stumbling-block confusion. But dang, they seemed so much younger. I kept thinking these were KID-kids, as in, twelve-ish, so then, references to them as teens and high school would throw me.

Anyway! So! There’s these kids. A trio of them – AJ, Dougie, and their pal Clair, whose bright ideas often seem to get them in trouble. This particular trouble looks to exceed the previous ones. In fact, they’re way over their heads, though it takes them a while to realized it.

Sneaking into an old warehouse is one thing. Finding it occupied is another. Finding it occupied by a group of weirdo cultists smack in the middle of some strange summoning ritual … well, that’s a bit off the charts. And, of course, witnessing strange rituals is bad enough without accidentally interrupting things, alerting the cultists, and nearly getting caught.

They do manage to escape, but only to find that AJ has been quite literally marked by the encounter. One of his eyes has gone eerie-milky, and he soon realizes it sees magic sigils beyond the sight of the rest of the real world.

Naturally, he tries to keep it a secret. His parents somehow don’t notice, and after a brief hey-freak run in with a bully, everyone else at school soon gets used to it. But meanwhile, he’s discovering that not only can he see the sigils, he can manipulate them.

The only adult to whom AJ and his friends can turn is a peculiar lady who runs a bookshop. She’s able to tell them more than they wanted to know about the cult, and the danger they’re in. It doesn’t help that the cult leaders are trying to get close to AJ’s parents.

What follows is fairly typical “those meddling kids” fare, but livened up with really good description, fun use of magic, and some nifty clever twists. I admit that my earlier confusion may have interfered with bonding with the protagonists, and I found myself a lot more interested in what the cult was up to and what the bookstore lady’s backstory might be.

-Christine Morgan

NAZI HUNTER by Jonathan Moon (2015 Dynatox Ministries / 120 pp / limited edition trade paperback)

In an isolated section of Poland, the Nazis are running a concentration camp where vile experiments on human guinea pigs are conducted in a sub basement as mass amounts of Jewish prisoners are gassed to death on the main floor. But one large prisoner named Emil decides to fight back. He's up against a couple of the most brutal officers in the SS, and they're baffled to learn he has survived the gas chamber...

This second installment in Dynatox Ministries' "Nazisploitation" series is a violent, action-packed romp that reads like a more extreme version of Tarantino's INGLORIOUS BASTERDS. If you're a fan of this subgenre seek Moon's wild ride out. I'm loving this series.

-Nick Cato

THESE VAMPIRES DON'T SPARKLE edited by Carol Hightshoe (2014 Sky Warrior Books / 252 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I’m so old that I was tired of moody-broody smoldering sexy emo-angst vampires BEFORE they even sparkled … so you better believe I had no patience whatsoever for the latest take on the craze. And, clearly, I’m far from alone. The backlash against sparkly vampires may not be bigger than the love for them, but it’s certainly as vehement, if not more.

Here, for example, is a whole anthology (the first of two, even!) to prove it. Not ALL the stories are undisguised Twilight-bashing or revenge porn … but hey, if that’s your thing, rest assured they gotcha covered.

There are also plenty of vampire tales dedicated more toward taking back the night, re-fanging them into the monsters they used to be. Sometimes with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, sometimes with grim seriousness.

“Customer Service” by Kathrine Tomlinson has a fun premise, but ended too soon and was way too short; I wanted a lot more. Similar problems of adapting to modern life feature in Jeff Baker’s “Night Work If You Can Get It.”

Peggy McFarland’s “Charlie Makes His Way” is also short, but, wickedly clever and a very different twist on a beloved classic.

In the midst of so much humor, Margaret McGaffey Fisk takes us on a hard turn into strangely bleak but beautiful despair in “To Catch a Glimpse,” and “Two Fangs” by Jonathan D. Nichols is both haunting and creepy.

I confess a particular bias toward “The Longest Night” by Cynthia Ward, because Vikings! And Vikings done pretty darn well at that. I also enjoyed “Origins” by Rie Sheridan Rose, which goes about as historical as is humanly possible to go with some Neolithic horror.

With 27 selections in all, there’s something for every blood-type (speaking of which, “Drac’s Diet” by John Lance involves a concern not usually addressed in vamp-lit). Biblical, dark, grim, modern, near-future post-vampire-apocalypse, and more.

-Christine Morgan


NIGHTMARE IN GREASEPAINT by L.L. Soares and G. Daniel Gunn (to be released 5/5/2015 by Samhain Publishing / 95 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

In an attempt to erase a violent childhood trauma, Will Pallasso brings his wife and son to the house he grew up in. He sends them out during the day so he can destroy a shrine his mother had erected in the basement to his late father. But it's also a shrine that has been a sentinel of sorts over a family heirloom that harbors wicked powers. And when Will starts to dismantle the shrine, he and his son begin having vivid nightmares and something far more sinister returns to stalk them.

Part of the "Childhood Fears" series of novellas, Samhain strikes with this quick but powerful tale that, while full of familiar horror tropes, manages to build some serious suspense and will easily freak out those who suffer from Coulrophobia. Clowns, dark basements, occult objects, dark family secrets and noises in the night may seem tiring to most horror fans, but Soares and Gunn take these classic elements and twist them into a satisfying, well done creep-fest.

-Nick Cato

WELCOME TO NECROPOLIS by Bryan Killian (2015 Deadite Press / 293 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I don’t know what happened here, what went wrong. I went into this book with anticipation and high expectations, and left it wondering if I’d been the victim of some kind of April Fool’s Day prank.

Hyped up by Brian Keene, published by Deadite, supposedly another fresh new take on zombies … but I’m just not seeing it.

Pretty much your bog-standard outbreak yarn, with scattered survivors and military and all the usual, with characters that didn’t grab my interest. Plus, way too many problems with the writing, not to mention the editing and proofreading.

I kept slogging, then skimming, then skim-slogging, in hopes that I’d suddenly discover the clever bit that turned it all on end. But, if it was there, I never found it.

I guess, if you want yet another ho-hum video game clone type zombie thing, here ya go. For me, it did nothing. D- at best, and maybe a red pencil note to the effect of “not working up to potential.” You guys, come on. You can do better.

-Christine Morgan


McLaughlin is a master of goofy horror comedy, and these three tales are perfect for some bathroom-time giggles (or for the proctologist's office waiting room). The title tale finds the milk fearing Whore of Babylon attempting to take over the world when Santa throws a monkey wrench into her plans. If you dig silly and apocalyptic you'll be howling.

In my favorite of the collection, 'The Inside-Outer,' a man finds a copy of The Book of Grokh in the library he works at and chaos ensues in this hilarious Lovecraftian romp. Then in 'Satan's School for Graphic Designers,' even the Devil himself gets annoyed at a new member of his underworld class.

Fun fun fun ... and a contender for best book title of the year!

-Nick Cato


BLACK STATIC (Issue #45)

I missed the past few issues, but am glad to get back on track with the latest edition that features 8 solid tales along with the usual in-depth book and film reviews (not to mention two great opening commentaries by Stephen Volk and Lynda E. Rucker).

Among my favorites are Stephen Hargadon's 'The Visitors,' in which our narrator thinks back on his life and listens to those around him at a local pub. We're never sure if he's alive or dead, but Hardgadon's strange conclusion made this one stand out from the lot. Emily B. Cataneo's 'Hungry Ghosts' is a powerful little story about an awkward teenaged girl named Sally who lives with her mother in an isolated house. There are secrets in the basement and it's interesting to see how Sally relates to the outside world once the authorities insist her mother place her in school. Beautiful writing here. And finally "The Drop of Light and the Rise of Dark' by Cate Gardner deals with a young woman confined to her bed when she finds her entire world covered in darkness. Gardner amps the creep factor up to 11 in this claustrophobic fever dream that ends in a way I hadn't expected. Not a bad story in the entire issue, and fans of the great Steve Rasnic Tem are in for a treat with his 'The Fishing Hut,' a slow but intense chiller.

As always, I loved Tony Lee's film reviews (his snippets are always insightful and useful when planning a film viewing night) and Peter Tennant's book reviews continue to be among the best in the business (his interview with Canadian author Helen Marshall is a great introduction for those whose radar she may have flown under. I've already ordered her collection).

Get yourself a subscription ASAP right here: Black Static Subcriptions

-Nick Cato



Thursday, April 16, 2015

Reviews for the Week of April 13, 2015

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

SICK BASTARDS by Matt Shaw (2014 Amazon Digital / 238 pp / trade paperback, eBook, and audio book)

I guess I must be jaded and/or spoiled. Seeing a book so laden with disclaimers as this one (on the front cover, and again on the splash page) made me go into it expecting a heck of a lot worse.

I mean, yeah, sure, it opens with a graphic incest smut scene and goes right from there to dinner-table live cannibalism, but … it reads as if, I don’t know, the intent is to do a big double-feature right off the bat to PROVE how shocking and offensive this book’s going to be, before moving on to the actual story.

Which is, in premise, interesting enough – the actual story, that is. Some sort of world-ending disaster happens, leaving our characters amnesiac and nameless, with a photograph the only clue that they’re a family. They seek shelter in a house, defending it against looters and other post-apocalyptic dangers, and eventually learn more about what happened.

Plus, of course, gradually succumbing to the above-mentioned graphic incest and cannibalism. Which might have been much more meaningful or horrifying if the characters were even slightly sympathetic. As it is, they start off so broken and unlikable, it’s hard to drum up much in the way of feeling for them.

Yes, the book IS called “Sick Bastards,” nobody’s expecting innocent good guys. But still. When everyone’s despicable or creepy, there’s much more of a challenge.

For what it is, it’s fine, an okay story, reasonably well-written; it works and holds together. It’s mostly just that initial matter of the bold disclaimers. If you’re going to make a big deal out of telling me something like that, then I want to be shown it, too. I want the proof. I want to walk away with the stunned thought of “wow, they weren’t kidding.” This one, I don’t think it did it.

Or, like I said, maybe I’ve been spoiled. I didn’t have any other problems with the book, so I could certainly give this author another try or two.
-Christine Morgan


CLOWNFELLAS: TALES OF THE BOZO FAMILY by Carlton Mellick III (to be released July 14, 2015 by Hydra/Random House / 400 pp / eBook)

As hilariously absurd as it is entertaining, Mellick takes classic gangster film tropes and slaps them in the face with exploding banana cream pies. Here are six novelette-sized tales of the Bozo Crime Family, who operate out of a small NYC area known as Little Bigtop.

In 'City of Clowns,' a human (called "vanillas" by the clowns) veternarian is hired to care for family boss Don Bozo's pet lion, and the poor sap, named Earl Berryman, has a chronic fear of clowns which is put to the ultimate test. Then in 'The Juggler Brothers,' members of the Bozo family square off against two of the toughest hit men in the French circus, who are the Bozo's sworn enemies.

'A Sad Day for a Happy Clown' introduces us to Pinky Smiles, who is about to propose to his girlfriend Taffy who also happens to be the daughter of Bozo family underboss Uncle JoJo. But standing in his way is a ruthless contract killer named Mr. Pogo and a bunch of twists and turns...

'Funny Business' tells the story of Buggy Buttons, and older gangster who is in charge of Little Bigtop's flailing comedy clubs. He is given a short time to get things back on track, and what follows was my favorite tale of the lot.

In 'The Unwackable Bingo Ballbreaker,' we meet the titular mob solider who, despite his massive size and strength, is a virtuoso violinist. When his "girlfriend" Melinda is kidnapped (she's his his prized, rare violin), Bingo pulls out all the stops to get her back.

CLOWNFELLAS concludes with 'The Wedding Day,' where Taffy prepares for her wedding to Pinky. But the French clowns have requested that underboss JoJo whack Pinky to even up with the death of one of their own (problem is, Pinky is Don Bozo's son). What ensues is an all-out battle that brings most of the books' characters out of the woodwork in an inventive, bloody finale that doesn't end like your typical mafia story.

Picture THE GODFATHER by way of KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE and you can pretty much see what's going on here, although Mellick throws in some surprises (the mutant carnies were a cool touch) and for such a lengthy read, there isn't a single slow moment.

Perhaps CLOWNFELLAS, despite being an eBook-only release, is the beginning of a bigger step for the bizarro genre (hopefully Random House will deliver a print edition). Time will tell. Either way, I'd love to see more from the Bozo crime family.

-Nick Cato

ZOM-B BRIDE by Darren Shan (2015 Hatchette Book Group / 186 pp / hardcover, eBook, audio book)

Normally, jumping into a series mid-stream might be a bad idea. Even if it was a story set in our familiar everyday world, there’d be a lot of back story to catch up on, a lot of characters, a lot of what-came-before, if you didn’t start at the beginning. I can’t imagine being able to do that and make sense of it with something like the Lemony Snicket books, let alone Harry Potter.

And then here comes this one, a YA near-future dystopia with factions of living humans, undead, and mutants vying for survival, power, and dominance … and the first book I read of it is Book 10. BOOK TEN. By rights, I should have been just sooooo lost it wouldn’t even be funny.

Yet, I wasn’t. Without encyclopedic info-dumping recaps, without condesplaining narration, the writing caught me up and swept me along as easily as if I’d already read the previous volumes. Which isn’t to say that I don’t need to read the previous volumes; I certainly want to! But I wasn’t left floundering and wondering what was going on. I was able to immediately grasp enough of the setting and scenario, not to mention the characters, to fully enjoy this engaging story.

The B in Zom-B is for Becky, Becky Smith, our protagonist. Not your typical YA protag, either … okay, she’s unique and special, she’s got rare connections and gifts … and in this one, she’s the object of an obsessive love interest … but she’s also the Zom in Zom-B.
Not that that prevents her from feeling pain, or being tortured, disfigured and mutilated. Take that, Bella, Katniss, the rest of you. The book opens with her being carried out of the abattoir of a sadistic maniac by a host of mutant babies, and her situation doesn’t exactly improve from there.

Being rescued is good; being rescued by minions of psycho-clown super villain who wants you to be his bride is a little less so. But, playing along might get B closer to a secret that could save a lot of lives … if she can withstand her would-be groom’s ideas of courtship.
Gross and engrossing, an engaging engagement, a good read and lots of fun.

-Christine Morgan

BLACK METAL HEART MONSTER (2013 Dynatox Ministries / 76 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Norwegian death metal band Obscura Mortis has lost one of their members in an odd onstage accident (or was it?). Vocalist Throatbutcher is up to something strange and new member Skinreaper eventually realizes his band is much more sinister than he had bargained for.

When the late Obscura Mortis member returns from the grave (in a most unusual state), this brief novella dives head first into a trippy hardcore horror yarn that even a non-death metal fan could enjoy. Fun (and dark) stuff.

-Nick Cato

HIGH ON BLOOD AT THE END OF THE WORLD by Joel Kaplan (2012 Kaplan Publishing / 286 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Must say I never got a review copy with a handwritten note folded into a paper airplane before … but, considering I was approached to ask if I wanted to try out this twisted book after being recommended by one of the leading sick-(bleep) publishers … hey, the weirder the better, let’s go!

Then I ended up reading the entire thing on the plane, flying back from a trip to take my daughter to the Museum of Death and Carrie: The Musical. It seemed a fitting finish for such a vacation, though I can’t help wondering if the passenger next to me peeked over and got an eyeful.

Because, ahem, there are eyefuls. Sex and violence, drugs, gore, devil worship, rock-and-roll, lots of crazy good fun, done in the sort of fast-and-loose style of describing the awesomeness of your favorite action movie or video game scenes to your buddies.
Here’s a sample: “... held up the rest of Disco like he was a big slam of Mountain Dew instead of a headless corpse and gulped the blood.” And that’s just from the first chapter, folks.

That’s before a couple of teenage hellcats pick up a hitchhiker and go on a murderous crime spree … and a guy stumbles across some werewolves doin’ it in the woods … serial killers and mobsters, disrespectful children, revenge, evil clowns, pizza … it’s like everything our parents ever warned us about or worried we’d get into, all rolled into one wacky wild ride.

It’s so wacky and wild, in fact, that the subtle under-weavings might almost go unnoticed, but they are there. The plot’s seemingly random, unconnected layers come together with mostly-satisfying resolution (I say mostly because there were a couple of characters I was left wondering what happened with by the end).

-Christine Morgan

The Horror Fiction Review will return on April 27, 2015...