Sunday, May 31, 2015

Reviews for the Week of June 1, 2015

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

SONGS FOR THE LOST by Alexander Zelenyj (2014 Eibonvale Press / 514 pp / hardcover & trade paperback)

My first taste of Zelenjy's fiction was his 2009 collection, EXPERIMENTS AT 3 BILLION A.M. and I found it nothing short of incredible. Now he's back with another mammoth collection of 34 tales (only 15 having been previously published). This whopper took me quite a while to get through, but if I didn't have so much on my plate I'd easily have finished in a few sittings.

Opening tale 'The Fire We Deserve' pretty much sets the tone for the book. Zelenyj's literary prose is infectious and is as dark as it is beautiful. I can't remember the end of the world being written so ... attractive before. 'Or the Loneliness of Another Million Years' is another apocalyptic tale about a man convinced he's the last person alive, until he meets a young boy who tells him of a mysterious "door" that's supposed to open at a specific time. Great stuff.

In 'God-Eater,' we meet Barbara and Howard's most unusual baby, who causes their friends to commit suicide before heading out into the world. One of the shorter pieces here but also one of the most intense. 'Elopers to Sirius' tells the tale of a suicide cult and those who come after them, while in 'Motherlight Go to Sleep,' a farmer uses his guitar to summon animals and some things more mysterious in arguably the best piece of the collection.

The book closes with the title story 'Songs for the Lost,' a futuristic Western dealing with a father and son seeking paradise. They meet a strange race and several other travelers on their quest, my favorite being Harry Dalmar, who narrowly escapes execution to find he isn't nearly as bad a man as he might have thought. This one reads like a "mini-epic" and is a great way to conclude the collection.

Most of Zelenyj's tales straddle genres, but regardless if he's touching horror, scifi, fantasy, or blending them all, he keeps readers guessing and going back to make sure they're following the right path. And the paths in SONGS FOR THE LOST are not only dark, but full of surprises, especially in 'Love Me, Too, Black Flower' and 'Song of the Dream Cats.' 34 tales and (remarkably) not a dull one in the lot.

Here's another impressive collection from an author who not nearly enough people are reading, and the book itself is a real treat for book lovers thanks to David Rix's artwork and the unusual page designs. Don't miss this.

-Nick Cato

SEA SICK by Iain Rob Wright (2013 SalGad Publishing Group / 218 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Up to about the fourth or fifth book I’ve read so far by this author, gradually working my way through the many methods with which he seems determined to have fun destroying the world. So many possibilities! And even then, so many surprises!

SEA SICK is a great example of the surprises, and, probably my favorite yet. It starts off with a troubled cop – loner, anger issues, alcohol, hopelessness, bitterness, depression – boarding a cruise ship. Not because it’s his idea, but because his higher-ups have decided an enforced holiday might help turn him around, bring him back. If not, he’s likely to get fired.

Needless to say, Jack is not your usual carefree vacationer. He’s an island of outsider even in the throngs of passengers, viewing it all through his disgruntled lens. The obnoxious youths. The noisy children. The inappropriately smoochy old people. The crew. He doesn’t expect to spend much time enjoying the luxurious shipboard amenities. Mostly, he figures, he’ll hang out in his cabin and read and drink.

It doesn’t help that, despite the posted cautionary notices and hand sanitizer dispensers, there seems to be a nasty bug going around. Jack notices lots of people already coming down with it, before crashing for an extended nap (and I mean extended; I’ve been on cruises and one slight twinge to my suspension of disbelief was that anybody could get away with sleeping undisturbed for that long … where were the stewards coming in to do turn-down and maid service? what about mandatory lifeboat drills?)

When he wakes, he explores some of the other decks, settles in for a while by the pool, chats with a girl, gets into it a bit with her boyfriend, visits some bars, takes in a show, and dies a violent, gory death at the end of the second chapter.

Surprise! But wait! There’s more!

See, what you expect to be an ordinary outbreak scenario with infected psycho-crazies who even come back from the dead to attack and bite and kill … well, it is, but … that’s just the beginning. Or, not even the beginning, not even the main story but the backdrop around which the main story unfolds in ever-deepening layers and ever-widening spirals of weird.

I don’t want to give too many spoilers, so, I’ll just say I enjoyed this one very much. Which doesn’t mean it didn’t have a few issues; some of the plot points felt a little forced and now and then it fell into that obnoxious trope where a character with answers to important questions plays the “no time for that now” dramatic suspense card.

Neat read, though. Kept me interested and guessing right up to the end.

-Christine Morgan

CANNIBAL ISLAND by Michael Faun (2014 Dynatox Ministries / 65 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Originally released as a limited edition hardcover as part of Dynatox's "Cannibalsploitation" series, Faun's CANNIBAL ISLAND is now in a second edition trade paperback and ready to be devoured (full pun intended) by the masses.

Remember those gory "third world cannibal" films like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY? Here's Faun's homage to them in novella form, although unlike the films that inspired it this tale is set in the 1920's. A 4-week long expedition aboard a British boat leads a colorful cast of characters (my favorite being the frisky, obnoxious Ms. Fairweather) to an isolated island where a meteor has crashed. But when they finally locate and begin to examine the huge crater, the island's malnourished natives have other plans for them.

CANNIBAL ISLAND is a quick, gross, and entertaining read fans of exploitation cinema (or pulp horror tales) will love. Read it on the beach this summer (or better yet, an isolated island) for maximum effect.

-Nick Cato

REVIVA LAS VEGAS by Sean Hoade (2014 CreateSpace / 258 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

POKER!!! With zombies, yes, eight years after the outbreak, enclaves of survivors, privation and starvation, danger, the usual stuff you might expect … but this delightful post-zombpocalypse romp is only peripherally about that. It’s really all about the POKER!!!

Because, people are still going to have downtime amid their hardscrabble surviving. They’re going to need entertainment. There will still be games and gamblers. If cardsharps in the Old West could make a tidy living traveling from settlement to settlement, pitting their wits against the locals, hey, why not in the aftermath?

Chris Newman is more than a cardsharp. He’s a pro, a former World Series of Poker winner who’s faced the greats. What with most everyone else eaten, he figures he’s the best left alive. Just to play him is a feather in anybody’s cap; to beat him would be bragging rights for sure.

So, that’s how he gets by, roaming the desolation that once was California. With money meaningless, food and supplies and other useful items make the stakes. Then comes the day someone seeks Chris out with a message, an invitation for the biggest game of his life. In Vegas, the only city rumored to be a true safe haven.

You better believe he jumps at the chance. Walled off from zombies, the food’s plentiful, the power’s on, the water’s running. Of course, like most seeming utopias, there’s the dark secret undersides, but, who cares? Vegas, baby! Chris is glad enough to overlook the negatives … until he can’t, until he learns the real truth, until he remembers that vital adage about how the house always wins.

Now, me, I can’t play poker worth a damn. I enjoy watching it, though, and our household went through a serious televised Texas Hold ‘Em phase. The personalities, the jargon, the announcers, etc. I like to think I picked up a decent understanding along the way. And, from that, I quickly realized this author really does know his stuff. It all rings true, which is extra nice.

It’s also a tremendous hoot throughout, from start to finish. Or, from deal to river, if you rather. The zombies are handled in a deft way with some fun twists. The many-headed hydra of addiction in its various forms puts in several appearances and sneaks in some social commentary with the humor. Eminently readable, well-written, great fun!

-Christine Morgan


MERCY HOUSE by Adam Cesare (to be released 6/9/15 by Hydra / 259 pp / eBook)

Harriet is on the verge of dementia. Her son Don and his wife Nikki bring her to an isolated retirement home in Pennsylvania (or upstate NY, depending on how you read the second chapter!), and she's not too happy about it. In fact she thinks it's part of her Adaughter-in-law's plan to get rid of her. And from the second they step inside Mercy House, Harriet complains the place smells like "Rotten Milk."

It doesn't take long for chaos to ensue: as the trio are given a tour of the place, Harriet and the rest of the elderly residents turn into sex and violence-crazed lunatics. An orgy and bloodbath of epic proportions kicks off and doesn't stop until the final page of the bleak epilogue. Cesare throws all kinds of kooky characters into the mix, including retired war vet Arnold Piper (who delivers some hilarious dialogue) and "Queen Bee," one of the first of the senior residents to be affected by what's called "The Healing."

While Cesare never tells us what's causing the change in the patients, they have gained much physical strength and are putting their improved mental awareness to sinister use: the seniors are creating their own in-house structure (including a mock version of church), but unfortunately for the small nursing staff, much of their activities include cannibalism, murder, and porn-film level rape and torture. This novel is basically what the 1973 film DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT would be like if Richard Laymon had written the screenplay (and that will either scare you off or make you immediately order a copy).

MERCY HOUSE is a "survivor" type story, as Nikki (who happens to be African American and perhaps part of the reason for Harriet's anger), one of the doctors of the understaffed nursing home, and another man named Paulo attempt to get out of the maniac-infested home, that seems to have also become some kind of supernatural prison (it hasn't, but seems that way). The cannibalism may cause some to think the residents have become zombies, but that's not the case at all. I was frustrated for most of the novel, wishing the author would reveal what's causing the carnage, but by the end it works best that we don't fully know. To me it seems the "smell" or the essence of the place has somehow caused the elderly to accept their fate and simply snap, but whatever Cesare's intentions were, MERCY HOUSE is a title those into gory horror tales will savor from beginning to end.

-Nick Cato

CUDDLY HOLOCAUST by Carlton Mellick III (2013 Eraserhead Press / 172 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Every time I go to an event where Eraserhead/Deadite has a table, I can count on walking away with at least half a dozen new books. At that rate, I still won’t catch up with the backlist of the amazingly prolific Carlton Mellick III, because he keeps writing them faster than seems humanly possible.

What seems humanly possible or not is a fitting segue for this one. You know how freaked out we all got about Furby, even before they added the computer stuff? Combine that with the child-within-us resonance of Toy Story or Small Soldiers or any of those cartoons where toys come to life … add the fears of Terminator-style AI as we keep making things smarter and more independent… mix in a hint of the whole furry fetish fandom/phenom, crank it to mind-shattering levels, and the result would be something like Cuddly Holocaust.

These are not your benign, loving, whimsical toys. These are toys that don’t just mad, they get even. And they don’t just get even … they wage total war. As in, rise up, rebel against their former human masters, attack, destroy, pretty much eradicate. Only, it’s even worse than that.

Julie was a little girl when it all started, a little girl whose daddy had just given her a new stuffed smart-toy panda bear. Mom isn’t wild about the idea, and she’s less wild when Poro the Panda turns out to be a foul-mouthed, wise-talking, lecherous jerk (the baby from Roger Rabbit springs to mind, as does Futurama’s Bender).

But Julie loves Poro, and the feeling seems mutual. Right up until, that is, the war erupts. Julie escapes home from what used to be her school, only to find her parents missing. When Poro offers to take her to them, but betrays her instead, Julie’s life becomes a crusade of infiltration and revenge.

How, you might wonder, would you infiltrate an army of giant mad killer stuffed animals? Well, by becoming one, or at least undergoing convincing enough deep-cover surgery to basically turn yourself into a panda-girl.

Then there’s purple bunny snipers, katana-wielding kangaroos, the actual fates of human prisoners, mayhem, carnage, gore, squick, and so much more! Decidedly unforgettable, likely to make you think twice about whatever next high-tech toy fad they roll out for the holidays. Much more Holocaust than Cuddly, to be sure!

-Christine Morgan

Monday, May 11, 2015

Reviews for the Week of May 11, 2015

Note: Please see bottom of main page for submission info and take heed. Much thanks!

KEZZIE OF BABYLON by Jamie Mason (2015 Permuted Press / 190 pp / eBook)

Another zombie apocalypse novel … after the last few I’d read, I was a little nervous, but not ready to give up on the genre yet. I figured, every streak has to end some time. And, I’m glad to report, I was right. This one, Kezzie of Babylon, does it nicely.

For one thing, the opening like is a grabber. “Never fall in love with a stripper,” the book tells us, then goes on to unfold the messy series of unfortunate events in which our protagonist kind of accidentally helps destroy the world.

It’s a cautionary tale of how the perils of drug addiction can lead to increasingly bad decisions and worse crimes … until you’re somehow on the run to the wilds of Canada with a friend you hate, on the trail of a dream girl you’ve never met, and the place that seems like sanctuary turns out to be run by a complete psycho.

Welcome to Zack’s life. Oh, and by the way, now with zombies! Not even ones that can be dispatched with a sound headshot, either. Really persistent takes-a-licking-keeps-on-ticking zombies. It doesn’t help that Kazzie, the psycho leader, is wrapped up in a bundle of religious zealotry and the resurrected dead figure into her new worldview.

Fast-paced with fresh twists, well-written, an engaging bunch of dysfunctional characters stuck in an increasingly worsening spiral of crazy, this one was just what I needed to remind me again why I love a good apocalypse.

-Christine Morgan


TIN MEN by Chrstopher Golden (to be released June 23, 2015 by Ballantine Books / 352 pp / hardcover and eBook)

In the near future, America patrols the globe with "Tin Men," over-sized, super strong and armed drone robots run by soldiers from underground locations around the world. Each soldier's brain is "mapped" onto their robot's internal computer, essentially giving the 'bots the traits of their human controllers.

An economic summit in Greece (attended by the Presidents of the United States and Russia) comes under attack by "anarchists" at the same time an electromagnetic pulse throws the entire world back to the stone age. A platoon of Tin Men working in Syria have orders to rescue the president, and on their trip to find him they must protect the teenage daughter of an American ambassador as well as the head of the terrorists (or "anarchists" as they're refered to, although it's quite obvious they're Muslim extremists. And if they're not, they're uncannily close to being so).

Despite the world now being powerless, these sophisticated 'bots had safeguards, and have survived the EMP assault, although their human controllers are now "trapped" inside their metal shells until they can get back to the nearest base in Germany.

Golden's scifi thriller reads like a summer popcorn Hollywood blockbuster. It's filled with non-stop action, international intrigue, and a huge cast that may or may not be back for another installment (this seems like the start of a series). The novel digs into the hatred much of the world has for America's involvement in foreign affairs, and a surprise truce between America and Russia's presidents could lead to interesting storylines should the author continue with his latest creation. TIN MEN is a fun and exciting choice for your summer beach reading.

-Nick Cato

YOU MIGHT JUST MAKE IT OUT OF THIS ALIVE by Garrett Cook (2015 Eraserhead Press / 210 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Now, I’m not saying that the bizarro genre is the literary equivalent of recreational substance abuse … and I don’t have much personal experiences with recreational substances to begin with … but – bear with me, I’m going somewhere with this, I think.

Anyway, if it WAS, then the works of Garrett Cook would tend to be your high-end laboratory-grade LSD. Probably not something to start your experimenting with. Maybe need some gateway drugs first to ease into it.

Once you’re to that point, though, get this book and prepare for some serious bigtime Timothy Leary level psychedelic surrealism head-trips. You Might Just Make It Out Of This Alive is the title, and not inaccurate … chances for “alive” are pretty good, though “with your sanity and reality intact” are more iffy. And you will certainly be left questioning all of the above.

Nitty-gritty-wise, it’s a collection of stories that opens with one the author pitched as a diversionary joke but the publisher went for it, so he then had to write it – if there’s a moral to the whole bizarro genre, that may just be it. Money where your mouth is, pal, or keep your mouth shut.

That particular story is “Re-Mancipator,” a sweeping novella which is exactly what it sounds like … zombie Lincolns … and also exactly not like anything you’d ever expect.

And it’s followed with “Assorted Salesmen at the Birth of the Antichrist” at less than a page long … just to give you an idea of the variety here. You’ll find a selection of drabbles about Julie Newmar (yes, that Julie Newmar), and conjoined carnie porn. The end of the world, the ultimate sacrifice, allegorical abortion, an internet forum about the dangers of ‘shrooming in fairy rings … all this in one book.

“The Wake at the House of Dead Hogs” was when my brain just unraveled like a cheap sweater given to a litter of rambunctious kittens. I’m still trying to re-ball my mental yarn after that one. Wow.

“Along the Crease,” is a doomed love story and another of my favorites. Imagine being told you were about to meet your perfect soulmate, but, you couldn’t get together at all costs or it’d destroy the world. What a monstrous, beautiful, terrible, delicious work of cruelty!

Wonderful stuff. Wonderful and weird. No surprise this guy’s an award-winner! Okay, yeah, could be a bit much for beginners, or even seasoned readers, but don’t let that stop you!

-Christine Morgan

BAD BRATWURST by Jeff Strand (2015 White Noise Press / 28 pp / limited edition chapbook of 150 copies)

While White Noise Press usually delivers serious horror fare, in their latest offering they've unleashed another tale from the always twisted mind of Jeff Strand. This time we meet Klaus, who runs a meat store that makes the best bratwurst in Germany ... only for some reason sales have been horrible. His one employee, Stefan, tries to get him to change the recipe, but the idea angers Klaus.

One day a mysterious man arrives at the store and tries to convince Klaus to make bratwurst from human corpses he will supply, only to be kicked out when Klaus thinks the man insane. But when a patron accidentally gets his arm stuck in Klaus' meat grinder, things take a turn for the absurd and Strand amps the goofball sickness up to 10 ...

Yes, this here's some silly stuff. But I dare you not to laugh as BAD BRATWURST becomes a hilarious riff on EATING RAOUL, housed in another beautiful-looking White Noise chapbook any book collector will drool over (the end papers look like they came from an authentic butcher shop!). Strand completists, act now at White Noise Press.

-Nick Cato

EVE BRENNER, ZOMBIE GIRL by A. Giacomi (2015 Permuted Press/ 277 pp / eBook)

I tried to enjoy this one. Bits of it, I did. Some of the gore was pretty good. Overall, though, I just couldn’t get into it. I found more not to like than to like, and had to force myself to keep reading in hopes it’d get better.

My biggest problem was with the dialogue, or, more precisely, with the way the characters were constantly addressing each other by name every other sentence or so. People don’t really talk that way in real life, and it clangs of author nervousness.

Then there was the slow starting pace … a too-perfect heroine who spends most of the book being less “zombie girl” and more “that chick from Heroes only sometimes she eats people” … overwrought teen emotional angst … overall general implausibility …

But, anyway, story summary – Eve and her friends go on an archaeological dig, Eve sneaks off and gets bitten by something, then begins having unusual symptoms such as rapid healing and loss of appetite thanks to a nasty super-virus. She mostly manages to hide it at first, but things eventually get out of control, with conspiracies and cover-ups. Meanwhile, mean-girl rivalries and murders lead to campus-wide carnage, and only Eve can save the day.

I don’t know. Maybe the subsequent ones improve and this suffered from first-novel syndrome? I just couldn’t connect with it. Sorry. Your mileage may vary.

-Christine Morgan


THE HORROR FICTION REVIEW will return on May 25th with a look at the mammoth collection: