Monday, October 26, 2015

Reviews for October 26, 2015

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

THE DEATH HOUSE by Sarah Pinborough (2015 Titan Books / 284 pp / hardcover, trade paperback & eBook)

This heavily praised 2014 UK novel is now officially out in the U.S. and the wait was well worth it.

Children are given random blood tests. There's a fatal illness they can catch up to age 18. Those who test positive are labeled "Defective" and sent to what the kids have named The Death House, which is located on an isolated island. As their conditions worsen, patients are taken from their dorms in the middle of the night up to The Sanitorium from which no one ever returns.

The novel focuses on Toby, a teenager who has been taken from his family after testing positive. At The Death House, he lives his days like everyone else, which isn't much different from standard high school daily life. Cliques abound. And when he becomes friends (and eventually more) with new girl Clara, Toby is given a hope he never thought possible.

Pinborough delivers an irresistible cast here, from our main couple and their friends to antagonist Jake and his goons, to the mysterious Matron and her nurses who treat the children with little to no emotion. It has the feel of GIRL, INTERRUPTED mixed with OUTBREAK, and while the horror is latent in each scene, at its core THE DEATH HOUSE is a dark love story with a heart-wrenching finale that showcases Toby's integrity.

The author chose not to explain what the illness is or what causes it. She hints what it may or may not do ("I heard it makes your eyes bleed" cries one teenager), giving the tale an even deeper sense of dread. Kudos, too, for an incredibly realistic fight scene between Toby and Jake, and for making the reader feel attached to even the most least-mentioned characters.

I've read several of Pinborough's novels and this Is easily my favorite of the lot. Fantastic read here that's not to be missed.

-Nick Cato

ANSWERS OF SILENCE by Geoff Cooper (2015 Deadite Press / 292 pp / tradepaperback &eBook)

Some authors are prolific as heck; some make you wait for it. Geoff Cooper is one of the latter types, but not out of any sadistic streak. The introduction (by the late and much-lamented J.F. Gonzalez) and a glance through the ‘Story Notes’ section at the back of Answers of Silence will readily show why.

The guy is his own harshest critic. If he were to review his own book, he’d probably (and very unjustly) tear himself a new one. I mean, yes, okay, there’s self-deprecation and modesty, but come on! I can only imagine what he thinks of the stories he hasn’t let be published, which are still probably better than a lot of writers could hope to achieve.

I am, however, very glad Cooper let himself be browbeat, arm-twisted, bribed, and/or otherwise persuaded into making this collection available … because it’s really, really neat. The stories, for all their apparent surface differences, have connections, threads, and themes woven throughout. Some reference each other directly; with others, it’s a character name here, a place name there.

And they are good. They are good. The first one, “A Question of Doves,” is downright creepy in its chilling brilliance (chilliance?). It does not go the way you might initially expect, and the shivers linger a long time after you reach the end.

Next up in the book is a drastic but no less brilliant change of pace, as an out-of-practice artist tries to regain his inspiration in the gory, grisly “Incentive No. 43.” I would read a whole novel, or series, about “The Sheriff of Pensie Avenue,” because it’s a peek into a world of such fascinating strangeness, I want to see more.

Various genres get their chance in the spotlight, whether it’s “The Missive” from a doomed colony, or god-magic and revenge in “Jolerarymi’s Rose.” Lengthwise, they range from short vicious jabs (“Latex: Like a Glove”) to the intricate complexities of the finishing novella (“One-Eyed Jack”).

Each story evokes its own set of disturbing emotions. Love, faith, loss, pain, hatred, loyalty, and fear are examined … deconstructed … dissected. They stir on a deep level, in many different ways. I agree with everyone else who’s said, yeah, we need more from Coop!

-Christine Morgan

THE TELL TALE SOUL by Christopher Conlon (2015 Ramble House / 156 pp / hardcover & trade paperback)

This collection of two novellas uses classic tales as a springboard, and what Conlon comes up with will have you racing through the pages.

In the title story, told by an old man who Edgar Allan Poe based his classic 'The Tell Tale Heart' on, we get to see what "really" happened, and the author keeps us guessing from page one as to what is real and what is only part of the narrator's cloudy mind. Using Poe himself as a character is a nice touch, especially in a courtroom scene and what he eventually does for our storyteller. There are plenty of tales told from the viewpoint of someone living in a mental institution, but Conlon's is done in a fresh style.

Next up is 'Beyond the Silver Horizon,' a take on Eugene O'Neill's play 'Beyond the Horizon,' yet it seems to take place on either an alternate earth or on earth with an alternate history. Whatever the case, Conlon had me mesmerized with his young protagonist Andy and his strange brother, and the down and out new girl (Ruby) they befriend in their rural town. As in the first novella, we're never quite sure if we can believe our young narrator, which adds to the novella's overall weirdness. When government officials arrive later on to deal with Andy's unusual brother, the juxtaposition of modern-aged, strangely-dressed people against the story's 1920s setting left a vision in my head that refuses to leave. Part love story, part scifi, part horror, Conlon's take on O'Neill's classic play is literary bizarro at its finest.

Conlon's writing here is superb (which should come as no surprise) and his ability to keep the chills growing (especially in the first novella) is masterful. Here is one author who continues to get better with everything he does. Highly recommended.

-Nick Cato

THE IMMORTAL BODY by William Holloway (2014 Horrific Tales Publishing / 300 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, & eBook)

I really need to remember to remind myself when the book I’m reading is part of a series! Particularly if it’s the first one. That way, when I get to the end, my howl of agonized suspense will at least not come as a total surprise.

This IS one of those books, and a series off to a terrific start. A high-tension, high-mystery paranormal crime thriller, it’s got all the cop drama and action, with blended with dark magic and a subtly handled but pervasive and excellent theme of cosmic horror (don’t let the cover fool you, though; the squidgy tentacles are not the main element).

In Atlanta, a church service turns violent, and is followed by a spree of murderous ritualistic atrocities. In New Orleans, something similar happens at a graveyard séance. At the center of one, a troubled faith healer able to ease the pains of those he lays hands upon but plagued by his own addictions … at the center of the other, a young medium whose ability to speak with the dead is worked into her act.

The events are seemingly unconnected, but the nearly identical stylings of the atrocities – which is wonderfully handled, descriptive-wise; not in gory graphic detail but shown through the reactions of the characters and with just enough hints and glimmers to let the reader’s mind fill in the rest, far more effectively than even the scariest movie – suggest there must be more to it.

Among those convinced, or slowly and reluctantly dragged toward conviction: an FBI agent with a background in Satanic conspiracies, a former member of the SAS experiencing sudden flashbacks of forgotten occult experiences, one cop who’s lost everything that ever mattered to him, and another who is all too aware how far over his head he’s in.

Anything else might verge into spoilers territory, and I don’t want to do that, so I’ll just say the writing is excellent, truly top-notch stuff, subtle and understated in places, razor-sharp in others. There’s humor and pathos, powerful use of language and emotion, terrific characters who develop and respond like real people over the course of the story … just an all-around great job!

-Christine Morgan

A PICNIC AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS by Neil Baker, illustrated by Maya Sugihara (2014 April Moon Books / 40 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Poor Lovecraft … as if it wasn’t enough to have his eldritch horrors transformed into cartoon characters, plushies, toys … now one of his classic tales has been delightfully reimagined as a charming children’s book!

It’s the classic adventure format, too. A brother and sister, receiving a mysterious map in the mail from Uncle Howard, take a brave journey to Antarctica. There, they explore an abandoned campsite, a strange city, temples, and tunnels inhabited by peculiar creatures.
As with the best kinds of picture books, the artwork is as much if not more a part of the story as the words, filled with clever little details and amusing touches. The penultimate page, right before The End, is almost too adorable for the mind to bear.

My own daughter is all grown up now, but I totally would have read this to her when she was younger. Admittedly, my parenting technique may have always been a tad on the dubious side, but still.

This is a darling book, an ideal introduction for kiddies and a fun read for kids of all ages.

-Christine Morgan


MERCY HOUSE by Adam Cesare (2015 Hydra / 259 pp / eBook)

I work in a psych facility, not an old-folks home. I work in a psych facility, not an old-folks home. So I kept telling myself, alone on the overnight shift, as I read Mercy House. Did it help? Not a lot. Every weird noise made me jump more than usual, and doing the 2 AM bed-check rounds was extra fun.

This book is a highly effective nightmare, hitting the bullseye on several of our common fears. Fear of aging and infirmity … loneliness, abandonment … dementia, humiliation, loss of faculties and independence … the guilt of having to “put (beloved relative) in a home” … mistreatment and neglect by caretakers … financial screwing-over … and, of course, being torn to pieces in a violent bloodbath.

It’s COCOON meets LORD OF THE FLIES with a hint of ALTERED STATES, when the elderly residents of Mercy House suddenly find themselves healed of their various ailments, brimming with strength and energy, and overwhelmed by primal urges. Fighting urges, gorging urges, gambling urges, libidinous urges. If the idea of sex-crazed geriatrics makes you uncomfortable, well, be forewarned.

The transformation begins during a welcome dinner for the newest resident, the already-unpleasant Harriet, as she’s being dropped off by her doted-upon son and the daughter-in-law she detests. They, Don and Nikki, are caught in the carnage along with the staff members. Within seconds, the meal becomes a slaughter.

Factions form, leaders arise, territories are staked out, barters and battles ensue. For the unaffected – nurses, janitors, guests – the rest of the night is a desperate scramble for survival against bands of savage seniors.

As disturbing as it is, it’s also funny as heck. Squicks and kicks of all kinds, hosts of great characters, believable handling of the setting and situations, and wonderfully well-written to boot. Depending on your family, might make a great gift … or get you disowned in a hurry.

-Christine Morgan



Monday, October 12, 2015

Reviews for the Week of October 12, 2015

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


THE GREATEST ZOMBIE MOVIE EVER by Jeff Strand (to be released 3/1/16 by Sourcebooks / 272 pp / trade paperback)

15 year old Justin Hollow loves to make monster movies with his friends Gabe and Bobby. After a couple of shorts involving mummies, werewolves, and vampires, Justin gets the urge to shoot his first full-length feature, and is determined to make it The Greatest Zombie Movie Ever.

He manages to get a $5,000 loan from his quirky grandmother, gets the two best looking kids at school to star, and agrees to let one of his friends' slightly off-balanced uncle do the special effects. Being a Jeff Strand novel, you can imagine the mayhem that ensues, and this time the laughs come fast and furious. A couple of scenes had me laughing out loud, and it ends with a hilarious and satisfying finale.

Underneath the silliness there's a fine look at friendship, with one scene being quite touching (Justin's friends are willing to sacrifice their beloved possessions to help finish financing the project). But don't think the author is going soft: there's still an abundance of his trademark sarcasm, weird characters, and surprises around every turn.

This is another solid YA novel from Strand that can be enjoyed by anyone (especially zombie film fans) and it's easily his overall funniest work to date.

-Nick Cato

SNAFU: RECON edited by Geoff  Brown and Amanda J. Spedding (2015 Cohesion Press / 116 pp / eBook)

The SNAFU books are all about the military. These aren’t ordinary people caught up in violent life-or-death struggles … these are the troops, the dedicated men and women in uniform who do this sort of thing on purpose.

But, since the SNAFU books are also horror and sci-fi, they’re not just any ol’ war stories, either. Think ALIENS. Think DOG SOLDIERS. Think (that movie with Andy Serkis). Sometimes, even the best battle-hardened, armed and armored soldiers run up against foes or situations not covered in basic training.

The books themselves feature a variety of sub-themes, and the stories in them range across many eras and many worlds. Seasoned veterans such as Weston Ochse, James Moore, Jonathan Maberry, Greig Beck, and Joe Nassise lead the way for dozens of newer recruits.

This particular volume, RECON, is a sampler, a teaser, a tantalizing and enticing come-on to encourage you to enlist. It contains five diverse stories to showcase the range and span of the series, starting with R.P.L. Johnson’s “Taking Down the Top Cat,” in which a covert op to take out the head of a drug cartel pits the squad against something even more ferocious than they’d bargained for.

Next up is “War Stories,” by James A. Moore, a harrowing and heart-wrenching tale set not in the thick of the action, but in the long aftermath of those who came back alive to have to deal with the memories, and a society unable to fully understand their sacrifices.

Weston Ochse’s “Cold War Gothic” has a gritty almost-noir feel despite being set in the late 1960s, as Special Unit 77 handles another super-secret supernatural case. Also, the thing with the spiders? Pure genius, a head-smacker of the wish-I’d-thought-of-that caliber.

“Skadi’s Wolves” by Kirsten Cross had my attention right from the title, historical fiction in general and Viking-historical in particular being very much my thing. It’s a rousing tale of a Saxon and a Dane sent as emissaries to a Pictish tribe, only to find themselves threatened by beasts out of legend.

Last but not least is Jack Hanson’s “Fallen Lion,” an excerpt from his contribution to SNAFU: Survival of the Fittest. The most futuristic of the bunch, it’s got intelligent weaponized elite dinosaur warriors helping defend human colonies from aliens, and if that’s not cool enough for you, I don’t know what more to say.

-Christine Morgan

POINT HOLLOW by Rio Youers (2015 Chizine Publications / 310 pp /  trade paperback & eBook)

Youers (author of my favorite novel of 2012, WESTLAKE SOUL) returns with another descent into darkness, this time with a more classic feel.

Matthew Bridge and his family left Point Hollow, NY over 25 years ago after a traumatic experience found Matthew alone in the woods for three days. He went into a state that left him with no memory of the incident, but now, on the verge of getting divorced from his wife in Brooklyn, something is calling Matthew back home.

Hollow Point's favorite citizen, Oliver Wray, harbors a secret he does all he can to protect. A mountain near Point Hollow known as Abraham's Faith speaks to him...demands of him, and he learns he isn't the first one to become a servant to its barbaric requirements.

Youers' prose here is nearly flawless. I read this in two sittings. It's a tight, well crafted novel with plenty of genuine scares and a couple of intense suspense scenes. The story itself, however, falls into the "ancient evil in a small town" category that has been done countless times, and I found much of it predictable.

Despite the familiarity, POINT HOLLOW is a real page turner. It's done much better than most novels of its ilk, and hence recommended.

-Nick Cato

NIGHT'S NEON FANGS by David W. Barbee (2015 Eraserhead Press / 184 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This is a whole lot of dark, twisted bizarro packed into a single slim volume. It’s like a can of orange juice concentrate – strong, potent, and brain-puckeringly powerful, especially if you don’t dilute it. In this case, diluting it would probably involve adding time instead of water, taking a break between stories to allow each one’s impact to diffuse and mellow.

I didn’t do that, and I’m still reeling. Each of the four is its own unique wallop of weirdness, beginning with rains of mummies. Yes, mummies, the dried ancient Egyptian corpses. I mean, forget your rains of frogs or fish … offend Anubis, and the jackal-god’s going to call down one doozy of a curse.

The world adjusts as well as it can, but then, the world’s gone a ways beyond normal. This is something Buster Wade knows all too well, because he’s also cursed. He’s an electric werewolf (hence the title of the first story and the collection), hated and hunted, with an unfortunate tendency to short out appliances and an even more unfortunate tendency to go on savage killing-and-feasting sprees.

The theme of gods and curses carries on into the next story, “Noah’s Arkopolis.” Imagine if you will that, after all that stuff with the forty days and forty nights and the flood and the boatful of animals two-by-two, God decided not to have the waters recede after all. Now imagine Noah, drunk and angry, deciding to turn the ark into a floating city populated by generation after generation of crossbreeds.

“That Ultimo Sumbitch” is a weird-wild-western cyberpunkish sci-fi dystopia, in which ostrich-riding cyborg bounty-hunters track camel-riding sombrero-wearing outlaws, where herds of pandas graze and indentured hippies toil in the fields, where scattered civilized settlements huddle in the desert against reptiloids and mutants. Part Westworld, part King’s Gunslinger, part I-don’t-even-know … wow.

And then there’s “Batcop Outta Hell,” my favorite of the bunch (seizing the honor away from the Noah story and bumping it to second place). It’s like a young Tim Burton teamed up with Edward Lee to remake Robocop … with bats. I mean, the batpeople, I love the batpeople, their batsociety, everything.

Imaginative, horrific, quirky, gruesome, outrageous, crazy-seeming-random yet cohesive and well-designed believability of the unbelievable worldbuilding, and just basically huge amounts of weird fun.

-Christine Morgan

FRANKENSTORM by Ray Garton (2014 Pinnacle / 352 pp / mass market paperback & eBook)

Ah, Northern California that really IS Northern California, none of this Bay Area business (it’s in the middle of the state! that’s Central, if anything!). I went to college there, my ex-husband’s family is from there, my sister currently lives there, I am familiar with the area.

So is Ray Garton, and he destroys it. There I’d be, giddy with the nostalgia of mentions of places I knew well – the Samoa Cookhouse, with some of the best bread to be found anywhere; the iconic green Carson Mansion! – then along comes Hurricane Quentin to wipe them off the map.

And yes, technical quibbling about hurricanes vs. typhoons / Atlantic vs. Pacific, etc. But everybody knows what a hurricane is, sometimes it’s more important to be understandable, and let’s face it, Typhoon Whatever just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Battering the picturesque rugged redwood coastline is not enough, however. The storm, as powerful and dangerous as it is, serves to make things way, WAY worse for what else is going on at the supposedly-abandoned mental hospital. Which, in itself, is foreboding enough … not in a haunting sense, but in a secret experiments sense.

One of the doctors involved is having a crisis of conscience regarding the nature of the program and the rather unethical means of obtaining test subjects. A local conspiracy podcaster with a snoop on the inside is ready to blow the whole thing wide open. A gung-ho paramilitary type is also ready to blow the whole thing wide open, only, in a more literal manner.

Not to mention, the experiment itself has turned out to be a bit beyond the anticipated parameters in terms of effectiveness and contagion. In other words, they’re turning innocent people into highly infectious maniacs. A rescue-effort raid is maybe not the best idea, but, by then, it’s too late.

Also caught up in the action, violence, terror, wild weather, and mayhem are a single mom and an estranged dad, each just trying to do what they believe is best for their kids. Garton has a knack for handling huge casts of characters with aplomb (though the fast-rising body count probably helps) and does not play by the usual comfortable rules of who lives and who dies.

FRANKENSTORM is a riotous good read, clever and intense, a terrific combination of the weather-disaster and the fight-the-infected action thriller. It’s desperate survival on multiple levels, pretty much impossible to put down. I’m sure I will be reading it again very soon.

-Christine Morgan


BLACK STATIC Issue 48 (Sep-Oct 2015  / TTA Press / 96 pp)

This issue's opening commentary features Stephen Volk's look at SciFi television and its roots in films such as WESTWORLD, and Lynda E. Rucker digs into the parallels between horror and beauty, which leads to an interesting point on why (she believes) horror novels became so generic in the 80s.

The fiction opens with a novelette by Jeffrey Thomas titled 'Distinguished Mole.' Bendo, a doctor working in a run down clinic, experiments with cells in his apartment at night. After taking the mole of a monk, his life transforms in this bizarro multi-genre tale that brings the weird big time.

In Stephen Bacon's 'Bandersnatch,' a brother returns from 10 years in "exile" to meet up with his sister in the wake of their mother's passing. He still has incestuous feelings for her, and devises a plan to get rid of her live-in boyfriend. Despite a violent scene with a dog (that turned this animal lover off), Bacon's short tale is a real creep-fest.

A woman dealing with the death of her young daughter (and the end of her marriage) gives Steven J. Dines fertile ground for some disturbing revelations in 'The Suffering.' Here's a melancholy ghost story complete with an ending that's as slick as its prose.

In Andrew Hook's 'Blood for Your Mother,' a woman returns to her childhood home to see her dying father. Her parents never hid the fact she was unwanted, and when our protagonist discovers why, readers are in for a truly horrific treat (just don't let the author's overuse of the word "whilst" distract you).

Although doctors gave him six months, Olive's boyfriend dies a week later in Cate Gardner's engaging 'When the Moon Man Knocks.' Olive is then visited by Hector Wynter, who claims the dead live on the moon and communicate with their loved ones by sending him messages via origami birds. Olive needs to decide if she's being scammed or suffering from extreme grief. But what she learns about the dead becomes an eye-opener even for the mysterious Mr. Wynter. This is top-notch dark fantasy, showing off Gardner's ability to use emotion as a springboard for some serious chills. A fantastic novelette to cap this issue's fiction.

Tony Lee hits us with another massive round of dvd/bluray reviews (his look at the season 5 box set of THE WALKING DEAD is perfect for anyone who doesn't want to sit through hours of the show), and Peter Tennant provides an excellent interview with author Simon Kurt Unsworth. Among Peter's always detailed book reviews are a look at three re-released Lovecraft inspired anthologies, a good look at the latest two novels by Sarah Pinborough, and a batch of novellas, one from this issue's contributor Cate Gardner.

An all around excellent issue, and I welcome the weirder material. Subscribe or check out a solo issue here: BLACK STATIC 48

THE HORROR FICTION REVIEW will return on October 26th...