Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Reviews for the Week of May 23, 2016

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

HEADER 3 by Ryan Harding and Edward Lee (2016 Camelot Books / 252 pp / limited edition hardcover)

I cringe and flinch and squirm a lot when reading the extreme stuff. More than once, I’ve almost been physically ill. I’ve had to take a break from some books to let my nerves, stomach, and brain settle.

Shane McKenzie, Monica J. O’Rourke, Wrath James White, Danger Slater, they’ve each in their own ways pushed me toward that brink (they know it, too, and they chortle, the brats!)

And then there’s these guys.

Ryan Harding, author of GENITAL GRINDER, teaming up with the all-time champ of sexatrocities – I have to make up words here because nothing else is even close – Edward Lee. For the next installment in the HEADER epic.

Now, if you don’t know what a ‘header’ is … uh … well … familiar with the phrase “f*** your brains out”? Outside of these books, it’s not normally used in a literal sense. A drill is involved, with a hole-saw attachment. What follows isn’t pretty.

Most of what happens in here isn’t pretty. There are people getting skinned alive, things being done to testicles that should not in any sane world ever EVER be done, and more. Yet, what got me, what brought me the closest I’ve been to actually losing my groceries, was the Hock Party. Just mentioning it here has me queasy again.

So, obviously, all that said, everybody should rush right out and get this book. Because my scarred, abused, tormented psyche wants company. From dialect to description, it’s expertly done, and unforgettable without trepanation or lobotomy, which you need like a hole in the head, and AAAAAAUGH!!!

-Christine Morgan

DRUGULA by Michael Faun (2016 Dynatox Ministries / 30 pp / chapbook)

Inspired by a couple of songs from doom metal band Electric Wizard, Faun delivers this well written tale set in Transylavnia, 1803. Count Drugula not only survives on the blood of young women and livestock, but protects his castle with drug-infused smoke screens.

Yep, the 'ol Count here is a stoner and drug dealer, but DRUGULA is done seriously and comes off as cool as it is atmospheric. I can almost see this as a strip within the pages of an underground comic book.

Another solid tale from everyone's favorite Swede.

-Nick Cato

THINGS SLIP THROUGH by Kevin Lucia (2013 Crystal Lake Publishing / 325 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Small towns have their secrets; I think I remember that adage best from Stephen King’s SALEM'S LOT. The gradual discoveries of deeper and deeper layers of weirdness by the newcomer, I remember best from TWIN PEAKS. Elements of both feature strongly in this clever collection, which has several individual stories encased in a nifty frame narrative.

The newcomer to town is widowed dad Chris, a local law enforcement officer who really wants to do right by the citizens he’s sworn to protect and serve. It gets frustrating, though, when there’s all this hidden mystery and behind the scenes stuff nobody will tell him about.

Finally, having had enough, he slaps down an ultimatum to his poker night pals – also prominent people in Clifton Heights: a teacher, a doctor, a priest. If he’s going to be able to do his job, he tells them, then he needs some answers. He needs to understand.

So, the writer among them presents him with a series of manuscripts, supposedly the truth behind several recent, peculiar, unsolved or unsatisfactorily-solved cases. The more Chris reads, the more he finds himself reluctantly drawn toward belief.

The stories may start out with more ordinary scandals of racism, harassment, murder, and revenge … but they swiftly take darker, stranger turns. Stories with inexplicable disappearances, supernatural overtones, entities, hauntings, and monstrous magic.

Each on its own works well; strung together this way, like weird but beautiful beads, the result is all the more fascinating. Really neatly done. And the first in an ongoing series, as the mysteries and mythology of Clifton Heights continue to unfold.

-Christine Morgan

THE BLACK DEATH by Jon R. Meyers (2016 Dunhams Manor Press / 30 pp / chapbook)

After visiting the town's doctor, a man learns he may be infected with more than the pandemic that's ravishing the countryside.

In Meyers' latest story, it's the summer of 1346 and we see the plague through the eyes of this mysterious narrator, who begins creating art from corpses as the disease consumes his mind. His strange affair with a local Madame also leads to his questioning life, death, and the reason for it all.

Meyers always skates on the dark side of the rink, and THE BLACK DEATH may be his darkest round to date. Read in direct sunshine or you may be swallowed by the blackness that spills from these pages...

-Nick Cato

DREAMS OF IVORY AND GOLD by Kirk Dougal (2014 Angelic Knight Press / 422 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

The title on this one may seem a bit misleading; it suggests something more along the lines of historic fantasy/romance, but it’s really more a paranormal police procedural thriller with strong historical interludes. I’m not quite sure where the ivory and gold were meant to come in.

Summary-wise, the cops are on the trail of a serial killer who leaves a string of mutilated women in his wake, while a young priest is assigned to assist a special operative from the Vatican who’s hunting a monster. Needless to say, their missions intersect. Maybe a smidge coincidentally, what with all the connections between characters, but we’ll let it slide.

On the side of the cops is Detective Morgan Kelly, back on the job with a new partner after some personal and professional difficulties. But, none of that easing back into work gently for her; she’s soon put in command of the task force to find the killer. On the church side is Father Roger Greene, tasked with handling the infuriating and mysterious Gregor Novara.

Novara has been doing this job a long time. A long, long time. He’s by no means any ordinary man himself, and his crusade against the creature now preying on New York is as much personal as professional. I do understand why for plot reasons there wasn’t more info disclosure, but it did lead to a bit much of the taunting “I know something you don’t know” … and to do that while also chiding others for what they don’t know when you won’t TELL them … seems kinda mean.

The writing is solid, the story good on both history and action. The flashback scenes were my favorite parts. Could have used some more emotion from the characters, little stilted and awkward on some of the shall we say feminine issues.

Overall, I found it an enjoyable and entertaining read … right up until the last couple chapters, which felt rushed, and a resolution that kind of annoyed the crap out of me for several reasons. Not so much, though, as to prevent me from giving the sequel a look!

-Christine Morgan

TOWERS by Karl Fischer (2015 Eraserhead Press / 84 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Karl Fischer is one of those rare bizarros who, on sight, presents a deceptive normality. Simply looking at him, people might not suspect the labyrinthine layers and levels of complexity going on in his head.

When you see him do a reading, or you view one of his pants-wettingly intense short films, the reality reset your mind has to do can be really quite jarring. I’d experienced the first two, so I thought I was prepared. Then I read TOWERS, and found out how much more there was to the picture.

This is one weird, brilliantly done piece of work. It’s a love story, but in a post-apocalyptic world where the survivors live inside self-sufficient fortified monoliths (towers, obvs), defending them from the blighted landscape and monstrous threats outside. But, sweethearts Alti and Quatra have volunteered to give up their bodies to BECOME Towers, to do a long stint as sentient buildings in exchange for a promised afterlife together.

Suddenly, after a thousand years of doing his duty, Alti finds himself revived. Finds himself human again, not a Tower anymore, and with the doctors telling him he’s needed, they can’t send him to the afterlife, sorry, bummer, and who’s Quatra anyway?

He is, understandably, distraught to be shoved back into the teeming and strange social dystopia that used to scurry about its business inside his walls and corridors. He wants to be reunited with his lover, whom he believes must be out there somewhere, in some form or another.

He resists, he rebels, he learns some strange truths, and he finds himself beginning to physically change. To evolve into something capable of hurting the Tower, and even surviving outside. Which is when things get exponentially weirder, like, whole-genre-switch weirder.

I don’t even think I found any nits to quibble over. And the fact this is his first book? Yeah, keep an eye on this guy. Crazy talent and skills to match. Good, good stuff.

-Christine Morgan



Monday, May 9, 2016

Reviews for the Week of May 9, 2016

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

GATEWAYS TO ABOMIMNATION by Matthew M. Bartlett (2014 CreateSpace / 145 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

WXXT is a strange radio station that lures people into the mysterious town of Leeds, Massachusetts. The 30+ short stories collected here form a novel of sorts, giving Bartlett leeway to create an uncanny atmosphere that delivers some serious chills.

In the opener 'The Woods in Fall,' a man hears the call of Leeds' woods through a WXXT broadcast and is given a glimpse of things to come (both for himself and we, the reader). It's super short and unsettling and hooked me from the get-go.

Several stories here are flash fiction length, but most are around 5-8 pages. Among my faves are 'The Last Hike,' about a man who is introduced to hiking through his girlfriend, which in GATEWAYS leads to a building suspense that'll surely rattle your nerves. In 'The Investigator,' the title character meets his fate in the basement of an occult bookstore that's run but a couple of off the wall locals. I can see films being made from both of these tales.

The rest of GATEWAYS is filled with sorcerers and satanic goats, strange old men who visit playgrounds where kids go missing, lethal, creepy insects and frightening news reports, radio broadcasts, and snippets of Leeds history. Much of the aura here reminded me of the classic film HORROR HOTEL (1960): you can almost feel the fog roll off the pages as you turn and dive deeper into Bartlett's unholy universe.

This is the first I've read from the author and I can't wait for some more. Fans of occult horror will eat this one up.

-Nick Cato

BLACK CREEK by Gregory Lamberson (2016 Medallion Press / 432 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

When doing construction, there might really just be some places it’s best to avoid. Ancient burial grounds, say, or the lot where the torture asylum burned down. Or, y’know, someplace like Love Canal, where decades’ worth of chemical toxins seeped into the earth and caused all sorts of health problems … but that was a long time ago, and it’s probably all fine now, right?

Except, not. Even if it was, the damage done back then has ways of lingering. Growing. Changing. Breeding. Some of the people who used to live there didn’t relocate when everyone else did. They’ve worked out their own ways of surviving as a society.

But, when a hard winter takes its toll, and the whiteout storm of the century offers them an opportunity to venture from their lair, it’s the new residents who are going to find their snowbound situation about to get a whole lot worse.

This was an advance, uncorrected proof, so I can’t in fairness quibble about the bloopers, though I sure do hope the ones that are more than mere typos got caught. The story’s good, if spread across a lot of characters only a few of whom ring genuine.

Personally, gorehound that I am, I was expecting something way more Laymonesque and much more focused on the tribe of weirdo muties. For the promise of the front cover art and the back cover copy, it didn’t feel like they got the chance to really stand out and deliver.

-Christine Morgan

WYTCHCULT RISING by Philip LoPresti (2016 Dunhams Manor Press / 54 pp / limited edition hardcover and trade paperback)

LoPresti (best known for his obscene, weird poetry) unleashes his first piece of horror prose, that's adorned with his own striking photography.

The storytelling here is done in heavy shadows, which adds to the overall feeling of unease, especially in the first chapter where we meet a young girl who narrates the activities of her mother's coven as she and her siblings listen from inside a rucksack. The rest of this brief novella chronicles the girl's dealings with the witch cult, which are at times as perverse as they are terrifying. The cryptic ending promises another blast of blasphemy to come.

The brand of witchcraft on display here is extreme and will probably piss off "white witches" and Wiccans, but fans of occult/witch horror will surely enjoy the author's poetic writing style and eye for morbid detail.

Now I'm off to get a pre-exorcism just to be safe...

-Nick Cato

WE ARE WORMWOOD by Autumn Christian (2013 Amazon Digital / 376 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Some stories depict a gradual, inexorable descent into surreal otherworldly madness. Not this one. This one starts out there and just keeps twisting its way deeper and deeper. It’s a horribly beautiful, agonizing, compelling journey, dredging up emotions and experiences from the darkest hearts of the psyche.

And never mind “unreliable narrator” … in We Are Wormwood, you pretty much get unreliable everything … what’s real, what isn’t, who is, who isn’t, who’s crazy, who’s sane … all subject to interpretation. Well, I mean, of course obviously since it’s fiction, none of it’s REAL-real, but you know what I’m saying.

It presents an interesting puzzle and somewhat discomforting reading experience: when the point-of-view protagonist admits her own insanity, how much can her perceptions be trusted? Is it just her who’s completely ‘round the bend, or is everyone else really also that weird?

The character in question is Lily, and whether you’re of the nature or nurture camp in terms of mental illness, being raised by her mom, she’s basically sunk. Demons and exorcists, weird bugs, Vikings and robots, lost gods, and ancient sagas all figure into their lives...while Lily’s also dealing with school, other kids, being an outcast, and all that fun stuff.

Her best friend collects carnivorous plants, there’s this artist guy who paints in blood, there’s a boy who may or may not have been blinding neighborhood pets … and a bonus story at the end which manages to simultaneously shed some light and further muddy the waters.

Rich with elements of folklore, fairy tale, mythology, and age-old storytelling elements tapping into Jungian or even pre-Jungian archetypes, there’s a lot to unpack here. A lot to absorb. It’s beautifully done, unsettling, disturbing stuff.

-Christine Morgan

BLURRING THE LINE edited by Marty Young (2015 Cohesion Press / 277 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

You know those stories you hear, not the urban legend ones like the escaped lunatic with the hook hand or the baby in the oven, but the more local-folklore / conspiracy-fodder ones that are a little harder to dismiss or discount? The ones that aren’t a friend of a friend, or my cousin’s hairdresser’s neighbor, but multiple sources, sometimes widespread over distance and years? When you can’t really with a hundred percent beyond reasonable doubt just chuff it off as wackos and superstition?

Well, here’s a whole book of it … not just of skillfully crafted inspired-by tales from the talented pens of some of the spooky spec-fic genre’s best, but interspersed with educational, informative articles and essays on past sightings, theories, and events. There are looks at some of the strangest, most inexplicable crimes and incidents in history, madness and murder and mass hysteria and magic, government experiments, cryptids, all kinds of things.

Best of all – speaking as someone who suffers through too many of those History or Discovery Channel shows – the level here is elevated, presented without all that breathless ‘could it be …?’ melodrama, but with an honest sense of ‘hey, this is a big weird world and we have not yet found answers for everything.’

Food for thought, food for thought, lots and lots of food for thought, especially where thought is bunches of nibbly little critters stocking up morsels for the winter, burying it, saving it in the nooks and crannies of your brain. I would have happily read a whole book just of that; the stories were extra bonus features!

Fiction-wise, it opens with a not-very-fictiony-at-all piece by the late Tom Piccirilli, written toward the end he knew was coming. It is hard to read, even for someone like me who never had the privilege of meeting him, but only knew him through the anecdotes of those who did. And maybe it’s strange to start a book with an essential goodbye, but in terms of setting the tone of transition and possibility, it works. It really works.

My personal favorite, for reasons involving my own predilections as well as familial lore of a great-aunt, is 'Hoarder' by Kealan Patrick Burke. Even though you know it’s a bad idea for the salesman to go inside (even though HE knows it), the lure is too strong, the compulsion, the curiosity. It’s chillingly creepy loooonng before the inevitable doom settles in.

Other particular stand-outs for me were Kaaron Warren’s 'The Body Finder,' 'Honey' by Annie Neugebauer, and Brett McBean’s 'With These Hands' … so much deep-down disquiet, wonderfully done.

-Christine Morgan