Sunday, December 31, 2017

Top Ten Reads of 2017 (Part One)

Nick Cato's top 10 for 2017:

Due (once again) to several writing projects, my reading time this past year was drastically cut down, but I still managed to read and review over 35 books. There were many titles that made several other Best Of lists that I planned to read and hope to get to early in 2018, but out of the crop I read these are the ten that stuck with me the longest. I've included a snippet from my review from each book and then an updated thought:

Counting down from 10:

10) THE FORGOTTEN GIRL by Rio Youers

From my review: "THE FORGOTTEN GIRL features a serial killer side plot, fantastic villains, a relentless pace, and a host of colorful people who elevate the story far beyond the norm. The last three chapters (no peeking!) had me cheering Harvey on out loud, and despite the novel's serious tone, Youers uses some clever, humorous similies among his spectacular prose. I winged through this in two manic sittings and so will you."

-Youers' first mainstream novel made smile from ear to ear: after following him throughout his small press days it was satisfying to see him bat in the big leagues (and belt it out of the park). Very impressive work.


From my review: "Like Soares' previous horror novels (the Stoker winning LIFE RAGE and the grossly underrated ROCK 'N' ROLL), BURIED IN BLUE CLAY is a weird and original tale that kept me guessing until the last chapter. I had no idea where this was going even into the third act, and while Soares throws everything at you including the kitchen sink, he ties everything up during the satisfying finale. Part monster mash, part strange occult sex drama, and with a feel all it's own, Soares' latest novel is a refreshing treat in a genre flooded with rehashes."

-It's always weird listing one of your friends on these top ten lists, but Soares has been consistently coming up with the most original ideas out there. Horror fans sick of the same old thing are advised to check this out.


From my review: "Avery's story is a dark and tense thriller, set against a cold Hungarian back drop. The reconnection between father and daughter gives THE TEARDROP METHOD melancholy in light of the father's declining health, and the handling of the supernatural element is done so latently it feels authentic and hence, genuinely spooky. The prose here is compulsively readable and even the stranger members of the cast pop off the page."

-Avery is another writer I became a fan of through his short stories in Black Static magazine, and this impressive novella shows off his talent to keep readers glued to the pages.

7) THE HANDYMAN by Bentley Little

From my review: "I've been saying for years (in light of some of Little's short stories) that he'd surely be able to write an EPIC all-out bizarro novel...but until that day comes, THE HANDYMAN should easily suffice fans of weird horror fiction. For the hardcore Little fan, this one falls somewhere between his "industrial" novels and his more experimental work, and with all fan boy-ness aside, it's a solid offering from one of the genre's favorites."

-Little is one of my all time favorite writers, and after a few more experimental novels, he has been back on track with his "industrial" style stories we old school fans live for. Last year's THE CONSULTANT was great, but I enjoyed THE HANDYMAN even more.


From my review: "PANDEMONIUM keeps the scares coming and the peril alive on every page. A couple of scenes inside a mental institution raise serious goosebumps, and the impending sense of doom is relentless. This delivers the goods and should chill even the most jaded reader."

-It's not too often a sequel triumphs the original, but Chapman manages to do so and also create what I believe was the scariest story of the year. The original novella is included in this edition for those not familiar with it.

5) ARARAT by Christopher Golden

From my review: "While ARARAT reminded me somewhat of Lee Thomas' excellent 2006 debut novel STAINED, it stands on its own as a page turning action adventure/horror hybrid. Golden's past three novels, DEAD RINGERS, TIN MEN, and SNOWBLIND, were all excellent, and now with ARARAT he's 4 for 4 in a big way. A best bet for fans of religious-themed horror."

-I've been a fan of Golden's work for a long time but the past few years he has really been on fire. ARARAT is another fantastic, satisfying read that'd make one hell of a movie.

4) PRETTY MARY’S ALL IN A ROW by Gwendolyn Kiste

From my review: "Kiste's dark fantasy grabbed me from the first sentence and forced me to finish in one sitting. This highly imaginative novella features some incredible imagery, gorgeous prose, and a satisfying finale that could easily lead to a sequel. I loved it."

-After reading (and falling in love with) one of Kiste's stories in Black Static magazine, I couldn't wait to read more, and this fine novella delivers big time. Looking forward to her short story collection which also came out in 2017.

3) SYCORAX’S DAUGHTERS edited by Kinitra Brooks, Linda D. Addison and Susana Morris

From my review: "SYCORAX'S DAUGHTERS is a massive undertaking delivered with style and substance. Many of the stories here would work well in any speculative anthology, not just one showcasing black female authors, and that's the beauty of this project: These stories and poems suck you in and take you to their own worlds, making the reader forget, at times, that this is a themed anthology. There's some serious talent on display here, and here's hoping to see more from those involved."

-Anthologies come and go but here's one with serious staying power. It was great to read such a big collection featuring so many writers I had not heard of before, many of which I'm now keeping my eye on.

2) BEHIND HER EYES by Sarah Pinborough

From my review: "..But the highlight here is the ending. OH MY GOD the ending. I know endings aren't the most important thing to a lot of readers, but they are to me, and this is one of the finest to come down the pike in years. It's to-die-for good. This is like GONE GIRL on speed, with a slight supernatural leaning to push it more into the horror realm, keeping it a creepy arm's distance from your standard "thriller." Needless to say this is highly, highly recommended, and if you're a fan of killer finales, get this before some Internet troll ruins it for you."

-Sarah is one of those authors who seems to get better with each book. Few writers make novels move like novellas like she does. She recently signed a fantastic book deal and I can't wait to see what she comes up with next. Did I mention this has a to-die-for ending?

And now, drum roll please ...


From my review: "Krall's latest novella is a trippy, dark science fiction story dealing with a group of mentally unstable men on their way to an already colonized Mars. As with many of the author's stories, we're never sure if we're actually on a shuttle or on Mars, or in a psychiatric ward. The mystery and constant guessing keeps things moving, eerie, and unsettling. As we journey along with our main untrustworthy protagonist, the story expands into the life of a Messianic figure, terrorism, and a look at industry that's as obscure as the main scifi story. And in the end, things are (sort of) tied up with a chilling note. BEYOND is told in short sections, making it very easy to digest in one sitting, and Bizarro Pulp Press's page layouts enhance an already fantastic tale that's way out of the ordinary."

-More so than any title I read in 2017, Krall's latest kept coming back to haunt me. It may be scifi on the surface but the underlying sense of horror and paranoia is priceless, and the writing itself sings. Krall is another writer I've been following for a while and he continues to find new ways to dig into his readers' minds. Enter at your own risk...

So there you have it, folks! Looking forward to a new year of more great reads.

Our second  2017 Top Ten List will be published soon...

Monday, December 11, 2017

Reviews for the Week of December 11, 2017

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

THE NOCTUARY: PANDEMONIUM by Greg Chapman (2017 Bloodshot Books / 250 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This novel-length sequel to Chapman's 2011 novella THE NOCTUARY takes some familiar tropes, twists them, and becomes a creepy-as-it-gets tale I read in only two sittings.

For those not familiar with the novella, it's included here as an opening bonus. In a nutshell: author Simon Ryan literally becomes hell's newest scribe, his words able to change the destiny of every living soul. In PANDEMONIUM, Ryan's former psychiatrist, Dr. Desmond Carter, receives a manuscript allegedly written by the now missing Ryan. His destiny quickly snowballs as his boss, a crazed patient, and a detective all fall victim to Ryan's otherworldly words.

PANDEMONIUM keeps the scares coming and the peril alive on every page. A couple of scenes inside a mental institution raise serious goosebumps, and the impending sense of doom is relentless.

Towards the end, Chapman spends perhaps a bit too much time on backstory, although he does create his own hellish version of history that could easily be built upon in future projects.

 PANDEMONIUM delivers the goods and should chill even the most jaded reader.

-Nick Cato

ENGINES OF RUIN by Lucas Mangum (2017 Doom Kitten Press / 180 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Okay, this guy is officially one to keep an eye on, still fairly new to the game but already displaying the kind of talent and skill that will go a long, long way. Not to mention, proving that good writing isn't a lost or dying art in this modern age; the current crop of rising stars will more than carry on into the future!

Opening with an intro by extreme-horror powerhouse Shane McKenzie, Engines of Ruin is a tidy collection of eight unsettling tales. Some touch on the supernatural, many have religious aspects, but most deliver their chills simply by delving right into the darker undersides of the human psyche.

"Hell and Back," in which a pastor-turned-bartender faces the conflict of helping a friend who's done a terrible thing, has a gritty noir feel and reads like it should be a starkly done black-and-white graphic novel.

The passion and poison of twisted relationships take center stage in stories such as "Worlds Colliding" and "Video Inferno," while painful histories, forbidden urges, and deadly secrets refusing to stay quiet are the focus of "A Killing Back Home" and the haunting "Waters of Ruin."

"The World Asunder" manages the deft trick of being a zombie apocalypse story without on-screen zombies, and "Occupy Babylon" brushes up against the end of days in a subtly sneaky surprise.

The full-on weirdest of the set is "Our Lady of the Sea," maybe not Lovecraftian in a lore sense but (to me) very much so in a feel sense, atmospheric and eldritch and somehow beautifully bleak.

So, yeah, all right, sometimes I may grump about these kids being so much better than I was at that age, but I mean it with affection. They've got the stuff. We won't need to despair for ongoing good reads, and that's what really matters.

-Christine Morgan

PRETTY MARYS ALL IN A ROW by Gwendolyn Kiste (2017 Broken Eye Books / 90 pp / trade paperback)

Rhee is a ghostly hitchhiker who haunts the same isolated stretch of highway night after night, freaking drivers out and having her own otherworldly fun. But at the end of each day she is transported back to a house she shares with four sisters, each of them a ghost, too.

But it turns out these ladies aren't your ordinary specters: Rhee is actually the legendary Resurrection Mary, one of her sisters the infamous Bloody Mary, another Mary Mack, etc., Urban Legends whose afterlives are about to be challenged but the ultimate incarnation of darkness.

Rhee's world is also beginning to merge with human love interest Dave and his young daughter Abby, as well as twin sisters who have a knack for contacting the spirit realm.

Kiste's dark fantasy grabbed me from the first sentence and forced me to finish in one sitting. This highly imaginative novella features some incredible imagery, gorgeous prose, and a satisfying finale that could easily lead to a sequel. I loved it.

-Nick Cato

THE WILDRENESS WITHIN by John Claude Smith (2017 Trepidatio Publishing / 258 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I went into this one with no idea of what I was going to read, and I came out the other end some days later, blinking like a mole in the sunlight, trying not only to figure out what I'd just read but what was real and what wasn't.

A shifting unreality, to say the least! Over the course of the book, several times right when I'd finally think I had a grasp, that grasp would slip away like a handful of smoke. If it's like King's The Dark Half, it's the origami version, so intricate and folded in on itself the eye can barely comprehend and the brain is left guessing.

Summary-wise, it starts off with a couple of middle-aged author types heading out for a restful cabin vacation, but from the get-go there's some Lynchian not-quite-rightness going on about the woods. Our POV guy, Derek, soon becomes concerned about his buddy Frank. Their reminiscences about the old days, including absent friend Izzy, gradually make Derek wonder how much of Frank's writing is drawn from imagination and how much from real life.

And, of course, things take a swiftly spiraling dreamlike descent from there ... fiction and reality intertwine ... Derek has to confront the true-life inspiration for one of his own literary creations ... Izzy shows up, or does he? ... some strange force in the forest is calling ... much more than sanity and safety are at stake.

Now and then, things side-wander with a bit more info dumping about music and such than I particularly cared for, but the lavish sensory immersion and richness of description more than makes up for it. Not a book for casual pick it up / put it down reading, though; you've got to pay attention or you will soon be lost in the woods.

-Christine Morgan


WIDOW'S POINT by Richard and Billy Chizmar (to be released January 28, 2018 by Cemetery Dance Publications / 156 pp / hardcover)

The Harper's Cove lighthouse has a dark and troubling history, and famous supernatural investigator Thomas Livingston is about to spend a weekend there. His aim is to get material for yet another bestseller, and with over two dozen confirmed deaths over the years, he's sure there will be plenty to write about. To make matters spookier, he's locked in by the groundskeeper with no phone or Internet service. Of course it doesn't take long for the hauntings to begin, which grow in intensity after he finds the journal of a 12 year old who once lived there with his family...

While WIDOW'S POINT is a familiar story (1408 immediately comes to mind), it's told through a series of voice and video recordings that give it its own feel, and the four post endings make it seem like an authentic episode of Unsolved Mysteries. In the hands of these skilled authors (a father and son team), a typical genre tale manages to raise some serious scares and proves there's always room for a well told, solid ghost story.

A no nonsense, tight, filler-free novella perfect for a late night read.

-Nick Cato

THE TEETH OF THE SEA by Tim Waggoner (2017 Severed Press / 180 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

As a reviewer, I strive to be detached, aloof, and professional -- hey! what are you laughing at? Okay, okay, fine, my reaction upon learning of this book was giddy glee and something like "OMG YES freaky sea monster chompy aquatic horror is my JAM bring it on gimme!"

What can I say? I love this kind of stuff. And I'm delighted to report that The Teeth of the Sea does not in any way disappoint. It's got everything I look for in oceanic creature-features and then some! Great action, fun characters, interpersonal conflict, glorious carnage, terrific writing, believable critters with personality and motivation ... an exhilarating adventure from start to finish!

It opens with a small pod, two males and two females, returning by instinct to their ancestral spawning/hatching ground after long years in the deep. Only, there's a problem. During the intervening time, the island's been made into a prime vacation destination of luxury hotels, casinos, canals, and resorts.

This doesn't stop the pod for long, because they quickly discover that this means a veritable bounty of tasty soft-skinned morsels. Soon, videos of gory attacks are all over the internet, but every public-relations nightmare has its silver lining. Cue monster-watching boat tours, a special episode of a cryptid-hunter show, a disgraced professor hoping for redemption, a comedian looking to become a real-life action hero, and the stage is set -- so they think -- for success.

So they think. Needless to say, it doesn't go as planned. In fact, the situation keeps getting worse for the idiot soft-skins with their cameras and phones and selfie-sticks. But it's all-you-can-eat time for the pod, unless their violent competitive urges get in the way.

Top-notch chomping, plausible science (often a rarity in creature-features, must admit), tons of fun, and a fully satisfying read!

-Christine Morgan


BLACK STATIC no. 61 ( Nov/Dec 2017 / TTA Press)

Opening commentaries feature Lynda E. Rucker's thoughts on ghosts in light of the Christmas season, then Ralph Robert Moore discusses the loneliness of the writer's life as well as carrying on despite those who may be against you.

This issue's fiction is once again among the best in the business, and includes:

-THE ANNIVERSARY by Ruth EJ Booth: In just 4 short paragraphs, Booth delivers a powerful piece on spousal abuse. A grim tone is quickly set...

-FOR WHOM THE DOGS BARK by Ralph Robert Moore: an old man named Hans, who lives alone, grows weary as he faces cataract surgery. Late at night the dogs next door wake him with their barking, but when Hans investigates he finds three naked men on all fours pretending to be dogs. We learn a bit of Hans' back story but only enough to hint at where his mind is currently at. A weird and unsettling study of aging.

-THE BOOK OF DREEMS by Georgina Bruce: A dazzling look at an abusive relationship where the abused's (Kate) cloudy memory leads to her man's (Fraser) downfall. Bruce's symbolism makes the piece almost feel sci-fi but the underlying horror will chill you to the core.

-DO NOT GOOGLE by Andrew Humphrey: a cheating husband is asked by co-worker Vince to take a piece of paper containing a series of words that, when Googled, lead to a loved one's death. Being said husband doesn't love anyone, he takes the paper...and discovers the hard way he most certainly does. An idea that reminded me of CURSE OF THE DEMON (1957), and I'm sure much earlier stories, but here Humphrey gives it a fresh spin.

-A SMALL LIFE by Carly Holmes: An alcoholic man, running from his past, arrives in a small town and joins a rowing team to help keep his mind off his demons. He does fine, until almost capsizing the boat one day after seeing a strange creature jump at him from the woods. And when Jess, a team mate's sister, joins the team and shows interest in him, our unnamed protagonist begins to spiral way out of control in this engrossing novelette.

-TANCHO by Mel Kassel: Laurie, an old woman on dialysis, is kidnapped and murdered by her neighbor, Jameson. He has a customized pond where he keeps her spirit (or something like it) with occult symbols on the walls that keep her a submerged prisoner. It seems Jameson has found a way to breed rare koi fish for a demanding market, which he needs Laurie for. But Laurie figures out a clever way to turn the tables on her captor. Kassel's aquatic terror tale brings to mind classic EC comics although with none of the campiness. This is seriously strange (and disturbing) stuff.

Gary Couzens delivers another batch of dvd/bluray reviews, including a look at the latest box set of George Romero films from Arrow, the seventh season of The Walking Dead, and Arrow's real pretty deluxe edition of John Carpenter's THE THING.

Among Peter Tennant's book reviews are seven anthologies/collections, six chapbooks from Nightjar Press, and a detailed look at a Hap and Leonard graphic novel. Among the six novel reviews is 'Kill The Next One' by Federico Axat, a complex sounding thriller that has shot to the top of my must read list.

Grab your copy (or better yet, a subscription) here: Black Static

-Nick Cato


Sunday, November 26, 2017

Reviews for the Week of November 27, 2017

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

HAUNTED WORLDS by Jeffrey Thomas (2017 Hippocampus Press / 248 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Jeffrey Thomas has become one of my favorite authors of the last five to ten years. His prose is often brilliant, subtle, haunting, and atmospheric, to say the least. He has this uncanny way of crafting timeless stories that possess ample amounts of mixed emotions and dread, where the reader is instantly hooked into the story and setting being told. It’s slow-burned into your psych with elements of Horror, Science, and Weird Fiction alike. HAUNTED WORLDS delivers all of the above with the same quality and expectations that I personally had before diving into this new collection. One of the dominant themes that I picked up on right away was this brilliantly lingering and overwhelming sadness, whether it was from a main character’s point of view in the story, or embedded in the roots of the setting and dialogue, there was this powerful, lingering sadness found at almost every turn of the page, and I loved every second of it.

Some of my personal favorites were: ‘Spider Gates’, there’s talk of a haunted cemetery in the woods, a white deer, voices and legend, only some make it out alive. But, what rests behind the ancient stone wall will forever remain a mystery. ‘Feeding Oblivion’, a brother’s trip to visit his mother in a nursery home is doomed by giant, black centipede like masses and they’re everywhere. I don’t think you can turn the television up loud enough to drown them out of your head once you’ve seen them either. In ‘The Left-Hand Pool’, two ponds border the roadway on the way to work, you see a strange black creature a couple of times, before getting turned down by a female you have a crush on at work. ‘Riah Gnol’, a modern-day horror tale about a mysterious ghost girl that haunts the local arcade. She’s been seen in a number of places, including, but not limited to, the laser tag arena.

Another brilliant collection.

-Jon R. Meyers

BENEATH by Kristi DeMeester (2017 Word Horde / 254 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Okay, let's be honest here. Nothing I can say in this review would be as glorious as the fact that a book club assigned this one to their members and then issued an aghast apology once they realized what it was all about. THAT kind of epic cred is for the ages, folks.

I suppose they figured they were getting your basic moody broody backwoods gothic, some cross between A Scarlet Letter and V.C. Andrews. Which, in a sense, they were ... only, they were also getting a whole bunch more.

This isn't just tormented Appalachian angst laden with sin and struggle and poor suffering Rev. Dimmesdale. This rips away all the veneer, any romanticized notions. There's abuse and molestation and ugliness, the down-deep nasties, ol' time religion and then some. When it starts off with snake-handling as the default norm and gets into the dark ancient cthonic blood stuff?

But, it does start off with snake-handling as the default norm, when reporter Cora Mayburn is given an assignment from her editor to look into the practices of a remote church community. Given her own past experiences, she's reluctant, but accepts, and sets off for Hensley.

What she finds is fanatic zealotry, turbulent secrets, pent-up lusts, and ominous history beyond even her worst expectations. Something else is about to awaken, something ready to emerge and take over. Can a distrustful reporter and a disgraced minister save the day from a primal power, a feminine force of birth and death and blood and rebirth?

Now, me, I read it with great delight, particularly enjoying the rich sensory style and liquid delirious chaotic unreality, some really excellent body horror and gore, and brilliantly handled points of view through unspeakable transformations.

Then, before I got around to writing this review, I learned about the book club business and couldn't help chortling with sinister glee. Some of those reactions must have been something to behold!

-Christine Morgan

PROM NIGHT ON THE RIVER OF DEATH by Jason Rizos (2017 Rooster Republic Press / 126 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Ah, that classic love story of boy, girl, car, dark lonely road, escaped maniac, and hook hanging from the door handle! That's how this one may begin, but don't get complacent thinking you know what's next, because the urban legends are about to be upended and the tropes turned inside-out.

Welcome to a future where hunting teenagers is big business, cheerleaders bring extra bounties, and no night is more prime-time than prom night! Whether you're an old-school stalker sticking to the classic tricks, or a hotshot laden with all the newfangled gadgets, this is when and where the action is!

But wait, it gets even weirder than that. There's the aliens to think of, and the roving preachers, and rumors of some crazy band of resistance fighters, and all in all the whole thing's getting to be a bit much for a traditionalist like Chester. He just wants to snag his final bounty and retire in peace. Instead, he's in for the wildest and craziest prom night of his life.

Written in such a way that each increasingly WTF development seems to flow as part of a natural domino-effect cascade, with hilarious characters and humor and plenty of sly acidic cutting social commentary, not to mention packed with slashertastic action, fight scenes, and the requisite splatterings of gore, Prom Night on the River of Death is a hoot and a half.

Its only flaw is that it could've benefited from a hard fine-tooth edit, but otherwise I found it a very fun and entertaining read.

-Christine Morgan

THREE DAYS GONE by William D. Carl (2017 Post Mortem Press / 260 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Subtitled "An Action Packed Urban Fantasy with a Noir Twist," this is the first installment in a planned series centered around private investigator Mike Gone, who, with his tall, tough as nails drag queen/secretary Helen, deal with cases deemed to weird for the Cincinnati Police Department, sort of a Kolchak-meets-X-Files thing. In Gone's first case, the victim of a mass shooting walks out of the morgue in a zombie-like state, and it's up to Mike and co. to find it. Three days later, the walking corpse manages to destroy a riverboat gambling operation, and in the process dies, yet manages to "transfer" whatever was making it tick into a random gambler.

Mike's crew grows to include Pam, a hard-assed cop (and his former partner), his secretary's boyfriend Larry, plus a blues-singing exorcist and his rapping grandson who, the more they look, discover strange events being separated by a three day time limit, and an ancient European spirit. It all culminates in an attack on a Cincinnati bridge, where Mike and co. are pushed to their limits in a dizzying, thrilling finale.

As if dealing with a demonic terrorist wasn't enough, it seems vampires have kidnapped Mike's girlfriend as revenge for him killing one of their own. This sub-plot makes it seem like we've read about Mike Gone before, and gives the character (and novel) some unexpected depth. Kudos to Carl for adding plenty of well-timed humor along with all the monster mayhem.

THREE DAYS GONE is a fast read and a fun addition to the growing urban fantasy subgenre. It seems fans are loving Mike's side kick Helen, me being no exception. I'm looking very forward to more from this motley, yet likeable crew of spook-busters.

-Nick Cato

RIDE THE STAR WIND by Scott Gable (2017 Broken Eye Books / 459 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This right here is one brain-breaker of a book. Seriously. If the stories within don't pretty much shatter the grey matter, a clonk to the head with the print version would do the rest. It's nearly five hundred pages, a hefty tome to be sure. And it's five hundred pages of super-dense sci-fi cosmic horror, with every single story damn near a multiverse unto itself.

Not something to be read all at once, not something to breeze through; you will need to (sorry/notsorry) space it out and give yourself a chance to recover in between. The stories themselves span a likewise astronomical gamut. As a bonus, each is accompanied by a terrific illustration gleaned from the pens and psyches of an array of talented artists.

My personal top pick of the bunch: "The Writing Wall" by Wendy N. Wagner, which brilliantly hit all the right notes for me (not just because I'm biased in favor of Norse mythology, either; this one has fascinating environments, caving, surprise twists, and just all kinds of cool stuff).

Other standouts include: "Union" by Robert White, Lucy Snyder's "Blossoms Blackened Like Dead Stars," Tom Dullemond's "The Multiplication," Kara Dennison's "Canary Down," "The Sixth Vital Sign" by Wendi Dunlap, and Gord Sellar's "Vol de Nuit." Only a few of the tales didn't grab me for one reason or another; the majority proved to be mind-blowing on a staggering scale.

With twenty-nine to choose from, covering everything from cinematic space-opera to gritty bug-hunts to cross-temporal galactic peril to madness among the stars, there's bound to be something for every fan of weird fiction, often taking even the incomprehensible scope of Lovecraftian madness to exponential new levels. A stellar read in any sense, but yeah, best taken in measured doses. In space, no one can hear you lose SAN.

-Christine Morgan


READING STEPHEN KING edited by Brian James Freeman (to be released 12/31/17 by Cemetery Dance Publications / 400 pp / hardcover)

Gasp! What's this? A non-fiction book? In The Horror Fiction Review? Now, hold on, hold on, it's all right ... it's about the works of Stephen King, and Stephen King is a big part of why we're where we are, right here and now as a certain Wolf might say.

So, close enough, right? This is a gathering of essays from experts and academics, King's colleagues and peers and some mega-fans, all looking at the monumental impact he's had on the genre as a whole. Not only through his writing, but through the art it's inspired in various forms -- movies, paintings and illustrations. They look at his influences on younger writers, on wider-world media as a whole. They look at him as not only a literary powerhouse but a person and a friend.

I mean, just look at some of the contributors here! Jack Ketchum, Clive Barker! Bev Vincent, Richard Chizmar, Frank Darabont! Look at some of the essay titles! "Reading the Lost Works of Stephen King." "The Politics of Being Stephen King." "The Adventure of Reading Stephen King." Topics such as how writing is telepathy, religious aspects, twinners and twinning!

Herein are reviews and criticisms and retrospectives, academic analyses and heartfelt messages. Herein is a lot to think about and a lot to enjoy. Maybe some issues to debate as well; we each have our own opinions, occasionally fiercely divided. But that's a good thing, a thing we need more of.

Reading these essays did make me want to go back and re-read the books, re-watch the movies, re-experience everything that's helped shape my life since I was ten years old picking up a shiny silver paperback from my grandfather's garage bookshelf. More, and perhaps more importantly, it made me want to strive harder with my own craft.

You don't have to be a scholar to get a lot out of this book. All you need to be is a Constant Reader, no matter how casual ... or maybe even a new reader looking to become Constant ... and this will prove a vital addition to your King library.

-Christine Morgan

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Reviews for the Week of November 13, 2017

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

TEETH MARKS by Matthew Weber (2017 Pint Bottle Press / 218 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

That moment when you pick up something by an author whose name is familiar from social media circles but not much of whose work you've yet read until recently, figuring hey let's give it a go ... and before the first story's done, you're wondering what the heck took you so long, look what you've been missing!

Each of the twelve offerings in this collection is just knock-down drag-out crazydamn good. I was reminded in all the best ways of Bentley Little's short stories, that relatable modern Americana feel, the kinds of things that could happen in anybody's town ... or neighborhood ... or very own home.

This was another where trying to narrow it down to my favorites was a real challenge, because there are no duds in the bunch. But I'll try.

"The Red Card," in which Carol keeps finding inexplicable and unwanted messages in her new apartment, cranks up the paranoia to terrific intensity ...

"Suburban Facebreaker" because small-scale bickering escalation and my aunt used to live in a house with front steps like that ...

"The Neighbor At The Curb" for all those times you've wondered just what the heck they're throwing out and been tempted to take a trashcan peeksie ...

"Cookies" for the little animal-befriender kid in us all (sometimes to our parents' horror) ...

"Louise, Your Shed's On Fire;" rather than Bentley Little so much, this fun one gave me more of a Janet Evanovich vibe and I grinned all the way through ...

"Of All The Nights," when a home invasion goes wrong thanks to greater dangers ...

And I better make myself stop there because I've already listed half the table of contents! See? See how it is? See what I mean? These are all just too crazydamn good!

-Christine Morgan

STRANGE WEATHER by Joe Hill (2017 William Morrow / 434 pp / hardcover, eBook & audiobook)

These four short novels (I guess that means a tad longer than a novella?) feature two supernatural stories, a wild scifi romp, and a drama that is perhaps the most unforgettable piece here.

In 'Snapshot' a man recalls his younger days as an overweight nerd who spent much time with his elderly nanny. He helps her in his teen years as she becomes the target of a strange man whose Polaroid camera robs people of their memory. I read a slightly shorter version of this in last year's special Joe Hill issue of Cemetery Dance magazine, and it's a powerful way to start off a collection.

In 'Loaded,' a brave female journalist, a mall security guard (with a bad military history and an itchy trigger finger) and a jewelry store owner (with his slightly pissed off mistress) eventually meet in this drama that the author claims is his attempt to understand our "national hard-on for The Gun." Sure, it's a bit political, yet by the end Hill may just win some people over, or at least cause them to rethink their position. Timely, important, and best of all completely thrilling, this is the longest tale here yet I read it the quickest.

Despite being scared to death of heights, I somehow made it through 'Aloft.' Aubrey (he the lone male in a musical trio) joins bandmate Harriet in a skydive to commemorate the passing of their lost member, June. Aubrey is petrified of heights but joined the dive due to his secret love for Harriet and a rashly made promise. When the moment of truth comes, Aubrey realizes he just can't do it, but the plane malfunctions and he has no choice. Along with his jumping instructor, they land on a bizarre cloud-like formation...just 38 feet below the plane. My stomach felt like it was going to drop through the entire length of this wonderful (although scary as it gets) story where the ending just might make you wonder if everything you just read was all in Aubrey's mind.

Finally, Hill delivers a riff on his novel THE FIREMAN with 'Rain,' an apocalyptic scifi romp that has a few funny moments, but they don't take away from the horrific goings-on. Honeysuckle (you have to love that name) is thrilled her girlfriend Yolanda is coming to move in with her, with her mother along for the ride. But before they can begin their lives together, the sky turns black and not only Honeysuckle's suburban neighborhood, but all of Denver is hit with a downpour of gold and silver spikes, shredding everyone in their path. We eventually learn this occurrence has affected the entire world, and that it's the work of scientists. Most of the story follows Honeysuckle as she travels to Denver to find her girlfriend's father, along the way meeting some choice characters (the best being part of an insane end times cult who happen to live on her block). When we're not laughing at this group, we're cringing as people attempt to get around in the needle/nail-filled landscape. End times fans will eat this one up, and hopefully terrorists won't attempt to pull this off!

STRANGE WEATHER is a fantastic collection, filled with solid stories and characters anyone can identify with. I've read everything Hill has put out, and while I like most of his novels, I think his short stories and novellas are his strength. You'll rip through this in no time.

-Nick Cato


CRY YOUR WAY HOME by Damien Angelica Walters (to be published 1/2/18 by Apex Publications / trade paperback & eBook)

Okay, now, with this one I knew what I was getting myself into, because I've been enviously admiring everything Damien Angelica Walters has done for many years now. Her style is sumptuous decadence, her storytelling skills are exquisite, she has a deft knack for folklore and underlying mythology, and is one of the best of the best when it comes to reimagining classic fairy tales.

You might think that last bit has been done to death, that there's nothing left, the once upon a times and happily ever afters all played out. But you'd be wrong. Just look at "Tooth, Tongue, and Claw," the opener here. Forget Disney, animated or live-action remake. This is a take on Beauty and the Beast like you've never seen, far from musicals and romance.

Many of these stories are female-focused, which is also fitting because women were the original tellers of those old tales. Cruel girls, wicked stepsisters, mothers and daughters, the darkness, the viciousness, coming of age, monsters, pain and change and shame and secrecy, loss, the prices we pay for love and survival.

I found "S Is For Soliloquy" to be a delightful surprise, and if it seems a departure, think again ... superheroes are our form of modern mythology. "The Floating Girls: A Documentary" is deep-down haunting. "Little Girl Blue, Come Cry Your Way Home" is post-partum terror, while "In The Spaces Where You Once Lived" touches on many peoples' worst fears.

Really, the only barely-a-critique I can come up with is that, when you read them all back to back, you might notice some recurring traits cropping up through several stories. The fingernails to palm thing, the pinching the bridge of the nose thing. But again, only because I read the whole book almost in a single sitting.

So, yes, another absolute winner from one of the best voices out there. Don't miss out!

-Christine Morgan

HUNTER OF THE DEAD by Stephen Kozeniewski (2016 Sinister Grin Press / 403 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

It's been 20+ years since I last played Vampire: The Masquerade, and the campaign was short-lived even then ... but danged if this book didn't make me nostalgic for it! Which surprised me, really; there've been about ninety bazillion vampire novels with the houses/clans all scheming and intrigue and political infighting, and those made me never want to play the game again.

So, Kozeniewski must (as usual) be doing something right. One aspect of it is that his vampires, for all their living among us controlling crime syndicates and whatnot, are decidedly not human. There's none of the angsty moralistic brooding, though they are civilized enough to do diplomacy and negotiations.

It also presents several nifty takes on vampiric origin, history, and abilities that I found tremendously entertaining. It's rare to see and makes for a fresh, refreshing change. And NO, it's none of that sparkly woo-woo business either. While not full-on 30 Days of Night vampirociraptors, these ones are wickedly cruel, savage, and monstrous.

But they also have rules, strict ones regarding status and succession and territory. And, where there are vampires, there are those who hunt them. The human Inquisitors, mainly ... as well as rumors of the legendary Hunter of the Dead, kind of the vampire boogeyman.

Or maybe not so legendary after all, as a lone wolf Inquisitor and a hapless kid from a convenience store are about to find out. They're soon caught up in a turf war of biblical proportions, entangled in uneasy conflicting truces, fighting ancient evils, and racing the clock before all of Las Vegas -- a city of night anyway -- is consumed.

I did stumble over a few minor consistency/continuity issues, but the characters were all engaging, their interactions fun, and the gore was top-notch. I'm definitely hoping for more in this universe, a direct sequel or prequels or side-stories focusing on some of the other vampire houses (Druids and Teslans in particular captured my interest, Koz, if you're taking requests!).

-Christine Morgan

Monday, October 30, 2017

Reviews for the Week of October 30, 2017

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

SLEEPING BEAUTIES by Stephen King and Owen King (2017 Scribner / 700 pp / hardcover, eBook, audiobook & CD)

It's apocalypse time once again courtesy of the King family, brought to us by Stephen and his son Owen, based on Owen's idea. It seems women all over the globe are falling asleep and becoming wrapped in cocoon-like webbings that sprout from their own faces. People who try to wake their loved ones by ripping the webbing away are viciously attacked, but the women fall right back asleep after their seemingly possessed assaults.

Most of the novel takes place in the small town of Dooling, West Virginia, specifically inside a woman's prison where the strange Evie Black is being held. Evie is unaffected by the strange plague and claims to be the cause (and solution) to it. She also controls rats and other animals, and uses them to keep the inmates and correctional staff in line with her will. Or so it seems.

The women who have fallen asleep find themselves in another realm (of sorts): they still seem to be on earth, just a male-free version of it, until a baby boy is born, giving them the opportunity to "start over" and raise the evil gender the right way. Yeah, things get a bit social/political but thankfully, not overbearingly so.

There are a lot of characters here, although I found them easy to follow (there's a handy guide at the beginning for reference, although I think most readers will find it unnecessary). And while I liked most of the female cast (especially the town's sheriff Lila) I found myself uninterested in most of the guys, even an animal control expert who plays an important part.

The first half is a great set up, but the second basically becomes a protect-the-prison-stand-off story that grows tired and familiar (picture a slightly supernatural version of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13). I guess trying to keep such an epic idea confined to a small town made me long for more info on what was happening elsewhere, but we're only given brief glimpses of that. There's also a nifty cult introduced early on who would've surely made things weirder, but we don't hear about them again until the epilogue. Perhaps King had his full of cults with DOCTOR SLEEP? Anyway, missed opportunity imho.

I liked SLEEPING BEAUTIES, and rate it as a good--but not great--King novel. The concept is quite engaging, and I think this may have worked better in a shorter version (and I've heard this IS a shorter version of the original draft). Fans of apocalyptic tales will enjoy it, despite some familiar ideas.

A film version could surely be a blast, so long as they keep it away from everyone even remotely connected to CELL.

-Nick Cato

KILL YOUR NEIGHBOR by Andersen Prunty (2007 2017 Amazon Digital / 42 pp / eBook)

The author nails another riotous tale in regards to a thought I think we’ve all most likely had at one point or another in our daily lives: the pesky neighbor. You know, that asshole who lives next door who you wished dead just to get a moment of peace and quiet and a goodnight's sleep? I used to live in this townhouse a while back and next door this chick with ten million kids moved in. We eventually named her “Trashy” because if you saw her you would know exactly what I’m talking about...

So, Kip and Emma just bought a new house while refuging out of the city and into a rundown cul-de-sac. There’s a couple of houses covered in black mold, but appear uninhabited for the most part. Except for the house next door that looks worse than all the other houses on the block. But, it’s got everything they were looking for, everything they had hoped and dreamed… except for one thing. That pesky annoying neighbor with three hell hounds that are constantly barking at all hours of the day and night, and to make it worse their owner doesn’t even care. She takes them out to their property line, the side that’s closest to theirs, and lets her terrible dogs leave piles of feces so close to their car that they are constantly stepping in dog shit when getting home from their long hours at work. When they confront the neighbor, it makes it all that much worse, and all hell begins to break loose, as the daily taunting gets turned up miserably from an even five to an all-out ten as far as annoying neighbors go. They’d do anything to make it stop. And that’s the plan.

Definitely recommended.

-Jon R. Meyers

THOSE WHO FOLLOW by Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason (2017 Bloodshot Books / 133 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Twins feature prominently in this latest offering from the Sisters of Slaughter, and who better to explore that unique kind of connection? Whether it's the dynamic of the good twin / evil twin, or the powerful telepathic bond even between twins raised apart, the subject is a fascinating one.

Celia has always felt somehow incomplete, and her attempts to fill the sense of emptiness inside her with drugs and alcohol have led her to a rootless, wandering, hitchhiker's life. Until she accepts a lift from the old man in the old black car, who takes her to a strange church in the middle of a forsaken desert.

But it's no ordinary forsaken desert, and he's no ordinary old man. This is his special place, an other-realm to which only he and those like him can travel. It's been his secret hideaway, secret even from others of his own kind, for decades. That's where he keeps his collection of women, each with a number carved into her forehead. Celia, now 'Fourteen,' is the newest addition.

Meanwhile, far away at a mental hospital, Casey is troubled by visions of some other-self, hearing a phantom song, and suffering injuries she swears aren't self-inflicted. Rocked by revelations about her past, she's determined to find the truth. To do that requires either convincing the doctors she's not crazy, or finding some other way to escape.

And meanwhile meanwhile, another of those with the ability to travel decides to investigate his suspicions about the old man with the old black car.

Overall, I found the premise intriguing and the descriptions nicely done, but the positives were balanced out by a few flaws ... the dialogue often felt stiff, and some key elements were underutilized or left unexplained. Real potential here, just needs elbow grease and polish.

-Christine Morgan

PASSAGE TO THE DREAMTIME by Anya Martin (2016 Dunhams Manor Press / 52 pp / chapbook)

In this one act play (second in the 'Dunhams Manor Playhouse' series), a 27 year old American woman named Lana arrives at a West German prison in 1947 to see a man she had a relationship with during the war.

Lana had met the much older German man, Franz Schiller, at a nite club in Paris she sang for. He introduced himself as an artist, and the two were instantly drawn to one another. But back home in America after the war, Lana has read about Franz' brutal exploits under the SS as a merciless Colonel, and now confronts him about his war well as their three year old son he doesn't know about.

Martin's play is a dark, emotional love story, filled with some gruesome and heartbreaking images, and a surreal look at these characters' possible futures. Highlighted with some moving artwork courtesy of Kim Bo Yung, this is a short but powerful piece I'd love to see performed on stage.

-Nick Cato

THE BOOK CLUB by Alan Baxter (2017 PS Publishing / 107 pp / hardcover & eBook)

Life seems to be rolling along fairly well for Jason and Kate. Nice house, cute kid, a reasonable schedule to let each of them pursue their individual interests as well as grandparents conveniently close to babysit when it's date night.

Until the evening Kate doesn't come home from her book club. Jason's efforts to track her down only lead to one dead end after another, and it doesn't help that the default police position in such matters is to regard the husband as a possible person of interest.

Such scrutiny -- especially after their inquiries dredge up some unsavory indiscretions and past family tragedies -- makes it difficult for Jason to carry on his own investigation. He's sure the people from her book club must know something more, something they're not telling.

He's right about that, though sure not in the way he or anyone else could have expected. The result is a tense nail-biter, fast-paced and suspenseful, laden with eerie mysteries and sinister secrets.

I read it at a single sitting, zipping breathlessly along. It's a fascinating example of the what-would-YOU-do, how-far-would-YOU-go scenario, to find out what happened to or maybe even have a chance to save someone you loved.

-Christine Morgan

SPERMJACKERS FROM HELL by Christine Morgan (2017 Deadite Press / 180 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I've been reading Morgan's novels since 2003, and can say her latest is easily the most batshit crazy in her ever-growing arsenal, which is appropriate considering it's her first novel for Deadite Press.

In SPERMJACKERS FROM HELL (you just gotta love that title) a bunch of gamer slackers semi-seriously summon a succubus, and while their ritual works, they call forth something a little ickier than the video-game demoness hottie they'd been expecting. This nasty, slug-like creature has the group dreaming extremely perverse things, on top of psychically calling them, begging them to join it in its underground lair. Just wait until you see what it has in mind!

And never mind the succubus: it seems there are plenty of freaks inhabiting this small town, freaks who will be easier to control once this demonic thing has its way with our five young protagonists. I hugged my poor dogs a little tighter after reading this...

Sick, gross, disgusting, and (oddly) very funny, SPERMJACKERS is like an x-rated bizarro version of the 1966 Peter Cushing film ISLAND OF TERROR. Morgan breaks the 4th wall a few times but it's done in a way that will tickle your funny bone (if it doesn't molest it first).

For those who like their horror way off the wall.

-Nick Cato

LITTLE DEAD THINGS by Jo-Anne Russell (2017 Tortured Souls Books / 164 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I may have mentioned a few dozen times before, but, the art of flash fiction (and its lightningbolt sib, the drabble) is one I regard with awe. Look at me, even my book reviews tend to run 200-300 words. Those fast, vicious little zaps are hard to do right, but when they work and are effective, you get major bang for the buck.

Which is definitely the case in this collection. Mucho bang for the buck, lasting potent and/or creepy impressions left to linger. Less is more, as they say, and here is a bookful of good examples. They run the gamut, dark humor and extreme horror, occasionally sweet, often ominous.

Some of my personal faves:

"The Denturist" ... given the medical mouth-related woes I've been going through, this one resonated for sure; I might give in to some pretty sketchy arrangements for pain-free new teeth!

"Perfectly Preserved" ... something about this one is just, aww, touching and endearing.

"Scabs" ... this one too, despite its grossness; maybe it's those maternal instincts but aww again.

"Satan's Waterfall" ... as if a girl's first period isn't stressful enough, just wait, there's more!

"Accidental Death" ... a spooky typewriter tale with which any writer can likely relate.

"Loose Change" ... who hasn't stuck their hand down the sofa cushions and found a surprise? Pleasant or otherwise, or, in this case, a pricey temptation.

"You Are What You Eat" ... oh, the lengths we'll go for the sake of vanity, beauty, and social pressure!

"Teddy's Teeth" ... take that, monsters under the bed!

All in all, some maybe could have used a bit more fine-tuning and polish, but, good stuff!

-Christine Morgan

-HFR staff