Monday, July 24, 2017

Reviews for the Week of July 24, 2017

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

THE FORGOTTEN GIRL by Rio Youers (2017 St. Martin's Press / 344 pp / hardcover, eBook, audiobook)

Youers (author of my favorite novel from 2012, WESTLAKE SOUL) makes his Big League debut with this irresistible supernatural thriller.

Harvey Anderson is a neo-hippie street performer whose life is turned upside down when he's abducted by a gang of mysterious goons. They beat him to within an inch of his life, continually asking him where a girl named Sally Starling is. Harvey has absolutely no idea what they're talking about, but they insist he knows her. He is then introduced to the ring leader, a man he nick names "The Spider" who has the ability to get inside his brain and take control. It seems this Sally has taken much of his power away, and he's hellbent on finding her.

With the threat of everyone he knows being destroyed, Harvey sets out to find his alleged girlfriend, with the goons always a step ahead of him or right on his tail. He discovers Sally has erased herself from his memories in an attempt to protect him, but he'll stop at nothing until he can remember the truth.

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.

-Nick Cato

BEHOLD THE VOID by Philip Fracassi (2017 Journalstone / 289 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook)

The nine pieces in this collection are a good balance of original and previously-appeared-in, and among them provide an equally well-balanced introduction to the depth and range of Fracassi's work. Plus, he landed an intro from Laird-freakin-Barron; that alone should prove he's got the chops.

The opener, 'Soft Construction of a Sunset,' has a title that might call to mind an oil painting, but then it turns out to be a mind-blower, part Twilight Zone, part 1408, nightmarish house-of-mirrors type stuff where even when you think you know where it's headed, you can't stop yourself from following along to the horrific conclusion.

In 'Altar,' what starts out as just another ordinary trip to the public pool, rife with the ordinary -- if awful -- elements of bullies and inattentive parents and sleazy sex offenders takes a cataclysmic turn ... then goes from disastrous-bad to otherworldly-worse.

'The Horse Thief' proves disturbing on several levels, starting off with the threat to an innocent animal (even a horse named Widowmaker doesn't deserve the kind of fate horse-thief Gabino's boss usually has in mind) and then bringing in weirder paranormal elements and escalating violence.

Next up is 'Coffin,' which starts out with Sylvia at the funeral of the grandmother she isn't exactly sad to see dead, and then shows us through flashbacks her very good reasons why ... but some secrets, and some evils, can't be so easily buried.

'The Baby Farmer' examines the more rare phenomenon of the female serial killer. Now, these usually fall into the Black Widow or Angel of Death categories; this one puts a definite twist on things, and leaves a sinful priest rather concerned about why one of his parishioners should take such an interest in the case.

'Surfer Girl' has a wowser of an opening line and a steel mill death scene I won't be getting over anytime soon, and then goes on to unfold a skin-crawling picture of budding sociopathy, the kind where you can't really imagine the neighbors talking about how nice and normal he always seemed. 'Mother,' however, presents a sociopath of another sort, the controlling cold-bastard sort who gets more than he bargained for in ways he couldn't have imagined.

I liked the hint-and-tease aspects of 'Fail-Safe,' never really explaining exactly what monstrousness is going on, its lady-or-tiger / Schrodinger's cat elements, the dichotomies of love and fear, a terrible coming-of-age choice no one should ever have to make.

The book closes out with 'Mandala,' a novella that's part nerve-wracking suspense thriller and part malevolent paranormal threat. Mike and Joe are summer friends, whose annual vacation plans don't leave either of them with many other options, so they make do with each other. They play games, cops and robbers, go exploring, the usual kid stuff.

Until, one day, circumstances collide to make things go very wrong. With Mike's life in danger, he can only hope his father will somehow find and help him ... but his widowed father is in the grips of alcoholic despair, and some force wants to make sure he can't each Mike in time.

It's a nail-biter, a breath-holder in more ways than one, an intense and agonizing experience full of all sorts of guilt and all sorts of terror. Fantastic! Needs to be a short film.

-Christine Morgan

THE CITY by S.C. Mendes (2017 Trench Coat Press / 378 pp / eBook)

Sometimes I like to take a risk, make a gamble, brave an adventure into the dark and ominous unknown. In fiction only, of course; in real life I am both coward and wimp. But, diving into a book while knowing nothing of it except the title and author's name and a glance at the front cover? That, I'm willing to try.

With this one, I didn't have much to go on. An author unfamiliar to me, a title that could mean any of a million things, a cover instantly intriguing (occultish with ouroboros, dancing nudes, self-beheading, peculiar symbols). I didn't know what to expect or what I was getting myself into, but, I was game.

In this case, it turned out to be a good move, not to mention eerily apt. Because this book is about risks and gambles and adventures into the dark and ominous unknown, with a protagonist who doesn't know what to expect or what he's getting himself into.

Not that he, Max Elliot, is exactly game for it. He doesn't have much choice. The classic archetype of a man who's lost or is losing everything, whose family has been ripped from him, whose job is in danger, a detective sliding deeper into an inexorable spiral of addiction, and whose past sins are all coming home to roost, he is flawed to the point of brokenness, yet still sympathetic.

And, with this new grisly case, he might have his last shot. Maybe not at redemption, but at least at answers, at finding out the truth of what happened to his wife and daughter.

It's the kind of tale that could be set in almost any place and time; the place and time here happen to be San Francisco, a few years after the Great Quake. Max is no stranger to Chinatown's opium dens and seedier establishments, but the arrival of a new drug on the scene, linked to inexplicable murders, leads him to a city beneath the city by the bay, a city he never suspected or would have believed.

That's when the book goes from grim pre-noir thriller to something altogether more horrific and bizarre, as Max journeys into a literal underworld inhabited by inhuman creatures, where torture and death provide entertainment.

A solid, engrossing read with vivid descriptions (some of those torture scenes, especially so!) and fascinating hints of mystery and history ... I'm very glad I gave it a shot!

-Christine Morgan

THE HEMATOPHAGES by Stephen Kozeniewski (2017 Sinister Grin Press / 326 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

You know how there are some books you shouldn't read if you're an expectant parent? Or how you shouldn't read The Stand when you have the flu? Well, given my current personal medical situation combined with my general squick-list, it turns out this was one that ... yeeeesh.

And I don't mean just the space lampreys. I knew about the space lampreys going into this. They're right there on the cover, in all their freaky ring-mouthed toothy ickiness. I thought I could handle it, though. I was right ... for a while ... until not long past the halfway point, when suddenly AUGH!!!

AUGH!!! the rest of the way to the end. Yet, I couldn't put it down. I couldn't walk away. I had to read. I had to know. I read the whole thing start to finish in about four hours. Because Kozeniewski, drat him, is really really good.

It's sci-fi horror, set in a far future where the menfolks are not merely obsolete but basically extinct. Also obsolete/extinct are racism (because humanity's achieved that homogeneous blend) and nationalism (because it's all colonies and corporations these days).

Of course, some things don't change ... like job interviews, fashion snobbery, classism, professional rivalries, and trying to make a buck. Or a chit, as the case may be. For Paige Ambroziak, a struggling Ph.D student, the chance to land a spot on a salvage ship going after a nearly legendary derelict is one she doesn't want to pass up.

Even if the expedition is to a fleshworld ... a planetary mass composed of a bloodlike sludge. If there's life to be found, it'd most likely be hematophages, blood-drinkers. Remember that space lamprey from the cover? Yeah. Think Alien or Aliens, but, with those. Eew.

But the prospect of giant leeches isn't about to stop the crew of the Borgwardt. Nor is a run-in with a horrific band of pirates, known as skin-wrappers. Nor are the prospects of saboteurs among their own ranks. Not when time is of the essence, and their profit margins and bonuses are on the line.

Of course, things go terribly wrong, and when they do, they go wrong terribly fast. In spectacularly gory, extreme, up-close-and-personal fashion. Which then keeps intensifying; each time you think it can't get worse, surprise, it does!

So, yeah, if you want some rapid-fire, eye-popping, action-packed, tough-chicks-vs.-space-lampreys gooshy horror thrills, with corsairs and some steamy girl-on-girl, in a nonstop read (beat my four-hour time, go on, do it!), then this is the book for you!

-Christine Morgan

BRATS IN HELL by Frank Elder (2017 Amazon Digital / 275 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Elder (co-author of the hilarious SHOCKER series) brings his brand of trashy heavy metal horror comedy to the underworld in what's being billed "The Wurst Book Ever Written!" It's also dedicated to Debbie Gibson, "an American treasure," so, yeah, Elder isn't exactly playing with a full deck. But that's half the charm of this one.

After Otto Van Der Noodle wins a bratwurst making competition in Wisconsin (hey...isn't that cheese town?), he's assassinated and finds himself way South of Heaven. He quickly discovers he's now smack in the middle of a war for control of hell between the Devil and his brother Dagobert (you simply HAVE to love these names). Dagobert takes Otto on a guided tour of the tormented, and decides he can use Otto's bratwursts to dethrone his brother. But as the story goes on amid the flames of hell, trashy jokes and countless references to craft sausages, we learn Satan has a trick up his sleeve in the form of a unique demon. And just wait 'til you meet him!

Yep, this is all a bit silly, but if you've read Elder you know he makes it work. By the time I finished chapter 7 I was finding things a bit repetitive, but then Elder kicks things into high gear at a huge Arena, and a scene between bratwurst vendors and demons had me laughing my ass off (or LMAO as the kids say these days). The humor keeps on going, and you'll probably be saying BRATWURST for days after reading this irreverent and fun story.

I don't know how many writers can make such a crazy idea work for the length of a novel, but Elder does, and that's saying something. BRATS IN HELL is like an Adult Swim cartoon and would probably work fine if it was turned into one.

I recommend having a few wursts on hand while reading for maximum effect.

-Nick Cato

SPIDER BUNNY by Carlton Mellick III (2017 Eraserhead Press / 140 pp / trade paperback)

If you grew up watching cartoons and eating cereal in the 80s and 90s like I did, you will most likely love and/or at the very least be able to relate to most of the subjects in this book of colorful fun. I, personally, have always enjoyed eating cereal. I don’t care if it’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I don’t care if I’m in the middle of passing a kidney stone. If I’m craving a bowl of Captain Crunch, Cheerios, or Crispix, I’m going to pour a bowl, maybe even two or three, and slurp up the golden milk at the end. So, times that by about a million back in the day when we used to have cereals like Yummy Mummy, Boo-Berry, MR. T, Freakies, Quisp, Rainbow Brite, King Vitamin, C3PO’s, and the infamous KABOOM that used to turn your feces into a bright, multi-colored rainbow party in the bottom of the toilet bowl. The list goes on forever. Cereal was just that much better back in the day and if you grew up during the 80s and 90s, you know that’s a fact. And so was the advertising, a major concept to this book is based off those old bizarre cereal commercials from yesteryear. Imagine getting sucked into the television, turned into a cartoon, and thrown right dab into the set as one of the living characters in that commercials’ world. That’s what this book is all about and it delivers by the spoonful, and there’s even a Horror story to be told there.

When Petey and his friends are sucked into a disturbing Fruit Fun cereal commercial from his childhood that only he can remember, the group of friends are confronted with more fear and terror than any of them could possibly remember. Berry Bunny is very much alive and not so nice when confronted face to face inside the television, on the set of the old commercial, and it’s a very peculiar and surreal world there. Things aren’t so happy and colorful in the land of mutants, monsters, and deformed children, especially if you go off the grid into the darkness. Your best bet is to stick to your guns, stay together, stay safe, and hide until the portal opens back up.

SPIDER BUNNY is a lot of fun for the entire Horror family and vintage cereal and cartoon enthusiasts alike.

-Jon R. Meyers


ZOMBIE (issues 1-4) and THE GATES OF HELL (issues 1-2) (2016,17 Eibon Press, approx. 30 pp each)

I've been a fan of horror comics since the early 70s when I was just starting elementary school. DC titles such as THE HOUSE OF MYSTERY, WEIRD WAR TALES and Marvel titles like TOMB OF DRACULA were my everything. In the late 70s I discovered Warren Publishing's wonderful black and white magazines EERIE, CREEPY, and VAMPIRELLA, as well as the more underground magazine-sized comics such as WEIRD and WITCHES' TALES. The 80s saw a host of others (including TWISTED TALES and GORE SHREIK), and of course today there is no shortage of horror in illustrated form, especially zombie-themed titles.

But along comes Eibon Press, who not only decide to adapt Lucio Fulci's classic film ZOMBIE to comics, but do so in a way that will blow any collector's mind. For starters, the cover images pictured above are slipcovers (there's different artwork on the actual comic book covers inside), and each issue comes packed with fun extras such as stickers, trading cards, bookmarks, full color previews, and in the case of the 4th issue of ZOMBIE, a 7" vinyl record of the soundtrack. Each issue has been an event full of bells and whistles ... but how, you may ask, is the writing?

Next to the lurid and graphic artwork (that makes the films themselves look like Sesame Street), it's Stephan Romano's script that makes these stories shine: in the case of ZOMBIE, much backstory (that's barely hinted at in the film) is given as to the origin of the undead, and in THE GATES OF HELL, a promised 3-issue adaptation, it's already making more sense than the movie (and I hear he's even going to give us an ending that's coherent!). The third issue can't get here fast enough.

These limited edition comics are the real deal, folks: sure, they're a lot of fun to collect and drool over the extras (which also includes informative liner notes and other surprises), but the stories themselves are what work for me, and for the sake of THE HORROR FICTION REVIEW, that's the real gem here. As someone who always found Fulci's ZOMBIE a tad (don't shoot me because you know it's true) dull, this comic version is anything but, and the coming 5th issue (which is a continuation of the film) looks to be the best one yet. Eibon Press is also branching out into a "VHS Comics" imprint and will be adapting MANIAC (1980) and the scifi schlocker LASERBLAST (1978) to comic form, as well as an original series titled BOTTOMFEEDER. Hey, I may be within months of my 50th birthday but these comics make me feel like a teenager!

These are some of the finest horror comics to ever make print. Get 'em while you can before you have to spend a ridiculous amount on eBay: EIBON PRESS

-Nick Cato