Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Reviews for the Week of September 11, 2017

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


PAPERBACKS FROM HELL by Grady Hendrix (to be released 9/19/17 by Quirk Books / 256 pp / trade paperback, eBook)

For those who remember the early days of THE HORROR FICTION REVIEW, you may recall a section we occasionally ran on highlighting "classic" horror paperbacks from the 70s and 80s. Lurid pulp goodness from authors such as Hugh B. Cave, Jeffrey Konvitz, and Graham Masterton were examined and their wonderful covers were reprinted. Enter Grady Hendrix, who has pretty much created the ultimate look back at those moldy, under-read, and often envelope-pushing horror novels that lined drug store book racks and were found in the darkest corners of your local bookstore.

This one is as good as it sounds and more.

After an enlightening introduction and prologue, Hendrix wastes ZERO time getting right to the goods: chapters on the Satanic novel boom in the wake of ROSEMARY'S BABY and THE EXORCIST's success, killer kids, animal attack novels (it was so nice to see John Halkin's bat shit crazy killer jellyish novel SLIME mentioned), splatterpunks, serial killers, weird science...you name it and it's probably mentioned here, often with synopsis' that will have you jotting down a To Be Read list. I can see Amazon's second hand market exploding after this book hits the shelves next week.

While Hendrix spends a good amount of time on certain authors, I was overjoyed to see some of the cover artists from this bygone era finally get the recognition they deserve. Seeing artist credits inside small press books is common, but in the 70s and 80s (and I'll assume even earlier) cover artists received no other recognition other than their paycheck, and Hendrix explains to us why this was so. There are a lot of little tidbits like this that makes PAPERBACKS FROM HELL must reading for any lover of horror novels.

I think this was the first time I went online and pre-ordered a trade paperback of an eBook review copy as I read it. I saw a couple of the trade page previews, and the eBook version just can't compare (at least if you're a total book freak like me). The cover reproductions are as pleasing to the eye as the crazy descriptions of some stories, and I'm looking very forward to going through this again in a hard copy. Extremely re-readable, I'm sure I'll be wearing out my copy in no time.

An absolute must for any genre fan's bookshelf.

-Nick Cato


THE HANDYMAN by Bentley Little (to be released 10/31/17 by Cemetery Dance Publications / 334 pp / hardcover)

A new Bentley Little book! And there was much rejoicing! Because yes, maybe most of them follow a formula, but what a formula and what a brand! He's the greatest at taking some ordinary middle-class American and pitting them against what at first just starts off seeming like yet another of the annoying aggravations of modern life.

It's just, for so many of us, these aggravations are SO relateable. Even if you don't live in a gated community like in The Association, you've no doubt had your run-ins with landlords or roommates and petty control-freak rules. Even if you don't shop at retail megaboxes a la The Store, you know about them. You've probably faced insurance hassles and post office woes and vacations going wrong.

And even if you're not a homeowner, you've probably also dealt with or heard your share of improvement / remodel / repair horror stories. The shady contractors, the shoddy materials, the work that never seems to get done, costs coming in well above 'estimates', the delays, the mess, the stress, the nightmare.

Well, welcome to THE HANDYMAN. For real-estate agent Daniel Martin, an offhand half-joking/half-despairing remark from a client about a 'Frank house', so-called for the guy who worked on it, sets off a tumult of memories. Because he, too, once lived in a 'Frank house,' the pre-fab vacation home his parents bought when he was a kid. They hired Frank, the guy across the street, to put it together for them. Which is when it all started going wrong.

Daniel's further shaken to discover there've been a lot of 'Frank houses' ... a lot of people swindled and cheated, hurt, even killed ... bad construction jobs, stolen materials ... Frank gets around. A lot. Over years, even decades. There's also the matter of the extras Frank leaves at his job sites, like animal bones hidden in the walls. And his creepy wife. And the way Frank himself never seems to change.

One of the things Little excels at is slowly turning up the supernatural elements. I'm always reminded of what they say about a frog and a pot of water, how it'll hop out if you toss it straight into the boil, but if you gradually raise the temp, froggy will sit there and cook. By the time Daniel realizes he's dealing with far from anything normal, he's gone too far to get out.

Interwoven amid the Daniel narrative are vignettes of others of Frank's clients (or victims), and flashbacks to further unfold the dark truth. And yeah, fine, okay, if the ending is pretty much in line with the formula, the getting-there is wickedly disturbing, satisfying, and unsettling. It's another solid addition to anybody's Bentley Little library, not to mention a good cautionary tale before starting those fixer-upper projects.

-Christine Morgan

MAN WITH THE IRON HEART by Mat Nastos (2017 Cohesion Press / 232 pp / trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)

As a big fan of Vikings and Norse myth, one of the most troubling aspects I routinely encounter is how certain evil rotten groups in history have adopted those elements as somehow supportive of supremacist ideologies.

So, a book wherein a huge rune-warrior wallops the crap out of a bunch of Nazis seeking to pervert the ancient powers came as something of a satisfying relief, actually. High-ranking cultists with ties not to the Aesir but to Jotunheim, realm of the giants ... berserkers ... gifts of Odin ... tanks and mad scientists ...

It begins with a small group of the resistance on a mission to assassinate a powerful Nazi official. Little do they know, that official has more than the usual protections. He's not an easy man to kill. In some ways, he's no longer even a man at all.

Faced with more than they'd bargained for and in over their heads, the resistance fighters -- led by a burly Scot -- are in trouble for sure. Until Grimm, the rune-warrior, shows up.

I did struggle some in the first chapter, which came off rather tell-y, like it was trying to cram in all the details about several characters at once. I found myself wondering if I needed to be taking notes, if there was going to be a quiz later. Once I got past that, though, the rest rolled right along like proper Viking thunder.

-Christine Morgan

CROW SHINE by Alan Baxter (2016 Ticonderoga Publications / 296 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook)

This author first came to my attention by way of Cohesion Press creature features, and I will probably give him grief about the sheep until the end of time, even if he tries to foist the blame off on his collaborator.

Speaking of collaborators, sometimes (squints at Preston and Child) there's that gestalt sum-of-the-parts thing going on, where the individual's solo works don't hold up as well as the team efforts. I am glad to report, that is not the case here. I am also glad to report, no sheep meet bad ends in this collection.

Of course, several other beings aren't so fortunate ... many of these stories touch on mortality. From beautiful acts of sacrifice to gruesome acts of murder.

"All the Wealth in the World" is a particularly haunting piece on the subjects of time, loss, remembrance, and regret. What would you do if you could buy a few extra hours, or days? At what cost?

"A Strong Urge to Fly," in which a young man tries to gain some independence from a domineering mother, only to find himself snared in an insidious web, gave me the creeps (though as a cat lady myself, also, I must protest!)

Herein, you'll find occult detectives, doomed sailors, sinister priests, blood legacies, moonshine and magic. There's obsession and revenge, fallen angels and angels of death-mercy, tricky devils and seductive sirens, botany run amok.

Baxter displays a deft touch at writing female characters, too, which should no longer have to be a thing in this day and age, yet all too often is. I found the women depicted here to be entirely genuine and believable. Even the evil ones. Or maybe especially the evil ones.

In fact, that same thing goes for all the characters, from kids to old folks. The genuineness and humanity makes them all very real.

Still not over the sheep thing though. Just saying.

-Christine Morgan

SHADOWS AND TALL TREES 7 edited by Michael Kelly (2017 Undertow Publications / 306 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook)

This was the first book-shaped package I received in the mail after the somewhat embarrassing steampunk smut incident, so, I was careful to open it before going in to work. And, safe! The cover has a kind of stark and dark vibe, beautiful and ominous, deceptively simple on the surface but rife with dangerous unseen currents.

Which, I'm glad to report, can also be said for the stories contained within. And bonus points for being one of the most perfect matches in tone to the name of the publisher I can recently recall.

The table of contents features a good mix of authors both familiar to me and not, and the quality across the board is outstanding.

Brian Evenson kicks things off with "Line of Sight," a tale of moviemaking gone subtly, creepily wrong. It definitely sets the stage for weirdness, which then kicks right into high gear with M. Rickert's mysteriously unsettling "Everything Beautiful is Terrifying."

Up next, we get the haunting sea-swept gothic feel of "Shell Baby," by VH Leslie, followed by a lonely journey taking a strange turn in Rosalie Parker's "The Attempt." In "The Closure," by Conrad Williams, a would-have-been surgeon revisits his past, and Manish Melwani's "The Water Kings" confronts difficult familial issues and legacies.

"In the Tall Grass" by Simon Strantzas is a kind of bizarro fairy tale of grieving widow/motherhood, while Steve Rasnic Tem's "The Erased" threatens the fragile natures of reality and memory. Robert Shearman's "The Swimming Pool Party" presents an uneasy look at some challenges of motherhood, while "We Can Walk It Off Come The Morning" by Malcolm Devlin resonates folklorish with secrets and hidden paths.

Widowhood and grief get another perspective in Robert Levy's particularly chilling "The Cenacle," and "Slimikins" by Charles Wilkinson is a gut-wrencher of uncomfortable guilty conscience. The end of the world may come with neither a bang nor a whimper in Allison Moore's all-too-possible "The Voice of the People."

One of my special faves here because it's just so hoarders-quirky dystopian is Rebecca Kuder's "Curb Day;" it gave me a neat Bentley Little kind of vibe, and I want to read more.

"Engines of the Ocean" by Christopher Slatsky features some exceptionally gorgeous turns of phrase in a poignant tale of loss, and then Laura Mauro's "Sun Dogs" manages the difficult trick of second-person POV in a difficult and different end-times setting. Next up is Michael Wehunt's "Root-Light," a dose of the uncanny with an old-fashioned feel leading to a disturbing conclusion.

Harmony Neal's "The Triplets" is another special fave; the vanity of those beauty-obsessed pageant-type moms is its own twisted form of Munchausen's by proxy, and there's a certain glee in seeing them get an unexpected comeuppance.

Finishing things off is "Dispossession" by Nicholas Royle, an uncomfortable, isolative, stalkery piece that might make you side-eye your neighbors and check all the dark corners. All in all, this book is quality stuff throughout, and I agree with the editor's hope that maybe, just maybe, someday there'll be a Volume 8.

-Christine Morgan

THE DARKLIGHTS by Michaelbrent Collings (2017 Amazon Digital / 333 pp / trade paperback, eBook)

I'm not sure why I mentally cast Jason Statham as the lead in this one. Maybe it was the Suit, a stylish blacker-than-black ultra high-tech work of sleekness (which can also be used to describe the entire book, really). Maybe it was the job of FixIt, a troubleshooter extraordinaire, the ultimate ultra-ops agent, a one-man final solution capable of anything from simple paperwork glitches to total planetary destruction.

The combined result makes for a whole lot of stoic badassery, so, really, who better than Jason Statham? Plus, eye candy, even if he doesn't manage to get his shirt off every other fight scene. When the mega-action is also mixed with poignant agonizing family drama, tragedy, and betrayal, you've got the makings of a wowser of a story.

Now, you might be thinking, okay, but, where's the horror? Oh, don't worry. There's horror. There's horror bigtime. On a world seemingly a perfect candidate for terraforming and colonization, a deadly unpredictable danger awaits. The scientists sent there are under the impression it's just an atmospheric anomaly, something that can be dealt with or worked around.

They're wrong, of course. It's a whole lot worse. Behind a corrosive nightmare where the very air will eat the flesh off your bones lurks a sinister, malevolent, purposeful force.

But the Company doesn't know this, so the Company sends in their top FixIt to find out what's holding up the show. Gerrold Mason is the best they've got, and they've also got him right where they want him. With his sick child's life hanging in the balance, he can't refuse the mission.

He's used to working alone, except for his ship's AI. But, haunted by his recent past, with his psyche shaken by personal troubles ... with the AI not behaving normally, and the destination an unknown hellscape ... THE DARKLIGHTS delivers a riveting action-packed and nerve-wracking experience start to finish.

-Christine Morgan