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

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Reviews for the Week of October 16, 2017

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

EVERYHING HAS TEETH by Jeff Strand (2017 Amazon Digital / 219 pp / eBook)

Just when you thought it was safe to crack open another short story collection, Jeff Strand returns with his third batch of shorts (stories, not drawers you freak!), most of which combine horror and humor and some good 'ol fashioned freakiness. On tap this time we have:

-THE TIPPING POINT: After meeting on an Internet dating site, Warren and Julia go out to a fancy restaurant and things quickly go way off the rails. If you haven't read Strand before this is a great place to start: horror and dark humor run wild in this inventive tale.

-NAILS: Ricky is having a good time living with his girlfriend Maggie, but his quick-growing fingernails have other plans. Excellent!

-STUMPS: A man gains immortality through an evil ritual only to have things backfire on him. Really, really backfire.

-JOHN HENRY, THE STEEL-DRIVIN' MAN: This "alt-history" story is a bit silly but fun. Plus: dragons!

-FAIR TRADE: A cheating husband learns he's not half as wild as his wife in this quick sickie.

-Crime thriller meets creature feature in CHIGGERS, as two men meet unusual fates.

-CRY: A man, unable to cry, uses self inflicted pain to make himself be able to. Hilariously weird.

-THE FIERCE STABBING AND SUBSEQUENT POST-DEATH VENGEANCE OF SCOOTER BROWN: After stabbing a random stranger over 40 times, a killer seeks the help of a psychic to apologize to the deceased. Strand's fascination with knives is as morbid as it is funny.

-IT'S BATH TIME!: Chester's young son is afraid he'll slide down the bathtub's drain. While his wife manages to bathe their son, Chester's attempt the next day turns into an all-out nightmare. I strongly recommend NOT reading this one to kids!

-ALIEN FACE: A cop kills the serial killer who killed his daughter, then discovers body parts all over the killer's secluded cabin...both human and alien. One of my favorites here, containing some really funny lines.

-APOCALYPSE OF THE YARD GNOME: An amateur omniscient narrator (!) describes the relationship between a weird man and his garden gnome...and the end of the world.

-DEAD BIGFOOT ON THE LAWN: Trailer trash Buffalo wing eater Gus discovers his girlfriend is more than slightly unbalanced in this hysterical slice (full pun intended) of murderous mayhem.

-GROSS OUT: THE RETURN: Strand's entry in the 2016 WHC Gross Out Contest. Enter at your own risk. I showered twice after reading.

-DEFORMED SON: A stranded traveling blender salesman lets his curiosity override his welcome at a farmer's isolated home.

-THE ORIGIN OF SLASHY: A woman gets revenge on her rapist with...another man? Yep, this one's a real sickie!

-SECRET MESSAGE (DECODED): Fans of Strand's first collection GLEEFULLY MACABRE TAKES are in for a treat here...

-THE SENTIENT CHERRY COLA THAT TRIED TO DESTROY THE WORLD: A truly hilarious apocalyptic monster romp that displays Strand's wacky sense of humor.

-THE EGGMAN FALLETH: This reimagined nursery rhyme will make you laugh and cause your young niece or nephew to doubt your sanity...

-THE STORY OF MY FIRST KISS: An absurd look at elementary school. Another one of my favorites.

-DAD (A TRUE STORY): This may be a way out of place serious meditation on a father and son's relationship, but I liked it. A lot.

-And lastly we get the novella BAD BRATWURST: A silly but hilarious riff on EATING RAOUL I had first read in a 'purdy limited edition chapbook from White Noise Press. Now EVERYONE can get in on the sausagey fun, complete with over 1,000 more words than the LE version!

Strand ends with some interesting story notes, and like his first two collections (GLEEFULLY MACABRE TALES and DEAD CLOWN BARBEQUE), EVERYTHING HAS TEETH showcases a sick, funny, imaginative writer gone completely amuck. When I interviewed Jeff Strand over 10 years ago for THE HORROR FICTION REVIEW, I had labeled him the "Horror Comedy King." It's a title I doubt he's ever going to lose.

-Nick Cato

A TEAR IN THE VEIL by Patrrick Loveland (2017 April Moon Books / 606 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I confess, I almost gave up on this one at first ... after a strong horrific and intriguing prologue start, it went into what seemed like a long stretch of trendy sexy artsy young people doing trendy sexy artsy young people things ... like FRIENDS set in a funky bohemian San Francisco instead of New York.

That first part also held some of what made me lose interest in Dean Koontz, a lot of explanatory telling that feels mostly there to prove how much the author knows or learned about various subjects. Even when said subjects are of interest to me, I often find it irksome.

But I stuck with it, and I'm glad I did, because once the weirdness really started, it got weirder and weirder, faster and faster, until it was pretty much blowing the doors off reality. Unfavorable comparisons to Koontz were pushed aside for favorable ones to King, particularly stories like "The Ten-O'Clock People" and the good parts of Insomnia.

See, this budding filmmaker, Felix, gets his hands on a rare model of camera, and when he triggers one of the buttons, he suddenly starts seeing the world in a very different way. He also starts seeing his girlfriend in a very different, very scary way. Scary enough that he ends up getting hauled off to a private mental health clinic, to be medicated back to sanity.

That's when it gets Matrix-y, too, as Felix finds out he's not the only one who's seeing these things ... that there are groups trying to uproot the truth, and groups trying to stop them. He's caught in the middle with no way to know who to trust, and soon enough is on the run.

The vividly described weirdreality Felix sees were more than enough to make me forgive those earlier slow chapters. Laden with both beauty and creepiness, full of increasingly strange surprises, my only other complaint would be that the abrupt ending left the story feeling a little unfinished.

-Christine Morgan

ROSSUM'S UNIVERSAL REPLICAS by Christopher Conlon (2017 Bear Manor Media / 70 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Conlon (author of the fantastic novels MIDNIGHT ON MOURN STREET and SAVAGING THE DARK) delivers a reimagined version of Karel Capek's classic 1921 doomsday story R.U.R., and does so in a play format (in the 20s the original was a smash hit and was performed on stage all over the world).

Rossum is 70 years old, the most powerful man on earth, who has dedicated his life to his company, which manufactures life-like human replicas that are now more plentiful than humans. The replicas are designed to serve mankind. His daughter Helena runs the company with him, and when her sister Nina comes around, stating she believes the Replicas are starting to revolt, her fears are confirmed by Dr. Gall, a research scientist at Rossum's company, R.U.R.

The two replicas who have raised Helena and Nina, Gertrude and Raymond, do indeed show signs that they may have developed their own wills. And as the humans in this tale learn they may be the last alive, Rossum's head butler/replica Primus explains what is now happening around the globe.

ROSSUM'S UNIVERSAL REPLICA'S, while epic in scale, is a quick read full of genuine tension, wonder, and a horrifying finale. After reading Conlon's reimagining, I located a copy of Capek's original story, and while it's enjoyable, Conlon's version modernizes a few details and in my opinion, makes the replicas twice as eerie. Fans of apocalyptic stories will surely enjoy this "retro-apocalypse" and perhaps be inspired, like I was, to seek out the source material.

-Nick Cato

MARY ROSE by Geoffrey Girard (2017 Adaptive Books / 272 pp / in audiobook now, in trade paperback April of 2018)

I had not known about the Hitchcock connection here, until I reached the afterword. Even before that, though, wow, what a lush and lovely piece of work this book is ... a modern gothic, part not-quite-ghost-story-or-is-it, part shadowy romance ... laden with secrets of the past and mysterious folklore ... leaving the reader with a haunting sense of unreality.

The title character, Mary Rose, was only a little girl when she used to go out to a remote Scottish island with her father. She claims to remember it fondly, with no idea she's at the heart of a local legend. When she becomes engaged, her parents take her fiance aside and tell him of the month she went missing, then returned as if out of nowhere with no recollection.

Simon, the fiance, isn't so sure about those absent memories of the intervening time. He knows Mary Rose is troubled by dreams and moments when she seems distant from herself, but his urge to protect her by uncovering the truth collides with everyone else's urges to protect her by keeping it hidden.

The island itself has its own history, with rumors of druids and devil worshipers and otherworldly doorways. Her parents want her to stay far from it, but Mary Rose claims to feel happy there, so Simon accompanies her. He's soon drawn deeper into the tangles of what may or may not have happened all those years ago, and realizes whatever they learn may come at great cost.

It's a definite keep-you-guessing kind of book, with several of the kinds of cryptic close-mouthed characters you just want to grab and shake until they TALK already dangit. Then that explanatory afterword sheds all new kinds of light on an already impressive experience.

-Christine Morgan

**(See below for exclusive excerpt from this novel)**

THE TEARDROP METHOD by Simon Avery (2017 TTA Press / 160 pp / trade paperback)

This 4th entry in TTA Press' novella series follows Hungarian musician Krisztina Ligeti as she wanders around Budapest, mourning the death of her girlfriend and working on her sophomore album. She discovers she has the ability to hear songs coming from people as they near the end of their life, and is able to channel those songs from the dying. In the middle of putting the album together, she reconnects with her father, he a famous musician from the 60s, and things seem to be looking upward until Krisztina becomes the target of an off-balanced author and her former model husband...

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.

Also included is Avery's short story 'Going Back to the World,' which had appeared in Black Static magazine issue 44, and features music journalist Dave Cook who plays a part in the main novella.

A fine novella collectors will want and a great introduction for those who aren't familiar with the author.

-Nick Cato

THE FORSAKEN: STORIES OF ABANDONED PLACES edited by Joe McKinney and Mark Onspaugh (2017 Cemetery Dance Publications / 344 pp / eBook)

Here's another anthology I wish I'd known about earlier; the theme is one to instantly capture the imagination. Abandoned places, is anything quite so creepy? As the book's introduction says, we've all seen them. And something about them just seems extra wrong.

Why? Why are they so disturbing, the ghost towns, the derelict buildings, the factories left to rot and ruin, the amusement parks being reclaimed by nature? Why are they so much more unsettling than the untouched wilderness? Is it because abandoned places serve to remind us of our own futility and impermanence? That we, as a species, tried to make a lasting mark ... and failed?

Or is it because we fear, deep down, what else might be there? Maybe there are reasons for those places to be abandoned. Maybe they aren't so abandoned after all. Maybe any number of scenarios too scary to imagine, but that's okay because here are twenty-two examples of terrifyingly talented authors imagining them for you.

I mentioned amusement parks above, since those more than any other abandoned place really get under the skin of my mind. I was therefore delighted, in a thoroughly creeped out way, by Mark Onspaugh's "Lullaby Land" and "The Storybook Forest" by Norman Prentiss, which present two very different takes on the subject.

For sheer breathtaking wow-factor, though, it was Michael C. Lea's "Hollow" that blew me away for the top spot in my personal faves. Set on the Moon, and going in unexpected directions, this one took abandoned places to a whole new cosmic scale.

Special mention also to James Whelan for sheer fun cleverness in "Gordon's Last Chance Gas and Cafe," and Lisa Morton's "High Desert" for taking me back to the freaky Joshua trees of the Mojave where I grew up.

You'll find movie theaters like in the old days, government facilities and military bases, churches, candy stores, hospitals, adrift ships and ancient sites, diners, and more. Whether haunted or hungry, whether tragic or cursed, there's more than enough abandoned places within these pages to make even the most stalwart urban explorer think twice.

-Christine Morgan

TALES FROM A TALKING BOARD by Ross E. Lockhart (2017 Word Horde / 178 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Here's another I will be kicking myself over missing out on ... Word Horde does gorgeous books, and what a theme! Spirit board, Ouija board, whatever you happen to call it, there's just something so tantalizing, so alluring and beautiful and spooky, about those ornate letters waiting there to have a planchette glide across the smooth surface to spell out messages from beyond.

Of course, as any of a number of horror movies have taught us, it's also about the quickest way for things to go supernaturally bad, which only adds to the fun. In this book are fourteen stories exploring this seemingly harmless child's toy / witch's keyboard of utter evil, plus the editor's introduction about its fascinating history.

Now, okay, the degree to which these fourteen tales actually involve a board varies ... some focus on cards or other methods of divination/communication ... but the feeling, that exquisite sense of apprehension and possibility, comes through strongly in them all.

If I had one problem with some of the stories, it's with how many of them ended with a kind of leave-you-hanging ... as if the planchette stopped moving, spirits come back, spirits tell me more! Yet even that kind of fits here. Maybe we can't get all the answers. Maybe we shouldn't push our luck to ask.

Among my personal picks would have to be Anya Martin's saucy-fun but ominous Vaudeville-days "Weegee, Weegee, Tell Me Do," David Templeton's clever take on the afterlife in "Questions and Answers," the uncanny candy clairvoyance of Wendy Wagner's "The Burnt Sugar Stench," Matthew M. Bartlett's tattoos-with-a-dark-twist in "Deep Into the Skin," Nadia Bulkin's insidiously haunting "May You Live In Interesting Times," and the sheer night-ride-purgatory weirdness factor of David James Keaton's "Spin the Throttle."

Heh, there I go again, with my faves list still ending up being almost half the TOC, and even narrowing it down that much was a close contest. Tales From A Talking Board is another winner from Word Horde.

-Christine Morgan


Enjoy this excerpt from MARY ROSE by Geoffrey Girard, courtesy of Adaptive Books:

He followed after her and caught her halfway down the hill. 
“Right down here,” she explained, pointing. 
“I see it.” A thick grove of birch and rowan waited ahead. Maybe an acre of dense woodland. He checked his watch. Another two hours until sunset. They had some time. “You’d come here as a little girl.” 
She nodded, then turned, grinning. “See? There it is again.” 
“The call of the island?” he asked, but there was no humor in the question. 
She closed her eyes for several steps and then led him down and across the short field to the edge of the wood. 
Mary Rose took his hand. “Trust us,” she said. 
He thought he’d misheard. 
It was another few minutes before Simon also heard the music. 
Barely, at first. Only a soft indefinable sound carried somewhere deep within the enduring rustle of cool summer wind in the surrounding trees. Fading in and out. Obviously imagined. A trick of sound. Then, more distinct. Deliberate. More melodious. 
“That is music,” he agreed, still doubting enough. The island was deserted. There’d been no other boats. “Right? I thought you were kidding.” 
Mary Rose continued without remark. 
They followed a slender and loose trail, overgrown with scrub, the trees stretching overhead in a heavy canopy that allowed the sun to split through only in well-defined fixed beams, and the sunlight somehow made the copse seem darker, casting blacker shadows than what should be. The musical drone had grown stronger, more real, with each step. 
Twice, he’d turned. Convinced they were being followed. They weren’t alone anymore. That someone had stepped onto the path no more than twenty yards behind them, and then jumped back again into the shadows each time he’d turned. The unique prickle of being watched coupled every step they took. “You know where we’re going?” 
he asked, striding through a wide shard of light. 
“I want to show you something,” Mary Rose said. Her voice star-tled him and he took a deep breath to bring his racing imagination back to real life. 
 “Something you saw as a girl?” 
She only nodded. 
“Did you ever—” 
Movement at the corner of his eye passed between several trees at their far right. Shadows, maybe, in the shifting sunlight. Or someone running. He’d automatically reached out a hand to stay Mary Rose. 
“What’s wrong?” she asked, turning. 
He held up his other hand for quiet. “Wait . . .” he whispered, listening, and also squinting ahead. The music had become unmis-takable words. Chanting, even. And not in English, for sure. Several voices intoning as one relentless drone of those concealed within the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead. It was a sound that somehow evoked the pounding of animal-skin drums and dark primordial shapes swaying in the moonlight before open fire—he could even smell it—and antlered demigods, or maybe just Brodie, 
“The Druid,” painting bull blood on some virgin’s bare ass. 
What a load of shit. 
But there was definite movement between those trees. Not another swaying birch, but someone. If it was such a “load of shit,” why was he holding his breath? Why did it feel as if his whole body were trembling? 
“We should go,” he decided. Had even searched the ground for a fallen limb as some pathetic sort of weapon. 
Mary Rose looked at him oddly, puzzled. 
He tugged her backward. “Come on. We can’t—” 
A terrible scream filled the woods. 
A woman, or some animal, maybe, the shriek of something having its throat slit over an ancient stone altar. The horrific echo drifted away between the trees slowly and deliberately. 
Simon was frozen, mostly wanting to pull Mary Rose to safety, but knowing someone was—
Mary Rose had made the decision for them both, jerking her hand free and sprinting ahead. 
His mind exploded with panic, and anger. “Mary,” his voice hissed in warning, but it was a voice for dogs broken free from their leash or unruly children in public places safe from spankings: a voice with no real control. She’d gone straight at the sound, and he dashed after her. 
Between the trees ahead, straight beyond Mary Rose, he glimpsed tall distorted figures coming directly toward her. And then the unmis-takable shine of bare flesh—sinewy, powerful, bronzed and glistening in sweat, a flash of plump pale breasts—the skin and surrounding trees spattered in vibrant dripping blood. 
He could hear two voices, their words clear now. 
Their dark incantation. 
“. . . a snare without escape, set for evil, a net whence none can issue forth . . .” 
He leaned forward to grab a random stick from the ground. 
“Evil spirit, or evil fiend, hag-demon, ghoul, phantom, or night-wraith 
. . . or evil plague or unclean disease . . . That which may do harm . . .” 
Snapped and turned it in his hand, finding the sharpest point. 
He’d braced himself to stab and stab and stab . . . 
“Which hath broken the Barrier, let not the Barrier of the Gods . . .” 
Mary Rose had stopped, turned, hands to her mouth. But hiding a smile? It made no sense. Her eyes were wide with joy. 
“Its Throat May They Cut. Its Face May They Smite. Its—” 
“Holy shit!” a deep voice yelled, followed by laughter and more cursing. 
Simon had caught Mary Rose and finally overlooked the same clearing. Five people—teens, at most twenty—stood frozen in various poses before them. Both guys were bare chested, one of the girls still pulling up her beach towel around her own topless form. Simon got another flash of bikini bottoms and a long thin thigh. The other two were also girls, eyes wide in panic. The sweet pong of marijuana hov-ered over the whole clearing, the “fire” he’d smelled. Simon spotted beer cans, a couple of book bags, beach towels, and iPhones. There was no blood, no daggers, no primordial demigods. He’d seen only clusters of rowan flowers and five kids getting high. 
“Who screamed?” he demanded, using a voice his father would have once used. He laid a comforting hand against Mary Rose’s back. 
All the teens turned to one girl, whose wide eyes grew despondent. 
“I was . . . I’m sorry.” Already welling with tears. “I was . . . just joking.” 
Simon shook his head. “Everyone’s okay?” 
The kids all nodded. “Hey, man,” one of the boys said. “Sorry to freak you guys out. We were . . .” His voice trailed off, then started up again to match his abashed grin. “You know.” 
“Yeah,” Simon said. “I know.” 
“You guys American, yeah?” 
Simon ignored the question and studied their stuff again. “How’d you all get here? I didn’t see your boat.” 
The other boy pointed away from where Simon and Mary Rose had entered the woods. “The cove over by the lake,” he explained. Simon had seen the lake only from afar— they dragged the lake for her—but didn’t know the cove the kid spoke of. Obviously an easy place to store a boat, grab a little girl, and vanish again. 
“You were calling them.” Mary Rose said. 
The teens exchanged quick looks. 
Simon whispered to her: “Calling who?” 
One of the girls held up a sheet of paper. “My aunt gave me these.” 
“It’s almost solstice,” one of the boys said, as if that explained ev-erything. “You know . . .” 
“What?” Simon snipped. “Like magic stuff.” 
The boy shrugged. “Yeah. You say the words the hour before sunset? 
Light a fire. Yeah, all that stuff.” 
“Do any of you truly believe?” Mary Rose asked. 
Again, the group exchanged looks in the telepathic speak of all teenagers. “Aye,” one girl said, and the others nodded in agreement. 
“And you’re afraid,” Mary Rose said. 
The girl lowered her head. 
“Don’t be,” Mary Rose said. 
“Do you know how to do it?” another girl asked. 
Mary Rose only smiled. 
“Can you show us?” 
Simon held out a hand. “It’s late. We’d better get going. Sorry to scare you guys.” 
“No, man, that’s totally on us. We’re sorry.” 
The girl held out the sheet of paper for Mary Rose to take. 
“Inviting me in to help?” Mary Rose had crossed her arms. 
 “Yeah, sure,” the first boy answered. “We don’t know what we’re doing.” 
Mary Rose stepped into the clearing, and Simon followed, tossing aside the stick he’d been holding. For the first time, he noticed that several oblong upright boulders encircled the entire opening. “This is what I wanted to show you, anyway,” Mary Rose said, looking back to him. She took the sheet of paper and studied the words. 
“Are you, like . . . a Wiccan?” The one girl asked. 
Mary Rose shook her head. “Not at all. I’m not sure . . . ” She thought. “I used to come here.” 
One of the boys cautiously offered Simon the half-burnt joint he’d been cupping in his hand. Simon shook his head, and the kid licked his fingers to stub it out. “Sorry, man,” he apologized again. 
“Not a problem.” And there wasn’t. Simon had certainly spent enough of his teens doing shots and partaking in the occasional hit to not worry about these kids having a good time on summer break. 
“You guys okay out here?” 
The guy smiled. “Yeah, sure.” He leaned closer. “You mean all that weird stuff. Ghosts and stuff?” He laughed. “We were just ‘concen-trating the magic circle.’” 
“Consecrating,” his friend corrected, and they both snickered again. 
“Look, the girls sprinkled salt between the rocks.” 
Simon pretended to look but turned more to watch Mary Rose and the girls. They were, all four, laughing and whispering quietly. Even, especially, the freckled one who’d first looked afraid. Mary Rose was lifting her hands in the air, making her twirls while the others giggled. 
“That your wife?” the kid asked, clearly impressed. 
“That’s what they tell me.” Simon couldn’t believe how easily she’d fallen in with the girls, already almost one of them. Like long-lost sisters. He grinned. No wonder men got so nervous whenever women gathered together alone. 
“We really should go,” he declared loudly, checking his watch. 
Damn, they’d now be leaving at dusk at best. He’d be coming back into Mhoire’s Point in the near dark. He’d completely lost track of the time. “You guys, too. It’ll be dark in less than an hour.” 
“We’re staying all night,” the second boy said. 
“On the island?” For some reason, Simon found the idea loath-some. Maybe because he suspected Mary Rose would stay with them if they offered. “It’ll get cold tonight. You guys should—” 
“Got blankets and the fire.” The first teen smirked. “And the girls.” 
“Plus, we’re used to it.” The kid with the sideburns tried a wink. 
Simon smiled politely, started backing from the clearing. “Mary Rose . . .” 
She waved, whispered something else to the three girls, and then jogged across the clearing to join him. “Be good, guys!” Simon called out to all five of them. “Keep safe.” 
The five teens waved and nodded back. 
“They okay?” he asked Mary Rose. 
She smiled. “Should be.” 
“What, exactly, did you tell them?” 
“Oh, I don’t know. Just to have fun. Not to be so serious. To dance and sing and love.” 
“Great.” Simon chuckled. “The guys will appreciate that.” 
She shrugged. 
“Who are they ‘calling’ now?” 
“Spirits of the island. The Fae. That kind of thing.” 
“Do you believe in that stuff?” 
“What did you think of the standing stones?” 
“The circle of rocks? And how do you know that?” 
She looked off. “I don’t know. I must have heard it somewhere before.” 
“It’s fucking absurd your father used to let you wander alone back here. I’m thirty-four and, honestly, half-scared to death.” He stole a look. “What if you’d run into somebody?” 
“Those five were harmless.” 
“Yeah, they were. You ever run into someone who wasn’t?” 
He expected a flash of fear, sadness, or even anxiety to cross her features, but Mary Rose simply threw up her hands. “Simon!” she said, exasperated. “Will you stop with the cross-examination! I don’t recall anything that happened here—I know something did. I do. I’m not an idiot. But my mind has lost it— I  have lost it. I’d appreciate it, if you love me, if you’d lose it, too.” She reached out for him, and he let her take his hands in hers, drawing him close. “Isn’t it enough that you are here, and I am here, and we’re happy? Isn’t that all that matters, husband?” 
Her face, in that moment, was so transcendent with happiness that Simon went perfectly still. Her eyes were enormous, and their gaze so piercing, so intent that she’d never felt more real to him. The lawyer in him gave way to the man, and the man was in love with this woman. 
She was his wife, she was happy. Something terrible had happened to her but—she was not where he’d find his answers. She was only someone he could protect. 
“Deal,” he said, and her smile lit up her entire face, reaching even to those beautiful, fathomless eyes, and in that moment, he felt that it all would be all right, eventually. Every last part. 
“Thank you,” she whispered, stepping up on her toes to brush his lips lightly. Simon’s heart was racing now, only he couldn’t say why. 
She turned and led him onward. 
They made it out of the woods, more quickly than they’d entered. 
So much so that Simon would have sworn they’d taken a shortcut of some kind. With the whole sun resting on the farthest horizon, they jogged up to the top of the hill and collected their things. Mary Rose was laughing, having fun, enjoying the new challenge of making it back to the boat in time. Simon, now that the woods were behind him, not as much. The idea of returning to Mhoire’s Point in the dark wasn’t a pleasant one, especially in an unfamiliar boat on unfamiliar waters. 
They waded back to the boat, the tide higher than the first time they’d come out. While Mary Rose toweled off and sorted through their tumbled provisions, Simon got the boat going and turned out of the shallow inlet as quickly as possible. The sun was behind the island, only its glow in the sky providing light. 
Minutes later, the island was a retreating silhouette in the back-ground, looking hardly bigger than a sporting boat itself. Simon turned back to watch it plunge into the darkening ocean. He was convinced he’d spotted a single spark on the island, a small fire finally blazing to life somewhere deep in the woods. 
The kids. 
He smiled, finally feeling better. If they were willing to chance it overnight on the island, how bad could it be? 
“Simon!” Mary Rose’s laughing call drew his attention away, and he fixed his gaze on her as she leaned over the edge of her boat, catching the spray in her outstretched hand. As the setting sun edged her figure she once again looked almost incandescent against the murky water, the blue fairy come to life. 
When he looked back to the island again, there were now several small lights glowing in the shadows, scattered across the whole island, and even as he watched, another flared to life on the island’s farthest edge. 
A trick of the sunset and shifting water, he decided. 
Like all the things Cameron had once seen. 
There was no other explanation.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Reviews for the Week of October 2, 2017

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

DOUBLE BARREL HORROR edited by Matthew Weber (2016 Pint Bottle Press / 35 pp / eBook)

What a nifty idea for a project! Assemble a crew of solid heavy-hitter horror writers, have them do two stories each, and come away with a full dozen tales of the extreme, the gory, the gross, and the violent. Which, hey, is right up my alley, and I'm pleased to report that they don't disappoint. Each is its own sick journey into wrongness.

Amanda Hard turns what initially seems like just another predictable blind date into something even more twisted ... then brings a fresh take on a classic, when a mother's devotion and careful wish fulfillment leads to unexpectedly dark places.

Next up is K.Trap Jones, who manages the near-impossible by making the reader almost feel sorry for a clown ... almost ... and takes a grown man on an adventure to learn the even-worse truth behind a childhood rural legend.

Vic Kerry looks at some perils of parenthood and pregnancy with both of his contributions, one of which has a young couple preparing for their unexpected little bundle of joy ... while in the other, a man gets a surprise visit from the daughter he might have had, and she's not happy.

Then comes a dual dose of dealings with devils, courtesy of J.C.Michael ...whether it's making sure bad people get what they deserve, or discovering the true source of ultimate evil behind the horrors of war and life's cruelties.

The powerhouse Sisters of Slaughter are at it again, hitting close to home twice ... whether it's pitting cops against something much worse than a simple robbery, or confronting the landlord about all those aggravating problems with the rental.

Matthew Weber finishes things off with two tales of people getting what's coming to them ... three guys try to escape a revenge curse (one which, as a pet-lover, I found it hard to argue with), and a couple of bullies have a turn of bad luck.

-Christine Morgan

CHILLS by Mary SanGiovanni (2016 Kensington / 190 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Part of why I chose now to read Chills was, admittedly, psychosomatic ... a prolonged heatwave for which Portland is not prepared left me desperate for alternate ways to cool off. So, how about some suggestibility? Winter horror! An entire town in the grips of an unnatural freeze, all ice and deep snow!

And, thanks to Mary SanGiovanni's flair for immersive description, it helped! There were shivers! A slight drawback being, since this is also a horror novel filled with creepy eldritch frostbeasts and rime monsters and cold-blooded cultists, there were those kinds of shivers as well.

Strange weather has taken over all of Colby. Not just a late unseasonable quirk, a final flurry before spring. This is severe, nearly Fimbulwinter-level stuff. Schools are closing for snow days when kids should be getting ready for summer vacation. And to top it all off, an anonymous ritual-murder victim has just been found.

For Detective Jack Glazier, that case is only the beginning. He and his team soon find themselves dealing with way more than a few little ceremonies and sacrifices. It's not wrong to say that the whole world and all of humanity might be at stake. Not to mention the lives of Jack's family and friends.

For occult expert Kathy Ryan, it's also personal ... requiring her to confront a demon (literal or figurative? you be the judge!) from her past and threatening a hope for happiness in her future. She's going to need all her strength and arcane knowledge to stand a chance.

A gripping, and dare I say, chilling read from start to finish, colder than cold coldity-cold cosmic horror with the indescribable beautifully (and terrifyingly) described, Chills definitely delivers for super cool summer reading.

-Christine Morgan

THE FORTY-TWO by Ed Kurtz (2014 New Pulp Press / 368 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

It's 1979 in New York City. Charley is addicted to seeing horror double features on 42nd Street, and travels quite often to be there from his downtown apartment. During a screening at the legendary Harris Theater, a beautiful woman sits next to him and before he fully realizes what has happened, she is stabbed in the back, right through her chair. What follows is a noir-type tale that brings Scorcese's AFTER HOURS to mind, as Charley, unable to let this murder go, does what he has to to find out who the killer is.

While at first I thought, why would he even care, considering she was a stranger, I believe it's Charley's love for The Deuce (a.k.a. 42nd Street) that leads him on this wild solo investigation that takes us to the seedier sections of the Manhattan of yesteryear. Besides, he's the clerk at a run down hotel and on occasion helps with the sound on b-movies for little moolah, so it's not like he has a lot going on.

Kurtz brings in all kinds of sleazeball (and some stand up) characters, including an unusually nice prostitute, some Serbian gangsters, and a couple of cops who bring humor into this mainly lurid tale.

For those who long for the days of Times Square's sleaze-era, THE FORTY-TWO will surely make you smile with it's descriptions of cinemas, films, and the general feel of the time, and under Kurtz' well-guided pen, those into crime/noir-ish stories will surely enjoy Charley's plight, which culminates in a satisfying finale. A fine non-horror novel by a beloved horror writer.

-Nick Cato

DOA III edited by Marc Ciccarone and Andrea Dawn (2017 Blood Bound Books / 393 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Oh wow but this is a whole hefty lot of messed-up right here ... this is some of the hardest of the hardcore, putting the triple-X in extreme. Thirty stories from thirty-plus of the genre's wickedest minds and bloodiest pens.

A scan of the TOC, or even the cover, is a who's who of names known for unleashing utter atrocity. Splatterlords extraordinaire like John Skipp, Jack Ketchum, Wrath James White, Edward Lee, Shane McKenzie, Ryan Harding ... rising stars like Kristopher Triana, Betty Rocksteady, K. Trap Jones ... legends like Matheson and Little ... unexpected treats courtesy of Jeff Strand and Hal Bodner ... and so many more!

Seriously, check your sensitive sensibilities at the door. Even the most seasoned sicko will find things within these pages to marvel at and recoil from. At least, I sure did. It's sex and violence from the get-go. Taboos mean nothing to these people, nothing except maybe a hold-my-beer kind of challenge.

Have to tip the hat to "Skipp's Splatterpunk Alphabet Souffle," of course, y the inimitable John Skipp. It gives a literal A-to-Z of snippets, some fiction, some essay, some just quick nuggets of wisdom from the genre's coolest cool uncle.

I got particular chuckles from Jeff Strand's "Hostile," a brief and hilarious look at an unseen aspect of torture-porn. Hal Bodner, in "L'Amuse Bouche," blasts his usual reputation for more light-hearted humor/horror completely out of the water.

Must also give props to "Proud Papa" by Adrien Ludens, for a ghastly entertaining look at the joys of fatherhood ... and Christopher Weber's "Taking Root," for major visceral squick-out ... and Jaap Boekestein's gorgeously imagined "Metal Heat."

"Junk," by Ryan Harding, will have you wincing forever even if you don't have guy-parts. Garrett Cook's "Woeful City" will bend your brain into pandimensional shapes.

There really are way too many excellent pieces in here to single them each out; I mean, it's basically the entire book. If you like boundaries trampled, transgressions gleefully transgressed, the offensive and unthinkable splashed right there before your very eyes, this is definitely one for you!

-Christine Morgan

NOW THAT WE'RE ALONE by Nicholas Day (2017 Bizarro Pulp Press / 167 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

The cover art here, by demented genius Jim Agpalza, is creepy in many, many ways. The longer you look, the creepier it gets. The same can be said for many of the stories in this collection, each of which also features a bonus illustration by Luke Spooner.

The eleven tales contained herein run a strange gamut, the tone of weirdness well-set with the opening catchy-poetic flash fic "This Is Why Johnny Is In Therapy Now," which is almost cheery in tone even as it describes an awful scene.

From there, things take a colder and grimmer turn with "The Ghosts In Winter's Wake," as an old man with a failing memory tries to make sense of tragedy and loss ... but then shifts gears again to B-movie nature run amok monster carnage in "Chomp Chomp."

"Jacks" was one I'd seen before because a friend has a story in the same evil toys anthology where it first appeared, but it's still as enjoyable the second time around, and took me back to my childhood where I never could get the hang of those dratted things anyway.

Is it wrong that, as I read "Beast Mode," I kept thinking it was like what would happen if someone made a gritty reboot of the horror movie they're watching at the beginning of Thriller? The nice young couple, but suddenly bikers, and bloody revenge mayhem?

"Bright Red Mess" is one of my personal favorites here, full of family dysfunction and a lot of really uncomfortable broken glass imagery. I also quite liked the concept and execution of "Negative Space;" like it inspiration, the epiphany just suddenly clicks.

-Christine Morgan