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