Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Top Ten Books of 2018 (Part One)

In the first of our three annual TOP TEN lists, Nick Cato picks his favorites released within the last 12 months...

"I read 43 novels this past year, far from my usual 60-80, but among those, these were the ones that stuck with me..."

1) TIDE OF STONE by Kaaron Warren. Warren rarely disappoints, and when she's on, few can come close. TIDE OF STONE is easily my favorite of all her works, and is a title I'll surely be revisiting. From my review: "TIDE OF STONE is a sublime fever dream of ever-building dread with some fantastic atmosphere and a dark fantasy slant that's only given to us in tiny bites as to keep the tale grounded in reality (the odd condition of the prisoners, for example, kept me flipping the pages to find out more). I haven't enjoyed a "quiet horror novel" this much since the classic T.M. Wright novels of the early 80s."

2) THE RUST MAIDENS by Gwendolyn Kiste. Kiste's debut novel more than satisfied those of us who became fans through her short stories. In the past year she has become one of my new faves and a must read author. From my review: "The novel is a depressing but powerful look at growing up facing a future that doesn't seem to hold too many chances, but somehow through the muck our protagonist manages to survive, and in Kiste's hands we're pulled along at a perfect pace. For those who complain there aren't enough female "coming of age" stories, THE RUST MAIDENS should satisfy, but there's a lot more to be mined here. A fantastic debut novel."

3) HALYCON by Rio Youers. Youers seems to make my lists often, but that shouldn't surprise anyone who has read him. Watching him grow as a storyteller over the years has been a pleasure, and this time he delivered one of his best yet. From my review: "This novel may be promoted as a "thriller," but Youers' use of the paranormal, along with a small-press level of brutal violence, makes HALCYON a solid horror novel with a lot to say about our society and how families cope with tragedy. I loved it."

4) FROZEN SHADOWS AND OTHER CHILLING STORIES by Gene O'Neill. This hefty short story collection is a real feast, no easy feat considering this is the author's 6th one! From my review: "FROZEN SCREAMS AND OTHER CHILLING TALES is a fantastic collection by a writer who is considered one of the best in the genre, and while I've read and enjoyed some of O'Neill's novels and stories over the years, this collection is proof of the praise given him. His ability to spin familiar themes and still keep the reader guessing until the last page is notable, as are the realistic people he creates to experience these horrors. This is the perfect place for newbies to start and a must read for long time fans."

5) THE GOAT PARADE by Peter N. Dudar. Occult horror is my favorite subgenre, and Dudar brings it here in spades. Best of all, this one delivers some serious chills. From my review: "THE GOAT PARADE is a solid old-school styled, no BS horror novel, with children in constant peril, a realistic cast, and a fresh feel to some familiar ground. The portrayal of Old Scratch doesn’t sensationalize him as many stories do, which adds to the impending sense of dread that builds in each chapter. And be warned: the author holds back NO punches during the finale. Makes a great triple-feature, rainy weekend read with Douglas Clegg’s GOAT DANCE and James Newman’s THE WICKED."

6) COCKBLOCK by C.V. Hunt. Hunt continues to come up with some of the wildest stories out there, this time taking on politics and current social issues. From my review: "Hunt brings us some of the craziest ideas in the genre, twisting tropes in ways you’d never expect. COCKBLOCK is full of social and political subtext and an urgent cry for justice, done in an irresistible way. Things may seem absurd one minute, and the next we wonder if this could possibly be where we're headed as a nation. With 15 titles under her belt, Hunt has become a force to be reckoned with, and COCKBLOCK is easily one of her best. It's an epic tale told in an easily digestible size."

7) WALKING ALONE by Bentley Little. Little's second full-sized short story collection is another platter of the macabre fans have come to expect, and contains what have become a couple of my favorites from him. From my review: "Bentley Little is often praised for his short stories, and while THE COLLECTION (2002) is still my favorite of his works, WALKING ALONE is an impressive display of his talent, his newer stories here testifying he has truly become a master of the macabre, the weird, the just plain “out there.” A couple of tales show Little perhaps a bit more “normal,” but those who may have an issue with this will be glad to know his deranged side is still very well represented. Long time fans will find much to love here (and not only for the nods to past stories and novels), while newcomers looking for no-holds-barred horror will undoubtedly leave satisfied"

8) THE MOORE HOUSE by Tony Tremblay. Like THE RUST MAIDENS above, I was a fan of Tremblay's short stories, and was thrilled to report his debut novel read like it was written by a seasoned vet. From my review: "I’m a big fan of religious-themed horror, and I enjoyed Tremblay’s approach to it. Father MacLeod is the last priest on earth who should be performing exorcisms, but when he does we cheer him on despite his hypocritical lifestyle. It’s also refreshing to see a couple of religious women (Agnes and Nora) still striving to serve God regardless of their excommunication and the fact they’re lovers. Celeste becomes a major player here despite being the newest member of the team, and what becomes of her and Father MacLeod in the final pages is quite disturbing. With plenty of haunted house mayhem (I was reminded of Simon Clark’s THE TOWER a couple of times), an interesting cast (I’d like to see more of the mysterious pawn store owner), and a flawed but likable crew of demon hunters, THE MOORE HOUSE is a fine debut and a quick read to get the chills going."

9) SKULLFACE BOY by Chad Lutzke. One of a couple of titles I read by Lutzke this year and easily my favorite. Out of the many newer authors I've been reading, Lutzke is developing a seriously fresh, unique voice. From my review: "Set in the 1980s, SKULLFACE BOY is more an emotional tale of self discovery than it is a horror story, but I think genre fans will enjoy this slick coming of age meditation on loneliness, trust, and destiny that’s told in an almost surreal manner. This is the second book I’ve read by Lutzke this year, and it’s definitely something special."

10) LAST DAY by Bryan Smith. Since bursting onto the scene with his novel HOUSE OF BLOOD 14 years ago, Smith has been churning out some of the more extreme horror novels in the genre, and LAST DAY is about as over the top as it gets. This pre-apocalyptic blood bath looks at what a few lunatics would do during the last hours of earth before an asteroid strike promises extinction. From my review: "LAST DAYS is a sick, hyper-violent, at times terrifying, and lightning-paced descent into madness. I actually held on to my junk a few times and winced, causing me to finish some sections through one eye. The violence gets so extreme it borders on the absurd, but Smith’s characters are relatable (whether we want to admit so or not) and it forces us to read on. I can only imagine, if anyone survives the asteroid strike, what Smith’s POST apocalyptic world will be like. Be very afraid."

Monday, December 17, 2018

Reviews for the Week of December 17, 2018

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're reading this on a cell phone you probably won't see it, so boot up the lap top...

WALKING WITH GHOSTS by Brian James Freeman (2018 PS Publishing / 236 pp / hardcover & eBook)

Simply seeing that this book had an intro by William Peter Blatty was enough to rock me back on my heels going “wow;” that’s a goal to which not many even dare aspire, so to actually score one? Saying such honest praise? Gave me goosebumps in a good way. And that was before I even got started on the stories.

Now, a few of them I had encountered before in their other appearances, but reading them collected together like this makes its own special magic. Many of them are interconnected, threads from some subtly woven through and into others, recurring characters glimpsed or referenced from other points of view, creating a vibrant and believable world a mere sidestep or so removed from our own.

It’s a world of dark chills and nail-biting suspense, with some sudden and very nasty surprise twists. An unexploded landmine … the imminent end of the world … grief turning to horrible discovery … the yearning desperation of nostalgia and lost hope … the fears here best touched upon aren’t so much fears of monsters but the monstrousness of the human psyche and condition, and of life itself.

Freeman demonstrates again and again a deft skill at building up empathy, then yanking the rug out from under your reading feet to drop you, shocked, into terrible realizations and truth. I literally gasped aloud on no less than three different occasions, though I won’t tell you which stories they were, so you can be just as blindsided as I was.

Great writing throughout, the horror often quiet and subtle but not always so (plus those moments of deep, chilling shock!) … and perhaps most potent of all, the encompassing reminder that whatever we go through, whenever it’s at its worst, we’re always along. Brrrr!

-Christine Morgan

RING OF FIRE by David Agranoff (2018 Deadite Press / 310 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I love extreme horror and cheesy natural disaster stuff, so the combination of the two seems like it’d be an automatic win for me; I dove into this one with considerable excitement. I wanted to enjoy it, I really did. I thought I would. But … well … sorry to say, it’s one of the few Deadite books that’s let me down.

The premise is good solid action-movie fare: it starts with what at first appears to be merely out-of-control wildfire season ravaging the environs around San Diego, only to reveal underlying man-made causes, conspiracies, and corruption, all leading up to something even deadlier.

And the timing’s right; I read it at the tail end of yet another summer when fires raged across half the country while the other half wallowed under floodwaters, the climate change debate raging just as fervently, distrust of FEMA and other organizations at a height. Throw in the shutting down of essential services, and an outbreak turning people into violent crazies, the chaos and panic and confusion …

With all those elements, it should have worked, drat it, and I’m disappointed it didn’t. There were too many characters, way too many with similar names and not nearly enough distinction or attention or chance to get to know them or care. Too much jumping around from one point of view or scene to another, to show the developments from many different angles, but that only made things seem sluggish. I found myself, hate to say it though I do, actually kind of bored. Even when it got to the full-on horror, it lacked oomph somehow, wasn’t nearly as ‘extreme’ as I expected or wanted.

So, yeah … not mad, just let down and disappointed. It could, and should, have been so much more!

-Christine Morgan

LIVE GIRLS by Ray Garton (2018 Macabre Ink / 268 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

The work of Ray Garton has always been a little guilty horror pleasure of mine. He’s one of my favorite working authors to date. I don’t think I’ve read anything he’s released that I didn’t like, and his stories just always seem to work, and they stick with me far after I’ve read them. This rerelease of his vampire cult classic, LIVE GIRLS from the 80s is without exception. The author’s uncanny ability to spin an original tale different than anyone else, whilst managing to entertain, spook, shock, turn-on and terrorize the reader is beyond admirable. In this book, he manages to do the same while delivering to us his take on the vampire trope. Now, keep in mind… at the time, vampires weren’t these glittery teeny boppers high on sex before marriage with pretty boys with nice hair hailing from the glitter section in Outer Space like your kid sister’s bedazzled jewelry set. No, vampires were very different. Very scary. Very goth business casual, if you will. Secret society’s that consumed human blood and flesh and held sentient hierarchy very dear to their immortal blackened souls.

Davey Owen embarks on quite a journey when stumbles onto the neon lights flashing on Times Square in NYC. Some lights flashing much brighter than others, when he stumbles into a trashy peep show, and is instantly drawn to the female behind the cage. After a bit of sexy time, he soon finds himself craving the mysterious woman like there’s no tomorrow. She’s all he can think about. Davey can’t get enough of her as the spot on his manhood begins to spin a much deeper, darker tale of love and hopeless despair, as the mysterious woman begins to lure him in deeper and deeper to her mystery with each and every acquaintance, as his life begins to quickly unravel at the seams.

Easily one of my favorite vampire books to date. It’s an all-around great horror book jam- packed with flashy bright neon lights, trashy sex, suspense, gore, and mystery. What’s there not to like about it!?

-Jon R. Meyers

WHITE FIRE by Brian Keene (2018 Deadite Press / 81 pp / trade paperback and eBook)

Captain Tom Collins and CDC Phil McLeod are transporting a military created virus through a small town in Illinois when a freak tornado damages their van and unleashes the bio weapon. The appearance of a mysterious white-haired man lends a supernatural element as the town is quarantined and the disease is attempted to be contained.

While the story is familiar, Keene’s fast paced writing keeps things exciting and the aforementioned supernatural angle brings up the author’s past stories, so fans are in for a treat.

A fine entry in the killer virus subgenre that can be read in a single sitting. Nifty ending, too.

-Nick Cato

OUR FRAIL DISORDERED LIVES by Mary M. Schmidt (2018 LuLu Publishing Services / 188 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I like the gamble of trying a book knowing little else about it but title and author … it’s akin to a blind date, or a grab bag … will it turn out to be a great time, or prove a dud? This one, definitely the former! Once I started to read, I was along for the ride with no looking back.

Even more, because the title somehow led me to expect a collection of moody, woeful, sepia-toned stories and vignettes (of which there’s not a dang thing wrong, make no mistake!) and instead I was dropped feet-first into the deep end of a delightful and irreverent devil-romp.

Roach is one of the OG fallen angels who’s been with Satan since the beginning. Which is a long time to stew over old grudges, particularly the bitterest pill of not having been allowed to get in on that sweet Divine Comedy action with Dante and Virgil. Instead of becoming a famed name, he’s forgotten, just another diabolical flunky. And he’s had enough.

Going rogue, escaping to the mortal world, Roach seeks to get some payback, corrupt a few souls, collect a few sinners, strike a few deals of his own. Aided on the sly by a friend back in the version of Hell’s IT department, he’s able to cover his tracks and stay a step ahead of the exorcists and bounty hunters long enough to whip up a little havoc.

At the center of Roach’s scheme is Larry, a liar and faker and all-around jerk who only cares about himself, as well as Larry’s put-upon wife, their kids, his wife’s sister, and the neighbor who’s been harboring a grudge against the sisters since grade school. A nudge here, a push there, one thing leads to another, and soon events have spiraled wildly into pure hilarity.

-Christine Morgan

REVENGE OF THE VAMPIR KING (THRONES OF BLOOD VOL. 1) by Nancy Kilpatrick (2017 Crossroad Press / 190 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, & eBook)

Remember way back when Anne Rice suddenly went from broody/bloody/moody vampire gothics to those spanky-bondage Sleeping Beauty books and everyone was real shocked, but then the gates opened and we entered a whole new world of paranormal smut?

This book reminded me of that startling turning-point moment in the genre; I went into it thinking it’d be epic dark fantasy combined with bodice-ripper-style paranormal romance … warring kingdoms, vampires vs. humans (called here Sapiens), a captive princess, a cruel king, their turbulent hate-at-first relationship turning into something else, against a backdrop of court intrigue and betrayal, you know how it goes.

Well, I did find all that, yes, to be sure, but with quite a bit of surprisingly graphic, harder-edged sex scenes than anticipated. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Just, y’know, be ready.

Summary-wise, Moarte is the vampir king mentioned in the title, who’s just received the daughter of his hated foe as a prisoner and decides to make her his bride as part of his plan for revenge. This decision doesn’t go over so well with many in his court.

Meanwhile, Valada, the princess, finds herself reevaluating the world as she knows it, and her relationship with her father in particular … but how much is real, and how much the unnatural manipulation of the vampirii?

The biggest problem I had with this book was how much of the plot hinged upon lack of communication, characters who for a slew of sometimes-feeling-really-stretched-and-contrived reasons can’t just talk to each other. Misunderstandings ensue, conclusions are leaped to, feelings are hurt, etc. Fine in a farce or goofy Three’s Company sitcom, tiresome and frustrating otherwise.

As the first in a series, it’s a strong and promising start, and I look forward to reading the others fairly soon.

-Christine Morgan

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Reviews for the Week of December 3, 2018

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're reading this on a cell phone you probably won't be able to see it. Bust out the laptop, baby...

THE BOY WITH THE CHAINSAW HEART by Carlton Mellick III (2018 Eraserhead Press / 182 pp / trade paperback)

Undisputed Bizarro master and unstoppable writing machine Carlton Mellick III is back again, with his own take on a rather different kind of unstoppable machine … it’s time to get mecha!

But these aren’t your ordinary giant-fighting-robot-vehicles. These are diabolical, biological Hell-mech demonesses, waging a perpetual war against the armies of Heaven. Each must be paired with a pilot, a damned soul who will provide fuel and determine the mech’s available weapons by what’s in their hearts.

It certainly isn’t the afterlife Mark anticipated, after blowing his brains out in a moment of grief-stricken despair. Suddenly, he’s in a strange place with other recently-deceased men, about to be chosen and assimilated. Mark is chosen by Lynx, who’s pleased to discover he brings her the ability to manifest a giant chainsaw.

The better, as they say, to kill angels with! As the latest battalion trains and marches off to confront their foes. Lynx gives Mark the real rundown on Heaven and Hell.

He’s shocked, but what horrifies him the most is the idea that his deceased wife – the reason for his grief-stricken despair – might end up a casualty. After all, someone as devout and good as Amy would’ve been bound to go to Heaven, and now here he is about to help attack it. Not to mention that Heaven sure doesn’t sound like such a nice place, either.

He wants to find her. To save her. Even if it means persuading Lynx to go against orders, even if Lynx insists he’s hers now forever … or as long as he lasts. It’s a tricky situation, made trickier by demonic rivalries and personality clashes, loyalty, betrayal, conflict, and questions of faith.

This one didn’t engage me as much as a lot of Mellick’s other works, felt a little rushed and the writing a little bland for what I’ve come to expect. Not that it’s BAD; I doubt he could write a bad book if he smashed his forehead against a keyboard for a couple hundred pages. Just … not so much my thing this time around.

-Christine Morgan

THE TERATOLOGIST by Ward Parker (2018 Pandamoon Publishing / 287 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Here’s another I went into without knowing anything about it beforehand but the title (NOT, by the way, to be confused with the one by Edward Lee and Wrath James White; VERY different stuff, both good, but VERY different!) And here’s another where I found myself utterly swept up and blown away.

It’s historical, for one, set in 1902, with high society spending the ‘season’ in Palm Beach Florida. We’re talking Gilded Age, shades of Wodehouse, the fancies and fashion … add in cameos by Vanderbilts, add in the ever-witty and charming Samuel ‘Mark Twain’ Clemens as a supporting character … yes please!

Even without disappearances and burned/mutilated bodies turning up to make a mystery of things, I’m there. But wait, there’s more! Because the protagonist is a teratologist. Not in the ‘monster hunter’ sense, but in the medical sense of studying birth defects and human oddities.

Doctor Frank Follett has come to Florida partly on vacation and partly because he’s still struggling with his traumas from the war and the loss of his young wife. While there, however, he can’t help but be intrigued by rumors of ‘Angel Worm,’ a little girl born without limbs, who’s also said to have the voices of the dead speak through her. He’s anticipating a new case. He’s not anticipating to hear his beloved Isabel, and find his beliefs in science and the rational world deeply challenged.

Nor is he anticipating being called in on another case, involving the son of a wealthy family … the youth appears to be suffering from hypertrichosis (the thing with the hair, like circus dog-faced boys, etc) as well as other ailments … and other unusual abilities, abilities of the mind.

Or is something else going on? Something with demons and dark forces? Can Dr. Follett and the urbane Twain figure it out before more lives are lost? I read the whole thing in a single night, unable to look away, captivated throughout. This was a welcome discovery of a treasure, and I was delighted to realize it’s the first in a series. Will be eagerly awaiting the next!

-Christine Morgan

THE SIREN AND THE SPECTER by Jonathan Janz (2018 Flame Tree Press / 288 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

In his latest and arguably best work to date, Janz returns to the classic haunted house story, but with a much more modern approach. His prose is super tight and well-crafted, plot is original and unique even amidst such an overwhelming and overdone trope and is all-in-all an absolute pleasure to read. I want to also point out that I read this book in between binge watching episodes of “The Haunting of Hillhouse” and found myself preferring the plot here far more than the limited daytime soap-esque of a storyline in that of the recently and highly trended horror series while embarking on a couple lazy days of “Netflix and Chill.” Tomato/banana, I know, but still… think about it. This is quite a feat in the year 2018, don’t you think? I feel like Brian Keene’s blurb on the cover says a lot about what this book really has to offer. “One of the best writers in modern horror to come along in the last decade.” This book, in my opinion, is no exception to that claim, having watched Janz hone up his skills from release to release before placing this haunted masterpiece of a gem in the palms of our dirty little horror hands.

“When David Caine, a celebrated skeptic of the supernatural, is invited by an old friend to spend a month in “the most haunted house in Virginia,” he believes the case will be like any other. But the Alexander House is different. Built by a 1700s land baron to contain the madness and depravity of his eldest son, the house is plagued by shadows of the past and the lingering taint of bloodshed. David is haunted, as well. For twenty-two years ago, he turned away the woman he loved, and she took her life in sorrow. And David suspects she’s followed him to the Alexander House.”

Check it out!

-Jon R. Meyers

PIZZA MAN by Bryan Higby and Rick Snyder (2014 BH Books / 258 pp / trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)

Subtitled “Or: The Pizza That Crawled Out Of My A-Hole,” this is not exactly a book of class or subtlety. It’s more a book of wacky grossness, crude juvenile humor and action, the kind of thing you might get from a bunch of teenage boys gaming far into the night hopped up on Mountain Dew and other substances.

Now, I don’t mean that in a bad way. Clearly, the authors had themselves a lot of fun writing this; it shines through on every page. What the book is missing, at least the draft I got, and DIRELY needs, is the stern and thorough attention of an editor. The energy’s there, the story, the characters; it’s lively, it’s tacky, it’s entertaining. But it’s pretty well laden with errors, some problematic language, and other issues. Given a good proper whip-into-shapedness and polish, it could be a treat.

Summary-wise, a town is beset by what initially appears to be the undead, then rampaging pizza-monsters, then demons … all on the eve of a comic-con with special guest Nic Cage … plus secret government plots, family conflicts, friend drama, even romance.

I was reminded of certain SyFy Channel and low-budget schlock features, most notably “Scouts Vs. Zombies” (mostly because I’d seen that one fairly recently). Again, not in a bad way. They have their own kind of guilty low-brow appeal, and that’s where this book fits. These authors have spirit and potential, and I’ll be interested to see what they do next.

-Christine Morgan

PREDATORS by Michaelbrent Collings (2018 Amazon Digital / 351 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Every so often, I think how amazing it would be to go on safari, to experience nature and see wildlife in all its untamed splendor. Then I remember I hate heat, bugs, camping, dust, and being outside in general, so the impulse usually passes long before I have to add in worries about being hideously mauled to death and/or eaten alive.

Then along comes a book like this to gleefully reinforce ALL those feelings, while being able to sit safe and comfy at home reading about hapless tourists doing it instead. Not just any hapless tourists, either, but some examples of the most obnoxiously entitled ‘ugly American’ types, spoiled celebrity brats, and all-around jerks getting what they deserve.

Of course, not every character is like that; some of them are nice, good, decent, worthy people you aren’t necessarily eager to see being chomped into bloody pieces while they scream. You root for them, you feel for their suffering. And then, in the case of this book in particular … there’s that one character … that one about whom I wasn’t sure how to relate.

Looking at you, Evie. I know I’m supposed to like you, to cheer you on as you find your strength and face adversity and overcome obstacles … but dang if I didn’t spend most of the book wanting to give you a good shaking and stern talking-to.

No opportunity for that, though. Evie, and her husband, and their fellow safari-goers, are headed out in hopes of seeing some lions to liven up their thus-far disappointing vacation. They’re going to get far more than they bargained for, leading to an epic alpha-female showdown when the queen of a hyena pack sets her hungry sights on dinner.

Red-in-tooth-and-claw survival horror, another winner from Michaelbrent Collings!

-Christine Morgan


Monday, November 19, 2018

Reviews for the Week of November 19, 2018

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. You may not be able to see it if you're reading on a mobile phone. Thank you.

HAUNTED by Jesse Jackson Lowe (2018 JJ Lowe / 234 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Okay, this one blindsided me … I went into it expecting (obviously) a haunting. Troubled family, strange old house, inexplicable events, etc. The popular athletic older brother, the precociously smart younger one, the distracted dad with obsessive interests, the dissatisfied mom who wants more out of life, odd architecture and history, the sounds in the walls, the weirdness in the cellar, is it all in their heads or is there more … you know, haunting stuff.

I did get all that, make no mistake. It was the extra stuff that came as a blindsiding surprise, one that in my case, personally hit close to home. Jacob, the smart younger brother and POV character, is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Talk about ‘is it all in your head’. The tone snaps from eerie horror to mind/body horror, the details taking him through treatment and radiation extremely legit. The procedures, the fatigue, the swept-along sense of powerlessness … yeah. Been through a lot of that myself all too recently and it gave me deeper chills even than the creepy stuff going on in the house.

Which stuff is, may I say, extremely creepy in a keeps-you-guessing kind of way. Masterful imagery, described just enough to let the imagination conjure. Mysteries hinted and tantalized without being conveniently explained or tidily wrapped up. Many of the common haunted-house tropes are simply absent, omitted with such skill you don’t even notice, and don’t miss them.

Best of all, I thought, was the way the story presented the relationships among the various characters, the changes they go through, the effects Jacob’s illness has on those around him, and on Jacob himself. The dynamic between him and his brother Oliver is vividly compelling and complex, sometimes at odds, sometimes supportive, challenging, conflicted, feeling very true to life.

This is not a happy book. This is a painful and difficult book. But a powerful one, and a real departure from run-of-the-mill.

-Christine Morgan

RABID HEART by Jeremy Wagner (2018 Riverdale Avenue Books / 250 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook)

Rhonda Driscoll lives with her Marine Colonel father and a bunch more survivors in a fortified military base. Victims of a Necro Rabies pandemic have taken over North America and most of the world. On a scouting mission, Rhonda sees her zombified fiancé and realizes her feelings for him haven’t changed.

After bringing him back to base wearing a ball gag, she learns her father plans to kill him and decides to make a run for it in a well equipped military Humvee. Her plan is to head south to Florida and try to start life over with her undead lover.

RABID HEART is another in a long line of road trip zombie tales, but this time Wagner relies heavily on a romantic angle which gives much of this a fresh feel.

Rhonda comes across a crazy family and manages to rescue two kids who join her on her journey, a journey that winds up inside a football stadium packed with Cujos (the name given to the zombies by government officials). Descriptions of zombified football fans getting their heads blown off brought a smile to my face, but your mileage may vary.

Rhonda’s undead fiancé, Brad, mumbles her name and provides some unintentional laughs, but this slight issue aside I think zombie fans will have a blast here, as the virus has also spread to rats and a gore-ious “Super Cujo” in one of the novel’s most suspenseful scenes.

Zombies and romance worked well in the 2004 film SHAUN OF THE DEAD, and here Wagner gives this sub-subgenre his own putrid flavor.

A quick read and a pulpy good time.

-Nick Cato

EMBRY: HARD-BOILED by Michael Allen Rose (2017 Eraserhead Press / 178 pp / trade paperback & audiobook)

Egg-noir. No, really. This is a book about anthropomorphic eggs. And chickens. And society. And prejudice. And murrrrr-der. Yes, there will be egg-jokes and egg-puns and eggy wordplay. Yes, there’s wonderfully egg-centric (ouch sorry, that one actually was unintentional, believe it or not) world-building.

It’s a world not that different from ours, with cities and churches, laws and law-enforcement, and law-breakers. It’s a world where there are the haves and the have-nots. Where there are crimes, drugs, corruption. You know, the usual.

It’s a world where a tough-talking wise-cracking detective from the bad part of town can suddenly find himself framed for a messy high-profile murder. Except, well, the detective is a chicken. Or, as they’re more commonly called, an ‘embry,’ a second-class citizen, an unfortunate accident as far as the elitist eggs are concerned.

Our detective doesn’t even have a name of his own, is just known as “Embry,” and he’s got to hustle if he’s going to solve this case and clear his … well, name … before the cops catch up with him, or the real culprits eliminate him as well as everyone else he cares about (does this list include a dame? you better believe it does; or a hen, as the case may be).

This story has all the noir trappings you might expect, as well as some deviously clever twists and takes you might not. Humpty Dumpty as a religious icon works way better than it should, there’s darkly ominous stuff with all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, the engineering of tofu “chick’n” monstrosities is creepy as could be.

Witty, gritty, delightfully well-written, cuttingly astute, and a lot of fun … this would make an amazing animated feature or series. Brilliant stuff!

-Christine Morgan

ELEVATION by Stephen King (2018 Scribner / 145 pp / hardcover, eBook, audiobook)

Scott Carey has noticed he's been losing weight, yet he continues to look the same size. Not wanting to go to a hospital, he trusts his old friend (and doctor) Bob Ellis with his story. Things quickly get strange, as Scott tries to understand what's happening to him as he attempts to befriend a new couple in town who run a health food restaurant.

Set in Castle Rock, King delivers one of his quieter, and dare I say it, sweeter stories of acceptance, prejudice, and ultimately, sacrifice. This quick read reminded me of a cross between the author's novel THINNER and his son Joe Hill's great short story POP ART. An enjoyable small town drama featuring just enough of a fantasy element to please King's legion of fans. Loved the ending.

-Nick Cato

TWISTED TALES OF DECEIT: THE FIRST BOOK IN THE BEYOND THE CHAMBER DOOR SERIES by P.D. Alleva (2018 Quill and Birch / 189 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

The first in an upcoming series, this collection of three novellas gets things off to a more than promising start.

First up is “The Calculated Desolation of Hope,” which conveys a total and deliberate ‘Hotel California’ vibe … a dark desert highway, a glimmer of light, a weary traveler stopping at a mysterious establishment … many quite familiar themes and snippets of phrasing occur throughout … on one level, it does detract a little from the storytelling since you soon find yourself playing spot-the-reference … on the other, it adds layers of depth and texture that work very well. And then it goes darker, weirder, more damning, and much more dangerous.

The second piece, “Somnium,” follows a daydreaming college student on a labyrinthine journey of psyche and personality as he pursues his ambitions to become a playwright. He’s soon lost in arguments with himself, at risk of losing far more than his opportunities and his mind.

“Knickerbocker” is the main course of this book-meal, and it is my personal favorite of the three. It’s a modern-day, self-aware revisiting of the legend of Sleepy Hollow with overtones of addiction and obsession. Complete with gangly schoolteacher Isaac Crane, no relation but strong resemblance, newly arrived in the quaint community to discover an interest in a lovely lady, a bitter clash with a bullying rival, the upcoming local Halloween festivities… and, looming like a shadow over all, the legacy of the infamous Horseman. Little does Isaac suspect what’s really going on in Sleepy Hollow, and what’s in store for him.

-Christine Morgan

A PLAGUE OF SHADOWS edited by JM Reinbold and Weldon Burge (2018 Smart Rhino Publications / 358 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This nifty anthology comes to you courtesy of Smart Rhino Press by way of the Written Remains Writers’ Guild, and opens with a poem that sure won’t make you yearn for the quaint good old days … “Starving Time, Jamestown 1609” by Jane Miller is a grim and bleak shiver to start things off.

My personal top picks of the book are:

“Bottom of the Hour,” by Phil Giunta, in which a guy with an unusual gift/curse to detect impending death acquires a car with its own deadly connections;

The slow-building chill and nasty shocking conclusion of Graham Masterson’s “Neighbors From Hell;”

Ever-clever Jeff Strand maintaining his place as the genre’s wicked jester with “The Fierce Stabbing and Subsequent Post-Death Vengeance of Scooter Brown;”

Maria Masington’s uncomfortably accurate depiction of those mean inner voices in “Bark of the Dog-Faced Girl;”

The hauntingly lonely and somehow beautiful hopeless horror of acceptance in “Finding Resolution” by Patrick Derrickson;

“The Angel’s Grave” by Chantal Noordeloos, when desperation leads a man to a grisly new career choice (that casual offhandedness of the phrase ‘coffin birth’!);

and Jennifer Loring’s “Dollhouse,” because come on, who can resist a good creepy-doll tale?

Those, though, aren’t even half of the table of contents. You’ll find a range of eras and settings, evils both human and inhuman, the gamut of the whole candybox sampler where some are sweet, some are dark, some are gooey, and some have crunch.

-Christine Morgan

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Reviews for the Week of November 5, 2018

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

WE SOLD OUR SOULS by Grady Hendrix (2018 Quirk Books / 336 pp / hardcover, eBook & audiobook)

In the 90s, heavy metal band Dürt Würk was on the brink of stardom. But after creative differences, their singer Terry Hunt embarked on a solo career that eventually saw him rise to the top of the music world.

Today, Würk’s former ace guitarist Kris works the night shift at a Best Western hotel, and she discovers Terry’s stardom may have come at a price she and her former band mates were never aware of.

What follows is a wild road trip tale full of conspiracies, endless heavy metal references, a dash of occultism, and one satisfying finale centered around an unreleased metal album.

Music fans and musicians will love some of the band situations here, and any horror fan will be happy with Hendrix’s addictive prose. I loved the sections with conspiracy nut JD, who steals every scene.

A fun ride worthy of two devil horns up!

-Nick Cato

OVERLORD by David Wood and Alan Baxter (2018 Adrenaline Press / 222 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

First, there was PRIMORDIAL (and have I forgiven them for the sheep? no, no I have not), which knocked it out of the park for toothy chompy monster goodness. Now, the team who took aquatic terror to new depths are turning their talented attentions to caves deep below the Antarctic ice, where ancient carvings and strange symbols have been found, as well as a potentially invaluable crystalline energy source.

If that sounds vaguely Lovecraftian to you, rest assured, you are in for a treat! Even one of the scientists on the expedition team is a devotee of HPL, referencing his works, bringing a refreshing level of self-awareness and cultural awareness to the book without any fourth-wall breaking; I always find that much preferable to the stories in which nobody’s ever heard of (whatever).

Documentarian Jo Slater and marine biologist Sam Ashton, survivors from the previous book, join forces again, though their reunion is anything but smooth sailing. She’s believed him dead, leaving her to bear the brunt of accusations and ridicule alone. He’s let her believe he was dead, let everyone believe he was dead. But, grudges will have to wait, because they have caves to explore.

For me, this whole book was pure win from the get-go. If there’s anything I like better than toothy aquatic monsters, it’s deep mysterious caving stories. If there are also monsters, even if not necessarily aquatic or toothy, it’s a definite plus. Then throw in deception and greed and a high body count and a surprising pang of pathos for the unspeakable ...

So, yeah, it’s part AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, part THE THING, part ALIENS … it’s another summer blockbuster waiting to happen, full speed ahead and damn the special effects budget. Also, no sheep were harmed in the making of this book (that I know of).

-Christine Morgan

THE WINDOW by Glenn Rolfe (2018 Amazon Digital Services LLC / 339 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

You ever stop dead in your tracks after catching a glimpse of a shadow in the dark? Or thought you saw something looking back at you in a mirror? Or, perhaps you thought you saw something standing outside, looking back at you through your window at home? Well, proceed with caution. This book takes that feeling and times it by a screaming hot one-hundred and eighty-seven and then picks you up by the collar of your shirt and shakes you on the corner as you spill out all your spare change while you’re standing outside the liquor store, leaving you questioning whether what you just saw was real or not. The author manages to knock this horror gem right outside the horror park, leaving you wanting to look behind you at all times. Whether it’s a trip down the hallway to the bathroom, past a mirror, or that godforsaken window after hearing a strange noise on the other side of the house, we as the reader embark on a flawlessly executed character driven modern day horror tale centered around demonic seduction and possession unlike any other out there, whilst creatively joined by many of those classic horror tropes we all know and grew to love so goddamn much. I’m talking about all the alcoholic beverages, sloppy kinky sex and perversion, demonic possession, bikini babes, and those timeless teenage summer getaways, making this an epitome of the horror genre within itself.

When James comes to stay with his father, Richie, for the summer after moving to a new town, it’s not all teenage love and puppy dog kisses as both he and his father are embarking on new found love and relationships. There’s something darker in the window. Things start to take a turn for the worse when he starts to notice his dad’s peculiar behavior. It’s not just the drinking after all ... he sees them too. The dark fiery eyes in the window. His dad being seduced by the evil within. How much longer until his father is entirely consumed by the darkness within the glass? Can he and his friends put an end to the madness? Can they stop the powers that be before they take another living soul victim to their seductive madness and perversion? 

I guess you’ll have to check it out for yourself and find out.

Highly recommended.

-Jon R. Meyers

TEETH by Kelli Owen (2018 Gypsy Press / 248 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

If you’re at all familiar with Kelli Owen, if you’ve read her work or listened to her podcast, you know she pulls no punches and takes no prisoners, and if you can’t handle it, too dang bad. These traits are very evident in her latest novel, TEETH.

It’s not your normal vampire book. For one thing, they’re called ‘lamians.’ For another, they’re not so different from the rest of humanity. Some dietary and health issues, that’s all. The rest is centuries of fear and lies and propaganda. This is our world, our modern society, with just one slight change. And this book holds a mirror up to it … which casts a stark, relentless, unflattering reflection.

Imagine it was a simple matter of genetics, of being born that way. Imagine struggling with or coming out, not as gay or lesbian or transgender as a teenager, but as a lamian … the dread and apprehension, the confusion, the denial … the possible reactions of your friends, your parents, your neighbors … negative depictions in the movies and media … the jokes and discrimination … the hate-speech, the hate-crimes.

Every bit of aghast horror, disbelief, anger at ignorance and bigotry, shame-by-proxy, frustration, sorrow, and pity that I’ve experienced when learning about such behavior from the news came so strongly into play that I was about ready to start smacking people. Well, characters. But also people who act like these characters. Particularly THAT one, most hateful awful, close-minded bigoted … grrrrr … okay, I’m getting mad all over again.

And we SHOULD be mad. We SHOULD be able to see how cruel and absurd it is. Other fictional universes have addressed it – the treatment of Professor Lupin in the Harry Potter books springs to mind, and of course the X-Men – but Teeth really makes the point.

-Christine Morgan

SKULLFACE BOY by Chad Lutzke (2018 Static Age Books / 204 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

16 year old Levi has spent all of his 16 years living at the Gramm Jones Foster Care Facility in Colorado. He’s just like the other residents with one major difference: his face happens to be a skull. And when he hears there is a man living in Hermosa Beach, California who looks just like him, Levi throws his few belongings in a back pack and takes off to find him.

Hitchhiking his way across four states, Levi encounters all kinds of weirdos and freaks, some friendly and some hiding dark secrets. In one hilarious episode, Levi unknowingly helps a crippled man rob a house, and in another is befriended by a used bookstore owner. There isn’t a dull character here, and Levi comes across many.

Set in the 1980s, SKULLFACE BOY is more an emotional tale of self discovery than it is a horror story, but I think genre fans will enjoy this slick coming of age meditation on loneliness, trust, and destiny that’s told in an almost surreal manner.

This is the second book I’ve read by Lutzke this year, and it’s definitely something special.

-Nick Cato

A WORLD OF HORROR edited by Eric J. Guignard (2018 Dark Moon Books / 344 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook)

Different perspectives, different experiences, different viewpoints. Sometimes, that’s what it’s all about, but it’s often easy to forget. It’s easy to fall into comfort zones and complacency, to stick with what we know, with what’s predictable and familiar … when, what we really need is to shake things up. To step outside the boxes, see through other eyes, walk in someone else’s shoes. It’s a bigger world than we realize, a wider one, full of more weirdness and variety than most of us will ever know.

Now, they say travel broadens the mind, and I believe it, but maybe that isn’t as true today as it used to be. A lot of vacations these days seem orchestrated to provide that safe familiarity, with carefully chosen hints of the exotic to add a dash of spice. Real travel, immersion in other countries and cultures, really opening the eyes and broadening the mind? Doesn’t get done as much as it should. Which makes its own sort of sense; there are risks and expenses, you need special documentation, maybe shots, who knows.

But, wait, here’s a handy shortcut! One of the best ways to get a feel for those other perspectives is through art, and art includes stories, and this book presents – for your entertainment and pleasure, with some education sneaking in on the sly – twenty-two tales by authors from all around the world. Authors of many nationalities, heritages, faiths, you name it.

Editors may be just as prone to liking those comfort zones as anyone, so, attempting an ambitious invite-and-recruit undertaking like this must’ve been a lot of extra work. Eric J. Guignard proves more than up to the task, though, assembling a roster of talent well worth your time and attention.

The table of contents lists each author’s country of origin, spanning a respectable chunk of the globe. The stories themselves (each also with bonus cool illustration) draw upon the world’s wealth of history, mythology, tradition, and folklore. There are fairy tales, living nightmares, alternate realities, body horror, spirits and monsters, human wickedness.

I approached the book as I might’ve approached a buffet table laden with appetizers from international cuisines (only, unlike in real life where I’m a food wimp and coward, here I actually DID sample everything), savoring and enjoying the differences as well as the similarities. As a result, I wasn’t looking to find a ‘favorite,’ I was looking to try new things … and found it enjoyable, exciting, and fascinating.

-Christine Morgan

A SHARP STICK IN THE EYE (AND OTHER FUNNY STORIES) edied by Rob Smales (2018 Books and Boos Press / 229 pp / traee paperback & eBook)

My grandmother, when faced with bad news or disappointments, always used to say, “well, it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.” Even as a very young child, this phrase haunted me, and probably contributed a lot to my eyeball-squickiness; I couldn’t think of much that’d be WORSE than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, thank you very much.

So, of course, a book with this title had my immediate interest and attention. The introduction, with the editor’s explanation of how said title was chosen, more than sealed the deal. It’s an anthology of horror/humor stories, with works by some of the most wackily demented minds in the genre, including the clown prince of dark comedy, Jeff Strand himself.

There are updated urban legends and twistedly re-told pieces from fairy tales and folklore, a weirdly plausible take on the zombie apocalypse, the fully understandable experience of wanting to murder the jerk roommate who ate your last yogurt (come on, we’ve all been there!), college hijinks at Miskatonic University, adventures in excessive partying and indulgence, corporate nightmares of difficult co-workers and tricky employment contracts, crazed senior citizens, a beard with a mind of its own, kids dealing with the perils of nocturnal monsters and adults confronting all-too-real childhood fancies, and the socially awkward ramifications of necrophilia.

Reading this book is kind of like playing Cards Against Humanity. You’ll gasp in shock, groan in revulsion, laugh out loud and then feel really guilty for laughing, hope no one heard, wonder what kind of sicko would find this funny, cringe in shame at the knowledge YOU are that kind of sicko, and be eager to share it with your similarly-inclined friends.

So, go on, you know you want to! And have fun … sicko. It’s way better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick!

-Christine Morgan