Sunday, March 11, 2018

Reviews for the Week of March 12, 2018

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


WALKING ALONE by Bentley Little (to be released April, 2018 by Cemetery Dance Publications / 304 pp / hardcover)

Little’s second full-sized short story collection (after 2002’s THE COLLECTION) features a career-spanning lot of 27 tales, several appearing here for the first time.

The stories are presented chronologically in the years they were released or written, starting back in 1984 with ‘Milk Ranch Point,’ a creepy Western that’s like a cross between THE GUNS OF WILL SONNETT and IT’S ALIVE, then 1985’s ‘Snow’ pits a married couple against living snowmen on an isolated stretch of road. The occult-ish finale may feel a bit dated but it works. Then again the story is 33 years old, so...

The next three entries are also from ‘85, starting with ‘Children’s Hospital,’ where a young man with leukemia befriends a new kid in the ward. They’re picked on by a bully who is convinced they both have AIDS. But the new kid has an unusual way of bringing the bully to an understanding in this powerful social commentary. ‘Palm Reader’ displays the macabre, creative, and darkly humorous side of Little we fans have come to love. A great reveal gives this one a solid chill with the chuckles. Then in ‘Slam Dance’ we meet Anna, a straight-A student at a Catholic school who gets her hands on a “slam book” and learns what her fellow students really think of her. But when she starts writing her own insults in the book, her classmates begin to get in trouble and even...change.

‘Last Rodeo on the Circuit’ (1986): Rob and Teena wind up at a huge (though isolated) rodeo and discover much more than abused animals are part of the show. Classic Little craziness abounds.

In 1987’s ‘The Car Wash,’ young Timmy’s grandfather believes an abandoned car wash is haunted. After a young girl is found there dead, Timmy’s life quickly descends into sheer terror as only Little can deliver.

‘The Feeb’ (1988) is a weird kid who lives alone and, as the local teens discover, is responsible for the town’s sudden crop and livestock decline. A weird EC comics-type monster tale with even weirder sex!

Shooting into 1991 we have ‘The Mall,’ which is an abandoned structure standing in the center of a gang/gun infested city. A young boy thinks he sees his dead father lurking inside the place in this heartbreaking ghost tale. 1994’s ‘Hunting’ finds a father and son bonding over a camping trip, but their relationship changes when they return home and the son learns of his mother’s infidelity.

‘The Piano Player Has No Fingers’ (1996): Ed is double crossed out of a major development deal and now sits in jail. His old friend goes to bat for him and discovers a demon and magic working behind the scenes in this modern occult-noir tale. Good stuff and a bit different from what we expect of Little.

In ‘The Man Who Watched Cartoons’ (1999), Marilyn is concerned her young daughter Jenny has been corrupted by their senior, wheelchair bound neighbor Mr. Gault. But after going through her daughter’s belongings, Marilyn makes a shocking discovery in what (I believe) is one of Little’s most disturbing stories.

Jumping to 2016, we get the flash piece ‘Apt Punishment,’ a two-sentence tale that will make you squirm and doubt the author’s sanity (that’s a compliment, BTW). The next 12 stories are also from 2016, beginning with ‘Black Friday,’ which is a real treat if you’re a fan of Little’s 1997 novel THE STORE. This one takes place in that world on the worst/busiest shopping day of the year! Excellent. ‘Mona Retrospective, Los Angeles’ features several controversial artists of the past returning to prove they still have what it takes to shock a crowd, and man, do they ever. In ‘Jorgensen’s Fence,’ Rich begins to admire his neighbor’s beautiful new fence, but when he learns how it was made his life goes in a dark, downward spiral. One of my favorites here and a fine example of Little’s ability to combine macabre horror with absurd humor and deliver a truly terrifying tale.

‘The Silence of the Trees’ is another treat for Little fans as one of his old characters returns to solve a supernatural murder mystery...and perhaps this is a prelude to a future novel? ‘Sticky Note’ is a yellow Post It spotted in the gutter by a man who thinks the message written on it (“Kill her”) is directed at him in this paranoid thriller. In ‘The Smell of Overripe Loquats,’ young Johnny is supposed to be at Sunday mass but the neighborhood kids introduce him to a god of their own making in an abandoned house. A great coming of age/religious horror tale and a highlight of the collection.

‘The Maid’ is a sexy Hispanic worker named Rosa at a posh hotel who gives vacationing couple Chapman and Shauna a difficult time. But when Chapman tries to get her fired it turns out no Rosa works there in this slab of freaky horror. ‘Schoolgirls’ is perhaps what the film CLUELESS would be had it been shot in hell. We’re thrown into a savage world that while extreme, seems all too real.

In ‘Under Midwest Skies’ we meet Louis, a New Yorker stuck on a business trip to an isolated section of the country. He hears a tornado warning on the radio and takes refuge in a small town. But what he encounters is pure insanity Little fans will love.

‘Pictures of Huxley’ examines Jillian’s life in the wake of her young son’s death. Pictures of him around her home are starting to change, and some are even starting to ... an emotional, haunting, heartbreaking story and one of the best here. ‘My College Admission Essay’ is written by an applicant who was asked what obstacles he had to overcome in his life. Short and incredibly disturbing (be warned if you’re among the growing legion of those who fear clowns).

In ‘Pool, Air Conditioning, Free HBO,’ Todd and Heather have decided to combine their honeymoon with a cross country trip. They check in to a run down motel in New Mexico and become the target of a sinister dwarf manager and strange neighbors. Little combines horror and dark humor so well here you’ll be spooked as laughs sneak out the side of your mouth. I re-read this after finishing the collection as it’s the epitome of what I love about the author’s style.

The last two tales are from 2017: ‘The Train’ finds a school picnic in full swing, but at the end of the day two dads decided to stay with their young sons to take a train ride around the park. Leave it to Bentley Little to turn a children’s ride into a seriously frightening experience.

The closer is a flash piece titled ‘A Random Thought From God’s Day.’ Like most of what proceeds it, this is darkly funny, terrifying, and what people not into sports (like myself) often think. I couldn’t be more into the author after this one if I tried.

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.

-Nick Cato

HIDDEN CITY by Alan Baxter (2018 Gryphonwood Press / 266 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I’ve encountered my share of urban fantasy over the years, both as a reader and a gamer … but in all that time, I’ve never seen it done like this! Urban fantasy without elves and orcs, without werewolves and vampires, without wizarding schools or secretive mystic cabals … but modern magic wielded by ordinary people.

It’s a different kind of magic, too. Actually, it’s several different kinds of magic. This isn’t your bell-book-candle formulaic kind of deal with wands or rituals. It’s handled almost more like psychic abilities, or superpowers, where each individual is going to have his or her own particular type of gift. I love that approach, and here it works extremely well here.

So, you’ll have your talents who can heal, or make illusions, or enhance technology, most of them fairly minor. Some work together, some mostly operate solo but maintain their connections among the weird community. For the most part, they keep things fairly low-key. This isn’t big epic Dr. Strange-scale cosmic arcana … at least, usually it isn’t.

Steven Hines, our main character, self-describes as a ‘citymage.’ He is linked, on an intense and intimate level, to the city of Cleveport, attuned to its activities and moods as if the city itself is a living being with which he shares a telepathic/empathic bond. They can communicate, help each other. But it comes at a cost. His travel options are severely limited, for one. For another, Cleveport is very much the jealous type when it comes to his other relationships.

He is allowed to have friends, though, including his childhood BFF Abby Jones, now a police detective. Although she doesn’t understand (or much want to) the whole magic thing, she recognizes it can be useful in solving certain cases. Like the one she’s got now, with several inexplicable deaths with connections to the talented community.

You might think this was gearing up to your classic buddy movie, Alien Nation with a magic twist, that new Will Smith one, whatever. And you wouldn’t be far wrong, but you also wouldn’t be fully right. As our main two undertake their investigation, events across the city are already building toward a crisis, and other characters are being pulled in.

A beat cop finds himself dealing with spates of seemingly random violent attacks and bizarre transformations … a young mage is scared and on the run after her boyfriend’s overdose … a mob boss is unhappy with gone-awry shipments of a magic-specific drug … pretty soon all of Cleveport is basically going nuts, and it’s up to a small group of mismatched heroes to try and save the day.

Action-packed from start to finish, layered with levels of subtle but deep backstory, lively, fast-paced, gripping, and fun, Hidden City is a definite winner. I’m thinking Netflix series. Somebody should get on that.

-Christine Morgan

BROTHEL by Stephanie M. Wytovich (2016 Raw Dog Screaming Press / 172 pp / trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)

I always begin my poetry reviews by stating, "I'm not a big poetry reader, but..." and this time is no exception. But it seems there has been plenty of poetry in the horror world lately, much from some of my favorite writers. This is also my first review of an audiobook, a copy of which I won on a raffle through the author's Twitter page. So over the course of a few weeks, I listened to this collection of dark poetry during my drive to-and-from work. Let me begin by pointing out the voice of reader Veronica Giguere made me feel as if I was in a coffee houses' open mic night circa 1967, with fingers snapping and the smell of espresso surrounding me. And while at first I was overtaken by the sensation her voice creates, by the end it was the witty, wise, and at times just plain wonderful words of Wytovich that won me over.

There are many pieces here (156 to be exact) told from the point of view of a Madame that blend together into what is pretty much a novella written in verse. With titles such as 'Dirty Sheets,' 'Clitorial,' 'Gasp for Air,' 'White Dahlia Abortion,' and 'Violent Fantasies,' Wytovich delivers an engrossing study of sex and death within the Working Girls profession and the Brothel of the title. In poems such as 'Ripped Stockings,' the author's ability to bring life to her characters is on full display: "Holes make a star appearance on vulgarized flesh, as my attempt to be lady-like fails. There's a rip near my crotch and it does nothing ... but make me laugh." Pure gold, folks. GOLD. This goes into a piece titled 'Rough Play,' which further lets us into the narrator's psyche, as do all that proceed and follow. Best of all, the women in Wytovich's world may be prostitutes but they're no one's permanent slaves, and at times, we fear and respect them.

I would've liked BROTHEL had I read it in printed form, but as an audio experience I loved it. I've been to many open mic poetry nights at local coffee houses in my hometown of NYC, and the work on display here would not only fit in perfectly but earn standing ovations. Highly recommended in any format, but I believe the audio will blow you away.

-Nick Cato

CLOVENHOOF by Heide Goode and Iain Grant (2012 Pigeon Park Press / 397 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Huh, well, what do you know … feeling sympathy for the devil IS possible! I’ve been a big fan of Edward Lee’s Mephistopolis for years, but even his take on the big bad guy is kind of lackluster. Here, though, as much of a jerk as he is, there’s just something goofily likable about Jeremy Clovenhoof.

Imagine the afterlife being run like a mega-corporation, with business meetings and mission statements, obsessed with productivity, processing souls, managing resources, all that fussy bureaucratic stuff. Imagine saints and archangels in a celestial boardroom, arguing about sins and entry requirements.

Imagine Satan being told he needs to improve Hell’s performance, and when his efforts don’t meet the board’s standards, him being ousted in a sneaky corporate coup. Worst of all, he’s banished to mortal Earth, where he’s expected to live as an ordinary human. He’s got a flat in the English suburbs, a glamour to disguise the horns and hooves, a new name, and what Heaven considers a generous severance package.

He is, however, not thrilled about any of this. His initial efforts to blend in lead to disaster after disaster. He burns through his money with nary a care as he discovers television and the internet. His neighbors don’t know what to make of him. Nobody greets him with the respect and fear he deserves. His old adversary Michael keeps popping in to check on him at inopportune times.

Various schemes – starting a heavy metal band, getting a job at a funeral home, seeking romance – continue to go diabolically wrong, but Jeremy refuses to give up. When he eventually suspects there’s more to his exile than he first thought, nothing will do but to find a way back to confront the powers on high.

The tone – even when describing various atrocities, mutilation, and cannibalism – is wicked and fun, casual, charming, snarky, reminiscent of The Screwtape Letters. I was delighted to discover it’s the first of a series, if shocked I had only now learned of it. Definitely want to pick up the rest!

-Christine Morgan

SICK HOUSE by Jeff Strand (2018 Amazon Digital Services / 214 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

First off, I’d like to take a moment and shamefully admit that I’m underdressed and somehow showing up very, very late to the Strand dinner party. In fact, I’m so late that when I’m walking in the rest of the crowd is slamming down their silverware on the table linen, choking on their first bite of worm rot sushi, turning their faceless heads, and snarling in my general direction as I hang my head and search for an empty seat amongst the swarm, hoping that nobody will smell the abundance of alcohol still lingering on my breath. I’m not quite sure how or exactly why but other than a coauthored release from years and years ago, I have yet to sit down and dig into the dirt of any of the author’s substantial number of prior works available on the market today. With that being said, this will DEFINITELY not be the last and I have some severe catching up to do.

So, what do we actually have here? A typical haunted house story? Yes and no. This is where things get exciting. We do have the usual tropes found within the typical haunted house all know it, a couple moves into a haunted house and is spooked out by the strange occurrences happening there, somebody eventually gets hurt, etc. But, what makes Strand’s work unique is that while sticking to the structure of the usual haunted house plot he takes it so much further. The book is often comical at times, which is a pleasant change of pace that adds to the value of entertainment. The characters are all well thought out and constructed to where you can actually visualize the events taking place. Also, we are introduced to a recurring sub-plot with a big back story, sometimes alternating chapters back and forth between the main plot, telling multiple stories at the same time in an almost before and after type of setting of the same location.

Long story, short: The main character takes a new job in a new town and he and his family move there, rent a haunted house where they soon discover terrible murders have taken place (we learn about the gruesome past first hand as the book progresses). Soon the family is faced with fruit that rots in a day, self-mutilation, torture, gore, gore, and more gore. The spirits are ruthless, violent and seek the utmost revenge to the house’s new inhabitants. How do you kill something that is already dead? Well, I guess you’ll have to read it and check it out for yourself.

Highly recommended.

-Jon R. Meyers

SHE SAID DESTROY by Nadia Bulkin (2017 Word Horde / 198 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This collection has been getting a lot of attention in terms of reviews, award noms, and the like. It’s also got an intro by Paul Tremblay, no small potatoes of an accomplishment either. And it is easy to see why; these are all masterful stories.

They are not light, quick, casual reads, either. These are the kind that demand your entire concentration. Or, rather, that grab your entire concentration and hold it Stockholm-hostage, a willing partner in your own abduction.

Have your mental passport ready, too … many of these are set in far more exotic locales than typical. The opening tale, “Intertropical Convergence Zone,” is one such, and one that gave me chills down to the marrow. Whether interpreted literally or metaphorically, it’s eerie and powerful.

“Truth is Order and Order is Truth” blew me away with its unexpected beauty, while “No Gods, No Masters” delivers with demonic bloodlines. “Red Goat, Black Goat” presents one of the most unusual and scary gothics I’ve seen in a while.

Another particular standout is the amazingly imagined “Pugelbone.” I love this kind of extrapolory world-building to begin with, and the addition of the title critters themselves takes it to whole new levels of WTF.

Within these pages, you’ll find cold hard death, wry dark humor, pain and suffering, hauntings, strange religions, twists on cosmic horrors, familial legacies, and much more. Do yourself a treat, get this book, mark out a nice block of uninterrupted time, and sink on in.

Just remember, this is the heavy stuff, the dark stuff; this is not gonzo splatter or quiet literary but its own deep brand of dread-at-the-core.

-Christine Morgan

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