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THE HORROR FICTION REVIEW
NOW IN OUR 15th YEAR!
This pre-apocalyptic blood bath poses the question: If the earth had less than a day before a massive asteroid strike promised extinction, what would the lunatics be doing in their final hours? Hint: in Smith’s world, repenting at a church rally isn’t it. Quite the opposite, actually.
LAST DAY follows three sets of people whose lives (and fates) meet during a gut-wrenching finale right before earth is struck. And the ride there is as brutal as anything Richard Laymon or Ed Lee ever dreamed of (hence, if you’re squeamish, beware).
Uptight office worker Reece, caught in an eternal traffic jam en route to work after the news breaks, is rescued by bad girl/stunt woman Daisy on her motorcycle. She tells him they’re now in this together wether he likes it or not, and while weary he figures what does he have to lose?
Caleb and his sister Ella discover their successful, clean cut parents are much different than their outer selves appear to be: their dad turns out to be a ruthless serial killer, and their mom, his helper. Smith takes this part of the novel to places that will surely bring nightmares to some.
And finally Shawna, tired of her stale relationship with boyfriend Adam, decides to spend her final hours torturing him and murdering her neighbors. She’s an off balanced girl who sees the end as an excuse to let her darkest desires run wild.
While the world erupts into chaos (we’re given glimpses via news reports), Smith dedicates each chapter to these three scenarios until fate brings them all together in the final moments. Somehow, among the endless carnage, Smith employs some dark humor, especially in Chapter 23, but any laughs to be had are quickly quieted by the ever-grueling story.
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 relatible (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.
Picking up a few months after the first book left off, we join Jack Harlow struggling to deal with the tragic loss of his lover as well as coming to terms with his new not-just-a-watcher role in the world of the supernatural.
His main goal is to find Lisa and bring her back from whichever afterlife may have claimed her, so he’s taken up questioning the various ghosts he meets. But their answers aren’t very helpful, and when he’s contacted by a former acquaintance with an offer, Jack can’t help but agree.
Accompanied by an acolyte of magical arts, he sets off on a strange journey, with no idea just how strange it’s going to get. We’re talking Dante-level strange, niftily paralleling that Inferno as Jack – without a Virgil to play tour guide – fights his way through various realms of actual Hell in hopes of finding his Beatrice.
The depictions of eternal torment are harrowing and effective, with suffering damned souls, fallen angels, cruel demons, and entities darker than anything Jack’s run into before. His efforts just to get back to the mortal plane again will shake the underworld to its very foundations, not to mention letting some real nasties slip through.
And, as if that’s not enough, powerful adversaries are closing in, some with connections to Jack’s past, forcing him to deal with multiple problems at once. Or, to put it in a zingier way, EPIC DEMON GHOST NINJA BATTLES!!! Which, if that’s not enough for you, I don’t know what more I can say.
The Time Ball Tower is located on a small island off the coast of Australia. It's a prison where criminals are sent who have made the choice to live within it's walls eternally rather than suffer the death penalty. Of course the majority of these prisoners quickly regret not taking the other option, and although we only get quick glimpses of these criminal's lives, Warren gives us just enough that we feel little (if any) pity for them.
TIDE OF STONE centers around Phillipa Muskett, who is about to become the latest "Keeper" to work at the Time Ball Tower. Keepers pledge to work for one year, alone, among the prisoners, and in turn they'll be set for life when they get out ... if they survive the year of loneliness and taunting from the desperate inmates. The prisoners are so weak and brittle (some hundreds of years old) that even a young woman like Phillipa can handle the physical tasks of the job, but we're never quite sure how she's faring on the mental end until the final pages.
A big section of the book is made up of brief annual reports from other keepers, as far back as 1868, that Phillipa reads to prepare herself for the job. She gains insights into some of the prisoner's minds as well as what her fellow Keepers had to go through, yet even all this doesn't fully prepare her for the task ahead.
Philippa's own journal takes place in 2014, and if you've never read Warren before you're in for a treat of deep psychological head games, supernatural spookiness, and some of the finest prose the genre has to offer. It was interesting seeing these criminals attempt to bribe and mess with Phillipa, who turns out to be a lot stronger than anyone would've imagined. I'd love to see a story about her life post-Time Ball Tower.
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.
I've been a fan of Warren since her 2009 debut SLIGHTS, and can say this is her finest novel yet. Don't miss it.
The Ball dropped.*
SPLINTERED ICE by Stuart G. Yates (2016 Creativia / 279 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
Jed Meres is just having one of those lives … bullies at school, exams coming up, a grouchy headmaster … oh, and his mother just up and left, presumably with a lover, which neither Jed nor his dad are dealing with very well.
It’s a lot to deal with all at once, but for Jed, this is just the start. His good deed of rescuing a fisherman fallen through the ice makes him a local celebrity, except there’s something odd about the man he saved. Something ultra-charismatic, almost hypnotic, almost controlling. Meeting him makes Jed fall under his sway, doing things he can barely remember.
It leads to trouble, of course. Trouble at home, trouble with the law, trouble at school, trouble with a girl. It leads to trouble for his dad with a neighborhood widow. There are mysteries and questions – why is the man Jed rescued believed to be dead? How does the violent murder of Jed’s only friend fit into things? What about Jed’s estranged half-brother, who says this isn’t the first time their mother’s abandoned her family?
Poor Jed is one of those characters in over his head, used and misused, played with and strung along. Those who seem to know what’s going on won’t give him straight answers. Frustration abounds, not just for him but a bit for the reader (at least for this reader; the urge to grab characters and shake them until they quit the smug teasy games is a strong one).
With whispers and chills and hints of the paranormal, I found SPLINTERED ICE an occasionally muddled but overall engaging read that held my interest until the end.
FEAR OF FREE STANDING OBJECTS by Doug Rinaldi (2018 Mayhem Street Media / 244 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
I’d read a couple of the stories from this collection before, in their original appearances, but it’s always nice to reconnect, as well as being able to enjoy the tales I hadn’t yet seen. They total thirteen, a nice devil’s dozen, spanning a range of horrors from the quietly artful to the whole-hog gory.
First up is “Unfurl,” a brief but haunting piece with some darkly beautiful descriptors and turns of phrase. It’s followed by the part-medical / part-diabolical invasive body horror of “Osteogenesis,” and the fun chaos and destruction of “An Incident in Central Village.”
The protagonist of “Bequeathed,” searching for answers about his deceased mother, finds more than he bargained for. In “Alchemy of Faith,” a priest follows a wounded angel’s last request and creates a new life … to the outrage of his fellow clergymen.
Urban exploration and poking into places best left alone feature in the next two – “The Yattering” has ghost-hunting in a derelict bookstore become all too real, while in “Egregore,” a fraternity initiation turns out to have far more sinister purpose.
“The Sickening” veers off into more historical epic dark fantasy territory as a lone man braves an ancient cavern in hopes of finding the source of a plague. “And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’” serves a professional killer a very unwelcome surprise.
In “Lotus Petals: Liminal Personae,” the quest for physical perfection outweighs all other concerns, even flinchworthy mutilations. And you know it’s a bad day at the office when someone unleashes a deadly curse on a co-worker, as happens in “The Jatinga Effect.”
“Sybarites: Or, The Enmity of Perverse Existence,” follows a desperate father trying to rescue his daughter from a depraved sex-cult. Finishing things off is the longest work, “A Different Kind of Slumber,” pitting cop against no ordinary kind of killer.
HARVEST NIGHT by Darren Madigan (2014 Amazon Digital / 674 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
If an extreme horror short story is a quick, brutal 100-yard dash, then this book is a marathon of steadily-paced ongoing relentless atrocities with no rest and little reprieve along the way. Also like a marathon, others might wonder why you’d subject yourself to such grueling punishment just to end up feeling grimy and exhausted by the finish line; is the endorphin rush and sense of satisfaction worth it?
Well, if you’re a die-hard sicko like me, the answer to that question is a decided YES. As much mental fortitude as it took to keep on reading, to push through the depravity … I can only imagine how much was required to sustain the writing at such an unflinching level.
We’re talking serious nastiness here. Remember the stuff about devil-worshiping child molesters? Welcome to Redhaven, where there isn’t just a small secretive cult lurking behind the scenes while the rest go blissfully unaware. In Redhaven, most of the town IS the secretive cult, and it’s been that way for generations and centuries. Newcomers quickly learn things aren’t right, and often learn just as quickly to simply keep their heads down and look the other way.
Nor is it only Redhaven; the cult is widespread and powerful, a conspiracy reaching to the highest levels. And why not? It’s more than just mindwashing, total control, an endless supply of sex slaves, wealth, and political power. The members of the ‘congregation’ each have patron entities, demons and demigods representing many mythologies, who grant their followers favors of various paranormal kinds.
For much of the year, the denizens of Redhaven try to keep things mostly low-key, but when Harvest Time rolls around, those newcomers and non-congregation types are really in for it. It’s hunting season, killing season. But, any conspiracy so far-ranging is going to have those fighting it, working to bring it down … and this year may be a bloodier Harvest Time than anyone anticipated.
*-private "joke" for readers of TIDE OF STONE.