Sunday, September 30, 2018

Reviews for the Week of October 1, 2018

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

CROSS HER HEART by Sarah Pinborough (2018 Harper Collins / 374 pp / hardcover, eBook, audiobook)

Pinborough, author of 2017’s stellar BEHIND HER EYES, returns with another psychological thriller jam-packed with enough twists and turns for at least three novels.

Lisa is a single mother, doing her best to raise 16 year-old daughter Ava. She tries not to mention Ava’s father and is hiding a dark past as she attempts to get on with her life. But she’s starting to find things that make her believe someone is on to her, and the fear her new life will be unraveled leads to a growing anxiety.

Ava lives for her freedom and her friends, and like a normal teen is waiting for her mother to cut the cord. A star on the swim team, she even has a boyfriend (of sorts) her mom knows nothing about.

When Ava goes missing, Lisa discovers a promise made as a kid had long lasting consequences, and that her only help may be in the hands of her friend and co-worker Marilyn, who is dealing with (among other things) an abusive husband.

With a crime committed at a young age back to haunt her, Lisa faces an issue from her past that may claim not only her life, but her daughter’s as well.

CROSS HER HEART is a look at trust, friendship, and a family damaged by the mind of a dangerous psychotic. Readers may figure out some of the twists early on, but Pinborough employs twists on top of those to keep you guessing into the final pages. The short chapters (and high suspense level during the second half) makes this a compulsive page-turner that should satisfy long time fans and keep Pinborough’s growing legion thrilled.

-Nick Cato

THE SKIN THAT FITS by David Massengill (2018 Montag Press / 215 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Freaky murder cult with rituals steeped in sultry Southern magic? A surprise suicide, a guilt-ridden fiancee, and a last request fraught with family secrets, questions, and emotional baggage? A hot and hunky model who worries his best days might be passing, accepting a movie offer on a whim? Missing persons, paranoia, people with weird alligator tattoos? Steamy, moody, brooding, turbulent?

Yes please! At least, in this case, yes please right up until the ending; there’s all this beautiful buildup, tension, conflicts, you’re there craving the big dramatic final confrontations and resolutions … but then it just ends almost out of nowhere. Abrupt, convenient, and unsatisfying.

Up until then, though, it’s a great read, richly humid with atmosphere, tense, packed with paranoia. The characters are interesting and well-rounded, tackling some difficult social constructs. Subtle but distinct Lovecraftian undertones weave throughout.

Kim is the guilt-ridden fiancee, who’d been about to call things off with Eustace anyway and pursue a relationship with pretty Malia, until Eustace’s sudden death and request for her to take his ashes to divide among his relatives leads her on a troubling journey from Seattle to the South.

Todd, the model, is also taking care of his ailing mother, and when he’s approached about a movie, he accepts even though he’s not an actor. He needs the work. He can’t afford to be reticent or suspicious, even when the apparent movie people sure seem to be going about things a peculiar way.

What Kim and Todd don’t know, but are each about to find out in dangerous ways, is that the cult has plans for both of them. Plans involving old magic, possession, the revered crone called Maman, her predecessor Grandpappy, and her chosen successor.

So, yeah, quality writing, intriguing story … right up until that abrupt ending. I was hoping for a much bigger finish.

-Christine Morgan

OUR POOL PARTY BUS FOREVER DAYS by David James Keaton (to be released 10/24/18 by Comet Press / 300 pp / trade paperback)

The intro alone is worth the price of admission; it’s about car chases, listing and providing mini-essays on many of the best cinematic car chases in history … besides, c’mon, he had me at The Hidden. Anyone who can’t agree that opening chase scene isn’t awesome, I just don’t know what I can say.

Chases, driving, road stories, cars. It all works because those themes wend their way throughout most of the stories. Many are connected and interconnected in sometimes obvious, sometimes surprising ways. Some are direct, some follow a more scenic route, some turn out to be unexpected shortcuts. Or there’ll be that sense like when you wonder if you’ve taken a wrong turn, only to suddenly find yourself back in familiar territory.

Several share recurring characters as well as a strongly (and vaguely unsettling) autobiographical-seeming component. ‘A true story’? ‘Based on’ actual events? Or ‘inspired by’? Yes, no, both, all, neither? Reading it felt a little like having a front-row seat inside the head of coherent madness; you can’t tell what’s real and what isn’t, yet somehow it ties together and makes sense.

The stuff with the ducks, and the fly … Zero the (maybe) cat … the body in the guitar case and the bridges full of locks … a purgatorial party-bus … the perils of picking up hitchhikers … stolen ears and forced perspective … turnpikes and tollbooths, morbid memorial crosses … some dusty-trail type road stories of the wild West … clown cars and carnival rides gone off the rails … the troubles that might ensue if license plates were phone numbers … there’s just so much here, so much, and all of it so weird yet weirdly compelling.

Compelling, not to mention skillfully handled. The second-person stream of consciousness dialogue exchange whatevers in “Bad Reaction Shots” made me have to sit back several times, shake my head, and just do some recovery reaction shots of my own.

I have no idea how much of “A Dull Boy” is factual; it’s about the guy who, as a child actor, played Danny in The Shining and the hassles his association with the movie have caused him throughout his life. It certainly feels like it could be, and even if it’s not, feels like it should be.

-Christine Morgan

WE DON'T TALK ABOUT HER by Andersen Prunty (2018 Amazon Digital / 49 pp / eBook & audiobook) 

Hot off the horror press, here is another weird and horrific gem from an author that continues to shock, torment, humiliate, and entertain us with each and every creatively unique and original release. Yes, that is correct. I am talking about author Andersen Prunty and his new absurdly dark and demented tale WE DON'T TALK ABOUT HER, which is now available as an eBook or Audiobook. Now, don’t let the length of this put you off in any way, shape, or form, because trust me, although short, it packs quite a morbid punch to the ole’ gut and still manages to tell a much larger story within a very modest number of pages. The author continues to use his uncanny ability to unfold a devious plot, and, before it’s too late… BAM! We are doom-sucked right into the main character’s dead mother’s pelvis before we can even count to a rotting wet number ten.

Clint is a sociopathic stalker on the fritz of Venom energy drinks, bad outfits, and PTSD triggered by his dead mother. In fact, his deceased mother is actually still rotting and decaying and lying quite very dead on a bed within the confines of his home. But, Clint doesn’t really notice that she’s dead (she still talks to him and tells him what to do) until one of the females he stalks, flips the cards on him, and begins to stalk him instead. Stella, she’s in to win it, or steal all his government money (it’s kind of her thing after-all). Stella makes herself right at home and makes him get rid of the rotting corpse, gives him a hunny-do list while she’s off at work every day, as she continues to jump from relationship to relationship until her bank account is just as happy as she is. But, has she met her match here in this godforsaken house of putrid stench? What is she going to do? She’s not quite sure how much more she can even handle. Hopefully she can figure it out before it’s too late. Hopefully Clint decides to commit suicide and she doesn’t have to worry about any of it anymore (besides wasn’t he supposed to dispose of ALL the body? He can’t even do that right).

Hopefully she can hang in there a little longer. Maybe. Maybe then everything will be okay. But, maybe it won’t. Either way… WE DON'T TALK ABOUT HER.

Check it out!

-Jon R. Meyers

IN THE LAMPLIGHT by L. Jagi Lamplighter (2016 eSpec Books / 250 pp / trade paperbak & eBook)

I thought at first this collection was going to be fantasy. Then I started reading it, and soon discovered it was that and more … darkly, beautifully more. The fantasy and historical stories are dark, the sci-fi ones are packed with gore and horror, psychological and social fears are deftly played with and preyed upon.

Several of the tales tie into the author’s Prospero’s Children universe, which extrapolates upon Shakespeare’s The Tempest and brings it up to modern day. Imagine Miranda, and her half-brothers and various other servants and associates of the household, putting their magic to good use as paranormal investigators and troubleshooters. A familiarity with her longer works isn’t required to read them, especially if you know your Bard, but may quickly become required after reading them because the characters, their world, and the supernatural menaces they face are well-imagined and very fun.

I particularly liked the way many of the stories speculated on uncanny causes, uncanny effects, and other ties between our common everyday ailments and the otherworldly. Less-obvious health hazards of dating a vampire, for instance, or the disturbing nature of changelings.

I also really liked the powerful maternal and feminine elements woven throughout; a mother’s primal instincts can manifest in many forms. It reminded me strongly of the undertones present in a lot of classic fairy tales.

Tragic ghosts, grim space-faring angels, dimensions inhabited by strange demi-gods, necromancy, designer babies, magic mirrors, a dystopian cyber-future, flying pirates, forbidden books, time paradoxes, dolls once belonging to murdered queens … the stories here span a wide range, but each of them is a fantastic, delicious, unsettling read.

-Christine Morgan

FAT CAMP by James Sabata (2018 / 261 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Cabins, crafts, singalongs. The woods. The lake. Nature walks. Swimming. Making s’mores and telling spooky stories by the fire. All good clean wholesome pastimes, all idyllic fun, right? Summer camp, ah the memories, ah the associations!

Except, does anybody really think that? Or do we, by now, jump straight to rules and regimens, enforced exercise, homesickness, misery, and being stalked by crazed serial killers? To make things worse, how about having it be a weight loss and fitness ‘camp’ with strict diet and exercise, drill sergeant counselors, body shaming and mockery … AND being stalked by crazed serial killers!

That’s how Philip McCracken is unhappily spending his summer. He’s hating it, he’s not good at it, he’s hardly losing any weight. He’s a regular target for bullying. To make things worse, the best friend who accompanied him is doing great, breaking the camp records.

He’s had enough. He knows he’ll never stand a chance with the cheerleader of his dreams. When his sister comes to visit over the weekend, he’s planning to bail and have her take him home. But, poor guy, the universe has other plans. Including his sister bringing a surprise guest: that pretty cheerleader.

Soon, campers and counselors start disappearing or meeting gruesome ends. Can Phil survive? Can he become the camp’s most unlikely hero, save his friends, even get the girl? Or is he just another fat loser about to die?

A painful riot from start to finish, full of humor and hack-slash-blood-guts horror … but also hitting many a sensitive nerve and awkward memory for anyone who’s ever felt like a misfit or an outcast.

-Christine Morgan


Sunday, September 16, 2018

Reviews for the Week of September 17, 2018

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

FROZEN SHADOWS AND OTHER CHILLING STORIES by Gene O'Neill (2018 Crystal Lake Publishing / 412 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

O'Neill's 6th and latest collection features two novellas and eight short stories, covering a few genres but in the end they all safely fall under the umbrella of horror.

FROZEN SHADOWS is a great coming of age novella, dealing with three young people whose lives are affected when a strange man comes to their town. Among his powers is the ability to not cast a shadow, but as our trio learn, that may be the most normal thing about him, and he just might have something to do with a wave of illnesses that have stricken the town’s children. A solid chiller with a surprisingly positive ending.

I read THE ALGERNON EFFECT a few years ago as a limited edition chapbook, and was glad to see it included here. First time novelist Timothy Scully has a runaway best seller that's set to become a motion picture. His agent takes him to see a jazz concert at a secluded home for special needs people in the Napa Valley. Timothy falls for their house guide Ellie, and he eventually moves to 'The Mountain Farm' and becomes romantically involved with her. Timothy's agent learns Ellie is actually a resident and not just a worker there, and when he reads the first 75 pages of Tim's second novel, he is disturbed by how terrible it is. A homage to Daniel Keyes' classic novel FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON, O'Neill delivers a story that brings the weird in a melancholy manner, and the prose sings.

Lucas, a veteran wounded by an IED in Afghanistan, has an odd experience at his new job in a California hotel in TRANSFORMATIONS AT THE INN OF THE GOLDEN PHEASANT. After watching the comings and goings of two prostitutes, he befriends one at a diner and has an unusual time with the other in the same room they turn tricks in, and in the process Lucas finds his physical war scars healed and witnesses a most unusual transformation between the ladies. If they ever made a graphic novel of the old DC comic WEIRD WAR TALES this would surely make a great script for it.

In ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE ROAD, Jamie Connelly starts having wicked headaches that lead to visions. Not able to get the meds prescribed to him, his visions become exceedingly strange as does everything around him. A great bizarre tale with one hell of a finale.

BLACK TAR/RED ALIEN features two junkies who, after scoring a few fixes, break into a warehouse to steal the piping. But they encounter a spider-like alien who follows them home and forever alters their already downward spiraling lives. A dark but fun monster romp that may or may not be a monster romp at all.

The BROKEN LADY is Ellie, a 49 year old singer with a semi famous past who now works in seedy San Francisco bars. Alcohol has led to her current situation, that gets worse when she’s almost raped by a young cowboy. A frank look at addiction and the down side of the music industry, this one’s a memorable, gripping tragedy.

THE SHAKING MAN centers around a black man nick-named “Shake,” who began showing signs of Tourette’s right after an auto accident when he was a child. The crash took the lives of his mother and brother and forced him into the foster care system where he grew up street wise, dropped out of school, and eventually earned money as an enforcer for a loan shark, and then found himself in prison. In a twist of fate, Shake undergoes an experimental treatment to rid his Tourette’s, which leads to another great ending. One of the best tales here.

O’Neill dives into some sci-fi with 3-DOT PEOPLE, another weird one set in the seedy underworld of San Francisco. A man with amnesia experiences the city in a way that'll fry your brain, and most likely chill your spine.

In A FAINT SCENT OF MUSKY LIME (which I had read a couple years ago in DARK DISCOVERIES magazine), after his girl leaves him, a man finds himself living in a story written by one of his favorite authors. A bit familiar, but O'Neill brings his own flavor and as is the case with this collection, a dark and satisfying conclusion.  

The final piece is a novella titled AT THE LAZY K, and it's one of the finest ghost stories I've read in quite some time. A rehabilitation clinic (which was a former brothel located on the grounds of an old ranch), becomes the battle ground between the current owners and ghosts of the past. A curse brought on by the hanging of an innocent man a hundred years ago may bring films like BLACK SUNDAY to mind, but here the author employs a cast of incredibly troubled and deep characters to life and had me hanging on every single sentence. This is superb story telling only a master of the craft could pull off, and is a fine example of a classic horror trope given a fresh feel. Excellent.

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.

-Nick Cato

TIM E. LESS by Lucas Milliron (2018 CreateSpace / 226 pp / trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)

Having worked nearly 30 years now in the field of residential psych, I’m always a little squinty-suspicious about stories set in asylums … the behavior of patients, the way the place is run, the handling of medications, etc. … but in this case, I was able to overlook those aspects, because it quickly becomes apparent this is far from any ordinary asylum.

Title character Tim E. Less (the E. stands for Edwin) gets himself admitted with traumatic amnesia, a condition that keeps reoccurring because they tell him he’s been there a while, and everyone else seems to know more about him and his past than he does himself. All he really remembers is arguing with his wife about drinking and work vs. being around for their son. Now, the police are claiming his wife and son are missing, and Tim arrived at the asylum covered in blood.

He can’t imagine hurting them, but he can’t remember what really did happen. A risky form of therapy might help unlock those buried memories, though the truth might prove to be worse than the not-knowing. Then there’s the weird incidents going on at the asylum: a patient’s inexplicably violent death, a foul smell only certain people can detect, rooms suddenly collapsing in on themselves.

Plus, Tim himself is having unusual encounters, dreaming what might be memories or what might be madness … or what might be something else altogether. Drawn deeper as he tries to figure out what’s going on, he finds himself undertaking a bizarre, deadly quest through a nightmare place of demons and monsters that appears to overlap, or parallel, his real world.

The copy I received did include many sneaky past-the-spellcheck errors that hopefully got chased out before publication. But the vivid imagery and descriptive turns of phrase throughout are rich and fantastic, both horrific and hilarious – I went "eew" and "LOL" in fairly even measure. Even when it’s hard to sympathize with Tim or some of the other characters, they are easy to empathize with and relate to.

-Christine Morgan

ALL HAIL THE HOUSE GODS by Andrew J. Stone (2018 Strangehouse Books / 134 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

In Stone's dystopian novella, humans exist for the soul purpose of providing children to sacrifice to living houses, who we've lost a major world war to. One such couple is Kurt and Katie, who become fed up with only being able to see their children when the powers that be say so. They each come up with a plan to overthrow the House Gods (Katie by starting a radical group, as Kurt attempts to do things rationally by befriending one of the House Gods he believes is not evil). While Katie sticks to her plan and becomes increasingly passionate, it's Kurt whose transformation makes this story shine: eventually at odds with his wife and his own plan, his plight leads him to what is arguably the most terrifying (and satisfying) finale of any book I've read this year.

I've attempted to read epic novels with similar themes only to be bored and let down. In novella form, Stone keeps his prose tight and manages to deliver an exciting socio-political message without bashing you over the head. And best of all, ALL HAIL THE HOUSE GODS forces you to think.

For those who may be tired of the bizarro thing, here's a smart, weird, end-times tale rich with allegory and a believable cast that will stay with you longer than your average genre tale.

-Nick Cato

FULL ECLIPSE (TOOTH & NAIL #1) by K. H. Koehler (2018 KH Koehler Books / 72 pp / eBook)

This one has all the makings of a Netflix show … a dark paranormal police procedural in an urban fantasy universe where the monsters are often inhuman and all too real … headlined by somewhat of an odd-couple mismatched buddy cop duo … going up against malevolent enemies and dealing with various issues of politics, bigotry, and personal conflict.

She is Ina Green, a gutsy black woman in a male-dominated field, with a lot of familial obligation weighing heavy on her shoulders and an arranged marriage breathing down her neck. He is Etienne Lamont, rugged charmer, tough guy, man of mystery and long history, with some rather unusual appetites and abilities.

They’re partners, operatives for the Praetorian Guard, a covert organization dedicated to taking on the weird supernatural cases. They’re also each far more than they appear, in this secret side of New York where vampires, fae, and shapeshifters are not unusual.

Lately, several young women seem to have fallen under the sway of a charismatic figure and disappeared, only to turn up dead. The investigation will lead Green and Lamont through an underworld of were-rats, cults, and necromancy, trying to find the so-called ‘Master’ before any more lives are lost.

Highly engaging and entertaining, very readable, loaded with bantering witty dialogue and action … familiar without being a trite rehash, throwing in several nifty twists … Tooth & Nail #1 looks like the start of what promises to be a fun, satisfying series.

-Christine Morgan

MOUSE AND OWL by Bracken MacLeod (2018 An Adversary Publishing / 40 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

When her lover is wrongly executed in the public square, Nergui turns to a magic heirloom to get revenge on the fortified, corrupt city where she lives in poverty and despair. To say anymore would spoil this finely crafted tale.

MacLeod, better known for his horror and crime novels, shows off his diversity in this dark fantasy that while brief, had me completely engrossed. And by dark fantasy, I mean DARK, as this novelette is full of brutal violence and an ending that's reminiscent of Poe. Great stuff.

-Nick Cato

SEX, GORE, & MILLIPEDES by Ken MacGregor (2017 Dragon’s Roost Press / 218 pp / trade paperback)

If you’re going to pick up a book titled SEX, GORE, & MILLIPEDES, you’d darn well better be prepared for what you’re going to get. Basically, sex, gore, and millipedes. Not for the squeamish, not for the prudish, not for the easily shocked or offended. Definitely for the deranged, twisted, and perverse.

Me, I loved it. From the very first story, “F*** Bunny,” (which is about a gal and her oversized chocolate Easter treat; things quickly turn messy, sticky, and surprisingly grim), there was no turning back. Anybody reading that far has no excuse. You know what you’re getting yourself into.

Quite a few more lusty ladies and lecherous gents reach bad ends in pursuit of their thrills within these pages. Whether it’s finding a tree with a rather unique orifice, going on a dinner date with a particular gourmand, dabbling in amateur filmmaking, picking up a heart in a jar at a yard sale, or even having a more-than-scholarly interest in archaeology, most of the stories are unflinchingly strong on the nasty smutty-smut.

The ones that aren’t smut-heavy make up for it with extra-gross gore: up-close-and-personal body horror, psychotic nursery rhyme fallout, the hazards of dating a werewolf, a pet-owner’s nightmare, and a little classic E.C. Comics style murder/revenge.

And let us not, of course, forget the millipedes! In “Bed Bugs,” an expedition team is researching the curious habits of some jungle lemurs, who use secretions from injured millipedes as insect repellents and narcotics (weirdly, an article about this very subject crossed my Facebook earlier today!). Well, you just know someone on the team’s going to try it … and you just know the effects on humans will be very different than on the lemurs!

The last story in the book, “Starter Home,” goes full-bore on both sex and gore. When a couple thinks they got a really good deal on a fixer-upper foreclosure, only to find that a previous owner is not wild about the sale … and some really unpleasant ways of using power tools … even the most stoic fan of extreme horror will likely wince, cringe, and cross his/her legs.

Serious good stuff. Where, by ‘good,’ I mean utterly demented, disturbingly hot, and horrifically sick. MacGregor is going on the short list of authors whose anything-they-write will likely jump to the top of my reading queue.

-Christine Morgan

100 WORD HORRORS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF HORROR DRABBLES edited by Kevin J. Kennedy (2018 KJK Publishing / 128 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Did you see that? Yes, over there silly, lurking in the dark shadows and just atop the blackened hills. What was it? A two-legged goat creature from the fiery nether below? A piece of space junk from an unknown space colony solely inhabited by anal-probed artificial intelligence, master-mindedly created by a top-secret militia of scaly extraterrestrial lifeforms that feed on the darkest of souls? No way, a drabble, you say? Well, folks. Yes, that is correct. They’re just drabbles, a short form of fiction that is exactly one-hundred words long, an excellent challenge for an author to hone and craft and master the art of storytelling. Over a hundred of them to be exact, drabbled here in a collection of drabble horror for our very eyes here in this anthology of Horror Drabbles. Now, before we go any further: Yes, this has been done a million times in Flash Fiction anthologies and collections across the board, so nothing really and truly new to be found here, but what we do have is a nicely compiled list of stories that tackles the concept of the drabble rather well. Not all, but most stories packing a feisty horror punch to the drabble-gut, whilst fitting the overall horror theme of the anthology very drabbling well, if I do say so myself.

Some of my personal favorites were 'The Dead Thing' by Lisa Morton, 'Just a Game' by Christopher Motz, 'Baby Steps' by Michael A. Arnzen,' Heart Shaped Box' by Pippa Bailey, 'Street-Hearts' by Chris Kelso, 'The Man in the Black Sweater' by Richard Chizmar, and 'The End of the Pier' by Amy Cross.

With over a hundred drabbles to be found here and written by some of the best-selling indie horror authors, Bram Stoker award winners, and featuring the likes of Amy Cross, William F. Nolan, Gord Rollo, Mark Lukens, Rick Gualtieri, Jeff Strand, Kevin J. Kennedy, P. Mattern, Lee Mountford, Ike Hamill, Michael Bray, Andrew Lennon, Craig Saunders, Matt Hickman, Glenn Rolfe and many more, there is definitely a little bit of something for everyone to be found here. Check it out!

-Jon R. Meyers

SHEET MUSIC TO MY ACOUSTIC NIGHTMARE by Stephanie M. Wytovich (2017 Raw Dog Screaming Press / 166 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Okay, I probably should not have settled in to read these all at once … this collection of free verse, vignettes, and flash fiction could just as easily have been titled “Poems To Cut Yourself To.” I don’t mean that in a bad way; they are exceptionally well-done, but daaang.

Not talking happy fun time here. Talking much more pain, emo/goth despair, bleakness, and tragedy. Content warnings for suicide, abuse, rape, death, abandonment, murder, drugs, alcohol, self-mutilation and more.

Dark stuff. Heavy stuff. Powerful stuff. Some with touches of the supernatural, others a brutal examination of the human condition. Recurring themes, such as driving, convey a sense of rootlessness and wandering woven throughout, a sense of not-belonging. So do themes of damaged love and loneliness, betrayal, and heartbreak.

There’s a lot of blood in these pieces. A lot of sex, but not the sexy kind of sex, if you get my drift; more like the hollow, desperate, joyless kind. There’s cruelty, both deliberate and casually indifferent. I think this book falls into the ‘beautiful suffering’ category. Far from cheerful and uplifting, but unforgettable.

-Christine Morgan


Monday, September 3, 2018

Reviews for the Week of September 3, 2018

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

Reviewers note: Okay, so, there was some tension regarding these first two books (to put it mildly). Whether you chose to view them through a competitive lens, a rebuttal one, or something more personal, the result was a pair of anthologies that I found worked surprisingly well together as companion volumes, complementing each other in a nice round-things-out kind of way. I read and reviewed them back to back, and really would urge people to give both a try rather than picking sides; that way, we all win!
-Christine Morgan


FLIGHT OR FRIGHT edited by Stephen King and Bev Vincent (to be released 9/4/18 by Cemetery Dance / 332 pp / hardcover, eBook, audiobook)

Here we have seventeen stories of aviation and aeronautical horror drawn from across a span of decades, genre giants and long-time classics as well as newer stuff by more recent superstars, each with a brief introduction by Stephen King.

To my shame, I’d never actually read Matheson’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” only knew it through Twilight Zone and cultural osmosis; turns out, the story itself is packed with legit anxiety-inducing tension and chills.

Speaking of chills, “Cargo” by E. Michael Lewis opens the book with a plane laden with coffins, transporting the tragic remains of an infamous cult massacre; if ever a flight were haunted, it must’ve been that one.

Dan Simmons pokes an icy finger right into acrophobia’s nerve endings with “Two Minutes Forty-Five Seconds;” it’s not so much the fear of heights or the inevitable landing, but that terrifying span of just (shiver) falling and falling.

“Warbirds,” by the ever-awesome David J. Schow, particularly resonated with me because my grandfather was a navigator during WWII … this glimpse of what it could’ve been like made me miss him all over again.

In E.C. Tubb’s “Lucifer,” an item of incredible power turns out to be as much curse as blessing in the end, and you might even find yourself feeling sorry for a not-so-nice character.

With a lineup also including heavy hitters like John Varley, Cody Goodfellow, Joe Hill and King himself, it’s hard to go wrong!

-Christine Morgan


FRIGHT INTO FLIGHT edited by Amber Fallon (to be released 9/4/18 by Word Horde / 246 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Sixteen stories of flight featured here, many of them revolving less around airplanes and commercial air traffic as the element and experience of flight itself in various forms from the magical to the metaphorical.

A few of my top picks:

“The Floating Girls: A Documentary” by Damien Angelica Walters (who is downright incapable of writing anything less than fantastic). This one could have come right out of a true mysteries / In Search Of type exposee, while also bringing a haunting and poignant personal touch.

Another favorite would have to be “Every Angel,” by Gemma Files, a gritty tale of obsession in which a crime boss wants to get some answers to eternal questions by whatever means necessary.

“And When She Was Bad,” by Nadia Bulkin is a darkly insightful take on the ‘final girl’ trope that may seem like an odd fit, but gets there in the end.

Izzy Lee’s “I Did It For The Art,” involving a fashion photographer with a thing for very young models, is a well-written but uncomfortable read; reminiscent of Lolita, it’s skillful but squicky, very likely to leave the brain wanting a scalding-hot scouring shower.

Nancy Kilpatrick’s “I Am No Longer” is also uncomfortable, a difficult harrowing story of helplessness even before the other horrors set in.

Funny, when you think about it, how strongly flying and the feminine are associated in myth and folklore. Witches, harpies, the typical angel, etc. Hmm.

-Christine Morgan

HALCYON by Rio Youers (2018 St. Martin's Press / 384 pp / hardcover, eBook, audiobook)

Youers has been a must read author for me since his incredible 2012 novel WESTLAKE SOUL, and here he continues his streak of page-turning chillers that are incredibly hard to put down.

HALCYON is the name of an island run by a new age guru (of sorts). Valerie (a.k.a. "Mother Moon") and her crew, tired of where the world is apparently headed, envision a world free of crime and the usual negativity that hinders us from nirvana on earth.

Martin Lovegrove and his wife are learning to deal with their young daughter Edith, who, after having visions of a terrorist bombing, consult a psychic who helps Edith control her premonitions. But when a death rocks the Lovegrove family, Martin and his two daughters move to Halcyon in hopes of starting over, but of course it doesn't take long for Martin to realize the island isn't all what it seems.

I'm a sucker for stories about cults, and here Youers delivers a fresh one, complete with a likeable, mysterious (and supernatural) leader. But what made HALCYON work for me (besides the constant tension) is the relationship between sisters Edith and Shirley: it's not often a mainstream thriller offers such a bizarre union, and here Youers lets his imagination fly, bringing us into their otherworldly connection.

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.

-Nick Cato

ISLAND OF BONES by Gaby Triana (2018 Alienhead Press / 211 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Must say, right up front, that I was *thiiiiis* close to ditching the book after the first chapter, where a character does something I find so cruel and unthinkable, I (as the kids say) can’t even. As intriguing as the setup, as promising the story, that bit almost did it for me. If things had continued with that character as the protagonist, I wouldn’t have been able to get over my rancor for her enough to view her as sympathetic at all. You just don’t DO that, Leanne! Made me mad in King’s Cell, made me mad here.

However, the first chapter’s the prologue, set in 1951, and then we skip ahead two generations to Leanne’s granddaughter Ellie, a young woman who’s kind of at loose ends, between jobs, post-breakup, trying to sort out what to do with her life. She decides that a trip to Florida, to scatter her grandmother’s ashes at the house the family had to leave so long ago, will be a good place to start.

So, with a see-what-happens lack of planning that’d make my own overly fussy side of the family nearly scream, she hops a flight, rents a car, and heads for the Keys. Without reserving a room or investigating prices, without checking the weather forecasts, without making sure she’s adequately stocked up on her medications. Just up and go.

The medications are because Ellie’s always had, well, issues. Seeing things, hearing things. She’s about to find out, back on ancestral turf, what those are really all about. She inherited something more from her grandma than just a modest cash bonus, and is swiftly drawn into the dangerous mysteries of the past.

She’s also pretty much stranded on the island, with a storm barreling in. The owner of the decrepit inn where she snagged a room is less than friendly, to say the least. Eerie occurrences quickly commence, complete with haunting apparitions and rumors of hidden treasure.

Very well written, highly engaging throughout (once I got past that initial oh-no-you-DIN’T!), enjoyable and fun, defying several genre expectations. And I see there’s a second in the series, not a direct sequel, but it’s got pirates and ghost hunters … no doubt I’ll be picking it up soon!

-Christine Morgan

WELCOME TO THE SHOW: 17 HORROR STORIES - ONE LEGENDARY VENUE edited by Matt Hayward and Doug Murano (2018 Crystal Lake Publishing / 304 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Alright, folks. Let’s pack up some fatty horror snacks and grab a soda or two for the open road as we take a trip out to a legendary music venue on the West Coast in sunny San Francisco, CA, The Shantyman. Aside from me not personally being a fan of the given name for the fictional venue, there really is a lot to offer once you arrive at the location, and it turns out to be a great setting for the overall theme of the anthology. It’s a perfectly versatile place for all of your horror needs with stories varying from psychological thrillers, dark fiction, black comedy, and even a little bit of that post-apocalyptic dread we all know and love. With stories by Brian Keene, John Skipp, Mary SanGiovanni, Robert Ford, Max Booth III, Glenn Rolfe, Matt Hayward, Bryan Smith, Matt Serafini, Kelli Owen, Jonathan Janz, Patrick Lacey, Adam Cesare, Alan M Clark, Somer Canon, Rachel Autumn Deering and Jeff Strand, tere is a little bit of something for everyone to be found here when the show begins.

My personal favorites were 'In the Winter of No Love' by John Skipp, a haunting tale of a beautiful hippie who hitches a ride to California to chase her dreams of freedom and life full of peace, love, and happiness, only to find out that the rest of the world had the same dream. After a rough falling out with her lover, she is sucked into the surrounding doom and gloom when she pays a respectful visit to her ex’s first gig at the legendary music venue. In 'Running Free' by Brian Keene, a big bad mafia man begins exercising regularly in hopes of dying of a heart attack to provide and qualify for his family to receive his life insurance money. 'Parody,' by Jeff Strand, is a riotous romp about a phony musician who gives Weird Al Yankovic fan faction a run for its bloody blood money, when the main character literally steals the stage and gives it his all one first and last time, all at the same time, while the crowd stares back in boredom and awe of what they just witnessed. 'Ascending' by Robert Ford is a very clever tale about an online relationship that picks up and ends at the exact same time and place as the other stories in this anthology. The main character packs up in the East Coast and heads out West to join the show.

Welcome to the show. Ladies and gentlemen. Boys and girls. Step right up. Check it out for yourself!

-Jon R. Meyers

PUPPETEER OF THE DEAD 2, CONAVEN ISLAND by Troy McCombs (2018 Abominabooks / 257 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Starting with the second book is always a gamble. In this case, I missed the initial outbreak and zombie apocalypse, but the recap by surviving characters made it easy enough to catch up to speed. Definitely one of those cases where the standard tropes can be helpful. We don’t need a whole lot of explanation and backstory when it comes to zombies these days.

And, by now, as we all should know, oftentimes the zombies themselves aren’t even the main problem … it’s those pesky fellow live-types in the aftermath. Conlaven Island is a compound established for just such global emergencies, where refugees from all over gather under military protection.

Maynard Dunn and his family (those that made it) are among the newest batch of arrivals, but they quickly realize the island is far from the sanctuary it seems. Control freaks on power trips run the show, murderous maniacs roam free, scientists conduct dubious experiments in secret bunkers, and some sinister force is behind the entire uprising.

I did find the writing here to be far heavier on the ‘tell’ than the ‘show’ side for my taste, the actions and reactions of several characters a little hard to believe, and, sorry, but, gotta say it, the level of casual sexism if not outright misogyny got under my skin. There’s, like, two named female characters in the entire book, both of whom serve mainly to be victimized, and it was really off-putting. Three if you count the dog, who has a heroic moment but who’s left as such a loose end, I couldn’t help wondering if the author simply forgot.

Anyway, it’s got military action, conspiracies, gunplay, and power-struggles (and, occasionally, zombies with hints of something more). I’ll probably give the others in the series a miss, though, mostly for the reasons mentioned above.

-Christine Morgan