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