Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Top Ten Books of 2018 (Part One)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 17, 2018

Reviews for the Week of December 17, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Christine Morgan

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Christine Morgan

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

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

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

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

-Jon R. Meyers

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

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

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

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

-Nick Cato

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Christine Morgan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Christine Morgan

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Reviews for the Week of December 3, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Christine Morgan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Christine Morgan

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

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

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

Check it out!

-Jon R. Meyers

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

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

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

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

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

-Christine Morgan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Christine Morgan