Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Reviews for the Week of February 25, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're reading this on a cell phone you're probably not going to see it. Break out the laptop, baby...

THE BELLY OF PROVENCE by Ray Zacek (2018 Zhombre Publishing / 134 pp / eBook)

A fun four-pack of exotic destinations, taking hapless travelers far off the beaten path.

The first, “Bird of Wonder,” follows a couple having one of the classic age-old arguments … whether or not they need to stop and ask for directions. A touchy enough issue at the best of times, it becomes even touchier in a foreign country where language is an extra barrier. After some difficulty, Steve and Carmen do find their way to the exotic animal sanctuary, though they’ll soon wish they hadn’t.

“Strega” brings us to Tuscany, where another couple is attempting to enjoy a belated honeymoon. Elliot’s older, a professional, previously divorced, prides himself on his intelligence and education; Jen is almost half his age, a former dancer, more interested in shopping than history and archaeology. After an unpleasant encounter with an old local woman and a day trip with their handsome tour guide, Elliot isn’t sure if he’s being cheated on or cursed.

“Rogue Travel” sends a travel show crew on location to Belize, to film an episode of arrogant celebrity John Waite’s adventure series. He, along with his latest girlfriend/producer and their camera guy, accompany a guide to an enormous unmapped cave believed to have been a sacred site to the Maya. When things go wrong, Waite gets some harsh reminders about the difference between his on-screen adventuresome persona and reality.

Title tale “The Belly of Provence” is the last and also the longest piece, taking up about half the book. When a young woman who’d been kicking about on her own in France wakes, immobilized in traction at a quaint country estate, she has to sift through the fogs of pain and traumatic amnesia to retrace her steps. There was the elderly gentleman on the train, the one who claimed he was a sorcerer, who suggested she visit a particular village … and the more seasoned travelers who say they’ve never heard of the place … and how strange it seems when she gets there … and the charming Bastien … and something about an accident … but why isn’t she in the hospital?

-Christine Morgan

THE SPLITS by MV Clark (2017 Shark Claw Books / 299 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

There are zombie books that are your typical zombie books, following the formula, laden with the classic tropes. Then there are zombie books that aren’t your typical zombie books, twisting the formula, playing with the tropes.

And now there’s this one, which is unlike any other zombie book I’ve ever read. I’m not even sure it should technically be called a zombie book … or even a pandemic/infection/outbreak book … although that’s what it’s about.

Set mostly in England of a similar but alternate timeline, it involves a condition that comes to be referred to as “the Splits” … partly because of the way it causes the skin of its victims to split and ooze, and partly because of its ultimate (and scarier, more profound) effect.

The first documented attacks take place in 1969, with feral behavior, crazed biting, and fast-spreading contagion. Not so fast, though, that all society collapses etc.; the authorities are able to mobilize and get some procedures set up in time. Soon, there are government agencies, response teams, cleanup (and disposal) crews, quarantine facilities, and bevies of scientists investigating possible causes and cures.

There’s also the fear, and the stigma, and people trying to hide or deny their condition, or not report infected loved ones. And the dreams, and the claims of seeing ghosts, as if the spirits of the affected victims have somehow ‘split’ from their deteriorating bodies.

The story spans the next several decades, following a handful of primary characters whose lives become interconnected by the unfolding events. It’s presented in a variety of forms, from straight narrative to interviews, articles, and case file notes.

So, yeah, it IS a zombie book, but with a broader scope and wider, more long-term focus with build-up and slow-burn repercussions. If you’re looking for a chaos-fest of carnage and headshots and braaaaaain-eating, this won’t be for you … if you want something more psychological, sociological, and thought-provoking, you’ll likely be very satisfied.

-Christine Morgan

THE HUMAN ALCHEMY by Michael Griffin (2018 Word Horde / 305 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I’ve seen Michael Griffin’s name circulating for a while now among the weird fiction community, and read a couple of the stories from this collection when they originally appeared in anthologies. His work’s impressive in its smooth polish and subtle textures, always doing an excellent job involving the senses (physical and metaphysical as well).

Many of them are set in Portland, Oregon, and it really works. If there’s a west-coast version of Lovecraft country, it could well be that area. May not have as long a recorded history, but it’s got the grey and gloomy weather, peculiarities in its past … and not for nothing is the motto “Keep Portland Weird.”

These are also often ordinary-seeming people, these characters who find themselves dealing with uncanny mysteries as well as the normal troubles of everyday relationships and life. As is also the frequent case with Lovecraftian tales, many of the characters are troubled artists seeking (and finding) disturbing truths … unusual architecture and strange rituals abound … quests for ancient and obscure knowledge lead to dangerous paths …

“The Smoke Lodge” is extra fun for anyone involved with the weird fiction scene; not unlike in “I Am Providence” by Nick Mamatas, any similarities or resemblances to actual events or actual persons living or dead sure doesn’t seem purely unintentional.

The prevailing mood and tenor throughout the book is of a sort of beautiful doom. The vast cosmic horrors of emptiness and impressions of matters beyond human comprehension suggest that, however awful the state of ‘not knowing’ might be, sometimes getting answers actually can be worse.

If I have one minor silly gripe here, it’s that the name of one character kept throwing me off balance. Whenever I read “Noone,” my mind wanted to mispronounce it, thinking of Odysseus in the lair of the Cyclops. If I have a larger but more diffuse gripe, it’s how many of these stories end with a tantalizing vagueness, leading to inner wails of what-happens-next?

-Christine Morgan

CONTRITION by Deborah Sheldon (2018 IFWG Australia / 244 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

How far would you go to make up for past wrongs? What would you endure to atone for something terrible that happened long ago? How strong is the binding power of love … and guilt … and shame? Is it worth upending your whole life to save someone else’s? Where’s the line between duty/obligation and self-preservation? What would you put yourself through to keep a secret?

When he discovers his high-school sweetheart homeless, John Penrose goes above and beyond. He doesn’t just try to help her. He takes her in. But, as he quickly learns from her disturbed and disturbing behaviors, he also has to keep her hidden. Hidden from his landlords, his neighbors, everyone.

And there are a succession of landlords and neighbors; Meredith has particular dislikes for traffic noises, yard work, neighborhood pets, kids, etc. Although she’s supposed to stay inside, she always eventually slips out, and there are only so many incidents people can overlook or pass off before they start getting suspicious.

They can’t stay in any one place long, frequently moving, hopping from one rental property to another as John struggles to hang onto his job and make ends meet. He has no social life. He can’t have anyone over. Maintaining his carefully-constructed story is its own challenge.

Also, more and more, he’s having a hard time getting past just how weird Meredith’s become. Spooky. Even dangerous. Her eating habits, for instance … the boxes she doesn’t want him to look in … the gaps in her memory … the peculiar scars.

The latest move brings a new complication. Her name is Donna, the friendly, attractive, single mom who lives across the street. John likes her. Meredith doesn’t. Plus, John is piecing together more of Meredith’s missing years, as well as confronting his own memories about their school years, and what happened to her brother.

Instantly intriguing, brimming with building psychological dread and tension, it’d be a gripping thriller even without the horrific creepy paranormal elements. Really enjoyable, if not entirely comfortable, making the reader look inward to wonder what he or she might do.

-Christine Morgan

THE FIVE SENSES OF HORROR edited by Eric J Guignard (2018 Dark Moon Books / 313 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, & eBook)

As someone who was a psych major and has always been aware of the effectiveness of the use of sensory description in writing, I was all over this one and as interested in the scholarly introductions as by the stories themselves.

Dr. Jessica Bayless presents several excellent essays on the psychobiology of horror and the various senses, not only explaining how they function but how and why they affect our emotions – particularly relating to fear – the way they do. It’s brilliant stuff, not just informative but entertaining.

Although there are far more than five, those five are the biggies, the main ones we know about and rely on: touch, hearing, taste, sight, and smell. The book’s divided therefore into five sections, one for each, with three stories per. Not just stories about the senses, but the absence or loss of them, or ways they can go awry.

And what a lineup spread among those five sections! Ramsey Campbell’s in here, and Poppy Z. Brite. Richard Christian Matheson. Lisa Morton. Kathryn Ptacek.

As great as the rest of them are, picking my top fave was no contest this time: Lucy Taylor’s “In the Cave of the Delicate Singers,” in which a young woman with an unusual way of perceiving sounds ventures into a cave in search of missing explorers. I love stuff about caves and caving, it’s something I’d want to do if I were, y’know, young and fit and brave and athletic. This one does a fantastic job bringing the entire experience to life, trapped claustrophobic anxiety and all.

Lisa L. Hannett’s “Sweet Subtleties” is an exquisite decadence of dark fantasy, combining aspects of Pygmalion and Frankenstein with artistic confectionery and people of particularly demanding and distinguished tastes.

Editor Eric J. Guignard also contributes a preface and a follow-up essay, as well as handy lists for further reading and/or academic study. There’s an afterword by Dr. K.H. Vaughan on the connections and differences between sensation and perception. Illustrations by Nils Bross add the perfect final flourish throughout.

-Christine Morgan


Monday, February 11, 2019

Reviews for the Week of February 11, 2019

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

STORY TIME WITH CRAZY UNCLE MATT by Matt Spencer (2018 Back Roads Carnival Books / 218 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Then there’s the books you’re not quite sure where they came from, no memory of having been sent a review copy or picking one up … it’s just in your e-reader thingie as if out of nowhere, but hey, what the heck, why not? Especially when it’s got a fun title. Got to be worth a try, right?

This was one of those books. But, however it happened, I’m glad that it did, because it proved to be well-written, entertaining, and more than a little bit delightfully wacky. The author makes clever use of a variety of writing styles and approaches, showcasing a range of skills.

A couple of settings feature prominently, with several stories taking place in each – a fictionalized Vermont town in a world otherwise pretty much our own, and a more fantastic realm of warring races (though with dialogue and language use fairly modern/slangy and familiar, giving those tales a “gaming group” kind of vibe; I don’t always enjoy that in otherworld settings, but here it worked).

“Kids Say The Wildest Things” was a particular favorite of mine, doing a good job capturing the way kids really think and talk, not to mention presenting a child’s-eye-view of religious rites in an interesting light. I also got a kick out of the ones that took sudden turns into cosmic horror or other surprise genres.

Interconnections weave throughout the collection: a weird little shop pops up a few times, characters recur in unusual ways across distances and eras. The end result brings everything satisfyingly together, and made for an overall engaging read.

-Christine Morgan

GIANTESS GLOBALIST SPERM WAR by Mandy De Sandra (2018 Clash Books / 102 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I picked up this book before the edition with the really super naughty censored-by-retailers Jim Agpalza cover art, but oh my goodness is it causing a stir! It’s fairly, um, gynecological to say the least … and in terms of judging a book by its cover or not, with this one, I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet.

There were these weird bombs, see, and they destroyed most of humanity and civilization, and caused the surviving women to grow to colossal size. Surviving adult males were eradicated, boys rounded up and penned in the ruins of famous Florida theme parks. There, largely left to fend for themselves Lord of the Flies style, they grow up as best they can in loose tribal groups, until the time comes when the giantesses make their selections for food and potential mates.

Potential MATES? But HOW? you might be wondering, and with good reason. Well, basically, in the same way as ever. Just that, instead of having sex, the men themselves go inside and make the dangerous reproductive journey to see which of them will merge with the egg. Competition and cooperation are required, it’s part death race and part obstacle course and part puzzle-room.

I do wish the text had received a more thorough editing treatment before being put into print; it’s a crazy-clever story with an attention-getting cover, bound to upset, offend, and annoy a lot of people (while amusing the heck out of others).

When it’s Mandy De Sandra at the helm, nothing is sacred and nothing’s off-limits; leave your polite sensibilities at the door, and brace yourself for sharp social commentary skewering sexist attitudes and taking vicious swipes at the MRA movement. One way or another, even with therapy, you won’t soon forget this book.

-Christine Morgan

COLD DEAD HANDS by Jeff Strand (2018 Amazon Digital / 73 pp / eBook) 

A group of misfits hellbent on making a political statement on gun control enter the local Save-A-Lot equipped with knives, daggers, and battle axes while you’re out on the town shopping for weekly groceries. What do you? Throw the gallon of milk, carton of eggs, and loaf of bread on the ground before you, and attempt to make an inside out breakfast massacre omelet? No, silly. Better guess again. Unless you want your insides cooked up and spit out in a death frying pan, you’d better make that mad dash for the walk-in freezer in the back of the store, am I right? Somewhere cold and dark and safe. Lock yourself in and hide away from the bladed assailants.

Strand’s comically dark writing here is top notch as usual. His dialogue and prose, sharp and quick to the gut. His characters are very well developed (there’s a lot of them in this one too), heartfelt, and perfectly executed (pun very much intended), as this book reads like one of those badass super ultra-violent action flicks, you know aside from our favorite horror films, the next best thing since sliced bread (oh, snap, another violent food pun intended).

Put all of this together and mix it with a clever statement about gun control and violence and today’s media, and we have yet again another quick and powerful release from an author who continues to shock and entertain and deliver time and time again.

-Jon R. Meyers

OCCASIONAL BEASTS by John Claude Smith (2018 Omnium Gatherum / 362 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

The first story I ever read from John Claude Smith is in this collection, and it is one I will never forget … it came in as a submission to an anthology call I was doing, and I flat-out could not believe it. Why in the world was someone sending something THIS good to ME? To my rinkydink nothing project? My first impulse, opportunistic and mercenary though it was, was to accept it at once, get the contract signed, and lock it down before the author realized he’d goofed.

The rest of his stories here prove to be of similar artistry and caliber. Why he hasn’t been snapped up yet by the big-name presses is beyond me. We’re talking intricate delicate word use but also a sense of dark grittiness, language like harpstrings and sudden thunder, mood and emotion and raw nerve-ending terrors interwoven.

Several of them touch upon cosmic horror; some do more than touch, they get right down in there and wallow in the weird, plunging the reader into it with a full immersion that would’ve had Lovecraft leaving the bedside light on. The unexplained often stays that way, as it should, as it must; that’s what makes it really work.

As for body horror and gore, even the most seasoned fans of the extreme may find themselves flinching over many of the descriptive passages. Humor has its place here, too; so does some fairly steamy sex. Most of all, though, it’s the use of language that consistently blew me away.

Special mention has to be made of “Personal Jesus,” in which a couple of road-tripping horror fans have the chance to stop in and meet one of their idols. When one asks THE question, their obliging host is all too glad – to their sorrow! – to answer. Anyone who’s been to cons or hung out with writers will likely be grinning and nodding throughout.

So, yeah … get this book, read the stories (maybe take more breaks than I did, to let your mind try to recover), and keep an eye on this guy, because he’s going to leave a definite mark.

-Christine Morgan

DAMNED FICTION by David Kempf (2018 Amazon Digital / 306 pp / eBook)

This book brings you stories within stories, constructed by way of a frame narrative in which the Devil himself challenges two authors – one of erotica, the other of extreme horror – to a writing contest. The ultimate prize will go to whoever proves their genre is the most sinful and corrupting.

So, not only do you get to witness the bargain and the interplay between the competing characters, you get to read the contest entries themselves. Which is more wicked? Graphic dirty kinky sex, or graphic bloody gory violence?

Unfortunately, fun though the premise is, the book itself doesn’t fully live up to its promise and potential. The writing’s on the rough side, fairly heavy on ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’, and the whole thing’s in need of some editorial polish … for stories in an ultimate-prize competition, neither the erotic nor the extreme entries seem all that erotic or extreme.

Plus, as someone who’s always been a little nitpicky about the whole issue of wishes (fine print, loopholes, letter of the law, sneaky interpretations, general rules-lawyering; what do you want, I was a gamemaster for many many years and ya gotta watch out for this stuff!), not to mention paradoxes, I did hit a pretty big stumbling block with a major plot element at the very start of the book. But maybe that’s just me.

-Christine Morgan


BLACK STATIC no. 67 (Jan-Feb 2019)

Opening commentary finds Lynda E. Rucker digging into how loss, in horror, can explore the human condition perhaps even more soberingly than the graphic stuff, and Ralph Robert Moore’s personal account of not fitting in at the workplace hit home with me on a grand scale.

This issue’s fiction features 2 short stories and 3 novelettes, the first being ‘Do Not Pet,’ also by Ralph Robert Moore. Karl is a suicidal older man, upset over the suicide of his son. When he takes an odd ghost-sighting tour, the people running it give him a most extreme option. Moore brings the chills in this original take on the afterlife and depression.

In ‘Shore Leave’ by Mike O’Driscoll, Nick Baptiste is third mate on a container ship currently ashore in Manila. He’s attempting to forget about a horrible incident that led to the loss of his son and separation from his wife and daughters, and manages to find supernatural help through a tricky Djinn. A somewhat familiar yet emotionally powerful and engaging entry.

Kristi DeMeester’s ‘The Silence of Prayer’ looks at devotion and worship through the eyes of a woman who finds a man in the woods. He becomes her God and she finally sees him for what he is when he brings her a young girl to be part of their congregation. Spooky and well written, this religious terror tale is my favorite this issue and another in a growing line of excellent DeMeester appearances in BS.

In Michele Ann King’s ‘In the Fog, There’s Nothing But Grey,’ a woman arrives at a bar that’s populated with suspicious patrons. Outside, a mysterious fog and noises dare anyone to investigate. Is this woman a protector or part of the unexplained situation King vaguely hints at? A brief but thought provoking piece.

Finally, ‘All We Inherit’ follows David and his young son Brad as they respond to reports of a break-in at David’s late father’s farmhouse. A buck visits Brad late at night, attempting to lure him outside. Despite a phone call from his aunt warning them to leave, David assures her they’re only staying until the break-in situation is resolved, but in the meantime David learns the dark truth about his father’s passing, a truth that could affect his son. I loved the atmosphere here as author Eric Schaller delivers a solid chiller.

Among the book reviews (now being handled by seven reviewers) are in depth looks at the latest from Stephen King, Rio Youers, Gwendolyn Kiste and Simon Bestwick, as well as a collection and anthology which both sounds like best bets.

In Gary Couzen’s Blu-ray/DVD reviews we find a 4-film box set of William Castle titles, new Blu-Rays of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and Argento’s OPERA, plus newer films such as CAM and LOST GULLY ROAD, both of which are now on my must see list.

Black Static’s first issue of 2019 continues to deliver some of the best short horror fiction around, and although I am a big fan of shorter works, the longer novelettes appearing lately have been outstanding.

Grab a subscription or single issue here: BLACK STATIC

-Nick Cato