Sunday, May 26, 2019

Reviews for the Week of May 27, 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 lap top, amigo ...

THE PANDORA ROOM by Christopher Golden (2019 St. Martin's Press / 320 pp / hardcover, eBook, audiobook)

Golden's 2017 novel ARARAT made my top ten favorite horror novels that year (and won a Bram Stoker Award, too), so I was thrilled to hear he had written a sequel featuring its main character, Ben Walker. This time Walker is called to check out a find made by archaeologist Sophie Durand and her crew in Northern Iraq. Sophie has discovered a jar in an underground city that may contain either ancient curses or blessings, and hence their site is not only put under tight security but the crew are rushing to get their find out of there before anyone can intercept their work. The fear is this "Pandora's Box" may contain a plague of biblical proportions. As Walker arrives from a mission in Greenland, Jihad terrorists attack and all hell breaks loose.

The action and suspense begin on the first page, as Sophie is trailed back to the dig site by two mysterious figures. Golden wastes no time delivering a fresh twist on the Pandora's Box myth, and this time instead of demons, our explorers face a deadly plague while trying to stay safe from ISIS soldiers … while trapped below ground. If you're claustrophobic, THE PANDORA ROOM will freak you out as much if not more than the 2005 horror film THE DESCENT. Yep, this one captures that same sense of dread (and throws a mysterious disease into the mix for good measure!).

While it was nice to see Ben Walker back in action, I really liked Sophie's extreme yet serious nature. She's not afraid to risk life and limb for her passion and we believe she'd do just about anything to find out just what's in that ancient jar she has unearthed. Here's hoping we see more of her. I also liked the classic monster movie-type post-ending.

I've mentioned it many times, but it bears repeating: Christopher Golden is one of the most consistent writers out there, and THE PANDORA ROOM is one of those novels you hate to put down. It's fast paced, suspenseful, full of fantastic characters, and reads like a popcorn-munching summer blockbuster. A best bet for a beach read this summer.

-Nick Cato

THE BONES BENEATH THE FLESH by Shain Stodt (2018 IP / 177 pp / trade paperback)

Went into this one without knowing anything about it, certainly without knowing it was the origin/prequel … I really need to start paying more attention sometimes, because then certain elements might not come as such a "wait, what?" surprise.

It starts off with a Native American woman who’s a retired military general, a wendigo attack, and a helicopter rescue, okay. Then the storyline jumps to a girl whose brother is turning into a monster (well, he always was a monster, just, now it’s literal). More, he’s at the epicenter of an outbreak, but it’s no normal outbreak. Combining viral-infectious stuff with possession/supernatural stuff, it’s starting to look like the beginning of the end. Which it is.

From there, things jump again to Liz and her pal Bennie, who realize bad stuff is seriously going on. The cast of characters grows rapidly, with Liz’s sister, and their lesbian neighbors, one of whom’s a witch ...

Then the jumps become cosmic quantum leaps, as suddenly there’s this whole other fantasy magic world Harry Potter thing where Liz has to go to find out about her true parentage, and meanwhile all these other mythic beings from various cultures are joining the fray, and … yeah.

Nit-picky, not sure if a formatting glitch or what, but apostrophe issues throughout also made me half-crazy. The writing was lively and energetic, could have used a little more editorial love. The violent gory scenes are quite gooshily violent and gory.

There’s a whole lot of everything at once going on here, thrown at the reader’s face in a dizzying barrage. Heavily feminist, heavily LGBTQ and POC, and vegan, etc; soon I could only think of all those “this is the future that liberals want” memes you see around the internet.

-Christine Morgan

ERIE TALES IX: TRANSFORMATION edited by Michael Cieslak (2019 Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers /  99 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

The GLAHW crew return again, this time with ten tales of transformation with a twist.

In “Feathers,” Montilee Stormer starts us off with an adult after-dinner take on a game normally reserved for tween slumber parties, in which the familiar ‘light as a feather, stiff as a board’ turns out to be just the start of a complicated and dangerous ritual.

Christian Klaver’s “Day of the Blood Tigers” feels like an odd fit for the theme, not so much about actual shapeshifting as it is about weird paranormal hunters and disappearances.

“The Howling Wolf” by Peggy Christie flips the werewolf legend on its head in a fun way, though I had some trouble with the logistics of it all with the moon phases and just how it was supposed to work.

The always-entertaining Ken MacGregor opens “The Grunt” with the line “You had sex with a WEREWOLF?” and really, what more do you need? Well, stronger condoms, maybe …

“Uninhabited” by Wayne C. Wescott presents a grim future where our new shapeshifting alien overlords frown on people eating their dead, and with good reason, as one hungry guy finds out.

H.R. Boldwood’s “The Good Life” has a drifter after a rough night at the bar make the acquaintance of a wise stranger with a secret, offering a new opportunity.

Next up is “Tadpole” by Janice Leach, for a quick, poetic, oddly pretty change of pace, with nicely done descriptive elements.

“Sanctuary in a Small Town” by Essel Pratt looks at the homesick loneliness of being separated from your pack, and the struggles of trying to lead an ordinary life … until the past catches up.

Cassie Carnage’s fun “Of ‘Squatch and Men” explores what can happen when a weekend camping trip goes badly awry for a bunch of beer-drinking buddies.

Closing the book out is “The Shifter of Shapes” by Justin Holley, a cautionary lesson on the we-never-learn dangers of messing with magic.

-Christine Morgan

UNDER ROTTING SKY by Matthew V. Brockmeyer (2019 Black Thunder Press / 342 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

So, with the month of May being International Short Story month in mind, this was a first for me by the author as I usually like to read short story collections and various horror anthologies throughout the typical work week, and I couldn’t be happier to have spent the time to have checked out this collection recently available from Black Thunder Press. Overall, the stories were extremely versatile and well versed for fans of Dark, Extreme, Horror, and Transgressive Fiction, leaning more towards the extreme side of the above-mentioned genres as far as the prose and content itself is concerned. As with most collections not every story is going to be a homerun but, out of the twenty or so stories there’s actually quite a lot to offer inside this monster of a collection. 

Some of my favorites were ‘Joyride’, a delve into a homeless couple living under a bridge, whilst suffering from heroin addiction and withdrawal, as the ghost of a little girl haunts one of the main characters to his hopeless plummet into the depths of his own demise, darkness, and despair. This was a great display of the author’s extreme versatility. ‘Nightingale’, the last known survivor of a notorious inferno that took place in 1910 gets interviewed and unleashes the dark and grim secrets of what really happened on that fateful night. In ‘A New Man’, a man has the internet to thank in more ways than one for teaching him the ways of transorbital lobotomies as he himself becomes an entirely new man. 

Other honorable mentions: The Gym Teacher, Under Rotting Sky, Have a Heart, Bubblegum Cigarettes, and The Number of Darkness.

-Jon R. Meyers

KILLING POPPY by William Perk (2018 Apocalypse Party / 147 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

So I’m just standing there and this guy comes up and slips me something, no charge, first hit’s free. Turns out it’s a book about addiction, and if that isn’t one of the most fitting things ever, I don’t know what is.

Unlike many bizarro books that are their own wild drug trip, Killing Poppy is a brilliant and troubling journey through a junkie’s struggle to get clean … though certainly not by any of the usual therapeutic ways. No clinics here, no meetings and step programs. But there is, in a sense, involvement of a higher power.

Gust Ivey lives rambling around the urban weirdness of Portland, Oregon. I haven’t lived here long or spent much time in the areas described, but even so, his random encounters with fellow denizens as described ring true enough to me.

Then he meets an old guy who’s peculiar even by Portland standards. Calling himself Salo, the old guy claims to be an angel whose current assignment is to get Gust off the stuff, one way or another, Gust has two choices: LIFE or DEATH. Ironically, the LIFE choice still involves death, in a way. Gust needs to symbolically kill his dependence by killing it personified.

He names her Poppy, this representation, and at Salo’s instructions carries on writing a letter to her about their shared history. Only, there’s a catch. If Poppy is a stand-in for addiction, at some point a real person is going to have to be the stand-in for Poppy.

What follows is an increasingly hectic semi-accidental crime-spree scramble, with robberies, street-fights, gun-fights, goats, severed heads, social media, breaking news updates, and more. Oh, and the scene with the turtle? Just about broke my heart. I’m seriously upset about the turtle.

The book itself is an artful experience, with illustrations and unusual use of typesetting and many other break-the-rules things to make it far more than a simple bunch of text on a page. It’s also the author’s first book, and as such, is one doozy of a talented debut!

-Christine Morgan


IMPOSSIBLE JAMES by Danger Slater (to be released 6/15/19 by Fungasm Press / 224 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

There’s a lot of bandying-about right now of the term “elevated horror,” which, like with “literary,” just seems to me like a silly face-saving way of letting regular people not feel ashamed of enjoying what’s usually and should-be seen as wrong tacky lowbrow trash. (for the record, I love wrong tacky lowbrow trash and am proud to say so)

Can something similar apply to bizarro? Is there “elevated bizarro”? So it’s ‘okay’ somehow to get a kick out of the weird [bleep], because it’s not all Nazis and dildos and talking butts? (again, not that there’s anything wrong with those, either!) The answer is yes, of course. Authors like Violet LeVoit and Jeremy Robert Johnson have been doing it for YEARS.

And so’s this Slater guy. Didn’t I say last time he keeps getting better and better? Well, it’s true, and he’s proving me right yet again with this new one. If anything, Impossible James takes his work to an even higher level than his previous achievements.

Yes, okay, the story’s about this terminally ill dude who gets a screwdriver stuck in his head, impregnates himself with his own clone, bloats into a weird house-sized behemoth, and destroys the world while survivors try to escape through pandimensional folding geometry, but … y’know, in a brilliantly written, seamlessly logicked (I’ll make up words if I want, hush), insanely insightful way.

Astute readers may notice some familiar names and places; I asked the author outright if he was going to carry on for an entire Sycamore Lane alternate reality trilogy after this, but he just did one of his puckish devious grins.

The phrase that irrevocably came to my mind while reading it was “ominous maturity.” I’m not entirely sure what that’s supposed to mean, but, I’m more eager than ever to see where Danger Slater goes from here.

-Christine Morgan


Monday, May 6, 2019

Reviews for the Week of May 6, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're on your cell phone you probably won't be able to see it. Boot up the 'ol laptop, baby...

NO GIG IS TOO SMALL by Andre Duza (2018 Deadite Press / 148 pp / trade paperback)

Almost four years ago, I read and reviewed Duza’s shock-jock radio show zombie apocalypse book, WZMB, which presented the end of the world and the collapse of civilization through an assortment of clips, transcripts, eyewitness accounts, and other unusual narrative approaches.

Picking up NO GIG IS TOO SMALL and realizing it was a sequel, with a similar hodge-podge of nontraditional styles, made for a delightful surprise! This time, in a VH1-esque Behind the Music format, we follow the megastar 80’s band Serpentine on a reunion tour like no other.

Rockers Graeme, Jules, and Hollister are hitting the road in a doomsday prepper’s kitted-out ride, getting it all on video as they brave the dead-shambling ruins. It could be the biggest comeback ever. It could get them torn apart and eaten.

Or it could turn into something even weirder, as they notice the same figure appearing again and again … a woman in a Serpentine concert shirt, whose behavior proves strikingly unlike the other undead. She was a big fan who never got her fondest wish, and now someone is hoping to make her post-mortem dreams come true.

Told through video footage and voice-overs, descriptive fragments, script-like dialogue, flashbacks, omniscient camera overview, and so on, it isn’t the smoothest read … but it doesn’t have to be. Nor should it be. Like WZMB before it, the style works great for the story, and again lends a fresh, different take to the zombie genre.

-Christine Morgan

THAT WHICH GROWS WILD by Eric J. Guignard (2018 Cemetery Dance / 296 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, & eBook)

Prolific and excellent editor as he is, it’s sometimes easy to miss that Eric J. Guignard is an accomplished author in his own right. This gorgeous sixteen-story collection (blurbed by Ramsey Campbell no less!) certainly proves it.

The somewhat cumbersomely-titled but immediately gripping “A Case Study in Natural Selection and How it Applies to Love” starts things off with an all-too-plausible near-future where global warming has done just that, raising temps (but it’s a DRY heat!) to the point struggling survivors have to deal with spontaneous human combustion as well as chaos and drought. I’d happily read an entire novel set in that world!

Another favorite of mine was “Last Night ...”, which speculates what would happen if the planetary rotations and revolutions just suddenly stopped, tidally locking half the earth toward constant sunlight and the other under the sway of an eternally full moon … dire enough, even without a werewolf problem …

I also enjoyed “A Curse and a Kiss,” presenting a much darker-than-Disney take on Beauty and the Beast from the house servants’ point of view, with a different sort of Beast and a very different sort of Belle.

The others span a wide range of eras, settings, and styles. We get gritty gunslingers, debt and decadence, a run-in with Bigfoot, the remote horror of war, a dying mother’s dutiful son, Prohibition-era grim undertakings, a plane crash in the desolate desert, ominous sinkholes, strange plagues, love and loss in the fog, the risks of that business ‘power lunch’, a tsunami’s legacy returning from the sea, and an under-the-rainbow visit to Oz.

Some of these, I’d seen before in their original appearances. Others were brand-new to me. I found them all well-written and entertaining. Solid good stuff!

-Christine Morgan

WOUNDS: SIX STORIES FROM THE BORDER OF HELL by Nathan Ballingrud (2019 Simon and Schuster / 289 pp/ hardcover, trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)

Ballingrud’s second short story collection deals mainly with men who find themselves in dark, desperate situations, starting with ‘The Atlas of Hell,’ where a shady bookstore owner is forced by a crime lord to steal a book that’s reputed to be the gateway to hell itself. A suspenseful blend of horror, noir, and southern gothic gets this show off to a solid start.

In ‘The Diabolist,’ the daughter of a mad occultist learns the history of a summoned imp, as well as her and her father’s fate, then ‘Skullpocket’ delves into a town’s dark secret in a fairy tale-type style. Ghouls, a strange cult, child sacrifice and charnel houses are just part of what’s in store in this wickedly addictive tale.

‘The Maw’ finds an elderly man hiring a young girl to guide him through a city that has become a doorway to hell. Some images here will immediately get under your skin. I had read ‘The Visible Filth’ back in 2015 when it was released as a stand alone novella, and it made me an instant fan of the author. A bartender in New Orleans finds a cell phone that sets a creepy-crawler thriller into motion. Excellent.

WOUNDS ends with ‘The Butcher’s Table,’ a novella-length pirate tale featuring cannibal priests, Satanists, demons, double crosses, and enough schism to make even Blackbeard shudder. As someone not interested in pirate stories, this one ended up being my favorite here, and my favorite piece from the author so far.

With this and his previous collection, Ballingrud is well primed for take off.

-Nick Cato

THE BLOOD IN GUTHRIE by Kira McKinney (2018 IP / 218 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Ah, small Southern towns, their secrets, their struggles, their scandals! Some of the issues remain the same, whether modern or back in 1934. Clashes between the bible-thumpers and the roadhouse revelers, racial tensions, corrupt or incompetent officials, grisly decapitation murders …

Okay, that last one may be a little outside the curve, but, there it is. Welcome to Guthrie, where, lately, a lot of severed heads have been turning up. Just the heads, positioned at various points around town, and not much to go on in the way of clues.

Sheriff Elmer Avant, widely regarded as a bumbling idiot, is far more concerned with stuffing his face, taking it easy, and making passes at pretty blondes at the bar. His new deputy, recently relocated from the big city, is another matter. Jack McMann, overcoming his own troubled past, is determined to solve the crimes.

The problem is, hardly anyone else in town seems much to care, even as the death toll rises. Neither are they too keen on outsiders meddling in their business. Jack’s job is further complicated when suspicion and attraction collide in the form of diner-owner Minnie, a black woman with no patience for racist talk.

My biggest side-eye overall has to do with the relationship between Jack and Elmer. The level of insubordination Jack displays seems way out of place / out of line, even considering. However much a bozo Elmer might be, to put up with all that? I had a hard time buying it.

Jack’s investigations often strain suspension of disbelief, conveniently letting him overhear conversations or make huge CSI-type logic leaps. The tone strives for dark comedy but falls flat in places. Still, it was entertaining and held my interest, and I read the whole thing.

-Christine Morgan

a HFR second look:

RABID HEART by Jeremy Wagner (2018 Riverdale Avenue Books / 194 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook)

I’d not been acquainted with this author’s work before, and was a little weary/apprehensive about yet another military-vs-zombies book. That it featured a female protagonist, however, and was billed as much as a love story as a shoot-’em-in-the-head, intrigued me.

Turns out Rhonda Driscoll is far from your typical soldier. She’s a hair stylist whose father is in charge of a last-stand stronghold military base. Although she’s learned a lot in the months since the ravenous bitey undead rampage began, although she’s capable with guns and gear and all that, the prevailing vibe is more of a ‘Take Your Daughter To Work Day’ gone too far. She’s certainly not above using Daddy’s name and rank to get around the rules when necessary.

Of course, even Daddy has limits for how far she can push it. Limits that don’t include bringing her zombified fiance back from a search-and-salvage mission to her old neighborhood. The colonel didn’t like Brad much even when he was alive. He’s not about to accept a ‘Cujo,’ as they’re called, for a son-in-law. No matter how much his little girl insists Brad is not like the others.

So, Rhonda and ball-gagged Brad make a break for it, out into the hectic, devastated remains of civilization, where they not only have to worry about Cujos and unfriendly human survivors but whether Daddy’s going to give chase.

I did have a few issues with the ‘female character written by a dude’ vibe here; some of the word choices as well as Rhonda’s thoughts and reactions gave me that familiar yeah-no kind of eyeroll. Plus, the tech/military jargon sometimes felt tell-y and overdone with more detail than needed.

It was fun, though; the action scenes high-octane bang-bang-bang entertaining, the gore plenty splattering.

-Christine Morgan

BOOK HAVEN AND OTHER CURIOSITIES by Mark Allan Gunnells (2019 Crystal Lake Publishing / 219 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Welp, folks. Hot off the press is a new jam from author Mark Allan Gunnels, and this time it's in the form of the highly creative and unique title novella, ‘Book Haven’, as well as a barrage of various short stories to follow, showcasing the author’s versatility. As a personal fan of Gunnells’ previous work I knew I was in for a real trick and treat. Gunnells’ is the real deal, a wordsmith of sorts, who possesses the power of crafting unique stories time after time that continue to whole-heartedly shock, entertain, haunt and captivate. The author also excels in creating unique characters that the reader is able to fully empathize with throughout the entirety of his work, feeling their personal tragedy and triumphs, as if they were someone we’ve already personally known for a very longtime, or we’re sitting right there dying with them on the sidelines. 

Some of my personal favorites were the title novella, ‘Book Haven’, a futuristic landscape where the world’s literature has been lost, and a group of government agents are on the hunt for a vast secret library, ‘Book Haven.’ ‘C U Soon,’ a girl dies in a car accident while texting with her boyfriend, but after her funeral he continues receiving mysterious messages from her. ‘Human Bones in a China Cabinet,’ a young man has an unusual collection hidden away. ‘When Gas Was 52 Cents Per Gallon,’ a couple of friends on their way back to college stop off at an abandoned gas station with more than just car problems. And, ‘The Farm,’ a horror movie buff is in town and wreaking bloody havoc, while visiting a list (and checking items off another) of some of his favorite filming locations to some of his favorite horror movies ever made. A true gem to the horror community right here, folks. 

Check it out!

-Jon R. Meyers

AND HELL FOLLOWED compiled by Jarod Barbee and Patrick C. Harrison III (2019 Death’s Head Press / 244 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

If you’re gonna blaspheme, at some point it might as well be “go big or go home.” For the fiendish folks behind the newly-established Death’s Head Press, ‘at some point’ equaled ‘right from the get-go,’ because they decided to launch with an anthology of extreme horror, bizarro, and splatterpunk based around / inspired by the Book of Revelation.

The TOC includes some of the wildest, wickedest names in the genre. Wrath James White (who also does the intro), the Sisters of Slaughter, John Wayne Communale, Wile E. Young, K. Trap Jones, the distinct depraved horror-comic stylings of Jeff Strand, and many more!

(yes, including me, though after reading all the others I feel a little weird; they mostly went hardcore and I’ve got this sweary little brat of an angel because one part of Revelation always seemed so weirdly random and out-of-nowhere to me)

These stories do not hold back. Nothing is sacred. Much is savagely desecrated. The Four Horsemen make their appearances, so does the Whore of Babylon. So do the doomed sinners and damned souls by the millions. Devils and archangels, minions and monsters, the Mark of the Beast … the biblical prophecies of the end of days provide plenty of fodder for apocalyptic atrocity.

As for production value, weathered-looking matte cover gives the book a striking appearance and texture, Don Noble’s cover is a stark/sleek dash of evil. If the print’s maybe a little smaller than my aging eyes would have chosen, and it could’ve used one more proofread, it’s still one Hell of a debut, pun totes intended.

-Christine Morgan