Sunday, June 30, 2019

Reviews for the Week of July 1, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're on your cell phone switch to "Request Desktop Site" or you probably won't see it.

ONE FOR THE ROAD by Wesley Southard (2019 Deadite Press / 100 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I’d only recently (and finally!) gotten around to watching the excellent movie GREEN ROOM, so as soon as I started reading this book, a set of expectations built themselves up in my mind. A struggling indie band going from gig to gig, ending up in deadly trouble … well, can you blame me?

But I got much more than I bargained for from this fast, fun, headbanging wild ride. Much, much more. Told up-front-admittedly unreliable narrator style in the form of a crayon-scribbled journal, guitarist Spencer chronicles the final tour of metalheads Rot in Hell as their situation goes from bad to worse to downright unthinkable.

It doesn’t help that the six of them are already having problems amongst themselves … personality clashes, jealousy, dislikes, secrets. Spencer and Vinnie are planning to quit, just as frontman and all-around jerk Steve announces a big career-making opportunity … Steve’s girl Shelly has the hots for Spencer and woe to them if anyone finds out … add in spoiled rich-kid bassist Les and the silent, violent D-rail, and the drama’s approaching full boil even before they find themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere.

But this is no ordinary middle-of-nowhere. This is a place that changes from sandy desert to dense jungle to frozen wasteland without warning. And forget merely running afoul of an enclave of violent, heavily-armed skinheads in the remote backwoods; there are nightmarish creatures here that would make heavily-armed skinheads look cuddly.

So yeah, those initial expectations and comparisons to Green Room are pretty quickly right out the window. The members of Rot in Hell all too soon find themselves at risk of living up to their actual band name. Or maybe ‘living up to’ is the wrong phrase. Living at all might be optimistic!

-Christine Morgan

THE MURDER OF JESUS CHRIST by John R. Little (2019 Bad Moon Books / 309 pp / trade paperback)

This one came to me as an uncorrected proof, and was still cleaner than a lot of finished final editions, so, start off with mad kudos to everyone involved on that! I’m kind of curious to see what the eventual cover design will be, but, weirdly, at the same time, this stark and plain no-frills look works surprisingly well.

The story is a strikingly weird mix of genres, hard to classify. A paranormal religious thriller with sci-fi, historical, and psychological elements … a time-travel “what if” with repercussions changing everything for two thousand years.

Photographer David Abelman has always been a science guy. He’s never gotten into his ancestral Jewish faith, he broke up with his astronaut girlfriend over matters of her faith, and he certainly never would have expected to experience first-hand proof of past lives.

Yet, when his grandmother bequeaths him a host of family lore – including how many relatives met their fates in concentration camps – and shares a magical secret, he’s compelled to investigate despite his skepticism.

He discovers he can visit his previous selves, going back through the ages. He can change things. He can change history. Now, the classic question is usually to do with Hitler, obvious choice would seem obvious, but David takes it much further. If no Christianity, no Holocaust, right?

But, of course, as is the way with changing history, sometimes even with the best of intentions, you make things worse. That’s what happens to David, who then also discovers his deed coming back to haunt him in an entirely new way – a teenage black girl claiming she’s the messiah, with modern technology and social media to spread her message.

I love extrapolatory stuff like this, where the author’s clearly given thought to the fallout and repercussions. My main nit was that I wanted to see more of it, such as, what about the various other polytheistic faiths displaced by Christianity? (okay and a very minor nit about the reference to Santa).

Wowser of a book; fascinating and well written. Dan Brown should eat his heart out.

-Christine Morgan

BROKEN SHELLS by Michael Hicks (2018 High Fever Books / 124 pp / trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)

Sometimes, you just know it’s a scam, it’s a deal too good to be true, but you can’t help looking into it anyway. For Antoine DeWitt, it arrives in the form of a mailbox scratch-off ticket from a local car dealership, suggesting he’s won five thousand dollars.

He sure could use it. Not only is he already struggling to make ends meet, not only does he have a kid and baby-mama depending on him, but he just lost his job (for, btw, reasons that make him an immediately sympathetic and satisfying protagonist). So, he decides to go check out this offer, even though he figures it’ll only lead to a big sales pitch.

It leads to something much worse than a sales pitch. Turns out, the guy who runs the dealership is also custodian of a deadly ancient evil hive of monsters. When hopeful candidates show up to ask about their five grand, he determines if they’re likely to be missed … and he makes that determination about Antoine.

Next thing Antoine knows, he’s waking up bruised and battered in the dark, cocooned into some horrible nightmare. He manages to break loose, only to find himself surrounded by previous victims, and hellish creatures ready to eat him … or worse.

With overtones of Lovecraftian/Aliens and tons of good ol’ gonzo creature-feature skittering bloodbath action gore, it’s a fun quick wild ride of a read. Definite treat; I will be on the lookout for more from this author in the future.

-Christine Morgan

DARK RIDE by Iain Rob Wright (2019 Amazon Digital Services, LLC / 203 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

DARK RIDE: A Novel of Horror & Suspense? Check. Yep. You can say that again. And it’s funny because I wasn’t sure at first because we started out with some pretty stereotypical horror tropes in the beginning, but, let’s face it, for a successful story an author needs to deliver us the story goods, and, as the reader, we need to be able to engage with our characters, relate to and have empathy for. Love, hate, or even worse loathe entirely. Once the story is setup this is where the author really begins to shine and he knocks it out of the park, so to speak. This book pretty much has it all, as well as one of the most intense endings I’ve read in a while. I could honestly actually see this being a decent new wave horror movie and I really enjoyed the latter parts. 

A pro wrestler has more than a secret to share with his friends when they embark on one last trip of a lifetime together. The crew packs up without a spare tire, heeding all warnings, and visit an old, abandoned amusement park, where one ride specifically has a more than tragic history. The notorious Frenzy, a Viking helmet shaped water-ride like a rollercoaster. But, there’s a catch. There’s always a catch, right? It’s haunted as all get out years after a crazed employee set fire to the building, leaving nine people dead, and nothing is quite like it seems. After the ride was condemned and the amusement park closed, the building has sat vacant and overgrown in the middle of the woods. That is, until now when AJ and his friends cut the fence, climb through, and have a terror filled anti-party of a lifetime. Is their friendship strong enough to make it to the end of the Dark Ride? 

Do yourself a favor, check it out and find out for yourself.

-Jon R Meyers

TWIN LAKES: AUTUMN FIRES by Melissa Lason & Michelle Garza (2018 Sinister Grin Press / 238 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

It is, of course, very fitting that the Sisters of Slaughter should have a setting called Twin Lakes … and that it should also be a rather Twin Peaks kind of place: a small, remote, quaint Washington town where things aren’t always as they seem.

AUTUMN FIRES takes place as everyone is gearing up for the annual harvest festival, but alongside the old traditions, a new evil has cropped up. Several mutilated bodies have been discovered out in the surrounding woods, with evidence suggesting ritualistic natures to the murders.

As it happens, though, whispers of the paranormal are nothing so strange around here. Bring in a consulting medium to help with the case? The local sheriff himself secretly being no ordinary lawman? An entire secret town council of elders with their own long histories and uncanny gifts? Maybe the everyday citizens of Twin Lakes have no idea, but the inner circle is ready to take a supernatural threat in stride.

Liz is neither. Liz is a rambling young hitchhiker who accepts a ride from a not-so-nice guy, only to escape and stumble onto the scene of an even-worser guy. Thinking she’s found help at a campfire, instead she finds a body, and horrible dark tentacles intent on claiming her next.

Overall, the story’s entertaining, the descriptions are good. There’s a bit much telling rather than showing for my tastes, a lot of background info and a lot of sometimes-hard-to-distinguish characters, and the dialogue at times feels fairly stiff and lacking personality. The potential’s still there, though, and each book I see by this duo gets progressively better.

-Christine Morgan

LASER HOUSE ON THE PRARIE by David W. Barbee (2019 Excession Press / 164 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Every geek on the internet is going to feel personally attacked in this book, and it’s hilarious. I’m not sure if the author used a random fandom generator or what, but, as absurd as everything gets, it’s really only holding a funhouse mirror to what we already have.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, because that wackiness comes later … and the wackiness the book starts off with is also deserving of admiring note. Whatever you might expect from the title, trust me, you have NO idea. It’s SO much further out there. I mean, the kind of thing that would have to be animated by the Futurama team or illustrated by Phil Foglio, and either way cranked past eleven.

On the surface, it’s sunset Western meets sunset heist, when a retired former-badass gunslinger is approached for one last big job. He doesn’t want to take it, he’s happy now with his quiet new life on the prairie with his husband. But his old associates aren’t going to take no for an answer, so he must once again strap on his guns and saddle up (figuratively speaking).

About that ‘surface,’ though? This is a neon dayglo garishly bright world where laser energy powers everything from nature to weapons, where sharks swim through laser grasslands and ramshackle buildings float above it. The colors will make your eyes hurt, even just reading the plain black words.

Our reluctant gunslinger, once known as Sexy Jeph, goes along with Classic Bill’s plan to retrieve the super-powerful Red Orb (gave me Brisco County Jr flashbacks, that), even fully realizing that the other members of the team will kill each other and/or destroy everything to get it.

What Jeph’s not prepared for is their quest to take them far from the prairie. To another dimension, in fact. To the fabulous city of Obscuria, where opinion is everything, everyone’s a cosplayer, grognard, gatekeeper, raging nerd, true-fan warrior, faddish bandwagon jumper, you name it.

And THAT is when Barbee just kicks open the saloon doors of internet fandom culture to start some s***, with riotous if-the-shoe-fits results.

-Christine Morgan


BLACK STATIC no. 69 (May-June 2019 / 96 pp / print and digital editions available)

Before this issue's 5 new stories and headlining novelette, Lynda E. Rucker flies the flag high for the future of horror, discussing both fiction and two recent, original films, and Ralph Robert Moore gives an encouraging and uplifting message for horror writers using his own background as an example. Both commentaries will leave fans excited and refreshed about the state of the genre.

This issue's fiction begins with 'Where it Ends, Where it Begins' by Erinn L. Kemper. Mac runs a sea side salvage shop where he sells hand made items. But his serene life has a dark side, which is fueled when he finds an amputated body on the beach. Kemper brings the chills and shows a gruesome story can have a lot of redeeming value.

In Joanna Parypinski's 'Beach People,' Carmella is still mourning the death of her brother as her parents try to get her mind off it with a trip to her aunt's lakeside home. She refuses to join them at the beach and watches her parents interact with others from the house, eventually taking notice of a girl about her age talking with them. But her parents act as if there is no other girl there, and Parypinski takes us on a disturbing ghost ride (of sorts). Easily my favorite story of the issue.

A brother goes in search of his sister on her 18th birthday in 'Hunting by the River,' Daniel Carpenter's look at discovering who your sibling really is. I love shorter pieces that pack a wallop, and this one delivers a real punch to the gut.

'Pomegranate, Pomegranate' by Jack Westlake is an apocalyptic tale ALA 'The Silence' or 'Bird Box,' this time following a girl looking for her sister in a world where speaking can have dire consequences. Familiar, but well done with a heartbreaking conclusion.

'When You Decided to Call' by Daniel Bennett is a subtle, haunting look at a man reconnecting with his father, with the latent help of his neighbor, in a most unique way. Much of Bennett's prose had a dream-like feel, giving the story a surreal edge.

In Simon Avery's 'Messages from Weirdland,' we meet Franklyn, a widower for the past year. While walking his dog Luna on the beach he finds a bottle with a note inside, and is startled to see it is written in his late wife's handwriting. Stranger yet, the note is a short story that reads like his own published fiction, and he soon discovers a couple of more bottles also written by his wife. A lot of stories in BLACK STATIC have dealt with loss and grief, and here Avery gives the subgenre (if you will) his own flavor. Excellent.

In this issue's book reviews, Gary Couzen looks at three film books from Electric Dreamhouse (John Connolly's tome on 1972's cult classic HORROR EXPRESS looks especially promising), Daniel Carpenter has me psyched for Georgina Bruce's debut collection 'This House of Wounds,' and Laura Mauro sold Alma Katsu's take on the Donner Party, 'The Hunger' to me by the third paragraph.

Among Gary Couzen's blu-ray reviews is a detailed look at Arrow Video's box set for the original 'The Ring' series, New Zealand classic 'Death Warmed Up,' a couple of third world cannibal films, and the Second Sight release of Fassbinder's 'World on a Wire' (which was released here in the US a few years ago in a beautiful edition by Criterion).

Another solid issue wrapped in great cover art by Joachim Luetke, order your copy (or subscribe) here: BLACK STATIC

-Nick Cato


Monday, June 17, 2019

Reviews for the Week of June 17, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're on a cell phone you probably won't see it. Break out the lap top amigo...


SCUM OF THE EARTH by Cody Goodfellow (to be released 7/1/19 by Eraserhead Press / 164 pp / trade paperback)

The latest offering from the always wild Cody Goodfellow is a sex-charged, post-apocalyptic sci-fi romp wheremost of humanity has been exterminated save for small groups who are hiding across the galaxy on strange planets. We learn aliens have been stealing human brains for hundreds of years and selling them (apparently our brains/imaginations give a better high to extraterrestrials than super crack). Mankind's only hope is a motley crew of space pirates, led by a former stripper (and insatiable nymphomaniac) named Callista Chrome, and MAN does she like to get busy in the sack regardless of who it's with (there are a few great gags with her shape-shifting first mate that had me laughing out loud).

Our crew travels on a gigantic ship that's actually a starfish, and getting it to go in certain directions requires some witty planning by Callista and co. And as they try to rescue the remaining humans, they come up against some of the craziest obstacles in the universe, including space Vikings, intergalactic drug dealers, sex-charged platypuses and a host of characters who'd make George Lucas blush and possibly commit suicide.

Goodfellow's writing (if you've never read him) is frantic (in a good way) and never lets you rest. The humor level is fantastic and I cracked up a few times, even during some of the more disgusting sexual situations. SCUM OF THE EARTH is definitely not for everyone, but those with a taste for dark humor, bizarro and some great meta-style jokes will eat this up as fast as I did. If you enjoyed Christopher Rowley's "Pleasure Model" trilogy, you'll probably enjoy this, but be warned this one's a lot more extreme … and weird.

Grab this on July 1st and try reading it on the beach … those sunbathing around you will definitely hear you laughing (or gagging).

-Nick Cato

THE BONES OF THE EARTH by Scott Hale (2015 / 308 pp / trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)

This book – the start of a series, I’m pleased to see – nicely manages to meld post-apocalyptic with paranormal, sweeping dark fantasy, and touches of cosmic horror. It’s our world, but well into the future, after humanity’s crossed the inevitable destructive border. Although relics and language (including slang) and ruins have survived, new societies and beings of various types have developed.

Most of surviving humanity has become what’s called Corrupted, marked by a tell-tale discoloration of one arm. Vrana is not one of them. Her people, though largely human in appearance, take on masks and characteristics of various other creatures. Vrana is the Raven, and has just come of age to undertake the trials of adulthood set to her by the village elders.

What follows is an epic adventure of exploration, discovery, stirring up ancient evils, uncovering hidden truths, the classic hero’s-journey with strong overtones of semi-YA dystopia. There are monsters to fight, menaces to overcome, mysterious places to venture into, strong action scenes, and cultural references that don’t feel as out of place as they otherwise might.

Vrana as a character is gutsy, believable, and fun; she doesn’t suffer from most of the annoying YA heroine traits; her capabilities and flaws are nicely balanced, and her relationships with other characters ring natural and true. We get just enough backstory and tantalizing foreshadow to hint at further story developments as the series progresses, but without any sort of chosen/destined one vibes.

The writing style is particularly well-done, lavish and beautiful, featuring some truly stunning turns of phrase. On several occasions, I’d have to take a moment to just sit there and silently wow. I was reminded more than once of the gorgeously-turned prose of Damien Angelica Walters. Definitely a potent start to what’s sure to be a solid series.

-Christine Morgan

TOXIC LOVE by Kristopher Triana (2019 Blood Bound Books / 164 p / eBook)

Remember the show DIRTY JOBS? Mike Rowe’d be out there doing stuff all eew and gross and disgusting and awful? Septic stuff, veterinary, hoarders, cadaver farms? Well, even that show didn’t tackle the job THIS Mike has.

Mike Ashbrook cleans up places where bad things happen. Messy, biological, terrible things. Crime scenes, accidents, the home of that neighbor nobody’s seen for a few weeks, you get the idea. Worst of the worst, bodily fluids and rot, mangled corpses, etc. But, the pay’s good, and he’s pretty good at dealing with the horrors, and at this point in his life he’s feeling too old and burned out to change careers yet again.

Then, along comes Sage, his new partner. She’s young, vibrant, gorgeous, smart. Her family’s got money; she doesn’t even need the job. But she enjoys her work. REALLY enjoys it. A lot. A LOT a lot. We’re not just talking mildly turned on. We’re talking full-blown sex-maniac fetish. This is the only way she can satisfy her cravings, and she’s not adverse to sharing her fun.

And Mike, though initially hesitant for a variety of very good reasons, can’t resist the temptation. Soon, they are right down there wallowing in it, each new job pushing them to wilder and freakier extremes … until they get caught, and fired, and lucky not to land in jail.

By then as hooked on Sage as she’s hooked on gore, Mike is desperate to find a way to continue their relationship. Even if it means breaking a few laws, and not just the laws of common decency. Even if it means shedding some blood, or worse.

What follows is a fast, slippery (very slippery) slope into absolute depravity. No level of hazmat suits will help. No amount of showers in scalding bleach will let you feel clean again. The final scenes will stain your brain in a way that is NEVER coming out.

Each book I read by this guy only further convinces me he’s one of THE names to watch, an extreme horror superstar in the making. Can’t possibly say enough good things!

-Christine Morgan

DIRTY ROTTEN HIPPIES AND OTHER STORIES by Bryan Smith (2019 Grindhouse Press / 256 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This new collection by Bryan Smith is jam-packed with unique short stories, the novelette ‘Some Crazy Fucking Shit That Happened One Day’, and a mini-collection referred to as ‘Seven Deadly Tales of Terror’, both previously only available in eBook format. The first thing I noticed upon reading was the author can spin a unique and original zombie tale, a once highly over-indulged sub-genre of horror fiction, but there’s no worries in that department here, folks, because he’s just that good of a writer and he pulls it off with ease and then some. From EC and Creepshow comic book-esque horror, creature features, and unique tales of the undead. This highly universal collection has a little bit for everyone. 

‘Dirty Rotten Hippies’, the main novella in this collection, is an action-packed Woodstock-era NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD but with more sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. A mystery drug sickens the entire crowd, and it’s not just the classic tunes of The Grateful Dead that start to rise from the ground that keep these groovy fans screaming for more. 

‘Some Crazy Fucking Shit That Happened One Day,’ my personal favorite from the entire collection is a novelette that features a guy stepping outside for a smoke, when a mysterious bus full of Satanic cheerleaders stop to pick him up. After, realizing this wasn’t just another strange trip, the main character fears for his life as they are heading to the cemetery to summon Nazi era zombies, and this far out groovy tale of terror only gets much weirder and more enjoyable from there. A good old-fashioned blood-soaked hoot and holler.

Other honorable mentions: 'Chainsaw Sex Maniacs from Mars', 'We are 138 Golden Elm', and 'Bloodsucking Nuns for Satan.' 

Do yourself a favor and check this one out!

-Jon R. Meyers

A HAWK IN THE WOODS by Carrie Laben (2019 Word Horde / 270 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

A HAWK IN THE WOODS takes the ominous atmosphere of dysfunctional families with secrets, combines it with a mysterious half-rustic kind of southern gothicness, add in supernatural abilities and ties to cosmic horror / eldritch magic, and then modernize the whole deal with a good social media kick in the pants.

Abby Waite is even more of an attention-junkie than everyone else on Twitter and Instagram. As a kid, she realized she not only had a knack for making people do what she wanted, but she could feed off their attention. Positive or negative, didn’t matter; as long as they were thinking about her and directing emotional energy her way, she’d get that needed rush.

She comes by it naturally – well, sort of. Her mom and grandfather and Waites going back as far as their New England roots have similar abilities, up to and including fully taking people’s bodies over, or coming back from the dead, or summoning things best not summoned.

Her twin sister Martha, however, takes more after their grandmother, with a different sort of gift. Martha can alter the flow of time, making hours or days pass in a flash, resetting and altering events … as long as she can hold onto it.

Thing is, for Abby, time is suddenly a concern. She’s been diagnosed with something terminal, and her only hope is to unlock the rest of the family secrets. To do that, she needs the help of her sister, whom she has to bust out of prison. And there are other forces at work that don’t want them to succeed.

It’s a strange sort of chick flick sister adventure, paranormal THELMA AND LOUISE on the road and on the run, trying to stay ahead of the powers out to stop them, while working out the issues in their own relationship. An odd mix, but it works very well!

-Christine Morgan

THREE DAYS IN ASHFORD by Ty Tracey (2018 Bowker / 349 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I’m sorry to say I had a hard time slogging through this one. The writing’s fine for the most part, but it is very detailed and precise, particularly for something done mainly through first-person perspective as well as letters and transcripts … the expected immediacy and intimacy is not much to be found.

The dialogue, as well, comes across as really stiff, stilted enough to be dressed as Uncle Sam in a 4th of July parade, rarely sounding like the way real people would talk, except for the occasions when characters attempt banter, but even then tend to come off as arrogant or unreal.

That’s all even before getting into the plot, which is on the face of it promising enough: the crew of a popular paranormal-investigation show get invited to a town that, although it apparently doesn’t exist on any map or in any legal record, has multiple disappearances and a long history of weird occurrences.

So, naturally, they decide to go check it out. Despite things going off-the-charts bad wrong before they even GET there, things like being tracked by a total men-in-black rig, or like, oh, one of the team suddenly shouting in Sumerian and trying to bite the face off another of the team …

Daniel Hollowell, the show’s lead, is the one relating most of the story, though other parts are brought in through later court transcripts and what he reads in an old journal. While the descriptions are strong, the best bits of the book are the bits not even directly connected to the main storyline – flashbacks involving other cases, and Daniel’s relationship with his wife and daughter, for instance.

It then basically goes full Twin Peaks / X-Files / cults / government conspiracies / meta-religion / time displacement / legal drama, as if an entire fall lineup from one of those documentary channels was crammed together. I suppose, under the right circumstances, it’d make for an interesting backdrop or setup for a roleplaying campaign, but as was, the dryness and blandness sucked the life out of the story.

-Christine Morgan

MOONLIGHT SERENADES by Thom Carnell (2018 Macabre Ink / 306 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This collection spans several years, including pieces previously appearing in various issues of Carpe Noctem Magazine as well as several until-now-unpublished tales. In the author’s foreword, he’s open and candid about the loss of his mother, his resultant writer’s block, and eventual return to the page. Each story also features a small introduction, and mood-setting/amplifying quotes throughout to enhance the impact.

From organized crime in exotic foreign cities to teens at a small-town carnival to an old woman on her lonely mountain … from poignantly beautiful tales of love and loss to the perils of self-pleasure in a post-apocalyptic world … from a couple of cleverly-twisted takes on a familiar horror classic to a parent’s nightmarish revenge … they run a strange but engaging gamut. With lots of zombies, but not all zombies!

Many of the stories, particularly those involving recurring character and general tough guy Cleese, showcase the author’s extensive studies and practice of martial arts. While I appreciate the technical aspects of this, I’ve always found too much detailed precision and play-by-play choreography somewhat tedious and off-putting in combat and other action scenes. Important for the author to know, maybe, but for the reader it can often bog things down and turn what’s meant to be exciting into a skim-past-it or a slog.

My personal favorite of the collection is the gleefully-imagined “Clown Town.” It’s clown noir. Yes. Clown noir. In which society is structured of every type of clown you can think of, from the elite Harlequins at the top down on through rodeo clowns, keystone-cop clowns, and mimes.

-Christine Morgan