Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Reviews for the Week of August 19, 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 laptop, baby...


A SICK GRAY LAUGH by Nicole Cushing (to be released 8/27/19 by Word Horde / 290 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I'm always thrilled to receive something new from Cushing, and her latest novel A SICK GRAY LAUGH is highlighted by an unreliable narrator whose bizarre history lessons and dark sense of humor kept me glued to the pages.

Noelle Cashman is an award-winning writer whose depression and anxiety have brought her to a place where she needs to start taking a new medication. And despite the success she's had with her weird fiction, she now finds herself inspired to write a non fiction book about her small Indiana town. Feeling like a new person (she now jogs and has lost seventy-five pounds), Cashman sets out to tell the history of Naumpton, Indiana and as she begins to take notice, she discovers a "grayness" seems to be everywhere … and she's gung ho to find out why this is.

Set up in three sections, LAUGH first introduces us to Cashman and her plight, then the second gives us insights into her town's bizarre religious heritage (and it's here where we learn about a group known as The New Israelites, along with their charismatic leader and his right hand man, who give the novel an edge that will come back to haunt you). And in part three, subtitled "The Cure," we discover Cashman's findings in her studies of Naumpton's history, and her involvement in a 5K charity race which had me laughing out loud while simultaneously disturbing the shit out of me.

Being the unreliable story teller that she is, Cashman has us convinced of certain things than has us doubt them within a sentence or two later. Have the new meds truly helped her? Is she a descendent of one of her town's religious cults? Or is she perhaps even grayness incarnate? The beauty of A SICK GRAY LAUGH is we really don't know, and Cushing (or is it Cashman?) pulls us along like students in a bizarre Sunday school class, forced to listen and face the darkness while making us laugh uncomfortably while we do so.

With images and ideas that have been stuck in my head for weeks, Cushing has once again delivered an original story that's hard to define, yet manages to bring the chills in a way all its own and seldom seen in genre novels. Don't miss this.

-Nick Cato

VICTORIA by Jason Parent (2018 Bloodshot Books / 204 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

My only real frustration with this book was never finding out how Chester got her name! Well, and that I wanted more story, more backstory and history and mythology. But I’m greedy that way.

Plot-wise, there is a lot to unpack, but the upshot is, sometimes the little voice in your head may actually be a demonic spider who crawled into your ear and made a nest in your brain.

A demonic brain spider who then encourages you to become an expert thief, team up Leverage-style with a like-minded group of daring rogues, and pull a heist at the Vatican … where you run into a Kingsman-type special agent priest on his own secret mission to hunt down the demonic brain spiders.

No, wait, really, stay with me here, because this is how the book goes, and it’s fantastic throughout! Much better than any of the Dan Brown stuff (also self-aware enough to make jokes about it; I love that touch).

In a way, it could even classify as YA, with the adventuresome young protagonist, but it’d definitely be YA with a harder edge. Not a lot of sex, but the body count gets pretty impressive and the fight scenes are great.

The best fights of all, though, are the ones between Victoria and Chester, who come to some ethical disagreements and personality clashes. As they say, the toughest battles are the ones that take place inside our own heads, even if it’s not usually meant quite like this.

Terrific read, fast-moving and fun! Though when you then develop an ear infection or see those stories online about people finding bugs living in their faces …

-Christine Morgan

GODS AND MOBSTERS by Adam Millard (2019 Amazon Digital / 260 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I’m so glad the author decided to make this one available after all! It’s an absolute blast, mixing genres with wild and gleeful abandon. Starting off a la Aesop’s fables, with a drunk fox playing checkers with an arrogant squirrel … and only accelerating into sheer wackiness from there on out.

Imagine the Iliad, only, instead of interfering with the Trojan War, the gods are mostly loafing around Olympus being petty and snarky at each other as usual, until Artemis the huntress decides she wants to check out how the mortal half lives. Just her luck, she’s got the physical form of a pre-teen Girl Guide, but she’s still got her arrows and her attitude.

Uncle Poseidon ends up sent after her, but instead of bringing her promptly back home, they run into an old-school noir gumshoe working his latest case (hired by a dangerous dame, of course, to get the goods on her cheating mobster husband).

Some misunderstandings and arrow injuries later, the pieces are falling into place for an East London smackdown between immortal goons, undercover cops, and wayward Olympians. While that same poor hapless drunk fox keeps simply trying to skitter out of the line of fire.

Loaded with pop-culture references and social commentary, giving some amusing spins and updates to mythology, and bringing hilarious footnotes back into style, I enjoyed everything about it.

-Christine Morgan

MANNEQUIN: TALES OF WOOD MADE FLESH edited by Justin A. Burnett (2019 Silent Motorist Media / 169 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

That occasional bias of mine about certain anthologies comes into play here again; I love themed calls and can rarely resist an intriguing challenge. And the theme for this one certainly hits upon what may be a universal truth – dolls are freakin’ creepy.

‘Dolls’ being a broad category in this case, including not just childrens’ toys but ventriloquist dummies, mannequins (of course), and even scarecrows. They tend to give us an instinctive approach/avoidance reaction … we’re drawn to them because of the ways they resemble us, but disturbed by them because of the unsettling ways that they don’t.

Or maybe they do, when we’re not looking. Maybe they move. Maybe they think. Maybe they’re far less fond of us than we are of them. Maybe they resent the way we play with and treat and use them. Maybe they want some payback. To punish us. Or to become us, take our places. Who can know what’s going on behind those often-painted-on eyes?

See? Creepy. Creeeeeepy. And here, for your goosebump fodder, are a whole bunch of stories sure to stir unease in the back of your mind or make you do double-takes from the corner of your eye. From horrormaster Ramsey Campbell’s vintage chiller “Cyril” to Daulton Dickey’s experimental weirdness in “Allegory of Shadows and Bones,” from a giant-marionette-apocalypse staggeringly imagined by C.P. Dunphey to tiny trinkets locked away with memories in Austin James’ “Fugue,” they run a varied gamut while all still adhering to that central disturbing theme.

-Christine Morgan

THE PULP HORROR BOOK OF PHOBIAS edited by MJ Sydney (2019 Lycan Valley Press / 636 pp / hardcover, trade paperback)

I can never get enough anthologies about weird phobias. Always helps me feel at least a little better about my own assorted quirks (though, sometimes, it gives me new things to freak out about I hadn’t thought of before).

This particular volume wanted to push far past the basic ordinary run-of-the-mill phobias, really digging deep for the weirder the better. And did so in entertaining A-to-Z order, each author being assigned a different bizarre fear starting with a different letter of the alphabet.

26 stories does make for one hefty tome, some 630 pages. If big honkin’ books scare you (what would that be? megabibliophobia?), you might not want to pick this one up in print. Heck, 630 pages, some might not be ABLE to pick it up in print! But I digress. Moving on!

With cover art by Kealan Patrick Burke and interior illustrations courtesy of Luke Spooner, it’s already a star-studded production even without taking a skim of the table of contents. Doing that, seeing names like Richard Chizmar, John Skipp, Sephera Giron, Tim Waggoner, Gabino Iglesias, Mehitobel Wilson, Ray Garton, Ed Erdelac, and Hank Schwaeble (among others, remember, 26 stories!), you know you are in for some serious quality stuff.

There are far too many winners to choose from to pick a favorite, or even a top five, but I do have to give special mention to Jonah Buck’s “Just Desserts” for sheer genre-blending wackiness (like a hardboiled Murder She Wrote meets Lovecraftian cult meets cooking network) … and Mehitobel Wilson’s “True Confessions of the Happiest Pistachio” for telling it too much like it is, or like it will be if society keeps on at this rate.

Give it a whirl … maybe discover you have phobias you never even knew existed … enjoy!

-Christine Morgan

MAYBE THE DREAM KNOWS WHAT IS REAL by Steve Grogan (2018 Amazon Digital  /  74 pp / eBook)

This is a very well-written but incredibly uncomfortable read … like a book-length version of one of those petulant letters to an online advice columnist or ranty MRA blog or incel forum post, basically boiling down to an entitled awful person blaming everyone else for his problems and expressing horrible views about women while complaining how girls never give Nice Guys a chance.

So, if that was the author’s intention with this character, consider the nail hit right on the head. Hit all too well right on the head. We get the nameless protagonist’s entire history as the loner, the outcast even among outcasts, who acknowledges this but nonetheless considers himself better than everyone else, we get a front-row seat to the way he treats others, and we’re helplessly dragged along for the ride when he finally snaps and goes total revenge fantasy porn.

Now, don’t get me wrong, like I said before, it IS very well-written. Almost too much so, maybe. But not in a fun, escapist, entertaining way. More in the sick-morbid-fascination way, like we view manifestos by someone who shoots up a school or a mall because hot chicks don’t date him.

So yeah, incredibly uncomfortable. It’s all there: the objectification, the misogyny, the crude attitudes toward sex, the resentment, the superiority … the whole skin-crawling grossness of realizing some people actually DO think like this protagonist. When we’ve already got a plethora of that stuff in the news every day, it just left me feeling kind of queasy.

-Christine Morgan

THE DAMNED by Kirk Kilgrave (2018 IP / 228 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Reality show meets haunted house, when two teams of ‘experts’ compete to rid a spooky mansion of malevolent forces, for the promise of a big cash prize. One team is composed of ghost-hunters, brash mouthy dudes loaded down with equipment and skepticism. The other team consists of psychics and spiritualists, including the gifted crone, her young apprentice, and our gutsy protagonist who’s had a previous run-in with demons.

Of course, the house IS haunted, plagued with more (and worse) than ordinary ghosts. Of course, it’s remote and they have no way to call for help if anything goes wrong. And of course, things quickly go wrong. One by one, they’re picked off, as they realize they’ve been brought here under false pretenses.

For alleged ‘experts,’ most of the characters are dumb-stubborn in the head-desking obnoxious unrealistic way of so many horror movies. They also spend way too much time info-dumping and tediously explaining things to each other. Heavy on the “telling,” light on emotion and reaction, pretty much meh overall.

-Christine Morgan

SKIN by Dr. Circus (2019 Amazon Digital / 88 pp / eBook)

Um, okay then. Not sure how I ended up with this one, but thought I’d give it a whirl. Never know, right? Might discover a gem, right? Or not.

Sorry to say, this time the answer’s more over on the side of ‘not.’ While there’s a definite enthusiasm to it, some wildly-imagined descriptions and visuals, and some really wildly-imagined really really graphic demon smut, the writing needs a LOT of work and I don’t think an editor or even so much as a beta-reader had a look at it before it was made available.

Do I think it has potential? Possibly. Like I said, there’s definite enthusiasm and creativity, the author was clearly having fun, but the result is far from final-draft-worthy. I only kept reading partly because it’s a very short book and partly out of morbid curiosity.

Several storylines intertwine, centering around a girl named Luna who runs an online business selling occult stuff – books, spells, curses, etc. They’re surprisingly effective, because Luna’s got a direct connection to Hell, though Luna’s finding out that dealing with devils has its own dangerous side effects.

The other storylines follow some of her customers. Such as Emma and Cory, who’ve gotten their hands on an evil book that leads them into a nightmare landscape of flesh … and Anya, who’s ordered up a visit from an incubus to sate her most depraved desires … and an expectant father who’s neglected to mention buying a fertility spell to his wife.

So yeah, it’s dirty, it’s nasty, there’s blood and gore and the abovementioned demon smut. It has the imagination and enthusiasm, but the writing seriously needs work. Might have better luck browsing the “erotic horror” category on Literotica in the meantime.

-Christine Morgan

THE ADVERSARY by Mauricio Limeira / translated by Fabiola Lowenthal (2017 Amazon Digital  / 285 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Then there are the days you get an envelope covered with international postage stickers and it’s a nifty-looking paperback from Brazil, with really cool built-in flyleaf cover design (why don’t all paperbacks have that? brilliant!)

Even better, it turns out to be a really cool read. Admittedly, not the easiest one; the translation from Portuguese is far from perfect, and might throw some readers off. Me, language-loving weirdo that I am, I found it extra-fascinating to compare and contrast, and see how various concepts came across. I think I enjoyed that aspect as much as I enjoyed the story itself.

I think it also helped that it’s in first-person point-of-view (well, mostly; halfway through it does inexplicably switch to third for the rest of the book). Makes the tone very conversational and natural, like listening to someone who’s not a native speaker nonetheless do a great job getting their point across.

Story-wise, our protagonist, Zeca, is on the run. It’s a mess he got himself into by, in a moment of grief-stricken desperation, hiring a killer to seek revenge on his behalf. Casimir, however, turns out to be no ordinary assassin, and his interest in Zeca quickly becomes a deadly, even supernatural, obsession. To save himself and his rapidly-dwindling list of loved ones, Zeca will have to confront his own inner dark side, while trying to stay a step ahead of evil.

Most impressive of all, this is the author’s first novel, and if this is how good of a debut they’re making, the rest of us better look out! Even taking the language/translation issues into account. I’ve seen far rougher works from more experienced native English speakers. Definite kudos to the author and translator!

-Christine Morgan


Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Reviews for the Week of August 5, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. You probably won't be able to see it on a cell phone. Fine time to dust off that laptop...

KINFOLK by Matt Kurtz (2018 Grindhouse Press / 167 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
site: https://grindhousepress.com

Gotta love it when it’s bad guys vs. worse guys in an all-out gory smackdown fight to the finish, and you don’t know who to root for!

In this case, the bad guys are a pair of brothers, Eric and Ray, who share a criminal history … except, Ray is trying to put the past behind him by drowning himself in booze, while Eric thinks Ray still needs closure and revenge. Their reunion begins with attempted armed robbery and assault of a cop, their frantic escape leaves them stranded by the side of a road in the middle of who-knows-where, and when a passing driver stops, it’s far from a rescue.

Because, cue the worse guys … your classic depraved backwoods clan of human monsters and semi-human mutants, with hideous habits and deviant appetites! They’re normally accustomed to picking up normal hitchhikers and other lost travelers, and aren’t quite ready for having their prey fight back with guns and total ferocity.

What ensues is sheer chaos and carnage and high-octane wall-to-wall splatter, a thoroughly nasty, blood-soaked, action-packed murder spree where horrible people get what they deserve, deserve what they get, and nobody comes out clean.

If you’re looking for quiet, elevated, or literary horror, this is not the book for you. If you love a good wet-zone mutilation kill-fest, however, settle right on in and have fun!

-Christine Morgan

MY AMERICAN NIGHTMARE: WOMEN IN HORROR edited by Azzurra Nox (2017 Twisted Wing Productions / 244 pp / eBook)

I’m not sure how I acquired this one; none of the names were very well known to me. But, I’ve never let that stop me before. It’s always good to give new things a try, expand those ol’ horizons. Besides it was probably during Women in Horror month, fittingly enough … what better time than to pick up an anthology done entirely by female authors?

There are nineteen tales in all, with an editor’s note at the end, followed by some author bios and a bit about how each piece came to be inspired, and then, as an unusual but very cool bonus feature, some author Q&A.

Another element I hadn’t realized up front was the project’s theme. As I was reading, I kept thinking “Wait, this sounds like a take on (whatever)” and finally realized that was because, yes, it was on purpose! Taking some well-known works – of various types, not just literature but film and music as well – and reinventing them in new, sometimes updated, sometimes feminist ways.

Therefore, so as not to spoil anyone else’s guessing game, I won’t go into particulars. Some, the penny will drop right away, others may take a bit longer to recognize. All together, they make for an odd but interesting read. I expect to be seeing more from many of these ladies very soon.

-Christine Morgan

SOMETHING BORROWED, SOMETHING BLOOD-SOAKED by Christa Carmen (2018 Unnerving / 242 pp / trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)

I’d only had the pleasure of running across one of these thirteen tales before, but something with a title like “The Girl Who Loved Bruce Campbell” wasn’t going to be something I’d forget. Reading it again was as enjoyable as ever.

But several of its companion pieces in this collection are where some honest pain and bravery really comes shining through. Set in a shared universe, with recurring characters and places, and events seen from different points of view, they work together to bring forth a journey through addiction and recovery that must’ve been very difficult to write at all … let alone write so well. The struggles, the emotions, the relationships, and the reality all ring very true.

Others are more stand-alone, and more supernatural/sensational. You’ll find a spooky babysitter with some even spookier revelations for her young charges, malevolent mystery pics on a cell phone, exquisite flowers, and a Halloween take on Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” unlike anything you’ve seen before.

In fact, Halloween crops up in other tales as well. At a fall farm haunted harvest hayride type attraction, where one of the workers is persuaded to step out from her usual behind-the-scenes role … and as a bride’s special day at an infamous hotel.

And, I must just say, the book opener, “Thirsty Creatures,” has a bang-up attention grabber of a first line: ‘The trees were fire and the skies were panicked birds and the horse was made of bone.’ I mean, dang, how can you NOT read on after a hello like that?

-Christine Morgan

MY PRETTIES by Jeff Strand (2019 Amazon Digital Services / 263 pp / trade paperback & eBook) 

Alright, folks. We all know this author has become one of my personal favorites in the past couple of years and with the release of this new dark Crime/Horror/Thriller mash-up, I stand by that statement 100%. This is arguably and quite possibly Strand at his finest. Dark and twisted, sad and traumatic, funny, violent, and entertaining with a number of brilliant plot twists, all of the usual characteristics found in the author’s previous work and then some.

Two new friends from work embark on a dangerous quest to pursue the whereabouts of a missing family member they believe was kidnapped by a sick and perverted serial killer. As they begin to troll the area in hopes of finding this deranged man, that’s where things begin to get, well, interesting, as they might just find out exactly what they set out to do. Which, I guess in a perfect world, might be all fun and games, but not when you’re dealing with somebody that gets off on kidnapping and caging women to simply sit back and watch them starve to death! But, we all know you can’t have your sadistic cake and eat it too… Or, maybe you can. I guess you’ll have to read it and find out for yourself.

My Pretties is a Horror and Crime Thriller that's sure to provoke and entertain the darkest of minds. Proceed with caution.

-Jon R. Meyers

ERIE TALES X: MASQUERADE edited by Michael Cieslak (2017 Great Lakes Association of Horror Writers / 94 pp / trade paperback)

The tenth anniversary installment from the GLAHW only includes five stories, but one of those was so downright fantastic it blew me away, and is alone more than worth the price of admission, and so I am just going to start off raving about it.

“Rites of Passage,” by Cassie Carnage, is a dystopian vision of the future that the alt-right thinks the liberal snowflake SJWs want. Emotions are strictly regulated, ‘triggering’ is a crime, misgendering or assuming someone’s gender is a dreadful offense, all opinions must be respected and validated, all communications are monitored, and everyone must be protected from anything even potentially hurtful.

To accommodate this, children all wear identical masks to hide facial expressions and reactions. At age 13, those masks are surgically replaced with permanent ones to ensure conformity and compliance. Told from the perspective of an apprehensive kid on the eve of the pivotal birthday, it is terrifying and excellently written and just phenomenal.

Doesn’t help that the subject matter only makes it more ironic I feel bad about my fair-to-middlin’s responses to the others, but, here we are. The other stories are fine, each delivering their own take on the anthology’s ‘masquerade’ theme of secrets, concealment, and hiding in plain sight.

Which, as it happens, is the title of Peggy Christie’s fun book-opening story – “Hiding in Plain Sight” – about how having a job at a cemetery can be both useful and economical when you’re a creature of unconventional appetites.

J.M. VanHorn’s “Promise” has a young girl looking for her lost dog run into a helpful stranger in an abandoned house, only to then find out the stranger isn’t as helpful as she seems.

In “Sea of Hats,” by Montilee Stormer, the view from the church balcony conceals some unpleasant truths about the congregation.

Finishing things off is Mark Matthews’ “Mask of Sanity,” exploring the wonderful world of psychiatry, medications, and those persistent pharmaceutical reps.

-Christine Morgan

WORSHIP ME by Craig Stewart (2017 Hellbound Books / 356 pp / trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)

I’m pretty sure I was supposed to sympathize with the character who starts off this book running over a feral mama cat and just being relieved at least it wasn’t one of the kittens and driving along while tossing a half-eaten muffin out the window as a ‘sorry my bad’ … but daaaang. All the negative reacts. The character’s later behavior, no matter how played-up-as-heroic/noble/self-sacrificing, did zilch to ameliorate that.

Nor, really, did the behavior of many of the other characters. What an awful group of people! Church people, no less, gathering for their Sunday service, but almost every single one of them was icky or unlikeable one way or another. Sanctimonious, hypocritical, hiding their own sins, gossipy, unkind, the list goes on.

When they all get trapped in the church by a malevolent force claiming to be their new god, you know right off the bat they are going to turn on each other with vicious quickness. And they sure do. With shades of King’s Storm of the Century, they’re given a time limit and a harsh decision to make. Pick one to offer up, or everyone dies.

In the meanwhile, anybody who tries to escape gets brutally, bloodily punished. Even those who give themselves over to this new god are mutilated and marked in blood. The gory sequences are very gory indeed, graphic and wallow-in-it, with some grisly creative maimings in the best splattery tradition.

Here and there, I had a few logistical problems with the setting … for a single building, even one with a large basement, there sure was a lot of screaming and destruction and other noise going on … and the scenes with the fire didn’t seem terribly plausible.

The ending delivers an interesting not-what-I-expected twist, and, if nothing else, pretty much all the awful characters get what they deserve, so it’s quite satisfying on those levels.

-Christine Morgan

KRONOS RISING: KRAKEN by Max Hawthorne (2018 Far From the Tree Press / 555 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook)

Arrrrgh I knew it I knew it, reading along getting closer and closer to the end with more and more buildup and that looming sense of “To Be Continued incoming in 3, 2, 1 ...” and sure enough there at the end is the coming soon Volume 2 announcement. AAAARRRGH.

Then again, I had a feeling, since KRONOS RISING is an ongoing series, this one taking place a generation after the original (reviewed earlier; I seem to have missed a few in the interim but was able to fill in the blanks well enough).

Upside, though, there’s a whole ‘nuther book to look forward to next, one with all the pieces in place for some of the biggest blockbuster special effects sea-monster chompiness of all time. There’s always a bigger fish, right? Or shark. Or marine reptile. Or cephalopod. Or all of the above.

Even on its own, that’d be fun, but when humans have to get involved, you know things are going to get even wilder. Maybe more sci-fi high-tech dino thriller than horror, it takes some of the lessons nobody ever learned in Jurassic Park about thinking we can control nature, and putting too much faith in our technology, and ups the voltage exponentially.

There’s also a whole lot of testosterone in this book, but the manliness of the manly-mens is more than matched by the assertiveness and sexual aggression of the take-no-crap Amazon womens (a critique I had of the earlier one had to do with its sausage-fest-ness). Everyone’s larger than life, exaggerated in one way or another. The sexy people are insatiable sex-beasts, withy plenty of equal-opportunity ogling. The sleazy people are gross almost to the point of absurdity.

It’s got secret bases and giant octopi and submarines and neural implants to use pliosaurs like mechas, it’s leading up to the ultimate aquatic smackdown, and it’s gonzo good action fun.

-Christine Morgan

THE WATCHFUL DEAD by Joe Pawlowski (2019 Glint Media / 199 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

It’s probably typical to see a title like this and more often than not think “zombies,” but in this case the assumption would be way off base. There’s only technically one reanimated corpse, which doesn’t appear until fairly late in the book, and even then is far from your usual zombie.

Ghosts, on the other hand … and the more general presence of the dead in terms of respecting the wishes of those who’ve passed … those feature much more prominently. But even so, this is no more a ghost book than it is a zombie book.

Well okay then, you might be thinking, what the heck kind of book IS it? That’s where things get tricky, because it’s hard to classify. Not cosmic horror per se, but with strong Mythos elements. Cosmic dark fantasy? Cosmic post-apocalyptic dark fantasy? It’d be perfect for gaming in, anyway.

A medieval-ish society’s arisen in the wake of the return of the Old Gods (including Dagon, though interestingly depicted as a female). Mythos-type monsters like night gaunts are mentioned, as are familiar names from the lore. Magic is rare but real. People have been broken into tribes of more diverse races and castes.

In the city of Hastur, Ring’s family are slavers, but his father and uncle have loftier ambitions. Political ambitions, which they hope to attain by some fairly sneaky, roundabout methods involving pirates and a captured island witch with the power to awaken the dead.

Little do they anticipate the wider fallout that’ll ensue, not only from deceased relatives but murder victims, the slaves they’ve sold who came to untimely ends, and the greater repercussions when it stirs the notice of the gods.

Now, it might also be an easy leap to expect Ring’s the classic chosen-one destined hero type who’ll undertake the big quest to save the world and all, but it breaks away from that tired old trope too. All in all, it’s a gutsy, ambitious, skillful exploration of cosmic/epic dark fantasy that brings something new to both facets of the genres.

-Christine Morgan

SUBJECT 11 by Jeffrey Thomas (2014 CreateSpace / 114 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook)

You know those little sleeper indie films that get hardly any buzz but when you watch them on a whim or a recommendation, it turns out to be a stunningly brilliant, eerily effective, blow-your-socks-off solid gold winner?

This is one of those, only in book form. For now. It NEEDS to be a movie. It wouldn’t even need a big budget. A rundown derelict hospital-type facility, some creepy graffiti paint, minimal props, less than a dozen actors, and boom. Winner. Someone get on that.

So you’ve got ten people who signed up as test subjects, the way people do … seems like a good deal at first, right? Spend a while in an abandoned building with no external contact or communications, adhering to rules of anonymity even among themselves (going by numbers instead of names), taking daily unknown medications, etc. At the end, four thousand dollars compensation.

Nothing too strange about that. Minus the medications, we’ve seen reality shows aplenty along those lines – and c’mon if there was a mystery drug trial version of Big Brother or something, it’d probably be mad popular.

Then, of course, things start to go weird. They start to question their own memories and perceptions. None of the participants know if it’s the medications, if it’s psychological tricks being played on them by their unseen test-masters, or what. But didn’t there used to be more of them? Was the graffiti always like that? What’s with the room with the creepy doll’s heads?

Just as the characters are questioning and second-guessing, so too will be the reader. I found myself wanting to skip back and check on continuity details, sure that such-and-such COULDN’T be a mistake because this author is a stone-cold pro who doesn’t make bloopers; it HAD to be deliberate …

Packed with insidious tension and unfolding paranoia, gripping, brilliantly written, a definite winner.

-Christine Morgan