Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Reviews for the Week of September 16, 2019

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're on a cell phone it may not be visible. Boot up the lap top, amigo ...


THE PALE WHITE by Chad Lutzke (to be released 9/27/19 by Crystal Lake Publishing  / 85 pp / eBook)

For the past year, Stacia has been the captive of a demented predator who keeps her locked in an attic. Along with goth girl Alex and a young mute named Kammie, they're only allowed to come down to the second floor to be used as sex toys for a host of pedophiles and other lowlifes. Alex and Kammie have been there much longer than Stacia, until one day when Alex comes up with a plan to escape their perverted pimp.

This short but powerful story is a dark coming of age tale that reminded me a bit of Jack Ketchum, but at this point Lutzke has created his own voice, and the second half of the story, while suspenseful, will leave readers hopeful and satisfied. Most of THE PALE WHITE deals with the aftermath of a tragedy, and I see many tears being shed through this journey, and what our girls go through is the fuel of every parent's worst nightmare.

Brutal, exciting, disturbing and heartbreaking, Lutzke has become a master of the horror novella form. No filler, a strong cast, and plenty to say about family relationships (both biological and chosen) makes this a must read.

-Nick Cato

DARK LANTERN OF THE SPIRIT by Max Beaven (2019 IP / 168 pp / trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)

Weird western cosmic horror, always fun! Buddy-cop style with recurring characters, extra points! Everything told first-person in a sort of nesting doll frame narrative with letters and such, a little confusing overall but it more or less works.

The place is Casper, Wyoming, a rough-and-dusty frontier town. The year is 1897. Transplanted New-Englander Arthur Wilson is still considered something of an outsider even after six years as a deputy sheriff. Now, with some unknown menace threatening the locals, he has to call in another outsider for help.

Scholar and occultist Benjamin Hathorne, comfortably at home in Massachusetts, may be ill-suited to venture out west, but for the sake of an old friend and a mystery to solve, he’ll do it. Even loaded up with arcane knowledge and some useful items, however, he’s not quite prepared for what’s waiting in the wilderness.

Add in gutsy ranchers, helpful natives, a winsome young lady who might be the key to unlocking Arthur’s broken heart, and the eldritch stirrings of an ancient and terrible power, and the duo have got their work more than cut out for them.

-Christine Morgan

THE CRYMOST by Dean H. Wild (2019 Blood Bound Books / 278 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

There’s just something so compelling about the small town with mysterious secrets I never get tired of, and this book provides another solid addition to the sub-genre. I picked up comfortable notes of King’s work, Castle Rock and Salem’s Lot and the one from Under the Dome in particular, that feeling the town itself is a living and ensouled entity, a character in its own story.

This time, the town in question is called Knoll, a quaint and charming peaceful little place. Some of the local families date back to its founding, enjoying their position of history and tradition, maybe a tad resistant to new things and change, but not necessarily unfriendly to newcomers.

They mostly all keep to their own business, with occasional flare-ups of petty grudges and scandals, and events like an upcoming vote involving the fate of the old mercantile are the big all-consuming news. Humble and prosaic, right?

Except then there’s the Crymost … a peculiar feature up in the hills out by the landfill … a rearing limestone ledge overlooking a drop into a deep spring-fed pool … where the people of Knoll bring their offerings. Part sacrificial cenote, part wishing well, part memorial to the dead, there’s no telling what items of strong personal meaning may end up dropped from the height.

And, now, items are reappearing. Items that have been gone for years, even decades, to the depths of the pool. A dark-suited stranger has been seen around. Inspections at the landfill turn up a problem that may bring in hosts of outsiders. Odd messages and odd occurrences lead some of the Knollfolk to realize something powerful is building, and they’re in a race against time to solve the mystery before it’s too late.

Entertaining and intriguing, with many interesting characters who often do surprisingly sensible things (and some who make entirely understandable bad choices); I particularly liked the visuals and poignant touches of the various offering items.

-Christine Morgan

THE SHADOWS BEHIND by Kristi Petersen Schoonover (2019 Books and Boos Press / 301 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Seventeen unsettling, well-written, strongly female-themed stories make up this collection. For the most part, they seem to range between the exotic to the everyday, but every now and then along comes a surprise turn toward bizarro.

For the exotic: archaeologists at a volcanic ash dig site, Egyptian antiquities extending their dangerous influence, hula hauntings and haunted Hawaiian art (hey, for me, Hawaii counts as exotic!), the addition of a rare Madagascar plant to a suburban garden, and an occult oracle in the form of a mummified fish.

For the everyday: a small-town librarian troubled by omens and visions, kid disappearances and a family with a secret, a guilty return to the ol’ swimming hole, a grieving mother no longer fitting in with her friends, a too-creepy flash piece about fearing the dark, a town overrun by kudzu.

As for the bizarre, 'Snake in the Grass' has this irresistible grabber of an opening line: "Twenty-one years after I was the first girl to get boobs in fifth grade, I woke up with a penis." I mean, whoa hello what? Then there’s the post-apocalypticy bizarro of 'Deconstructing Fireflies,' in which a farmer’s wife is concerned about her son’s interests … and 'How I Stopped Complaining and Learned to Love the Bunny,' because those plastic holiday statues aren’t disturbing enough already.

I had two tied-for-faves this time around, though maybe not so much because I enjoyed them as because I found them powerful, painful, emotionally difficult reads. One was 'Doors,' maybe because I too am getting on in years and facing the uncomfortable eventual contemplation of having to clear out the ancestral hoarder-home some day; daunting enough even without there being secret purpose to the clutter. The other, 'The Thing Inside,' is a difficult and potentially painful read, involving a couple mourning their stillborn baby, but then adds in alcoholism and jackalopes and possible insanity.

All in all, potent stuff, well-written, with characters it’s easy to empathize with even as they’re doing terrible things.

-Christine Morgan

TERMINAL by Michaelbrent Collings (2019 Written Insomnia Press / 329 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

The “bunch of random people thrown together in a bad situation” is one of the most fun tropes out there to play with. It’s not knowing who people are and what they’re capable of. It’s how much to hide, how much to reveal, how much to cooperate, how far to go, how much to everyone-for-him/herself.

Usually, these work best when set in common neutral-ground or liminal in-between travel places, where anybody could be for whatever reason.

This time, it’s a small out-of-the-way bus terminal, in the dragging late hours. A few of the characters work there or are locals, but the others are unknown elements just passing through. Or so it seems at first; sometimes there are hidden connections, invisible threads linking lives.

Just imagine, there you are, waiting at the bus terminal. Waiting for your shift to end, waiting for a bus to arrive, waiting and waiting. Observing the people around you but not really interacting with them … until, suddenly, (bleep) gets real. Instead of a place for waiting, the terminal becomes a prison, a trap.

Not by any natural disaster or ordinary danger, either. Paranormal things are afoot. Ominous messages suggest the only way to get through the night is to do the ultimate vote-off. One person may live. Everyone has to decide. It’s got to be unanimous. All in favor.

Collings, always deft and adept with characters, does a fantastic teeth-gritting job of building sympathy and intrigue, suspicion and suspense, growth and change even within. Secrets are revealed, and stark nasty truths. And, for even the most decent among them, the idea of making the choice easier by eliminating the competition is a short and tempting logical leap.

Another gripping white-knuckler, I read it at one sitting, kept changing my mind who I was rooting for, and gasped aloud several times at expertly-done twists.

-Christine Morgan

THE FAITHFUL by Matt Hayward (2018 Sinister Grin Press / 269 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook)

The “small town creepy cult” is another of the most fun tropes to play with, and this time it’s Matt Hayward’s turn to bring the rustic inexplicable weird. The small town in question is Elswich, North Carolina, very much off the beaten track, where grubbiness, poverty, intolerance, abuse, and plain downright meanness are pretty much the rule of the day.

So, not the nicest of places to start with, even before factoring in disappearances and bloody sacrifices and horrible physical abnormalities. Into this charming scene arrives Jonesy, a rambling long-haired type with a guitar … needless to say, he doesn’t receive the best welcome from the locals.

He’s got a particular reason for being here, though: tracking down the ex he ran out on when she got pregnant twelve years ago. Meeting his biological son starts off difficult and goes downhill from there, until Jonesy is on the run with the kid, trying to get them both out of town before anyone’s killed.

Meanwhile, retiring comedian Leo Carmichael has just done his final show and is ready to hit the road in his new RV. After a cryptic but intriguing meeting with a disabled fan, he decides to follow up on those rumors of dreams and strange occurrences in Elswich, and finds a reception no warmer than Jonesy did.

Eager to leave, he’s nonetheless kind enough to stop to pick up a guy and his kid, and then they’re all in it together with half the town’s monstrous population hot on their heels. They soon realize the only way to escape is to turn around and confront the evil at its source, because the dark powers at work in Elswich have already marked them all.

-Christine Morgan

DAHMER'S NOT DEAD by Edward Lee and Elizabeth Steffen (2011 Necro Publications / 248 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook)

Ashamed of myself, diehard Lee fangirl that I am, that this one had slipped by me unnoticed for so long. But, with it being the book club discussion title of the month on “The Horror Show With Brian Keene” (yes, plug for the podcast; if you’re not listening, you should be, it’s excellent!), I knew I had to set things right and pronto.

Now, some might think the combination of one of the flat-out freakydeakiest and feared serial killers of our time with the no-holds-barred graphic language and singular style of Edward Lee would make for a gooshy gory graphic splatfest like none other. And some might be turned off by the idea, tempted to give this one a miss no matter how popular all those murder shows are now.

Well, let me assure you, as Lee stuff goes, especially given the subject matter here, the results are tempered and balanced (Ms Steffen’s influence, I presume) and milder than one might expect. Milder, but still, we are talking about murder and cannibalism here, so let’s not get too comfy, okay?

Our protagonist here is Helen Closs, a police captain facing maybe a few too many stereotypical struggles – career woman trying to prove herself and be taken seriously in a male-dominated field, commitment and trust issues with her boyfriend and her therapist, plus OMG she’s forty so menopause so end of sexuality and looks going downhill (though we are informed of her bra size; that’s probably Lee’s doing). I kinda wanted to smack her.

Her latest case involves Dahmer’s apparent death in prison, beaten to an unrecognizable pulp by a fellow inmate. But there are questions and concerns, discrepancies, right from the start, beginning with getting a positive ID of the body. Further complications quickly arise with new murders. A copycat, obviously … or is it? The evidence suggests otherwise. Was there a switcheroo? Did Dahmer escape and immediately start up his old tricks again?

Helen’s own part in the investigation is further complicated by the fact her boyfriend, who she’s just accused of cheating on her and thrown out, is the medical examiner in charge of the autopsy … a little extra workplace awkwardness. There’s also the media furor, especially once the killer – copycat or the real deal? – starts leaving notes, and various persons of interest turn up missing or meet convenient bad ends.

IS Dahmer dead? Read and find out!

-Christine Morgan

EXPERIMENT NINE by Eric Ian Steele (2018 Solstice Publishing / 342 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

A little disconcertingly, the word “vampire” doesn’t seem to appear in this book. Not even in a “there’s no such thing as” speech by some blustering disbeliever after the exsanguinated bodies start turning up, although it’s presented in other ways as our own usual world.

Now, granted, these aren’t your traditional folklore cape-and-coffin vampires, but the blood-drinking is there, the near-immortality, the vulnerability to sunlight, the ability to create others of their own kind, the compelling mental powers, etc. But their origin here is more clinical and sinister, the results of science that turned out to work a little too well … then, of course, they get out.

The original escapees from the Tower have no memories of their former lives or selves. They go on the run, needing to feed and stay hidden, and to increase their numbers to replace those they’ve lost. Trouble is, there are only so many ways to cover up a growing string of grisly deaths and mysterious disappearances.

Detective Mike Hanlon (the name, same as a King character, admittedly kept throwing me off) is a Brooklyn cop relocated to Iowa, dealing with his difficult issues. This bizarre case gives him a goal, and he’s determined to track down the killers even as more and more bizarre evidence piles up, no matter the risks to his career and his life.

Throw in shadowy agencies trying to bring the situation back under control, a survivor/witness who’s lost his entire family, and the dark history of the doctors behind the experiments, and it’s no wonder the trails all eventually lead back to a final confrontation where it all began.

-Christine Morgan


Monday, September 2, 2019

Reviews for the Week of September 2, 2019

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

IN THE SCRAPE by James Newman and Mark Steensland (2019 Silver Shamrock Publishing / 108 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

In this engrossing novella, two young brothers live in an isolated North Carolina community with their abusive father. He has told them their mother left for California because she no longer wanted to be a mom, but neither boy is buying it and they plan to run away and find her. Jake begins stealing to afford bus tickets, and younger brother Matthew goes along with him apprehensively, until he realizes they need to get away from their dad before his beatings become fatal.

Also causing problems is neighborhood bully Caleb, who Jake eventually puts in the hospital, which leads to further complications once the brothers put their escape plan into action.

Part coming of age story, part thriller with some genuinely tense moments, IN THE SCRAPE is another solid tale from the writing team of Newman and Steensland (whose previous novella, THE SPECIAL, is currently being made into a film). I blasted through this in one manic sitting and found everything had an authentic feel, even the slight hint of the supernatural.

-Nick Cato

GHOST STORIES: CLASSIC STORIES OF HORROR AND SUSPENSE edited by Lisa Morton and Leslie Klinger (2019 Pegasus Books / 260 pp / hardcover & eBook)

Every now and then, it’s good to go back and appreciate our roots, get a better appreciation of where we are and where we came from. Especially when the subject is horror, so often undervalued and overlooked in literary circles.

Where better to begin than the classic ghost story? This volume collects seventeen of the earliest published tales, as well as opening with an example of the kind of haunting poetic ballad where the sub-genre used to mostly hang its spectral hat.

Many of these were familiar to me, even if I hadn’t read them in years. Others, somehow, I’d entirely missed, and was glad to finally catch up on. We’ve got Poe’s “Ligeia,” of course … works by M.R. James and Wilkie Collins, Dickens himself. We’ve got stories by Edith Wharton, Olivia Howard Dunbar, Georgia Wood Pangborn, Charlotte Riddell, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, further proving the shouldn’t-have-to-be-proved-anyway point that ladies have ALWAYS been doing this as long and just as well as the gents.

In fact, it’s Phelps’ “Since I Died” that takes the prize for my top pick of the book; wonderfully written, can’t believe I’d never seen it before, some fantastic use of first- and second-person perspective, fabulous descriptions, really hits home with the chilling emotional resonance.

Readers only accustomed to contemporary fast-paced hard-hitting fiction might find these oldies a bit on the slow and rambling/meandering side, but they make up for it with mood, atmosphere, stylishly beautiful turns of phrase, and artfulness the likes of which it’s rare to see these days.

The introduction, and helpful footnotes included throughout, serve to provide a more scholarly academic touch. The history of ghost stories, mediums, and the Spiritualism movement add an extra dimension, making for a satisfying educational experience as well as an entertaining one.

-Christine Morgan

I DREAM OF MIRRORS by Chris Kelso (2019 Sinister Horror Company / 158 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I tell ya, I like to think of myself as fairly smart and savvy and generally together in the brainmeats department, until along comes a book like this and I end up feeling mighty out of my depth. In a good way, though; a profound makes-you-think way. This one isn’t a casual time-passer or idle distraction.

I read it all the way through in one studious sitting, and still came out the other end wondering how much had gone whoosh right over my head. Complex and multi-layered with social satire and commentary, it may seem on the surface to be a survival struggle in a digital-era dystopia … at least, that’s how it seemed to me … but maybe not.

So, do be aware I could be getting it all entirely wrong. This is all only as I perceived it, for whatever that’s worth.

Our main character is a narrator so unreliable even he no longer knows who he is, existing as one of the few remaining ‘dark-dwellers’ not yet indoctrinated into the mindless zombie-like personality cult worshipping a charismatic new leader and slavishly serving the new world order. He’s teamed up with, and secretly fallen for, a tough young woman named Kad. They seek shelter and supplies in abandoned parts of the city, trying to avoid being taken into the fold by any new broadcasts or transmissions.

When a mistake leads to their partnership breaking, our ill-prepared protagonist is suddenly out on the streets on his own. In true and openly-acknowledged Ahab-allegory fashion, he sets out to confront the would-be messiah, only to find out that reality is even weirder than he could have suspected.

-Christine Morgan

SUSPENDED IN DUSK II edited by Simon Dewar (2018 Grey Matter Press / 282 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Gorgeous book. Dean Samed cover, so, no wonder … sometimes that tired old adage about judging just plain doesn’t work. His art is mind-blowing in all the right ways, helping to set the perfect mood and tone for the stories gathered herein.

Those stories – of which there are seventeen – share a common general theme of ‘change,’ of the between, times and spaces and places of transition and crossing. Beyond that, they range from quiet to visceral, smoothly spanning eras, settings, and genres with masterful skill.

Masterful, and no wonder on that either! The authors included are some definite top-tier pros. Just glancing over their “about the” sections, the well-earned and well-deserved credentials, education, accolades and accomplishments are sure to impress (or intimidate, or make-one-feel-inadequate, but I digress).

Editor Simon Dewar’s foreword, and Angela Slatter’s introduction examining how we’re the only species to deliberately seek to scare ourselves on purpose (what is *wrong* with us?), also nicely help set the tone, as well as establish the professional creds of the book.

And then, let the unsettlings begin! Starting off with Karen Runge’s “Angeline,” which swiftly goes from an innocent-enough-seeming-but-also-kinda-creepy first line to decidedly creepy, to deeply creepy, to downright screaming eeks. Yow.

Next up is a terrifying tale of an all-too-real fear courtesy of Damien Angelica Walters, and if I repeat too many more times how she has yet to write anything less than amazing, she’ll probably take out a restraining order. Then Alan Baxter, whom I fully expect to have a movie or Netflix deal soon, takes on teens and the darker corners of the internet.

Plus more, so much more … poetic graveyard art, followed by a little loving cannibalism … ghost walks and terrible bargains … the trapped doom of claustrophobia … lost children, strange legacies … demon-summonings gone awry and sacrifices demanded … folklore, fairy-tales and mythology reaching into the modern world …

Yeah, this one’s another winner!

-Christine Morgan

NIGHT OF THE POSSUMS by Jacob Floyd (2018 Nightmare Press / 296 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

A pivotal, formative part of my childhood was nature-run-amok creature-feature horror, thanks to a shelf of paperbacks my grandmother made my grandfather keep out in the garage. I spent a lot of time out there, reading about dogs and rats and snakes and slugs. In later years, I edited an anthology of similar tales with some less-likely critters (geckos, chihuahuas, crabs, platypuses, murderous blades of grass even!).

So, you better believe it, when a book called Night of the Possums comes along, I am totally there! Whether reviled as trash-goblin vermin, underrated as helpful bug-eaters, or simply misunderstood urban wildlife, they have one of the most divisive reputations in the animal kingdom as far as we humans are concerned.

Not so surprising, then, if they might eventually decide they’d had enough. Enough scrounging through our garbage. Enough being trapped by exterminators and targeted for roadkill. Welcome to a world where possums – or opossums, depending; the distinction is addressed in the book – are plenty pissed, and ready to serve up some payback.

Anybody who might scoff over how much damage a possum would do has clearly never cornered one in an alley or basement. In numbers? And we’re talking NUMBERS, no mere pack of possums but the full-on possum apocalypse. We’re also talking some possums that are far from ordinary in other ways. Bigger. Smarter. Purposeful.

For the people of one small town, what at first seems like random bear maulings or even a roving psycho soon proves to be far more than anyone could have bargained for. It’s a hissing, clawing, biting, screeching bloodbath fight for survival. Total B-movie schlock from start to finish, exactly as it should be.

-Christine Morgan

POP THE CLUTCH: THRILLING TALES OF ROCKABILLY, MONSTERS, AND HOT ROD HORROR edited by Eric J. Guignard (2019 Dark Moon Books / 356 pp / eBook)

Rockabilly horror stories? ROCKABILLY HORROR STORIES!!! Really, is there anything more that needs be said? I mean, I’ll say more anyway because it’s how I roll.

Maybe it was your scene, back in the day. Maybe you grew up hooked on Grease, or watched Cry Baby one too many times, or wanted to be Fonzie when you grew up. For my own fondness, I blame Brian Setzer and the Stray Cats.

However it happened, there’s just something so ridiculously 50’s Americana about it all, so over the top and outrageous, malt shops and car hops, hep cats and hot-rods, so brash, so loud, so tacky. These eighteen stories embody all of it, plus delving into the darker side where drag races and drive-ins turn deadly, but rock and roll will never die … ever … no matter what you do.

And look at this lineup! These are the total T-Birds and Pink Ladies of the genre, the cool kids in school. They got the Lansdales! Both Weston Ochse AND Yvonne Navarro! Class clown extraordinaire Jeff Strand! David-freakin-SCHOW! Lisa-freakin-MORTON! Seanan-are-you-kidding-me-MCGUIRE!!!

But, honestly, it’s simple enough – if you like rockabilly (with or without horror), you need this book. And if you don’t, well, your loss, squares and sad-sacks!

-Christine Morgan

AFTER THE CHANGE by Michael J. Moore (2019 MKM Bridge Press / 286 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

It’s not zombies, though, even if the book’s protagonists have a hard time convincing anybody else of that. As far as teenagers Wes, Cali, and Diego are concerned, the unfortunate victims of the mysterious event are just ‘changed.’

Well, not just changed. It’s a murderous infected/crazies pandemic scenario. The reader doesn’t get much in the way of explanation, which makes sense because neither do the characters. The cause, the contagion vector, none of that matters. What matters is staying sane, staying safe, and not getting killed or eaten.

With a military/mercenary group scouring the countryside for resources and recruits, and a cultish bunch with a charismatic leader holed up in a grocery store, the teens soon learn it’s not only the changed that pose a threat.

The main characters seem awfully mature for fifteen-year-olds, even under the circumstances … the supporting characters are for the most part pretty bland, and there are a few too many convenient nick-of-time or lucky saves for my taste. But it’s decently written and sound enough.

Best part for me was seeing an apocalypse-survival story set in the area north of Seattle; I used to live in Everett WA, so all those familiar locations and placenames made for an entertaining journey.

-Christine Morgan


Capturing the spirit of those late-night, low-budget, monstorama-theater creature features, hearkening back to the days when ghoulish hosts would introduce the fright night chills and thrills, this is a collection of several little stories written as homage to those.

Like their inspirational source material, these aren’t the most tightly plotted or plausible tales, nor do they have to be. They’re goofy fun, written in a way that brings them to grainy, black-and-white life … with the static of an old television set, or the film-sputteriness of a bargain matinee.

You’ve got your basic mad scientists, absent-minded professors, run-down castles, winsome beauties, intelligent inspectors, manly military men, folksy locals whose warnings go ignored, aliens and weird experiments, plucky kids with pluckier robot friends, rampant patriotic fervor, jet-packs, gloomy moonlit woods, tough teens pitting hotrods against unnatural menaces, the works.

Even for what it is, the book maybe could’ve used a little more editor-type polish, but its charm makes the flaws almost like seeing the wires holding the tin plate spaceships or the zipper down the monster’s back. Light-hearted popcorn fun. I’d watch any of these for a cheesy movie party night.

-Christine Morgan