Monday, November 11, 2019

Reviews for the Week of November 11, 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 unless you switch to 'desktop mode,' or better yet, break out your laptop, baby...

MERCILESS by Bryan Smith (2019 Grindhouse Press / 163 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Bryan Smith has recently become one of my favorite extreme horror authors. I’ve been hooked ever since I read and watched the movie 68 KILL, which while I’m on the subject, felt as if this title could also easily become a great setting for another violent horror thriller much in the same light. Smith has a very bold, original, and unique voice, as well as an uncanny ability to tell one hell of a dark and violent and twisted tale. From his short stories to his longer works, the author victoriously manages to bring us something morbidly nice and eerily original time and time again. 

When a newlywed couple hits the road for their honeymoon things quickly take a turn for the worse. Well, maybe the better? For better or for worse? Isn’t that how these types of marital relationship things usually go? Well, whatever the case is…this couple turns their honeymoon into something much more memorable. Like a bloodbath when they kidnap a total stranger and take him to a cabin in the woods to torture him. Together. For better or for worse with this violent prenuptial agreement. Do they both have what it takes to show their undevoted love for each other? Are they even being completely honest with each other? Only time will tell when you pick this one up and read it for yourself.

With plenty of sadistic, violent twists and turns, this one is sure to have you turning those dirty, sticky, stuck together pages rather quick.

-Jon R. Meyers

THE NIGHT AND THE LAND by Matt Spencer (2019 Back Roads Carnival Books / 362 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

My suppositions and expectations bounced me all over the place going into this one. By the title, I was thinking it’d be dark fantasy, but then the first line’s about a Jeep and murders, so then I thought slasher, but then there’s hints about a hidden war so I leaned toward some kind of vamps-vs-wolves thing … and by the time I realized it wasn’t exactly any of those, I was hooked.

Story starts with Rob, whose dad has a secretive past and mysterious friends he’s worked to keep from his son, even though said past is very much a part of Rob’s own life and future. Then we skip ahead a few years to meet Sally, a runaway with her own secret-laden past, struggling to survive on the streets and stay ahead of who’s chasing her.

Now, my guess that they’d end up the classic star-crossed lovers did prove true, when their chance meeting and attraction proves curiously disturbing yet irresistible to them both. What Sally knows but Rob doesn’t is that they’re each from opposite sides of that hidden war, and should by rights be mortal enemies.

Seems like everyone else Rob runs into also knows way more about his bloodline and place in the world, not to mention the powerful potentials he’s only accidentally begun to tap. Once he and Sally have connected, everything speeds up and escalates into all sorts of violent mayhem.

In the normal scheme of things, his kind is driven to fight, destroy, and devour hers. Something’s different about her, though, and he finds himself protecting her from her own murderous (and kind of delightfully screwed-up psychotic) family.

My personal favorite character is Puttergong, a wisecracking smartass potty-mouthed impish ‘familiar’ who gets assigned to Rob but seems to have his own sometimes less-than-helpful agenda.

-Christine Morgan

THE LONG SHADOWS OF OCTOBER by Kristopher Triana (2019 Grindhouse Press / 250 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

What would you get if you combined a raunchy teen-sex-romp party movie with a haunted house ruled by a vengeful lust-fueled evil? You’d get an unforgettable NC-17 read packed with tempted virgins, tormented spirits, grisly surprises, and the ultimate showdown of female-empowered sensuality. In other words, you’d get this book!

When rebel Joe and jock Danny hatch a plan to get Joe’s little brother finally laid, they never could have predicted how it’d all end up. The offer to housesit at Snowden Manor, complete with pool and hot tub and access to the wine cellar – and for generous pay to boot! – seems way too good to be true, but you’d better believe they jump at the chance.

It IS too good to be true. Mrs. Snowden has a darker reason for hiring on some virile youths to look after the place. The time of power and sacrifice is rolling around again, and like any caring mother, she only wants the best for her dear daughter. She also prefers to be well out of town for a solid alibi.

As soon as the guys settle in, it’s open season on their hormones and desires. It’s also open season on their girlfriends, because what walks in Snowden Manor has a really nasty jealous streak and doesn’t want to share her boy-toys. It might just be up to the innocent ones to save the day … if they can.

I remain greatly impressed by how well Triana writes female characters, even and especially in the extreme horror/smut arenas. They are the real driving force here, believable and relatable, from the elderly lady to the kid sister, from the school slut to the squeaky-clean good girl. (that said, though, my absolute favorite character in the whole book was Horace!)

Didn’t I say a few reviews ago that here was a rising superstar, an author to watch? With THE LONG SHADOWS OF OCTOBER, I’m proved right once again.

-Christine Morgan

CHILOPODOPHOBIA by Paul McMahon (2019 Grinning Skull Press / 156 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

As if anyone needed another reason to not drink and drive, along comes CHILOPODOPHOBIA (say that 5 times fast!) which should be required reading for those taking their learner permit exam (or any horror fan looking for a satisfying creep-out).

Several years after causing an auto accident that claimed an innocent life, Cady (who has started his life over in another part of the country) agrees to meet his girlfriend's uncle, who happens to be her only living relative. Although he agrees to go, he's apprehensive one or both of them may question him about the accident he was miraculously not held responsible for, and tension builds as he wonders what he would say to them. And shortly after arriving at the uncle's home, Cady discovers answering questions about his past life will be the least of his worries.

While the cover art (not to mention the title) for this one had me expecting a HUMAN CENTIPEDE-type tale, McMahon goes off in a different direction and evokes the spirit of classic creepy-crawly terror films such as SQUIRM and KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS, albeit with more dread than any of those types of films would be envious of.

McMahon delivers a fine blend of suspense and gross-out horror that's definitely not for the squeamish, and while McMahon's work has been featured in several anthologies, his first book has announced a rising talent who's obviously taking no prisoners.

-Nick Cato

EARWORM by Aaron Thomas Milstead (2019 Blood Bound Books / 224 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Don’t get too comfy anticipating this is going to just be about getting catchy little songs stuck in your head. Oh, no. No, no, no. This is a more literal kind of earworm. The crawls-in-gets-comfy psychic kind, moving from host to host. Think Star Trek, think The Hidden, you get the idea.

Our protagonist, ironically enough, is an exterminator who’s already having a rough time. Not only is he separated from his wife and rarely allowed to see his daughter, he’s recently been diagnosed with a terminal condition. Keeping the news to himself to avoid pity, he goes on about his business, showing up at a routine pest-control call.

But there’s nothing routine about finding a freshly-killed corpse. While checking to see if the guy’s really dead, he feels a weird little tickle by his ear but thinks nothing of it … mostly because just then the murderer comes in with a gas can, and our protagonist decides to make himself scarce without realizing he’s picked up a little hitchhiker.

Then he does start experiencing the catchy-tune kind of earworm, plus odd dreams, as his passenger attempts to establish mental contact. Soon enough, he’s getting the whole story. It turns out the relationship isn’t strictly one-sided; that whole terminal disease thing stops being a problem, for instance.

But they aren’t the only such duo around, and not all of the earworms inhabiting people are so benign. One in particular is quite old, quite evil, and all-too-close to home.

Blending life-sucks with body horror and fears of possession and loss of self, bringing a skewed sense of humor occasionally reminiscent of the works of Jeff Strand, this is a fun read that builds to a surprisingly sweet (if kinda twisted) conclusion.

-Christine Morgan

100 WORD HORRORS BOOK 3: AN ANTHOLOGY OF HORROR DRABBLES edited by Kevin J. Kennedy and Brandy Yassa (2019 Amazon Digital / 110 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

We're fresh out of spooky season, horror folks, and headed for that dreadful winter, but we’ve got ourselves another Drabble Anthology on our hands. First of all, I’d like to say I’m a big fan of these anthologies. I was excited to see there was a third installment coming out and I immediately put it on my list. This series is packed with a whole bunch of great, quick witted reads that are well-written, powerful enough to paint a very quick image in the mind, and just overall a lot of fun to read. This time around there are over a hundred 100-word stories in the Drabble mix. These books would make great bathroom readers, coffee table, tabletop decorations, you know some of those great in-your-face locations to stir up some of those more meaningful conversations to be had. Scary, spooky, violent, bloody, and thought-provoking, these little gems pack quite the horror punch.

Some of my personal favorites were ‘Hack’ by Jim Goforth, a bloody take on how much blood one will shed whilst cutting off their own foot. ‘Narrative’ by Kevin Cathy, a drab author's recent decent into the depths of hell after making a deal with the devil himself. ‘The Midnight Circus’ by Sheldon Woodbury, a shadowy caravan of horrors makes it way down dark country roads. ‘Dreams’ by Andrew Lennon, a man invaded by ghastly dark shadow figures in the twilight hours. ‘Nothing’ by Chad Lutzke: light up the incense to cover up the scent of nothingness and death. ‘Used Parts’ by Theresa Derwin, where a loved one transfers to preserve a dying sibling’s human consciousness into a foreign object whilst lying on his death bed. ‘Wooden Suit’ by Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason, just remember, don't move... it'll leave room for moisture and worms. ‘Machines of War’ by Ron Davis, I mean c'mon, we all know I'm a sucker for robots. Shout-out to these machines of war really quick. ‘Mine’ by Justin Hunter, because we've all thought about purchasing a soul on eBay, haven’t we? But what happens when you don't have a return policy in place. ‘Three O'clock A.M.’ by Eric J Guignard, the witching hour is upon Sam Rockland in the shape of a priest.

Check it out!

-Jon R. Meyers 

STRING OF PEARLS by Thom Carnell (2018 Macabre Ink / 242 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Following up his previous collection, Moonlight Serenades, Thom Carnell returns with some new stories written after triumphing over that insidious bane of us all, writer’s block. It’s such a joy when the words start flowing again!

Like before, some of these initially appeared in Carpe Noctem, and they display a wide range of genres and mood. First up is “Sorority,” a gritty little survivalist vignette with a girls-only stand against the zombie apocalypse … and next is a sharp turn into government agencies and demonic possession and a rather unusual weapons-toting priest.

Speaking of weapons-toting, yes, in this book we do get another installment of the adventures of Carnell’s all-around tough guy action hero Cleese! This time, it’s a tantalizing teaser Expendables-style as he and several other mercs, military types, and soldiers of fortune are whisked away on a helicopter ride to a mystery destination for hush-hush but likely life-or-death purposes.

In “On the Ice,” we get a chilling and desolate peek into the mind of Dr. Frankenstein’s unfortunate creation, while “Under Ice” is just simply breathtaking and beautiful in its descriptions.

“House Haunted” hearkens back to the fraught overwrought gothic ghost-stories of old. But then there’s the sinister and far-too-plausible righteousness and poisonous rhetoric of “Family Man,” which I found the scariest of the entire set.

The big centerpiece of the book is the lengthy “Song of the Dragon,” a sprawling Japanese fairytale/folklore adventure that reads like the novelization of an entire season of a fantasy anime. Well-written but not really my thing; I skimmed a lot of that one.

Several of the less-fanciful tales are more introspective and personal, musings on death and dying, philosophy, thought, going home, facing mortality, moving on, and seeking closure or resolution. “Prodigal Son” in particular is a difficult but potent, cathartic read.

-Christine Morgan

THE DEATH CHUTE by Ambrose Stollicker (2019 Aurelia Leo / 118 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

In the arena of creepy old buildings, few can compare with the hospital or asylum. You know the type of place, with the long history, the troubled patients, lots of deaths, possible abuse or neglect or other horrible goings-on. Often voted most-likely-to-be-haunted in the yearbook. 

But with this one, it’s a little different. Rather than the derelict ruins left to gloomy decay, where intrepid urban explorers or ghost hunters might go, the former Glastenbury Mountain tuberculosis sanatorium has been spruced up and revitalized as a posh rest/care home for the elderly.

TV producer Jake Porter isn’t thinking new show when he first visits. He’s looking for a place for his ailing mother. Glastenbury seems to have it all: luxurious accommodations, attentive staff, price tag to match. It doesn’t hurt that Jake develops an attraction to the lovely and intelligent director.

So, he moves Mom in – the scenes between Jake and his mom, as she struggles with dementia, are heartbreakingly well-done, and all-too-true to anyone who’s had to deal with that terrible thief of memory and self! – despite being slightly uneasy about the place’s past and the behavior of some of the other residents (in another cuttingly deft touch, their accounts are generally disregarded as senile ramblings.)

It doesn’t take long before ‘slightly uneasy’ becomes ‘seriously unnerved,’ when Jake catches glimpses of nurses in old-timey uniforms, his mother starts talking about the little boy who visits her, and an old graveyard on the property seems to corroborate the legends. There’s even rumors of a ‘death chute,’ through which bodies could be clandestinely removed without upsetting any of the other patients or drawing too much attention.

Jake starts thinking there might be reality show fodder here after all, which doesn’t bode well for his budding romance. The vengeful spirits, meanwhile, are reaching a paranormal boiling point, and soon the living will be lucky to make it out alive.

-Christine Morgan

PART-TIME ZOMBIE by Gerald Rice (2019 Melted Brain Books / 218 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Not sure how well the title here fits the actual book; although it starts off with a mindless and inexplicable craving to eat human flesh, what follows goes way beyond and far afield from your typical ‘zombie’ tropes. By the end, we’re well into more medical-weirdness and almost cosmic-type horror, with religious/mythic overtones.

Alice is just doing her humdrum day job, shuffling paperwork for a couple of doctors who run their practice out of a little strip-mall office. Hungry, but not sure what for, she heads out to the nearby Dairy Queen, but a run-in with some tough teens turns into a fight and one thing leads to another and people get bitten and messily dissolved by spewed gastric acids and hit by a car.

Waking up in the hospital, Alice feels fine and checks herself out against medical advice. But she’s struck again by her hunger on the Uber ride home, and it doesn’t go so well for the driver. Or his car. Or Alice, who gets promptly hauled back to the hospital after what appears to be a deadly crash.

Meanwhile, Detective Lazarus (yes, that’s his name) has been called in to investigate the bizarre incidents. He’s trying to track down the mystery woman for questioning but keeps just missing her, talking to her neighbors, revisiting the hospital only to find Alice has left again, etc.

When he does catch up with her, he’s startled by her uncanny resemblance to his late wife, and that’s when the story really gets on the crazy train. Starting with how his wife was killed and partly eaten by a deer walking on its hind legs (? could have used some more info on that).

From there, the weirdness really keeps on rolling, leading to Frankensteinian levels of mad science and possible links to reincarnation and all kinds of stuff. Interesting to read, and enjoyable, if occasionally a little muddled … but yeah, didn’t seem to quite fit the title.

-Christine Morgan

IN THE MIDST OF THE SEA by Sean Padraic McCarthy (2019 Pace Press / 332 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Oh the red flags, so many red flags … I wanted to feel sorry for Diana, I really did, but dang, between her dysfunctional family and abusive husband, this was a whole red flag drill team long before we even get to the stuff about the hauntings.

Other characters KNEW it, too, and kept TRYING to tell her, and SHE knew it, but STILL … and she’d keep going back, giving another chance, doing what it’s hard not to call ‘stupid’ things that then go hideously wrong and make matters worse …

So, yeah, in terms of being written true-to-life with the trappedness and rationalizations and gaslighting and stuff, it was extremely effective. The urge to just grab her and shake her, or call the cops, or child protective, was overwhelming to the point it sometimes distracted me from the rest of the story. Very well done; flinchingly, wincingly so.

Diana’s mother, too, wow what a piece of work. Again, all too believable, horrible, controlling. The whole dynamic there gave me a creepy V.C. Andrews matriarchal secrets-and-lies vibe, with the rest of the family going along with whatever she wants to avoid her wrath.

Summary-wise, Diana and her daughter, and her new husband Ford (temper and alcohol issues, whose own family background is a mess) move into a house left to Ford by a great-aunt, on a remote island. A house that comes complete with creepy dolls, a troubling journal, and unquiet spirits.

Overall, I found it well-written modern gothic, doing a good job tracing parallels between the past and the present, but yeah, difficult and frustrating and often uncomfortable in terms of the characters.

-Christine Morgan



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