Sunday, December 8, 2019

Reviews for the Week of December 9, 2019

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SLASHVIVOR by Stephen Kozeniewski and Stevie Kopas (2017 Sinister Grin Press / 296 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Not sure how I hadn’t reviewed this one yet, since I know I read it a while ago! At any rate, buckle up, keep your assorted limbs inside the vehicle, and hold on tight, because here we go … it’s time for post-apocalyptic America’s favorite game show, TRY NOT TO DIE!!!

Remember THE RUNNING MAN? Not the novella, which still would make a neat flick on its own, but the movie adaptation with Arnie? The big televised obstacle course deathtrap arena with over-the-top pro-wrestler-style maniacs trying to hack up condemned prisoner contestants as a smarmy host commentates?

Start with that … only, replace the condemned prisoners with ‘randomly’ selected citizens … stick the arena in a giant caged dome with a live studio audience … and instead of pro-wrestler-style maniacs, it’s a roster of the most fiendish and brutal serial killers in the world.

The world which, by the way, is a blasted hellscape of destruction with cyborgs and nuclear mutants and repurposed homicidal animatrons, so, that roster includes far more than your classic slashers … but those are quite well-represented too. Especially the debonair cannibal, the gifted experimental surgeon … you get the idea.

Most people are thrilled to be Selected, a moment-of-fame televised death preferable to their ongoing dismal existence. Dawn, a scrappy young scavenger and thief from the wastelands, feels differently. But the powerful Producers don’t take no for an answer, and as the game gets underway, Dawn finds herself a reluctant celebrity.

As if the situation wasn’t already all-around bad enough, this particular episode of Try Not To Die is in for some nasty surprises even the Producers haven’t anticipated. The body counts and splatter factor will go off the charts, not to mention the ratings … if there’s anyone left alive to care.

A wild, gory, riotous ride, packed with great hate-to-love-’em and love-to-hate-’em characters throughout. Forget THE HUNGER GAMES; here, the odds are NEVER gonna be in your favor.

-Christine Morgan

THE MONSTROUS FEMININE: DARK TALES OF DANGEROUS WOMEN edited by Cin Ferguson and Broos Campbell (2019 Scary Dairy Press / trade paperback & eBook)

Anyone who doesn’t know by now that women can so write horror has either been living under a rock or playing willfully ignorant. That argument should be over. But, since it still does keep cropping up from time to time, here’s another stellar example of female writers showcasing their dark and deadly sides.

I was particularly pleased to notice how many of the names among the contributors were new to me; more proof (not that it was needed) that there’s plenty of us out there, more and gaining momentum all the time.

These fourteen stories examine many different sides of what it means to be (or identify as) a woman, from the expectations inflicted by society to what we take upon ourselves. The creative, the destructive, the protective, the passionate, the vengeful, the loving … it’s all in here, because it’s all in each of us.

You’ll find female-focused tales herein of familial obligation that may make you think twice about your next holiday gathering … of professional obligations keeping a doctor on the job well above and beyond the call of duty … of ancient relics and ancestral secrets.

You’ll share the daily eternal struggles of dealing with boys-will-be-boys, workplace harassment, body image, that time of the month, and finding confidence in sexual empowerment. You’ll witness uncanny transformations from the Stepford-esque to the Jekyll-and-Hyde.

If you’re a gal-type, you’ll have plenty to relate to, strongly resonating with life experiences. If you’re a guy-type, and tempted to skip this book because it might make you feel guilty or uncomfortable or left out, well, really, ask yourself, isn’t that all the more reason to read it?

-Christine Morgan

CLUB CLOUD AND QUEEN by Victor O’Neil (2019 Omnium Gatherum / 321 / trade paperback & eBook)

Based on the cover, I thought I was in for a rockabilly rodeo of a weird western. What I got was something with, admittedly, a few weird western elements, but overall was altogether wilder, weirder, epic, mythic, and full-tilt bizarre.

Were I to blurb it (*innocent look*), I would go with something like this: “Joseph Campbell himself couldn’t have imagined the classic hero’s journey as depraved as this … a cosmic, dystopia, hedonistic Narnia with shades of the Matrix and the wild West … monstrously good … will turn your brain into a balloon animal!”

Trying to explain this book would be a monumentally complex undertaking that’d still fall far short of encompassing the sheer mind-warpingness. If you insist on some sort of summary, there’s this guy named Jed (an unreliable narrator in an unreliable reality to begin with) who appears to live in a struggling post-fall society, or maybe it’s all in his head. Then a snake comes out of a ceiling fan and suddenly Jed’s being wet-nursed by an angel when a Burt Reynolds lookalike rolls up in a muscle car …

Wait. Let’s try that again. You know how, in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, those four kids cross over into a different world and become royalty? Kind of like that, only, instead of fauns and talking lions, there’s super-drugs and wild orgies …

Or, how about this … if instead of discovering he was a wizard, Harry Potter found out he and his siblings were powerful godlings, their mother a decadent wicked fourth-dimensional queen slowly becoming a monster …

See? See what I mean? It defies summarizing. Just read it. Read it and see for yourself. Do be warned, though, there’s a lot of, ahem, adult content (wasn’t kidding about using ‘hedonistic’ and ‘depraved’ in that blurb!) Tell you this; I fully expect to see it on the Wonderland Awards ballot next year.

-Christine Morgan

INTO BONES LIKE OIL by Kaaron Warren (2019 Meerkat Press / 90 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

While mourning the deaths of her two young daughters, Dora finds herself at a sea-side boarding house, which happens to be haunted by the spirits of those killed during a nearby shipwreck. But the "hauntings" here aren't your standard genre tropes, and to say more about them would do this gripping novella a major disservice.

The owners of the Inn try to persuade Dora to do something that could potentially set her mind back or even destroy it, and her recovery, as it is, is continually challenged by odd situations and hints of the supernatural that we're never quite sure aren't just figments of Dora's imagination and fears.

Like her previous novel TIDE OF STONE, Warren again employs some fantastic atmosphere and keeps the reader guessing as to what's actually going on inside our protagonist's head. I've said before Warren's style reminds me a bit of the late, great T.M. Wright, but with this latest novella she continues to carve out a quiet-horror path that's all her own and uniquely frightening.

-Nick Cato

LUCIFER SAM by Leo Darke (2019 Grinning Skull Press / 290 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Heavy metal and horror are like chocolate and peanut-butter! They don’t just go together, they belong together! And every now and then, along comes something right up there with not merely a Reese’s, but a Reese’s Halloween pumpkin. Something like this book, for instance.

Our narrator, Kirk, is front man for a band called Lucifer Sam, rife with their own struggles, drama, and personality conflicts. Except, the story he’s telling isn’t so much Lucifer Sam’s story as the story of how Lucifer Sam got swept up in a bigger, far stranger, deadlier one. The story of the hugely popular and successful band Cat O’ Nine Tails, and what happened after their mysterious disappearance … and even more mysterious return …

With Bermuda-Triangle shades of Lost and other such thrillers, Cat O’ Nine’s plane vanishes without a trace, only to reappear in the same spot, six months later. There’s no accounting for the missing time, no explanation, no answers given. All anyone knows is, they were gone and now they’re back. And planning an album and big show.

They seem different, though. It isn’t just the way they look younger and fitter. Their behavior is different. Flat-affect, unsettling, devoid of emotion even toward their loved ones. As if they’re changed somehow. A change that also shows in their music. Those listening to the early demos of their new stuff react in crazed, violent, self-destructive ways.

Kirk was never much of a fan of their work, but when his obsessed girlfriend starts showing the signs, he takes it upon himself to try and find out the truth. Even if it means convincing the other guys in Lucifer Sam to help, and even if it means tracking down an aging former rocker with his own ties to Cat O’ Nine Tails.

And maybe you only meant to eat one Reese’s Halloween pumpkin, but before you know it, you’ve gone through the whole bag of chocolatey peanut-buttery goodness, and should feel bad about it, but probably won’t!

-Christine Morgan

TO WALLOW IN ASH & SORROWS by Sam Richard (2019 Nihilism Revised / 165 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Extra, extra. Read all about it. I found a new author that you’re going to want to read and will probably be all about it. First things first, two words: Sam Richard. If that doesn’t ring a bell, you may already know him as the mastermind, owner, and operator behind a couple of already unique and compelling mashups of Weird Fiction, Horror, and Bizarro Fiction style punk rock tribute anthologies put out through his press, Weirdpunk Books. With a literary tribute to David Cronenberg in THE NEW FLESH, The Misfits in HYRBID MOMENTS, and another zombie punk rock spectacular titled ZOMBIE PUNKS FUCK OFF, his eclectic barrage of loud and zany literature has already begun to make some noise in the not so distant past. But, after reading this debut collection, I discovered something even better, the man and his writing himself. Let’s all say it out loud together again: Sam Richard, whose writing is not only unique within itself but strong enough to standout in a world of already great and fantastic micro and small press authors of the weird. His writing is brutally honest in this unforgiving and relentless sort of punk rock, weird fiction, horror kind of way. Often thought-provoking and deep, often with a unique blend of looming sadness, impending doom, and hopeless dread. I loved every word on every turn of the page.

There’s a lot to take in on this one, folks. You might want to do yourself a favor and read it slowly, let the words soak in, or you may take on more than you can chew, or in this case spit out and regurgitate slow into the mouths of corpse like birds with skeletal wings. Yes, it’s that heavy. The words are sincere amidst the dark, and often beautifully dreadful imagery abounds. For example, the author kicks things off in this collection with a story that’s almost indirectly written very closely to home titled ‘To Wallow in Ash,’ a tale about a widow who takes the ashes of his deceased wife and mixes them in with the ink of a new tattoo, before realizing that she and the time they had were more powerful than ever, and to consume their memories together was simply not enough by form of permanent ink, so the narrator begins to consume her ashes in more conventional and lasting ways… think, by physically ingesting them. To hold and to preserve within, to digest and to take part of her again to not only feel but to also hold onto that eternal love they shared together. Like I said, there’s some super powerful stuff going on here, folks! Am I right? 

It only keeps getting better the more you read into it. Please do yourself a favor and pick this one up. Make sure you read the introduction first to see what this book is really all about. I randomly picked this one up one day when the cover caught my eye and I literally could not put it down after I started reading it. It's that good!

-Jon R. Meyers

#HORRIBLE by KJ Moore (2019 Blood Bound Books / 101 pp / eBook)

The introduction warns that these “are not nice stories.” It warns of possible shock, offense, and transgression. There’s a system of hashtags, including spoilers and potential triggers. Some may seem silly – ‘poorly loaded dishwasher,’ ‘cheese not used as intended,’ ‘mechanical bull’ – but then, if you’ve ever lived with someone who LOADS THE DISHWASHER WRONG …

Ahem. Sorry. Got me with that one, I guess. Anyway. Yes. Each story has its hashtags and warning labels listed. While that may seem sensationalistic and gimmicky, well, so what? Besides, some of these? Oh yes, they are warranted. Are they ever!

Body horror stuff. Genitals. Scissors. Pedophilia. Abortion. Dead animals. Rape. Remember the “not nice stories” thing? NOT JOKING. Some seriously dark, awful, uncomfortable, cringeworthy content here. Stuff that will curdle the soul and sicken the stomach.

We’re talking stuff that … let’s just say, I enjoy extreme horror, but even I was thinking, okay, the title has it right. Horrible. People are horrible, the asteroid can’t eradicate us soon enough, what the hell is WRONG with us, I hope the meerkats or octopi or whatever takes over next does a better job, because really, WTF, humanity.

This, by the way, was all still just leading up to the last story in the book. Which is called “Tasteless,” for very good reason. Which has a hashtag advising the reader to skip it. Which would have been the right idea, but I didn’t.

Which, if you’re at all familiar with a certain controversial performance at a certain convention, and were traumatized by the content, um, yeah … this involves a similar atrocity. Heed the warnings. For the sake of your sanity, heed the warnings.

-Christine Morgan

ZOMBIE PUNKS FUCK OFF by Sam Richard (2018 CLASH Books / 160 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

When people say punk is dead, they probably didn’t mean it quite like this. Same for people saying zombies have gone mainstream. Here, gathered in a fun and fast-reading little paperback, are fourteen stories flipping the finger to all those people, combining zombies and punk in diverse, wild ways.

The book also serves as a memorial to Mo Richard, the editor’s wife, a dear lady who was taken from us suddenly and far too soon. If it seems ironic or tacky for a bunch of zombie stories, well, how punk is that? Sam Richard, in the intro, even suggests she would have wanted it that way. His own contribution, concluding the book on an emotional note, is a definite punch in the feels.

The stories themselves, like zombies, also rise to the occasion. Featuring the talents of big-name bizarros such as Danger Slater, David W. Barbee, Emma Johnson, and Brendan Vidito, it’s packed with gigs, guts, grodiness, and attitude.

On a nitpickier note, I do wish a little more care had been taken with the edits and proofreading. Love the folks at CLASH but this isn’t the first time I’ve noticed that issue. Everything else looks great, the cover unabashedly trashy, the layout sharp, all that good stuff.

Particular shout-out to Madison McSweeney’s “Re-Made,” my personal favorite of the lot, which takes jabs at the arrogant idiocy of conversion therapy. Troubled teen? Send them to punk camp! Turn them into productive, wholesome members of society! Or, hey, into zombies; six of one, half a dozen of the other!

-Christine Morgan

UNTIL THE SUN by Chandler Morrison (2019 Death’s Head Press / 293 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

You know how, in certain Olympic events like gymnastics, diving, or skating, the judges will factor the difficulty of the routine into their scoring? So, doing well at something easier is good but doing well at something really challenging is better? As soon as I started reading this book and saw Morrison was attempting the difficulty setting of “second person present tense,” I knew the bar was set high. Ballsy. Ambitious. Pushing it for a relatively young and new writer?

Heh. He freakin’ NAILED it. All tens. Across the board. And stuck the landing like WHOA. Flawless performance. Give him the gold. Give him the awards. Everyone else can just pack it in for this year. This guy’s got mad talent and mad skills.

As for the actual book, I should mention, this is not ‘that’ book, the one embroiled in a genre-shaking controversy. This is what the South Park goth kids wished Twilight had been. THIS is the perfect almost-YA (I say ‘almost’ because there’s a LOT of sex and a lot of violence) vampire book … and more … and then some.

Laden with references to lore both classic and modern – oh I saw that haunted Plymouth in there, don’t think I’d miss it! – the story starts off with a disaffected youth whose foster parents are butchered by a trio of blood-drinkers. When they invite him to come meet their Sire and possibly join them, he figures why not, and goes along for the ride.

What follows is a thoroughly riveting, thrilling, dark, twisted adventure of backstories, secrets, and all-around can’t-put-it-down brilliance. Skillfully interwoven, character-rich, utterly believable.

Found myself thinking as I read, not only is he already way better than I was at that age (literally half mine, for the record), he’s already way better than I am NOW. If he keeps it up, which I have no doubts he will, he’ll blow the rest of us out of the water within a few years. It’d be easy to be grouchy about that, but I for one am delighted. Future of the genre’s in damn good hands, folks!

-Christine Morgan