Monday, March 9, 2020

Reviews for the Week of March 9, 2020

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're on your cell phone you probably won't see it unless you switch to "Desktop View." Otherwise, bust out the laptop, baby...


ON THE NIGHT BORDER by James Chambers (2019 Raw Dog Screaming Press / 218 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This debut collection starts off with a fine introduction by Linda Addison, in which she claims Chambers knows the importance of a short story’s opening line...and considering just about all of them hooked me, I’m not going to argue.

Among my favorites are:

‘A Song Left Behind in the Aztakea Hills,’ where an artist who was also a friend of Jack Kerouac is paid to revisit a site that is rumored to have opened an otherworldly portal. A psychedelic rock band helps bring the cosmic horror in this solid opening tale.

‘Marco Polo’ takes a dark look at a game most of us played as kids, only this time using a sinister mask as the catalyst. One of my favorites of the collection.

In ‘Lost Daughters,’ a Good Samaritan finds himself at the mercy of three mysterious young women who seem to know a little too much about his family. Great suspense level considering it’s one of the shorter pieces here.

‘Mnemonicide’is a truly different take on a killing spree, told in second person which adds to the craziness factor. The ending will leave a hole right in the center of your chest.

Chambers gets a bit extreme in ‘The Driver, Under a Cheshire Moon,’ as he slowly reveals what our Driver is up to. While we’re told in this book’s introduction the author is big on opening lines, this is another entry to feature a great ending you probably won’t figure out.

‘The Chamber of Last Earthly Delights’ reminded me a bit of the film SOYLENT GREEN and I loved its alt-look at the early 1920s. One of the stranger stories here with some of Chambers’ strongest characters.

And finally in ‘Picture Man’ Ethan awakens in the hospital after a rough subway ride, but has no recollection how he got there. He eventually regains memory when he learns his incident became the subject of the local news. I love stories dealing with amnesia/lost memories and here the author gives his own flavor to it.

ON THE NIGHT BORDER contains 15 stories, 6 appearing here for the first time. Chambers goes all over the spectrum here, from cosmic to quiet horror, mysteries, and even a story featuring Kolchak, who some will remember from the great 70s pre-X Files type TV show, THE NIGHT STALKER. With 9 bonus pages of insightful author notes, this collection shows off the best of a skilled writer who I’m eagerly anticipating more from.

-Nick Cato

ZOMBIE RUN by Dwayne Perkins and Koji Steven Sakai (2019 Solstice Publishing / 251 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

One of the more fun and lighter-hearted aspects of the zombie apocalypse to play with is the notion of the living trying to ‘pass,’ hoping to survive by being mistaken as just another of the horde. Harder in some scenarios than others, bringing up questions of how far a person would go to fit in.

In this particular scenario, after the initial outbreak and aside from the ongoing ravenous urge to devour any live humans they happen to find, the dead have returned to the more-or-less business as usual of everyday routine. They go to work, they go home, they go out; they go through the motions of having rudimentary conversations and social interactions.

Given how many of us already function like that, it’s not so hard to blend in for a survivor. Hanson has been managing for years, thinking he’s the only one left. He lives with his undead brother, has occasional hookups with undead ladies, does his job alongside his undead co-workers, and keeps his more animated moments and interests very much to himself.

For years. Years. Until he discovers he’s not the only one left after all. There’s quite the small but thriving underground community of live people still around. Including Alicia, who’s more than glad to introduce him to the world he’s been missing. He can have real friends again! Even love!

But, inevitably, complications arise. And, the more someone has, the more they then stand to lose. For Hanson and Alicia, they have to decide if their relationship is worth the risk, if there might be any truth to the rumors of a safe zone, and if they can outrun the real zombies in the Zombie Run.

I may have had a few minor quibbles with how the zombies sense their prey, and other stuff like that, but overall it was an amusing, enjoyable read with several small entertaining touches.

-Christine Morgan

FIGMENTS AND FRAGMENTS by Deborah Sheldon (2019 IFWG Publishing / 284 / trade paperback & eBook)

Many of the pieces in this one are, as it says in the title, more along the lines of figments and fragments than entire self-contained stories. Yet they work that way, work very well. They’re evocative, bringing the disquieting feelings across, stirring the mood and emotion, without necessarily needing full resolution, explanation, or answers.

Well, mostly … a few are real teasers, building up and then just leaving the reader hanging, waiting for a what-happens-next that doesn’t; found some of those on the frustrating side, right when I was good and interested, but then that’s all folks. Definitely left wanting more on some of those!

Theme-wise, they span everything from gritty survival/revenge to troubled family histories, some with a whisper of the uncanny creeping in but most all too true to the real world. There are crime thrillers gone awry, neighborhood disputes taking strange twists, problematic relationships and random encounters, murders, schemes, pet cemeteries and prison escapes.

“Risk of Recurrence” was a tough read for me personally, dealing as it does with doctors, cancer, radiation, and other issues I’ve had way too much of these past few years. Between its dismissive arrogant medical professionals, and the stubborn detective determined to find the ‘real’ answers in “The Caldwell Case,” the frustrating tension gets pretty strong.

My favorite of the bunch, “Crazy Town is a Happy Place,” also hit on a personal level; I work residential psych, and have always been fascinated by articles about care facilities masquerading as ordinary little villages, and the unique moral challenges they pose.

Others I particularly enjoyed include “Fortune Teller,” in which a new client proves challenging to some of the usual tricks of the trade, and the haunting nostalgia of “November 9th, 1989.”

-Christine Morgan

A POCKETFUL OF HORRIBLES by MV Mitchell (2017 CreateSpace / 50 pp / trade paperback)

The half a dozen stories gathered in this collection date back a good thirty years or more, but I wouldn’t have guessed that just from seeing them here for the first time. They don’t read, or feel, dated at all. The style is beautifully dark, skillfully done.

First up is “The Dance House,” and while I have never danced myself, I know many people who do, and have a combination of admiration and horror for what they put themselves through for their art. The work, the pain, and to make it look so effortlessly graceful … but, as one young street dancer given an opportunity to change her life is about to find out, even those sacrifices may not be enough.

“The Gemini Compound” deals with the darkest sides of jealousy, possessiveness, vengefulness, and spite as a wicked-stepmother widow seeks to ensure even death won’t let her husband escape her grasp.

Set in a vintage bygone era, “The Fetch” pits a reverend’s daughter against sinister forces, when the specters of dead children refuse to let go of their chance at life.

In “The Dark Place,” an abused young woman with a rare mental gift seeks solace from her torment, even if it means sending herself somewhere dreadful.

“The Odalisque,” set in a harem, is a lavish historical piece but by no means a romance; however kind the sultan may be, a sadistic chief eunuch can make things difficult, or deadly, for even a favorite concubine.

Last but by no meals least, “The Moonlit Pool” takes on what society tells us is a woman’s ultimate losing battle; what would you do to regain your youth and beauty?

Each of the works present a strongly feminine, strongly female perspective, rich with depth and darkness and intricacy. Excellent writing, and I’m sorry I hadn’t experienced this author’s work before!

-Christine Morgan

THE IMMEASURABLE CORPSE OF NATURE by Christopher Slatsky (2020 Grimscribe Press / 385 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I read Slatsky’s first collection, ALECTRYOMANCER AND OTHER WEIRD TALES, when released 5 years ago, so was thrilled to see a second (and longer) batch of his stories have been unleashed, and I’m happy to report its every bit as weird and horrifying as it’s predecessor, a few tales even more so. If dark, depressing, and downright macabre horror is your thing, you’re in for some real treats:

Among the stand outs are opening tale ‘Phantom Airfields,’ in which Randall is dealing with a divorce, losing his job, a missing son, and a newborn daughter. The levels of dread Slatsky hits in the piece are devastating, right down to the bleak finale.

‘The World is Waiting for a Sunrise’ is another one centered around a child’s death, as Alice conducts fake seances in an attempt to heal her distraught husband, who continues to believe even after she admits her scam. With a gut-punch of an ending, this one will leave most readers genuinely disturbed.

‘From a People of a Strange Language’ I had read in its previous chapbook form. It’s a great play and another story dealing with a seance, only this time the horrors it brings are all too real.

If you want to see Slatsky’s talent on high display, look no further than ‘The Figurine.’ In just 19 pages, the author captures the emotional grief and tragedy in the wake of a school shooting more intensely than Jodi Picoult did in her 455-paged best selling novel NINETEEN MINUTES. That’s not to slight Picoult (of who I’m a fan), but to magnify this author is a force to be reckoned with.

There isn’t much that can prepare you for the title story, ‘The Immeasurable Corpse of Nature,’ in which Mina, an anthropologist, is contacted by her former teacher to help sift through the remains of a mass cult suicide. Grim doesn’t begin to describe this, which is one of the more horrific short stories I’ve read in years. If this doesn’t make any “Best of Horror” anthologies next year I’ll be stunned.

There are some entries among these 15 stories that, while they didn’t resonate with me, I still found interesting, and I really liked a non-fiction piece titled ‘Affirmation of the Spirit: Consciousness, Transformation, and the Fourth World in Film.’ Is it possible this is fiction parading as fact? Who knows...but either way it’s driving me crazy that I can’t tell, which is further proof Slatsky is operating on a level above and beyond most authors of weird fiction. And non fiction. And maybe meshes of both?

This here is a stellar collection fans of the strangest and darkest type of horror surely won’t want to miss, with most stories end-capped by great artwork from Käthe Kolleitz.

-Nick Cato

OCTOPUS (1 and 2) by Matt Shaw (2019 Amazon Digital / 163 pp, 91 pp / hardcover, trade paperback, eBook)

This one’s a twofer because I picked them up together, and as soon as I finished the first, there was no way I wouldn’t dive right into the second. Which, I kind of suspected would be the case. Shorter works as they are, I read them both in a single night. May not have been the best move for my psyche, but, that’s never stopped me before.

Someone might look at the books, at the title and covers, and develop certain expectations for what the content will entail. But, quite likely, that someone would be wrong. If that someone is hoping for all manner of squelchy tentacle stuff, they might be in for some disappointment. Any actual octopi don’t make an appearance until well toward the end of vol. 1, after a lot human nastiness.

And I mean a LOT; this is Matt Shaw we’re talking about here. By now, nobody should need me to deliver the disclaimers! Language, content, sex, violence, atrocity, the whole deal. Seriously. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Anyway, there’s this lovely couple, you see, Helena and Max. Wealthy, well-connected, known for throwing the most elaborate and extravagant parties. Those kinds of parties. Anything-goes kinds of parties. The kind they hire on women for, and pay extremely well.

When you’re a struggling young model like Jess, being paid extremely well for an evening’s work sounds good, even if it is naked work as a sushi serving dish. She doesn’t necessarily have to take on anything extra, though the cam-girl friend who helped her get the job is planning to.

Now, normally, being treated as a disposable plaything for the rich and powerful might already seem sketchy or dehumanizing enough, but it turns out Helena and Max and their innermost circle are into more than just sex. They have an agenda. It involves cultish rituals, and madness, and death.

All of which come to full fruition as, after an unexpected but fantastic twist, vol. 2 gets underway. And that’s the thing about cultish rituals with madness and death, isn’t it? Success might not turn out to be such a good thing. No matter how prepared Helena and Max think they are, they’re in for some unpleasant surprises.

-Christine Morgan

RESISTING MADNESS by Wesley Southard (2019 Death’s Head Press / 291 pp / trade paperback, eBook)

In this collection of fourteen tales, Wes Southard continues to establish himself, and shows a particularly effective knack for quick little short stories and flash fictions that whip around out of nowhere to pack a hell of a punch.

My personal fave, “Arrearages,” is one of his more extreme-horror forays, and it’s a winner for its mix of body horror and self-mutilation as well as the sleazeball-gets-what-he-deserves kind of vengeance … guy wakes up in a dungeon with only a knife, then a cell phone stitched beneath his skin begins to ring … evilly fun and satisfyingly gross SAW-esque antics ensue as he learns the time’s come to pay for his past.

I also really liked, as much as something so disturbing can be liked, the title tale, “Resisting Madness,” which follows a father’s desperate love for the son whose eyes he can never look into. When your own child is an innocent but deadly weapon, when they want to keep him locked away where he can’t hurt anyone, it presents an agonizing struggle any parent would find heart-wrenching.

Other top picks:

“God Bless You” just is so one of those things I could totally see happening … “By the Throat” pits trust issues against an unusual phobia … I felt for the dog in “Now You Don’t”; those videos always do seem kinda mean! … “He Loves Me Not,” I thought was setting up for a Little Mermaid scenario, but boy was I wrong! … the creepy “Confusion in Southern Illinois,” what with grandparents’ basements, made me think uncomfortably of a certain someone best not named, so, extra ickiness there … and “Minor Leaguer” because never annoy a crime boss with a real thing for hockey!

Each story is also followed by a brief author’s note about the history of how the stories came to be, or the trials and tribulations they saw along the way. I always find it interesting to read these and see what it’s like for other writers, because there’s no single path and we can all learn from each other’s journeys.

-Christine Morgan

CANNI by Daniel O’Connor (2019 Blood Bound Books / 348 pp / trade paperback, eBook)

I’ve read many an outbreak story over the years, whether zombie apocalypse or psychotic mania, but this one managed to do a few things even I had rarely seen!

For a start, the condition isn’t contagious; getting bitten isn’t necessarily an automatic death sentence. However, there are no tell-tale warning signs. Anyone could be infected, and could go from perfectly normal to total murderous frenzy at any time. Just, all at once. One second, they’re fine … the next, boom, red-eyed mouth-foaming mindless monster with a terrible craving for human flesh.

But what really sets this particular plague apart from others I’ve read is that the effects are temporary. The afflicted person, after a brief period of doing a whole lot of damage, reverts to their old self with no memory of what they’ve done. Imagine the repercussions, the self-defense and moral choices, for all involved. Do you put them down? They might be okay in a few minutes. What if it’s a loved one? What if it’s you?

Another way in which this book stands apart is its kind of casual light-heartedness amid the horror and gore. A large ensemble cast of characters, from a subterranean enclave of homeless up to the highest reaches of government, displays a wide range of quirks and personality. The President was my fave. I’d so vote for him!

The story itself primarily follows a young couple, Rob and Caroline (aka Cash), who are on their way to Vegas to maybe get hitched, and never mind the terrorist stuff with the airplanes and the chemical weapons; surely it can’t be that bad, can it? A lot of their relationship issues did make me cringe; Rob came across as a walking bundle of overpossessive, overprotective red flags, and it seemed like the buildup just then sort of fizzled out.

It’s a fun read, though, as various groups of characters strive for survival and a cure and are inevitably brought together for a delightfully entertaining finish.

-Christine Morgan

DARK CARNIVAL by Joanna Parypinski (2019 Independent Legions / 248 pp / trade paperback, eBook)

Title here is a bit misleading; I was expecting and hoping for way more actual carnival in the course of the book. Though mentioned in flashbacks, and as the main character researches the mysterious goings-on, the carnival itself doesn’t make an appearance until well toward the end, and then only really serves as a backdrop instead of a prominent feature.

What we really have is a take on the classic return-to-small-town. Dax Howard, who managed to escape to college, has to come home to settle affairs after his estranged alcoholic father dies. He doesn’t exactly come home a success story, either, being on the verge of flunking out and losing his scholarship. Running over a coyote in the road just seems, at first, like an additional ill omen.

His hometown is a place of bad memories and unpleasant revelations, anyway. His mom disappeared when he was a kid, his best friend has become a meth-head, his dad ended life as an obsessed none-too-popular wreck, the funeral costs are an unwelcome blow, and it’s not like he stands to gain much of an inheritance. The sheriff is on his case for no good reason. Really, all there is to do is go out to the abandoned farm where the locals drink, party, and do drugs.

But Dax soon realizes something else is afoot, something dangerous and malevolent. He’s not so sure he roadkilled that coyote after all … unless a different yellow-eyed creature is slinking around watching him from the darkness. Going through his dad’s things, he starts wondering if his mom’s disappearance wasn’t random or an accident. His friend’s sister is fascinated by a strange girl talking cult-type weirdness. And then, as he’s wondering if his father was right all along, here comes the carnival, back to town.

I found it an okay read overall, just wanted less of the dismal town stuff and more of the cult-type weirdness and creepy carnival.

-Christine Morgan


Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Reviews for the Week of February 24, 2020

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're on your cell phone you probably won't see it unless you switch to "Desktop view." Otherwise, boot up the laptop, baby...


THE BANK by Bentley Little (to be released 4/28/20 by Cemetery Dance Publications / 375 pp / hardcover)

Kyle Decker runs a bookstore in the small town of Montgomery Arizona. Seemingly overnight a new bank opens in the adjacent space next door that he had been considering buying to expand his shop. And within hours of The First People’s Bank opening for business, certain residents of Montgomery begin acting very strange, others leave their jobs to work for the new bank, and every employee at an established local bank are found massacred in a field.

Little’s 28th novel falls into what the author refers to as one of his “institutional” stories, similar in theme and structure to fan favorites such as THE STORE, THE MAILMAN, and THE RESORT. While Little has written many of these, THE BANK still finds new ways to both entertain and disturb the reader, and like THE CONSULTANT (2016) this one employs plenty of dark humor, social commentary, and a genuinely evil antagonist.

There’s a great bit about a couple who agree to a an attractive homeowner’s loan, with the one stipulation they won’t have use or access to a mysterious locked room, and when the Bank’s evil kicks into high gear, Little manages to throw in a white power militia, a school shooting, and a real estate agent who begins freaking her family out with some off the wall behavior.

THE BANK has perhaps a bit too many things going on, and aside from Kyle and the town’s Sheriff it’s easy not to care for most of the large cast, but fans of Little’s quirky brand of horror should enjoy this well enough, even among the familiarity and abrupt finale.

-Nick Cato

WELCOME TO MISKATONIC UNIVERSITY edited by Scott Gable and C. Dombrowski (2019 Broken Eye Books / trade paperback & eBook)

Ah, good ol’ Miskatonic U! Home of the Fighting Cephalopods! Alma mater claimed on many a social media profile! And, saying so at risk of offending many a Lovecraft devotee, probably the second-most-popular academy of the arcane, right after Hogwarts!

An entire anthology set at this revered Arkham campus is never to be missed, and the additional theme of updating those hallowed halls to the modern day only makes it all the more enjoyable. The authors herein took on a challenging game of what-if, asking and answering questions such as how Miskatonic’s faculty, staff, and students might deal with the hassles and obstacles common to contemporary college life, and do a terrific job rising to the task.

Some of these pieces fittingly pay homage to the epistolary format, letting the story be told through exchanges of emails and texts. People don’t just go mad or summon eldritch beings from old books anymore; it’s a full mixed-multi-media experience.

Imagine the frathouse hazings or sinister sorority sisterhoods! The dorm-room disputes! Freshman orientation! Are the needs of a much more diverse population being adequately addressed? There are dietary restrictions and religious holidays to consider. Oh, and you thought the kerfuffle over renaming an award was bad; what to do about the very buildings whose namesakes had unfortunate ‘a man of his time’ reputations?

I particularly liked the stories that focused on non-academic regular people, the staff members just trying to keep their heads down and do their jobs as Miskatonic’s weirdness goes on around them. It’s always a treat to get that sort of outside view but from the inside. Would read a whole book just of those.

With a lineup including names such as Gwendolyn Kiste, Joseph Pulver Sr., Nate Southard, Kristi DeMeester, and Scott R. Jones, this is an entertaining addition to Lovecraftian lore, providing plenty to think about as well as plenty to enjoy.

-Christine Morgan

ROPE BURNS / OBLIQUATAR VOLUPTAS (published by Death’s Head Press under mysterious circumstances)

This poor book has been through the wringer, thanks to assorted issues with a certain shall-not-be-named online retailer. Despite title changes and other revamps, it’s been done, undone, and redone again and again in both ebook and paperback versions. Still, through it all, some copies did manage to escape into the hands of a fortunate few. If you got one, hang onto it and consider yourself lucky!

Okay. Moving on to the actual thing! You’d better believe an anthology of horror erotica / erotic horror from THIS publisher with THAT lineup of talent was going to jump to the top of my reading list. I mean, it opens with a novella from THE power duo of the genre, Monica O’Rourke and Wrath James White. That alone is worth the price of admission!

Titled “Chinara,” it’s about a coven of particularly bloodthirsty and power-hungry witches, a clash between the centuries-old leader and a new upstart, the family of albinos they hope to use for their rituals, and that family’s mother’s own supernatural efforts to save her children. Many body parts get all kinds of attention, from carnal to carnivorous, in every bit as much gory detail as you might expect, and then some!

Among my particular faves:

Evelyn Deshane’s “Breathless,” which explores a dangerous kink in a rather different way, when regular old methods of autoerotic asphyxiation just aren’t quite getting the job done anymore;

“Ministrations” by Michael Patrick Hicks, a classic tables-turn tale with some additional twists, as a scumbag goes after his next beautiful victim and finds himself in for a very bad time, with satisfying (for the reader, not the scumbag!) results;

Another devilish take on the scumbag-gets-his-due (what can I say, I like seeing them suffer!) gets served up in Lucas Milliron’s “Damnation,” involving a nasty magical trinket from a mysterious shop;

Jaap Boekestein’s wildly inventive, original, and creative “Fucking Flesh Walker,” when two fetishists find their perfect matches and take their obsession to the ultimate extreme;

“The Playroom” by Sarah Cannavo, as a nice young couple must deal with the fact that their new house (with newly remodeled sex-dungeon) is haunted by a spirit who doesn’t do safewords or consent;

and Jeremy Wagner’s “Four Heads Are Better Than Two” brings some wacky apocalyptic fun in a porn-star-turned-pig-farmer’s bomb shelter … wow, there’s a sentence that felt weird to type …

The other stories, for me, ranged mostly from ‘okay’ to ‘kind of meh,’ sorry to say, and I did spot several edit bloopers I hope got chased out in final draft. Overall, though? If you’re into this kind of stuff, and you can get your hands on the book, you’ll want to.

-Christine Morgan

TOO MANY EYES AND OTHER THRILLING STRANGE TALES by Patrick Loveland (2019 Stay Strange Publishing / 360 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Some titles, you just know you’re in for pulpy action-packed adventure, the kind of thing that’d be right at home in those men’s magazines where shirtless dudes bludgeon Nazis in the face with snapping turtles, or the cliffhanger serials they used to do on the radio or before movies.

This collection lives up to that promise nicely, and goes it some better by including plenty of strong, gutsy women, and ethnic and sexual diversity. The works themselves span a wide and weird range of genres, from the old west and gritty war stories to the far future.

Recurring characters and agencies pop up a few times, tying several of the stories together in interesting ways. Though, a few are the obvious unconnected odd ducks out – there’s a pizza story, for instance; folks in the horror small press probably would know what that’s all about – and the more traditional spooky Halloween fun of “Not Cavities”.

I particularly liked the niftily-multilayered titular tale, “Too Many Eyes,” which begins with the staff of a theater pre-screening a rare film-within-a-film cult classic that quickly becomes much more than a movie, and the strangeness just keeps on escalating.

Overall, there was maybe more emphasis on military and sci-fi than would normally be to my tastes, but not so much as to keep me away. When the eldritch weirdness unfurls, it does so on a spectacular scale, with vivid descriptions of what should be indescribable.

-Christine Morgan

THE FUCKING ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE by Bryan Smith (2020 Grindhouse Press / 100 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

You remember a while back when the market was flooded with what seemed like one too many zombie books, and it seemed like every where you turned you couldn’t turn without getting smacked in the face by some sort of zombie limb or apparatus? Well, I do. And, I, there for a while, was personally turned off by the concept or regurgitated plot, reoccurring theme of the stereotypical zombie tale in general. Sure, I’ve always sort of been a fan of them too. When they’re great, they’re great. ‘28 Days Later’, ‘28 Weeks Later’, ‘Zombie’, ‘Night of the Living Dead’, and George Romero’s other timely undead classics of yesteryear for example are all brilliant examples of what the subgenre is capable of. But, I didn’t really ever need more than that. I didn’t necessarily feel like I ever needed to read a bunch of books sporting such a similar plot even though, I mean, what’s there not to love about blood, guts, gore, and the living dead corpse moaning their way through a foggy cemetery at night... am I right? But, here’s the thing. I’m so wrong. They’re not all the same. Similar, sure. The same? Not at all. This book right here is living proof of why we don’t just give up on something and write it off like that. Plus, we already know Grindhouse Press. They’re not just going to put something that’s already been done before in our hot little horror hands. Nope, they’re going to deliver the $#%@^&* goods.

If Phil were to have just given up after his crazy girlfriend called threatening to kill his hamster instead of battling his way back across town during the start of the %#$@&^* zombie apocalypse, where would we as the reader even be? We wouldn’t get the opportunity to meet Satan himself. Learn of the relationship that he and Phil’s neurotic, bat-shit crazy significant other share so dearly together. Or, perhaps, the emotional ties and bonds that can become of two different life paths when forced upon the same trials and tribulations, or, in this case, an ungodly ménage a’ trois with a gigantic I don’t think you even want to know! No, because you were wrong and you would’ve missed out on all the good not-so-clean fun this book has to offer, as the author delivers to us a zombie book that’s unlike any other zombie book available on the market, but also sort of not at the same time, which is a brilliantly executed abomination with and of itself, if I do say so myself. 

Think ‘Highway to Hell’ meets ‘The Walking Dead’ while doing hard time on a most excellent adventure with Bill and Ted during the %#$@^&# zombie apocalypse. Do yourself a favor and check this one out! You can thank me later.

-Jon R. Meyers

PLAYTHING by Brandon Ford (2019 Carter Meloy Publishing / trade paperback & eBook)

Oh, creepy … creepy, creepy, creepy … this one is creepy from the word go. It starts with a prologue about a little girl being invited to play by an older kid, and sets the skin-crawling stage for the entire rest of the book.

You KNOW, you just KNOW, that this kid isn’t okay. That icky things are going to happen. Icky, awful things.

Well, guess what? You’re right. And it gets very, VERY icky and awful indeed. Hard to read, but in that chilling, compelling, well-written, can’t-look-away fashion.

Bailey is a teen with troubles (as opposed to a troubled teen). Aside from the usual issues of school and identity and family stuff, he’s recently lost his best friend to a tragedy. His controlling parents have him in therapy and on meds, and very much disapprove of how much time he spends visiting his friend’s mother. They want him to get over it, move on, find new friends.

As it happens, the lady who just moved in next door has a son about his age. So, not given much choice, Bailey goes over to introduce himself to Glen. Remember the icky, creepy, not-okay kid from the prologue? He’s older now, with an obsessive interest in serial killers and mass murderers.

I won’t say much more except that things … things don’t go well. We’re talking Jack Ketchum levels of discomfort here. If you were scarred for life by The Girl Next Door (and who among us wasn’t?), this one will likely give you flashbacks.

-Christine Morgan

DRIVE-THRU CREMATORIUM by Jon Bassoff (2019 Eraserhead Press / 168 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I was going to start off with “If Bentley Little wrote bizarro,” and then I realized well actually he kind of does if you think about it … but, that’s beside the point. The thought came into my mind as I was reading. If Bentley Little wrote bizarro, it’d be something like this.

Stanley Maddox is your basic everyman nobody kind of guy, whose whole world just suddenly starts falling apart around him. One day, he goes in to work, to the same job he’s had for years, and none of his co-workers recognize him. They can’t get his name right. They’ve cleaned out his office. Oh, they’ll still let him do the work, but it’s not like he’s officially employed … or getting paid.

Meanwhile, at home, his wife’s attitude toward Stanley is a kind of benign indifference. She’s more concerned with some rabbit she keeps seeing around the house. Then, one day she’s got some guy named Jeff living there with them, with no explanation.

He’s not sure how to cope with any of these strange developments. Confrontation isn’t really his thing. So, he pretty much goes along, but things continue getting weirder and weirder. Especially once he encounters the Drive-Thru Mortuary and Crematorium, a little business he’s never noticed before.

As matters unfold – no, that’s incorrect; matters don’t UNfold, they fold in on themselves like insane origami – Stanley faces the prospective death of his father and birth of his son, with twisted variations of the full Oedipal Greek tragedy epic archetype themes playing out. And there’s a murderer on the loose in town, and lookalikes, and …

And, as befitting most bizarro, really there’s no good way to explain it because it just sounds crazier the more that I try. Best just to read it and see for yourself!

-Christine Morgan

THE BIG BOOK OF BLASPHEMY edited by Regina Garza Mitchell and David G. Barnett (2019 Necro Publications / 376 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

There’s a crucified banana on the cover. How can you not be intrigued by a book with a crucified banana on the cover? And this was even before whatever artist duct-taped one to a gallery wall and sold it for ridiculous amounts of money.

If the banana itself isn’t enough, look at the NAMES involved here. It’s the A-list royal flush celebrity red carpet of extreme horror. Dedicated to two of the recently-lost greats, GAK and Charlee Jacob, packed with thirty hardcore heavy hitters, this hefty book is your boarding pass to a first class seat in the handbasket to Hell.

Many of my all-time favorite authors and literary idols are represented here, but even taking that bias into consideration, everyone’s knocking it out of the park for sure. Edward Lee bringing the twisted familial faith in “Scriptures”? Grandmaster Brian Keene going brashly and cheerfully for outrageous offense with “The Guy From Nazareth”? Kristopher Triana’s gruesome suicide cult in “Goddess of Gallows”? Fantastic!

Some entries, such as Ray Garton’s “Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth” and Joshua Chaplinsky’s “Playing Doctor,” are extra disturbing in their real-world plausibility. Others, like David G. Barnett’s “When a Baby Cries” and “And You Shall Be Adored” by Regina Garza Mitchell, were probably extra inappropriate to read over the holidays. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the creepy kids in Lucy Taylor’s “The Cursing Prayer,” or cringe at the brutality of Monica O’Rourke’s “Watchers.”

Needless to say, bigtime warning labels should apply to readers of a pious, sensitive, or otherwise nice decent nature. There’s nasty sex (hello, Wrath James White, who outdoes even himself in “Messiah of Sin”), nastier violence, some of the nastiest tortures possible (looking at you, Ryan Harding, especially for the spike strip bit in “Angelbait”!).

All that, plus Stephen Kozeniewski, Gabino Iglesias, Lucas Mangum, AND many more? Religious ideals and ideations profaned? Sins explored and exploited? Angels abused and deities defiled? This book will not disappoint. Blasphemy it promises, and blasphemy it delivers. In every imaginable, and some hitherto unimaginable, sense of the word.

-Christine Morgan



Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Reviews for the Week of February 10, 2020

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. If you're reading this on your phone you'll need to switch to "laptop view" to see it, or better yet, just boot up the lap/desktop...

STRONGER THAN HATE by Robert Essig (2019 Death’s Head Press / 169 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Must’ve been something in the zeitgeist, because it seemed all of a sudden I was seeing a bunch of sinkholes opening up! I’d say ‘scary’ sinkholes, but they are already freakin’ terrifying to start with. Once they get into the hands of horror authors, though, the stakes go even higher.

In this one, the sinkhole itself may be small-scale; it doesn’t devour buildings or neighborhoods or whole blocks of tarmac into bottomless caverns in the earth … it’s only a small and relatively shallow collapse in a backyard, going unnoticed by everyone except – at first – the old lady whose property it is.

Francine is a widow, a retired schoolteacher, living alone. Her garden is the only thing that still brings her joy. Until the ground gives way beneath her feet and she finds herself trapped several feet belowground in a deep pit of wet, crumbling earth.

The only other person aware of her plight is Greg, a former student who lives next door. A loner/loser type, instead of calling for help, he contacts some of his old classmates instead, thinking to up his status by giving them a laugh at seeing one of their strict high-school nemeses stuck in the mud.

Oh, they get more than a laugh out of it, all right. Bad boy Trevor and his trashy girlfriend Heather are in no hurry to let Francine out. In fact, Trevor has all sorts of nasty ideas to humiliate the helpless woman … then sees a way to monetize the opportunity, by charging admission to fellow scum and degenerates.

What follows is a worsening nightmare for Francine, and the reader might as well be trapped right down there with her. Meanwhile, Greg’s trapped in a hell of his own making, afraid to stand up to Trevor despite a guilty crisis of conscience and pity.

It’s a disturbing, difficult, highly effective read. As well as a good reminder to check in on your elderly relatives and shut-in neighbors from time to time.

-Christine Morgan

NIGHT CREEPERS by David Irons (2019 Severed Press / 177 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I got this one, and from the cover and title was anticipating a spooky creature feature … then read the back, which describes a scenario more akin to a cosy British mystery. The kind where some dying patriarch summons his beneficiaries to his country house to discuss the will, but then murder ensues and a host of long-standing family secrets are revealed.

Well, turns out, the book’s a little of both and neither at the same time, ends up something else altogether, and – sorry to say – falls short of its various potentials. The promise is there, but could’ve used fleshing out and elaboration to make the characters more vivid, the scenario more tense and frightening.

The usual suspects include the ex trophy-wife, the stepdaughter, and business associates ranging from the shady to the loyal. They’re almost too rote, lacking personality beyond their basic stereotypes, and hard to muster up much interest in. Instead of a country house, they’re summoned to a remote church, the powerful rich man already dead but having made specific arrangements for his funeral.

Very specific, as well as none too, well, beneficial. At first, it seems a snide last word from beyond the grave, a final controlling gesture. But the guests soon find themselves literally caught in a trap, having to navigate a course through the catacombs with various mechanisms to steer them along toward the real threat waiting in the darkness.

I think there really could’ve been something fun here, but none of the elements really shone and they didn’t combine enough to work as well together as they otherwise might. In general, an okay time-passer, just kind of bland.

-Christine Morgan

100 WORD HORRORS BOOK 4: AN ANTHOLOGY OF HORROR DRABBLE edited by Kevin J. Kennedy (2019 Amazon Digital Services, LLC / 109 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Drabble, drabble. I’ll see you when you drabble, drabble… Wait a minute, that’s not the lyrics to that Offspring song in the 2000s that nobody has stuck in their head right now. So, what is all that dastardly and godforsaken commotion you may be wondering right now? Well, let me just fill you in on a little secret, a hundred of them to be exact, much like the word count in these fun, little horror gems from KJK Publishing. The fourth installment of these great and fantastic and equally horrific bathroom reader digests more formally known as the 100 WORD HORRORS series is a powerful addition to the rest of the drabble family. This specific edition, in my opinion, has been very carefully laid out as far as format and order of stories goes. The book reads rather well, and collects some of the more serious of drabbles as far as content is concerned compared to some of the other anthologies found in this series.

Some of my personal favorites were ‘Chiaroscuro Morning’ by Kevin Wetmore, ‘The Wave’ by Andrew Lennon, ‘Livestock’ by RJ Meldrum, ‘Every Fifty Years the Roots Need Blood’ by Ellen A. Easton, ‘No Time Like the Present’ by Adam Light, ‘A Prison Inside Us’ by Sheldon Woodbury, ‘Wrath of the Old Ones’ by Kevin J. Kennedy, ‘The Coffin’ by Kevin Cathy, ‘Mine’ by Nerisha Kemraj, ‘Shingles on a Graham Cracker Roof’ by Chad Lutzke, and ‘Meal’ by John Boden.

For the record, book two still wins my heart as far as my love for eye-catching book cover art is concerned, but, overall, this is a great book full of some of our favorite, little 100 word horrors to date.

-Jon R. Meyers

CATFISH LULLABY by A.C. Wise (2019 Broken Eye Books / 118 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

You know those books that exist only within other books, in the forms of references, excerpts, and quotes? Fictional tomes like the Necronomicon, Koontz’s Book of Shadows, the actual Hitchhiker’s Guide, that seem so neat you wish they were real because you want to read them, too?

I’m adding one to my personal list. Each chapter of CATFISH LULLABY opens with a bit from something called ‘Myths, History, and Legends from the Delta to the Bayou’ (Whippoorwill Press, 2016). I love folklore and local legends; the closest I’ve ever been to the bayou is the start of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride but find it fascinating; I’d read the heck out of that.

Which isn’t to say ‘Catfish Lullaby’ itself is a disappointment, because it isn’t. Not so much southern gothic with mouldering mansions and plantation houses dripping with moss; we’re talking more small-town-swamp-gothic. Much more rustic, though still with all the humid secrecy and closed-off mystery.

For mixed-race Caleb, life in Lewis was always a bit challenging even as a kid. Dealing with bullies, having neighbors with unsavory reputations, being raised by a single dad who then takes in a strange orphan girl after a fire, all the rumors about someone (or something) called Catfish John, the secrets, the disappearances …

He may have thought, as an adult, he’d left all that behind him. But we know better, don’t we, folks? Returning as an adult, in a relationship with another man, he faces whole new levels of challenge, especially when he steps in as the new local sheriff. And when the strange girl who’d disappeared so long ago suddenly returns to his life, and bad things once again start to happen.

-Christine Morgan

AMERI-SCARES: WEST VIRGINIA, LAIR OF THE MOTHMAN by Stephen Mark Rainey (2019 Crossroad Press / 152 pp / trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)

The rising popularity of geocaching is a real godsend to the whole horror genre. Finally, a way to get more of the less-athletic, nerdier types out into the hostile wilderness, well off the beaten path, instead of just the usual hikers and wild party-in-the-woods crowd!

(If you’re unfamiliar with the hobby, it’s kind of a higher-tech puzzle game treasure hunt; fear not, the book’s intro explains the basics, and beyond that, well, that’s what google is for)

With “Lair of the Mothman” in the title, I do admit I was expecting more, well, more Mothman, more of the actual folklore and history, the legends and sightings. Which isn’t to say I was disappointed by the read, only that it was fairly geocaching-forward, with the Mothman aspects taking a back seat.

Our protagonist Vance Archer, who goes by ArcherV on the geocaching sites. He got into it thanks to his older brother, and has recently been joined on his quests by one of his schoolmates, Marybeth, aka Emerald Racer. Being kids, the duo is limited to local caches around their hometown.

Their hometown, however, is in a part of the country which, over the years, has had its share of the inexplicable: lights in the sky, Mothman sightings, and other strange events. Vance’s own family history includes a member lost to a disaster during one such spate of strangeness.

Now, those things are happening again. Cell phones start picking up messages that don’t show in the call record (what IS it about that? like in Lost, or 1408? how can mere numbers be so creepy?). Vance himself keeps seeing shadowy shapes and eerie red eyes. Something new and ominous seems to be gathering strength. And it might just be up to the intrepid young geocachers to find out what.

-Christine Morgan

TRUE CRIME by Samantha Kolesnik (2020 Grindhouse Press / 144 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

“Like all good monsters, I came not by force, but by invitation.”

Tired of being abused by her mother, Suzy, along with her brother Lim, leave their small town of Morris Grove and head for *anywhere* that will rid them of their troubled upbringing. But, the damage in both of these young people has been done and they wind up embarking on a killing spree, starting with their own mother.

The first half of TRUE CRIME may feel like a senseless exercise in extreme violence...yet if that’s not your thing, stick around, as Kolesnik turns this into a dark character study of a damaged young woman, attempting to find her purpose in the world among twisted adults, questionable clergy and her own growing urge to kill. The violence, which is shocking at times, serves the story, which quickly sets this apart from a host of similar novels/novellas. Having been raised on issues of True Crime magazine, her actions and mental condition begin to mirror the lurid stories she had spent so much of her young life enveloped in.

You often hear certain writers have that “Jack Ketchum or Richard Laymon” flair, but this stunning debut, while at times channeling both writers, ends up with a fresh voice, making us care for Suzy (and her brother) despite their lifestyles that are destined to be unrepentant. One scene in which Suzy learns a life lesson from an elderly man is as poignant as it is suspenseful, and Kolesnik’s short sentence style manages to deliver some serious mule kicks when you’re least expecting it.

TRUE CRIME is a powerful (if short) debut which will surely be embraced by not only the horror community, but I’m betting fans of crime fiction, too.

-Nick Cato

THE SERPENT'S SHADOW by Daniel Braum (2019 Cemetery Dance / 108 pp / eBook)

What I found most striking about this book was how well it showcased the dichotomy of opposites going together side-by-side, highlighting and contrasting each other by their very existence while depending on each other and being irrevocably enmeshed. Life and death. Wealth and poverty. The new ways and the old. The modern world and the ancient one. Love and fear. Good and evil.

Must say, it proved a surprising and refreshing takeaway from what I initially expected when a bunch of vacationing college kids sneak away from their Cancun hotels to party by the Mayan ruins. We’ve all seen that sort of thing play out often enough, you know? Obnoxious Americans trespassing somewhere forbidden, ignoring the cryptic warnings of taciturn locals, having no respect for local lore or mythology … awakening something evil … getting gruesomely picked off one by one …

Well, many of those elements do exist here, but they aren’t put together in the ways you might think. The result is quieter – though still with its bloody moments – and more intricate, ultimately almost cosmic-style horror.

David and Regina are spending Christmas in Cancun with their parents, but eager to slip out and investigate the local nightlife. This introduces them to Anne-Marie, who then introduces them to her friends for the aforementioned sneaking away to party by the ruins.

Soon, scholarly introspective David – already fascinated by the region and its history, troubled by dreamlike visions of winged serpents and tales of the vengeful White Lady – finds himself drawn into the mysteries of the lingering not-so-lost-after-all Mayan culture. When he and Anne-Marie participate in a solstice ceremony at a hidden temple, events are set in motion that will make him ultimately have to choose among those side-by-side opposites, and face the consequences.

-Christine Morgan

BLACK HEART BOYS' CHOIR by Curtis M. Lawson (2019 Wyrd Horror / 261 pp / trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)

Lucien Beaumont is a perfect example of a main archetype of our age – the entitled, arrogant, sulky white boy with privilege and resentment issues, prone to violent revenge-wank fantasies. You know the sort. We all know the sort. Way too many of the sort, these days. They’re ending up on the news all the time.

Okay, sure, the world’s dealt Lucien some rough turns lately. His dad’s died, he’s had to move from his big house and snobby academy, his mom’s withdrawn into a neglectful substance-dependent wreck, he has to get an actual (gasp) part-time job. The so-called school he has to go to now doesn’t even have a decent music program, let alone a proper choir. And his fellow students are brainless primitives who make fun of him for wearing nice suits. The few friends he manages to make are primarily through the bonding of fellow disaffected outcasts and rebels, and they form a small chorus club of their own.

Lucien’s only saving grace might be his musical talent, but even that’s corrupted by his better-than-everyone ego. When he discovers an unfinished collaboration by his late father and another composer, an ominous piece they apparently tried to destroy because of its dark power, you’d better believe he becomes obsessed with it. In a blackly amusing take on the battle of the bands teen trope, Lucien and his choir plan to perfect the forbidden Madrigal of the World’s End, and unleash it to show those glee club powers what’s for.

If he’s meant to be presented righteously striking back a la CARRIE, it didn’t work for me. I found him an unlikable snot from the word go. The language choices for his point of view reflect his attitude perfectly. I spent the whole time wanting to smack the crap out of him. Which means, whatever else, he certainly was written believably and effectively! Maybe too much so.

-Christine Morgan

CRISIS BOY by Garrett Cook (2018 Eraserhead Press / 190 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Writing this book must’ve been difficult. Researching it, even more so. And reading it is no picnic either. Inspired by the rash of terrible actual events plaguing our society, and inspired all the more by some of the ludicrous conspiracies around them, welcome to a world where we can’t believe anything we hear on the news or even see with our own eyes.

Welcome to a world where disasters really are staged. Shootings, bombings, assassinations, murders. A world where shadowy behind-the-scenes organizations really do plan it all. Where, no matter how wild the theories may seem, the truth is all that much stranger.

What if there were people, specially gifted and trained people, who got sent from tragedy to tragedy to ensure good optics of the carnage and suffering? People like John, a so-called ‘crisis boy,’ who has been critically injured at multiple incidents, but somehow heals up in time for the next one.

What if some of those message board nutjobs were right, spotting the similarities, making the connections? What if one such ‘crisis boy’ starts to question his role, as he’s put in place for the next massacre? What if he decides to try and change the script?

The subject matter is definitely not for everyone. It’s troubling and traumatic, approached in a way that by no means glorifies the awfulness of such events, while simultaneously throwing a wry light onto the lunacy that’d have to be going on behind the scenes. It reads at a fever pitch, almost manic, with an inherent wild-eyed-ness very fitting.

I do wish it’d had a more thorough edit (I know, I know, I gripe about that a lot). Sure won’t expect to see it on any high school reading lists soon, but, it provides a scary peek into certain modern mindsets. There are probably some who’ll swear it’s non-fiction, and that’s the scariest thing of all.

-Christine Morgan


Monday, January 20, 2020

Reviews for the Week of January 20, 2020

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 view." Otherwise, boot up the lap/desktop...

TALES IN SOMBRE TONES by Sean Walter (2019 SP / 222 pp / trade paperback)

The cover and overall look of this book live up to the title, matte and eerie, hauntingly grim yet alluring. Add in the charcoal and carbon pencil illustrations of Drawing in Dark’s Karen Ruffles, and before you even get to the stories, the promised sombre tones are already delivered.

The stories themselves then carry on in theme. Two dozen of them in total, short and sweet (or not necessarily sweet, more of a bitter dark-chocolate kind of sweet), they offer a variety of spooky glimpses into the shadows, whether of the mundane world or with a more paranormal turn.

Among my favorites:

“Lost at Sea,” when a storm leaves a ship adrift in strange waters, only to find its way to an even stranger port-of-call;

“Finders Keepers” struck me as particularly poignant, beautiful in a sad way, as a young woman forms a powerful bond with some clever crows;

“Jinxed,” in which sightings of a black cat accompany one poor guy’s bad luck day getting worse and worse;

and “Name Your Poison,” set at a bar like no other, a bar where the bartender’s mixology skills involve much more than simple spirits.

Others include deals with shifty devils, what lurks in the dark woods or desolate farm-fields, childhood monsters we never quite escape, old lore with more than a grain of truth, some E.C. Comics or Twilight Zone table-turning comeuppances, the perils of taking souvenirs from graveyards or mysterious vendors, folklore come to life, and all-too-real nightmares.

I did notice quite a few little bloopers, another book that could’ve benefited from some stricter editorial attention. The writing style often comes across more passive than I’d like, and maybe too many of the stories open with the weather (I only noticed because I read them one after the other). Those minor quibbles aside, I found the experience nicely disquieting throughout.

-Christine Morgan

SLASHER CRASHER by David Nora (2019 Black Rose Writing / 357 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This book knows what it is and what it does, and just goes for it with an utter shamelessness that is simultaneously uncomfortable and refreshing. It’s packed to capacity with teen slasher-horror tropes, characters that transcend mere stereotype into full-blown caricatures (this is where a lot of the uncomfortable stuff factors in), crassness, raunchiness, deliberate movie references, and over-the-top goresplat kills.

So, there’s this escaped maniac who’s been locked up in an asylum since he murdered his babysitter’s boyfriend. His kook of a doctor is convinced he’ll make a beeline for home to finish the job, and enlists the aid of local law enforcement.

Which, in this case, is a grieving wreck of a sheriff at odds with his teen daughter. He’s trying to be protective, she thinks he’s strict and controlling. She’s also recently broken from her nerdier loser-type friends to get with one of the popular guys at school, though the rest of his crowd aren’t exactly keen on having her around.

Oh, and, it’s almost Halloween, because of course it is! And some of the cool kids are having an unsupervised party, because of course they are! Despite the sheriff’s sudden implementation of a curfew, as he’s out on the road with the kook doctor, trying to track down the maniac.

Naturally, the good girl daughter sneaks out with her popular guy boyfriend to go to the party, where she doesn’t find the warmest welcome from the other cool kids. Meanwhile, though, one of her loser-type friends (gross angry fat chick) has sworn to get back at her, and hooked the other loser-type friend (outrageously gay) into helping with the revenge plot.

Needless to say, their paths all converge and the total bloodbath commences, except with some surprising genre-defying twists to shake things up in entertaining ways.

-Christine Morgan

SHADOWS ON THE WALL by Steven Paulsen (2018 IFWG Pubishing / 220 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I am so glad to live in the age of the ebook and internet, where works by an entire global host of authors are readily available! Opens up whole new worlds, presents whole new perspectives. Not to mention, it’s a lot easier and cheaper than having to shell out for international shipping.

I gotta say, the folks in the Southern Hemisphere sure are knocking it out of the park. Many writers from Australia and New Zealand quickly made their way onto my list of those who never fail to deliver a solid good story.

Well, it’s time to add another name to that list, because this collection by Steve Paulsen displays strong talent, mastery of a wide range of genres, deft craftsmanship, and undeniable skill.

From military horror in the humid jungles of a past war, to a near-future where AI and waste-disposal make for a dangerous combination … an experimental but effective 50-word piece … haunting memories becoming all too real, and haunted legacies reaching from beyond … some updated takes on Lovecraftian lore, including an exotic pulp adventure … the amusing mythic saga of a reluctant hero and his talking sword … sinister explanations behind monstrous acts … these fourteen tales span a nice variety of settings and styles.

Among my favorites are “Two Tomorrow” and “Christmas Morning,” two of the shortest, sweetest pieces in the book, which convey such heartfelt love and emotion that the final punches land with wickedly devastating force.

-Christine Morgan

THE MUMMY OF CANAAN by Maxwell Bauman (2019 Clash Books / 136 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

In my introduction to Lorne Dixon’s 2011 mummy novel ETERNAL UNREST, I swore the genre was on the verge of mummies being the new “it” monster. Vampires and zombies were beyond played out at the time, especially in the small press, and there was this unofficial “bet” going on if werewolves or mummies would be the next big thing. Turns out the wolves were given more love, mummies didn’t have the resurgence I’d hoped for, but that didn’t stop a handful of authors from trying to bring them back to life.

The latest comes courtesy of Maxwell Bauman and follows a group of American teenagers taking a tour of Israel. After a member of the group goes off on his own and cuts his palm on the mummy’s tomb, it provides just enough sauce to awaken the ancient corpse, who then goes on a brutal killing spree (with triple the amount of gore about five of you saw in the 1981 Italian schlock-fest DAWN OF THE MUMMY). Detective Yosef Leib, fresh off listening to another tourist claim someone tried to steal his eyes while visiting a famous tomb, is quickly brought in on the case.

There’s some interesting Jewish history and folklore on display here, breaking up scenes of our tourists being mutilated, their blood drained, multiple innards being removed, and fleeing from one of the more pissed off mummies in recent memory. Those into the splatterpunk thing should enjoy this quick novella well enough, and anyone with a love for the bandaged ones should have fun. CANAAN manages to entertain despite its standard monster-romp set up and how (seemingly) easy this ancient curse is defeated.

-Nick Cato

KILLER LAKE by W.D. Gagliani and David Benton (2019 Deadite Press / 262 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Going by title alone, you might expect this one to be a slasher-flick-type book packed with packed with partying college kids, lots of drinking, lots of sex, and a fast-rising gruesome body count. In the woods, by the lake, at a remote and rustic cabin.

BUT WAIT! It’s not a slasher-flick-type … it’s sinister cultists! Whose plan to summon up their demon lord was thwarted years before but may now finally be ready to bear fruit! And it’s not a remote and rustic cabin, it’s a luxurious vacation home.

The lake, the woods, and the ‘packed with partying college kids, lots of drinking, lots of sex, and fast-rising gruesome body count’ parts, however? Oh, yes, that’s all there, in gloriously graphic profusion. Soon, characters are getting it on, getting off, and getting offed almost too rapidly to keep track of. To add to the fun, evil forces bring the slaughtered students back as ravenous undead, while the cultists gather their power to complete their sacrificial ritual.

Many of the classic tropes and archetypes – jocks, sluts, the nice girl, the rich boy, the bad boy, the misfit, the alcoholic wreck of a professor, the bumbling country cop – are well-represented, but with some surprising twists.

The structure takes a football game kind of format, with the pregame and replays giving us our flashbacks to what happened the first time the cult tried this, and the various quarters following the present-day action. There’s a halftime show, things go into overtime with a survivor meeting some bonus backwoods horror, and there’s even a bit of postgame wrap-up.

Entertaining, fast-paced, splattery, shameless, lowbrow and delightfully trashy. I read the whole thing in one day, during breaks while at jury duty. Not sure what that says about me, but at least nobody asked!

-Christine Morgan

DOORWAYS TO THE DEADEYE by Eric J. Guignard (2019 Journalstone / 312 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This may be the first novel-length work I’ve read by Eric J. Guignard, but he certainly proves he’s as strong there as he is with short stories and editing anthologies! The language here is beautifully handled throughout, often as grainy and sepia-toned as old photographs from past decades. Which fits, given its largely historical setting.

Not only historical, but historical-within-historical, and uniquely American in a way only a very few genres seem to manage. But, instead of the Old West, Colonial New England, or the gothic South, the main era presented here is that of the Great Depression, a bleak time in which jobs were scarce, hope was scarcer, and countless hobos roamed the rails in search of a little bit of livelihood.

One of the most fascinating things about those years is the way hobo culture developed its own secret language of signs and symbols, graffiti-style markings left so fellow travelers would know where work or charity might be found, or warned off from dangerous places.

That hobo code features prominently in this book, and I admit I worried it’d end up becoming an overbearing author show-offy brag thing, look how much I researched, like Koontz did with surfer lingo. It was a minor worry, given my previous experiences with this author, and I’m pleased to report it proved fully unfounded. The explanations flow naturally in the course and context of the story.

Along with the code, we get inside peeks at the hobo traditions of storytelling and legends and tall tales (referred to as “crossbucks”), the feared railroad ‘bulls’ who would roust travelers, and other customs and rail-riding traditions. Even if that had been all this book was, straightforward historical fiction, it would’ve been fascinating enough, but it gets taken to another level when one young hobo discovers deeper secrets behind some of those signs and symbols.

He’s soon able to do more than just hitch a ride on a train, finding ways to step into another world alongside our own … a world where the remembered dead linger, and attempt to remake reality by shaping the memories of the living. Once he’s gone into this world – called the Deadeye – our protagonist encounters key figures from other eras of American history, and they aren’t all what their reputations would have us believe.

-Christine Morgan

THE INVENTION OF GHOSTS by Gwendolyn Kiste (2019 Nightscape Press / trade paperback)

Everly and her best friend room together at college. Everly is not only fascinated by the occult, but uses "parlor tricks" to amuse other students. Her best friend isn't as crazy about the dark side, and sets some boundaries to try to keep herself safe. But when Everly decides it's high time to go home for a visit, she discovers things about herself, her friend, and both of their parents that lead to a life changing conclusion.

Kiste has delivered a couple of original ghost stories before, and this is another in her ever-growing catalog. With as much peer pressure in our protagonist's lives as there is mystery surrounding the weird rapping coming from their dorm room ceiling, this short but powerful story seamlessly brings the supernatural into an everyday situation, and gives the reader plenty to ponder. Fans of unusual ghost stories, don't miss out (and it's for a great cause).

This book is part of Nightscape Press' "Charitable Chapbook" series, is limited to 100 copies, and as of this writing there are only 25 left. Grab one here before they're gone: NS Charitable Chapbook Series

-Nick Cato

SPLATTER VON RAINBOW by Nicholaus Patnaude (2019 Nihilism Revised / 115 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This book seriously messed with my head in several admittedly interesting and unforgettable ways. The cover alone, clashing bright magenta and lime green, hurts the eyes even before you attempt to read the chiller-font lettering; it took me a few tries to even figure out what the cover image was supposed to be!

Don’t get me wrong, though. This isn’t one of those ones you’d see on a terrible-book-covers page full of badly photoshopped garbage. This is meant to be an eye-hurter, a warning as vivid as the coloration of certain varieties of mushrooms and little poison dart frogs, because the story inside is every bit as trippy as what you’d get from eating those mushrooms or licking those frogs.

Maybe not fatal. Maybe. I’m not sure yet. I finished reading it yesterday and my mind is still trying to fumble its way back to coherence. Haven’t felt so disoriented since I stopped the pain meds. This is bizarro of the most concentrated, distilled, compacted weirdness I’ve seen in a while.

At first, the story might seem like a random mish-mash of the craziest images and ideas thrown together, but the further you go, the more it fits together. There’s a sense of it making perfect sense just beyond comprehension, like I could almost grasp, almost grok, its ultimate message … but my brain wouldn’t let me, or wasn’t ready yet.

What’s it about, you might wonder? Good grief, I hardly know where to start. It’s a tragic love story, of sorts, a couple whose passion spans several past lives and dimensions in a half-fated, half-doomed kind of way.

But she’s trapped in the body of a manikin, and he has dinosaur genitals (not in the way that you’d think; just typing that sentence messed with my head again). There’s all kinds of kinky lingerie, and the title’s the name of a mystic rock-goddess (rock as in music), and a pervy voyeur magician-type offers the couple a chance to relive their past lives but only if he can watch them get it on, and …

… and then it gets REALLY out-there, so, yeah … nibble the mushroom, lick the colorful little frog, read this book … maybe don’t operate heavy machinery for a while …

-Christine Morgan

SHEPHERD'S WARNING by Cailyn Lloyd (2019 Land of Oz LLC / 398 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Sorry to say, I really struggled with this one. There’s nothing wrong with the writing; the writing is solid and sound, totally fine. Some of the historical and supernatural elements of the plot were different and interesting.

The characters, though, and their actions, reactions, and interactions … it’s a textbook case throughout of whatever the haunted house equivalent of climate-change deniers would be. Gosh, the locals are averse to the place. Gosh, inexplicable stuff keeps happening. Gosh, evidently there was some old hidden family secret. Gosh, a hundred other clues and red flags.

Let’s be typical obtuse white people, move right in, and start remodeling the place! Let’s go a step further and get it featured on one of those home improvement shows! Let’s none of us actually talk to each other about our disturbing experiences! Let’s ignore the way things move around, and the strange figures, and the dreams and personality changes! Let’s keep poking around and finding mysterious old books, gold coins, trap doors, but laugh it all off.

Until, surprise surprise, it’s too late and people are going crazy, getting hurt, having psychic flashes, fighting, lying. I wanted to smack them, honest I did. Even the professor who’s really a centuries-old immortal scholar and sorcerer, and might otherwise have been a fascinating character just came across as arrogant, entitled, and tedious.

Book 1 in a series, but I doubt I’ll be in a hurry to pick up the next installment.

-Christine Morgan