Monday, January 20, 2020

Reviews for the Week of January 20, 2020

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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



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