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