Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Reviews for the Week of February 10, 2020

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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


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