Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Reviews for the Week of February 24, 2020

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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




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