Monday, March 9, 2020

Reviews for the Week of March 9, 2020

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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 K├Ąthe 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