Monday, April 3, 2017

Reviews for the Week of April 3, 2017

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. Thank you.


GWENDY'S BUTTON BOX by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar (to be released May 30, 2017 by Cemetery Dance Publications / 168 pp / hardcover, eBook, audiobook)

Some questions simply just don't need to be asked, and questions having to do with whether or not I'd be interested in an early peek at the new Castle Rock story are right up there on the top of the list. Automatic answer is a big ol' YES PLEASE, probably with some gimme-gimme and grabby hands thrown in.

I didn't know what it was about, didn't care what it was about. A Castle Rock story by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar was all I needed to know. I didn't go looking for any online info or even read the back cover.

All else I had to go on was the title ... which made me think of grandmas and cookie tins repurposed as storage for sewing supplies ... so, as a result, I found myself in for all kinds of surprises. Not unwelcome ones, by any means, but a momentary step-back to recalibrate my expectations.

This isn't grandma. This isn't sewing supplies. Gwendy is twelve at the start of the story, and one day she meets a stranger at the park. A man in black, and if his use of the word 'palaver' isn't enough to set off warning bells, the name by which he introduces himself leaves little doubt.

He has something for Gwendy, a special gadget, a mystery box. It can do amazing things, but its gifts come at a price. Remember that one Twilight Zone episode, you know the one? Kind of like that, only, also, not really.

Gwendy then faces the ultimate, tremendous, tantalizing struggle between could and should ... who has the right to decide the fate of others ... with great power etc. etc. ... while she's just an ordinary girl with all the ordinary Pandora-effect curiosity, and right at the critical swing point between childhood superstition and adult skepticism.

Naturally, even though I full well know better, I said to myself, let's read a couple pages, a little bit before sleep. Uh-huh. Of course I wound up reading clear to the end, as if my schedule weren't wonky enough already.

No regrets, though. Well worth it, even with the whining and swearing at the alarm clock. This is a perfect bite-sized little read, as satisfying as an exquisite morsel of chocolate (read, and you'll see, you'll know what I mean!)

-Christine Morgan

In 1974, 12 year old Gwendy Peterson is trying hard to lose weight. She climbs the tall "Suicide Stairs" every day in her small town of Castle Rock, and she's even starting to see some progress. One day she meets a strange man named Mr. Farris who gives her a special box, one that changes her life over the course of her junior high, high school, and even college years.

During this time, Gwendy becomes the smartest and most beautiful girl in school. Her old friends become jealous and boys dream of dating her. She knows it's due to the strange powers the box have given, but when she decides to finally do things with it Mr. Farris  cautioned about, even world events seem to now be under Gwendy--and the button box's--control.

It was great to read a long lost tale set in Castle Rock, and this novella-sized story can be enjoyed in a single sitting. A coming of age tale with supernatural leanings and a constant, gloomy undercurrent, GWENDY'S BUTTON BOX is a smart, satisfying story that causes the reader to contemplate their own life path and think twice about what "buttons" one may push.

-Nick Cato

A LIFE TO WASTE by Andrew Lennon (2013 Grand Mal Press / 147 pp / trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)

The first chapter of this book gave me such a vivid and visceral reaction, such a fuming frothing fists-clenched fit of rage, I almost couldn't stand it.

Why? Because Dave. That damn guy, that guy everyone knows at least one of. The user, the loser, the abuser, the sulky overgrown manchild who does nothing and expects someone else to take care of him.

I hate that guy. In the vehement want-to-slap-the-crap-out-of-them way I normally hate very few people. Kneejerk, hit a nerve, too close to home. I didn't know if I'd be able to keep reading.

But, after a few moments to collect myself, I pressed on. After all, the cover blurb promised gore and horror, so, I was optimistic really awful things were gonna happen to Dave. (the blurb also promised redemption, for which in his case I wasn't a fan, but could at least hope it'd come at a high price).

Anyway, so, here's Dave, petulant and demanding, living with his long-suffering mother. Through glimpses into his past, we learn of the person he once was, the potential he once had. We see where things went wrong, how he became the angry slacker with no life, who stays up watching movies all night and listening to the lady next door scream at her boyfriends.

Until the night the lady next door turns out to be not only screaming, but missing, and Dave wonders if he could have saved her. Until he realizes there's a maniac -- human or otherwise -- on the loose. Until its next target is his mom.

The prospect manages to spur Dave into action, getting him off the couch and onto the trail of a monster ... where the gore and horror really kicks into high gear. I do still think Dave ultimately got off a little too easy there at the end, but then, as I said ... I hate that guy.

-Christine Morgan

THE CLUB by Kyle M. Scott (2017 Amazon Digital / 222 pp / eBook)

This is the first book I’ve read by the author and it definitely won’t be the last. It’s a brutally dark and gruesome romp through the darkest recesses of a murderous sociopath’s mind, blood-soaked with some more gore for fun along the way. After reading this book, I think it’s safe to say that Scott can craft a gruesome tale alongside the best of them. Think Edward Lee. Think Jack Ketchum. Think the film 'Another Day in Paradise' meets 'The Devil’s Rejects,' or 'The Hills Have Eyes,' maybe even 'Hostel,' but with torture segments far more dark and sexually depraved. Warning: this book is not for the faint of heart. If you are fluent with the terms Splatterpunk and Extreme Horror and the content doesn’t bother you or that’s your thing, you’ll be okay. But, if you aren’t and are easily offended you’ll most likely want to stay away from this one and go on to tell the author he needs every bit of counseling and therapy he can afford.

The book tells the twisted story through the eyes of five separate characters. Four of them amidst a murderous rampage, an over-the-road-trip killing spree across the darker parts of the U.S, and one of their helpless hostages; a gorgeous girl that the leader of the group of misfits, Jason, wants to save all for himself, going into depth the special plans he has for her after he kills and has his way with her sister. And, although we never really get a clear description of any of the characters’ appearance, we do get a strong sense of their emotion, impending doom as the plot thickens, and their overall character, enabling us to connect with them very much the same through their different POV’s on what is going on at the time and how they’re feeling about their overall missions and objectives. The crew hits the deep woods after the cops thicken in town, as there are too many risks. After a falling out with one of their members, Conner (he’s wanting to leave before getting caught by the cops), the hostage escapes, as the others hold him over the fire and put an end to his cowardly weakness. Now Jason has the girls all to himself.

This is where things really start to get bloody and interesting. After everything the girl and the crew has been through leading up to this point, it only takes a turn for the worse. Her character develops into much more of a fighter, and the content of the book picks up heightened levels of dark and sexual depravity, as the crew stumbles upon a mansion in the middle of the woods and gets a literal taste of their own medicine as they fight for survival of the fittest. The driveway is full of fancy, black luxury vehicles, and there appears to be quite the gathering going on inside. It has to be safe, right? After all it’s a club constructed of some of the richest and wealthiest men and woman in the country.

Recommended for fans of Splatterpunk, Extreme Horror, and Dark Fiction alike.

-Jon R. Meyers

FATHOMLESS by Greig Beck (2016 Cohesion Press / 412 pp / trade paperback, eBook, audiobook)

There's so much under us and we have no idea ... under the earth, under the sea ... we send our submersibles into the deepest waters, we venture into the darkest of caves ... but we've barely explored the eensiest fraction of either.

So, naturally, when there's an opportunity to do both, on a scale of unprecedented immensity -- not just a subterranean river or lake but an entire vast underground sea! -- how could evolutionary biologist Cate Granger pass it up? Especially if there's a chance she might also solve an old family mystery. All she has to do is come up with the funding.

Okay, maybe it's beyond the university's budget, but she isn't going to let that stop her. Not when she can enlist the aid of Valery Mironov, a Russian billionaire with all sorts of connections and an interest in ancient marine life. He can provide all the hardware, though he does want to come along.

That's when the problems really begin. Problems besides the usual ones of interpersonal conflicts among the team, and the general risks of the mission. Problems like enemies, and sabotage. And, of course, that vast underground sea is far from empty. Cut off from the rest of the world for countless millennia, its denizens include hungry life forms thought long extinct.

The result is a harrowing nightmare of survival adventure showcasing multiple phobias, where situations rapidly go from bad to worse. Aside from a few nagging but minor inconsistencies here and there, I found Fathomless to be another worthy addition to my personal playlist of chompy toothy aquatic monster mega-hits, packed with action and exceptionally fantastic full-immersion environmental and critter descriptions.

-Christine Morgan

ROTTEN LITTLE ANIMALS by Kevin Shamel (2009 Eraserhead Press / 109 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

All those charming secret-life-of-pets stories where animals are as intelligent as people and of course they can really talk ... helpful animals, loyal, devoted, friendly ... and even the grouchy curmudgeonly ones turn out to be good-hearted in the end ...

Yeah, this book is not that. Oh, some of these animals may live with us and work with us and even love us in their way, but they'll interfere and sabotage and do whatever's necessary to keep their secret. Including killing any humans who stumble across the truth.

Which is what a motley crew of rats and chickens and various disreputable strays should have done when a snooping nosy kid discovers them filming a low-budget zombie-cat movie. Instead, they have the bright idea to abduct him and make a movie about that. THEN kill him. And eat him.

The result is far from any Disney-esque magical fairytale of wonder and adventure and catchy little songs. There's drinking and drug use, porn, cross-species sex, violence, betrayal, and just all kinds of grim nasty stuff.

Hilariously offensive, totally wrong, severely messed up, terrifically tacky, and an absolute blast from start to finish. It'd make a great animated feature, a la Sausage Party, with notable Hollywood celebs as voice actors. And a really big-letters parental advisory plastered all over the place.

-Christine Morgan


Monday, March 20, 2017

Reviews for the Week of March 20, 2017

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. Thank you.

SNAFU: BLACK OPS edited by Geoff Brown and Amanda Speeding (2016 Cohesion Press / 545 pp / eBook)

The SNAFU series has been around for several volumes but this latest edition is my first foray into its military horror stronghold. Each story here looks at special force teams from all walks of life as well as different time periods.

In the lengthy opener ‘Back to Black’ by Jonathan MaBerry and Brian Thomas Schmidt, it’s post apocalyptic zombie time yet again, and there isn’t much here you haven’t read before (gangs of thieves and rapists end up being more dangerous than the zombies, survivors on a quest for a cure confront maniacal tyrant, etc), yet this one features MaBerry’s super commando Joe Ledger (along with a novice and two other vets) who use their head-cracking skills to take down a false medical center. Familiar, but fun thanks to prose that reads as fast as the heroes kick ass.

‘The Waking Dragon’ by RPL Johnson is an excellent entry dealing with three POW’s who are tortured through virtual reality. Johnson shows how mental torture can be more brutal than physical and a few scenes had me squirming.

A small band of crusaders encounter an ancient evil in ‘The Clash of Cymbals.’ Richard Lee Byers’ historical horror tale is rich with religious paranoia and some fantastic settings.

James A. Moore and Charles Rutledge team up for ‘Black Tide,’ which finds Moore’s character Jonathan Crowley (and his posse) facing off against the creature that adorns this volume’s cover. An action-packed good time with a few suspenseful moments.

In Alan Baxter’s ‘Raven’s First Flight,’ the butt-kicking Raven joins a supernatural special ops team who are after a maniacal necromancer. I haven’t read Baxter before (::ducks from flying tomatoes::) but am looking forward to checking out more of his work.

Next up is ‘Sons of Apophis’ by the Horror Fiction Review’s own Christine Morgan. I always feel funny when reviewing books/stories by friends and colleagues, but DAMN does Morgan shine here with a “mini epic” set in ancient Egypt. Morgan’s take on religion (including prophecy and creation) are refreshingly different and her prose is top notch. An outstanding entry.

‘Seal Team Blue’ is another zombie pandemic tale, and like the opening story, John O’Brien’s storytelling abilities lift this one up despite the familiarity. Loaded with action, this should satisfy those who still crave tales of the undead, and it actually ended up being one of my faves here.

In ‘A Debt Repaid,’ Tim Marquitz and J.M. Martin deliver a more fantasy-oriented tale, featuring prodigy Gryl on a mission to rescue Jacquil from the hands of an evil slave trader. Perhaps the most brutal story of the lot, there are a couple of neat twists and nearly non-stop action. Excellent.

Next up is Kristen Cross’ ‘Ground Zero,’ where vampires attack and battle in a crowded London subway. The most action-heavy story of the anthology, Cross gives us a wicked good time that’s neck-deep in suspense. For people like me that are beyond tired of vampires, the author proves bloodsuckers can still be the basis of a truly horrific time.

Hank Schwaeble’s character Jake Hatcher is out to find the Vice President’s kidnapped daughter in ‘Deepest, Darkest.’ With backstabbings-a-plenty, Schwaeble’s tight tale pulls us along with Hatcher until the final confrontation with what is easily the coolest monster to come down the pike in quite some time. I’d love to see some artists give their interpretation of it.

‘Raid on Wewelsberg’ by Seth Skorkowsky is another historical entry, this time set in 1945. It’s a wild blend of ancient and modern weaponry and techniques, as a group of knights set out to retrieve sacred weapons that had been stolen by the Third Reich. Skorkowsky’s historical mix-n-match was a complete pleasure to read and I believe could easily be lengthened to novel size. I want more!

Perhaps the most different piece here is ‘God-Killers in Our Mist’ by James Lovegrove and N.X. Sharps, where Ethan, the lone survivor of his team, is still committed to prove that a god can be destroyed. Another more fantasy-based story, I loved its descriptive style and deep sense of mystery.

Closing out SNAFU is another novella titled ‘Extinction Lost’ by Nicholas Sansbury Smith. Sergeant Joe Fitzpatrick and his Ghost Team head to Greenland to investigate strange reports coming from a Nazi laboratory. Here’s a major monster mash with a ridiculously high body count, set against a frozen wasteland. You can almost imagine GWAR writing a concept album based on this. Fun, fun, monster-killing fun!

SNAFU: BLACK OPS is a lengthy anthology, but just about every story works. There are plenty of fresh ideas, some (as mentioned) that could be expanded upon and others done just right. Editors Geoff Brown and Amanda Speeding have collected a solid batch of pulp horror goodness and like all good anthologies, I’ve discovered a couple of writers I’m looking forward to reading more from.


-Nick Cato

THE HAUNTED HALLS by Glenn Rolfe (2016 Matt Shaw Publications / 280 pp / trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook)

When you think about it, it's kind of surprising we don't have more haunted hotel stories. King, sure, with THE SHINING and 1408 ... American Horror Story did its stint ... but other than that it seems to be more murder-style Bates Motel stuff, even though tons of hotels have tons of history, mystery, and secrets.

Hotels are, really, kind of inherently spooky. They're between-places, transient places, where the entire gamut of human emotion and experience might pass through on a regular basis ... where few people actually live ... but, proportionally, where more people may actually die than the average house.

At the Bruton Inn, the hotel in this book, those statistics may be even more skewed. A presence lurks there, a feminine presence, part siren, part succubus, bent on violence and vengeance and sadistic sick thrills. A presence that's done biding her time, done building her power, ready to make a big push and a bigger, bloody splash.

This of course bodes ill for the guests and employees of the Bruton Inn. Some will be drawn in, recruited willingly or unwillingly to serve their new dark mistress. Others will become victims, fodder, or simple collateral damage.

Soon, it's up to a horror fan desk clerk and a pop-culture 'urban shaman' to try and stop the evil, while sociopaths and psychos devote themselves to the cause. The result is an overall enjoyable read packed with graphic gore, sexual content of the not-very-friendly variety, several flavors of madness, and supernatural menace.

I did notice some minor but nagging little inconsistencies throughout -- character names, place spellings, a few pesky homonyms, description nit-picks, stuff like that. Could have done with a smidge more work in that regard. But, otherwise, good hotel horror, offering more than a few disturbing turns and squicky twists.

-Christine Morgan

BAD HOTEL by Dustin Reade (2017 Rooster Republic Press / 186 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
This is a very odd book indeed.

The title may be somewhat misleading, since we don't even get to the hotel until about 3/4 of the way through the book, and by then the WTF quotient is already way beyond off the charts.

This isn't just the hotel (though Billy Joel, "in hell there's a big hotel where the bar just closed and the windows never open," provided eerily fitting mental background music as I read). This is attempting to reach that warped destination of doom, through Dante-esque layers and levels of insanity.

It's disorientation from the get-go, it's like reading about trying to explain that dream you woke from, the one that all made such total sense at the time, before it falls apart into a blur. It's not feeling drugged or drunk; it's feeling like a stone cold sober person trying to navigate a whole world that's gone drunk and drugged and delirious.

See, there's these two guys, neighbors, whose houses have begun overlap-merging together. To the point that their furniture and even the clothes in their closets are hybrid mash-up fashion disasters. But that's just their particular dollop of the bizarre, an al-most-sane side note compared to what's happening other places.

The two guys, who also work together (though they're not sure doing what), decide to take some time off and go search for the epicenter of all this craziness, paranormal-investigator style. Their quest leads them through haunted donut shops, purgatorial department stores, reality distortions, Lovecraftian monstrosities, creepy schoolchildren, and that's not even half of it.

Fourth walls will be broken, minds will be bent like contortionists in yoga class, some turns of phrase are laugh-out-loud brilliant while others will linger squirming in the subconscious, and the end is a head-over-heels wallop.

An odd book, terrific, complex and profound even as it's utterly screwy, a journeying bizarro headtrip adventure.

-Christine Morgan

DREAD AND BREAKFAST by Stuart R. West (2016 Grinning Skull Press / 232 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

A quaint, charming inn in a quaint, charming town ... with quaint, charming innkeepers who welcome their guests like long-lost family ... comfy rooms, warm fireplaces, deli-cious meals ... and if the phones aren't very reliable out here, there are books and board games and other ways to pass the time. Really, what could go wrong?

Well, it could snow, leaving a lot of people stranded, trapped at the inn. Including some people who aren't very nice, and some who are on the run, and some who are on the hunt for the ones on the run, and some who are stone-cold-evil killers.

People like a guy who stole a whole lot of money, and the enforcer looking to retrieve it, and the crime boss determined to make sure the job gets done. People like a battered wife fleeing her revenge-minded husband with their little girl. People like the young newlywed couple out to do God's work no matter what.

It seems like almost everyone who ends up at the Dandy Drop Inn that night has his or her own share of sins and secrets. So does the inn itself, for that matter, with its . And once they're all cooped up together, with few options for outside communication or es-cape, it's inevitable that tensions flare.

The characters are genuine -- in more than a couple of cases, all too skeevily real. I particularly appreciated the way the little girl, Kyra, was written; very much in a believable kid-mindset and kid-POV.

All in all, it makes for a fun, cozy, entertaining thriller, woven throughout with creepy vibes and teasing hints that lead up to but don't spoil some good twists and surprises.

-Christine Morgan

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Reviews for the Week of February 27, 2017

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. Thank you.

PRIMORDIAL by David Wood and Alan Baxter (2017 Cohesion Press / 227 pp / eBook)

I have mentioned a time or million before that I get a huge kick out of toothy aquatic monster creature features, be they book or movie or otherwise. This is still true, and PRIMORDIAL proved to be one of the best, the most thoroughly delightful and satisfying, that I've read in quite some time.

Plot-wise in the larger scheme of things, it's exactly what you'd think and exactly what you'd want. Rumors of a lake monster, rich guy with a plan to find it, assembles his team of experts, off they go to exotic location. At first, there's doubt and skepticism, but hey, it's his money, might as well humor him.

And then CUE THE CHOMPY-CHOMPY! Because of course the monster's real, of course the various members of the team have their secrets, of course the locals are hiding something, of course there's trickery and betrayal afoot, of course the expedition quickly becomes a desperate fight for survival.

What makes a book a hit or a miss (in this case, hit, serious out of the park type of home run hit) is the way of the telling, the details, the extra added touches, the style and characters, the wit, the writing. Lively dialogue, believable interactions and reactions, terrific action scenes, wonderful descriptions ... it goes slyly meta with references to stuff like Jurassic Park and King Kong ... it's got a rugged Aussie and the sexy star of a myth-hunter show ... it's even got Nazis, believe it or not. And, of course, an awesome giant toothy aquatic monster!

It also features one of the most horrible/hilarious anguished livestock scenes since that poor cow dangling from a helicopter in Lake Placid. Imagine like that, only, with a sheep ... in a life jacket ... a sheep in a life jacket ... and okay maybe I'm weird but I'm one of those who isn't nearly so distraught over dozens of people becoming lunch, but OH NO THE POOR SHEEP! Then again, usually, the people, they kind of have it coming.

If, like me, you're a fan of JAWS and MEG and various menaces from the darkest depths, if you're intrigued by legends of Nessie and sea serpents, if you made embarrassing squee noises over the mosasaur tank scene in Jurassic World ... this book is for you!

-Christine Morgan

THE SECRET OF VENTRILOQUISM by Jon Padgett (2016 Dunham Manor Press / 200 pp / limited edition hardcover, trade paperback, eBook, audio book)

Having read Padgett’s 2015 novella THE INFUSORIUM (which is included here in a slightly altered form), I had high hopes for this collection and wasn’t the least bit disappointed. Comparisons have been made between Padgett and Thomas Ligotti and Shirley Jackson, and while that may be true he has his own voice and most importantly, a few of these tales are genuinely scary.

The brief opening mantra (if you will) ‘The Mindfulness of Horror Practice’ sets a gloomy tone for things to come, which kicks off with ‘Murmurs of a Voice Foreknown,’ which chronicles the murderous games among siblings. ‘The Indoor Swamp’ is another brief exercise in weirdness which Padgett has mastered despite being relatively new on the scene. The sense of setting here is as vivid as a film.

In ‘Origami Dreams,’ our narrator decodes messages inside an origami house he finds inside his box spring while cleaning under the bed. As we’re never quite sure if this is reality or fantasy, Padgett keeps us guessing until the final, eerie sentence.

My favorite here is ’20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism,’ which is written “pamphlet style” as 20 brief steps to what it takes to master the craft. And as we get to the 20th step, things become surreal and, ultimately, terrifying. This one worked for me big time...

Next up is the aforementioned novella ‘The Infusorium’ (see my full review in the 12/7/15 edition of this fine eZine), an impressive, strange murder mystery set around an abandoned paper mill. I think I enjoyed this revisit even more than my first. ‘Organ Void’ introduces us to Rose, who is stuck in a feverish nightmare (at least she—and we—hope so). Either way, Padgett gives the act of donating to the homeless a Bentley Little-lever sinister dimension.

Title tale ‘The Secret of Ventriloquism’ is written as a one act play, and is kind of an extension of ’20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism’ with our ventriloquist now dealing with his annoying wife and getting closer to Mr. Vox, a “Greater Ventriloquist.” Another creepy-as-it-gets piece.

Capping the collection is ‘Escape to Thin Mountain,’ a heart breaking road-trip type tale that has stayed with me since finishing the book.

These 9 stories manage to get under your skin and embed themselves in your psyche. Padgett’s top notch blending of the weird and the horrific comes off as the work of a seasoned writer, and has placed him on my must read list. This is not to be missed.

-Nick Cato

(NOTE: due to a scheduling conflict, Jon R. Meyer's review of this book will appear next issue. We had originally planned to do a dual-review).

INTERSECTIONS: SIX TALES OF OUIJA HORROR (2016 Howling Unicorn Press / 434 pp / trade paperback, eBook)

I don’t think anybody can deny that, whether hoax or subconscious impulse or actual paranormal presences, Ouija boards are creepy. So, naturally, the whole theme makes great fodder for stories, and this book presents six diverse and unique takes. In some, the Ouija is front-and-center, in others it takes more of a supporting role to larger or weirder goings-on, but as a common element linking these novellas, the 'talking spirit board' certainly manages to hold its own.

Starting things off is "Ghosted," by the always-entertaining Kerry Lipp. The title does clever double-duty here, referring not only to the restless dead but the often-manipulative social phenomenon. Its wry humor is the surface layer to some unflinching cruelty and pain.

Next up is Megan Hart's "Blood Born," in which a troubled young woman and her baby go from bad situation to worse, and worse yet, when she finds herself isolated with a peculiar family as twisted histories and dark secrets unfold.

"Sounds of Silence," by Chris Marrs, makes a big-step change of pace from the previous entries by basically bringing about the end of days, leaving the last remnants of humanity struggling to survive as the forces of Heaven and Hell wage war.

Then, Brad C. Hodson's "Gallow's Grove" takes us back to the bygone days of Prohibition, when mediums and the debunking thereof were big business, and a protege of Houdini is called in on a case where personal matters may intrude on the job.

Sephera Giron's "The Next Big Thing" also looks at magic and mentalism, their shady sides as performance art, and what happens when attempting to add a new element to the act makes things get all too real and all too dangerous.

Last but not least is "Mr. Shady," by Rob E. Boley, answering the eternal question of life-after-death with several really bleak, dysfunctional options demonstrating how humanity has managed not only to screw up the mortal world but the whole metaphysical cosmos.

I'd also like to make approving note of how many of these stories featured, without making any big gimmicky deal about it, female main characters. Even though like half of them were written by dudes! Gasp shock! But shhh, let's keep that to ourselves so as not to scare off the squeamish!

-Christine Morgan

VERMILION by Molly Tanzer (2015 Word Horde / 386 pp / trade paperback, eBook, audio book)

I went into this one with only the vaguest idea of what it was about ... or, rather, what it wasn't about ... "not your typical vampire novel" covers quite a bit of ground. What I did know going in was:

1.) It was from Word Horde, and every other book I've seen from Word Horde has been top-notch terrific ...
2.) It was by Molly Tanzer, who's also basically top-notch terrific ...
And 3.) The cover depicted sort of a gunslingery occultist vibe.

Those factors, plus "not your typical vampire novel"? How, really, could it go wrong? Well, I'll tell you. It couldn't. It didn't. It delivered the neatest melting pot of alternate history weird western supernatural steampunkesque feminist diversity-friendly romanticish adventure/thriller since ... well, ever, because there hasn't been anything quite like this before.

Okay, if you're one of those who can't stand to read anything without a ruggedly handsome straight white guy protag, you're liable to be unhappy here. Lou Merriwether is only one of those things, though she does dress like a man. The better to get along in a man's world, don't you know, especially when you're not only a woman, but half-Chinese. A misfit in both cultures, she's also taken over her father's business, which is also far from the usual line of work.

Lou's a psychopomp, in the business of dealing with the undead, helping restless spirits cross over instead of lingering around causing trouble for the living. The tools of her trade are a fantastic assortment of goodies and gadgets. She's pretty well-versed in whatever the other side can throw at her, but she's not a professional monster hunter and she's certainly not a detective.

Nonetheless, she ends up taking a case of missing persons, missing Chinese men supposedly lured away on promise of jobs with a railroad project when there's not supposed to be a railroad project. The truth of course proves to be even more sinister, involving a rustic wellness spa, the purveyor of a miraculous elixir, and a disturbingly attractive enigmatic stranger.

Wonderfully written and lots of fun, with vivid characters (many of them strong women and/or dynamic minorities; leave your stereotypes at the door please!) and an engrossing exploration of a West that never was ... it's part DEADWOOD, part BRISCO COUNTY Jr., part Van Helsing penny dreadful, and altogether its own unto itself.

-Christine Morgan


Sunday, February 12, 2017

Reviews for the Week of February 13, 2017

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for updated submission info. Ty.


ARARAT by Christopher Golden (to be published 4/18/17 by St. Martin's Press / 320 pp / hardcover, eBook, & audiobook)

After an earthquake opens up a cave at the top of Mt. Ararat in Turkey, engaged couple Adam and Miryam are notifed of the find by an old friend. Our "power" couple are explorers and rush to the site to be the first to see what may very well be the remains of Noah's ark. Adam is a popular author and Miryam a filmmaker, so if this turns out to be the biblical arc they'll both become legends in their fields.

Of course there are others with the same idea, and our couple take a more dangerous way to the top of Ararat. Once inside, it does indeed seem to be an arc that held several species, but among their findings is a coffin that contains the skeleton of a human-like figure that happens to have horns on its forehead.

Before long, people are becoming possessed one at a time (allegedly by the spirit of the demon corpse) and members of the cave investigators begin to vanish. Golden uses a break-neck pace to keep the action coming and the suspense nearly non-stop. But what makes this novel work are Adam and Miryam, a Jewish/Muslim couple who aren't devout to their faiths, but instead are seekers who find their secularism being challenged. This dynamic gives ARARAT a fresh and timely edge, as do the host of side characters, including a field guide named Hakan who is continually at odds with Miryam, and a Catholic Priest named Father Cornelius who manages to bring scholarly insights to the demonic corpse that has most of the exploration crew freaking out.

While ARARAT reminded me somewhat of Lee Thomas' excellent 2006 debut novel STAINED, it stands on its own as a page turning action adventure/horror hybrid. Golden's past three novels, DEAD RINGERS, TIN MEN, and SNOWBLIND, were all excellent, and now with ARARAT he's 4 for 4 in a big way.

A best bet for fans of religious-themed horror.

-Nick Cato

THE FARM by Christopher Motz (2016 Amazon Digital Services / 63 pp / eBook)

Here's a great tale of modern horror that takes us back to an old farm house located in rural New York.

The story is told with a lot of emotion from the POV of the eldest brother, Emery. Emery looks back and retrospect’s the darkness, sadness, and terror that took a hold of him and his overtly dysfunctional family. He and his ten-year-old brother, Frankie, were often left alone in the house. Their mother constantly ill and non-existent hiding away upstairs in the sewing room. And, their Father out in the barn drinking away his PTSD from the war, or often found wandering and digging random holes in their yard, as if it were a metaphor for his own decaying mind. One night the boys’ parents go out for a night on the town and they hear strange noises coming from outside. Upon inspection, they see the creatures for the first time. Later we find out they look like large rats with human faces. Their eyes glow yellow from the woods behind their house, and there appears to be dozens of them out there. That is until we discover there is another creature lurking in the woods, and, he’s already been inside the house. One much bigger, fiercer, and horrific. The boys refer to it as a demon but have a hard time explaining it.

The author does an exceptional job drawing us into the storyline, with a cast of believably heartfelt characters and emotion, and then drags them to Hell and back. Motz can spin a terror-filled tale alongside the best of them.

-Jon R. Meyers

IN THE HOUSE OF MIRRORS by Tim Meyer (2013 Amazon Digital / 290 pp / trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook)

If the coming-of-age novel had an older brother, it would be something like this ... where the disillusioned millennial or Gen-Xer, after getting brutally knocked around by real life -- the career and/or relationship that didn't work out, dreams dashed, in debt and without prospects -- goes limping home to try and pick up the pieces and start over. I have a feeling we're going to be seeing a lot more of those.

The unlucky run-roughshod-over guy in this case is Ritchie Naughton, who thinks things are going pretty okay, why shouldn't they be? He's got a good job as a journalist, he's in fair health, his recovering addict girlfriend is managing to keep clean ... then he walks in on her getting mighty dirty in a different way, and it all goes to hell.

Not quite literally, not yet. But, hello hitherto unsuspected heart condition. Hello, bad breakup, resignation, and moving into his big sister's basement back in small-town Jersey. Hello, depression and futility and all that goes with it.

To try and shake himself out of his funk, Ritchie takes on a photography gig for a local paper. They even have a camera he can use, and if it's a brand he's never heard of, he doesn't much care. To further pick up some extra cash, he also agrees to help his uncle get proof of his aunt's affair. The combination of those factors is when things start getting weird ... instead of some love-nest or no-tell motel, he ends up at a big weird house in the woods ... and his camera starts taking pictures of things that aren't there.

Then it just keeps getting weirder. I was reminded in good ways of various King stories set in and around Castle Rock, several of the seemingly-side characters get developed in fun and interesting ways, their reactions even as matters more and more inexplicable unfold are refreshingly genuine; all in all, an engaging, enjoyable read.

-Christine Morgan

BEHIND HER EYES by Sarah Pinborough (2017 Flatiron Books / 306 pp / hardcover, eBook, & audiobook)

Louise is a divorced single mom. She finally gets to go out one night and meets the man of her dreams in a bar. Yet after they share a kiss he is in a rush to leave.

A couple days later at work, Louise meets her new boss and his beautiful wife, and it turns out he is the same guy she had met at the bar. Louise runs to the bathroom to hide until they're gone, but the next day she confronts him and things get to as normal as they can be. But not for long, as David starts to come after her and they're quickly engaged in an affair.

After dropping her son off at school one morning, Louise literally bumps into David's wife Adele, but is so taken aback by her beauty that she doesn't tell her about the affair, and against her better judgment actually becomes friends with this woman who is new to the town. The two become fascinated with each other, not sexually, but as what seems to be honest-to-goodness friends.

What follows is a wickedly addictive thriller as Louise begins to look into Adele's strange lifestyle, and things with David begin to nosedive. Pinborough's prose here is irresitible, the pace absoultely perfect, and at just over 300 pages, the story is a tight as can be. If not for my disrupting day job I would've finished this in a single sitting (it took me two!).

But the highlight here is the ending. OH MY GOD the ending. I know endings aren't the most important thing to a lot of readers, but they are to me, and this is one of the finest to come down the pike in years. It's to-die-for good. This is like GONE GIRL on speed, with a slight supernatural leaning to push it more into the horror realm, keeping it a creepy arm's distance from your standard "thriller."

Needless to say this is highly, highly recommended, and if you're a fan of killer finales, get this before some Internet troll ruins it for you.

-Nick Cato

LAST OF THE ALBATWITCHES by Brian Keene (2014 Deadite Press / 152 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This book contains two novellas previously only available in limited edition collectible hardcover, so, being able to snag them both at the same time is a definite plus to the pocketbook. And, being able to read them together is even better, because they're Levi Stoltzfus stories.

Of the many threads stitching the greater literary Keene-verse together, this character is one of the most fascinating. Formerly Amish and still often mistaken for such -- hey, when you have the beard and the buggy, it's not that irrational an assumption! -- while also a practitioner of powwow as well as an eclectic assortment of various occult arts, Levi's appeared in several other works. We've gotten hints and glimpses of his life, but he remains an enigmatic, mysterious figure.

In THE WITCHING TREE, the troubles begin (this time) when a boy and his dog go missing. So does the boy's father, who goes out to look. The search party who finds them out by a lone old tree in a field ... well, what they find isn't pretty, and what happens to them is not pretty either.

The unnatural nature of the case causes a detective who'd heard a bit about Levi to seek him out, and enlist his help in dealing with whatever sinister force is in play. Levi's investigations turn up the tree's history, but also reveal some unsettling changes in the spiritual scheme of things, and lead him into a dangerous bargain.

THE LAST OF THE ALBATWITCHES joins Levi a month later, as he's still struggling with the repercussions from that previous mission. Something's definitely wrong in the paranormal world. It's affecting him, his associates, his abilities. Yet, when he's called upon to investigate another weird occurrence -- a possible sighting of a creature known in local folklore as an Albatwitch -- he can't refuse.

Meanwhile, a crew from the TV show "Cryptid Hunter" is also on the scene, and so are operatives from the megapowerful Globe Corporation. It quickly becomes obvious there's a lot more going on here than any simple rural legend.

References and connections to Keene's other works are deftly woven throughout, making a fun little egg-hunt for those who enjoy that sort of thing, while also providing plenty of tantalizing teasers to encourage new readers.

-Christine Morgan



Sunday, January 29, 2017

Reviews for the Week of January 30, 2017

NOTE: Please see bottom of main page for submission info. Thank you.

VYRMIN by Gene Lazuta (2016 Bloodshot Books / 315 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I am enough of a fairytale/folklorist that any book with an old-fashioned German woodcut style cover is a surefire way to get my attention. Particularly when it depicts that most archetypal of fear-driven images: the feral man-beast stealing away an innocent child to savage and consume. That's the nerve center root of our storytelling, right there.

And the idea that these tales weren't just invented to keep the kiddos from wandering off into the woods ... the idea that there really were such monsters ... who can resist? After all, we know there ARE, even in our modern world. They may not sprout fur by moonlight, but oh, yes, the monsters ARE. It's not much of a step further to bring the old legends to life.

If that was all this book was about, I still would have been perfectly satisfied. But this book takes it even further, takes it way beyond our notions of the Brothers Grimm or The Howling or all those urban fantasy RPGs and paranormal romances of secret races living among us. This book takes it back to the beginning and then some.

It's sneaky, too. It touches on various tropes and themes ... the small-town hicks plagued by something uncanny, the hush-hush agency investigating supernatural occurrences, the weird cult, the bloodline legacy ... but shakes them up, turns them inside out, blends and remixes and remasters. It's Twin Peaks meets Wicker Man in the archetypal Black Forest backwoods rustic America, managing to combine Biblical overtones with science fiction, anthropology and history.

I'd say all that should make it hard to categorize, but what you really get here is a dark, multifaceted jewel of horror. Grisly gore, primal fears, the murky chills of the unknown, transformation, mutilation, fates worse than death, loss of self ... the hits just keep coming, and as soon as you think you've figured it out and are feeling a little secure and safe, you'll be hamstrung from another direction.

-Christine Morgan

(**Editor's note: VYRMIN was originally published by Penguin in 1992)

BEYOND THE GREAT, BLOODY, BRUISED, AND SILENT VEIL OF THIS WORLD by Jordan Krall (to be released 2/17 by Bizarro Pulp Press / 134 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Krall's latest novella is a trippy, dark science fiction story dealing with a group of mentally unstable men on their way to an already colonized Mars. As with many of the author's stories, we're never sure if we're actually on a shuttle or on Mars, or in a psychiatric ward. The mystery and constant guessing keeps things moving, eerie, and unsettling.

As we journey along with our main untrustworthy protagonist, the story expands into the life of a Messianic figure, terrorism, and a look at industry that's as obscure as the main scifi story. And in the end, things are (sort of) tied up with a chilling note.

BEYOND is told in short sections, making it very easy to digest in one sitting, and Bizarro Pulp Press's page layouts enhance an already fantastic tale that's way out of the oridinary.

-Nick Cato

CARTOONS IN THE SUICIDE FOREST by Leza Cantoral (2016 Bizarro Pulp Press  / 110 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Leza Cantoral’s debut collection is a fantasmagorical sex blob of pink literary color jelly for your fragile horror mind, body, and soul. The writing is highly versatile, fresh, hip, and creative in all the right ways. Think old school Bizarro Fiction when it first came out. Think Horror double-dipped in the heart of the Beat Fiction era. Think about watching your favorite Saturday Morning cartoons while eating a bowl of sugar coated cereal in your favorite pair of underwear, while still candy-flipping from last night’s psychedelic rave party. We're introduced to a number of memorably bizarre and horrific circumstances, sexy adult themed fairytales, and eerily black-ink bleeding cartoons.

Some of my favorites in this collection were 'Cartoons in the Suicide Forest,' a unique and clever tale that takes social networking deep into the depths of the Suicide Forest and introduces us to creepy abandoned cartoon girls searching for their mother. In 'Green Lotus,' failing relationships are bad but not worse than feeling like you are stuck with someone forever, especially when you’re candy dipped into a green slime bath and turned into a goddamn plant for the rest of your life. 'Cosmic Bruja,' a dreamlike acid trip that takes us to the center of religion and Mexico. And 'Fist Pump,' an erotic noir-esque tale in which a damsel in distress just wants to be a part of the gang in more ways than one.

A brilliant and extremely versatile collection I’d recommend to fans of Bizarro, Horror, Science, and Beat Fiction alike.

-Jon R. Meyers

RIDERS, PLEBS 2 (Books 1 and 2) by Jim Goforth (2016 J. Ellington Ashton Press / 310 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

When I reviewed the original debut PLEBS, I knew even then it was too much bursting-at-the-seams story to be confined to one book. And, see? Look. Just look. The sequel alone takes up two full action-packed volumes!

Which, fortunately, I was able to read back to back, sparing us all my inevitable furious shrieking over sudden cliff-hangers. Note: if you, like me, are prone to furious shrieking over sudden cliff-hangers, then yeah, make sure you have both installments standing by.

RIDERS picks up a few months after the crazy, violent carnage in PLEBS. The surviving characters have formed a sort of roving vigilante band -- among their retinue, four motorcycles named for the fabled Horsemen of the Apocalypse, hence the title. They travel around, dealing out vicious punishment on rapists, abusers, and other such scum of the earth.

Sounds like fun, right? No mundane cares about jobs or money, plenty of wicked weaponry and sweet rides, and the company of three beautiful women who are also the deadliest of avenging angels, serving up white-hot fury and cold-blooded justice to those who deserve it.

Thing is, though, enterprises such as this have a way of getting out of hand. Of crossing paths with the wrong sorts of enemies or biting off more trouble than can easily be chewed. What starts as another seemingly routine mission -- striking back at some scuzzballs who ruined a girl's life -- blows up when the scuzzballs have a crime boss friend who decides to take it as a personal insult and affront to his business.

From there, it's escalation and exponential vendetta, the hunters becoming the hunted, with some complications of mistaken identities, and hapless tagalongs swept in over their heads. But, while all that's going on, there's also the small matter of, oh yeah remember them? The Plebs, the savage freaky mutants from the first book, who are also still around.

If I'm going to quibble, and I guess I might as well, the main problem I had here was an excess of telling and exposition, some over-explaining of motivations, some redundancy, and heavy-handedness with stressing how hot these ladies are. We get it, already; don't need to be told sometimes several times in a paragraph.

With a large cast of characters, an almost equally large ultimate body count, lots of high-octane battle scenes, some wild sex, and the suggestion of a really loud blasting soundtrack throughout, it's like reading an intense action-movie marathon. And, hey, I still want to know more about the Plebs themselves; plenty of room for another sequel!

-Christine Morgan

THE MORTUARY MONSTER by Andrew J. Stone (2016 StrangeHouse Books / 152 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

You know Neil Gaiman's THE GRAVEYARD BOOK? The hauntingly cute, endearingly creepy one about the little boy who grew up in a graveyard, raised by the dead? Kind of sweet and tragic, Tim-Burton-esque before Burton got too kooky?

THE MORTUARY MONSTER is NOT LIKE THAT. Well, maybe a smidge, in the broadest strokes and vaguest similarities; I mean, it's about growing up in a cemetery, it's about coming to terms with matters of life and death, family and belonging, and so on.

But this is WAY more dark, WAY more messed up. Very decidedly NOT for kids. There's bad language. There's horrible parenting. There's sex with corpses. There's beatings and torment and violence and vulgarity. Murder and suicide. Abandonment, betrayal, loss. Dark stuff. Messed up stuff.

Yet it READS like Gaiman, it reads Burton-esque, it reads Addams Family, Roald Dahl. It reads morbidly funny and charmingly grim. The sheer dissonance of it just totally works. All it's missing, really, is stylized illustrations throughout.

Summary-wise, there's this guy named Gonzalo, whose family have been caretakers of an unusual cemetery. All Gonzalo's wanted since he was a kid was to be able to leave, to become a part of regular society, but he's never been able to manage it. Not even with the helpful advice of his dead friends.

He vows not to make the same mistakes his own parents did, but that sort of thing's always easier said than done, and there are always plenty of ways to make different mistakes. Especially when your own child is born half-corpse anyway ... but you're still trying to be what you think a good father should be.

I went into the book knowing nothing but the title, so, the result was an unexpected but welcome delight, a whimsical poison-chocolate surprise, immediately captivating and a really ghoulish, sick treat throughout.

-Christine Morgan


BLACK STATIC No. 56, Jan-Feb 2017 (published by

Another solid issue opens with Lynda E. Rucker heading the commentary (Stephen Volk's final column appeared in issue 55) with an encouraging view on why she believes art can save us in the current dark political climate, and new commentator Ralph Robert Moore looks at "The Perishability of Metaphors" (as well as memory and...mothers). It's a bit sad, but interesting nonetheless.

Kicking off this issue's seven stories is 'The Green Eye' by Scott Nicolay, which is the account of a young boy who had a supernatural experience after stripping cars at a junkyard. This short tale is then explained in an author's note that's two pages longer than the story itself. An odd selection for an opener although it's all quite interesting.

'Smoke, Ash, and Whatever Comes After' by Eric Schaller: Peter and his young daughter Tracy are cleaning house. They decide to dismantle a bureau and even get rid of a doll Tracy had made (as per her request). They place the items in the fireplace to eliminate memories. Schaller delivers a haunting, emotional look at loss and grief that will surely stay with you.

In 'Border Country' by Danny Rhodes, a divorced dad takes his son on a camping trip. The son becomes the target of a legendary witch. Familiar, but Rhodes' focus on the dad's apprehension gives it a fresh feel.

'What We Are Moulded After' by Eugenia M. Triantafyllou: After Eleni's husband Andreas dies, she "creates" another husband by placing Andreas' bloodied jacket on another man. Told from Eleni's new mute husband's viewpoint, Triantafyllou's horror fantasy is an absorbing, original tale with an ending that had me wanting more.

An old man and his wife live in an isolated area surrounded by abandoned homes in Charles Wilkinson's 'The Solitary Truth.' His wife Agnes can't accept their cat has died, and he keeps hope their daughter will finally come to visit. Another story centered around the ways we deal with loss and grief. Good, but depressing.

'The Maneaters' by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam: Although Scarlet learned about her late grandfather through her grandmother, she learns the truth when she finds a 35 year-old note in her grandmother's bedroom. A chiller of self discovery highlighted by some excellent prose. Stufflebeam also appeared last issue and has won me over.

Finally, in 'Stanislav in Foxtown' by Ian Steadman, Stan works at a greasy chicken restaurant and is constantly bullied by his muscle-bound boss. With the help of some feral foxes, Stan manages to advance his position. Steadman demonstrates how suggestion can be as, if not more affective than "showing" graphic violence. Great stuff here.

Seven top notch tales that prove why this magazine is the best in the business. Writers would do well to pay close attention.

Gary Couzen delivers another batch of DVD/blu ray reviews (I'm looking very forward to the Arrow DRILLER KILLER blu), and Peter Tennant provides a fantastic interview with Stephen Volk (after reviewing his latest collection), and also dissects a few anthologies and novellas (seriously folks---Peter's reviews are worth the cover price alone).

Grab your copy (or better yet, a subscription) here: BLACK STATIC subs/issues

-Nick Cato