Sunday, April 23, 2017

Reviews for the Week of April 24, 2017

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

SYCORAX'S DAUGHTERS edited by Kinitra D. Brooks, Linda D. Addison, and Susana M. Morris (2017 Cedar Grove Publishing / 564 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

After an excellent forward by Walidah Imarisha, Kinitra Brooks' introduction explains the anthology's title and purpose. If you are unaware, this is both a celebration of black female horror writers as well as a major showcase for their work, which for the majority of the book is top notch.

Then we go into a lengthy mix of short fiction and poetry, but let's look at the fiction first:

Opening story 'Tree of the Forest Seven Bells Turns the World Round Midnight' by Sheree Renee Thomas finds confused stud Wilder discovering why his girlfriend Thistle is such a zealot environmental activist. This has the feel of a classic EC comic albeit with wonderfully creepy prose and a slick double message.

In Cheyenne Sherrad's 'Scales,' sisters must choose to live among humans or go back to the sea from where their ancestors came from. One of several stories here that use mythical creatures as a metaphor for race, and Sherrad's offering is a tightly wound and latently emotional winner.

In 'Letty' by Regina N. Bradley, a dying girl meets her own personal grim reaper, who turns out to be a former slave. The story of the slave's attempted escape from her nasty masters is as heartbreaking as it is grim.

Tracey Baptiste's 'Ma Laja' follows a murderous woman who I at first thought was a vampire but by the end, it becomes clear she's a werewolf. Baptiste's slang dialogue gives it an authentic feel.

Jane is a 140+ year old vampire in 'Born Again' by RaShell R. Smith-Spears. She befriends a younger vamp named Jackie and together they overcome Jackie's abusive husband. A solid take on vampirism full of history and sacrifice.

'How to Speak to the Bogeyman' by Carol McDonnell: An exorcist tries to help a young man who has been jailed after years of raping and murdering, and only the exorcist knows it's due to a powerful demonic entity. Creepy although it ends kind of quickly.

In 'The Monster' by Crystal Connor, a black female war veteran is forced to team up with three male white supremacists to battle a horde of shapeshifting creatures. A great set up that ends abruptly, I would've loved to have seen more.

'Taste the Taint: A Cursed Story' by Kai Leakes: Climbing the corporate ladder costs Kendrick more than his soul in this familiar but satisfying look at friendship and betrayal.

Tish Jackson's 'Cheaters' features a woman who is able to kill unfaithful boyfriends with her mind. Talks with her therapist may even be leading her down a darker path...

'Kim' by Nicole D. Sconiers takes place in 1982 in a small mill town, as Crystal and her teenaged crew practice to be the world's first female rap artists. But when a strange white girl named Kim appears out of nowhere, she begins to turn Crystal's crew against her, and they start changing in strange ways. With the help of an older neighbor, Crystal learns who (or what) "Kim" really is, and a battle ensues for the fate of her friends. One of my favorites and a real standout.

In 'Summer Skin,' Zin E. Rocklyn introduces us to a girl with an ugly, oozing skin condition that she manages to control with the help of her aunts. Original, creepy, and quietly metaphorical.

'Taking the Good' by Dana Mcknight: Two lesbian thieves meet a seductive woman at a bar. The woman turns out to be a tentacled monster who offers one of the lesbians a chance to follow her. I'm not sure of the hidden meaning (if any) but Mcknight held my interest.

'Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective II' by Valjeanne Jeffers is an excerpt from her forthcoming novel. Mona is hired by a witch who has had her powers stolen. I'm not big on the urban fantasy genre but this is a fun preview fans should enjoy.

'The Ever After' by L. Marie Wood is a study of several lives just before the moment of death. A dark heartbreaker that begins like a sci-fi action story but quickly becomes so much more. Another standout.

In 'Perfect Connection' by Deana Zhollis, a woman and her familiar spirit meet their male counterparts in a world where "Splitters" are a threat to the human/spirit familiar union. An interesting fantasy although it read like the intro to a longer story.

'Foundling' by Tenea D. Johnson features a woman named Petal who is able to rescue people via teleportation. After being transferred for losing a young life during a tele-rescue, she's soon sent to a woman's prison where she learns her own company framed her for sex trafficking. Like a few other stories here, this one ends as it seems to just be starting, but it's quite an enjoyable sci-fi romp.

'Rise' by Nicole Givens Kurtz: Trixie and her brother Fox travel across the desert wasteland on their way to live in a perfect city. But their mutant powers are exploited in this great entry dealing with racial acceptance.

'Of Sound Mind and Body' by K. Ceres Wright: Slick spy thriller featuring a female agent who, with the help of a secret government experiment, can change her outward appearance. Would make a slick novel.

'Asunder' by Lori Titus: a young college woman uses the help of a spiritualist to right her cheating boyfriend. A dark tale of voodoo, heritage, and the downside of not heeding parental advice. Good stuff.

'The Tale of Eve of De-Nile' by Joy Copeland is another voodoo-ish entry about a woman who can't afford to have a third abortion. But after visiting the isolated home of a herbalist, Eve's unwanted pregnancy takes a terrifying turn. Creepy with some genuinely bone-chilling images.

'Sweetgrass Blood' by Eden Royce: A woman of African descent goes against tradition and begins to write stories for new generations to be used in modern media. But she ends up becoming a story herself. One of my favorites here and a great symbol of the entire anthology.

In 'The Armoire' by Patricia E. Canterbury, a California newspaper reporter purchases a haunted piece of furniture at an antique fair and her home becomes a brief place for the spirit who lived within it. A routine ghost story with a message of motherly love.

'A Little Not Music' by LH Moore: In 1939, a college student earns tuition dancing at a jazz club. She, along with two house mates, become the target of an evil specter. Held my interest but could've used some kind of twist.

'The Manaka-kil' by L Penelope: a strange creature makes a young black girl and a young Asian boy its apprentices. They're the only minority children in an exclusive sea side, white community, and their lives are changed in incredible ways. A wonderful horror fantasy and one of the best of the bunch.

'Mama' by A.D. Koboah: Fantastic, emotional tale of a woman taken to the new world on a slave ship and how she uses witchcraft to help her daughter and granddaughter. Powerful and very well written, Koboah gives this the same feel and scope as a full length novel.

'To Give Her Whatsoever She Would Ask' by R.J. Joseph: An older woman grows weary of not having her prayers answered to have a baby. But something besides her Christian God answers her prayer in this classic-styled horror romp.

About the Poetry: I was taken aback by several pieces here, in particular verse from Andrea "Vocab" Sanderson, Tiffany Austin, Carole McDonnell, A.J. Locke, and Tanesha Nicole Tyler's 'Polydactyly' actually gave me goosebumps. Excellent!

The first afterword features editor Linda D. Addison summing the anthology up in her classic poetic style, then Susan's M. Morris caps things off with some final thoughts that will surely inspire (not only) black female authors but anyone passionate about writing.

SYCORAX'S DAUGHTERS is a massive undertaking delivered with style and substance. Many of the stories here would work well in any speculative anthology, not just one showcasing black female authors, and that's the beauty of this project: These stories and poems suck you in and take you to their own worlds, making the reader forget, at times, that this is a themed anthology. There's some serious talent on display here, and here's hoping to see more from those involved.

-Nick Cato

THIS SLAUGHTERHOUSE EARTH by D.A. Madigan (2016 Amazon Digital / 160 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Another day at the office, another run in the rat race, the white-collar grind ...

... until you and your co-workers are rounded up by invading alien fish/lizard monsters armed with shock wands, herded into a conference room, and held there until they march you off one by one to some unknown but probably unpleasant fate.

Suddenly, it's all about survival. Lloyd, a few days past his forty-fourth birthday, may not be the fittest or fastest or strongest, but he's smart, he's read a lot of sci-fi, and he's got a plan. Not the noblest plan, since it only involves saving himself, but it's still a plan.

And it's a plan that can be adjusted to accommodate a partner, if that partner is buxom blonde Megan who says she'll do anything-yes-she-means-anything. If Lloyd feels a little bit sleazy about taking advantage, well, it's a dream come true in the middle of an insane bloodbath nightmare.

They soon find out it isn't just their office building under attack, and the threat to humanity ranges far wider than fish/lizard monsters ... but saving the day might mean having to put those sex plans on hold.

A fast-paced and fun wild B-movie ride, an overt middle-aged-nerd wish fulfillment heroic action hot chick fantasy that knows and owns exactly what it is, unabashedly cheesy and quite enjoyable!

-Christine Morgan

X2 by C.M. Saunders  (2015 Dead Pixel Publications / 108 pp / eBook)

This collection of ten short and not-so-sweet stories runs a creepy emotional gamut of dark varieties, from the flinchworthy flash-fic of "Tiny Little Vampires" to the anxiety-building tragic ("Treat Night").

"Little Dead Girl" starts things off with a chilling bang and is probably my favorite of the bunch, as a man in a foreign country is tormented by an inexplicable haunting.

I also particularly liked "The Night Visitor," about a guy who sneaks into peoples' houses just to look around, maybe play a harmless trick or two, nothing bad; until the night he gets caught in the act.

The final story, "Roadkill," closes it off with a horror-comics style grisly adventure of a couple of freelance ambulance drivers who pick up a patient that sure seems dead at first ...

Many of these tales come with that final ominous reveal that reminds me of urban legends, a wicked little twist right there at the end to further drive it home. Nice quick reads, fairly fun.

-Christine Morgan

SUBSTRATUM by Jonah Buck (2016 Grinning Skull Press / 262 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

It's usually Chicago that gets the attention in Prohibition-era tales, so seeing a book set in -- and under -- Detroit makes for an interesting change of pace. Not only is it home to the burgeoning auto industry, not only does it have its share of crime bosses and illicit speakeasies, it sits atop an immense salt deposit riddled with miles of mineshafts and tunnels.

Those tunnels are also home to something else, something eager to prey on the hapless miners who've ventured too far below the surface. Needless to say, their disappearances don't go unnoticed. Jasper O'Malley, of the Attican Detective Agency, is hired to investigate.

Soon, accompanied by a gutsy gal and a femme fatale, Jasper is on his way back to the salt mines (but literally!). With old enemies, new ones, and inhuman monsters all trying to kill him, he's in a race against time not only to solve the case but save the day ... the city ... maybe the world ... no pressure.

My only stumbling block with this book was with issues of historical accuracy, mostly in terms of language use but some with just general various anachronistic-feeling things and details. A lot of the phrasing seemed to have too much of a modern/contemporary feel, and I found myself pausing mid-read several times to ponder whether such-and-such was common during that era or when so-and-so was invented, and stuff like that. Jarred me out of the story.

Which was a shame, because especially as it ramps up toward the explosive finale, things go from gangster-noir to full-on pulptastic Saturday matinee cliffhanger serial adventure. We're talking nonstop escalating headlong action, certain doom, and perilous escapes, with all the wisecracks, betrayals, before-I-kill-you villain monologues, delightful turns of phrase, and witty banter your heart could desire.

-Christine Morgan

THE ENDLESS FALL AND OTHER WEIRD FICTIONS by Jeffrey Thomas (2017 Lovecraft Ezine Press / 238 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This is as of recently now one of my favorite short story collections to date. Thomas is a brilliantly talented author, who without error manages to engage the reader into the heart and soul of his characters, often taking them along for the wild ride through his unique imagination as these fourteen weird tales of hopeless horror, cosmic dread, and perverse despair unfold before our eyes. There are many powerful stories in this collection that will perhaps stay with you, like they did for me for some time to come, keeping you on the edge of your dream feet and peeking your head around the corner of the next dark alcoves of your mind.

Amongst my favorites in this collection were ‘Jar of Mist’, where a distant father seeks out answers to his daughter’s sudden death. At first, he believes it has something to do with her strange boyfriend that up and left her behind for a place called Sesqua Valley, but upon further inspection discovers the truth in a jar of mist at the mysterious antique shop located below her apartment. ‘The Prosthesis’, I found this story very entertaining and accurate as I personally know somebody in this line of work, and it made for a great and pleasurable reading experience as we see a more humorous side of the author here. ‘Ghosts in Amber’, is going towards the top as one of my favorite short stories of all-time list! The main character takes us on a trip down memory lane in his boring marriage when he stumbles upon some old memories, something odd leaking from the rooftop, and much more in the old factory across the street. ‘The Spectators’, otherworldly obsidian black creatures pay earth a little visit to check-in and tell you they are still out there watching. While most fear their initial arrival, as they just show up in the corner of a room in your house out of nowhere— the main character in this story embraces its presence, pours himself a glass of bourbon, and has nightly talks to the entity about some of the finer things in life until he goes back to wherever it is that he came from.

Highly recommended for fans of Weird, Horror, and Dark Fiction alike.

-Jon R. Meyers

THE DARK HALF OF THE YEAR edited by Ian Millstead and Pete Sutton (2016 Far Horizons e-Magazine / 194 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This is not your usual book of holiday stories. The holiday theme woven throughout is both ominous and understated, touching on many obscure observances and lesser-known or semi-forgotten points of the calendar.

And yes, the focus is on darker aspects and elements, things we tend to lose sight of. These modern days, every holiday is more often than not only about shopping. It's all sales and cards and candy, instead of the old ways, the rituals, the keeping of evil at bay.

In these eighteen tales, though, you get the darkness and old rituals, the times of year when barriers thin between the worlds of the living and the dead. They're about repentance and remorse, fresh starts and second chances, secrets, traditions, love and obsession, vengeance, and more.

From whisper-quick flash fiction to longer works, and even a piece presented in graphic-novel form ... spanning eras from ancient to grim future ... in a variety of styles and genres ... a little something for everyone, to make your year that much more unsettling.

-Christine Morgan

VAMPIRE LODGE by L.E. Edwards (2012 Little Devil Books / 170 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Just goes to show you, no matter how well you think you know someone and how familiar you think you are with their work, they can always still surprise you. To wit: I learned about MONSTER LAKE years ago, got it, read it, reviewed it. But, it was only very recently (and on Twitter, no less!) that I found out about VAMPIRE LODGE.

Now, these are books for younger readers, recommended ages 10 and up. These are on par with GOOSEBUMPS and the like. But the thing is, the really stop-short-WTF thing about them is, L.E. Edwards is a pen name of the one and only Edward Lee.

It seems just so deliciously wrong. Ed Lee, Edward LEE of all people, writing for kids! Twice! So, naturally, I wasn’t about to let my omission stand. A quick order was placed, a book soon arrived, and here we go!

The story is that of Kevin, a thirteen-year-old into vampire movies and hassling his older sister. You know, a normal kid. Who is, along with his sister and their dad and his best friend and his best friend’s dad, are off for a week of fishing, hiking, kite-flying, and general relaxation at Aunt Carolyn’s remote rustic lodge.

The lodge is so remote and rustic, in fact, that it isn’t doing the best business these days. And it occurs to Kevin, upon arrival, that Aunt Carolyn is … well … weird … the way she’s so pale, wears tight black Morticia dresses, never seems to eat or be around during the day … and there’s all the wooden stakes around, not to mention the dark spooky paintings … and there’s these new guys she’s hired to work around the place, the guys who seem to spend a lot of time digging grave-sized holes in the woods …

Needless to say, Kevin has to go poking into the mystery. Needless to say, he gets more than he bargained for! Will anybody believe him, before it’s too late?

One of the many great things about this author is, he doesn’t write down to his readers. Even in his adult stuff, he’ll challenge you, make you work for it a bit, make you pay attention and learn. Vampire Lodge is no different in that regard, and this book will make a good addition to the gateway library of any budding young horror fan.

-Christine Morgan


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