Sunday, May 20, 2018

Reviews for the Week of May 21, 2018

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


THE HORROR FICTION REVIEW

2003-2018
NOW IN OUR 15th YEAR!




LAST DAY by Bryan Smith (2018 Bitter Ale Press / 298 / eBook)

This pre-apocalyptic blood bath poses the question: If the earth had less than a day before a massive asteroid strike promised extinction, what would the lunatics be doing in their final hours? Hint: in Smith’s world, repenting at a church rally isn’t it. Quite the opposite, actually.

LAST DAY follows three sets of people whose lives (and fates) meet during a gut-wrenching finale right before earth is struck. And the ride there is as brutal as anything Richard Laymon or Ed Lee ever dreamed of (hence, if you’re squeamish, beware).

Uptight office worker Reece, caught in an eternal traffic jam en route to work after the news breaks, is rescued by bad girl/stunt woman Daisy on her motorcycle. She tells him they’re now in this together wether he likes it or not, and while weary he figures what does he have to lose?

Caleb and his sister Ella discover their successful, clean cut parents are much different than their outer selves appear to be: their dad turns out to be a ruthless serial killer, and their mom, his helper. Smith takes this part of the novel to places that will surely bring nightmares to some.

And finally Shawna, tired of her stale relationship with boyfriend Adam, decides to spend her final hours torturing him and murdering her neighbors. She’s an off balanced girl who sees the end as an excuse to let her darkest desires run wild.

While the world erupts into chaos (we’re given glimpses via news reports), Smith dedicates each chapter to these three scenarios until fate brings them all together in the final moments. Somehow, among the endless carnage, Smith employs some dark humor, especially in Chapter 23, but any laughs to be had are quickly quieted by the ever-grueling story.

LAST DAYS is a sick, hyper-violent, at times terrifying, and lightning-paced descent into madness. I actually held on to my junk a few times and winced, causing me to finish some sections through one eye. The violence gets so extreme it borders on the absurd, but Smith’s characters are relatible (whether we want to admit so or not) and it forces us to read on.

I can only imagine, if anyone survives the asteroid strike, what Smith’s POST apocalyptic world will be like.

Be very afraid.

-Nick Cato



DARKWALKER 2: INFERNO by John Urbancik (2018 Amazon Digital / 204 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Picking up a few months after the first book left off, we join Jack Harlow struggling to deal with the tragic loss of his lover as well as coming to terms with his new not-just-a-watcher role in the world of the supernatural.

His main goal is to find Lisa and bring her back from whichever afterlife may have claimed her, so he’s taken up questioning the various ghosts he meets. But their answers aren’t very helpful, and when he’s contacted by a former acquaintance with an offer, Jack can’t help but agree.

Accompanied by an acolyte of magical arts, he sets off on a strange journey, with no idea just how strange it’s going to get. We’re talking Dante-level strange, niftily paralleling that Inferno as Jack – without a Virgil to play tour guide – fights his way through various realms of actual Hell in hopes of finding his Beatrice.

The depictions of eternal torment are harrowing and effective, with suffering damned souls, fallen angels, cruel demons, and entities darker than anything Jack’s run into before. His efforts just to get back to the mortal plane again will shake the underworld to its very foundations, not to mention letting some real nasties slip through.

And, as if that’s not enough, powerful adversaries are closing in, some with connections to Jack’s past, forcing him to deal with multiple problems at once. Or, to put it in a zingier way, EPIC DEMON GHOST NINJA BATTLES!!! Which, if that’s not enough for you, I don’t know what more I can say.


-Christine Morgan



TIDE OF STONE by Kaaron Warren (2018 Omnium Gatherum / 427 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

The Time Ball Tower is located on a small island off the coast of Australia. It's a prison where criminals are sent who have made the choice to live within it's walls eternally rather than suffer the death penalty. Of course the majority of these prisoners quickly regret not taking the other option, and although we only get quick glimpses of these criminal's lives, Warren gives us just enough that we feel little (if any) pity for them.

TIDE OF STONE centers around Phillipa Muskett, who is about to become the latest "Keeper" to work at the Time Ball Tower. Keepers pledge to work for one year, alone, among the prisoners, and in turn they'll be set for life when they get out ... if they survive the year of loneliness and taunting from the desperate inmates. The prisoners are so weak and brittle (some hundreds of years old) that even a young woman like Phillipa can handle the physical tasks of the job, but we're never quite sure how she's faring on the mental end until the final pages.

A big section of the book is made up of brief annual reports from other keepers, as far back as 1868, that Phillipa reads to prepare herself for the job. She gains insights into some of the prisoner's minds as well as what her fellow Keepers had to go through, yet even all this doesn't fully prepare her for the task ahead.

Philippa's own journal takes place in 2014, and if you've never read Warren before you're in for a treat of deep psychological head games, supernatural spookiness, and some of the finest prose the genre has to offer. It was interesting seeing these criminals attempt to bribe and mess with Phillipa, who turns out to be a lot stronger than anyone would've imagined. I'd love to see a story about her life post-Time Ball Tower.

TIDE OF STONE is a sublime fever dream of ever-building dread with some fantastic atmosphere and a dark fantasy slant that's only given to us in tiny bites as to keep the tale grounded in reality (the odd condition of the prisoners, for example, kept me flipping the pages to find out more). I haven't enjoyed a "quiet horror novel" this much since the classic T.M. Wright novels of the early 80s.

I've been a fan of Warren since her 2009 debut SLIGHTS, and can say this is her finest novel yet. Don't miss it.

The Ball dropped.*


-Nick Cato 



SPLINTERED ICE by Stuart G. Yates (2016 Creativia / 279 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Jed Meres is just having one of those lives … bullies at school, exams coming up, a grouchy headmaster … oh, and his mother just up and left, presumably with a lover, which neither Jed nor his dad are dealing with very well.

It’s a lot to deal with all at once, but for Jed, this is just the start. His good deed of rescuing a fisherman fallen through the ice makes him a local celebrity, except there’s something odd about the man he saved. Something ultra-charismatic, almost hypnotic, almost controlling. Meeting him makes Jed fall under his sway, doing things he can barely remember.

It leads to trouble, of course. Trouble at home, trouble with the law, trouble at school, trouble with a girl. It leads to trouble for his dad with a neighborhood widow. There are mysteries and questions – why is the man Jed rescued believed to be dead? How does the violent murder of Jed’s only friend fit into things? What about Jed’s estranged half-brother, who says this isn’t the first time their mother’s abandoned her family?

Poor Jed is one of those characters in over his head, used and misused, played with and strung along. Those who seem to know what’s going on won’t give him straight answers. Frustration abounds, not just for him but a bit for the reader (at least for this reader; the urge to grab characters and shake them until they quit the smug teasy games is a strong one).

With whispers and chills and hints of the paranormal, I found SPLINTERED ICE an occasionally muddled but overall engaging read that held my interest until the end.

-Christine Morgan



FEAR OF FREE STANDING OBJECTS by Doug Rinaldi (2018 Mayhem Street Media / 244 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I’d read a couple of the stories from this collection before, in their original appearances, but it’s always nice to reconnect, as well as being able to enjoy the tales I hadn’t yet seen. They total thirteen, a nice devil’s dozen, spanning a range of horrors from the quietly artful to the whole-hog gory.

First up is “Unfurl,” a brief but haunting piece with some darkly beautiful descriptors and turns of phrase. It’s followed by the part-medical / part-diabolical invasive body horror of “Osteogenesis,” and the fun chaos and destruction of “An Incident in Central Village.”

The protagonist of “Bequeathed,” searching for answers about his deceased mother, finds more than he bargained for. In “Alchemy of Faith,” a priest follows a wounded angel’s last request and creates a new life … to the outrage of his fellow clergymen.

Urban exploration and poking into places best left alone feature in the next two – “The Yattering” has ghost-hunting in a derelict bookstore become all too real, while in “Egregore,” a fraternity initiation turns out to have far more sinister purpose.

“The Sickening” veers off into more historical epic dark fantasy territory as a lone man braves an ancient cavern in hopes of finding the source of a plague. “And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’” serves a professional killer a very unwelcome surprise.

In “Lotus Petals: Liminal Personae,” the quest for physical perfection outweighs all other concerns, even flinchworthy mutilations. And you know it’s a bad day at the office when someone unleashes a deadly curse on a co-worker, as happens in “The Jatinga Effect.”

“Sybarites: Or, The Enmity of Perverse Existence,” follows a desperate father trying to rescue his daughter from a depraved sex-cult. Finishing things off is the longest work, “A Different Kind of Slumber,” pitting cop against no ordinary kind of killer.

-Christine Morgan



HARVEST NIGHT by Darren Madigan (2014 Amazon Digital / 674 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

If an extreme horror short story is a quick, brutal 100-yard dash, then this book is a marathon of steadily-paced ongoing relentless atrocities with no rest and little reprieve along the way. Also like a marathon, others might wonder why you’d subject yourself to such grueling punishment just to end up feeling grimy and exhausted by the finish line; is the endorphin rush and sense of satisfaction worth it?

Well, if you’re a die-hard sicko like me, the answer to that question is a decided YES. As much mental fortitude as it took to keep on reading, to push through the depravity … I can only imagine how much was required to sustain the writing at such an unflinching level.

We’re talking serious nastiness here. Remember the stuff about devil-worshiping child molesters? Welcome to Redhaven, where there isn’t just a small secretive cult lurking behind the scenes while the rest go blissfully unaware. In Redhaven, most of the town IS the secretive cult, and it’s been that way for generations and centuries. Newcomers quickly learn things aren’t right, and often learn just as quickly to simply keep their heads down and look the other way.

Nor is it only Redhaven; the cult is widespread and powerful, a conspiracy reaching to the highest levels. And why not? It’s more than just mindwashing, total control, an endless supply of sex slaves, wealth, and political power. The members of the ‘congregation’ each have patron entities, demons and demigods representing many mythologies, who grant their followers favors of various paranormal kinds.

For much of the year, the denizens of Redhaven try to keep things mostly low-key, but when Harvest Time rolls around, those newcomers and non-congregation types are really in for it. It’s hunting season, killing season. But, any conspiracy so far-ranging is going to have those fighting it, working to bring it down … and this year may be a bloodier Harvest Time than anyone anticipated.

-Christine Morgan




*-private "joke" for readers of TIDE OF STONE.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Reviews for the Week of May 7, 2018

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


THE HORROR FICTION REVIEW

2003-2018
NOW IN OUR 15th YEAR!





FISHING IN BRAINS FOR AN EYE WITH TEETH by William Markley O’Neal (2014 Lightning Strike Press / 348 pp / eBook)

Seeing this collection, you might think, “Wow, that is one freakyweird title; I wonder what it means!” Then you might start reading the stories and be so drawn in and captivated you forget … until the moment when, in a deft bolt-from-the-blue, you’re hit with the answer. You know what it means, it suddenly makes perfect sense. And, if you’re like me, you’ll have to just stop for a moment of headshaking admiration (perhaps tinged with self-chagrin for not seeing it sooner).

The stories themselves are fantastic. Among them, you’ll find murderers and monsters and vampires, poetry and painting, how local legends develop and what happens to those who don’t heed them, sleep-talk secrets, and even a brief foray into the robozoid future.

First up is “Sensory Desolation,” in which a drunken sheriff berating himself for his failure to catch a serial killer receives an offer of help from some mysterious ladies, only to find out too late the cost of solving the crime. Intensely unsettling and creepy for sure.

Some particularly sinister fun is to be found in “www.$sellYerSoul2Satan.hel,” when a listener to a radio call-in show realizes HE’S the stalker the caller is talking about, and takes drastic measures to save their relationship and his reputation.

“I Was A Teenage Beehive” sent me into the screamy bug-dance; I know we’re supposed to be protecting the bees to save the planet etc., but phobia is as phobia does and yeeeeesh … my skin will hopefully stop crawling one of these days.

Closing the book out is “Bob Bodey’s Body Parts,” which may make you think twice about those little coin-op novelty dispensers; its up-close-and-personal vivid detail and descriptions are simultaneously hilarious and horrific.

Top-notch writing laden with clever twists and original takes. Serious good stuff. I don’t know how I’d managed to miss out on this author for so long.

-Christine Morgan



FICTION by Ryan Lieske (2018 Burning Willie Press / 300 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

There have been plenty of tales where an artist or writer’s creations come to life, and here, in his debut novel no less, Lieske manages to give it his own flavor.

Caitlín, under the tutoring of her ever-excited mentor, learns some characters from her stories are coming to life. One happens to be a killer who manages to photograph the souls of his victims at the time of their deaths (and some of the murders are quite gruesome). They wind up in a sort-of limbo, and when they realize Caitlín is responsible for their current whereabouts, they become hell bent on revenge.

Caitlin’s latest story leads to one of her close friends waking up with almost no recollection of his life, and the aforementioned lost souls discover a way to act out their ever-lusting vengeance.

Things build at a nice pace, and a few seemingly confusing elements are tightly wound up in the satisfying finale.

FICTION, despite it’s blah-sounding title, offers a feast of the horrific, with some edge of your seat moments and a couple of terrifying ideas. There’s plenty of twists and enough ghoulish mayhem to keep any genre fan flipping the pages. (And I really shouldn't rag the title...at least it doesn't have DARK or GIRL in it!).

An impressive debut that leans heavily on the dark side.


-Nick Cato



ALPHABET SOUP edited by Tobias Wade (2018 Haunted House Publishing / 234 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Okay, first of all, this anthology ended up being a little better than I thought it was going to be. We have a little psychological horror, gross out horror, and even some well-constructed conspiracy theories. The editor and authors involved in the project put together a timeless horror anthology that should hold up for many years to come. The concept of the overall project is what interested me to check it out in the first place. We’ve all seen the ABCs of Death, right? Right!? That video anthology where different horror directors picked or were assigned a letter of the alphabet and then they filmed a bunch of those badass little horror shorts. Same concept here. 27 authors. 27 stories. Awesome artwork for each story. The project started on a reddit forum and was put together and placed into our dirty, little horror hands.

Another thing I found surprisingly pleasant was all the stories seemed to go together very well and every single one of them were well written. Usually, with the larger horror anthologies there are too many hit or miss stories, with perhaps a couple stand-outs here and there, but occasionally we luck out and find gems like this one, where all the stories are well put together, extremely versatile, and properly executed.

Some of my personal favorites were 'D is for Daniel' by Dover Hawk, a tale, in which, the main character is haunted by an alien hand syndrome: an uncontrollable alien force is possessing his left hand. After it takes the wheel and tries to kill him in a car accident, the doctor performs another surgery, amputates his left arm, which sets the malevolent force free. In 'F is for Formaldehyde' by Kyle Alexander, an old lady winds up dead and nobody knows because the smoke from the tenants’ downstairs leaks up into her apartment, where her windows are open during the winter time, and her body is preserved with no stench for over twenty-six days. And, 'N is for Necrosis' by J.Y., a tale, in which, a student drops out of college to take care of his mother, who just so happens to be suffering from necrosis. As her condition worsens he finds it harder and harder to confront her about some of the disgusting things she does. Even after she dies, the memories are hard to erase.

Definitely recommended.

-Jon R. Meyers



LOST AND LONELY by Brian James Freeman (2018 Cemetery Dance / 175 pp / hardcover)

I should know better than to think “I’ll just read a little before sleep.” I can ‘one more chapter’ or ‘one more story’ myself beyond the point of no return, and then hours go by or I reach the end of the book, or both.

With this sleek collection, my only saving grace was that it is a slim book. Only five stories. I could read them all without losing out on too much of my sleep time. Good thing too, because yeah, as soon as I started, I was going to be ‘one more story’-ing myself all the way home.

“Losing Everything Defines You” is done in the form of a transcript of a recording, opening with the ever-compelling line, “If you’re listening to this, I must be dead.” Between that, and the information the recorder is a writer, and the question we all must be asking about whether he killed his wife and son … who couldn’t keep reading?!?

In “Loving Roger,” a wife is determined to save her marriage with a romantic surprise, but gets a shocking surprise of her own.

I really liked “How the Wind Lies,” a historical frontier tale in which a malevolent force follows the settlers to their new homesteads.

“Perfect Little Snowflakes” follows a couple of desperate teenage lovers as they try to decide what to do about a certain not-uncommon problem.

Last but not least is the chilling “The Plague of Sadness,” in which a 911 dispatcher can’t shake the effects of a troubling call.

As bonuses, the book also includes an intro by Simon Clark, and some spooky-lovely interior art by Glenn Chadbourne. Well worth a look!

-Christine Morgan



RED DIAMOND by Michales Joy (2018 Bloodshot Books / 378 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I went into this one knowing nothing but the title, kind of like a blind date with a book. Unlike most blind dates you hear horror stories about, these ones – horror story blind dates! – tend to work out better.

RED DIAMOND is definitely one of those worked-out-better. It combines several killer elements: the small town suddenly isolated and trapped, the rapid unraveling of societal structure, a shady conspiracy, a vicious monster on the loose … and adds the extra kick of a reality show.

Imagine getting a call to inform you that, congrats, your town’s been flagged ‘red diamond,’ selected for the next surprise monster rampage! In half an hour, the walls go up; anybody who wants out better get out pronto, and anybody still inside is fair game! Imagine having to deliver that news, oversee the panicked evacuation, and deal with the fallout. No pressure, right?

Sheriff Yan Corban of Pikeburn is the one who gets that call. The clock is ticking and the scramble is on. His sense of duty won’t let him abandon his post, even when several of his deputies prove not so noble. Soon, he’s trying to keep people alive – not only the people who couldn’t escape in time, but the ones who choose to stay and ride it out … and the ones for whom it’s gung-ho get-the-guns monster-hunting time!

Factions quickly form, and it doesn’t help that the leaders of some are not exactly Corban’s friends or fans. As if he doesn’t have enough to worry about, a couple of outsiders have also ended up in Pikeburn. One is a superfan, the Red Diamond reality show expert. Another is a technician who got caught (or abandoned) on the wrong side of the wall.

All, of course, while the latest genetically engineered killing machine taking its debut field test. It’s exciting plunge-right-in action with no reprieve, barely a chance to catch your breath, tons of crazy mayhem and fun.

-Christine Morgan



THE CHANGELING by Victor LaValle (2017 Spiegel & Grau / 432 pp / all formats)

One of the most highly praised novels of 2017, I finally got around to this wonderful fairy tale-type horror yarn and it lived up to the hype and then some. And no, this has nothing to do with the 1980 horror film of the same name (I was asked this by a few friends).

Apollo (who helps support his wife and son as a rare book seller) is determined to be the father he never had. His own dad abandoned him at a young age, leaving him with only a box of books and continually haunting his dreams. And now as an adult, those dreams are back, stronger than ever, each one acting as an omen of sorts. His wife Emma starts acting odd, and despite their seemingly happy home, Apollo finds himself tied up by her hands one day as she commits an act of atrocity against their infant son in the next room.

The rest of THE CHANGELING finds Apollo on a quest to find his missing wife and come to terms with the murder of his son. But at each turn Apollo discovers things in New York City and its surrounding boroughs aren’t what they seem as he comes face to face with witches, folklore that’s all too real, as well as his own role as a father and a human being.

LaValle has delivered an irresistible tale, turning local NYC areas into sights of wonder, making us believe the fantastic is lurking right under our noses (and in that regard this, at times, reminded me of Tim Lebbon's RELICS). Everyone here shines, from Apollo to his wife to his business partner Patrice, even characters who play small (but pivotal) roles such as Cal, the leader on a secluded island of protected women. This may be a fairy tale for adults, but it is undeniably a horror novel, full of emotion and questions that may haunt the reader for days.

So, yep, all the praise heaped on THE CHANGELING was well deserved. A novel not to be missed and one you’ll devour in no time despite its 400+ pages.

-Nick Cato



As promised last issue, another look at...


GODS OF THE DARK WEB by Lucas Mangum (2018 Deadite Press / 108 pp / eBook)

I’m fairly sure I was one of those reviewers who named Lucas Mangum as an up-and-coming talent to watch … in this book’s intro, Gabino Iglesias says we can all stop saying that now; he’s not on his way anymore, but has solidly arrived. And I agree. Mangum’s Deadite debut is a winner, a smash hit.

Ah, the internet. What was once a shady frontier has become the everyday world for a lot of us. We’re so accustomed to it, comfortable with it. But, you know what? It’s still a shady frontier. In fact, forget shady. It’s downright DARK. There are parts of it so vile, so sordid and nasty … the bad stuff, the stuff that should be unimaginable, except, to paraphrase a savvy space guy, we’ve got quite the imagination. The most heinous, horrible things ARE out there.

Leon and his pal Shiloh consider themselves on the side of righteous activism, but even righteous activists can get nervous about their safety, and so they go exploring the “dark web” in hopes of clandestinely purchasing some defense, and end up falling down the deepest, most twisted rabbit hole instead. And those on the other side? They know. They know everything, can find out anything, can get to you anywhere.

When Leon goes missing, his older brother Niles, a true-crime writer, undertakes a little sleuthing himself. Wading through torture and depravity, he finds a possible lead to Leon’s location … but not before drawing the wrong kind of attention.

My only problem with it was that it’s SO DANG SHORT! I wanted more, lots more. I was upset at how soon I reached the ending (I may have sworn out loud in protestation and disbelief). Because this book is a sleek, sinister, chillingly plausible piece of work.

-Christine Morgan

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