Monday, December 11, 2017

Reviews for the Week of December 11, 2017

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





THE NOCTUARY: PANDEMONIUM by Greg Chapman (2017 Bloodshot Books / 250 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This novel-length sequel to Chapman's 2011 novella THE NOCTUARY takes some familiar tropes, twists them, and becomes a creepy-as-it-gets tale I read in only two sittings.

For those not familiar with the novella, it's included here as an opening bonus. In a nutshell: author Simon Ryan literally becomes hell's newest scribe, his words able to change the destiny of every living soul. In PANDEMONIUM, Ryan's former psychiatrist, Dr. Desmond Carter, receives a manuscript allegedly written by the now missing Ryan. His destiny quickly snowballs as his boss, a crazed patient, and a detective all fall victim to Ryan's otherworldly words.

PANDEMONIUM keeps the scares coming and the peril alive on every page. A couple of scenes inside a mental institution raise serious goosebumps, and the impending sense of doom is relentless.

Towards the end, Chapman spends perhaps a bit too much time on backstory, although he does create his own hellish version of history that could easily be built upon in future projects.

 PANDEMONIUM delivers the goods and should chill even the most jaded reader.

-Nick Cato




ENGINES OF RUIN by Lucas Mangum (2017 Doom Kitten Press / 180 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Okay, this guy is officially one to keep an eye on, still fairly new to the game but already displaying the kind of talent and skill that will go a long, long way. Not to mention, proving that good writing isn't a lost or dying art in this modern age; the current crop of rising stars will more than carry on into the future!

Opening with an intro by extreme-horror powerhouse Shane McKenzie, Engines of Ruin is a tidy collection of eight unsettling tales. Some touch on the supernatural, many have religious aspects, but most deliver their chills simply by delving right into the darker undersides of the human psyche.

"Hell and Back," in which a pastor-turned-bartender faces the conflict of helping a friend who's done a terrible thing, has a gritty noir feel and reads like it should be a starkly done black-and-white graphic novel.

The passion and poison of twisted relationships take center stage in stories such as "Worlds Colliding" and "Video Inferno," while painful histories, forbidden urges, and deadly secrets refusing to stay quiet are the focus of "A Killing Back Home" and the haunting "Waters of Ruin."

"The World Asunder" manages the deft trick of being a zombie apocalypse story without on-screen zombies, and "Occupy Babylon" brushes up against the end of days in a subtly sneaky surprise.

The full-on weirdest of the set is "Our Lady of the Sea," maybe not Lovecraftian in a lore sense but (to me) very much so in a feel sense, atmospheric and eldritch and somehow beautifully bleak.

So, yeah, all right, sometimes I may grump about these kids being so much better than I was at that age, but I mean it with affection. They've got the stuff. We won't need to despair for ongoing good reads, and that's what really matters.


-Christine Morgan




PRETTY MARYS ALL IN A ROW by Gwendolyn Kiste (2017 Broken Eye Books / 90 pp / trade paperback)

Rhee is a ghostly hitchhiker who haunts the same isolated stretch of highway night after night, freaking drivers out and having her own otherworldly fun. But at the end of each day she is transported back to a house she shares with four sisters, each of them a ghost, too.

But it turns out these ladies aren't your ordinary specters: Rhee is actually the legendary Resurrection Mary, one of her sisters the infamous Bloody Mary, another Mary Mack, etc., Urban Legends whose afterlives are about to be challenged but the ultimate incarnation of darkness.

Rhee's world is also beginning to merge with human love interest Dave and his young daughter Abby, as well as twin sisters who have a knack for contacting the spirit realm.

Kiste's dark fantasy grabbed me from the first sentence and forced me to finish in one sitting. This highly imaginative novella features some incredible imagery, gorgeous prose, and a satisfying finale that could easily lead to a sequel. I loved it.


-Nick Cato




THE WILDRENESS WITHIN by John Claude Smith (2017 Trepidatio Publishing / 258 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I went into this one with no idea of what I was going to read, and I came out the other end some days later, blinking like a mole in the sunlight, trying not only to figure out what I'd just read but what was real and what wasn't.

A shifting unreality, to say the least! Over the course of the book, several times right when I'd finally think I had a grasp, that grasp would slip away like a handful of smoke. If it's like King's The Dark Half, it's the origami version, so intricate and folded in on itself the eye can barely comprehend and the brain is left guessing.

Summary-wise, it starts off with a couple of middle-aged author types heading out for a restful cabin vacation, but from the get-go there's some Lynchian not-quite-rightness going on about the woods. Our POV guy, Derek, soon becomes concerned about his buddy Frank. Their reminiscences about the old days, including absent friend Izzy, gradually make Derek wonder how much of Frank's writing is drawn from imagination and how much from real life.

And, of course, things take a swiftly spiraling dreamlike descent from there ... fiction and reality intertwine ... Derek has to confront the true-life inspiration for one of his own literary creations ... Izzy shows up, or does he? ... some strange force in the forest is calling ... much more than sanity and safety are at stake.

Now and then, things side-wander with a bit more info dumping about music and such than I particularly cared for, but the lavish sensory immersion and richness of description more than makes up for it. Not a book for casual pick it up / put it down reading, though; you've got to pay attention or you will soon be lost in the woods.


-Christine Morgan



PREVIEW:

WIDOW'S POINT by Richard and Billy Chizmar (to be released January 28, 2018 by Cemetery Dance Publications / 156 pp / hardcover)

The Harper's Cove lighthouse has a dark and troubling history, and famous supernatural investigator Thomas Livingston is about to spend a weekend there. His aim is to get material for yet another bestseller, and with over two dozen confirmed deaths over the years, he's sure there will be plenty to write about. To make matters spookier, he's locked in by the groundskeeper with no phone or Internet service. Of course it doesn't take long for the hauntings to begin, which grow in intensity after he finds the journal of a 12 year old who once lived there with his family...

While WIDOW'S POINT is a familiar story (1408 immediately comes to mind), it's told through a series of voice and video recordings that give it its own feel, and the four post endings make it seem like an authentic episode of Unsolved Mysteries. In the hands of these skilled authors (a father and son team), a typical genre tale manages to raise some serious scares and proves there's always room for a well told, solid ghost story.

A no nonsense, tight, filler-free novella perfect for a late night read.


-Nick Cato




THE TEETH OF THE SEA by Tim Waggoner (2017 Severed Press / 180 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

As a reviewer, I strive to be detached, aloof, and professional -- hey! what are you laughing at? Okay, okay, fine, my reaction upon learning of this book was giddy glee and something like "OMG YES freaky sea monster chompy aquatic horror is my JAM bring it on gimme!"

What can I say? I love this kind of stuff. And I'm delighted to report that The Teeth of the Sea does not in any way disappoint. It's got everything I look for in oceanic creature-features and then some! Great action, fun characters, interpersonal conflict, glorious carnage, terrific writing, believable critters with personality and motivation ... an exhilarating adventure from start to finish!

It opens with a small pod, two males and two females, returning by instinct to their ancestral spawning/hatching ground after long years in the deep. Only, there's a problem. During the intervening time, the island's been made into a prime vacation destination of luxury hotels, casinos, canals, and resorts.

This doesn't stop the pod for long, because they quickly discover that this means a veritable bounty of tasty soft-skinned morsels. Soon, videos of gory attacks are all over the internet, but every public-relations nightmare has its silver lining. Cue monster-watching boat tours, a special episode of a cryptid-hunter show, a disgraced professor hoping for redemption, a comedian looking to become a real-life action hero, and the stage is set -- so they think -- for success.

So they think. Needless to say, it doesn't go as planned. In fact, the situation keeps getting worse for the idiot soft-skins with their cameras and phones and selfie-sticks. But it's all-you-can-eat time for the pod, unless their violent competitive urges get in the way.

Top-notch chomping, plausible science (often a rarity in creature-features, must admit), tons of fun, and a fully satisfying read!


-Christine Morgan




MAGAZINES:



BLACK STATIC no. 61 ( Nov/Dec 2017 / TTA Press)

Opening commentaries feature Lynda E. Rucker's thoughts on ghosts in light of the Christmas season, then Ralph Robert Moore discusses the loneliness of the writer's life as well as carrying on despite those who may be against you.

This issue's fiction is once again among the best in the business, and includes:

-THE ANNIVERSARY by Ruth EJ Booth: In just 4 short paragraphs, Booth delivers a powerful piece on spousal abuse. A grim tone is quickly set...

-FOR WHOM THE DOGS BARK by Ralph Robert Moore: an old man named Hans, who lives alone, grows weary as he faces cataract surgery. Late at night the dogs next door wake him with their barking, but when Hans investigates he finds three naked men on all fours pretending to be dogs. We learn a bit of Hans' back story but only enough to hint at where his mind is currently at. A weird and unsettling study of aging.

-THE BOOK OF DREEMS by Georgina Bruce: A dazzling look at an abusive relationship where the abused's (Kate) cloudy memory leads to her man's (Fraser) downfall. Bruce's symbolism makes the piece almost feel sci-fi but the underlying horror will chill you to the core.

-DO NOT GOOGLE by Andrew Humphrey: a cheating husband is asked by co-worker Vince to take a piece of paper containing a series of words that, when Googled, lead to a loved one's death. Being said husband doesn't love anyone, he takes the paper...and discovers the hard way he most certainly does. An idea that reminded me of CURSE OF THE DEMON (1957), and I'm sure much earlier stories, but here Humphrey gives it a fresh spin.

-A SMALL LIFE by Carly Holmes: An alcoholic man, running from his past, arrives in a small town and joins a rowing team to help keep his mind off his demons. He does fine, until almost capsizing the boat one day after seeing a strange creature jump at him from the woods. And when Jess, a team mate's sister, joins the team and shows interest in him, our unnamed protagonist begins to spiral way out of control in this engrossing novelette.

-TANCHO by Mel Kassel: Laurie, an old woman on dialysis, is kidnapped and murdered by her neighbor, Jameson. He has a customized pond where he keeps her spirit (or something like it) with occult symbols on the walls that keep her a submerged prisoner. It seems Jameson has found a way to breed rare koi fish for a demanding market, which he needs Laurie for. But Laurie figures out a clever way to turn the tables on her captor. Kassel's aquatic terror tale brings to mind classic EC comics although with none of the campiness. This is seriously strange (and disturbing) stuff.

Gary Couzens delivers another batch of dvd/bluray reviews, including a look at the latest box set of George Romero films from Arrow, the seventh season of The Walking Dead, and Arrow's real pretty deluxe edition of John Carpenter's THE THING.

Among Peter Tennant's book reviews are seven anthologies/collections, six chapbooks from Nightjar Press, and a detailed look at a Hap and Leonard graphic novel. Among the six novel reviews is 'Kill The Next One' by Federico Axat, a complex sounding thriller that has shot to the top of my must read list.


Grab your copy (or better yet, a subscription) here: Black Static

-Nick Cato


~~~~~~~~~~~
COMING SOON:


Sunday, November 26, 2017

Reviews for the Week of November 27, 2017

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





HAUNTED WORLDS by Jeffrey Thomas (2017 Hippocampus Press / 248 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Jeffrey Thomas has become one of my favorite authors of the last five to ten years. His prose is often brilliant, subtle, haunting, and atmospheric, to say the least. He has this uncanny way of crafting timeless stories that possess ample amounts of mixed emotions and dread, where the reader is instantly hooked into the story and setting being told. It’s slow-burned into your psych with elements of Horror, Science, and Weird Fiction alike. HAUNTED WORLDS delivers all of the above with the same quality and expectations that I personally had before diving into this new collection. One of the dominant themes that I picked up on right away was this brilliantly lingering and overwhelming sadness, whether it was from a main character’s point of view in the story, or embedded in the roots of the setting and dialogue, there was this powerful, lingering sadness found at almost every turn of the page, and I loved every second of it.

Some of my personal favorites were: ‘Spider Gates’, there’s talk of a haunted cemetery in the woods, a white deer, voices and legend, only some make it out alive. But, what rests behind the ancient stone wall will forever remain a mystery. ‘Feeding Oblivion’, a brother’s trip to visit his mother in a nursery home is doomed by giant, black centipede like masses and they’re everywhere. I don’t think you can turn the television up loud enough to drown them out of your head once you’ve seen them either. In ‘The Left-Hand Pool’, two ponds border the roadway on the way to work, you see a strange black creature a couple of times, before getting turned down by a female you have a crush on at work. ‘Riah Gnol’, a modern-day horror tale about a mysterious ghost girl that haunts the local arcade. She’s been seen in a number of places, including, but not limited to, the laser tag arena.

Another brilliant collection.

-Jon R. Meyers



BENEATH by Kristi DeMeester (2017 Word Horde / 254 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Okay, let's be honest here. Nothing I can say in this review would be as glorious as the fact that a book club assigned this one to their members and then issued an aghast apology once they realized what it was all about. THAT kind of epic cred is for the ages, folks.

I suppose they figured they were getting your basic moody broody backwoods gothic, some cross between A Scarlet Letter and V.C. Andrews. Which, in a sense, they were ... only, they were also getting a whole bunch more.

This isn't just tormented Appalachian angst laden with sin and struggle and poor suffering Rev. Dimmesdale. This rips away all the veneer, any romanticized notions. There's abuse and molestation and ugliness, the down-deep nasties, ol' time religion and then some. When it starts off with snake-handling as the default norm and gets into the dark ancient cthonic blood stuff?

But, it does start off with snake-handling as the default norm, when reporter Cora Mayburn is given an assignment from her editor to look into the practices of a remote church community. Given her own past experiences, she's reluctant, but accepts, and sets off for Hensley.

What she finds is fanatic zealotry, turbulent secrets, pent-up lusts, and ominous history beyond even her worst expectations. Something else is about to awaken, something ready to emerge and take over. Can a distrustful reporter and a disgraced minister save the day from a primal power, a feminine force of birth and death and blood and rebirth?

Now, me, I read it with great delight, particularly enjoying the rich sensory style and liquid delirious chaotic unreality, some really excellent body horror and gore, and brilliantly handled points of view through unspeakable transformations.

Then, before I got around to writing this review, I learned about the book club business and couldn't help chortling with sinister glee. Some of those reactions must have been something to behold!


-Christine Morgan



PROM NIGHT ON THE RIVER OF DEATH by Jason Rizos (2017 Rooster Republic Press / 126 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Ah, that classic love story of boy, girl, car, dark lonely road, escaped maniac, and hook hanging from the door handle! That's how this one may begin, but don't get complacent thinking you know what's next, because the urban legends are about to be upended and the tropes turned inside-out.

Welcome to a future where hunting teenagers is big business, cheerleaders bring extra bounties, and no night is more prime-time than prom night! Whether you're an old-school stalker sticking to the classic tricks, or a hotshot laden with all the newfangled gadgets, this is when and where the action is!

But wait, it gets even weirder than that. There's the aliens to think of, and the roving preachers, and rumors of some crazy band of resistance fighters, and all in all the whole thing's getting to be a bit much for a traditionalist like Chester. He just wants to snag his final bounty and retire in peace. Instead, he's in for the wildest and craziest prom night of his life.

Written in such a way that each increasingly WTF development seems to flow as part of a natural domino-effect cascade, with hilarious characters and humor and plenty of sly acidic cutting social commentary, not to mention packed with slashertastic action, fight scenes, and the requisite splatterings of gore, Prom Night on the River of Death is a hoot and a half.

Its only flaw is that it could've benefited from a hard fine-tooth edit, but otherwise I found it a very fun and entertaining read.


-Christine Morgan



THREE DAYS GONE by William D. Carl (2017 Post Mortem Press / 260 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Subtitled "An Action Packed Urban Fantasy with a Noir Twist," this is the first installment in a planned series centered around private investigator Mike Gone, who, with his tall, tough as nails drag queen/secretary Helen, deal with cases deemed to weird for the Cincinnati Police Department, sort of a Kolchak-meets-X-Files thing. In Gone's first case, the victim of a mass shooting walks out of the morgue in a zombie-like state, and it's up to Mike and co. to find it. Three days later, the walking corpse manages to destroy a riverboat gambling operation, and in the process dies, yet manages to "transfer" whatever was making it tick into a random gambler.

Mike's crew grows to include Pam, a hard-assed cop (and his former partner), his secretary's boyfriend Larry, plus a blues-singing exorcist and his rapping grandson who, the more they look, discover strange events being separated by a three day time limit, and an ancient European spirit. It all culminates in an attack on a Cincinnati bridge, where Mike and co. are pushed to their limits in a dizzying, thrilling finale.

As if dealing with a demonic terrorist wasn't enough, it seems vampires have kidnapped Mike's girlfriend as revenge for him killing one of their own. This sub-plot makes it seem like we've read about Mike Gone before, and gives the character (and novel) some unexpected depth. Kudos to Carl for adding plenty of well-timed humor along with all the monster mayhem.

THREE DAYS GONE is a fast read and a fun addition to the growing urban fantasy subgenre. It seems fans are loving Mike's side kick Helen, me being no exception. I'm looking very forward to more from this motley, yet likeable crew of spook-busters.


-Nick Cato



RIDE THE STAR WIND by Scott Gable (2017 Broken Eye Books / 459 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

This right here is one brain-breaker of a book. Seriously. If the stories within don't pretty much shatter the grey matter, a clonk to the head with the print version would do the rest. It's nearly five hundred pages, a hefty tome to be sure. And it's five hundred pages of super-dense sci-fi cosmic horror, with every single story damn near a multiverse unto itself.

Not something to be read all at once, not something to breeze through; you will need to (sorry/notsorry) space it out and give yourself a chance to recover in between. The stories themselves span a likewise astronomical gamut. As a bonus, each is accompanied by a terrific illustration gleaned from the pens and psyches of an array of talented artists.

My personal top pick of the bunch: "The Writing Wall" by Wendy N. Wagner, which brilliantly hit all the right notes for me (not just because I'm biased in favor of Norse mythology, either; this one has fascinating environments, caving, surprise twists, and just all kinds of cool stuff).

Other standouts include: "Union" by Robert White, Lucy Snyder's "Blossoms Blackened Like Dead Stars," Tom Dullemond's "The Multiplication," Kara Dennison's "Canary Down," "The Sixth Vital Sign" by Wendi Dunlap, and Gord Sellar's "Vol de Nuit." Only a few of the tales didn't grab me for one reason or another; the majority proved to be mind-blowing on a staggering scale.

With twenty-nine to choose from, covering everything from cinematic space-opera to gritty bug-hunts to cross-temporal galactic peril to madness among the stars, there's bound to be something for every fan of weird fiction, often taking even the incomprehensible scope of Lovecraftian madness to exponential new levels. A stellar read in any sense, but yeah, best taken in measured doses. In space, no one can hear you lose SAN.

-Christine Morgan


PREVIEW:

READING STEPHEN KING edited by Brian James Freeman (to be released 12/31/17 by Cemetery Dance Publications / 400 pp / hardcover)

Gasp! What's this? A non-fiction book? In The Horror Fiction Review? Now, hold on, hold on, it's all right ... it's about the works of Stephen King, and Stephen King is a big part of why we're where we are, right here and now as a certain Wolf might say.

So, close enough, right? This is a gathering of essays from experts and academics, King's colleagues and peers and some mega-fans, all looking at the monumental impact he's had on the genre as a whole. Not only through his writing, but through the art it's inspired in various forms -- movies, paintings and illustrations. They look at his influences on younger writers, on wider-world media as a whole. They look at him as not only a literary powerhouse but a person and a friend.

I mean, just look at some of the contributors here! Jack Ketchum, Clive Barker! Bev Vincent, Richard Chizmar, Frank Darabont! Look at some of the essay titles! "Reading the Lost Works of Stephen King." "The Politics of Being Stephen King." "The Adventure of Reading Stephen King." Topics such as how writing is telepathy, religious aspects, twinners and twinning!

Herein are reviews and criticisms and retrospectives, academic analyses and heartfelt messages. Herein is a lot to think about and a lot to enjoy. Maybe some issues to debate as well; we each have our own opinions, occasionally fiercely divided. But that's a good thing, a thing we need more of.

Reading these essays did make me want to go back and re-read the books, re-watch the movies, re-experience everything that's helped shape my life since I was ten years old picking up a shiny silver paperback from my grandfather's garage bookshelf. More, and perhaps more importantly, it made me want to strive harder with my own craft.

You don't have to be a scholar to get a lot out of this book. All you need to be is a Constant Reader, no matter how casual ... or maybe even a new reader looking to become Constant ... and this will prove a vital addition to your King library.

-Christine Morgan

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Reviews for the Week of November 13, 2017

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





TEETH MARKS by Matthew Weber (2017 Pint Bottle Press / 218 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

That moment when you pick up something by an author whose name is familiar from social media circles but not much of whose work you've yet read until recently, figuring hey let's give it a go ... and before the first story's done, you're wondering what the heck took you so long, look what you've been missing!

Each of the twelve offerings in this collection is just knock-down drag-out crazydamn good. I was reminded in all the best ways of Bentley Little's short stories, that relatable modern Americana feel, the kinds of things that could happen in anybody's town ... or neighborhood ... or very own home.

This was another where trying to narrow it down to my favorites was a real challenge, because there are no duds in the bunch. But I'll try.

"The Red Card," in which Carol keeps finding inexplicable and unwanted messages in her new apartment, cranks up the paranoia to terrific intensity ...

"Suburban Facebreaker" because small-scale bickering escalation and my aunt used to live in a house with front steps like that ...

"The Neighbor At The Curb" for all those times you've wondered just what the heck they're throwing out and been tempted to take a trashcan peeksie ...

"Cookies" for the little animal-befriender kid in us all (sometimes to our parents' horror) ...

"Louise, Your Shed's On Fire;" rather than Bentley Little so much, this fun one gave me more of a Janet Evanovich vibe and I grinned all the way through ...

"Of All The Nights," when a home invasion goes wrong thanks to greater dangers ...

And I better make myself stop there because I've already listed half the table of contents! See? See how it is? See what I mean? These are all just too crazydamn good!

-Christine Morgan



STRANGE WEATHER by Joe Hill (2017 William Morrow / 434 pp / hardcover, eBook & audiobook)

These four short novels (I guess that means a tad longer than a novella?) feature two supernatural stories, a wild scifi romp, and a drama that is perhaps the most unforgettable piece here.

In 'Snapshot' a man recalls his younger days as an overweight nerd who spent much time with his elderly nanny. He helps her in his teen years as she becomes the target of a strange man whose Polaroid camera robs people of their memory. I read a slightly shorter version of this in last year's special Joe Hill issue of Cemetery Dance magazine, and it's a powerful way to start off a collection.

In 'Loaded,' a brave female journalist, a mall security guard (with a bad military history and an itchy trigger finger) and a jewelry store owner (with his slightly pissed off mistress) eventually meet in this drama that the author claims is his attempt to understand our "national hard-on for The Gun." Sure, it's a bit political, yet by the end Hill may just win some people over, or at least cause them to rethink their position. Timely, important, and best of all completely thrilling, this is the longest tale here yet I read it the quickest.

Despite being scared to death of heights, I somehow made it through 'Aloft.' Aubrey (he the lone male in a musical trio) joins bandmate Harriet in a skydive to commemorate the passing of their lost member, June. Aubrey is petrified of heights but joined the dive due to his secret love for Harriet and a rashly made promise. When the moment of truth comes, Aubrey realizes he just can't do it, but the plane malfunctions and he has no choice. Along with his jumping instructor, they land on a bizarre cloud-like formation...just 38 feet below the plane. My stomach felt like it was going to drop through the entire length of this wonderful (although scary as it gets) story where the ending just might make you wonder if everything you just read was all in Aubrey's mind.

Finally, Hill delivers a riff on his novel THE FIREMAN with 'Rain,' an apocalyptic scifi romp that has a few funny moments, but they don't take away from the horrific goings-on. Honeysuckle (you have to love that name) is thrilled her girlfriend Yolanda is coming to move in with her, with her mother along for the ride. But before they can begin their lives together, the sky turns black and not only Honeysuckle's suburban neighborhood, but all of Denver is hit with a downpour of gold and silver spikes, shredding everyone in their path. We eventually learn this occurrence has affected the entire world, and that it's the work of scientists. Most of the story follows Honeysuckle as she travels to Denver to find her girlfriend's father, along the way meeting some choice characters (the best being part of an insane end times cult who happen to live on her block). When we're not laughing at this group, we're cringing as people attempt to get around in the needle/nail-filled landscape. End times fans will eat this one up, and hopefully terrorists won't attempt to pull this off!

STRANGE WEATHER is a fantastic collection, filled with solid stories and characters anyone can identify with. I've read everything Hill has put out, and while I like most of his novels, I think his short stories and novellas are his strength. You'll rip through this in no time.


-Nick Cato


PREVIEW:

CRY YOUR WAY HOME by Damien Angelica Walters (to be published 1/2/18 by Apex Publications / trade paperback & eBook)

Okay, now, with this one I knew what I was getting myself into, because I've been enviously admiring everything Damien Angelica Walters has done for many years now. Her style is sumptuous decadence, her storytelling skills are exquisite, she has a deft knack for folklore and underlying mythology, and is one of the best of the best when it comes to reimagining classic fairy tales.

You might think that last bit has been done to death, that there's nothing left, the once upon a times and happily ever afters all played out. But you'd be wrong. Just look at "Tooth, Tongue, and Claw," the opener here. Forget Disney, animated or live-action remake. This is a take on Beauty and the Beast like you've never seen, far from musicals and romance.

Many of these stories are female-focused, which is also fitting because women were the original tellers of those old tales. Cruel girls, wicked stepsisters, mothers and daughters, the darkness, the viciousness, coming of age, monsters, pain and change and shame and secrecy, loss, the prices we pay for love and survival.

I found "S Is For Soliloquy" to be a delightful surprise, and if it seems a departure, think again ... superheroes are our form of modern mythology. "The Floating Girls: A Documentary" is deep-down haunting. "Little Girl Blue, Come Cry Your Way Home" is post-partum terror, while "In The Spaces Where You Once Lived" touches on many peoples' worst fears.

Really, the only barely-a-critique I can come up with is that, when you read them all back to back, you might notice some recurring traits cropping up through several stories. The fingernails to palm thing, the pinching the bridge of the nose thing. But again, only because I read the whole book almost in a single sitting.

So, yes, another absolute winner from one of the best voices out there. Don't miss out!


-Christine Morgan



HUNTER OF THE DEAD by Stephen Kozeniewski (2016 Sinister Grin Press / 403 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

It's been 20+ years since I last played Vampire: The Masquerade, and the campaign was short-lived even then ... but danged if this book didn't make me nostalgic for it! Which surprised me, really; there've been about ninety bazillion vampire novels with the houses/clans all scheming and intrigue and political infighting, and those made me never want to play the game again.

So, Kozeniewski must (as usual) be doing something right. One aspect of it is that his vampires, for all their living among us controlling crime syndicates and whatnot, are decidedly not human. There's none of the angsty moralistic brooding, though they are civilized enough to do diplomacy and negotiations.

It also presents several nifty takes on vampiric origin, history, and abilities that I found tremendously entertaining. It's rare to see and makes for a fresh, refreshing change. And NO, it's none of that sparkly woo-woo business either. While not full-on 30 Days of Night vampirociraptors, these ones are wickedly cruel, savage, and monstrous.

But they also have rules, strict ones regarding status and succession and territory. And, where there are vampires, there are those who hunt them. The human Inquisitors, mainly ... as well as rumors of the legendary Hunter of the Dead, kind of the vampire boogeyman.

Or maybe not so legendary after all, as a lone wolf Inquisitor and a hapless kid from a convenience store are about to find out. They're soon caught up in a turf war of biblical proportions, entangled in uneasy conflicting truces, fighting ancient evils, and racing the clock before all of Las Vegas -- a city of night anyway -- is consumed.

I did stumble over a few minor consistency/continuity issues, but the characters were all engaging, their interactions fun, and the gore was top-notch. I'm definitely hoping for more in this universe, a direct sequel or prequels or side-stories focusing on some of the other vampire houses (Druids and Teslans in particular captured my interest, Koz, if you're taking requests!).


-Christine Morgan

Monday, October 30, 2017

Reviews for the Week of October 30, 2017

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




SLEEPING BEAUTIES by Stephen King and Owen King (2017 Scribner / 700 pp / hardcover, eBook, audiobook & CD)

It's apocalypse time once again courtesy of the King family, brought to us by Stephen and his son Owen, based on Owen's idea. It seems women all over the globe are falling asleep and becoming wrapped in cocoon-like webbings that sprout from their own faces. People who try to wake their loved ones by ripping the webbing away are viciously attacked, but the women fall right back asleep after their seemingly possessed assaults.

Most of the novel takes place in the small town of Dooling, West Virginia, specifically inside a woman's prison where the strange Evie Black is being held. Evie is unaffected by the strange plague and claims to be the cause (and solution) to it. She also controls rats and other animals, and uses them to keep the inmates and correctional staff in line with her will. Or so it seems.

The women who have fallen asleep find themselves in another realm (of sorts): they still seem to be on earth, just a male-free version of it, until a baby boy is born, giving them the opportunity to "start over" and raise the evil gender the right way. Yeah, things get a bit social/political but thankfully, not overbearingly so.

There are a lot of characters here, although I found them easy to follow (there's a handy guide at the beginning for reference, although I think most readers will find it unnecessary). And while I liked most of the female cast (especially the town's sheriff Lila) I found myself uninterested in most of the guys, even an animal control expert who plays an important part.

The first half is a great set up, but the second basically becomes a protect-the-prison-stand-off story that grows tired and familiar (picture a slightly supernatural version of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13). I guess trying to keep such an epic idea confined to a small town made me long for more info on what was happening elsewhere, but we're only given brief glimpses of that. There's also a nifty cult introduced early on who would've surely made things weirder, but we don't hear about them again until the epilogue. Perhaps King had his full of cults with DOCTOR SLEEP? Anyway, missed opportunity imho.

I liked SLEEPING BEAUTIES, and rate it as a good--but not great--King novel. The concept is quite engaging, and I think this may have worked better in a shorter version (and I've heard this IS a shorter version of the original draft). Fans of apocalyptic tales will enjoy it, despite some familiar ideas.

A film version could surely be a blast, so long as they keep it away from everyone even remotely connected to CELL.

-Nick Cato




KILL YOUR NEIGHBOR by Andersen Prunty (2007 2017 Amazon Digital / 42 pp / eBook)

The author nails another riotous tale in regards to a thought I think we’ve all most likely had at one point or another in our daily lives: the pesky neighbor. You know, that asshole who lives next door who you wished dead just to get a moment of peace and quiet and a goodnight's sleep? I used to live in this townhouse a while back and next door this chick with ten million kids moved in. We eventually named her “Trashy” because if you saw her you would know exactly what I’m talking about...

So, Kip and Emma just bought a new house while refuging out of the city and into a rundown cul-de-sac. There’s a couple of houses covered in black mold, but appear uninhabited for the most part. Except for the house next door that looks worse than all the other houses on the block. But, it’s got everything they were looking for, everything they had hoped and dreamed… except for one thing. That pesky annoying neighbor with three hell hounds that are constantly barking at all hours of the day and night, and to make it worse their owner doesn’t even care. She takes them out to their property line, the side that’s closest to theirs, and lets her terrible dogs leave piles of feces so close to their car that they are constantly stepping in dog shit when getting home from their long hours at work. When they confront the neighbor, it makes it all that much worse, and all hell begins to break loose, as the daily taunting gets turned up miserably from an even five to an all-out ten as far as annoying neighbors go. They’d do anything to make it stop. And that’s the plan.

Definitely recommended.


-Jon R. Meyers




THOSE WHO FOLLOW by Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason (2017 Bloodshot Books / 133 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Twins feature prominently in this latest offering from the Sisters of Slaughter, and who better to explore that unique kind of connection? Whether it's the dynamic of the good twin / evil twin, or the powerful telepathic bond even between twins raised apart, the subject is a fascinating one.

Celia has always felt somehow incomplete, and her attempts to fill the sense of emptiness inside her with drugs and alcohol have led her to a rootless, wandering, hitchhiker's life. Until she accepts a lift from the old man in the old black car, who takes her to a strange church in the middle of a forsaken desert.

But it's no ordinary forsaken desert, and he's no ordinary old man. This is his special place, an other-realm to which only he and those like him can travel. It's been his secret hideaway, secret even from others of his own kind, for decades. That's where he keeps his collection of women, each with a number carved into her forehead. Celia, now 'Fourteen,' is the newest addition.

Meanwhile, far away at a mental hospital, Casey is troubled by visions of some other-self, hearing a phantom song, and suffering injuries she swears aren't self-inflicted. Rocked by revelations about her past, she's determined to find the truth. To do that requires either convincing the doctors she's not crazy, or finding some other way to escape.

And meanwhile meanwhile, another of those with the ability to travel decides to investigate his suspicions about the old man with the old black car.

Overall, I found the premise intriguing and the descriptions nicely done, but the positives were balanced out by a few flaws ... the dialogue often felt stiff, and some key elements were underutilized or left unexplained. Real potential here, just needs elbow grease and polish.


-Christine Morgan




PASSAGE TO THE DREAMTIME by Anya Martin (2016 Dunhams Manor Press / 52 pp / chapbook)

In this one act play (second in the 'Dunhams Manor Playhouse' series), a 27 year old American woman named Lana arrives at a West German prison in 1947 to see a man she had a relationship with during the war.

Lana had met the much older German man, Franz Schiller, at a nite club in Paris she sang for. He introduced himself as an artist, and the two were instantly drawn to one another. But back home in America after the war, Lana has read about Franz' brutal exploits under the SS as a merciless Colonel, and now confronts him about his war crimes...as well as their three year old son he doesn't know about.

Martin's play is a dark, emotional love story, filled with some gruesome and heartbreaking images, and a surreal look at these characters' possible futures. Highlighted with some moving artwork courtesy of Kim Bo Yung, this is a short but powerful piece I'd love to see performed on stage.


-Nick Cato




THE BOOK CLUB by Alan Baxter (2017 PS Publishing / 107 pp / hardcover & eBook)

Life seems to be rolling along fairly well for Jason and Kate. Nice house, cute kid, a reasonable schedule to let each of them pursue their individual interests as well as grandparents conveniently close to babysit when it's date night.

Until the evening Kate doesn't come home from her book club. Jason's efforts to track her down only lead to one dead end after another, and it doesn't help that the default police position in such matters is to regard the husband as a possible person of interest.

Such scrutiny -- especially after their inquiries dredge up some unsavory indiscretions and past family tragedies -- makes it difficult for Jason to carry on his own investigation. He's sure the people from her book club must know something more, something they're not telling.

He's right about that, though sure not in the way he or anyone else could have expected. The result is a tense nail-biter, fast-paced and suspenseful, laden with eerie mysteries and sinister secrets.

I read it at a single sitting, zipping breathlessly along. It's a fascinating example of the what-would-YOU-do, how-far-would-YOU-go scenario, to find out what happened to or maybe even have a chance to save someone you loved.


-Christine Morgan



SPERMJACKERS FROM HELL by Christine Morgan (2017 Deadite Press / 180 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I've been reading Morgan's novels since 2003, and can say her latest is easily the most batshit crazy in her ever-growing arsenal, which is appropriate considering it's her first novel for Deadite Press.

In SPERMJACKERS FROM HELL (you just gotta love that title) a bunch of gamer slackers semi-seriously summon a succubus, and while their ritual works, they call forth something a little ickier than the video-game demoness hottie they'd been expecting. This nasty, slug-like creature has the group dreaming extremely perverse things, on top of psychically calling them, begging them to join it in its underground lair. Just wait until you see what it has in mind!

And never mind the succubus: it seems there are plenty of freaks inhabiting this small town, freaks who will be easier to control once this demonic thing has its way with our five young protagonists. I hugged my poor dogs a little tighter after reading this...

Sick, gross, disgusting, and (oddly) very funny, SPERMJACKERS is like an x-rated bizarro version of the 1966 Peter Cushing film ISLAND OF TERROR. Morgan breaks the 4th wall a few times but it's done in a way that will tickle your funny bone (if it doesn't molest it first).

For those who like their horror way off the wall.

-Nick Cato




LITTLE DEAD THINGS by Jo-Anne Russell (2017 Tortured Souls Books / 164 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I may have mentioned a few dozen times before, but, the art of flash fiction (and its lightningbolt sib, the drabble) is one I regard with awe. Look at me, even my book reviews tend to run 200-300 words. Those fast, vicious little zaps are hard to do right, but when they work and are effective, you get major bang for the buck.

Which is definitely the case in this collection. Mucho bang for the buck, lasting potent and/or creepy impressions left to linger. Less is more, as they say, and here is a bookful of good examples. They run the gamut, dark humor and extreme horror, occasionally sweet, often ominous.

Some of my personal faves:

"The Denturist" ... given the medical mouth-related woes I've been going through, this one resonated for sure; I might give in to some pretty sketchy arrangements for pain-free new teeth!

"Perfectly Preserved" ... something about this one is just, aww, touching and endearing.

"Scabs" ... this one too, despite its grossness; maybe it's those maternal instincts but aww again.

"Satan's Waterfall" ... as if a girl's first period isn't stressful enough, just wait, there's more!

"Accidental Death" ... a spooky typewriter tale with which any writer can likely relate.

"Loose Change" ... who hasn't stuck their hand down the sofa cushions and found a surprise? Pleasant or otherwise, or, in this case, a pricey temptation.

"You Are What You Eat" ... oh, the lengths we'll go for the sake of vanity, beauty, and social pressure!

"Teddy's Teeth" ... take that, monsters under the bed!

All in all, some maybe could have used a bit more fine-tuning and polish, but, good stuff!

-Christine Morgan


~~~~~~~~~~~
HAVE A HAPPY AND PARTIALLY SAFE HALLOWEEN!
-HFR staff

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Reviews for the Week of October 16, 2017

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





EVERYHING HAS TEETH by Jeff Strand (2017 Amazon Digital / 219 pp / eBook)

Just when you thought it was safe to crack open another short story collection, Jeff Strand returns with his third batch of shorts (stories, not drawers you freak!), most of which combine horror and humor and some good 'ol fashioned freakiness. On tap this time we have:

-THE TIPPING POINT: After meeting on an Internet dating site, Warren and Julia go out to a fancy restaurant and things quickly go way off the rails. If you haven't read Strand before this is a great place to start: horror and dark humor run wild in this inventive tale.

-NAILS: Ricky is having a good time living with his girlfriend Maggie, but his quick-growing fingernails have other plans. Excellent!

-STUMPS: A man gains immortality through an evil ritual only to have things backfire on him. Really, really backfire.

-JOHN HENRY, THE STEEL-DRIVIN' MAN: This "alt-history" story is a bit silly but fun. Plus: dragons!

-FAIR TRADE: A cheating husband learns he's not half as wild as his wife in this quick sickie.

-Crime thriller meets creature feature in CHIGGERS, as two men meet unusual fates.

-CRY: A man, unable to cry, uses self inflicted pain to make himself be able to. Hilariously weird.

-THE FIERCE STABBING AND SUBSEQUENT POST-DEATH VENGEANCE OF SCOOTER BROWN: After stabbing a random stranger over 40 times, a killer seeks the help of a psychic to apologize to the deceased. Strand's fascination with knives is as morbid as it is funny.

-IT'S BATH TIME!: Chester's young son is afraid he'll slide down the bathtub's drain. While his wife manages to bathe their son, Chester's attempt the next day turns into an all-out nightmare. I strongly recommend NOT reading this one to kids!

-ALIEN FACE: A cop kills the serial killer who killed his daughter, then discovers body parts all over the killer's secluded cabin...both human and alien. One of my favorites here, containing some really funny lines.

-APOCALYPSE OF THE YARD GNOME: An amateur omniscient narrator (!) describes the relationship between a weird man and his garden gnome...and the end of the world.

-DEAD BIGFOOT ON THE LAWN: Trailer trash Buffalo wing eater Gus discovers his girlfriend is more than slightly unbalanced in this hysterical slice (full pun intended) of murderous mayhem.

-GROSS OUT: THE RETURN: Strand's entry in the 2016 WHC Gross Out Contest. Enter at your own risk. I showered twice after reading.

-DEFORMED SON: A stranded traveling blender salesman lets his curiosity override his welcome at a farmer's isolated home.

-THE ORIGIN OF SLASHY: A woman gets revenge on her rapist with...another man? Yep, this one's a real sickie!

-SECRET MESSAGE (DECODED): Fans of Strand's first collection GLEEFULLY MACABRE TAKES are in for a treat here...

-THE SENTIENT CHERRY COLA THAT TRIED TO DESTROY THE WORLD: A truly hilarious apocalyptic monster romp that displays Strand's wacky sense of humor.

-THE EGGMAN FALLETH: This reimagined nursery rhyme will make you laugh and cause your young niece or nephew to doubt your sanity...

-THE STORY OF MY FIRST KISS: An absurd look at elementary school. Another one of my favorites.

-DAD (A TRUE STORY): This may be a way out of place serious meditation on a father and son's relationship, but I liked it. A lot.

-And lastly we get the novella BAD BRATWURST: A silly but hilarious riff on EATING RAOUL I had first read in a 'purdy limited edition chapbook from White Noise Press. Now EVERYONE can get in on the sausagey fun, complete with over 1,000 more words than the LE version!

Strand ends with some interesting story notes, and like his first two collections (GLEEFULLY MACABRE TALES and DEAD CLOWN BARBEQUE), EVERYTHING HAS TEETH showcases a sick, funny, imaginative writer gone completely amuck. When I interviewed Jeff Strand over 10 years ago for THE HORROR FICTION REVIEW, I had labeled him the "Horror Comedy King." It's a title I doubt he's ever going to lose.

-Nick Cato



A TEAR IN THE VEIL by Patrrick Loveland (2017 April Moon Books / 606 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

I confess, I almost gave up on this one at first ... after a strong horrific and intriguing prologue start, it went into what seemed like a long stretch of trendy sexy artsy young people doing trendy sexy artsy young people things ... like FRIENDS set in a funky bohemian San Francisco instead of New York.

That first part also held some of what made me lose interest in Dean Koontz, a lot of explanatory telling that feels mostly there to prove how much the author knows or learned about various subjects. Even when said subjects are of interest to me, I often find it irksome.

But I stuck with it, and I'm glad I did, because once the weirdness really started, it got weirder and weirder, faster and faster, until it was pretty much blowing the doors off reality. Unfavorable comparisons to Koontz were pushed aside for favorable ones to King, particularly stories like "The Ten-O'Clock People" and the good parts of Insomnia.

See, this budding filmmaker, Felix, gets his hands on a rare model of camera, and when he triggers one of the buttons, he suddenly starts seeing the world in a very different way. He also starts seeing his girlfriend in a very different, very scary way. Scary enough that he ends up getting hauled off to a private mental health clinic, to be medicated back to sanity.

That's when it gets Matrix-y, too, as Felix finds out he's not the only one who's seeing these things ... that there are groups trying to uproot the truth, and groups trying to stop them. He's caught in the middle with no way to know who to trust, and soon enough is on the run.

The vividly described weirdreality Felix sees were more than enough to make me forgive those earlier slow chapters. Laden with both beauty and creepiness, full of increasingly strange surprises, my only other complaint would be that the abrupt ending left the story feeling a little unfinished.


-Christine Morgan



ROSSUM'S UNIVERSAL REPLICAS by Christopher Conlon (2017 Bear Manor Media / 70 pp / trade paperback & eBook)

Conlon (author of the fantastic novels MIDNIGHT ON MOURN STREET and SAVAGING THE DARK) delivers a reimagined version of Karel Capek's classic 1921 doomsday story R.U.R., and does so in a play format (in the 20s the original was a smash hit and was performed on stage all over the world).

Rossum is 70 years old, the most powerful man on earth, who has dedicated his life to his company, which manufactures life-like human replicas that are now more plentiful than humans. The replicas are designed to serve mankind. His daughter Helena runs the company with him, and when her sister Nina comes around, stating she believes the Replicas are starting to revolt, her fears are confirmed by Dr. Gall, a research scientist at Rossum's company, R.U.R.

The two replicas who have raised Helena and Nina, Gertrude and Raymond, do indeed show signs that they may have developed their own wills. And as the humans in this tale learn they may be the last alive, Rossum's head butler/replica Primus explains what is now happening around the globe.

ROSSUM'S UNIVERSAL REPLICA'S, while epic in scale, is a quick read full of genuine tension, wonder, and a horrifying finale. After reading Conlon's reimagining, I located a copy of Capek's original story, and while it's enjoyable, Conlon's version modernizes a few details and in my opinion, makes the replicas twice as eerie. Fans of apocalyptic stories will surely enjoy this "retro-apocalypse" and perhaps be inspired, like I was, to seek out the source material.


-Nick Cato



MARY ROSE by Geoffrey Girard (2017 Adaptive Books / 272 pp / in audiobook now, in trade paperback April of 2018)

I had not known about the Hitchcock connection here, until I reached the afterword. Even before that, though, wow, what a lush and lovely piece of work this book is ... a modern gothic, part not-quite-ghost-story-or-is-it, part shadowy romance ... laden with secrets of the past and mysterious folklore ... leaving the reader with a haunting sense of unreality.

The title character, Mary Rose, was only a little girl when she used to go out to a remote Scottish island with her father. She claims to remember it fondly, with no idea she's at the heart of a local legend. When she becomes engaged, her parents take her fiance aside and tell him of the month she went missing, then returned as if out of nowhere with no recollection.

Simon, the fiance, isn't so sure about those absent memories of the intervening time. He knows Mary Rose is troubled by dreams and moments when she seems distant from herself, but his urge to protect her by uncovering the truth collides with everyone else's urges to protect her by keeping it hidden.

The island itself has its own history, with rumors of druids and devil worshipers and otherworldly doorways. Her parents want her to stay far from it, but Mary Rose claims to feel happy there, so Simon accompanies her. He's soon drawn deeper into the tangles of what may or may not have happened all those years ago, and realizes whatever they learn may come at great cost.

It's a definite keep-you-guessing kind of book, with several of the kinds of cryptic close-mouthed characters you just want to grab and shake until they TALK already dangit. Then that explanatory afterword sheds all new kinds of light on an already impressive experience.

-Christine Morgan


**(See below for exclusive excerpt from this novel)**




THE TEARDROP METHOD by Simon Avery (2017 TTA Press / 160 pp / trade paperback)

This 4th entry in TTA Press' novella series follows Hungarian musician Krisztina Ligeti as she wanders around Budapest, mourning the death of her girlfriend and working on her sophomore album. She discovers she has the ability to hear songs coming from people as they near the end of their life, and is able to channel those songs from the dying. In the middle of putting the album together, she reconnects with her father, he a famous musician from the 60s, and things seem to be looking upward until Krisztina becomes the target of an off-balanced author and her former model husband...

Avery's story is a dark and tense thriller, set against a cold Hungarian back drop. The reconnection between father and daughter gives THE TEARDROP METHOD melancholy in light of the father's declining health, and the handling of the supernatural element is done so latently it feels authentic and hence, genuinely spooky. The prose here is compulsively readable and even the stranger members of the cast pop off the page.

Also included is Avery's short story 'Going Back to the World,' which had appeared in Black Static magazine issue 44, and features music journalist Dave Cook who plays a part in the main novella.

A fine novella collectors will want and a great introduction for those who aren't familiar with the author.

-Nick Cato



THE FORSAKEN: STORIES OF ABANDONED PLACES edited by Joe McKinney and Mark Onspaugh (2017 Cemetery Dance Publications / 344 pp / eBook)

Here's another anthology I wish I'd known about earlier; the theme is one to instantly capture the imagination. Abandoned places, is anything quite so creepy? As the book's introduction says, we've all seen them. And something about them just seems extra wrong.

Why? Why are they so disturbing, the ghost towns, the derelict buildings, the factories left to rot and ruin, the amusement parks being reclaimed by nature? Why are they so much more unsettling than the untouched wilderness? Is it because abandoned places serve to remind us of our own futility and impermanence? That we, as a species, tried to make a lasting mark ... and failed?

Or is it because we fear, deep down, what else might be there? Maybe there are reasons for those places to be abandoned. Maybe they aren't so abandoned after all. Maybe any number of scenarios too scary to imagine, but that's okay because here are twenty-two examples of terrifyingly talented authors imagining them for you.

I mentioned amusement parks above, since those more than any other abandoned place really get under the skin of my mind. I was therefore delighted, in a thoroughly creeped out way, by Mark Onspaugh's "Lullaby Land" and "The Storybook Forest" by Norman Prentiss, which present two very different takes on the subject.

For sheer breathtaking wow-factor, though, it was Michael C. Lea's "Hollow" that blew me away for the top spot in my personal faves. Set on the Moon, and going in unexpected directions, this one took abandoned places to a whole new cosmic scale.

Special mention also to James Whelan for sheer fun cleverness in "Gordon's Last Chance Gas and Cafe," and Lisa Morton's "High Desert" for taking me back to the freaky Joshua trees of the Mojave where I grew up.

You'll find movie theaters like in the old days, government facilities and military bases, churches, candy stores, hospitals, adrift ships and ancient sites, diners, and more. Whether haunted or hungry, whether tragic or cursed, there's more than enough abandoned places within these pages to make even the most stalwart urban explorer think twice.

-Christine Morgan



TALES FROM A TALKING BOARD by Ross E. Lockhart (2017 Word Horde / 178 pp / trade paperback & eBook)
Website: www.wordhorde.com

Here's another I will be kicking myself over missing out on ... Word Horde does gorgeous books, and what a theme! Spirit board, Ouija board, whatever you happen to call it, there's just something so tantalizing, so alluring and beautiful and spooky, about those ornate letters waiting there to have a planchette glide across the smooth surface to spell out messages from beyond.

Of course, as any of a number of horror movies have taught us, it's also about the quickest way for things to go supernaturally bad, which only adds to the fun. In this book are fourteen stories exploring this seemingly harmless child's toy / witch's keyboard of utter evil, plus the editor's introduction about its fascinating history.

Now, okay, the degree to which these fourteen tales actually involve a board varies ... some focus on cards or other methods of divination/communication ... but the feeling, that exquisite sense of apprehension and possibility, comes through strongly in them all.

If I had one problem with some of the stories, it's with how many of them ended with a kind of leave-you-hanging ... as if the planchette stopped moving, spirits come back, spirits tell me more! Yet even that kind of fits here. Maybe we can't get all the answers. Maybe we shouldn't push our luck to ask.

Among my personal picks would have to be Anya Martin's saucy-fun but ominous Vaudeville-days "Weegee, Weegee, Tell Me Do," David Templeton's clever take on the afterlife in "Questions and Answers," the uncanny candy clairvoyance of Wendy Wagner's "The Burnt Sugar Stench," Matthew M. Bartlett's tattoos-with-a-dark-twist in "Deep Into the Skin," Nadia Bulkin's insidiously haunting "May You Live In Interesting Times," and the sheer night-ride-purgatory weirdness factor of David James Keaton's "Spin the Throttle."

Heh, there I go again, with my faves list still ending up being almost half the TOC, and even narrowing it down that much was a close contest. Tales From A Talking Board is another winner from Word Horde.

-Christine Morgan



~~~~~~~~~~~

Enjoy this excerpt from MARY ROSE by Geoffrey Girard, courtesy of Adaptive Books:



He followed after her and caught her halfway down the hill. 
“Right down here,” she explained, pointing. 
“I see it.” A thick grove of birch and rowan waited ahead. Maybe an acre of dense woodland. He checked his watch. Another two hours until sunset. They had some time. “You’d come here as a little girl.” 
She nodded, then turned, grinning. “See? There it is again.” 
“The call of the island?” he asked, but there was no humor in the question. 
She closed her eyes for several steps and then led him down and across the short field to the edge of the wood. 
Mary Rose took his hand. “Trust us,” she said. 
He thought he’d misheard. 
It was another few minutes before Simon also heard the music. 
Barely, at first. Only a soft indefinable sound carried somewhere deep within the enduring rustle of cool summer wind in the surrounding trees. Fading in and out. Obviously imagined. A trick of sound. Then, more distinct. Deliberate. More melodious. 
“That is music,” he agreed, still doubting enough. The island was deserted. There’d been no other boats. “Right? I thought you were kidding.” 
Mary Rose continued without remark. 
They followed a slender and loose trail, overgrown with scrub, the trees stretching overhead in a heavy canopy that allowed the sun to split through only in well-defined fixed beams, and the sunlight somehow made the copse seem darker, casting blacker shadows than what should be. The musical drone had grown stronger, more real, with each step. 
Twice, he’d turned. Convinced they were being followed. They weren’t alone anymore. That someone had stepped onto the path no more than twenty yards behind them, and then jumped back again into the shadows each time he’d turned. The unique prickle of being watched coupled every step they took. “You know where we’re going?” 
he asked, striding through a wide shard of light. 
“I want to show you something,” Mary Rose said. Her voice star-tled him and he took a deep breath to bring his racing imagination back to real life. 
 “Something you saw as a girl?” 
She only nodded. 
“Did you ever—” 
Movement at the corner of his eye passed between several trees at their far right. Shadows, maybe, in the shifting sunlight. Or someone running. He’d automatically reached out a hand to stay Mary Rose. 
“What’s wrong?” she asked, turning. 
He held up his other hand for quiet. “Wait . . .” he whispered, listening, and also squinting ahead. The music had become unmis-takable words. Chanting, even. And not in English, for sure. Several voices intoning as one relentless drone of those concealed within the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead. It was a sound that somehow evoked the pounding of animal-skin drums and dark primordial shapes swaying in the moonlight before open fire—he could even smell it—and antlered demigods, or maybe just Brodie, 
“The Druid,” painting bull blood on some virgin’s bare ass. 
What a load of shit. 
But there was definite movement between those trees. Not another swaying birch, but someone. If it was such a “load of shit,” why was he holding his breath? Why did it feel as if his whole body were trembling? 
“We should go,” he decided. Had even searched the ground for a fallen limb as some pathetic sort of weapon. 
Mary Rose looked at him oddly, puzzled. 
He tugged her backward. “Come on. We can’t—” 
A terrible scream filled the woods. 
A woman, or some animal, maybe, the shriek of something having its throat slit over an ancient stone altar. The horrific echo drifted away between the trees slowly and deliberately. 
Simon was frozen, mostly wanting to pull Mary Rose to safety, but knowing someone was—
Mary Rose had made the decision for them both, jerking her hand free and sprinting ahead. 
His mind exploded with panic, and anger. “Mary,” his voice hissed in warning, but it was a voice for dogs broken free from their leash or unruly children in public places safe from spankings: a voice with no real control. She’d gone straight at the sound, and he dashed after her. 
Between the trees ahead, straight beyond Mary Rose, he glimpsed tall distorted figures coming directly toward her. And then the unmis-takable shine of bare flesh—sinewy, powerful, bronzed and glistening in sweat, a flash of plump pale breasts—the skin and surrounding trees spattered in vibrant dripping blood. 
He could hear two voices, their words clear now. 
Their dark incantation. 
“. . . a snare without escape, set for evil, a net whence none can issue forth . . .” 
He leaned forward to grab a random stick from the ground. 
“Evil spirit, or evil fiend, hag-demon, ghoul, phantom, or night-wraith 
. . . or evil plague or unclean disease . . . That which may do harm . . .” 
Snapped and turned it in his hand, finding the sharpest point. 
He’d braced himself to stab and stab and stab . . . 
“Which hath broken the Barrier, let not the Barrier of the Gods . . .” 
Mary Rose had stopped, turned, hands to her mouth. But hiding a smile? It made no sense. Her eyes were wide with joy. 
“Its Throat May They Cut. Its Face May They Smite. Its—” 
“Holy shit!” a deep voice yelled, followed by laughter and more cursing. 
Simon had caught Mary Rose and finally overlooked the same clearing. Five people—teens, at most twenty—stood frozen in various poses before them. Both guys were bare chested, one of the girls still pulling up her beach towel around her own topless form. Simon got another flash of bikini bottoms and a long thin thigh. The other two were also girls, eyes wide in panic. The sweet pong of marijuana hov-ered over the whole clearing, the “fire” he’d smelled. Simon spotted beer cans, a couple of book bags, beach towels, and iPhones. There was no blood, no daggers, no primordial demigods. He’d seen only clusters of rowan flowers and five kids getting high. 
“Who screamed?” he demanded, using a voice his father would have once used. He laid a comforting hand against Mary Rose’s back. 
All the teens turned to one girl, whose wide eyes grew despondent. 
“I was . . . I’m sorry.” Already welling with tears. “I was . . . just joking.” 
Simon shook his head. “Everyone’s okay?” 
The kids all nodded. “Hey, man,” one of the boys said. “Sorry to freak you guys out. We were . . .” His voice trailed off, then started up again to match his abashed grin. “You know.” 
“Yeah,” Simon said. “I know.” 
“You guys American, yeah?” 
Simon ignored the question and studied their stuff again. “How’d you all get here? I didn’t see your boat.” 
The other boy pointed away from where Simon and Mary Rose had entered the woods. “The cove over by the lake,” he explained. Simon had seen the lake only from afar— they dragged the lake for her—but didn’t know the cove the kid spoke of. Obviously an easy place to store a boat, grab a little girl, and vanish again. 
“You were calling them.” Mary Rose said. 
The teens exchanged quick looks. 
Simon whispered to her: “Calling who?” 
One of the girls held up a sheet of paper. “My aunt gave me these.” 
“It’s almost solstice,” one of the boys said, as if that explained ev-erything. “You know . . .” 
“What?” Simon snipped. “Like magic stuff.” 
The boy shrugged. “Yeah. You say the words the hour before sunset? 
Light a fire. Yeah, all that stuff.” 
“Do any of you truly believe?” Mary Rose asked. 
Again, the group exchanged looks in the telepathic speak of all teenagers. “Aye,” one girl said, and the others nodded in agreement. 
“And you’re afraid,” Mary Rose said. 
The girl lowered her head. 
“Don’t be,” Mary Rose said. 
“Do you know how to do it?” another girl asked. 
Mary Rose only smiled. 
“Can you show us?” 
Simon held out a hand. “It’s late. We’d better get going. Sorry to scare you guys.” 
“No, man, that’s totally on us. We’re sorry.” 
The girl held out the sheet of paper for Mary Rose to take. 
“Inviting me in to help?” Mary Rose had crossed her arms. 
 “Yeah, sure,” the first boy answered. “We don’t know what we’re doing.” 
Mary Rose stepped into the clearing, and Simon followed, tossing aside the stick he’d been holding. For the first time, he noticed that several oblong upright boulders encircled the entire opening. “This is what I wanted to show you, anyway,” Mary Rose said, looking back to him. She took the sheet of paper and studied the words. 
“Are you, like . . . a Wiccan?” The one girl asked. 
Mary Rose shook her head. “Not at all. I’m not sure . . . ” She thought. “I used to come here.” 
One of the boys cautiously offered Simon the half-burnt joint he’d been cupping in his hand. Simon shook his head, and the kid licked his fingers to stub it out. “Sorry, man,” he apologized again. 
“Not a problem.” And there wasn’t. Simon had certainly spent enough of his teens doing shots and partaking in the occasional hit to not worry about these kids having a good time on summer break. 
“You guys okay out here?” 
The guy smiled. “Yeah, sure.” He leaned closer. “You mean all that weird stuff. Ghosts and stuff?” He laughed. “We were just ‘concen-trating the magic circle.’” 
“Consecrating,” his friend corrected, and they both snickered again. 
“Look, the girls sprinkled salt between the rocks.” 
Simon pretended to look but turned more to watch Mary Rose and the girls. They were, all four, laughing and whispering quietly. Even, especially, the freckled one who’d first looked afraid. Mary Rose was lifting her hands in the air, making her twirls while the others giggled. 
“That your wife?” the kid asked, clearly impressed. 
“That’s what they tell me.” Simon couldn’t believe how easily she’d fallen in with the girls, already almost one of them. Like long-lost sisters. He grinned. No wonder men got so nervous whenever women gathered together alone. 
“We really should go,” he declared loudly, checking his watch. 
Damn, they’d now be leaving at dusk at best. He’d be coming back into Mhoire’s Point in the near dark. He’d completely lost track of the time. “You guys, too. It’ll be dark in less than an hour.” 
“We’re staying all night,” the second boy said. 
“On the island?” For some reason, Simon found the idea loath-some. Maybe because he suspected Mary Rose would stay with them if they offered. “It’ll get cold tonight. You guys should—” 
“Got blankets and the fire.” The first teen smirked. “And the girls.” 
“Plus, we’re used to it.” The kid with the sideburns tried a wink. 
Simon smiled politely, started backing from the clearing. “Mary Rose . . .” 
She waved, whispered something else to the three girls, and then jogged across the clearing to join him. “Be good, guys!” Simon called out to all five of them. “Keep safe.” 
The five teens waved and nodded back. 
“They okay?” he asked Mary Rose. 
She smiled. “Should be.” 
“What, exactly, did you tell them?” 
“Oh, I don’t know. Just to have fun. Not to be so serious. To dance and sing and love.” 
“Great.” Simon chuckled. “The guys will appreciate that.” 
She shrugged. 
“Who are they ‘calling’ now?” 
“Spirits of the island. The Fae. That kind of thing.” 
“Do you believe in that stuff?” 
“What did you think of the standing stones?” 
“The circle of rocks? And how do you know that?” 
She looked off. “I don’t know. I must have heard it somewhere before.” 
“It’s fucking absurd your father used to let you wander alone back here. I’m thirty-four and, honestly, half-scared to death.” He stole a look. “What if you’d run into somebody?” 
“Those five were harmless.” 
“Yeah, they were. You ever run into someone who wasn’t?” 
He expected a flash of fear, sadness, or even anxiety to cross her features, but Mary Rose simply threw up her hands. “Simon!” she said, exasperated. “Will you stop with the cross-examination! I don’t recall anything that happened here—I know something did. I do. I’m not an idiot. But my mind has lost it— I  have lost it. I’d appreciate it, if you love me, if you’d lose it, too.” She reached out for him, and he let her take his hands in hers, drawing him close. “Isn’t it enough that you are here, and I am here, and we’re happy? Isn’t that all that matters, husband?” 
Her face, in that moment, was so transcendent with happiness that Simon went perfectly still. Her eyes were enormous, and their gaze so piercing, so intent that she’d never felt more real to him. The lawyer in him gave way to the man, and the man was in love with this woman. 
She was his wife, she was happy. Something terrible had happened to her but—she was not where he’d find his answers. She was only someone he could protect. 
“Deal,” he said, and her smile lit up her entire face, reaching even to those beautiful, fathomless eyes, and in that moment, he felt that it all would be all right, eventually. Every last part. 
“Thank you,” she whispered, stepping up on her toes to brush his lips lightly. Simon’s heart was racing now, only he couldn’t say why. 
She turned and led him onward. 
They made it out of the woods, more quickly than they’d entered. 
So much so that Simon would have sworn they’d taken a shortcut of some kind. With the whole sun resting on the farthest horizon, they jogged up to the top of the hill and collected their things. Mary Rose was laughing, having fun, enjoying the new challenge of making it back to the boat in time. Simon, now that the woods were behind him, not as much. The idea of returning to Mhoire’s Point in the dark wasn’t a pleasant one, especially in an unfamiliar boat on unfamiliar waters. 
They waded back to the boat, the tide higher than the first time they’d come out. While Mary Rose toweled off and sorted through their tumbled provisions, Simon got the boat going and turned out of the shallow inlet as quickly as possible. The sun was behind the island, only its glow in the sky providing light. 
Minutes later, the island was a retreating silhouette in the back-ground, looking hardly bigger than a sporting boat itself. Simon turned back to watch it plunge into the darkening ocean. He was convinced he’d spotted a single spark on the island, a small fire finally blazing to life somewhere deep in the woods. 
The kids. 
He smiled, finally feeling better. If they were willing to chance it overnight on the island, how bad could it be? 
“Simon!” Mary Rose’s laughing call drew his attention away, and he fixed his gaze on her as she leaned over the edge of her boat, catching the spray in her outstretched hand. As the setting sun edged her figure she once again looked almost incandescent against the murky water, the blue fairy come to life. 
When he looked back to the island again, there were now several small lights glowing in the shadows, scattered across the whole island, and even as he watched, another flared to life on the island’s farthest edge. 
A trick of the sunset and shifting water, he decided. 
Like all the things Cameron had once seen. 
There was no other explanation.