Paper Tigers

I have been excited to read this novel since before it was written. No, I’m not psychic…well, maybe a little. But I recall a conversation on our forum, probably more than two years ago, where Damien told me she was going to soon be working on a story about a haunted photo album. I was in from that moment and waited patiently for it to materialize. This year that finally happened.

Paper Tigers is the haunting and sad story of Alison, a young woman scarred by disaster and flame. She has retreated so far within herself there seemed no hope of coaxing her back. Her mother smothers her and the public looks at her (in her mind) as a monstrosity. She drags herself through the days and nights—until the night she goes out walking and visits an odd little thrift shop and finds the antique photo album that reeks of smoke and years. Upon taking the album home, Alison begins to see things, hear things, feel things. She is lured to the promises within the book and finds that the prices are high and contracts have a long and strong reach.

Damien writes with strong and elegant prose. Her words flow with an ease and beauty that adds to the already intriguing premise. The emotional depth here is staggering, and while it is very easy to dismiss this novel as another haunted thing tale, it is so much more. The characters are so realistic and hurting that you ache with them and for them. I’ve been reading this author since she first started entering stories in the flash fiction contests we used to host on our forum. And it has been a pleasure to watch her grow, releasing her first novel, Ink, and her collection, Sing Me Your Scars. I’ll gladly read whatever she puts out.

Paper Tigers is available from Dark House Press.

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Freaks Anon

I had the pleasure of reviewing Matt Darst’s debut novel, Dead Things, a few years back. I said nice things about it because it was a good book, a fresh take on a tired trope by a young man ready to dive into the very crowded pool that is the genre. I often saw his posts on the Book of Faces and wondered what he was working on, so when he messaged me to see if I’d review his new novel, I said, “But of course!”

Freaks Anon is a very different book. It’s got something for everyone: a superhero for the geeks, monsters for those folks, super-secret government groups for those cats, and all woven around a premise that would almost be ridiculous if it was not so thoroughly researched and rendered with such detail.

Centurion is/was a superhero. Really, he was a teacher but he decided that the world needed a hero, and damned if that was not going to be him. So he hung up his lab coat for some homemade armor and gladiator garb and took to the streets in his chariot, er…beat-up minivan. He’s had a rough time of it since his side kick was murdered and, between benders, he’s been trying to solve the mystery of who is murdering unique kids around the country (e.g. a boy with the gift of speaking to animals is beheaded in a mall).

Centurion has a lot of hurdles and he trips over almost all of them as he closes in on the girl he believes to be behind these murders. Nigel Crown is a rock star, a former punk gone arena rock with some spiritual connections. These connections put him on a collision course with Centurion and pit them against a group that could hold the fate of the world in their vile hands.

That’s the basic plot, but there is so much more going on. From the long and rich history of the villains to the honest and realistic depiction of the heroes, Freaks Anon is a fun and splendid adventure with splashes of horror/sci-fi and action/adventure. It is well written and whip smart.

Let me give you another reason to buy this book, in the event that my saying it fucking rocks is not enough. All proceeds of this book are being donated to Stand Up to Cancer. Because, as we all know, there is not a scarier monster out there than the Big C. It does not care who you are, how old you are, or what you have going on in your life. It just takes. So buy a copy of Freaks Anon and read it because it’s a great book. Or buy a copy to donate to the cause and then gift the book to a friend or a library. Just buy a copy, please!

Freaks Anon is available from Grand Mal Press.

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Growing up is hard work, hard enough for the “normal” kids who live in a stalwart house, planted atop a hill or the end of a cul-de-sac. Hard enough for the ones with both parents and them working good jobs that pay plenty of money to pay the bills up and keep the pantry and bellies filled. Hard enough for the ones that are doted upon, loved and lauded.

The kids who have different scenarios to navigate…well, they have it harder. Mongrels is a story about growing up and werewolves. The copy wants you to think it’s about growing up werewolf and maybe it is. But the thick and wooly of it is growing up and out or down and inward. Sometimes both.

Mongrels is about a boy, never named and often known by the profession he thinks he wants to ascend to at that moment. He was born different, into a family of werewolves. After being buoyed by the wild and sometimes frightening tales his grandfather told him, his family loses him. This event leaves a stamp of uncertainty and loss on the boy as he embarks on a series of adventurous disasters living with his Uncle Darren and Aunt Libby, as they bounce from small town to small town, usually in the dead of night, just to survive a few more days. There are those who are after them, some know what they are, others do not. The space they occupy doesn’t often put them in touch with the nicest of people. During it all, he is anxiously awaiting his first shot at transformation. He watches most of the events cloaked in human guise and therefore anchored to both sides of their existence.

Mongrels crawls along, sometimes jumping and running at full feral abandon, its steps are sure and strong. From seedy trailer parks and ramshackle dwellings, part-time jobs and petty theft, werewolf fights and violence, the boy’s world is a world of wonder and heartache, a world of longing and questions. Will he grow to be a werewolf like his family or is he an outcast? All seems to swell and swirl as the running seems to get them closer and closer to nowhere and the change they are hoping for, but will it be the change they all really want and need?

Stephen Graham Jones has a knack for writing honest and with great open feeling. His wonderful prose takes the hobbled hope and prideful innocence of this young boy and allows it to walk all over you. Leave marks for you to pour over as runes. It’s an almost quiet tale a lot of the time, the action is that of a heart cracking to let all the sadness trickle free or a face slipping from smile to sneer and back again. It is recollection draped in oil-stained denim and sweat. It is Springsteen or Marty Robbins drifting on a night breeze from the window of a battered Trans-Am. It can be all of those things and so much more. The story takes you to a place we’ve all been, steps we’ve all made, but also to spaces never seen, never set upon by human or beast. Mongrels is as honest a thing as you’re likely to read. And it’s one of the best things I’ve read in a while.

Mongrels is available through Harper Collins, which means any decent bookstore anywhere ought to have it. So you have no excuse for not buying it.

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Ana Kai Tangata: Tales of the Outer, the Other, the Damned and the Doomed

There is a saying that goes, “Everything old is new again.” I’ve always found this to be true. In fiction, we are currently seeing a resurgence of “weird” fiction (not to be confused with the Bizarro movement). This is fiction of an almost speculative nature that happens to be…well, weird. Think of the works of Robert Aickman or Gerald Kersh, even some of Harlan Ellison’s stuff, and you’re nearly there.

Scott Nicolay is one of the newish crop of weird peddlers. And a good one at that.

His collection, Ana Kai Tangata: Tales of the Outer, the Other, the Damned and the Doomed is a surly beast with teeth (I say teeth as they feature prominently in a lot of the terrors Nicolay delivers). After an introduction by the mighty Laird Barron, we open with the tale “Alligators,” wherein a man cannot shed the shackles of his past and the possibly imagined trauma he endured. He takes his daughters to face his fears and discovers that, sometimes, not only does the past stay as it was, it grows hungrier and hungrier. “The Bad Outer Space” is almost like a Bradbury tale, told from the point of view of a child, except for the nameless space horrors that swarm and writhe in it. A wonderfully paranoid excursion.

“Ana Kai Tangata” is the titular story and concerns caving scientists, archaeologists who venture into a cavern system only to encounter terrors they could not have foreseen even through the ever-repeating lens of history. “Eyes Exchange Bank” is one of the weirdest yet compelling. As two friends explore a strange mall, things devolve into a yawning nightmare. “Phragmites” takes us on a quest for a long lost historical site, which as you can probably guess is not the smartest journey to make. Were it not for Nicolay’s prose and deeper story to elevate it, “The Soft Frogs” would almost be equivalent to a B-movie full of slimy monsters.

“Geshafte” is another strange one about appetites. Sort of. Closing out the collection is “Tuckahoe.” This is the most ambitious of them all and one of the strongest. A Detective is called to look into an road accident that left three people dead. There happens to be an extra arm in the mix—one that isn’t human. As the man digs deeper into the case and origins of the extra limb, things get quite bizarre…and dark.

Nicolay writes with strength and purpose. A few times his prose gets heavy and threatens to weigh down the story but it usually recovers. His style is clearly influenced by Ligotti and Lovecraft, and I even saw some early Ramsey Campbell in the mix. I liked this collection, for it did what collections are supposed to do: it showcased the many angles from which the writer can deliver a story. Grab a copy if you can find it, and keep an eye on Scott Nicolay. He’ll be one of the foresurfers of this ever growing weird fiction wave!

Ana Kai Tangata is available through Fedogen & Bremer Publishing.

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With a Voice That Is Often Still Confused but Is Becoming Ever Louder and Clearer

I am a big fan of Hamantaschen’s debut collection, You Shall Never Know Security. His approach to what they call “weird” fiction is a simple one: take the everyday situations that make up day-to-day living and the people that navigate them, and introduce weird stuff. Sometimes sort of weird stuff, sometime really really weird stuff. And it works.

The opening tale, “Vernichtungsschmerz,” is a story of four girls and the strange acquaintance made by one of them. It explores death and its inevitability, quite head on. This is followed with “A Related Corollary,” wherein we meet a pair of women, one in the grips of depression, and the other seemingly eager to help. “The Gulf of Responsibility” concerns Alex, a social worker who becomes obsessed with one of his cases, a woman who is pregnant again and seeks to terminate the pregnancy. There are a lot of issues and topics grappled in this story, all handled in a very steady, even manner.

“Soon Enough This Will Essentially Be a True Story” is about a girl who makes a hobby of entering Goodreads giveaways and reviewing her prizes. One day, she receives a strange book from a strange author and it sets of a chain of events and violence that would be ridiculous were they not possible. “I’m a Good Person, I Mean Well and I Deserve Better” is the account of a decent fellow who goes on a date and takes an ill-timed potty break during which a tragedy occurs. He then wrestles with his feelings and the judgments of others and monsters. Strange discoveries at a Lovecraft Convention come to light in “Cthulu, Zombies, Ninjas and Robots; Or, a Special Snowflake in an Endless Scorching Universe.”

There are other stories, but all of these excruciatingly long titles are killing my arthritic fingers so I’ll leave it at this: Hamantaschen has a knack for crafting what seems to be an unwieldy tale, but plies it with enough realism and logic to make it work. The ridiculous even seems at home next to the cynical and down-to-earth. His tales are peopled by real and richly crafted characters.

With a Voice… is available from Amazon. Or probably, if you contact the author through Goodreads. Or say his name three times while standing in the pale moonlight.

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Savage Beasts

We have always been right upfront that Shock Totem would not exist were it not for the staff’s mutual love of music. Ken and I originally met on a music forum and music threads its way through most of what we do. So when I was asked to review a collection of horror stories inspired by music, I was all in. I’ve read similar anthologies before—Shock Rock, Shock Rock II, Dark Notes from NJ—but most of those were inspired by one specific genre of music. Savage Beasts proves a little more interesting in that it is inspired by many genres of music, that multi-faced beast, classical, prog rock, metal…all are given a chance to leave their bloody thumbprint on a reader’s forehead.

The collection opens with “To Soothe the Savage Beast,” by Edward Morris, a story of history and a haunting, one steeped in jazz and violence. Karen Runge gives a strange tale of love and animals (literal and symbolic). Shawn Macomber offers up an itchy story called “Pestilence by Beemahr,” where he shows that the quickest way to horror country is with icky, ooky, creepy, crawly, squirmy bugs. Although, this is lot smarter than your average insect horror tale, this one is steeped in consequence.

“Killing Noise,” by Konstantine Paradias, is an exploration of music as a weapon and it certainly is not the kind of music you’re expecting it to be. “When Death Walks the Field of Battle,” by J.C. Michael, is exactly what the title promises. Paul Michael Anderson’s “Crawling Back to You” is a dark song about bad relationships, addiction, and the darkness that swaddles them both. The anthology closes out with “The Musik des Teufels,” by T. Fox Dunham. I can’t even fully describe what he’s done here…almost mad scientist journal filtered through opera/musical linen and drunk with fever by flawed and fractured souls. Beautiful and strange.

I liked the overall tone of the collection and the concept, a few of the tales while good did not resonate as long as others. Stoker Award-nominated editors, Anthony Rivera and Sharon Lawson, did an excellent job here, compiling a variety of tales inspired by a variety of musical styles. The inclusion of story notes always wins points with me.

Savage Beasts is available from Grey Matter Press.

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As one of the new authors chosen for the New Bizarro Author Series line from Eraserhead Press, Scott Cole‘s Superghost is a wildly fun ride.

The story involves Darren, a recent amputee plagued with “phantom limb syndrome.” He tires of being bothered by an arm that isn’t there so he contacts a doctor. A doctor who turns out not be the most upstanding physician around. See, the mad doctor has created a machine that enables him to “steal” phantom limbs…limbs he then saves to create the most badass Frankensteinian monster-of-a-ghost the world has ever seen.

So Darren and his posse—a legless former Olympics athlete, Darren’s girlfriend (she is a girl and a friend), and some others—fights to destroy the doctor and his creatures and return everyone’s phantom limbs.

Ridiculous? Yeah.
Silly? Hell yeah.
Fun? Fuck yeah!

Cole writes in a smartly sharp and lean manner. His characters are believable and fun. With Superghost, I’ve become a fan of Cole’s work and I look forward to whatever madcap adventures he pens next.

Superghost is available via Eraserhead Press.

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Cultographies: They Live

I have long been a fan of D. Harlan Wilson‘s distinct brand of Bizarro. Wildly intellectual yet just goofy enough to keep you on your toes. When I was asked to review his volume of the Cultographies series, I said I would. It’s a total dissection of the 1988 cult classic film, They Live, directed by John Carpenter.

The book did its time in my reading pile until the unfortunate passing of wrestling legend and star of They Live, Roddy Piper. I then withdrew it from the stack and dug in.

This is not a book for everyone. It is a serious essay (a long one at that) about the film’s historical, cultural, and social implications. The politics at play in the film and even in the way it was shot. I found the entire book and the concepts jaw-dropping. Sure, it gets a bit dry, but if you weather through you’ll be amazed. The amount of research that had to be done, the days of watching that fucking movie over and over and over… Wilson is a force to be reckoned with. His writing is sharp and academic, but not alienating in any way. If you’re a fan of the subject matter you can easily gobble the book down in a single sitting.

There are several other films tackled in the Cultographies series, from The Evil Dead and Donnie Darko to Bad Taste and Blade Runner. They are all written by different authors and are available through Wallflower Press.

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Letters to Lovecraft

There are currently about nine-hundred and thirty-two Lovecraft-themed anthologies out in the wild, with maybe another seventy in the works. It’s a popular concept. I like Lovecraftian fiction but quite similar to the way over-saturation made me cringe at the word “Zombie,” I’m starting to wince when I hear the “L” word.

When I was asked to review this book, I hesitated until I saw the authors involved. It includes some of my current darlings: Cameron Pierce, Stephen Graham Jones, Jeffrey Ford, and others. The idea of this anthology is refreshing, instead of asking authors to channel their inner Lovecraft they were told to read his famous essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” and then turn in a tale inspired by quotes from it.

So it ain’t all tentacles and fishy mutants. But don’t be all that sad, those things are in here too.

The volume opens with “Past Reno,” by Brian Evenson, in which a man runs both from and toward his past, wanting to claim and also deny his inheritance. Paul Tremblay delivered a short strange tale called “_______” in which a family grows closer in a subtle and unsettling way. Stephen Graham Jones’s hands in “Doc’s Story,” a fantastic story of a family and their curse. Like everything else that the man has written, it’s brilliant.

Cameron Pierce’s “Help Me” is a bizarre and heady tale about a man and his otherworldly catch. Tim Lebbon‘s “The Lonley Wood” is a dark voice in an echoey chamber. Closing out the collection is “The Semi-finished Basement,” by Nick Mamatas, a darkly wry tale of a local group who meet and discuss world demise over cookies and drink…this one has teeth and a great winning smile.

There numerous other tales as well, featuring rituals and sacrifice, evil fairies and demonic beings, monsters and misdeeds. All are pretty good.

Overall this is a satisfying anthology. Editor Jesse Bullington has done a good job of putting together a sharp product, unique in its premise and put together well. The stories are strong and while some are a bit, I’ll say, dry, most go down easy and quick. The number of new writers (defined as names I was not familiar with) is pretty high and I wasn’t disappointed by any of them. If you’re a fan of all things Lovecratian, then make a spot on the shelf for this one.

Available through Stone Skin Press.

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Darkness Ad Infinitum: Villipede Horror Anthology I

I have been a lifelong aficionado of anthologies. I love reading a story or two before turning in for the night or during my lunch break. As such, I was anxious to read Darkness Ad Infinitum upon its release. The cover is gorgeous and I had heard good things about Villipede. So when I received a copy, I hoped for a jaw-dropping array of dark and scary fiction. I got that. Almost.

The collection opens with “Longboat,” by Becky Regalado, and while it is very well written, it is one of the Mobius strip kind of tales. You know the ones, where the end is the same as the beginning and you find that the story plays on an infinite loop. Those annoy me. I would have easily forgiven this, were it not for the fact that there are a few other “loopy” tales in this collection. Still, I did enjoy her story. The imagery is superb.

I’ll just touch on the ones that really won me over. Adam Millard’s “In the Walls” is a tale of Lovecraftian terrors lurking behind the sheetrock, and it’s a good one. Being a longtime fan of Golem tales, I dug “Earth Risen,” by Pete Clark. “The Westhoff Version,” by Patrick O’Neill, reminded me of a nastier Roald Dahl, full of subtle menace and shadowy ick. John McCaffrey’s “Brannigan’s Window” was wonderful, a very strong tale of renovation and eviction.

Jonathan Moon’s “Hungry As the Wind” is a blast of a tale about bounty hunters and their ill-fated venture into haunted woods. David Dunwoody turns in one of the weirdest tales, “The Good Man,” which opens on the aftermath of a robbery and takes sharp turns into nightmare territory with vampiric beings and redemption dancing cheek to cheek. “The Undertaker’s Melancholy” is a sprawling, crawling prose piece by Sydney Leigh. The words are gorgeous and bite with tiny teeth.

Most of these stories were well written, I just found that many had a “been there many times” feel. I had hoped for a collection of darkly strange and unsettlingly surreal tales, and while there are some of those in here, I wished for more. That being said, it is a gorgeous thing to behold, visually stunning. Each story is accompanied with an illustration, the cover art by Wednesday Wolf is amazing, and the overall layout and execution is just as beautiful. There is a lot of wonderful work in here, and just because it failed to register on the WOW-o-meter, it doesn’t mean it won’t with you.

Darkness Ad Infinitum is available via Villepede Publications.

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