A Place for Sinners

While attending the World Horror Convention in Atlanta, I encountered a charming young man by the name of Aaron Dries. Sure, we’d crossed cyber paths before and I was familiar with some of his short-story work…but that was all.

I bought a copy of this book, A Place for Sinners, mainly because House of Sighs was sold out and I wanted to read some of his longer work. Having attended his reading at the same convention, I was blown away by his use of language and the use of word as brick and foundation for the many horrors he unleashed. I decided then and there, based on that reading alone, this kid was going places.

About two weeks after the con, I cracked into A Place for Sinners. I had no real clue what it was about aside from the vague promises whispered by the back cover copy. I thought it was about wild dogs. And it is, a little, I mean they’re in there and crucial to the plot but…my oh my, are they just the tip of the iceberg.

The novel opens with young Amity Collins, lost and alone and being chased by…wild dogs. Through this unfortunate series of events, she is left both fatherless and deaf. She finds herself forever on the run from wild dogs, literal and symbolic.

After the setup, we embark on a journey with Amity and her brother, Caleb. They’ve decided to take a trip to Thailand and just live a little. Amity decides to book passage to the island of Koh Mai Phaaw, a tourist trap with a gimmick that allows tourists to ply the simian population with bananas and soda. It was only a matter of time before the shit hit the fan.

This is where things get nuts. Not a little bit screwy, 80’s pulp horror nuts, but way out-of-left-field kind of Clive Barker nuts. People turn out not to be as they seem. In fact one of them turns out to be one of the most ghastly representations of guttural evil I have ever laid eyes upon. I literally had to pause just now and play over things from this book in my head…the wounds are still fresh. Still stinging.

The pacing is brutal, the characters strong and surprising. When there are twists, they are fucking twists. I mean, not a little M. Night Shyamalan kind of oooh. More of a throw-the-book-down, stand-up-and-yell “WHAT?” and then dig back in. Bottom line of this book is strength. It’s all about bravery and strength, and if you keep wiping the grue from your eyes, you’ll clearly see that.

It’s a vicious story and one that will keep you nailed to it. Just when you think you might see what’s coming, the dirty pillowcase is pulled over your head and you feel knuckles on your ribs and no matter how much you plead…the story doesn’t let up. And the language, the words—Aaron uses broad colorful strokes and meticulous sketches to render this large mural of pain and suffering and strength and savagery. He paints with brushes dripping with love and hate, awe and revulsion. But like a true master, he keeps painting.

I hope we see much more from this young man.

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The Mind Is a Razorblade

I like my fiction on the strange side. Sometimes, really strange. The Mind Is a Razorblade, by Max Booth III, is damned strange. And now I’m beginning to think Booth is a little strange as well.

That’s a good thing.

The book opens with a man waking on the muddy banks of a river. He is naked and there are two dead bodies and a police car present. He has absolutely no idea who he is, who the dead are and what the hell lead to this scene. Stealing a coat from one of the deceased, he makes his way on a quest for identity and to solve the puzzle of who he is and why he ended up here.

He arrives in the city to see roaming groups of deranged individuals, jabbering crazies, and the Harvies, gruesome specters of death that only some can see, and that seem to dog our hero’s every step. He encounters people from his past, even though he doesn’t remember them. He discovers things about the present and the past and finds out that not everyone is who—or what—they seem. He hides from ghosts and demon gods. He also has the ability to blow shit up with his mind when he gets really angry.

All of these things (and brain spiders) are the ingredients to a stylistic and extremely bizarre noir-venture that reads like a David Lynch directed version of Memento—but with brain spiders and bunny slippers. It’s almost ridiculous until the grit settles and then it gets tense and brutal.

A man with no memory and thus no identity is the most pitiful and terrifying of characters and Booth nails his journey with a deft hand. When he encounters people he knew or who know him, the reaction is rendered with a sense of realism that is so well done, you can almost smell the exasperation.

Having read Booth’s novel Toxicity, I was sure I knew what to expect here but I was wrong. While I loved this book as much as I did the other, they’re quite differing creatures. Wherein Toxicity was funny and smart and almost satirical in its dissection of segments of society and cultural expectations, The Mind Is a Razorblade is a violent and bleak film unwittingly shot by a dashboard camera in an abandoned police car. It has a grimy vibe that permeates and settles on the skin like ashes or oil. I mean this as a compliment.

The Mind Is a Razorblade is available through Kraken Press.

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Welcome to the Graveyard and Other Stories

I have long enjoyed the short fiction of Mark Allan Gunnells. I like his longer stuff as well, but I think the short story is where he shines. And why it shines is his attention to detail in character, in his taking everyday situations and incorporating a sense of oddness or unease and, at times, whimsy.

Welcome to the Graveyard is his newest collection and it’s pretty damn good. After a glowing introduction by John R. Little, “Dancing in the Dark” leads off with a sure foot. Named for one of Bruce Springsteen’s most annoying songs, this story follows a young man who feels that song is his bad luck theme and tries to avoid hearing it at all costs. “After” would be a humorous little tidbit were it not for the dark bitterness of the finale, a great smack to the face. “The Napkins” is a story that is so much deeper and nastier than it seems, and it takes the final paragraph to burn it into your brain.

“What Little Boys Are Made Of” reminds me a bit of the classic Charles Beaumont story “Miss Gentilbelle,” a version yanked violently by the hair through the last forty years and screaming and plant it firmly in the now. And it’s just as jarring when we get to the final punch. This one will stick with you.

Many of these tales are quite short, flash pieces. I was lucky enough to see a number of them as entries in flash contests and I love that he’s polished them up and served them here. One of the best is “A Midnight Errand.” Running about a page and half, this thing packs more emotion into its leanness than most novels.

The collection finishes with the title story, a tremendous tale of youth and the painful transition to adulthood, wading through the rapids of peer pressure, bullies, and self-loathing. It’s about finding the ghosts and standing up to them even when one of them is you. A great story.

Gunnells can always be relied upon to deliver the goods. His stories are sharp and I can say it’s been fun to watch him grow as a writer over the years. His prose is smooth and easy and his characters are believable. He wears his influences proudly and yet has his own identity showing through.

Welcome To The Graveyard is available through Evil Jester Press.

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By Bizarre Hands

If you’re looking for tales of unflinching tension, grisly violence, and/or deeply disturbing horror, all told in a mesmerizing voice, then you need to pick up a copy of Joe R. Lansdale’s first short story collection, By Bizarre Hands. Originally published in 1989 by Avon, most of the sixteen stories in this collection were previously published in various anthologies and magazines, although two of them are exclusive to this book. That same year, it would go on to be nominated for a Stoker for Best Fiction Collection.

There are a number of nasty, gritty tales contained in these pages. “The Pit” and “The Steel Valentine” contain suspense and violence that swiftly escalates into action-packed finales that, upon finishing them, you’d think you’d just read novels. The title story, along with “Boys Will Be Boys” (later absorbed into Lansdale’s 1987 novel The Nightrunners) and “I Tell You It’s Love,” spend so much intimate time in the depraved minds of their deeply disturbed characters that you need to give your soul a shower afterwards. And “Night They Missed the Horror Show,” a 1988 winner for the since-discontinued Stoker Award for Best Short Fiction category, is such an unrelentingly grim story that it might just obliterate one’s faith in humanity.

Not all of these stories are dark reflections of twisted souls. A pioneer in the bizarro subgenre, Lansdale pens a few tales here that furrow the brow and raise the WTF? meter to the max. “Fish Night” is every bit as mythical in feeling as the tale that one of its characters tells. “The Fat Man and the Elephant” is a straight-faced story of a man seeking a sort of god in the confines of a dying elephant’s stench. And “Tight Little Stitches In a Dead Man’s Back,” besides arguably having one of the best short story titles EVER, is a disturbing recollection of the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse and the journey that a couple take as they mourn the loss of their daughter. If I said any more, I would be spoiling it. Just make sure you have memory bleach ready, because you won’t be able to un-see some of this tale’s squirm-inducing images.

Also worth noting are two period pieces. “The Windstorm Passes” is a Dustbowl-era tale that is a spiritual precursor to his 2000 novel, The Bottoms (reviewed here). And “Trains Not Taken” is perhaps the most unusual story in the whole collection, being a bittersweet alternate history tale of unhappy love and unfulfilled dreams set against the backdrop of a Japanese-colonized Wild West.

Landsale’s particularly American prose is less of a product of his background than it is a key element of his style. It’s often quick, to-the-point and on-the-nose storytelling, yet he knows how to incorporate and build suspense. He doesn’t ever shy from describing anything grim or nasty; he doesn’t just “go there” in his stories—he’s practically built his home “there.”

Although the printed editions of this book are long discontinued, they’re fortunately not too hard to find; and, for those so inclined, By Bizarre Hands is also available as an e-book. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy now—and just know that after you read its dark tales, you will never be the same.

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Thank You, Brian Keene!

Brian Keene, bestselling horror author of such titles as The Rising, Ghoul, Earthworm Gods, and The Lost Level, recently listed his top 10 favorite books published in 2014 on his podcast, The Horror Show.

In the fifth episode of The Horror Show, Keene listed Dominoes, written by our own John Boden and illustrated by Yannick Bouchard, at #8!

Click for full-size images.

Mr. Keene was taken by the “really interesting production” of the book, in particular its deceptively Little Golden Book-inspired layout and illustrations. “It’s a really cool little thing!” he said.

We here at Shock Totem thank you very much for the shout-out, Mr. Keene!

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Gateways to Abomination

You’re listening to 89.7, WXXT, the Black Heart of the Pioneer Valley. Next up, Matthew M. Bartlett’s Gateways To Abomination

Although this book is billed as “collected short fiction,” it reads more like an epistolary novel than a collection of stories; as such, one should read these thirty-odd tales from cover to cover, and not just by random selection.

In the course of these tales and vignettes, several very real towns in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, dark forces are gathering: monsters, ghosts, and strange metamorphoses are creeping forth from the shadows to claim thrall upon humankind, and with a growing number of insanity-driven people volunteering to help see the plot come to fruition. Ominously playing in the background are diabolical messages and hypnotic tunes from a local radio station—WXXT.

Even with all of their connections, the stories at work in this collection are significantly unique from one another. In pieces such as “The Last Hike” and the “Ballad(s) of Ben Stockton,” unsuspecting people naïvely wander into the rising darkness. “Interview with Emily Lavallee” is a transcript of a hysterical woman recalling the bizarre horrors she’d witnessed earlier that night. “Notice – 1802” reads like a private club’s newsletter.

Most of the stories are contemporary, but a few take place in the early 1900’s, and even earlier. Some of the stories are as short as a single paragraph, whereas others stretch to several-page length. The one thing that they have in common is that they all share a hallucinatory narrative, casting fever dreams of vivid descriptions that are sometimes enough to make the reader squirm. And although the larger plot against which all of these stories are told isn’t particularly clear, that hardly matters. Behind these morbid tales, the big, twisted picture grins wickedly out at the reader.

Finally, the format of the book itself must be applauded. Entirely self-published, the format is professionally done, with the front cover featuring a lovingly pulpy sketch of a small town dwarfed by a radio tower, with a looming goat floating in the background. (There’s even a bogus publisher’s logo, “OCCULT,” printed in the bottom corner.) This cover is a thoughtful aesthetic, and one that makes the experience of reading all the more fun.

So tune in to 89.7, WXXT, and take a step into these Gateways to Abomination.

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The Last Projector

David James Keaton has delivered a literal smorgasbord of a novel here. Loaded with grease and fat and enough madness to choke a goat. If pop cultural references were dimes, The Last Projector would be A LOT of money. The music references alone would have garnered about eighty dollars. But enough about that…

Larry is a director of pornography and he hates it. He used to be an EMT named Jack, and through a series of unfortunate events—events that haunt him almost daily—he is now Larry, a third-rate director of smut. He hates his actors and their seemingly contagious tattoos. He hates a lot about his life…and himself, honestly. While Larry films the fuck films, he secretly films his “real” movie with a woman and her daughter, only they have no clue they’re being filmed.

We also follow a young couple, maybe lovers, definitely almost terrorists—hey, they’re working on it! They unite in their quest to “scare” or kill a cop and maybe kidnap a police dog. At the very least they just want to fuck over as many law enforcement officers as they can. Their thread through the novel is richly braided with dialogue and so many cultural zingers it should be registered as a weapon.

This book is long, a little too long, in my opinion. I found portions hard to slog through but I stuck with it and was entertained overall. The characters are insane and well drawn, their antics all believable given the folks acting them out. From the opening incident of a man getting nose-punched for spitting mouthwash on a statue of the Virgin Mary to the ridiculous discussions of watching drive-in movies without sound from a neighboring house, this book seems to have it all.

Sense of humor as a bludgeoning object seems to work for Keaton. In nearly everything I’ve read from him, he wields that weapon proudly and with no apologies. He writes a mean story but sucker-punches you into not realizing how fucking dark it is until you’ve come out the other side. The one-liners and jokes keep you numb to the horror that creeps and scurries at your feet.

The Last Projector is available from Broken River Books.

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Shrieks and Shivers from the Horror Zine

The Horror Zine’s latest short story anthology, Shrieks and Shivers from the Horror Zine, edited by Jeani Rector and printed by Post Mortem Press, is allegedly also their final one. Listed as “the scariest book that [they have] ever produced” on the Zine’s website, there are some big-name authors to be found here, including Elizabeth Massie, P.D. Cacek, Tom Piccirilli, Ray Garton, and Joe McKinney, alongside many other, newer and lesser-known authors.

There were stories in this anthology that particularly stood out. Martin Rose’s opener, “Tapeworm,” had me squirming with its subdued, suggested-but-not-seen horrors. Eric J. Guignard’s “One Last Tweet” was a delightfully disorienting second-person story-cum-postmodern social commentary about our Internet age. Elizabeth Massie’s “Squatters” was a solid, old-fashioned tale of a vile man getting his just desserts. P.D. Cacek’s “Somniphobia” was a fun, hallucinatory ride through night (and day) terrors. At first glance, Nathan Robinson’s “Old Haunts” was a typically gory zombie apocalypse tale, until it cleverly asks the reader to wonder just who is narrating the story. And let’s just say that Ray Garton’s “Parasites” is NOT a story to be read in the bathroom.

I have to admit that going into this anthology I was fairly stoked, but ultimately, I was a bit disappointed. A number of the stories just didn’t groove with me, often suffering from the common storytelling problem of “too much tell, not enough show.” Others were too heavy-handed with their horror delivery. Now, every multiple-author story anthology runs the risk of having some stories that don’t work for every reader; it’s a given evil in any art field. In this case, however, the sheer number of weaker stories hurt my overall opinion of the anthology.

Bentley Little’s introduction, in which he all but literally admits that he’s only included for cosmetic purposes, didn’t help. “I haven’t read any of the stories in this anthology,” he states in his opening paragraph. “I don’t even know the names of the authors contributing to this volume.” His admission left me desiring a more dedicated introduction, be it by Little or someone else. His lack of enthusiasm didn’t help my overall opinion of the stories and my feelings of their quality.

Furthermore, the book’s early inclusion of an essay by John Russo, co-scribe of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), was another touch that didn’t quite work. Russo rambles about zombies, and how they’ve changed over the years, yet not once does he mention the following stories, nor Jeani Rector, nor anything else to do with this anthology. Beyond being another big name, its inclusion is not clearly justified.

For all of its content (over 30 stories in all), Shrieks and Shivers from the Horror Zine felt like it was assembled with quantity in mind, rather than a strong sense of overall quality. Here’s to hoping that it isn’t truly The Horror Zine’s final anthology, if nothing else than for the hopes of a more proper send-off.

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The Green Kangaroos

The idea of drug addiction is terrifying to me. That terror goes up a notch when the drugs in question involve needles. Now add the idea of sticking a needle full of poison into your testicles. Yeah, that hammer blow made the puck fly high and ring the bell, didn’t it?

The Green Kangaroos, by Jessica McHugh, is junkie fiction wrapped in sci-fi and enough seedy Gummo ick that it qualifies as some sort of horror. We follow our “hero,” Perry, through a drug-drowned world in the year 2099, a world where people literally pay for dope with lumps of flesh and vaginal meat. Breasts seem to fetch top dollar. Perry has a family that wants him clean, but he just wants to stay high. Every scenario in which he finds himself should have him screaming for sobriety, yet he clings to his agenda of chemical impairment. When the world as he knows it turns out to be nothing like it seems, then things get really strange.

In The Green Kangaroos, Jessica McHugh gives us the bastard love-baby of William Burroughs and The Matrix, thankfully devoid of Keanu Reeves. It’s needle-sickness-meets-dopesick Blade Runner world is horrifying. Even the likeable characters are shitbags, but they are so richly drawn and the story is so wonkily brilliant you just keep your hands and feet inside the car and enjoy the ride.

I had no idea what to expect with this book. To that point, I can say I enjoyed it. McHugh gives us a very detailed and sordid chronicle of an unapologetic junkie in a world that doesn’t really care about much of anything. The writing is  sharp and cuts deep. The layers and nuances that slither and snake around the prose are unsettling.

The Green Kangaroos is available through Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing.

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Devourer Of Souls

Late last year, Kevin Lucia delivered a wonderful collection called Things Slip Through, a great gathering of tales presented in a wholly unique way. The voice of Lucia’s writing is old school—think early King or later Bradbury. So obviously, I was quite anxious to read this novella, Devourer of Souls, which is actually a pair of longer stories which are stitched together by a similar framing device as those in Things Slip Through.

You know the old saying: “If it ain’t broke…”

Devourer of Souls starts with two men meeting in a diner. They are members of a sort of coalition in the Clifton Heights area, a group of men who meet once in a while to keep one another apprised of the weird shit that seems to be bubbling under the Rockwellian surface of their town.

The first half is a great tale called “Sophan.” A group of boys and an outcast dying to be drawn into a strange and ancient game of chance called Sophan, a tile game offered to one of the boys at a rummage sale. During the last breaths of summer, one boy is consumed by hatred and bigotry while his friend is called to fix things. A father is haunted by the ghosts of war and another by his good fortune to have returned and moved on. Lucia does a great job of bringing these characters to life. The emotions are realistically rendered and easily relatable, he keeps them simple but something that we can all recognize, honestly written and stronger for it.

“The Man in Yellow” is the second feature, and it is just a good as the opening act. Set in another flyspeck town that neighbors Clifton Heights, this story involves a young man on the cusp of adulthood, angry at the world and the God he isn’t sure is out there. He and his friend discover that faith can be a monster when a new minister arrives in town. A charismatic stranger in a bright yellow suit and an ancient agenda. This one has a decidedly darker tone than “Sophan,” and given the brooding cloud of faith and/or lack thereof that hangs over it, it isn’t surprising. .

Lucia’s strong characters and smartly simple and realistic dialogue are one of the many things that propel his writing along the rails. His pacing is good and he knows how to tell a good story without a lot of fat. Too many times writer’s bog down their stories with unnecessary jewelry and gloss when a simple story—simply told—is what is needed. Lucia gives us a refreshing old-school style—not that he can’t throw down the words, but he understands that the story needs to be the star.

Devourer of Souls is available through Ragnarok Publications.

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