Superghost

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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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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