The Devoted

A few weeks ago, John Skipp announced the demise of Ravenous Shadows. This was an offshoot imprint of Ravenous Romance for which Skipp was head wrangler. He sought out novellas that could be devoured in a single sitting. Long story short, I recently got and read one of those novellas, Eric Shapiro’s The Devoted.

The Devoted concerns the final day of a group of cult members. A suicide cult. Beyond that, I had no expectations going in, other than I knew I was in for a wild ride. Skipp doesn’t make empty promises.

Two hours after I began reading, I sat there, brow furrowed in thought as I tried to digest what had just happened. The lean prose is such that you literally feel like you’re there. My stomach ached, it’s that tense of a story.

The Devoted is a gritty, honest, and tense read. (I know I just used that word but hell, it fits!) Now that Ravenous Shadows is a corpse along the publishing highway, several of these books have found new homes. I’m not sure if this is one of them, but I would strongly recommend you track it down regardless. It’s a helluva read!

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White Knight

With Mountain Home, Bracken MacLeod proved himself a force to be reckoned with. It was a lean, mean, fighting machine of a debut novel. With his latest novella, White Knight, he doesn’t let you forget what he’s already taught you. Wear a cup.

White Knight is the story of a prosecutor, one who specializes in those cringe-worthy abuse cases. He sees them daily and feels them always. One day, he makes a gesture a bit beyond what is expected of him, he offers a genuine hand to help a victim. A helping hand is often bitten and what happens from that point will leave you reeling.

Honestly, I couldn’t stop this until I was done. Gritty and violent and tied up with piano-wire tension and sharpness.

Bracken, a former attorney, is channeling some personal shit here and you can feel it. There is no better writing than that which is personal. If you can feel it, so will others. I’m lucky enough to call Bracken MacLeod a friend, I’m smart enough to call myself a fan.

White Knight is available through One Eye Press.

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Red

Let me start by saying that I’m an animal lover. In particular, a dog lover. I have had dogs in my life off and on since early childhood, and currently have two that I spend most days with (and fight over bed-space at night). So I will tell you now, this was a hard read.

Don’t get me wrong. Red is a relatively short novel, originally published in 1995. The writing is not difficult, in fact it’s deceptively smooth and pulled me in within just a few paragraphs. But the subject matter is, for me, quite painful. This is the kind of horror story that makes me uneasy, not just because I became emotionally involved with the characters, but because this is the everyday horror that is seen all around us. There are no ghosts, no boogeyman, no mutated alien creatures or even the walking undead. This is a story of casual human cruelty, written from the point of view of a man who has already weathered many tragedies in his life.

Avery Ludlow is in his sixties, living in a house filled with memories—both good and bad—and the dog his wife had given him for his fifty-third birthday. Then one day three boys interrupt him by the river where he’s fishing. He can smell the gun oil on their brand-new shotgun, and knows immediately that these aren’t hunters. They’re rich kids who don’t care about the river and the fish or the old man and his old dog. And just out of boredom and spite, and a terrifying sense of entitlement, they shoot the dog.

This is the beginning of the story, of the loss of the dog, Red, and what Avery determines he must do to make things right. There is no flowery language or drawn-out descriptions to be had here, but I was swiftly immersed in the simple quiet beauty of this man’s life, and brought to tears by the terrible things he had to endure.

I am glad that I was cautioned (by several people) about the subject matter of this novel. But even more, I am glad that I read it. I would whole-heartedly recommend this book to anyone. It is an amazing tale of love and remembrance, about a man who would certainly be worth knowing.

Jack Ketchum is a Bram Stoker Award winning author, the 2011 World Horror Convention Grand Master, and winner of the Best Screenplay Award at the prestigious Sitges Film Festival in Germany for The Woman.

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Good Sex, Great Prayers

Brandon Tietz gives us a cracker of a novel with Good Sex, Great Prayers. The back cover simply entices with its header of “Pratt has fallen upon strange times.” But it’s an honest tag line.

Father Johnstone has been the town’s preacher for nearly three decades. He knows his flock quite well, inside and out. As of late, he hasn’t been quite himself. Restless nights of little sleep and periods of black that he doesn’t remember are troubling him. He discovers that during the foggy interludes he doles out suspect and crude advice to parishioners as well as engages in some un-man-of-God-ly behaviors. He meets up with a new resident of Pratt, Miss Madeline Paige, and she begins to assist him and teach him about what is really going on in Pratt.

Meanwhile, there are two other entities on a crash course for Pratt. One is a man of such unbridled rancor and madness that his deeds are truly cringe worthy. His games include Christian lingerie, blessed articles, and mutilation. His antics are despicable and truly twisted. I guarantee you will never again be able to hear the phrase “chili dog” without grimacing. The other is Billy Burke, Truck Stop Preacher. A scarred and dusty man who regales the denizens and travelers of the nation’s highways and bi-ways with his sermons. Delivered in colorful everyday language and profanity.

As they work their way to Pratt, things there just get odder and odder. Things are dying: grass, crops, bees. People are acting more peculiar than usual and the townsfolk want a scapegoat. They seem to think the noose will fit the Father’s neck just right.

Good Sex, Great Prayers is a great read. The writing is tight and smooth. I must admit that in the early chapters it seemed a bit overly descriptive, but Brandon hones in and things get leaner and meaner as we move along. The characters are wonderful and the pacing superb.

What really won me over was the subject matter. I can’t really nail my point without spoilers, so I’ll just say that despite the crude and over-the-top sexual shenanigans that take place between the covers of this book, the reverence and respectful way with which he handles the religions is admirable. After a year or so of seeing total intolerance of opinions on social media sites and the news, it was refreshing to see a few differing perspectives, not only portrayed but done in a calm and amicable manner. Paralleling Christianity and Craft in a fashion that is not only logical but believable, without sneering at either belief, could not have been an easy task. But Brandon sticks it.

Fresh and fun, I would definitely add this to your Summer Reads queue. Good Sex, Great Prayers is available from Perfect Edge Books.

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Butcher’s Road

Set in 1932, Lee Thomas’s stunning and tragic novel, Butcher’s Road, manages to mix gang warfare, small-time criminals, and alchemy into a heady cocktail of darkly sinister whodunnit the likes of which I hadn’t read in some time.

It is the story of Butch Cardinal, a small-time hood, who never mixes in the big nasty stuff—until the day he becomes an unwitting pawn in a strange and brutal shell game, where the red rubber ball is in fact an occult article that can provide a powerful service. Butch, a former wrestler, is forced to run and not trust anyone or anything to be as it seems.

Along the way, Thomas gives us a fantastic cast of characters: the aforementioned Butch, a deep and flawed man, living most of his life in a cloak if denial and shadows of guilt. Rabin, a hit man like no other you’ve ever encountered, so brutal in his craft I kept waiting for him to break out a dental drill and ask if it was safe. Hollis, another former wrestler and club owner who provides solace and an anchor for Butch when the wasters get rough. You will meet the “Alchemi,” a mysterious group of men with special talents who are also after Butch. These well-drawn folks and lots more can be found in Butcher’s Road, as they weave in and out of the grimy neighborhoods and suburban crime-boss estates, seedy hotels, and damp alleys.

From Chicago to New Orleans, Butcher’s Road is a long and winding road, unpaved and rough at times…but what a satisfying journey it is.

Butcher’s Road is available from Lethe Press.

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Chasing the Sandman: Tales of the Macabre

There are times when a reader wants a great short story collection that can be digested in small bites, like nibbling on a favorite food, not wanting to finish. Unlike novels, which demand a commitment that sometimes cannot be fulfilled due to poor writing, inconsistent storytelling, or myriad technical errors, none of those holds true for Brandon Meyers’ Chasing the Sandman: Tales of the Macabre. As a self-published book (generally a red flag for those seeking professional writing), Sandman did have some technical errors and awkward imagery, but the incredibly imagined tales are so engrossing and frightening, it’s difficult not to read it right through.

Rarely does short fiction cause me nightmares. However, the opening story, “Graveyard Shift,” not only gave me a horrible case of the heebie-jeebies, but stayed with me for weeks afterward and chased me in my sleep. When police officer Mickey O’Houlihan investigates a suspicious sighting during a much-needed cigarette break, he finds far more than he could ever imagine. Whatever you do, don’t think of spiders the size of wild boars. Meyers really knows how to set the tension and push it higher and higher, and that admirable skill is quite evident here. Rarely do I use trite phrases like “edge of your seat,” but in this case it truly fits. No wasted ideas, no underused moments. For this story alone, it’s worth the price.

“A View of the Top” pits brother and sister against a sadistic sort while they attempt to find their way through a hedge maze. Reminiscent of the maze in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, this is a wicked little story that will make you think twice before entering that corn maze next Halloween.

“Spirit House” telegraphs its ending far in advance, but the writing holds you to the page, and that’s the mark of a great storyteller, especially when it leaves you wanting more. For comic-book fans, you’ll adore “1st Appearance,” an incredibly creative tale, weaving in a unique twist on the power of comic books. “Into the Deep” is a tidy tale in which chance plays a big role in the actions of two men who find themselves in an unexpected place in unexpected conditions, despite their best laid plans.

In all, there are twenty-one darkly humorous and imaginatively frightening tales in this collection, and the greatest shortcoming is that many of the stories are just too darned short. The characterization and storytelling is adept and intriguing, and the creativity is stunningly original.

Perhaps the most admirable trait of this collection is its consistency. Meyers brings a definite tongue-in-cheek sensibility to his writing, though doesn’t overuse it. Chasing the Sandman harkens back to the pulp era, when one could buy a magazine for a nickel or a dime and expect to be scared witless by stories from H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Lawrence Bloch, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Heinlein and others. And there are definite winks and nods to these authors, as well as Stephen King and more modern dark fiction. Meyers may not be of that caliber (yet), but the foundation is laid for future writing, and I, for one, am definitely looking forward to it.

Chasing the Sandman is available through Amazon in paperback and digital formats.

Myers also maintains a web-comic, A Beer for the Shower, with collaborative writing partner Bryan Pedas, which displays his agile wit and humor to an advantage, and gives fans access to his talent on a regular basis.

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Captured Souls

Everybody wants the perfect mate. But how far would you go to make sure that happens?

Miriam Frederick is a university professor who has figured out a way to find that special someone with science. She uses her sexuality to lure three different men to her home, trapping them in rooms specially designed for them. The first man is a writer, and Miriam sets him up with all the trappings a writer would need. The second, an athlete, and the third, an Adonis. All have been given everything they could ever want or need—except their freedom. They also don’t realize they have been “wired” and everything they do is recorded by Miriam.

As Miriam plays with her lovers, trying to make them into the perfect man, she decides to add a woman to the mix. But can she compete?

Captured Souls, by Sephera Giron, reminded me a lot of John Fowles’s The Collector, updated for the Information Age. However, whereas Frederick in The Collector is more obsessed with his subject, he only wants Miranda to love him. Miriam, on the other hand, is not looking for love so much as she wants control over her subjects, and needs them at her beck and call.

I have read Sephera Giron’s books before, and enjoyed them. This is no exception. Erotic, yet creepy, Captured Souls is fascinating. Can someone be happy with everything they could possibly want if denied their freedom? Would a writer be able to thrive in that kind of environment better than an athlete or someone obsessed with their own beauty? How long could you conduct such an experiment before it crumbles around you?

I was hooked on this book after the first few chapters. I enjoyed the diary form of the story, and the characters were interesting to watch in how they dealt with their new lives. The professor’s growing stress and anger at her captives is palpable in the writing.

This is a book you don’t want to miss! Captured Souls is available through Samhain Publishing.

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There Was Darkness In My Youth: A Duality Review

Growing up, I remember darkness. All right, that’s a lie; I actually had a pretty awesome childhood, with a few truly bad parts before high school. But having read two novels back-to-back recently in which their respective narrators recall coming of age through eerie and mysterious times, I sure feel like I’ve just emerged from a dark past. These novels were Joe R. Lansdale’s The Bottoms and John Mantooth’s The Year of the Storm.

In The Bottoms, Harry Crane is recalling his childhood in Depression-era Texas. Now a retired old man, he views the twilight of his life with bitter acceptance and has come to value his youth with a humble nostalgia—even as he describes the twisted events of his adolescence in the 1930’s Texas countryside. Women were being gruesomely murdered, and he and his younger sister Tom (Thomasina) caught glimpses of an eerie entity known as the Goat Man in the woods nearby.

In The Year of the Storm, Danny recalls being fourteen when a major storm hit rural Alabama, during which his mother and autistic sister vanished. Almost a year later, a strange man named Walter Pike shows up, who claims to know where they’ve gone. The narrative is split with Walter as he recalls his teen encounters and a strange, bullied boy named Seth Sykes and the mysterious secrets that Seth harbored.

Both novels nicely explore the idea of discovering magic in the mundane, as well as the presence of magic as opposed to the mundane—and how sometimes, it really doesn’t matter one way or another of just what was “really” going on. What matters is that these character did go through their respective adventures and what they took from it all—a sense of finding themselves in the midst of the wild (and at times terrifying) events.

There was so much more than creeping menace and bewildering mystery that got to me in these novels. Lansdale and Mantooth nicely captured the heartbreaking sense of the relative if fragile innocence of childhood and how abruptly and unfairly it can be wrested away by forces and events beyond one’s control. And I’m not just talking about the narrator’s own journeys—I’m talking about nine-year-old Tom having to witness everything from racism and abuse to grisly murder, and teenaged Seth Sykes getting vilified by the ugliness of homophobia and bullying. There is a lot of darkness to be found in these tales, and not nearly all of it stems from the supernatural.

Comparisons of these books are often made to other novels and stories, from Stephen King’s novella The Body (and its 1986 film adaptation, Stand By Me) and Robert R. McCammon’s Boy’s Life, and on up through recent titles such as Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter—but to me, that’s part of the charm of tales such as these. Everybody starts out somewhere; everybody has an innocent adolescence that hardens and thickens into maturity. Many an author (and director, and musician, and other artist) has to capture that sense of coming into her or his own. It’s a time-honored tradition for a person to recall darkness in her or his youth, and in tales such as these, it can be argued that that darkness can be the catalyst to one’s maturity.

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The Lee Thomas Burrito (Sort of a Review)

For every big name horror author that you hear about—Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Clive Barker or Brian Keene—there is an extremely unsettling number of lesser known writers who deserve to be every bit as famous or well known for their work. And I get that. Music works the same way. We all know about Johnny Cash, but how many have ever heard the great Jerry Jeff Walker? I love it when I am not only impressed by someone I’ve never read before, but impressed to the point where I must track down and read all I can from them. Lee Thomas impressed me like that.

I had the pleasure of reading Ash Street nearly two years ago, for review. I liked it. For some reason I forgot about Lee Thomas, until we connected online and discovered a mutual affinity for heavy metal. I got some more of his work and devoured them all—greedily. So the verdict would now be that he is amazing. You ought to be reading him. All of his work.

With his debut novel, Stained, Lee introduces us to what will become his recognizable style: strong, character driven with realistic attitudes towards the fucked up things that are going on. Said fucked up things in this novel include an almost viral evil that possesses its victims and then tweaks and perverts their deepest longings. Upon completion, I could barely believe this was a debut novel it was so strongly written. No wonder it won a Stoker! The original printing from Wildside Press is quite rare but worth tracking down.

The Dust of Wonderland takes on a Southern Gothic sort of premise and punches it in its ghostly face.

A man is called to New Orleans under tragic circumstances—his son lays in coma near death and the events that surround it all seem to tie to the frayed psyche of Ken Nicholson, a man who has built his unstable life on a shaking pile of secrets and stones. Things take strange turns and all fingers point to a man long dead. This book ups things a notch. The pacing is superb and the realistic characters and reactions are wonderful. Had Lee been putting these novels out in the early 80′s instead of this millennium, he’d be a paperback bestseller and mentioned in the same frantic fanboy breaths as Straub and King.

After that, I read his superb novel The German. I thought the others were good…this was fantastic! Gripping from page one and it does not let up until the last sentence. Reading like a shadowy memoir of sorts, it tells the sad tale of a small Texas town plagued by strange murders and the mysterious German who seems to be the one they want to be responsible. Straddling the barbed wire fence between To Kill a Mockingbird and The Stranger, The German is a gritty affair but reads smooth and generates a well of emotion and outrage. Simply put, it is one of the finest novels I have read.

His chapbook The Black Sun Set, from Burning Effigy Press, is a nifty cocktail; one part noir and two parts metaphysical horror. A chilling post card of sorts.

His collection Like Light for Flies shows us what Thomas is capable of in a shorter word count. The stories are eclectic and smart, some copping an early Barker vibe and a few holding a severely classic voice. You’ll read about a man and his dog and how they try to save the world from monsters from another dimension. There is twisted noir with supernatural shades. Plenty of shocks and cringe-inducing images, all handled with deft precision.

And there you have it, a sort of Lee Thomas burrito. A brief encapsulation of what I have read, save for Butcher’s Road, which I have not yet finished but will review upon completion.

Be on the lookout for my interview with Lee very soon!

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Wicked Seasons: The Journal of New England Horror Writers, Volume II

Typically I shy away from short fiction collections unless I see the name King or Gaiman or some other major league writer on the cover in large letters. So to say that I approached Wicked Seasons: The Journal of the New England Horror Writers, Volume II, with trepidation is an understatement. However, what a treat it turned out to be, especially for this horror-loving writer and reader.

I was immediately engrossed (and a bit grossed out) by the stories presented in this annual collection. There’s not a lot here that one might label traditional horror, though the stories are definitely spooky, humorous, eerie and twisted. More akin to old episodes of Outer Limits, Alfred Hitchcock Presents or Tales from the Darkside. The thread of suspense and bizarre is definitely on display. However, every wicked story is right at home in this collection, and fit nicely into the breeding ground of dark fiction that is New England.

Wicked Seasons is edited by Stacey Longo and contains stories from Rob Smales, Scott Goudsward, Kristy Peterson Schoonover, Catherine Grant, Christopher Golden, and James A. Moore, to name a few. The collection does not stumble in presenting the strange, macabre, or downright grisly. You’ll not find the monsters and aliens of stories that might have appeared in the fifties or sixties in this anthology, but monsters of the more or less human kind.

Catherine Grant’s “Three Fat Guys Soap” is just such a story, in which a strange and horrific method of making soap becomes a stunning act of revenge, and is immensely satisfying for anyone who has ever been bullied by their boss.

“Blood Prophet,” by Scott T. Goudsward, is another example of the horror of humanity in which child abuse and religious dementia play a center stage role, and makes the ending all the more satisfying.

Christopher Golden brings us “The Secret Backs of Things,” which brings to mind Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. It’s a puzzle in which events are merely hinted at, leaving the reader to figure the rest out.

“The Basement Legs,” by Robert J. Duperre, tells about a man who comes to the defense of a young, pregnant Filipino woman who lives in his apartment building. Duperre earns kudos here for bringing a whole new meaning to your local UPS service.

Kristi Petersen Schoonover writes “To Chance Tomorrow,” a cautionary story about science’s role in our lives, and the dubious changes it provides for our future, but at what cost?

If it’s hauntings that scare you, Addison Clift’s “Furious Demon” is a deliciously creepy tale of a woman’s dead father coming back to haunt her and who very well may have molested her when she was a child.

Rob Smales’s “A Night at the Show” and Errick A. Nunnally’s “Lycanthrobastards” are dark werewolf tales that provide surprising departures from standard fare, with fantastic results.

The Wicked Seasons table of contents also includes Trisha J. Wooldridge, Lucien E.G. Spelman, Michael J. Evans, Paul McMahon, and Gregory L. Norris—all very entertaining and chilling reads. For someone who doesn’t often read anthologies, Wicked Seasons exceeded all expectations and converted this reader to seeking out other, similar collections. Also, don’t miss the introduction from Jeff Strand. It’s as entertaining as the central stories.

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