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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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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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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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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Equilibrium Overturned

Most anthologies carry a theme, sometimes heavily. A concrete yoke of hackneyed premise across sagging shoulders. I always like the “whatever” sort of collections, which is exactly what Equilibrium Overturned is. Sort of. Most of these tales deal with a bleak sense of survival, the settings change and the details and characters, but every one involves a tenacious attempt to hold the fuck on in a world uncontrolled.

John Everson’s “Amnion” gives us a well-meaning physician and his experiment in regaining youth. Factor in some bad decisions and a haughty wench and we have the makings of a nightmare. JG Faherty shows us a unique sort of zombie apocalypse in “Martial Law.” Rose Blackthorn’s “Through the Ghostlands” is one of my favorites, a stark and sad tale of siblings making their way through a haunted landscape.

“Perfect Soldiers,” by S.G. Larner, shows us a different kind of terror war going on and Martin Slag’s “Wombie” is a surrealist bizarro tale about a veterinarian and the world scale conspiracy of oddity that he uncovers. “No Man’s Land,” by Roger Jackson, gives us a war-nightmare where the dead aren’t lucky enough to remain that way.

Sean Eads’ historical horror show, “The Alamo Incident: From The Chronicles of Timaeus Shields,” must be read to comprehend. Tim Waggoner delivers a gory slice of brutal bizarro in “This Is Not a Horror Story.”

The collection closes with a tale of sadness and loss simply titled “Sunrise.” In this tale by Tony Knighton, we follow a desperate father as he tries to save his ailing son in an unforgiving world. All in all, the stories in Equilibrium Overturned are solid and the thread of desperation and survival is present in almost all of them.

Available through Grey Matter Press.

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Burnt Tongues

Transgressive fiction is just a spiffy gold badge for seriously fucked up and off-kilter stories to wear so they seem a bit more high class than they are. I love weird fiction. I like stuff that is dark and bleak and just plain strange. A taste that began when I first read the works of Robert Aickman and continued through to the heady waters of bizarro that we have around us today.

I must admit that I am not much of a fan of the work of Chuck Palahniuk. I find a great deal of his work a bit pretentious and overly obnoxious for no other reason than to be just that, but I hung in and accepted the challenge to review Burnt Tongues. All stories were hand picked by Palahniuk and all of them rabidly wild and unsettling—and like any good scar, they’ll itch and remind you of their existence long after you’ve tried to forget them.

“Charlie,” by Chris Lewis Carter, in which a lonely man brings an abused cat to a veterinarian who proceeds to tell a tragic story from his childhood, one that seems to have an all too tight noose around the present.

“Melody,” by Michael De Vito Jr., shows us a sweet love affair missing a side and a few other things. “F is for Fake,” by Tyler Jones, is the story of an imposter and the lengths he will go to prove a point. Phil Jourdan’s “Mind and Solider” is a deeply troubling tale of a crippled veteran and his encounter with a neighbor boy.

“Ingredients,” by Richard Lemmer, reads like an urban legend, woven around a twisted retail game and the grisly outcome. Matt Egan paints a tear-stained picture of a girl justifying her own tragedy with that of another in “A Vodka Kind of Girl.” One of my favorites from the collection is Brandon Tietz’s “Dietary,” is a gut-punching window into cubicle politics and reindeer games with sharper teeth and parasites.

My favorite of the bunch is “Bike,” by Bryan Howie. This one has stayed with me, so simple and brilliant, I can’t even give a synopsis for fear of draining any of its power. “Heavier Petting,” by Brien Piechos, is a gruesome tableau of relationship woes and secrets, with a little bit of dog-fucking thrown in.

The closer, “Zombie Whorehouse,” by Daniel W. Broallt, saunters up to you while you’re already weary from the others and smacks you upside the head and grabs your face to make you read it. A sick and brutal tale of a man undercover sent to expose a zombie whorehouse from within, and much more.

The collection is solid and while not all of the stories left me gobsmacked, quite a number of them did. But it left me feeling dirty and ashamed, like I’d just watched Gummo again. If you like your fiction left of center and brutal, unafraid to hurt you and unwilling to hide behind the flowery garments of literary trends, this is your shit. Embrace it.

Available through Medallion Press.

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Ad Nauseam

Ad Nauseam, a collection of unsettling and often extreme stories from C.W. Lasart,  is a wonderful way to spend a weekend. It’s full of sex and gore and weird scenarios, all the things a good weekend should have in its list of ingredients.

The opener, “Simple Pleasures,” is a brow-furrower about a less than smart man and the strange…um, sexy holes that invade his property. “Widow” has arachnophobes running for the door, while “Angel Lust” tackles the sorry void in snuff/corpse erection/porn fiction.

“Retirement Woes” is a lot deeper than it initially reads, and a bit nastier as well. “Lunch Date with Loa Loa” is a great tale about ghosts and eye worms. “Bone Phone” is an example of one’s past coming to call—literally.

“Sister Alice’s Suitor” is a gory diorama of loneliness and jealousies and the oftentimes bad choices they bully us into making. “The Hand That Feeds” is a sweet story of a grandfather entertaining his grandchildren with stories from the past, except that these tales involve a morbidly obese sociopath and implied cannibalism.

The whole batch was great, but I only cited some here. This in no way implies the others are of a lesser caliber—they are not. All the stories are well written and sure to shock and, if you’re a little bit of a sicko, titillate. If you have a strong stomach and a sense of adventure, spend a little time with Ms. Lasart and let her show you a good time.

Ad Nauseam was released by Dark Moon Books in 2012.

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