Tag Archives: Reviews

Alien: Out of the Shadows

I can honestly say that my favorite scary movie is Alien. I was blown away by the sequel, Aliens, as well. So I was very excited to hear about the release of Alien: Out of the Shadows, by Tim Lebbon, an official canon novel that takes place in the interim between those two movies.

First and foremost—Ripley. She is smart, strong, brave and bad-ass. She is also scared, filled with survivor’s guilt, and humanly flawed. She is one of my favorite heroines, and this book gives you the opportunity to get to know her better.

The basic premise of the book is that Ripley’s EEV is picked up by a mining operation ship in orbit around yet another deadly, inhospitable planet. While mining for trimonite, a rare and sought after mineral, the miners stumble onto another ancient derelict spaceship. Besides the dead and petrified remnants of those who had once flown this ship and the ruins of an advanced culture where the ship crashed, they also find the preserved alien eggs that started the havoc in the first movie.

This is a fairly fast-paced story, and a lot of people die—badly. There is a lot of tension, and the feeling of holding your breath as you hurry to find out what happens next. I was a little worried about how it was going to end (without fundamentally altering Ripley or anything that happens at the beginning of the second movie) and still be able to get caught up with the action and characters. Turns out I didn’t have to worry. While I might wish that some things could have turned out differently, I wouldn’t want to change the continuing story.

It’s my understanding that there will be two more official tie-in novels released this year, and based on this first one I’m pretty sure I’ll be getting them all. I would definitely suggest this to any fans of the Alien universe.

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O Little Town of Deathlehem

I loved Christmas when I was a little girl. Santa Claus, the tree twinkling with lights in my living room, the anticipation of presents and cookies. The enchantment waned in my teen and young adult years, of course, but once I became a parent, the holiday was exciting once again. I loved providing the magic of Christmas for my own kids.

Santa has been out of the picture for us for several years now, and Christmas these days is more a source of stress for me rather than joy. The cleaning, the cooking, shopping, spending money on stuff we really don’t need—I’ve unfortunately become rather cynical about the holidays. It’s always a relief when it’s all over.

So all the sappy, sentimental, feel-good TV shows, movies, and stories don’t do anything for me. I will admit to still enjoying Rudolph and Charlie Brown, and my favorite Christmas movie is The Santa Clause 2 with Tim Allen, but otherwise, I find myself rolling my eyes a lot during the months of November and December. And don’t get me started on the saturation of Christmas music for two months.

Then I was asked to review O Little Town of Deathlehem, edited by Michael J. Evans and Harrison Graves. Christmas horror? Yes, please! Stories that won’t warm my cold, black heart, stories that would make the Grinch smile.

Catherine Grant starts the ball rolling with “One of His Own.” If you’ve never heard of Krampus, do a quick Google search before reading the story; it will be a much more rewarding experience. Krampus and his half-brother Sinterklaaus travel the world together on Christmas Eve—Sinterklaaus is the kind-hearted, benevolent elf who leaves presents, but Krampus is just looking to feed on fearful children. They enter the home of a drug-addled mother whose little girl is neglected and abused. For the first time, Krampus finds himself wanting to take care of a child instead of eating her. He whisks her away with him. As she grows older, she helps him with his quest on Christmas Eve. But then she wants his help with something else.

“One of His Own” is a great story, perfectly setting the tone for the anthology. Although their roles as good and evil characters are clear, Krampus and Sinterklaaus aren’t that black and white. Very well written, and the author gave the characters depth you don’t usually find in a short story.

Chantal Boudreau’s “Deck the Halls” is a familiar tale of a man who resents his mother and wants his inheritance sooner rather than later. He takes care of her, in order to not lose his coming windfall to nurses and caretakers. But she lingers, much to his chagrin, so he takes matters into his own hands. Things don’t turn out as he planned.

This is a fun, nasty little story that is truly the embodiment of “be careful what you wish for.”

Do you prefer live Christmas trees to artificial ones? “With Their Eyes All Aglow” by Jeff C. Carter might just change your mind. Ray is fascinated with insects and spiders. He is looking for a rare, extremely venomous spider in Myanmar, but is ready to return home to his wife and daughter for Christmas. He actually finds the spider colony, but realizes it has infested a once-trendy Christmas tree called “Nordmann Firs.” They are being grown to ship to the States—and Ray realizes that is the exact tree his wife bought several days earlier.

I don’t like spiders at all. “With Their Eyes All Aglow” was creepy, and made my skin crawl. Thanks to this story, I now know that real Christmas trees carry usually harmless bugs into homes. I’m sure I’ve heard that before, but was in denial. No more live trees or plants of any kind in my home!

“A Christmas to Remember” by JP Behrens could be a peek into Charles Manson’s boyhood until he grew up and gained terrible notoriety. Ten year old Nathan’s parents are Christmas shopping for him and his brother, a difficult task since Nathan seems to be obsessed with all things dark and horrible. His mother caught him dissecting a mouse with glee, and now he’s drawing pictures of mangled and broken animals. After shopping, Nathan’s mom follows him into the woods, and discovers his horrible secret. Somehow the family gets through Christmas, but that night, Nathan’s mom discovers he has put his present to use in the most awful way possible.

This story could also be a look into Michael Myers’s childhood. JP Behrens has written a shocking story about every parent’s worst nightmare.

Twenty stories make up this anthology. You’ll find a Santa-werewolf (or would it be werewolf-Santa?), evil ornaments, Christmas in a zombie apocalypse, evil Santas, and of course, Krampus. What you won’t find are sappy, sentimental, ABC Family Channel stories. So if you’re tired of Christmas cheer, grab a copy of O Little Town of Deathlehem, and let the holiday dysfunction take you away.

O Little Town of Deathlehem is available through Grinning Skull Press. All profits from the anthology benefit the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.

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Phoenix Island

There has been a great deal of hype surrounding this, the debut novel from John Dixon.

It was optioned for (read that as: it inspired) a CBS TV show before it was even published, which is quite the impressive feat. Now, because I believe in honesty above all else, I shall take a few lines to give you a brief flurry of thoughts on Intelligence, the show inspired by this novel.

I watched the pilot, actually about 26 minutes of it, before I called it a day. I was so excited, having finished the book, but after seeing what the network delivered I was annoyed. By “inspired,” the creator really means “Hey, I think the idea of a super chip we plug into someone’s brain and it makes them superhero-y is badass; I’m taking it and writing an anemic show about governmenty spy-like action crap and giving it that NCIS pallor, and then I shall sit in my trailer and count my anticipated millions. Muwhahaha!”

I found that disheartening. The incredibly drawn characters and tension notched up with painful precision is gone, replaced with CGI effects and stiff acting. So yeah, I didn’t like the show.

I loved the book, so let me clarify why I choose to air my possibly unpopular view of the show as a preface to my book review. It’s because the book is THAT good and it deserves to be read and win your heart on its own merits. If you watched Intelligence and bought the book expecting to read that sort of pap, you’ll be disappointed. Well, unless you happen to also have taste, then you’ll probably be wisely won over. Or if you bought the book, read it, and then tuned into the show expecting to have your ass handed to you a week at a time. Guess what? More disappointment.

I do this as a measure of disclosure. The show might be good if you like that sort of thing. I don’t. I’m not a fan of much in the way of modern TV shows. The book is great. It deserves to be known as that. Enough ranting. Now, about Phoenix Island

The novel starts with the grim introduction of young Carl Freeman, a boy with a lot of problems but a big heart. He does the wrong things for the right reasons and finds himself on the other side of the judge’s bench.

Through further mishaps and circumstances, Carl finds himself sentenced to time on Phoenix Island, a sort of military boot camp from hell/juvi prison. He and the other troubled youth are subjected to degradation and horrific mental tortures under the guise of toughening them up, which really is a device for weeding out the stronger personalities.

As the story progresses, friends are made as well as enemies. There is brutality and dissension. There is fear and realization. And by the time we reach the stunning climax (think Lord of the Flies meets the first forty minutes of Full Metal Jacket) there is serious emotional conflict.

I have been purposefully vague about the major plot points, mainly because when put up against the depth and realism of the characters and the human progression of their journey, I feel the less you know going in, the better the experience will be.

I will, however, give you some things you have to look forward to: fighting, pigs, sharks, bugs, fighting, bad jokes, sweat, fighting, medical experimentation, fighting, and growing up, in more ways than one.

Phoenix Island is one heavy book. The prose is tight and smooth. Very real and easy to read. If this is Dixon’s debut, sign me up for anything he puts out.

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Violet Eyes

Billy and his friends are on vacation on a little island in the Florida Keys when they are attacked by a huge swarm of flies that bite. They run through the jungle and find a small hut where they take refuge. In the middle of the night, Billy’s girlfriend Casey realizes she can’t hold it until morning, and goes outside to go to the bathroom.

This time, hundreds of spiders attack Casey, tearing her apart with her teeth. Later, only Billy manages to escape.

Rachel has escaped her abusive husband Anders, and now lives in a small town in the Everglades with her son Eric. As they try to build a new life together, Rachel has no idea that the town she chose is about to be overrun by a plague that has never been seen before. Rachel and Eric becomes friends with Billy who, although nice, acts strangely at times. Tormented by terrible headaches he can’t explain, he gradually withdraws, until Rachel realizes it’s been quite some time since they had seen him. In the meantime, the townspeople are being bitten by an infestation of flies, sickening some and killing others.

Then the spiders come. Hatching from the larvae left by the flies, the spiders encase animals, people—even houses in their webs. Rachel and her new boyfriend Terry decide it’s time to get out of town, but run into trouble when her ex-husband Anders shows up. Soon after, all hell breaks loose, and time is running out to get out of town before the government shows up and annihilates the town along with the insects.

I love “bug horror,” and this is one of the best I’ve read. Fun, creepy, and gross, Violet Eyes, written by Bram Stoker award-winning author John Everson, made me squirm many times while reading. I enjoyed the hell out of it.

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The Importance of (Good) Reviews

How important is a review? In today’s publishing world, especially on Amazon.com and its international sites, a good review (four or five stars) is worth quite a bit. Dozens of them are priceless.

Shock Totem does most of its sales through Amazon, the bulk of which are digital sales. That’s a great thing, particularly for our authors. Readers are their lifeblood. Ours as well, but while readers keep us afloat on a pride level, we need revenue to sustain us for years to come.

We’ve been around for five years and each of our issues costs around $1,500 to produce. They say most businesses take five years to become profitable. Thankfully, we’re almost to the point where we’re paying for each release with profit from sales. Our last issue, Shock Totem #7, cost $236 out of pocket, which is wonderful.

We’d love to get to a point where we’re not only paying for issues with profit but also making money, enough to expand, raise our pay rate.

And that’s why we still need your help.

The debut issue of Shock Totem is our biggest seller. This is typical for every month. On Amazon, where it matters most, our debut has 28 reviews. That’s eleven more than the closest second, which is issue #2, with 17 reviews.

Our latest issue, however, has just two reviews. And we’re having a hell of a time getting review sites to respond to review requests these days. Not sure if there’s so much self-publishing going on that they’re overwhelmed with review material or if we’re so established they don’t think we need reviews; but whatever the reason, the reality is, we do need reviews.

Why? Beside the obvious reasons, Amazon.com, where sales are highest, has a ranking algorithm (among other things) that helps authors and publishers sell books. One of the biggest theories, and it’s a good one, is that the more four- and five-star reviews a book has, the more it is shown to potential buyers.

Again, our debut issue has nearly a dozen more reviews than any of our other issues and it’s our biggest seller. Signs point to Yes, the algorithm is real and that issue is being put in front of more potential readers than our other issues.

So how can you help? By posting reviews of our work. They don’t have to be long or have literary flair; they just need to be honest.

The more our sales increase, the longer we’ll be around. When so many publications are using Kickstarter to fund their projects, we’d like to earn people’s money. So if you’d be so kind, please consider reviewing anything of ours that you have read. We’d be very grateful.

In parting, and this applies not only to our books but any book, please note the difference in ratings between sites.

Three stars on Goodreads is not the same as three stars on Amazon. (There is another theory that any review given with less than four stars on Amazon seriously impacts a book’s rankings—kicks it right into the gutter, in fact. Again, this is a theory, but based on authors’ experience, it’s a good one.) For instance, a two-star review on Goodreads should be a three-star review on Amazon, as both mean it was “okay.” Therefore, a three-star review on Goodreads should be a four-star review on Amazon, which helps the author quite a deal more. Again, in theory.

And finally, thank you! Five years strong. We’ve lost some staff along the way, but we’re still dedicated and committed to the long haul. It’s been a hell of a ride so far. Help us keep the wheels on!

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Losing Touch

Losing Touch, Christian A Larsen’s debut novel, wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Regardless, I was quickly caught up in the storyline and clear writing, and taken to an ending I didn’t see coming but thoroughly enjoyed.

Morgan Dunsmore is a normal, everyday guy dealing with normal, everyday things—such as being unemployed and trying to make the bills, keeping a happy home-life with his wife (also unemployed due to an injury) and raising two kids. He does what a lot of us would do. He tries to put a positive spin on things, and stop thinking about the things he can’t change. But then things begin to change in ways he could never have foreseen, and can’t control at all. At first.

Losing Touch is a story that’s part mundane reality and part learning to face the scary unknown. In the real world, just trying to take care of all the things that need taking care of can be exhausting and frightening; add to that the fact that Morgan is beginning to disappear physically as well as figuratively, and what you get is a convoluted path through a man’s moral dilemma. If you can go anywhere you want to go, and nothing can keep you out…how far will you go before you lose yourself?

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Back Roads & Frontal Lobes

Nothing thrills me more than discovering new authors. New to me, to be precise.

Brady Allen intrigues me with his unapologetic attitude and willingness to stand tall and stalwart while brandishing his opinions with honest intellect. This is a trait one sees very little these days, when it is all too fashionable to lay with the herd and suckle at the teat of popular opinion. This made me wonder about his literary output, so I reached out and got a copy of his collection.

Back Roads & Frontal Lobes is as amazing a collection as it is puzzling. Not a single tale here is what it appears to be. Most flirt with horror but are more about the human condition and attitudes of characters. There are shades of noir and bizarro, but the stories are most often darkly surreal and more terrifyingly realistic than should be allowed. This collection is a unique stampede of unease, stamping and snorting discomfort. I mean that complimentary, of course.

Opening with “Slow Mary,” Allen gives us a strange tale of road kill and revenge. But it was actually the second tale, “Not Over Easy,” that won my dark heart. That story follows its bizarre protagonist through a series of troubling and odd scenarios to a conclusion that is just as puzzling as the opening. “Devil and Dairy Cow” is a hallucinatory tale of a girl, a teacher, and a rainy recess where the shit hit the diabolical fan.

In the title story, a man on the lam makes a stop in Death City and finds he likes it. “The Last Mystical Vendor” has exactly what you need even if everything you know tells you otherwise. And in “The Taste of a Heart,” a motel room is the stage for an exceedingly sinister game between a man and a woman.

“Six Miles to Earth” is a highway roadshow; Tarantino by way of Russ Meyer. “Burger” is a nasty side-road monster mash. “Ballad of Mac Johnstone” concerns the courtship between an aging bluesman and death. “Road Kill (A Love Story)” brings us to a man who feels compelled to remove dead animals from the roadside and the chain of unfortunate events that come about because of it. And “Praying” exposes the insectile ways we have.

Of all of the stories, however, “Rounding Third” was the one that smacked me in the face and then continued to do so. A tragic and all-too-real slice of reality. If it doesn’t make you cry—God help you.

If early Joe R. Lansdale left you gobsmacked, then you MUST read this cat! Allen is versatile and fearless. He doesn’t give much of a damn if you get what he’s doing or not. He’s writing to get it out and if it happens to bring enjoyment to someone, cool. If not, oh well, he’s doing it anyway. And I’m glad for that!

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After Death

I met editor/author Eric J. Guignard last year in Las Vegas while attending KillerCon. An amiable guy with a great sense of humor and an appreciation for beat-up red Chuck Taylors. We hit it off.

So when he asked me if I’d be willing to review his latest anthology, I said certainly.

After Death is a collection of over thirty tales, all involving what happens upon the departure from this mortal coil. Some of them are good, others are amazing, and a few are merely okay.

The volume opens with Andrew S. Williams’s “Someone to Remember,” which is a wonderful meditation on loss and promises, all threaded through the mythos of Charon, the ferryman. “Sea of Trees,” by Edward M. Erdelac contains some horrific and lingering images and a story that is as jarring as it is resonant. Steve Rasnic Tem, an author I have adored for years, turns in a heartbreaking tale of the abandonment death leaves and those who remain. It is haunting and full of hurt.

In “Mall Rats,” James S. Dorr exposes the hereafter as trapped in the after mall. And in “Forever,” the strongest story in the lot, John Palisano weaves a quilt of sadness, loss, and heartbreak that will leave you reeling. I have no words to express the emotions this tale stirs, but stirs it does and quite violently. Brilliant!

Jamie Lackey turns in the sweet and wonderful “Robot Heaven,” and Simon Clark’s “Hammerhead” is an exercise in reincarnation and revenge that is spellbinding. Steve Cameron gives us “I Was the Walrus,” in which a man follows his past identities to some lofty and surprising conclusions. “Be Quiet at the Back,” by William Meikle, is a humorous parable of the definition of sin and consequence.

There are quite a number of tales I didn’t remark on, not because they were poor, but because they just didn’t have the same impact as those mentioned above. That is the rough cross to bear with an anthology. On the whole, Guignard has assembled a great roster of talent—quite a few of which I had never heard of or read before—and given us a rich and heavy menu of possible aftermaths to the grand finale. You won’t be disappointed.

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Hellnotes Reviews Issue #6

Russ Thompson over at Hellnotes has reviewed Shock Totem #6.

“I said then that Shock Totem was “one of the strongest horror fiction magazines on the market today” and now, having read issue #6, I stand by that assessment.”

To read the full review, click here. Have you picked up your copy yet?

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The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks from the Apocalypse

Alone, on a deserted island research laboratory, three scientists with the hopes of the entire world resting on their shoulders slowly degenerate into madness and the not-death of Ataxic Neurodegenerative Satiety Deficiency Syndrome (ANSD)—Zombieism.

Scientist to the last, Dr. Stanley Blum records not only his experiments and discoveries, along with those of his colleagues, but also his own slow descent as he succumbs to the symptoms of ANSD. It is now down to us, fellow members of the UN emergency session, to take his discoveries and use them to save what remains of the human race.

This is the key conceit in The Zombie Autopsies, Dr. Schlozman’s work of zombie fiction. Laid out like a briefing packet for members of the UN’s emergency session dealing with the zombie plague that has almost completely overwhelmed the earth, the book is divided into three main parts. The first is a short introduction, which does an excellent job of setting the scene of desperation that has led to the events described in the rest of the book. The second, and primary, part of the book are the “Secret Notebooks” described in the title, the journal of Dr. Stanley Blum written during the last weeks of his life as a volunteer as part of a desperate, last ditch research attempt. The third and final section is similar to the first as it provides a fictional UN supplied appendix of material.

Throughout the fictional journal, there is a bittersweet sense of a desperately held hope. The characters have no hope for themselves; they already know they are lost, on a one-way trip, and once on the island they will become almost instantly infected and thus doomed as the symptoms of ANSD begin to take over and degrade their brain functions. They have to hold out hope, however, that despite past failures they can discover something that just might prevent the extinction of the entire race. No pressure.

The excitement as theories are put forward is palpable, and the fear and dismay as mistakes are made and mental problems begin to take hold in the group are easy to identify with. Portraying the story as a fiction journal combines with the not inconsiderable skill of the author to provide a very real and emotional journey of a sort that is not often associated with the more violent and visceral nature of modern zombie fiction. This is a more cerebral story and all the more effective because of it.

The background matter in the final section of the book is very effective in providing further setting information and the email evidence accumulated in the appendix gives context as to how the plague started and some characterisation to the nameless executive whose greed destroyed the world. However, this is by far the weakest section of the book and other than a certain amount of colour, it doesn’t add a great deal to the primary story of Dr. Blum.

Schlozman, in his writing of this book, has decided to leave the eventual fate of mankind and thus the final result of Blum’s sacrifice undetermined, and the email trail thus feels a little like the author is unable to leave his creation alone once finished. It hints at a possible cure already in existence but without any real indication of who is behind the faceless communique, or their current status (the emails date from before the plague). It’s difficult to know how or if it matters at this stage in the story. Is it attempting to suggest that the sacrifice of these brave scientists is, in the end, completely unnecessary?

The final section of the book seems to add another layer of ambiguity to an already ambiguous ending, and dilutes the primary impact. The rest of the book does such a good job at playing on the reader’s emotions that this final piece of the puzzle feels flat and contrived by comparison.

A book like this had to come along eventually. The genre cries out for first-person accounts of the zombie apocalypse. But Schlozman deserves real acknowledgement for what he has accomplished with this short work. As a doctor himself, Schlozman’s descriptions of the physiological stages of the disease are gripping and feel very real. This is assisted by some very graphic and realistic pencil sketches of the autopsies he performs on the “living” zombies during his research, showing the things he describes in excruciating detail. The nature of the story as a journal rather than a report or official communique means we get a first-hand look at the main character’s thoughts as well as his experiments, which adds a lot of further detail to the setting as he considers the decline of social order, the official rulings of authorities on the “humanity” of those afflicted with ANSD, and the ethical issues inherent in the research he is forced to perform. Schlozman gives us a living, breathing (for a short while longer, anyway) world on the brink of destruction through the eyes of a sympathetic and quietly heroic protagonist.

Comparisons almost invariably have to be made between the final days of Blum’s life and the short story “Flowers for Algernon,” by Daniel Keyes (which later became a novel of the same name). The Zombie Autopsies is somewhat less poignant and tragic than that older story and the difference in theme along with the direct medical viewpoint provides a radically different tone.

Any fan of the zombie genre and particularly those more concerned with the psychological effects of such stories as highlighted in the early Romero films rather than the gore central to more modern takes on the genre will definitely find a lot to enjoy in this one.

Finally, for those who are interested in the visual media, a movie based on The Zombie Autopsies is currently in production. Personally, given the epistolic style of the story and the ambiguity of the ending, it is difficult to see how a movie could be made without radically altering the story—or at least greatly expanding on it. Still, George Romero is on board to direct, so with excellent source material and the father of the genre himself, it could well be one to watch.

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