The title Nightmare Carnival is both precise and descriptive. The fifteen tales collected in the anthology are nightmares—of the purposeful, literary sort—that, like the smell of circus peanuts, linger in the mind to be replayed again and again. And they are a carnival, with its etymological evocation of flesh, complete with exotic animals fanged and unfanged, ghoulish and ghastly clowns, lithe trapezists seemingly defying death (although death always wins), and an assortment of freaks…whether one applies the term to physical aberrations or psychological ones.
The first story, N. Lee Woods’ “Scapegoats,” is a powerfully horrifying glimpse into the human need to assign blame, even when we are ourselves the cause of whatever has damaged us. In this instance, the scapegoat is an elephant, condemned for doing what any creature—sentient or not—would do…striking back at something that has caused it pain. The initial conflict seems minor, but the consequences, and the need for someone or something to pay, grow with each paragraph, culminating in the first overtly horror-driven scene in the collection, one that is almost too revulsive to bear. And yet, we must; it speaks to and about us.
Priya Sharma’s “The Firebrand” and Dennis Danvers “Swan Song and Then Some” are about kindling passions. They focus on the compelling power of love, even when that love is tied inextricably with death. And they are about the underlying human need to experience vicarious danger, symbolized by the circus/carnival with its juxtaposition of pomp and glitter and color with the ever-present threat (or apparent threat) that wild animals might attack, that a trapeze artist might fall, that someone might actually die while entertaining paying customers. And in the latter tale, Alexandra fulfils that desire in all, singing her “swan song” as she plummets from the tent’s top rigging, holding one impossible, indescribable note as she plunges to the ground, and to her bloody, terrifying death…every night and two times on Sunday.
Nick Mamatas’ “Work, Hook, Shoot, and Rip” and Terry Dowling’s “Corpse Rose” both play with the carnival’s unique jargon. Words that seem pedestrian in the outside world become sinister, threatening, in the world of the carnival, and as characters—and readers—understand more and more about the words used, the darkness beneath the lights reveals itself.
Jeffrey Ford’s “Hubler’s Minions” diminishes the carnival to its smallest possible manifestation: a flea circus. These fleas, however, are not ordinary—nothing presented in Nightmare Carnival is ordinary. They rise from the dust bowls of the 1930s to infect and devour, first animals, then fellow performers. And, if they get their way, all of humanity.
It would be possible to highlight any of the stories in Nightmare Carnival, point out excellences in each. Datlow is a first-rank editor, and her choices ring true throughout. Several stories are told from in third-person present-tense (e.g., “She walks away….”), which I normally find distracting and less effective than past-tense narratives…except that here, there are specific reasons for that choice, pay-offs for readers that validate authors’ decisions and Datlow’s selections. And that comes as near as I can to a negative comment on the anthology. In all, it is strong, with fascinating characters, conflicts, and settings; it is intriguing that the term carnival can be made to mean so many things and incorporate to many varieties of horror…including one bona fide werewolf.
If you have a lingering fear of clowns, perhaps stemming back to reading Stephen King’s IT on a dark and cloudy night; if you are not certain why lions can be so intimidating, even locked in their cages; if you wonder what life must be like for those for whom the anonymity of a carnival back lot is the only choice; if, in a word, you suffer from any form of “carnival nightmares,” don’t let this book pass by.
It’s a killer.
Breaking Glass Pictures will be releasing the French-Hong Kong film RED NIGHTS on DVD and VOD (Comcast, Vubiquity, iTunes) on October 28, 2014. RED NIGHTS is a thriller and a tale of erotic horror by Julien Carbon and Laurent Courtiaud.
During the reign of the first emperor of China, an ingenious torturer concocted an elixir that paralyzed its victim’s limbs, while increasing the sensitivity of their nerve endings tenfold. Kept in a jade skull, the elixir could provoke sensations in infinite variations-everything from erotic caresses to appalling lacerations. Haunted by the desire to experience the extreme sensations caused by the elixir, the executioner kills himself with his own poison, intensifying his death experience. His pursuers never found the skull, which had been concealed within a large imperial seal. But the curse of the jade skull, responsible for its creator’s death, will endure within the seal, bringing misfortune to all of those who possess it. Until today…
Criminals, thieves and the innocent alike become entangled in a sadistic web where bliss and pain are blurred into a twisted ecstasy in this giallo inspired erotic thriller.
One Born Every Minute
by William Morgan
It’s said there’s one born every minute. That’s me. I was played well.
The lady in red wasn’t attracted to me. To me? Who’s bald , a tad fat, with the personality of a warped plank? Her ruby red lips mesmerized me into stupidity. When her mouth parted and I saw her fangs? It was too late.
She’s lapping at my savaged throat like a kitten at it’s first bowl of milk.
Marybell, forgive me. Brian,…son…..oh…head’s light….heart’s slowing…strange, dying’s not what I imagined, feared… Marybell, my love, I…I………………..
…can’t wait to see you again.
On October 28th, Bad Dream Entertainment, a Seattle-based publisher of horror and dark fiction, will enter the mass-market paperback fold with Birney Reed’s The Tales of Victor Coachman. To make this leap with a single-author collection of previously unpublished work by a relative unknown is a bold move, but, unfortunately, the end product doesn’t quite live up to ambition behind it.
The Tales of Victor Coachman presents fourteen previously unpublished horror and light sci-fi stories from Ocala-based author Birney Reed. Tent-poling these tales are three meta-fictional interludes which frame the other stories as the product of Mr. Coachman, a fabulously successful author/author-surrogate whose written words come true. To further this conceit, several stories have epistolary news bulletins that follow their endings, as if to remind readers that these stories are indeed taking life.
This framing device shows its potential when Reed suggests that Coachman is an obstinate pawn that has managed to stymie a larger struggle between Good and Evil. However, neither Coachman’s hardheadedness nor the ramifications of these stories coming to life are fully explored. While the Coachman-focused sections display some imaginative details – including a monstrously banal “agent” and a mostly successful narrative experiment in the shifting identities of Good and Evil – they never quite bring Coachman himself to life or explain the significance of his powers.
Overall, there is a strong sense of familiarity in the stories, most of which end with a comfortable, but predictable, Twilight Zone twist involving some comeuppance. The characters, too, are ones that most readers will have seen before: villains are mustache-twirlers, the heroes are almost too “edgy” (most notably the drug-addicted priest-cum-assassin for an Illuminati-esque cabal in “Yearbook”), and although many characters occupy morally grey areas, they are mostly flawed in instantly recognizable ways. Some further revision or editorial guidance could have pushed these stories either deeper into the characters or further beyond the usual tropes to find new insights.
Reed’s talent is evident but unfocused. There are strong moments and clear promise in individual stories, such as “H2o,” which succeeds by restricting its focus to an ice sculptor, his model, and their changing relationship as reflected in the statue he carves. The first-person “Don’t Pull the Plug” nicely captures the addled voice of a man who becomes obsessed with testing the bon mot that killing is easy, but living with it is hard. Further, the ghostly stranger and hidden secrets of “Footsteps in the Snow” create a compelling mystery in the first half of the story, while “Image isn’t Everything” ends with a real kicker of a final line. While these show definite strength, focused revision on a few stories with an eye towards tightening up the prose and the craft issues would probably have netted stronger results than dividing the attention across the fourteen seeming works-in-progress collected here.
Finally, while this review is based on an ARC, there are many evident formatting and copyediting errors. Most noticeably, the story names in the upper right-hand corner of the pages only match up with half of the stories on their first pages. Some egregious typos have also made it through the proofing stages, including several instances where character names change for just a sentence, evident leftovers of earlier drafts or uncorrected errors.
While Bad Dream Entertainment’s commitment to new authors is admirable and there are pieces here that could be worked into strong additions to multi-author publications, it feels like Reed was spread too thin across fourteen stories and the technical problems in presentation on exacerbate that result. Although this book reflects growing pains for both the author and the publisher, there’s definite promise here, so let’s hope that next time’s the charm.
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Dawn bathes the bedroom in amber. Sam leans against the door frame staring at Rosalie.
“How beautiful she is”, he thinks to himself, “how exquisite.”
Her flawless beauty mists his eyes. Even in the dim light he can make out her perfect lips and the gentle curve of her body under the sheet. His love burns deeply; yet she remains so cold… almost complete.
“Soon I’ll have her heart”.
Pulling his knife he turns to the girl chained in the corner….and smiles thinly.
“Yes, hers will do nicely”, he smirks as the girl begins to scream.
Reviewed by Jack Francisco
Dead of Winter is a semi-cooperative game where players control survivors in a winter-setting zombie apocalypse. I say semi-cooperative because there is a possibility for a traitor to be present among the players, an element than can make for some really interesting possibilities. During the course of the game, players will be faced with various challenges each round such as food, waste, a crisis, and, of course, zombies as they try to complete a group objective. Additionally, each player will also be trying to accomplish a personal objective. At the end of the game, players can win individually, as a team, or not at all.
In Dead of Winter, each player starts the game with control of two survivors (from four which they are dealt), some randomly assigned starting equipment and some six-sided action dice. Each survivor is rated for leadership, combat, and searching as well as possessing a special ability. The doctor, for example, can heal a wound once per turn. Nothing overly complicated here.
The zombies are out there trying to get at the survivors and are a constant threat that must be dealt with, but they are endless and despite the theme, are not the over-arching focus of gameplay. You need to kill them, but it isn’t an overly-elaborate process – use the proper value of action die on a survivor and boom, dead zombie. Very much like in The Walking Dead, they are there, they are dangerous, but the real entertainment is in the player/survivor interaction.
Each round, players are under pressure to deal with a crisis. Each item card has a symbol or two on it and each crisis card will require that the players contribute a certain (usually number of players) number of a particular symbol, be it medicine, food, tools, etc, in order to resolve the crisis. If they fail to do so, there is a consequence. Also, if someone contributes a card with a different symbol than the one required, it cancels out one of the symbols contributed. That’s where the traitor element comes in. That deck is shuffled before resolving, so if someone is trying to sabotage, you won’t know who based on the order. In my eyes, there is a little flaw with this system and I will touch on it later.
Additionally, there are crossroads cards, a core element of this game and, as the publisher states, future, games in this series. Before a player takes their actions, the player to their right takes a crossroads card. These cards have different pre-requisites on them – certain characters being in play, survivors performing certain activities, and even some other twists, which I won’t spoil! If these are met, it triggers an event, which puts the player(s) at a crossroads. It either requires the player to make a consequential decision or puts something to a simultaneous vote. I totally love the mechanic, and it adds a nice little touch to every round.
There are six locations around the board where the survivors can travel to in order to acquire more items, survivors, etc, but be careful since travel (and combat) have risk in the form of the exposure die. The exposure die is a d12 that you roll when you move or attack. Roll a tooth (1 in 12) and your survivor is dead. Period. It reminds of the old-school AD&D game with the Save vs. Death mechanic. Oh, you failed? You’re dead. Even worse is that the infection spreads to the survivor with the lowest leadership. That survivor’s player then chooses – do I kill them off and end the infection or roll the exposure die. Roll a non-blank side and they die too…and the infection spreads. Also, when searching, you can choose to make noise to draw another card, still only keeping one. Why wouldn’t you always do it? Every noise token increases the chance of additional zombies, that’s why. It’s a pretty neat element and I know that there will be the usual anti-dice/random results pushback, but it’s fun and risky and that’s what the gaming hobby is all about. For me, it’s another big plus.
Some of the components in Dead of Winter.
Lastly are the player actions. You get one action die per survivor + one so more survivors equals more dice. One thing I like is that even if you roll poorly, you can always do something with your dice, whether it’s to make a barricade or clean waste. You can even use food to boost your die for that desperately needed +1.
By the end of the allotted number of rounds, the main objective is completed, you check to see who has completed their personal secret objective. Do both and you win. If the group fails its main objective, then no one wins. Run out of rounds and sorry, you all lose. It’s just that simple.
The main board is ok and I found the entrance area a little cluttery and the location cards are kind of flimsy for my liking. The locations do have a nice graphic in the top corner that gives you a hint as to the frequency of what you are likely to find there. The tokens are nice and I’m a big fan of the stand-ups rather than plastic minis in this case. I played a copy that had frosted dice which do not come with the game, but were a nice bit of pimping. The cards are nice as is the big red exposure die. Overall, I like the game art, though the font size on the crossroads cards may prove challenging to those of us with eyesight that just isn’t what it used to be. I like that there are a LOT of crossroads cards – 80 in all. That is a really nice touch that will keep some variety in the game for a good long while. All in all some good components here and I don’t think you will feel ripped off based on what you are getting.
Police Station Swarmfest!
I found the rulebook to be colorful and easy-to-read with lots of detailed examples. This is something that I always appreciate that. I think this rulebook is a step up from some of Plaid Hat’s previous rulebooks, such as Mice & Mystics, which I found to not be the clearest sometimes.
Game flow is smooth and fast and downtime is really not an issue. I suppose if someone has a dozen survivors, this could slow the game down a touch, but otherwise it’s pretty quick. Two turns into my first game, I had the flow of my turn down pretty well. It has a little bit of fiddliness as far as trying to locate a particular survivor standup and adding zombies, but any complaints about that are really just trying to look for something to put down.
As far as player counts go, I can’t see playing this with two players. Three is good, but four and (maybe) five is the sweet spot. More players also increases the possibility of the traitor mechanic coming in to play, which can only make this game better. It also makes it more likely that someone could get exiled from the colony! You don’t want a traitor in your midst, so a vote can be called to have someone expelled. Good stuff.
Rules exceptions are not something that I can see being an issue as it can be in some games. My play of this didn’t see a single case of referring to the rules for any reason. This gives light to the simple, but not simplistic, rules implementation.
So what do I think? I like it. It’s different than the host of zombie-themed games that seem to pour into the hobby by the dozens. The crisis cards put a little pressure on the players to give up some of their hard-searched-for stuff. One little knock that I have on it would be that I think I would like the mechanic even more if it REQUIRED you to contribute a card on your turn. That way, suspicion about the possibility of traitor, would be rife! “Who put a tools icon in?” “I had no choice!” I’ve seen this kind of element work really well in Battlestar Galactica Express and I’m curious as to why the designers didn’t include it here. No matter. Again, it’s a minor little quibble.
The crossroads cards are the core piece of the game and make the game really fun and add that right amount of tension. Trying to take your turn while another player is reading the potential bad things that could happen if you do X is a pretty unnerving feeling and all within the theme of the game. I’m certainly curious to see how Plaid Hat implements this in the future.
I also really like that you don’t have to have 10 survivors to be successful. In my play, I lost one of my two survivors in the second turn and never got another one. I played it out with just that single survivor and still accomplished my secret goal. Fortunately, the rest of the players were able to tackle the group objective with me supplementing, but who cares if you win!
Dead of Winter plays fast and keeps moving along and experienced gamers should get this done in about 90 minutes.
This is one of the few new games that caught my attention this year. I was curious to see how the crossroads mechanic worked as well as how the crisis cards got dealt with. Overall, I like it very much. The strain on resources that the crisis can cause, especially when one player takes a turn where they contribute nothing is significant.
The theme of the game, from frostbite that causes recurring damage to the exposure die all contribute seamlessly. Nothing feels forced. Some of the tropes on the crossroads cards are a little cliché, but hey, you’re playing a zombie game! There are going to be clichés. For me, they are comforting and welcoming.
I hope that Plaid Hat follows a similar path with Dead of Winter as Fantasy Flight has done so far with Eldritch Horror – expansions that add more of the same rather than lots of new game mechanics. When something is good, you don’t change what it is at its core, you put some frosting or sprinkles on it, or in this case, some brains and gristle. That’ll be enough to make good even better.
This was a blind buy for me as I had a feeling that I was going to really like it. Fortunately, I was not disappointed and I am doubly glad considering how scarce it is right now. When it becomes available again, do yourself a favor and grab it. Otherwise, you may find yourself really wanting something that you can’t get. That’s a real crossroads.
I’ve recently been named as the Game Reviewer for Hellnotes.com, a site that reviews all things horror. If you’re a horror fan, feel free to check it out.