Archive for Book Reviews
Reviewed by Josh Black
A quick online search for “transgressive” defines it as something “involving a violation of accepted or imposed boundaries, especially those of social acceptability ”. With this intent in mind, it could be argued that a collection of transgressive fiction runs the risk of doing this at the expense of story. Luckily this isn’t the case with Burnt Tongues. Many of the 20 pieces offered here deal with subjects that are generally outside the comfort zone of most mainstream fiction, if not things that are outright taboo. Without exception each one is well-written and, above all, unflinchingly honest about whatever is being explored. The stories aren’t merely about the shock factor, though you’re unlikely to come out unscathed after reading them. They take the things we may not even want think about and push them into the spotlight, revealing all.
Chuck Palahniuk gives an illuminating introduction, driving home the point that these stories aren’t necessarily the type that will be immediately enjoyable. As he says, “… their style and subject matter challenge, but to embrace them is to win something worth having for the rest of our lives”. Following the introduction, Dennis Widmyer and Richard Thomas give a brief overview of the origin of the book, then we get into the transgression.
Given all the words of warning, some of the stories seem tame at first. These ones go over easy, but that’s not to say they’re without merit. Everything in the collection provides food for thought at the very least. Don’t worry. Soon enough you’ll be wondering just what the hell you’re getting yourself into. Among other things, you’ll read about the detailed bodily reaction to a tapeworm diet, a war vet who probably shouldn’t be left alone with a kid, a pharmacist with a thing for death, a suicide club, an insert-various items-from-the-supermarket-into-your-genitals-club, a school shooting, sex with zombies, more than a few sociopaths, more suicide, and the ins and outs of bestiality.
All of this would have been easy enough to churn out for a cheap thrill, to sensationalize or exploit. This isn’t what Burnt Tongues is all about. Most of the writers here seem to be testing just how far the envelope can be pushed while still respecting the depth and nuance of human behavior, however aberrant or psychotic that behavior may be. There’s a human core somewhere in the madness, and while readers (hopefully) won’t identify with or relate to everything represented here, there’s always something to keep you flipping the pages without turning away in disgust. The off-the-wall subject matter is balanced well with pathos and compassion, and the end result is a powerful bunch of stories that you won’t soon forget.
Reviewed by Alex Scully
When I first saw the cover for Hauntings: An Anthologyfrom Hic Dragones, I was confident I had a winner. Subtle and elegant, it’s an excellent introduction to the collection of stories within. Editor Hannah Kate focused on a theme that had the potential to be narrow and confining, but the quality of the writing instead redefines our notion of what “haunted” really means.
The opening story, “The Conch” by Rachel Halsall, sets the stage quite well for the rest of the anthology. Devoid of horror ‘hauntings’ tropes, Halsall instead presents a disturbing tale of souls lost at sea, and the nightmarish prospect of their return. Brandy Schillace’s “Ghost Pine Lake,” with its hints of noir, gives us 1920s gangsters and something even more sinister than a Tommy Gun lurking in the dark depths of a seemingly tranquil fishing spot. “The Man in the Blue Boots” by James Everington is a disturbing tale of a forest, a child’s perspective, and the horror in learning that children are not always living in a fantasy world. David Webb’s “A Handful of Dust” features a traditional ghostly haunting, but he gives his tale plenty of unique twists. In Patrick Lacey’s “First Bell,” we experience the aftermath of a school shooting from a very different, and quite creepy, point of view. Tracy Fahey’s “Ghost Estate: Phase II” seems like a classic haunted house story, but Fahey’s creative spin gives us a new take on a traditional horror narrative.
There are twenty-one stories in all, and only a few missed the mark for me. Those are excellent odds when divergent authors are gathered together under a common theme. An arrogant teacher who leaves a disturbing legacy, YouTube vidoes that refuse to let someone die, a séance in which all is not what it seems, ancient legends, and more fill the pages of Hauntings: An Anthology. This collection is the perfect way to ring in the Halloween season. Highly recommended.
Reviewed by Rick Hipson
As a reviewer, I at least try to mention the central plot of a tale. What’s the theme, the main point? Problem is, with Double Feature that’s a little tough to nail down. It’s easiest – albeit lazy – to simply tell you Double Feature is about life, period. See the flaw in that? Of course, life tends to be as unique as the individual and translates differently for each of us; much like this book is apt to do. What I can tell you is that Owen King is clearly a master of metaphor with street level dialogue gleamed from years of eavesdropping on many a conversation. He paints what he captures with a seemingly photographic pen. I can also tell you Double Feature presents a stark unraveling of Sam Dolan’s life, the people and places within it along with layers of personalities with all their choices, disappointments and victories in between. The author portrays Sam’s life in a deliberate, slow burning manner which gives an organic air to the lives of its characters. It’s tough not to become attached to them and feel what they feel, fear what they fear.
A grand offering at just over five hundred pages, the author has room to spare for the detours and back alleyways that snake through Sam’s life and those within it. Its momentum may be a gradual build, perhaps too gradual for some, but it’s so bloody well written that, I didn’t care how long it took to get wherever it was headed so long as I got to ride along in the passenger seat.
We begin to know Sam through his early years at University where he desperately tries to make a meaningful movie at all costs only to reap a most unexpected and life altering twist of fate. As if it wasn’t exhausting enough for him to try and live up to his B-movie mega star dad, now he has his life’s biggest defeat to contend with as well. It doesn’t take long to become absorbed in this visceral world in which much of the cast must live in the shadows of broken down dreams while rooted in their deepest regrets. It’s a world which Owen King draws out as real as it gets as he expertly traverses between past and present throughout a generation of evolution.
Double Feature plays out as tragic as it is rife with comedic gold and represents the proverbial fly on the wall of a very sobering social landscape. Owen King makes a helluva case for embracing the tragic, often heartbreaking beauty of our lives. He proves that on more occasions than not, it’s our collection of all the small things that end up meaning the most in the end - Because after all, it’s who we are.
Now best go grab your copy before they’re all sold out as you’ll no doubt enjoy pondering over it as I did well after the credits stopped rolling.
Reviewed by David Goudsward
J.W. Ocker’s writing style is more akin to sitting down over a beer with a friend and having a conversation about mutual friends. Only in this case, make it a copita of amontillado and the mutual friend is Edgar Allan Poe.
Don’t let the author’s effortless conversational style lull you into a false sense of casualness. This is a scholarly, meticulously researched immersion into the phenomena of Poe. Starting with Poe’s inauspicious beginnings in Boston, and the current, begrudging acceptance of Poe’s place in the Hub’s literary pantheon, Ocker travels down the East Coast to those places that call Poe their own, regardless of how Poe’s feelings on the topic. From Massachusetts to Rhode Island, then on to New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Richmond, and South Carolina with a side trip to the UK.
One example is Westford, MA marker near the Heywood house where Poe stayed. He tracks down the man who had the marker installed and discovers it was not just devotion to Poe, but an indignant response to a marker installed to commemorate a more famous Westford resident, the alleged effigy of a 14th century Scottish knight. Throw in a little Jack Kerouac and the use of black Rust-oleum to touch up the raven on the Poe marker, and the reader (and Ocker) leave town with a deeper understand of the motivations behind that local landmark.
The travels and insights continue through the book – gravesites, historic sites and artifacts revered to the point where you almost expect them to be stored in a reliquary. When Ocker arrives in Providence, RI to see where Poe courted Sarah Whitman, he stops by the Providence Athenaeum to see the copy of Poe’s anonymously published poem “Ulalume,” autographed at Whitman’s urging. But he is not alone, for the author finds himself exploring Poe’s connections to Providence in the middle of a convention dedicated to that other horror writer with ties to Providence, one Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
Amply illustrated with enough Poe background material to explain why he’s visiting a given location, the book is filled with quirky anecdotal material. If you’re looking for a travel guide to Poe sites, this is not your book. I emphasize this, and so does the author; Poe-Land was never meant to be a travel guide. If anything, it’s a travel diary of Ocker’s road trips exploring the perennial appeal/obsession with the master of the macabre.
This is one road trip you will not want to miss.
Reviewed by: Rick Hipson
Blind Vengeance is the fifth book in the Eyes series and continues the life and tribulations of Shara, the multifaceted bounty hunter whom fans of the saga can’t seem to get enough of, and for very good reason.
The story begins when Shara’s bounty hunting partner Briggs gets accepted back to the police force after a controversial leave of absence. Though sad to see him go, it was business as usual for Shara who soon had a new side-kick, Cheyenne, the tough-go-lucky love interest of a well trusted friend. Life went back to relative normal until a man whom Briggs had years ago wrongfully arrested; decided Briggs didn’t deserve a second chance. The life of Norman Flowers had fallen apart because of Briggs and now it was payback time. Kidnapping a girl he thinks is the cop’s daughter, whom Shara happens to be the legal guardian of, is hardly a scratch on the surface of what the obsessed Flowers has planned. Once more teaming up with Brigg’s, every clue Shara hunts down is another dead end. She suspects there’s something far deeper and more sinister going on than meets the eye. Despite frightening images that flood her brain during frequent fever dreams, despite the aid of her confident, Renee who has abilities she tries to keep hidden, and despite an over ambitious FBI agent hell bent on throwing Shara’s career under a bus, Shara refuses to stop at nothing to capture her prey at all costs while protecting an innocent girl’s life who’s time is fast running out.
Naturally, the usual burning question for any literary sequel is whether or not if reading those that came first be required reading before fully enjoying this one. Rest assured, Blind Vengeance stands out solidly on its own merit. .Although I did occasionally feel some of the inner narrative could have been trimmed down a touch for an even greater sense of mystery and suspense. It really boils down to opinion as mileage varies with every reader. On the other hand, I considered Barry’s ambitious delve into the psyche of his characters to be a fascinating glimpse into how thin a line it truly is between unflinching reckless and protecting what you love. The overall dialogue was smart and gritty while carrying a sharp sense of realism which uniquely represents each of the personalities along the way.
With a finger planted firmly on the pulse of our ever changing social landscape, Barry’s knack for fleshing out complexities of the human spirit, both heroic and villainous with all the greys in between, is nothing short of profound. The result is an organic creation which refuses to rely on the conveniences of logic-suspending loopholes. And of course, it wouldn’t be right to conclude this review without also mentioning the stunning cover art of Harry O’ Morris who never fails to capture the wondering eye, just as Barry never fails to deliver a resonating thriller which begs to be contemplated well after reading.
Welcome to the second installment of the new column, “Unwelcome Tenants,” where Andrew Byers explores the contributions of British author Ramsey Campbell to H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. This piece will discuss two of Campbell’s Mythos stories, “The Room in the Castle” and “The Horror from the Bridge.”
“The Room in the Castle”
“The Room in the Castle” can be found in:
–The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants (Arkham House, 1964) and The Inhabitant of the Lake and Other Unwelcome Tenants (PS Publishing, 2011)
–Cold Print 1st edition (Scream/Press, 1985); 2nd edition (Tor, 1987); Expanded edition (Headline, 1993)
–Dark Feasts: The World of Ramsey Campbell (Robinson, 1987)
–Alone with the Horrors: The Great Short Fiction of Ramsey Campbell, 1961-1991 (found in the Arkham House, 1993, and Headline, 1994, editions but not included in the 2004 Tor edition)
The story we know as “The Room in the Castle” began life as “The Box in the Priory” in 1960 — when Ramsey Campbell was only fourteen years old — and was his first effort to expand on various Mythos references (in this case, some of Robert Bloch’s work). It was completed in November 1961. The story is an obvious attempt to ape Lovecraft’s writing style and certainly benefits from Derleth’s editing (the original draft as “The Box in the Priory” is reprinted in full in PS Publishing’s The Inhabitant of the Lake and Other Unwelcome Tenants (2011).
Our narrator Parry (we never learn his first name) is a scholar doing research in the British Museum for a friend who runs across a series of legends describing a general avoidance of a certain hill outside the town of Brichester. Though the legends are mixed in with a great deal of the traditional kind of folklore one might find in any long-inhabited rural area, it becomes clear to Parry that a being called Byatis is at the heart of the problem. Stories about Byatis go back to the Roman occupation of Britain (tying in with the overall Roman origins of Campbell’s Severn Valley setting), when Roman soldiers were said to have released Byatis from behind an ancient stone door in the hill where Byatis had been imprisoned by some unnamed people in antiquity, suggesting an indeterminate but ancient origin for Byatis. There are other stories about Byatis through the ages, but at some point in the 1700s, Sir Gilbert Morley, a local aristocrat who owned a local castle of Norman origin, began dabbling in the sorcerous arts and found a way to imprison and control Byatis, who had inhabited the area for centuries. Morley lured travelers to their doom and sacrificed them to Byatis, who fed on them, growing in size while remaining imprisoned in Morley’s cellar. Eventually Morley disappeared; his fate is unknown, though consumption by Byatis seems likely. Being the naturally curious sort, Parry decides to investigate further. Fortunately, while Parry is a proper Lovecraftian scholar, he is also a man of action, almost in a Howardian fashion, and decides to do something about Byatis.
Campbell name-drops a number of Lovecraftian elements — the Necronomicon, Cthulhu, Shub-Niggurath, Dagon, and Daoloth (and Campbell’s original creation Glaaki, but more on that being in later stories) — but these are mostly just mentioned in passing. One of the main sources of information for Parry is the eldritch tome De Vermis Mysteriis. One legend described Byatis as having “but one Eye like the Cyclops, and had Claws like unto a Crab…[and] a Nose like the Elephants…and great Serpent-like Growths which hung from its Face like a Beard, in the Fashion of some Sea Monster.” Ultimately, when Parry does finally encounter Byatis, he glimpses only part of one of these facial tentacles, suggesting a truly vast size for the beast as a whole.
The story is filled with a blend of traditional legends, peasant superstition (Parry’s friend’s housekeeper gives him a “star-stone” emblazoned with the Elder Sign and referenced again in “The Horror from the Bridge, see below), and references to Christianity, making Parry’s job of sorting out the true nature of Byatis and how it might be stopped all the more difficult. Despite the Christian references, Mythos elements seem to be far older, with Christian elements and symbols apparently having no effect in confrontations with Byatis. Like Cthulhu and some of the other Mythos beings though, Byatis can be harmed — at least for a time — by something as simple as gasoline, which Parry uses to good effect when he decides to act (alone) against Byatis. In that sense, “The Room in the Castle” has a happy ending in that Byatis is at least temporarily stopped, though it is clear that a being so enormous cannot easily be permanently slain. Parry must live with his new-found knowledge that Byatis — and perhaps other “folkloric” creatures — are not simply tales repeated by superstitious peasants.
 Ramsey Campbell, “Afterword,” in The Inhabitant of the Lake and Other Unwelcome Tenants (PS Publishing, 2011).
 Note that the serpent-headed deity Byatis was invented neither by Campbell nor Lovecraft; it was first mentioned in Robert Bloch’s story “The Shambler from the Stars” (Weird Tales, September 1935), though Campbell developed Byatis to a far greater extent than did Bloch.
 Like Byatis itself, De Vermis Mysteriis (translated as Mysteries of the Worm) was created by Robert Bloch and appeared in “The Shambler from the Stars,” said to have been written by the necromancer and alchemist Ludwig Prinn. The tome has appeared almost ubiquitously in Mythos fiction, later appearing in stories by Lovecraft himself, who corresponded with Bloch; August Derleth; Robert M. Price; Brian Lumley; and Stephen King, among many others.
“The Horror from the Bridge”
“The Horror from the Bridge” can be found in:
–Cold Print 1st edition (Scream/Press, 1985); 2nd edition (Tor, 1987); Expanded edition (Headline, 1993)
A bit of an homage to Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror,” sharing some elements of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, and inspired by one of Lovecraft’s own uncompleted story fragments in his “Commonplace Book”: “217 Ancient (Roman? prehistoric?) stone bridge washed away by a (sudden and curious?) storm. Something liberated which had been sealed up in the masonry of years ago. Things happen.” Just as with “The Room in the Castle,” we are treated to a lengthy history of supernatural goings-on, this time compiled in the researches of Philip Chesterton, a scholar who resigned his post at the British Museum to better keep an eye on the activities of a family of sorcerers residing in the decaying town of Clotten. Ostensibly drawn from a typed manuscript found in Chesterton’s estate after his death, he himself becomes the primary antagonist of the sorcerers by the end of the tale.
The story begins in 1800 when a mysterious man named James Phipps moves into a house near the river in Clotten because “his unorthodox scientific researches were distasteful to the inhabitants” of Camside. That should have given the neighbors pause, shouldn’t it? Phipps becomes extremely interested in local legends of a supposed city of demons living under Clotten, with the entrance to their city buried somewhere under the river. He increasingly becomes fixed on a local bridge and what may be under it. Five years later, Phipps departs Clotten for a time, returning with an equally reclusive wife from Temphill; a year after, a son, Lionel, is born. As Lionel matures, it becomes clear that he is being trained by his father and aids the man in his research (the exact nature of which remains unknown to the townsfolk). The Necronomicon and the Book of Eibon are both mentioned in passing as sources of occult knowledge on celestial bodies (presumably the pair seek to perform certain occult rites when the “stars are right.”)
The elder Phipps died in 1898, though the son continued his father’s research in earnest. A nosy neighbor revealed several arguments between Lionel Phipps and his mother suggestive of a rather sinister origin for the mother: not only had she been part of a Satanic cult in Temphill before her marriage, but presumably like Phipps’ father, her life has been preserved beyond its normal span, with continuing treatments needed to preserve her semblance of life. It may actually be that the increasingly frail mother was little more than a reanimated corpse by the twentieth century.
Derleth’s vision of a universe in which the Great Old Ones (i.e., Cthulhu and his ilk) were actively opposed by the Elder Gods is very much in evidence here. The race trapped under Clotten’s bridge was apparently imprisoned there by the Elder Gods under a seal that will be swept away or destroyed when “Glyu’uho” is “rightly placed.” Glyu-uho is another name for Betelgeuse in the fictional Naacal language, serving as either the home star of the Elder Gods or at least the location of a portal to their home dimension. The scholar Chesterton becomes increasingly concerned about Lionel Phipps’ efforts to free these beings. The creatures are hideous, alien monstrosities, apparently possessing “eight major arm-like appendages protruding from an elliptical body, six of which were tipped with flipper-like protrusions, the other two being tentacular. Four of the web-tipped legs were located at the lower end of the body…[t]he other two near the head….In place of eyes, there was an abominable sponge-like circular organ…over it grew something hideously like a spider’s web. Below this was a mouth-like slit…bordered at each side by a tentacle-like appendage….” Chesterton makes clear that he views the creatures’ threat to mankind as an existential one: they are parthenogenic, he claims, and if even one is allowed to escape it will be capable of spawning many more of its race, eventually eclipsing humanity and taking over the Earth.
The story culminates on the night of September 2, 1931. Chesterton is aided by three young men armed with rifles — they are little more than passers-by who volunteer to help — in stopping Phipps from opening the seal and freeing the alien city’s inhabitants. I am struck by the mundane means by which a variety of mortal Mythos protagonists have been able to defeat powerful alien entities: just as Campbell’s earlier narrator used a few cans of gasoline to thwart Byatis, and even mighty Cthulhu was temporarily damaged when he was rammed by a ship in “The Call of Cthulhu,” here we see a handful of young doughty young men who obviously have no idea what they’ve gotten themselves into saving the day with rifle fire accompanying Chesterton’s incantation. This final confrontation is also interesting because Phipps believes that his foes are actively in league with the Elder Gods when they confront him, saying: “So…this is the total of the strength which can be mustered by the great Elder Gods!…What do you know of the Great Old Ones — the ones who seeped down from the stars, of whom those I have released are only servitors? You and your Celaeno Fragments and your puerile star-signs — what can you guess of the realities which those half-veiled revelations hint?”
At story’s end, it is entirely unclear that the threat from the beings trapped under Clotten’s bridge is ended; indeed, there is circumstantial evidence from several strange happenings since 1931 that they still exist, awaiting a time when they might be successfully freed.
 Campbell also notes that he borrowed elements from HPL’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Dweller in the Gulf.” Ramsey Campbell, “Afterword,” in The Inhabitant of the Lake and Other Unwelcome Tenants (PS Publishing, 2011).
 Campbell has stated that a number of his Mythos stories were inspired by entries in H. P. Lovecraft’s “commonplace book,” an older term for a collection of ideas, quotations, letters, trivia, and the like. These were common in bygone ages when scholars, readers, and writers sought to record ideas and information they might later want to reflect on and refer back to. (I have such a collection of ideas and writing fragments myself – my wife uncharitably describes them as my “scribblings of a madman” – and I suspect that many writers may also.) Lovecraft kept a commonplace book, listing 221 ideas for stories, some of which he later developed and most he did not. He described his commonplace book thusly: “This book consists of ideas, images, & quotations hastily jotted down for possible future use in weird fiction. Very few are actually developed plots – for the most part they are merely suggestions or random impressions designed to set the memory or imagination working. Their sources are various – dreams, things read, casual incidents, idle conceptions, & so on.” [http://grimreviews.blogspot.com/2008/05/hp-lovecrafts-commonplace-book-online.html] Bruce Sterling has also transcribed and published on Wired the contents of Lovecraft’s commonplace book, available here: http://www.wired.com/2011/07/h-p-lovecrafts-commonplace-book/ A collection of short stories based on some of these story idea fragments was published in 2010: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004APA1DW
 The Necronomicon is well known to all Mythos readers (indeed, mentioning it is almost de rigueur for Mythos writers) and the Book of Eibon, introduced by Clark Ashton Smith in his story “Ubbo-Sathla,” almost equally well known. Lovecraft himself referred to various translations and editions of the Book of Eibon in several of his stories, and Smith published two of the infamous book’s chapters as the stories “The Door to Saturn” and “The Coming of the White Worm.” Lin Carter and a number of other writers have expanded on the contents of the book, with the complete contents later collected and published by Chaosium in 2002 as The Book of Eibon, ed. Robert M. Price.
 When musing aloud about training his three helpers to assist him with the incantation, Chesterton mentions “Yr-Nhhngr,” which is a set of formulae referenced in “The Dunwich Horror.” Yr and Nhhngr are later used again by Derleth in The Lurker at the Threshold, expanding on a brief scrap of text by Lovecraft, as places beyond Kadath where demonic entities dwell and Lin Carter in “The Thing Under Memphis.”
 An occult tome created by August Derleth and referenced in several of the stories later included in Derleth’s novel The Trail of Cthulhu. The title is an obvious reference to the name Celaeno, used several times in Greek mythology; may be most applicable here to the star by that name in the Pleiades cluster of stars (perhaps the home of some entity who provided knowledge later recorded in The Celaeno Fragments?)
Reviewed by James B. Carter
When you read and review as many zombie books as I do, sometimes even the good ones seem to run together. A person gets bit, bites back and then the formulated chaos ensues. As a reader, and hard-core fan of the often rhetorical zombie genre, I scarcely find anything new in the way of plot development, but like I said, I’m a fan so I read what offerings come my way regardless. Finding a good walking dead book to read isn’t a problem in my line of work, but finding a great one is often like trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack. Luckily for me I found that needle, and it was written by Michael W. Garza.
The Last Infection is a gloomy, flesh eating apocalyptic gore novel at its best. It’s like a great song that hits all the right notes, and as somber as some of those notes may be, it’s still beautiful and catchy nonetheless. Mr. Garza relies on his writing skills, and not cheap thrills. He provides a character driven story that you care about, instead of pasting in gore and violence just to sell an extra book or two. This story and the characters that are involved are a work of passion, and not the work of someone expecting a paycheck. This shows greatly in Michael’s work.
In The Last Infection, a couple of recently orphaned children, siblings, Alicen and Jake Bradley cross paths with another survivor named Chris. The adult survivor, struggling to drudge through existence in the midst of the debacle that the world has become, had stopped making decisions that benefited others. Because in this new world; an infected world, there is a thin line between humanity and indifference. It’s a line that could be the difference between life and death.
Against his better judgment, Chris begrudgingly takes the 9 and 12-year-old under his wing. Symbolically it’s not about him befriending and saving a couple kids, it’s more about his humanistic integrity and in how saving them, he would save himself from the callous being that the recently changed world had forced him to become.
Is there great adventure and peril? Yes. Is it violent and atmospherically gruff? Yes. We wouldn’t want any other way, but what really makes this book shine is Garza’s astute ability to care about the words on the page, character arc and the use of underling themes. Sometimes I caught myself thinking, “so this is what it would be like if Salinger wrote the zombie book?”