Archive for Book Reviews
Reviewed by Josh Black
Billed as “a double feature told in the tradition of vintage drive-in tales”, Say No to Drugs lives up to its tagline, also serving as a twisted PSA delineating the possible perils of recreational drug use.
“The Pot: An Homage to Classic Cautionary Tales of the 1950” starts things off with a bang (or a crunch or a splat). It centers around Terry and Ray, a couple of burnout kids looking to score some “killer weed” from their acquaintance, Jimmy (friend is too strong a word to use in this case, as it’s obviously just the drugs they’re after). They go to Jimmy’s house to seal the deal, and discover just how much of a killer the weed really is. You might think you’ve got the story pegged at this point, but not to worry. Molgaard’s writing doesn’t tread the obvious path. The titular pot becomes little more than a gateway drug to fathomless nightmare. Nearly the entire landscape of the house soon becomes an object of terror, and Ray and Terry are privy to something the likes of which probably doesn’t belong on any terrestrial plane. As brutal as things get, it’s always fun, much like the 50s-kitsch-inspired tales it pays tribute to.
The next story, “Blue”, cranks up the intensity more than a few notches and blows the first story out of the water in that regard. Here the fun factor is tossed aside in favor of pushing all your discomfort buttons. It strikes a nice balance with the preceding tale. It’s basically about a man waking up in a room and trying to figure out what’s going on. As meager as the plot may seem, Molgaard makes up for it as he pushes his character through a living hell of painful memories, horrifying hallucinations (or are they?), and images of a dead lover. The stream-of-consciousness style works well here, prose like a freight train pummeling everything in its path, as if everything hinges on getting each and every dirty detail on the page, no matter how small or superfluous it seems. It’s the kind of writing that makes you want to stop, take a breath, and ground yourself so you don’t get lost along with the main character. It’s got a great twist at the end, too.
As a double dose of cautionary tales, and a brisk and hard slap across the face, Say No to Drugs works wonders. It’s an exploration of two very different kinds of trips, and a fine sample of two different styles of horror story from Matt Molgaard. Hopefully we’ll have some more to read in the near future.
Reviewed by David T. Wilbanks
The Stolen by Bishop O’Connell begins when Caitlin’s little girl is kidnapped by evil fairies. Now she must accept help from a mysterious, troubled warrior and his elf friends or she may never see her child again. If this sounds like grounds for a fantasy novel, it is, only this one takes place in the here and now and therefore should be considered “urban fantasy”.
The story moves along at a brisk pace, oriented more toward action and adventure than much deep character development. Even though this tale takes place in Boston and not the Deep South in ways it brings to mind the TV series True Blood–minus the softcore porn, and substituting evil goth fairies for vampires; one of the warrior’s friends is even an elf that runs a nightclub. The whole thing is steeped in fairy lore and much of the resulting terminology adds to the fae flavor. Don’t worry though; even if you don’t know a word of Irish or Welsh, most terms and phrases can be taken in context and should not hinder smooth reading. Besides, there’s a handy glossary in the back for reference. Add a couple wizards, including one who turns out to be close friends with our heroine, more varieties of fae, and a demon or two and you have yourself a fun ride into the fantastic.
Not bad for a debut novel and judging by how it ends there may be more later. The Stolen is recommended to any fairy freak or urban fantasy fan wanting to spend a few pleasant hours.
I mentioned just a while back that I love horror novels that utilize history as a basis. When an author can successfully combine real events with fictional horror, the result is usually a terrific story that is enthralling and entertaining. Such can be said for ONE UNDEAD STEP, a recent release from author Ian McClellan. Rife with originality and solid prose, McClellan’s horrific tale of a near zombie takeover will keep you riveted. And while it is not perfect, it is still a hell of a read and one I had a hard time putting down.
If you are not familiar with ONE UNDEAD STEP, here is the plot synopsis courtesy of Amazon.com:
Many people know that the 1969 moon landing was faked, but are unaware of the actual circumstances. Find out how the U.S. faked the moon landing to avert the zombie apocalypse as the lives of a disgraced B-movie director, a bar owner, some drunks, an Army Ranger unit, a bunch of gangsters, an affluent but very dysfunctional family, and a few cops come together in One Undead Step.
One year after Romero shocked the world with Night of the Living Dead, a small city is rocked by grisly killings, the gory details of which are only known through whispered rumors. The government presence that makes the populace all the more nervous is unable to contain the impending threat that grows out of control on a hot, humid night in Mid-July. As the city’s residents fight for their lives, the Military rushes to make a film about two men landing a small spacecraft on the moon. Will their plan work? Find out as an evil man finds redemption, some soldiers choose between their mission and duty, a young couple finds forbidden love, an older couple reignites their passion, and a bartender gets stiffed for lots of drinks in One Undead Step.
I have to start off by commending McClellan on his unique concept for this book. I have to say, it is a very interesting proposal. I love the idea of the government trying to keep the public from learning about zombies, especially by using something as grand as a moon-landing to do so. Because of the paranoia that was rampant during that time period, I can totally see this as a plausible scenario.
ONE UNDEAD STEP is written well and flows at a smooth pace. McClellan seems to have a natural talent for storytelling, which is showcased in the way he ‘shows’ instead of ‘tells’. Here is an example: “His face had a hawkish look that was accentuated by his beak of a nose. He looked at Will and smiled. The smile was all politician or salesman (if there’s a difference), but he couldn’t take the predator out of his eyes.” I really like this writing style, as it allows for more immersion into the book.
The characters are flawed and colorful, a group of believable average-joes who we grow to like (and hate, in some cases). McClellan does a great job of bringing them to life, and they are a major part of what makes the book so good.
My sole complaint about the book is the ending; there are a couple of chapters labeled ‘Zombie Stories’ at the end, but they don’t fit with the rest of the book. I am not sure if McClellan put them in as an afterthought, or if they’re supposed to have some relevance to the story. Either way, they don’t fit for me (although they might be good as solo stories in an anthology or something). If you read this book, I would stop at the Epilogue, wait a bit, and then go read the chapters afterward as individual pieces.
But still, ONE UNDEAD STEP is a fun read and I recommend giving it a shot if you like zombies. I am willing to bet you will never read about the moon landing with the same mindset again. This book is available now in a variety of formats.
The opening to VersiGuasti 1: Venus Intervention describes the work as “a gothic and disturbing poems collection, an exciting journey into the nightmare that will leave you breathless.” This description, while accurate, does not truly capture the horrific beauty poets De Winter and Manzetti have laid before us.
In his introduction, author Benjamin Kane Ethridge discusses the “gradient shadows in between” darkness and light. The poems in Venus Intervention dance and weave along the borderland between those two realms. “Part I: Morning” is a collection from Corrine De Winter. Her work is haunting and emotional. “Do I make you write ethereal music” evokes images of phantoms, operas, and deadly passions. In “Terminal,” she writes, “Even my wild horses are tethered by cold reason.” It is this vivid imagery that brings each poem to life like a point of light in a black room. “Part II: Evening” by Alessandro Manzetti serves as a contrast to De Winter. His brutal edge cuts like a knife. “The city is destroyed” he declares in “The Rope.” “Dark guts are uncoiled” and “the smell of death is too keen.” It is in the contrast of styles where we glimpse the borderland. Both poets plunge into the psyche, exposing the menace and hope that make us human. De Winter says, “you are beautiful in a certain light,” and Manzetti tells us we are merely “herds of souls” in a world of chaos. Dark, mysterious, and threatening at times, VersiGuasti 1: Venus Intervention does not disappoint.
Reviewed by Jess Landry
As the old saying goes, there are only two certainties in life – death and taxes. Although a compilation of tax-themed stories would be quite horrific, author John F.D. Taff chose to create his solo collection, The End in All Beginnings, about death and the human condition.
The anthology begins with What Becomes God, a tragedy about a young boy and the sacrifice he makes in an attempt to save his ailing friend. Childhood innocence is the driving force here, allowing the reader to empathize with the protagonist and the choices he makes, no matter how disturbing they may be. The story does take a few pages to get going and starts with a more sullen tone, but once the horror hits, it hits hard and doesn’t let go.
The second novella is Object Permanence, a story that centers on a select few who have the ability to manipulate time and those around them, ultimately cheating death for themselves while subjecting others to the consequences. The story shifts effortlessly from first person to third person point-of-view, showcasing Taff’s abilities as a writer and conjurer of compelling ideas.
Love in the Time of Zombies, the third in the collection, gives the reader a rest from the serious tones of the first two novellas and brings out a comedic air to lighten the mood. The title gives away the plot as the zombie apocalypse has swept the Earth and, amid the chaos, our hero finds himself falling for a girl he once knew. Thing is, the girl is now apart of the undead. While that may not appeal to the average person, it doesn’t stop our hero and his undeniable affections.
The highlight of the collection is the fourth story, The Long, Long Breakdown. It’s a post-apocalyptic tale that examines a father’s love and overbearing protectiveness for his daughter in a world ravaged by rising waters. The Long, Long Breakdown touches upon horror in a different way than the other stories do, taking a realistic approach to death and loss. The characters face threats of change, of venturing out into the unknown, but ultimately prove that life can flourish even in a constant state of fear.
The final novella, Visitation, pushes past horror and delves into the world of science fiction. A galaxy-wide lottery is held where the lucky winners receive a two weeks’ stay on Visitation, a haunted planet that is said to attract the souls of the deceased. Once there, the lotto winners are divided off into their own lake-side cabin where they wait for a sign from their loved ones. One man ventures to the planet to reconnect with his wife, but as he catches fleeting glimpses of her, he starts to believe something sinister is afoot. Taff’s take on the afterlife raises a great question of morality: if we had the chance to see our dearly departed one last time, would we take it?
Visitation is a fitting finale for our journey through death, a journey that starts as children in What Becomes God, takes us into adulthood with Object Permanence, then into the role of a parent in The Long, Long Breakdown and ends with the afterlife, placing a sci-fi spin on a good, old fashioned ghost story. Taff acknowledges the coming-of-age motif in his author’s notes section at the end of the book; a section that proves to be quite informative, offering insight to the origins and influences of each story.
Taff has penned an overall entertaining bag of tricks. The End in All Beginnings focuses more so on the human element of death. He examines the human condition, how our emotions influence our decisions when faced with life-changing choices, and how our choices may not always work in our favor. From making sacrifices to save the ones we love to having the ability to postpone the inevitable, Taff reminds us that although death is inevitable, meeting the reaper face-to-face may not always mean the end.
Reviewed by Josh Black
Forever, in Pieces. It’s got a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? It seems at first glance to be a bold choice for a short story collection. After all, forever is arguably the most difficult concept to depict. Probably a wise move to take it piece by piece. The title has more than one meaning, of course, given a little bit of grammatical finessing. Whatever the case, Kurt Fawver proves to be up to the task of writing stories that both live up to the title and scare their readers into submission. What you’ll find here is a different kind of fear than you might expect.
The stories showcased in FiP aren’t particularly gory (though gore has its time to shine), nor are they deeply character-driven (though the characters are relatable enough in an everyman sort of way). In an unusual take on the zombie genre, “The Waves from Afar”, the dead simply stand motionless on the beach, staring at the tides. No explanation is given, and it’s absolutely chilling in its subtlety. Another story turns ritual on its head and sees Santa Claus as judge, jury, and executioner, and it’s not at all flippant. This is the case with most of the stories. Even the most frivolous-seeming subjects are approached with a disturbing angle and a straight-faced respect. To compound this, these stories seethe with a fatalistic bleakness that might just eat away at you if you read them back to back in a lengthy stretch. As Fawver says himself in the introduction, it’s all “… banality and ineffectuality in conflict with chaos and deepest darkness.”
The brand of horror that Fawver brings to the table might be described as cosmic, but it reaches that ineffable peak by scaling things way down to the microcosmic level. The dire situations befalling ordinary people in nondescript places, seemingly by chance, are ubiquitous to the point where it seems that all roads naturally lead to nothing. All that’s out of our control seems rooted in something far deeper than the mortal mind can imagine. There’s no distinct mythos framing this viewpoint, but the further you get into the collection, the more pronounced it becomes. The final story, “Rub-A-Dub-Dub”, best encapsulates this, its central plot device being a hierarchical nesting doll of death upon death, end upon end.
Considering this is the note the collection goes out on, it’s fair to say that these stories are far away from the bright and shiny side of our beloved genre. Instead of rooting for characters who are treading the line between life and death, it’s just as likely you’ll be rooting for the damned line to snap so these poor souls won’t have to struggle any longer. You know things aren’t going to end well anyway. The real draw here is the morbid genius between the lines, and the antiquated prose style that lulls you into the darkest of mires. Forever, in Pieces strips away all the excess of standard horror fare and delivers something that will both give you nightmares and make you feel like you’re living in one. It’s emotionally draining stuff, to be sure, but it’s very much worth reading.
Reviewed by Mario Guslandi
Editors such as Paula Guran, Ellen Datlow and Stephen Jones are to be commended for perusing tons of books and magazines in order to provide the yearly “best” of dark short fiction.
One may subscribe or not to their personal choices, but , in any case, the anthologies they deliver render the great service to make us aware of books or authors that we may have overlooked – so much so in a literary genre mostly offered by small, independent publishers little known outside the limited circle of fans and connoisseurs.
Guran’s purpose appears to be wider than that of her colleagues because her annual anthologies aim to cover not only horror but dark fantasy as well. I don’t really care much for the latter (although, admittedly, the line between the two genres is often very thin), so some of the thirty-two stories included in the present volume did not work for me just for a matter of taste.
Among the more horrific tales, a few really deserve to be mentioned.
“Blue Amber” by David J Schow is a grim, fascinating tale featuring two cops dealing with weird, alien monsters, while “Cuckoo” by Angela Slatter ( one of my favorite authors) is an extremely disquieting piece about a mysterious creature boldly taking possession of people’ s bodies whenever it deems that necessary.
Lisa Tuttle’s “The Dream Detective” is another standout proving once again the writer’s superb ability as a storyteller. In this particular story dreams and reality interwine in a perfect manner, producing an enticing ,unforgettable piece of fiction.
I guess “Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson should be considered a dark fantasy tale and, as such, be discarded by yours truly. But I’m not so narrow-minded to be unable to recognize great fiction regardless of genre distinctions. Enjoy a spellbinding, very dark tale where an old innkeeper hunts for bounties but is scared by menacing shadows.
Finally a couple of further good( but not great) stories worth mentioning are Sarah Monette’s horrific “To Die for Moonlight” ,revolving around a family curse, and Sarah Singleton’s “Our Lady of Ruins” an offbeat example of ‘religious’ horror.
An anthology not to be missed by the genre(s) lovers.