Archive for Book Reviews

23165163Dark Screams: Volume One
Edited by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar
Hydra (an imprint of Random House) eBook
December 9, 2014
Reviewed by William Grabowski

This first in a projected series is a wicked treat, featuring five strong stories from some of the genre’s best.

The opening yarn, “Weeds” (1976), is a rare one from Stephen King, and the only reprint in the anthology. Many—if not most—of you have seen the movie version, “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” of this great pulpy tale in the King/George A. Romero collaboration Creepshow (1982), starring King himself as the regrettably curious (and under-earning) Verrill. While the Creepshow translation was—and is still—a genuine hoot, its early source takes itself a bit more seriously.

Sure, the humor is there, but Verrill’s mostly isolated existence and social unease lends him a poignant aura, so when the meteor falls and becomes a meteorite we see how quickly Verrill’s life changes. “Weeds,” beyond its pulp luridness, charges the reader with the anxiety and escalating horror of what it might feel like to discover one has some terminal disease. Whether this resonance was intentional, I don’t know—but it’s there. The odd-job man viscerally experiences the truth of that old saw “They grow like weeds,” especially when said weeds come from the unknown black beyond. Even knowing how this ends makes no difference, and is an early example of King’s rendering a bleak situation even bleaker.

Kelley Armstrong’s “The Price You Pay” explores the explosive power of secrecy, especially that between very close friends Ingrid and Kara. Kara’s history of bad choices has caused her serious problems, but now, moved across the country, she’s starting over with new husband Gavin. This doesn’t sit well with long-time thick-and-thin amiga Ingrid, and Armstrong does a superb job of rendering the often painfully subtle difference between narcissistic possessiveness and genuine protective instinct.

Gavin pulls an ugly trick, basically trapping Kara in a poison marriage. Her escape plan—like most of her other decisions—goes not how she expected…nor how you will. Nothing I’ve read by Kelley Armstrong hit me like this one, and those were good stories too.

Bill Pronzini, whose work I’m least familiar with, contributes “Magic Eyes,” wherein an accused wife-killer spins his yarn by way of journal entries suggested by his shrink as therapy (our protagonist is confined to an asylum). Edward James Tolliver may or may not be an unreliable narrator, and those keeping him locked up (keep in mind he’s “good with locks”) consider him psychotic. Tolliver laments his inability to convince his doctor he’s (Tolliver) sane, but after meeting—and perhaps falling for—Dorothy, who dispatched her parents with a meat cleaver, things seem to improve. But not really.

Pronzini gives Tolliver an average Joe believability, which makes the reader want to sympathize. Were it not for the magic eyes (about which I can say nothing without committing a spoiler), Tolliver might be just another depressed guy. Or not.

Simon Clark’s “Murder in Chains” immediately hooked me (pun there). My experience with Clark’s work is limited to Blood Crazy,a powerful, well-crafted novel, and a handful of shorter fiction—and this one ended somewhere both interesting and ominous, took the story nearly into a different genre. A man wakes to find himself in a vast underground chamber. Worse, he’s chained by the neck to another, let’s say, less-than-civilized fellow. Nearby rushes a channel of sewage, and when the other guy wakes our protagonist’s real fun begins. This other only grunts and growls, so we get no insight how he (or our viewpoint man) ended up in this reeking place.

A chance to escape comes up, but is thwarted by bad luck. The conflict in this piece is brutal and realistic, something Clark easily could have phoned in, but luckily for us his integrity won. “Murder in Chains” kept me going—I had to know where it was headed. And wasn’t disappointed when I found out.

Ramsey Campbell never fails—never—to remind me to keep a good 10 feet between myself and unidentifiable refuse in the street. In “The Watched” he combines perceptual ambiguity with the paranoia and tension provoked by a teenaged boy’s being trapped between (mostly) unseen criminal neighbors, the creepy, repellent detective surveilling them, and the boy’s well-meaning but nosy grandmother. As ever, Campbell’s clinical prose chills via suggestion and spectral dread (and often simply the threat of or potential for spectral dread). Over time, his skilled induction of existential nausea has only become more potent. Clearly, like the most honest writers, he’s following his obsessions. Even though I guessed the ending, I still enjoyed “basking” in Campbell’s grim atmosphere.

Dark Screams: Volume One is a strong start to what looks to be an outstanding series.

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snafu-heroesSNAFU: Heroes—An Anthology of Military Horrors
Edited by Geoff Brown and Amanda J. Spedding

Cohesion Press, 2014.
Reviewed by Michael R. Collings

With the publication of SNAFU: An Anthology of Military Horrors, the editorial team of Geoff Brown and Amanda J. Spedding scored an undeniable win. Now, with the four novella-length tales in SNAFU: Heroes—An Anthology of Military Horrors, they demonstrate that the excellences of the earlier volume were not merely fortuitous. With contributions by Jonathan Maberry, Weston Ochse, James A. Moore, and Joseph Nassise, there is military action aplenty, enough monsters—and frightening enough monsters—to satisfy even the most discriminating of readers, and sufficient opportunities for snafus on every level, from individuals making faulty decisions to layers of bureaucratic red tape that threaten humanity’s safety.

The first story, Joseph Nassise’s “The Hungry Dark: A Templar Chronicles Mission,” takes Knight Commander William Cade and his Echo Team through a nightmarish encounter with zombies and demons in a village in Germany’s Black Forest. Darkness is a theme throughout: the darkness of night falling over the infected village, the darkness of death and betrayal as the team and a handful of survivors struggle to endure until the dawn, the darkness of a powerful storm that isolates Cade and the others from any hope of help, the darkness of demonic powers intent upon emerging into this world and controlling it. To make matters immeasurably worse, in the early stages of infection, there is no way to identify the infected from the healthy, enemies from friends. Eventually, everything relies on Cade’s intuitiveness, his courage and drive, and his willingness to sacrifice himself for all.

Weston Ochse’s tantalizingly titled “Tarzan Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” is essentially a parable about a broken world and a broken mind. It begins cataclysmically: “The earth was rent as if a leviathan had burst free to sail the galaxy for better worlds to chew.” And from there, we are introduced to an earth fissured and cracked, to innumerable monsters  of varying sorts emerging from the scars to wreak havoc on their surroundings. The Sonoran Rift, in the middle of the desert near Bisbee, Arizona, is the setting; among the battalion sent in to destroy any monsters that might rise from it is an incognito reporter, gambling his life in the hopes of garnering a once-in-a-lifetime exposé. And there are monsters—gigantic tarantulas and, more frightening perhaps, equally gigantic tarantula hawks, huge wasps that lay their eggs in the still-living bodies of tarantulas paralyzed by a venomous sting. But that is not the end of the monsters. Andy Fryerson becomes convinced that one of his fellows intends to rape an innocent woman and—just as Fryerson had tried to come to the aid of a girl he had known years before, imagining himself a wrong-righting Tarzan dropping from the trees—he now vows to stop the attack…no matter what. No one and no thing will stop him.

James A. Moore’s “War Stories” represents in some ways a retreat from the expansiveness of the first two. It begins quietly, intimately, with two characters: a young man fresh from appalling experiences in Viet Nam (and equally appalling ones upon returning to the States); and his grandfather, a veteran of both World War II and Korea. Realizing that his grandson is on the brink of a breakdown, the old man sits with him on the family porch and, for the first time, opens up about his wartime experiences and inviting his grandson to reciprocate. Moore skims through this part, as the two establish a powerful bond…powerful enough for the grandfather to relate one final encounter, with Nazis, death-camp victims used for experimentation, unbelievable monsters created from humans, and one anomalous individual who might or might not have been human, or a monster. The story accentuates the inhumanity of war by expanding its characters—literally and physically—as the grandfather and a few others fight against seven-foot-tall monstrosities and the human-monsters that created them.

The final story is Jonathan Maberry’s “Changeling: A Joe Ledger Adventure.” It begins shortly after Ledger has witnessed the death of the second woman he had ever loved, Grace Courtland, and his subsequent descent into a distanced coldness, a ruthlessness that he himself describes as monstrous. Now he is summoned from the prospect of enjoying a baseball double-header on a perfect May afternoon to investigate a supposedly empty scientific laboratory. The place had recently been raided by multiple alphabet-agencies, none of which fully trust the others. Ledger’s enigmatic boss, Mr. Church, is convinced that there is more inside than simply empty rooms, particularly since a dozen or so of the scientists who should have been inside have never been found. Angry at the interruption in his life and at the multiple administrative snafus that prevent anyone from going in, Ledger enters the building. There he discovers—no great surprise, of course—monsters beyond his imagining. But more importantly, he discovers another person already inside, already searching for answers, already more knowledgeable about the lab that anyone should be…or could be. And worse, she triggers excruciating memories of Courtland.

Each of the stories is well handled, deftly written, approaching questions of what constitutes a monster and what constitutes a hero from vastly different directions. Each answers some of those questions; each leaves others frustratingly unanswered. But in the ambiguities inherent in each story, in the unresolved possibilities of the natural and the supernatural, lie the strengths that makes each powerful.

SNAFU: Heroes is the first in several advertised follow-up anthologies to the original SNAFU, that will include SNAFU: Wolves at the Door and SNAFU II: Survival of the Fittest. From the evidence in the first two volumes, these are books to watch out for, the purchase, and to enjoy thoroughly.

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IntheCourtoftheYellowKingIn the Court of the Yellow King
Edited by Glynn Owen Barrass
Celaeno Press (September 30, 2014)
ISBN-13: 978-4902075694
Reviewed by David Goudsward

In 1895, Robert W. Chambers published The King in Yellow. A , a fin-de-siècle collection, including “The Yellow Sign”, “The Repairer of Reputations,” “The Mask,” “The Prophets’ Paradise,” and “In the Court of The Dragon,” which collectively weave together story of a play called The King in Yellow. This play, banned, burned, but never completely destroyed, has the power to drive the reader mad with its references to a supernatural being known only as The King in Yellow who can exert his control over minions, willing or not, though a glyph known as The Yellow Sign.

Chambers had borrowed aspect of this myth, most notably the city of Carcossa and the ancient god Hastur from earlier Ambrose Bierce stories. In turn, H.P.  Lovecraft added elements from Chambers into his work, and his circle similarly embrace the Yellow King. August Derleth, as he was prone to do, ignored precedence and made Hastur into a Great Old One, and the Yellow King as one of his avatars. Now in the aftermath of renewed interest in “him who eats time, in robes,” courtesy of HBO’s True Detective, more madness has been unleashed in the anthology In the Court of the Yellow King.

Editor Barrass is obviously insane, and not just because he’s an editor (it is apparently a job prerequisite), but from years of authoring dozens of Yellow King fiction pieces himself. In other words, he’s the perfect man for the job of compiling a collection of tales to drive the readers quite mad. And quite a sanity-rending collection it is. Starting with W.H. Pugmire’s “These Harpies of Carcosa,” a tale of an artist whose visions of dead Carcosa travel from his dreams to his canvas and ending with T.E. Grau’s flavescent crime noir “MonoChrome,”Barrass has chosen 18 auriferous stories, nearly 350 pages of madness, mayhem and inevitable doom. The TOC reads like a who’s who in modern horror, including contributions by CJ Henderson, Robert M. Price, Pete Rawlik, Cody Goodfellow, and Stephen Mark Rainey. But the real treats are stories by Jeffrey Thomas and William Meikle, who create new tales from their familiar haunts. The Thomas story is part of his dystopic Punktown oeuvre and Meikle offers an adventure of Carnacki, the occult detective that Meikle reinvigorated with tales that are superior to the originals by creator William Hope Hodgson.

You’d have to be stark raving mad to miss this collection.

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My Name is Marnie – Book Review

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MyNameIsMarnieMy Name Is Marnie
Tracy Carbone
Shadowridge Press
July 4th, 2014
Reviewed by Dr. Alex Scully

Marnie Clifford’s life is in shambles. Her husband was brutally murdered, work is almost nonexistent, and she’s at the end of her rope. Fleeing her pain, she buys a classic “fixer-upper” cottage in a remote New England town. She wants to have her baby in peace, and try to put the pieces of her shattered life back together. A simple enough plan, until Marnie discovers the dark, horrific secrets hiding in her newly purchased home.

My Name is Marnie is a subtle, sinister tale in the Gothic haunting tradition. The ghostly appearance comes early, but Carbone doesn’t blow the story open immediately. She only gives the reader a hint, a glimpse at the nightmare to come. Marnie’s fear feels real. Her terror is authentic and powerful. Yet this is not the story you think it is, and by the end, Carbone has woven a complex and bizarre tale full of twists and turns. There are hints of Collie Wilkins with a dash of Henry James throughout the narrative. Carbone walks a delicate balance between the real and the unreal, and the supernatural is blended seamlessly into the story. The characters and the setting are both well-developed, and lure the reader down very dark and evil paths.

There are a few “horror” moments when Marnie does exactly as predicted, but overall, the narrative is crisp and sinister. Little references, such as punching a car through small snow drifts on a cold winter day, bring the story into vivid detail. Carbone paints the picture of the ideal New England town, and then proceeds to shatter that image into a million splintering glass shards. My Name is Marnie also includes two outstanding short stories. Highly recommended.

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BalladstotheBurningTwinsBallads to the Burning Twins: The Complete Song Lyrics of the Deathray Bradburys
Alexander Zelenyj
Eibon Vale Press
September 1st, 2014
Reviewed by Dr. Alex Scully

Poetry is a bit of a lost art in the modern world, but there are still poets out there challenging, inspiring, and, in the case of the dark poets, frightening us as well. Alexander Zelenyj’s poetry collection, Ballads to the Burning Twins: The Complete Song Lyrics of the Deathray Bradburys, has an unusual conceit with the potential to either fail spectacularly or succeed dramatically. In Zelenyj’s case, he makes it work wonderfully.

The premise of the collection centers on a band, its material, its fans, and a heavy dose of the supernatural. The Deathray Bradburys were a somewhat popular, short-lived band from the 1990s. Zelenyj’s poetry comes in the form of song lyrics from the band. They are cryptic, dark, and compelling. Lines such as “Where did the Essex women go?/ Summoned like the tides by the moon” hint at the mysterious disappearance of the band and hundreds of fans. Gothic tones haunt the work here, and line like “But they’ll die too/ and we will live after them” suggest vampirism and its dark promise of immortality. The lyrics are punctuated by macabre and often inexplicable images that draw up 90s memories such as Nine Inch Nails’ groundbreaking video “Closer.” While the “band” concept is intriguing enough, the lyric portion of Ballads works beautifully as stand-alone poetry as well.

Zelenyj does a fantastic job of creating an entirely believable story about the Deathray Bradurys. Taking their name from a Ray Bradbury quote, the band is surrounded by legend, lies, and mystery. It’s like a treasure hunt digging through the lyrics to find hints of the horrors to come when the band and its fans vanish. This is the kind of rock scandal we all wish for at least once in our lifetime. Personally, it matters not in the least that it’s fiction. I would love to hear the music, but until then, Ballads to the Burning Twins: The Complete Song Lyrics of the Deathray Bradburys is one heck of a read.

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Dead Water – Book Review

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dead waterDead Water
Edited by Maynard Sims
Hersham Horror Books
Reviewed by Mario Guslandi

Writers, editors and publishers Len Maynard and Mick Sims (a British duo now calling themselves Maynard Sims) are coming back with a series of new projects and collaborations, much to the pleasure of their many fans.

This booklet (or mini-anthology, if you want), devoted to the subject of water as a dangerous and potentially lethal element, assembles five brand new horror stories.

Simon Bestwick contributes The Lowland Hundred, perhaps the best story in the volume; an atmospheric, eerie tale revisiting Welsh folklore in a horrific way.

A Night at the Lake by Alan Spencer is a dark piece where true love is being challenged by a lake’s creepy waters, while The Lucky Ones by David Moody is a vivid SF tale depicting how a teenager manages to escape from a secluded factory at a time when the world is at war, only to discover the truth of the matter.

In Daniel S. Boucher’s The Day of Black Rain, yet another SF piece, water becomes the carrier of disgusting black parasites ready to invade the world.

Finally, Maynard & Sims delight their aficionados with a new story, Silver, where a mischievous lake hosting deadly alien creatures provides the setting for a traditional piece of dark fiction.

An enjoyable little book for horror enthusiasts.

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aberrations-of-realityAberrations of Reality
Aaron J. French

Crowded Quarantine Publications (UK), 2014
Trade paperback, 383 pp., $12.99
Reviewed by Michael R. Collings

The back cover of Aaron J. French’s collection, Aberrations of Reality, promises “tales exploring occultism, religiosity, spirituality, metaphysics, and the supernatural”—and the book more than fulfills that promise. From the first entry, “Here & There”—which begins “The moment they nailed you to the cross you forgot almost everything you knew”—to the final words of the final story, “The Year of Our Lord”—“From space, the earth appeared as a giant white dot, ever swirling, ever churning, devoid of landmasses or bodies of water. But beyond that, things of this nature are quite impossible to explain”—the twenty-two stories examine individual’s struggles explain, to break through, to contact, to understand, to embrace the other…other realities at first only intuited but that gradually become ideals, objectives, goals, and death-ridden obsessions. Some struggles end in transcendence; others in death; and still others, in layers of complexity and ambiguity that in themselves help define human existence.

Many of the entries, as exemplified by their titles, are linked—however ephemerally—to the Christian tradition: “Doubting Thomas,” “Paladin,” “The Christ,” “Tree of Life,” and “The Year of Our Lord,” for example. It takes only a few moments of reading, however, to discover that none of them follow traditional expectations, that each wrenches familiar terms and concepts into new modes of thinking about spirit and life. Certainly none of them are programmatically connected to Biblical models. Even that most evocative and perhaps least understood of Christian symbolic writings, the Revelation of St. John, undergoes completely unanticipated permutations in the aptly—and perplexingly—titled “{[California Sea + Cosmic Man] – Humankind} + Anadyr, Russia = Apocalypse.”

Interspersed with these are other titles, equally suggestive of entirely different modes of storytelling. “Dwellers in the Cracks” is heavily influenced by Lovecraft, a weirdly distorted version of Lovecraft’s imagination that transmutes inexorably into a distant descendant of Poe’s “The Black Cat,” yet that ultimately declares its independence from either as both dwellers and cracks assume new references. That story provides one of the keys to reading all that follow—French’s adroit juxtaposition of belief and hesitance, his willingness to merge contemporary religious and spiritual questions with images that move beyond the dream-visions of Poe and Lovecraft into something relevant and accessible.

What separates French’s stories from so many others is that they often bring characters to the brink of enlightenment—where most tales fade into a panoramic view of clouds and sky—and then cross that boundary with them, to experience…well, peace, or indifference, or freedom, or some other state distant from the euphoric exultation of Biblical redemption. Indeed, it is the sense of vast understatement that makes French’s exercises so powerful, as in “Golden Doors to a Golden Age,” in which imagery and plot development suggest one possible ending, when in fact (mild spoiler ahead), at the climax the character “just simply felt okay.” And in the context of this story—and others—okay is well enough.

Questions of the nature of reality recur throughout the collection, perhaps most explicitly in “What Lay East, Lay West,” a strangely functional tale of a single character moving through an indefinite desert that evokes the Old West, always moving East seeking something, always chasing answers to the inevitable question, “What is real.” Appropriately enough, there is no precise resolution to his question…only the inexorable approach of death. Others find momentary respite in dreams, then grapple with the same question couched in different terms: what is the connection between dreams and life, and what happens when one spills into the other. And perhaps more crucially, what results when the character can no longer differentiate between the two.

French’s stories are always edgy, in content and in execution, pushing boundaries and redefining conventions. The nearly two dozen contained in Aberrations of Reality are no exception. Some will speak immediately to readers; some may fail to resonate on first reading, gaining power through the context of other stories—but all will lead readers into new territory, suggest new answers to age-old, imponderable questions.

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