Archive for Book Reviews
By: Rena Mason
By Rick Amortis
When Stacy Troy begins to endure one vivid, frightful nightmare after the next, she comes to the conclusion something has to give. A lady of many hats, upper middle class suburban housewife, mother, fundraiser coordinator and socialite, her hectic schedule begins to suffer as a result of increasing insomnia and night terror. Reluctantly she agrees to see a therapist. Dr. Light’s techniques seem conventional enough, yet there’s something a little off about the good doctor. As his eccentric demeanor becomes more prevalent, so do the frequency of Stacy’s appointments. Gradually she loses an ongoing battle with distinguishing between fantasy and reality. Will Stacy be able to overcome the grisly symbolism within her dreams or will reality prevail as she adapts the persona of Evolutionist?
Author Rena Mason’s debut novel is a highly imaginative, ambitious tale of supernatural themes. Her use of dreams and the subconscious to showcase the gory macabre is nothing shy of brilliant. We virtually feel the melancholy and despair within her character as she suffers a loss of intimacy with her friends, her absent husband, and her increasingly estranged teenage son. Her dreams depict a ghastly slaughter with an apocalyptic back drop as each of her neighbors and loved ones are dismembered and rendered helpless.
The portrayal of upper middle class/socialite America is illustrated so flawlessly it’s comical. Everything from empty gestures such as air kissing, infatuation with Starbucks, shopping, book clubs and Pilates are reflective of a submissive, shallow society. Mason showcases Stacy and her friends’ activities with pinpoint precision, giving average readers a look into a way of life otherwise unknown. They become our guilty pleasure comparable to the reality television shows that flood the cable networks today.
Adapting Stacy’s first person point of view is executed with finesse and ease. A tremendous degree of emotion is captured while refraining on the repetitive or mundane. We feel Ms. Troy’s plight and subconsciously cheer her on in hopes of overcoming her inner turmoil. The interpersonal relationships that exist with her husband, parents, son and friends are created to effectively enhance the very realistic, human qualities of Stacy. Within our own psyche we find ourselves comparing our own relationships, with nostalgia and reminiscence, Mason’s prose often evokes a certain sense of living vicariously through one Stacy Troy.
The descriptions of Stacy’s visions and dreams are so vivid we sense a virtual kaleidoscope of living Technicolor spiraling before us. This novel would make an excellent translation unto the big screen if directed properly. The surrealistic feel and unexpected plot twists within the final act are reminiscent of a veteran author, most comfortable on the New York Times best sellers list. Make way for a new Madam of Macabre for Rena Mason has arrived.
The Weeping Woman
Patricia Santos Marcantonio
Sunbury Press, September 2012
ISBN-13: 978-1620061091, $16.95, trade paperback; $4.99, eBook
Reviewed by Michael R. Collings
I seem to be spending a fair amount of (fictional) time in San Antonio recently—and in the sometimes great, sometimes horrifying state of Texas in general. Over the past year, I’ve read a number of Joe McKinney’s exceptional zombie novels, most of them featuring a San Antonio over-run and quarantined. And now I’m emerging from another visit, this time focusing on a legend-come-true, Patricia Santos Marcantonio’s The Weeping Woman.
I appreciate horror as a genre. I love monsters. But what makes horror such a flexible mode of storytelling is that is doesn’t actually require zombies or werewolves or vampires to be effective. Some of the most frightening monsters are…human. People turning their backs on humanity in order to pursue their own private heavens, or hells.
In Marcantonio’s tale, the city of San Antonio is beset by two separate monsters. One is a pyromaniac, staining the evening skies crimson with his series of arson fires. No one has a clue as to who he is or why me sets fires, but his actions are draining the city of its life and putting a strain on the police department’s ability not only to cope with their normal problems but to control this one.
And there is the other monster. Children are disappearing. Young children. No one sees anything suspicious, no one notices anyone unusual…yet, in almost the blink of an eye or the turn of a mother’s back, children disappear. When one of them is discovered dead, his body carefully arranged on an elaborate tombstone in the nearby cemetery, things take an eerie turn. There is more here than a simple, garden-variety pervert; indeed, events suggest that the kidnapper is somehow enacting an ancient Mexican legend, “La Llorona,” or “The Weeping Woman.”
This is where San Antonio detective Blue Rodriguez, and her F.B.I. partner Daniel Ryan, begin looking for more than the obvious. Rodriguez is not only a tough-as-nails cop; she is also something of a ‘monster’ herself in that she has a special talent, one that destroyed her mother and threatens to destroy her. She can see victims. If she touches a body, she sees how the person died. If she enters a room defiled by violence, she sees the victim. The one thing she cannot see—the thing that frustrates and maddens her—is the perpetrator.
Temporarily transferred from Robbery to Homicide, Blue must follow the sparse clues the kidnapper has left and keep her secret from her new (and highly attractive) partner, while using all of her talents—natural and supernatural—to find the monsters before it is too late.
While horror of a specific sort, The Weeping Woman is also an entirely human—and humane—novel about rescue and redemption. Nearly everyone in the story is injured in some key way, either physically or psychically. The kidnapper has been traumatized in the past, although that fact does not alleviate the horror of the kidnappings. Blue, her mother, her sister, and her aunt—all have suffered and are deeply scarred, although they deal with their problems in far different ways. Even the clean-cut, Kennedy-looking Ryan conceals a secret, one that tinges his growing relationship with Blue.
But Blue is the true center of the story. While the overt narrative concentrates on her desperate attempts to balance her wounds with her need to solve the kidnappings, the underlying story—and perhaps the more important one—follows Blue’s conscious and unconscious attempts at punishing and ultimately forgiving herself for her own sins. Her path is dangerous and dark, regardless of which story we follow, but it is her only possibility of redemption.
Joe R. Lansdale
Tachyon, August 2013
ISBN-10: 161696104X, ISBN-13: 978-1616961046, $14.95, trade paperback
By Michael R. Collings
Joe R. Lansdale is an original. No one—but no one—tells a story with quite the same dark energy and wanton verve. Whether it be something like the sublimated sophistication of Edge of Dark Water, the celebratory redneckedness of the Hap and Leonard novels, the outré sense of the bizarre-made-real in shorter works like Bubba Ho-Tep, or an improbability treated as perfectly straight-forward fact in the Drive-In novels, Lansdale has mastered such a distinctive tone and approach that a page—even a paragraph—is almost as individual as a fingerprint.
Deadman’s Road is no exception. I can think of no one but Lansdale who could so successfully have perpetrated such a rollicking, rugged, and raw series of tales without a single lapse. The volume collects one previously published novella, “Dead in the West,” and four additional tales of a Wild West even wilder, weirder, and more outlandish than anyone might reasonably expect: “Deadman’s Road,” “The Gentleman’s Hotel,” “The Crawling Sky,” and “The Dark Down There.” The book was originally published in 2010 (Subterranean Press), but this edition contains Lansdale’s definitive statement on all of the (to this point, at least) adventures of the Reverend Jedidiah Mercer, man of God who trusts God no more than he trusts the Devil.
Mercer’s appointed task is to find and destroy Evil—not the evil perpetrated by men alone, but the greater Evil stemming directly from the Father of Evil,,,and occasionally from forces beyond that. Sometimes he finds support from fellow humans, but throughout the tales he mostly relies on his own armaments: two six-shooters (and it helps that he is an almost supernaturally gifted shootist) and a Bible capable of its own fiery punishments.
Sin appears in the stories but is rarely the focus of the action. Mercer’s own career began with incest (for which he seeks some kind of clearly-defined but ultimately elusive expiation), but as he travels from one terror-haunted town to another he confronts a host of additional sins. Murder, rape, bigotry, treachery, each exacerbating the others until toward the end of the collection, one must agree with Mercer’s caustic assessment, “Never underestimate the curiosity and stupidity and greed of man….” Or woman.
In the world of Deadman’s Road, the presence of sin is itself accentuated by that fact that, with a few notable exceptions, there are few true innocents to be found in settlements such as Mud Creek, Gimet, and Wood Tick, or in the cemeteries and ghost towns Mercer encounters. And those few innocents are as vulnerable to the Evil Mercer battles as are the guilty.
His enemies may wear human flesh, but at the core they are fiends. During the course of 278 pages, he must defeat demons, zombies, something at least superficially vampiric, haints and ghosts, familiars, spiders that may or may not be true arachnids, werewolves, shapeshifters, goblins, and kobolds—the latter a particularly nasty import from German mythology, with a more than unnatural attachment to their queen. Then there are the entities that move even further outward, the cosmically oriented older gods that ultimately harken back to Lovecraft. Although Lansdale does not mention any of the Great Old Ones by name, the requisite books of occult, eldritch knowledge, including the dreaded Necronomicon and The Book of Doches.
Frequently including wonderfully cadenced stories-within-stories, the tales in Deadman’s Road provide Lansdale with a perfect canvas for his particular kind of humor/horror. Everything is serious, yet nothing is taken too seriously. And the central figure of a preacher-man in black who resolves issues with his six-shooters and his Bible is ideal as a way of connecting the tales.
In the End, Only Darkness
By Monica J. O’Rourke
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
Spring 2013, $3.99 E-Book
Reviewed by Sheri White
If you missed this collection when it was first published in 2002, you’re in luck because it’s available again, this time in e-book form.
If you’re easily offended by things you read, turn back now. Because Monica writes extreme horror, and she doesn’t hold back on any subject matter. From trips to the gynecologist to raising children, Monica makes the mundane horrific.
Women aren’t really thrilled when it’s time for their yearly well-woman visit to the gyno. Once you read “Jasmine and Garlic,” you may be tempted to put that appointment off indefinitely. How safe are you really when you’re lying there naked with your feet in those stirrups and a speculum inserted inside you? You are at your most vulnerable – what if your doctor took an unnatural interest in you?
You know how a man will cringe when he sees a fellow male take a hit to the balls? Monica will elicit this reaction in women with her story “Attainable Beauty.” A lot of women are self-conscious about how they look, not just all over, but down there as well. Molly can’t stand how she looks and doesn’t know how her boyfriend doesn’t find her repulsive. Once she realizes how she wants to look, she won’t relax until she makes it happen.
“An Experiment in Human Nature” was one of the first stories I read by Monica many years ago. It blew me away then, and it still blows me away now. This is one of the most visceral, stomach-churning stories I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. This story is definitely not for the squeamish – but it’s magnificent.
There are eighteen stories in this collection (as well as a few poems), and every single one is kick-ass. If you’re a fan of extreme horror, you’re going to love this.
Quail Hill Publishing
April, 2013, $17.99 trade paperback, $4.99 eBook
Reviewed by Michael R. Collings
The Idaho Batholith is a gigantic granite intrusion covering thousands of square miles in the center of the state, formed at a time when dinosaurs still roamed the lowlands of nearby Montana at will. In spite of the age of its constituent rocks, it is rough, raw, with sharp peaks and steep valleys, cut by the Salmon River—locally known as the “River of No Return.” No major thoroughfares transect the wilderness; there are no major cities or towns located in its rugged landscapes. Few people are even familiar with how utterly empty the region is.
I’ve driven some of the highways on its periphery and have been mightily impressed with the loneliness the area, the sense of nature overwhelming petty human efforts to encroach on its isolation. Everything about the region speaks of remoteness, solitude, reclusiveness. Even its earliest American explorers, Lewis and Clark, found it impossible to travel on its wild waters…hence its local name.
It is almost as if something—something unknown and unknowable—has restrained incursions into the emptiness. As if….
Joanne Pence’s highly enjoyable paranormal novel looks into that as if and narrates a story of occult secrets centuries old and mortally dangerous to explore, all focusing on the granite wildness of central Idaho. Her characters range from a middle-aged university professor guiding archeology students on a field trip; to Indiana Jones-style action-adventure types; to hard-muscled, well-armed mercenaries packing the most sophisticated firepower; to old-West style lawmen; to psychically wounded men and women confronting the coldest of all mysteries—Death itself.
Her landscapes include not only the Idaho wilderness but places both exotic and familiar: the deserts of Mongolia, the crowded streets of Jerusalem, the stuffy museums of Paris, the inextricable complexities—both physical and psychological—of Washington, D.C., and the rarified reaches of “Big Pharm” in New York. With each change in locale, Pense brings sufficient details to create believable situations, although she is at her best in limning the virtually untouched world of the great Batholith.
Her plot is both convoluted and direct. It hinges on a single “what if”: What if, centuries ago, an alchemical adept had secreted in the heart of Idaho a long-forgotten book, a treatise dating back to the beginnings of the Christian era, that contained the key to transmutation—to the ancient study devoted not simply to creating gold from base metals but also to transforming frail, time-bound man into an immortal…a god?
As odd as this might sound—central Idaho?—Pense crosses her Ts and dots her Is in constructing a web of events that make it plausible. Does she depend on coincidence in bringing together her wide cast of subjects? Yes, but ultimately, in the world of Ancient Echoes, there are no coincidences; there are only the manipulations and machinations by proto-chemists who unraveled the greatest mystery of all and must now live with the blessing—and the curse—of immortality.
Along the way from outer Mongolia to central Idaho, readers will confront the unanticipated, the unbelievable: a centuries-old corpse, flawlessly preserved, that triggers the final round of events; two perfect columns of living granite, topped with, of all things, Egyptian hieroglyphs, that might or might not be portals to another world; and—perhaps most fascinating of all—creatures unknown to science, unidentifiable, horrific, and deadly.
An intriguing blend of history, action-adventure, religious speculation, alchemy (theoretical, philosophical, and practical), and horror, with occasional touches of psychological thriller and romance, Ancient Echoes is a well-crafted tale designed to entertain and perhaps even enlighten.
If you are not familiar with DON’T LET THEM IN, here is the plot synopsis courtesy of Elizabeth Fields’ website:
This collection of six horrifying tales includes:
The Debt Collector:
When a down on his luck actor meets a beautiful woman in a bar, things finally seem to be looking up for him. But is she really the woman of his dreams, or his worst nightmare?
Plenty of Flesh in the Sea:
Siblings, Emily and Sam, have an unusually close bond. Growing up, they only had each other to rely on. Now, as young adults, they’ve done their best to take on the regular responsibilities that come with maturity, but something is still holding them back from leading normal, healthy lives, a hunger they just can’t seem to satisfy. Not to worry; if they can’t find what they’re looking for just yet, there’s still plenty of flesh in the sea.
The Joys of Motherhood:
A young married couple is about to welcome their first baby, but the new baby may not be the bundle of joy they’ve been expecting.
Simon and his dog, Lucy, are inseparable, that is until Lucy goes through some changes.
Since high school, a group of six friends have been coming to this one campsite for an annual get away. They reconnect with each other and with nature this time every year, and at night, in the grand tradition of camping, they sit around the fire and try to scare each other with ghost stories they’ve already heard many times before. This night, however, will be a little different. A story will be told that they haven’t heard before, and they may just wish they hadn’t heard it to begin with.
All Sales Are Final:
Kathy and Mike have come into town to take care of some last minute things before their dear Aunt Mille moves in with them, or so they say. They’ve set up a yard sale to help Millie get rid of some her possessions to help ease the move. Will Mike and Kathy make the yard sale killing they so desire?
This book is short in length, only 90 pages long, but it certainly doesn’t lack in talent or entertainment value. There are plenty of chills and frights to go around in this compilation. From terrifying newborns to bizarre yard sales, this book has a little bit of everything.
Fields writes with a smooth, simple style that does not overwhelm the reader and allows for a pleasant reading experience. Her prose is well developed and her stories flow well. The result is a fun and thrilling experience that will leave you wanting to read more.
DON’T LET THEM IN contains a couple of original stories, however there are also a couple that we might have heard before (in concept only, that is); those that are familiar are written well and do have unique twists, so do not let that dissuade you in any way from giving this collection a look. Even though I found a couple of the plots familiar, I enjoyed them nonetheless.
My favorite story in this collection is “Plenty of Flesh in the Sea”. In this tale, a brother and sister have unnatural cravings that can only be satiated by heinous acts involving other people. But these siblings are not bad…they’re just trying to survive. This story made me smile and cringe at the same time.
DON’T LET THEM IN is a true win for me, and I highly recommend giving it a look. I can’t wait to see what Fields does next, but hopefully it’s just as good as this one.
The End of Ever
Troy Barnes Publishing
2012: $25.00 (Paperback)
Reviewed by Matthew Tait
Many years ago I composed a review for the Australian writer Will Elliot – who, having astonished readers worldwide with his debut novel The Pilo Family Circus – had now released his sophomore effort, the first book in a fantasy trilogy entitled Pilgrims. Parts of the review read:
I think there comes a time in the speculative writer’s life where they think: now is the time to do my ‘otherworld’ book. Be it another realm, dimension, or simply ‘world’ that sits adjacent to this one – it seems ingrained that this accomplished to serve as a kind of Magnum Opus or literary Jupiter to dwarf all other works in the writer’s pantheon.
As the author of two previous full-length novels, Troy Barnes has decided to largely shift gears and tackle the aforementioned above – to bring a motley cast of characters from our own familiar world and transport them kicking and screaming into an invented one. It’s an ambitious task – especially within the confines of a stand-alone alone novel. There is an arrangement of a mythology to set up; but not only that – the writer must play by its rules and keep them check.
Although no central protagonist opens this tale, this seems to be the story of young Zach. After a night of revelry with his friends: Rayne, Shaun, Amy, and Taylor retire at home together. Upon waking not only do these individuals find themselves in a different world – their entire house has been transported with them to the edge of a cliff. At first this land is somewhat mundane … it could be an exotic region of earth. But as they make their way down the mountain they find a bleak austerity to the realm devoid of life but potent in its nullity. Soon, it isn’t long before the landscape begins to feel like the afterlife … one more akin to Hell.
Troy’s prose is simple yet steady. Holding its own, you can see the hallmarks of other writers that the author may not necessarily read now … but instead grew up with. There’s an undeniable Australian/world dichotomy – one that is refreshingly welcome. But there is also a level of the juvenile (not uncommon with only a third book), and pages riddled with adverbs that the editor should have scalped away clean. Divided up into short and choppy chapters heralded into steady parts … it’s a technique that ultimately pays dividends over the course of nearly 400 pages. In short, it keeps you turning them.
This is the world of Ever – a world a little reminiscent, perhaps, of King’s Mid-World in its particulars. Carnage comes very quickly, and you wonder how many will be left by the mid-point. In their wanderings, the intrepid group are joined by the amiable darkling Titch, a kind of elfin half-breed whose race were decimated decades previous. Titch then becomes central to the story as the group encounter soul-feeding Gremlins and a town entirely inhabited by a wicked band of men I’ve seldom encountered in fiction before. It’s a well mapped and thought out world – you can tell Troy knows it well. But if I could lament one thing it would be its ultimate lack of colour: as the group travel down the road known as the Shadow Line we get the sense that more monsters are required on this journey.
Overall, this is a book I enjoyed my time with. Although you’ll find nothing overtly new in the inventions, I found the characters to be its central sticking point. Other writers would do well to follow Troy’s example here – he’s taken his crew and given them such well rounded life you’ll feel an intimate connection. And taken as a whole, it far exceeds his previous two novels. When you have a novelist who is only improving with each successive stroke of the pen, you have a novelist you can ultimately invest in.