Archive for Book Reviews
Reviewed by Jess Landry
When I originally heard about editor Rhonda Parrish’s anthology A is for Apocalypse, my first thought was of the 2013 film The ABCs of Death, in which twenty-six different filmmakers were each assigned a letter of the alphabet and from that letter, they were given a list of possible titles. The filmmakers then created a short film based on their chosen title; the first short in the celluloid anthology being A is for Apocalypse.
Upon reading Parrish’s introduction in A is for Apocalypse, it was as I suspected – she had been inspired by The ABCs of Death and created this anthology in the same fashion. Parrish’s plan, as stated in her preface, is to create a series, twenty-six different anthologies each containing twenty-six stories, one story for every letter of the alphabet. As an ode to the film that inspired her, the title of each story isn’t revealed until its end, which made reading the stories a bit of a guessing game.
Every story in A is for Apocalypse revolves around the before, during or after of the end of the world. Whether this world is Earth or somewhere distant, whether the survivors are humans or something else, whether the story is told from the perspective of a human or something a little more sinister, there’s a fine balance of scenarios spanning cultures, timeframes and predicaments presented within the 300 or so pages.
In dealing with the human aspect of the Armageddon, a truly successful pre- or post-apocalyptic tale tends to delve into the study of human nature, mainly what would become of us, the human race? How would we survive? Suzanne van Rooyen’s F, Pete Aldin’s S and Cory Cone’s T stories are fine examples of how pressures of the post-apocalyptic world may bring some people well beyond their breaking point. BD Wilson’s L, Damien Angelica Walters’s U and Lilah Wild’s W stories touch upon the lengths some people will go to save the ones they love. Sara Cleto’s H, Kenneth Schneyer’s I, KV Taylor’s J and Alexis A. Hunter’s Y stories take the human emotions of the world ending and show them through the unlikely eyes of another.
With twenty-six different styles and voices, it’s a matter of opinion as to which ones stand up higher than the others. For me, I enjoyed KV Taylor’s well-paced J story, Gary B. Phillips’s hilarious K entry, Samantha Kymmell-Harvey’s beautiful V story, Lilah Wild’s thoughtful W story, and Alexis A. Hunter’s Y tale, which takes a horrible fad of a title and turns it into a wonderful story.
Just like the film, there are some hits and some misses, but with an assortment of plots and genres (some horror, some science fiction, even a few dabbling in romance and humour) there’s a little bit here for everyone. Fans of apocalyptic tales should find A is for Apocalypse entertaining and if Parrish follows suit with The ABCs of Death titles for the next instalment in her self-proclaimed “ABCs of Awesome” series (I second the motion!), I look forward to reading B is for Bigfoot.
Reviewed by David Goudsward
All the Shadows of the Rainbow begins in 1955. Diane Chilton is adjusting to changes that took place at the end of the previous book, including her own death. Diane is now a vampire. She returns to Boston after the Fae drive her from wallowing in self-pity in the Maine woods. An undead mage among the living, she searches for another vampire, beings so rare that even magic society doubts they exist.
The one minor issue with this book is that at times, the characters and references require familiarity with the previous book, The Longer the Fall (2010). The previous book introduced Diana Chilton as a magician in 1952 Boston who leaves her male-dominated order to attempt social change through magic. It did not end well for the attempt or the participants. Although Arthen does a remarkable job of gradually fleshing out these previous events without bogging the reader down in a ponderous recap, a little more background in the early chapters would have helped.
Diane went through her training with childhood friend Jack Garrett. He proposes that they start a secret coven and use their training and powers to subtly make the political and social changes Diane has long believed are necessary. With two other highly gifted magicians, they slowly begin manipulating people for the greater good. They begin to build a vast web of magical energy that allows them to determine where, when, and who to influence. As the 1950s become the 60s, Diane slowly begins to question the effectiveness of what they’re doing and whether she still trusts Garrett. Events in November, 1963 destroy the connection between the four, and they drift off on their own paths.
Alone again, Diane returns to her search for another of her kind. She finds Troy, a vampire in a commune starting an organic farm. Diane joins the commune, a haven as the 60s become a morass of drugs, violence and racism. Diane begins to suspect her former friend Jack Garrett has done the impossible—kept the coven’s magical web alive without the combined power of the coven, and his manipulating people is causing the violence and civil upheaval tearing apart the Age of Aquarius. Troy is leaving to follow a lead as to the origin of vampirism, but Diane realizes that she must stop Jack before he can usher in the end of modern society.
The story is taut, weaving historical events together with alternative, supernatural explanations. Diane does what she does, whether it is manipulating racists to change their minds, becoming a hippie, or helping the homeless with the sole purpose of bettering mankind, even though she no longer a member of humanity. Her decisions are agonized over, second-guessed and not always correct. Diane Chilton may be a vampire, but her humanity is never in question. It is a character worth knowing in a book worth reading.
Reviewed by Marvin Vernon
The best reason for buying Bleed, the emotionally moving anthology of horror fiction edited by Lori Michelle, is that the proceeds from the sale of the book goes to the National Children’s Cancer Society. The second best reason for buying it is that it is one of the best horror anthology I have read in a long time.
Bleed is a collection of 47 short works by known and lesser known authors in the horror genre. Most of the works are short fiction but there are about a half dozen essays and a few poems. The theme anthology focuses on the horror and devastation of cancer. This may sound depressing but Editor Lori Michelle does an amazing job of balancing the book with very different tales of horror, grief, emotional loss and even hope. Sometimes the tales are directly related to the illness. Sometimes the authors use fictional plagues or monsters to make the case. And in other stories, it is an allegory that may not connect right away but later as the story absorbs into your brain.
The first four works pretty much set the pace and shows Michelle’s deft handling of the topic. The introductory essay “True Horror” by Lori Michelle describes her experiences dealing with her son’s diagnosis and treatment of Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. It is followed by “With Paper Armour and Wooden Sword” by Tracie McBride, a piece of fantasy fiction that deals with the relentless devastation the disease brings to families and society. But once you finish it and are reeling from the power of the work, you get Bentley Little’s “The Addition” a very subtle and gentle horror tale that at first seems to have no connection until later when the message hits you. Then the pace is changed again with “Welcome to the World, Mister Smiles” by T. Fox Dunham, a horror tale that directly involves cancer and its treatment but with a terrifying twist.
From then on, the stories continue with much more variety then you would suspect for what appears to be a narrow theme. Yet the contributing writers display an abundant of imagination and a refined skill for portraying feelings of grief, loss powerlessness and, most importantly, hope. No story or essay is weak and if there are better pieces than others it comes from a comparison of strength rather than weaknesses.
There are a number of fictional works deserving special mention. “Sludge” by Stan Swanson is one of the more humorous of the stories and perhaps also a clever tribute to the film The Blob. It works best as a clever analogy. William F. Nolan’s “Descent” starts out quietly but quickly turns into a harrowing look at facing inevitable death. “Dreams of Shadows” by Robert S. Wilson is one of many stories in the collection that directly takes on the plight of childhood cancer yet it stands out as the most hopeful of the short fiction pieces. Rick Hautala’s “The Call” is a terribly beautiful tale of a son and father. It is one of my favorites and it bear extra significance considering the author’s demise in 2013. Some of the stories features cancer in the form of a sentient monster and “The Sallow Man” by Adam Millard especially stands out in that category. Finally, “No Limit” by Peter Giglio and S. S. Michael has a quirky kind of weirdness to it and if its connection to the anthology’s theme eludes me, it is still too good not to mention.
So overall, Bleed is an exceptional anthology with an unusual theme and fiction that rises over the average in terms of quality and substance. I highly recommend this book as one of the best anthologies you will find. And don’t forget that you will be donating to a good cause. It’s a win/win.
Edited by Alex Scully
The desert is a very hot place. Heat shimmers like a living thing as you gaze across vast stretches of more desert. That shimmer distorts your reality. It alters your perceptions. It can kill you. In Kate Jonez’s novella, Ceremony of Flies, the desert, with its oppressive heat and endless nothingness, serves as the perfect setting for a seemingly innocent decision with horrific consequences.
Two petty criminals, drifting from one desert town to another, make an innocent pit stop at a roadside bar. They’re full of dreams and schemes, but all they find is trouble when a stolen credit card leads to a brutal shooting. Fleeing into the “weird brownish haze” of the desert twilight, they come across a small boy and his dog at a lonely crossroads. Perhaps for the first time in their lives, they do “the right thing” and rescue the boy from the oppressive sand and rock. But as they flee toward Mexico to escape the law, they encounter forces far more dangerous than anyone with a badge.
The environment becomes a character as much as the human beings in Ceremony of Flies, and it gives the story a vivid backdrop. Images such as “the Joshua trees wave their twisted arms” and a desert “moonscape, unbroken in its desolate sameness” create an eerie parallel to the narrative. An evil rises from this endless desolation, and like the twisted desert trees, its distorted visage stands threateningly in the sea of emptiness. Jonez also uses the fly as a subtle symbol of the growing evil. In this inhospitable climate, the flies, and their master the Lord of the Flies, are the only living creatures to thrive.
Ceremony of Flies is disturbing on two levels. Taking the narrative at face value, Jonez paints a bleak picture of a coming doom that cannot be stopped. “This is the essence of the word disaster” as our protagonist tells us in the end. But there is another layer here. What if this is the tale of a madman? Can we believe our first-person narrator? What if Harvey, the little boy, is the fantasy of a demented mind? Jonez has skillfully crafted a dark and compelling story with multiple perspectives through the use of an unreliable narrator. Do we believe it? If it’s true, the consequences are horrific. If it’s not, we have travelled into a deeply disturbed mind. Both choices will leave with you nightmares, particularly in the shimmering heat of the desert during that haunted brown haze of twilight.
Reviewed by David Goudsward
There is something different about the North Shore of Massachusetts, something indefinably, but recognizably wrong that has fused itself to the essence of the land. It would be easy to dismiss this as some sort of lingering miasma from the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, but as Peter Muise’s new book carefully points out, Native American traditions of spirits and supernatural shenanigans predate that witch hysteria. Not convinced that Cape Ann and the North Shore have more weirdness per square inch than any self-respecting region should? Let us examine Muise’s book.
Salem Witches obviously are a feature, but Muise begins 50 years before that with the first witchcraft trials, then discusses Salem and the use of “spectral evidence,” and wraps up with the last witchcraft trial held in Salem, an 1878 case that, had it played through, could have derailed the Christian Science religious movement.
Being an area that made its fortune in the clipper ship China trade, it should be no surprise that the area is filled with tales of pirates and lost buried treasure. Muise has carefully selected some particularly odd tales, ranging from a lady pirate to a pickled pirate.
Although the entire book is a romp, Muise obviously had the most fun compiling the middle chapters; one is on weird locations associated with later legends of pirate caves, devil visitations, and that nice gentleman who had inspirational messages carved on rocks in the middle of nowhere; and another chapter is on local eccentrics, including the minister who tried to add the spark of life to a machine.
Muise wraps up the book with a lovely selection of cryptozoological tidbits: mermaids, werewolves, sea serpents and specters. Throw in a little H.P. Lovecraft, and dash of Cotton Mather, and you have an amazing debut book. Being somewhat familiar with the area, I sincerely hope this is the first in a series on the North Shore. Trust me, there’s more where this came from. Mr. Muise—get writing!
Reviewed by Marvin Vernon
Envision a world that reveres serial killers and treats them like rock stars. Would the dissenter be considered the true psychopath?
This was only one of the questions that came to mind while reading Garret Cook’s dystopic, very violent, and gloriously bizarre Murderland. In Murderland, Jeremy Jenkins is a pharmacist living in a world that worships serial killers. Fans and groupies call themselves names like Bundy Girls and Ripkids, wallow in a culture called Reap and hangs out at a Reap bar named Murderland. The government more than tolerates it creating safe zones where killer celebrities can hide in relative safety. The superstar of the psychopathic murderers has his own TV show. Even though the love of Jeremy’s life Cass is caught up in the fandom, he sees a bigger threat; robotic like “demons” controlling people and getting girls pregnant. Jeremy sees these creatures as in league with the entire Reap culture.
I don’t think it is a spoiler to say Jeremy has major issues of his own. But who would be crazier? A psychopathic society or a psychopathic murderer committed to taking down that society. The author is taking on a big task in this novel. It is foremost a horrific satire examining our society’s cultural obsession with the media, our worship of pop idols, and the exploitation of violence. There is more than a little anarchic playfulness amongst the terror and violence. Yet Cook throws in a love story (Cass isn’t all that together neither) and manages to keep the action flowing throughout the story. But here is where we get into a few problems. The first part of the novel reads like an exhilarating bizarro American Psycho in which the emphasis is on the two narrations; Jeremy’s and the voice in Jeremy’s head. Then the author adds the narrative of Cass which changes the focus. I miss the tension of Jeremy’s conflict as he questions his sanity. This part is lost to a certain extent and doesn’t come back until later in the book. In fact, the alternating of the three narrations can become a bit confusing. The task of balancing a love story, socio-political satire and a straight-out horror action tale becomes sometimes a little precarious and I wondered occasionally if the author was taking too much on in one story.
Yet there is more right than wrong here. If I was thrown a little by the middle, the author does manage to pull all parts together in a solid and definitive ending. Despite some issues, Murderland is the work of a young but brave writer who isn’t afraid to take on the societal big guns with his pen…or word processor or typewriter or computer or whatever those cheeky little author bastards are using nowadays. Murderland is an exciting but insightful novel and if it isn’t totally perfect it is close enough and is causing that copy of Garret Cook’s Time Pimp sitting on my desk to scream at me, “READ ME, DAMMIT!”
Reviewed by Marvin Vernon
In The Ninth Circle by Brendan Deneen, 16 year old Dan feels forgotten and neglected by his family with the exception of his older brother who torments him constantly. One day he is reluctantly dragged to the circus and become entranced with its mystery. “It’s not lame. It’s awesome,” He exclaims. He runs away to the circus and is accepted and protected by the ringmaster. Yet he finds that the circus hold torments of its own. He is considered an outsider and most of the performers are hostile to him. As the circus travels from Massachusetts to Louisiana, he discovers that each circus resident has their own torments and are living in their own version of hell. It is Dan’s unacknowledged quest to discover how and if he fits in as he negotiates this strange coming-of-age journey he finds himself in.
The Ninth Circle can be overwhelmingly depressing at times and parts are quite violent. Yet it can also be eerily beautiful in its descriptions of the circus and its misfit crew. The author’s somewhat episodic book plays out in “Cantos” rather than chapters. As the circus travels through the nine states, Dan becomes involves with the circus people whose reactions to him range from amused affection to violent hostility. Each has a tale and each has an affliction, whether emotional or physical, that coincides with their actions of the past.
Now if this is starting to sound strangely familiar, it is probably because you have read The Inferno by Dante Alighieri. There are nine states which the circus travels through correlating to Dante’s nine circles of hell. Many of the names of the characters in Inferno show up in The Ninth Circle, such as Guido, Horace, and Beatrice. Many of the novel’s characters suffer similar fates as their Dante counterparts. For instance, in Dante’s classic, fortune tellers’ heads are reversed so they are eternally forced to walk in a way they cannot see where they are going. Deneen’s fortune teller does not experience such a physical torture but her more realistic psychological suffering has the same result. The Ninth Circle is Brendan Deneen’s imaginative retelling of The Inferno set to the big top and peppered with the suffering of the damned. Dan is the visitor both hated and envied for his freedom to leave if he chooses and for the promise that he still holds in his young life. Dan experiences this circus inferno with both horror and bewilderment as he tries to understand. At the end, we do not really know what Dan has learned for he is still a child and, just like Dante’s visitor to Hell, he yet has the wisdom and experience to fit it all together.
Clearly readers of The Ninth Circle will gleam more from the book if they are familiar with Dante’s Inferno. Yet Deneen’s version holds up well on its own and a familiarity with Dante’s classic work is not totally essential to enjoy this fantasy horror novel. The author has a good grasp of the magical realism that permeates this strange circus world. Realism and fantasy mixes well in Deneen’s hands. The book also fits solidly in a sub-genre of carnival themed horror novels that includes Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Will Elliott’s The Pilo Family Circus.