Archive for Book Reviews

Mar
02

The Damned – Book Review

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the-damnedThe Damned
Andrew Pyper
Gallery Books
February, 2015
Reviewed by Josh Black

Hot off the heels of his bestselling 2013 novel The Demonologist, Andrew Pyper returns with a novel about death, life, and the ways we’re haunted in each of them. Building on some of the themes that characterize Pyper’s recent output, The Damned is another rock-solid entry into an already impressive oeuvre.

At sixteen, Danny Orchard and his sociopathic twin sister Ashleigh died in a fire. For whatever reason Danny came back, and Ashleigh isn’t happy about it. Two decades after the fire, Danny is the author of a best-selling memoir describing his experience on the other side, and the unwitting progenitor of a nationwide “support group” for people who have had near-death experiences.

Having lived most of his life alone thanks to the interference of Ashleigh’s highly possessive spirit, he manages to meet someone, fall in love and get married. His wife and stepson are the world to him, and his sister intends on destroying that world. Ashleigh soon becomes able to affect things in a very physical way. From this point on the tension ramps up and the story moves at a brisk clip. Things escalate so quickly that, midway through, readers may find themselves wondering how half a book remains to be read.

Structurally it’s an interesting book. It’s divided into three parts, with a brief epilogue to wrap things up. The first part deals with Danny’s past, the second with his current predicament. Hints of the film Insidious run throughout the novel, and the final act goes into territory that typically isn’t traversed in horror fiction with as much detail as it is here. The ghostly surreality of the whole thing bears echoes of T.M. Wright’s writing. Even considering these similarities, Pyper’s novel is very much his own, and fans of those types of stories will have that much more incentive to read it.

The Damned is a thrill ride to be sure, but it’s one that’s not afraid to explore some big issues. It explores the biggest ones, really – life and death, with Danny and Ashleigh respectively symbolizing each one. They’re no mere caricatures, though. They’re complex characters (even Ashleigh is disarmingly sympathetic at times), moving through a plot-focused narrative. There’s a vivid, cinematic quality to the writing, particularly in some of the more nightmarish settings, and the story shifts seamlessly from dark family drama to detective fiction to horror, all with tightly written and nuanced prose.

This is the kind of book that can unsettle, anger, and bring you to tears, sometimes all at once. It’s a cerebral read that still delves into our universal, primal fears and concerns. Simply put, The Damned is a consistently engaging thriller that readers of dark fiction shouldn’t pass up.

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Curse-MummyThe Curse of the Mummy
Maynard Sims
Hersham Horror Books
January, 2015
Reviewed by Mario Guslandi

Len Maynard and Mick Sims (now simply Maynard Sims) are a widely known, well respected British duo, authors of countless short stories, novellas and novels in the dark fiction area. Their work ranges from horror to crime, from thrillers to supernatural stories. In addition, they have been successful editors and publishers in the above genres.

It’s no secret that they have constantly been included in my personal list of favorite writers for a long time (although, admittedly, not the whole body of their work has met my approval), so any new product of their fertile creative minds triggers my unconditioned interest.

The Curse of the Mummy, the first in a series of six novelettes devoted to the revival of classical monsters to be published by Hersham Horror Books, is penned by Maynard Sims, whose task is to put new life (pun intended) into the time honored theme of Egyptian mummies.

In just fifty-one pages, the authors offer a very original take of the subject by recreating the atmosphere of post-war London and portraying a young actress, now sadly unemployed, desperately trying to find work who ends up grudgingly accepting a job on stage as a simple tableau vivant. Unexpectedly, the job includes, as an extra bonus, not only a true friendship with a fellow “actress,” but also the romantic interest of a young male singer who starts to court her.

For those of you who wonder what on earth all this has to do with mummies, I strongly advise to buy and read the book. Never fear, you’ll meet the Mummy all right, but I don’t want to spoil the pleasure of discovering how and why.

Needless to say the story is beautifully written, the narrative style is engrossing, the characters nicely drawn and the dialogues effectively shaped. Everything is delightful and up to the expectations of the most demanding readers (including myself).

 

 

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the-glittering-worldThe Glittering World
Robert Levy
Gallery Books
February, 2015
Reviewed by Josh Black

Robert Levy’s debut novel is a difficult one to classify. Billed by the publisher as a supernatural thriller (which it unequivocally is), it also sporadically plunges headlong into contemporary fantasy, mystery, fairy tale, and what could be described as rural noir. There’s much going on here, but it works, and at its core The Glittering World is really a love story that’s fantastic in every sense of the word.

Michael Whitley (also known as Blue) and three close friends have left New York to go and settle some of Michael’s late grandmother’s affairs in Starling Cove, a small community in Nova Scotia, Canada. It’s the first time Michael’s been to Starling Cove since his mother fled there with him when he was a child. His memories of the place and its strange denizens are tenuous, but soon begin to return unbidden. As this happens, against his better judgment and the counsel of others, he’s drawn with an almost magnetic propulsion to the nearby woods, which hold secrets of their own.

Complicating things further is the magnetic pull Michael himself seems to have on his longtime friend Elisa, and Gabe, the young man enamored with and devoted to Michael. Somewhere in the middle of this is Jason, Elisa’s husband. As much as this may sound like a typical love triangle (or square) shoehorned in, it’s anything but. The attraction and relationships between the characters are part of the backbone of the plot and integral to the story’s supernatural aspects.

The main characters are impeccably drawn and very much likable, flaws and all. Each of the book’s four sections is written from a different perspective, and each character has a distinctive voice that moves the plot quickly along while deepening and slowly unraveling its mysteries and unexpected twists.

The story goes to some very dark places, both fantastical and of a more realistic variety. The creatures inhabiting the woods and the ground beneath are at once beautiful and terrifying, familiar and alien, but the Starling Cove locals have some monstrous aspects in their own shared history. There’s a heavy emphasis on the bonds of family in its many forms, and even the human element here is imbued with a palpable sense of magic.

The inviting cadence of the prose makes many of the sentences a pleasure to read in themselves. This, along with Levy’s attention to character and the magical within the mundane, makes for a book that’s hard to put down. More than the sum of its parts, The Glittering World is one of those all-too-rare books that’s compelling on so many levels you’re not likely to want to put it down until it’s finished anyway. Recommended.

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you-might-just-make-it-out-of-this-aliveYou Might Just Make it Out of This Alive
Garrett Cook
Eraserhead Press
January 17, 2015
Reviewed by Marvin Vernon

I must admit Garrett Cook sometimes exhausts me. His writings usually goes at breakneck speed. The imagery is nonstop as well as the sex and violence. A Garrett Cook story is not for the easily offensive. Yet the exhaustion is much the same as a roller coaster where you are left with your heart in your throat, your stomach in your mouth and you are screaming “Let’s go again! Again!”.

You can’t say the author doesn’t warn you. His new collection of short fiction is appropriately titled You Might Just Make it Out of This Alive. It is a trip down the literary rabbit hole. The fiction of Garrett Cook has a manic dadaism reminiscence of Manga as drawn by Dali and directed by Bunuel. The strangest stories are crowded with run-away images, like the first one, “Re-Mancipator,” where a plague of Lincoln Zombies are hunted down by John Wilkes Booth and Marilyn Monroe. Other stories in the collection that feature this Bizarro overload include “The Adventures of Blackmetal Bjorn and Accomplice Boy…in Technicolor!” and “Dieselpig.” Cook definitely knows how to write catchy titles. Yet while these are fun pieces destined to boil your brain, they seem to wear you out quickly. Unlike his almost-a-novel Time Pimp, where he takes time in his manic storm to create a full world, the ideas in these stories speed through without time to simmer, somewhat destroying any nuances. But they are still amazing pieces of strangeness that I highly recommend.

Yet there are some stories in the collection that seem more than flashy comic masterpieces. They show a more nuanced side without sacrificing the weirdness, the sex and the violence. Most of them involve intimacy, often meaning both the pursuit and the fear of, which seems to be a constant theme in Cook’s works. “Beast with Two Backs” still haunts me. Using the image of the freak show, it explores the merging and ripping of psyches in sex.

“Along the Crease” seems somewhat similar and may be my favorite story in the book. It follows a relation that could end the world, as our protagonists are warned of by the angels. How does one respond? Do they become altruistic and ignore their own needs or indulge in an act that will fulfill them while insuring mass destruction? It is a heady story that succeeds through Cook’s intense Bizarro style.

The nice thing about the author is that whether he throws out all rules in a psychedelic cartoon smorgasbord or explores those dark and scary corners of our psyches, he is still Garrett Cook. He is unique. Sex and violence permeate every tale and is always part of the Cook landscape. There are plenty of good stories here and just a couple head-scratchers. Other tales I like include “The Donor” which disturbs me to review because I have to say “sensitive,” “beautiful” and “cannibalism” all in the same sentence. There is also “Hit and Fun” which is sort of like a father and son tale, yet sort of not.

The bottom line is that the author knows how to write. He also knows how to scare you and baffle you and revels in doing both in the same story. If Garrett’s images and manic writing gets ahead of him occasionally, don’t worry. The next story will pull you back in and, if lucky, you might just make it out of this alive.

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Feb
23

Pray for Darkness – Book Review

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pray_cover_amazon_200Pray for Darkness
James Michael Rice
Self-published
November 19, 2014
Reviewed by Matthew Scott Baker

The thrill of the unknown is a big part of what makes reading horror so much fun. Whether it’s the unknown thing lurking around our closet, people disappearing from a specific location for an unknown reason, or even undiscovered horrors just waiting to be found, this fear of not knowing is a primal instinct deeply rooted in our brains. Author James Michael Rice exploits this fear with his latest novel, Pray for Darkness. And while the concept of his story might sound simple, there’s much more going on than what might appear on the surface.

If you are not familiar with Pray for Darkness, here is the plot synopsis:

The Amazon Jungle. Early explorers called it the Green Hell, and for good reason. Consisting of more than a billion acres of untamed wilderness, the Amazon is a place of fragile beauty… and unspeakable danger. When Ben Sawyer and his friends embark on an adventure tour in a remote section of the jungle, they plan on having the trip of a lifetime. But when their riverboat captain is murdered, leaving them stranded, their dream vacation rapidly tailspins into a nightmarish battle for survival. Something sinister has been watching them, stalking them under cover of darkness. Something that will not allow them to leave the jungle alive…

I love stories that are based in places like the Amazon. This is based partly on the fact I’ve never been there myself, and partly because there’s so much about places like it that we still don’t understand. Locations like this can remind us as a species that we might not necessarily know all that we think we do.

Pray for Darkness is well written and flows at a smooth pace for the most part. The beginning starts off a bit slow for me, but it doesn’t take long before the pace picks up and things start to happen. And when the crap hits the proverbial fan, the book takes off with a boom and never lets up.

The characters are believable and fleshed out to the point of realism. I’m glad to see typical stereotypes in stories like this, as they actually tend to add a level of credibility to the story. Seems like horror books and movies with certain archetypes in them are more enjoyable to me for some reason. Maybe it’s because some of the more asinine characters eventually get their just desserts.

The storyline of Pray for Darkness is inventive and original, a nice trek into the darkness of mankind’s limited understanding of planet Earth. I will not divulge anything that is not mentioned in the synopsis so as not to ruin the surprise, but I will state I love concepts like this. Rice is a talented and imaginative storyteller, and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Pray for Darkness is a great book, and I recommend giving it a look. With a riveting plot and inventive concepts, this is one novel horror fans will want to snatch up soon. It is available now in a variety of formats.

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creepy-archives-volume-21Creepy Archives Volume 21
Various authors
Dark Horse Books
February 24, 2015
Reviewed by Tim Potter

Creepy Archives Volume 21 continues Dark Horse Publishing’s excellent series of Warren Comics reprints. This volume, containing the collected issues of Creepy #99-103, brings readers stories originally published in the second half of 1978. The stories are varied and often fascinating as one would expect from the numerous comic book icons who contributed to these stories. The art is presented in striking transfers, and though mainly black and white like the original magazine, this volume also features a few color stories starting with one in issue #100. The color stories here were presented in color in 1978, though not as sharp and clear as the colors in this edition.

This collection is a constant source of entertainment beginning with the collect edition cover, a beautiful full color illustration by comic legend Richard Corben. Paul Tobin, writer of the current Dark Horse horror comic Colder provides a personal introduction to the edition, reflecting back on his personal experiences with horror comics in the 1970s. Five issues follow, each with its own special theme, be it demons or sea stories and monsters. Each issue also has the original “Dear Uncle Creepy” feature that opened each issue and features reader mail commenting on a previous issue. Also reprinted are the one-page editorials titled “The Comic Books” by Joe Brancatell, in which he discusses issues relating to the comic books industry and arts. Especially fascinating is his take on the 1978 Congressional Copyright Act, which greatly changed the relationship between publishers of comics and their creators and continues to be important today.

Issue #99 is billed as the “Earth-Shattering Disasters Issue!”. From nuclear weapons to noise pollution, there are six tales of life ending tragedy. “A Case of Overkill” is a highlight, commenting on the Cold War arms race while telling a science-fiction adventure.

Issue #100 celebrates its anniversary by presenting a full-color story, “Winner Take All”, by Swamp Thing co-creator Len Wein, a tale of high adventure in the tradition of Robert E. Howard. Also in this issue are great stories from writer Bruce Jones, a devilish tale of a she-wolf, and “They’re Going To Be Turning Out the Lights”, an interesting alternate-history take on the (at the time) recent New York City blackout.

Issue #101 is the “Jaws of Death” special issue, capitalizing on the shark-craze started by Peter Benchley’s book and the subsequent movies. In the first story, a two-part tale “In Deep” about a couple lost at sea, Bruce Jones’s main character credits Benchley and the films, within the context of the story. Another color story is featured here, the strangely fantastic “Waterbabies”, with great art with startlingly bright color. The closing story of this issue, “Alternate Paths” features a very Twilight Zone-esque yarn about the dangers of science-gone-wrong and has a deliciously ironic conclusion.

Issue #102 is billed as the “Giant All-Monster Issue” and features monsters of all shape and size. “Pantomime At Sea” is a fun start to the issue about a crew filming a monster movie at sea that goes, inevitably, arwy. One of the real gems of the entire collection, “Killer Claw”, appears in this issue with art by industry legends Walt Simonson and Klaus Jensen. It’s a no-nonsense creature feature with striking visuals. The collection closes with the shortest, and story-wise the weakest, issue.

Issue #103 features only a few stories under the heading “Demon-Beasts Unleashed”. “Bookworm” by veteran writer Gerald (Gerry) Conway gives us characters searching for magic in a vast library of ancient tomes. Also interesting are the witch-scorned-revenge-curse tale “On Little Cat Feet!” and the interesting “Lucky Stiff”.

There are only a few weaknesses with this collected volume, chief among them unfortunate racial content, terms and generalities that were acceptable in 1978 that aren’t acceptable today. The art, luckily few times, also uses some racial caricatures that wouldn’t pass muster today. While these issues can be uncomfortable to read, they are a relic of the time and can serve to show how far issues of race have come in the past decades. The other soft-spot is in the consistency of the stories. While almost all are interesting there are a few stories that just aren’t very good. This is a common, if not ever-present, problem with collections like this, and Creepy Archives Volume 21 is more consistent than most. One other inclusion in the reprints are a real treat: the house advertisements. There is a priceless ad for Creepy and Eerie men’s underwear, tighty-whities briefs with the magazine logos on the front. One wonders just how many pair they managed to sell. From posters of classic monsters to make-up kits and back issues of Creepy and Eerie, the ads really give the reader the feel of holding an original issue of the comic in their hands. Reprinting some of the finest and most interesting comic book material from the late 1970s, Creepy Archives Volume 21 is a great success.

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the-revenant-of-rebecca-pascalThe Revenant of Rebecca Pascal
David Barker and W. H. Pugmire

Dark Renaissance Books
December 10th, 2014
Reviewed by Dr. Alex Scully

Fans of Lovecraft will cherish David Barker and W. H. Pugmire’s latest release, The Revenant of Rebecca Pascal. Set in Lovecraft’s fictional Arkham, the tale contains the classic Lovecraftian details: creepy settings, bizarre (and often inexplicable) characterizations, the supernatural, and of course, Miskatonic University.

While many Lovecraft-inspired tales rely too heavily on Lovecraft himself and risk drifting into the lack-of-originality zone, The Revenant of Rebecca Pascal skillfully avoids that trap. Barker and Pugmire have chosen the ghost motif to explore Lovecraft’s themes rather than the more traditional “monster” narrative of which H.P. is most famous. The center of the story is a disturbing old mansion in Arkham. Richard Pascal inherits the place, and decides to become a bit of a dandy. He spends his days reading and wandering amidst the eclectic collection of souls at a local café. Things are not as they seem, however, and Pascal quickly finds himself in the middle of bizarre and frightening events. Haunted by prophetic dreams and visits from his dead aunt, he goes to war with a revenant bent on resurrecting an elder god.

Barker and Pugmire know their Lovecraft. The cadence of the writing style feels like H.P. Lovecraft, while at the same time, manages to feel modern and fresh. Some readers will balk at the style, hindered by its grammatical complexities, but for readers relishing something more than staccato dialogue linking action scenes together, this is it.

One need not be familiar with Lovecraft to enjoy The Revenant of Rebecca Pascal, but it does help. The story is a marvelous Gothic ghost tale, and the Lovecraftian elements can feel at odds with that structure, particularly to one not familiar with their original context. Lovecraft acknowledged that his writing was driven by monsters and not characters, thus parting ways with the Gothic writers of previous decades. Barker and Pugmire walk a fine line between the 1800s literary tradition and Lovecraft’s interwar period for most of the work, but the monster aspect to the Lovecraftian style dominates by the end. In spite of this shift, The Revenant of Rebecca Pascal is a well-crafted tale that will please fans of the Gothic and the Lovecraft camp. With illustrations from Erin Wells, this is a novella worthy of multiple reads.

 

 

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