Archive for Book Reviews

enteratyourownriskEnter at Your Own Risk: The End is the Beginning
Edited by Dr. Alex Scully
Firbolg Publishing
April 2014
Reviewed by Elaine Pascale

In the simpler time that was 2002, Stephen Patranek, editor-in-chief of Discover magazine, gave a Ted Talk on “The 10 Ways the World Could End.” Number 10: We lose the will to survive. Citing suicide rates and mental illness, Patranek paints a scenario wherein the human race basically dies of ennui.

Flash forward to 2015 and the anthology Enter at Your Own Risk: The End is the Beginning seems to share that sensibility. The characters of the stories are resigned about either their own demise or the death of our planet. The themes are culled from contemporary fears: environmental destruction; evolution gone wild; chemical spills; big, bad government—all of the key players of paranoia-induced insomnia.

Edited by Alex Scully, Enter at Your Own Risk is a lengthy, dense tome that mixes mostly new stories with offerings from the likes of Poe, Lovecraft, Mary Shelley, Hawthorne, etc. The classics are carefully selected so that they feel right at home in this contemporary anthology. In fact, all of the stories blend together seamlessly, showcasing Scully’s skill as an editor.

There is a common thread amongst the stories, most of which begin in medias res. Beneath the chaos, the paranoia, the desperation, there is an atmosphere of isolation. Despite stories containing several characters, there is a pervading loneliness. This is not as depressing as it sounds. In fact, I found many of the stories to be invigorating.

Some standouts: “Harvest” by Norman Patridge, is a surreal and magical way to kick off the anthology. Die Booth’s “Sphere Music,” and Gregory L. Norris’ “Every Seven Years, Give or Take,” handle that eerie concept of being attacked by vague and strange “others” in interesting and unique ways. I especially appreciate Booth’s take on tinnitus—a scary outcome for an annoying affliction. “There is No Wind That Always Blows” by Julianne Snow found me biting my lip, trying to read my way through the tension. The overarching bleakness of the titular wind is reminiscent of Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes, and the characters reliance on rope says much about the human condition. Michael Meeske’s “Feelers” sets survivor’s guilt on a lovely backdrop (Nantucket)—what a wonderful, yet horrible place to meet “the end.”

Even for rabid doomsday preppers, Enter at Your Own Risk is not for one sitting. There are some stories that offer much welcomed dark humor: “The Dreaded Hobblobs: A Heavy-Handed Fable for Short-Sighted Times” by Gary Braunbeck;” Nothing but Skin and Bones” by B.E. Scully; and “Her Living Corals” by Kenneth W. Cain, but overall it is a challenging book in terms of its quantity and depth of material. Enter at Your Own Risk is a high quality dystopian/apocalyptic anthology that would be more appropriate for the literary minded, as opposed to the “slasher” set.

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TheHeavenMakerandOtherGruesomeTalesThe Heaven Maker and Other Gruesome Tales
Craig Herbertson
Parallel Universe Publications
January, 2014
Reviewed by Matthew Scott Baker

The minute I laid eyes on the title, I knew I had to read this book. I didn’t know what a ‘heaven maker’ was or why it might be gruesome, but the mystery of these questions drew me in. I’m very glad I gave this one a shot, too…author Craig Herbertson has a vivid imagination rife with brutal originality and terrifying concepts. If you’re a fan of short horror fiction, put this book on your Must Own list.

If you are not familiar with The Heaven Maker and Other Gruesome Tales, here is the plot synopsis courtesy of Parallel Universe Publications:

A collection of Horror stories some of which have previously been published in the Pan Book of Horror Stories, the Black Book of Horror and Back from the Dead: the Legacy of the Pan Books of Horror. Included this collection are:

Timeless Love (originally published in Big Vault Advent Calendar 2011)
Synchronicity (originally published in Filthy Creations #2)
The Glowing Goblins (originally published in Auguries #16)
New Teacher (originally published in The Seventh Black Book of Horror)
The Janus Door
The Heaven Maker (originally published in The 29th Pan Book of Horror Stories)
The Waiting Game (originally published in Back from the Dead: The Legacy of the Pan Book of Horror Stories)
The Art of Confiscation
Gertrude
Not Waving
Spanish Suite (originally published in The Sixth Black Book of Horror)
The Anninglay Sundial
Soup (originally published in The Fourth Black Book of Horror)
A Game of Billiards (originally published in Tales from the Smoking Room)
The Navigator (originally published in Big Vault Advent Calendar 2011)
The Tasting
Steel Works
Liebniz’s Last Puzzle (originally published in The Fifth Black Book of Horror)
Big Cup, Wee Cup
Gifts (originally published in Big Vault Advent Calendar 2011)

I cheated a bit by not reading this book in order. I don’t suppose it really matters where you begin an anthology, but this time I jumped straight to “The Heaven Maker,” which is toward the middle of the book, and started there. This story set the whole tone for the book and is a perfect example of the horror found within it.

Each story in The Heaven Maker and Other Gruesome Tales is written well and flows at a nice, even pace. I commend on Herbertson for his pacing; some short story writers tend to rush sometimes and try to reach the punchline faster than they should. Not so here; Herbertson pulls the reader into each story from the beginning and then delivers a sucker punch when it is least expected.

One of my favorite stories in this collection is “Gifts,” a rather short tale measuring only a page and half in length. This one is told from Santa’s perspective one Christmas Eve, however something is different this year…and it might be a very bad kind of different. The imagery in this story is very vivid, and the twist ending is unnerving to say the least.

My sole complaint about The Heaven Maker and Other Gruesome Tales is from an editing standpoint. I ran across numerous typos and errors throughout the book, more so than I think any edited publication should contain, in my opinion. Granted, this did not detract from my enjoyment of the book, however I feel it worth mentioning.

Otherwise, The Heaven Maker and Other Gruesome Tales is a big win for me. This is a solid anthology with some interesting concepts and horrifying realities. The book is available now in a variety of formats.

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GulfsOfDreamfrontIn the Gulfs of Dream and Other Lovecraftian Tales
David Barker and W.H. Pugmire
Dark Renaissance Books
Reviewed by Michael R. Collings

While at a science fiction/fantasy conference some thirty-five years ago, I picked up a collection of tales by the estimable Gene Wolfe. I had not yet encountered his memorable Book of the New Sun tetralogy, so I must admit to having been drawn to the book primarily through its intentionally odd name: The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories, the last phrase being the critical one in hooking me. With a glance at the contents, I discovered that the titles of three key stories (a Nebula-award winner and two nominees) performed permutations on three words—island, doctor, and death: “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” not only hinted at a debt to H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau—another echo of which Brian W. Aldiss had just published as Moreau’s Other Island—but also set the stage for stories to follow: “The Doctor of Death Island” and “The Death of Dr. Island.”

In much the same way as Wolfe’s title did so long ago, the title of Barker and Pugmire’s latest collaboration intrigued me as it simultaneously identified genre (or sub-genre), inspiration, and important words. Or rather, types of words, since gulfs and dream prepare not only for the central novella, “In the Gulfs of Dream,” but also for such titles as “The Stairway in the Crypt”; “Among the Ghouls”; “The Temple of the Worm,” with its nod to Bram Stoker; “The Stone of Ubbo-Sathla”; “Within One Earthly Realm”; “A Dweller in Martian Darkness,” in which a one-word addition avoids a near-quotation from HPL; “Elder instincts”: “The One Dark Thought of Nib-Z’gat”; “Descent into Shadow and Light”; “The Horror in the Library”; and others.

My first reaction to the title and contents page echoed my reaction to The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories. On one hand, the overall title identified; on the other, it seemed slightly redundant—a collection featuring “In the Gulfs of Dream” and stories with such directly evocative titles could only be Lovecraftian.

My second reaction, however, was to brace for stories well beyond the lukewarm Lovecraft so frequently served up as new and ingenious. I have read and enjoyed other Barker-Pugmire efforts and thus anticipated more than simple imitation or clumsy pastiche. And the initial tale, “The Stairway in the Crypt” immediately fed that anticipation. The opening paragraphs paid homage not only to Lovecraft but also to Poe, through the introduction of a “beloved late wife” with the exotic name of Lunalae Kant née Morelle; an emotionally fraught internal monologue identified by copious use of italics; and a setting in a deserted New England cemetery. The tone, the atmosphere, the feeling was perfect Poe.

Until I hit the sentence, “I thought he was bullshitting me, but one look at his face told me otherwise,” followed by an slighting reference to “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”

Bullshitting! Really? In Poe?

I was startled for a moment at the apparent break in decorum. As the story progressed, however, it became clear that there was more involved than a mere drop in diction level. “The Stairway in the Crypt” alludes to Poe and Lovecraft, yes, but it is also about two authors, one whose imagination is saturated in things-Poe and another who is just as strongly a Lovecraftian. While each does not hesitate to speak in the language of his respective hero and bandy around such pointing terms as sepulcher, Marceline, windswept graveyard, melodramatically, and the always obliging eldritch, both introduce moments of raw, modern, colloquial diction into their dialogues. In effect, they consciously draw attention to one great similarity between their idols: their use of distinct, clearly recognizable, easily parodied styles.

This is important to the collection because almost without exception, while the stories incorporate plots, characters, treatments, themes, and images that resonate with readers of Lovecraft, they most obviously (at least for me as retired professor of literature and creative writing) function as vehicles for demonstrating language as horror, for the incremental revelation of the unknowable and indescribable, for the final moment of gorgeousness and allusion and suggestion that incorporates the entire horror. In other words, for approaching horror in precisely the way Lovecraft did. And as such, these stories are worthy successors to the master himself.

Indeed, as with Lovecraft, a number of the stories seem essentially plotless soliloquys, several only few pages long, one complete in less than two sides. Plotless, however, is not meant to imply pointless or empty. In Barker’s “The Horror in the Library,” a man reads an old book. That is basically the story. And yet…and yet, through the magic of evocation, allusion—of the sheer force and majesty of language—it succeeds as a crystallization, a distillation, an encapsulation of terror, repulsion, and dread.

I have focused on only one of many excellences of In the Gulfs of Dream and Other Lovecraftian Tales. The authors’ command of characterization (in the Lovecraftian sense of an often unstable first-person narrator enduring the impossible…right now); landscape, even when their quest for dreams and horrors leads them to a darkly Bradburian Mars; and pacing and momentum, whether for a short-short or a novella—all lend strength and convict to their storytelling. Haunters after darkness and fear will find much to recommend the book.

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May
18

Submerged – Book Review

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Submerged
Thomas F. Monteleone
Cemetery Dance Publications
2015; $40.00
Reviewed by Wayne C. Rogers

Don’t be alarmed by the price. This was a signed, limited hardcover that was published by Cemetery Dance Publications this year. The author has some regular trade hardcovers at his Borderlands website that he will personally inscribed for a lesser amount of money than the price of the above, plus the paperback edition is supposed to be out later this year.

I’ve been reading action/adventure novels since the early sixties. In other words, I’ve probably read close to 4,000 novels during the past five decades. The reason I mention this is that Submerged is right at the top of being one of the best novels I’ve ever read. I can think of only a few action/adventure books that excited me as much as this one did: Where Eagles Dare by Alistair MacLean, Raise the Titanic by Clive Cussler, Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth, and The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum. What a class of titles to be included in!

Submerged is a novel made up of two halves. The first half of the book is divided between a period of time right at the end of World War II and the present day. The second half basically takes place during the present.

Near the end of World War II, German Captain Erich Bruckner is given a secret assignment to take a newly developed submarine Class U-5001 on a trip across the Atlantic to bomb the United States in one last attempt for the Fuhrer to get the upper hand. The submarine has been fashioned so an airplane can take off from it. All the sub has to do is get within range of the East Coast of the USA so the plane can bomb either Washington, D.C. or New York City. But first, Bruckner is ordered to rescue several scientists from an ultra-secret station (Station One Eleven) that has been developing super weapons for the last several years. One of the new weapons includes what could be an atomic bomb. The only way into the station is through an underwater passage beneath the ice shelf of Greenland. What Erich Bruckner is about to experience will never leave his memory in the years to come.

Skip to the present.

Dexter Bucklin, an ex-Navy diver, is taking his class of six-rookie divers to a newly discovered wreck in the deep waters of the Chesapeake Bay. What they discover below is the wreck of the submarine U-5001. During the course of their search, Dex happens upon a sealed metal box, containing the Captain’s journal and papers in pristine condition. Once the ex-Navy diver is able to read the papers, he instinctively knows that something BIG is about to take place. His present life will never be the same once news of the discovery is announced.

The second half of the novel is a mad dash to the remains of Station One Eleven and the secrets that are hidden there, waiting to be found again by either the good guys or the bad. Rest assured that the bad guys will do whatever it takes to get this information and technology. Everyone’s life is expendable in the chase to gain control of what may be the greatest destructive power in the world.

Thomas F. Monteleone has written an action-packed novel that should place him at the top of The New York Times Bestseller List, but hardly anybody knows about the book because of its limited publication. I have to tell you, the reader, that this is the novel every action/adventure fan has been waiting for during the past three decades. Submerged will hook you in the first few pages and take you on a bullet-ride of fun, excitement and pure entertainment, while offering the reader a glimpse into the history books and the things Germany was up to before the United States finally defeated it.

I have to admit the writing is purely brilliant.

Tom Monteleone is an author’s author. He’s a pure wordsmith who is able to describe a scene in such crystal detail that you feel as if you’re there. That is tough to do. This not only makes the novel more vivid, but also more of a actual joy to read. Each time I picked up the novel and began to read a page or two, I found myself transported to a different reality, especially during the World War II submarine scenes. This certainly made me nostalgic for the late seventies when so many of the great action/adventure authors were still alive and at their peak.

Filled with numerous twists and turns that will have the reader guessing, Submerged is a must for the fans of action/adventure. It will have you wondering like I have just how much of this book is true and how much was filtered from the author’s imagination.

I certainly hope Thomas F. Monteleone will continue with another Dex Bucklin novel. He has started something that will have his fans shouting for more. Highly recommended to all lovers of great reading experiences!

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May
15

The Last Projector – Book Review

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the-last-projectorThe Last Projector
David James Keaton
Broken River Books
Sept 9, 2014
Reviewed by Tim Potter

The Last Projector is a hysterical and hypnotic slipstream of anachronism and anarchy. David James Keaton’s novel reads like a stream-of-consciousness scroll that bounces through time from the 1970s to the present, or even the future, though most of the story seems to be seated in some version of the American ‘80s. The characters are wild and the plot is fascinating, if at points it becomes nearly indecipherable, and the prose is razor sharp and laugh-out-loud funny.

Reluctant pornograhper Larry is one of the compelling, crazy and very human characters in the novel. Larry isn’t his real name. He’s a filmmaker dreaming of full-time TV commercial work and making a real movie, one on 35mm, while shooting porn and battling the seemingly unstoppable growth of tattoos on his actors bodies. It says something when the actor with breakfast, a Denny’s Grand Slam, inked on his head is the least problematic of the bunch. His name is Head Breakfast, not his real name, and “Hey, what could you do? Motherfucker loved breakfast.” Enough said.

Billy and Bully are two more of the colorful cast of characters. Their relationship is founded on stories of questionable veracity, discussions of movies of questionable reality and a grudge against law enforcement of questionable sanity. The characters make a deep study of neck bombs in film and the films of John Carpenter. They discuss the merits of the film work of Rowdy Roddy Piper. Billy sings to Bully his charmingly obscene theme song for his dog Shaft and makes insightful comments on Shaft In Africa. The then there’s the rap tribute to John Carpenter’s The Thing, “The Rap’s The Thing,” itself worth the price of admission.

This isn’t a novel for everybody, as it ranges from absurd to vague, brilliant to bizarre. Along the way, though, it never fails to be less than fascinating and Keaton’s command of his prose is honestly beautiful. It’s a book that demands that the reader work for every page, scene and chapter, to exert intellectual effort to understand every twist and revelation, and it is effort that is rewarded with a reading experience quite unlike any other. The Last Projector is a book that is tough to put down, and not just because the reader wants to find out what happens next, but because the reader will also want to try and find out what just happened.

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May
14

Aickman’s Heirs – Book Review

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aickman1Aickman’s Heirs
Edited by Simon Strantzas
Undertow Publications
2015
Reviewed by Mario Guslandi

A seminal author of several collections of “strange stories,” Robert Aickman is a cult writer worshipped by countless admirers (myself included) all over the world.

It was high time, therefore, to welcome the publication of an anthology of new stories inspired by the weird, inimitable atmospheres of Aickman’s body of work. Mind you, however, as editor Simon Strantzas aptly observes, the scope of the volume was definitely NOT to assemble mere Aickmanesque pastiches but to show how his offbeat fiction has been able to influence and kindle the literary output of a new generation of writers.

In this respect the book is already a success, but the result, in terms of quality of the included material, is exceptionally good.

Among the fifteen stories featured in this anthology (all of which are accomplished and quite interesting), I will focus on those that I consider superlative (actually the majority).

Brian Evensong’s “Seaside Town” is a truly Aickmanesque story depicting the odd vacation in a French seaside village (where nothing appears to be as it should) of a strangely matched couple, while Richard Gavin’s “Neithornor” is a subtly disturbing piece probing the secrets hidden behind bizarre, disquieting objects of arts, and DP Watt’s “A Delicate Craft” is an unsettling, cautionary tale about witchcraft.

Lynda E. Rucker contributes the deeply atmospheric “The Dying Season,” again featuring the crisis of a couple staying at a resort place, unfortunately off-season, when everything is empty, sad and a bit weird.

In the cruel, disquieting and puzzling “Underground Economy” by John Langan, a lap dancer’s life gets changed forever by unexpected, unfathomable events and in the fascinating “The Book That Finds You,” Lisa Tuttle admirably describes the efforts of a book lover pursuing the scarce (and somehow dangerous) work of an elusive writer.

Helen Marshall displays once again her great talent as a storyteller in “A Vault of Heaven,” a splendid story portraying a man who, during a staying in Greece, learns the real meaning of beauty.

Daniel Mills provides “The Lake,” a beautiful, insightful tale about the subtle melancholy of life and of childhood turning into adulthood, and about the terrors buried in the depth of the human soul.

Finally, Nina Allan, in her outstanding , bewildering novelette “A Change of Scene,” describes the ambiguous friendship between two widows taking a vacation together in a village by the sea where some unpleasant truths lay hidden.

Other contributors to this superb, highly recommended anthology are John Howard, David Nickle, Nadia Bulkin, Michael Cisco,Michael Wehunt and Malcolm Devlin.

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abrams-bridgeAbram’s Bridge
Glenn Rolfe
Samhain Publishing
January 15th, 2015
Reviewed by Marvin Vernon

Glenn Rolfe’s novella Abram’s Bridge isn’t really horror. It is more of a supernatural thriller. Nothing jumps out at you, you probably won’t have any sleepless nights, and your wimpy significant other can read it without acclaiming, “How can you read this scary stuff?”

Instead, we have a somewhat old-fashioned ghost story set in a small town with more than a dash of “coming-of-age.” It is actually a nice break from zombies and vampires to read about a ghost, and a young sweet one at that, yet the author does manage to evoke a good amount of suspense in this short but entertaining tale.

Ronald “Lil’ Ron” Sawyer is living with his father, Greg Sawyer, and grandmother after his parent’s tumultuous divorce. They have moved to his father’s hometown and Greg has taken to drinking heavily. Ron spends much of the time staying away from his home and exploring the town and its rural environment. Under a bridge by a creek, he finds a young girl who we quickly learn is a ghost. When Ron finds out the girl was murdered, he becomes obsessed with discovering who killed her even though he is afraid where his search may lead him.

As far as ghost stories go, it is a rather predictable one. Yet Rolfe makes it interesting and manages to eke out a good amount of suspense. The best thing about it is the way the author is able to maintain a small town atmosphere where everyone knows each other and secrets do not remain well hidden. As I understand it, this is Glenn Rolfe’s first published story and it is a very nice debut. The coming-of-age feel is light, yet it is there as Ron comes to terms with a secret that most a boys his age do not have to deal with.

But I wanted a bit more twist in the story. It was too predictable and straightforward at times, with the mystery’s solution too easily and too early discovered. There still is a lot to like in this combination ghost story / mystery combination. It will be interesting to see where Rolfe’s imagination takes him next time.

Note: A review copy was provided by one of our sponsors. 

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