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Crooked House – Book Review

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crooked-houseCrooked House
Joe McKinney
Dark Regions Press
Reviewed by Michael R. Collings

Joe McKinney’s Crooked House has all of the elements necessary for a successful…and deeply eerie…tale of a haunted house.

It has a central family, in this case two parents and a child, the parents keeping their own secrets while working to hold the small group together. Individually and as a whole, they are fragile, their reality verging upon becoming a nightmare. For Dr. Robert Bell, the impending catastrophe takes the form of an onslaught of bills that he will never be able to meet, coupled with just having lost his teaching job at a Florida university due to a “catastrophic meltdown.” For his wife, Sarah, it is the persistent threat that her daughter’s natural father will somehow convince the courts to grant him full custody. For both of them, it is the sense that their lives, their marriage, their fundamental connections to each other are unraveling.

Into their darkness comes a sudden offer of redemption: a new position at Lightner University in San Antonio (which is, by the way, a wonderfully suitable name). And with it comes the unexpected bonus of free housing, not in some stereotypical cookie-cutter unit but in a house that is indisputably a mansion. And here the true nightmare begins to insinuate itself. The house, while “simple, even elegantly so” and not unattractive in spite of its fourteen bedrooms, conservatory, formal entrance, and all of the other trappings associated with wealth and power, is…well, crooked. Bell’s first reaction is that it is haunted. In light of his immediate impression, he is wary: “I’ve read my Henry James, my Shirley Jackson. Christ, I even read The Shining. This place is crawling with ghosts, isn’t it?” Then he enters.

And there it is, the sine qua non of haunted-house fictions, the notorious Bad Place that systematically attempts to destroy those who enter.

Even though Crook House—named for its builder—is located in an upscale part of San Antonio, it is as isolated and as isolating as the Overlook Hotel or Hill House, although more psychologically than physically. From the moment Bell walks in, he feels uncomfortable, out of his element, and weighted down by a wrongness that has nothing to do with Crook House’s size or checkered past. And every moment he spends within its walls, every moment that Sarah and their daughter Angela spend there, something essential is leached from them, altering the personalities and their relationships. Most of the story takes place inside; and those passages that do not merely emphasize the extent of the changes taking place.

The story covers nine days, concluding on Christmas Eve day. In those nine days, McKinney methodically strips the characters bare, penetrating the secrets they have struggled to keep, and setting up a series of devastating revelations, the repercussions of which echo backward and forward, contorting every assumption that Bell, Sarah, and the readers have made about the family and their abrupt good fortune.

The ending is appropriately savage, bloody, and ultimately discomfiting. McKinney has learned well from James, Jackson, and King; the story concludes with a certain ambiguity, an uncertainty that locks the story firmly into the uncanny. It is not, perhaps, a just ending, certainly not a Pollyanna ending, but it is entirely appropriate to this particular Bad Place, to the cast of characters and their complex interactions, and to the histories—those alluded to and those in part developed—that form the backdrop of Crook House.

Crooked House is a seamless read, riveting from the first page to the last…and in some important ways, unsettling from the introductory quotations from Nathaniel Hawthorne, Anne Rivers Siddons, and D.H. Lawrence. Everything about the book compels interest; emphasizes darkness and dread, isolation and disintegration; and results in a solid reading experience.

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The Uncanny Reader – Book Review

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the-uncanny-readerThe Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows
Edited by Marjorie Sandor
St. Martin’s Griffin
February 2015
Reviewed by Michael R. Collings

Over the past several years, I have enjoyed the opportunity of reviewing a number of anthologies relating to dark fantasy, to speculative fiction, to horror. Many of them have been outstanding, collecting stories that stand as high points in their specific sub-genres, moments of high artistry by their authors.

Of these many, however, two stand out as particular milestones.

The first is Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural (1944), edited by Herbert A. Wise and Phyllis Fraser. This book is important to me for two reasons. First, it was my initial introduction to the breadth and depth of dark fiction, stimulating my imagination in ways that would have been inconceivable had I not read it. I can still remember individual moments when certain stories “came together”—when language, images, and ideas fused so perfectly that I experienced the physiological frisson that is the hallmark of the finest horror. And, as noted in the review, I still have my copy of that book on my shelf where I can easily find it. The second reason is that it is, quite simply, one of the finest compilations of historical horror available; in 1944, to be sure, it was considered cutting-edge but by 1967, when I purchased my copy, it was already the sine qua non for neophyte readers. Anyone interested in tracing how horror came to where it is today would do well to begin with Great Tales.

The second remarkable anthology is A Darke Phantastique: Encounters with the Uncanny and Other Magical Things (2014), edited by Jason V. Brock. In key ways, it seems the Great Tales of the twenty-first century, collecting contemporary stories that mark definitive shifts in society; in ethics and morality; in language and expression; in attitudes among individuals, tribes, and peoples—all clothed in the cloak of indeterminacy and exploration. It seems in its own way as much on the track toward classic-status as the Wise and Fraser collection.

And now, there is a third, one that encompasses the dimensions of both, displaying not only more fine fictions but a clear sense of how they came about, their ancestry, and their world-wide interest.

The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows, edited by Marjorie Sandor, collects thirty-one tales from nineteenth-, twentieth-, and twenty-first-century writers, beginning with E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Sand-man” (1817) and concluding with Karen Russell’s “Haunting Olivia” (2006). Along the way, it pays due homage to the greats: Poe, Bierce, Chekhov, Kafka, Lovecraft, Jackson, Oates—names without which the collection could not pretend to completeness. At the same time, however, it introduces readers to less-familiar stories by men and women; stories originating in English and stories translated from a number of other languages; stories from the US and the UK and more traditional European nations and stories from Egypt, Germany, Russia, Sweden, Uruguay, and Zambia. At over 550 pages, the collection represents the finest of nearly two centuries of investigating “Shadows.”

For such a massive book, the cover price seems more than fair; even more so since Sandor’s “Unraveling: An Introduction” is well worth the cover price alone for its exquisite care in defining—delimiting and mapping—the extent of the “uncanny.” Quite properly, she begins by examining her term: Uncanny, ‘seemingly supernatural’ or ‘mysterious.’ Immediately she pauses on one word…seemingly, identifying it as the key to the entire collection.

Seemingly. Inherent uncertainty of outcome. Stories that, set in realistic landscapes with realistic characters, nonetheless end in hesitation, ambiguity, indecision. And in spite of that—or better, perhaps—because of that, they satisfy more completely than self-contained, self-explanatory stories might not. If on the one hand, a clear resolution would indicate the supernatural, and on the other the natural or realistic, in between lies the possibility of both…or neither.

These are, in effect, Schrödinger’s Box stories…only no one actually lifts the lid at the end to discover either the corpse or the living cat.

These are, as Sandor tells us, stories about potentialities:

When something that should have remained hidden has come out into the open

When we feel as if something primitive has occurred in a modern and secular context

When we feel uncertainty as to whether we have encountered a human or an automaton

When the inanimate appears animate. Or when something animate appears inanimate

When something familiar happens in an unfamiliar context

Conversely, when something strange happens in a familiar context….

And on…and on.

Although tempted to talk about favorites (and there are many), I decided not to in this case. Merely presenting the skeleton of a story is often enough to diffuse the eeriness within, and at other times would require my bringing my version of resolution to a story that intentionally does not have one. Suffice it to say, each story is one-of-a-kind tale-telling that may seem to lead in a specific direction but that might…just might…carry the reader into uncomfortable, disquieting, occasionally frightening, always intriguing directions.

Open the book and give it a try.

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power-tools-in-the-sacred-grovePower Tools in the Sacred Grove (Book 2 in the Camp Arcana series)
Josef Matulich
Post Mortem Press
May 19, 2015
Reviewed by David Goudsward

As the first book, Camp Arcanum (2014) ends, contractor Marc Sindri has encountered yet another delay in the construction of the ren faire village in Arcanum, Ohio. This particular delay involves Sindri barely surviving an invisible tentacled demon’s enthusiastic attempts to render him into a pile of chopped meat with a tool belt. The demon was summoned by Jeremiah Stone, a professor of demonology and metaphysics at the local college. Stone also is the evil ex of Brenwyn, head of the local Wiccan coven and the romantic interest of the contractor.

As book two opens, Sindri is attempting to convalesce, made all the more difficult by his construction timetable disintegrating and the sexual tension with Brenwyn. But Marc Sindri is a hard man to kill – almost as hard to kill as Jeremiah Stone. But even as Stone remains a threat, a more looming threat is the growing relationship between witch and contractor. Both have emotional baggage and neither is inclined to share. Instead, it comes out in small bits, threatening to poison the relationship. Throw in construction orders being sabotaged, undead skinless vermin, OSHA looking at his jobsite, the Vatican’s curiosity about his miraculous recovery, and a return visit from Stone, and Sindri is beginning to think being eviscerated by the Qliphotic demon may not have been the worst idea on the table.

Author Matulich continues his relentless quest for the perfect balance between cleavers and cleavage. And he successfully keeps that delicate balance between horror and horrific puns; in other words, there is no sophomore jinx here, merely sophomoric humor. And there is definitely the hint of a third book, which is good news to the readers, if not for a certain contractor who is discovering that swinging a shovel at your problems will only get you so far in Arcanum.




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beyondNightlightFrontBeyond the Nightlight
Various Authors
A Murder of Storytellers
December 8, 2014
Reviewed by Matthew Scott Baker

Although I’m a huge fan of zombies, I have to confess: monsters in general are my true love when it comes to fiction and films. Monsters represent all that is unknown, and they spark a deeply rooted primal fear within us. For that reason, they scare the hell of me. And I love them for it. So when I got the chance to review Beyond the Nightlight, an anthology of horrific tales of bedtime, I was ecstatic. I sat down last week and started reading. To my surprise, I tore through the book and finished it in one sitting. It is that good. Every story in this anthology is a winner, a terrifying gem in a nightmarish goldmine. If you don’t peek over the covers in fear at night after reading this book, you must be related to one of the monstrosities mentioned within its pages.

If you are not familiar with Beyond the Nightlight, here is the plot synopsis courtesy of A Murder of Storytellers:

Fears fade as years pass. They are never as salient or real as they were when you were a child. Unless they are. Though these terrors stem from children, the stories are not for them. From the dark to boogeymen to real life horrors, there is no innocence here. Featuring stories from Adrian Ludens, Alex Schvartsman, Adan Ramie, James Michael Shoberg, Jill Corddry, Robin Kirk, Kurt Newton, Stanley Webb, Shannon Iwanski, Kristin J Cooper, Eric Blair, Amanda Davis, Michael Schutz-Ryan, Lonnie Bricker, Stephanie Madan, Jack Burgos, John Biggs, Kerry B. Black, M.J. Pack, Shenoa Carroll-Bradd, Ian Shoebridge, Mary Pletsch, Lisa Finch, and Douglas Ford covering everything from the monsters under the bed, to the skeletons in the closet, and all of the little fears and insecurities that drive people to become monsters.

I am very impressed with the talent in this book. I only recognize a couple of names (I had the distinct pleasure of reviewing one of Adian Ludens’ own anthologies a while back), but every author is skilled and worth reading. I would daresay the literary world will be hearing many of their names as well in the future.

Every story in Beyond the Nightlight is written well and flows nicely. Each topic skillfully compliments the subject of the anthology, and there is no dead weight in terms of content. I can say with all honesty I enjoyed every story in this book.

One of my favorite stories is “Bad Mother” by Kristin J. Cooper. In this tale, a woman heads to her son’s room to put him to bed, but instead finds him holding back an attack from a monster in his wardrobe. The young hero helps her escape, but the two discover more horrors awaiting them. This is probably my favorite piece in the whole book.  It is crazy intense and horrifying (especially the ending!).

Another favorite is “Sam” by Shenoa Carroll-Bradd. This simple story tells of one mother’s “love” for her children. I am awed at how this story can be so short, but it conveys SO MUCH with so little. This is a true testament to the immense talent of the author.

Beyond the Nightlight is a huge win for me, and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes to be scared before bedtime. Be warned, however: you will definitely lose some sleep after reading these tales. The book is available now in a variety of formats, so pick it up now.

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Doll Face – Book Review

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doll-faceDoll Face
Tim Curran
March 3rd, 2015
Reviewed by Tim Potter

Doll Face is a fast, brutal hallucination of a horror novel. Tim Curran creates some visceral horror with this tale of a town possessed by an indescribable evil that can only be overcome by facing it down. The characters, a group of average young adults out looking for a good time, are thrust into a town of terror after their car breaks down. That typical premise leads directly into a unique set of challenges and terrors the characters will have to survive. The wild horrors include a giant monster composed completely of charred doll parts, a spider and its web large enough to ensnare a person and “evil clown puppets.”

Each character faces their own trials to overcome to survive the nightmare town, trials that are specific to their fears and pathologies. The reader learns more about the characters through the horrors they have to face down than through traditional exposition. It’s a fascinating storytelling device and is, for the most part, successful.

The story’s second act, where the characters overcome their presented challenges, is a bit long, mainly due to the fact that only the two main protagonists and the villain are fully realized as flesh and blood characters. The supporting cast is relatively average; the characters are more stereotypes than unique players in the story. The two main characters, though, are well-rendered and feel very real, and the horrors they face serve to make them more believable. The horrors work even with the lesser supporting characters, but more as chills and thrills than as character development. Interestingly, as the story is wrapping up, the author addresses the fact that most of the characters are two-dimensional within the context of the narrative, and it’s an interesting moment, one that makes the reader reevaluate the character’s role in the narrative as a whole.

The villain is great, she’s referred to as the Controller, the puppet master and Mother Crow at various times. She is an interesting iteration of the Wizard of Oz character archetype, a “pay no attention to the person behind the curtain” power player. By the end, the reader is truly invested in the remaining characters and the outcome of their final showdown with evil. After reading this novel I feel confident that few, if any readers, will be calling anyone by the pet-name “doll face” any time soon.

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Misery-Death-and-Everything-DepressingMisery and Death and Everything Depressing
C. V. Hunt
Grindhouse Press
December 16th, 2014
Reviewed by Marvin P. Vernon

If you are looking for stories full of happiness and life and everything Disney, then C. V. Hunt is probably not the one to run to. She doesn’t just dwell in the shadows but in a deep dark cave. With a flashlight. But no batteries.

Yet that doesn’t mean Misery and Death and Everything Depressing doesn’t have its moments of humor, albeit very dark. It is also full of deep reflection and makes you think a bit about what an odd deal this thing called “life” is. Something that is often defined not by the light but by the ever-threatening and sometimes overwhelming darkness. C.V. Hunt may be called a writer of horror but I find her to be an astute observer of human nature who wraps her insight in the blackest paper she can find.

There are seven pieces of fiction in this 134 page book. While some of her previous fiction has a surreal Bizarro tint to them, these stories seem more engulfed in real life, even when a supernatural or impossible situation comes up.

“The Quarry” reads like a crime noir where two misfits commit a crime. Yet we are shocked by the ending even though the author was clever enough to give us a hint at the beginning. “No Room for a Child” may be the closest thing to a traditional horror or ghost tale and it is a really good one with a twist only Hunt can conjure up. “Human Contact” goes a different way. It is a “slice of life” story that I would expect to find in a typical literary journal. It touches on the issue of human intimacy in a disturbing but thoughtful way. But the mini-masterpiece in the collection is “Baby Hater.” It is the type of story that repulses you yet keep you enthralled to the end. You may even feel a little scared that you are actually identifying with the protagonist…and you just might. This tale alone is worth the price of admission and more.

I wish I could say they all work but there are a few that don’t, at least in my mind. “To Say Mother Teresa Was shocked When She Woke Up In Hell Would Be An Understatement” is a great title but it houses a brief story that is basically a one punch jab. “Last Woman on Earth” is essentially a suicide story with little to distinguish it despite the interesting apocalyptic set-up. And “The Last Entry” grabbed me from the beginning yet left me hanging. Probably intentionally but hanging nonetheless.

Yet the rest of the fiction more than makes up for them and shows Hunt at her best, especially that devilish awesome “Baby Hater.” This would be a good introduction to Hunt’s complex but depressing world as it shows off a number of her strengths and her ability in several genres. A highly recommended read to those who wish to discover an under-recognized writer.

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cover60610-mediumDark Screams: Volume Two
Stories by Robert R. McCammon, Norman Prentiss, Shawntelle Madison, Graham Masterton, and Richard Christian Matheson

Edited by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar
Hydra (an imprint of Random House)
March 3, 2015
Reviewed by William Grabowski

Hydra’s second volume in their Dark Screams series is an exemplary follow-up, again presenting five works by masterful storytellers.

Three of the five are original to this anthology, and the reprints (McCammon’s “The Deep End,” first published in Night Visions IV [1987]; Matheson’s 1997 “Whatever”) are obscure enough to ensure that most readers will be coming to them fresh. I twice interviewed Robert R. McCammon for The Horror Show magazine, and was very pleased when he returned from a long hiatus.

“The Deep End” combines his strengths in characterization, vivid—often poetic, but never purple—descriptions, and frightening imaginative power. Glenn Calder and wife Linda mourn the loss, ruled accidental, of their 16-year-old son, Neil. Glenn, unconvinced the death was an accident, stakes out the location. Others have died here too, and Glenn imagines his son’s voice guiding him to some grim truth—or has grief and guilt simply driven him out of his mind? McCammon portrays with emotional and psychological realism the claustrophobic affect and singular anguish of grief, and (like Ramsey Campbell) blurs thresholds between individual fantasies and physicality. A grim, startling story.

From grim to grimmer, Norman Prentiss’ “Interval” explores our deepest suspicions and fears about air safety; the particular loneliness and isolation (yet privacy-violating) of airports. Flight 1137 has broken radio contact, gone missing…or something. Those waiting to pick up family, relatives, friends, etc., must rely on airline authorities either to assuage anxieties or—much, much worse—confirm them. The group waiting, gathered into a special room with refreshments and an updating wall-screen, do their best not to make eye-contact, fearing this might somehow realize what they’re all thinking. It’s impossible to say more without spoiling this chilling piece, but Prentiss’ prose will get under your skin, and put you in that terrible “Interval” between dread and destiny.

Shawntelle Madison is new to me, and I hope you’ll enjoy her “If These Walls Could Talk” as much as I did. Madison’s narrative unfolds with calm, reasonable precision, where set-designer Eleanor, assistant Gail and team, have driven from NYC to an expansive Victorian in southern Maine to prepare interiors for a film-production crew. Not one to compare authors, in this case I think pointing out echoes of Shirley Jackson and Gillian Flynn (two not dissimilar writers) will hurt no one. Checked in with home-owner Patrick, Ellie and Gail find more repairs and coverups (pun there) than expected, and get down to serious work. A horrifying discovery confirms rumors of the house’s past, unseating Ellie’s devastating childhood memories of abuse. Amid chill rain, plaster work, and other tasks, one of the crew vanishes. Affairs do not improve, no matter Ellie’s glib denial. After what she’s survived, very little is capable of drilling into her psyche. Except, perhaps, people who might have suffered even more than her. Madison displays wide knowledge of genre, and renders all too vividly the churn of memory and emotion haunting our lives. She is definitely on my favorites list.

Horror legend Graham Masterton’s “The Night Hider” is a more traditional—but no less creepy—tale mingling pulp convention with psychological horror. If King’s Night Shift collection had been an anthology, “The Night Hider” would have been a seamless fit. Young Dawn, overworked from a restaurant job, is jarred awake by menacing sounds and—worse—a rancid odor of something burning. At first she writes these off to hypnagogic states, but later has a more solid encounter with a horrid form she fears is residing in her recently obtained antique wardrobe. Boyfriend Jerry is both empathetic and skeptical, and soon loses one of those qualities. Dawn tracks the wardrobe’s origin, and discovers its true influence. I’ve always admired Masterton’s skill at evoking visceral supernatural threat, as he did in Mirror (1988), The Djinn (1977) and many others.

Richard Christian Matheson, known for the haiku-like brevity of his fiction, ironically gives us the longest story here. “Whatever” provides fly-on-the-wall access to iconic rock band Whatever, their various side projects, solos, lovers, drugs of choice, and everything you’d expect to see from an internationally acclaimed band from roughly 1969 to 1980—replete with letters, album reviews, in-house sparring, overdoses, memos, and (really powerful) lyrics. Matheson’s fragmented time-line results in an accumulative effect, and future events throw back shadows into the present, lending insight into why so-and-so behaved in a certain way. A drummer himself, and veteran of many bands, Matheson spares nothing and no one, baring music business realities (cynical no-talents grabbing attention; genuine talent and vision crucified to the Money Machine) capable of twisting artists into doing practically anything to gain entrance and adulation…or escape.

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