Monday, April 17, 2017

Abduction and survival

Doll House

By John Hunt

Publisher: Black Rose Writing

Pub. Date: January 19, 2017

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


 Suspense novels that deal with abduction, torture, and rape have a fine line to tread. The good ones must shock and scare but not cross over the line into gratuitousness. At the beginning of the novel I worried Doll House would do just that. It is certainly shocking and gruesome but John Hunt manages something quite impressive. The gory descriptions of violence do manage to shock but they also serve to strengthen the character and her resolve to overcome her ordeal. Doll House eventually becomes a story of bravery and perseverance.

We meet Olivia and her father on the first page They are likeable and admirable people. Olivia is headed to college yet almost immediately she is abducted. That sets up the nightmare and the reader is thrown into a whirlwind of violence and terror. The author does a brilliant bit of paradox as Olivia is imprisoned in a room that is almost all pink. It's like a pretty doll house which is the farthest thing to that which she will be subjected to. That contradiction nicely serves to disorient the reader to the emotions and actions that will follow.

If this nightmare continued through the entire book it just may be too much for most people. Fortunately , through incidents that will remain unspoken to prevent spoilers, we do get a reprieve from the horrors. That does not mean the tension is over. The suspense is still carried on by Hunt's excellent storytelling skills and the book becomes more of a mystery and a portrayal of physical and emotional survival. But what keeps this tale so riveting is the relationship between the characters. Olivia and her father is the linchpin but even seemingly less important interactions like that of the victims (Yes, there's more than one victim. I'll let that little teaser out!) and even the interaction between the kidnapper are important.

A good horror-suspense tale to some extent must make the reader uncomfortable. It is about those things you do not want to experience in real life. Horror and suspense are indeed cathartic. Hunt packs a huge punch in this book, teetering over the boundary sometimes perhaps, but redeems himself by making the protagonist of the novel someone you cannot help but root for. Doll House is the first great suspense novel I've read this year.

Friday, April 14, 2017

A House is not a home

Liquid Status

By Bradley Sands

Publisher: Rooster Republic Press 

Pub. date: February 23, 2017

 Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


 Bradley Sands' previous books are bizarro with a strong touch of comic madness. They made sense and yet they didn't and that was fine because that was the joy of the ride. Yet the author's works to me seemed to want to be a bit more than that at times. He packs a good sense of surrealism and Dada right next to the humor. His new novella Liquid Status appears a lot more serious, breaking partially free of that comic feel that I both admired yet felt it perhaps limited his potential. In 76 pages, the potential becomes gloriously limitless.

Liquid Status starts with the death of a grandmother. The family is not given a name except for Mom, Dad, and the sons Paul and Matt. We are immediately told that the family has rules mostly originating from Mom. Yet when Grandma, as we know her, dies not only are the rules of the family dissolved but also the rules of nature and physics. We are introduced to the impossible. The family is thrown into isolation from the outlying world and trapped in the house. The front door disappears. Matt becomes a cardboard box. Bodies change consciousness. And on and on as the impossible becomes possible and randomness looks for a meaning.

What is this all about? At times it feels like stream of consciousness but I suspect it all has some form of structure and meaning to the author. A rigid family is thrown into chaos. Their horror is in the lack of control and alienation from their once meaningful world. House and family are becoming inseparable in both a physical and a emotional sense. For a short novella, there is a lot packed into these pages

As much as I loved the author's previous books there seems to be a maturing here. There is still humor but the humor is both dark and more intimate. Liquid Status may seem weird to the unsuspecting reader but it is a joy to read, massaging the intellect and baffling the imagination on every page. This comes with a high recommendation even if you may like your fiction a bit more grounded in mundane reality.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The evil within

Exorcist Falls

 By Jonathan Janz

Publisher: Sinister Grin Pres

Pub. Date: March 15, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This publication of Exorcist Falls is actually two books. It starts with the previously published novella Exorcist Road and continues with the longer original novel Exorcist Falls. But they should be read as one book as Exorcist Falls starts two nights later and continues the suspense and horror already pouring out of the first work.

And when I say “Pouring” I mean a torrential downpour. The book gets right to the point on page one and doesn’t let up. We meet Father Jason Crowder as his friend and parishioner Danny Hartmann asks him to go to his brother’s house on a late raining night. Ron Hartman’s fourteen year old son Casey has attacked his family. Normally a priest wouldn’t be needed for such a problem but Casey is doing more than being violent. There is a serial killer loose and Casey is talking about things only the serial killer would know. Casey may be the Sweet Sixteen Serial Killer.

From here the novella and novel escalates into a dizzying combination of demonic possession horror and supernatural mystery. Is Casey possessed? Is he really the serial killer? The first question is answered quickly as Father Crowder calls in his mentor Father Sutherland and they prepare for the exorcism. The second question gets more interesting as red herrings and accusations fly constantly. Of course demons never make anything easy.

The first novella, Exorcist Road, takes place during the night of the exorcism and there is a clear ending in which we find out much about the possession and the murders. The title novel, as previously stated, starts two nights later. The problem is that any description of its plot will spoil portions of the novella so it is enough to say that the flow of the action blends seamlessly. Father Crowder is battling both demon and serial killer while fearing for both his body and soul. There are more clever turns all the way to the end.

I find exorcism thrillers to be a curious breed of horror novel. They focus on the most intimate of fears. The evil inside us. To some extent, they are comforting. Our dark secrets can be blamed on the supernatural, the demon inside us. If only it was that easy. Jonathan Janz gives us a turn by dealing with both horrors, that of the supernatural and that which is our own choosing, and suggests that maybe they are not all that separable. He does this in a tight well-structured plot and with a sharp eye for action and dialogue. If the action feels a bit too forced at times with its many twists and coincidences, it is easy to forgive when one’s words flow so easily on the pages. Exorcist Falls is a riveting horror thriller about supernatural horrors but and also the more mundane horrors of the human condition.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Killer Flowers


By Ray Garton

Publisher: RGB Publishing

Pub. Date: October 26, 2016

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Flowers that kill. I've read a few science fiction books with a plot centering on such a contrary idea. The most famous novel of this variety has to be Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham although it is a toss up whether the real nightmare in the book is man eating plants, stumbling blindly (literally) through the apocalypse, or listening to long winded lectures about how to deal with these dilemmas.

In Ray Garton's novella Crawlers, you don't have to worry about making such choices. It's killer flowers all the way down. In Mount Crag, it is the morning after a meteor shower and the townspeople wake up to burnt spots on the ground with unusual flowers growing out of them . They are all over town and at first they are simply a curiosity, looking more artificial than real. But it doesn't take long for the plants to show a more sinister side. Crawling attacking flowers with a terrible side effect becomes the order of the day.

Like I said. It's fun and seems more like the old science fiction horror films of the 60s and 70s. In fact, the author acknowledges this in his foreword. The consensus is that this is a quick read that excels in entertaining and has more than a few thrills. Like anything by Garton, it is well written and delivers. It appears Mount Crag is a setting for a few of Garton's tales so I wouldn't advise moving there in the near future. Just enjoy this horror adventure and smell the roses while you can.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Joys of short fiction!

The Man in the Palace Theater

 By Ray Garton


Publisher:  RGB Publishing 

Pub Date: June 29, 2012

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


One of the nice developments in Kindle reading is its suitability for singly distributed short fiction. Before eBooks, if one wanted to read a recommended short story, one had to hunt down or borrow the magazine it was published in or find a collection with that particular story. The only exception was publications of chapbooks, a small limited printing of that one short work which was usually sold to collectors for a pretty price and rarely becoming accessible to the casual readers. But with the advent of the Kindle ebooks, and Amazon's strange but effective distribution system it is simple to distribute a work of short fiction for a nominal charge, usually being one or two dollars. This theoretically enables many to read a brief essay or short fiction piece that would be hard to find otherwise and/or simply forgotten.

The Man in the Palace Theater by Ray Garton is a good example of this. It was published originally as a limited edition chapbook. However it can now be had as an Kindle eBook for pocket change, 99 cents at last glimpse, and worth every penny even at the equivalence of 20 plus pages. In the short tale, John Bellows has been missing for a while but shows up unexpectedly at his friend's work. He convince her to go with him to see something he says is amazing. She reluctantly follows him, knowing he has been through a number of problems and is concerned for his physical and mental health. He takes her to an old abandoned theater, the Palace Theater of the tale's title. What he expects her to see and what happens makes up for the rest of the story.

And therein lies the gist of this short tale. It is difficult to explain any more without giving it away. But like many horror stories, there is a great deal of psychological tension in it. John is indeed a man of many misfortunes. Has the effects of his misfortunes led to the events that take place? This is one of those stories where it is not always certain what is supernatural and that is psychological. In fact, can they always be separated? I would submit, after reading this story, that what is supernatural is not necessarily the biggest horror.

If you haven't discover the joy of obtaining single short fiction on your kindle, this would be a great piece to start with. Ray Garton is an established writer with an impressive literary resume. His Live Girls is my pick for one of the best, and possibly the most underrated, vampire novels in decades. This short work, even in its brevity, shows many of the skills which makes Garton an author worth reading. Give it a try. For 99 cents, It's a steal.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Werewolves in New Orleans

The Wild Harmonic

By Beth W. Patterson

Publisher: Hidden World Books

Pub Date: November1, 2016

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

Birch “Buzz” MacKinley is a musician playing bass at the many music venues in New Orleans. Due to her troubled past and a closely guarded secret, she finds herself usually alone and trusting of few until she meets Rowan and his fellow musicians. She discovers she is not the only werewolf in town. In fact, there are many different forms of shapeshifters in existence living in a world and culture she never knew before. She also finds there is a growing danger around her and her new friends that exists side by side with her new companions.

In The Wild Harmonic, author Beth W. Patterson has created a rather different society of werewolves than we may be familiar with. In Patterson’s society of shapeshifters, werewolves tend to be especially good in particular careers like music and the helping professions. One of Buzz’s lycanthropic companions is a nun. But Buzz is particularly drawn to a pack that is into music and that is where this story gets its strengths. A musician herself, the author has a deep understanding of the power of music. Music is often involved in rituals seeking higher realms of existence and, in this novel, Patterson combines the two to create a rather unique combination of tune and growl so to speak. Without disparaging any of the author’s seemingly considerable skills, I think it is safe to say Patterson is a musician who writes rather than a writer who plays music. Her expertise and love for the music comes out that strong in both her writing style and her descriptions of the characters.

This is an interesting take on the werewolf tale with some rather intriguing complications. Rowan’s pack is only part of a bigger scenario. There is a danger lurking as shapeshifters disappear or are found dead. While Buzz is slowly becoming able to trust her pack mates, she discovers that not everyone who is a werewolf or another type of shapeshifter is on the same side. Hence, we have the conflict that moves the plot along.

Two things make The Wild Harmonic work, the hidden culture and society of the shapeshifters which I have already mentioned and the alternately fragile and strong character of Buzz. She is indeed shown as fragile at the beginning, isolated but grounded in her music. Then she meets Rowan. Glimpses of a paranormal romance show up and Buzz spends a lot of time pining over what may be unattainable. But Buzz becomes strong on her own and how that happens is an essential part of the story. It is not lost on me that Buzz is a bass player. Anyone who has worked as a musician and played in a substantial number of bands (raises hand) know that the bassist is the soul and anchor of a group and that was not lost on me as I discovered how the character of Buzz develops.

So we have a novel that is one part fantasy epic and one part paranormal romance with neither drowning out the other. But for me there is something missing. The horror is missing. While we have werewolves, other shapeshifters, and a looming threat, the tension seem to be missing. So much of the story is in setting up the culture and the musical and philosophical tones that we lose the horror. When we finally come in contact with the threat it is too late to regain it and, frankly, it is a little cartoonish and predictable for my taste. I wanted more old scares and less New Age. But what is there is quite substantial and entertaining. It is still a smart fantasy that will please most readers. Even though it is a standalone novel I think we may see Buzz again if the author has her way.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Gives a new meaning to "frozen with fear"

The Winter Over

By Matthew Iden

Publisher: Thomas & Mercer 

Pub. Date: February 1, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


  The first thing I recommend if you plan to read The Winter Over by Matthew Iden, is to turn your thermostat up. You are bound to feel more chilled than usual as you read this mystery/adventure novel set in the nine month long winter of Antarctica. The biggest strength of Iden's thriller is how he makes the dark and cold Antarctic environment and the seclusion of those inhabiting a research station come alive. The detail he puts in describing the compound and all the work needed to keep something like that operating is quite impressive. And they become very important details as we continue reading.

Cassie is a new worker at the Shackleton station. She is a hired as a vehicle mechanic but takes on a number of tasks in the station as many of the maintenance workers do. There is a bit of a class chasm between maintenance crew and scientists but the station keeps operating well despite of it. The long winter is about to start and the overall staff has been cut down to about 40 to keep the station going throughout the dark months and the well under freezing temperatures. The last plane is about to leave and there will be no way to leave the station after that. It's a yearly event which no one worries too much about except there is a seemingly accidental death just days before the last plane leaves. Cassie discovers some things to make her wonder about that death but it is not until well into the dark and cold isolation that she starts to put it all together.

I'm tempted to be corny and say, "But is it too late?" but won't because I think you get the idea. This is one of those stories that benefit from the reader knowing little about it before they dive into the pages. In basic plot ideas, The Winter Over is essentially one of those mysteries in which a finite number of people are trapped and you are wondering if any will make it out. But there are quite a few differences in this particular "And Then There Were None" scenario, of which many would make Agatha Christie envious. Iden spends a lot of time setting the scene well through half of the book. This leads a number of readers to call the book slow but I would rather call it " well planned". It isn't a case of "nothing happened" as much as a lot of little things are happening. Sooner or later though, all of frozen hell breaks out and it all makes sense. Lots of hints are scattered about and I suspect the savvy mystery buff will figure it out by the halfway point. Yet it is a very satisfying mystery that is weaved around a tight and well conceived setting. Like i said. Keep that thermostat up.

Many might consider this novel typical of a summer read and if you live in the desert like i do, it would probably a wise one when the temperature gauge hits 12oF.. But it's early in the year so let's call this a winter read perfect for around the fireplace. It is sort of a "Who Goes There?/The Thing" without the alien although there are monsters of a variety, the kind you meet every day. Mystery and adventure fans in particular will like this but anyone who loves good storytelling should give it a try.