Friday, July 31, 2015

A game of life and death in the Mojave Desert


By Vicki Petterson

Publisher: Gallery Books 

Pub. Date: July 7, 2015

Rating: 2 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

In Vicki Pettersson's novel Swerve, it takes hardly any time to cut to the chase. In the first chapter, Kristine Rush and her fiance Daniel are driving out of their hometown of Las Vegas, through the blistering hot Mojave desert, and eventually headed to Daniel's family cabin on Big Bear Lake. They stop at a desolate roadside rest so Kristine can change out of her work clothes and she is attacked by an assailant in the restroom. She is able to escape but discovers that Daniel has been abducted. This sets the tone for the rest of the novel which is an extended cat and mouse style game between abductor and Kristine.

It is a thrilling ride for the reader as they follow Kristine who has absolutely no idea why anyone would take Daniel and then subject her to the strange and violent torments to come. That is of course the mystery of the tale and what drives the first half of the novel. That first half is quite thrilling as the stakes become higher and Kristine becomes entrenched in a deadly game with a sadistic killer. Then comes the second half where everything is turned on its head not necessarily in a good way. It is difficult to describe my disappointment with the turn of events without giving it away except to say if you keep up with the latest bestselling thrillers you will have seen this before. But even if you do not know what happens, there is a serious perception twist that didn't sit well for me. The second half reads just as fast and furious and you still root for the underdog but it was too much of a flip-flop with no warning signs before you hit the road bump. We are asked to accept that the very smart and capable Kristine is essentially unable to pick up the clues that had to appear in her life, and are finally meticulously revealed to us, or we can simply accept that the writer is laying out too many unrealistic scenarios and expecting the reader to just accept them. I'll go with the latter.

It's too bad because Swerve is actually a well written and well paced suspense novel. I did care and root for Christine but more in the first half than the second. The novel's best quality is that it is a creative mix of road trip and kidnap thriller. It is an enjoyable read and is likely to do well with the summer vacationers and beach readers. I am sure that for many this will be a cant-put-down reading experience. But for me it is a riveting first half which eventually leads to the author squandering any credibility in the second half. It is one of those frustrating books that will entertain you throughout but may have you shaking your head by the end.

Monday, July 27, 2015

An update on an old fairytale monster


By David Bernstein


Publisher:  Samhain Publishing 

Pub. Date: August 4, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


In reading Goblins by David Bernstein, a strange word kept creeping up in my mind…Fun. In the horror genre it is not always the first word that comes to mind when a reviewer places those words on paper. Creepy, scary, shocking, etc. Reviewers of horror literature tend to gravitate to words like that. But fun? Why not? After all what many non-horror readers do not get is that Horror with a capital H may be an escape, a way to face our fears, a way to illuminate the dark aspects of our existence but it is always meant to be entertaining. And sometimes it is just fun.

That is how I see David Bernstein. He is a fun writer. In his last work Skinner he took an old horror movie cliche and put his own roller coaster spin on it. In Goblins, he throws together a couple of ideas. First he introduces us to an old fairytale stalwart and ups the ante. He then adds a twist with an explanation involving Roanoke Island and its mysterious phrase, “Croatoan” giving us a new version of an historical mystery. And it is all fun.

Goblins starts out innocently enough at a Little League baseball game. So much so that I got the idea I may be reading a young adult novel. That thought is quickly dispelled when one of the players goes into the woods to find a lost ball and disappears. It only gets creepier as the missing boy, or perhaps a different version of that boy, returns home to murder his parents. Small town sheriff Marcus Hale suspects something more insidious than a missing boy and a murder and as the murders escalate he discovers he is correct. Asides from having an imaginative and offbeat plot, the author does something else that is admirable, he gives us an involving and realistic protagonist in Sheriff Hale, a man who came to a small town from Chicago to escape the big city complexities of law enforcement only to be thrown into something worst. In a fast paced horror novel it is good to have a character that anchors it and keeps you caring.

The other strength is the goblins themselves. Bernstein’s goblins turn out to be a form of twisted fairy tale creature that owe more to Edward Lee than The Brothers Grimm. They are revolting, terrifying and demonic. We eventually get the back story from an unlikely sort and it weaves the rest of the novel together. The tie-in to Roanoke is a bit far-fetched yet credible enough for a fantastical horror tale. It was not something I felt was essential to the telling. Yet in the long run it did add an extra dimension.

Overall, Goblins is an enjoyable scary read that will entertain and perhaps keep a few lights on all night. It is not an intense read nor a heavy handed psychological horror novel. No new territory is claimed here but old territory is gloriously expanded. Both Skinner and Goblins seem like lead candidates for movie options since they have that non-stop action feel. Of the two, I think Goblins is the more successful if only because the author takes more risks in it. Goblins is a funhouse of a novel. Sometimes that is not only enough but exactly what we need. David Bernstein means to scare us and entertain us with his scary books and he may be the best writer around to do exactly that.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Antique dealer vs vampires

The Fifth House of the Heart

by Ben Tripp

Publisher: Gallery Books

Pub. Date: July 28, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Asmodeus “Sax” Saxon-Tang is an aging antiques dealer who just outbid a woman on an over-priced antique clock in an auction. Later that night the clock is stolen and the watchman for Sax’s warehouse is murdered. Sax knows who wanted the clock and who would be willing to kill for it. Vampires! For Sax has tangled with them before. What he doesn’t know is why nor does he know that the particular vampire who would have a motive to steal it is the one who almost killed him before. Now Sax, despite his age and what he sees as having a natural cowardice tendency which is only beaten by his greed, will assemble a team and reclaim his prize even though he knows it may be the last thing he will do.

That is the starting premise of The Fifth House of the Heart which may be one of best vampire novels in years. It is certainly a trifle different than the recent horde of undead fiction. Tripp has already had his fling recasting zombies in the unconventional Rise Again novels and he seems to want to do the same thing with vampires. The author‘s vampires are close enough to be familiar but have their own little variations that make them different and interesting. Tripp’s vampires are ancient, basically natural creatures who are practically ageless yet they are, for the most part, solitary and vicious with a vain urge to collect priceless relics of the past which explains why an antique dealer would risk his life pursuing them. Crosses and garlic do not work but Sax and his fellow vampire hunters have their own special arsenal to battle the creatures’ unique physiology. And therein lies the clue to the book’s title.

But while Tripp’s take on vampires is intriguing, it is Saxon-Tang himself that pulls the story together. Sax is aging, vain, and a self-proclaimed coward. Yet his love for his work and his pronounced greed tempts him into putting his life at risk several times. It also places himself in the radar of the vampires. The third person narration is usually in the perspective of Sax so we gets a good perspective of his motives and his own conflictual views of his life and his goals. It is that conflict that drives his mission while he seeks out help from the Catholic Church, worries about his niece who seems to be the only person that can pull him out of his self-centered thoughts, and lusts after the young monk that the church orders to accompany him on his quest.

The action in The Fifth House of the Heart is impeccable, moving at lightning speed. It is the best part of the book. Two scenes take place as flashbacks, one in 1965 and another in 1989. The rest of the book, and the climatic ending, takes place in present day. It is these very exciting parts of the novel that highlight one of the book’s weakness. Once the horror is done, much of the rest of the novel seems like set-ups for the thrills. We follow Sax’s journey and his collection of his team yet despite some very clever writing and dialog we yearn for the meaty parts. Except for the young monk Paolo, the rest of the team feels like filler.

Fortunately when all is done and bled, there ends up more meat than fat. Sax may have flaws and be slightly sleazy but he is very clever and sometimes wise. He embodies us older people who are set in our ways yet still have room for improvement. I just hope I do not need to battle vampires to find that improvement. Overall The Fifth House of the Heart is a welcome addition to the vampire genre and if it tends to drag a little too much in parts for my taste, it is still a rollicking bloody epic of a story.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Wet and Screaming is weird and scary!

Wet and Screaming

By Shane McKenzie

Publisher: Deadite Press

Pub. Date: June 12, 2015

Rating: 4 & 1/2 out of 5 stars.

In Shane McKenzie's first collection of short fiction, Wet and Screaming, we get what we expect from a book by that title. McKenzie writes bizarre fiction that isn't nice and doesn't open the door for you. If it does open the door for you, expect to be kicked in the rear when you enter. The author's fiction is the epitome of hardcore horror. Yet there is something natural and casual about the way he tells his stories even while they soar over the top in disturbing and shocking images. This is the sign of a natural storyteller.

Wet and Screaming offers 11 short stories by the author. In a strange move, there are also two stories by the Soska Sisters. I will concentrate on just the fiction by McKenzie. A less strange and welcome addition are introductions to each story which are not just informative but very entertaining. The first tale, "Fat Slob" serves as a warning to the neophyte McKenzie reader that squeamish stomachs need not apply. "Ed Gein's Garage Sale" is a particular favorite of mine. As I read it I can see Psycho author Robert Bloch smiling down on the pages. "He's Just a Baby" suggests that even a burglar can develop a fraternal instinct. "I'm on my-" has nothing supernatural about it but for my money, it is easily the most disturbing piece in the book. "Red Asphalt" reminds me of what I learned in my therapeutic practice; anything can become an addiction and anything can be taken to extremes. "So Much Pain, So Much Death" is another disturbing story in which, in the introduction, the author explains his reason for writing it but evoked in me equal parts of The Omen and the story of Abraham and Isaac.

Those are some of the highlights but there is not a weak story here. However I would feel amiss if I didn't mention my pick for best tale of the lot, "Stab the Rabbit". While the author is sometimes mentioned as a prominent Bizarro writer, I have always thought of him as more straight hardcore horror. Yet "Stab the Rabbit" really brings out the Bizarro in McKenzie while still being a disturbing and scary work of horror. The author states the influence for the story is Jessica Rabbit which may help you understand the bizarreness but, believe me, doesn't even come close to how weird and horrific it really is.

So this is an excellent collection yet, to be honest, if I were to recommend a first read of this author it would be one of his novels, particularly Muerte Con Carne or Mutt. That isn't to trivialize his short fiction work. But McKenzie has a real talent for creating characters that involves the reader and leaps off the pages. Short fiction doesn't do that in most cases. Yet even here that can happen. "Stab the Rabbit" presents two brothers who are very real but different, making the story not only delightfully gross and weird but an insightful look at sibling conflict. Most of these stories set up a plot and takes you to the punchline. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it is a strength to be able to do both so well. In these stories, McKenzie reminds me a lot of my favorite short fiction horror writer, the aforementioned Robert Bloch. No one is as good as setting up the story then throwing in the shocking twist as Bloch. Yet McKenzie is certainly nipping at his heels to take away that title.

If someone wanted a "sampler" of what this author can do, or if you are just one of those readers who prefer short fiction, Wet and Screaming would still be a fine and perhaps essential choice. But let the "Not for everyone" banner be waved. For the horror reader who digs the weird, explicit and hardcore, Shane McKenzie's Wet and Screaming is a must read.


Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Snowstorm...Isolated cabin...Never a good sign!


By David Bernstein

Publisher: DarkFuse

Pub. Date: June 30, 2015

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

David Bernstein's no-frills scare-the-hell-out-of-you horror novel Skinner reads like a tribute to all those "group of people caught in a cabin during a snowstorm with the monster from hell" flicks. Except this one scared me more than most of those movies. This is one of those times having a formula didn't bother me because Bernstein knows when to ditch the formula. Just when I thought I knew what the next move would be he throws a surprise. It was like visiting an old predictable friend that learned a few new tricks while you were away.

So what is the plot? Six young people ranging from sensible peacemaker to annoying asshole are stranded in a snowstorm. Fortunately, or rather unfortunately for our nearly frostbitten city dwellers, there is a cabin nearby. Of course, we savvy readers are already going , "Run away! Didn't you get the clue when you stopped at the rotting away gas station and the creepy old man said, "Storm's a coming"?. But of course they don't and with the psychological tension building up in our unwary protagonists we know they won't until it is too late. In the meantime, we are getting a hint that the evil in the woods is ready to party and won't stop til the wolves come home. There is also a caring sheriff who just "might" save the day and Renfield got a promotion to Old Man in the Mountain's stooge so he doesn't have to eat bugs for a living.

So OK. I'm having a little fun with this. That is a compliment because this novel is a lot of scary and spooky fun. It exists to scare and it does that with glee. The author knows when to build the suspense, when to pile on the violence and gore, and how to tease for the climax. His "boogeyman" is quite creative and makes for a large percentage of the twist and jumps in the story. In fact, it is that symbol of terror that pushes this away from just being that formula horror plot I alluded to earlier. If only those movies that this seems to be a tribute to were this good. If the goal of a horror novel is to scare and entertain you, Skinner fulfills its goal.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Funny and lighthearted Bizarro lit.


By Scott Cole


Publisher:  Eraserhead Press 

Pub Date: October 20, 2014

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I might have to explain this but I think I may have just read a novel by the Robert Sheckley of Bizarro.

For those not in the know, Robert Sheckley was a science fiction writer renowned for his comedic and satiric take on the future. He often came across as a science fiction version of Robert Benchley. If you don't know who Robert Benchley was, I give up. Look it up yourself. In his best works, which tended to be his short humorous fiction, Sheckley had an easy going style that belied the sharp social criticism of modern society that was usually hidden in his prose. Sheckley had a knack for taking the most serious speculative ideas and placing them in funny but thoughtful pieces of fiction.

I am not sure if Scott Cole had a message in his very funny but surprisingly lighthearted Bizarro novella SuperGhost. It is quite likely that he was just having fun. But the rest fits. In a genre that often goes overboard with weirdness, SuperGhost stands out for throwing that bizarreness into a very real situation: Two individuals who are dealing with the loss of their limbs from tragic accidents and are plagued by the very real phenomena of phantom limbs. It is not necessarily the natural playground for the absurd but when coupled with a mad scientist who wants to take those phantom limbs and merge them onto his very own ghost Frankenstein, it becomes a clever and intelligent farce. SuperGhost in turn becomes playfully outrageous but not offensive. It is the type of story that causes you to do double takes at the strangeness of it but makes you laugh and keeps you laughing and shaking your head long after you read it. This may sound weird in itself, but the strange ideas of SuperGhost actually comes out almost believable in Cole's telling, which is a bizarre achievement in itself.

There is little horrific about Superghost even if the creatures the writer conjures up are grotesquely awful. They are more "eww...funny!" then just "Eww!". The characters are mainly there to fit the story yet the three protagonists who take up the quest to fight the scientist and get those limbs back come across very real in motivation and very likeable. The character whose job is to create new ice cream flavors does sound like someone who could have come out of a Robert Sheckley story. Yet I do not want to go on and on about that comparison because Cole clearly has his own thing going. SuperGhost is a first novel and frankly a bit of a teaser since it makes me want to read more by Cole. I do hope he continues exploring the humorous side of Bizarro and examining that fine line that can meld the surreal and satirical with the real world.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Did someone say "Hardcore"?

Terra Insanus

By Edward Lee

Publisher: Deadite Press

Pub. Date: June 12, 2015

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Horror is often divided into camps. There is the mainstream camp. Then there is the hardcore camp. Then there are lots of lots of sub-genres and marketing divisions: vampire, zombie, body horror, psychological, cyber-punk. You name your poison and horror has a label for it. The only thing I can tell you for sure is that if it sparkles, it isn’t horror.

Then there is Edward Lee. He is often described as a hardcore horror writer. That is like saying death metal is grumpy music. Lee writes prose that begs to be kicked out of class then burns the school down with the teachers and students still in it. He’s the party guy who turns the volume up to 11 when you asked him to turn it down to 7. If there is a taboo Lee hasn’t written about I haven’t heard of it yet. Lee isn’t just his own camp. He is his own wilderness.

Terra Insanus from Deadite Press is a good example. It is a collection of four pieces of short fiction. The title is just a hint of the madness between the pages. Three stories were originally published in the 90s while one, “The Sea-Slop Thing”, is published in this book for the first time. If you have read Lee before, you pretty much know what you are getting into although two of the stories caught me by surprise. But let’s take them in order.

“The Stick Woman” starts the collection and immediately tells you that that author is not going to play nice. It is about the wife of very rich man who finds herself in a terrible situation. Let’s just say she has bitten off more than she can chew. It is Lee pushing the boundaries of horror into the grotesque, the extreme and the scatological. It is repulsive but mesmerizing. But it also shows that Lee is not one who writes just for the shock, the buildup is perfect giving the reader the sense of a car crash that he cannot turn away from. I may have felt like I need a 100% bleach and lye shower after reading it but I can’t deny the emotional impact.

The next two pieces are quite different than what I’ve read by Lee in the past even though they were written in the 90s. “Shit-House” and “The Ushers” are very angry works flowing with a free association style. “Shit-House” seems more political than the two; essentially a diatribe of rage and discontentment with the world and mankind. “The Ushers” is a first person account of a writer struggling with his own demons and I do not necessarily mean that figuratively. It may be the most frightening of the four stories since it places the horrors in a par with real and existential fears we all struggle through. It is an exquisite downer of a tale.

Which leaves the one new story. “The Sea-Slop Thing” is the headliner and shows something I do not see much from this author; a raucous sense of humor. It is a bawdy tale featuring unmentionable things done with sausages and escapades with strange sea monsters. Like the first work, Lee is crossing boundaries but here he is doing it with joy and abandonment. It is dark erotic comedy at its best. The author may show a lot of rage in his stories but “The Sea-Slop Thing” is evidence that behind the rage is an amused smirk that is able to laugh at humankind’s strange perversions and antics. Edward Lee may be odd reading for some readers who think “hardcore” is Stephen King. Those readers will be in for a shock and hopefully close to someone who knows how to use a defibrillator. But for those adventurous readers who realize horror is that thing that breaks into your home and doesn’t apologize but flips you the finger…they will be quite elated with Edward Lee’s brand of terror.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

An Epic tale of justice and revenge.

Paradise Sky

By Joe R. Lansdale

Publisher: Mulholland Books

Pub. Date: June 16, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Joe R. Lansdale has shown throughout his illustrious career to be an accomplished writer in many genres. Longtime admirers like myself know him primarily in the horror and thriller genres in which he wrote extensively when I discovered him in the 80s. But even then he wrote a few westerns, most noticeably The Magic Wagon and the before-its-time zombie Western, Dead in the West. Lately though, he seems to be focusing on Westerns again. His last novel, The Thicket, was a True Grit style tale of Western revenge and justice. It is also one of his best. But Lansdale has upped the ante, so to speak, with his newest novel, Paradise Sky. This new book carries similar themes yet goes beyond them and becomes a true epic of the West.

Paradise Sky is a very fictional account of an actual historical figure: a black cowboy and sharpshooter named Nat Love who was later nicknamed Deadwood Dick after winning a shooting contest in Deadwood City. In Lansdale's meticulous storytelling style, Nat was originally named Willie and was forced on the run in the Post Civil War South for glancing at a white woman's posterior. As Nat puts it, "I will admit to a bit of true curiosity as to how that backside of hers was far more attractive than the front, but I wasn't about no mischief of any kind." The enraged husband murders Willie's father and vows to hunt him down. Willie takes refuge with a man by the name of William Loving who teaches him to ride and to shoot among other helpful things. But soon Willie is forced to go on the run again and takes on the name of Nat Love as he journeys into the West.

Paradise Sky is full of daring deeds and momentous discoveries and it is best for the reader to discover them on his own. It is sufficient to say that the pursuit for Nat Love never stops and our hero is eventually forced to face his pursuers in a act of justice and revenge. If the author wrote a simple revenge tale it still would have been memorable. However, Paradise Sky is a tableau of Western mythology with legends like Wild Bill Hickok and Bass Reeves being peppered in to provide color and authenticity. But Nat Love is the focus of the story and it is his struggles against injustice and the ever prevailing aura of racism that makes this book so alive. Lansdale has always had a keen sense of American history and the prevalence of racial conflicts in America, That is certainly true here. Couple that with his endless gift for incredibly witty and real sounding dialog and it makes for a invigorating read that entertains but doesn't sugarcoat our history.

Lansdale often writes about his East Texas surroundings and, because of that, some might call him a regionalist. Yet it is books like Paradise Sky that belies that idea. Taking place in a range from Texas to South Dakota and over a span of years, Paradise Sky is a true American Western epic of a novel written by one that can merge the romanticism of the West with a socially honest and sometimes brutal realism. Whether writing about present day East Texas, the Depression, or the 19th century frontier, Lansdale manages to not only tell us a riveting story but confronts us with truths about our own interactions and the way we treat others.