Category Archives: book review
by Joseph Garraty
Ragman Press LLC (2011)
If you could, would you strike a deal with the devil to achieve your greatest ambition? Sometimes when you look at a Hollywood A-lister, or a wheelin’ dealin’ politician, or one of those tycoons on Wall St., you have to wonder if maybe, just maybe, some signed their own names on the dotted line. In Joseph Garraty’s debut novel, Voice, is an aspiring rock star named John Tsiboukas who gets his wish … for a price.
Voice isn’t just about John, who after gaining his voice adopts the persona of Johnny Tango, but also looks at what happens through the eyes of his bandmates. In particular, his new lead guitarist, Stephanie Case, whom he lured into the ragtag band after hearing her play her heart out with an even less talented band than John’s. Along with their bass player, Quentin, and John’s brother Danny on drums, they are Ragman. And with Johnny Tango leading the charge, the derelict band soon gains fans, paying gigs, and a rocketship to stardom. All the while, a sinister, seedy looking man named Douglas watches on, and Johnny’s voice starts to do more than just belt out the hits.
Voice is a strong debut that offers an authenticity with its rock-and-roll backdrop, as Garraty is a musician himself. And his characters really jump off the page at times, especially Case with her brassy onstage demeanor and take-no-bullshit attitude offstage. In fact, the book really felt like it was her story more than it did Johnny’s while reading it, thanks to her budding friendship with a coworker to whom Case becomes an informal self-defense instructor, plus the simmering sexual tension between her and John’s brother–John’s married brother. Through some of this subplot though, the pace and direction of the novel loses is lost at times, or at least diverted on tangents from time to time.
The behind the scenes view of a struggling rock band was pulled off quite well by Garraty, but I’ve never immersed myself in music culture, so a lot of the lingo and scenarios were foreign to me. The jargon can be a bit of a stumbling block, but without it, there’d be a lot less to give this story its tangibility.
It’s a good book, and a genuine surprise when I was expecting something more conventional with the timeworn premise of “selling your soul.”
Shock Totem #4
edited by K.Allen Wood
Shock TotemPublications (2011)
Lee Thompson was charitable enough to give away a few copies of ShockTotem’s latest issue and I was lucky enough to snag one. When itcomes to periodicals, I buy the electronic versions exclusivelybecause of shipping costs to Canada, so this was a real treat. Ibought and read a Kindle edition of Shock Totem #1 not toolong ago and was eager to read some more.
This time around there was a very diverse ensemble of authors fromvarying backgrounds, with established names like Weston Ochse, aswell as first publications for authors like Tom Bordonaro. There’salso a couple of interviews, one with Kathe Koja that turns into anopining on the state of publishing today, and a chat with one of thisissue’s contributing authors, Renny Sparks, that includes discussionabout her music career. And one of the missing sections from digitaleditions is the book review portion, with some interesting looks onbooks, films, and albums by John Boden, Robert J. Duperre, and thewitticisms of Ryan Bridger. There’s also a brief essay by headhoncho, K. Allen Wood, that provides a surprising punch to thestomach.
As far as the stories are concerned, this issue begins with a tragicgem by Lee Thompson called “Beneath the Weeping Willow,”about Davey, a young autistic boy’s ordeals within his family as heand his older brother, Jacob, cope with the break-up of theirparents’ marriage. The story is told in the rare second-personperspective, which is a hard nut to crack, but Lee seemed to have theperfect story in which to use it. As for the relationship betweenDavey and Jacob, it’s heartbreaking and all too believable.
From there, we jump into the absurd with the debut story of TomBordonaro, “Full Dental,” about an office worker at hiswit’s end over the demonic coworkers he must work alongside. Tomwanted to approach this story in the same way you might approach asketch comedy routine, and I think he hits just the right note withthe juxtaposition of bloody mayhem and office politics.
I think my favorite story of the bunch came from a very short storyby Michael Penkas called “Dead Baby Day.” Now, before youget your quills up, the title is a tad misleading. It’s really abouttwo brothers. Unlike, Lee Thompson’s Davey and Jacob, Michael’s Lukeand Mark don’t have quite so caustic a relationship. Mark does ribhis little brother about his origins as they lay in their beds. Youknow how big brothers are sometimes: a-holes. Well, Luke’simagination starts running wild when Mark tells him about Dead BabyDay, which happens to fall on Luke’s birthday. Creepy, funny stuff.
There’s plenty more packed into the 130 pages and is a kind ofthree-ring circus for dark fiction. Don’t like the clown car? Thenstick around for the lion tamer. And make sure you read Cafe DoomCompetition winner’s story, “Fade to Black,” by JaelitheIngold. It feels a tad predictable at first, but the ending remediesthat.
by Jeff Strand
Delirium Books (2009)
It’s been a little while since I read a book that nearly made me retch. If I was keeping a daily tally on how long it’s been since the last time a book managed to make me a bit queasy, I’d have to set it back to zero now. It’s not a gore fest, mind you, but there were just a couple scenes that really made me cringe. Body horror has a way of doing that to me. What kind of horror fan am I?
So, this is a novel about Benjamin Wilson–and his parasite. Well, technically it’s not his, so much as it’s the property of a top secret project, and it just happens to wind up inside Benjamin after a tangled series of events, which is capped off with him having to shoot one of his students in self-defense when the boy goes on a seemingly random psychotic rampage. After that traumatic event, he begins to experience some strange cravings and inhibitions are lowered. Basically his every latent compulsion and desire is coming to the surface, sometimes when he’s not even aware of it.
Then there’s that searing pain in his stomach.
This novel is a quick, crazy read. And, it’s not just a horror novel, as there is a wild kind of road story to it, too. That’s because Benjamin is saved early on from certain death by a femme fatale bountyhunter who abducts him and tries to get him to the folks responsible for the parasite, so they can get it out of him. There are others who are aware of the parasite too though, and will stop at nothing to get it–whether Benjamin lives or dies in the process. Gunfights, car chases, double crosses, etc.
Benjamin is an amiable character and easy to root for, but there are moments when he is hip deep in the action and it feels like he is just taking it all in stride. Like, he’s in such an incredibly unheard of onslaught of circumstances and he still maintains an aloof sense of humor at times. Most of the time he is freaking out and scared shitless, so that helps, but his wisecracking feels overdone once in a while.
Other than that gripe, this is great pulpy horror/action novel, and it served as a great sample of Jeff Strand’s work. I’m eager to read more of his work down the road.
Those Who Went Remain There Still
by Cherie Priest
Subterranean Press (2008)
After reading so many glowing reviews for Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, I placed the steampunk novel on my wish list, but when I caught word that she’d previously written a straight-up horror novel or two, I wanted to see that first.
Those Who Went Remain There Still is a suspenseful piece of historical fiction involving a monster and–get this–Daniel Boone as the backstory. The heart of the story revolves around the death of a elderly patriarch at the cusp of the 20th century, and the two sides of his warring family that have come together to learn the contents of his last will and testament–and their fates. The Manders and Coys have plenty of bad blood between them, and it is only brought out into the open even more when it’s revealed that the old man’s will was purposefully hidden in a cave on the property. And, it’s called upon for a handful of the family members to venture into the cave and retrieve the will together, or face repercussions that will adversely affect the futures of all involved.
The cave carries a legend about people going in and never coming out, and while some in the family discount it as unenlightened superstition among an ignorant family, still more harbor an uneasy reverence towards the legend and the patriarch who perpetuated it. As the backstory involving Daniel Boone’s trailblazing expedition and encounter with a predatory monster unfolds, the question of what might truly lurk inside that cave, if anything, becomes all the more tangible.
Cherie Priest does a heck of a job in not only capturing a slice of Kentuckian history with his novel, but provides some genuine horror with both storylines. Tension is palpable and treachery comes in all forms. While the story itself can be boiled down to a band of disparate characters facing off against a killer in the shadows, there’s something about the tone of the story that helps it feel unique. Maybe it’s the historical setting or maybe it’s something else. It’s a pretty short novel, too. Not even two hundred pages, but Priest doesn’t waste any time or space in telling her tale, so probably anything more would feel like padding around the edges. Priest even calls this book a “cheesy little monster story”–or was that “creepy”. Meh, she’s right on both counts.
All I know is that I really liked this story and I’m eager to read Boneshaker even more, along with the rest of Cherie Priest’s works.
Bad Moon Rising
After reading the first two books in Maberry’s Pine Deep trilogy, Ghost Road Blues and Dead Man’s Song, it seemed readily apparent that he’d placed a small armory of proverbial guns on the mantle. In the third and final book, Bad Moon Rising, Maberry spends six hundred pages pulling the trigger on each and every one of them. Now, if you haven’t had a chance to read the first two books yet, there’s probably going to be some spoilers here, so don’t say I didn’t give you fair warning.
The book picks up pretty much where Dead Man’s Song left off. Malcolm Crowe and his newly pregnant fiance Val are beaten and bloody yet again, but they’ve survived a second attack from the insane and impossibly alive Ruger. They thought they’d killed him at the end of Ghost Road Blues, when he was a sadistic street thug lured to Pine Deep as part of a supernatural menace’s grand plans. But, Ruger came back from the dead, transformed and ready to do the bidding of his overlord, Ubel Griswold. In fact, coming back from the dead is the latest trend in Pine Deep. It seems the bad guys just can’t take the hint.
While Crowe frets over Val’s health, since she took the brunt of the punishment–and dealt the killing blow to Ruger–Terry Wolfe is in a coma in the same hospital, after a failed suicide attempt during a violent transformation into a werewolf. Turns out the ghost of his baby sister was onto something when she kept urging him to kill himself, because before he threw himself out of a window, he damned near killed his wife, Sarah.
As for the teenaged outcast, Mike Sweeney, his life gets even worse. The beatings from his pseudo-stepdad, Vic Wingate (the secret righthand man of Griswold), weren’t enough. He’s narrowly escaped death at the hands of a religious madman named Towtruck Eddie, and with Griswold’s and Vic’s help and manipulation, Eddie’s on the hunt for Mike again so the boy can’t reach his full potential and possibly thwart Griswold’s plans for resurrection.
I doubt this book would work as a stand-alone, since the backstory is really only glanced upon as the big showdown builds. I think you’d pretty much have to invest in the first two books if you want to appreciate the context behind all the mayhem in the third–and there is a metric ton of mayhem. The whole story has been building to what Griswold calls the “Red Wave” which is supposed to allow him to rise out of the swamp where the Bone Man killed and buried him. To that end, I was kind of surprised the Bone Man didn’t play a more prominent role in this grand finale. He’d been hanging around the scene like a specter the whole way through and I thought he’d get his hands dirtier when push came to shove. More spectator than specter in my estimation.
With such a dark, violent climax to this novel, Maberry leaves plenty of room to have fun with some of his characters. Tom Savini has a cameo appearance, for crying out loud, when the town’s big Halloween festivities begin, as well as when the Red Wave begins. And Maberry literally pulls out all the punches when crafting the multiple fight scenes that ensue.
It’s a satisfying end to a trilogy that I thought sagged some in the middle. Each prominent character through the entire series gets a spotlight shone on them at the end, giving each a proper ending, even if not all of them are happy endings. If you like small town epics, like Stephen King’s Under the Dome or John Saul’s Blackstone Chronicles, the Pine Deep trilogy is a far more electric and entertaining saga to dive into. And if you can find time to read all three books in a row, they might make for a fun Halloween reading marathon.
Shock Totem #1
edited by K. Allen Wood
Shock TotemPublications (2011, digital edition)
originally published in 2009
It seems short fiction markets are a fleeting thing. Some crop up out of nowhere, then disappear as quickly as they came. The ones that survive are to be commended–and read. Shock Totem came out with its first paperback issue in the summer of 2009, and this summer sees its fourth edition coming out as a physical copy. But, at the same time, Shock Totem #1 has been re-released as an e-book. An insanely affordable one at that, with an asking price of only $1.99 on the Kindle Store. How could I resist?
Now, with the digital release, a couple things have been left out. Namely the reviews and artwork. But, the stories and interviews are intact, and that’s the meat of this publication as far as I’m concerned, anyway.
After a brief introduction from its editor, K. Allen Wood, Shock Totem #1 kicks off with a barn-burner of a story by T.L. Morganfield called “The Music Box.” Just imagine those cuddly plush dolls that we used to love playing with as kids, and maybe some of us have passed those toys down to our own children. Now imagine those toys are alive–and they know how to hold a grudge. Yeah, this one was creepy in all the right places and really set a tone for the rest of the book.
More horror abounds, with a quick, quirky read from Mercedes M. Yardley called “Murder for Beginners,” which has a couple of women having a remarkably casual conversation while standing over the corpse of their former lover, a married man they’ve just murdered. Yikes.
Another couple of the standouts for me were Don D’Ammassa’s “Complexity” and David Niall Wilson’s “Slider.” And best title has to go to Kurt Newton’s “Thirty-Two Scenes from a Dead Hooker’s Mouth.” Just read it. Disparate in tone, each brought something really dark to this little collection. In fact, as you read from cover to cover, you find the diverse array of stories really only has two things in common: they’re dark as hell and really well written.
If the fiction isn’t enough, there are a couple of interviews with the likes of John Skipp and Alan Robert. All things considered, Shock Totem may not be as shocking as you might expect it to be, but it certainly taps into those dark facets of human nature, one way or another. It’s also nice to see each author explain at the end of the book the impetus for each of their stories. With such diversity, the book feels like a three-ring circus of the most macabre variety.