Tuesday, August 7, 2012

"Dark Melodies" by William Meikle

I was recently contacted with a request to review Dark Melodies an anthology of (ahem) darkly lyrical short stories by the critically praised William Mekile – and because I happen to be a huge fan of anthologies and short fiction in general, I jumped at the opportunity.  Seemingly only a few short hours later, I had a PDF copy of the book in my inbox.

First of all, and unlike many anthologies, the collection of stories in Dark Melodies is cohesive – meaning that while they are clearly separate entities, they all have a similar mood and feel – clearly a lot of thought went into keeping the content coherent and purposeful.  And the purpose, it seemed, was to transport the reader to a darker, more introspective and bewitching realm.

Dark Melodies consists of eight stories, of which six are previously unpublished.  My undisputed favorite had to be The Persistence of Memory – and there are several reasons for this.  Perhaps the biggest reason is that I could see myself as Betty, making the same decisions she did – and ending up in the same place.  Even knowing ahead of time what would happen to me (which she didn’t) I would have been unable to stop myself from going down the same road – just in case I was wrong and could be reunited with the one person I’d built my life around.

While The Persistence of Memory was my favorite story in the Dark Melodies anthology, all of the stories were very strong and captured my attention – each in their own way.

While I know that anthologies aren’t for everyone, if you are a fan of the style – and of dark fiction that isn’t full of slashers and vampires, but chills you in a more subtle, supernatural manner – Dark Melodies will certainly be an entertaining, escapist journey for you.  You can read it a story at a time, or (because it is under 200 pages) you can devour it in one sitting.  4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, July 9, 2012

"The Haunted" by Bentley Little

So I am a big fan of Bentley Little - admittedly his earlier stuff is quite a bit better than the last few novels he's written, but I am not ready to write him off yet, either. I mean, this guy can sling straight-up horror like nobody writing today when he puts his mind to it, and he has written some of the best short stories and anthology contributions I have ever read (his Pop Star in the Ugly Bar is totally wretched and amazing - one of my personal favorites) and the dude is nothing if not prolific (I have made it a point to search out and snag any old copies of The Horror Show magazine that I can find on the off chance that I'll find some of his earlier stories that I haven't read yet.) Rarely have I come across something he's created that I truly didn't like, but I will admit that his last couple of novels (His Father's Son and The Disappearance) were easily among my least favorite.

All of that being said, I was really excited for The Haunted. I hit my local book store first thing on the 3rd, and I made the poor bookseller go dig around in the back for a copy of the book when I realized they hadn't made it onto the shelf yet. And I read it in a single setting.

 The Haunted is the story of the Perry family, who decides to upgrade their living situation by moving into a home in their city's historic district - ultimately this proves to be a bad decision as they find themselves sharing their space with a pretty malevolent presence. While I have to agree with previous reviewers that the story pretty much followed the standard haunted house sequence of events, in my opinion, that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. The actual progression of the haunting is only part of the story, and Little spends a good portion of time focusing on the psychological damage that living in an obviously haunted house does to the various members of the family as well - not to mention that many of the things that happen are pure, unadulterated Bentley Little - and that the book is written in his chill but intelligent style which makes it totally readable and even really funny when he wants it to be. Also, there is a well-incorporated back story that explains why what is going on is going on, which is just as interesting as the main plot.

When all was said and done, I liked The Haunted a lot. It kept me entertained, was scary enough, and I was satisfied with everything about it. Was it as brutal and horrifying as The University or as intelligent as Dominion? Nope. But it was solid, and far and away better than Little's last couple of books. If you are a fan of Bentley Little, you won't want to miss this one. And if you're not a fan yet, The Haunted is a decent place to acquaint yourself with Little's distinct horror flavor. 3 ½ stars.

Monday, April 26, 2010

"Every Last One" by Anna Quindlen

I realize that this is a review site devoted to horror and fantasy books. The thing is, there are many kinds of horror, and not all of them involve the supernatural. Indeed, there are many things that go bump in the night that are much more terrifying than Dracula or the Wolfman. Why are they more terrifying? Because they are real. And their very existence is always hovering near the fringes of our seemingly safe shatter-resistant reality, threatening to take away all that we hold dear while clearly demonstrating how so very much of our seemingly ordered life is totally out of our hands.

Every Last One by Anna Quindlen is certainly not your quintessential horror novel. Not at all. In fact, at first glance, you may believe it to be just another work of aimless almost-true-to-life fiction with no clearly defined genre at all. That’s certainly what I thought. But as it was at the top of my TBR ARC pile, I decided it was time to dive in.

And that is pretty much what you have to do to take this book in the way it was intended; dive in. Every Last One begins in a fairly mundane way, describing the morning rituals of a financially secure American family, while slowly introducing you to each member – good, bad, and totally conflicted. The main character is Mary Beth Latham, and although she is the owner and operator of a successful business, her family has always come first. And as she first watched her beautiful, brilliant daughter struggle through her early teenage years, she realized that sometimes a little outside intervention is warranted when it comes to securing the mental health of our children.

So, when Max, one of her twin sons, begins exhibiting signs of severe (possibly even suicidal) depression, it goes without saying that the majority of the families emotional reserves go into helping him with his struggles. He begins to see a therapist and appears, for all intents and purposes, to be coming out of his funk. Unfortunately, while the family’s attention is concerted on Max, they are unable to focus on the true danger to their continued happiness.

Their distraction leads to an unspeakable tragedy that, in my opinion, was of the most horrific nature I can fathom. And from this tragedy, Mary Beth is forced to pick up the pieces of her life and move forward while wanting little more than to close her eyes and let the darkness swallow her.

For me, Every Last One was a phenomenal read. 5 stars or higher. It will drag you through an emotional wringer, and make you wonder. Wonder about who you allow into your life, and wonder how the consequences of your actions will ripple through your life like pebbles dropped into a pool.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

I'm Back, Dearies

Ok, so I have been pretty much MIA for months now. Alas, it's true. And in keeping with the Horror and Fantasy Book Review spirit, I will be honest with my faithful followers and let you know what really went down.

I was abducted by book hating aliens. They spent months trying to reprogram me into one of those digital book reader buying clones, but it just didn't take. In fact, as they threw me out the hatch of their flying saucer (the technology wasn't as great as you would imagine - paperclips and chewing gum, really) it was with my beloved and well worn ARC copy of Stephen King's Rose Madder instead of the Kindled version of the same thing, which really wouldn't have been the same thing at all.

Happily, I am back in my bookish comfort zone - the smell of old, repeatedly handled and oft-read paper filling my sinuses and the disturbing dreams of digital reader wielding extra-terrestrials becoming nothing more than a distant memory.

Now I begin to pillage through my haphazardly organized (an oxymoron to be sure) stack of TBR books, and hope to have some new, more frequent reviews posted in the immediate future.

For some reason, I feel the need to be caught up on my pile before 12/21/2012 - my extraterrestrial brethren seemed to think that would be a good deadline :)

It's good to be back all...

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"Zombocalypse Now" by Matt Youngmark

While I am a fan of dark fiction, I have to admit that the genre has a tendency to take itself pretty seriously. I mean, for a genre of writing that focuses primarily on ghosties and ghoulies and vamps and weres and zombies, it does sometimes feel as though horror and fantasy related books and stories often seem to act as though they are above their station. So, when I was contacted by Matt Youngmark (the author of the cleverly named Zombocalypse Now, which is published by Chooseomatic Books) and offered the chance to review what he referred to as an “adult choose your own adventure” with a zombies take over the world theme, I was intrigued indeed. And then when I realized that the book is actually a parody not only of itself, but of virtually every other zombie holocaust-themed book ever written, I was hooked.

Those of you less nerdy than myself may be scratching your heads at my reference to choose your own adventure books. They were (and continue to be, actually) a series of books in which the plot plays out in numerous different ways, depending upon the order in which the book is read, which is governed by choices made by the reader. They used to be incredibly popular among bookworms the world over, and new volumes are still being released today. Generally, they plots are horror, action/adventure, or mystery-based, and the main character is you.

In Zombocalypse Now, however, you happen to be a love-starved, pink stuffed bunny just trying to get a little action.

On page one, you are sitting in a restaurant, awaiting the arrival of your most recent blind internet dating acquisition. When they arrive, something about their slack jawed demeanor seems a bit off (although it is not much more “off” than any of your other recent blind dates). Things steadily go downhill from this point, as zombie mayhem begins to ensue, as it undoubtedly will in the not so distant future.

From page three, you begin to make decisions that will shape your adventure and overall success or failure in the new, zombie-ridden reality in which you find yourself immersed. Choice one: ditch your date (whose BO has become increasingly offensive), or continue with dinner and see if the evening can be salvaged.

All in all, there are a total of 112 different possible outcomes, each one shaped by the decisions you make while facing the zombie scourge. And, as the book’s cover points out, there are 7 endings that do not result in your zombie-related demise. That’s about a 5% chance of surviving the zombie apocalypse, which (according to my preliminary calculations) is much better odds than you would have when the zombies really do take over the world.

Not to mention that some of the decisions that you are forced to make in the book will likely help to ensure that you are at the top of your mental game when the zombies actually do take over. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

All in all, this was a fun and entertaining read. In fact, it actually became a group project at my house. My daughter and I were reading aloud and trying to find each one of the endings (we are currently up to about 30, although I have read through the book for the sake of review purposes [and possible to cheat a little.]) There were some hysterical lines and fabulous ways to die, many of which I would never have dreamed up in a million years. One of my favorite paragraphs of the entire book:

"The street in front of the restaurant where you left your date is now a chaotic mess of the living dead. Zombie shoppers attack random passers by, and many of their meals reawaken to join the growing horde. Two zombie policemen on zombie horses chase a pissed-off looking woman down the street. It’s madness.”

Not to mention the fact that you die a full 105 times over the course of reading this book in its entirety. Meaning that the author had to come up with some pretty creative death scenarios. They include (but are not limited to):

*Zombie polar bears.
*Zombie mackerel (you know, the fish).
*Death by humanoid zombie, only to rise again as a pink stuffed bunny zombie.
*Being eaten by zombies while burning to death. Worst. Death. Ever.
*Bludgeoning by soccer trophy.

Honestly, a review can’t really do a book like this justice, simply because it is so entertaining and in so many ways. I heartily recommend that you go find yourself a copy of Zombocalypse Now, and suggest that you read it with a friend (or a group of friends). While it’s billed as being intended for adults, it is really not that objectionable and IMO is appropriate for teens as well. 5 stars.

(A tip from the author himself, one that I employed: Mark off the choices that you’ve already made with a highlighter so you can find all of the endings without wasting too much time.)

Alas, if you prefer your zombie novels to be a little more above themselves, take the literature route and trudge through Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. You'll be sorry...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

"Debris" by Barry Napier

I was recently contacted by horror author Barry Napier and offered the chance to review his recently released collection of short stories and poetry, Debris. While I am a huge fan of dark fiction and horror, I have been let down by a lot of my favorite authors recently (like Bentley Little and his pandering and incoherant "His Father's Son, which I impatiently waited for for a year), so I have really enjoyed broadening my horizons recently. I had never heard of Mr. Napier, and was unwilling to let myself get my hopes up, but I requested an ebook review copy of Debris nonetheless.

I was blown away.

This was one of the best collections of horror stories I have read in years, each story and poem was better than the last, and I was able to devour the entire book in a few short hours.

The collection consisted of 20 distinct stories/poems, and while they were all excellent in their own way, they each had their own flavor.

The first story in the collection, Grave Seasons was the story about a legendary backwoods cabin, located in an area where transients and thrill-seekers alike were known to vanish without a trace. The cabin is occupied by an unassuming elderly woman and a young man who is something of an apprentice to her life's work. When unexpected visitors arrive, the story takes a macabre turn for the worse.

(While I very much enjoyed Grave Seasons, it [presumably unintentionally] reminded me of the hilarious Britney Spears South Park episode. Because of that, I took the story with something of a TIC attitude.)

In Notes on how it all Ended, Mr. Napier capitalizes on the ever-popular themes of rampant biological plagues and goverment cover-ups and conspiracy theories. A resident of a small town in stricken with an unexplainable and horrific illness, which grows more virulent and life-threatening by the second. Cut off from the outside world, the story is his account of his declining health and the events that coincide with it.

While I totally loved the entire book, A Collection of True Evils was my favorite story of the entire collection. It is the tale of a fabled book, believed to have been cursed by an admitted witch and passed down among murderers and madmen for generations, each new owner adding to its power to bring death and destruction to any who attempt to read it. According to the legend, no one had ever read it in its entirety, and all who had tried had died mysterious and untimely deaths.

The book falls into the hands of a group of friends, one of which happened upon it while cruising an internet auction site. The friends had been meeting twice a week for five years in secret to discuss occult literature, and finding the seemingly-mythological tome book was a dream come true.

Or so they thought :)

In addition to the terrifying and fantastic selection of short stories, Debris also contains some of the best dark poetry I have ever read. Most memorable, Abandoned Bridges, which ever-so-eloquently lays out the consequences of fruitless trees.

All in all, Debris was hands-down one of the most entertaining and enjoyable collections of dark fiction I have read in years (and I read A LOT of dark fiction). If it is any indication of Barry Napier's usual style of writing, I have found a new favorite author. He was able to weave surrealism, horror, and excellent plot lines to create some of the best short horror I have come across in a very, very long time. If you haven't heard of him yet, you will soon.

Solid, 5 star read!!!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"Creeping Shadows" Novella Anthology

I was recently contacted by one of the contributing authors (Alan Draven) of the recently released novella anthology, Creeping Shadows and offered the opportunity to review the book. I have to admit, I was pretty stoked. I follow Brandon Ford on MySpace, and have heard a lot of good things about this book. In addition to novella-length stories by Alan Draven and Brandon Ford, there is also a third by Jessica Lynne Gardener.

The first story is the aptly titled Vengeance is Mine, by Alan Alan Draven. It is a bold retelling of the single most puzzling and well known unsolved serial killing cases in modern history – that of Jack the Ripper. The reader is taken on a journey beginning during Vincent Fowler’s college days at the Royal Academy of Surgeons of England, where a macabre prank that he pulls gets him expelled, despite his profound and adept surgical skills. After his expulsion, he exiles himself to the American Colonies for a couple of years, only to return to Whitechapel England, armed with the tools and skills of a surgeon, a psychopathic hatred of prostitutes, and a level of disdain for law enforcement and the public in general that makes him feel invincible.

What I loved about Draven’s retelling of this well known portion of our dark history is that he was able to take subject matter that is familiar and retell it without the end product seeming played out or stale. In fact, Vengeance is Mine was an in-depth look into the life of a fictionalized Jack the Ripper, complete with vivid insight into his thoughts, and morbidly detailed descriptions of each of his murders. Over the course of the tale, Vincent spirals more and more out of control, his obsession with murder clouding and otherwise brilliant mind and causing his once-perfected MO to become sloppier and more haphazard with each new kill.

Over the course of the novella, it becomes apparent to both Vincent and the reading audience that one of his victims is still bound to this earthly plane, the senselessness and brutality of her death preventing her from passing over. And there is only a single purpose for her continued existence – vengeance against her killer. Even as the police follow one false lead after another, the ghost of Annie Champman torments Vincent mercilessly, haunting his home and dogging his every step. At first, the newly dubbed “Jack the Ripper” is convinced that the bizarre occurrences are the result of the fact that he has a penchant for Absinthe. However, it doesn’t take him long to realize what’s really going on.

All in all, Vengeance is Mine was a great read. I loved the way historical facts were woven in with fictional and even supernatural elements. Truth be told, there are few things I love more than a good ghost story. Especially one where the ghost is able to find true justice for their murder. Also, Draven was able to craft a believable and satisfying ending to his tale of one of the greatest serial killing mysteries in history, which made it that much more worth the read. It was a truly excellent story, from the plot to the wording and even the supporting characters, which were richly drawn and integral to the story – not a small feat considering the entirety of the work was just over 100 pages.

The second novella in Creeping Shadows is a doozey by Brandon Ford, and it is also a fictionalization of actual events. (While I recall the incident from media coverage, I have been unable to locate archival news footage or articles, and I would really appreciate it if anyone could steer me in the right direction if their memory happens to be better than mine:) Merciless tells the tale of two kidnapped teenage girls, who are held hostage in an SUV by a drunken, manic gunman, whose sanity has long since reached the end of its tether. The girls are virtual strangers, kidnapped at random, and after being forced to witness the most brutal and heart wrenching events of their young lives, they find themselves terrified but grateful to have escaped the initial encounter with their lives.

The stress and terror of their shared situation causes Kyra and Claire to forge and instant and unbreakable bond, and they become one another’s pillars of strength and support as the horrifying events of their shared captivity unfold before them. They spend the night in a torturous situation; filled with violent rapes, bone-shattering beatings, and uncertainty as to whether or not they will live to see the next day. As their captor drives them further and further from their homes, he becomes more and more demented in both his words and actions, and the girls begin to seriously question whether their survival is a possibility.

Brandon Ford’s Merciless is a rarity among the wide array of reality-based fiction books/stories floating around today. It managed to both horrify and disgust me, as I read about some of the most awful atrocities that one person can commit against another; while at the same time it reaffirmed to me the goodness that is inherent in most of us. Merciless also demonstrated the tenacity of the will to live, regardless of the odds that are stacked against you. It was a great read, albeit a graphic one.

The final novella included in the Creeping Shadows anthology was Sugar Skull, by Jessica Lynne Gardner. I have to admit that I was fairly puzzled by the inclusion of this story, as it was something of the odd man out. While the first two novellas were based on real events (admittedly, Vengeance is Mine was slightly more supernatural than Merciless), Sugar Skull was a completely fabricated surreal horror tale.

Sugar Skull tells the tale of Annabel Perez, whose father is murdered in a bizarre fashion; presumably by way of poison, although the toxicology report indicates that whatever the substance is, it is completely unknown to modern science. After doing some investigation into her family’s history, Annabel determines that her father’s death is not an isolated incident, but in fact one of many. All of the deaths are accompanied by sugar skulls, a common Mexican candy associated with Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead.

As the number of unexplained and seemingly unexplainable deaths continues to climb, Annabel finds herself banding with her semi-estranged mother to uncover the truth about the killings and the secrets of her family history that could mean that she is next to die. Tracing the source of the murders back to an ancient Aztec curse, Annabel and her mother are in a race against time to put an end to centuries of senseless revenge and hate fueled murders.

While I enjoyed Sugar Skull, it was simply not in the same caliber of writing as the other two novellas in this anthology; it felt somewhat disjointed and too compressed. The story simply contained too much information to be concentrated into a hundred or so pages, and it seemed as though it would have been a much more fulfilling read had it been expanded into a novel of its own. Additionally, and as I said before, it also wasn’t the same flavor of story as Vengeance is Mine and Merciless – it just seemed as though it didn’t belong, which was somewhat distracting. (I have to admit, I have a few OCD tendencies, and I like things to be properly categorized. So shoot me…)

All in all, Creeping Shadows was an entertaining and worthwhile read, and I would recommend it to anyone who loves horror, the supernatural or true crime stories – and it is worth the cover price for Alan Draven and Brandon Ford’s contributions alone. That’s not to say that Jessica Lynne Gardner didn’t add to the overall entertainment value of the book: Sugar Skulls just wasn’t for me, at least not in this context. I have to give Vengeance is Mine and Merciless 4 ½ solid stars apiece, and Sugar Skull 3 stars. Overall, Creeping Shadows was a 4 (or more) star read.

Thanks again, Alan, for the signed copy. It was much appreciated and enjoyed!!!