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!!!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"Flesh" by Richard Laymon Review and Contest!!!

Before getting into this review, I feel like I should disclose that I have never been a huge Richard Laymon fan. There has always just been something about his work that I have found off-putting, and I really don’t know why. That being said, I recently obtained a copy of Flesh. At first, I thought it was a new novel, but after checking the copyright date determined that it was originally published 21 years ago, and was being re-released with a snazzy new cover just in time for Halloween. Another thing that I really don’t care for is when books are re-released and passed off as new – I have read so many books over the course of my life that new covers often throw me. I think I’m getting something new only to get a few chapters in before realizing that it’s something I read a decade ago. But, I digress.

The action in Flesh picks up from page one, as a coed is run off the road while biking in a remote area of Weber Creek. She ends up battered and sprained, and the driver of the van that inexplicably tried to take her out is killed when he speeds into a guard-rail head on. More shaken up than injured, she is assisted by a local police officer Jake Corey, who realizes (while inspecting the wreckage) that while the driver is clearly dead, someone (or something) exited the van after the crash. He follows the tracks, but his search yields nothing. He does, however, come across a couple renovating a newly-purchased rural restaurant. He advises them to leave the area, and goes on his way.

Wouldn’t you know, they return to continue their renovating hours later (in the dark, mind you). The hubby ends up going down to the cellar alone to check out an unusual noise (horror novel mistake numero uno), only to return a mindless zombie that blasts his wife’s face off with a single shotgun shot and then proceed to eat her flesh. Officer Jake, who had returned to the scene to follow-up, happens upon the site of husband gnawing on wife, and ends up shooting the man in self defense.

A few days later, the officer receives a call from a friend in the morgue, who has discovered something bizarre while conducting autopsies. He confides in Jake that it looks like they may have an Invasion of the Body Snatchers scenario going on in their small town. And it appears as though their “invader” has escaped. They decide not to report their truly bizarre findings to anyone else. Paranoia and mayhem ensue. Oh, and the invader finds a new host. Surprise, surprise.

Frankly, I was far from impressed by this book. It was predictable and dated (granted it was originally published in 1988), and I had to force myself to trudge through to the end. While I can’t really divulge any more without being considered a spoiler, most readers will have figured this one out fairly early on. Even if you take it for exactly what it is intended to be – entertaining, but not thought-provoking horror – it is sub-par. It had no psychological dimension whatsoever, and read almost exactly like a B horror movie, horny coeds and all. Although die-hard Laymon fans will probably want my head on a pike, I have to give Flesh 2 little stars.

~*~Because this one just didn’t do it for me, I would like to pass it on to someone who may get a little more out of it than I did. I invite anyone who wants to try this one on for size to leave a comment anywhere on my blog between now and 11:59 PM MST on Friday, October 23rd. One winner will be chosen using the number generator at Please leave an email address along with your comment so that I can contact you, and good luck. US and Canadian entries only.~*~

Sunday, October 4, 2009

"The Body Cartel" by Alan Spencer

I recently received a review copy of The Body Cartel by Alan Spencer. Neither the book nor the author were familiar to me, but the premise of the book was intriguing and the cover art was absolutely phenomenal (you all know I am a sucker for a sweet cover). Fortunately, when I actually began reading the book, I wasn’t let down – indeed, I was in for a very pleasant and entertaining surprise. But, I am getting ahead of myself. First, a little bit more about the book itself; The Body Cartel is published by a smallish independent publisher called Damnation Books. After doing a little bit of research, I am way impressed with this little publishing house. They specialize in ebooks, and they have a very creative pricing strategy for their downloads – the first download purchased of any given title is free, and the price goes up by a nickel with each additional download, until the full retail price is reached. It is a great incentive for avid readers to get in on the newest releases as quickly as possible, and it’s also a great way to increase early sales for new and up-and-coming authors.

Additionally, Damnation Books exclusively focuses on what I love above all else – dark fiction. Yay!!

Now, back to The Body Cartel. The book is about a middle-aged couple, Jericho and Maddy, who relocate from Colorado to Ray City, Arizona after an unfortunate fire disrupts their livelihood and their lives. Fortunately, they receive a big enough insurance payout to put some money down on their dream home, a delightful property in a remote area, as well as on a resort hotel that they plan on operating until retirement. Unfortunately, their dream quickly turns into a bizarre, surreal nightmare when they notice that their basement wall has sprung a putrid leak and soon thereafter begin to hear what sound like human wailing from within the same walls. Perturbed and angry that their new home appears to be suffering from an expensive structural defect, the couple begins to contact experts to determine the source of the ever-increasing leak.

Unfortunately, the source of the leak and ghostly noises is far more disturbing than the couple could ever imagine, a fact that becomes apparent only a couple of days after moving in, when Maddy is home alone. After awakening from a nap, Maddy begins to hear steady and increasingly loud noises emanating from her basement. Confident that the basement door is locked, she attempts to call the police for assistance, only to be brutally attacked.

When Jericho returns home, he is shocked to find his home overrun by police, a huge hole in his basement wall, and his wife missing. After being forcibly removed from his own house, he enlists the assistance of his police officer cousin Alex in order to figure out what is going on and to find his wife. It immediately becomes clear to Jericho that he and his wife have unwittingly become tangled up in a world of cartels, drug smuggling, violence, torture, murder, and police corruption. And if he ever wants to see his wife again alive, he is going to have to rescue her without the assistance of law enforcement.

What follows is a macabre and unbelievable dissent into a world that may very well exist under our feet at this very moment.

All in all, I really enjoyed The Body Cartel. It was fast paced, but still left enough room for character development, so I actually cared what happened to the Maddy and Jericho. (Nothing is more off-putting to me than a book with a great plot and crappy characters). Also, in addition to the personal story involving Maddy and Jericho and their struggle to survive, readers are treated to a sneak peek into the dark, seedy and violent world of drug smuggling and cartels. It makes you question the lengths human beings will go to build their wealth, and also makes you wonder what is really going on in the oft-ignored world of organized crime and missing person’s cases. (There are currently thousands of unsolved missing person’s cases in Arizona*** alone…and nobody just vanishes. So, where do they go, and how long do they languish there after their loved ones stop searching?) I give this one a 4 ½ star rating. I tore through it in about 2 ½ hours – it was very engrossing – and it also made me think, which I love.