Review: ‘Piercing the Darkness’ edited by Craig Cook

PTDCOverDuring his final semester at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Craig Cook took part in a service project working with some underprivileged students. While helping the kids work on their own short stories, he discovered in them a real thirst for the kind of knowledge that can only come through reading. In himself, he discovered an intense desire to help them, and others like them, have access to the knowledge they craved.

This desire led him to put together Piercing the Darkness, a fully loaded anthology benefiting the Children’s Literacy Initiative. With the weight of such a worthy cause behind him, Cook has assembled a stunning lineup of talent, with many of them contributing brand-new stories. 400 pages from the cream of the horror crop for less than twenty bucks, with all proceeds going to help create a new generation of readers? That’s what we call a”no-brainer” in these parts, my friends.

Still, it wouldn’t be a proper review if I didn’t talk about a few of the stories. The difficulty here was in picking the ones to rave about. Do I talk about “Husband of Kellie” by T.T. Zuma, a zombie story with a wicked punch of an ending? Do I mention Kealan Patrick Burke’s “Haven,” a quietly devastating tale of a man who returns to his childhood home to be reunited with the part of him that never left? I definetely can’t leave out “Searching” by Monica J. O’Rourke, a short piece about a young girl convinced that her real dad is a prince coming to rescue her, not the uninterested jerk that she lives with. (And do I tell how that one nearly brought me to tears?) How much do I say about the stories by Brian Keene and Joe Lansdale and Christopher Golden and Gary Braunbeck and Jonathan Maberry and Jack Ketchum – or do I need to say anything at all, since (for me, at least) their names alone are all that needs to be said?

I think the best way to approach this review, probably, is to keep it short and sweet. So, I’ll just say this: I believe in the cause Craig Cook is trying to help, and I believe in the gift these writers have in telling compelling, thought-provoking, and at times out-right terrifying stories. So yes, I believe Piercing the Darkness is a book that’s well worth your time and your money.

Review: ‘Jamais Vu’ Issue Two (Spring 2014)

Jamais-Vu-Issue-2In only its second issue, Jamais Vu: The Journal of Strange Among the Familiar has established itself as a quality publication with an editorial team that knows how to balance meaty nonfiction features with top-notch fiction selections.

I’m a fiction lover first and foremost, so that’s usually what I go to first when I start reading a magazine or journal. Jamais Vu hooked me early with its strong lineup:

  • “The Long Lonely Empty Road” by Billie Sue Mosiman, which takes a tried-and-true plot (a serial killer hunting the backroads for stranded travellers) and twists it into an engaging guessing game for the reader.
  • “Valedictorian” by Steven Wolf, a sad post-apocalyptic tale in which a couple of young survivors strive for the illusion of normalcy in a shattered world.
  • “Oldies” by Jack Ketchum, an uncharacteristically “quiet” horror tale from the normally visceral author, which tracks one woman’s terror as reality begins to slip away from her.
  • “Functionality” by Lucy Snyder, an unsettling look at how even the most benign technology – in this case, something used for healing – can be horribly misused.
  • “Karmic Interventions” by William D. Carl, a dark comedy about what happens when two people with less-than-lucky track records take one last chance on love.

In addition to these short stories, there’s a lengthy excerpt from Brad Carter’s Sasquatch novel The Big Man of Barlow. Sasquatch also figures into a the interview with the director of the Sasquatch/found footage film Willow Creek, Bobcat Goldthwaite. The nonfiction selection is rounded out by an interview with prolific author Jonathan Maberry, a column by Harlan Ellison, and plenty more.

Editor Paul Anderson has put together an eclectic mix of content that’s a solid blend of the familiar and the new. Jamais Vu is off to a good start; here’s hoping we all support it so that it reaches its full potential as a valuable contributor to the genre.

Review: ‘Deep Like the River’ by Tim Waggoner

DeepRiverAs Deep Like the River opens, a woman named Alie is marking a particularly tough anniversary. Alie’s sister, Carin, thought a day canoeing down Little Clearwater River might provide some
peace of mind – or, at the very least, a distraction from the unpleasant memories they’re both dealing with. Unfortunately, Alie has a much longer journey she needs to complete, and Carin is quickly drawn into an escalating series of horrifying events, beginning with a shocking discovery on a sandbar.

Tim Waggoner‘s new novella, out now from Dark Regions Press, details the surreal path Alie follows as she tries to come to grips with her own dangerously fractured psyche. How and why she came to be in this state is best left for the author to reveal in his own time and his own way, and he does so in typically elegant fashion. While the broad points of the story are nothing groundbreaking, Deep Like the River is more about the journey than the destination.

Along their way down the river, Alie and Carin encounter many things – serpents, great winged beasts, and a frighteningly empty-eyed mother-son duo among them – that may or may not be real. Waggoner is not interested in doling out easy answers – not for Alie, not for Carin, and certainly not for the reader. The result is an evocative, thought provoking story that, like the Little Clearwater itself, will surprise you greatly with its depth.

Review: ‘A Place For Sinners’ by Aaron Dries

SinnersCoverSummer is upon us, which means a lot of you are in the midst of planning a vacation. If you’re anything like me, your packing list is going to include a book or three. Let me offer you a word of advice: leave A Place For Sinners off your list. Not because I don’t think you should read it – you absolutely should – but because it will have you second-guessing your decision to leave the comforts of home behind.

The book opens with a frantic search for seven-year-old Amity Collins. She’s wandered away from the family campsite, and much of the tight-knit Australian community of Evans Head is looking for her. She’s eventually found, but the night ends with a double helping of tragedy that alters Amity and her family forever.

We pick up 13 years later as Amity and her older brother Caleb are preparing for a trip to Thailand. Both siblings bear the scars of that long-ago night, and the trip is a chance to finally put some distance between themselves and the shared pain of the past.

Elsewhere, Robert Mann is preparing for his own trip to Thailand. Mann is a deeply troubled soul looking for escape from an unsatisfying life. He’s in the grip of some serious psychological issues, but his problems are nothing compared to those of Susan Sycamore. Sycamore is already overseas, and author Aaron Dries positions her like a poisonous spider hiding deep in the shadows, waiting for someone to blunder into her path.

Sycamore is one of the most demented characters I’ve read in a while, a human predator whose mask of civility is sliding further and further out of her grip. She’s managed to live among us for a long time – long enough to get married and have kids – but she knows she’s on the threshold of losing control, so she dashes to an under-developed part of the world where she can loosen the reigns a bit. She’s dangerous enough to warrant a novel of her own, but she’s far from being the biggest threat Dries has created. That title belongs to the tiny island of Ko Mai Phaaw, a tourist trap that uses crystal clear water and performing monkeys to hide its true, vicious nature.

Each of the characters that boards the boat for a quick day trip to Ko Mai Phaaw has something inside of them they need to confront. This little island gives them the opportunity to do just that, immediately and savagely. How they fare is something I’ll leave for you to discover.

A Place For Sinners reminds me in many ways of the early works of Stephen King. It’s written with the same raw, ferocious energy that books like Cujo and Night Shift struggle to contain. You get the feeling that Dries didn’t want to write the book, but that he had to, like someone trying to cleanse their body of a raging infection. That energy, coupled with the author’s considerable skill, makes this the proverbial “couldn’t put it down” read we all crave.

Review: ‘The Quick’ by Lauren Owen

QuickCover

Lauren Owen’s debut novel, The Quick, is an ambitious attempt at something that’s been done countless times before – the Gothic vampire novel. While there is much promise in its pages, the end result is a decidedly mixed bag.

The story starts out small, concentrating on two young siblings, James and Charlotte, growing up on a decaying country estate. Their mother is dead and their father stays away on business for large chunks of time. When he finally returns for an extended stay it is only because he is dying. Upon his death we skip ahead several years – Charlotte remains at home while James, fresh out of college, is moving to London to begin a writing career. James is a serious, socially awkward young man; his flatmate, Christopher Paige, is the anti-James. Opposites attract, as they say, and the two begin to grow very close.

Owen spends a hundred or so pages establishing a very specific tone and direction for the book, and then gleefully rips it apart with one shocking stroke. It’s as jolting a change for the reader as it is for the characters, as the book suddenly plunges into
London’s darkest side, a place of supernatural terrors that had barely been hinted at before.

If the book’s tone and energy made the same violent transition as the plot, I would be less ambivalent about it as a whole. However, there’s never a true sense of urgency to the story. There is plenty that should inspire urgency in readers and characters alike, as there appears to be a war brewing between London’s upper-class vampires (represented by The Aegolius Club) and their wrong-side-of-the-tracks brethren (the Alia). But while there is plenty going on, it all seems to take place in the same unhurried manner.

Owen expands the cast with a number of humans who find themselves (some willingly, some not so much) caught in the middle of the two groups. Unfortunately, Owen does little to distinguish these characters from one another, making it difficult to find anyone to invest in emotionally.

Despite these issues, I still found The Quick enjoyable overall. Owen has a smooth, graceful style that is a pleasure to read even if it isn’t the best fit for this particular subject matter. I think there is a lot here she can improve on, but there’s also proof that she’s got a solid career ahead of her.

The Quick by Lauren Owen will be available on June 17, 2014 from Random House.

This Kickstarter is a real ‘Nightmare’

NightmareI’m not sure if this one is going to make it. With less than two weeks left to make a goal that’s only been about one-fourth pledged at this point, the Kickstarter for the book Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy – The Making of Wes Craven’s ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ has quite an uphill battle in front of it. This makes me sad.

For fans like myself who came of age during the dominance of the unholy trinity of Jason, Michael and Freddy, it’s a no-brainer to back something like this. We’ve already got the definitive making-of book on the Jason films in Crystal Lake Memories. There was a similar effort for the Halloween series in the works, but author Justin Beahm recently announced that the project has sadly fallen through. And now we’re about to blow our chance at a giant coffee table tome covering the original, classic Freddy film.

Take a look at the Kickstarter page (linked above). Check out the video there featuring the book’s author, Thommy Hutson, and Nightmare‘s own Heather “Nancy” Langenkamp. Read through this interview Hutson did for Ain’t It Cool News. The book’s been written and designed already (and it’s designed by Peter Bracke, who did a phenomenal job on Crystal Lake Memories). I know $65,000 seems like a lot to self-publish a book, but when you’re talking an oversized, high quality, full color effort like this one, that price tag is dead on.

If you want to know more about the kind of passion and knowledge Hutson is leveraging for this product, check out the amazing FOUR HOUR Nightmare documentary he wrote and co-produced. Then go on over and back the book version. If this one fails, I’m afraid we all may lose a little sleep over it…

 

Cemetery Dance announces SIX new Stephen King special editions

CarrieNewSubtitle this As My Wallet Gently Weeps.

This past weekend – Saturday, April 5, to be exact – marked the 40th anniversary of the publication of Stephen King’s debut novel Carrie. Without turning this whole post into an essay on that alone, let me just say that it was a huge anniversary for me personally. King’s work is what got me into reading, and then into writing. It’s why nearly all of my “real” jobs have involved writing in some way; it’s why I write short stories and why I’m writing a novel; it’s why October Country exists today. So, yeah, the guy’s work is important to me.

I can’t think of another writer that got a better running start on a career than King. Carrie, then ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Night Shift and The Stand? A solid debut, two bonafide classics, the scariest vampire novel I’ve ever read, and a group of note-perfect horror shorts? Yeah, I’d say that’s a decent beginning. While there are other classics and favorites littered throughout King’s bibliography, it’s hard to top that opening salvo.

Cemetery Dance recognizes this as something to be celebrated. This specialty press has long been associated with King, producing beautiful special editions of a number of his works, including From A Buick 8, IT, Full Dark No Stars and many others. Now they’re turning their attention to his earliest works, beginning with the five books listed above and then skipping ahead a bit to include Pet Sematary.

First up, naturally, is Carrie, which is already available for preorder. You can read all the details at Cemetery Dance’s site, but I’ll helpfully point out the new introduction by King and the afterword by the author’s wife Tabitha King (who famously rescued the book’s first pages from a trashcan). If you’re gonna order one, you might want to hurry – these things tend to sell out quick.

I’d love to get ‘em all, but the one I absolutely plan 100% on ordering is Pet Sematary. That’s the one that started the journey for me, and I was bummed when I missed out on PS Publishing’s 30th Anniversary edition of it last year. I don’t plan to miss out again.

Review: ‘Gorezone’ #30

GZ30When Fangoria editor Chris Alexander announced last year his intention to resurrect Fango’s sister magazine, Gorezone, he made it clear that he would be taking its original mission of covering obscure horror and exploitation seriously. Not that Gorezone didn’t fulfill that promise in its initial 27-issue run; it did, but with concessions. Newsstands, grocery store magazine racks and other such places were where it lived and died, so occasionally there had to be nods to the mainstream, like covers featuring Freddy or Leatherface or Jason – the well-known, accepted, dare-I-say “safe” faces of horror.

This time around, Gorezone is available via subscription or online orders only. If you want it, you have to seek it out, and those who seek it out know what they’re getting into. It’s a situation that has allowed Alexander and his crew to live without fear, and they’ve taken full advantage in the first three revamped issues. With the latest release, issue number 30 (they picked up the numbering where the original run left off), Gorezone has really hit its stride.

With the exception of FX master Tom Savini’s column focusing on two famous gags from the original Dawn of the Dead, and an interview with Cannibal Holocaust actor Robert Kerman, most of the creators and films featured will be unfamiliar to all but the truly hardcore horror fans. That’s a great thing from where I sit. We have plenty of outlets to read about the latest multiplex-bound sequels and remakes, and now we have Gorezone back to help flesh out the more obscure corners of the genre.

Among this issue’s juicier features are a retrospective on the 1988 shocker Slaughterhouse Rock, a look at the ’80s slasher homage The Pick-Axe Murders Part III: The Final Chapter, and two features on underground film master Fred Vogel. There’s also a short story written by Barbie Wilde, who played a Cenobite in Hellbound: Hellraiser II; her story ties into that mythology as created by Clive Barker in the novella The Hellbound Heart. And, it should be said that the pages of the magazine fairly drip with tons of blood-drenched, entrails-ridden photos.

So, if you’re a fan who likes to seek out stuff that your Redbox-loving friends have never heard of, or if you’ve seen everything Redbox has to offer and want something new and dangerous, let Gorezone take you by the hand. They have such sights to show you.

Review: ‘Dark Discoveries’ #26 – ‘The Weird West’

DD26CoverDark Discoveries #26
Winter 2014

Dark Discoveries magazine has put out some great themed issues during its 10-year run, with topics including “Comics and Pulp” (#16), “Extreme Horror” (#19) and “Horror and Rock” (#22). The latest issue continues this trend with one of my personal favorite genre mashups, the “Weird Western.”

A quick glance at the cover, which boasts names like Gary Braunbeck, Norman Partridge and Quentin Tarantino, told me there was going to plenty for me to like inside. Braunbeck’s story, “Ungrateful Places,” turned out to be the highlight for me. It’s the story of a boy named Edward, a social outcast who leaves his
village and becomes a war hero. When he returns, savaged by injuries that cost him his face, he almost immediately settles back into his role as the village nobody. It isn’t long before he begins seeing ghosts of gravely wounded soldiers, and soon he has a choice to make – let others feel the pain he’s felt, or sacrifice himself once again to spare those around him. Braunbeck proves again he is one of the best at wringing pure, real emotion from words on a page, and this story reminds me all over again that we just don’t get enough new work from him.

Partridge is another one of my favorite writers, and he brings his uniquely gritty vision to Dark Discoveries with “Fever Springs,” a rousing werewolf tale that involves a greedy, amoral banker, a band of bank robbers, and a bloodthirsty shapeshifter.

Tarantino’s involvement comes in the form of an interview about his recent film Django Unchained, and while it’s not exactly timely it’s an interesting chat with the always engaging filmmaker.

The issue is rounded out by stories from Hank Schwaeble and David Liss, several nonfiction pieces, and a lengthy article by Stephen King expert Rocky Wood examining King’s use of Old West imagery that not only hits the obvious notes (The Dark Tower, The Regulators) but touches on some little-known nuggets like George D X McArdle, a humorous western novel King began and abandoned in the 1980s.

It’s a solid issue overall, and worth noting that it marks the end of Dark Discoveries founder James Beach’s role as editor-in-chief. Beach has poured a lot of love and sweat (and, no doubt, a lot of money) into the magazine over the years, shaping it into a respected title of consistent quality. He’s managed to feature some of the genre’s heaviest hitters over the years, but always made room for new voices. When I was first dipping my toes into the genre journalism waters years ago he gave me the opportunity to interview a couple of writers, Jon Merz (#4) and Joe Hill (#11), and even published a contest-winning short story of mine, “Pun’kin,” back in issue number 17. So perhaps I’m a little bit biased when I say “Job well done, James.” But I said it anyway. And while Beach is leaving the day-to-day duties behind he’s promised to remain involved, and is leaving the magazine in good hands with JournalStone Publishing and new editor-in-chief Aaron J. French.

So, here’s to another fine issue of Dark Discoveries, and to whatever they bring us next.

Short Story Review: “Wolverton Station” by Joe Hill

WolvertonI’ve never traveled abroad, but I think I’d be able to relate somewhat to Saunders, the main character of Joe Hill‘s short story “Wolverton Station.” He’s in a strange place, unsure of some of the things he’s seeing, and getting more overwhelmed by the minute. Of course, I imagine my feelings would stem from things like the strange food or the language barrier rather than, you know, wolves who walk upright, wear business suits and casually slaughter my fellow passengers.

Hill’s story, previously published in the 2011 Subterranean Press anthology Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy and recently released as an ebook single, mixes a little Twilight Zone with a little Tales From the Darkside and a substantial dash of
sociopolitical commentary to produce a solid if unspectacular horror tale. Saunders is an executive for a restaurant chain that specializes in coffee, and he’s come to England to oversee the chain’s first steps in expansion. This means finding locations that are near mom ‘n pop type operations and crowding his way into the market. Saunders makes no bones about his methods, and Hill does little to try and paint the man in a sympathetic light. So really, it’s no big deal when a wolf in a nice suit sits next to him on the train – we’re pretty sure Saunders is going to die, and we really don’t care.

Hey, not all horror stories have to be about the hero that gets away – sometimes they can be about the scumbag who gets what he deserves. Saunders is the kind of guy who went to a monastary and came away with the revelation that a burger joint across the street would have made a killing. While he’s adept at making great business decisions he’s made some poor life choices in his time, and he makes a couple here that seal his fate.

“Wolverton Station” is a minor note in Hill’s overall (brilliant) catalog, a fun, quick piece that would be right at home in a pulp magazine. It doesn’t hold a candle to the stories in his collection 20th Century Ghosts, his novels, or his work on the series Locke and Key, but for a buck it’s definitely worth a download and a half hour of your time.