Review: ‘Buster Voodoo’ by Mason James Cole

large_BusterVoodoo_EbookCoverDixon Green comes from a spiritual family, but not in the traditional sense. A resident of New Orleans, Louisiana, Dixon spent his childhood watching people visit his mother for things like love potions and charms of protection. To Dixon, things like that are part of everyday life, the way Mass or Communion might be for others.

That side of Dixon’s childhood may have been fairly innocuous, but there were some dark swirls thrown into the mix. Take Empty House, for instance, which was pretty much like every haunted house you can find in almost any old neighborhood, except this one was actually haunted. Dixon found that out for himself one day when he went into the house and saw terrible things, visions of a violent past playing out before him. Empty House, they said, was where all the children who’d lately gone missing in Dixon’s part of New Orleans wound up. Empty House, they said, was where Buster Voodoo took them.

Dixon knew some of those missing kids, but only in passing – until the day his sister Marie became one of them.

Buster Voodoo is the monster of Dixon Green’s childhood. Another monster, this one we all know as Hurricane Katrina, comes along in Dixon’s waning years, offering more suffering heaped upon years of fear and anger and regret. Author Mason James Cole brings both of these forces to chilling life in this, his second novel (his first, Pray to Stay Dead, has been re-released by Buster Voodoo publisher Permuted Press). It’s a book that manages to be both vivid and pitch black at the same time; alive with colorful characters and places, and crawling with impending dread.

The book jumps nimbly back-and-forth between Dixon’s past present. Dixon and his sister did manage to temporarily escape Buster Voodoo, but they didn’t exactly live happily ever after. Dixon is wiling away his days as a janitor in a run-down New Orleans amusement park, and Marie is a guest of a facility for the mentally challenged. Even now, in these places, their childhood demon is never far from them.

Hurricane Katrina arrives midway through the book, and for a while it feels like you’ve wandered into a different story, one in which supernatural concerns are swept away by the real-life horror that storm wrought on New Orleans. It’s a horror that Cole, himself a New Orleans resident, knows firsthand, and you can rest assured he’s not using it here for cheap scares or easy atmosphere. It’s tricky business to present real-life horror side-by-side with made-up horror, but Cole pulls it off. Buster Voodoo is a terrifying creation, but what he is and the things he does pale in the face of Katrina’s fury.

There’s a very human heart at the center of Buster Voodoo, and despite all the praise I could heap on Cole’s ability to write tense, nail-biting scenes of horror, it’s that self-same heart that I feel is his best achievement. Cheap shocks thrown at cardboard cutouts don’t stick with you; bad things happening to characters you’ve grown to care about are harder to shake. Buster Voodoo is rich with atmosphere and emotion, and will leave you with plenty to ponder once the last page has been turned.

Review: ‘Beware the Dark’ #2 (Special Tom Piccirilli Issue)

Beware-the-Dark-Tom-PicarilliRegular readers of Tom Piccirilli‘s work (of which there aren’t near enough, in my humble opinion) are likely aware of the accomplished author’s ongoing battle with brain cancer (complicated recently by a stroke). Piccirilli is a writer’s writer and has the reputation around the horror community of being a helluva good guy. I haven’t met the man myself, but that reputation is backed up by the deluge of support he received from writers, publishers and fans when news of his illness first spread.

Paul Fry, founder of Short, Scary Tales Publications, was largely unaware of Piccirilli’s work, but when he saw the support the writer was receiving he decided to check it out. He was evidently impressed
with what he saw, as he’s devoted the second issue of his magazine Beware the Dark to Piccirilli – an issue highlighted by three new stories and a nonfiction piece by Piccirilli himself.

Piccirilli’s stories (“At the Mercy of Angry Angels,” “Waste of the Good Stuff” and “How Some of Us Sleep”) work together as a good overview of the themes that run through most of his work; independently, they work as damn fine stories. “Sleep” is particularly powerful, turning a story of astral projection into a touching tale about family, love and sacrifice.

It’s Piccirilli’s nonfiction piece that truly stands out, however. “Meet the Black” is an essay he wrote before – and after – his brain surgery, and it’s as open and honest and raw a look at a man confronting his own mortality and legacy as you’re ever likely to see.

Fry fills out the issue with several tributes to Piccirilli and his work from authors like Jack Ketchum and Norman Partridge. There’s plenty of non-Piccirilli work as well, including an interview with Joe Lansdale, fiction by Edward Lee, T.T. Zuma and Eric Red, and illustrations by Keith Minnion, Alex McVey and others. There’s also the first in a series of columns by Ray Garton called “Writers You Should Be Reading” – I wrote a similar column (by which I mean a column exactly like this, with the same title!) for the late, lamented FEARnet, and I look forward to seeing how my tastes and choices match up with Garton’s.

All in all, Beware the Dark #2 is a darkly beautiful package. It’s not overly-designed (a real problem with some genre publications, particularly horror publications), the copy is presented in clean, easy-to-read fashion, and the contents are well worth the twelve bucks it costs in the U.S.

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: ‘The Ninth Configuration’ by William Peter Blatty

The-NinthA grotesque, isolated Gothic mansion hidden deep in the woods may not seem like the best place to house a group of mentally unstable military inmates, but that’s precisely the role it serves in William Peter Blatty’s 1978 novel The Ninth Configuration, released this past April in a new paperback edition by Tor. That setting, coupled with the fact that Blatty is also the author of The Exorcist, might lead readers to suspect this is a horror novel, but that’s not the direction the author chose. Instead, what he produced is a compact, visceral examination of the nature of faith and the existence of God.

“Center Eighteen,” as the camp is called, is home to more than 20 military officers (and one astronaut), all of whom were brought down by sudden bouts of mental incapacity. We get a glimpse of their delusions throughout the book, but Blatty centers the tale around two men: Cutshaw, an astronaut who broke down just hours before he was scheduled to go to the moon, and Kane, a psychiatrist whose unorthodox methods may be the key to determining if the men are truly sick or just trying to dodge their duty. Problem is, Kane is not a well man himself. He’s experiencing vivid dreams that may actually be flashbacks, and as he struggles to help the men he finds himself spiraling deeper into his own pit of self-doubt and depression.

Big chunks of The Ninth Configuration consist of conversations between Cutshaw and Kane. This is not a case of two characters spouting exposition in order to move the story forward; it’s two intelligent men stating their views on, among other things, the necessity and reality of God, each trying to make the other one blink. It may feel like wheel-spinning to some readers, but I found it refreshing and engaging to spend the time in these characters’ heads.

If I have any complaints, it’s that I would have liked the setting and isolation to play more of a role in the story, if only to get more passages like this:

It crouched beneath the stars under clustered spires like something enormous and deformed, unable to hide, wanting to sin. Its gargoyles grinned at the forest pressing in on it thickly all around.

Good stuff. Also good is the twist Blatty throws in near the end, as well as the gut-punch of a conclusion.

The Ninth Configuration is a reworking of an earlier novel by Blatty, Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane!, and is also the basis of the 1980 film directed by Blatty himself.

Review: ‘The River of Souls’ by Robert McCammon

RiverSoulsWith The River of SoulsRobert McCammon‘s historical thriller series rolls into its fifth volume with a full head of steam. Matthew Corbett, the problem-solving star of the series, is still recovering from the events of the previous book, The Providence Rider, in which he encountered his arch nemesis, the nefarious Professor Fell. The encounter left Corbett reeling, and his employers urge him to take a cupcake assignment in nearby Charles Town as a way to further his recuperation.

The assignment – the escorting of a young woman to a ritzy ball – proves to be the opposite of restful. Corbett’s date with Pandora Prisskitt puts him in the crosshairs of Prisskitt’s hopeful suitor, a mountain of a man named Magnus Muldoon. Muldoon has already buried a couple of young gentlemen in pursuit of Prisskitt’s hand, and he promptly crashes the ball and challenges Corbett to a duel. Muldoon has an expansive physical advantage, but Corbett lives largely on his wits, and quickly hits on an unlikely solution to his predicament.

This encounter results in an uneasy partnership between Corbett and Muldoon, and the duo soon find themselves swept up in events far more serious than the pursuit of a vapid debutante. A 16-year-old girl from a nearby plantation has been murdered, and three slaves accused of involvement in her killing have gone on the run. A large mob, spurred by the promise of a plentiful reward, has set out in pursuit of the three men, but Corbett learns a few facts about the crime that lead him to believe the real murderer may be hiding among them in plain sight. Determined to see that true justice is served, Corbett and Muldoon join the search, a frantic journey that carries them down a treacherous river known locally as “The River of Souls.”

Being this deep into the series means McCammon can spend less time establishing the world and era the Corbett books are set in, and that freedom results in the leanest Corbett novel yet. The novel is basically one long chase, anchored by a dangerous run down the river that is one of the tensest, bloodiest, most action-packed sequences McCammon has ever pulled off. Alligators, Indians, deranged tribesmen painted like glowing skeletons – the search for the three runaways is as dark and dangerous as anything Corbett has ever faced, and McCammon takes some real chances with the character’s ultimate fate. While the main story is resolved, The River of Souls ends on a cliffhanger that’s going to make the wait for the next book interminable at best.

Although each of the Corbett books is richer for having read the ones before it, McCammon is careful to make them accessible on their own, and The River of Souls is no exception. Even with several callbacks to Speaks the Nightbird, the first Corbett book, this latest entry is accessible enough for first-time fans to get a taste of what the series is all about without being completely lost.

Review: ‘Mr. Mercedes’ by Stephen King

MrmercedesWith Mr. Mercedes, Stephen King continues to show that his greatest strength as a writer is his character work. For proof, look no further than the opening section of the novel, in which we become acquainted with three people among the hundreds standing in line waiting for a job fair to open. In a handful of pages King makes us care about a man, a single mom and her baby; care enough, in fact, that there’s a real sense of loss when the three fall victim to a lunatic in a car.

But he’s not done making you care; in fact, King is just getting started. What follows this shocking opening scene is a tightly-woven chess match between retired detective Bill Hodges and the car’s driver, Brady Hartfield, an all-too-real monster whose human mask is beginning to slip. Taunting Hodges, who spends much of his retirement pondering the ones that got away, is the first sign that Hartfield is growing tired of his anonymous existence. He says he doesn’t plan to attempt another massacre, but a basement full of homemade plastic explosives indicates otherwise.

Hartfield’s taunt serves as a wake-up call for Hodges, who puts aside thoughts of suicide to begin looking into the case again. It’s wonderful watching Hodges transition from merely existing to actually living again. Even better is that Hodges, who was a very good cop but not infallible, doesn’t suddenly become Sherlock Holmes. Like every other human he has his blind spots, and those return to him as readily as his instincts. His new (secret and barely legal) investigation into the Mercedes killing is fraught with the same kind of assumptions and questionable decisions he made during his initial active investigation, and while he manages to overcome most of them they do often lead him – and those around him – into dangerous territory.

As Hodges digs in, he accumulates an unlikely support crew that includes Janey, an attractive younger woman with tragic ties to the job fair massacre; Jerome, the Ivy League bound teen who does yard work for Hodges; and Holly, an emotionally unstable woman who latches on to Hodges because he’s kinder to her than her own family ever managed to be. King brings this crew together in ways that is totally organic and believable, creating a strange sort of family that we can all root for.

Hartfield, on the other hand, is totally irredeemable as a human being. Kings gives his killer a backstory that might elicit some sympathy along the way, but make no mistake: this is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Brady Hartfield feels no remorse and no regret, and when he does suppress his impulses its strictly for his own survival. He’s intelligent, resourceful, and completely barking mad.

The bulk of Mr. Mercedes is peaks and valleys; moments of discovery and excitement followed by periods of consideration and reconsideration. Hodges and Hartfield poke and prod each other along, each hoping the other will slip and open the door for their respective endgames. The tension is there but it’s manageable – until the last 80 or so pages when King stomps the pedal to the floor. Just try and put the book down at that point…

I’ve been reading a lot of crime fiction lately, and it’s no secret that crime writers love a good series. As I neared the end of Mr. Mercedes I realized I’d grown quite fond of the central trio of Hodges, Jerome and Holly, and I wondered if King would consider revisiting them somewhere down the line – perhaps, I dared to think, Mr. Mercedes could be the beginning of a series of King’s own. As if hearing my thoughts, King took to Twitter right around that time to announce that said trio would be back next year in Finders Keepers, the second book in a proposed trilogy.

“Well then,” I thought, “that’s all right, isn’t it?”

Review: ‘Borderline’ by Lawrence Block

Borderline

Lawrence Block’s Borderline is over 50 years old, but it’s as raw and visceral as anything you’ll find in bookstores today. It’s a lean, straightforward tale of four people, each wallowing in their own kind of desperation, most of whom are bound for an unhappy ending.

Truth be told, you’re not likely to feel sorry for any of them. Block has assembled a group of interesting but unlikeable characters: there’s Marty, a self-centered gambler; Meg, a young, recently divorced woman on the prowl for some – any – kind of excitement; Lily, a 17-year-old runaway willing to use whoever crosses her path to get her to a more comfortable life; and Weaver, a psycopathic rapist and murderer. The four meet and mingle at the border between El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico, with almost universally disastrous results.

Block was in his early 20s when he wrote Borderline, and it’s full of the kind of unrestrained energy you’d expect from a talented writer just beginning to explore the depths of his ability. He holds nothing back – the violence is graphic and the sex is explicit, and Block isn’t afraid to mix these elements together when the story deems it necessary. The result is a short novel that fulfills all the lurid promise of its Michael Koelsch cover, and then some.

Hard Case Crime unearthed the book (originally published as Border Lust under Block’s pen name “Don Holliday”) and published it this month as its 115th title. They’ve also included two early Block short stories and a longer, almost novella-length tale to round out the package.

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.