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.

Review: ‘Peckerwood’ by Jedidiah Ayres

pwoodWhen author J. David Osborne announced he was starting his own press, Broken River Books, devoted to crime fiction, and teased titles like Gravesend and XXX Shamus, I was immediately intrigued. I wasn’t familiar with Osborne’s work – Low Down Death Right Easy and its sequel, Black Gum Godless Heathen, among other things- but I loved those titles and
enjoyed the excerpts I found online. I checked out the Broken River Books Kickstarter page and read about the five books he already had lined up for release, and got an eyeful of the gorgeously insane covers he’d prepped, and I was sold. I could tell this guy’s sensibility was going to walk hand-in-hand with mine.

After reading Peckerwood, part of the first wave of Broken River titles Osborne released last year (which included the aforementioned Gravesend and XXX Shamus along with The Least of My Scars and Street Raised), I can say my instincts were dead on. Peckerwood is a heavenly slice of hardboiled country crime, a raucous mix of crooked cops, rural thugs, hot-headed women, blackmail, deceit and double-crosses. Best of all, it’s loaded with characters that are more than quickly sketched cannon fodder. Not all of them are worth a damn, but they’re all worth getting to know a little better, and Ayres thankfully gives each of them time to breathe and shine.

There are a lot of twists and turns in the plot as events and relationships become messily intertwined. Take Terry Hickerson’s situation, for example. He’s a local thug who engaged in some tawdry activities with a girl who, turns out, is the sheriff’s daughter. Terry and his pal Cal are in the midst of blackmailing a televangelist, so the extra heat is really not something he needs right now. The sheriff, by the way, is in a partnership with another local criminal, Chowder, and the two of them have had the local drug and sex trade locked down for a good ten years now. Unfortunately, Chowder is receiving some unwelcome overtures from outside interests who are looking to invest in said trade, so things are getting heated there, too. Oh, and someone has been talking to the district attorney’s office, so they’ve sent a representative to the county to poke around.

At times it feels like a scorecard might have come in handy to keep everything straight, but Ayres is a good storyteller and doesn’t let anything get lost in the shuffle. The story moves forward smoothly, and each character and storyline is engaging enough that you don’t find yourself wishing for more of one over the other.

Peckerwood is brash and rude, and a good omen for the quality of working Osborne will be bringing us via Broken River Books. Keep an eye right here, ’cause I have a feeling we’ll be talking about more of these down the line.

Book Review: ‘Hot In December’ by Joe R. Lansdale

HotInDecemberAll Tom Chan wanted to do was grill up a little supper for his family. He was just doing what he’d probably done a hundred times before – standing at the grill, looking out at the quiet suburban street he lived on, thinking of nothing in particular. But instead of the usual calm, forgettable scene, what he saw was a neighbor run down by a speeding car – a car that kept on going while the woman lay crushed and bleeding in the street.

From that point on, things in Tom Chan’s life turn upside-down.

Joe R. Lansdale spins another unforgettable tale in Hot In December, available now in a variety of editions (from ebook to deluxe limited) from Dark Regions Press. Nobody writes better blue collar, “regular joe,” down-to-earth characters than Lansdale, and Tom Chan is the kind of guy we can all relate to. He’s done his time in the military and had hoped that all of that sort of conflict was behind him. He’s got a strong moral center, though, and when he gets a glimpse of the hit-and-run driver he knows he has to help the police bring him in. Unfortunately, the man he saw at the wheel is in deep with the Dixie Mafia – deep enough that even the cops are willing to let Chan off the hook should he “forget” the face of the driver altogether.

Caught between what he knows is right and the potential danger doing the right thing could bring to his family, Chan turns to a couple of his military buddies for advice and assistance. One of his buddies is Cason Statler, an award-winning journalist. The other is a guy called Booger, a cold, remorseless killing machine. The three hash out a plan that will protect Chan’s family even as it puts him square in the sights of some of the baddest men in LaBorde, Texas.

This is a novella with roots in a lot of Lansdale’s other works – the Dixie Mafia is a prominent player in the “Hap and Leonard” novels Vanilla Ride and Devil Red, and Cason Statler’s grandmother is none other than Sunset Jones from Sunset and Sawdust. I love it when authors weave their various stories into a single world, and Lansdale has a lot of fun dropping these little tidbits throughout Hot In December without pulling the focus away from the business at hand.

It’s a dark story, but Lansdale brings his trademark wit to the table, providing plenty of needed levity even as Chan falls deeper into a rabbit hole of danger and violence. His prose is sharp and lean, and his characterization is spot-on as usual. If you’re a Lansdale fan, I don’t need to sell you on this. If you’re not, this short book is as good a place to jump on as any.

Book Review: ‘Odds On’ by Michael Crichton (writing as John Lange)

OddsOnHard Case Crime seems to be one of those rare instances where a singular vision is allowed to thrive under a corporate umbrella. Charles Ardai took his pet project over to Titan Books once Leisure Publishing dissolved, and he hasn’t missed a beat in curating his impeccable mix of crime reprints and originals. He still gets guys like Max Allan Collins and Stephen King to write originals for him, and he continues to unearth hidden treasures.

Ardai’s latest gift to crime fans is a re-release of eight early novels written by Michael Crichton under the name of “John Lange.” This is a project that was underway before Crichton’s death; HCC had already released Grave Descend and Zero Cool with his input – and with the Lange pen name intact. Now they’ve re-released those two along with six more Crichton/Lange novels, and all will appear under Crichton’s name for the very first time.

Odds On, a hotel heist suspense novel written in 1966, was among the first wave of titles released back in October (the rest came out in November). In it, a group of experienced thieves descend on an isolated luxury hotel in Spain called the Reina, where they plan to pull off a complicated plot that involves room-by-room robbery, the hotel safe, and a few pyrotechnics for good measure. The plan has been meticulously laid out with all possible variables run through a computer (the talk of punch cards is just one of the many quaint technological references you’ll enjoy throughout the novel) in order to calculate the odds of success. The computer says they’re good to go… but of course there are always variables one never expects.

Crichton paces the novel to match the crime. It gets off to a slow, deliberate start as the thieves move into the hotel, getting to know the layout, the routine, and many of their potential victims (readers expecting a cliffhanger in each chapter are going to be disappointed). However, when the day of the heist arrives everything begins to accelerate, both for the thieves and for readers. Odds On doesn’t have the kind of explosive, thrill-a-second climax that modern readers may be expecting, but the story is wrapped up nicely and patient readers will be rewarded.

As far as characters go, the thieves themselves are a somewhat bland group, but there are a couple of colorful hotel inhabitants that make up for them. The real draw here, of course, is the success or failure of the robbery, and Crichton does a good job of maintaining interest and suspense as events unfold.

I’ve not read enough of Crichton’s later, more popular work to say how this compares, but I can say that it is a fairly confident novel considering how early in his career it was written. Crichton’s attention to detail and fascination with technology are on full display here, and I look forward to working my way through the rest of the “John Lange” books to see how he progresses.

Book Review: ‘The Stranger You Know’ by Andrea Kane

the-stranger-you-know-by-andrea-kaneAndrea Kane’s The Stranger You Know is the third book in the Forensics Instincts series. Forensics Instincts is a crack investigative group that draws on top talents in disciplines like surveillance and behavioral science, headed up by its tough, intelligent founder, Casey Woods. I’ve not read either of the previous F.I. books but it wasn’t much of a disadvantage, as Kane finds ample opportunity to bring new readers up to speed on the skills and relationships that inform the team’s dynamic.

The Stranger You Know centers around a character from one of those previous F.I. books, The Girl Who Disappeared Twice. In that book, serial killer Glen Fisher was caught and locked away by the team, and even though he remains in jail he’s found a way to go after them, and Woods in particular. Girls with physical similarities and deeply-buried connections to Woods are dying, and somehow Fisher is pulling the strings from prison. The body count is mounting on a daily basis, and the man responsible is making it clear that Woods herself is the intended endgame.

Much of this is going to be familiar ground to regular thriller readers. Serial killers seeking revenge on their pursuers, the prisoner manipulating events from his cell, the “random” victims who aren’t random at all – it’s all standard thriller fodder. Kane does introduce a supernatural element to the proceedings in the form of F.I. teammate Claire, an “intuitive” (i.e., a psychic) whose abilities help the team hone in on the killer. Claire’s presence is a strong asset for the F.I. team, but Kane is for the most part judicious in her use of the character, resisting the urge to let the convenience of psychic ability pave over every difficult plot point.

Overall, The Stranger You Know isn’t breaking any new ground. As far as I’m concerned, though, familiarity doesn’t automatically breed contempt. You can tell me a story I’ve heard before as long as you tell it in a compelling way, and although I never got deeply invested in these characters or this story, Kane did at least hold my interest throughout.

The main stumbling block for me in this book is the dialogue. Achieving a natural conversational flow in dialogue is essential in building compelling characters, and Kane really struggles with this in my opinion. For example, when describing a crime in progress to a police officer, one character says, “It could be a fait accompli already.” Later on, someone says, “I’ll be doing yoga in the third-floor office where I store my mats.” It’s too stilted, too specific when compared to the way people actually talk, and lines like this popped up multiple times, pulling me completely out of the story each time.

Misgivings aside, I found The Stranger You Know to be a solid thriller. It’s got the convoluted plot and brisk pacing that you want, but it lacks the strong characterization and innovative approach that would elevate it for me. As it stands, Kane’s new novel is a fine diversion and fun, if ultimately forgettable, read.

Book Review: ‘The Last Night of October’ by Greg Chapman

LastNightOctoberHorror stories set on Halloween night are a dime a dozen these days, particularly among American horror authors. It makes sense; many of today’s active authors grew up in the time when Halloween was still a rite of passage. It was a night when you set out on your own, just you and your pals, seeking out candy and mischief. Sure, you were only out for a little while, and you were in the relatively safe confines of your own neighborhood, but for many it was the first taste of real freedom.

But that freedom often came tinged with the first taste of real fear as well. It was the first time out in the night, alone, without the comforting (if slightly annoying) backup provided by Mom and Dad. Everyone was clad in costumes that might look like cheap rubber and plastic in the light of day, but were much more effective in the shadows of night. That mix of exhiliration and uneasiness is wonderful to look back on, and countless authors try to capture it year after year with decidedly mixed results.

Greg Chapman is from Australia – a country for which Halloween has had very little significance in the past – but with The Last Night of October he’s quite successful in his efforts to invoke that mix of fear and wonder associated with the holiday.

Gerald Forsyth is a man who feels genuine terror each time Halloween approaches, and for good reason: what started out as a typical night of trick-or-treating for him many years ago took a sudden, tragic turn, and the old man has been dodging the consequences ever since. As the book opens he’s going through his typical Halloween night routine, which is to lock the house down tight and sweat out the hours ’till dawn.

One of the reasons this novella works so well is the way Chapman slowly doles out the backstory. We’re in the dark for much of the first half of the story as to why Forsyth is so scared. The same can be said for Kelli Pritchard, the young home health care attendant who shows up just as night is falling to check on the sickly old man. Kelli is subbing for Forsyth’s regular nurse, and her stubborn commitment to her job is a broken cog in the man’s carefully orchestrated routine. It’s Kelli that answers a knock on Forsyth’s door, inadvertantly letting in the one thing Forsyth is desperate to keep out and setting off a chain of events that has been a long time coming.

Chapman weaves his story with cold, economical precision. There’s very little fat here, especially once Forsyth, Kelli and their strange visitor are locked in together. Even as he takes us back in time to relive Forsyth’s worst Halloween he keeps the story moving forward. The result is a quick read that will linger much longer than a bag of cheap Halloween candy. Don’t wait until next Halloween to give this one a shot – The Last Night of October will deliver chills all year ’round.

Book Review: ‘Doctor Sleep’ by Stephen King

doctor-sleep-01In the afterword to his new novel, Doctor Sleep, Stephen King notes that he approached writing the book with some trepidation. Trepidation is exactly what I felt when I first heard it was coming out – and if you know me, you know that’s an unusual reaction to news of a new King book.

But this isn’t “just another book,” and it isn’t even “just another sequel.” It’s a follow-up to one of his most successful and enduring works. The Shining was part of that initial, volcanic output that announced King’s arrival, and it holds a very dear place in the heart of his massive fanbase. King knew this, and he was worried about letting people down. I was worried about a letdown, too.

Fortunately, King is too smart and too talented to succumb to the traps that kill so many sequels. This is not The Shining 2: Shinier, where a group of ghosthunters camp out at the ruins of The Overlook Hotel to be picked off one-by-one by the vengeful spirit of Jack Torrance. Doctor Sleep shares a character with The Shining, and its events are influenced in many ways by its predecessor, but it’s not trying to be The Shining. And that, Constant Readers, is why it works.

Where The Shining is a classic ghost story, Doctor Sleep is a high-concept thrill ride. In The Shining we see King using the traditional elements of haunted house stories – isolation, unseen presences, noises in the night, spectral figures, etc. – to great effect. In Doctor Sleep, we have confrontations between two groups, we have missions that must be carried out in tight timelines, and we have an eclectic group of villains, about whom nothing – from their colorful names to their unique powers – is traditional.

As usual, it’s King’s strong character work that elevates the material for me. In Dan Torrance, King transitions effortlessly from the little boy we’ve all been wondering about for the last 36 years to the adult known as “Doctor Sleep.” Dan is older now, and he’s damaged, but there’s no doubt that it’s the same character. I have a hard time referring to him as a character, to be honest; to me he’s a person, and that is perhaps the greatest compliment I can possibly pay to King as a writer. He makes these people come alive, and that’s why his work endures.

Just as we’ve wondered what happened to Danny, I’m betting we’ll all be wondering about Abra Stone in the years to come. King writes her with the perfect mix of rebelliousness, confidence and vulnerability. Too much of any of those would have rendered her flat and lifeless, but here she lives and breathes.

Rose the Hat, leader of the True Knot clan of psychic vampires, is a shallow creature, and that’s exactly what makes her so complex. Here’s someone who’s survived on a mix of gut instinct and wisdom gathered over centuries, but who hasn’t quite mastered her ego. Her power, and the powers of those in the Knot, have paved a clear path for them over the years, and once the road gets bumpy she learns what she’s truly made of. Watching her unravel from cold calculation to white-hot rage is as immensely entertaining as it is genuinely frightening.

The best moments of Doctor Sleep, though, are the quiet ones. There’s a place early in the novel when Dan is demonstrating just how he’s picked up his odd nickname. He’s sitting at the bedside of a man named Charlie Hayes, a man who’s just entered the book and is close to exiting. It’s a touching and beautiful moment as King compresses an entire lifetime into a few sentences, and we find ourselves mourning a man whose good and decent journey is coming to an end.

King’s made his living scaring the hell out of us, but it’s writing like this that will make his legacy. It’s writing like this that keeps me coming back. And it’s writing like this that makes writing a sequel to The Shining seem like a damn good idea.

Book Review: ‘Oddities & Entities’ by Roland Allnach

Oddities & EntitiesI was drawn to Roland Allnach‘s short story collection Oddities & Entities primarily because of the name. The author was an unknown quantity to me, and the cover – a generic night photo of the ocean in the moonlight – didn’t exactly reel me in. But that title made me think of those old carnival sideshows, always good for a cheap, colorful thrill even if they didn’t exactly deliver on the promises the barker made in an effort to lure people in. After reading that Allnach spent 20 years working a hospital night shift, and that his work there had influenced the fiction in his book, I figured it was worth giving the collection a shot. I worked the night shift at a hospital too, once upon a time, and I know the kinds of things you see there.

I’m glad I gave it a shot, because Allnach has serious writing chops, and he’s pulled together a strong collection in Oddities & Entities. Better yet, it’s not a group of cheap sideshow thrills (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but a dark, often surreal journey into the underbelly of the world – a place we like to pretend isn’t there, even though we know deep down it’s dancing just out of arm’s reach.

As I said before, I went into this book cold, completely unfamiliar with Allnach and his work, and I think that enhanced my reading experience. For that reason, I’m not going to throw together a plot synopsis for each story. I’d rather you jump in cold like I did (and I’m sure Allnach would feel the same way). I will, however, get a little bit into the first story, because “Boneview” sets a strong tone for the rest of the book and is a good representative of what follows.

“Boneview” is about a girl with a guardian angel of sorts, a strange creature she calls The Curmudgeon who begins visiting her when she’s just an infant. Because she’s known him all her life, it never seems odd to her, even as she grows older, that this skeletal creature with the clicking, clacking fingers phases through walls to visit her at night. He is with her during a lonely, isolated childhood, and at one point he even saves her life. But when she finds peace and balance in her life with a man she grows to love, The Curmudgeon’s visits come to a halt. It seems he’s gone for good – until he reappears just as she gets some good news, seeking a reward for saving her life.

Allnach paints a riveting portrait of a girl’s life here, and the amazing thing is that he grounds it in reality despite elements like The Curmudgeon and Allison’s ability to “see” how and when a person is going to die. It’s a captivating story, made all the more so by the original twists Allnach puts on some classic horror tropes.

In Oddities & Entities, Allnach combines his natural curiosity and powers of observation with a strong voice to produce a solid, compelling story collection. The book is available now from All Things That Matter Press.

Book Review: ‘Bait’ by J. Kent Messum

bait-novel-cover-messum“Please know that no one will be coming to your aid.”

That’s a chilling thing to read. It’s especially chilling when you read it in a letter meant for you and five fellow castaways after you’ve all awoken to find yourselves on a beach with no recollection of how you got there or who these people are that are with you.

This line comes early in Bait, not long after an opening that, while effective, gives away a little too much about what’s coming in the pages ahead. The same can be said for the copy on the back cover, where the art of the tease is all but discarded and the entire premise of the book is laid out for you. A book like Bait is structured so that its reveals are an important part of the reading experience, but when that is taken away from you in the opening minutes the book is hobbled as a result.

That’s not to say that Bait is not an entertaining read; it is. But the potential was there for so much more. Two critical mistakes were made in the book, one being the too-quick giveaway of the premise in the cover copy and in that first chapter. The second mistake is one that’s harder to overcome: in the entire group of six that find themselves in this situation, it’s hard to find one character that’s likable enough to root for. When the whole book is built around the idea that you’re following these people in a struggle for survival, there needs to be someone for the reader to identify with, and Messum doesn’t supply that.

I think now is a good time to point out that I don’t think this book is a total loss. Messum has a clean, quick-moving style, and Bait is very cinematic as a result. It’s a fast, fun read with spots of real tension sprinkled throughout. But again, the lack of relateable characters and the removal of most of the suspense keeps this from being much more than a disposable summer read.

J. Kent Messum has a lot of potential, and I’ll be curious to see what he does next. Bait is neither a total success nor a total failure. It’s a promising start, and hopefully Messum can hammer out some of the kinks and hit the ground running with his next novel.