Review: ‘Zombie Gold’ by John L. Lansdale

jack6.000x9.000.inddZombie Gold by John L. Lansdale
SST Publications (August 2016)

Working as a hand on his guardians’ ranch is an okay job as far as Chris Bain is concerned, but what he really wants to do is ride in the rodeo. Will Littlefield, part of a group of college kids hired on as extra help, has some experience doing just that. The two immediately bond over their passion for riding giant, powerful animals that don’t want to be ridden, sparking a friendship that’s soon to be strengthened through some very unusual circumstances. Continue reading

Review: ‘Obsidian Heart Book Two: The Society of Blood’ by Mark Morris

Obsidian Heart Book Two: The Society of Blood by Mark Morris
Titan Books (October 2015)

societyofbloodMark Morris continues his time-travelling, genre-smashing Obsidian Heart trilogy with The Society of Blood. Like any good trilogy middle child, Society is unencumbered by the need to set up plot points or tie up storylines; instead, it can simply take what’s been put into place and run wild until it’s thoroughly exhausted. And run wild it does, taking readers on a trip from Victorian times back to the modern world, with a plethora of ghastly murders, surreal villains and plot twists along the way. Continue reading

2015: The Year in Reading

ParadiseSkyIn my 2014 reading recap, I discussed how a number of familiar names dominated that year’s Top Ten, and I predicted that several of those names would resurface in 2015 – names like Joe Lansdale, Ace Atkins and Stephen King. Well, not only did that prediction come true, but I’m making a similar prediction for 2016. Lansdale has both a Hap and Leonard novel and a Hap and Leonard short story collection on deck; King has the finale of his Bill Hodges trilogy ready to go; and Atkins will once again favor us with new entries in his Quinn Colson series and his continuation of Robert Parker’s Spenser series. Don’t be shocked if some (or all) of those titles make the Top Ten for 2016. Continue reading

Review: ‘Charlotte’s Story’ by Laura Benedict

Charlotte’s Story by Laura Benedict
Pegasus (October 2015)

CharlotteCoverDeath comes easy in Bliss House, and it lingers.

Laura Benedict established Bliss House (an old country retreat built back in 1878) and its mysterious past in her 2014 novel of the same name. Charlotte’s Story is the follow-up, a ghost story set in 1957 against a backdrop of idealism personified by the pursuit of the American Dream and the Nuclear Family.

Charlotte Bliss recently married into the Bliss family. She and her husband, Preston, along with their children Eva and Michael, have become the sole occupants of the rambling Bliss House upon the death of Preston’s mother, Olivia. It should be a time for happiness for Charlotte, albeit one tinged with sadness over the loss of her mother-in-law. But tragedy strikes quick and it strikes often in this house, and the accidental death of one of her children follows close on the heels of Olivia’s passing. There are other deaths in quick succession, and while each has a relatively simple and believable explanation, Charlotte can’t shake the feeling that there’s something more going on. Something sinister. Something that may be manifesting itself in and around the house in increasingly frightening and dangerous ways.

Charlotte’s Story is a difficult book to categorize because it does several things well. It’s a compelling and suspenseful mystery; it’s a tense and powerful ghost story; and it’s a touching family drama. Benedict creates characters that are worth caring for, and then gives you plenty of reasons to fear for them. She also proves more than adept at providing lush, evocative descriptions without losing the momentum of the story.

Don’t let that soft-focus, Lifetime-movie looking cover dissuade you – Charlotte’s Story has teeth. Lovers of a good old-fashioned ghost story well find it well worth their time.

Review: ‘The Stephen King Companion: Four Decades of Fear from the Master of Horror” by George Beahm

The Stephen King Companion: Four Decades of Fear from the Master of Horror
by George Beahm 

St. Martin’s Griffin (October 2015)

SKCompanionEven when confronted with the sheer bulk of The Stephen King Companion: Four Decades of Fear from the Master of Horror – over 600 pages, enough to rival several of King’s own doorstop novels – I went into it thinking, “There’s not going to be much here I don’t know already.”

That’s not to say I consider myself a King expert. A huge fan, yes, but expert? I reserve that term for folks like George Beahm, author of this book and its preceding editions, along with contributors like Michael Collings and the late Rocky Wood and my Cemetery Dance comrade Bev Vincent. But my “relationship” with King stretches back into the early 1980s, and in that 30- odd year stretch I’ve read all of his fiction and tons of interviews; I’ve plumbed the depths of YouTube for every speaking engagement, reading and Q&A I could find; and I’ve watched clips of every talk show appearance and news profile I could get my hands on. Through it all I’ve gotten pretty good at seeing the patterns, at knowing how he’s going to ask certain questions, at recognizing the anecdotes he often falls back on when asked a question for the hundredth, thousandth, possibly millionth time. I know the themes he likes to write about, and the phrases that pop up from time to time like old friends.

But…expert? Nah. Overly familiar? That’s more like it. However, during a few days of cherry-picking my way through this massive new volume, I found myself repeatedly surprised by the new tidbits and new insights Beahm and his cohorts are able to present.

So. Surprising. Informative. Let me add “immensely readable” to my list of compliments. The way this book is organized plays a big part in its readability. It would have been easy to do a section on the novels and collections, another on the movies, another on limited editions, and so on – easy, and perfectly acceptable. Instead, Beahm has organized a sort of rambling travelogue through King’s career. The high points are all there, of course, but Beahm knows just when to take a side-trip away from the major works and into other, related territories.

For example, after a chapter on The Stand, the last novel published through Doubleday, we get a quick look at Cemetery Dance’s limited editions of the Doubleday books, a bit on the Bachman books, and then an examination of King’s jump from Doubleday to New American Library. Reading about that move in its proper place on the King Career Timeline really helps put it into context, and is much more effective than having an article on all his different publishers at the end of the book.

There are plenty of similarly interesting asides throughout the book: an interview with King’s main research assistant; looks at the artists who have collaborated with King throughout his career (including Glenn Chadbourne and Michael Whelan, both of whom contributed to the Companion); and, one of my favorites, an essay by author/King scholar Kevin Quigley on meeting King, which is one of the most painfully honest and (sorry Kevin) amusing accounts of fan boy vapor lock you’re likely to read.

I could go on and on, but you get the gist. This is an immersive volume of information and insight, written with care, respect and unabashed love for the subject matter. If you’re the type of Constant Reader with a shelf, a bookcase, or a whole room devoted to Stephen King, you’re going to want to find a spot for The Stephen King Companion.

Review: ‘Voices of the Damned’ by Barbie Wilde

Voices of the Damned by Barbie Wilde
Short, Scary Tales Publications (October 2015)

VotD-FRONT-CVRBarbie Wilde cemented her genre credentials way back in 1988 when she appeared as the Female Cenobite in Hellbound: Hellraiser II. Her career since then has bounced between music, television hosting, and writing. Voices of the Damned is her first short story collection, and, much like her resume, it’s an eclectic and varied journey with deep roots in the imagination of Clive Barker.

The centerpiece of the collection is “The Cilicium Trilogy,” three stories that breathe further life into the Cenobite Wilde portrayed on film. Part one, “Sister Cilice,” tells of a nun with some rather unwholesome fantasies about a priest who serves her convent. She seeks refuge in the bowels of the convent’s library, hoping to bury her true feelings beneath a mountain of research. She discovers documentation of something called The Order of the Gash, and soon opens a portal that brings her face-to-face with some familiar demons who specialize in combining pleasure and pain. And when they can’t break her, they decide to recruit her instead…

This leads to the second story of the trilogy, “The Cilicium Pandoric.” The nun is now a first level Cenobite, but she’s yet to conquer the bored and restless nature established in the first story. She travels back to the human realm to visit a man known as the Toymaker – he
specializes in puzzle boxes – and asks for a device that will help her create a new female order in Hell. This brings us to the trilogy’s concluding chapter, “The Cilicium Rebellion,” in which Sister Cilice leads an all-star team of of sorts in her quest for control.

Wilde is clearly heavily influenced by, and having a ball playing in, the world Clive Barker created in his novella “The Hellbound Heart.” Her stories share the ideas that Barker examines in so much of his fiction: the co-mingling of pleasure and pain to create sensations to sate even the deepest, most depraved appetites; the desire to break free of normal boundaries to become something more, something better; the reality that a bargain isn’t always a bargain, and that you may not get what you want, but you’re sure to get what’s coming to you.

As companion pieces to Barker’s unique vision of Hell, the stories in “The Cilicium Trilogy” work well enough. But, to be honest, I think the most fun to be had in this collection is when Wilde roams outside Barker’s ranks and follows her own distinct muse. My favorite example is “Zulu Zombies,” in which a guy doing a terrible job of looking after a family heirloom sets off a horrific series of events. Also good is “Writer’s Block,” in which an author whose muse has fled him tries to recharge at a local horror convention. A sordid tryst with a witch and the Devil himself promises great results for the writer…but we all know how deals with the Devil usually turn out.

Voices of the Damned is the work of a fearless artist who is still trying to lock down her own voice. Readers checking out this first step on the path will find that it’s a bit uneven at times, with some rocky stretches along the way, but definitely worth the time in the end.

Review: ‘Stinger’ by Robert McCammon

Stinger by Robert McCammon
Subterranean Press (October 2015)

StingerSubIn Stinger, Robert McCammon spins the relatively straightforward tale of a benevolent alien who crash lands in the small Texas town of Inferno. Unfortunately for that alien, and for the citizens of Inferno, there’s a second alien in pursuit of the first; a bounty hunter with far more aggressive tendencies. This simple storyline unfolds across one 24-hour period, and yet it takes McCammon more than 600 pages to tell his story.

Bloated? Padded? Not in the slightest, and shame on you for even entertaining the thought. This is epic, apocalyptic storytelling on a small scale. No, 600 pages is not small, but by narrowing his focus to one event in one location, McCammon leaves himself plenty of room to build a vivid cast of characters who are in way over their heads, while life-changing (and potentially world-changing) consequenes hang in the balance.

McCammon has long been known as a horror writer, a label he’s struggled with throughout his career. There are certainly horrific elements in Stinger (the bounty hunter is very, um, goal-oriented, and is not afraid to leave a fair amount of human carnage in its wake), but the book leans heavily toward sci-fi. Much like his recent novel The Border, McCammon uses
those sci-fi trappings not to induce awe and wonder, but terror and dread, making Stinger the kind of hybrid that will leave fans of both genres with plenty to be happy about.

stingerpaperbackAnother surprise in a book this size? The blistering pace. Again, let me draw a favorable comparison to The Border, which clocked in at nearly 500 pages that absolutely flew by. Even early in his career (Stinger was originally published in 1988), McCammon was a master at seamlessly weaving plot advancement and character building. There are many compelling characters with interesting side-stories in Stinger – the two young leaders of opposing gangs; the PTSD-suffering war veteran; the alcoholic father; the ineffectual sheriff, to name just a few – and when McCammon wanders off the path to examine their situations more closely, I doubt you’ll mind at all.

But it’s not all diversion and introspection. McCammon also knows how to write the big set pieces, and there is carnage a-plenty to be found in Stinger. The bounty hunter’s methods of travel and disguise are destructive to buildings and bodies alike. The town of Inferno, quivering on the edge of financial ruin at the book’s beginning, is literally in ruins by the book’s end.

In Stinger, McCammon strikes a near-perfect balance between B-Movie thrills and more serious themes. Kudos to Subterranean Press for adding this to their long list of resurrected, refurbished McCammon classics.