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.

Review: ‘Gator Bait’ by Adam Howe

Gator Bait by Adam Howe
Comet Press (August 2015)

GatorBaitIf I tell you that Adam Howe’s Gator Bait features an out-of-the-way Louisiana bar that has a trapdoor over a swamp in which a giant, ravenous alligator lives, do I really need to tell you anything else? Because, yes, Gator Bait has that very thing, and yes, the gator eats well (and often) throughout the course of this gloriously fun pulp novella.

Well, even though I don’t get paid by the word around here, I suppose I’ll tell you a little more. Gator Bait is anchored by a guy named Hammond, a classic ne’er-do-well who is on the run from a sequence of events that cost him a few fingers. This is a bit of a problem for Hammond, seeing as he’s a juke joint piano player by trade, but he proves to be quite resourceful (not to mention a talented enough musician to overcome the loss of a few digits). He hitches a ride and ends up at The Grinnin’ Gator, a dump of a bar owned by a man named Croker.

Croker is the very definition of “repulsive,” but he’s managed to snag a very attractive woman named Grace as his wife. Grace is drawn to Hammond, now the Gator’s new piano player, and the two quickly enter into a clandestine relationship. Grace tells Hammond about the safe full of money Croker has in his office, and the two begin to cook up a scheme designed to get them both out from under the abusive man’s thumb.

Naturally, things do not go as planned, leading to blood-soaked finale punctuated with double-crossings, gator feedings, and death by moonshine.

Howe takes several familiar elements and spins them into a thoroughly entertaining read. He’s particularly good at bringing the seamy Grinnin’ Gator to life, making it – and the steamy Louisiana swampland that surrounds it – a character in its own right. If you’re anything like me, you’ll power through this one in one sitting and then hit the Internet to track down more of Howe’s work. Gator Bait is tasty stuff, and highly recommended.

Review: ‘The Pretty Ones’ by Ania Ahlborn

The Pretty Ones by Ania Ahlborn
Pocket Star Books (July 2015)

ThePrettyOnesNell Sullivan is the kind of person you want to feel sorry for – but she doesn’t make it easy. She’s a withdrawn, timid mouse of a woman, drifting like a shadow through her workday and retreating each night into the safety of her apartment. She’s regularly dismissed, even picked on, by the women she works with, and her meager attempts to improve her lot in life go about as well as similar attempts did for Stephen King’s Carrie White.

Like Carrie, Nell is a woman with secrets. While she doesn’t have any kind of psychic or telekinetic ability, she is struggling to deal with the various curve balls thrown at her by her own mind. Her thoughts take sudden, vicious turns when she’s confronted by put-downs and disappointments at work; at home, she’s haunted by the memories of an abusive mother and the presence of her mute brother, a silent ball of anger who tries to steer her life and decisions in his chosen directions.

Nell is a tightly wound rubber band, and it doesn’t help matters that it’s 1977 in New York City, and a man they’re calling “Son of Sam” has the whole city on edge. When women in her office begin to die, it’s easy to assume that the infamous killer has targeted them…but each death brings a few more uneasy glances Nell’s way…

Ania Ahlborn has put together a dark, tense novella in The Pretty Ones, her latest release from Pocket Star Books. You’ll begin to suspect the truth behind the killings early on, but Ahlborn plants the seeds for a number of possible outcomes as she goes, making it a fun guessing game right up to the end. I like the compactness of the story, although I wouldn’t have minded a higher page count if it meant we’d get more gritty, 1970s New York City atmosphere. That aside, the character work is solid and the storytelling is engaging, making this a quick but rewarding read.

Review: ‘Blue World’ by Robert McCammon

Blue World by Robert McCammon
Subterranean Press (August 2015)

Blue_World_by_Robert_McCammonOver the last few years Subterranean Press has gotten heavily into the Robert McCammon business – and cousin, business is a-boomin’. In addition to releasing new works like The Border, they’ve been steadily reissuing the author’s back catalog, bringing us gorgeous new editions of books like The Wolf’s Hour and Stinger. Blue World is their latest McCammon reissue, a new edition of his only short story collection to which they’ve added three previously uncollected stories.

The bulk of the stories in Blue World are horror, and revisiting them makes it easy to see why McCammon drew so many comparisons to Stephen King early in his career. Blue World feels like a spiritual companion to King’s first short story collection, Night Shift, with both featuring short tales that exploit their respective author’s influences while reshaping those influences in each writer’s own unique fashion. Throughout the course of his book, McCammon tackles and twists such classic horror tropes as the outsider learning that the surface perfection of his new community hides something dark and sinister (“He’ll Come Knocking at Your Door”); the lifting of the veil between the living and the dead on Halloween night (“Strange Candy”); and the madness that might be waiting for survivors of an apocalypse (“I Scream Man!”).

McCammon has always been adept at more than horror, and this collection is a fine showcase for some stories that fall just outside of the genre. An example is “Night Calls the Green Falcon,” my personal favorite of the collection, which follows a lonely, forgotten actor from an old serial who comes out of “retirement” to catch a serial killer. McCammon constructs the story just like one of those old chapter plays, complete with cliffhangers, perfectly capturing the spirit of the serials the Green Falcon was famous for. There’s a sense of melancholy in the story, that thing we all feel as we realize that time is passing us by, but it’s counterbalanced by the idea that, sometimes, we can reach out and grab some of that old glory and excitement if we just have the guts to try.

Really, the only story I had issue with in this entire collection is the novella it’s named after. “Blue World” ventures outside the horror realm to tell a very grounded, personal story of redemption. In it, a priest gives in to temptation and falls in love with a porn star; that same porn star is beginning to question her direction in life, and hopes that the man she’s taken up with – a man she doesn’t know is a priest – will be the one to help change her luck. Meanwhile, an obsessed fan is stalking them both with deadly intent. This is McCammon really trying to stretch his wings, and while it works in places it’s not, for me, completely successful. There’s a disconnect there; it feels like McCammon liked the idea enough to pursue it, but didn’t have the strong personal connection to it that makes so much of his work so powerful.

Subterranean Press is releasing Blue World at the perfect time, as it’s truly a trick-or-treat bag full of classic short scares that will get you in the mood for the impending Halloween season. If you’ve let this one get by you in the 25 years (!) since its original release, here’s your chance at redemption.