April 24, 2014

The Force Is Strong In This One: a review of "Dark Forces" edited by Kirby McCauley

Dark Forces: The 25th Anniversary Edition
edited by Kirby McCauley
originally published in 1980
re-released via Cemetery Dance
ASIN: B005CRQ938

When I was on a real tear a couple years ago, reading as much short fiction in a summer as I could, this anthology was recommended to me more than a couple of times. Had I not already been swamped with a line-up of collections and anthologies to read at the time, I would have added this one to the pile sooner. Now, having read it, I see that I should have made it a priority.

Dark Forces is not only a truly entertaining book from front to back, but serves as a valuable time capsule for its time, having been published in the very early 80s it manages to show how some of the then up-and-comers fared alongside some true legends in the horror genre.

Right off the bat, the book gave me the chance to revisit Stephen King's The Mist, which is the very last story and the one I immediately jumped to. I don't often re-read books, but for this gem of a tale I'd make an exception. Honestly, if you haven't read The Mist yet, then do yourself a favor and just go buy this anthology. It'll be worth the pricetag for that one novella alone.

Ramsey Campbell's "The Brood" reminded me that I need to pick up one of the novels I have of his sitting on my bookshelf and get to reading his work again. The guy is a wee bit amazing with the tales of terror. Robert Bloch's "The Night Before Christmas" on the other hand was a bit of a letdown, though not because it was poorly written--quite the opposite--but the author of Psycho felt a bit too clever in this one. Then Charles L. Grant's "A Garden of Black Red Roses" offered a really great glimpse of a guy whose work I need to get to know, as he deftly spins a quiet, smalltown horror story here. Joyce Carol Oates is another writer with a skilled hand at disquieting stories, and "The Bingo Master" manages to do just that, though it's one of the few tales I felt took a good long while in getting warmed up.

It's been nearly thirty-five years since Dark Forces originally came out--nearly ten since Cemetery Dance republished it for an anniversary edition here--and there are times while reading that it does feel dated. Not out-dated, mind you, but there is a kind of nostalgic kick that comes with reading some of these stories. Or mayne it's just the brand of new horror that I've been reading with a harder, slightly meaner tone, which has me seeing this book with a rose-colored hue. In any case, I wholly recommend it to horror readers who have yet to give it a try, especially those who maybe have only read recent works lately. It might serve you well to dip into the past for this one.

April 23, 2014

#AfterpartyBlogTour Brand New Drugs: an interview with Daryl Gregory, author of "Afterparty"

PR By the Book and Tor Books are in the middle of a blog tour with Daryl Gregory right now, promoting Daryl's latest novel, AFTERPARTY. For my part, I had the chance to ask him a few questions relating to the novel. But before all that, here's a little info on the man and his newest book:

About the author: Daryl Gregory is an award-winning writer of genre-mixing novels, stories, and comics. His first novel, Pandemonium, won the Crawford Award and was nominated for a World Fantasy Award. His other novels include The Devil’s Alphabet (a Philip K. Dick award finalist), Raising Stony Mayhall (a Library Journal best SF book of the year), and the upcoming Afterparty. Many of his short stories are collected in Unpossible and Other Stories, which was named one of the best books of 2011 by Publishers Weekly. He lives in State College, PA.

About AFTERPARTY: After a smart drug revolution allows anyone with internet and a chemjet to invent mind-bending drugs, 17-year-old Francine gets hooked on one such drug, Numinous. Credited with leading people to God, Numinous is used as a sacrament by a new church that preys on the underclass. A victim of the church, Francine is thrown into jail where she undergoes terrible withdrawal from the drug and meets Lyda Rose. But Lyda has a dark secret: she is one of the original creators of the Numinous drug which she thought no longer existed. When Francine commits suicide, Lyda sets out to make things right.

With the help of an ex-government agent and an imaginary, drug-induced doctor, Lyda begins a fast-paced chase across Canada and the United States to find the last surviving creators of Numinous—and stop whoever is still making the drug.

And now, onto the interview:

Gef: Afterparty is a novel involving drugs and is set in Toronto, Canada. Now, in case you've been paying attention to the news over the past year, there's already a guy synonymous with Toronto and drugs. Do you feel outmatched in that regard?

Daryl: Rob Ford is an excellent example of real life outstripping fiction—even science fiction.

Gef: Seeing demonstrations of 3D printers are impressive enough, but I never would have clued in to the idea of a pharmaceutical equivalent. And this isn't even some far off concept, either. When you first caught wind of this burgeoning technology, what went through your head--besides a novel idea.

Daryl: Because this book takes place in the very near future, I wanted the technology to be so plausible that you might think it already existed. In a lot of cases that meant combining a few existing technologies to make a new one. So, 3D printers + Silk Road-style ecommerce (to purchase chemical precursor packs) = the “chemjet,” a device to print designer drugs onto edible paper. I thought this was a completely novel idea, until I talked to a chemistry professor and found out they’re very close to doing this now.

Gef: A lot of stories have the "devil on my shoulder", but Afterparty features a "god in my head" with the synthetic drug, Numinous, giving users an unmatched high for the main character--and drug's creator--Lyda. What was it about this quasi-religious experience that compelled you to include it in the story?

Daryl: Lots of people—one survey had it at 50% of respondents—have experienced the numinous, the sudden feeling that you’re in touch with a presence external to yourself. It happens to believers and atheists alike, in all cultures. We can see the brains of Catholic nuns and Buddhist monks lighting up in fMRIs when they pray or meditate. People with temporal lobe epilepsy can experience the numinous every day. There’s a researcher in Canada who’s reported inducing the feeling with magnets.

People who’ve had the experience often move on, writing it off as a weird mental event like déjà vu, though much more intense. But one of the distinguishing characteristics of the numinous is that it doesn’t feel like a hallucination. Dreams don’t feel real once we wake up, but the numinous often does. Barbara Ehrenreich, an atheist and rationalist, just published Living with a Wild God, about a numinous experience she had in her teens. If you’re religious, the experience can be taken as proof that God is out there, communicating with you. Even if you’re not religious, it feels like something is contacting you.

I liked the idea of a drug that duplicated or mimicked something we consider to be so essential to humanity. If we could swallow a pill to make us a better, more loving person, shouldn’t we take it? And if it works for us, shouldn’t we convert others—dosing them if necessary? The idea of chemical evangelism is scary, but it’s the kind of thing that science fiction is built to tackle.

Gef: I remember back in the 90s, as the internet was first hitting its stride, the Anarchist's Cookbook and the idea of anyone being able to build a bomb at home was this big bogeyman floating around. But someone creating a weapon of mass destruction in his garage is far less desirable to the average American (or Canadian) than say ... replicating recreational drugs in the privacy of his/her own home. Is there a reckoning in the works for this kind of technology hitting the population at large, or will governments crack down to a degree that makes busting marijuana grow-ops look like a quaint exercise?

Daryl: There will undoubtedly be crackdowns, especially on the restrictions of precursor chemicals, but it’ll be a losing battle. The chemjet technology I’m imagining will have such a lower overhead, and smaller footprint, than growing marijuana. This is desktop technology—no grow lights! No potting soil! Once people can download recipes to try out and share their modifications, we have something equivalent to the app developer community. The scary part is that we’ll be beta-testing on people’s brains. The risk of serious harm is huge.

Gef: Chances are Afterparty could become a summer read for quite a few folks this year. What books, assuming you have the time to sit down with one through the summer given your schedule, are you looking forward to this summer?

Daryl: Summer is my season of optimism, in which I always plan to catch up on all the books I should have already read. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is sitting on my bedside table like a beautfiul anvil. I also want to read George Saunders’ collection the Tenth of December, and read the next two of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. I just finished the first book, Annihilation, and it was so. damn. weird. Can’t wait for the rest.

A big thanks to Daryl, Tor Books, and PR By the Book for their efforts. And if any of you would like to get your hands on a copy of AFTERPARTY, you can always find it on Amazon.com. And be sure to watch out for all the other blog tour stops this week!

April 22, 2014

If You Thought Yodellers Were the Scariest Things on Mountains ...: a review of Colin F. Barnes' "Dead Five's Pass"

Dead Five's Pass
by Colin F. Barnes
DarkFuse (2014)
108 pages

I've never really understood the appeal of mountain climbing. It's a mountain. It's steep. I get it. Maybe if there was something up there I wanted I might be enticed into trudging my butt up some snow-capped peak, but all the cool shit is down here among civilization. Climbing a mountain is like hitting a high score on that old Galaga game at the arcade: sure, you did it, but the only people who care are the others playing the game.

Take the poor saps in Dead Five's Pass for instance. A young couple are the first to run afoul of some strange menace near the top of the mountain. It's the kind of terrible fate that seems more fitting for Wall Street executives, not thrill-seeking coeds looking for some neat little geographical anomaly. And that anomaly is attracting quite a few climbers and they're all in trouble if two skilled, albeit psychologically wrecked, rescue workers can't get up there to save them.

Carise and Marcel used to be a dream team in the rescuing department, but that was before Carise suffered a miscarriage, deep depression, alcoholism, and terrible guilt over a stranded boy's death. Now they hardly speak, haven't teamed in years, and Marcel's new lady love, Janis, is incensed with the idea they must team up again to save the young men who have traversed the mountain pass in search of the new cave found via satellite photos. The story of Carise and Marcel might feel a little soap opera at first glance, but it doesn't take long for Barnes to squeeze the humanity out of their circumstances. And this story needed a healthy dose of humanity, because what's up in that mountain is the furthest thing from human.

The style of horror feels akin to The Thing and Phantoms and some of those other horror stories involving terrible monstrosities lurking just beneath the surface of civility. In this instance, the Lovecraftian vibe is clear. Heck, I was surprised there wasn't a direct reference to it. With as many tentacles and mind-warping visages lurking in the shadoes, it's a wonder Barnes managed to dodge the obvious. By the end, it doesn't feel like a Lovecraft story, but a Barnes story. And lemme tell ya, that's not too shabby.

I could have used a little more polish on the Marcel/Janis relationship, as it felt a bit perfunctory and left in the lurch once the rescue efforts started getting extra gruesome. Aside from that though, Colin F. Barnes offers one bone-chilling climb up a mountain of madness.

April 21, 2014

Can you feel the testosterone spotlight, babe... cause you’re standin’ in it: an excerpt of D.J. Donaldson's "Bad Karma in the Big Easy"

About D.J. Donaldson: Don is a retired professor of Anatomy and Neurobiology.  His entire academic career was spent at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, where he published dozens of papers on wound healing and taught microscopic anatomy to over 5,000 medical and dental students.  He is also the author of seven published forensic mysteries and five medical thrillers. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee with his wife and two West Highland Terriers.  In the spring of most years he simply cannot stop buying new flowers and other plants for the couple’s backyard garden.

About BAD KARMA IN THE BIG EASY: Best-selling mystery author D.J. Donaldson (New Orleans RequiemLouisiana Fever) invites readers back to the Bayou with his latest New Orleans adventure Bad Karma in the Big Easy.Plump and proud medical examiner Andy Broussard reunites with gorgeous psychologist Kit Franklyn as they face off with their most gruesome foe yet.

A killer lurks in The Big Easy, his victims found among the many bodies left in the wake of the devastating Hurricane Katrina. But with the city’s records destroyed, and the police force in complete disarray, Broussard must take matters into his own hands. Soon, he and his courageous sidekick, Kit, find themselves on a dangerous and labyrinthine journey through the storm-ravaged underbelly of the ever-mysterious and intensely seductive city of New Orleans; leading them to a predatory evil the likes of which they’ve never encountered.

Written in his uniquely brusque style, Donaldson’s Bad Karmacombines hard-hitting, action-packed prose with a folksy, sweetly Southern charm. Add Donaldson’s brilliant first-hand knowledge of forensics and the sultry flavor of New Orleans, and the result is a first class forensic procedural within an irresistibly delectable mystery that will leave fans hungry for more.

Now, here's an excerpt from the novel, to give you just a little taste. Enjoy.

D.J. Donaldson

FROM GRANDMA O’S, KIT headed for her apartment in the French Quarter, relieved that Broussard didn’t attach much significance to her doubts about those pictures. But he was aware now that her word wasn’t always reliable when she vouched for what she knew. And that was bothersome.
Kit lived in an apartment behind a photo gallery on Toulouse Street. One of the perks of living there was it came with a parking space in an old wooden garage, three blocks away on Dauphine. Even on a normal night when the Quarter was full of life and lights, she kept one hand on her key ring Mace canister as she navigated from the garage to the gallery. Tonight, with no tourists in town and most of the shops and restaurants closed, there were many more dark doorways than usual, so as she walked, she felt isolated and vulnerable.
Turning onto Toulouse, where only a few of the streetlamps were working, she faced a shadowy gauntlet of black storefronts and dim recesses where danger might lurk. Picking up the pace, she moved quietly forward, into the waiting gloom, her Mace out and ready.
She’d walked about ten steps when she caught movement out of the corner of her left eye at the junction of the sidewalk with the building to her left. As she jerked her head down to see what it was, two rats the size of small nutrias scuttled across the sidewalk and into the street. Feeling a shudder ripple down her spine, she resumed walking. But as she swung her right foot forward, another rat ran into her path. She accidentally kicked it hard, the toe of her shoe sinking deeply into the furry body before she sent it squeaking into the air.
The rat hit the pavement two feet away and let out another squeal. It righted itself, sat up, and glared at her for a moment, before scuttling after its brethren.
At the Bourbon Street intersection half a minute later, the landscape brightened. In contrast to Toulouse, Bourbon was an oasis of life. That’s not to say it was anywhere near normal. Compared to its pre-Katrina status of permanent mayhem, the dark shops liberally dotted among those open for business gave it a struggling third-world look. Among the places bustling with activity was Bunny’s, a bar and grill that had been open around the clock for over a dozen years, including the hours during the height of Katrina’s fury when Bunny had to serve up burgers cooked on a camp stove
Looking at Bunny’s neon sign, Kit was reminded again that if she had only been able to get word down to Bunny’s while she was struggling to save Mrs. Lucas, she could have gotten help to squeeze that respirator bag. But there had just been no way... no way at all.
She changed direction and angled across the intersection, heading for the bar. As she drew near, she heard “Okie from Muskogee” playing on Bunny’s jukebox spill out the front door and into the street. After the dark isolation of Toulouse, Kit followed the sound like an ameba seeking light.
Inside, the place was dimly lit. Most of the tables and the seats at the bar were occupied. These days, Bunny’s customers consisted of a few regulars who lived in the Quarter and had refused to evacuate, supplemented by off-duty national guardsman and construction workers trying to repair the levees and put the city back together. The clientele was exclusively male. Seeing Kit in the doorway, they made her the focus of their attention.
Bunny came from behind the bar and headed her way.
“Hello Darlin,” Bunny said, embracing her. She let go and took a step back so she could see Kit’s face. “Can you feel the testosterone spotlight, babe... cause you’re standin’ in it.”
“I feel it.”
“How you doin’?” “Not too bad. Business looks good.”
Bunny leaned close and lowered her voice conspiratorially, “But they aren’t really havin’ fun. Guess too many of ‘em are away from home.”
Looking at Bunny with her double chin, it was hard to believe she had once been Bunny LeClaire, one of the hottest exotic dancers on Bourbon Street. But she had pictures of herself in costume all around the place to prove it. Kit was one of only a few who knew her real last name was Lefkowitz.
“Can I throw a burger on the grill for you?” Bunny asked.
“Can’t stay. Just stopped in to say hi and soak up a little civilization after coming down Toulouse.”
“Hope you’re careful walkin’ in those dark areas.”
“I try to be. A few minutes ago, I accidentally kicked a rat.”
“I’ve kicked a few in my time, mostly the two-legged kind and always on purpose as they hit the road.”
“Someday you’ll find the right guy.”
“They always seem right at first. Why is that?”
“Protective camouflage. Lots of predators use it to get close to their prey.”
Bunny picked up Kit’s hand and slapped it affectionately.
“Girl, you got a way of goin’ right to the heart of things. Protective camouflage... I have to remember that.”
“It’s not often I get a chance to leave the impression I’m clever. I better go before I ruin it.”
“Oh, that Westie breeder friend of mine in Mississippi called today. The litter we’ve been waitin’ for has been born. And there’s one healthy male unspoken for. If you want him, we should let her know ASAP.”
Bunny had been working on Kit for months trying to convince her to get a puppy to replace her dog, Lucky, who had died of old age in June. Kit had been resisting because she felt it dishonored Lucky’s memory to replace him so quickly. But after talking to the Hendrins and John Munson, she could no longer ignore the empty feeling growing inside her.
“Tell her I want him.”
Bunny’s eyes glistened with approval. “I’ll call her tonight.”
On the way out the door, Kit ran into an attractive redhead that lived in one of the two apartments above Bunny’s place.
“How’s the crowd?” the redhead asked.
“Not bad... all male, so get ready for a lot of stares if you’re going in.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
It was far from obvious, but the redhead was actually a man in drag Kit knew only as He Daisy. Daisy had many wigs, but usually favored the flaming red one he was now wearing. He wasn’t into soliciting men, but simply liked to dress as a woman. By trade, he was an artist who supplemented his trust fund income with sporadic sales of his paintings. Though he had an unusual lifestyle, he was a gentle, kind man Kit counted as a friend. “Does this color lipstick make me look like a tart?” Daisy asked.
“Not at all.”
“Too bad. I was hoping it did.” Daisy laughed. “Well, I’m going to get something to eat and go upstairs and work. You have a good one.”
As Kit walked back to Toulouse, crossed over, and went another half block to the photo gallery fronting her apartment, she wasn’t sure at all that a little Westie puppy was big enough to fill the hollow space in her heart.
Tourists comprised most of the business that came through the doors of the Nolen Boyd gallery. No tourists equaled no business. So Boyd had decided to take a long European vacation while the city got back to where it could once again entice enough visitors for him to justify reopening.
Mace canister in hand, Kit walked past the dark front of the gallery and stepped up to the eight-foot tall, heavy cypress door leading to the back courtyard. She took a quick look around.
Seeing no one lingering or approaching, she quickly keyed the lock and opened the door.
The gallery and the adjacent building formed a long passage leading to the rear courtyard, where Kit’s apartment was located. The passage had a lattice ceiling on which a hundred-year-old wisteria had spread its branches. During the day, this made the passage a delightful, light-dappled avenue. But at night, the Wisteria would have caused it to be a very dark twenty-foot stretch were it not for the little lights Boyd had rigged along the left wall.
Above the big cypress door, Boyd had installed a coil of razor wire to keep anyone on the outside from climbing over the door. So as the door shut and locked behind her, the tension Kit felt from being on the Quarter’s dark streets flowed out of her.
Even though she was now safely home, she kept her Mace ready.
Walking toward the courtyard, which was brightly illuminated by a dark-activated mercury vapor light, Kit remembered how happy Lucky always was to see her, his little tail wagging furiously, his mouth open in an expression of pure joy. How she missed that little varmint.
But what to name the new one? Lucky II? That’s no good.
She reached the end of the lattice ceiling and stepped out from under it. Suddenly, she heard a sharp scratching sound from the lattice. Before she could turn to see what it was, a soft object hit the top of her head. Something heavy thudded into the ground behind her. At the same instant, the thing that had hit her seemed to be melting over her hair.
As she struggled to complete her turn to see what the hell was going on, the melting liquid slid down over her face... It covered her eyes... so thick she couldn’t see through it.
Down it went over her nose and mouth. And it was making a crinkling sound. She lifted her hands to wipe the stuff away.
That’s when she discovered it was not liquid.

It was a plastic bag.  

April 20, 2014

Bitten By Book's Ultimate Steampunk Giveaway: Books, Movie, Jewelry, Cards and More!

Bitten by Books has a great giveaway happening this week. Between now and the end of April 25 you can throw your name in the hat for a chance to win a slew of steampunk goodness. Among the plunder is: Fiddlehead by Cherie Priest, ARC’s of The Clockwork Wolf and Disenchanted & Co. by Lynn Viehl, His Clockwork Canary by Beth Ciotta,a DVD copy of The Adventurer: The Curse of the Midas Box, plus a Steampunk hat Hat from Nitty Gritty Threads, Steampunk Kitty Necklace from A Charming Time Jewelry, Mustache note cards, A Steampunk journal, Mini Steampunk Key bookmarks and a bunch of swag!

You can entry through the entry form below or click on the link above. Either way, it's open to readers worldwide. Good luck!

April 18, 2014

Chasing Tale [4/18/14]: Bad TV Stars Make Worse Authors

Chasing Tale is a recurring feature of the blog in which I highlight the latest books to appear on my bookshelf. Some I find at bookshops, some are bargains on the Kindle Store, while others are review copies sent my way from authors, publishers, and publicists.

Last week, I was asked if I'd be interested in reading the latest book from a reality TV star. I think the person's claim to fame stems from one of those "Real Housewives" shows. My answer? While I was quite polite in declining, I wonder if the undercurrent of "Are you some kind of fucking moron?!" came through to the person who asked me.

TV stars have a sketchy track record when it comes to writing books--or rather dictating books to poorly paid ghost writers--but I'm guessing it's even worse with the glut of pseudo-celebs spawned from the fetid swamps of reality TV. And let's just set aside the capabilities they possess towards the English language for a moment to ask one dismal question: Do people who sit down to watch such dopey dreck even buy books?

I get the attempt to cash in on the popularity of Duck Dynasty or Honey Boo-Boo or the riveting life story of some American Idol reject, but these books are doing little more than propping up wobbly table legs or serving as gag gifts to actual readers. HA, fooled you! You thought you were getting that novel you really wanted and instead you got a book of poetry by one of the Bachelorettes (That's a real book, by the way).

Some may see me wasting my time by reading genre fiction, but those people lack the understanding that true drivel is not found in genre, but in the nonfiction section.

No sir, I will happily while away my time with books like these, thank you very much:

Queenpin by Megan Abbott - Abbott has a new novel out this summer, a rather gruesome one too by the sounds of it, but this one I snapped up is one of the nostalgic noir titles that put her on the map. Plus, I haven't read a whole lot of crime fiction lately with female characters in the spotlight, so cheers for that.

Peckerwood by Jedidiah Ayres - This one from Broken River Books looks like smalltown noir with the dial turned up to 10, and it comes highly recommended from a couple authors whose work I enjoy greatly, so I'm sure I'll get a kick out of it. I already love that bony two-finger salute on the cover.

The Greenland Breach by Bernard Besson - This one is described as a "cli-fi spy novel." What the aitch is that? Oh, climate-fiction ... gotcha. Anyway, this is a tranlation of a French novel. I read a French novel last year with pleasing results, so let's hope this goes two for two.

Blood Groove by Alex Bledsoe - This is one I've had on my wish list for a while and I finally snagged a copy. I guess it is one that is under-appreciated by Bledsoe's readers, perhaps preferring the more adventurous tales than a stylistic vampire tale set in the 70s. Me, I want this one.

The Impostor #1: Half a Hero by Richard Lee Byers - I first heard of Byers a few years ago when an urban fantasy novel he wrote was published by Night Shade Books called Blind God's Bluff. Not sure what happened to that series in the wake of NSB's shakeup, but this series of super-hero novellas looks pretty cool, so I got the first one.

The Christmas Ghost Stories of Lawrence Gordon Clark: Deluxe Edition - I actually already read this collection earlier in the month, but Spectral Press forwarded along a PDF copy of what they have planned for the deluxe hardcover edition and it just makes it all the better.

Night of Wolves by David Dalglish - I think David and I are in the same anthology, Fading Light if memory serves, but I've never gone out and gotten one of his books. Then I saw this one was free on the Kindle Store, so that took care of that.

Bad Karma in the Big Easy by D.J. Donaldson - The folks at Astor + Blue sent me a review copy of this New Orleans set mystery novel. I think I have the preceding novel somewhere on my TBR pile, but things have a way of getting away from a fella.

The Last Bastion of the Living by Rhiannon Frater - For as much praise Rhiannon Frater gets for her zombie novels, I've never read one. Then she came out with a 99 cent sale on this one a week or two ago and I thought I'd give it a go.

Ugly Little Things by Todd Keisling - I was lucky enough to win all four of Todd's short stories in his Ugly Little Things series: "Radio Free Nowhere" (which I listened to as part of an audiobook anthology last year), "The Harbinger", "Saving Granny from the Devil", and "When Karen Met Her Mountain." Very cool stuff by the sounds of it. I already loved one of the four so far, so ...

All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky by Joe R. Lansdale - Here's a YA novel from one of my favorite authors. I've read a couple stories of his that feature young protagonists, but I think this is the first novel he wrote geared towards a young audience. Ought to be interesting.

The Axeman of Storyville by Heath Lowrance - BEAT to a PULP released this novella as a freebie a week or two ago. Love the cover and Lowrance can spin a yarn, so I'm happy.

A Swollen Red Sun by Matthew McBride - This is one of the novels I've been eager to read ever since I first heard about it. McBride's Frank Sinatra in a Blender was one of my favorite reads of 2013 and this one sounds like it could be even better.

Infinity House by Shane McKenzie - This one looks to be firmly rooted in the horror genre. Even the cover makes me queezy a little bit.

Hot Rock by Annie Seaton - I won a giveaway just a little while ago that was hosted by Bitten By Books, so when perusing Annie's lineup of books this romantic one with a time-travel twist caught my eye. Hey, if you want me to read more romance, throw in some tropes I already love.

The Waiting by Hunter Shea - A new short novel from Hunter Shea and Samhain's horror line that sees a worried husband who sees a boy's ghost lurking around his comatose wife. Eesh, sounds deliciously creepy.

Switchblade Goddess by Lucy A. Snyder - As Lucy A. Snyder got the funding for her fourth Jessie Shimmer novel, I figured I ought to buy the third. I have a little catching up to do.

The Blonde by Duane Swierczynski - This is one of Swierczynski's earlier novels, but it sounds like a doozy, with a femme fatale keeping a poor schmoe hostage in her bid to stay alive.

Vile Blood by Max Wilde (aka Roger Smith) - This premise for this one sounds so effing bonkers I can't believe I hadn't heard of it until last week. Smith writes riveting thrillers, but this one is straight-up horror and has got some big-time praise from some amazing authors.

April 16, 2014

The Hardest Part of Being Haunted: a review of Hunter Shea's "The Waiting" (+ a giveaway)

The Waiting
by Hunter Shea
Samhain Publishing (2014)
112 pages

The opening chapters of The Waiting are gut-wrenching, and in the case of a bride on her wedding day that is taken quite literally. Overcome by searing pain in her abdomen, Cassandra Pagano, collapses and is hospitalized with a seriously debilitating condition that sees her comatose and in need to long-term care as her body heals from not only the sickness, but also the surgery that saved her life.

Her new husband, Brian, dutifully watches over her when she's brought to their new home, along with his mother-in-law and a registered nurse, hoping for Cassandra's full recovery. But a spectre arrives in the house and the question becomes if it's a guardian angel or a malevolent spirit.

This creepy novella from Hunter Shea doesn't waste time, as that opening scene with Cassandra is pretty brutal. From there it just piles on the anguish and the torment, with much of the story seen through Brian's eyes as his wife incrementally deteriorates before his eyes over the weeks and months of caring for her, and alternating chapters from the mother-in-law's vantage, and even brief interlude's from Cassandra. It plays on atmosphere, paranoia, the struggle between managing the terrors at home with the mundane turmoil of life in general, and all handled quite well.

My one hangup came from not really understanding until very late in the story just what the "rules" were for the spirit. It seemed to be linked to the house, then to Cassandra, then to the house again. Moments surrounded that part of the book seemed to contradict each other at points.

Aside from that, it's a very good outing from Hunter Shea, and a reminder to me that I need to read more of his stuff.

Available at Amazon.com

GIVEAWAY: Hook of a Book is hosting a blog tour for Hunter Shea right now, so you should check that out for more Hunter Shea goodness. Plus, there's a giveaway in which lucky winners will walk away with books. You just need to fill out the Rafflecopter form below. You gotta love that, right?

The Southern Gothic Noir Soundtrack: a guest post by Eryk Pruitt, author of "Dirtbags"

Dark fiction splinters into many sub-genres, and those sub-genres continue to splinter. One of my favorites is Southern Gothic, which manages to bridge the gap between literary and horror. Furthermore, the crime fiction offshoot of noir can barely be contained with a single definition, and gets even blurrier as you move its traditional urban setting to locales more rural and desolate.

To combine elements of both is to create a dark genre all its own.

Imagine the tenets of Southern Gothic and its tendency to reflect on what makes the South odd and grotesque: race, religion, and an inner violence passed down through generations like an heirloom. A mystical realism that would make any sparkly vampire tuck tail and run. Add noirish ingredients – hard-boiled characters beyond redemption, femmes fatale, everybody with a crooked, transgressive angle and outlook. Employ the Southern love of storytelling and there you have it:

Southern Gothic Noir.

Literature has no shortage of material in the Southern Gothic Noir canon. I'd say Flannery O'Connor is the grandmother. Cormac McCarthy pops in and out. Daniel Woodrell is a master. There was never any question about what in what style I would write my novel DIRTBAGS.

Film has its say as well. One of the perfect recent examples is Beasts of the Southern Wild. More self-aware, but still beyond amazing is Mud, or even the hit HBO miniseries True Detective.

But how about music? If you were amped up and in a Southern Gothic Noir mood, but couldn't manage a television show or movie, what exactly would you pop into the CD player or play on the iTunes?

Allow me...


An entire Southern Gothic Noir playlist could revolve around the independent acts that make up the Americana supergroup Slim Cessna's Auto Club. From Slim's original band, The Blackstone Valley Sinners and their "Lethal Injection," to Jay Munly's "Shoot Her with the Good Hand Gun," (and more), their sound and lyrics are rich with dark, twisted nuance. However, there should be no mystery why this song should launch such a collection. All of the elements of traditional murder ballads are present: the cold-blooded and senseless murder of another, the aftermath, and the insight into the killer's icy mind. In the third act of the song, the killer eschews hope of redemption, choosing rather to "straighten out this town with might," altering their tools. It is as if Jim Thompson himself wrote the lyrics. Any exploration into small town murder could be prefaced with this song's harrowing refrain because this indeed is how we do things in the country.

The strength of Southern storytelling is on fine display with this tormented tale of a man who does what he has to do to provide for his family after "momma took sick." The haunting twang of the banjo and the weeping wail of the fiddle provide the perfect backdrop, but the true horror exists in the tale. This particular video is shot during Music City Roots, an amazing music program hosted by the Loveless Cafe in Nashville. Nothing in my mind is more Southern than the biscuits at the Loveless.

It could be argued that music wouldn't be the same today, had Jimmie Rodgers not shown up in Bristol without his backing band. Those sessions with Victor Talking Machine Company representative Ralph Peer are known as "The Big Bang of Country Music," and that day shepherded a new era of music that still influences us today. While Rodgers was influenced by many things (minstrel shows, railroad songs, etc.), nothing had a greater effect on him than his own mortality, thanks to tuberculosis. When Rodgers sings "I hate to see that evening sun go down/It makes me think I'm on my last go-round" and the resulting yodel, you feel the horror the man faced daily. That line has been repeated throughout the history of music, but Rodgers' is perhaps the most daunting. Famed Southern Gothic writer William Gay obviously agreed, as he titled both a short story and collection of stories after that line. (Later to be made into a beautiful film)

Speaking of William Gay, his greatest novel is Provinces of Night, which tells the tragic tale of the Bloodworth family. I honestly think this book puts him alongside McCarthy and O'Connor for greatest Southern Gothic storyteller of all time. There is no reason for anyone not to have read this book.
That being said, the tone, characters, and feel of the book are strongly influenced by the chilling banjo strains of Dock Boggs. Just as Jimmie Rodgers rocked Gay's soul in the aforementioned short story, Boggs' fingerprints are all over these pages. Later, a film was adapted, but by removing the banjo and inserting Kris Kristofferson, they effectively knocked the William Gay right out of the material and ruined the film. Don't watch it unless you have first read the book.

The devil runs amok in Southern culture these days, but such was not always the case. White churches never discussed Satan in the South, as they considered that a northern concern. But stories imported from Africa or the Caribbean delivered him, and the evangelical movement of the late twentieth century (as well as Charlie Daniels) really gave him a platform. But previous to that, pockets of Southern culture have interesting devil stories. One of my favorites is the tale of Robert Johnson who legendarily was a shitty guitarist until he sold his soul at the crossroads. Suddenly, he could play like the dickens. His light shone bright and fast, as only twenty-seven of his songs were ever recorded. But that brief career inspired many, from Howlin' Wolf to Son House to the Rolling Stones. Johnson sang about things folks didn't talk about, and his songs "Hellhound on my Trail" and "Cross Road Blues" tell the stories of his jaunt to the other side. Even his death achieved mythological status, as many men have later sang about being slipped poison into their moonshine.

Consider Shack Shakers front man Col. J.D. Wilkes the ambassador to Southern Gothic music. His sometimes swampy, sometimes carnival, sometimes juke joint sound is many things, but one thing for sure you could call it is Southern through and through. He's got murder ballads, like Kentucky's "Blood on the Bluegrass" and he's got updates to classics, like "Sugar Baby." But "Nightride" from their album Agridustrial pays homage to one of the greats in the Southern pantheon. Robert Penn Warren's first novel told the horrific, noirish story of the Night Riders, a band of hooded outlaws who took up arms against the Duke tobacco interests in the early Nineteenth century. This nugget of history may have fallen forgotten to the rest of the country, but in Western Kentucky it is a badge of pride, proof that Southerners could and would band together to fight a cause without regard to it being "lost" or not.

The tenet of mystical realism in Southern Gothic is one that won't go away. Be it inside Gay's Provinces of Night, where we wonder if Brady Bloodworth truly has the power to curse a man, or in the film Beasts of the Southern Wild, where we are not sure if the child can speak with monsters from another world, or has she inherited her father's insanity. No, cultures from the South care not for sparkly vampires or staggering zombies... they have their own horrors. And just as they have their own brand of fear, they also have their own cures. Why call up a doctor for a boner pill when you can go to Louisiana for a "mojo hand?"

Obamacare don't cover no trip to Marie LaVeau, child. (FYI: This man is my favorite musician of all time.)

Let's face it: thanks to Kurt Cobain, we will never hear this song the same way ever again. Lead Belly is perhaps one of the most influential musicians to come out of the South, but one night on MTV Unplugged changed our perception of him forever. But his canon is straight-out Southern and creepy. These dark tales of murder, deceit and treachery are commonplace in Lead Belly's universe of cotton fields, jook joints, and prison. His chilling song "Take This Hammer" belongs in a horror movie. Even the man's life is straight noir. A cotton picker who got mixed up in the wrong place, wrong time, landed in prison, then was pardoned for singing a song to the governor. He rolled with greats like Blind Lemon Jefferson, who gave us songs about what Southerner's truly fear when the lights go out, like "Black Snake Moan." He killed a man. Maybe more. 
Lead Belly is the stuff of Southern noir legend and he left us leagues of music for us to celebrate him.

The Pine Hill Haints are an Auburn, Alabama band who got their name from the cemetery where they used to practice. Pick any song of theirs and you will have a spooky Southern experience filled with dead instruments, such as the saw, washtub bass, or banjo. Their albums Ghost Dance and Welcome to the Midnight Opry are the perfect soundtrack to any Southern Gothic Noir. They sing of ghosts at the pet cemetery, eerie trains, and the clock striking twelve... thirteen times. This particular song is a standard covered by many Southern Gothic acts, but perfectly demonstrates the skills of one of the greatest bands no one has ever heard of.

And you have to catch them live.

Let's face it: The South is a scary place. It always has been. When Colonial America fought for independence, these guys were a haven for the enemy. In antebellum days, what is a more frightening practice than the "peculiar institution" of slavery? Horrors never before seen occurred on this soil during the war, and after the war this region was occupied territory. Most people traveling through the South during the first half of the twentieth century rode in fear. And today is no better. Between the heat, the mosquitoes, the snakes, gators, and worst of all, some of the angriest and violent people mankind may ever know, there is plenty to fear. It takes a strong sort to make it through. It ain't for everybody. Darkness lurks around every corner, danger hangs in the air like Spanish moss. There is no place in America more dangerous. No place more Gothic. No place more noir.

No place more beautiful.

Eryk Pruitt is a screenwriter, author, and filmmaker living in Durham, NC with his wife Lana and his cat Busey. His fiction has appeared in Thuglit, The Avalon Literary Review, and Southern Gothic: New Tales of the South, as well as many others. He is the author of DIRTBAGS, the Southern Gothic Noir released by Immortal Ink Publishing, LLC. DIRTBAGS is available in print and e-formats at Amazon, Nook, and iTunes. A full list of his credits can be found at www.erykpruitt.com.

April 14, 2014

The Madness of Moon Hill: an audiobook review of Anthony J. Rapino's "Reality Engineers"

Reality Engineers
by Anthony J. Rapino
narrated by Ian Baldwin
In Ear Entertainment (2013)
2 hrs. 28 min.

Time to revisit Moon Hill. I had a weird and wonderful time the last time Rapino plunged by consciousness into the madness of Moon Hill with his short story collection, Welcome to Moon Hill. This time it's a novella-length mind warp, though I checked it out in audiobook form courtesy of In Ear Audio Entertainment. I remember Anthony telling me he was working on a longer work set in Moon Hill, Pennsylvania, but I had no idea he was going to crank the crazy up to eleven.

It's starts off simple enough. Just a guy walking his dog in a dog park. Nothing out of the ordinary there, except for the fact his dingle is dangling out of his pants and he's pissing on the grass right along with his dog, and he doesn't remember doing it or how it could have happened. Okay, pretty weird. The giant bird chasing him down? Super weird. Or how about the woman whacking a tree with a stick that has a walnut tied to the end of it? That's pretty gosh darned weird. The sack of mangled meat that drops out of the sky, courtesy of that giant bird? Super weird.

And that's just the first couple chapters of the book.

Reality Engineers is like a cross between Stephen King's The Regulators and Rod Serling on an acid trip. The cast of characters grows with each chapter until about midway through, and then the whole thing unravels literally and figuratively with an apocalyptic free-for-all with cosmic creatures fighting for dominance and rewriting the very fabric of Moon Hill's reality.

As for Ian Baldwin, he does a great job in conveying the utter weirdness that is Anthony J. Rapino's thoroughly corrupted imagination. I'm no expert on cosmic horror, but I'd say Mr. Rapino has a knack for it, because this delivered the goods.

April 11, 2014

But It Feels So Right: an audiobook review of Max Allan Collins' "The Wrong Quarry"

The Wrong Quarry
by Max Allan Collins
narrated by Dan John Miller
Audible, Inc. (2014)
Hard Case Crime

I've never read a Quarry novel before, let alone listened to one, but I've heard more than enough praise for Collins' work that I didn't hesitate in downloading a review copy of The Wrong Quarry.

For the uninitiated like me, here's the catch-up: John Quarry is a Vietnam vet turned hitman, now making a living taking out other hitmen after a falling out with his former employer, the Broker. He has his own code to live by with little to no compunction when it comes to killing or fornicating. If he has you in his sights, he's either going to blow your brains out or f**k your brains out. I guess it all depends on who's wearing the skirt, in Quarry's eyes.

His latest job has him meeting up with an effeminate dance instructor based in Missouri named Vale. Vale is frightened someone in town has put a hit on him following the disappearance of one of his star pupils, Candy Stockwell. It doesn't take long for Quarry to suspect the wealthy Stockwell clan may be the ones responsible, but things get complicated when he hooks up with Candy's aunt, Jenny. Jenny, in between carnal distractions with Quarry, insists her family had nothing to do with any proposed hit, but Quarry can't help but be suspicious of the rich, old curmudgeon that is Jenny's father and Candy's grandfather, a gruff octogenarian whose aggressiveness belies his age. Then there's Candy's best friend, Sally Meadows, who might be even more tightly wrapped trouble for Quarry when he starts snooping around town for answers.

If hard-boiled P.I. fiction is what you want, this book delivers with all the attitude you'd expect for a war-weary gunman. Sardonic wit with a forever-young outlook on life in general, not to mention every woman he meets, Quarry is certainly an entertaining character, even when he isn't the most likable. And while parts of the story had characters looking like they'd been plumbed from the trashiest dimestore novels, Collins works hard to give them all an organic appeal to defy any attempts to dismiss them as cardboard. Plus, Dan John Miller does one heckuva job in capturing Quarry's voice throughout the novel. And, heck, even his voice work for the female characters is entertaining in its own right.

I have the first Quarry novel sitting on my Kindle. It was a 99-cent, on-sale impulse buy at the time, but I'll definitely be reading it and more from the Quarry series after being so thoroughly impressed by this atmospheric pulpfest.


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