Monday, August 26, 2013

The Year of the Storm (Berkley), by John Mantooth

Too often "dark fiction" is a cipher for stories about the meaningless of life - that it's empty and devoid of purpose, and it's a rare author who can take readers through a dark and sometimes disturbing journey, nudge them close enough to the edge so they can look into the abyss below...but pull them back and offer them hope at the end. 

John Mantooth is one of those authors, and as he did in his short story collection Shoebox Train Wreck, he walks this line in The Year of the Storm, showing us BOTH the worst and best in people, and showing us the magic and power of belief. 

When Danny's mother and autistic sister disappear in the middle of a storm, life tilts into a dark, off-kilter world in which he's always waiting for them to return while his father grows ever more distant, bottling up his grief.  After the police searches are long called off and everyone - including his father - has given up hope, Danny persists in his belief alone, convinced, somehow, that his mother and sister are still out there, somewhere, stabbed also by guilt that it's his fault they disappeared to begin with.

When a mysterious man named Walter Pike - a man with secrets and a tainted past - returns to his hometown, Danny's belief that his mother and sister can be found grows, because Walter hints at mysterious, nebulous things: that we understand so little about the world around us, that there are other worlds only just a step - or a slip - away. And despite the fact that his father and the Sheriff maintain Pike is a crazy, dangerous old man, despite his best friend's doubts, Danny follows Pike on a journey into the past, into a world that exists just next to our he'll need every ounce of courage and belief he has to survive.

The Year of the Storm is a meta-physical "coming of age" tale that hits all the right notes, both light and dark. With ease, Mantooth flips back and forth between two first person narratives - Danny's in the present and Walter Pike's in the past, when he's Danny's age - and the novel's back cover description simply doesn't do it justice. The story is far more layered, smoothly revealing secrets about Pike and Danny's mother and others along the way. Also, the prose is smooth and a delight to read, making The Year of the Storm a novel not to be missed.

Visit John Mantooth's website. Buy the paperback or the ebook

Kevin Lucia is an Associate Fiction Editor for The Horror Channel and his podcast "Horror 101" is featured monthly on Tales to Terrify. His short fiction has appeared in several venues. He’s currently finishing his Creative Writing Masters Degree at Binghamton University, he teaches high school English and lives in Castle Creek, New York with his wife and children. He is the author of Hiram Grange & The Chosen One, Book Four of The Hiram Grange Chronicles and his first short story collection, Things Slip Through is forthcoming November 2013 from Crystal Lake Publishing. He’s currently working on his first novel.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Remember Why You Fear Me (Chizine) by Robert Shearman

Lions and tigers and bears?  Hell, no!

What’s really interesting about this exemplary collection from Robert Shearman is that most of the stories begin with fairly mundane events.  For example, in “George Clooney’s Mustache,” a woman has been kidnapped, and what appears to be the Stockholm’s Syndrome that follows isn’t quite what it initially appears to be.  This story is probably my favorite in the book.

“Clown Envy” turns bragging about Dad’s occupation on its ear.

“Roadkill” beings with something as run-of-the-mill as a tawdry office dalliance, but picks up a monster along the way.

“Custard Creams” explores the end of a relationship and how the abuser triumphs and continues the cycle of abuse—but in such a horrifying way that the reader has heartfelt sympathy he wouldn’t normally feel for the second victim.

Shearman turns familiar events gradually and deftly upside down by introducing a bizarro twist in each tale; and it’s done so seamlessly that they make complete sense in a crazy sort of way, causing the reader to mutter, “Hey, wait a minute!” after he is taken in by it.  In a few of these stories, Shearman plays a dark joke on us and we fall for it, time after time.

Not that this book is funny, although there are a few stories that are most definitely blackly humorous. Other stories--many, as a matter of fact--are filled with world-weariness and a sort of shuffling sadness that makes his characters seem subtly noble and worthy of our affection—Quixote-esque in many ways, and just “off” enough to be truly creepy.  But Shearman’s work, most of all, is intelligent.  And that’s why it is so effective.   His stories are carefully constructed using a blend of sophistication and gentle wit that will keep readers coming back; and are full to the brim with tightly expressed ideas, attitudes, and feelings without ever being pompous or maudlin.

I could go on and on, but I don’t want to write too much and spoil these stories for anyone.  These are all standouts and you’ll want to read them more than once.  I did, and enjoyed them even better the second time around.

buy it here.

Reviewed by Carson Buckingham

Carson Buckingham is a writer living in the great American Southwest and she reviews horror/paranormal suspense novels. Stop by to view her scriblins.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Narrows (Samhain), by Ronald Malfi

The town of Stillwater, Maryland is a tiny hamlet, surrounded by the Allegheny Mountains, where it gets dark much earlier than anywhere else. Stillwater also has endured a series of devastating floods  and after the most recent one, the early darkness brings company so nasty that even the last few hangers-on in the dying town are forced to question the wisdom of remaining.

This novel is a real page-turner and anyone who has spent time in the small forgotten towns of New England will find Stillwater familiar.  Malfi’s well-crafted prose will make the reader feel, along with the characters, that melancholy vacancy of the soul at the description of the closed shops on Main Street and the alcoholism and abuse that rides on the back of small town poverty.  Those who stay are there only because they have nowhere else to go.

That being said, there’s plenty going on in Stillwater, and none of it good.  Malfi deftly handles the building of suspense and the sense that things are going strange by beginning with town-wide nightmares.   From here he escalates to mutilated livestock, followed by missing children . . . missing children that perhaps the parents and Sheriff Ben Journell should be a little less interested in locating.  His character development is so spot-on that by the end of the book, you feel you know everyone well and what’s more, you actually care about them deeply.  I found myself muttering more than once, “Oh, I didn’t want him to die-- I liked him;”  but this is the best tool the writer has to make the reader dig in even more against whatever threatens his characters, and Malfi uses it well.

There is no grey area where the monster is concerned. It has no redeeming value.  It didn’t become that way because of abuse as a child.  We’re not supposed to understand it.  It is pure, unreasoning, unrelenting evil.  We’re supposed to hate it, and we do.  In this town that has so little, and it seems that the monster has shown up just in time to take what’s left.

The prose is visually stunning—not because the town is beautiful, because it isn’t—it’s Malfi’s words that are.  Such a clear picture is painted with these words that the reader sees the town clearly, warts and all, and knows his way around.  It’s as visually written as a movie script.

Though The Narrows is a dark book, at its center a single candle of hope shines through the desolation—perhaps not brightly, but at least it is lit. It’s the hope we all have within us, no matter how bad things become.  It is what the characters, and the reader, hold onto throughout.

My problems with this book are editorial rather than creative.  Some words are misused, some made up (“ammoniacal” when describing the scent of ammonia), using “busted” rather than “broken” in narrative,  not as a colloquialism), converting a noun to a verb (“avalanching”), and incorrect idiomatic expressions (“nose was running like a sieve” should be “nose was running like a faucet”  Sieves leak, they don’t run).  There were a couple of instances when descriptive passages were far too similarly written, so that when they were required for shock value, they were somewhat dampened because I’d read nearly the same passages forty pages ago.  Tighter editing would have caught and corrected all this. 

Editing problems aside, though, the characters will stay with you, and the town will haunt you in this most memorable book.  This was my first Ronald Malfi book, and it will not be my last. He weaves a tale like a Cloisters tapestry. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy.

Reviewed by Carson Buckingham

Carson Buckingham is a writer living in the great American Southwest and she reviews horror/paranormal suspense novels. Stop by to view her scriblins.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Lamplighters (Samhain), by Frazer Lee

What would you say if, in your hour of greatest need, you were offered a twelve-month job on the secluded tropical island of Meditrine, where your only duties would be to turn lights on and off,  run the appliances, cook, clean, and run the water in a posh mansion to make it looks as if someone were home?  Would you take it?  Would you be a Lamplighter?

Marla Neuborn, her life a complete mess and epic failure, jumped at it, and discovered, once on the island, that there was a downside, too.  For instance, the weird rules:  no smoking, no alcohol, no drugs, no swimming in the ocean, no books, no television, no lying on the beach, no phones or computers, either.  Oh, and she has no idea where the island she’s on is located.  Complete isolation.  Not only that, but the security on the island is run by a draconian paramilitary group and she’s seen a frightening figure on the property at night.  And just who are the owners of all these mansions?  And why are so many animals dying all over the island?  And if no one knows where the island is, that would preclude any random burglaries that the Lamplighters are supposed to be heading off; so what’s with the tight security?

It’s “Gilligan’s Island” meets the Gestapo meets Freddy Kruger.  And wait until you get a load of the Skin Mechanic.  Nightmare city, I promise you.

The Lamplighters is a wonderful first novel by Frazer Lee.  He handles the difficult and subtle building and maintaining of suspense like a pro.  From the day of her arrival, Marla’s intuition begins to tingle about something off about the island, and things slowly, but deliciously, go to hell from there.  She meets a couple of other Lamplighters, as well as Vincent, a most memorable lighthouse keeper; but this is really Marla’s story.  Her growth and transformation as the book spins out is most gratifying.  She begins as a weak-willed substance abuser and ends in a place of strength—always the sign of a well-told story.  I didn’t like Marla initially, but Lee managed to change my mind about her in a deft and nearly seamless way—difficult to do once an opinion about a character is formed.  Again, this addresses Lee’s formidable writing skills.

Lee so well orchestrates the progression to the climax that the end of the book will have you reeling.  In some ways, it seems to come out of nowhere; however, when you look back at the quiet clues sprinkled throughout, you’ll realize that it was the only ending that would make sense, and it was right in front of you all along.  All the loose ends are tied up in a bright, bloody package.

Frazer Lee is an author to watch.  His is a remarkable first novel, and I urge you to pick this one up.  I, for one, can’t wait for his second.

Buy it here.

Reviewed by Carson Buckingham

Carson Buckingham is a writer living in the great American Southwest and she reviews horror/paranormal suspense novels. Stop by to view her scriblins.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Empyres: Bloodblind (Northampton House), by John Koloski

Bloodblind is the first in a trilogy that pulls the reader in with a unique, evocative and powerful voice. The suspense is reminiscent of a classic Hitchcock film. And the journey the reader takes—an existential transcendence that continuously evolves—would make Carlos Castaneda proud.

Koloski’s expansive imagination evolves the concept of empathic vampires which gives the reader believable and, at times, horrific territory. Another pleasant surprise that plucks at our emotions and gives life to the characters.

We find Adam as a struggling artist at an event showcasing his latest work. After a friend asks him to accompany her for a ride in her corvette through the rain, Adam’s life is changed forever. He awakes from the accident alive, but blinded. Koloski places the reader in that headspace with effortless grace and ease. He’s being hunted, and he doesn’t even know it…yet. Despite his challenges, Adam is getting along fine: he’s a Dee jay at a local radio station, and has a loving brother who looks after him.

While at work, Adam receives a very odd song request which turns into an even stranger proposition: a possible cure for blindness. But no one in the studio could hear the woman’s voice but Adam. He accepts the invitation to meet her, and is told there is a cure…if he agrees to take an experimental drug. Adam can’t seem to put the doctor’s braille business card down, nor the urge to call her and accept.

What ensues is a fast-paced journey that ensnares the reader as the plot delves so far that it challenges the very fabric of reality. Adam is introduced to new, exciting worlds with almost limitless possibilities. However, what unintended consequences await every decision he makes to heal himself and protect those he loves? And more importantly, who is on the hunt for him and willing to burn everything that stands in their way? Other realities and dimensions await Adam, and everyone he loves, as he falls further down the rabbit hole.

Bloodblind is a breath of fresh air amidst a sea of modernity and convention--an original work that refuses to let go. Prepare to have your imagination taken to places only the author can take you. Koloski boldly steps on the stage with this new and impressive offering.

Visit Buy the ebook at either Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or  Kobo.

Reviewed by Ben Eads

Ben Eads is a dark fiction author of short stories and longer fiction. His work tends to represent modern horror coupled with what he likes to call: “Imagination-tickling elements”. Ben is also a huge fan of dark fiction and dark movies. At the age of ten he wrote his first story. Taking writing seriously in early 2008, Ben Eads has published numerous short dark fiction stories in various magazines, anthologies, and E-Zines.
You can find him here.  

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Every House is Haunted (Chizine), by Ian Rogers

Every House is Haunted  by Ian Rogers is nothing less than a brilliant short story collection, exploring the area between the world we know and the supernatural—and how deceptively close the two are.  It’s been a long time since this reviewer has read anything remotely comparable; and that which was had sprung from the pens of Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, and Richard Matheson--with a little Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft thrown in for good measure.

The book’s organization is interesting, too.  The reader is taken, via the stories, on a trip through a house.  One begins in the Vestibule (including creepy photographs by Samantha Beiko), then on to the Library, the Attic, the Den, and finally, the Cellar—the usual locations for odd happenings in a haunted house.

Every single story in this 300-page volume is a stand-out—so much so that it is impossible to choose a favorite.  Or even several favorites. They all strongly remain with the reader days after turning the final page.

Rogers writes with all his senses, and his characters are deftly developed with an economy of language that is rare these days.  One feels as if one knew every single one of them. This reader smelled, tasted, touched, saw and heard every nuance…every subtlety.  Amazing.

There are also no weaknesses apparent to point out in this work.  It’s the strongest collection of short stories this reviewer has ever read—and though usually not one given to hyperbole, an exception must be made in this case.

Here is a little taste of the literary banquet you will indulge in should you read this masterful work:

"THE NANNY":  A kindly woman who does so much more for the children than any nanny every thought of.

"ACES":  Death and misfortune seem to following the wake of Soelle—a girl with a penchant for tarot cards and puzzles.

"CABIN D":  A lonely self-sacrificing man deals with an unorthodox killer.

"WINTER HAMMOCK": A tale H.P. Lovecraft would have been proud to call his own.

"THE DARK AND THE YOUNG": When experimentation with an ancient book spirals out of control.

I am so brief with these descriptions because I don’t want to spoil this for anyone.
I urge you to buy Every House is Haunted.  Read this book.  Buy one for yourself and one to give as a Christmas gift to your favorite horror fan.
You’ll thank me.

Get it here.

reviewed by Carson Buckingham

Carson Buckingham is a writer living in the great American Southwest and she reviews horror/paranormal suspense novels. Stop by to view her scriblins.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Revenant (Rock Bottom), by Allan Leverone

An artifact, closely guarded by the Navajo mystics for ages is stolen by an unscrupulous psychopath, Max, who is prepared to use it to create a zombie, Earl Manning, to do his bidding, and as long as Max has the stone, and Earl’s heart right next to it, he will control the Earl.  But due to some messy unforeseen circumstances, the box with heart and stone winds up in Earl’s hands.  He is suddenly the master of his undead destiny, and havoc ensues.

This second book in his series of Paskagankee novels, Allan Leverone’s  Revenant, is a page turner, and could almost be considered an homage to Stephen King, so closely does Leverone’s writing style mimic the master’s.  The book even takes place in Maine—not Derry, though; but in a town called Paskagankee.

My favorite character was actually Earl Manning, the revenant.  I found it fascinating that he was pretty much a brain-dead zombie to begin with, what with an alcohol-pickled brain at the age of 29.  Becoming a zombie wasn’t much of a transition for him—this was probably why he handled it so well.  You’ll want to read this book just for this character alone—he was the best developed and the most interesting.  Instead of the zombies running wild and the focus narrowly placed on the humans who are either chasing them or running away from them; it evolves into the Earl’s, story.  A nice switch.

Leverone handles suspense well, and though initially I was disappointed about the overused cliché of yet another zombie novel, I was pleasantly surprised about the original and deft way the concept was handled.

Though I enjoyed the book from start to finish and was sorry when it ended, there were a few weaknesses that I must mention.  I felt that the protagonists, Chief Mike McMahon and Constable Sharon Dupont suffered from lack of character development, and consequently came off as a bit two-dimensional. I didn’t care as much about them as I should have, and this caused the ending to fall a tad flat for me.

I also could have done without the frequent callbacks to the first volume of this series, Paskagankee.  They were slightly jarring and completely unnecessary.  This book was more than able to stand alone and should have been allowed to.

That being said, you’ll want to buy this—it’s a fun ride.

buy it here.

 reviewed by Carson Buckingham

Carson Buckingham is a writer living in the great American Southwest and she reviews horror/paranormal suspense novels. Stop by to view her scriblins.