Horror World Book Reviews
April, 2009

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The Nobody by Tom Piccirilli; Tasmaniac Publications, 2009; 123 pgs.; $22.95

Though Tom Piccirilli began his career by authoring horror novels in the 1990’s, he has all but abandoned the genre after garnering greater success with his mass market crime novels (most notably with his noir influenced books The Cold Spot and his latest The Coldest Mile).  Fortunately for his long time fans, Tom will occasionally step outside the confines of the large publishers and write the occasional novella for the small press thus allowing him to revisit some of his darker fiction roots.  These small press novellas, having achieved a reputation for startling plot twists and for their brutal storylines, have been eagerly embraced by fans and sought out by collectors.

The Nobody, Tom Piccirilli’s latest novella from Tasmaniac Publications, continues with this trend and does not disappoint as it opens up with one of the most disturbing scenes Tom has ever put to paper.  As the story begins we find a man coming home from an errand to find that his young daughter has been gutted and left to die.  The man finds her crawling around in circles on the living room floor with one hand on her stomach as she tries to prevent her intestines from falling out.  After watching his daughter pass away in tremendous agony, the man then hears a loud noise above him.  He rushes to the upstairs bathroom where he finds his wife bound, her throat cut, and bleeding to death in the bathtub.  Incredibly, he also spots the killer trying to escape out the bathroom window and as the man goes to intercept the killer, he slips on his wife’s blood, is overpowered, and then the killer plants a three inch knife right between his eyes.

As the story continues we discover that the man survived his stabbing but there was some brain damage and he has been in a coma for an extended period of time.  When he awakens, he has no memory of his identity and almost no recall of his wife and daughters slaughter.  And though he can’t remember many aspects of his former life he does know one thing, that he is going to find out who the killer was, and he is going to make him pay… and pay dearly.

In the past, Tom has created lead characters that are throwbacks to an earlier time when men always knew what they wanted, didn’t always get the girl, and were emotionally hard as concrete.   His characters weren’t only as tough as nails, they could be calculatingly savage.  But even though readers may have had found themselves squirming uncomfortably when dealing with scenes that reflected the feral nature of his lead characters, they continued to cheer Tom’s protagonists on.

Tom has also had the ability to make his ruthless lead characters somewhat endearing to the reader.  He does this by endowing these characters with a need to make a horrible situation right somehow, and failing that, to at least even the score.  And as with so many of his characters, it doesn’t matter the method employed or who stands in their way,  because in a Tom Piccirilli story, nobody can be trusted; the cops can be as crooked as the cons and women are not above using their best assets to satiate their greed.  So when revenge is exacted, and it always is in one of Tom’s novellas, it’s not with the pin point precision of a laser scoped rifle, but rather the wide ranging splatter of a shotgun. 

In The Nobody, Piccirilli has once again followed tradition and created another memorable lead character.  This time its Cryer, a name the man christens himself after awaking from his coma and listening to his hospital roommate tell him that he should be crying for justice. The newly named Cryer is nothing like his name would imply, in fact he is as solid as a rock and as single minded as a bullet’s path.   

Cryer’s name is only one irony in a story rife with them.  The man Cryer used to be was extremely overweight.  Now he is thin and muscled.  Before the murders he had a tendency to be lazy and would pass the time playing video games.  Now with his wife and daughter dead, it’s as if he’s possessed and forced to act.  Before their murders he was often dispassionate towards his family, to the point where he may have even been having an affair with his next door neighbor.  In his new life, Cryer longs to know what it was like to share his daughter’s sports activities and to hold his wife in his arms.

In The Nobody, Piccirilli keeps Cryer in almost constant motion, either physically or mentally, with the goal of never letting him think beyond the end game.  This fast pacing combined with emotionally draining scenes and snatches of black humor can’t help but keep the reader engaged right to the inevitable bloody conclusion of the tale. 

For long time Tom Piccirilli fans, The Nobody has the brutality and the clever plot styling that they have come to love and expect from the man.  For those who haven’t read Tom’s work for a while, or for those that are unfamiliar with it, you owe it to yourself to pick up The Nobody and discover why so many other authors have said they wish they could write like Tom Piccirilli.

--T. T. Zuma

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The Book Of Lists: Horror, by Amy Wallace, Del Howison, and Scott Bradley; HarperCollins, 2008, 410 pgs, $14.95

What could be more fun than reading a book of lists? While rearranging the mythic sock drawer might suddenly spring to mind, trust me, you would be wrong. How can that be? Well let’s start with the topic of this book of lists: horror. Now I love horror and I know you do too, the simple fact that you’re reading this review proves that. Then there are the four main topics the book is broken into: movies, books, music, and miscellany which covers anything and everything else. But even a book about a topic we all find interesting discussed in minute detail could still be dull, dry, and far too academic to enjoy. Luckily for us, Amy Wallace and her friends have been putting together big books of lists now for years, so they know how to do it better than anyone.

First they start with experts. Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Bentley Little, Poppy Z. Brite, Thomas Ligotti, Michael Slade, and Jack Ketchum are just some of the talent taped to pen up their own list of all things horror literature. That doesn’t mean the other topics don’t have their share of experts. Steve Niles, the grand poobah of modern horror comics, tosses in his two bloody pennies. Punk rock pioneer Johnny Ramone speaks from beyond the grave with the help of widow. Directors Eli Roth, James Gunn, and Edgar Wright all take turns trying to out gross, and at the same time out charm, each other. There are also many more whose names might not be so readily recognizable. College professors, book store owners, special makeup effect creators, critics, lecturers, behind the scenes people of all types, and just plain old fans all get a chance to write about their favorite subjects.

As for the subjects, they are as varied as the contributors that compiled them. Some are simply informative, such as “The Fifty-Six Best Selling Horror Books Since 1900” and “Six Stars Who Turned Down Famous Horror Movie Rolls”. Some give a bit more; they entertain fans of the genre while giving insight. “Sarah Pineborough’s ‘Rough Guide’ To Horror Travel List” and  the “Ten Most Insane, Out-Of-This-World Mexican Horror Movies” would fall into this category, as would longtime Fangoria editor Anthony Timpone listing the top ten movies he wishes he never put on a cover of Fangoria. This list had special meaning to me as I never forgave Fango for putting Batman Returns on the cover of issue #114. Then there are the lists that are just down and out funny, even if some of the yuks come from yucky subjects. Eli Roth’s “Top Ten Nastiest Horror Movie Genital Mutilations” is a perfect example of this. Surly not for the faint of heart but gore hounds will giggle themselves silly.

All of the above is but the preverbal tip of the Titanic sinker. With over four-hundred pages, anything you could possibly image about horror will be found in this book and ten times that on subjects you never would have dreamed of. For fans of horror this book is a must have. It shines the light on horror entertainment you might have otherwise never heard of and hopefully spurs you into checking them out and all the while it makes you smile. I cannot think of higher praise than that.

-- Brian M. Sammons

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How To Make Monsters by Gary McMahon; Morrigan Books, 2008, 172 pgs., $13

It’s no secret that Gary McMahon is one of the most talented among the young generation of British horror writers (forget about ‘British’: horror writers, period).To further confirm this statement here’s a new collection assembling both reprints and original stories apt to satisfy any horror fan craving for solid, entertaining , disturbing dark fiction.

The quality of the tales is enough to explain why McMahon is becoming almost ubiquitous, his presence in any new horror anthology being, by now, a must.

If you’re not familiar with Gary’s stories you’ve probably been on leave on Mars for a few years and you’d better make up for lost time by purchasing a copy of this book. Of course you won’t like any single story (neither did I), since even Gary, after all, is only human and not all his work is flawless, but you’ll find quite a lot of excellent reading material.

To mention a few examples, “Through the Cracks” is a gloomy, strong tale of paranoia and madness (or simply the discovery of the truth about our universe?), while “Owed” is a vivid portrait of abomination, debauchery and violence admirably mixing alien terrors with the horrors of daily life.

In “While ghost walk: a brief memoir”, a short but intense piece full of melancholy, a ghost is doomed to observe and preview what befalls his surviving family and in the disquieting “Accidental Damage” a young man whose life has been ruined by a car accident becomes able to perceive previously unseen aspects of the world’s reality.

“Something in the Way”, a compelling piece of psychological horror, and “Save Us All”, an urban nightmare of religious terror, effectively provide anxiety and distress, whereas “Nowhere People”, although a bit too didactic to sound convincingly true, blends nicely supernatural frights and natural horrors (xenophobia).

By far, the best stories in the volume are “Family Fishing” an unforgettable gem about an unusual legacy handed down from generation to generation, and the graphic and deeply unsettling “Pumpkin”, one of the most horrific tales I ever read, featuring a loving couple hiding terrible secrets in their house.

Shivers galore are guaranteed.

-- Mario Guslandi

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Mason byThomas Pendleton; HarperTeen, 256pp, $8.99

Mason will bring to mind several persecuted teens in literary or cinematic history. Carrie, Harry Potter, and to a lesser extent, Duddits from “Dreamcatcher.” (Okay, that last one was reaching) will favorably compare, yet this novel is one of the darkest YA stories to hit the shelves. Pendleton (aka Lee Thomas) has penned a number of books with Stefan Petrucha in their successful and scary “Wicked Dead” series but now steps out on his own.  He succeeds – easily.

The slow teen lives in his own lonely world, raised by his oblivious aunt after the death of both parents.  Ostracized by classmates, Mason aches for a life of normalcy. He strives for attention and love from others but only one pays him any mind.  Correction: his brother Gene does. A sadist bastard, he lives for torturing Mason. Then there’s Rene, a Good Samaritan who befriends the boy after witnessing him being harassed by the entire school.  However, she makes the mistake of standing up for him in front of Gene. What happens to her is unconscionable and unleashes something in Mason, something powerful and violent.

This tale of revenge and redemption touches and terrifies.  Mason shows as much strength as weakness, good choices as well as poor, in his decisions to save himself and Rene.  Pendleton has penned another strong tale, thus proving he has the skills to scare the hell out of any audience.  Highly recommended for readers of YA and just about any other age level.  Also recommended are the entire “Wicked Dead” series.

-- Dave Simms

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Horror Library Volume 3, edited by R.J. Cavender; Cutting Block Press, 2008; 256 pgs.; $16.95

Horror anthologies over the last several years have not been traditionally big sellers for the large publishing houses and thankfully the small press has come to the rescue for those that enjoy reading them. 

But regardless of who publishes them, I have avoided reading them in the past for several reasons, the main one being that it takes me too long to get through them as their very nature makes it too convenient to take a break between the stories.  Adding to my disinterest is the continuous change of pacing from story to story, the different narrative styles of the authors, and most importantly, the varying quality of one story to the next.  And let’s face it, although it’s not impossible, it is difficult to become emotionally invested in a story that’s only 3 to 10 pages long.  So when Horror Library Volume 3 arrived I was a little apprehensive.  With thirty stories in this anthology I thought it might take me at least a month to get through it.

I am happy to report that it took less than a week for me to finish it due to the outstanding job of the editor, R. J. Cavender.   The quality of stories in this volume range from average to excellent, there’s not a bad one in the whole bunch.  These stories contain top notch writing with contributors ranging from heavy hitters like Bentley Little, John Everson, Kealan Patrick Burke, and Gary Braunbeck, to others who could be considered obscure.

On the dedication page, Cavender states that he hopes these stories will scare the hell out of the reader.  Devoted readers of horror fiction know that is a pretty tall order, but in Horror Library Vol. 3, a few of the stories manage to do just that.  Space prohibits me from commenting on all the stories, but I would like to point out those I believe are standouts in the anthology.

“Teeth”, a story from A.C. Wise, is a tale of survival and sacrifice.  In “Teeth”, we tag along with a 12 year old boy and his father as they raid a field littered with discarded bodies scavenging for items of worth.  This includes using pliers to pull the teeth from the deceased.  They soon discover however that the dead have something against amateur dentistry.

Eric Grizzle’s, “When The Skies Toss Down Rain Heavy”, tells the story of a young boy, who along with his brother, find a puddle that’s best not to play in.   This is a spine tingling tale that had me engrossed from the first paragraph.

“Fish Bait”, by John Everson, is everything the title implies.  It’s the tale of a couple of losers who decide to stop into a remote bar for a couple of beers before embarking on a life in the great outdoors.  They are tricked into playing a bar game of strategy against each other with the loser having to “get dunked in the tank”.   Too bad they were too drunk to notice that everyone else in the bar was missing limbs.

“The Apocalypse Ain’t So Bad”, by Jeff Strand, is a humorous, gross out tale about a survivor of a zombie epidemic.  Is it really that hard to remain optimistic while everyone around you is being eaten?

My favorite story in the book, Mark Justice’s, “Being Supreme”, tells the tale about a man that walks into a bar, has a beer, and begins telling the bartender his story.  It seems the man used to be God. 

Gary Braunbeck and Matthew Warner’s story called “Under The Bridge Downtown”, details the life of a man forced to care for his disabled daughter.  Maybe he should have been a little more attentive to her, after all, how would he like it if he had to trade places with her?

Bentley Little’s, “The Station”, is a story that I found to be original and extremely well written about a gas station located in a remote desert that has a chair where the recently dead appear.  Even with a predictable ending, this story might be considered by many to be the centerpiece of the book. 

There are many other stories in this book that deserve a mention, and I believe readers would enjoy most, if not all of them.  If there is a theme in this anthology it isn’t very apparent other than these stories are extremely dark, and they all end badly.  So I would recommend putting a little time aside for reading and then pick up Horror Library Volume 3, it will be time well spent.

-- T. T. Zuma

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Dying to Live: Life Sentence by Kim Paffenroth; Permuted Press, 2008, 232 pgs., $14.95

If you haven’t read Kim Paffenroth’s debut novel Dying To Live, you must rectify that situation immediately. It is an excellent zombie novel that, like Romero’s best films, is about the people more than the gore. But this is a review of the sequel to that one, called Dying To Live: Life Sentence.

I received my review copy with great anticipation and dug right in. The story picks up about 12 years after the events of the first novel and is told through the point of view of two characters. The first of those characters is Zoey, the baby girl rescued from zombies at great cost in the first book. The second viewpoint belongs to Truman, a zombie that for some undisclosed reason has retained the ability to think and reason. Zoey is preparing for the ceremony that will mark her transformation from childhood to womanhood in the community that has flourished over the past decade. Truman is just trying to figure out who he is, why he’s different than the other zombies penned into an old storage facility and the humans who keep him there.

This goes on for quite a while. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of character development, but really, not much happens in the first half of this novel. Paffenroth goes into great detail about the rules of Zoey’s community and how it came to be as it is and how the old-timers talk about how things used to be. Truman changes clothes, finds a female who shares his ability to think, and who plays the violin, and he reads a lot.

Then things start happening as invaders threaten the community. There are some twists and turns as we reach the climax, but I saw several of them coming before they were revealed. And, as the leaders of Zoey’s community and the leader of the River Nation face off, the dialogue becomes pretty stilted and forced. Worse, the novel takes on a preachy tone as Truman laments how, for all their wondrous abilities, the living humans seem hellbent on using firearms and violence to settle disputes.

All that aside, I did enjoy this book. Is it as good as the Paffenroth’s debut? No, but it is a worthy successor and leaves the door open for many more adventures in Paffenroth’s very unique post-zombie-apocalypse world. If you’re looking for undead feasting and brains spraying across the page, look somewhere else. If you want to read a zombie novel that will make you use your brain before it’s eaten, this is it.

--Steve Wedel

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Repossessedby A.M. Jenkins; Harper Teen, 2007, 218 pages, $8.99

Living as I do in a recently refilled empty nest I have my own opinions as to the possible demonic origins of your average North American teenager. So when I unwrapped this book and took a look at the cover I thought: “What a brilliant concept.”

What’s it about?

The main character, Kiriel, is a demon bored with the day-to-day mundane duties of Hell. He yearns to find out about the mortal life. So he possesses the body of a seventeen year old teenager in order to experience everything that he’s been hearing about mortal existence after spending so many eons tormenting the souls of sinners.

Envy, Sloth, Pride, Greed, Gluttony, Wrath and Lust – all of the cool experiences he has learned of second hand. He starts out with masturbation and moves on to deodorant. Showers, baths, a round of weight training - every physical act Kiriel can imagine is freely indulged in. The pure and joyous excitement this demon shows in life itself is kind of inspiring in a weird sort of way.

Like any teenage boy, Kiriel has a single ultimate desire in mind. He wants to experience sex with another person before the authorities, (that is, the angels), catch on to his illicit AWOL activities and return him to his hellacious duty. 

So what is this book really about?

I’d have to say that Repossessed is a bit of a moral fable that teaches just how exciting the mundane experience of life can be. Kiriel enjoys everything – from the taste of ketchup to the feel of certain clothing against his skin. Through his experiences the reader comes to realize what is truly best in life is a little harder to categorize than you might think.

There is some marvellous world-building going on through the pages of this charming and hilarious story and for that along I recommend it. Besides that, you will find yourself emotionally invested in this character as he leads you through this exploration of the alien being that is known as the North American teenager.

I recommend this novel for anyone who is looking to be charmed, entertained while simultaneously enjoying a good down-to-earth tickle of the funny bone.

-- Steve Vernon

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Voracious by Alice Henderson; Jove, 370pp, $7.99

Rarely has a horror novel grabbed a reader simply by setting alone; rarer still is when that setting becomes such a living, breathing integral part of the story. Glacier National Park in Montana easily ranks as one of the planet’s greatest natural wonders – it also roars fierce with it raw, untamed flora and fauna.  Beyond the tourist shops and scenic views lies a world that, in its beauty, breathes a fire that makes even grizzlies seem tame.

Alice Henderson has poured her soul into Voracious, a novel that blends genres seamlessly into a deep, rich story that resonates with the reader long after the book is closed.  Chris Golden called it “sexy, sensuous, and terrifying” – usually, that would lead one of the hackneyed paranormal romances that seem to be clogging up the shelves in every bookstore nowadays.  However, happily, Henderson spins a scare-filled yarn that is full of horrifying horror, thrilling thriller, intelligent mythology, and yeah, there’s some romance, but of the natural, normal kind that fits perfectly into this tale.

Madeline has a gift – and a curse – that allows her to see the past of whoever she touches.   Caught in a flash flood, she finds herself rescued by a man backpacking – and who just happens to be tracking something.  That something is…well, no spoilers here but it’s pretty different. Figuring out exactly who/what the antagonist is makes for half the fun of the book.  Noah, the man with a mysterious past, and agenda, becomes entwined with the rescued damsel. The romance which ensues feels like it belongs, something that rarely works well in horror – but should more often.  This element ratchets up the tension and readers will find themselves truly caring what happens to the characters, and not just the central trio.  Because of the setting, Voracious brims with interesting people, ones we know and ones we’d like to know.   Henderson’s writing is cinematic and one readers can hope comes to fruition.  It captures the beauty and awe of the park without exploiting it while her style can run a switchback from lush to raw, love to outright horror in a heart without breaking stride.

For something different, something fascinating, and something you’ll want more of long after it’s devoured, there’s a new powerhouse in the asylum.  I highly recommend Alice Henderson.

-- Dave Simms

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The Beast Within, edited by Matt Hutts; Graveside Tales, 2008, 354 pgs, $16.95

Werewolves are to the horror world what Rodney Dangerfield was to the comedic world. That is to say, there has always been a lack of respect for both. Ghosts are never out of style, they’re always lurking around somewhere, rattling their chains. Zombies are going through a resurrection of their popularity right now that it truly frightening. Psycho killers, well you can’t toss a severed head without hitting a Dr. Lecter clone. And don’t even get me started on the most overused monster of all, the rock star of the terrorverse, the vampire. But werewolves are often left out in the doghouse, with only a few good movies, and even fewer good books, to do them credit.

The appropriately named The Beast Within, from publishers Graveside Tales, is an attempt to give the werewolf its due. It is a collection of twenty stories that run the wild, hair-raising gambit. Naturally there are werewolves, but if that was all that this anthology had to offer then even the most diehard lupine lover might have gotten bored halfway through the book. Editor Matt Hults wisely chose to include all manner of were-beasts for fans of skinwalkers to read about. Cats, hyenas, rats, spiders, bears, and even frogs all get to share the shapeshifting spotlight. The settings for the stories are just as varied, from a slave ship in the 1600s to a future cyber-virtual world. Along the way there are stops in the American Old West, we also get to witness the monotony of the corporate office, and even spend time with a werewolf superhero in Los Angeles. 

Some of the stories vying for leader of this pack include Lee Battersby’s ‘The Claws of Native Ghosts’. This tale is set in colonial Australia where a truly detestable man goes up against ancient spirits he doesn’t understand.

‘Gift of the Bouda’ by Richard Farnsworth’s is fast, furious fun full of guns and guts. It’s a perfect tale for fans of military action and horror. Think of the movie Dog Soldiers set in Somalia and cranked up to twelve. Yes, that’s even one more than eleven, for all you Spinal Tap fans out there keeping score.

 There are two tales set in the Old West in this collection and while both are good, Trent Hergenrader’s ‘Of Silver Bullets and Golden Teeth’ proves to be the better of the two, if only by a hair. This story combines Native American shamanism with cliffhanger action and is about a hunter charged with killing an odd bear with a gold tooth.

Matt Hults pulls triple duty for this book, not only editing it, and providing the cover art, but also writing the end tale of this anthology. ‘The Immaculate Conception’ is a great tale of a dark moment in history set on the high seas.

Arguably the best, and inarguably the longest, story in this collection is Gary A. Braunbeck’s ‘Some Touch of Pity’. This engrossing novella will draw you in and not let you go until its very satisfying ending. But be warned, Braunbeck does write about some truly disturbing things so this story might not be for everyone.

The Beast Within is an ever shifting cavalcade of were-beasts. Not every story shines like the full moon, but none are new moon dark either. Fans of lycanthrope fiction will love this anthology as well as any horror junky looking to see what their old, often forgotten friend the wolfman has been up to.

-- Brian M. Sammons

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Children of Chaos, by Greg F. Gifune; Delirium Books, 2009; 298 pgs.; $16.95

It wasn’t long after finishing Children of Chaos that I put some time aside to make some changes to my bookcase.  I shuffled a number of books around, mostly by arranging them on different levels, which left me with an open space on the top shelf between my Tom Piccirilli and Gary Braunbeck novels that measures about 10 inches wide.  I did this to make room for the Greg Gifune novels I already have and the ones I will own in the future.  Children of Chaos is the fourth of his novels I’ve read, and there is no doubt in my mind that Greg Gifune has not only earned this position in my bookcase alongside these prestigious authors, but that he’s going to be one of my favorite horror writers for some time to come. 

With Children of Chaos, Gifune has joined other authors who have recently found inspiration in classic literature (Gerard Houarner with The Wizard Of Oz and Gord Rollo’s take on Frankenstein are two that come to mind).  Gifune had done an extraordinary job of updating Joseph Conrad’s classic tale, Heart of Darkness, from a turn of the century allegory of spiritual uncertainty into a one that is a contemporary faith challenging nightmare. The center section alone in Gifune’s homage to Conrad is so horrific it makes Apocalypse Now, Frances Ford Coppala’s own brutal re-imagining of Heart of Darkness, seem tame at times.

In Conrad’s novella we followed Marlow as he traveled along the Congo to find Kurtz, a man of “extraordinary abilities” who is holed up somewhere in the heart of Africa.  In Gifune’s version, we follow his protagonist, a man named Phil, down a haunted, desolate, and sun scorched road called The Corridor of Demons into the bowels of Mexico to find a childhood friend of his named Martin.

When Phil was 15 years old, a trinity of friends consisting of himself, Martin, and another boy named Jamie, came upon a severely scarred man in the woods.  Phil panics after witnessing a bizarre scene where the man’s scars began taking on a life of their own and this sets in motion a turn of events where one of the boys kills the scarred man by slaughtering him with his own ceremonial sword.  With this act, the reader is introduced to the first instance of a recurring theme in the novel, the loss of faith, and in this case, it’s the faith Phil has placed in friendship.

The plot then jumps some 20 years later where we find Phil has become an alcoholic and a writer of poorly selling crime novels.  On one particularly stressful day, a beautiful woman knocks on Phil’s door carrying an offer from the mother of his old childhood pal Martin.  His friends’ mom is willing to give Phil $40,000 to locate Martin and then bring him home safely to her.  Of course it won’t be all that easy.  First of all, apparently Martin has proclaimed himself a God and has managed to build himself a pretty large cult following somewhere south of Tijuana.  Secondly, those that gone looking for Martin before Phil have either disappeared or gone insane. 

Needing the money, Phil accepts the job and soon finds himself in the infamous Mexican boarder town seeking transportation and protection.   Once those are procured, Phil and a small band of men begin a road trip down the Corridor of Demons and into the heat and heart of the desert.   It is during this road trip that Gifune kicks the action into high gear as the group is attacked by spirits, the animated carcasses of the dead, crazed cult members, and by Martin himself.  The unexpected death of a comrade, the mutilation and torture of another, as well as the supernatural apparitions he encounters on this road trip cause Phil to continually question and eventually reject his faith.  But the inevitable meeting with Martin at the end of the road finds Phil not only reacquiring his faith, but defending it vigorously. This sets up the reader for one hell of a shocking ending.

Gifune tackles some pretty heavy themes in Children of Chaos and weaves them into the plot so effortlessly that readers cannot help but become caught up in them on some level.  In the course of the story Gifune poses the questions; do we believe that God has some explaining to do to us?  Or is it really the other way around…that it is us who have to explain ourselves to God?  And, what if mankind, who has spent its lifetime hunting for God, was the one being hunted the whole time?

Gifune’s heavy use of atmosphere in his novels has become his signature, almost to the point where it could be considered a character in its own right.  Children of Chaos bears this stamp throughout.  His descriptions of Tijuana are so vivid you’ll want to run into the shower after Phil checks into the seedy motels or when he finishes drinking in the scummy bars.  And the action scenes are just as potent.  You’ll find yourself grabbing your chest when one character is impaled by a spear and you’ll be feverishly slapping at your face to brush away the insects when Phil is buried in sand up to his neck.

Children of Chaos is one hell of a mind blowing and entertaining read.  If you haven’t read anything by Gifune before, you’ll find yourself amazed by his literary talents.  I highly recommend this novel.

--T. T. Zuma

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Santa Claus Conquers The Homophobes by Robert Devereaux; Booklocker, 376pp, $17.95

Santa’s back and he’s having a Tooth Fairy hangover. If you missed the mind-boggling, genre-bending, Walmart-scaring novel which shattered everything sacred about your childhood, now’s a good time to get with the program. If you’ve missed the fat boy’s exploits, there’s a new tale that cause more giggling, cringing, and locking that damned Fairy out of your bedroom.

Robert Devereaux is a sick man. Anyone who’s read anything by him knows this and that’s part of his charm. Imagine if Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl, and Larry Flint fathered a child with their muses in a tumultuous orgy of creativity.  Wild thought? It’s nothing compared to the concrete results within the covers.  In less capable hands, a novel such as this would flounder and wither into a mess of naughty diversions from childhood memories. Devereaux, however, wields a power with language that could turn the most blasphemous icons into a memorable, and yes, touching story.  He’s that good.

The Tooth Fairy’s back and pissed; maybe it’s because she’s no longer getting St. Nick to paint the trees with candy canes. If that’s not clear, again, read the books.  Santa returns home to his wives – yes, more than one wife.  It’s good to be a jolly old fellow.  Wendy, his “newly-minted stepdaughter, owns the power to see into a child’s future.  Of course, this can’t be good news and when she sees a teenage boy commit suicide, she knows she must save him from the homophobic community who will vilify him for his sexuality.

What ensues will no doubt surprise many readers, even those who have read this talented author before.  If you are willing to part with any long held images of childhood heroes, including the very talented and wily Easter Bunny, this will titillate your fancy. Shocking? Hell yeah, but so much fun. I recommend this book to anyone who admires great writing and has ever encountered writer’s block.  If this man can twist and turn such iconic good guys into the perverse creatures who live in his world, anything can be accomplished.  Alice in Wonderland would run screaming for her therapist after reading this novel – and that’s a very, very good thing.

-- Dave Simms

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The New Annotated Draculaby Bram Stoker, edited and annotated by Leslie S. Klinger; W.W. Norton & Company, 2008, 613 pages, $39.95

“I am Dracula and I bid you welcome.”

I felt right at home curling up with this monstrously huge tome. Dracula, after all, was the very first true horror novel that I ever read. I commandeered by grandmother’s battered paperback and chewed through it. In later years I bought a copy of Leonard Wolf’s The Annotated Dracula (1975) and chewed through that – a little more slowly.

Well this one trumps them both.

Klinger demonstrates a terrible appetite for detail as he meticulously picks this novel apart and skilfully footnotes and researches every single aspect. The word painstaking is way too mild. If there is something that needs to be written about Count Dracula, you will most likely find it in one of the fifteen hundred notes that Klinger has appended to this document.

An interesting point about this work is that Klinger takes a rather postmodern stance in dealing with Dracula as if the vampire actually had existed. I am reminded of the Tarzan tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the equally entertaining Sherlock Holmes yarns by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In fact, Klinger has previously written a similar three volume annotated collection of Sherlock Holmes original stories.

I was bothered a bit by Klinger’s attitude towards Stoker’s work as well as Leonard Wolf’s original annotated volume. In my judgment it seemed as if Klinger spent a bit too much energy correcting both Stoker and Wolf. I was also bothered a little by the somewhat clunky arrangement of the notes versus the actual manuscript. One could all too easily become flummoxed by the fact that the annotations would often get in the way of the actual novel.

However, the research and presentation were both top notch. The book itself is a marvellous piece of craftsmanship and a joy to hold and read. The illustrations and maps and photographs are splendid. I enjoyed the introduction by Neil Gaiman and the accompanying essays. I also enjoyed the inclusion of Stoker’s short story “Dracula’s Guest”, which may actually have been an excised chapter from the original Dracula manuscript.

Hunt this book up quickly. I recommend it to all fans of Stoker’s original vampire and the undead in general – for the dead travel fast.

--Steve Vernon

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Leftovers, by Steve Vernon; Magus Press, 2008; 95 pgs.; $15.00

Long Horn, Big Shaggy, Steve Vernon’s first novella released in 2004, was a wild tale of the old west featuring zombie buffalo’s and a walking disembodied head.  It was the culmination of almost 20 years of oral and written storytelling and it earned Vernon a well deserved reputation as a small press author whose over-the-top dark fiction could be counted on to provide fans with a delightfully horror laden and bizarre reading experience.

Since that debut, Vernon has flavored his small press releases with heavy doses of existentialism allowing readers to look beyond the entrainment value of his gore filled tales and let their minds wander down paths of the not-so-obvious truths he was bludgeoning them with.  In lesser hands this can be extremely off-putting.  When there is too much mysticism in a story there is a danger that the readers may fear they are being force fed a homily, but when Steve is at the top of his game and he has perfected the balance of horror plotting and the questioning of morality, he has delivered wondrous works of fiction.  Hard Roads, his 2007 novella release, and his first full novel, Gypsy Blood, are great examples of this balance and are fantastic reads; both of these books should be in every horror lover’s collection.   Vernon’s newest release, Leftovers, fits in quite comfortably along side Steve’s body of work and it continues his tradition of writing stories that are both brutal and thought provoking.

In Leftovers, we are introduced to Father Simon, a priest who left the church one evening without saying a word after an old woman whom he had tried to assist died horribly.  Disillusioned, Father Simon decides to go into the revenge business and help those who he feels have been unjustifiably wronged.  While wandering the streets he finds a homeless shelter that is under the city’s radar called The Shambles and it becomes the perfect new home for Father Simon.  In addition to being his new base of operations, he finds himself with a new job in The Shambles as a soup cook.  Vernon tells us early on that “soup is where leftovers go to die”, and it becomes quite clear to the reader that it’s not only rotting vegetables and stale bread that give up their last at the shelter, societies leftovers come to The Shambles to meet a similar fate.

One evening while Father Simon is preparing his specialty for the denizens of the shelter, a young boy walks in.   Simon befriends the lad over some soup and discovers that while the boy is initially reluctant to reveal why he is at the shelter, it becomes quickly apparent that the boy is hiding something serious.  After a time the secret is let loose and Father Simon has another client for his revenge business.  However, it turns out that not only is revenge not so sweet in this case, it’s also a two way street.  And we discover that the title “Leftovers” doesn’t only apply to soup and the living.

Leftovers is an extremely entertaining story that once again showcases Vernon’s unbridled imagination and his love for characterization.  His prose in this novella is deceptively simple and flows easily for those who just want to sit back and just enjoy a well plotted tale of horror, but for those who like to dig deep and look for meaning beyond the printed word, this novella doesn’t disappoint. 

Vernon’s style of writing has matured over the years and if I had to describe his prose I would say it at times mimic’s the atmospheric styling of Tom Piccirilli, can posses the same kind of quiet intelligence of Gary Braunbeck’s work, and it shares some of the same folksy charm and down to earth sensibilities of Brian Keene’s small press offerings.  That might be high praise, but Steve Vernon’s work in Leftovers and his recent output more than survives the comparison.  

I would highly recommend picking up a copy of Leftovers, and while you’re at it you should add Hard Roads to your order, it’s Steve Vernon at his very best.

--T. T. Zuma

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The Rule Of Won by Stefan Petrucha; Walker & Company, 2008, 240 pages, $16.99

Caleb Dunne, high school slacker, will do just about anything to hang onto his high maintenance girlfriend, Vicky. That includes joining a club obsessed with the teachings of a self-help power-of-positive-thinking flavour-of-the-week book entitled The Rule of Won.

At first Caleb thinks it is just a pack of foolishness, but all too soon he comes to realize that what looks to be a harmless high school club is actually the beginning of a highly infectious cult.

Now I have worked in a New Age bookstore for over a dozen years. So I was there when The Secret cut a blazing swathe through the bestseller lists. In fact, just today as I was finishing this novel and roughing out the review I overheard one of the clerks talking about the book and selling a copy to a customer. So naturally I was intrigued at the notion of author Petrucha basing a YA novel on these fad-cult teachings.

Petrucha has delivered a solid piece of page-turning entertainment here. It drew me right in and wouldn’t let go of me until I reached the very end and slammed the book closed.

And then it lingered, like good chili.

I particularly enjoyed the message board blog posts that Petrucha used to give the reader a glimpse of the inner workings of the student cult group/mind. Far more than a mere gimmick, Petrucha uses these entries to expertly ratchet up the tension, inserting bits of information into these blog entries – including one Chapter 12 entry that tore a gasp from this particular reader.

The Rule of Won is a YA novel and as such I found that a great deal of the violence was toned down or played out off-stage. This didn’t hinder my enjoyment one bit. This novel is a dark and thrilling pilgrimage through the inner workings of cult mentality. Add to that a subtle supernatural undertone and the age old genie-in-the-bottle warning – “Be careful what you wish for” – and you have a solid and entertaining piece of writing.

YA or not, if you wish to be thrilled, gripped and terrorized – pick up a copy of Stefan Petrucha’s The Rule of Won. Afterwards you can wrap it and give it to a teenager. Tell them that you hadn’t really enjoyed yourself while reading it, all that much.

That’s right – lie.

The Rule of Won offers everything a reader could wish for.

--Steve Vernon

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Contagious by Scott Sigler; Crown, 448pp, $24.95

Last year when the king of podcast novels hit the actual paper running with his novel Infected, readers were blown away with the maturity of the writing and story that literally got under their skin.  His story of alien life that grew within hosts was the best extraterrestrial horror novel in years.

Now comes the sequel, which usually means a drop in quality.  Sigler avoids the sophomore slump by peopling his novel with characters who entertain on many levels. Dew Philips, the lead FBI agent is anything but cookie-cutter. The medical team is a joke a minute but also manage to squeeze every bit out of emotion from the reader. At the center of this tale returns Percy Dawkins, an ex-football player and the only person to have survived the “triangles” (that’s the only spoiler I’ll give for those who haven’t read Infected”).  He’s a bruiser of a character that has many layers and propels the story along at a light speed pace.  But tons of novels have that interesting character, or even group of characters, that shine in three dimensions.  Sigler makes sure that even the street thug or mailman captures our interest, thus taking away the “skippable” pages.  The trick here is that the aliens themselves have no personality – they use their victims’ personas to fulfill their goals.  The dialogue rings true, funny, witty, and touching where it needs to (another rarity in thrillers) and the author knows when to hit the brakes and when to floor it.

The reader locks in for the ride as the “triangles” (and more) continue on their quest to unleash themselves on the world that is anything but sci-fi geeky. The government does their jobs, as does the army (half-assed) but again, it’s the people who make what would easily be just another invasion book into a horror-thriller-sci-fi mix that hits on all cylinders.

Read this before someone screws it up on the big screen. 

-- Dave Simms

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Bloodletting, by Michael McBride; Delirium Books, 2009, 359 pgs.; $16.95

Tell me if this plot line sounds a little familiar to you:  A handful of Nazi’s escape from Germany and go to other countries at the end of the war so they can continue to conduct or follow up on the genetic experiments they conducted in the hopes of creating a new super race. 

If it does sound familiar, it’s because this basic plotline has been a horror staple for years, the most famous example being Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil.  Not to mention that the plot line has been and continues to be the basis for many a B movie horror flick.  But as in all fiction, it’s not necessarily the story itself that needs to be fresh, but rather how it’s told.  In Bloodletting, it’s Michael McBride’s turn to give it another go.

McBride does an admirable job in updating Bloodletting’s storyline by tossing twins into the mix as well as having the genetic experiments revolve around animal DNA.  He’s also fashioned Bloodletting as a modern era detective story using high level U.S. security agents and medical scientists who together, try to solve the seemingly random serial killings of young children. 

McBride’s complicated and sometimes convoluted plot concerns the exploits of F.B.I. Special Agent Paxton Carver.  When first we meet Carver he is involved in a gruesome case in which several young girls have been killed in Colorado.  When the investigation ends badly, his superior assigns him to work with some decidedly odd Federal Agents in another case that eventually takes him to Arizona where the buried remains of 11 mummified corpses are unearthed.  It turns out the Colorado and Arizona cases are linked somehow, but no one, the agents he is working with or even his own agency, will give him all the details he needs to make the connection.  It becomes apparent to Carver that these Federal Agents do in fact know the connection, but they willfully withhold the information.  Amazingly, Carver is told that he has to discover it for himself.  To further complicate matters for him, Carver runs into an ex girlfriend at the Arizona site who just happened to be studying the mummified remains. 

Bloodletting is a well crafted, deeply plotted, and at times an action packed story.  And as enjoyable as it is, it does however have one fault that prevents it from being a classic novel along the lines of The Boys From Brazil… it comes off as little too clinical and cold. 

McBride goes overboard in providing so many technical details on how the Nazi’s super race has come to be that he overwhelms the reader.   The text can be so detailed at times it becomes distracting, to the point it voids any warmth we might have been feeling for the characters.   For example here’s one exchange: What we have is a mutation of a classic epsilon-retrovirus, the snakehead variety.  It’s easily identifiable by its arginine tRNA primer binding site, but its Gag, one of the nine proteins that from the structural component of the retrovirus, it doesn’t resemble the coiled form of the snakehead so much as that of the genus lentivirus, which includes the human immunodeficiency virus.  The reported incidence of the espilonretrovirus in humans is non-existent, however you all know about the prevalence of HIV, which is suspected to have mutated from a simian strain.

In addition to the technical jargon the reader has to wade through, McBride’s characters can sometimes come across as too cold and impersonal, including his protagonist.  Through most of the first half of the novel we observe Carver as he remains calm and analytical as he kills the bad guys, is manipulated by the government, and is forced to piece together the scientific clues to the case.   But despite McBride’s best intentions to have the reader occasionally connect with Carver, emotionally we feel very little for him when he finally does meet the girl.  And once the two do manage to hook up, the girls character almost seems clichéd and the relationship between the two contrived.

All that said, for readers who enjoy non traditional murder mysteries with liberal doses of high tech or medical science plotting and a fast paced ending, Bloodletting will not let you down. 

--T. T. Zuma

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