Given the way 2020 smacked us all around, I’m probably going to go a little easier on myself for a while … but here are five more new reviews to ring in 2021! This installment: Lee Murray’s Grotesque Monster Stories, Secret Harbor by Michael J. Moore, John Baltisberger’s Blood and Mud, Fort by Rob E. Boley, and Stranger Danger by Michaelbrent Collings.
Title: Grotesque Monster Stories
Author: Lee Murray
Publisher: Things in the Well
Okay we’re all thinking it so I’m just going to go ahead and say it — Taine McKenna needs to stay the (bleep) home! Honestly, any time that guy goes anywhere, next thing you know some lost species is discovered or unearthly menace dredged up, and people start getting killed right and left.
At least this time, in “Into the Clouded Sky,” which closes out the collection, he’s not out there on purpose looking for trouble. In a way, though — several ways, really — that makes the whole situation worse. Instead of being part of an armed and equipped team on a mission, he’s just out for a nice weekend of R&R, kayaking with a friend on a scenic lake. What could go wrong?
The answer, of course, is “plenty.” Like, volcanic/tectonic activity causing a whirlpool that sucks them into subterranean caverns inhabited by bizarre creatures in an ongoing battle with the restless dead, so they have to fight for their lives as they try to find their way out. I can just see it; “How was your trip, honey?” / “Oh, you know, the usual.”
Before that, however, we’re treated to eleven other stories incorporating Murray’s deft blend of history, adventure, and various folklores and mythologies. Of them all, I found “Dead End Town” to be the smallest scale and simplest, but also the bleakest and most difficult to read. Well-written, obviously, as all of them are — this is an author consistently at the top of the game — just fairly uncomfortable.
As for the others? From a young king’s desperate escape down a secret passage in 16th century France, to a nightmarish event leaving survivors hideously melted together … from tribal islanders and awakened deities to standoffs at zombie strongholds … from the journal of a lost love to the whole new strange world of a genetically-altered aftermath future … they really do span an impressive, exciting gamut.
Title: Secret Harbor
Author: Michael J. Moore
Publisher: Black Rose Writing
I went into this one expecting something more John Saul, for some reason, but those expectations turned out to be way off base, and not at all in a bad way. It does involve troubled teens, dark familial dysfunction, and a remote island ‘reform school’ where unpleasant things go on, but goes in an entirely different direction, with the horror elements entirely real-world and human, nary a breath of the supernatural lurking about.
Our main troubled teen is Tony, whose life with mom and stepdad and half-sibs is miserable, neglectful, and downright abusive. The story opens with a prologue of him being picked up at juvenile hall after the latest in a string of escapades, and instead of being taken home, getting shipped directly to Secret Harbor.
From there, we get the background of leading-up-to-it events interspersed with what happens on the island. Before, Tony just drifted through school, not really fitting in anywhere, ending up hanging out with the other disaffected bad kids. Particularly Karina, whose own situation is not much better.
The usual adolescent stuff like class-cutting, ditching, smoking, and drinking escalates into gang-type rivalries and fighting, drugs, shoplifting, violence. Although Karina isn’t technically Tony’s girl, they fall in together, almost obsessively (well, okay, for Tony, strike the ‘almost’). They run away several times, spinning webs of fake identities, committing crimes, but always eventually get caught or give up and go home, only for the cycle to begin again.
While imprisoned on the island, Karina’s all Tony can think of, counting the moments until he’s released and they can meet again. In the meantime, he has clashes with other residents, boys with their own considerable histories, and staff whose conduct ranges from strict to inappropriate.
A personal bonus for me was the Seattle-area setting, presented very vividly and true to form. I can’t say I found Tony exactly sympathetic; I felt bad for him, yes, and his mother was just awful, but he was a hard character to root for, and his descent into a deeper psychological morass is pitiful but painful.
Title: Blood and Mud
Author: John Baltisberger
Publisher: St. Rooster Books
Three words: Jewish kaiju horror. Yes, you read that right. Yes, we’re talking full-blown old-time old-school Old Testament stuff here. Religion, theology, and mythology. Angels, and I mean scary wrathful inhuman angels and archangels, with the fiery swords and wholesale slaughter.
And yes, we’re also talking giant stompy city-leveling monster wreaking total havoc here. It’s a golem, but not the standard slab of animated clay. This golem is made of the blood of the innocent, and the sins and hatefulness and awfulness of mankind. Of which, sad to say, there’s a lot. A lot a lot. The more the golem kills, the more raw materials it absorbs into its mass, so the bigger it gets, which very quickly becomes a problem.
The last-straw event leading to the golem’s creation is when a kindly old Jewish man and Holocaust survivor, who also happens to be one of the world’s few true holy men, dies trying to help others in a celebratory pride parade. At that point, Satan decides he’s had enough. He gets unjustly blamed for a lot of humanity’s evil anyway, so decides it’s time to live up to his reputation.
This, of course, doesn’t go over well with the other powers that be, who are mobilized to stop Satan even as the mortal military scrambles to try and deal with the unprecedented situation. So, there’s angel-on-angel combat, there’s National Guard and Air Force throwing everything they’ve got at a seemingly impervious and unstoppable force.
My only quibble is my usual and predictable one of wishing it’d gotten a little more edit-type attention, but I’m peevish that way. As I’ve never been terribly familiar with Judaism and all its lore and mysticism, the Kabbalah, etc.; I found this book as fascinating from that scholarly perspective as for its no-holds-barred carnage and destruction. Educational AND entertaining! Can’t go wrong there!
Author: Rob E. Boley
Publisher: Bloodshot Books
Got me a Bloodshot Books goodie box in the mail with a stack of review copies in it, grabbed one on my way out the door to an appointment so I’d have something to read while I waited, and ended up blowing off the rest of my day to finish.
Now, see, I’d thought it’d be just another apocalypse survival story, but I was wrong. It was a surprisingly fresh take on the genre, because … what if society collapsed, the world ended, and you didn’t even know? I don’t mean, it takes you a while to catch on, like Shaun going about his day oblivious to the zombies and blood at first.
I mean, for, like, YEARS. Like, say, you’re a teenage girl with emotional issues, already traumatized by tragedy, whose only refuge is your blanket fort. And your dad, when everything goes bad, decides to keep the truth from you, turning your entire apartment and then gradually the rest of the building into an even larger blanket fort.
That’s where you live. That’s your whole life. No going outside, no news, no contact with anyone else. Dad brings in supplies. You spend your days doing crafts, playing with dolls, taking care of your cats, talking to the imaginary friend that is your dear Fort. Sheltered. Safe.
Then Dad dies … only, he doesn’t. His body’s still moving, trying to catch and kill you. His ghost-voice is coming through the electronics, trying to help you escape, finally forced to tell you the truth. You have to shake off your comfortable, comforting existence and face cold hard ugly reality. And fast.
It’s a gripping story, with a sympathetic and peculiar protagonist utterly unprepared for one heck of a harsh, steep learning curve as she — and we — finds out what’s really been going on and has to find some way to cope.
Title: Stranger Danger
Author: Michaelbrent Collings
Publisher: Written Insomnia Press
Okay, people, c’mon — just because horror writers write about certain stuff does NOT mean we’re into it in our real everyday lives. The beliefs, opinions, and actions of certain characters do NOT mean the author shares those beliefs.
The author’s opening note to this book makes that clear, and I can see why he felt it was necessary. The issues addressed in the story are difficult to read about, difficult to think about, and were probably pretty damn difficult to write about too. Especially given our current sociopolitical landscape where we’re already smacked in the face every day with racial inequity, police hypocrisy, white supremacist ideology …
I admit, even though Collings is an author I respect and trust, I wasn’t as eager to read this one as I have been some of his others, Like with the works of Wrath James White, however, I knew I NEEDED to. Not for entertainment, but for my own education. And appreciation of such authors’ willingness and ability to tackle such unpleasant topics head-on.
In the book, Candela Garcia is trying to balance building a career in law enforcement with establishing a home for her teenage son after they’ve been on the move most of his life. On the run, really, but she has reason to believe she’s finally escaped and can settle down.
Even so, it’s an uphill battle, especially for a Latina single mom and female cop in a male-dominated department. Her partner’s sleazy, the neighborhood’s awash in warring gangs, the citizens have good reasons to be wary. Her son’s having his own difficulties fitting in at school, falling in with a bad crowd, taking too many risks.
There’s also some mysterious vigilante-type running around, and before she can begin to make sense of those developments, the past she’d thought was behind her resurfaces with vengeful intentions. To save her community, her son, and herself, she has to confront some of the worst of the worst of what humanity has to offer, and Collings is very adept at bringing it all too uncomfortably close to home.