Reviews, September 2021

This might be the last full review batch for a while. Between caring for Mom and the house and trying to finish Warlock Infernal, my reading time has been severely curtailed. The next couple months may be a bit lean. But, for now, here are my thoughts on With Teeth by Brian Keene, Madeline Swann’s Fortune Box, Drag You Down by Nathan McCullough, Errick Nunnally’s Blood for the Sun, and Reincursion by Ryan Harding and Jay Taverner.

Title: With Teeth

Author: Brian Keene

Publisher: Death’s Head Press

Website: http://www.deathsheadpress.com

Vampires do not (bleeping) sparkle. So quoth the Gospel of Keene, so it is and so be it, forever and ever, hallelujah, amen. As someone whose personal favorite vampire book is McCammon’s They Thirst and whose favorite movie is 30 Days of Night (vampireociraptors for the win!), I agree.

So, when I heard Keene was doing a vampire book, you better believe I was right there ready and rarin’ to go. As well as glad I hadn’t made any other commitments for the next couple hours, because as soon as I started reading, I was there for the duration. Whole thing, one sitting, enjoying every minute of it and often cackling gleefully along the way.

The story’s from the POV of a widowed West Virginia farmer who, like so many of his neighbors, is struggling to make ends meet. To further complicate his situation, he’s got a college-bound daughter, and grants and scholarships will only cover so much.

One evening, he and a bunch of his friends are sitting around commiserating about their various financial woes, and the ways (not always legal) they’ve tried for getting ahead of them. Then someone has the bright idea of making meth.

Now, fans of Keene will know he’s a huge Breaking Bad fan, so it was perhaps inevitable we’d get to see his take on the idea. A more rustic, backwoods, moonshiner-type take, but the underlying desperation is the same. Man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, right?

So they decide to give it a shot. They’ve even got a secure location in mind to set up their operation. Which, of course, is when the trouble starts, because that secure location is already inhabited … and not just by angry bears.

That’s right, we’re talking vampires! Vampires of the decidedly non-sparkly variety. What started out as a good-ol-boys scouting mission takes a screeching left turn into mayhem, carnage, terror, and a fight for their survival as well as their essential humanity.

**

Title: Fortune Box

Author: Madeline Swann

Publisher: Eraserhead Press

Website: http://www.eraserheadpress.com

We’re by now very accustomed to the convenience of being able to order almost everything and have it delivered right to our door. So accustomed, in fact, it’s easy to lose track of whether you’ve ordered something or not. Or hey, maybe someone sent you a surprise. Who knows? Does it even matter? A package shows up on your welcome mat? Bring it right on in.

It might not always be the best idea, but by the time we realize that it could also be too late. Witness the characters in this book, each of whom receives an unanticipated parcel, which of course they open. Why wouldn’t you?

For instance, there’s Meera, a lonely young woman not having much luck on the dating scene. When she plantd the packet of mysterious seeds that came in the mail, what sprouts may be just the answer she’s been waiting for.

And then there’s stoner college party girl Cassandra, who didn’t order any sort of little humane catch-and-release critter traps … and who certainly didn’t expect it to capture what it did. And forgettable Terry, tired of being overlooked at work, until a best-selling tell-all book out of nowhere makes him suddenly famous.

There’s also a would-be professional going to great lengths to maintain the appearance of happiness and success … an unappreciated housewife undertaking unorthodox home repair … a broke and insecure guy who encounters an unusual second-hand cabinet … a recovering addict faced with temptation … housemates who get a key that opens a door they’re sure wasn’t there before … or the life-changing ‘gift’ of a make-friends-have-fun book …

In every case, the recipients don’t know what they’re in for, and neither does the reader, as these enticing mysteries unfold. Where are these things coming from? Who’s sending them? It’s quirky and delightful, and sure to make you give the side-eye to the next random package to turn up at your door.

**

Title: Drag You Down

Author: Nathan McCullough

Website: http://www.nathanmccullough.com

So, a dead man walks into a bar …

For bartenders like Joe Flynn, it’s a never-ending parade of “walked into a bar” jokes. Oh, he’s heard them all over the years. But even Joe is taken by surprise when one such scenario actually happens, one night shortly before closing.

And this is a dead man Joe knows. A long-time regular, whose viewing at the funeral parlor was just yesterday, as other late-staying regulars can confirm. Nonetheless, here he is, and not only in hopes of a final beer.

Turns out, the dead man — Tommy — married a woman who didn’t believe in the “until death do us part” condition of the vows. She’d made him miserable while he was alive, and saw no reason to stop her torments for such a trifling reason as a fatal heart attack.

He manages to slip away from her, turning to the only place he might find friends who can help. What follows is a midnight escapade into magic and madness, as one sober bartender tries to herd a well-meaning but somewhat soused group of patrons to find a way to protect their undead pal from his witchy wife.

The title novella alone is loads of fun and well worth the read, but the six bonus stories rounding out the rest of the book are also really good — a preacher conflicted over unresolved issues with his childhood bully, a kid who wouldn’t want to sit in vigil with his uncle’s corpse even without a neighbor’s foreboding threat, a guy who’s had as much abuse from his supervisor as he’s going to take, some small-time crime about to go wrong, a short but painfully bittersweet glimpse of desperation, and a finishing flash-fic bit of Mythos whimsy.

**

Title: Blood for the Sun

Author: Errick Nunnally

Publisher: Twisted Publishing

Website: http://www.haverhillhouse.com

You know the thing when a book revolves around characters having important info but playing their secrets close to the vest and kind of lording it a little in a teasing, tantalizing, “I know something YOU don’t know” way?

This book does that, to the point you just want to grab these characters by the lapels and shake them until they quit being all coy and messing around.

The feeling’s exacerbated by a protagonist who takes ‘unreliable narrator’ to a whole new level, courtesy of a memory disorder leaving him unable to be sure of what’s going on, or remember where he was going or what he was going to do, or why, from one moment to the next..

Between those two factors, which as an author I understand but as a reader tend to peeve me, I had a harder time enjoying this book than it deserves. I kept hoping, and waiting for the moments of explanation, revelation, and resolution, but mostly in vain.

The dark urban fantasy world it presents, populated by vampires, shapeshifters, beings out of folklore, sorcerers and alchemists, and all kinds of strange magic, is really cool. There are enmities and alliances, a delicate balance of social politics, and an entire shadowy world of which the everyday humans are completely unaware.

Until and unless, of course, those worlds collide, which is where we get our story. Alexander Smith, the protagonist with memory issues, is a shapeshifter who’s struck up a working sort of relationship with the police, helping to solve peculiar crimes. Such as a grisly murder with ritualistic elements, taking him on an investigation leading him deeper into sinister secrets and the ominous ticking-clock of an approaching significant date.

He’s also got a long, turbulent history, further complicated by his memory issues — when you run into someone who you don’t remember, but who sure remembers, and maybe has reason to hold a grudge against, you, it cam make things a little tricky.

**

Title: Reincursion

Authosr: Ryan Harding and Jay Taverner

Publisher: Death’s Head Press

Website: http://www.deathsheadpress.com

Remember when we used to think how characters in horror stories were unrealistic because people in real life would NEVER be so stupid? Ah, those were the days; an innocent and more naive time. But now, look. Just look. Here we are.

To be fair, the characters in this sequel to Reincarnage have their own rationalized reasons for venturing into the walled-off kill zone that’s imprisoned an immortal slasher for nearly 40 years. Some of those reasons are even understandable, in a desperate-last-resort kind of way.

For instance, when there are rumors of a miraculous healing source somewhere in there, and you have a terminally ill child, and all other options have been exhausted … mightn’t it be worth breaking the law and risking your own and your child’s life?

Or maybe it’s more sentimental; maybe you grew up in one of the towns now encompassed by the zone, and need some sort of familial closure, to see your former home, or retrieve a token of your former life.

Then there are the ones who’ve seen viral videos on social media and want the challenge, the thrill, the bragging rights, and the glory. Oh, and the sex; there’s special prestige for those who can reach a certain landmark to join the kill-zone equivalent of the Mile High Club.

Not to mention, hey, if you’ve got the guts and the skills, there’s good money to be made guiding the would-be tourists. Though then, you also have to worry about competition, if not outright sabotage, by fellow guides looking to cut out the competition.

All of these reasons and others (such as going along with it because your friends / hot girlfriend talked you into it against your better judgment) factor into this story, giving us a sizable and varied cast telling themselves they can beat the odds.

When, of course, they can’t, we also get a sizable and varied body count in the glorious goriest slasher tradition, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t glad to see most of these doofuses get what they deserved.

**