KillerCon Online!

Only a few more days! Won’t be quite the same, but at least this time the bar won’t be closed, we won’t have to fish trash beer from the dumpster, and I don’t have to put any “I can explain” notes to the TSA in my luggage. Join us for panels, readings, the infamous Gross Out and Wings of Pain contests, and the Splatterpunk Awards!

http://killerconaustin.com/

Reviews, August 2, 2020

What with one thing and another, I totally spaced on posting the latest batch on Thursday as should have been scheduled … oops! But, better late than never, as they say.

So, here are my reviews of: Deadly Reality books 2-4 by Sea Caummisar, Evil Lives by R.M. Hayes, These Bright and Lovely Nightmares by Giovanni Diaz, Li’l Horror Stories for the Soul by Matt Roberts, and Kaiju Battlefield Surgeon by Matt Dinniman.


Title: Deadly Reality 2-4

Author: Sea Caummisar

Website: https://www.amazon.com/Sea-Caummisar/e/B07PFS4H42

This one’s a three-fer … I’d reviewed the first in the series some time ago. And, even though I had some issues with the writing, even though it could have used serious editor love, I could not resist going back to binge on the rest of them.

It’s like going to the all-you-can-eat buffet and taking it as a personal challenge and outright gorging yourself beyond capacity on really salty greasy deep-fried bad-for-you stuff and then still loading up at the dessert section. Even if you regret it later, even if you feel totally sick for days after, it was worth it at the time.

That’s how I feel about these books. Their central theme is reality television with extreme pain shows. How much would someone hurt themselves for money? How far would they go? Draw blood? Gain a scar? Lose a digit? Lose a limb? What about fire? Power tools? Push it to the brink of death? Beyond?

Producer Damon Dahmer, disappointed over the cancellation of his show Easy Money (first book) after his secret revenge plot led to a dead contestant, is none too happy with the direction the network is taking. Now, Damon’s a nasty piece of work, whose unpleasant hobby of torturing and mutilating prostitutes on the side continues escalating. He’s no hero. He’s not even an anti-hero. He’s horrible.

Yet, when an old rival of his is been brought in to spearhead a replacement show called Pain For Gain (the second book of the quartet), and Damon as well as his former assistant Mary are expected to cooperate and toe the company line, it’s hard not to feel at least a little bit sorry for him. It’s hard not to soften toward him somewhat when he develops feelings for one of his usual victims and steers her into rehab and a new life instead of continuing to abuse her.

It’s hard, but not impossible, and believe me, Damon carries right on being even more horrible as matters progress. He wants to give the viewers what THEY want, which, as disappointing ratings and audience feedback soon shows, is lots and lots of blood. But the challenges on Pain For Gain just aren’t getting the job done, and Damon’s willing to take drastic steps to regain control.

The next show, Hurt Bank (third book), fares somewhat better … it features a different game show format, fancier production value, bigger injuries, and higher stakes. The network, though, continues to have reservations about giving Damon free rein.

Meanwhile, his personal life continues undergoing changes. Like, girlfriend and baby-on-the-way changes, nudging him toward becoming a more respectable family man. One who still maims and murders the occasional hooker on the side, but …

He’s also been contacted on the sly by a mysterious representative from the ‘dark web,’ inviting him — well, inviting by way of threats of blackmail — to bring his hobbies to a whole new audience. Further entanglements and complications quickly ensue, building toward the splat-tacular series finale of the fourth book, Roll Credits.

The torture scenes are VERY graphic, wincy-flinchy-cringeworthy all over the place, whether the Saw-style components of the game shows or Damon’s after-hours improv. Really really shameless, gratuitous, and over-the-top. Female characters usually get the worst of it, with considerable sexualized violence (the non-violent sex bits, interestingly, are far tamer, almost prim).

As for my issues with the writing style, well, those are still present. It’s very heavy on the ‘telling,’ frequently following up a line of dialogue by clearly narrator-voice stating what the character is thinking, feeling, or trying to accomplish. But, as much as that aspect bothered me, I couldn’t stop going back for more.

**

Title: Evil Lives

Author: R.M. Hayes

Went into this one not knowing anything about it or what to expect, which is always a gamble … but, occasionally, as happened here, a gamble which pays off with a good, gripping, entertaining read. Some of the style and thematic elements had me reminded, in a comfortable nostalgic way, of earlier John Saul and mid-career Dean Koontz.

The prologue opens very Saul-esque, with a nameless judgmental midwife assists yet another young unwed mother secretly give birth in a place called the Baby House. The implication being, of course, the child will go to a loving adoptive family; the reality being a descent into an ominous basement where a furnace awaits.

Fast-forward a bit, and it’s another regular school day for nine-year-old Haley, until she suffers a vivid vision of a classmate being struck by a car on the way home. She’s no stranger to these visions, though she’s never told anyone about them for fear of being branded a freak. Still, she’s determined to try and save her friend.

When she does, there are questions. A caring teacher and a concerned cop try to look more closely into Haley’s home life, which proves to be anything but normal and quickly leads to fiery disaster. Here, I was expecting the full Koontz-type formula to unfold, and would have been totally fine with that. Instead …

Fast-forward again, to a Haley all grown up, with a husband and a child of her own. Continuing to be burdened by her dire visions, unable to fully put her childhood traumas behind her, she stops by a local psychic expo in hopes of learning more.

She learns more, all right. Far more than she ever wanted. Learns about her family’s real history, including their ties to the Baby House and what hungers down in that dark basement.

**

Title: These Bright and Lovely Nightmares

Author: Giovanni Diaz

Publisher: Gio Writes Stuff LLC

Website: https://www.giowritesstuff.com/

Chonking in at a whopping 500+ pages, and being marketed as #1 in a series, what you have here isn’t a casual let’s-see-where-things-go kind of date but one heck of a serious long-haul commitment. It’s a BIG book, and it has to be because it’s layering an entire urban fantasy underworld atop the regular modern day that we know.

In this underworld, existing among and alongside regular humanity, magic is real. So are werewolves, demons, and vampires. So are their age-old rivalries, which have resulted in a hostile environment of hatred, murder, exploitation, and crime, deadly for humans and paranormal creatures alike.

But there’s also the Gardens, a hidden and protected safe haven where refugees can live together in relative peace, with cautious parties occasionally venturing out to rescue or recruit others. However idyllic it might seem, though, even the Garden is not without its share of problems.

For Eleanor Demidova, one of those problems is people treating her like a kid, not telling her what’s really going on. Okay, so maybe she IS a kid, but she’d also the daughter of one of the Garden’s leaders, a staggeringly precocious young magician, and the favorite darling of just about everybody despite her foul mouth and crass manners, and …

and, honestly, I found her character to be a total brat. Then again, I’m old, and not the target audience here. In these scenarios I’m more apt to identify with the exasperated adults these days than the gutsy reckless YA teen heroine. Instead of indulging and excusing her behavior again and again, I wanted to ground her obnoxious butt.

Which, as you might imagine, turned an otherwise promising read into something of an ordeal, no matter how intriguing I found the worldbuilding and premise. Especially on such a scale. Younger readers more into that, sure, eat it up. Just, sorry to say, not for me.

**

Title: Li’l Horror Stories for the Soul

Author: Matt Roberts

Title’s somewhat misleading here; turns out the bulk of the book is a not-so-li’l horror novella, but the front half is indeed loaded with “li’l horror stories” … though the “for the soul” part may or may not depend on what you’re intending to do to your soul. Calm and soothe it? Then that’d be a big nope. Disquiet it mightily with stirrings of dark emotions? There you go.

Particularly, for me, the story “2 AM Photo,” which takes the notion of stalkery invasion to a very chilling extreme when a man’s wakened by a notification from his cell phone only to find a picture of his own house, followed by subsequent pics getting closer and closer, then coming INSIDE, where he and his family sure are no longer sleeping.

Others of my personal top picks would include:

Cold Glass of Grief,” reminiscent in some ways of Creepshow’s “Father’s Day” and in others of Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart” as a put-upon son has to deal with caring for his aging, demanding dad;

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better,” featuring the archetypal creepy kid / budding sociopath honing his special gifts (though I did find the bits with the squirrel rather upsetting);

and “Two For Five, One For Three,” with a teen couple taking a Ferris wheel ride that becomes unforgettable for unexpected, terrifying reasons.

Interestingly, that last one? Those teen characters appear again in the novella, “Suburban Legends.” One of them is the new kid in town, having not only to deal with all the issues associated with that but with his parents’ divorce, his drunken jerk of a stepdad, and something just plain weird about the house he can’t quite put his finger on. I’m not sure how the two pieces exactly fit together timeline-wise, but it was a neat touch to see.

**

Title: Kaiju Battlefield Surgeon

Author: Matt Dinniman

Website: https://www.amazon.com/Matt-Dinniman/e/B002BLP1QY

I admit, I went into this one expecting something along the lines of Carlton Mellick III’s “Big Meat,” and was I ever way off the mark! Turns out it’s about an online video game, so I was all oh cool MMO with giant stompy monsters … but even then my initial expectations fell WAY short.

The gameworld in question is huge and complex, and it has to be, because there are indeed a lot of giant stompy monsters as well as a mix of a dozen or more genres, from magic to steampunk to horror. Each of the various playable races has their own patron kaiju, serving as anything from patron to outright god, granting powers and demanding services, enmeshed in their own tangled web of disputes and alliances.

But wait, there’s more! There’s also a demonic invasion underway, building toward serious final-battle end of days stuff. It’s not just epic. It’s EPIC. And it’s not just immersive; it’s BEYOND immersive. Set as the story is in a near future, where virtual reality now includes full-body life support rigs, complete with physical sensation.

Ever thought games would be more fun if the players felt pain when their characters did? Not to mention, when their characters got killed? Um, yeah. Maybe not so great when it actually happens. Especially when some sneaky cheaty devs have tweaked the system.

Duke, lured into the game under false pretenses, finds that out the hard way. He’s hired to paint a wall mural, but the client wants something from the game, and apparently screenshots won’t do the trick. He’s told he just needs to make a token character, log in to the client’s ‘base,’ and see for himself.

The offered pay is substantial, so Duke figures what the heck and goes along with it. Next thing he knows, he’s trapped in the rig, trapped in the game, being blackmailed, at the mercy of a sadistic plot, and all that’s still only the beginning. If he wants to get out, he’s not only got to play, he’s got to find a way to WIN.

What follows is part like watching a playthrough, part like reading a manual packed with mechanics and statistics, and part sweeping apocalyptic adventure. By the time I was finished, I was both glad and kind of sad the game itself doesn’t exist, because whoa.

**

VISCERAL now available!

visceral_cover2

Available now from Death’s Head Press!

Or find it on Amazon!

In this warm, wet, and sticky body-horror collection, splat-tastic authors Christine Morgan and Patrick C. Harrison III each contribute four gruesome stories sure to disquiet and/or disgust

“Transformations, self-mutilations, and monstrosities await. You may find these stories getting under your skin, and what happens when they get deep inside is the real fun.” Ryan Harding, author of Genital Grinder, co-author of Reincarnage and Header 3. (from the foreword)

Portland Protests, July 21

On the evening of Tuesday, July 21, I rode the MAX into downtown Portland. Which, as some media reports would have you believe, is a total under siege war zone of destruction, anarchy, and chaos.

That’s not what I experienced. I saw a city with streets quiet, not much traffic either vehicular or pedestrian, businesses subdued by the pandemic, but daily life otherwise going on as usual as possible under the circumstances.

As I walked from the station toward the courthouse, indications of the unrest did begin to appear in the form of graffiti on walls, on posts, on plywood sheeting. But much of it seemed more like an outdoor museum. There were portraits and murals. Slogans. Color. Sentiment. Artistic and compelling, raw with emotion, beautiful. Passers-by paused to look and contemplate, to think, to take pictures, to talk.

The so-called war zone spans a few blocks, at most. A big chunk of which is a park. I arrived at the park a little past 7:00 PM, the sun getting low, shadows lengthening between the tall buildings, a breeze cooling what had been a hot (for Portland) summer day. It’s a nice park. Lots of trees, walkways and benches, open grassy areas, statues.

There were also a scattering of tents, booths, and tables set up, volunteers hard at work providing food, safety gear, first aid supplies, literature, tee shirts, and other stuff. More volunteers circulated, handing out free earplugs and water bottles, patrolling with trash bags to pick up litter, keeping an eye on things. It seemed well-organized, in a subtle and non-overt way, but conveyed an impression far from anarchy and chaos. It conveyed purpose, and commitment, and belief in a cause.

The smoke filling the air wasn’t tear gas, but savory goodness courtesy of Riot Ribs (though, this being Portland after all, there may have been smoke of another variety wafting about). Music played. People danced. There were dogs. If social distance wasn’t exactly being maintained, at least almost everyone was properly masked and nobody seemed to mind.

Overall, to start with, it had the feel of a festival, a street fair. The crowd, maybe a hundred or so when I got there, spanned a range of ages, ethnicities, genders, and lifestyles, yet felt inclusive, welcoming, and friendly. This was community. This was sharing. This was a joining together. The energy was palpable, and positive.

For the next hour or so, I sat on benches or wandered around. I watched, and listened, and observed. I chatted with a few people, petted a few dogs. I’d brought a tote bag of posterboard and markers, so those who wanted to could make signs. Some did, others had already brought their own. I saw older folks, younger folks, families. Not many little kids, but teens and tweens, some with their parents, and good on them for it!

And, of course, there were the moms, which was what had stirred me most to attend. I wanted to be with them, to stand with them, even if at least only once. Moms in yellow tops, not just moms but grandmas too, with symbolic sunflowers. Dads, too, dads in orange, dads and grandpas. Showing up. Showing solidarity. Being there, being open and understanding.

During that first hour or so, amid all those people of such varying types, I only noticed two individuals who pinged my wariness radar. And one of those, I suspect, was just off of their, or in need of better/different, medication (when you’ve work residential psych as long as I have, you can often tell when someone’s decomping).

The other? I’m not sure what it was about him. Maybe he was a little too clean-cut and neatly put-together, the way he was dressed. Maybe it was the way he made a circuit through the park without talking to or interacting with anybody, snapping phone-pics from a distance of the volunteers, or the booths and their minders, but not going close.

I mean, let’s think about that for a minute … there I was, of a demographic probably best known these days for calling the police over something that’s none of their business, demanding to talk to the manager, or throwing a fit over not being able to get their hair done … there I was, surrounded by such a varied and unconventional array of humanity as to give any textbook example of that demographic a conniption … and felt not a flicker of apprehension about any of them.

THAT guy, though, that ONE guy I’d noticed … that guy, cold and silent, cruising like a shark … yeah. That guy, I did not trust. He set my nerves on edge.

My instincts say cop or fed, doing a cruise-through to suss out the scene. I don’t know. I could be wrong. But it sent up a red flag, all right. It gave me an anxious worry-pang, when thus far nothing and no one else had.

The only other time during the entire evening I felt something similar was when I was leaving, walking away from the scene around 10:30 PM, and there was a group a block or two up from the main event, off on a side street, whooping and laughing and getting raucous, as if gearing up to cause trouble. When I got home and saw things had escalated and gone bad shortly after, throwing things and starting fires? They were the first ones I thought of.

Until then, though? From the overwhelming majority of those gathered? Nothing of the sort. Emotion, yes. Passion and purpose, yes. The desire to be seen and heard, the determination to be taken seriously and not ignored, not dismissed, yes. All of that. Anger? Yes, you bet there was anger as well, and damn right … anger born of injustice and frustration, anger expressing itself in some strong language, understandably so.

But not maliciousness. Not cruel humor and smug superiority and opportunistic greed. Not power-trips or privilege. Not from that crowd. I was there with them. In the middle of them. I felt it all around me. It was an incredible, amazing, moving experience.

Even later, when full night had fallen and the crowd had swelled to close to three thousand, and I was out in the thick of it, amid the chanting and sign-waving, I wasn’t nervous. I felt supported. I felt trust. I felt that if something went wrong, and I needed help, the people with and around me would have my back. Hell, I felt safer and more supported there among all those strangers than I do on my night shifts at work, more often than not.

Before then, though, to backtrack a bit (I ramble), the mood at the park … I saw a cute exchange where one old white guy hailed another old white guy with, “Hey! Other old white guy!” and then the two of them had a conversation about how important it was for the world to see that it wasn’t always about old white guys. A younger person of nonbinary presentation approached me and asked if I knew how to roll a joint, but even having attended Humboldt State, that’s a skill I never did acquire. A nice couple availed themselves of my sign-making supplies. A dog I think was named Pickles must’ve smelled the kitties on my shoes and was very interested.

Some people already were wearing helmets, painter’s goggles, face protection. Some carried umbrellas, some carried shields. I didn’t see any weapons. Only defensive stuff. Plus flags and flowers. And balloons (someone did have a specific cartoon petulant man-baby balloon). And signs. A particular favorite of mine read “1 if by land, 2 if by sea, 3 if by unmarked van” … points for cleverness, there.

Every now and then, as dusk started settling, there’d be some brief upwellings of chants and voices – whose streets? our streets! or black lives matter! to begin with. The glass-fronted highrises and walls echo back nicely, too.

Speaking of which, some people went around giving out dozens of little pink squeaky pigs (y’know, like rubber duckies, only, piggies), and there is something intensely surreal about hearing the echoing cacophony of a hundred little squeaky pigs squeaking away into the gloaming.

However, that does bring me to a touchier matter. The pig thing was no coincidence, obviously. There was a protester who had a stuffed pig slung in a net over his shoulder. There was the ACAB chant that’d be raised several times later on. This is where some might point and go “aha!” and say how we’re insulting and disrespecting the police. As if that alone, somehow, destroys any and all credibility of anything else going on.

Well, that’s a garbage arguing/silencing tactic right up there with going on about “tone” and “why don’t they protest peacefully/quietly” and other deflections meant to make the greater main issue easier to discount and ignore. So, tough. Anybody wanting to have that argument can go elsewhere.

For me, respect, like trust, is a nebulous thing … it’s not a blanket either/or, not a total all-or-nothing … it needs to be earned, it needs to be maintained, and it can be revoked at any time with good cause. I particularly disagree with the notion that respect or trust can be demanded, expected, or owed. I might trust a friend with my deepest secrets but still not trust them to drive my car, or lend them money. I might respect someone’s education, knowledge, or work, but not their personal opinions on social issues. It’s all, and always, in flux, contingent on the situation, subject to change.

Right now, in Portland and elsewhere, a big part of the problem has to do with respect and trust. A lot, and I mean a LOT, of that has been lost, particularly towards law enforcement, government, the military, the “system.” We see so many examples of abuse, corruption, authoritarianism. So many “bad apples,” as it were. While we’re still told, oh, you HAVE to respect the uniform, the elected office, the title, whatever.

Um, but, yeah, no. Not if it isn’t going to be earned, deserved, and maintained. Not blindly, not unquestioningly. No. Sooner or later, people get fed up. People have had enough. And, when it shows, it can show in some less than flattering ways. Jokes. Snarky memes. Squeaky pigs. Chanting ACAB.

Are they? Of course not. We know that. Just as we know it’s “not all men” and any of countless other examples. The pedantic bickering is just another of those deflection techniques meant to shift the discussion away from the actual issues. Not all, no. Not all. The ones that are, though, and the framework enabling them, is the problem.

So yeah, what with all the greater scheme of things, I’m not going to lose any sleep over squeaky piggies. Moving on.

Between 8:00 and 9:00, as it got darker and cooler, more and more people arrived, the crowd condensing and gathering. The mood – still good, mind you, still positive and amiable – began to pick up more purpose and cohesive momentum and anticipation, like a rising tide.

A man prostrated himself in the middle of an intersection for several minutes – praying or meditating; I’m not sure which – while others stood around him to divert what little car traffic there was. The sporadic call-and-response chanting increased. The recorded music ended, though eventually there would be drummers, and even what sounded like a small marching band. Some event organizers took turns with megaphones or loudspeakers to remind us what we were all doing here, going over some basic ground rules and requests.

Because, anarchy and chaos, right? Violence, rioting, and destruction. What some would have you believe, because that’s what makes for the most exciting news footage. That’s what gets the most clicks. When, being there, feeling that energy, I could tell it wasn’t that at all.

Soon, I saw a large group of women in yellow, carrying signage and sunflowers, proceeding up the street together. The official, or as official as it got, march of the Wall of Moms. So, I made my way over and simply merged on in. That feeling, too … of being seamlessly welcomed, accepted, absorbed into the fold … there’s nothing else like it.

I walked with them. I stood with them, shoulder to shoulder, arms interlinked. We formed a line two blocks long and three rows deep. Moms of all colors. New moms, old moms, grandmoms, moms-to-be, moms in flesh and moms in spirit. We raised our voices. When called upon to say their names, we responded: George Floyd! Breonna Taylor! We chanted. No justice, no peace! Hey hey, ho ho, these racist cops have got to go! And other slogans, some, again, featuring stronger language.

When everyone raised their lit phones or flashlights to shine thousands of points of light into the darkness, a group of senior ladies in the row behind me, talking to each other all “remember, back in the day, we’d have to use real lighters?” and had a warm rush of even more love and pride for them, and gladness to be there among them.

As for the health risks … yes, I know. I’m aware. There’s a pandemic on. I’m in my 50s, and considered to be at higher risk. My health and stamina aren’t the best, especially after the past three years of cancer, surgeries, and treatments. My docs are none too happy about me going to work under the current circumstances anyway (but I’m essential! And neck-deep in medical bills! Not like I have much choice).

But then, what the hell was I doing, going down there? Into the thick of it, after having kept myself as isolated as possible since March? My primary doc would have stormed right in and towed me out by the ear, scolding the whole while. I had to promise several friends to be extra cautious and careful. And that’s just the virus concerns. To have to factor in the other dangers on top of that?

I know. I know, but, still, I had to. I had to see for myself, feel for myself, experience for myself. I had to know more than just what made it to the news and social media. I needed to be a part of it, be involved. If at least a little. If at least only once. I thought it was worth taking the chance. I believed, in my heart and gut and soul and bones, it was the right decision. I still do.

Of course, I also got lucky. Partly because of the aforementioned not-the-best stamina, partly because of the also-aforementioned promises to people (my roomie was going to sit up fretting until I came home and made damn sure I knew it), and partly because I wasn’t sure how late the MAX ran, I left before things took an angrier turn.

About 10:00 PM, I disengaged from the bulk of the crowd and sat on a bench to rest for a bit. At one point, a guy walked by on stilts. Someone went through the park, waving a thick smudge of sage. A barefoot woman in a white shift took it off, dropped it on the ground, and strode boldly up the street, naked as anything. Instead of being shocked, or offended, or afraid for her, I had only admiration. Her confidence, her courage. Beautiful.

I was sorrowed to leave, wished I could have stayed longer. By 10:30, though the crowds had begun to thin as others headed out, it still felt positive, peaceful, purposeful. To get home and find out I’d missed the fireworks (literally) by maybe twenty minutes was, somehow, more of a disappointment than a relief. Not that I wanted to get tear-gassed or shot at, but … also … I don’t know … maybe, on some level, for the realness and the shared experience, maybe part of me did. Maybe part of me understood I needed to go through that, too, like so many others have been doing night after night after night.

As amazing and powerful as it was, I wish events like this weren’t necessary. I wish we lived in a better society where no one had to get out and demonstrate and protest for simple basic human rights and fair treatment. But, since we’re not there yet, since this fight still needs to be fought, I’m glad I could take part, and see the truth for myself.

It felt right. It felt strong. It felt honest. City under siege? War zone? Anarchy and chaos and destruction? Not from where I was standing, and where I plan to stand again soon.

**

Reviews, July 16 2020

This week, my reviews of: the Crash Code anthology edited by Quinn Parker, Snuggle Club by Carlton Mellick III, Teeny Tiny Stories From the Marinated Jungle by Lee Widener, The Immeasurable Corpse of Nature by Christopher Slatsky, and Boomtown by James A. Moore.


Title: Crash Code

Editor: Quinn Parker

Publisher: Blood Bound Books

Website: http://www.bloodboundbooks.net

Cyberpunk may not be one of my main things, but cyberpunk horror? Tempting … and cyberpunk horror with some of my favorite splattery extremes on board makes it temptation impossible to resist. I’ll gladly step outside my usual niches.

Heck, if Kristopher Triana’s involved, I’d read Amish romance (actually, that would probably be fantastic; just saying). Everything I’ve seen from him continues to be top-shelf, and his story “The Deepest Fake” here is no exception, as a jilted woman is willing to go as far as it takes to get back with her ex.

Others of my personal faves:

“Time Share” by Damascus Mincemeyer, in which the temporal side effect of a new drug becomes its own addiction … one I admit I’d fall prey to very quickly;

Sean Eads and Josh Viola’s “Eunuch’s Code,” pushing male enhancement and the whole beta/cuck thing to whole new hilarious amazeballs levels;

“Cold Calculation” by Eric Lewis, opening the book with an updated take on the chilling let’s-draw-straws necessary sacrifice and then pushing it further;

Hannah Trusty’s “A.U.T.O,” as a passenger in a malfunctioning self-driving car finds himself in a horrific predicament beyond his control;

“One Survivor” by Neil James Hudson, in which routine surveillance keeping tabs on just about everything leads to new industries of privacy and entertainment;

Aaron Thomas Milstead’s bold, clever wordplay in “A Silent Auction,” letting the fate of sensitive or objectionable terms be decided by the highest bidder;

and “Mr. Companion” by Alex Franco, combining personalized sex-dolls with interactive AI and following it to some fairly disturbing (if all too likely) conclusions.

And that list is still only a fraction; there are twenty-seven tales here in all. Some of them may have been a little tech-y for my taste, but as I mentioned above, not terribly well-versed in the genre. Others more savvy will doubtless enjoy them all even more.

**

Title: Snuggle Club

Author: Carlton Mellick III

Publisher: Eraserhead Press

Website: http://www.eraserheadpress.com

I received this book maybe two days after some study was going around social media claiming the average person needed a dozen hugs a day to thrive; we’re touch-deprived, contact-starved; is it any wonder society’s falling to crap?

Well, luckily, there are organizations available to help. And they’re hardly creepy at all! Welcome to Snuggle Club, which of course is complete with its own rules of Snuggle Club.

After a hiatus for personal reasons, explained in a heartfelt introduction, bizarro-meister Carlton Mellick III returns to the scene with this warm and cuddly new novella sure to make even the most hug-positive people squirm a little. Introvert types with strict personal space issues will probably be squirming just from the title.

For Ray, one of the best sensations in the world was snuggling with his wife, Julie. Being the little spoon to her big spoon, enfolded and loved and safe, fitting together perfectly. But, after Julie’s sudden and untimely death, Ray is left alone, adrift, undernourished. When he notices the sign for Cuddle Me!, which provides no-pressure snuggles in a safe environment, he eventually decides – without much hope – to give it a try.

Second thoughts start kicking in as soon as he meets some of the other members, few of whom seem the sort he’d want to get cozy with even under ordinary circumstances. As strangers, in their pajamas, in a room full of cushions and beanbags, hearing their tales ranging from traumatic encounters to new age aura transcendence … yeah, Ray’s not ready for this.

Turns out, though, Ray has a special gift when it comes to snuggles. The club’s owners want to introduce him to their secret inner circle, which takes snuggling to a level beyond anything Ray’s ever experienced. And then it gets REALLY weird, y’know, just in case it wasn’t weird enough already.

**

Title: Teeny Tiny Stories from the Marinated Jungle

Author: Lee Widener

Publisher: NeverEndingWonder Books

Website: http://www.neverendingwonderbooks.com/

“Move over, Rudyard Kipling … in the bizarroland universe, our just-so-stories and whimsical origin tales are penned by a far weirder hand!” is what some blurber had to say about this, and for obvious reasons, I can hardly disagree!

I remember those Kipling tales, in which we learn how the elephant got his trunk and why the rhinoceros has wrinkly skin. These new ones would be right at home among them, only, updated and presented in a more peculiar way. Like a 70’s Sid-and-Marty Krofft show, with author Lee Widener as the kindly, kooky host (just look at the pic and tell me you couldn’t see it too!)

The tagline promises “ten WEIRD animal fables” and it certainly delivers, starting off with a cranky little snake who encounters a most unusual stone, with dreadful results for the entire Marinated Jungle. From there, we go on to meet many of the Jungle’s other odd denizens, including the Squirrel Who Knew Nothing, the Slug of Madness, and the Bear Who Ate People.

We’ll see what happens when an elephant’s trunk becomes magical, when a tree and armadillo learn to sing together, and when a boastful lion tries to push his kingly status. Ever wanted ninja raccoons to come and clean your house? Been in a tense hostage situation with ketchup-toting ducks?

One thing, though: however charming and whimsical and silly, these ones probably aren’t really suited for kids. There’s some strong language, some social and political commentary on modern times. Fun and delightful for odder adults; just don’t expect them to turn up at your local library Story Hour anytime soon … unless your local library is already on the weird side.

**

Title: The Immeasurable Corpse of Nature

Author: Christopher Slatsky

Publisher: Grimscribe Press

Website: https://vastarien-journal.com/

Won’t lie, this was a heavy read … would’ve been even heavier in print, clocking in as it does at over 400 pages. But even so, the prose is complex, deep, and intense; not exactly a quick and light time-passer.

Some of the pieces are more academic essays than stories. I mean, they’ve got FOOTNOTES, for crying out loud, and we’re not talking the goofy Douglas Adams kind; these are serious and for real, with references and resources and everything.

As for the more story-stories, my top picks here include:

“Engines of the Ocean,” with its lonely and Lovecraftian vibe as a woman returns to her childhood home to find herself awash in memories and a mysterious call;

“The Anthroparian Integration Technique,” where an unusual disorder calls for an even more unusual kind of therapy, leading to some disturbing results;

“Phantom Airfield,” in which inexplicable phenomena add to the difficulties of a father grieving the guilt and anguish over the loss of his son;

“The Figurine,” bringing the all-too-common-these-days tragedy of a school shooting painfully close to home as a man already burdened with secrets faces his loss;

The combination of stage-play script style “From a People of a Strange Language” and “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise,” delving into the seance-craze of the early 1900s as hoaxers and fake mediums prey on the hopes of the gullible, while debunkers seek to expose them, full of opium and ectoplasm and table-knocking;

and the devastating horror of dementia unfurling in “SPARGAMOS,” hitting right on one of my worst fears.

I also really wanted to like “Devil Gonna Catch You in the Corners,” done as a series of diary entries from a young woman sent to care for an ailing elderly uncle who used to be quite the stage sensation as a ventriloquist, but something about the way some of the entries are in present tense didn’t seem to work for the journalistic format and kept jarring me out of the otherwise promising and spooky story.

**

Title: Boomtown

Author: James A. Moore

Publisher: Haverhill House

Website: http://www.haverhillhouse.com

Western horror is where it’s at lately, and James A. Moore doesn’t disappoint, so when his infamous anti-hero Jonathan Crowley, veteran of many other tales in many other eras, you just know you’re going to be in for one wild ride!

Crowley’s just trying to mind his own business at first, keep to himself in the rough and rugged Colorado Territory … wouldn’t it just figure someone had to come along and kill him! Being shot, dragged behind a horse, and left to freeze solid might’ve been enough for most people, but he is far from most people. Killing him isn’t easy. Keeping him dead is even harder.

When a well-meaning trapper brings his body, along with several others from the same massacre, to the bustling boom-town of Carson’s Point, he revives at the undertaker’s to find himself in an awkward situation. He needs clothes and weapons. He needs to retrieve his belongings. And some revenge on the men responsible would be nice.

Turns out though that Crowley isn’t the only supernatural force in the vicinity. Nor is he the only one after the outlaws, who’ve also holed up in Carson’s Point. With a Skinwalker on the hunt, a sinister sorcerer, malevolent spirits, risen corpses that really are corpses, and murdered braves undergoing monstrous transformations … let’s just say this town ain’t big enough for the all of ’em.

And the regular folks? The ordinary men and women of Carson’s Point? Their new sheriff and his ineffectual deputy, the prospectors and whores and hoteliers and saloon keepers? They’re about to be caught in the middle of a crossfire shoot-out of no less than apocalyptic proportions.

Solid and satisfying, with a genuine historical feel, a whole cast of entertaining characters, and a whole lot of bullets and blood, it is indeed a wild ride, a grisly and gritty treat from start to finish.

**

Reviews, July 2 2020

Up this week, my reviews of Extinguished by C. Derick Miller, Separating You by Dr. Jason Carson / John Shupek, the Road Kill: Texas Horror anthology edited by Bret McCormick, Blood Relations by Kristopher Triana, and Periphery by Michael Winter.

 


Title: Extinguished

Author: C. Derick Miller

Publisher: Death’s Head Press

Website: http://www.deathsheadpress.com

An “aptronym” is what they call it, the term for when your given name suits (however ironically) your chosen profession or role in life. Whether it’s prescience on the part of your parents, or some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, it’s often amusing and sometimes annoying. And easier to get away with / put up with in fiction than the real world.

In this case, the aptronym belongs to Angel Burns, who lost her mother in a tragic house fire, was raised by the fire chief who rescued her, and went on to pursue firefighting as a career. Now a single mom, working for and with a bunch of oinking sexist jerks who make her job a living hell, she has no idea how much an actual “living hell” she’s about to stumble into.

Or, as it turns out, that her first name’s a bit of an aptronym too, when she finds herself caught in a supernatural battle and then recruited into a secret society of demon-hunters. Armed with her trusty fire-axe and a magical family heirloom, Angel’s new mission involves trying to stop the forces of evil from getting their claws on the relics that can be used as weapons against them.

I enjoyed the story, but did find the writing fairly heavy on the “tell” side of things (particularly when it came to referring to her as “the young hunter” or “the girl” or “the hero” and similar stylistic phrasing, though to be fair that is a big-time personal peeve of mine.) And the characterization of Angel struck me kind of bothersome in that crass one-of-the-boys-but-with-sexy-sexy-boobs way.

The energy’s there, though, and the sense of fun. Lots of action scenes and what would be big-budget special effects. Some see-it-coming twists, others surprising. I’d be interested in seeing more.

**

Title: Separating You

Author: Dr. Jason Carson / John Shupek

Publisher: Necro Publications

Website: http://www.necropublications.com

Billed as “A Self-Help Book for the Lost, Lonely, and Psychotically Obsessed,” this right here is one insane wild ride of a read. We’re talking “so, you want to be a sociopath” how-to guide kind of territory, blending a cool and clinical mentor-like detachment with sidetracks and divergences into real mind-of-madness crazies.

Nominally written by one Dr. Jason Carson, it’s part textbook/handbook complete with assignments and quizzes, part autobiographical interlude, part philosophy, and part thought experiment as the “good” doctor examines what makes serial killers — of which he himself admittedly is one — tick.

Along the way, he’s hoping to either help you-the-reader blossom into your own potential, or accept and understand why you’ll always be meaningless prey. He starts off by presenting you with a scenario to imagine: waking bound and blindfolded, then given horrible choices to make by a sinister figure. Choices involving your life, your loved ones, and what various body parts get cut off of whom, shall we say.

From there, the insanity only twists and deepens and gets weirder, exploring the roles of the senses, the values we place on them and on each other, how experiences can shape or mold a person’s character and morals, and so on.

It’s really, really, really nifty and creepy and cool. I spent as much time admiring the craft and skillfulness that went into creating this book as I did enjoying the story/content itself. I found myself answering the disturbing quizzes and questions, as well as being both relieved and vaguely disappointed they didn’t lead to a choose-your-own-adventure outcome tree.

An ambitious undertaking, a risk to be sure, but one that — in my opinion, as both reader and someone with a background in psych — more than pays off. Awesomely clever and creative. We need more books like this!

**

Title: Road Kill: Texas Horror

Editor: Bret McCormick

Publisher: HellBound Books

Website: http://www.hellboundbookspublishing.com

Given I’d been smack in the middle of reading and writing a lot of western stuff, an anthology of Texas-based horror seemed to fit right in. Only been to the state a few times, but what I saw of it was indeed impressive, living up to that everything’s-bigger reputation (especially driving through a thunderstorm; that was some end-of-days nerve-wracking right there!)

Hardly surprising, then, that most of these sixteen stories follow suit. The wide-open spaces, the roughness and ruggedness of environment and character, independence, tenacity, and an indefinably Texan larger-than-life quality shine through.

You’ll find deadly road trips and nighttime beer runs, rustic bars in the middle of nowhere, racism and revenge, romance gone wrong, a serial killer’s reign of terror, family struggles, young people desperate to escape and old folks wanting to keep things the way they’ve always been.

My particular faves would include:

James A. Longmore’s “Harvey,” which has nothing to do with invisible rabbits and everything to do with a dark secret gaining strength in a drought-ridden town;

“From These Muddy Waters,” by Patrick J. Harrison, because a nice old-fashioned fishing trip out on the lake with grandpa can’t possibly lead to shocking revelations;

“Nia,” by E.R. Bills, set not only in Texas, but the fallout-laden hellscape of a post-apocalyptic Texas, where a young cyber-soldier fights through a future some factions probably would still want;

and Russell C. Conner’s “Smile For The Camera,” entertainingly pitting the latest in modern put-a-place-on-the-map technology against places that maybe don’t want to BE on the map.

There were also a couple that, though good solid stories and I liked them, just somehow didn’t quite as much ring Texas to me, and seemed slightly odd fits among the rest — Mark A. Nobles’ “The Year Walk” rang much more old-world forest folklore-ic, and “The Fear All Women Have” by Ralph Robert Moore, an intriguing Twilight-Zone-esque experience of a man waking up in another man’s life, could’ve been set anywhere.

**

Title: Blood Relations

Editor: Kristopher Triana

Publisher: Grindhouse Press

Website: http://www.grindhousepress.com

THIS guy again, who is going to need a bigger awards shelf … this guy, who’s not produced a clunker yet and doesn’t seem likely to … this guy is going places. Maybe not exactly the nicest places, but he’s going there in V.I.P. style.

Fantastic writer. Amazing talent, finely-toned skills to match. Some may think he’s just writing shock for shock value (and some do think that; I got unfriended on social media by one of them because of defending this author’s works); but if you look deeper, past the surface splatter, you’ll see the depth, range, and resonance of legit craft.

He really demonstrates it in Blood Relations, a ten-story collection that’ll seriously mess you up at least ten different ways. And by no means all because of the gore and violence; the one that got me the most was the psychologically devastating “My Name Is Chad,” a brutal gut-punch to the very soul.

If you are a gorehound, though, or here for the vile and depraved sex, don’t despair! There’s plenty of that in here too. “Womb,” for instance, in which a demented sibling duo share some grisly hobbies. Or the skin-crawlingly icky Lolita-esque “Jailbait Frankenstein.” Or a high school guy thinking he’s hit the MILF jackpot in “The Solution”)

Most prevalent, however, is what’s suggested by the title … these are all, at their cores, however monstrous those cores might be, about family. Whether it’s ancestors reaching out from the past or parents passing down a dark legacy to their children, a father’s desperate battle to save his daughter, a big brother determined to show his little sister there’s nothing to be afraid of, the theme of familial ties weaves throughout.

I’m not even going to bother attempting to list my favorites this time, because every single one of these stories is a bona fide slam dunk.

**

Title: Periphery

Author: Michael Winter

Publisher: Sandhill Publishing

When you start off with an untrained negotiator thrust into a tense hostage situation, add what appears to be paranoid delusional ravings, and then reveal actual insidious creeping cosmic horror, better believe you’ve got my attention!

Andrew Tate’s a paramedic, newly transferred to a new station after a suspension and unfortunate incident involving his previous partner. He’s having a rocky time adjusting, not exactly popular among his co-workers. His home life’s even worse, separated from his wife and daughter, drinking too much, blaming himself for an accident that left his daughter badly injured. He’s not a guy in a good place right now.

But, when the hostage-taker insists on talking to him at the stand-off crime scene, Andrew has to oblige … only to find out they have something in common. They can both see things, things most people can’t see. Dark, deadly, dangerous things skulking around the fringes of reality. Things that, once they know you’re aware of them, will kill.

They also, it turns out, both know Andrew’s father, who was studying the phenomenon. Now John Tate might be the only one who can stop what’s coming. Have to hurry, though, because time’s running out, the impending doom getting closer, growing stronger.

There are, however, certain complications. John’s been estranged from his son for years, after walking out on his family to keep them safer. He’s also in prison, where shadowy otherworldly entities are doing their best to eliminate him. His former assistant is living on the homeless edge of society after losing his own loved ones.

All in all, it makes for a pretty rag-tag dysfunctional bunch to be the best shot at saving the world, even when they’re joined by a scrappy young woman and some other unlikely allies. The result is a highly entertaining read, packed with plenty of action, a fair amount of humor mixed among the pathos, incomprehensible eldritch menaces, and surprises.

**

Reviews June 18, Splatter Western x3!

This week, my reviews of the first three in the Splatter Western series from Death’s Head Press! The Magpie Coffin by Wile E. Young, Hunger on the Chisholm Trail by M. Ennenbach, and Dust by Chris Miller!

Splatter Western

Title: The Magpie Coffin

Author: Wile E. Young

A while ago, on his podcast, Grandmaster Brian Keene predicted that the return of the “western” would be the next big thing, and the horror genre — because horror/weird and westerns go great together! — was quick to agree.

Savvy authors and publishers have already begun proving him right, as well-evidenced by a new line of novellas from the extreme dream team at Death’s Head Press. First up in their splattery western extravaganza is The Magpie Coffin, by Wile E. Young, and it certainly fills the bill.

Salem Covington, otherwise known as the Black Magpie, is a figure of no small reputation, and a deadly one at that. Folks say he’s a feared killer, nigh invulnerable, maybe cursed, knows magic, speaks with the dead, can be readily recognized by a sinister brand on his face, and is on a grim mission of murder as well as revenge.

Folks say those things, but they can’t all possibly be true, can they? Or CAN they? Turns out there are stranger truths out there than just trail lore and tall tales, truths the Black Magpie knows all too well. Armed with a Gun that tends to have a mind of its own, haunted by his past, he’s got a high debt of souls to pay off.

He also travels with a decidedly unquiet coffin, is sometimes visited by a rather large and angry bear, and has no patience for hateful small-minded white men out to brutalize the “savages.” Accompanied by a young soldier he’s persuaded to help him track down a gang he’s looking for, and an accused murderer rescued from the gallows, Salem goes on the hunt.

Now, normally, in classic westerns, you’ve got the good guys and the bad guys. Here, even the ‘good’ guys aren’t all that good; it’s much more a matter of bad guys and worse guys. That wickedly fun anti-hero / Punisher vibe, which makes the inevitable showdowns and gunfights all the more satisfying.

Satisfying, that is, if you’re into some hardcore hard-gore bloodbath ruthlessness. Which, hey, I am. All I hope is, especially given the wonderful world-building hints of larger storylines out there, this will be the first of its own series.

**

Title: Hunger on the Chisholm Trail

Author: M. Ennenbach

The second installment in the Splatter Western line from Death’s Head Press — note, each author is doing his or her individual thing; these books each stand alone and can be read independently, even the ones with sneaky interconnections — opens with a would-be hanging out in Indian territory, as three former Confederate soldiers are about to string up a young brave in hopes of learning the location of a hidden treasure.

Their cruelty is interrupted, but not by the arrival of any Lone Ranger or cavalry to the rescue. What finds them is something corpselike and inhuman. Something that doesn’t bleed red blood. Something with vicious, slashing claws and sharp teeth. Something … very hungry.

A few years later, a group of cowboys leading a cattle drive run afoul of the same ravenous creature, which is more than happy to follow a source of free meals toward an unsuspecting little town. The people in Duncan are eager for the cattlemen to arrive, bringing business to their shops, brothels, and saloons.

Duncan’s a quiet place, otherwise. Barring, that is, the occasional incident when the sheriff has to arrest a big-city scholar for working spells at one of the bars, or when random strangers show up out of nowhere wanting to know what year it is. Oh, sure, there might be the occasional arrogant stagecoach travelers passing through, juicy gossip and matchmaking neighbors, someone with a slight laudanum problem, but folks get along all right, more or less.

They’re in for a bad surprise when, instead of trail-weary cowpokes eager to gamble and drink and spend money, they find themselves at the mercy of a monster … while big-city scholar spells and heathen magics might be their only chance at survival.

This one definitely leaves some tantalizing threads hanging, teasing at other stories to come. As an extra level of entertainment, many of the characters bear familiar names to those who run in certain extreme-horror circles. And they market those “don’t annoy the author” mugs or t-shirts as if being gruesomely killed in a story is supposed to be some kind of deterrent? On the contrary, in this field, and the gorier the better!

**

Title: Dust

Author: Chris Miller

In my review of the second installment in the Splatter Western series, I mentioned that the books are each, for the most part, independent stand-alones, even those with sneaky interconnections. I may have downplayed that a little, because here in the third installment, those interconnections are anything but sneaky!

On the contrary, Dust is not only set in the same universe as M. Ennenbach’s Hunger on the Chisholm Trail, it’s dang near a sequel! Referencing back to those previous events, with a protagonist who made a mystery-man appearance in Duncan now getting his own chance in the spotlight here, in which more of his mystery is revealed.

He goes by James Dee, and he is on a mission quite a bit more epic than bounty-hunting or even monster-hunting. He’s god-hunting, looking to seek out and stop invading otherworldly entities. For the past several years, he’s been trying to find a town called Dust, a town that, far as most folks know, doesn’t seem to exist.

Neither is he the only one searching for it. Dee may not be the classic good guy, but even as a not-so-good guy, he’s a better guy than the really-bad bad guy, who has different ideas about what to do with eldritch powers. A really-bad bad guy whose name may strike a familiar chord, because author friends often enjoy messing with each other.

The really-bad bad guy is backed up by his outlaw gang, miscreants to a man. Dee, the not-so-good guy, still finds himself stopping to help when he encounters an act of racial injustice, and the black man whose life he saves is determined to help him reach his destination.

Having both deadly gunslingers headed for the inevitable showdown and shootout already sets things up to be off to a promising start. Having it take place in doomed, damned little Dust, where hideous abominations openly stalk the streets and the local townsfolk are either corrupted or too terrified to resist? With the possible fate of everything hanging in the balance?

So, best saddle up for yet another wild weird-western ride, where the horror cranks well past paranormal and into sheer cosmic, and the splatter is very splattery indeed!

**

Get the whole set at Amazon!


 

Plus, read on for a sneak peek at the forthcoming fourth book, written by yours truly!

Some things, according to Cody McCall, are worth risking a whipping. Such as, sneaking out with your friends after dark for a peek at the traveling show setting up just outside of town. Oddities, the signs promise. Marvels. Grotesqueries. Exotic attractions and mysterious magics.

Not as if they’d be allowed to attend otherwise, not with parents and preacher and schoolmarm all disapproving. But how often does a chance like this come along? There isn’t much else by way of excitement in quiet, peaceful Silver River, a once-prosperous boom town slowly gone bust.

Worth risking a whipping, sure. Worth risking life and limb, and maybe more? Worth risking being ripped to pieces by ravenous, inhuman brutes? Worth crossing paths with those strange, silent cult-folk from the high valley? Worth all the fire and bloodshed and horror and death?

Because something far worse than any ordinary traveling show has come to town, and one thing is for certain: those who survive, if any, will never forget …

The Night Silver River Run Red

*

It wasn’t nerves, no matter what Cody might say. They weren’t alone in the woodlot. And it wasn’t no owl or night-possum, neither. It was larger. Smarter. Mean.

“We’s bein’ watched.” Albert eased his head around, scanning the darkness. “Something is out there.”

Cody shot him a look as if about to ask why he’d had to go and say something, ‘stead of someone, but before he could, a twig snapped nearby, light and sharp like a derringer – crack!

They’d grouped together in a clustered protective clump, shoulder to shoulder, trying to see every whichway at once. Trouble being, they barely could see more than a yard or so, and even then little more than ferny bushes, fallen branches, and spindly tree-trunks in the dark.

Oh, but they could feel, though. Emmett surely could, and knew the others felt the same. Something big. Something near. Something mean.

“Mina, stay behind me.” Cody had given up on suggesting it was nerves, and gone so far as to ready Deadeye with a smooth pebble snugged in the slingshot’s leather cup. For once, she obeyed without a hint of sassback, huddling against him like a skittish filly.

Albert gripped the sturdy bough he’d found earlier, treating it much more like a cudgel than a walking-stick now. Buck-Tooth and Freckles each hunkered to pick up rocks from the ground. Saleel dipped a hand into her purse-bag and brought out what might’ve been an Indian arrowhead affixed to a piece of antler.

Emmett groped through his pockets for anything useful as a weapon, but not finding much. A few loose marbles, his wooden whistle, the kerchief his ma made him carry … drat it … and was about to stoop for a good throwing-rock or chunk of wood for himself when there was a sudden crunch and crackle from a different direction than the twig-snap had come. But then, more twigs snapped back that way, and a heavy presence shifted in the shadows. Surrounded?

“Stay close,” Cody murmured. However brave he might be trying to sound, a distinct quaver had crept into his tone.

Mina stifled a whimper. Freckles took frantic little sips of air. Albert gulped. Buck-Tooth, beside Emmett, was shaking so much it was a wonder his teeth didn’t chatter. Saleel held the arrowhead-tipped antler like a dagger, fist clenched.

A chuffing, ominous grunt reached their ears. Low and guttural. Anticipatory.

What if they’d been right the first time, Cody wrong? The jaws full of jagged-knife teeth not belonging to some dead display thing after all, but an enormous beast very much alive and hungry?

What if the carnival-folk had sent Man-Mountain after them, and he truly was an inhuman creature strong enough to pop their heads from their necks with a single squeeze?

What if Old Man Starkey’s horrible dogs went silent on the hunt, rather than howling and baying? What if a wolf-pack, or grizzly, or –

A sinister chuckle drifted to them from another direction, curling and coiling, a rattlesnake of cold menace and mirth. From somewhere over past Cody and Mina, Emmett guessed with the only part of his mind still capable of thinking clearly.

But the heavy presence was nearer to where he and Buck-Tooth stood, shifting again as if with deliberate purpose. Maybe wanting them to run. Maybe wanting to give chase.

And from yet a third direction, just ahead of Albert, there was a sly kind of rustle and groaning creak, what might be made by the protesting leafy limbs of a tree at being climbed by an unwelcome intruder.

Surrounded? he’d wondered. Well, he wondered no more. Surrounded. By who or by what? And did it really matter, when malevolent intentions seemed blatant as could be?

The sinister rattlesnake chuckle – heh-heh-heh-heh – sounded again, its curling menace cut short by a rapid succession of twang-whish-thunk! as Cody let loose with Deadeye.

Found his mark, too; a howl of surprised rage-pain came next … though by then, Cody had already hollered, “Run!” and was doing so, hauling Mina by the hand as he crashed through bushes and low-hanging foliage.

*