Reviews, May 2021

In which I am once again grateful I had some reviews stockpiled, because these past couple of months had been very hectic. But, here are my looks at The Comfort Zone and Other Safe Spaces by Tom Over, Our Lady of the Scythe by B.J. Swann, Monstrosity by Edward Lee, Roses Are Red, So Is Your Blood by Rick Wood, and They All Died Screaming by Kristopher Triana.

Title: The Comfort Zone and Other Safe Spaces

Author: Tom Over

Publisher: Nihilism Revised

Website: https://www.facebook.com/NihilismRevised/

A couple of the stories in this collection, I’d seen elsewhere, but it’s always nice to renew the acquaintance … well, maybe ‘nice’ isn’t the word I want here, since one of them was about various liquids and bodily fluids, and the other nightmarish leggedy creepy-crawlies … but I’m getting ahead of myself.

My personal favorite of the bunch is “Tunnels,” in which a nameless loner still grieving his mother discovers, through an unusual series of circumstances, that there’s something very, um, unusual about his digestive system; it’s icky and squicky and gross but also clever, and funny, and kind of sad.

I also really liked “The Vegetarians,” a particularly twisted take on the zombie/infected trope, as starving survivors can’t help but notice the peculiar behaviors of the afflicted. And “Physical Media,” a cautionary tale of how letting technology have too much control over your life can lead to disastrous — if hilarious — results.

“The Happiest Thought” is one of the weirdest and neatest not-haunted-house kind of haunted house stories I’ve ever read; what’s going on seems more cosmic than supernatural, but even ‘cosmic’ doesn’t quite fit and seems to fall short; there’s not so much a sense of ‘entities,’ but … I find myself wanting to use words like ‘physics’ and ‘quantum,’ but I’m not sure that’s right either. I have a feeling I’ll be thinking about this one for quite some time.

Other settings range from the oceanic depths to a colony on Mars … there’s one told in the form of a script or teleplay … sinister graffiti capable of driving living creatures mad wends its way through as a recurring element …

Really, for something titled “The Comfort Zone and Other Safe Spaces,” you’re much more likely to come away from this one feeling anything but comfortable and safe, but I mean that as a compliment. Definitely a disquieting read.

**

Title: Our Lady of the Scythe

Author: B.J. Swann

Publisher: Aeon of Chaos

Website: https://aeonofchaos.com/

Despite what some embittered grumps seem to think about how we’re all supposed to be in competition with each other, one of the best parts of this community is watching someone else improve and succeed. I’ve read several of B.J. Swann’s shorter stories before, so when I was asked to blurb a longer work, I was delighted to do so.

Ahem. “Hogwarts and Camp Halfblood, move the HELL over; there’s a new boarding school in town and it is not for the kiddies!” — Christine Morgan, Splatterpunk Award winning author of Lakehouse Infernal.

And woo, is it ever not for the kiddies! The school in question is for the offspring of demons, though we aren’t talking just conventional mythologies and theologies. An entire multidimensional universe of worlds and deities are involved here, so the students and teachers and lessons alike are far more out of the box..

Not to mention far more adult, nasty, deadly, and evil. These are demon-spawn we’re talking about, killers and sex-fiends, often having to learn to control their powers and fight for their lives along with their other classes.

Sounds rough, right? Even for those who’ve grown up with it and been prepared. Then, there’s Raza, who had no idea anything was different about her until her make-out sessions turned into horrific bloodbaths, and the people she always thought were her parents sit her down to have a very special version of The Talk.

Before she’s even had a chance to wrap her head about the truth of her heritage, she’s whisked off to Our Lady of the Scythe. The story hits on many of the expected notes — new kid, misfits, mean girls, crush on the hot guy, steep learning curve, a sinister baddie, rebellion — but with graphic content and explicit details.

So yeah, not for the kiddies, and a far cry from YA, and loads and loads of wicked fun!

**

Title: Monstrosity

Author: Edward Lee

Publisher: Necro Publications

Website: http://www.necropublications.com

What’s this? ANOTHER Edward Lee book I’d somehow managed not to read until now? This is just getting inexcusable! And this one is a grotesque doozy by any reckoning, positively drenched in sex and gore.

It’s also a devious tease, opening as it does with an archaeological expedition discovering a sealed-off ceremonial chamber containing relics and remains sure to turn recorded human history on its head. The professor and his students are shocked by the condition of the sacrificial victim upon the altar, but even more shocked by the condition of the priests, who appear to have been brutally decapitated and wrenched limb from limb.

The scene then switches to Clare, a former Air Force officer, down on her luck after a bogus dishonorable discharge for reporting a rape. Haunted by nightmares and flashbacks, homeless, destitute, reduced to dumpster diving, she has good reason to be wary when a stranger approaches with a job offer that sounds too good to be true (famous last words).

Still, she tells herself, not like she’s got much to lose, right? (famous last words 2). Next thing she knows, she’s security chief at a medical research facility on the cutting-edge of curing cancer, with a generous salary, a cottage on the beach, and a handsome supervisor.

But she soon notices a few irregularities about the place, and her co-workers, as well as her own moods and behaviors. Then there’s the matters of missing people in the vicinity, and weird mutations among the local wildlife, and, well, clearly something’s going on.

As we shift back and forth between these two storylines, we learn more about what really happened down in that subterranean sacrificial chamber, as well as what the scientists are really up to behind their cancer research. And right when Clare thinks things can’t possibly get worse (famous last words 3), she’s confronted again with the traumatic horrors of her past.

**

Title: Roses Are Red, So Is Your Blood

Author: Rick Wood

Publisher: Blood Splatter Press

Website: http://www.bloodsplatterpress.com/

It’s less than a week before Valentine’s Day as I write this, and the timing could hardly be more fitting. Each story in this lovely quartet opens with a poetic little card expressing romantic sentiments about chainsaws, brain eating, and various internal organs to set the tone.

And what a tone! “Why Won’t You Talk To Me” takes the form of a plaintive one-sided conversation during a weekend getaway intended to rekindle a couple’s relationship, and even if you guess where it’s going, the emotion and frustration ring through very clear.

My personal favorite is the second tale, “Me And My Stalker,” a longer piece switching back and forth between the points of view of two characters: a romance-craving young woman who relies on social media to combat her loneliness and insecurity, and the guy who seems SO perfect for her in every way he’s just GOT to be her soulmate. Which, of course, is exactly what he wants her to think … every move planned and orchestrated in deliberate detail.

“In Sickness And In Murder” involves married life again, the long-term devotion of a good wife doing her best to care for her aging husband as he slides into dementia, regardless of whether he knows or appreciates everything she does for him, up to and including keeping the dark secret he doesn’t think she knows about.

“Death And The Honeymoon” features another couple looking to spice things up in the bedroom, leading to awkward police interviews trying to explain the particulars of how and why they set up a threesome, and what leads to it all going so disastrously wrong.

**

Title: They All Died Screaming

Author: Kristopher Triana

Publisher: Blood Bound Books

Website: http://www.bloodboundbooks.net

Sooner or later, at some point in almost every horror writer’s career, along comes the urge to tackle the whole “let’s unleash the outbreak/attack and watch society crumble” scenario. Whether it’s zombies, crazies, disease, eldritch horrors, whatever; we all know the drill. Chaos, destruction, and a band of scrappy survivors facing ever more insurmountable odds.

Well, buckle up, because this time it’s Triana’s turn, and when one of the premiere extreme horror superstars of the modern age decides to go for it, all bets are off. But he doesn’t stop there, oh, no. Not by a long chalk.

See, what we’ve got here is almost like two books in one, two storylines so separate-seeming you’re sure they HAVE to be connected somehow, interwoven and unfolding, keeping you guessing.

On the one side, yes, there’s the outbreak. In this case, it’s called the Scream, because victims will just suddenly start screaming, overcome by a madness that also leads to fits of vicious violence (Triana-caliber vicious violence, remember). No one knows if it’s contagious or what, let alone where it came from, not that the characters have time to worry about that.

Oh, and those scrappy survivors? Sometimes they’re just random people. Sometimes, like in Shaun of the Dead, they’re dysfunctional but endearing goofballs. Sometimes they’re misfits who rise to the occasion. Here, though? Suffice to say, they are not exactly the nicest or most well-adjusted people.

Meanwhile, there’s also this other storyline going on, in which a little boy is abducted from the mall by a psycho pig-farmer who also captures, butchers, and sells human flesh and needs someone to help out with the chores, and a horrific case of Stockholm syndrome ensues, with no shortage of graphic depravity.

Which isn’t to say there’s a lack of graphic depravity in the other storyline, don’t get me wrong; there’s at least one sex scene unsexy enough to put anyone off sex for a while. But I did find the boy’s story the more compelling of the two (which certainly is NOT to say the other wasn’t), and speculating on how they’d tie together was maddeningly fun.

**

Reviews, April 2021

Fortunately, I have enough stockpiled to get me through the next couple of hectic and stressful months … this time, I look at the anthologies Welcome to the Splatter Club and Splatterpunk Bloodstains, as well as Echoes by Roger Arthur Smith, The Teratologist by Edward Lee and Wrath James White, and Richard Raven’s The Evil Returned.

Title: Welcome to the Splatter Club

Editor: K. Trap Jones

Publisher: Blood Bound Books

Website: http://www.bloodboundbooks.net

I’m not always in the mood for some seriously sicko splatter, but — ah, who’m I kidding? We all know better than that; of course I am! And K. Trap Jones is just the kind of editor to put together an anthology that more than rises to the occasion.

Naturally, with a membership list of names including the likes of this lineup, how could it not? The book title alone is a cheerful invitation to come on in, kick back, and join the fun.

Maybe you’re into tragic destinies or grim tales of revenge, like when a bullied high school student seeks to get back at his tormentors, a pair of enterprising cousins find more than a good crop of worms after a rain, and inconsiderate partiers scoff at the frightened pleadings of a neighbor to keep it down.

In the mood for something more on the twisted humorous side? How about an interoffice challenge to a duel to the death, a convenience store robbery that’ll never let you look at snack cakes the same way again, or the perils of wanting to eat a service penguin?

Let us not forget sex and its consequences, like when a couple seeks to spice things up with a once-in-a-lifetime vacation, drug-runners learn the hard way a new aphrodisiac has side effects you don’t hear on those prescription medication commercials, a desperate woman seeks a modern solution to an age-old problem, and a trio of astronauts have their zero-g recreation unthinkably interrupted.

Looking for something more surreal? Imagine being just a regular guy whose sperm cells decide it’s time to make their grievances and demands known. Or a beaten-down addict who thinks her situation can’t get much worse, until alien abduction proves her very, very wrong.

Whatever your preference (especially if your preference is “all of the above”), if you like it messy, you’ll find it in here.

**

Title: Splatterpunk Bloodstains

Editor: Jack Bantry

Publisher: Splatterpunk Zine

Website: https://splatterpunkzine.wordpress.com/

If you have a tendency, like I do, to overindulge, this particular book will play no small part in contributing to your literary hedonistic gluttony. There may be only seven stories, but most are novelettes at the very least, so be ready for a lot of atrocity and depravity.

Heck, the first one alone … “Secrets,” by Saul Bailey, about a burglar casing his next target house, starts off intriguing with a building anticipation of kinky naughtiness, and just when you think it can’t get any better, SURPRISE!!

Next up, Wile E. Young’s pulse-pounder, “The Sending,” which I confess kind of threw me at first; I thought it was a western, it read and sounded and felt like a western, but then there’s a phone and other modern references so I had to take a moment to recalibrate.

Paul Shrimpton follows, with “The Loft,” and again this one threw me at first because it starts off seeming like sedate slow-burn classic scholarly eldritch stuff before taking a SCREAMING LEFT TURN into gruesome body horror.

The Sisters of Slaughter address one of the critical issues of “Getting Away With Murder;” disposing of the evidence is always tricky enough, and sometimes the scavengers don’t like to wait.

“Ill Tendencies,” by Daniel Eaves, has a casual, almost cheery, conversational feel … for a psychopath talking about his typical routine and how easy some people make it to set themselves up for what they get.

Nathan Robinson’s “Run For Your Life, Nick McClusky” makes a fun but not unfamiliar twist on the zombie apocalypse rather more grim by pitting one ex-soldier suffering plenty of PTSD against a shambling horde.

And, just in case the holidays and your childhood haven’t been ruined already, Dan Henk is here to oblige with “Christmas is Canceled,” with a version of Santa even his own reindeer have good reason to be wary of.

**

Title: Echoes

Author: Roger Arthur Smith

Publisher: Baobab Press

Some time back, I read and reviewed a book called Rogues, and was delighted to discover that Echoes is not only set in the same universe with some recurring characters, but is the first in the series, elaborating upon and fleshing out even more of the story, when there I’d gone jumping in in the middle.

As a quick recap, as previously established, sometimes bad deeds have even further-reaching paranormal repercussions than might be realized … spirits, of sorts, referred to as echoes, who are called into being by atrocious acts with the purpose of hunting down and punishing the perpetrator.

And sometimes, these echoes don’t fade out after the task is done, like they’re supposed to. Sometimes, they become rogues, lingering, taking on the semblance of actual normal human lives.

That’s where Will Dubykky, as he’s calling himself this time, comes in. He tracks down rogues and encourages them — not always nicely — to move on. But it’s a job not without complications, as he knows all too well. For instance, he once dealt with an echo whose final request was for him to look after the echo’s wife and child, to which he agreed.

The children of echoes can be quite a handful, which is certainly the case with Mildred Warden, a willful and spirited, independent young lady. Maybe a little too willful and spirited for a small town in the 1960s, where her interest in an older, married man seems poised to cause trouble.

Will’s best hope, as a longtime ‘friend of the family,’ is to get Mildred settled with a more suitable match, but he finds his efforts complicated by the appearance of another echo. This one takes the form of a peculiar little boy, whose objective is unclear. In order to dispatch him, Will at first has to help him, at the risk of becoming emotionally involved.

Best of all, my favorite character from Rogues, Jurgen the crow, is in this one too!

**

Title: The Teratologist

Authors: Edward Lee and Wrath James White

Publisher: Necro Publications

Website: http://www.necropublications.com

After all this time as a rabid fangirl, how can it be possible there were still some books by these guys I hadn’t yet read? I don’t know how I let it happen, but a recent Necro sale certainly helped make up for my lapse!

And this one? Holy (bleep). All the holy (bleeps). This one, I have to imagine, the two of them sat down and just flat-out dared each other to see how far they could push it. The very limits of human decency? Pff, that’s only a starting place!

The title refers, of course, to the study of physiological abnormalities — birth defects, deformations, mutations; persons suffering disorders that, in not-so-long-ago eras, would have resulted in them being dubbed ‘freaks,’ possibly only able to make a living in carnival sideshows.

So, okay, there’s a starting point already uncomfortable and controversial enough … but this is Lee and White we’re dealing with. Sexual victimization and vile abuse quickly join the party. Then add in a mysterious billionaire with something exceeding a mere fetish, and …

Well, yeah, you probably get the idea. A pair of journalists (bearing suspicious resemblances in certain ways to the authors) are assigned to interview the billionaire, only to find themselves called upon instead to chronicle his obsession, as he works toward his ultimate goal.

If you’re thinking pornography, you’re on the right track, but still, that’s only the beginning. Torture, humiliation, mutilation, murder, and more are on the table. In, of course, THE most graphic detail, as only these two could provide.

Obviously, nice decent sensitive souls should not be anywhere near this book. Should not even be reading this review. Even I found it disturbing and all kinds of squicky. Not, of course, that it stopped me from depravedly enjoying the entire thing.

**

Title: The Evil Returned

Author: Richard Raven

Publisher: Death’s Head Press

Website: http://www.deathsheadpress.com

Something about this one gave me a bit of a John Saul vibe, though I sure don’t remember any of Saul’s books being quite so dark, bloody, violent, and vicious! The elements of sinister family secrets, old grudges, ruined relationships, and vengeful spirits, however, all come into play.

It starts off with a couple of brief chapters in which a wretched and put-upon woman meets a miserable end, witnessed by a mysterious figure. Then we’re skipped ahead a couple decades to meet our main character, Jeff, who’s struggling to overcome the difficult situations life keeps throwing at him. A troubling personal past, financial hardships, workplace drama around an attractive employee, his wife’s best friend absolutely despising him … the list goes on.

In an effort to make things a little better, he and his wife Angela go out for a date night they can’t really afford. Much wine and sexy-talk later, they take the long backroads way home, only to end up in a ditch with a flat tire after swerving to avoid hitting an old woman. But they can find no sign of her, and with no way to call for help, Jeff sets off walking while Angela waits in the car.

He’s uneasy about leaving her, and with better reason than he knows; a car that passed them earlier was carrying a killer and his latest victims. When the killer’s done with them, he’s more than happy for an encore.

The next thing Jeff knows, he’s in the hospital and Angela’s missing. Worse, he’s a suspect in her disappearance. Worse still, a bunch of sordid revelations and accusations lend weight to the suspicion. All that, and, oh, by the way, he’s either going crazy or he’s hearing ghosts, ghosts who want him to help stop the killer before it’s too late.

**

Signed Book Sale!

Moving soon, and I’ve got a lot of books sitting around just waiting to find a forever home! Signed! Individual volumes personalized upon request. Email me at christinemariemorgan@gmail.com. Free U.S. shipping! Limited quantities available, act now!

Lakehouse Infernal (5) — $15

Anthology Blind-Bags (5) — $25 Each bag contains 5 random anthologies to which I was a contributor, signed but not personalized, various themes, some of these babies would retail from ten to twenty-five bucks on their own, several other awesome authors and cool stories to discover, take a chance!

Gifted Children (4) — $10

Changeling Moon (5) — $10

The Magelore Trilogy, set of three books (1) — $15

The Elflore Trilogy Omnibus, hardcover (24) — $30

Naughty & Dice: An Adult Gamer’s Guide to Sexual Situations (15) — $15

The Night Silver River Run Red (1) — $12 SOLD OUT!

His Blood (0) — $10 SOLD OUT!

The Complete Fossil Lake, set of 4 books (0) — $15 SOLD OUT!

Spermjackers From Hell — $15 SOLD OUT!

The Raven’s Table (0) — $15 SOLD OUT

Dawn of the Living-Impaired and Other Messed-Up Zombie Stories (0) — $12 SOLD OUT!

The Silver Doorway series, set of six books (0) — $25 SOLD OUT!

The Horned Ones: Cornucopia (1, forgot to list it before) — $10 SOLD OUT!

Birthright Sneak Peek #2

Cemeteries were supposed to be gloomy and gray, with clouds and a damp chill, wind rattling in barren branches and making dead leaves rustle.

But Marie was squinting through sunglasses and wiping sweat from her forehead. Her skin felt baked. Her shadow was a sharp-edged blot around her feet, on grass gone brittle and brown.

Heat ripples hung in the air. The sunlight struck the gravel paths in a dazzle of flecks and sparkles, and gleamed furnace-bright on bronze plaques embedded into the earth.

She cut across the grounds, pausing only when she passed beneath trees large enough to offer a brief respite of shade. The sky had the flat shine of blued steel, blurring to haze at the wide brown horizons. People who thought of Washington as the Evergreen State where it rained all the time were only half right. Maybe that was the case on the coast, but not over here on this eastern side of the mountains.

Beloved Son, Husband, Father. Taken Too Soon.

The date of his birth, too recent. And the date of his death, so long ago. Two years ago. Two of the longest years Marie had ever known.

Despite the incipient sunburn she could feel pinking the back of her neck, Marie stayed where she was, kneeling in the bright glare.

“I wish you could see Kayleigh,” she said. “She’s walking, and she’s even starting to make sense when she talks, instead of all gabble-babble. And Trey, oh, he’s growing up so fast, Drew. I can’t believe he’ll be a senior this fall.”

But …

Yeah, Kayleigh might be walking and talking, but she spent most of her time in the care of Aunt Patty. And yeah, Trey would be a senior, but lately it seemed like he cared far less about studying than shoot-em-up video games.

Marie checked her watch and sighed. She rose, brushing blades of dead grass from her pants and thinking again that she really needed to work on losing some weight.

Why bother though? Who was she trying to impress? It wasn’t as if she had a man in her life. Even if she’d wanted one, the odds of a widow with two kids and a crappy job finding Mr. Right were nowhere near as good as her odds of winning the lottery.

A sour smile twisted Marie’s lips as she envisioned the reactions of her sisters-in-law if she ever did meet someone new.

She amused herself with those thoughts on the drive home, a drive which included a stop to pick up pizza. Again. She really meant to do better with more home-cooked meals – and heaven help her if she brought store-bought potato salad to the lunch potluck at her sister-in-law’s tomorrow – but today of all days she figured she deserved a pass.

Trey had picked up Kayleigh on his way home from school, good boy, though he had once again forgotten his promise to clean the kitchen. Just as well she’d gotten pizza. No need for dishes. A roll of paper towels would do.

When the phone rang, she picked it up without checking the display, sure that it would be Patty reminding her for the umpteenth time about the potato salad. Hearing a male voice, unfamiliar, yet somehow oddly familiar at the same time, gave her pause.

“Mrs. Trennan? Marie Trennan?”

“Uh, yes, speaking.”

His voice was low, rich, and even. It brought images to her mind of smoking jackets and cigars, wood-paneled studies with animal heads on the walls, brass-studded leather chairs in front of a fireplace, the swirl of brandy or cognac in a crystal glass.

“My name is Andrew Trennan … Senior,” he said. “You are, I believe, the widow of my son?”

Marie did not know what to say. A strange avalanching sensation was taking place in her mind. She had never really understood, on an empathic level, the meaning of the term “nonplussed” until now. That was what she was. Utterly nonplussed.

Drew’s father?

But Drew … but his sisters … but no one …

“Drew’s father?” she blurted. “I didn’t think he had a father.”

A wry laugh came through the phone. “As saintly as Evelyn might have liked people to believe she was, she was hardly the Virgin Mary.”

“I …” What was she going to say? I thought you were dead didn’t seem very polite. And come to think of it she had just been at the cemetery, all those Trennan headstones, none for Drew’s father. His mother, Evelyn, yes. But no Andrew, Senior.

“I assure you,” he said, ‘that for the time being, I am very much alive. Though I doubt my relatives would much care one way or the other.”

He had not sounded old before, but in that instant, he did. Old and sad and tired, and her heart unexpectedly went out to him.

“I know that this must be difficult for you,” he said. “But I should very much like to make your acquaintance, and that of your children. I owe you an explanation.”

“You don’t owe me anything.”

“Mrs. Trennan, I’m aware of the distance I permitted to grow between myself and my family. I have attended no holiday gatherings or festive occasions. I have acknowledged no birthdays, graduations, marriages or funerals. As far as my daughters are concerned, I might as well be dead, and have been for more than a quarter-century.”

“Maybe they’re the ones you should be calling?” Marie said.

Again, the wry laugh. “If you know Penelope, then you must know that when she closes the door on a matter, she locks, bolts and bars it. Then bricks it over for good measure.”

“Look, I … I don’t know you, I don’t have any way of knowing you even are who you say you are. I don’t know anything about this.”

“If you require proof of my identity, I believe my sister will vouchsafe me. Prudence and I have kept up a correspondence. It is thanks to her I was able to contact you.”

Trey, listening to her half of the conversation, nudged her with his elbow and gave her a querying look.

She covered the mouthpiece with her palm. “I think it’s your grandfather.”

“I thought he was dead.”

“Did one of your aunts tell you that?”

“No,” Trey said, frowning. “Nobody’s ever mentioned him at all. I’ve never even seen a picture.”

“Mrs. Trennan? Are you there?” Her father-in-law grumbled under his breath. “Oh, how I loathe these infernal electronic contraptions –”

“I’m here,” Marie said.

“I am not at my best over the telephone,” he said. “Is there a chance we might meet in person?” He must have picked up on her hesitation, because he added, “We have much to discuss, and I would rather do it face to face.”

“When and where would you like to meet?” she asked.

“Cool,” Trey breathed.

“Tomorrow? For lunch, perhaps?”

“Potato salad!”

“Excuse me?”

Marie blushed until she thought her hair would ignite. “Sorry. We’ve got lunch plans already.”

“A late dinner, then? There’s a nice-looking steakhouse across the way from this hotel. Barnaby’s, the sign says.”

“Barnaby’s?” Marie nearly choked. She and Drew had been there once, for their anniversary, and spent the equivalent of two weeks’ grocery budget on one meal. And that had been when money wasn’t a problem.

Trey goggled, then grinned.

“If you have someplace else in mind, please say so,” her father-in-law said. “It’s been a long time since I was in town and quite a bit has changed. I only suggest it because I can see it from my window and it looks suitable.”

“Are you staying at the Holiday Inn?”

“Perish the thought,” he said, and she had the idea he was shuddering. “A bed-and-breakfast called The Pendragon. The name has sadly proven to be something of a misnomer.”

They agreed on eight-thirty at Barnaby’s. Marie said goodbye, and hung up, and turned to Trey, feeling stunned.

“Bizarre.” Trey shook his head, almost in admiration. “Wow, he must have pissed off the aunts something serious, you think?”

“What makes you say that?” Marie asked. “Just because no one’s said a word about him and there are no pictures of him in any of the albums?”

“Yeah, that was my first clue,” he said. “Are you going to tell them?”

“I’m going to keep my mouth shut until I find out more about what he wants,” Marie said. She looked down at herself again and groaned. “Dinner at Barnaby’s … what are we going to wear? You need a haircut! I’m sure your suit doesn’t fit anymore, it’s two years old, and you’ve grown almost a foot –”

“Settle down, Mom.”

“My best dress is that blue one, and I don’t even know if it’ll go around my fat rear end anymore –”

“Mom!” Trey grasped her by the upper arms.

She had just said that he’d grown almost a foot, and of course she had noticed, but it was only now as he had to stoop over a little to look her in the eyes did she realize that her son, her baby boy, towered over her. And he looked so like his father that it brought a lump to her throat.

“It’ll be fine,” he said. “I’ll go get a haircut first thing tomorrow, swear to God. I’ll even shave, okay? And wash off the tats, if that’s what you want. Relax, Mom. This is cool. We get to meet Dad’s dad. We get to keep secrets from the aunts. We get a fancy dinner.”

“I just want us to make a good impression,” she said.

“If he likes us, great. If not, well, to hell with him then. We did fine without him before, right?” He smooched her on the forehead, exactly like she used to do when he was a little boy, except then, she’d been the one to bend down to do it. “And you’re not fat.”

“Now, don’t go ruining this touching moment by lying to your mother,” Marie said with a feeble smile.

***

Reviews, March 2021

This month, my reviews of the Brewtality anthology edited by K. Trap Jones, The Bumper Book of British Bizarro by the British Bizarro Community, Pet by Asher Ellis, Edge of the Breach by Halo Scot, and Craig Wallwork’s Bad People.

Title: Brewtality

Editor: K. Trap Jones

Publisher: Evil Cookie Publishing

Website: http://www.theevilcookie.com

Lately there’s been an upsurge in the popular trend of “pairing” stuff … not just, like, wine with cheese, but, like, types of food or alcohol with genres of entertainment, including what kind of booze goes with what kind of horror.

So, who not combine them in a different way? How about a whole book of booze-themed horror stories? In this case, specifically horror of the more extreme variety? Well, the call went out, and many of the current crop of sicko all-stars rallied to it, and fourteen alcohol-soaked stories of violence and depravity later, here we are!

And yes, okay, I’m one of them (note to self again, delete this bit before sending to the Big A). With, dare I say, a story that stands apart a bit for its setting … most of them are modern-day, bars and nightclubs, drunk drivers … and, weirdo misfit that I am, I show up with a Viking tale … but it was a lot of fun, and hey, I gottta be me.

So, of course, does Stephen Kozeniewski, who goes zombie noir with a delightful return of hardboiled undead gumshoe Braineater Jones, back on the case in “Braineaters in the Mist.” And speaking of being oneself, shoutout to Jeff Strand for “Pink Passion,” in which a tough guy wants his ‘girlie’ drink no matter what the other patrons think.

Among my other personal faves would have to be:

“Grower,” by C.M. Saunders, sort of a twisted cousin to King’s classic “Grey Matter” where a surprise find in a beer can leads to some grody developments;

Ryan Harding’s “Choked Up” starts off surprisingly slow-burn, almost mild, then bam there comes the sucker-punch of graphic grisliness toward the end;

Dev Jarrett’s devilishly vengeful celebration-gone-awry in “Infinity Bottle,” Rachel Nussbaum’s interesting take on the preservative properties of alcohol with “Whiskey to the Wound,” and Bob Macumber’s boozy bad bargain in “Something to Warm the Spirit.”

With all that, plus stories by the likes of John Wayne Communale, Robert Essig, and a collaboration between Dustin Lavalley and the incomparable Edward Lee, it’s hard to go wrong, so, belly up to the bar!

**

Title: The Bumper Book of British Bizarro

Author: The British Bizarro Community

By its very definition, bizarro is, well, bizarre. And, even for bizarros, these folks push it to the limit and then some. The stories in this book don’t just defy reality; they mock it, pants it, give it a swirlie, and make it smack its own face while telling it “stop hitting yourself, stop hitting yourself!”

In other words, settle in and be ready for some weirdness, because here for your mind-bending perusal is a whole bunch of it. Starting off with an intro by Mandy de Sandra, who so transcends feeble notions of things like nationality that it doesn’t matter if she’s British or not.

Then comes a letter-to-the-editors kind of foreword, and a series of cartoony doodles, to finish your disorienting orientation before the stories commence. By then, you might think your brain’s been all stretched and limbered up enough to handle them, but you’d be wrong.

I won’t even try to describe what they’re about. That way, only further madness lies. But there are stories with cyborg postmen and and killer robots, sexbots and sentient vending machines, surrealistic conversations, impromptu dental work and jukebox teeth, a technological upgrade in Heaven, and an entomological guide to moths.

There are workplace grievances, ridiculous laws taken to illogical conclusions, noble heroic quest-battles, skewed looks at politics and society, cancel culture and internet lifestyles gone awry, squicky creepy-crawly bug stuff with way too many legs, inescapable sexual residue and cannibal speed-dating.

There’s a guy literally made of money, and as you might expect, that doesn’t go so well for him. There’s one that’d make a childrens’ show so weird even the Krofft brothers might look normal by comparison.

There are also several quirky poems, more cartoonish doodles and comics, some unsettling photos, and a selection of newspaper clippings. And, finally, instead of the boring old regular ‘About the Authors’ section, the finishing coup-de-grace is a series of complaint letters that, after reading the whole book, seem not so implausible after all.

**

Title: Pet

Author: Asher Ellis

Publisher: Stitched Smile Publications

Website: http://www.stitchedsmilepublications.com

Went into this one knowing nothing about it but the title, and cover art of silhouettes of a bird and bird cages, so I had no real idea what I was getting myself into. Happily, as is not always the case but awesome as anything when it works out that way, I found myself hooked from the very start.

Look at this opening:

On Wednesday, August 3rd, 8:05 PM, Raymond Philips was executed by lethal injection.

On Thursday, August 4th, 9:32 AM, he woke up.

Two lines. Short, simple, declarative. But POW. Packed with so many tantalizing questions, I defy just about anybody to not read on! How could you not, after that? Got to find out who this Raymond guy is, what he did to end up executed, and how the blazes he woke up again!

We’re not talking woke up again as in zombie, either. We’re talking, one minute he’s there in prison, getting the needle, sure that this is it, the utter end … then he finds himself waking to sunlight and birdsong and the thought that maybe it had all been a horrible dream.

A thought which quickly changes to wondering if he’s dead after all, dead and set up for an eternity of torment. As it turns out, he’s got the ‘torment’ part right, anyway. He’s naked, in a cage, wearing a collar with a tag reading ‘Kaiser.’ His new owner is a man who expects and demands perfect behavior, quite willing to dole out vicious discipline as necessary.

What follows is a living nightmare of shock collars, drugs, psychological warfare, threats, dehumanization, and humiliation. And worse, as Raymond learns more about his situation as well as remembering the terrible events that led to his imprisonment and death sentence in the first place.

So, yeah, hooked from the beginning and kept me riveted throughout, throwing in several surprises along the way. Great stuff!

**

Title: Edge of the Breach

Author: Halo Scot

Website: http://www.haloscot.com

Viewed through a certain lens, this could at first easily be mistaken for a YA novel …young ‘chosen-one’ special destiny type characters, post-apocalyptic dystopian future, corrupt society, seeds of rebellion and overthrow, all that good stuff.

Careful, though, because along with all that you get quite a bit more sex, drugs, gore, violence, depravity, and very adult “adult situations,” which at times almost nudges into the realm of extreme horror. But it’s also got strong urban fantasy elements, with deities and demons and mages.

AND there’s a distorted teen romance/drama/angst thing going on, complete with the perfect set-up for an opposites attract good-girl/bad-boy arc where only the steadfast purity of her love can redeem him from the dark side. Only, well, not exactly.

Rune, the ‘good girl’ in this scenario, isn’t entirely good. Beautiful, from a well-to-do family, born at midnight on the winter solstice (giving her incredible power), with a twin brother she adores and devoted parents, she’s sheltered and cared for right up until tragedies strike and her way of dealing with it is to go run with the Roofers, a renegade gang of independent orphans.

Meanwhile, Kyder, the ‘bad boy,’ has endured a miserable fatherless upbringing of poverty, bullying, and crime, with a mother who hates him. He, born at noon on the summer solstice, is also incredibly powerful, and not adverse to using his power to get what he wants.

The moment their paths cross, of course there’s an immediate connection, but the usual star-crossed scenario’s got nothing on these two. They’re both aware how unhealthy and toxic it is, not that knowing is much help. Despite their best efforts, circumstances continue throwing them together, with dangerous if not outright disastrous consequences.

A blend of genres so intense might not normally work, and I did have some apprehension about the whole bad-boy redemption arc, but all of my misgivings were rendered moot. The world-building is intricate and masterful, the characters are engaging (well, a couple are annoying, but they’re annoying in-character), and it makes for a dynamic, exciting start to what looks to be a series well worth following.

**

Title: Bad People

Author: Craig Wallwork

Publisher: Underbelly Books

Website: https://twitter.com/underbellybooks

When something terrible happens, wanting to know more is a reasonable enough urge. So is armchair speculating, trying to figure things out, solve the mysteries, have theories. It’s a normal curiosity. It may even have the best of intentions, the desire to help. But it can also come across as ghoulish, even parasitic, as if seeking to exploit or profit off the pain and misfortune of others.

Like when, for instance, a small town’s been rocked by the disappearances of several children and a former cop turned famous thriller author rolls on in to get the inside scoop for possible book research. Yeah, that’s not likely to garner the warmest welcome from the locals.

But that doesn’t stop Alex Palmer from coming to Stormer Hill, using his connections and reputation to poke around, maybe offer some unique insights. He rents a cottage, tags along with a constable, asks questions, does interviews. Becomes invested and connected and emotionally involved.

This is not, however, an episode of Murder She Wrote, where the mystery writer smugly solves the case and is showered in gratitude. This is quite a bit darker and grittier than that, and the inquisitive author soon finds himself far more deeply enmeshed than he could have anticipated.

And I sure don’t recall any episodes of Murder She Wrote being quite so gory … butchery, mutilation, a tupperware scene that’ll haunt the memory for a long time, and various grisly biblical and Boschian elements feature strongly here.

I did stumble several times over editing issues, most small but some outright name mistakes and the like, which distracted me from the story and sent me paging back to double-check on things. The ending/resolution felt a bit rushed and unsatisfying. It’s apparently the first in a series, though, so maybe those get some more follow-up attention in the next one.

**

BIRTHRIGHT sneak peek!

Both boys trembled, their faces pale, their eyes wide. From the throat of one came plaintive noises. Tears glistened on his cheeks. A spreading patch of wetness on white cloth testified that he had lost control of his bladder.

The other was silent, dry of cheek and of clothing. His solemn gaze roved the clearing. Apprehensive yes, but also curious. As if he felt the anticipation in the air, the power gathering up from the very earth beneath their feet.

The stones, moon-silvered, cast oblong shadows on the grass. The robed figures stood motionless with their candles, flickering flames revealing glimpses of familiar visages hidden within the deep hoods.

The man wanted to speak, to tell the braver boy that he did his bloodline proud. But this was not the time for such words. And later? Later, it would not matter.

In truth, it did not matter now.

It had never mattered.

Whether they came to that fate with steadfast acceptance or quaking tears made no difference. They were here because it was what was meant to be.

Their birthright.

Theirs, and his.

The time had come.

Another figure emerged from the woods. Clad in scarlet dark as blood, bearing a carved box in reverent hands.

The man led the boys to the center of the circle. When the timid one hesitated and tried to shrink back, the man gave him a stern but not ungentle push.

“But I –” the boy began.

A harsh gesture shushed him, cowed him.

Chin quivering, the boy stepped into position. He glanced at the stone rings, and at the lengths of cord that hung from them. Rather than extend his arms, he thrust them behind his back, and sniffling, shook his head.

The other offered him a smile perhaps meant to embolden and encourage. To prove that there was nothing to fear, he held out his own arms and did not flinch as the man bound his wrists.

At last, the other boy complied. His watery gaze sought that of the man. Imploring. Trusting. Seeking reassurance that this would all be over soon.

It would be.

This part of it.

A tightness closed in the man’s throat and at the same time, a hollowness seemed to open in his chest.

He took his own place, and tried to ready himself for what would come next.

The blood and the pain. The power.

He only hoped that neither boy would scream. It was always so terrible when they screamed.

The red-cloaked figure lifted the box’s lid. Mingled gold and silver light danced like fairy-fire upon what glittered within.

A collective sighing breath arose from the circle as the ancient blade was raised high.

Coming in March 2021 from Bloodshot Books!