Review — Confessions of an English Psychopath

Title: Confessions of an English Psychopath

Author: Jack Strange

Website: https://www.amazon.com/Jack-Strange/e/B01F9Q50RM

That moment when you contact the author to ask who he’d cast as the main character, so as to better help get a mental picture and audible voice in your head … and the author comes back with the answer “Jude Law” and your brain goes *whoof* and your glasses fog up …

Nor does it hurt that the premise is a bit like that absolutely delightful Kingsmen: The Secret Service movie, done with similar British-style cuttingly polite wit. It’s brisk and clever, hilarious even as it’s reprehensible — the guy’s a serial killer, after all, a psychopath just like it says right there in the title.

A psychopath recruited and trained by a clandestine agency to carry out discreet ‘cleaning’ missions; well, naturally he’s a natural. But, one problem with people like that is, they have this thing about rules and authority not applying to them. An operative like Lawrence Odd may be among the best in the department, but he’s also going to push, or outright ignore, boundaries.

Locked doors and secret files within the agency office? Oh, that just won’t do. Company policies against fraternizing socially after hours? As if that’s any reason not to strike up a relationship with an attractive co-worker. As far as Lawrence is concerned, even those who technically may be the boss of him aren’t, well, the boss of him.

The first-person conversational POV really puts the reader right there in his head, which is simultaneously fascinating and uncomfortable. He’s a bad guy, he’s fundamentally bent on some deep human and empathic level, yet, you kinda gotta like him and feel sorry for and root for him. Beyond his surface charm and arrogance, he has an almost childlike bewilderment, as if sincerely perplexed why others just don’t understand.

Times like these are when the bad-guys-vs.-worse-guys thing comes in handy. When Lawrence goes rogue, he has reasons. There’s a certain guilty-pleasure quality to it all, and when you also get to envision Jude Law in the role? *whoof*

Book Review: Behind Her Eyes

bhe_cover

Title: Behind Her Eyes

Author: Sarah Pinborough

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Website: http://www.flatironbooks.com

I picked up this book at one of the author’s recent Portland appearances. Knew very little of it beforehand, but I’d been most favorably impressed by everything else of hers I’d read, and people were saying good things, and the whole growing breakthrough best-seller take the world by storm buzz. Besides, signed copy, I’m often a sucker for a signed copy!

Anyway, so, there I was at the reading, and during the Q/A someone mentioned the ending in a “no spoilers but holy wow that ending!” kind of way, which further intrigued me. I dove right in and was instantly engaged, instantly immersed.

The story’s about secrets, and obsession, and love, and betrayal. Louise is recently divorced, doing the working-mom / shared-custody juggling act, which leaves her little time for herself or a social life. When she does meet an interesting guy, he then turns out to be not only married but her new boss, making extra awkwardness all around. To step it up even further, Louise then finds herself becoming friends with his wife … without letting on to either that she knows the other … and the more she gets to know them, the more enmeshed she becomes, the more thoroughly entangled in their the complex turbulence of their marriage.

A situation like this could have the makings of a light-hearted farce or rom-com, one of those hilarious Shakespearean cases of mistaken identities and misunderstandings, where after some tribulations, everything sorts itself out and works out okay. It could, but, this is not that situation. This is a situation of pain, torment, temptation, agonizing choices, troubled pasts, and slowly-unveiling threats of physical danger.

Fascinating stuff, intense human drama, even without the other less-normal elements … the characters are presented so well, so multi-faceted and true … I’d find myself believing and sympathizing with one, then another, then having distrust and second-guessing, then chastising, then rooting for, then wanting to smack them … around and around, just like real people, nothing one-dimensional here.

I was also rolling along feeling fairly smug and pleased with myself because I thought I’d figured it out, I thought I knew what was going on. Oh, pride before the fall! THAT ENDING was a wallop, a rug-pulled-out-from-under. Not an utter shock of an out-of-nowhere blindside; all the clues really had been there … but the way they fit together … it was like one of those optical illusions where you know there’s something, but you don’t see it, but you know it’s there, and then something CLICKS in your brain and THERE IT IS.

Wow. I mean, wow. I mean, I had to drop a note to the author just ALL-CAPS HOLY *BLEEP* to get it out of my system before attempting a serious review. Yet, here I am doing that serious review and I’m still ALL-CAPS HOLY *BLEEP*. My head is full of thunderclap fireworks, just all concussive sonic boom and flash-dazzle afterimages, even now a few days later.

Other reviewers have said, and I add my voice to theirs, READ THIS NOW. NOW NOW NOW. Don’t let anybody spoil it for you. Not only is the read itself a remarkable experience of building and deepening psychological terror, not only is it a vivid and inescapable drawing-in to the twisted dark complexities of emotion and relationships …

THAT ENDING! That wallop! That moment where suddenly, and, as the kids say, you just can’t even. I just couldn’t even. I still can’t even. I mean, I read a lot; I reviewed 120 books last year; I’ve been a reader all my life; I sometimes feel like I’m getting old and jaded … and still. Still. Wow.

I literally (in the literal sense!) had to put it down when I was done and just go walk around for a while, my mind full of those thunderclap fireworks. I was speechless. I was awestruck. If anybody had been there to try and talk to me at that time, all I could’ve done was blink and shake my head and mutely gawp like a goldfish.

Basically, yeah, every good thing anybody’s been saying about this book? Truth. More than worthy of its spot on the best-seller lists. I know it’s only February, but for this NOT to be the best book I read all year, someone is going to have to come up with something pretty damn amazing. The bar has been set way high. Way, way high. Because … wow. Just wow. Thunderclap fireworks, rocked to the core. Wow.

Bonus Reviews!

Not everything I read is a good fit for the HFR, for various reasons … sometimes it’s not technically horror, sometimes it’s a novella or short, sometimes the HFR has already covered a book by the time I get to it. When that happens, I still want the world to know what I think because I’m megalomaniacal that way, so, I bring them here!

Up this week: On the Bricks by Penni Jones, and The Head by Brian Barr!

Title: On the Bricks

Author: Penni Jones

Publisher: Pandamoon Publishing

Website: http://www.pandamoonpublishing.com

I don’t know if “gritty chick-lit” is a thing, or if this would be it if it was, but if it isn’t it should be, and that’s the phrase my mind kept wanting to call it. Because it certainly isn’t your usual yuppie or sassy sex in the city gets her groove back kind of thing … the main character here just finished a ten-stretch for murder, and moves in with her struggling rehab sister who runs a halfway house for juvies, prosties, druggies, and abused women.

But, by similar token, neither is it the hurr-hurr women’s prison cell block hot mamas 70s-style ‘sploitation all for the titillation of the guys. Having still not seen that OitnB show, I can’t say for comparison there, but if the show is tonewise like this book, I should bump it up on my list.

Anyway! Our protagonist, Cass, finally gets parole after serving her time for the murder of her then-boyfriend’s ex-wife. A murder she didn’t commit, but somehow got swept along into taking the fall for. All of a sudden, she’s leaving her cellmate (best friend and more), going back to the real world. Back to a small part of the real world, where plenty of people know her and remember. Not far from where her now-remarried former boyfriend, and the kids Cass had hoped to adopt, still live.

The smart thing to do would be to keep her head down, let the past go, and get on with her life. But it seems fate, with a cruel sense of humor, keeps throwing twists and obstacles in the way. The biggie is that her father left her a big chunk of money, on the condition she prove her innocence.

Gee, thanks Dad. She could really use that inheritance, not least of all to help save the halfway house from foreclosure. How’s she supposed to prove her innocence NOW, when she couldn’t a decade ago? When the people with information are far from inclined to help? When some, in fact, are inclined to stop her nosing around by whatever methods necessary?

Meanwhile, there’s her libido to consider, a problem further impacted by a hunky parole officer and some chance run-ins with her old flame. And there’s her struggles getting along on the outside, where prison social skills don’t go over so well … there’s added responsibility when her sister backslides into bad habits …

Most of all, what this book really does well is depict just how damn complex, complicated, mercurial, contradictory, and convoluted relationships between women can be. How love and hate, contempt and admiration, being willing to go to the mat for someone while also wanting to claw her eyes out, how all these can exist simultaneously.

It’s a solid good read, gripping, well-written, believable even in its moments of incredible frustration (when other characters know stuff, and Cass KNOWS they know stuff, and can’t just grab them and shake until truth-words fall out). Thumbs up, would certainly read more from this author!

**

Title: The Head

Author: Brian Barr

Website: https://www.amazon.com/Brian-Barr/e/B010Y0MEJU

This one’s a short story all out in the big world on its own, the whimsical adventure of a lady who finds a severed head in the yard … wait, what? Yes, that. A severed head, but it gets weirder. The head is alive, the head can talk, the head belongs to a very nice seeming guy named Bill.

In a sense, it’s a fairy tale; there are elements here of The Frog Prince and of Bluebeard, but through a warped kaleidoscope lens. Whimsical adventure, yes. Love story, even, because once Elizabeth takes Bill’s head home and they chat and talk, well, hey, romance can happen in unconventional ways.

The thing is, though, Bill would rather have their romance happen in somewhat more conventional ways, ways involving the rest of his actual body. That’s where the adventure comes in, the classic fairy tale quest. It may not be a looming castle in the dark wood, it may be a rundown old house at the end of a dirt road, but the effect is much the same.

And, like many fairy tales used to be back in the good old days, that happily-ever-after doesn’t always work out so well for all concerned.

My only problem was a minor matter of copy-edit type nits, homonyms and such that slipped through. But, all in all, an entertaining and fun messed-up little bedtime story!

**

And don’t forget, you can always find more of what I think over at The Horror Fiction Review!

120

At the end of 2015, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself for having done 79 reviews over the course of the year. So I decided to try and better that record in 2016. Then, when it looked like I was going to, I decided to might-as-well shoot for 100.

And then, as things do, it ran away with me a little.

Here’s what I reviewed in 2016. This list does not include projects I beta-read or proofed, reading/editing anthology subs, and the couple dozen books I read for research or re-read for personal pleasure along the way.

All that and I wrote some stuff too. That’s a lot of words.

Amazing Punk Stories
Author: David Agranoff

Cut Corners I and II
Publisher: Sinister Grin

The Midnight Creature Feature Picture Show
Author: David C. Hayes

A Town Called Suckhole
Author: David Barbee

I Knocked Up Satan’s Daughter
Author: Carlton Mellick III

The Greatest Fucking Moment In Sports
Author: Kevin L. Donihe

The Traveling Dildo Salesman
Author: Kevin L. Donihe

All Souls Day
Author: Martin Berman-Gorvine

Skullcrack City
Author: Jeremy Robert Johnson

Ghost in the Cogs
Editors: Scott Gable and C. Dombrowski

Reincarnage
Author: Ryan Harding and Jason Taverner

Thunderpussy
Author: David W. Barbee

I Will Rot Without You
Author: Danger Slater

Paper Tigers
Author: Damien Angelica Walters

A Coin for Charon
Author: Dallas Mullican

Monsters Don’t Cry
Author: Shane McKenzie

Tribes of Decay
Author: Michael W. Garza

None So Deaf
Author: Pete Mesling

Live-Action Hentai
Author: Kerry Lipp

Undead Fleshcrave
Author: Jim Goforth

Texas Chainsaw Mantis
Author: Kevin Strange

Rock ‘n’ Roll Head Case
Author: Lee Widener

Tomorrow’s Cthulhu
Editors: Scott Gable and C. Dombrowski

Exponential
Author: Adam Cesare

The House That Death Built
Author: Michaelbrent Collings

The Complex
Author: Brian Keene

Mister White
Author: John C. Foster

Sacrificing Virgins
Author: John Everson

Every Time We Meet At The Dairy Queen Your Whole Fucking Face Explodes
Author: Carlton Mellick III

The Specimen
Author: Pete Kahle

Wind Chill
Author: Patrick Rutigliano

The Death House
Author: Sarah Pinborough

Black Creek
Author: Gregory Lamberson

We Are Wormwood
Author: Autumn Christian

Blurring the Line
Editor: Marty Young

Alien Smut Peddlers from the Future
Author: Kent Hill

Header 3
Author: Ryan Harding and Edward Lee

Things Slip Through
Author: Kevin Lucia

Dreams of Ivory and Gold
Author: Kirk Dougal

Towers
Author: Karl Fischer

Bone Meal Broth
Author: Adam Cesare

Computerface
Author: Kevin Strange

Wasteland Gods
Author: Jonathan Woodrow

Governor of the Homeless
Author: G. Arthur Brown

The Sanguinarian Id
Author: L.M. Labat

Ritualistic Human Sacrifice
Author: C.V. Hunt

Mayan Blue
Authors: Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason

Not Safe For Kids
Author: Kevin Shamel

DOA I and II
Publisher: Blood Bound Books

Into the Mist
Author: Lee Murray

When We Were 8
Author: Catt Dahman

Stale Reality
Author: John Urbancik

Eldren: The Book of the Dark
Author: William Meikle

Lost Signals
Editor: Max Booth III and Lori Michelle

Berzerkoids
Author: M.P. Johnson

Vortex
Author: Ray Garton

Hannahwhere
Author: John McIlveen

I Am Providence
Author: Nick Mamatas

Long December
Author: Richard Chizmar

Sirens
Editor: Rhonda Parrish

The Buddy System
Author: Brian Keene

Every Kingdom Divided
Author: Stephen Kozeniewski

Puppet Skin
Author: Danger Slater

A Brutal Chill in August
Author: Alan M. Clark

Exercise Bike
Author: Carlton Mellick III

Sword Chronicles I and II
Author: Michaelbrent Collings

Eternal Frankenstein
Editor: Ross E. Lockhart

The Terminal
Author: Amber Fallon

Toenails
Author: Dani Brown

Cotton Candy
Author: Kevin Strange

Morbid Metamorphosis
Editor: Robert Nelson

Prince of Nightmares
Author: John McNee

Kids
Author: Paul Feeney

The Nightmare Project
Author: Jo-Anne Russell

Mother Fucking Black Skull of Death
Author: Matthew Vaughn

Through a Mirror Darkly
Author: Kevin Lucia

Rejected for Content 3 and 4
Editor: Jim Goforth

Stuff That
Author: Adam Millard

A Wind of Knives
Author: Ed Kurtz

Reanimatrix
Author: Peter Rawlik

With Tooth and Claw
Author: Jim Goforth

Celebrity Chef Zombie Apocalypse
Author: Jack Strange

The Forty-Two
Author: Ed Kurtz

Bad Apples 3
Publisher: Corpus Press

Oedipus Aroused
Author: Robert Devereaux

I Miss The World
Author: Violet LeVoit

Pretty Pretty Princess
Author: Shane McKenzie

Chasing Ghosts
Author: Glenn Rolfe

Silent Screams
Editor: Josh Strnad

Halloween Orgy Massacre
Author: Jeff O’Brien

Dinosaur Valley
Author: K.H. Koehler

Ghost Light Road
Author: Adam Light

Angel in the Abyss
Author: Ed Kurtz

Larry
Author: Adam Millard

Starr Creek
Author: Nathan Carson

Nausea
Author: Ed Kurtz

Six Scary Stories
Publisher: Cemetery Dance

Island Red
Author: Matt Serafini

Control
Author: Ed Kurtz

Body Art
Author: Kristopher Triana

Mania
Author: Lucas Magnum

Lake Lurkers
Author: M.P. Johnson

Bacon Fried Bastard
Author: David W. Barbee

Shit Luck
Author: Tiffany Scandal

The Terrible Thing That Happened
Author: Carlton Mellick III

Island of the Super-People
Author: Kevin Shamel

ZOMCATS
Author: Jack Strange

Tall Tales With Short Cocks Vol. 5
Editor: G. Arthur Brown

The Rib From Which I Remake the World
Author: Ed Kurtz

Nests: A Post-Apocalyptic Thriller
Author: Barry Napier

Celebrity Culture
Author: Duncan Bradshaw

Monstrumfuhrer
Author: Ed Erdelac

Bonespin Slipspace
Author: Leo X. Robertson

almost insentient. almost divine
Author: d.p. watt

Death Confetti
Author: Jennifer Robin

Scavenger
Author: Rich Hawkins

Scavenger
Author: Nate Southard

Dark Reaches
Author: Shaun Meeks

Hopeless, One-Way Ticket, Dead and Buried, Devil Inside, Burnt Offerings (book bundle)
Author: William Cook

Final batch for the year!

With four hours (my time zone) to go before midnight, my wonderful tech-support roomie was finally able to recover enough stuff from my old laptop to get back my stranded reviews!

So, here to finish out 2016, my looks at:

almost insentient, almost divine by d.p. watt

Death Confetti by Jennifer Robin

Scavengers by Rich Hawkins and Scavengers by Nate Southard in a same-title head-to-head!

Dark Reaches by Shaun Meeks

and a William Cook book-bundle!

**

Title: almost insentient, almost divine

Author: d.p. watt

Publisher: Undertow Publications

Website: http://www.undertowbooks.com

My first impression upon opening the envelope was “damn, this is a beautiful book!” For presentation alone, artistry and production value and design, it had major points in its favor before I even began to read.

Then I began to read, and found the contents to be equally, if not more, artistic and stunning. Now, I do review a lot of (and I say this with affection) schlock, grossness, nastiness, and trash … but I can also very much appreciate the literary delicacies, the fine and intricate examples of the craft. That’s what you get in ‘almost insentient, almost divine.’

The writing simultaneously has an old-fashioned feel and a modern freshness. It’s clean and clear and gorgeous, the kind of thing that in another author’s hands might come off as cloying or pretentious but here is satin-smooth. I read with equal parts fascination and admiration, with touches of “ooh I wish I’d done that” envy.

The stories themselves span several eras, with subtle undertones and interconnections particularly in the form of a disturbing puppet-figure. Some are hauntingly poetic, some the kind of nightmares in which you can’t say for sure just what was the scary part but the overall effect is deeply chilling.

I am not a fan of the term ‘literary horror,’ and calling it ‘highbrow horror’ seems even worse. But this is the kind of horror I could see someone really elegant and classy – my idol Dame Maggie, for instance – enjoying with her tea.

So, yes, top kudos to d.p. watt and everyone at Undertow for putting together a truly exquisite, breathtaking piece of work.

**

Title: Death Confetti

Author: Jennifer Robin

Publisher: Feral House

Website: feralhouse.com

I am not sure how to categorize this book, and find that to be somehow eerily fitting. Because I’ve met Jennifer Robin. I’ve seen her perform. As a writer, an artist, and an entire person, she simply defies categorization. Is it any wonder her book would be the same?

The subheader reads: Pickers, Punks, and Transit Ghosts in Portland, Oregon. While I haven’t been a Portland resident long myself, so far what I have seen of it and what I’ve heard of its ‘essence of distilled weirdness’ reputation certainly seems to fit the tales appearing herein.

It is a look not at but into and through the peculiar angles of a peculiar city. But it’s more. There are elements that seem fictional, that seem as if they MUST be fictional … or are they? And elements that have to be non-fiction, or are they either? It’s an autobiography of a life both rich and twisted, intersecting like the junctures of a million spiderwebs with a million other such rich-twisted lives.

Does that help? I don’t know. But it’s good. Really good. Profound and piercing, lovely and sad. You feel for these people, these shapes and shadows and snippets of city life. You feel for the author, and for her mother, and wonder what in the world her mother would make of the revelations in these pages.

And the thing is, as brilliantly written (such a deft turn of phrase this woman has!), as cutting and concise and decadent the prose, it still barely holds a candle to the live readings, the performances. If you ever get a chance, do not pass it up.

On a tangential note, dang am I dowdy and sheltered … what a fantastic journey through experiences to which I wouldn’t even dream to aspire! I recommend reading it, though in smaller spread-out doses – the structure of the book, a series of mostly-brief vignettes, lends itself well to that – because these are provocative word-morsels to ponder and savor.

**

Title: Scavengers

Author: Rich Hawkins

Website: http://richwhawkins.blogspot.co.uk/

A weekend getaway with some people your wife knows from work … her bosses, in fact, with their toddler in tow … isn’t exactly Ray’s idea of a good time. He doesn’t know them. As a part-time store stocker and struggling novelist, he doesn’t have much in common with their more professional lifestyle.

As a couple who’ve been facing fertility struggles, being around someone else’s kids isn’t the most comfortable scenario, either. Not that little Molly is all THAT bad, but then, it turns out little Molly isn’t the one they’ll have to worry about.

The first sign of trouble is an abandoned car slewed across the road, and what bursts from the woods when Ray and Tim go to investigate. Ray’s no sooner found a lost toy in a puddle when the attack comes.

Needless to say, the vacation doesn’t exactly happen as planned. It’s death and carnage, a village with a secret, an adrenaline rush with a few sharp surprises, twists and turns and shocks along the way.

**

Title: Scavengers

Author: Nate Southard

Publisher: Sinister Grin Press

Website: http://www.sinistergrin.com

A lot of people think that, in event of zombie apocalypse, they’d be the gritty hardcase tough types, doing the epic cross-country journeys, racking up impressive headshot body counts and facing down rival enclaves of fellow survivors.

Here’s a book about the more realistic side of things, in which even a simple supply run can be a deadly fustercluck start to finish.

That’s the situation in the tiny town of Millwood, living population only a few hundred. Even though only a handful of refugees have come in, food is scarce and they know they’ll need more to get by. There’s a supermarket in neighboring Rundburg … population far higher and decidedly NOT living.

But someone’s got to try, so all the menfolks get their names put in for a lottery to accompany a couple of the town leaders on a desperate mission to see what they can scrounge. Nobody’s happy about the results, from the women who think they should be as eligible as anyone, to the mother whose teenage son is selected, to, of course, the teenager himself

Nor are Blake, who doesn’t want to leave his girlfriend behind, or Chris, who isn’t even from here and doesn’t see why he should have to risk his life for a bunch of hicks and rednecks. They are not the makings of a great team. They can barely get along with each other for a brief truck ride, let alone when the real trouble starts.

It makes for kind of a grim read, insane amounts of risk for very little prospect of reward, and lots of gore and terror and carnage. We get glimpses of the outbreak and events-leading-up, backstory via flashbacks and such, bits of the politics … but the main focus really is on this single outing, and its costs.

**

Title: Dark Reaches

Author: Shaun Meeks

Publisher: Inherit Press

One of the stories in this collection, I’d seen before in an anthology and managed to successfully block from my traumatized memory until I spotted my own words from the review in the front ‘Praise For’ section.

Then it all came crashing back in full flinchworthy squicking eeeeeeek. You’ll forgive me, I hope, if I wussily gloss over mentioning “Taut” this time around. Eeeeek. The hooks.

Moving on! Please. Moving on. So! Other stories! Of which, there are many … and as promised in the title, they reach to some pretty dark places. There’s a lot of death here, and a lot of undeath, and a few different flavors of the end of the world.

I found “Dreams of a Dead Man” extra-enjoyable because way long ago, my first pro sale was a zombie story called “Dawn of the Living-Impaired” about zombie rights and social activism; this could have been the same world, from another, grimmer, more tragic point of view.

But if you prefer your zombies nastier, you can find the full horror of war in “The Soldier,” and the depths of human perversion and depravity in “Body Bag.”

“Give Me Convenience” is a fun, gory little romp, a bloodbath disaster in microcosm … while “The Cleansing” presents the repercussions of a full-scale breakdown of civilization. “Mommy’s Little Demon” turns out to be far from the wry twist on Rosemary’s Baby I expected, and “Family Lessons” is its own kind of agonizing.

And those are only a few of the offerings. You’ll also get a story from the author’s “Dillon, the Monster Dick” detective series, and possibly even a bonus icky surprise lurking like the post-credits scene at the movies.

**

Title: William Cook Book Bundle – Hopeless, One Way Ticket, Dead and Buried, Devil Inside, Burnt Offerings

Author: William Cook

Publisher: King Billy Publications

Website: http://williamcookwriter.com

This bundle isn’t published as a single volume, or at least hadn’t been at the point I read them … these are five different books.

But I read them all back-to-back (times five), so it’s kind of like a collection, hey why not! We’ve got variety here, ranging from the more mundane-but-monstrous horrors of humanity to full-on living nightmares of the paranormal.

“One Way Ticket” is very much in the latter category, with a sins-of-the-past / small-scale-southern-gothicy feel, as a man whose family history catches up with him in the form of a diabolical railroad. The descriptions and atmosphere throughout the story are beautifully done, beautiful in their hideousness sometimes. My definite favorite of the bunch.

“Dead and Buried” starts off with a dismal domestic situation (poverty, alcoholism, abandonment, abuse), then adds violent schoolboy bullying, then gets even worse from there. Similar themes are visited in “Hopeless,” when a little girl just wants Daddy to stop hurting Mummy, no matter what it takes … and in “Devil Inside,” which features a boy whose fears of what lurks in his dark room become even greater … and “Burnt Offerings,” as a violated teen craves revenge on her stepfather.

Those are the feature presentations; among the bonuses are some additional short stories such as the eerily lovely “Anomalous Perigee” and a sordid karmic comeuppance in “Conceived by Death,” some really chilling poetry, enlightening author interviews, and an excerpt from the full-length serial-killer novel “Blood Related.”

All together, they make rather grim reading, kind of a marathon of mistreated kids. Maybe that’s partly why the train one was my favorite, not only for the terrific descriptions but as an escape into the more otherworldly from the too-close-to-real.

**

Fiiiiiive more reviews …

In which I review ZOMCATS by Jack Strange, the anthology Tall Tales With Short Cocks Vol. 5 edited by G. Arthur Brown, Ed Kurtz’s The Rib From Which I Remake the World, Barry Napier’s Nests: A Post-Apocalyptic Thriller, and Celebrity Culture by Duncan Bradshaw.

Title: ZOMCATS

Author: Jack Strange

Publisher: KGHH Publishing

Yes, as a matter of fact, I did make an embarrassing giddy squee-noise out loud when I learned my favorite character from Celebrity Chef Zombie Apocalypse was getting a follow-up book! I admit it, I’m not ashamed. Yay, Henderson!

Okay, and it isn’t just Henderson making a comeback; this one is a sequel setting up for even more in the series. A few of the celebrity zombie chefs managed to survive (well, so to speak) the previous apocalypse, and aren’t ready to give up their plans for culinary carnage.

It’s a problem that has by now spread far beyond the borders of the original outbreak, necessitating some unprecedented cooperation between world leaders and the delicate maneuverings of politics and diplomacy … wait, strike that; … a smug prime-ministerial git and a garish presidential buffoon try to one-up each other as the situation goes to hell.

There are numerous sub-plots running, involving super-mercenaries, national supremacist groups, an unlikely inheritance, spooky local legends, clog-dancing festivities, grave robbers, and disgruntled farmers. But, fun as those are, it’s still Henderson and his growing army of zomcats (and were-zomcats) I enjoyed the most.

**

Title: Tall Tales With Short Cocks Vol. 5

Editor: G. Arthur Brown

Publisher: Rooster Republic Press

Website: http://www.roosterrepublicpress.com

A skim of the table of contents assured me this one would be a slam-dunk … I’ve read and reviewed stuff by most of those people; I’ve met and hung out with many of them; they are some of the most twisted (in a good way) minds and talents I’ve ever run across. Even the names new to me here, I figured, must have shown the right kinds of crazy to end up in such company.

What you have here is a lineup of twenty tales, playing a sort of literary Red Rover, Red Rover with the imaginary lines between horror, weird fantasy, and bizarro. It’s anything-goes territory, sometimes goofy, sometimes gross, sometimes unsettling, sometimes deeply profound.

Profound, and also, in a few cases, profane … the titles alone, from “Creek Slut” and “The Curse of Sidekick Scrotum” to “Gutful of Maggots” and “So You Have A Vagina On Your Face,” should provide clear warning this may not be the book to take with on a holiday visit to meet your significant other’s family (then again, if you were going to take a book called TALL TALES WITH SHORT COCKS anyway, it’s too late for that sort of warning).

If I absolutely had to pick a top fave, I’d have to go with Adam Millard’s “Arachno-Perv,” for reasons of sheer cleverness I won’t go into because spoilers. But I also have to mention Danger Slater’s “Prince Cuddlebug Is Going To F*** Your Wife,” which not only handles the dreaded second-person with deft sardonic wit but then, toward the end, takes a quantum leap into sheer WTF-ery.

“Next Killed My Lake” by Edmund Colell needs a nod, too; next-level surreal and compelling, reading it felt like trying to solve a Rubix cube for the first time without any instructions. And Crystal R. Babb’s bittersweet love story, “The Patissier” … and this is how I end up listing too many faves when they’re all so good!

**

Title: The Rib From Which I Remake the World

Author: Ed Kurtz

Publisher: Chizine Publications

Website: http://www.chizinepub.com

ANOTHER fantastic book by Ed Kurtz … wouldn’t you just know it … and they just keep getting better and better … it’s almost becoming kind of obnoxious and I hope it keeps up.

This one combines, in a seamless and expert blend, elements of small town horror, traveling carnivals, the mores and morals of the 1940s, and supernatural inside-out bendings of reality. When a sideshow magician unleashes dark forces in the woods, it sets in motion events that won’t end for years, if ever.

But the residents of Litchfield only know that a special new educational program is opening at their local movie theater, a ‘hygiene picture,’ a cautionary tale of young motherhood. Its sensational nature and promise of graphic content serve to pack the house, even as the righteous protestors rally their objections.

The whole thing’s nothing but trouble as far as widowed, disgraced ex-cop JoJo Walker is concerned. Something about the company presenting the film sets off his alarms as soon as they book rooms at the hotel where he works as a detective / security guard. Sure enough, one of them ends up messily dead, while the rest seem completely disinterested.

The show, after all, must go on. And the show has unsettling effects on everyone who sees it. As JoJo investigates, he not only finds himself dealing with the inexplicable, but with unwelcome reminders of his own past.

Shades of King and Bradbury lend subtle undertones, but it’s Kurtz’s mastery of historical fiction that brings the setting and era to vivid, immersive life. You get both the warm veneer of yesteryear romantic nostalgia and the gritty starkness of prevalent bigotry and sexism. The world feels real, which makes its unraveling descent into madness all the more nerve-wrenching.

**

Title: Nests: A Post-Apocalyptic Thriller

Author: Barry Napier

Publisher: Severed Press

Website: http://www.severedpress.com

This time, the nukes were only just trying to help. The nukes must have seemed like the lesser evil, the better option. To try and save even some vestiges of humanity and civilization … even if it means destroying the rest.

But honestly, when total doom appears in the form of huge hideous extradimensional eldritch-esque monstrosities, at some point a little nuclear annihilation stops looking quite so bad. So goes the reasoning, anyway.

It even almost kind of worked. The remaining people thought so at first. They thought their biggest problems now would be the usual ones of aftermath survival — radiation, basic resources, their fellow survivors.

Holed up in a house of reasonable safety and supplies, Eric and Kendra and the baby have it pretty good for a while, all things considered. Still, it isn’t the best situation, just the three of them on their own, so when they run across what might be a lead to a possible Safe Zone, they decide to take it.

A mistake? Well, maybe, but a choice they’d have to face sooner or later. They hit the road, and it seems like they might just be in luck when they make contact with another group. Then they learn about the nests, black nightmare distortions in reality, and learn the hard way their troubles are far from over.

**

Title: Celebrity Culture

Author: Duncan Bradshaw

Publisher: The Sinister Horror Company

Website: http://www.sinisterhorrorcompany.com

Side effects of reading this book may include delirium, disorientation, vertigo, and tangled-slinky brain. And, compared to the side-effects (or, indeed, primary effects!) described in the book, you’re getting off lucky.

Forget your hairstyle crazes and fashion fads, forget the right car or jewelry or neighborhood. Forget designer drugs and wonder diets. Of all the ways people have sought to emulate and imitate their idols or follow the latest trends over the centuries, THE new ultimate status symbol, addictive high, and expression of individuality by way of body modification is …

Disease. The more symptomatic, the better. The more outrageous the symptoms, the better. The more rare or hard to get something is, the more prestigious it is. Red carpet movie premiers aren’t about dresses and suits anymore, but pustules and deformities.

Designing successful, popular diseases is also big business. And, as with today’s celebrity chefs, there are those famous geniuses who rise to the top of their field. Each year, the best of the best are up for a Gehrig award. This year promises to be the most spectacular showdown yet!

A cutting look at society, it reads like a Douglas Adams / Lewis Carroll fever dream; not through the looking glass, but through the petri dish. I could quibble about some sentence structure, semicolon, and apostrophe stuff, but the writing’s packed with vivid unreality-imagery (some very vivid, and not necessarily germophobe-friendly) and knock-you-back turns of phrase.

**

Reviews: BizarroCon Binge!

My reviews of Lake Lurkers by M.P. Johnson, Bacon Fried Bastard by David W. Barbee, Shit Luck by Tiffany Scandal, The Terrible Thing That Happened by Carlton Mellick III, and Island of the Super-People by Kevin Shamel!

Title: Lake Lurkers

Author: M.P. Johnson

Publisher: Severed Press

Website: http://www.severedpress.com

Another to satisfy my eternal craving for toothy aquatic monsters! And this one, from the usually-wildly-outrageous M.P. Johnson, is even almost … dare I say? … on the restrained and sedate side. More like mainstream horror than full-on bizarro.

Which isn’t a bad thing, just came as a bit of a surprise. I still certainly wouldn’t go so far as to call it ‘normal’ by any stretch. The basic plot might seem like it — young couple moves into a huge new house on the lake, only to find out the hard way that the place has its own dark secrets — but the character of Tess gives the whole thing a unique and refreshing sideways twist.

See, Tess is in love, all right, but Tess is in love with the idea of finally owning her dream home. Years of scrimping and saving have led to this moment. Having her boyfriend go and suggest next-level relationship stuff, having him think of it as ‘their’ place … he just doesn’t get it.

The neighbors aren’t sure what to make of her, either, with her spartan lack of stuff to fill all those rooms. It doesn’t help that her first encounter with local law enforcement sets things off on the wrong foot, and there’s the rash of missing pets, and whatever that mess is the previous owners left in the basement …

Naturally, the things in the lake aren’t content to just keep snacking on the occasional lone swimmer or jogger. Halfway through the book, the chompy carnage kicks into high gear and doesn’t let up, as Tess finds herself in a desperate battle to not only stay alive, but to protect her property.

**

Title: Bacon Fried Bastard

Author: David W. Barbee

Publisher: Eraserhead Press

Website: http://www.eraserheadpress.com

Piggly Swiggly really is a bastard. Not in the literal sense, as far as we know, but certainly in the colloquial sense. A savage hedonist, driven purely on id and impulse, he does what he wants when he wants and never mind the consequences. He drinks (a LOT). He eats and spends like there’s no tomorrow. He kills without caring. He’s a violent brute quick to give in to any sort of base urge.

He’s also a large hulking pig-man, whose crime spree has not only just brought him to a fortified city where alcohol is illegal, it’s a city where the most addictive drug around is none other than bacon. To the addicts, Piggly is a walking slab of temptation, even after a few of them learn the hard way how strong, mean, and dangerous he is.

A real bastard, all right. Yet, somehow, one kind of can’t help feeling kind of sorry for him as his story unfolds. Evoking twisted shades of Jekyll and Hyde, Piggly NEEDS to drink, physically depends upon a vast and steady supply of alcohol, to keep himself from reverting to something so horrible even he can barely comprehend it.

Set in a wild jumble-world of humans, former humans, non-humans, and beings with detachable heads … where a main mode of transportation is gondolas slung beneath the bellies of giant floating crocodiles … where a pig-man can be pursued by renegade lawborgs and greasy bacon-junkies … it’s one long action-packed booze-fueled smoky-sizzling wild ride.

**

Title: Shit Luck

Author: Tiffany Scandal

Publisher: Eraserhead Press

Website: http://www.eraserheadpress.com

Second-person present-tense, why the heck not? It’s only about the most challenging approach as a writer, the most difficult sell to a reader. Even in short-story form, it’s risky; anything longer presents a daunting prospect.

But, Tiffany Scandal has got the knack for it, the chops, the right amount of skill and flair to get the job done. The story rolls right along, flowing smoothly, carrying itself. She makes it look effortless,

Take the worst day ever, the day where anything that could go wrong does, and make it worse. Keep making it worse. Make it worse until you end up dead. Guess what? That’s just the start.

This is weird upon weird, a journey along a steepening spiral of misfortune. Whole new worlds of worse are waiting beyond. XXXXXXX goes from a mugging and car troubles to a regrettable party … only to wake in what she’s told is the afterlife. Or, AN afterlife, one of many. Each has its own nightmarish peculiarities, its own rules.

Except, for XXXXXXX, something else is going on. As if the rest of it wasn’t enough. Someone’s following her from world to world, the same someone responsible for her initial death, killing her again and again.

Along the way, things continue to keep getting worse, while, thanks to that second-person present tense, the reader’s right there up close and personal along for the ride. All the immediacy, the inescapable empathy — we’ve all had crappy days, so, it’s easy enough to step into her shoes.

My only issue with the book (well, besides fretting about the fate of Cindy Clawford) was finishing a chapter, turning the page for more, seeing only blank paper, and realizing I’d reached the end a little more abruptly than anticipated. Like when you know you’re near the bottom of the staircase but think you’ve got another step or two before the landing.

**

Title: The Terrible Thing That Happened

Author: Carlton Mellick III

Publisher: Eraserhead Press

Website: http://www.eraserheadpress.com

One of my favorite post-apocalyptic books of all time is Robert McCammon’s Swan Song. One of my favorite scenes in it is when a group of survivors find a big store with the power still inexplicably on. Their reactions to bright lights, cleanliness, and abundance are nothing short of wonderstruck. And that’s after only a few weeks of hardscrabble deprivation.

Throw that same kind of thing at someone years after? Generations after? At someone like Chocky, who grew up in a bunker with only movies from the old world to go on and is now trying to find his way alone across the ashen, irradiated rubble? Suffice to say, he can hardly believe it.

A grocery store, intact, perfect, fully stocked. Populated with shoppers and employees … none of whom seem able to see or hear him. All of whom seem to be going about an ordinary routine, oblivious to his presence.

It’s weird, all right, and for Chocky it’s about to get a whole lot weirder. The other aftermath survivors who come in, for one: freakish mutants who load up their own shopping carts like they’re in the final round of a game show. The gunmen, for another: masked maniacs who start slaughtering the oblivious before-people.

Chocky escapes with the mutants to their subterranean half-savage society, where he learns more about the mysterious Store that’s become almost a religion. They tell him he can stay, but on conditions not much to Chocky’s liking. Besides, he has a vested personal interest in returning to Store, one which could change his life … or get him killed.

Think Fallout with time-loop magic hauntings, Futurama whimsy mixed with violence and gore. All done, of course, with the unrivaled skill of Carlton Mellick III. The man is both genius and juggernaut, with boundless creativity as well as the workhorse determination to sit down and get the job done.

Also, his traditional bonus comic strip afterword is THE BEST EVER.

**

Title: Island of the Super-People

Author: Kevin Shamel

Publisher: Eraserhead Press

Website: http://www.eraserheadpress.com

I’m not sure how I had missed this one until now. I love bizarro books, I love superhero fiction, I love cultural anthropology. And here, in glorious combination, I got all three!

Imagine if superheroes weren’t a hodge-podge of origin stories (aliens, magic, mad science, intense training, mutation, etc) but were instead their own indigenous race of beings. Who don’t wear costumes but are born with costume-like coloration, have their own modes of communication, their own societies, and aren’t really interested in the outside world.

Well, of course, some pesky humans would want to study them. Like Professor Topper and his latest batch of pupils, who arrive on the island and begin their observations. Each is assigned one hero and one villain to make notes on.

For Trent, that means the apparently powerless hero kid he dubs Squiggles, and the mega-powered villain outcast Death Killer. With one, he’s bored out of his mind. With the other, he’s in mortal fear for his life.

It turns out, though, that they aren’t the only humans poking around on the island. The military has its own reasons for wanting to monitor the supers. Or even exploit them, which threatens the existence of their very species, unless a super-alliance can be forged.

One of the greatest things about a superhero universe is how anything goes. But even then, even if you’ve read all the comics and novels, seen all the movies, binged all the Netflixes, watched all the cartoons … you’ve never seen supers done this way before. It’s both completely crazy and brilliantly thought-out.

It’s also pretty heavy on the graphic violence, not necessarily cinematic or cartoonish or kitschy with the BAMs and the KAPOWs. And if you thought bodily proportions were exaggerated before, well, brace yourself.

**