Category Archives: horror

An Atomic Love Story

Apocalyptic MontessaApocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu
Mercedes M. Yardley
Ragnarok Publications
trade paper $7.99
ebook $2.99 Kindle Nook

This isn’t your typical romance. Actually, according to every romance writer I’ve heard or read, the story must have a happy ending, one in which the hero and heroine come together against all obstacles. I don’t think the ending of this one is really very happy. Only inevitable.

But then most heroines aren’t capable of reading minds, nor are they telekinetic. And most heroes aren’t pyrotic, nor do they lead the heroine into a life of serial killing.

On the other hand, they do come together against all obstacles. I mean, if the hero kidnaps the heroine for the purpose of killing her, probably in some brutal fashion, that would qualify as an obstacle, wouldn’t it? I would think such a thing would make it hard for the couple realize they’re soul mates. Wouldn’t you?

But they do come together, and they do turn out to be soul mates. Of course, given the things that form the foundations of their relationship, abused as children, alone or worse as adults, serial killing, the conclusion of such a relationship probably wouldn’t fit a romance writer’s definition of true romance.

Yardley is not an author whose work I’d read previously, but she’s definitely an author to watch. While I found this novel disturbing, I also found it powerful. Here’s an example of what I mean. Montessa has been working as a stripper and living with her boyfriend, the poster child for dirtbags, except to say that is to insult dirtbags everywhere. She is kidnapped by Lu, and she’s reflecting on her life in the face of what she believes will be certain death: “Because it was easier to be with a man who wanted to murder her, and would appreciate it, than be with a man who would only beat her to death.”

That’s powerful stuff, and it’s powerful not only because it’s disturbing, but there’s a good chance that at some point in your life, you’ve probably known someone whom that sentence describes. They may not have verbalized it, and in fact would probably have denied it, but you could tell from the choices they made that the sentence I quoted pretty much summed up their life.

Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu won’t be for everyone. But if you can handle the dark subject matter, you might be surprised at how sympathetic both characters turn out to be and how powerful the novel is.

I’d like to thank Nick Sharps at Ragnarok Books for the review copy. I read the epub version. There was no problem with any of the formatting. This was a professional job, and Ragnarok is a small press to watch.

Saxon’s Bane is a Harrowing Visit to the English Countryside

saxons_bane_250x384Saxon’s Bane
Geoffrey Gudgion
Solaris Books
mass market US $7.99 CAN $9.99
ebook $6.99 Kindle Nook

I’d intended to have this posted by Halloween, but dayjobbery derailed me. It’s a perfect Halloween read, but don’t let the fact that the holiday is past stop you. It’s worth the time. I’d like to thank Micheal Molcher for providing me with the review copy. He sent it at the end of the summer, and I apologize for taking so long to read it. Like I said, it looked like a good read for the Halloween season, but I didn’t finish it in time.

Very much in the tradition of The Wicker Man, Saxon’s Bane is the story of Fergus, who is injured in a car wreck outside the village of Allingley. His coworker Kate is driving, and before he’s rescued, Fergus sees a Saxon warrior stroking Kate’s hair. Clare is an archaeologist called in to excavate a man found in a drained mill pond. Or more specifically a Saxon who was murdered and buried in a bog.

After he finally gets out of the hospital, Fergus discovers that his life has changed and he can’t go back to his high pressure sales job. It’s more than survivor’s guilt over Kate’s death. He returns to Allingley, where he gets a job at a stable, hoping to continue healing. Clare, on the other hand, has begun to have disturbing dreams about the man she’s studying. Vivid dreams that become nightmares as the events of each dream move closer to the Saxon’s death.

Fergus and Clare don’t realize they have a deeper connection to the events of the past, and that those events are impacting the present.

I’ve been a fan of British television, mainly comedies and science fiction, for years. And while I haven’t had time to watch much in recent years, this book reminded me of why I enjoyed some of the shows I did. Saxon’s Bane made me want to live in a close knit British village. Just not this one.

Gudgion assembles a diverse cast of characters, from the vicar of the local church to the pagan who runs the stables to the leader of the Satanic cult that’s targeted the local church. He builds the menace and dread slowly, then when you think you know what’s going to happen, he goes in a different direction. He also manages to make even the minor characters unique individuals.

The dream/flashback scenes are well done and ultimately properly bloody, and Gudgion gives enough technical data on the history, customs, and language of the Saxons without overwhelming the reader with the amount of research he’s done. I’d love to see his try his hand at historical fantasy.

I really enjoyed Saxon’s Bane. For a first novel (I think it’s a first novel), it’s more polished and smooth than you would expect. Gudgion shows the potential to be a writer to watch. I intend to read his next book.

The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard: “The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux”

Howard HorrorThe Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard
Robert E. Howard
Del Rey
trade paper $18.00
ebook 12.99 Kindle Nook

This probably isn’t one of Howard’s better known horror stories, and I think in part it’s because it wasn’t published in Weird Tales or any of the other pulps his supernatural tales appeared in. It was published as “The Apparition in the Prize Ring” in the April 1929 issue of the short-lived Ghost Stories.

One of Howard’s life long passions was boxing. He wrote serious and humorous boxing stories, and even in this case, a supernatural boxing story. The Robert E. Howard Foundation Press is currently in the process of publishing Howard’s complete boxing stories in 4 volumes.

This isn’t a particularly scary story, but the ghost angle is central to it. It’s narrated by the manager of boxer Ace Jessel. Jessel is an up and coming fighter, but he doesn’t have the killer instinct to be a great boxer. This is one of Howard’s stories where race is a factor. Jessel is black, as are Tom Molyneaux, the boxer from the previous century he worships, and Mankiller Gomez, the boxer he fights.

There is a clear contrast between the wild Senegalese Gomez (named after the Mexican promoter who first brought him to the ring) and the civilized Jessel. In fact the only use of the N-word is by Jessel in reference to Gomez. To say that Howard engages in the racial stereotypes of his day is to oversimplify his portrayal of race in this work.

Jessel is slated to fight the heavyweight champ when Gomez comes on the scene and takes the title. Soon everyone is trying to get the two men in the ring. Eventually it happens, even though it’s intuitively obvious even to the most casual observer that Jessel doesn’t stand a chance.

Jessel has a life size painting of Molyneaux. The manager comes across Jessel standing before it and asking Molyneaux for help in the upcoming fight. So unbeknownst to Jessel, he takes the painting to the fight. When Jessel is about to go down for the count, he holds it up where Jessel can see it. The painting shakes, and a cold wind blows through the arena, and especially in the ring. Jessel gets up and whips Gomez, winning the title. Only the ref, Jessel, and the manager can see Molyneaux’s ghost.

I know I’ve made the ghost aspect seem trivial and have brushed off the boxing, but I can’t do this story justice in a description. Howard is at the top of his game as he describes the boxing match. The thunder and conflict we see in Howard’s sword and sorcery are all on display. There aren’t a lot of scares in this one, but that’s not the point. The ghost is just the McGuffin that propels the boxing story. This is a different side of Howard many fans haven’t seen. If you’re not familiar with Howard’s boxing stories, this is a good place to start.

Two Items of Halloween Interest

I’m buried under a mountain of grading, so there won’t be any post on Robert E. Howard’s horror stories tonight.  Tomorrow doesn’t look too promising, but I’ll see what I can do.

HalloweenMagicMysMacabre-500I did, however, want to make you aware of a couple of items of seasonal interest.  First, I’m reading Paula Guran’s Halloween: Magic, Mystery, and the Macabre  from Prime Books.  The review is for Amazing Stories (TM) and will go live on Monday.  It’s the sixth installment of a series I’m been running over there I’m calling Six Weeks of Scares.  I’ll be sure and post the link here when the review goes live.  I’m about halfway through the book at the moment, it’s quite good.

ShiversVIIThe other item is one from Cemetery Dance.  It’s the latest installment in the Shivers anthology series edited by Richard Chizmar.  I received a copy of the ARC through Cemetery Dance’s ARC club earlier this year.  I’ve read a few of the stories, and the ones so far are top notch.  There are a couple of rare stories in this one.  One is “Weeds” by Stephen King, which hasn’t been reprinted since 1979.  The other is a story by Clive Barker that was originally published in the New York Times on October 30, 1992.  I haven’t read those yet.  I’d hoped to have this collection finished by Halloween, but I probably won’t make it.  I will review it early in November if things go as planned.  They rarely do, but I can dream.

The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard: “Dig Me No Grave”

Howard HorrorThe Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard
Robert E. Howard
Del Rey
trade paper $18.00
ebook 12.99 Kindle Nook

Today’s story is a shift away from the weird westerns we’ve looked at the last two days.  Howard is best known for the series characters Solomon Kane, Kull, Bran Mak Morn, and Conan of Cimmeria.  In more recent years, he’s also gotten recognition for El Borak, Sailor Steve Costigan, and Breckenridge Elkins.  But there were other characters who appeared in multiple stories, and two of these were John Conrad and a man simply called Kirowan.  They were experts on the occult, and seem to be Howard’s attempt to try his hand at the occult detective yarn.  These stories are part of Howard’s Mythos tales.  Yog-Sothoth is mentioned in passing in this one.

In “Dig Me No Grave”, the story is narrated by Kirowan, an approach Howard abandoned for the later stories, in which he kept the first person perspective but had an unnamed narrator.

Kirowan is awakened by Conrad in the middle of the night.  Conrad has just left the side of John Grimlan, who has died in a most unpleasant manner.  Years earlier Grimlan had made Conrad swear to follow the instructions in a sealed envelope after his death.  Conrad was to follow these instructions no matter how much Grimlan might change his mind. As he was dying Grimlan begged Conrad not to follow the instructions but to burn the envelope.

The instructions say Grimlan is to be laid out on the table in his library with seven black candles placed about his body and an incantation in a second sealed envelope read.  Fearing what the envelope contains, Conrad has sought Kirowan’s aid.  Grimlan was a follower of the cult of Malik Tous, who is rumored to be an incarnation of Satan.

The men go to Grimlan’s house, which has no electricity or gas lights.  (This story was published in Weird Tales in 1937 but was certainly written years earlier; it wasn’t unusual for isolated houses, as Grimlan’s is described, to have only lamps or candles for light.)  As they approach the library upstairs, light comes from under the door.  The men enter to find Grimlan’s body laid out on the library table, covered with a robe.  Seven black candles are burning about the body.  In the corner is an old Oriental man in a yellow robe, upon which is embroidered an image resembling a peacock, the symbol of Malik Tous.

The man bids Conrad  to begin reading the incantation.  The incantation is long and written in an archaic form of English mixed with some other language.  Part of the text describes Grimlan’s pact with Malik Tous, which included an additional two hundred fifty years of life for his soul, which will be damned to Hell on his death.  As Conrad reads, the candles go out one by one of their own accord.

When the final candle is extinguished, the men hear a blood chilling scream.  Conrad manages to find and light a candle.  The body of Grimlan is gone as is the Oriental man.  Conrad and Kirowan flee the house as a fire begins somewhere upstairs and completely engulfs the structure.  After they are out, they turn and see a dark shape resembling a peacock rising from the flames carrying the body of John Grimlan.

I’m not sure when this story was written, but I’m guessing it was in 1930 or 1931.  Other stories featuring Conrad and Kirowan were published about that time.  Howard hadn’t yet written some of his more famous horror stories such as “Black Canaan” or “Pigeons From Hell”.  I intend to look at both of those in this series.  The prose in “Dig Me No Grave” gets a little purple in a couple of places.  Still, a Howard horror story, even if it’s not one of his best, is still a good horror story.  The strength in this one lies in the atmosphere Howard imbued in the story.  There’s not as much action as you might expect from Howard, but not everything he wrote was blood and thunder.  He understood creeping terror as well, and it’s on display here.

I might look at another one of the Kirowan/Conrad stories in this series.  I certainly want to examine another of the Mythos tales.  I’m about to hit some time constraints, so I’m not sure how many more of these posts I’ll get in before Halloween.  There will be at least two more, “Black Canaan” and “Pigeons From Hell”.  Beyond that, I can’t say for sure.

The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard: “The Horror From the Mound”

Howard HorrorThe Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard
Robert E. Howard
Del Rey
trade paper $18.00
ebook 12.99 Kindle Nook

This is another of Howard’s weird westerns, and although published a year and a half before “Old Garfield’s Heart” (May 1932 vs. December 1933), it’s a more mature tale.  This one concerns a former cowboy, now farmer, named Steve Brill who notices that an old Mexican laborer named Juan Lopez avoids a mound on Brill’s property.  Lopez cuts across a corner of Brill’s pasture when going between his work and his shack.

Brill detains Lopez one evening and inquires as to the reason for this behavior.  Brill thinks it’s because Lopez is superstitious and the mound is an old Indian burial mound.  Lopez assures him there’s more to the situation than that, but that he isn’t free to tell.  The story has been passed down in his family from one of his ancestors who came through with the conquistadors.  Lopez has taken a sacred oath not to tell anyone but his first born son.  Since he has no children, the secret of the mound will die with him.

Brill convinces Lopez to write out what the secret is since his oath only prohibits him from telling the secret.  Lopez agrees and hurries off to his shack before the sun sets.  Brill decides not to wait but to excavate the mound by lantern.  He suspects there’s a hidden cache of gold in the mound, and he wants to get his hands on it.

Brill finds evidence of the mound being an Indian burial mound, but there it appears to have been disturbed at some point in the past.  He unearths a stone lid over a burial chamber.  Hearing rustling and fearing a den of rattle snakes, he heads off to his cabin to get a lantern.   (He’s been working by moonlight, too impatient before now to get his lantern.)

He comes back and discovers the lid is now in the burial chamber.  A figure is visible going over the hill to Lopez’s shack.  Naturally Brill suspects Lopez has beat him to the gold.  He heads towards Lopez’s shack to get what he views as his property when he hears a ghastly scream.  He finds Lopez dead, papers scattered around him.  The final sheet Lopez was working on is still clutched in his hand.  The only sign on Lopez’s body are puncture marks on his neck.

Brill returns to his cabin to find his horses have been scattered.  Wanting to avenge Lopez but not wishing to tangle with one or more killers in the dark, he barricades himself in his cabin and reads what Lopez wrote.

During the days of the conquistadors, a small expedition rescued a lone survivor from a ship.  The survivor claimed the crew and the rest of the passengers died of plague.  He accompanies the expedition to what would become Texas.  Then the men start dying, bodies left by the side of the trail drained of blood.  Eventually, they find the vampire sleeping in the brush.  He’s the survivor.  Afraid of waking the creature, they bury it in an old Indian burial mound.  Lopez was a descendant of one of the survivors of the expedition.

Brill finishes reading to discover the vampire watching him from the window.  The creature breaks down the door.  While Brill fights for his life, the lantern falls from the table and shatters.  Brill manages to impale the vampire on a broken table leg and flees the burning cabin, letting the fire finish killing the creature.

reh1

Robert E. Howard

“The Horror From the Mound” was criticized when it appeared in Weird Tales because it contained “no less than four flagrant breaches of accepted vampire tradition”.  It was the first of the regional horror stories Howard would write, and it’s one of the best, even if it didn’t respect “vampire tradition”.  Howard blazed his own trail even there.  Howard adds a level of verisimilitude by mention historical figures such as Coronado and real locations such as Palo Pinto, which is both a town near Howard’s birthplace as well as the county in which he was born.

One thing I do want to point out, and that’s Howard’s use of race.  Howard is often considered a racist in some circles because he doesn’t hold 21st Century views.  But consider how Lopez is portrayed.  While Brill does express some racist sentiments, especially when he thinks Lopez has robbed him of a treasure, his attitude towards the Mexican is largely one of respect for the man, if not for some of his beliefs.  He certainly intends on avenging the man when he discovers Lopez’s body.  These were not typical white attitudes towards Hispanics in the time and place Howard was writing nor were they typical attitudes for the setting of the story.  The respect and desire to avenge don’t fit easily into the racist label that’s often applied to the author.

“The Horror From the Mound” is one of Robert E. Howard’s best regional horror tales.  It’s easy to see why.

A Visit to Orangefield on Hallow’s Eve

Hallow’s Eve
Al Sarrantonio
mass market paperback, Leisure, 2004
Kindle edition $3.99

Al Sarrantonio’s work had been favorably compared to that of Ray Bradbury.  I suspect part (but not all) of the reason is that like Bradbury, much of Sarrantonio’s work deals with October in general and Halloween in particular.

And a great deal of that work is set in the fictional town of Orangefield, self-proclaimed Pumpkin Capital of the World.  Hallow’s Eve is the second volume of a trilogy.  The first volume, Orangefield, was published as limited edition by a small press, and as far as I know, never had a mass market edition. 

You don’t need to have read that volume to enjoy this one, however.  I didn’t have any trouble keeping up with the story, although I knew enough about the events in that novel and previous short stories to recognize some of the references. 

Frankly, there wasn’t that much to keep track of.  The plot is pretty simple, and some of the subplots obviously carry over from what came before.  Corrie Phaeder has returned home to Orangefield after a dozen years away.  As a boy, his dreams invaded his waking world, and things would change without warning.  When he left, his mother had recently been murdered, and he had been the prime suspect, at least in the eyes of police detective Grant.  Before everything is over, Grant, along with a neighbor girl, will become Phaeder’s ally in a battle against Samhain, the Lord of Death.

This isn’t the best horror novel I’ve ever read.  The events that brought Phaeder back to Orangefield are lightly sketched, so that his homecoming feels somewhat contrived.  I didn’t find much about it that was scary, although the scene towards the end where the pumpkin men attack Grant in a deserted farmhouse while he’s trying to protect Phaeder and the girl was great. 

What does work is the atmosphere.  Sarrantonio does an excellent job of setting the mood, and Orangefield sounds like a nice place to live if it weren’t for the Lord of Death constantly stirring things up.  The book was by turns creepy, pastoral, and mildly suspenseful, but never really scary.

This is the only novel of Sarrantonio’s I’ve read, and based on this reading, I would say his strength lies more at short lengths than with the novel.  There’s a final volume in this series, Halloweenland, in which a carnival arrives in Orangefield.  Frankly, that trope appeals more to me than the walking scarecrow and the pumpkin men from Hallow’s Eve, although I do enjoy a good ambulatory scarecrow.  I might read it before Halloween, but given the way the last few weeks have gone, I’ll probably save it for next year.

Hallow’s Eve isn’t a bad book, but it wasn’t as good as I was expecting it to be.  Still, it was a pleasant way to pass a few hours and is quite appropriate to the season.

The Premier Issue of Nightmare Magazine is so Good It’s Scary

Yes, I’m starting another review with another bad pun.  As I said previously, some things just have to be done.

Nightmare Magazine is the new online venture from John Joseph Adams, through Creeping Hemlock Press.  Whereas Lightspeed focuses on science fiction and fantasy, Nightmare will feature new and reprint horror and dark fantasy, with interviews, nonfiction, and artist spotlights thrown into the mix. 

Funded by a Kickstarter campaign, Nightmare is out of the gates and running, having gone live on October 1.  If the quality holds, it will definitely be worth the money I spent to support it.  Supporters got their electronic copies the same day the magazine went live, or I would have posted a review in advance.

While current plans are to publish two new and two reprint stories a month, the first issue has four new stories, an editorial by Adams, a column by R. J. Sevin, Author Spotlights in which the authors discuss their stories, and part one of an interview with Peter Straub.  Cover artist Jeff Simpson is the featured artist in this issue’s Artist Spotlight.

Since this blog tends to be fiction oriented, let’s take a look at John Joseph Adams’ selections, shall we?

First up is “Property Condemned” by Jonathan Mayberry.  In this story, four kids explore what is rumored to be the most haunted house in the most haunted town in America.  This one is thought provoking and disturbing, and ultimately deals with the choices we make and whether we actually have those choices.  It features some characters from Mayberry’s Pine Deep trilogy.  I didn’t know this until I read the Author Spotlight on him.  The story is a great stand alone, but I suspect if you’ve read some or all of the trilogy, it will have deeper meaning.  (I downloaded the first volume on my ereader after reading the Spotlight.)

A man participating in the Iditarod runs afoul of the Wild Hunt and years later becomes their prey in Larid Barron‘s “Frontier Death Song”.  This piece of dark fantasy was my favorite in the issue and is one of the best things I’ve seen from this author.  Barron captures the fear and panic of being pursued and makes it real.  I should have seen the ending coming, but I didn’t.

Genevieve Valentine takes us into Ramsey Campbell territory with “Good Fences”, an ambiguous story about a bitter man and a decaying neighborhood.  Calling this story “ambiguous”isn’t meant to be slight.  It’s the ambiguity that makes it work.  Valentine deftly weaves several possibilities together, never letting us know which one is real.

The final fiction piece is “Afterlife” by Sarah Langan.  This tragic tale concerns a middle aged woman living with her hoarder mother, waiting to be evicted, and running a school for ghosts reluctant to pass on.  (A ghost story isn’t the same as a haunted house story, although the two overlap to the point it’s hard to tell them apart at times.)  The real horror he doesn’t come from the ghosts, although they can be horrifying when they choose to.  Rather, the horror unfolds as we learn more about Mary, the protagonist, and her mother Corrine.

I was impressed by the high quality here.  I would expect any of the stories could be picked up for a Best of the Year anthology next year, they’re that good, especially the Barron (IMNSHO). Adams has set himself a high standard.  Anyone with any familiarity with his work can see that he’s becoming one of the premier editors in the field today.  If you like good horror and dark fantasy, check this one out.  Stories  and features are posted free online, with a new ones going live each week.  If, however, you would like to show support for this publication, subscriptions are available here

A Look at Rick Hautala’s Four Octobers

Four Octobers
Rick Hautala
Cemetery Dance
various ebook editions, $4.99
(print edition is out of print)

Cemetery Dance had a special earlier in the year in which, for a fee, you could get any (or all) ebooks in print or any forthcoming this year.  I decided to take advantage of the offer; this is one of the books I’ve gotten so far.  It’s a collection of four novellettes and novellas.  I’ve been reading them one at a time between novels.  Now that I’ve finished it, I thought I’d pass on my thoughts.

Hautala has developed a reputation for being one of the top horror writers working today, both under his own name and his psuedonym A. J. Mattthews.  Earlier this year he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the HWA.  I’d read one or two of his short stories, but none of his novels, although I have one of the one bylined as by Matthews.

“Tin Can Telephone” tells the story of what happens when a boy mysteriously vanishes, and his friend begins to get calls from the future over their tin can telephone.  It’s something of a science fiction piece, but rather than stressing the sensawunder aspect, Hautala emphasizes the fear of the unknown, bringing out the creepiness factor.

The next offering is “Miss Henry’s Bottles”, a coming of age tale in which a boy finds himself, not entirely willingly, doing chores for the creepy old lady everyone is scared of.  In the process he learns some startling things about himself.  While Miss Henry turns out not to be so scary after all, what he eventually learns about her turns his world upside down.

In “Blood Ledge” a middle school student makes a startling discovery when he finally works up the nerve to jump off the highest ledge at the swimming hole.  This one derives its impact from what he decides to do with this information. 

The first three stories are set in the late 50s through the early 70s and concerns children and teens.  The final tale, “Cold River”, takes place in the early 00s.  A widower suffering from insomnia discovers there are worse things at night than not sleeping.  This was a ghost story, with lots of creepiness.  This was also the story that left me somewhat unsatisfied, primarily because Hautala doesn’t explain everything.  While I don’t expect every aspect of a ghost story to have an explanation, the motivations of some of the haunts need to make sense.  Perhaps I missed something, having started this tale late at night not being able to finish it for two nights due to fatigue, but I was left with more questions than answers.  I find that somewhat unsatisfying.  Your mileage may vary.

Overall, this was a quality collection, with plenty of creeps and chills.  Hautala does young protagonists well.  Many of the characters were about the same age I was when I first started reading scary stories, and these tales brought back memories.

I’ve got a collection of Hautala’s short stories somewhere.  I think it’s in storage, but if it isn’t, I’m going to get it out and read them.  One a night.  After everyone’s asleep and the house is quiet.