Saturday, March 27, 2010

Creatures of the Pool, (Leisure Fiction), by Ramsey Campbell

There's a reason why Ramsey Campbell is considered by many as one of the finest horror writers ever, and those reasons are alive and well in Leisure's latest release, “Creatures of the Pool”. Brimming with a surreality found only in waking fever dreams, “Creatures” is an utterly enthralling, brooding tale about ancient secrets buried in deep, dark, wet places that only exist in memory and dreams...but still ooze upwards from their burial places to shape and mold the reality of what we've become.

Gavin Meadows' relatively comfortable life is thrown askew when his eccentric father disappears without a trace shortly after sharing some strange research ideas with Gavin, ideas that smack more of obsession than research. Apparently, his father felt that watery secrets lurked in the subterranean tunnels beneath Liverpool; secrets steeped in mystery, ancient rites and beings, covered up by modern authorities. At first, Gavin is worried chiefly about his father's sanity and wellbeing, and that's all.

However, as hours and days pass and Gavin – however reluctantly – finds himself increasingly drawn into his father's studies, things fall apart. Distracted, he mishandles his tour guide duties. That, and the legendary history stored in his head to spice up his tours has mixed with his father's theories, turning the world around him into a hallucinatory haze of dreams, half-thought ideas and vague conspiracies. He encounters insubstantial beings more rubbery than human, experiences watery glimpses of amoeboid creatures haunting his steps, and suddenly has cause to distrust everyone he knows or meets: the policemen searching for his father, strangers on the street...even his girlfriend, Lucinda.

What is she hiding at the local library? Why do the police seem unconcerned over his father's disappearance, vaguely threatening, even? And why does water trickle everywhere, and not normal water either but a thicker, viscous liquid teeming with a strange life that leaves even Gavin feeling bloated, misshapen...floating inside his body and head.

Campbell's masterful use of the first-person, present tense narrative puts readers directly into Gavin's head, making them subject to his increasing disorientation as the lines separating fact, reality, history, legend and race-memory fade and everything mixes together. There's the temptation to call this story intensely Lovecraftian, but doing so does Campbell a grave disservice. However much “Creatures” smacks of Lovecraft, it is Campbell's own. Better to call it a “Campbellian” tale, because though it instills a familiar dread, it belongs in a category all its own.

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Friday Night at the Beast House, (Leisure Fiction), by Richard Laymon

“Friday Night in Beast House” is a suspenseful tale of adolescent curiosity and the brazenness that accompanies it. Simplistic, yet masterfully crafted, Laymon effortlessly takes us back to our younger years and the fears that accompanied it. Not your typical haunted house story, Laymon presents us familiar horrors that transcend anything a house or the supernatural could offer.

Sixteen year old Mark Mathews has a crush on his fellow classmate, Alison. She’d given him a smile from time to time. She never had an inkling, he was sure, of how he felt about her. And he’d intended it to remain that way until Bigelow – the school bully – spills Allison's school books onto the floor of the hallway.

After Mark helps her, he realizes he can’t keep his feelings bottled up any longer. He calls Alison after school under the guise of checking on her wounded knee. She answers his question before he has the chance to ask it. Yes. She will go out with him…on one condition: Mark must get inside “Beast House”, hide, and wait for her to join him at midnight for their first date.

“Beast House”, once the scene of unspeakable acts of torture and murder, is now relegated to a mere tourist attraction. The history of the legendary house has become nothing more than myth-fodder for movies, books and gossip. But if this is the case, why does Mark find the carcass of a mutilated animal when he attempts to break in? And once he gets inside, why is the lock on the cellar door gone? Will his fears force him to cry-off their date, or will his eagerness to achieve what was once only a dream prevail?

“Friday Night in Beast House” is a part of Laymon's “Beast House” series. It complements the series well, while also standing strong on its own as a stand-alone novel. Laymon’s trademark prose, pace and characterization is in full bloom here, pulling us into Mark’s world further and further, every terrifying step of the way.

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Reviewed by Ben Eads.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Witchfinder: Dawn of the Demontide, (Oxford University Press), by William Hussey

The first installment of William Hussey’s new YA/Teen series “Witchfinder” begins authoritatively with “Dawn of the Demontide”. An acclaimed author of literary horror, Hussey’s voice speaks just as powerfully here, crafting a tale that’s engaging and fast-paced. A dark fantasy that takes the best of “Harry Potter” and gives it a harder edge, “Dawn of the Demontide” is substantial enough for adults as well as teens.

Fifteen-year-old Jacob Harker loves his horror. Comics, novels, movies...ever since his father gave him his first box of horror comics for his ninth birthday, Jake has feasted on tales of the night, building a “dark catalogue” of everything monstrous, slimy, and supernatural. He even writes tales of his own. For Jake, Horror serves as his main entertainment, because his parent’s secretive work at the mysterious Hobarron Institute alienates him from his schoolmates. Still, he has his love of horror, which he shares with Simon Lydgate, an older teen who lives as a drifter nearby. That’s enough for him.

One night changes everything. When his mother and Simon are murdered, Jake is introduced to a horrifying truth: monsters are real. Nothing is as it seems, and even worse, all humanity stands in peril as an ancient evil threatens to invade the earthly realms. This is the secretive work his parents have been engaged in, the mandate of the Hobarron Institute: defeating this evil, once and for all.... except their latest weapon, his mother’s secret work, has failed. The Hobarron Institute must consider desperate measures, but will these measures make them just as evil as the demons they fight?

And will they cost Jake his life? What about the strange dreams he has of long passed times, when a man called the “Witchfinder” hunted evil...and why is Jake dreaming through this man’s eyes?

Hussey’s new series promises an exciting ride, as he once again shows his impressive handle of myth and supernatural lore. As always, his narrative is a pleasure to read. Also, a YA/Teen horror novel requires a delicate balance between something too dark and something too watered-down and childish. He strikes just the right notes. This is definitely horror and dark fantasy that any adult would enjoy, but in language and content, it’s completely appropriate for teens, fit for high school classrooms, even. To begin a new adventure of the dark fantastic, pick up the “Dawn of the Demontide” today.

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Dark Jesters: An Anthology of Humorous Horror (Novello Publishers), edited by Nick Cato and L.L. Soars

Finding humor in the darkness is one of humanity’s greatest strengths. Laughing at evil, mocking the hangman, chuckling amidst the shadows is often what allows us to survive tragedies and other horrors to push onward to another day.

Also, how often have we laughed at gruesome scenes because of the ridiculous human behavior revealed therein? Not only does horror expose the enduring human spirit, not only does it cast a trembling light upon our inner often shows how ridiculous human beings really can be.

“Dark Jesters” attempts to cast a light on this ridiculous behavior, and for the most part, it succeeds. Some of the stories enjoy promising starts but suffer somewhat unresolved endings, while others fall short of actual humor, but among the best are:

“Fossilized Braains”, by William A. Veselik is a wonderful treatment of a zombie plague amongst cavemen. Even if the cavemen’s logic occasionally seems too thoughtful, that just plays into the humor of their brethren succumbing to a zombie virus and becoming dumber than they are. The narrative reads smoothly enough that any logic bumps are quickly paved over by the entertaining story.

In “Wolf Plugs”, by Jarrod Balzer, an age-old trickster comes in the guise of a werewolf hunter and takes advantage of a town under werewolf siege. This story inspires thoughts of every horror movie in which desperate town citizens swallow completely unreasonable solutions to their supernatural predicaments at face value. A cautionary tale against accepting the wares of traveling supernatural hunters without questioning the logic of their selling points, indeed.

“Curse of the Blind Eel”, by James Del Roy is a vampire-hunting tale of scatological proportions, because really – one scenario all those melodramatic vampire movies completely gloss over? What to do when creeping into the moldering lair of the eternal undead...and Nature’s most important call cannot be ignored?

“Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” by Robert Guffey and “Retirement” by Rob Brooks round out this collection nicely. The former is a tale with a nice Bizzaro flavor to it, of – literally – the enduring spirit of the late great James Brown. The later muses on the fate of the Boogey-Man after he’s lost his touch and is consigned to cubicle-dwelling hell, where he’s forced to utilize his closet lurking skills for an entirely different purpose to survive in the cutthroat corporate world.

For the lighter side of horror, this collection offers more than enough chuckles. Visit and pick up a copy today.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Werewolf Smackdown, (EOS Fantasy), by Mario Acevedo

In the current glut of urban fantasy/noir/hardboiled crime, it's hard to tell what's worth reading. On top, of course, are names such as Jim Butcher, Tim Waggoner, Simon Green and others, but dozens of "mythic" knock-offs abound, some of them quality reading, the rest better left alone. One standout is Mario Acevedo's vampire detective, Felix Gomez, who returns to action in "Werewolf Smackdown".

Felix Gomez has been drawn into a war that's not his own but threatens not only vampire-kind, but scores of supernatural beings and humans, also. A death has left a power vacuum in the werewolf hierarchy of Charleston, South Carolina. Two rival families stand ready to wage civil war. When Felix discovers that an alpha werewolf wants to hire him for an assassination, he turns the gig down quick...but not quickly enough, apparently, as two vampire thugs try to take him out soon after.

Now, what looked like a simple job offer has turned into a tangle of lies, deceit, and mystery. Worse, as Felix digs deeper - instead of blowing town, which common sense dictates - he realizes that an old, deadly foe thought long dead might be pulling the strings. Worse, this foe cares nothing for the "Great Secret", an ancient pact made to shield the supernatural world from the human one. The goal: werewolf Armageddon, to blow the lid off the Secret, which would put everyone - human and supernatural - in danger.

Many writers have tried to emulate the charisma of Butcher's wildly popular character Harry Dresden; Acevedo is one of the few who very well may have succeeded. Gomez isn't a "vampire Harry Dresden", but he strikes the same world-weary tone of the classic gumshoe detective, only in this case his world consists of immortality, aversion to sunlight, and feeding off the living. Like Dresden, a detective who just happens to be a wizard, Gomez just happens to have been turned into a vampire. That speaks of a character stronger than just its genre trappings, which makes Acevedo a writer stronger than his chosen genre.

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Snow, (Leisure Fiction), by Ronald Malfi

Amongst legions of vampires, werewolves, zombies, vengeful spirits of evil entombed ancestors and Lovecraftian water monsters with lashing tentacles, it's gratifying to encounter a creature that's fresh and original, and - though detailed - not over explained to the point of:

"Oh, I see. It's a brand-new twist on an ancient Native American Algonquin Elder Myth of Very Old Beings From Before Time! How silly of me!"

In other words, it's nice to be surprised by something new and still be left hanging at the end, wondering what that thing was, and where and when it'll strike next. Ronald Malfi accomplishes this in "Snow": He uses the always effective horror environment of a small town cut off by a blizzard; then he gives ample reason to fear the snow itself...down to even the tiniest flake.

Todd Curry is a newly divorced dad trying to make up for lost time and wasted opportunities, but torrential snowstorms have canceled all flights from Chicago, ruining his chances of seeing his only son for Christmas. Determined, Todd joins a woman named Kate and an elderly couple as they try driving to their varied destinations. It's risky, but he's desperate enough and Kate seems crazy enough for it to work.

A car accident becomes the least of their worries after they pick up a confused man wandering in the snow, claiming that his daughter is lost in the woods. By proxy, he leads them to a snowed-in town, dark and empty, save for a few barrel fires...and something that darts in and out of the shadows. Something awful and ethereal waits for these four travelers; something that wants more from them than just food...

Malfi's handle of the craft is rock-solid; he crafts a wire-taut, suspenseful atmosphere. Also, potential sparks between Kate (engaged to someone else) and Todd are handled respectfully, and Malfi clearly understands the concept of providing resolution without explaining everything away. Readers who can love the journey without a detailed map drawn for them at the end will love this.

Buy it today.