Monday, April 26, 2010

Skull Full Of Kisses By, (Graveside Tales) Michael West

"Skull Full Of Kisses" is a unique, diverse and powerful collection of bone-chilling horror. The old saying, "love knows no bounds" is well exemplified here. From random acts of kindness, to utter madness, West shows us that even love - the most innocent emotion we posses - is often the impetus for these and other ghastly acts. All of the stories that comprise this treat are gems. Standouts are:

"Dogs Of War", a unique, haunting tale of friendship between two Gulf War veterans. Due to "Gulf War Syndrome" they must rely on each other for support and safety from the walking nightmares that followed them back home.

"The Bridge", a creepy tale about a handful of teens who decide to put the myth of a dead child's ghost to the test when they visit a secluded bridge. This simple premise belies the existential dilemma that foreshadows everyone's future.

"Einstein's Slingshot" is a fast paced, suspenseful tale. Unspeakable beings have been loosed upon the world. It's up to a few survivors - a hodge-podge group - to not only make sense of what stalks humanity, but to understand how it happened as well.

"God Like Me" is an eerily relatable journey into complacency itself. No matter how hard poor Dylan tries to fit into corporate America, the bonds of servitude grow heavier and heavier each day.

"To Know How To See", a highly imaginative tale-set many years in the future on a remote mining outpost in deep space. Unconditional love and its inherent trust are put to the test when Lee realizes all is not what it seems to be.

"Goodnight" is a somber, heart-felt exploration of the age of innocence and the natural forces that eventually strip this gift away. Seven-year-old Tyler's mother has died. With his great-grandfather, they find solace in each other and the reality of what is.

West's seamless prose, coupled with his unique and powerful voice gives us multi-layered tales rarely seen in horror fiction. Most importantly, and what truly makes this collection a breath of fresh air, is how West peppers each story with his uncanny ability to weave readers directly into his fiction. "Skull Full Of Kisses" cements West's status as a rare and formidable storyteller whose work should not be approached lightly.

Reviewed by Ben Eads. Buy it today.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Haunt Me Still, (Dutton), by Jennifer Lee Carrell

In the follow-up to her internationally best-selling debut “Interred With Their Bones”, Jennifer Lee Carrell tackles perhaps one of the best known – and most chilling – Shakespearean legends: the curse of Macbeth. “Haunt Me Still” is just as sharp and scholarly as “Interred” but darker, more foreboding as sometime Shakespearean investigator Kate Stanely once again plunges after a lost play, this time Shakespeare's original version of “Macbeth”, for rumors whisper that it contains ancient rites not fit for man...dark rites that may conjure up death for an innocent girl...and maybe Kate herself.

At the behest of an old friend, Kate travels to Scotland to meet with a mysterious woman who desires Kate's expertise. Upon arrival, she's shocked to discover the enigmatic “Lady Nairn” is also a long retired, beloved actress who once masterfully portrayed Lady Macbeth on stage. Lady Nairn's husband has recently died under strange circumstances, and she's convinced that at the center of this is a lost version of Shakespeare's “Macbeth”, rumored to have contained ancient rites of witchcraft not meant for man. Lady Nairn's request? That Kate recover the lost play and stage it, with herself reprising the role of Lady Macbeth.

Initially Kate's skepticism overshadows the looming chill of Scotland's rolling landscape, but after a harrowing vision of death – Lady Nairn's daughter Lily, murdered – dark shadows of conspiracy and something else closes in around her. As Kate is drawn deeper into a complex web of deceit, treachery...and, dare she admit, ancient magic?...she flounders, caught in the inexorable grip of a dark inheritance passed down through the centuries.

Carrell's supernatural touches are light but cloying, leaving the reader unsure if the black magic indeed is real or just the conjuring of criminals...but still shivering, all the same. As with “Interred”, a Carrell Shakespearean mystery is not only enthralling and entertaining but educational also. With deft strokes Carrell makes Shakespeare's legacy just a touch darker, but that seems fitting for a playwright that everyone knows but about whom little is really known, a writer who virtually appeared from nowhere – almost conjured from mist – to change the course of literary history.

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“When the Night Comes Down”, (Dark Arts Books), edited by Bill Breedlove

Continuing its series of author samplers, Dark Arts Books notches another mark on its belt with its latest compilation, “When the Night Comes Down”. Featuring some of the best tales to date by four outstanding writers, Dark Arts proves that when it comes to collections, contributor quality ranks far higher than quantity. Among the standouts are:

By Bev Vincent, “Something in Store” and “Purgatory Noir”; the former about a charmed bookstore that offers its new owner pleasures – and perhaps terrors – beyond imagining, the latter about a private detective on a new case that's going to be Hell...literally.

“The One Answer That Really Matters”, by Robert Weinberg, featuring his popular occult detective Sid Taine on a quest to fulfill a convicted serial killer's last request: discover exactly which plane all of humankind really exists on...heaven, or hell?

In “Breeding Demons” and “The Buzz of a Thousand Wings”; Nate Kenyon shows a much sharper and brutal edge than usual, and his cuts are masterful. The first tale is about a struggling artist who learns – almost too late – about the horrible kinship between Creator and the created, as he struggles to reconcile his dark art with the woman he pursues; the second about a haunted cop verging upon a mind-shattering secret lurking in the city's sewers...and in his own heart.

Finally, offering perhaps his best work to date is Joseph D'Lacey with fine very fine tales. First is “The Unwrapping of Alistair Perry”, in which a speed-dating bachelor undergoes a startling gender transformation, only to discover his true self hiding beneath his new face. “Etoile's Tree” is a touching – yet melancholic – story about a young boy's courage, an old man's enduring kindness, and the inheritance of strange magic, and “Morag's Fungus” is a darkly humorous tale that reads like a contemporary spin of the Brothers Grimm, about a woman suffering from terminal disease and the salvation she finds in myth and story. Finally is “Introscopy”, a cautionary tale warning of a dangerous future in which mankind presumes to know the key to the human soul and uses it to separate the “righteous” from the “wicked”.

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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Dark Faith, (Apex Publications), edited by Jerry Gordon and Maurice Broaddus

“Faith”. For many it means a belief in the unseen. It can be a driving force behind daily decisions or a nostalgic affectation for appearances only. It can be leaned upon daily, or called upon only in times of need. And, without a doubt, Faith’s power breeds as much violence and destruction as it does healing and comfort. Regardless of race or creed, faith’s pull on human nature cannot be denied.

Apex’s “Dark Faith” probes this human phenomenon and all its implications, both light and dark. Some stories approach faith from religious standpoints, others from myth and folklore, while others simply deal with “believing in something”. Editors Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon have assembled a comprehensive collection, but the most impressive works are:

“Ghosts of New York”, by Jennifer Pelland, a haunting story which suggests that remembering our deceased loved ones traps them in Hell; “He Who Would Not Bow”, by Wrath White James, which focuses on a terrifying truth that most believers dismiss: if God exists and is merciful to His followers, by His own rules...He must punish and destroy His enemies; “Zen and the Art of Gordon Dratch’s Damnation”, another skillfully crafted tale by the ever-impressive Douglas F. Warrick, about a man’s road to enlightenment through Hell, and the possibility that “God” NEEDS us to believe in Him; “Go and Tell it on the Mountain”, by Kyle S. Johnston, a darkly-humorous tale validating the existence of God, Jesus...and the futility of an imperfect race like ours EVER joining them in eternity.

“You Dream”, by Ekaterina Sedia, a tale about how memory twists and allows us to forget things that have hurt us; “Mother Urban’s Book of Dayes”, by Jay Lake, where a boy dabbles in elemental powers far beyond his ken; “A Loss for Words”, a tale warning against abusing one’s “muse”, because what the muse gives...she can always take away; “The Choir”, by Lucian Soulban, a wonderfully Lovecraftian tale about World War II soldiers persecuted for their lifestyle, consigned to the dank hold of a cargo ship with something that slithers in the dark; and “Days of Flaming Motorcycles”, by Catherynne M. Valente, a different kind of zombie story about a young woman who retains her faith in humanity, even as it crumbles around her.

The finest tales of this collection are “Paint Box, Puzzle Box” by D. T. Friedman and “For My Next Trick I’ll Need A Volunteer”, by Gary A. Braunbeck. The former makes a wonderful connection between Art and Faith, that the Creator is an Artist, and that each work creates and opens doors to innumerable worlds and realities; the later takes place in Braunbeck’s Cedar Hill mythos, where the ever enigmatic Reverend takes a heavy-hearted Bill Emerson on a reality bending journey to restore his sagging faith.

Faith. Light and dark. Terrible beauty and mind-shattering horror. It’s all here, in what’s sure to be one of the year’s best anthologies.

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Thursday, April 1, 2010

“Mighty Unclean”, (Dark Arts Books), edited by Bill Breedlove

We've all been to that "dark place". Done things that make us feel filthy. It's hard to avoid, living in such a cold world made of shifting shadow. Few of us, however, ever hit bottom. Dangle from the end of our rope. Step off the edge. Those who do feel worse than just filthy. They feel violated. Poisoned. Barely alive. Mighty Unclean.

"Mighty Unclean" is a collection of novellas from four of the best in dark fiction today. It's a great concept, one that Dark Arts Books began with "Candy in the Dumpster" then followed with "Waiting for October", "Sins of the Siren", "Like A Chinese Tattoo" and continued with "When the Night Comes Down" - instead of collecting seventeen mediocre short stories in a mediocre anthology, collect several novellas by proven writers. The result is a marriage between the best of two worlds: the variety of a short story collection and a depth and quality of storytelling well worth the cost.

All of "Mighty Unclean" is worth the cost, but the best are...

Mort Castle: "Moon On the Water", a chilling, eerie jazz tale of obsession, jealous desire and addiction; "I am Your Need", a Mort Castle classic...a harrowing, speculative peek inside the head of Hollywood's most notorious blond bombshell, proving once again that humanity is far more monstrous than any `B' movie creature; and "Dreaming Robot Monster" - a brilliant masterpiece homage...pastiche...spoof...twist...of the Golden Age Science Fiction film "Robot Monster".

Gary Braunbeck: "Merge Right", a heart-wrenching tale of a husband grieving for his dead wife and the child he'll never have, on what he thinks is an odyssey of remembrance but what becomes a harrowing journey into a dark, cold purgatory from which he may never return; "As It Is In Your Head", a tale about a man obsessed only with his own lusts, and how his selfish pursuit of self-gratification is turned upon him in a Promethean horror; and "Bargain", a cautionary tale about selling your soul to the devil, one with a decidedly Bradbury-flavor.

Cody Goodfellow: "Venus of Santa Cruz", a mind-shattering story about a misogynistic cop's encounter with a bizarre, parasitic entity that delivers him to the heights of ecstasy...while exacting a horrible price; "The Weak Sisters Bust Out", a new twist on the jailbreak tale, only these inmates have been tampered with, making their very essence explosive.

Gemma Files: "Ring of Fire", a chilling tale of the demons - both human and supernatural - who haunt uprisings and wars, in this case the bloodshed surrounding the Sepoy Revolution in Britain-occupied India, and "Crossing the River", a story about an incarcerated witch who meets someone sharing a deep, common bond - demon blood - but as a demon hunter may also be her greatest enemy.

Several of these stories are reprinted, but that takes nothing away from their power. If "Mighty Unclean" is an indication of Dark Arts' standards, collect this and their other collections soon.

Visit and (website of editor, Bill Breedlove). Buy it today.

Stronger Than Death, (Snuff Books), by Steven L. Shrewsbury

"Stronger Than Death" mixes one of the bloodiest chapters of American history - the Civil War - with reanimated souls hungry for vengeance and a man's quest for restoration and respect. An entertainer as always, Shrewsbury delivers a fun yarn that's bloody but redemptive, also.

Sam Stuart is a factory worker running on the last dregs of a tattered self-respect. A broken drunk who has lost both his wife and children, he lives and drinks alone. Worse, he's recently suffered horrible visions of bloodshed and death, nightmares of wholesale slaughter wrought during the Civil War. Haunted by an apparition claiming to be the spirit of a Confederate ancestor, Sam wonders if he's finally losing his mind.

His dreams and visions are more than alcoholic hallucinations, however. Someone else has suffered ghostly visits by a vengeful spirit. Its goal? A Civil War relic storing the souls of Union soldiers. Once the relic has been recovered and they've been set free, these souls inhabit the nearest dead body to reanimate them. An army of the dead is raised, and not only are they angry at their centuries-long imprisonment in limbo...they're quite insane.

They've higher aims than random bloodshed and destruction, however. After they've all been freed, one last soul remains in Hell...the one responsible for cursing them in the first place. They reserve special plans for this spirit, and require a special body for those plans, one living and fresh...

Sam Stuart's teenage daughter. Guided by the spirit of his ancestor, Sam must gird himself and fend off his alcoholism long enough to send the dead back where they came from, as well as save his daughter...before she becomes one of them.

"Stronger than Death" is a fun, new variation on an old horror trope: bloody battle against legions of the undead. Like the zombies in Brian Keene's "The Rising" and "Dead City", however, these zombies are cunning and ruthless, not lurching, mindless flesh-eating automatons. Also, with the historical bits he mixed into the story, Shrewsbury reminds readers of how bloody and merciless the Civil War was; something easy to forget after years of studying lifeless textbook accounts of the "Brother's War".

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