Playing with (Ecto)Power: A review of ZERO LIVES REMAINING by Adam Cesare

Published by Shock Totem Publications
Available Here

Videogames and horror can often go hand-in-hand. They’re both mediums that are often marginalized, scapegoated, or ignored as works of art. Adam Cesare clearly couldn’t care less, as his novella Zero Lives Remaining demonstrates the author’s unashamed love for both.

I could tell that Cesare was writing a book for himself—something fun, with just the right amount of nostalgia and love for the arcade scene of decades past. But in doing that, he’s also struck a cord with plenty of other readers—myself included—who have an interest and reverence for the digital masterpieces of arcade cabinet fame and for good old-fashioned supernatural horror.

Hotels Are Creepy as Hell: A Review of John McNee’s PRINCE OF NIGHTMARES

Published by Blood Bound Books
Available Here
Review by Billy Lyons

I’ve always found hotels to be creepy as hell. Whenever I walk down an empty hotel corridor, I become very anxious when it’s time to make that 90 degree turn around a blind corner, because I expect to see the two little girls from The Shining standing at the other end, holding hands and asking me if I want to play with them. Forever and ever. And even when I do manage to make it safely into my room, it’s almost impossible to get comfortable. I can’t stop asking myself whether some poor bastard killed himself in the bathroom where I just brushed my teeth, or if someone was once found dead in the very same bed I’m supposed to sleep in.

Yet no matter how disturbing I find hotels to be, I don’t think my imagination has ever come up with any scenario as terrifying as those found in John McNee’s excellent novel, Prince of Nightmares.

Love, Marriage, and the Weird: A review of Philip Fracassi’s MOTHER

Published by Dunhams Manor Press
Available Here
Review by Billy Lyons

There comes a time in almost every marriage when one’s spouse seems remarkably different from the person they married. The person you thought you knew better than anyone else on earth becomes a stranger, and you wonder if you ever knew them at all. Fortunately, many such marital crises resolve on their own with little or no damage to either party. But there are exceptions. A horrifying example of one such exception is found in Mother, the terrifying new novella from Philip Fracassi.

Mother is the story of Howard and Julie, who meet in college and find happiness in each other’s arms. After three years together, they marry and move far away from their college town to West Virginia (in itself a terrifying proposition), where they hope to build a happy life together.

Unfortunately, things go wrong almost from the start. Howard accepts a teaching position at a local community college, while Julie stays home to concentrate on her art. Howard is happy enough, but Julie becomes dissatisfied almost immediately. She doesn’t fit in with Howard’s friends, and has little success in finding a gallery that will showcase her work. Before long, their once promising partnership falters.

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As the first years of their marriage pass, Julie goes from being merely bored and distant to exhibiting behavior that is both secretive and bizarre. When Howard discovers her standing naked in her studio amidst some bizarre occult symbols, he very correctly worries that things have gone too far. As he delves deeper into his wife’s hidden affairs, the secrets he uncovers will endanger not only his marriage, but his very soul.

One of the things that makes Mother so successful is Fracassi’s superior writing. His development of the two main characters is superb. I found myself identifying with them early on, and as a result I was invested in their success or failure. When things began to go wrong for Howard and Julie, I found myself genuinely concerned for their future. As a writer, I can tell you that creating such vivid and relatable characters is no easy feat.

Fracassi also does a wonderful job of establishing and building mood. As Howard and Julie’s relationship progressed, I felt my own emotions running the gamut, from happy optimism on their wedding day to general discomfort as their partnership began to collapse, to sheer terror once their story reaches its terrifying climax.

And believe me, it is a terrifying climax, one worthy of Lovecraft himself. The last few pages of Mother scared the hell out of me, and coming from someone who eats, sleeps, and breathes horror, that takes some doing. I also found Mother’s ending to be reminiscent of Stephen King’s Revival, a novel I consider to be this century’s most significant contribution to weird fiction.

Although Philip Fracassi is already an accomplished screenwriter and novelist, Mother is his first attempt at horror. After reading it, I hope it won’t be his last.

You can follow Philip Fracassi at his blog and on Twitter.

a black shape against the sun, a negative space: A review of YEAR’S BEST WEIRD FICTION VOLUME TWO

Edited by Kathe Koja and Michael Kelly
Published by Undertow Publications
Available Here or on Amazon

My literary tastes trend toward the grindhouse. Schlock, melodrama, and spooky spectacle of the un-ironic variety. To continue to couch this in terms of the cinema, I prefer John Carpenter over David Lynch; Stuart Gordon over Lars von Trier. Whatever weird fiction might mean, I more often than not prefer it to mean horror, and within that association, I like monsters, creepy settings, unsettling imagery, and a little action. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy fiction that’s intellectual or cerebral. But I like what I read to strike a balance somewhere between fun and intellectual, with the slider closer to the former. It’s all art to me, man—whether it’s the rickety spookhouse ride or the ballet.

I just tend to have more fun at the spookhouse.

It is, however, with great pleasure that I devoured Year’s Best Fiction Volume Two edited by Kathe Koja and Michael Kelly. Koja is a powerful writer and artist, and Kelly’s voluminous reading of horror and weird literature is award-worthy unto itself. Together, they’ve curated a book of sterling quality; diversity in stories, modes, and authorship alike. This is elite weird fiction—yes, even literary in its aspirations—done completely right.

Not every story was my bag of popcorn, of course. But what makes this collection great is that, even when I didn’t vibe with a particular style or narrative, I still recognized that the writing was masterful, and the imagery was haunting. This book has a little something for everyone, and, I’m not afraid to admit, my own tastes and preferences were challenged for the better.

I won’t mention all the stories I enjoyed in this collection (that would be most of them), but I’ll touch on a few. Keep in mind that the stories that I didn’t enjoy were not bad by any means, but were instead just not right for me.

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Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Atlas of Hell” was the perfect story to start the collection. It’s a crime noir yarn with a delirious creature-feature bent. Siobhan Carrol’s “Wendigo Nights” is equal parts The Thing and introspective supernatural meditation. Kima Jones’ “Nine” is a period piece that tells a story of dark juju and a patchwork family battling its influence. Caitlín R. Kiernan turns the monster slayer trope on its head in the pulpy (yes!) selection “Bus Fare.”

Rich Larson laughs off the standard mermaid tale in “The Air We Breathe is Stormy, Stormy” and explores a would-be father’s fear. Usman T. Malik writes about religious-civil conflict in a foreign-born Re-Animator take in “Resurrection Points.” Sarah Pinsker’s science fiction-character study “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide” is a subtle examination of identity and rural life (with more than a passing connection to my own dear Colorado).

These selections knocked my socks off—scratching that ghoulish horror itch, or conjuring thoughtful reflection. Again, even the stories not listed here—a couple of which were not to my taste—were still full of striking imagery and impression that lasted well beyond the time I spent reading them.

Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volume Two is an anthology that, despite its chronological-inspired name, will remain evergreen. I have not read Volume One, but I should. With Volume Three right around the corner, there’s no better time than to get caught up now.

Highly recommended for fans of dark speculative fiction, or for those looking for an entry point into the vast and growing body of high-quality weird work… and recommended for lowbrow horror junkies, too.

William S. Burroughs, Marilyn Monroe, and the Horror Cosmic: A Review of John Claude Smith’s RIDING THE CENTIPEDE

Riding the Centipede by John Claude Smith
Published by Omnium Gatherum
Review by Tom Breen

 

It’s surprising to learn that Riding the Centipede is John Claude Smith’s debut novel, because the tale, which blends noir with weird fiction, Beat mysticism with pulp zest, and mixes in other genres along the way, reads like the work of a writer expertly skilled in the long form.

Smith’s novel begins with one of the most basic detective novel premises: a mysterious rich woman wants a private eye to track down her missing brother, who is lost in some unknown California demimonde. So far, we could be in a Hammett or Chandler story, trudging down those famed mean streets with Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe.

The fun in Smith’s tale, of course, comes from how far he’s willing to twist that familiar framework, and by the end of the novel, he’s wrenched it so far out of its normal shape that a reader is more apt to think of hallucinatory dream journeys rather than old school two-fisted crime fiction, as everyone from William Burroughs to Marilyn Monroe has made an appearance, our sense of the possible has been altered, and we have learned about one of the most unpleasant acts it’s possible to do with a man who looks like a rat.

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The novel is told, in alternating chapters, through the eyes of Terrance Blake, the gumshoe archetype; Marlon Teagarden, the scion of a Hollywood couple whose peccadilloes went beyond even the normal Hollywood decadence, now living a semi-feral existence in pursuit of the ultimate high; and Rudolph Chernobyl, a nuclear-powered hit man whose only resemblance to the heavies of classic noir is his willingness to use absolutely brutal violence to get whatever he wants.

Blake is deep into a sporadic, fruitless, years-long search for Teagarden, whose older sister, Jane, has never stopped looking for him when a visit to San Francisco, heartland of the Beats, brings the detective a series of strange clues that seem like the only good leads he’s ever gotten.

Teagarden, immersed in a personal world of unimaginable depravity in hopes of locating some ultimate, truth-conferring experience, is looking to “Ride the Centipede,” the term for a narcotic-mystical experience guarded by a version of Naked Lunch author Burroughs, who may only be cribbing from an even stranger, more obscure author named Peter Solon, who hasn’t been heard from since his second book was published, but who can be found by those who know how to look.

Everyone in the novel is searching for something: Teagarden’s quest, in fact, resembles a profane, modern version of medieval visionary literature of which Dante’s Divine Comedy is only the greatest and most famous example. In these accounts, the protagonist would travel through terrifying, Boschian underworlds and hells before getting a glimpse of the paradise that awaited the faithful, and would return to the world utterly changed.

Teagarden, who has as much to escape from as he has to gain by chasing the elusive Centipede, resembles one of these pilgrims in the purity of his intentions if not in any outward piety, but he has to contend with the other characters’ own searches: his sister, never giving up on him no matter how depraved his existence has become; Blake, looking for Teagarden and at the same time trying to find some way to forgive himself for a wasted life of missed opportunities; and the terrifying Chernobyl, an art lover, who is hired by a mysterious party to track down Teagarden, and who begins to suspect that whatever the young Hollywood exile is looking for may finally match his own monstrous cravings.

Where Smith excels is in taking familiar elements from a range of genres and throwing them all into a blender, then throwing the resulting mixture against the nearest wall. The novel contains science fiction, horror, mystery, experimental fiction, and, in maybe its most effective passage, high weird fiction, as Blake comes face to face with the elusive writer Solon in an unforgettable encounter that is absolutely unique and powerfully effective in depicting the truly otherworldly.

Other critics have suggested ours is a golden age for weird fiction, horror fiction, or whatever this type of literature is called, and novels like Riding the Centipede are an illustration of why: a new generation of horror writers, while schooled in the classics (Lovecraft gets a wry mention in the novel), are taking all of literary history as their toolbox as they fashion something new and splendidly terrifying.

Tentacles and Transhumanism: A Review of TOMORROW’S CTHULHU

Tomorrow’s Cthulhu edited by Scott Gable & C. Dombrowski
Published by Broken Eye Books
Review by Billy Lyons

 

Whatever happened to the Great Old Ones?

Is the spirit of Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, and Shub-Niggurath alive in the 21st Century and beyond?   Will tomorrow’s technology provide a medium through which the barriers between dimensions dissolve? Are there modern scientists working diligently to wake the Elder Gods, just as Wilbur Whateley did in the shadowy hills of Innsmouth so many years ago? If these are questions that plague your mind and keep you awake deep into the night, you will definitely want to check out Tomorrow’s Cthulhu, the excellent new short story collection from Broken Eye Books.

The stories found in Tomorrow’s Cthulhu are so well-written and hold the reader’s interest so well that it is difficult to pick just one favorite.

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“68 Days” by Kaaron Warren is a chilling story that chronicles the macabre experiences of a likable social outcast during her participation in a scientific research project.

Clinton J. Boomer’s “The Sky Isn’t Blue” tells the story of a deadly cat and mouse game that unfolds as a hardened homicide detective interviews a renowned therapist, one who is hiding a very dangerous otherworldly affiliation.

In “Astral and Arcane Science” by S.J. Leary, two investigators interview a reclusive scientist who is working deep in the bowels of a medical research facility. Before they are through, they will uncover secrets that threaten not only their own lives, but the future of humanity as we know it.

The stories found in Tomorrow’s Cthulhu are masterful blends of science fiction and the creeping horrors that are familiar to any H.P. Lovecraft fan. Each tale provides a unique glimpse into the terrors that unsuspecting humans might face in the near future if the Old Gods should wake from their slumber.

Behold the Vermin, Mine Own Heart: a review of Danger Slater’s I WILL ROT WITHOUT YOU

I Will Rot Without You by Danger Slater
Published by Fungasm Press/Eraserhead Press
Available February 8, 2016

Danger Slater wants to make you uncomfortable. And he’s damn good at it. I Will Rot Without You is not some metaphorical title. It very much describes what’s happening to its anxiety-ridden, sickly narrator. The rot in question is threefold: one, The City in which the story takes place is under threat from an apocalyptic storm. Two, the narrator’s crumbling apartment building is being overrun by a sentient hive-mind of malicious cockroaches and overgrown fungus. And three, the narrator has some sort of illness that starts in his hand and works its way up and out, until he’s literally falling apart.

The rot is also emotional, of course. Our narrator is a hot mess. Bills he can’t hope to pay are pouring out of his mailbox. His ex-girlfriend wants nothing to do with him. He’s a coward, penniless, and everything is collapsing around him. This book is profoundly humorous, horrifying, sad, and gross in equal measure. Not since Nick Cutter’s The Deep have I found a book so focused on body horror.

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This is the gross-out for the gross-out’s sake, so if bizarro body horror isn’t your cup of entrails, pass this one by. While I am not usually a fan of this type of writing, Slater’s sense of humor and on-the-nose characterization of both the narrator and his degenerate neighbors won me over. This is a book very much about slacker/urban anxiety. It’s all of your worst anxieties, fears, self-doubts, and sense of being overwhelmed externalized.

It’s also very, very funny. I found myself shaking my head or speaking out in protest at the gluttony of horrors described on each page. The plot is an upward curve of exponential degradation, heartbreak, and fungoid slime—but the story is fast-paced, the writing so vivid, and the humor so poignant and cutting that it never overstays its welcome. By the time the climax hits, you’ll be ready to watch it all drown. Cathartic, ridiculous, and emotionally satisfying, I Will Rot Without You is a funhouse ride through one man’s insecurities and broken heart.

Recommended for fans of bizarro, body horror, and for anybody who’s ever felt like they might fall apart. Literally.

I was provided an advance review copy, and the book will not be available until February 8th. Please check the author’s blog for information on when the book is available for purchase.