A Flock of Opportunity: Broken Worlds reviewed

Edited by Jack Burgos
Published by A Murder of Storytellers

Also available on Amazon

The democratization of publishing tools is a double-edged sword, for sure. You get a lot of people shoving out an unending sting of sub-par, shoddily edited (if at all) swill. I’ve listened to podcasts espousing the benefits of getting a ton of material out quickly—as in, 5,000 words or more a week—in order to start LIVING THE DREAM NOW. There’s reams of digital copy available online right now that would never pass muster with any self-respecting publishing outfit of any size.

The other consequence, of course, is that we now have access to the work of writers and editors who might not get a mainstream publishing opportunity. Few things are more enjoyable than when I discover a new writer (through a small press or self-published) whose work is unique and of high quality.

Broken Worlds is a book from an editor whose passion for genre literature is clear. This is the kind of book that has benefited from the digital and print on demand revolution. It’s got a ton of short stories from independent (and some underground-established) authors. The book is very uneven in terms of genre, writing styles, and arguably quality—but that’s what makes it charming. It’s big enough and diverse enough that you’re bound to find something you like. It’s books like this that represent the future of small press publishing: new editors and authors getting their sea legs under them, getting their work published and read, developing their voices and deciding where they want to go as artists—and those of us who take a chance on their work get to go along for the ride.

The book’s central theme is that we live in a reality of systems—and these systems degenerate or evolve (much like traditional publishing itself). Each story contains some sort of breakdown, whether of a social order, of innocence, or of reality itself. Beyond this wide apocalyptic conceit, however, the stories are very diverse in tone, style, and narrative. Again, this is both the book’s greatest strength and weakness. But it’s in this diversity that you’re sure to find something you like.51NGWT0IJ3L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

The stories I enjoyed the most were by a couple of authors I was already familiar with, and a couple that I had not heard of before. “The Wailing Women” by M. R. Ranier is at the front of the book and sets its tone as one of its strongest stories. “The Interview” by Shannon Iwanski is both hilarious and macabre, especially for anyone who has ever worked for a giant institution or government. Scott R. Jones is as always in fine form, this time offering us a story about language, words, and the unmaking of all things in “I Cannot Begin to Tell You”. Robin Wyatt Dunn’s “The Coens” mixes science fiction slipstream adventurism with cosmic finality. “Five Laments for the Horizon Summer Resort, to be Destroyed and Never Built Again” by Tom Breen (his short fiction debut) is a slow burn ghost story that reminded me of subtle yet emotionally powerful classical supernatural stories. I’d like to see what Tom can do in the full-on weird/horror forms.

The majority of the book’s offerings fall somewhere between science fiction and fantasy, but there are a few horror offerings here. That said, I wouldn’t recommend this for someone looking for a purely horror anthology. Reviewing such an eclectic book is difficult, as personal preferences in style and tone (and occasionally quality) vary so widely that I can’t really sum up a book like this. While I think the anthology would have benefited from a few less stories and a greater focus on theme (or genre), it’s still promising to see so many new (to me, at least) voices in a volume that is anything but another printing-mill short story anthology. It’s an exciting time to be a reader (and writer!) of genre literature, and Broken Worlds is a solid step forward into speculative fiction territory for young editor Jack Burgos and A Murder of Storytellers.

Kill Bill (and Convention) – a review of D. Harlan Wilson’s Battle Without Honor or Humanity Volume 1

Published by Raw Dog Screaming Press

Available at RDSP and Amazon

A lot of people say they write weird fiction. D. Harlan Wilson means it.

His latest collection, Battle Without Honor or Humanity Volume 1 doesn’t fit into any neat categories, but weird it most certainly is. The book collects fifteen stories whose only relation is the absurdity and zaniness of the proceedings, along with Wilson’s signature slip-stream-of-consciousness narration. To get into the specifics would be somewhat pointless, as these stories of academia, writing, filmmaking, celebrity culture, politics, and ultraviolence are less vehicles for coherent narrative, characters, or plot, and more de-structured examinations of thought, literature, and media.

That’s not to say there isn’t any coherence here—there certainly is, in fits and starts—but the themes and impressions as communicated through Wilson’s irrealist imagery is what is important. If you’ve read any of his previous short fiction work, you’ll know what you’re in for: thought/word experiments dressed up in the ruined, blood-soaked tatters of short story costumes. This book’s selections rest, certainly not firmly, somewhere between short stories, flash fiction, and poetry.

The writing is, admittedly, occasionally frustrating—it’s hard to wrap your head around what exactly is being communicated when the worlds, characters, and voices changes mid-page. But it’s in that frustration that lies the point, if there is a point, of Wilson’s one man war on conventionality: we’ve been programmed to accept certain tropes, ideas, styles, and editorial preferences as normative. Wilson takes a samurai sword dripping with LSD through our assumptions of what fiction can and should be, directly and indirectly skewering literary criticism, the artist’s ridiculous sense of self-importance, and audience expectations and entitlement.

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This may come across as pretentious if it weren’t for the humor. And humor there is, as found in the disjointed satire of Wilson’s rambling-yet-arresting prose. There aren’t any jokes, at least in the traditional sense—the jokes are in the over-seriousness of absurdist proceedings; in the volcanic anger of an academic-critic, in the ritual of apology and forgiveness overseen by a Kennedy without a Name (KwN), in a narrator that gives a speech on political biodiversity by shouting into a microphone, in a sitcom/commercial for weight lifters called “Shit Calories”, in a macabre and sociopathic analysis of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Each story reads like a car wreck, with GMAT-prep vocabulary words, broken glass images of Hollywood films, and Polaroid flipbooks of human degradation all thrown into the air and re-assembled, sometimes for a point, sometimes not.

It’s books like Battle Without Honor or Humanity Volume 1 that prove that no, you haven’t seen everything, and maybe your assumptions about what fiction can be need to be shaken up a bit. That doesn’t mean this is always an enjoyable book—you have to be in the right mindset, to be prepared for something truly weird to get your money’s worth. If you’re expecting a swords-and-samurai acid-action adventure, as implied by the cover and back copy, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re ready to get weird, and read something challenging, you’ll find a lot to enjoy.

It can get exhausting reading more than a story or two in a sitting, and I recommend that readers wanting to take this literary mind-trip enter the waters cautiously, one selection at a time. There’s so much going on in each story, it’s hard to digest if you move from one to the next without a break.

Give it time, let it simmer and seep, like a French Press filled with Starbucks coffee and high-grade DMT … then poured into your mug by a man wielding a flamethrower and riding in a dirigible.

Kootulu is King of Hell: A Review of Cthulhu Fhtagn! edited by Ross E. Lockhart

Cthulhu Fhtagn! Weird Tales Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft
Edited by Ross E. Lockhart
Published by Word Horde

Available Here

If you’re like me, you’re burned out on Lovecraft.

That’s not to say that I don’t still read him at least once a year. Or that I’m suddenly too-cool-for-school when someone says “Lovecraftian fiction.” I discovered Lovecraft sometime early on in college, and thought I was the only one tracking the man’s bizarre work, which resonated with me in a way that few “old” works could.

That was naïve of me. Lovecraft and his legacy are now bigger than ever, which is, of course, a double-edged sword. I liked Cthulhu before it was cool, and all of that. But I am increasingly skeptical of the words “Cthulhu”, “weird tales,” and “Lovecraftian”, and no longer drawn in by those signifiers as I once was.

It’s with that disclaimer that I’m glad I gave Cthulhu Fhtagn! a chance. Word Horde (and its editor, Ross E. Lockhart) have an iron-clad reputation for quality, and they didn’t disappoint with this offering, well-worn territory or no. The stories here are all befitting the impressive roster, and you’ll find more than a few that you’ll like, and probably just as many as you’ll love. Many of the stories are classically Lovecraftian (in the best possible sense), and a few take those ideas, or parallel those ideas, and have some fun in the process.

This is a big book, with very diverse offerings. Yes, people discover Strange Things or Places and meet Terrible Fates, Lovecraft’s cosmic horrors find purchase in bizarre and clever science fiction venues, and poetic, dreamlike terrors haunt these many pages. There’s even some grotesque body horror, political posturing and allegory (your mileage may vary), fantasy, and meta-narratives here, some directly referencing the characters and motifs of Lovecraft, others content to chart their own paths.

My favorite stories were those that didn’t take themselves too seriously, and had more than a little fun with the ideas (and maybe even the character) of the Old Man himself.

“The Lurker in the Shadows” by Nathan Carson tackles two towering figures of pop horror—Lovecraft himself, and Stephen King—and imagines what if Lovecraft had found health, wealth, and literary success in life long enough to mentor and meet the young would-be [K]ing. It’s a story that is both a love letter to the work of both men, while still a clever and sinister weird tale in its own right.

“The Insectivore” by Orrin Grey is less a Lovecraftian pastiche and more a Bradburyian one, with all the trappings of youthful innocence crashing against the walls of reality.

“Aerkheim’s Horror” by Christine Morgan is an anachronistic Viking adventure saga gone wrong, with lots of fighting and blood and guts to keep up the pace.

“Love Will Save You” by Cameron Pierce is a haunting, disturbing, maybe even symbolic tale about floating orbs and lusts of the heart.

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“Assemblage Point” by Scott R. Jones is a wicked, delightful little meta-story, which simultaneously mocks and embraces weird horror tropes. In the hands of a lesser writer, the concept could have slipped into condescension. Instead, the story is creepy and memorable.

Then there’s the final story, “Don’t Make Me Assume My Ultimate Form” by Laird Barron. I can’t say as I understood what, exactly, it was all about—but it was a fun read, and full of wild imagery: a Charlie’s Angels-style super team of assassins, ex-cons, and martial arts experts, a malignant entity inside of a doll, psychic powers, and overcoming childhood trauma.

The best story—in this reader’s opinion—is “The Curse of the Old Ones” by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington. It’s funny, bizarre, and a page-turner. It features some very, very beloved figures of mid-century horror cinema dealing with our favorite occult terrors. It’s written with the pacing and flourish of a Hammer Studios or William Castle film. I had a smile on my face pretty much the whole time I was reading it. Kootulu is King of Hell!

So are you tired of Lovecraftian fiction? No? Then buy this book. Yes? Get this book anyway. These are all Lovecraftian stories, then, even if more than a few of them, this many generations hence, have moved well past the tropes and conventions the Old Man developed. This book shows us some of the best that pastiche, tribute, and evolution of the Lovecraftian Weird Tale can offer.

Food for Thought: a Review of Nothing Is Strange by Mike Russell

Review by: R. L. Jones

Published by Strange Books (UK)

Mike Russell’s Nothing Is Strange is a series of 20 one-shots of varying degrees of eeriness, but all with a distinct surreal feel. The book’s tone, and some of the stories, reminded me of episodes of Dark Mirror, though not as dark or disturbing. It’s a quick read and can be comfortably read at night without worry of fright. No, these stories left me more pensive than disturbed or scared. I enjoyed some of the subtle and clever twists the stories took, presenting themes on humanity, society, and the individual, one utilizing a giant flesh-and-bone creature in the sky known as the Living Crown.

Russell’s writing is simple and effective; he’s not weighed down with extraneous detail or description of the nothing1characters or places. The characters are named, the setting stated, and the story commences, sometimes the reader is the character of the story as Russell uses second person for some of the stories. I found this simplistic style refreshing, as it allows the reader to supply the detail and characterization making the reader personalize each story as they go along. The structure of the book flows well from one story to the next, though none are connected. I found myself pausing between chapters to reflect on each story and the food for thought it presented.

Overall, this collection of stories is a fun wander down the strange side alleys of Russell’s imagination that leaves a lingering taste of the surreal. You may even find yourself noticing some residual strangeness in your own life.

To Hell and Back: A Review of The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker

Review by Billy Lyons

Published by St. Martin’s Press

Available Here

One day way back in the eighties (when I was in high school and dinosaurs roamed the earth), a friend gave me a copy of Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart. To hear him tell it, Barker was the best supernatural writer since Henry James. I doubted if such a thing was even remotely possible, but took the book anyway and promised my friend that I’d give it a try. My decision was greatly influenced by the fact that my favorite writer, Stephen King, had recently proclaimed Barker to be “the future of horror”.

The Hellbound Heart introduced the world to a brutal order of demons known as The Cenobites, and their most notorious adept, The Hell Priest (aka Pinhead). The novella spawned a hit movie along with several less-successful sequels. Its theme was a familiar one to horror fans: there is an invisible world surrounding our own, one filled with demons and devils who wait patiently for someone ignorant (or stupid) enough to pull aside the veil and allow them in to work their bloody mischief.

After reading The Hellbound Heart my feelings were mixed. While there was no doubt that Barker was one of the most innovative horror writers of the late Twentieth Century, it seemed to me that he was trying too hard, and that the brutally graphic violence and in-your-face sexuality found in The Hellbound Heart greatly overshadowed its characters, plot, and pretty much everything else. And while I have no problem with graphic violence or sex in what I read or watch, I tend to lose interest quickly if it’s merely gratuitous. As a result, I never read more than two or three of Barker’s novels. I greatly admired his creativity, but his writing just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Fast forward twenty-nine years. I’m a lot older, hopefully a little wiser, and browsing the New Arrival section of my library looking for a good book. I’m not having any luck and am just about ready to give up and go home when I see The Scarlet Gospels, Barker’s first novel since 2001, way down on the bottom shelf.

My first instinct is to pass it up, but I’m desperate for something to read, so I take it off the shelf, and just like thirty years ago, I’m persuaded to take it home on the strength of its reviews. On the book jacket are high praises from Stephen King and Peter Straub (two thirds of my own personal Horror Writing Trinity, minus Richard Matheson). Could it be possible that Barker’s writing might have matured in the thirty or so years since I’d last read him?

The answer is a resounding yes.

The Scarlet Gospels is the conclusion to the story introduced in The Hellbound Heart and features hard-boiled paranormal PI Harry D’Amour, one of Barker’s most memorable and likeable characters (D’Amour is also featured in The Last Illusion and Everville). The story begins with D’Amour in New Orleans, working what he believes to be a routine case, when he crosses paths with The Hell Priest.

It seems that Harry’s body of work, which often involves battling demons and other infernal forces, has given him a certain degree of infamy in Hell. It is for this reason that The Hell Priest seeks out D’Amour and makes him an offer he can’t refuse. He wants D’Amour to become his Witness, and chronicle his upcoming revolt against Hell’s established powers.

D’Amour refuses. This leads The Hell Priest to capture Harry’s most beloved friend and mentor, Norma Paine, and drag her into Hell, knowing that D’Amour will be forced to follow him into the Abyss in hopes of rescuing her. Harry capitulates, and along with a ragtag band of his closest friends, descends into Hell to settle the score with The Hell Priest once and for all. Along the way he comes face to face with all the considerable horrors that Hell has to offer and must fight to save not only his life, but his very soul.

The main reason why I enjoyed The Scarlet Gospels so much in comparison to Barker’s previous works is that his writing has matured to the point where he describes the grotesqueries of Hell in a more reasoned manner. It was almost as if I was reading a kinder, gentler Clive Barker.

But even though Barker’s writing has matured, be assured that it hasn’t mellowed. Not in the least. It is a book about Hell, after all. The uncompromising, unrelenting violence and gore so familiar to Barker’s fans is just as prevalent as in his earlier pieces (this is definitely not a book you want to read on your lunch hour), but is presented in a more subdued manner, one that goes with the flow of the story instead of smacking the reader squarely in the face. To me, at least, this is a major improvement, and kept me turning the pages well into the night.

Another reason why The Scarlet Gospels is such a good read is Barker’s considerable writing skill. Even though he’s never been what you would call a slouch in the writing department, in The Scarlet Gospels the writing is impeccable. So tight that you could flip a silver dollar off the pages, so clean that you could perform surgery. If at some point in my life I am able to write half as well as Barker does in his latest novel, I can die a happy man.

The Scarlet Gospels is perhaps the culmination of the story Barker has been trying to tell throughout his career. Every page is replete with the savage, yet almost serene, pain and sorrow that is so characteristic of his unique vision of Hell and its denizens.

It is also a novel I was surprised to enjoy much more than I expected. Even more astonishing to me is the fact that for the first time in almost three decades, I find myself looking forward to see what Barker does next.

So, if like me, you find yourself scouring the library shelves searching for a good read (and have the stomach for it), give The Scarlet Gospels a try.

It really is one Hell of a good book.

Doomed We Voyage Across, and Into, the Sixth Ocean: A Review of The Sea of Ash by Scott Thomas

Review by Michael Bryant

Through the narrow lens of time, we the living view what is perceived as reality, a universe of energy and matter with unbreakable laws governing its expansion and development. Everything is accounted for and measurable. Substance is finite, nothing is created or destroyed; all is merely changing form. All matter has a knowable mass and density.

The dead know better. They know of the overlaps. The points on the continuum where universes collide, where volume exceeds the measured limits of its container, where matter and energy cease to change form and vanish from the cosmos, and substances unyielding to Newtonian laws seep through. And they know of the sixth ocean. An ocean yet unborn which walks the Earth in unassuming form, and will drown this world in a flood of unreality.

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The Sea of Ash by Scott Thomas combines imaginative genius with a faux-classical prose style, producing an effect of eldritch atmosphere in a compelling and engaging narrative. A former educator-turned-rare book collector gives his account of journeying in the footsteps of Doctor Albert Pond, whose posthumously-published journal has become a valued collector’s item for the supernaturally inclined. A pilgrimage of history turns to a hideous adventure as our narrator finds himself pitted against the same celestial menace that Dr. Pond faced before his abrupt disappearance. With his life (and possibly the world) at stake, he must consult with phantasmal powers to battle the forces of the sixth ocean.

A deep tale of cosmic terror, The Sea of Ash balances the ghoulishly macabre with a whimsical playfulness as we are treated to scenes that are both deeply horrifying and awkwardly humorous. Incorporating elements of metaphysical science, body horror, investigative occultism, with a sprinkling of architecture porn, Thomas wraps his epic through the aeons in the ambience of necromantic New England.

My only complaint would be that I absolutely flew through this book and was done with it too soon, but the defining trait of a great storyteller is leaving the audience wanting more.

A haunting story sure to delight the discerning weird fiction fan, The Sea of Ash is published by The Lovecraft eZine, and is currently available for purchase on their website.

5/5 Trilobite-Shaped Teeth

Little Dixie’s Callin’ You Home – A Review of Phantasmagoria Blues by Mer Whinery

Published by Literati Press; Book Available for Order Here

Review by Matthew M. Bartlett

Crows know death.

It’s almost like they can smell it. Something in their nerves gets a hum going. The hive mind melts together and the murder starts to form in the sky, swirling in sooty spirals…

– Mer Whinery, “The Little Red Tent at the Edge of the Woods”

I’m as provincial as they come. Give me New England, with its dense woods, its diffident baristas, its progressive bumper stickers, its snooty colleges, its coffeehouses and even, God help us all, its Vermont hippies. I don’t even mind the cold.

The South? It might as well be another planet. In the early 90s, I took a trip to Florida. Along the way I stopped somewhere in Georgia and found an ancient, leaning, and unpainted ramshackle house, whose owners sold hot dogs out of their kitchen window. The dog I got was the most unnatural, terrifying shade of pink I’ve ever encountered. I ate it anyway.

I think it changed me, and not for the better.

But you know what? I really like Mer Whinery’s dark and haunted South. I’d pay good money to take in an exploitation flick at the Red Hand movie theater. To spend a sticky night in the Tarantula Arms Motel in the staticky blue glow of a television with a dangling antenna. To put on a lighted helmet and trespass at Bloody Ben’s Pit. C’mon, readers, meet me at The Git’N Split. We’ll get some Dr. Peppers and drive around the dark, weird towns of Coffin Mills and Black Knot. (Note to self: ask the author if I can get a subscription to the Black Knot Daily Redeemer.)

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Phantasmagoria Blues, the second collection from Oklahoma horror writer Mer Whinery, consists of seven stories that explore the haunted shadows of Oklahoma and Texas, and the damned and damaged souls that dwell in those shadows. Whinery deftly inhabits and breathes life into a bereft husband and father, a lovelorn teenage girl with a very unhealthy crush, a scummy projectionist, and a broken, cigarette-chewing repo man obsessed with a creepy photograph he finds in a dank old house.

The collection starts off ambitiously with “The Loved Ones,” a post-monster-invasion science fiction tale of a man who has lost his wife and two kids, and the replacements with whom—with which—he’s provided. It starts off by dispensing in a few paragraphs with its premise, but the info dump quickly pivots into a compulsively readable and tense story with a well-executed twist that some might have predicted—though I didn’t. Whinery won me over quickly.

The centerpiece of the collection, a-darker-than-dark little masterpiece, is “The Projectionist,” whose protagonist, the deeply unpleasant Newt McAlester, after suffering a grievous injury via a malfunctioning movie projector, is given a sketchy new assignment: He must arrive at the theater at 1:30 a.m. on Sunday mornings, sequester himself in the booth, run the projector without peeking at the film and, especially, never, ever look down at the audience below. He must wear earplugs. He must stay until precisely 7 a.m., and not a moment before. And he has to keep the whole thing a secret.

The narrative starts off fairly predictably—of course McAlester’s curiosity gets the better of him—but it spins off into such grotesque and ornery insanity I felt myself grinning in admiration. And what an ending! Here Whinery proves himself an audacious storyteller with a flair for the grotesque.

I also really dug “Hungry Boy,” despite Whinery’s abject disclaimer that precedes the tale, in which he says his goal was to write “whiney-ass bullshit—like ‘Twilight.’” I haven’t read Twilight, but this story, told from the point of view of a precocious teenage girl, is smart, emotionally real, funny, and, of course, violent and grotesque. I went in not expecting much and emerged from the other end impressed.

Most of the stories in Phantasmagoria Blues were similarly surprising, similarly good, compulsively readable, and well-executed. I always kind of inwardly crumple when I encounter a zombie story, and Whinery as much as notes in his preamble to “Dead Folks” that there’s not much new to be explored in that tattered, groaning corner of the genre. I read “Dead Folks” and found little to object to, but also little to cause it to stand out. Otherwise, “The Red Tent at the Edge of the Woods” is effective and eerie, with shades of S.P. Miskowski. “Memento Mori” is a terrific tale of a lost man who finds a women who may or may not be the subject of an ancient photograph of the Posed and Photographed Dead. “The 10th Life” is a buried-treasure story with an aspect that I—an admirer of cats—particularly enjoyed.

I recommend Phantasmagoria Blues as a refreshing take on Southern horror by a writer with a unique and strong voice. It’s well written, enjoyable, dark, and nasty. If I have any minor complaints, they’re about the form, not the content. The margins aren’t right-justified—a peeve of mine—and I found the sans-serif font distracting. It’s a choice far better suited to onscreen reading. I found a smattering of minor grammatical errors and the occasional typo as well. The content, though, is more than sufficiently strong to outweigh the aesthetical issues.

I’m going to pick up a copy of Whinery’s previous collection, and I await the chance to make a return trip to his next work—to his corpse-riddled and gore-soaked savage South.

Four blackened fingers out of five

Matthew M. Bartlett is the author of Gateways to Abomination, The Witch-Cult in Western Massachusetts, the forthcoming Rangel from Dim Shores, and Creeping Waves (due out late 2015) from Muzzleland Press. His short stories have appeared in Faed, Resonator: New Lovecraftian Tales From Beyond, Wicked Tales, and High Strange Horror. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts with his wife Katie and their cats Phoebe, Nigel, Peach Pie, and Larry. You can visit his blog at www.matthewmbartlett.com.