THIS DARK EARTH by John Hornor Jacobs / Gallery Books – Simon & Schuster (July 2012) / 352 pages / Paperback & eBook
With this tale, John Hornor Jacobs thrusts us into the throes of chaos, as the main characters get introduced. First, we visit a hospital,where people are displaying unusual symptoms. We meet Lucy, who is a doctor employed there. A virus is spreading throughout the hospital. Once the virus overpowers the hospital, and the military intervenes, Lucy is forced to leave. On her ensuing journey, she encounters a man whose nickname is “Knock-Out”, who will become a primary character as turmoil unfolds.
Factor the use of nuclear weapons into the equation, and we have a real apocalyptic plot with many risks involved. After the initial challenges the main characters face, it is decided they will go in search of Lucy’s husband and child. Here we are introduced to Lucy’s young son, Gus.
The three go out in search of a safe place to exist and end up running into Lieutenant Wallace, and what is left of his G Unit. Because Lucy is a doctor and is needed for immediate help for one of the Unit, the trio are allowed into the group.
The story skips ahead several years. The trio and Wallace have formed a civilization in Bridge City. Gus, who is now a young teenager, has become a leader at this point. So much so, that I felt it took away from the overall story. His character was much too mature and rough for someone his age. I just wasn’t buying in, despite the circumstances.
THIS DARK EARTH is less about zombies and more about interpersonal relationships and the evil people do. I would have liked to see this expanded on more. I just didn’t feel connected or identify with any of the characters.
Most of the elements are here. A virus, radiation, and the threat of cancer mixed with the day-to-day grind of living in this type of situation. The threat of other survivors invading should have made this a much more frightening setting than is portrayed here. I personally preferred Simon Clark’s BLOOD CRAZY, which is one of the best apocalyptic tales I’ve had the pleasure of reading.
Don’t get me wrong, it is worth a read. It is much better than the plethora of apocalyptic stories out there. John Hornor Jacobs is typically a writer well worth reading, which is why I expected more. This one just didn’t resonate with me, but it may just be your poison.
- Jassen Bailey
THE HOARD by Alan Ryker / Darkfuse Publications / 216 pages / Signed Limited Edition Hardcover, Paperback, & eBook
Once in a while, a book is released that has some hype & buzz surrounding it. Usually I don’t find the same experience as what others have found. THE HOARD is definitely worthy of the buzz it has created. As a reader, it was refreshing to read something more original than other books I have read throughout the year. At 216 pages, it is a short novel that reads like a novella (which in my mind is always a great thing).
Pete Grisch, husband and father of two young boys has a lot on his mind these days. It is the third consecutive year of drought, which has affected crops and ultimately his income. He can feel his wife Katherine’s disappointment with his decision-making regarding the crops.
Anna Grisch, Pete’s mother, is a fiercely independent, elderly woman who lives alone. Since her husband passed away, things just haven’t been the same for Anna. She began hoarding, and has an unusually large number of cats. Pete hasn’t seen the inside her home for a very long time.
One evening when he drops by his mother’s to bring dinner to her, he comes face to face with what he has enabled her to do. When she wasn’t waiting for him on the porch, he began to investigate the home. What he sees when he peeks through the window makes his heart sink.
As the drama unfolds, Pete is faced with many significant dilemmas. He not only has his wife’s feelings to consider. Pete has the safety of his mother and his family weighing him down, and a very unusual evil that arises in his small town.
The drama and the characterizations in this story, along with the originality of the tale really make this book a must read. If you are a fan of stories, where the main character has his back to the wall and faces impossible odds, check this one out. A real page turner!
- Jassen Bailey
MORE THAN MIDNIGHT by Brian James Freeman / Cemetery Dance Publications (December 2012) / 128 pages / Signed Limited Edition Hardcover
I am no stranger to Brian James Freeman’s work. He’s edited some fine anthologies and I thoroughly enjoyed his novel The Painted Darkness. Despite sharing a surname, we are unrelated, unless it is through some distant ancestor. Still, he is a Freeman, and therefore I tend to keep an eye out for him and wish him well. Tackling his latest short story collection, I fully expected good things. Unfortunately, I found More Than Midnight to fall a bit short of those expectations.
Not that More Than Midnight is poorly written. Far from it. Freeman has a style all his own and he’s a consummate wordsmith. But of the five stories collected here, only one really caught my attention — Answering the Call, the story of a weary demon-hunting, ghost-busting occult detective of sorts who has had his fill of fighting the undead, but knows full well that it’s a dirty job that must be done. Believe me, it’s a story I can really relate to.
The rest fell a little flat, seeming to be decent ideas that never really take shape, especially Pulled into Darkness, which had a lot of promise, but lacked any punch by story’s end.
I expect I may be in the minority in my assessment of More Than Midnight. Hell, I’ve had a lot on my plate the last few weeks. Maybe my expectations were too damn high, or maybe I’ve just been in a shitty mood. I really wanted the five stories in More Than Midnight to kick my ass. One of them did. You know what, I’ll chock that one up as a victory.
One thing’s for sure, I won’t hesitate to read another Brian James Freeman story. His batting average is still better than most.
- Bob Freeman
FUNGI edited by Orrin Grey and Silvia Moreno-Garcia / Innsmouth Free Press (November 2012) / 288 pages / Hardcover, Paperback. & eBook
In twenty-five stories and one poem featuring some form of fungus, FUNGI takes the reader from mold, to ink caps, to alien shrooms, covering tones from the creepy to the comic to the poignant and back again. Needless to say, this is a unique collection, with some noteworthy writers, including Nick Mamatas, Paul Tremblay, Lavie Tidhar, A. C. Wise and Jeff Vandermeer. It was interesting to see the different worlds—the humorous, the disgusting, the graceful—these writers built around the theme. FUNGI opens with a shallow but visceral horror story, followed by Tidhar’s absorbing encyclopedia excerpt, The White Hands, then moving to a vaguely entertaining, but light story about the development and dangers of mushroom submersibles.
Though this anthology is diverse in genre and tone, the motif of infectious spores features a touch too heavily, and works meant to be humorous often fell flat for me. However, there are a number of well-written and interesting pieces. Wild Mushrooms by Jane Hertenstein is a mature literary piece about a woman and her mushroom-hunting immigrant parents. Mamatas contributes the sophisticated The Shaft Through the Middle of It All, about gentrification and revenge. In E. Catherine Tobler’s beautiful and graceful New Feet Within My Garden Go we meet the blooming Dunya as she seeks relief from her loneliness in a post-apocalyptic city. A mold-filigreed witch sells vivid visions in the lovely and imaginative fantasy Where Dead Men Go to Dream by A. C. Wise. And Tremblay’s Our Stories Will Live Forever is a brilliant piece I’ve been moved to read several times now, still impressed with writing and character depiction around a fairly straightforward idea.
Although a handful of pieces tending toward humor or action proved amusing (Andrew Penn Romine’s Weird Western, a genre outside my usual fare, Last Bloom on the Sage, and Letters to a Fungus by Polenth Blake, come to mind), I often found myself disappointed by predictable endings, and pieces lighter in tone felt lessened by their proximity to those stories where emotional depth and touches of poeticism lent weight to the narrative. In fact, the diversity in the collection may be its greatest weakness, as I found it easy to put the book down at the end of disappointing tales, and I might have wandered off to another book—or worse, only read the authors I was familiar with before abandoning it purposefully—and missed a number of thoughtful, skillfully-wrought stories.
Like many anthologies, FUNGI is perhaps a touch inconsistent, but contains a number of impressive pieces which I suspect will linger in the reader’s mind and will invite future readings. For fungus lovers and those with an interest in deeply imaginative short fiction, this anthology proves worth consideration.
- K.E. Bergdoll
The Pro-Well Pharmaceutical Company resides in a 4-story building on Pittsburgh’s south side. CEO Marshall Owens–in an attempt to cure all disease in the world–has created a drug that turns people into flesh-hungry walking dead. With his small crew, Owens kidnaps Pittsburgh’s homeless and dreg population and turns them into undead factory workers. But the drug doesn’t completely take to one homeless man known as The General; unknown to Owens, he now has an intelligent zombie on his hands who manages to get his undead brethren to follow him in a ghoulish homage to NORMA RAE.
Meanwhile, goth-chick wannabe Janice lands a job at the Pro-Well office and barely has time to meet her motley crew of co-workers when the place comes under attack by zombies.
WORKING STIFFS is a fun zombie comedy, despite some flaws (characters show up late and for no reason and the interaction among the large cast gets confusing at times). Leitner also references some already-dead TV shows that may get lost on some readers, but if you can overlook these typical first-novel problems, there are some solid laughs and chills to be had and the pacing is quite good.
This reminded me somewhat of Lorne Dixon’s excellent “Breakfast Club” zombie novel, THE LIFELESS, only with a humorous twist. WORKING STIFFS is nothing new, but should be enjoyed by zombie completists and anyone who wants to see what the cast of THE OFFICE would arm themselves with during a zombie outbreak…
VIDEO NIGHT by Adam Cesare / Forthcoming from Samhain Publishing (January 2013) / 248 pages / Paperback & eBook
Adam Cesare’s VIDEO NIGHT brought me right back to my younger days, days spent goofing off and going through the motions to get through the school day, admiring the hot girl from afar but forget about talking to her because that would just be torture, and of course striving to see and read any horror flick and book I could get my grubby mitts on. Some books are work to get through – this one is not. VIDEO NIGHT cruises along effortlessly with memorable characters, set in a town that I’m sure would remind some of the one they grew up in.
The story has a few major players that I feel I now know personally after spending 250 pages with them. First, we’ve got Billy Rile. Billy comes from a fairly well to do family, is smart as a tack but not what you would call popular or cool. He aces his classes in school and is picked last in gym class. The highlight of Billy’s week is Friday night. A trip to the local video store yields the latest horror release – some of the titles mentioned in the book are Re-Animator & Dawn of the Dead. Classics! – and on these Friday nights, his buddy Tom comes over, they order up a pie, sneak a beer or two and catch a movie. Tom Mathers is the absolute polar opposite of Billy. He’s cool, buff, dangerous and doesn’t care about school (I pictured him as one of the greasers from SE Hinton’s The Outsiders) but nonetheless they are the best of friends. Across the street from Billy lives Rachel Krieger, whom Billy’s been in love with forever, as well as Rhonda’s friend and Tom’s girl, Darcy Roberts. All in all we’ve got a group of fairly normal teenagers that have no idea of what they’re about to go up against.
The very first chapter of VIDEO NIGHT introduces the reader to the evil that’s come to town. Rachel’s older sister, Rhonda, is on a date with her man, Jake. After seeing the latest installment of Friday the 13th at the drive-in, the pair has a couple of beers and Jake eats what appear to be mushrooms (and not the kind you get at the grocery store). Fine, no worries…this is what Jake does. However, what Jake does not normally do is cough up an alien/hermit crab/porcupine looking creature that not only ends him with a tentacle through the chest but also infects Rhonda. She later wakes up in the middle of the woods, naked and feeling a bit off, yet for the most part unharmed. What happened last night? Where are her clothes? Did that really happen to Jake? Lots of questions in her head but one thing seems certain; she’s okay. Or is she…
What I really like about VIDEO NIGHT, aside from the sense of nostalgia I felt throughout the read, is that the infection does not turn people into something unrecognizable. If you were to meet them on the street, you could tell that something is a bit off but there is no apparent physical change which really adds an eerie quality to the story (there’s nothing scarier than the unknown) and I feel that Cesare knocked it out of the park in terms of holding just enough back to have plenty to unleash later on. I grew up a huge fan of Stephen King and I have to say that this one has a similar vibe to some of the stuff that he did back in the ‘80s. Great characters, a town that you can easily picture in your head and relate to and an evil which is perfectly delivered and executed by the author. This one is absolutely 100% recommended, particularly if you grew up a huge horror fan like me and like Adam Cesare.
- Jordan Norton
REMEMBER WHY YOU FEAR ME: The Best Dark Fiction of Robert Shearman / ChiZine Publications (October 2012) / 425 pages / Trade Paperback & eBook
Robert Shearman’s collection Remember Why You Fear Me features a wide swath of stories, varying from the comic to the disturbing, to the simply weird, often all at once. Subtle and outlandish, Shearman takes his reader on a strange journeys from the suffocating domesticity of the suburbia to the depths of Hell, all with quiet wit and sophistication.
This lengthy collection contains a remarkable number of stories which beg for praise; many are a worthy of note for their humor, for their novelty and sheer imagination (such as Jason Zerrillo is an Annoying Prick, Elementary Problems of Photography, One More Bloody Miracle After Another and George Clooney’s Mustache) but the pieces which most stuck with me were tales with a more emotional depth. In Good Grief a man deals with the loss of his wife, the numbness of his grief and the strange happenings as his emotional reaction manifests in his flesh. I’m not one for zombies, but Granny’s Grinning, a story about selfishness at its core, is one of the best (and singularly unique) uses of the theme I’ve seen. The Bathtub tells the story of a little girl’s adjustment to a big life change through her fear of her grandmother’s bathtub, ending in a poignant resolution.
While a fairly diverse collection, Shearman’s revisits the themes of dissolving marriages, emotional disconnect, and conflicted parents quite often. The sophisticated Alice Through the Plastic Sheet manages to make Christmas music disturbing, while illustrating the suffocation of a family and marriage. One of my favorites, Blue Crayon, Yellow Crayon takes a man on a surreal train ride as he tries to get home to his neglected wife and daughter for Christmas; this claustrophobic story draws a distinctive picture of a psyche in a graceful, well-wrought narrative.
The e-edition of Remember Why You Fear Me has four bonus stories, of a slightly longer length, all worth reading—but it was Tiny Deaths, a story about Jesus’s experiences after the Crucifixion, and The Girl from Ipanema, an odd piece about art and love, which I found particularly interesting—though the image of a child eating his own head in The Big Boy’s Big Box of Tricks does linger rather delightfully.
Shearman’s ideas are intelligent and novel. His light, often playful prose merges with creepy undertones and strange twists, his plots showcasing humor alongside emotional complexity. Like the magician in The Big Boy’s Big Box of Tricks, the author keeps the reader’s attention on one hand while the other performs remarkable acts of literary prestidigitation. His extraordinary ability to combine the profoundly weird with the familiar shines throughout this collection no matter the subject, tone or theme. The sentiments of his tales maintain their integrity, avoiding the disingenuousness horror stories can fall prey to in the hands of lesser writers. If you are interested in sophisticated and highly entertaining horror shorts, this wonderfully British yet universal collection is worth your attention.
- K.E. Bergdoll
CURE by Belinda Frisch / CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (June 2012) / 208 pages / Paperback and eBook
Miranda Penton has suffered the loss of a baby, and decides to start anew in a new town, without her husband. She gets a job in security at the Nixon Healing and Research Center, a cancer research center. But the head of the center, Doctor Howard Nixon, is a crazed man who has developed a vaccine that doesn’t cure anything, but turns its victims into zombies.
The doctor has been abducting women in the town and using them as test subjects – inseminating them with zombie fetuses. He kidnaps Miranda on her first day; she had been falsely lured to the center to be a test subject, not an employee.
Miranda’s husband arrives to look for her, after not hearing from her for several days. He gets together with other men in the town who know their loved ones are being held at the center, and together they make a rescue attempt. But their actions instead help to unleash the virus, and they need to try to contain it to the center and not let it get out into the world.
Cure is the first in a series in the town of Strandville. What will happen to Miranda’s unborn baby? Will it be normal or undead? Will the virus get out of the center and threaten mankind? There are several unanswered questions, but that’s okay since there will be another.
I do enjoy zombie stories, and this one is no exception. It’s different in that it’s set mostly in one place; the country hasn’t been overrun – yet. Also, using unborn zombie babies to try and figure out a cancer is a neat twist. I don’t have any idea how the series is going to progress, of course, but I’m looking forward to finding out.
If you’re a zombie fan – and even if you’re not – check out Cure. I think there is something for every horror lover in this story.
- Sheri White
TRINITY by Kristin Dearborn / DarkFuse (October 2012) / 264 pages / Limited Hardcover, Trade Paperback, & eBook
I’ve read a number of books over the years pertaining to abduction and the topic has always interested me very much because, although I don’t necessarily believe in little green beings in silver spaceships, I do feel that this universe is far too large to be inhabited by just the organisms that we have here on Earth; dismissing the option altogether just seems a bit close minded. Surely there is something somewhere with a pulse and if you find yourself questioning the information that our government and news sources expose us to like I do, and you feel that there is no doubt more out there than what we are fed, then checking out TRINITY by Kristin Dearborn will leave you completely satisfied. The story takes place in Lott, New Mexico and follows the path of Valentine Slade who has just been released after a six year stint at the county correctional facility. As the doors to the big house close behind him, he is greeted by his buddy Felix with whom he became friends on the inside. Promising to grab a beer later, Felix drops Val at his mother’s house where his girl, Kate, awaits him. And unfortunately, so does her brother, Rich, a local sheriff, who is the real reason that Val was incarcerated in the first place (it seems he didn’t take too kindly to his at the time buddy hooking up with his at the time underage sister so he saw to it that Val “went away”). Conflict is immediately introduced into the story and the reader knows right away that this trouble isn’t going to dissolve quickly. At this point in the reading, I’m already having a tough time setting the book down. I have no problem at all visualizing the main characters down to what they’re wearing and instantly loathe the brother. As the story progresses, things get worse and worse for Val and Kate. People around them, people close in one way or another, are winding up dead (not just dead but mutilated beyond recognition) and the decisions our couple makes around these events lead them to realize that maybe someone or something else has strolled into town. The backdrop to the story, the New Mexico desert, lends a powerful hand in creating a sense of darkness and evil. Barren landscapes, stiflingly hot days, blacker than black nights. It truly is the perfect setting.
Days filled with paranoia and anxieties follow. Something is wrong with Val: blinding white lights (random?), heavy nosebleeds, waking up outside in the middle of the night for no reason. And what is the explanation for the unbearable pressure in his head any time he nears the old run down mill? He knows something is wrong, as does Kate, and the only solution he can come up with is to leave and head for Santa Fe where blending in will be much easier than in the town where everyone knows who you are as well as all of your business. But things aren’t that easy. Val needs to find answers from somewhere but time is running out and things are catching up. What is happening to him? Is he a murderer? Are his nightly sleepwalking escapades really quests to kill anyone posing a threat to his idea of a happy life with Kate? The way in which the author unfolds the answers is timely, shocking and effective. I didn’t foresee a lot of the twists and turns coming and until the last page wasn’t positive how things would end up.
As an aside to the main plot, the author adds a few chapters focused on interviews conducted during the late eighties with a lady named Adrienne Goldstein (a fake name). Her stories are of beings called Tylwyth Teg and Sanguaman and of her pregnancy which was forced with the expectation to produce a baby with a special purpose. These interviews are interesting yet seem a bit removed from our main plot but the author does a great job eventually blending it all together and the result is seamless. It goes without saying that I recommend this book. TRINITY is by and large a pure science fiction story but the characters and scenery are so well developed that it’s just a really damn good read for anyone wanting to spend a few hundred pages hooked. I give this one three thumbs up (remember, we’re taking aliens here folks…I can have three thumbs if I want to) and I’ll certainly be keen on whatever Kristin Dearborn comes up with next.
- Jordan Norton
Trinity: Setting as a Character
by Kristin Dearborn
I’m delighted to be here at The Crow’s Caw, and honored to have my debut novel Trinity featured here. Trinity is the story of an ex-con who wants nothing more than to settle down with a beer and his best girl. However, the universe has other things in store for him. The story takes place in New Mexico.
It’s impossible to have good horror without a good setting. Think of the best horror stories: Alien, The Thing, The Shining (to name a few)…in each of these, the setting is virtually a character.
When I set out to write Trinity, I knew I wanted to play with alien stereotypes, to invert notions of aliens we hold as true. I didn’t feel like I had many options for a setting other than the American Southwest. This is where we dropped nuclear bombs on our own soil, where aliens landed in 1947 (…maybe?). This is where Tarantula took to the hills, where the ants originated in Them!, where Marion Crane takes her ill-fated drive, and where the RV breaks down in The Hills Have Eyes.
I grew up in New England. Everything here is green. Plant life abounds, at least most of the year, unless it’s covered in snow. For me, the brown of the Southwest is shocking and alien. I imagine this is what Mars might look like. The desert is inhospitable: arachnids grow large and poisonous, snakes can kill, and plants have spikes like toothpicks. There are remote places in New England—Aroostook County, for example—but that’s nothing compared to the stretches of highway out West where you drive for hours without seeing another car. It’s an easy hop for us to superimpose fantastic alien creatures with this landscape, which more closely resembles the pictures we’ve seen from Curiosity than any other place I can think of. Space is scary because no one can hear you scream. It’s not just outer space that applies to, but any open land. And what if someone did hear you scream out there among the Joshua trees? It’s not like they could get help in time.
I’ve been out West a handful of times, and I’m sure I didn’t get all the subtle nuances right. When an author writes about Maine but hasn’t really been there, I can tell, and I hope with all my heart I’ve done New Mexico justice. Spookiness aside, it is a beautiful place. I love the open sky, but in the end I’ll take the green hills and lakes of the northeast—there are fewer space pumas here.
Want a FREE eBook Copy of TRINITY?
DarkFuse will be giving away three copies of TRINITY to three lucky winners! All you have to do to enter is share this review on Twitter with hashtag #trinity, or share this link on Facebook and message me or comment (The Crow’s Caw and/or Jassen Bailey) telling me you did so. It’s that simple! Winners will be picked on Wednesday, October 24th, 2012 at 9pm est. Good luck!