Plague Update

I know many of us out there are stuck at home, staying safe or under self-quarantine. I’m still working for the moment, but I’m being as safe as I can be and trying to avoid coming within 6 feet of anyone. I’m in small-town East Texas (Winnsboro), and even here people are showing up to our grocery store at 7am and waiting for the delivery trucks to come in. Things are hardly making it from truck to shelf before they’re getting snatched up. Diapers were gone (luckily, I found some at the Dollar Store), and there are shelves for wet-wipes and Lysol and hand sanitizer that are completely empty. In fact, it reminded me of those old pictures from Soviet Russia or the USA during WWII. Of course, there are still plenty of other items. You can get all the glitter and crafts you can stand and no one has made a run on doorknobs yet, so when you can’t wipe your dirty ass and have no food left, chew on some of that stuff.

I’m going to be honest with you folks: this is starting to get scary. Hell, it already IS scary. People are panicking. Others are arrogantly scoffing at the whole thing and calling it a “hoax”. Full-scale insanity is happening with morons doing the “Coronavirus Challenge” licking doorknobs and toilet seats while they film themselves, which is not only stupid but also damned irresponsible. If they DO catch it, they could then spread it to those who are the most at risk with this virus, but hey, you’re famous now, so it’s all worth it, right?

I’m frustrated. I’m nervous. I’ve got three kids I’m looking out for as well as my wife and I. And now, with everyone facing potentially being sent home for a mandated lockdown (I don’t know if this is 100% true, but I keep hearing it from people in the medical field that it’s coming), we’re looking at a situation I’d have never believed would happen in the modern world. A lot of folks can work from home, and that’s great, but a lot MORE people cannot. Manual labor is vitally necessary to keep the economic wheels turning, and all of that is about to come to a grinding stop. Much of it already has. And for how long? Who the hell knows for sure? All of this is new, so we’ll just have to ride it out and see.

Luckily, for now, my family and I are healthy and relatively safe so long as we follow the CDC directives (and ALL of you should be), and I’m grateful for that. It’s also my son’s birthday today. 8 years old. And I’m as proud of him as a dad could be. So, I’m trying to focus on those things. We still have food to eat and shelter and lights and clean water. As things turn grimmer and grimmer, let’s try to focus on the good and the beautiful things in our lives, things that bring us pride and joy. Our kids, our spouses and partners, our art, the things that make life something we can enjoy rather than all the things that terrify us and leave us depressed and anxious. I’m not saying I’m doing a great job of it, but that’s what I’m trying to do. I hope you’ll join me because we’re all in this together. Share this rambling, largely useless post around if you like. Maybe if enough of us do our best to focus on all the good in our lives, the world might brighten just a bit.

And that will be good for all of us.

BOOK REVIEW: The Skin Factory by Lucas Pederson

Really unique idea, well-executed YA.

The premise for THE SKIN FACTORY by Lucas Pederson is certainly a unique one: a teenage boy is killed when his abusive father accidentally hits him a little too hard in the wrong place, and he’s put on his “path” to the afterlife. But an entity steals him off his path and takes him to the factory, where souls are kept as slaves to build human bodies they call “units” to be possessed by other creatures to silently take over the world. Then he escapes and sets out to find his sister and mother and protect them from a coming apocalypse.

At first, I’ll admit, it took me a bit to get used to the writing style here. This wasn’t Pederson’s fault, it was my own, as I went in having never read him before and assuming this was going to be an extreme horror novel based on the title and cover only. That was my bad. What it actually is is more of an after-life-coming-of-age, dark fantasy, Young Adult novel. Once I got past my preconceptions, I really fell into the groove of the story. The main character says a lot of silly things throughout like “holy poop-nuggets!” and “donkey-nipple” and the like, and while they seemed jarring at first, the father into the story I got, the more it really seemed to fit this sixteen-year-old boy.

The dialogue is good, the pacing is steady and never lets you breathe for too long, and the characters are pretty well drawn. The backstory and the mythos of the tale are both unique and set the stage nicely for things to play out. It seems like there might be more to the story, though I’m unsure if the author is planning this to be the start of a series. I hope he does, as I’m interested in where it’s all heading.

The only real critique I’d give here is that the climax seemed slightly rushed, but let me add a caveat: I listened to the audible version of this book, and right before we get to the climax, I went on a trip out of state for a few days and didn’t get to continue on the book until I returned, so it’s entirely possible that could have added to that feeling that it rushed a bit towards the end.

That aside, this was still an entertaining diversion and I’m glad I checked it out. Pederson is a solid writer I’m eager to read more from. I think you’ll dig this one, and the audiobook (if that’s your thing) is well-produced and finely narrated. I’d recommend this one to fans of dark YA fantasy and those into non-extreme horror. Find it in print, digital, and audio here.

BOOK REVIEW: A Coin for Charon by Dallas Mullican

A solid police procedural thriller with some flair.

A COIN FOR CHARON is a rather interesting thriller. Fundamentally a police procedural, we follow Marlowe Gentry, a detective with a hard past with haunting demons, as he pursues a serial killer known as The Seraphim, who is both gentle and brutal with his victims. Choosing them because of their sadness or suicidal state, he puts them to sleep before dispatching them, then arranging their innards in a brutal religious ritual, one meant to bring the victim peace so they may go on to Heaven.

On the periphery of this main plotline, we have Max–a dying cancer patient who hasn’t told his family of his ailment, even after they leave him–and Becca–a psychiatrist who treats people like Max to cope with what they’re going through. At first, as the story is still in the early stages, I had no idea how Max of Becca’s story arcs fit into the bigger picture. I was thrown for a bit because we switched from the procedural to Max, and it seemed completely unrelated, and then Becca, too, seemed out of place. I started to wonder if I had accidentally picked up the wrong book, but as the story continued to unfold, we see how first Becca is drawn into the story from the periphery, and later, Max. It was THIS aspect of the novel that set it apart for me. The procedural plot was all solid, but it wasn’t anything particularly new. However, the powerful moments of Max’s emotional struggles were charged with heartache and desperation, and it was very compelling. In fact, I found myself tearing up a time or two as his situation becomes more and more dire. I cared about Max more than any other character in the book.

The prose is neither over the top nor is it simplistic. It services the genre very well without being devoid of flair. Very straightforward for the most part, but touching on some more poetic moments in some of the softer parts of the novel. The dialogue was believable and helped drive the narrative forward. All in all, this is a solid read that left me curious to see more from Mullican.

If you’re a fan of Michael Connelly type police procedural thrillers, you should give this one a chance. The orbiting stories around the main plot that ultimately come crashing into the forefront of the narrative help set this one apart as something that stands solidly on its own, and I think anyone looking for a good mystery-thriller will have a good time with this one. Well done.

Find it in print, digital, and audio here.

BOOK REVIEW: White Death by Christine Morgan

A superior piece of historical horror fiction.

It’s 1888, and the residents of the small community of Far Enough are under siege by a massive blizzard. Exposure and the elements are relentless and uncaring as more and more of the townsfolk succumb to the bitter cold that just won’t seem to stop. But there’s something out there in the blizzard, something big and mean and intelligent.

And it has teeth.

I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll leave you with that brief description so you can dive into all that this book has to offer. It’s a western, but that’s merely the setting. It’s a survival-against-the-elements story, which had this been the whole of the tale, would have been plenty harrowing. But it’s also a terrific creature feature, effectively using only glimpses and the weather itself to keep the thing(s) in a murky outline. The creatures, in fact, are hardly on the page when compared to the rest of this sprawling story, and this worked to make their few appearances–and their vicious carnage–all the more terrifying.

The suspense here is well-done, expertly woven into the tale organically, utilizing ignorance of the unknown and the personal lives of all the many and varied characters to ratchet up the tension throughout. There was never a moment where I felt I could relax, even in the quieter scenes, because the threats of both beast and nature were constantly hanging over me, and I knew that at any moment something bad could happen–and often it did.

This was the first thing I’ve read from Christine Morgan. From what I had gathered about her writing from others in the business and her fans, I understood her to be a writer of extreme horror (one of her books is titled, SPERMJACKERS FROM HELL, for crying out loud), and while that may be the case of much of her other work, it is not the case here. There is gore, to be sure, but nothing on a level I would consider extreme. That isn’t to say it isn’t capable of making you squirm, however. The descriptions of what the blizzard was doing to the people, the effects on their bodies, was horrifying. Tears that crystalize into ice on the face, sometimes freezing the eyes shut, the colors of the skin as it succumbs to the cold–and much more–had me writhing uncomfortably (in the best possible way) in my seat. Then the vicious attacks from the monsters with their huge fangs and claws were equally intense. Yet, ALL of this plays out in a very palatable manner to a wide range of readers.

Christine’s prose was the most impressive part of the whole book. Again, this was my first experience with her work, and I’m convinced she is nothing short of a masterful storyteller. The words flowed together like an easy current, the jargon of the times coming off as naturally as if she were describing a modern cell phone. The dialogue was equally on point and powerful, and it’s striking how well she utilizes that dialogue to help build the tension of the story as some of the characters fall into a sort of cabin fever madness as they’re holed up in frozen shacks with nightmares crawling through the snow outside.

I actually felt COLD as I read, bundled up comfortably in my coat. That’s how effective her writing is.

This one is an absolute winner and has made an instant fan out of me. If you like horror, historical fiction, survival nightmares, this is the book for you. It’s accessible even to sensitive readers, but don’t let that fool you into thinking you’re not in for a harrowing read…you are. Settle into the cold old west and take a fantastic ride through the frozen plains.

Just steer clear of the Wanageeska.

Find it in print, digital, and audio here.

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BOOK REVIEW: Gristle & Bone by Duncan Ralston

My second outing with Duncan Ralston was an eye-opening, dread-filled experience, but in a good way.

Within these pages, Ralston has penned a collection of short work that positively drips with dread. That was the thing that kept coming to me during this entire read, that Ralston is masterful at building dread. Which is quite different than suspense, but no less enjoyable. Something in the way he strings the words together, the way things unveil themselves to the reader, slowly peeling back the layers until you’re presented with stark horror and shocking revelations.

None of the stories felt like they didn’t belong, like they didn’t measure up to the others. That’s impressive in collections. Usually, there will be at least one story that seems to be the nadir, standing out against the others because it just doesn’t belong. Not the case with Gristle & Bone at all. From the beginning with BABY TEETH and all the way through the final novella, SCAVENGERS, each story has been loved and crafted specifically to create that lead weight of dread that descends your throat and settles so deep inside it feels as though it’s in your knees. The characters are all lovingly and truthfully drawn, believable, and flawed. They make decisions like you or I would, and even if it’s a different choice than you’d have made, you see why they made it anyway. That’s good writing when you can empathize with characters with whom you disagree or even are vile. And we get the full spectrum here.

Ralston’s prose is, frankly, unmatched. It’s liquid, polished, and flows like a mighty current beneath a seemingly still surface. So much is happening, so much being conveyed. It’s a real craftsman at work here, and it was a joy to consume. The only other author I could compare the prose of with Ralston is Clive Barker. It’s in a similar vein, though Duncan has his own voice, and it sings through all the terror.

There are extreme stories in here, but not all of them are. Just be warned before diving in, if extreme horror or frankly written, explicit sex is not your thing, then skip this. If, however, you’re not bothered by such things, I think you’ll have a great time with this collection. YMMV, but I really enjoyed it.

Well-written, transcendent, full of dread, Duncan Ralston’s GRISTLE & BONE is a winner. Don’t miss out on the writer who is sure to be the future of horror. Find it in print, digital, and audio here.