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BOOK REVIEW: Ghost Walk by Brian Keene

A follow up to Keene’s DARK HOLLOW, GHOST WALK is a fun horror romp which could almost stand on its own from the previous work. We have the same setting–LeHorn’s Hollow and the surrounding area–but this time it isn’t the saitor Hilineous, but something much worse and (pun intended) darker trying to come through into our world. Adam Senft from DARK HOLLOW is in an insane asylum after killing his wife from the first book after she was impregnated by the devilish saitor, and now several years after that, Ken Ripple is putting on a Ghost Walk attraction for Halloween…but the darkness is about to break through into our world right under their noses.

Levi Stolzfous (sp?) comes along and, as per his usual appearances in Keene’s work, he’s the only one who understands what’s happening and has a plan to stop it. Everyone comes together in the end–after much convincing–to help stop the darkness from ending our world, but it will come at a great cost.

Keene’s work resonates with me because he knows how to just tell you a story. He isn’t preoccupied with trying to pen what snobby literary critics will see as something all high-school juniors should have to read in class, and that’s a good thing. Nothing against the literary classics that seem to transcend time and genre, many of them are great. But so are stories like this one, just a straight forward horror story about average people–aside from Levi, that is–coming together to combat evil and save the world. These are the kinds of stories I love to dive into, a place to escape for a few hours at a time and just enjoy having Uncle Brian tell me a fun story that raises my hackles.

This is no sweeping epic like Swan Song or The Stand where humanity is facing the end of the world. This is a smaller story, and I think its size actually lends to its likability. The whole focus is on just a few characters in a small, rural area in PA, but the stakes are no less high. The entity in this book is kept sufficiently obscure and mysterious, while at the same time we are given enough backstory–and tie in information from several of other Keene works and my over-arching mythos–to understand its malevolence and give us a firm grasp on what’s at stake should it succeed in breaking into our world. So, we have this small group of characters in this small, unassuming town, facing down what will absolutely destroy us all…and in the end, the only ones who ever know are the few who were involved.

Keene’s brilliance breaks through multiple times in this book, where he masterfully displays his ability for character development in just a few short passages. More than one character we get to know just a bit during the set up of the story, and he makes these people thoroughly likable and sympathetic. Then, as suspense is building, he rips the rug out from under us and gives us a shameful and/or horrifying reveal about the character that makes us blanch, but we can’t ignore the person’s better attributes we’ve already come to know. This dichotomy leaves us both feeling for the victims and sort of nodding to ourselves, thinking, “Yep, you had that coming!”. I love little touches like this, adding depth to the people we’re reading about. Note that I said people because adding these 3rd dimensions to them elevates them from mere characters to real people, and when you can achieve that, you’re connection to them deepens and their fates have far greater impact.

Keene’s dialogue here is in fine form, allowing the people to engage in realistic conversation rather than going for polished–but ultimately phony–one-liners and quick wit. This is another aspect I appreciate, futher wedding the story and the people within it to the real world, which always adds tension and also keeps us engaged because it’s very much like being right there with them on the page. In the real world, not everyone is a fast-talking Sam Spade with perfect wit, and it’s nice to see this reflected in literature sometimes.

I’ll say too, this is the third or fourth of Keene’s novels I’ve read which features Levi Stolzfous, and far and away it’s my favorite of them. He doesn’t show up right away, letting the story set itself up organically, but when he enters the tale, he sort of becomes the focus, though there are several other main players. I really feel this story lent itself to Levi’s character very well and felt like a natural fit that worked really well.

This one is less extreme in its violence than DARK HOLLOW was as well. There is some gore, but it’s minimal, and there are no graphic sex scenes or any of that (I recall a very steamy and graphic lovemaking scene in DH, as well as some very graphic sexual violence), so this story should lend itself well to a more casual reader of horror than its predecessor. I also loved the crossover mentions of characters from my very favorite Keene work–and one of my all-time favorite books period–GHOUL. Easter eggs like that are something I live for, and it was most welcome here.

So, you should definitely read this one. If you haven’t read Dark Hollow, I’d say it’s a good idea to start there, as you’ll have a much greater understanding of the events in this book, however, I don’t feel it’s entirely necessary. There is enough backstory and information in this book to fill in what’s relevant for the story that the reader shouldn’t get lost if they’re ignorant of DH, but I still think it’s a good idea to read them both. DH is a terrific book in its own right, but keep in mind the subject matter and style is quite different between the two. DH borders on extreme horror in some aspects, though I’d say it never quite goes all the way into the sub-genre of “extreme horror”, but GHOST WALK does not tread the extreme at any point. Very different tone between the two, so keep that in mind.

If you like Keene, you’ll enjoy this. If you have NOT read Keene before, this isn’t the one to start with, but it should definitely be included in your first haul from the book store. This is a fine horror story with some terrific characters and manages a thrilling tight-rope walk over the threat of an end of the world apocalypse and a small town chiller. And masterfully so. There’s a reason Keene is considered a master of the genre, and it’s on full display here. Don’t miss it. Find it in print, digital, and audio here.

BOOK REVIEW: Children of the Dark by Jonathan Janz

I read a lot of books, and for the most part, I enjoy what I read a great deal. I’m not a professional reviewer, I don’t get paid for this, it does nothing to help my own standing as an author. I read because I love to read, and I review the books I read because I understand what a monumental thing it is to write a novel. I understand WHY people write stories. And because of that great effort, I think a book deserves to get reviewed when it has been read.

But the truly great joy of reading isn’t when you find a book that you enjoy, or even that you enjoy a great deal. The truly great joy is when you stumble across one of those rare gems that rises so high that all the other books you’ve read for the past several years literally pale in comparison, even including those you gave 5/5 stars to because you enjoyed them so much. Books that set themselves apart as not only “very good”, but genuine literary masterpieces.

CHILDREN OF THE DARK by Jonathan Janz is one such book. If I were to try and make a list of my top ten favorite books of all time, the task would likely prove undoable. However, there are a handful that I always refer to as being in my “Top 5” or “Top 10” favorites of all time. Books like THE SHINING and IT by Stephen King, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER by Tom Clancy, AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS by H.P. Lovecraft, THE BOOKS OF BLOOD and THE HELLBOUND HEART by Clive Barker, GHOUL by Brian Keene, LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding, PSYCHO by Robert Bloch. And there are many others. MORE than 10, in fact, but we all know top ten lists are always comprised of many more than their stated number. So, for me, an actual list of my favorite 5 or 10 or you-pick-the-number would be impossible to compile.

What I CAN do, however, is name some books that would be in my top ten, should I ever try and make a list. The ones mentioned above would be among them, but as of finishing this book earlier today, I have another to add to that list. I’m a Janz fanboy, I’ll own it, I’m not ashamed of it. The man writes consistently with a level of quality that is missing from most authors out there, including some of my heroes such as King and Barker and Garton and McCammon, and I’ve become convinced Janz couldn’t write a bad book–or even a MEDIOCRE book–if the lives of all humanity depended on him penning a stinker.

CHILDREN OF THE DARK joins classics such as IT and BOY’S LIFE as fantastic coming-of-age stories, specifically about young men, and in my mind is every bit as good as those. In some ways, better (I always appreciate when an author decides to not include a train-style gang bang of six 11-year-old boys boffing an 11-year-old little girl as a symbol of passing from childhood innocence into young adulthood). The storytelling is quite literally magical in its delivery, not unlike McCammon’s masterful effort in BOY’S LIFE, yet the level of dread and suspense surpass that one and even that of IT, with its sinister cosmic shapeshifter Pennywise in hot pursuit. I felt like the people and the town were people and places I knew, had spent my life in and around, and I was utterly and completely sucked into the story. The teen angst, lust, passion, fears, ALL OF IT rang so true it might have been myself I was reading about on the pages.

And Janz never takes us to the expected places. There were several times in this book–particularly in its latter half–where I was sure, just SURE, that all the characters involved would make it out. Close calls, sure, but they’d make it. Kids can’t die, right? Loving, doting parents don’t get offed, right? People we’ve watched struggle and claw their way to getting their lives in order for the betterment of those around them and who depend on them don’t croak, right? There has to be a joyful, happy ending in all of this horror…

Right?

Nope. Not here. There’s literally no point in the story that you can trust one of your favorite characters will pull through. The threat is there, as in any good suspense story, but here, no one is safe. There’s no one you can look at and say, “Yeah, he/she is going to make it and they’ll have a magical forever-after”. The monsters are merciless, the human villains all-too-tangibly real. The menace is a living thing, palpable and touchable, and it keeps coming and coming and coming and you can’t breathe or even think because these characters, these PEOPLE you’ve fallen in love with and care about as much as anyone in your real life, may well die in horrific, life-altering ways right before you as the scenes materialize in your mind and play out like the greatest stage play ever put on in the history of the world.

No, I’m not being over the top. I’m trying to convey to you the stirring and shifting emotions that were conjured within me as I read this wonderful book, one that I now proudly proclaim to be amongst the ten (who’s really counting here?) best novels I’ve ever read in my lifetime. It seems I’m not alone in my praise for this book, as it seems to be widely well received by most who’ve read it. And every bit of that praise has been earned with interest due to the author for creating such a magnificent work of art, that I scratch my head, jaw hanging loosely, wondering how on Earth I–or anyone else, for that matter–could ever create something so profoundly moving and intense all at once, never falling too much to one direction or the other, always maintaining the perfect balance of horror and magic. It was THAT good.

This is the eighth of Janz’s novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading. Before this one, I was always saying THE NIGHTMARE GIRL was his personal best and the one to beat if it could be done. Yet, Janz HAS topped it (I have no idea which he wrote first, I’m merely going on the order in which I read them). And from what I’ve been hearing online, a sequel to this is coming. I have no clue how he could possibly top this one, but I have confidence in the man and his writing. I can’t wait to see what’s coming next, what the Children are doing, and how Will Burgess will confront them this time.

Buy this book. Buy it for yourself, your friends, your neighbors, your local cops, EVERYONE. This is the kind of book that ought to be required reading (if we’re going to make that a thing) for everyone in their early teen years.

I’ll stop here, simply because I’ll embarrass myself with fan-boy gushing if I continue. He’s a favorite author of mine, right along with the titans of the literary world, and I’m fond of all his work. But I’m telling you, this one…THIS one is something extra special. Don’t miss it.

Infinity/5 stars. And yes, I mean that. Find it in print, digital, and audio here.

BOOK REVIEW: Dust Devils by Jonathan Janz

Vampires have taken many forms throughout the centuries since the myth surrounding them came into being. Often they’re portrayed as noble gentlemen, full of charm and chivalry, and more recently they’ve been portrayed as moody teenagers, either rocking torn jeans and leather jackets or–worse–SKINNY jeans and sparkling skin. There’s also a plethora of other types who’ve fallen somewhere between these incarnations, making it clear that the vampire–at least as conjured in the minds of authors and filmmakers at the forefront of popular culture–is capable of shifting its form into many different archetypes as writers strive to keep the mythical creatures relevant and fresh.

For myself, I’ve always preferred the more monstrous imaginings of the beasts. And make no mistake, beasts they certainly are, no matter how they are portrayed or how the unfathomable gold flakes–somehow embedded in their skin and ONLY visible in sunlight–sparkle beneath the open sky. We’re talking about monsters who hunt people and drink their blood. About abominations who force victims to drink blood from their own flesh so as to turn them into immortal creatures of the night, damning their souls and unnaturally sustaining themselves on the flesh and blood of the innocent. Ray Garton’s masterpiece LIVE GIRLS comes to mind when I think of the monstrous vampire, which is still one of my all-time favorite imaginings of these undead fiends. Sex show dancers giving more than just a happy ending to the voyeurs who frequent their establishment, while running a night club which serves its vampiric patrons cocktails of blood while excited partyers are turned horrifically or devoured entirely in the back. THAT is the kind of vampire I like to read about and see in my movies, no matter the popularity of pale heartthrobs with a CGI sheen. You can keep that crap, thank you very much.

In Jonathan Janz’s DUST DEVILS we are treated to the kind of vampire that vampires are SUPPOSED to be: unsympathetic, ruthless, soulless monsters.

We start out right in the thick of the action with our protagonist Cody watching from afar as the vampires roast and devour a family. He soon encounters a young boy named Willet who wants revenge on the monsters for killing his family. Cody too wants revenge because the vampires–who use the cover of a traveling band of actors–have seduced his beautiful but also shallow and cruel wife away from him to become a star in their shows, where she’s ravaged sexually on display for entire towns to watch. It’s 1885, and in the wilds of New Mexico, the law is sparse and no one will believe what the creatures are.

Then the vampires are hunting down Cody and Willet as they flee from town to town, all the while trying to formulate a plan to take them down and kill them all, at any cost.

I’m a HUGE fan of Jonathan Janz. If you follow my reviews either here or on my website, you’re quite aware of that. As this is my seventh outing into the mind of Janz, I’ve come to expect strong characters with real human interactions and pains that elevate the stories above their basic premise and deliver literature that grabs hold of you deep down and pulls at your heartstrings while coating you in a thick film of glorious gore and wince-inducing descriptions of pain and suffering. DUST DEVILS is no different. It starts off with a bang and it never lets up for an instant. The setting in the Old West was perfect for this story, removing widespread communication and the presence of overwhelming law and order from the equation so that we get to focus on our wary hero as he attempts to rise to an occasion he neither wants nor is prepared for. While Janz doesn’t spend too much time on describing the glorious horizons or the gritty landscapes in the way classic westerns tend to do–making the environment another character in the story–I didn’t think it was necessary for this book. It wouldn’t have added much. We all pretty much have a good idea of what the New Mexican desert would have looked like in 1885, and Janz knows this. So instead of retreading that territory and giving us redundant descriptions of what we already know is all around the characters, he keeps the focus on the action and the pursuit. And I, for one, am glad he did so.

There’s hardly a moment to breathe throughout this bloodbath. The pacing was intense and the characters were formed just so to keep things galloping along and providing surprises and twists along the way. Yet, in spite of this breathless pacing, we still get a terrific character study of a young man who feels inadequate and like a failure to his father, his hero. We also get a terrific arc in Willet, the young boy who has lost his entire family and though he is consumed with revenge, is still a sweet boy with a good heart deep down.

There’s also the terrific Marguerite, who comes into the story in its second third and brings a powerhouse female protagonist who helps to bring even further intensity to the story as feelings between her and Cody develop.

Old West Vampires may well be a new favorite iteration of the creatures for me, and their uncompromising viciousness and cruelty is what makes them so strong as antagonists. Nobody cares about vampires hunting deer in the Pacific Northwest, sparkling beneath the sunlit sky, I don’t care HOW many teenage girls squeal and fawn over them and their Native American werewolf competitors! Sigh…that’s another story, though. For DUST DEVILS, we’re treated to a terrific feast of monsters rending the flesh of cowboys and prostitutes and families, and I found it to be purely and absolutely succulent (pun intended).

For fans of vampire novels, jump all over this one. For Westerns, if you can appreciate horror with your wide open skies, dive in. For anyone else, please, for the love of God, develop some frigging taste and start reading Jonathan Janz’s work immediately to cleanse yourself of such fragile sensibilities. And why not start with DUST DEVILS? It isn’t my favorite Janz novel, but that’s hard for me to really explain, because they’ve all been 5-star blockbusters as far as I’m concerned, and this one is no different.

Crack open the canteen of the neck of the person next to, grab a few sips, and read DUST DEVILS. Now. Find it in print, digital, and audiobook here.

BOOK REVIEW: Reception by Kenzie Jennings

Terrific characters and some smart twists send this gory family drama into the stratosphere.

RECEPTION is about Ansley, a woman who’s been trying to ease herself off of Benzo after getting a prescription and getting hooked. She’s estranged from her family, but her little sister Shay is getting married, and Ansley is determined she can be there on her sister’s big day. The event is held at a remote resort, no cell signal, and Ansley isn’t sure if her growing discomfort is from her withdrawals or if something more sinister is going on with her little sister’s new in-laws.

TERRIFIC, ferocious debut novelling follows! This book was funny, quirky, well-written, cleverly plotted, and absolutely merciless. It takes its time setting up the location and the characters, but never in a boring or dragging way. The opening is a great hook, and the following chapters develop characters we care for and get attached to. When the action takes off, it’s explosive and surreal, with gore galore and lots of cringe-worthy moments.

The dialogue worked particularly well, flowing naturally and effortlessly, the way real people talk. More than once there were truly chilling lines delivered from some of the villains, and some great “one-liners” are popped off here and there, which add some levity to the grim proceedings.

And the humor…it’s just a perfect fit here. Without the humor, I’m not sure this story would have worked so well. We all have experienced these issues with family and the drama that develops in them, and watching our heroine smart-ass her way through digs from family and other wedding guests was a delight. Then, when things turn sinister, the jokes continue to come and add a level of absurdity to the proceedings, which heightens the tension, rather than causes it to lag. Kenzie Jennings has a firm grip on how to deftly walk the line with horror and comedy, allowing them to blend here to something absolutely natural and perfectly suited to the proceedings.

There is plenty more I could say as I praise this debut novel from an author we should ALL be keeping our eye on, but I fear I may spoil the story, and I dare not do that to you. It’s just too good, and I don’t want to take from you the joy of experiencing this novel in its fullness. If you like horror, cannibalism, comedy, fish out of water stories, etc., you’ll LOVE this gem from Ms. Jennings. I can’t recommend it enough and urge you to go fetch a couple of copies. Read one, give another away, and pass the word.

THIS is how you release a debut novel…teeth bared and fists swinging. Don’t miss this. Find it in print and digital here.

BOOK REVIEW: Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay

DISAPPEARANCE AT DEVIL’S ROCK by Paul Tremblay is the third novel I’ve read by this author and by far my absolute favorite of his work.

This is an interesting horror story. And it IS a horror story, just not in the buckets of blood, constant big baddie chasing you down the hallway sort. This is subtle horror, and it’s effective. A young teenage boy goes missing, and his mother and sister and the police work to not only find him, but as information and evidence starts coming in, try to understand and make sense of the bizarre events leading up to his disappearance.

I’ve been a fan of Tremblay’s writing style since I first tried him out with CABIN AT THE END OF THE WORLD. I enjoyed that book, but it didn’t make me stand on my chair and proclaim it as the next greatest novel in American literature. I read A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS afterward, and enjoyed it quite a lot, more so than CABIN, but still, not life-changing for me as I’d expected from all the rave reviews. The only times anyone spoke about Disappearance at Devil’s Rock around me, it was usually in a critical sense, as though this book were Tremblay’s nadir…and I couldn’t disagree more. I’m so glad I finally tried this one out because it was the perfect marriage of Tremblay’s style (which I’m a big fan of) with a story that flawlessly meshes with that style.

I was on the edge of my seat throughout. The suspense was palpable, but again, without there being a constant threat of some monster or psychopath looming nearby. The suspense was deeper than that, finding its source in the hearts and minds of the grieving and terrified mother and sister, in how they deal with the information they find, and how (if at all) they pass it on or utilize that information. And then it all leads to a wildly unexpected and shocking event, told from so many different perspectives that I was never totally sure exactly what really happened, and that was the point: neither did anyone else.

It was this masterful approach that makes DISAPPEARANCE work so well. Being inside the minds of the grieving, the information filtered through their skewed and biased perceptions, and for me, it all came together like a beautiful spell of dark magic.

This book has catapulted Paul Tremblay very high on my list of author’s to follow, more so than Cabin or Ghosts. I know everyone loves those books, and I liked them both a good deal, but this one…THIS ONE is the masterpiece. My jaw is still slack. When a book really blows you away, the way you feel after? That’s me.

Can’t be recommended enough, and because this horror doesn’t rely on blood or menace virtually at all, I can safely recommend it to anyone of any stripe. You’ll find yourself engrossed in a human story of tragedy with so many bizarre elements that by the end you’ll find yourself frightened.

5/5 stars. This book is phenomenal. Find it here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Haunted Forest Tour by Jeff Strand and James A. Moore

Jurassic Park with mythological monsters and demons rather than dinosaurs, astoundingly fun!

I’ve read several books by Jeff Strand, but nothing as yet from James A. Moore. I’m going to rectify that soon, as I just had one of the most bang-up fun times a person has any business having with THE HAUNTED FOREST TOUR. Basically, we have a forest spring up in the middle of the desert out of nowhere. It’s infested with monsters of ALL stripes–you name the beast, it lives here–and naturally, a few years later a corporation sets up trams to take people on tours around the forest. Now, for the first time on Halloween, a tour is set to go INSIDE the forest. What could go wrong?

All of it. It ALL goes wrong. But not for the reader, fortunately, as we get to enjoy the carnage of the poor passengers and tour guides and one tough-as-nails tram-driver. Jeff Strand’s humor bleeds through, mostly in the dialogue, with some fantastic laugh out loud lines throughout, and the action never wanes for a second. The authors know how to build suspense and keep the action coming with frenetic energy, and we get to hang on for a wild, awesome ride. The only thing missing was having Arnold Schwarzenegger stroll in wearing camo with cut off sleeves, sporting an obscenely large machine gun, and saying, “Get down!” before lobbing a couple thousand rounds from a magic “everlast” magazine and ‘thwunking’ a few explosives into the foliage through the attached grenade launcher. But, we get pretty damned close.

This is a popcorn book, and it was never meant to take itself too seriously, and because of that this story is total over-the-top fun from beginning to end. A book doesn’t need to make you think philosophically or fundamentally challenge your worldview to good; first and foremost it should entertain, and Jeff Strand and James A. Moore deliver the fun with buckets of blood and a barage of gunfire and myriad monsters, which will leave any fan of action movies and suspense/horror stories cheering for more.

Gobs of fun (and all other kinds of fun) to be had here, don’t miss this! Great summer read.

5/5 stars. Find it in print, digital, and audio here.