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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.

BOOK REVIEW: Night of 1,000 Beasts by John Palisano

A fun, lightning-paced bloodbath on a mountain in Colorado.

This was a really enjoyable romp of wild horror. Some friends go skiing in Colorado, and after an avalanche, they start seeing different sorts of animals which seem to be hybrids with humans. And they’re big and mean and have sharp teeth and claws as well.

The monsters are varied and the action literally never stops throughout, not letting you breathe. This book relies on its premise more than it does its characters to compel the reader, but it works, and that isn’t to say the characters are uninteresting. They are. It’s just that the story is king here, and keeps things clipping along at a few light-years per second, all the way to the final pages.

Like horror? Don’t miss it. If you’re not into horror, the gore and savage fights to the death may not sit well with you, but I’d say buck up and read it anyway. It’s a whole lot of fun. Find it in print, digital, and audio here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Silence by Tim Lebbon

Really cool and emotionally driven snapshot of the beginning of a new and frightening world.

I’d had THE SILENCE on my radar for some time but hadn’t pulled the trigger yet mostly because I just had so many books on my TBR list and something else seemed to be in front of it for some time. When the movie landed on Netflix, I had tentatively decided not to watch it until I had a chance to read the book. Well, my wife is a fan of horror and thriller movies, and enough people were buzzing about this one that I relented and we watched the movie. It was good. Very well made and had some great suspenseful scenes. It was inevitably being compared to A QUIET PLACE because of the similarity of theme, but I felt they were both very different stories that stood on their own, people can pick their favorites.

So, after seeing the film, I finished up a couple books I was reading and got THE SILENCE to read. VERY glad I did. The movie was good, the book is an instant classic. The family unit in the story and the shifting POV from the daughter to the father was a perfect approach to tell this frighteningly realistic take on a world overrun by monsters. The characters felt like a real family, people we care about, and they never once took a false step or did anything that seemed unreasonable or unrealistic to who they were. The dialogue was damn near perfect. And the pacing was a masterclass in building suspense.

By the end of the novel, I was grinning ear to ear. Nothing about the book knocked me out of my chair. There were no twists that came in and turned everything on its head and made my mind reel. It’s not that kind of story. But what it shows is so frighteningly real and plausible, that I started looking around in the trees and powerlines for “vesps” perched and listening. THAT is how effective the story and the writing within this book was for me.

Excellent writing, great characters, and an all too plausible vision of an apocalyptic overrun of the world by creatures never meant to see the light of day. If any of that appeals to you, don’t skip this one. If you’re looking for a balls to the wall Mad Max style horror story, look elsewhere. This one scares you because it makes it all too real.

5/5, highly recommended. And I might even say this is one to check out in movie form first, which is never my normal recommendation. I feel like I’d have enjoyed the movie less had I read the book first. As it was, I was able to appreciate each one much more for the order I read them in.

Find the book in print, digital, or audiobook here.