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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.

BOOK REVIEW: Ghost Mine by Hunter Shea

A well-written western with lots of heart…and teeth.

I’d never read Hunter Shea before, but I’d heard about him plenty. In fact, we can all blame Jonathan Janz for my discovery of Shea, though it was completely indirect and unintentional. A little over a year ago, I discovered Janz’s writing, and when I looked up Flame Tree Press to discover more of his titles, I kept seeing Hunter Shea’s books popping up. His name came up more and more as I have become more immersed in the horror community on social media, and I finally decided Flame Tree and all these other folks raving about his work couldn’t be wrong.

And they weren’t! GHOST MINE is a terrific western and also a great siege/standoff story with ghosts and ghouls from beyond the veil. I really loved the characters, perhaps Teddah most of all. They were written with nuance and depth, genuine emotion and raw energy boiling out of them all. And they were VARIED! This is nice, as sometimes authors get caught up so much in one character, it seems to bleed onto all the others in the story. Not the case here. Each character is an individual with their own history and world view and strengths and weaknesses. The interplay between them all is also a masterclass in characterization. I can’t stress enough how well-drawn the characters are here, and I think that was the strongest part of the novel.

The story itself was interesting, and it takes its time to reveal all of what’s going on. This works to the readers’s advantage as we get to revel in the mystery of what’s happened and is still happening in Heckla. As the tensions rise and new truths are revealed, we’re carried away into what turns out to be a strong climax with a perfect wrap up after the denouement.

I’ll be checking out more of Shea’s work directly, but in the meantime, if you’ve been on the fence about GHOST MINE, don’t be. Just check it out. It’s a lot of fun. You’ll feel the tingle of excitement, the intoxication of mystery, the chill of terror, and you’ll manage to laugh out loud a few times as well.

Great fun, GREAT characters, and come on…who doesn’t like a good old western? I give it 4 out of 5 stampeding horses. Find it in print, digital, and audio here.

BOOK REVIEW: Catfish in the Cradle by Wile E. Young

Wile E. Young makes a splash in the East Texas bayous with his debut novel, CATFISH IN THE CRADLE.

Grady Pope is an aging and lonely man. His wife passed away a few months back and his daughter has gone missing. As he goes through the motions of his life in Uncertain, Texas, his daughter returns in the midst of giving birth and his life is turned on its head.

This book has a little of everything in it. There’s the terrific setting (which happens to only be a couple of hours from where I live, so I really enjoyed reading about the familiar setting), warring senses of duty and revulsion to family, a cult, and monsters living under a lake. There’s plenty of East Texas flavor here, present in both the characters and in the prose, and Young has a good feel for the slower pace of this area of the world, in the way they speak and interact. I was pleased that even though this book is told in first-person POV from Grady Pope’s perspective I still was able to connect with Luc and Gideon and some of the other characters. They were well-drawn and you could feel the cautious nature of Grady’s relationship with these characters, which fit well with his own personality. And being that the book is from his POV, we really get a good feel for Grady himself, his flaws and his nobility and his weariness.

The monsters–and indeed the story itself–is clearly inspired by Universal’s THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, but that’s pretty much where the similarity ends, as Young merely uses that as a sort of framework to tell his own unique tale. The setting, the story, the characters, and the horror are all from Young’s mind, and these Deep Folk stand on their own as a new and exciting monster with a mythos I would like to see Young develop further and explore in future works. The creatures have a history and some very interesting lore fused into the story and if you like the setting as much as I did, you’ll realize just how well it all fits together. I can see a great prequel story just sitting there waiting to be told, and I hope it happens one day.

I wouldn’t say there’s anything extreme about this book, but it certainly does have some good gory moments. The prose never lingers on or splashes in the viscera, but Young has no problem showing you some hideous visions through his words, so fans of the wet stuff–like me–won’t be disappointed. That said, it’s only in moments, and the real horror here, at least for me, is the relationship between Grady and his new grandson Lincoln, who is growing rapidly and changing into something less than human…though there IS some humanity there, at least for a while. This emotional exploration was one of the better parts of the novel and served to offer up more dread and horror than any of the well-written action scenes or any of the stalking, creeping sections as the suspense builds.

Good characters, a great setting, and a new and fun riff on an old monster story makes for an exciting and easy read. I’m a fairly slow reader and I managed to get through this one in just a couple weeks, and it might have been half that time if it weren’t the holidays and my family wasn’t so busy getting ready for that. The pacing is good, the story is interesting, and there are some undeniably fun scenes within.

Extreme horror fans should still find plenty to like here, and horror fans who prefer their stories less moist and more psychological will certainly be able to hang with this one. Not terribly long, but a solid story, well told, and most importantly, entertaining throughout.

4/5 stars. Take this one with you next time you’re out on the lake. 😉 Find it in print and digital here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Moore House by Tony Tremblay

A solid possession novel with a few clever twists.

THE MOORE HOUSE by Tony Tremblay is set up much like a haunted house story. There’s an old house that locals avoid, lots of deaths within its walls, and a mystery surrounding why. But instead of ghosts, we have a demon, and a Catholic priest with a team of “empaths” are brought in to first investigate, then exorcise the house.

The action in this novel comes in quick and sudden bursts throughout. One minute the characters are standing around talking, the next there’s a ferocious attack. These jarring scenes actually work really well in the context of the book, acting less like ‘jump scares’ and more like an in-your-face way of letting you know never to get too comfortable here. Bad things are happening, and worse beings are behind it. Tremblay doesn’t let you forget it, either.

The pacing was solid from start to finish. This isn’t a slow burn story, but it’s staged similarly to one, the main difference being the ferocious acts of violence that reach out and snatch you by the throat when you least expect it. For this reason, THE MOORE HOUSE moves along at a brisk clip, building the tension as the mystery unfolds before us.

Speaking of mysteries, I was also struck at how this novel also moved much like a detective novel from the 40s. Replace Sam Spade with Fr. McCloud, throw in some disgraced nuns with psychic abilities, and you’ll have an idea of what I’m talking about. I really enjoyed this procedural aspect to the book, the search for clues and to just exactly what the name of the demon within is so that the rites of exorcism can be utilized at their fullest strength.

And that’s where things really go left.

The climax of this story was very satisfying, throwing in some twists I didn’t see coming and I doubt you will either. Tremblay keeps you on your toes as to what the motivations of the various characters are, especially towards the end, and it all served to elevate the suspense and keeping me on the edge of my seat. It’s quite a gripping finale, replete with hand-wringing action and suspense.

The prose is good, the dialogue serving the story well, especially in that ‘mystery novel’ aspect, as they way the people converse reminded me of some older Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet books from many decades past. But none of it rings untrue to the characters and works rather well here, though the setting is modern.

Not your typical ‘haunted house’ story, THE MOORE HOUSE ups the ante by introducing ravenous demons (and some interesting mythos surrounding their creation) in place of disembodied souls, giving the novel a set of teeth far sharper and tearing than it might have otherwise. The characters are flawed but believable, and though some are clearly hypocrites, you end up rooting for them anyway. Why? Because they’re human.

4/5 stars to THE MOORE HOUSE. A story of possession of both person and home, a mystery/detective story cloaked in a cape of horror from the supernatural. If you like stories like this, you’ll be right at home. And both gore lovers and haters alike can be assured, this one is up your alley all at once. The gore is minimal, but when it happens it is striking and horrifying. Not too much, but enough syrup to keep the pancakes tasty.

Don’t miss this one. It’s easy to see why it was nominated for the Bram Stoker award. Find it in print, digital, and audio here.

BOOK REVIEW: Unbortion by Rowland Bercy, Jr.

WOW is about all I can say as I dip my fingers in Holy Water and cross myself.

This is a short story, maybe a novelette (I listened to the audio version, which is right at 1 hour), but manages to pack in some of the most disturbing imagery I’ve come across since reading Jack Ketchum’s OFF-SEASON. The story begins with a baby in its mother’s womb being aborted. Not only is this hyper-sensitive territory, but the author ups the ante by writing the scene from the baby’s point of view. It’s peeled apart and torn to shreds as it wonders what is happening to it and why its mother is throwing it away and doesn’t want to love it. Then the baby’s remains are tossed into a dumpster with some leftover spaghetti.

And that’s just the beginning!

The baby isn’t dead, however. It’s never explained why this baby is unkillable but reading as he or she (it’s never given a gender) crawls and slops its way across town in search of its mother and looking for other suitable “hosts” is nothing short of horrific.

There’s not much room for character development here, being so short, but there’s enough to make it passable. In fact, I have very few critiques to offer here, and the main reason I gave it four stars instead of five is simply because of the subject matter. The abortion scene is fittingly horrifying, and the casual, calloused way the baby is thrown away honestly made my guts twist up. I don’t know (and don’t care) what the author’s views on abortion are, but he certainly didn’t present it as anything less than monstrous. I appreciate this approach in the current culture, not trying to gloss over what’s happening to the baby in the womb, but at the same time it is a subject that really affects me personally (a private thing), and because of the unpleasantness of it, I knocked off a star. That may not be entirely fair, I’ll admit, but I’m trying to be as honest about this book as I can.

That said, the writing is very strong here, and if I may make a note about the audiobook itself, it’s nothing short of brilliant in terms of production. There’s subtle music throughout, adding to the story much the way a movie’s score does, and certain sounds like ringing phones or people screaming or–most chilling–the baby saying MOOOOOTTTTHHHHEEEERRRR are all done with sound effects to great effect. I wish more audiobooks took this approach as it really immerses you in the atmosphere of the tale.

Strong writing, merciless and horrifying, with a refreshing presentation on a touchy cultural subject. Any fan of extreme horror will likely enjoy the hell out of this little tale, and I’d recommend it to most readers with a bit of a trigger warning attached due to the subject matter. Well done extreme horror! Find it in print, digital, and audio here.