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.

Great Review of my latest novel, THE DAMNED PLACE, from Tristan Drue Rogers!

Absolutely WONDERFUL review for my newest novel, THE DAMNED PLACE, by author and reviewer Tristan Drue Rogers! I’m speechless with this review, and I don’t mind telling you about the rosy blossoms blooming high on my cheeks. Check it out. The book can be purchased via the link in Tristan’s review or by clicking the ‘Books’ tab above! And while you’re checking out his review of my work, check out his own novel, BROTHERS IN BLOOD.

Enjoy the review here.

BOOK REVIEW: Jerry’s Book Sucks: The Book by Jay Sigler and Justin M. Woodward

You’ve heard the term “popcorn movie” before, right? It basically means the movie is a big summer (usually) blockbuster full of action and special effects and actors who look sexy covered in sweat and grime, huge setpieces, exciting shootouts and explosions, and while the heroes may go through a bit of hell, they triumph in the end. What it does NOT mean is that the movie is going to be some life-altering examination of character and humanity full of quiet heartache and a slow pace. That’s what the Oscars are for.

JERRY’S BOOK SUCKS: THE BOOK is a “popcorn book”, and that is not meant as an insult on any level. It knows exactly what it is, what it’s trying to accomplish, and the general laws of physics and human nature be damned. It sets its eyes on the goal, jumps in the car (or on its horse 😉 ), and floors it. Full speed ahead and hang on for the ride. THAT is what this book was for me. A big, bold, ambitious, and satirically hilarious big-budget Hollywood action fantasy that basically takes all the ingredients from a dozen totally different recipes and tosses them all in together for a glorious cauldron of steaming hot fun. Oh, and don’t forget the kitchen sink…that’s thrown in there, too.

Jerry is an overbearing bore, and Rob loses a bet playing darts with him. His bane for losing is that he must edit and publish Jerry’s book–which has no title–since Rob had self-published a book of his own before. The problem is, Jerry’s book, well…it sucks. It’s about Jerry, who has renamed himself Gary in the story, and how he has to stop the vicious bat-monster Bob–curiously close to Rob’s name. There’s a girl in the mix who’s been taken, and Gary goes on a quest to find and save her from the nefarious Bob before he hurts her AND before he amasses the power to control the entire universe. Along the way, Gary enlists Helen, a woman who works for him–and has been turned into a gelatinous goo with an eyeball in it–and an otherworldly gnome by the name of Ryan, King of the Foopians (just read the book).

We travel across time, across space, to other planets, other galaxies, other dimensions, and even Hell! There’s absolutely NO place this book doesn’t go with its sprawling adventure, and along the way we get a handful of Footnotes from Rob, the editor, where he explains how Jerry has taken some real-life situations and written them into the book, but he’s always changed it to make Bob/Rob look bad. Oh, and Jerry has written himself/Gary as an obnoxious, know-it-all, perfect male specimen who makes other men green with jealousy and makes women’s panties eject into the nether with lightning speed at the sight of him.

We can tell Rob hates Jerry, and his footnotes throughout really drive that point home. However, in spite of all this, Jerry’s book really DOESN’T suck. I mean, sure, strip away the scathing satire and the fact that we’re reading a book edited by a guy who hates the author, and this wouldn’t work so well. But in the framework of how the story is presented, it ends up being a home run. There’s fun to be had on every page, laugh out loud moments assail us at every turn, and there’s simply no predicting what will come next. How do you predict that an elderly woman with a talking tit will turn into goo after a fall and spend the rest of the story in one bottle or jar or another in a holster on Gary’s hip, end up screwing herself (literally and hysterically), and pleasure a lusty demon?

Answer: you can’t!

Jay Sigler and Justin M. Woodward have created an absurdist masterpiece here, a mixture of bizarro fiction, sci-fi, and high fantasy, and I for one have never come across anything quite like it before. I do hope I get to experience something like it again if the authors decide to continue Jerry’s sucky books story. When it ended, I wanted more.

Its got action, its got comedy, its got romance, its got an army of talking yard gnomes, its got time travel, portals to other worlds, and a berry that turns you into a walking cellphone to people across the galaxy. And so much more.

Your life will not be changed here. You will not reach some epiphany about life and humanity. You will not break down in tears (except for those of laughter), but what you WILL walk away with is the memory of some of the best fun you’ve ever had ‘twixt the covers of a book. I mean that. Lots of laughs, lots of WTF moments, lots of action and explosions and shootouts and even a pretty damned good rap battle.

If any or all of that sounds appealing to you, snag this up. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, and who doesn’t like a good belly laugh or 800? I know I do, and I had a great time with Jerry’s Book Sucks: The Book. You will too.

Now, go buy the foopin book. Find it in print, digital, and audio here.

BOOK REVIEW: Kill Whitey by Brian Keene

A fast, fun, mean ride where crime/noir and slasher meet. Lots of messy charm!

KILL WHITEY by Brian Keene dropped the transmission into low gear and floored it from the very beginning. The whole time I was reading, I felt like my head was pinned to the headrest behind me and I couldn’t lean forward…and I never really wanted to. The ride was too exhilarating.

We have Larry, a blue-collar guy and regular Joe, who falls for a beautiful Russian stripper named Sondra. She works at a shady gentleman’s club and, after the first outing to this place with his pals from work, Larry finds himself drawn back time and time again to watch and lust after the beautiful woman. The place is owned by Whitey, a big Russian guy with white hair, and one of his friends claims he’s part of the Russian mob, though the other’s don’t believe him.

Only, they should have. After a night at the club where Sondra didn’t show and some strange activity is happening with the security folks of the joint, Larry and Darryl find Sondra hiding under Larry’s car outside and they help her get away. The Russians are really pissed off by this, and they’re coming, led by Whitey, whom they soon find is almost as indestructible as Jason Voorhees.

The fun never stops. At least if you find violent shootouts and fights to the death with severed limbs and blown apart organs fun. And I do. Fun AF. And KILL WHITEY delivers it in spades. It’s set up like a crime/noir, replete with the naive protagonist and sultry femme fatale and a bad guy who neither knows how to quit nor is capable of doing so. The story of precisely WHY Whitey and crew are after Sondra is never fully clarified. We get Sondra’s story and we get Whitey’s, but it’s never confirmed which (or if either) were being fully truthful. And this helps add to the conflict and suspense of the tale. The uncertainty in Larry’s mind plays out wonderfully confused and infuriated and conflicted.

Keene’s simple, straight-forward approach at prose is on display here, and as always, it just works. It reads easily and rings true. I especially appreciate his showing the cracks in Larry’s moral shell as the story goes forward and he’s worn down by panic and survival and doubt.

It’s fast. It’s fun. It’s mean. And it’s totally badass. If you like slashers and crime/noir, this is for you. It’s got it all, and it’s executed with lots of heart throughout. Once the action gets rolling, which is pretty early on, it never lets up. For me, THAT’S how you tell a story.

Another fine outing from Keene. Find it in print, digital, and audio here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Hungry Ones by Chris Sorensen

When I first read THE NIGHTMARE ROOM by Chris Sorensen, I was struck at what a powerhouse debut it was. The pacing was just right, the building tension getting tauter and tauter as the story progressed, and the ending blindsided me and blew me away. I was LITERALLY astonished, and it remains to this day as one of the best “ghost stories” I’ve ever read. I knew from the start this was going to launch a series, as it was subtitled THE MESSY MAN SERIES, Book 1. This struck me as interesting because as much as I adored The Nightmare Room, I just couldn’t see how the story could progress and go further.

I needn’t have worried. In the more than competent hands of Sorensen, the sequel to his hit debut, this one titled THE HUNGRY ONES, the story not only goes forward but does so in new and interesting ways. Here, we have a lady who’s purchased a dilapidated motel which was the sight of a brutal shot-gun massacre two years before. She’s about a week away from opening when the family from the first book stops by and she rents out a room to them, and unkowingly awakens something sinister lurking on the grounds of her motel. Actually, SEVERAL somethings.

Where Peter and his wife were the main focus of the first book, they take a bit of a back seat in this outing. They still have significant roles, and the version of Peter who is now part of The Messy Man is integral to the story, the real focus here is on his son Michael and the motel owner Jess.

Sorensen structures his books much like an onion, and as we dig into the tale, layers are peeled back one at a time, revealing more and more to us, drawing us in with mystery, and then surprising us with another great finale.

I was privileged enough to be able to read the first couple of chapters of this for Chris many months ago when he reached out to ask if I’d look them over and give him some feedback. The opening is focused on The Maple City Butcher, who is looking for a drink desperately late at night. This is the same guy who shoots up the motel, and here we get a bit of a look into the man that sets everything in motion for this story. I was captivated by this character and instantly wanted to know more. Then after this sinister opening, we meet Jess as she’s readying her new motel for business. Again, I was instantly struck with how her character connected with me, like a very sweet person who saw me standing on the street, nervous and confused, and took my hand to lead me where we needed to be. And ultimately, I was hooked. When the couple of chapters Chris sent over for me to peruse were over, my heart sank knowing it would be some time before I’d get to finish this tale.

It was worth the wait. While not quite as fresh and without as big of a twist ending as the first, this was still a terrific sequel. And it IS a sequel, one where the reader will certainly need to have read the first book to understand what’s going on. There aren’t any lengthy recaps to catch us up on previous events, but there are plenty of spoilers to the first book, so if you’re reading this and interested in getting this book, stop, go buy THE NIGHTMARE ROOM, and read it first, THEN get this one. It’s the only way to consume this work.

I was initially a bit confused by certain sections that jumped back in time, retelling events from the motel from the past, but soon I caught on and ended up quite enjoying these leaps in time, which filled out the story nicely. Like in the first book, the pacing is spot on and the tension keeps winding up tighter and tighter until the chain snaps in a violent whipcrack at the end, setting us up for yet another sequel to come. Now that I’ve seen Sorensen’s deft handling of a story I was convinced couldn’t work beyond a single book, I’m more than eager to see where this story goes from here. And speaking of sequels, this one has all the elements of the very best ones: MORE. More ghosts, more characters, more seedy situations. It really ups the ante nicely.

I’m not a huge “ghost story” fan in general. I’ve liked a good bit of them, but it isn’t the subgenre I typically am drawn to. But Chris Sorensen’s pair of books display the height of the genre, hitting all the right notes at just the right tempo with just the right amount of passion. For this reason, I can heartily recommend THE HUNGRY ONES to anyone who enjoys a good supernatural suspense yarn. There’s very little gore in either of these books, so the squeamish should be fine, but be sure to have a Xanax handy because this story will put your stomach in knots.

Just do me (and yourself) a favor: read THE NIGHTMARE ROOM first. If you don’t, you’ll be lost, confused, and in dire need of explanation. Plus, you don’t want to spoil the ending to that first book before reading it. It’s just too perfect.

I listened to this one on audio, and Chris did his own narration here excellently, just as he did in the first book. Terrific audio production.

THE HUNGRY ONES is the very best kind of sequel, returning us to characters we already love, introducing us to new ones we can cheer for, and takes the story in new and interesting directions. Just remember to hang on for one hell of a ride. Find it in print, digital, or audio here.