BOOK REVIEW: Of Foster Homes and Flies by Chad Lutzke

An incredibly powerful coming-of-age story that sticks with you.

This was the first thing I’ve read by Chad Lutzke, it will NOT be the last. At first, I was trying to figure out just what the genre here was. By the time it ended and I was wiping the tears from my eyes and literally saying “THAT WAS AMAZING” out loud to an empty room, I realized the best way to define this book is “emotional horror”.

There are no creeping boogeymen, no monsters, not even any real human villains, other than we get the impression that the boy’s mother may well have been one of sorts. But the way this builds the tension up to a fever pitch as the boy is hoping to place or win the coming spelling bee while his mother rots in their living room takes you to places of childhood fear and angst that all happen on an emotional level. It was truly brilliant.

The prose was perfect for this. I really felt like I was reading a memoir written by a child, but without any lack of sophistication on the writing front at all. It just connects to you the way your kid’s story might if they were pouring their heart and soul out to you. Masterful seems too trite, but I guess I’ll use it, because that’s what this was.

Not a word is wasted in this brief–but perfectly executed–masterpiece. Every note rings true, and I can’t imagine a single person not adoring this, regardless of taste. It’s that good.

Don’t miss this one. I finished this days ago, and I cannot stop thinking about it. I’ll likely revisit this one several times, which is not something I do very often. 5/5-stars. Find it in print, digital, and audio here.

BOOK REVIEW: Castle of Sorrows by Jonathan Janz

A well-done follow-up to THE SORROWS, CASTLE OF SORROWS takes us back to the island where Castle Blackwood sits ominously with its lurking, horned beast and hardly lets you breathe.

Ben finds himself heading back to The Sorrows after his mother is murdered and his baby daughter is kidnapped. He instantly knows it’s Gabriel, the beast from the island, and ends up on the island with some FBI agents, all while some gangsters follow them out there with intentions of killing all but the widowed Mrs. Blackwood so they can extract an arbitrary fee that her son incurred from them before dying on the island a year ago. No one believes Ben about the monster that lurks the island, but they’re all about to find out just how wrong they were to ever doubt him.

So the setup happens early on, wasting zero time getting things moving along, and before we know it, we’re back on the island. For about 7/8 of this book, the monster is (mostly) only spoken of or seen in shadow or periphery. But don’t take that to mean nothing is going on. There’s a hellacious gun battle on the island with the agents and the gangsters, and chaos reigns while Ben tries to stay alive and find his missing baby girl. Eventually, the cast is whittled down to the essentials, and the horror of Gabriel is unleashed.

Janz knows how to get the action moving briskly, and he does a good job of it here. There’s never a moment to get slow down here, though we do get some more history with the Widow Blackwood, her husband, and the fearsome Gabriel. Much of this book reads like a strange mobster movie in an odd setting, but the undercurrent of horror and our knowledge of what happened on the island before and what is certainly lurking there for our characters now helps to amp up the tension. When the monster finally does show up and things explode, the horror is as visceral and intense as the first book was, mirroring some aspects, but managing to give us a unique and new story to sink our teeth into that’s a lot of fun.

Claire, who met Ben in the first book and was a major character, is hardly in this one, even though she’s married to Ben now and they have a child together. However, Janz didn’t just forget about her, and when she and her role come into view, we have what may well be the set up for a third Sorrows book, something I hope I’m not wrong about. As different as this book was from its predecessor, it fits nicely into this ongoing story, and would serve as a terrific “Empire Strikes Back” style sequel, a perfect second entry in what I hope will be a trilogy.

I’ve read and reviewed now 8 Jonathan Janz novels, including this one, and he is consistently good. Even great. I’ve yet to be disappointed in his work, and I like that, like Stephen King or Lee Child, I can always pick up another of Janz’s work and instantly feel right at home. There’s no awkward period getting used to the writing before I really get invested; it happens right from the first page. And thus far, he hasn’t missed.

If you liked The Sorrows, Castle of Sorrows is a must for you. The climax is quite gripping, perhaps not as much as the first one, but it’s close, and further, it’s the epilogue that really grabs you by the short and curlies, gasping for air. And it makes for quite a sinister entry.

Another no-brainer for not only fans of Janz, but for newcomers as well, though I do recommend reading the first book before this one because you’ll be lost otherwise. This is a full-blown sequel, not a stand-alone novel, but it’s a fine entry you don’t want to miss. Find it in print, digital, and audio here.

BOOK REVIEW: Haven by Tom Deady

An exceptional coming of age horror novel. Weighty, but never boring, this is exactly MY kind of book.

A young man, disfigured and shamed, is sent to prison for 17 years in 1961 for murders he claims he never committed. Now free, he comes back to his hometown of Haven, Massachusetts to start his life over with the help of his friend and mentor, Catholic Priest, Father McCarthy. The chief of police Crawford put this guy away in 1961, and immediately wants to put him back, while his own son terrorizes some younger boys in town. But is something more afoot in Haven? And why do there never seem to be any roadkill left near the lake?

That’s more than enough of a taste for this terrific tour-de-force of a novel. The characters in this book ALL ring true and cause you to fall in love with them or despise them from your very core, depending on which one it is. The writing is very natural, not over the top, and straight forward. The prose is gentle, but effective, the dialogue never fails to come across as authentic, and the tension starts on page one and doesn’t stop building until the final one. I’ve read plenty of terrific books over the years, and I’ve come to adore the coming of age horror sub-genre. Stephen King’s IT is often what I consider the standard bearer, along with Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon (though not horror), and HAVEN takes its place amongst the titans of the genre and is clearly comfortable there. The novel never tries too hard to impress, but does so anyway page after page.

I really enjoyed the straight-forward storytelling here. As I said before, Deady never goes over the top, never abandons the naturalistic style he employs, and this is one of the books greatest strengths. Deady has no need to impress you. He’s already done it with this masterful work. The story is both simple, yet deep, spanning decades while still feeling intimate and immediate. The stakes are high, but they are presented in such a way that only a handful of characters are aware of what’s happening, keeping that intimacy I described front and center throughout.

This is not an extreme horror novel that revels in buckets of gore and depravity. This is about real-to-life small town folks facing down something far more powerful than themselves. And that’s part of its beauty. What would YOU do if you found yourself face to face with the horror this book presents? I think for most of us, Tom Deady has shown precisely how the average Joe would react.

This novel has a very mainstream appeal, while still feeling like very much its own thing. It isn’t trying to be something it isn’t, not trying to copy anything else. There are elements here that pay homage to the greats of this sub-genre, yet it manages to be completely its own, unique story. And while there IS a monster (along with some human monsters as well), nothing supernatural is present here. I like supernatural, and think this kind of story is a fine fit for such an approach, but by avoiding the supernatural, Deady manages to wed this tale to reality in such a way that even the unnamable beast within the pages seems frightfully plausible. And I was never quite able to shake that. This speaks to magnificent, understated writing.

If you like horror in the vein of Stephen King at his best when writing about children, you’re in for a treat here. AND you’re in for something Mr. King hasn’t given us already. At no point did I feel like I was reading a riff on anything else, but still appreciated its sense of knowing whom its peers are, respecting them, and doing its own thing.

If you’re not a horror fan, you’ll likely still have a great time with this book. It isn’t overly gory, though it is suspenseful throughout, and the characters are drawn in such a way that you’d want to follow and know more about them even if this were a cozy, romantic mystery. But never fear, horror lovers, there’s still plenty here to get your hackles up.

There’s nothing to consider here, other than the format you want to read this book in. Print, digital, audio, all are available, so there’s literally ZERO excuse to skip this one. And if you do, you’re the lesser for it. Find it in print, digital, or audio here.

BOOK REVIEW: Shackled by Ray Garton

Ray Garton always delivers, and SHACKLED is no exception.

A tabloid reporter uncovers a scheme where children are being kidnapped and brainwashed and forced into the sex/pornography industry, under the guise of what appears to be Satanism. A pastor’s son is taken, and he teams up with the reporter and some others to get to the bottom of this nasty web of seediness and get his son back.

I’ve been trying to decide how I would classify this novel. Garton is likely most well known for his brilliant horror novels LIVE GIRLS and RAVENOUS, and he’s pumped out several other gems like THE NEW NEIGHBOR and THE LOVELIEST DEAD. I’ve read the sequels to LIVE GIRLS and RAVENOUS, both of which are top quality as well. He also writes some thrillers, like TRAILER PARK NOIR (delightfully twisted little tale) and others, and while the story falls more in line with the thrillers in his bibliography, I’ve just about decided this one must be considered horror.

SHACKLED is brutal, unflinching, uncompromising, and devastating. Garton slaps you around for a while, knocks the wind out of you, and while you’re on the ground trying to recover, he gives you a nice triple-kick to the gut to make sure you don’t forget him. And it was absolutely perfectly executed. You get to know a young girl and a very young boy who’ve been abducted and not only do you begin to care for them, but you actually come to love them. The main character shifts to a supporting role in the final third and this transition not only worked but felt seamless and was a nice break from the norm of watching your MC make it out unscathed. This guy is VERY scathed by book’s end.

There are several unexpected developments along the way, the cast of characters is large and diverse, and Garton’s signature frankness when it comes to depravity is on full display here. All aspects of this book work very well. While it was first published in the late 90s, I actually didn’t feel it was terribly dated, even with the now outdated state of the internet chatrooms and such that lead our characters to uncover the sinister goings-on. It is a novel of its time but transcends that time very well because the characters are so well drawn that it all rings true. Horrifyingly so.

There were parts of this book that were hard to read, not because they were poorly constructed, but because Garton was making sure you looked at what he was showing you, reminding you that this kind of thing DOES happen in the real world, and all too often. The mechanics of the baddies’ cover story may vary, but unfortunately, this is an all-too-real situation for many victims in the world, and I feel like he wanted to make me look at it and get me angry. And it worked. You want to get your hands on these vile villains, wring their necks, pull out their tracheas, and THEN get nasty with them. The idea that there are people so soulless in the world is haunting, and that reality is still weighing on me since finishing the book.

If you’ve read Garton before, you’re aware of his talent. I couldn’t be more pleased with my latest read, and if you haven’t read this one yet, I urge you to do so. You’ll have to grit your teeth more than once, hold your rage in check, but the way it all pans out is glorious and masterfully written by a true great in the genre. I don’t think anyone should miss this, but be warned: Ray Garton doesn’t blink. So don’t think you’re going to stare him down, especially in this one. Find it in print, digital, and audio here.

5/5 Stars.

UPDATE: 7-25-19

So, I’ve been super busy and it looks like I’m not going to get the Newsletter out for July. That’s okay, I’ll have a double portion for the August Newsletter to fill everyone in. In the meantime, we’ll just share a few things here.

THE DAMNED PLACE has been released! On July 6th, Black Bed Sheet Books released my epic, coming-of-age horror novel, and it looks absolutely phenomenal. Coming in at 582 pages, this is a thick, hefty tome you can easily spend several days or even weeks lost inside and get an introduction to The Damned Trilogy. I’ve gotten the second installment, THE DAMNED ONES, back from the editor. I’ve got a couple scenes to rework to get things just right, but it will be done before long and I’ll present it to my publisher. My goal–which may or may not be the goal of the publisher–is to see this second installment released between 6 and 12 months from the date this first one was, which will put it coming out sometime between February and July of 2020, giving enough time for THE DAMNED PLACE to get established and gain readers eager to see what’s coming after the sinister cliffhanger ending and thirsty for more, but not so long that it has faded from memory. So, that’s my goal. We’ll see if the publisher wants to do it that way or not. I’ll certainly keep everyone informed on the progress of that book as it develops.

In the meantime, I’ve written another novel earlier this spring/early summer, a secret project which should release early in 2020. I can’t say much about this book, what it’s about, or even the title, but I will say this about it: it is a standalone novel that also crosses over into my other work, and anyone up to date with my other books will get a little grin on their face when they see how it ties in. I’ve also written a brand new novella that I’ve done a couple of drafts on so far, and I plan to do one more before it goes to an editor. I’ll be getting it out for submissions later this year (that’s the goal, anyway), but have no projection as to exactly when it might come out as of now. Again, I’ll report on it as soon as I know one way or another.

I’ve been invited to contribute to an invite-only anthology in the past few days, and I’m currently working on putting together a short story. Though it was invite-only, there is still not a guarantee it will be chosen for inclusion, so cross your fingers and say a prayer for me that I knock this one out of the park. So far, it’s coming along fantastically, so I’m optimistic.

Aside from all of that, I’m still aiming to start the third novel of The Damned Trilogy this fall (once all these other works are finalized and off my plate). I want to start that one with a completely cleared writing schedule. I’m sure that something will come up along the way, maybe a new short or two, and I’m also in talks with a couple of other authors about co-writing some things with them, so in all likelihood I’ll be working on that alongside THE DAMNED TOWN, but I aim to at least start it with 100% of my focus on that novel. It will bring a close to The Damned Saga, but also springboard several other works, which you’ll just have to wait on to see the beautiful tapestry I’m attempting to construct here, so keep an eye out.

And, of course, I’ve got another five or so novels and novellas planned in the coming years beyond this. As with all my work, all of them will take place in the same universe, with characters popping up across all of them, but these will be standalone, one-off novels where I can experiment and grow in my craft. Keep an eye out for some new things with all I’ve got coming. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed!

And that’s about all. Plenty is happening, but I’m so busy at the moment that I can’t lay it all out for you, for which I apologize. Watch your inbox in August for the new Newsletter where I’ll have even more exciting news to share, and while I’ve got you, go grab yourself a copy of THE DAMNED PLACE if you haven’t already (and don’t forget to check out my other offerings, all of which can be found here). THE DAMNED PLACE can be found here, and I do hope you’ll leave a review, be it positive, negative, or meh. They really help, and provide valuable feedback for me to make my future work as good as it can be.

Take care, do some reading, and God bless!

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.