Tuesday, October 31, 2023

October Screams - A Halloween Anthology

Kangas Kahn film company have released horror films like Fear of Clowns, Garden of Hedon, and Terrortory over the last 20 years. In 2015, the film company launched Kangas Kahn Publishing, a small publisher that have released titles like With Teeth and Halloween: The Greatest Holiday of All. This Halloween season, the company has published an impressive short-story collection called October Screams: A Halloween Anthology. It is 27 stories authored by some of Paperback Warrior's favorite horror writers. 

Here are some of my favorites from this collection:

Ronald Malfi's “Tate” is a holiday-themed story that centers on a grieving couple on Halloween. It begins with Nick leaving the house to buy some candy for the visiting trick-or-treaters that will surely be arriving. His wife Alice waits patiently for his quick return, but begins to worry when the minutes turn into hours. When Nick returns, he's upset and heads straight to his dead son's bedroom. Alice comforts him, but both are surprised when a boy arrives at their door that resembles their deceased son. As the story unfolds, readers learn more about the boy's death and the finale was a throwback to the old EC Comics horror tales of the mid-20th century. “Tate” was really effective.

In “Perfect Night for a Perfect Murder”, author Jeremy Bates uses the short-story format to present this first-person perspective on how to properly commit premeditated murder. The protagonist is a crime-fiction author that is detailing the advantages of planning the perfect murder to coincide with what he persists is the best day of the year for murder, Halloween. The story is a blend of dark humor and crime-fiction, and it ends with a little twist that I could see coming. Very enjoyable.  

“Masks” is written by Brian Keene and Richard Chizmar and involves some kids pulling a convenience store robbery on Halloween night. There's some social commentary about Covid masks (no doubt Keene's doing) as the kids don costumes to rob the place. As the robbery ensues, one of the kids is forced to shoot a female customer that's wearing a devil mask. When the kids make the getaway, they begin noticing that all of the streets are empty. There is an eerie silence. When the kids are beckoned to the home of a friend, they see more people wearing devil masks. While the story is a bit scrambled and seems incomplete, it nonetheless provided plenty of entertainment. 

I did enjoy man of the other stories, including Kealan Patrick Burke's haunting “afraid of the dark” tale “Let the Dark Do the Rest” as well as the clever, touching doll-perspective short, “Doll”, by Ryan Van Ells. Overall, this collection has some hits and misses, but is sure to please fans of horror stories. If you are a Bates, Keene, Chizmar, and Malfi fan, then these stories alone are worth the price of admission. Recommended.

Monday, October 30, 2023

Atomic Werewolves and Man-Eating Plants

The pulp-fiction and men's action-adventure connoisseurs Robert Deis and Wyatt Doyle are back at it again with a brand new volume for their Men's Adventure Library series (published by New Texture). The book is aptly titled Atomic Werewolves and Man-Eating Plants and it is a beautiful collection of vintage men's adventure magazine stories about ghosts, aliens, robots, vampires, werewolves, and creepy rats. Like many of their prior offerings, this book is available in an expanded hardcover edition as well as paperback.  

The collection begins with “A Century of Weird Tales”, written by PulpFest organizer Mike Chomko. This is an informative history on Weird Tales magazine's history, including full color cover panels by the likes of Virgil Finlay, Matt Fox, and Margaret Brundage. Chomko illustrates how Weird Tales really found its identity in 1924 when Farnsworth Wright assumed the editorial role. At that point, the magazine began a prosperous creative flow populated by some of the best writers of the 20th century – Robert Bloch, Robert E. Howard, Henry Kuttner, Hugh B. Cave, and Manly Wade Wellman, as well as artists like Hannes Bok, Jack Williamson, and Margaret Brundage. 

In “Weasels Ripped Their Flesh”, horror editor, critic, and author Stefan Dziemianowicz examines the influx of early, weird pulp-fiction stories that appeared in the mid to later 20th century Men's Action-Adventure Magazines (MAMs for short). Dziemianowicz points out that these MAM editors would often browse back issues of old pulp magazines to find riveting stories they could feature in their own publications. Titles like Cavalier, Fury, Men, and Peril featured stories previously authored by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, and Theodore Sturgeon. The article also includes artwork by John Leone and James Bingham.

Both Deis and Doyle offer their own experienced insight on “A Turn for the Weird:, a massive 27-page essay that not only explores the richness of weird pulp-fiction stories in the pages of MAMs, but also serves as an informative introduction on the many stories that saturate this impressive short-story collection. The duo also use this medium to explore the idea of MAMs historically featuring brawny, barrel-chested heroes that were impervious to harm. They show a stark contrast between the usual flavor of MAM writing to the more harrowing horror and terror tales that were sprinkled in. In these stories, readers welcomed the change and grew to accept that these heroes were prone to “fear, panic, mutilation, and fatalism.” The text also examines how the violence and savagery of these MAM stories served as an unexpected coping tool for military veterans that predominately bought and read these publications.

The stories culled from the MAMs and presented here offer a variety of creatures, traditional horror, science-fiction, and just plain 'ole weird writing. The authors featured include Gardner F. Fox, H.P. Lovecraft, Manly Wade Wellman, Rick Rubin, and Theodore Sturgeon. For eye candy, glorious artwork from John Leone, Basil Gogos, Mark Schneider, Vic Prezio, Clarence Doore, Dwight Howe, Fernando Fernandez, John Duillo, Norm Eastman, George Cross, and Mort Kunstler to name a few.

Needless to say, if you love horror, science-fiction, pulp-fiction, MAMs, or collectively the amazing body of work created by both Robert Deis and Wyatt Doyle, then this book is a mandatory addition to your library. With a title like Atomic Werewolves and Man-Eating Plants, why wouldn't it be?

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Voodoo! A Chrestomathy of Necromancy

Bill Pronzini (b. 1943) saw his first novel, The Stalker, published in 1971. His writing career has flourished with over 50 stand-alone novels as well as numerous novels in his series titles like Carpenter and Quincannon and Nameless Detective. Aside from being a prolific author, Pronzini's career is often celebrated for his anthology editing. He has collaborated with the likes of Martin Greenberg, Barry Malzberg, and Carol-Lynn Waugh for nearly 100 short-story collections in genres like crime-fiction, horror, and western. One of the first Pronzini anthologies I read was Voodoo! A Chrestomathy of Necromancy. It was published as a hardcover by Arbor House in 1980.

This collection is presented in three parts. Part 1: Traditional Voodoo features stories by Cornell Woolrich, W.B. Seabrook, Robert Bloch, Carl Jacobi, and Henry S. Whitehead. Part II is Voodoo Elsewhere and Otherwise, consisting of stories by Robert Louis Stevenson, John Russell, Edward Hoch, Mary Elizabeth Counselman, Bryce Walton, and Morris West. The final part is The “Ultimate” Voodoo, which is simply one tale by Henry Slesar. 

The stories in this volume are culled from numerous pulps like Weird Tales, Dime Mystery, Rogue, and Adventure. One original story appears here, “Exu”, by Edward D. Hoch. 

In sampling the collection, I began with Robert Bloch's story “Mother of Serpents”. Pronzini's introduction states that the story was first appeared in Weird Tales in 1936. Bloch was only nineteen years of age when the story was published, two years after the author's first professional sale to Weird Tales in 1934. “Mother of Serpents” is a fictional tale based on factual events (presumably the leadership of Fabre Geffrard). It tells the story of a new, unnamed president arriving to power in Haiti. This new leader wants to remove the “old world” from the country. The narrative takes readers through the president's life as a boy, his mother's mastery of the dark arts, and the horrific event that mires his presidency in the very thing he wants to eliminate – voodoo. It's a great story that accomplishes a great deal despite the short length. Of note is the strained, bizarre relationship between the president and his mother, an element that Bloch will successfully use later in his smash hit Psycho

Bryce Walton was a staff correspondent for Leatherneck Magazine, and after WWII transitioned into writing for the mystery, detective, western, and sci-fi pulps. Walton's contribution to Voodoo! is his short “The Devi Doll”, which originally appeared in Dime Mystery in 1947. In the story, New York artist Earl breaks up with his girlfriend Crita, a French woman who has a hobby of voodoo. But, Crita knows that Earl really broke up with her because the new girl, Jean, is extremely wealthy. When Earl makes his case that he no longer loves Crita, she curses him. Later, Earl finds that a small, miniature version of Crita is “growing” out of his shoulder. Crita whispers terrifying things to Earl, which eventually leads to terrible things happening to Jean. Walton's writing is terrific with a smooth prose that serves as a sort of countdown to Earl's demise.   

Used copies of Voodoo! A Chrestomathy of Necromancy are out there. You can also get a real bargain by searching for the giant Arbor House Necropolis hardcover. It was published in 1981 and not only features the entirety of Voodoo!, but also collects two other Pronzini-edited anthologies about mummies and ghouls. Spooky, and darn-near mandatory for vintage-fiction readers.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Snake-Bite and Other Mystery Tales of the Sahara

Robert Smythe Hichens (1864-1959) was a journalist, music critic, playwright, lyricist and novelist. He saw his first novel published in 1886 when he was just 17 years of age. His most popular works include An Imaginative Man (1895), Flames (1897), and The Slave (1899). Many of his novels were adapted into film or plays, including The Paradine Case, which was directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1947. Stark House Press has published a collection of the author's short-stories that include mystery and intrigue set in North Africa. The book is called Snake-Bite and Other Mystery Tales of the Sahara and features an introduction by literary critic S.T. Joshi.

In the story “Desert Air”, an astute worldly traveler recounts his trip to Beni-Kouidar, a windswept city in the Sahara Desert. It is here that the narrator and his companion stumble upon a young exotic dancer that has ties to a powerful Sheik. After being warned to stay away from the young woman, and to leave town, the two overstay their welcome and misfortune falls on the companion. 

“The Desert Drum” is a first-person account of a traveler riding through the tiny hovels called Sidi-Massarli in the Sahara. His reason for explaining his travels is the examination of the “desert drum”, a local superstition that these mysterious drum sounds beckon death. In town, the narrator finds a lawman who has a prisoner tied to his saddle. The lawman explains that the prisoner murdered someone, served prison time, and is now being returned to his hometown to go free. Later that night, the trio of men hear the ominous sounds of the “desert drum”, a sign that one of these men will surely be murdered.

In Joshi's introduction, he points out that Hichens was fascinated by the “eternal feminine”, highlighting the voided space both physically and emotionally between man and woman. The stories in this collection share a location setting – the Sahara Desert – but also a general theme of man lusting for woman. Often, these are performers that have a resound effect on the travelers and businessmen they entertain. In “The Charmer of Snakes”, the stage actress Claire enters the life of Renfrew, creating a life disruption. The same can be said for “The Desert Drum”, where the young prisoner commits murder just to return to prison to see the dancer he's smitten with. 

These stories are entertaining, and showcase Hichens storytelling talents as both a mystery and adventure writer. His writing borders on the cusp of dark fiction, like several of his contemporaries like Arthur Machen and Clark Ashton Smith. If you are new to Robert Hichens, this collection may be a great place to discover his work. Stark House Press have also released more Hichens collections, including The Black Spaniel & Other Strange Stories and How Love Came to Professor Guildea and Other Uncanny Tales. 

Friday, October 27, 2023

The Kill

New York native Alan Ryan (1943-2011) graduated from Regis High School in Manhattan and from Fordham University in The Bronx. He was an English teacher, book reviewer, and later an editor. In his writing career, he produced at least five horror novels and three short-story collections. My first experience with his literary work is the novel The Kill, which was originally published in paperback by Tor in 1982. 

The book begins with a nine year old girl running away from home during a storm. Readers learn that she is on the outskirts of the small town of Deacon's Kill. Something grabs and jerks her head, creating instant death. Then, whoever or whatever killed the girl moves back into the forest. End scene. But, unfortunately the book continues. 

A couple named Megan and Jack work and live in Manhattan and are tiring of their hectic schedules. They are invited by a friend to visit a farm in Deacon's Kill, a sort of all-night party involving another 30 or 40 city yuppies. At the farm, a woman is murdered by this same unknown person or thing when she ventures too far into the forest to urinate. The murder (and urination) is caught on tape by a voyeur/party participant and presented to the local sheriff. The odd thing is that who, or whatever this thing is, was completely invisible. Like the book's plot. 

Megan and Jack, in their infinite wisdom, decide that this farm – which just hosted a murder by an invisible monster in the forest – is an ideal place for them to move to. WTF! They both quit their jobs and move into this ordinary run-of-the-mill farm house in the middle of nowhere. They befriend the sheriff and everything seems fantastic (read that as mundane and lifeless) for the next 250 pages of this horrific 294 page paperback. The couple make love, establish new businesses, have dinner with the sheriff and his wife, make friends with the town doctor, and engage in mindless, completely dull antics for a painful amount of pages. Just when my knuckles were white from anger, something finally happens. 

Apparently, the former owner of the farm dug up some old bones that resembled a prehistoric man. How the man is now alive, invisible, and is able to track all over the forest without anyone noticing isn't relevant, so no real explanation is offered (or I slept through it). Instead, you have the girl at the beginning of the book and the chick at the party as the only main victims while the sheriff watches endless loops of the VHS tape that captured the one piss/murder. The rest of the novel is just a complete waste of time and I wish I could erase it from the annals of time. 

If I'm locked in a room by a maniac and forced to watch endless Medicare commercials or read this book...brother pass the popcorn and crank the tube up. I'd do just about anything to avoid the literary nightmare of Alan Ryan's The Kill. So should you.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Suburban Gothic

Bryan Smith has authored more than thirty horror and crime novels. His novel 68 Kill was adapted to film and his 2009 novel Depraved became an instant cult classic, leading to three sequels. Brian Keene earned the 2014 World Horror Grandmaster Award, two Bram Stoker awards, and the Imadjinn Award for best fantasy novel in 2016. It was just a matter of time before the two friends collaborated on a novel. 

In 2009, Brian Keene authored a paperback for Leisure called Urban Gothic. The premise had a group of kids breaking into an old row house in Philadelphia that they thought was abandoned. Unfortunately for them, a family of inbred cannibals lived in the basement. The book was an obvious ode to “grindhouse” theater flicks like Hills Have Eyes and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I enjoyed the book years ago, so I was intrigued to learn of the book's sequel, Suburban Gothic, published in 2020. But, the backstory on the novel doesn't stop there. 

It turns out that Suburban Gothic actually connects (retcons?) Keene's Urban Gothic with Bryan Smith's horror novel The Freakshow, which was originally published by Leisure in 2007. I also read that novel, and reviewed it HERE. In The Freakshow, cosmic entities are controlling humans from a netherworld. These entities combine mayhem, torture, cannibalism, rape, etc. into a sort of game which comes to a small town in Tennessee through a traveling carnival. The book was slightly above average and written in a perverse way that I typically find distasteful. I'm not a fan of Bryan Smith.

Suburban Gothic, which is authored by both Smith and Keene, has an early explanation that the inbred cannibals from Urban Gothic are forced to move to an abandoned mall located in a sketchy crime-ridden part of Philadelphia. At the same time, Smith's crazy supernaturally-controlled entities also move into the mall. One side is occupied by these mutant freaks (humans with arachnid-like appendages, multiple heads, etc.) while the other side is the weirdo cannibals. 

Like Urban Gothic, various people enter this abandoned mall for different reasons. These disposable characters include a group of urban explorers shooting YouTube footage, a real-estate agent, and your common everyday headbanging stoners. This is a problem for the book and it's readers. None of these characters are remotely interesting, and all of them are flawed and unlikable. So, when Smith writes nasty, violent deaths for each character (I'm sure he was tasked with their violent endings), I found myself simply skipping to the next death set-up. 

Brian Keene typically isn't an extreme splatter-horror guy, but Smith's participation drags this book into uncomfortable depravity. Characters are raped sodomized, eaten, beaten, forced into various amputations, dragged across multiple hard surfaces, shot, stabbed, and, in some cases, involuntarily placed into barbaric medical experiments. At a time in my life when I can turn on any social media news platform and see brutality and death, reading the intricate details of a fishing hook ripping an anus isn't really what I find enjoyable. 

If you love shock and awe, then by all means have a great time with Suburban Gothic. For me personally, this book is just an absolute mess mired in useless death, excess violence, and horrific gore. Take a hard pass on this kind of thing. Maybe it will eventually just go away. 

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Pin

Andrew Niederman (b. 1940) is the author of over 125 novels under his own name and others. He ghostwrote a handful of novels as V.C. Andrews after the real lady died and his book The Devil’s Advocate was adapted into a movie starring Keanu Reeves. Pin was his fourth novel, originally published in 1981.

Pin is told as a first-person flashback by Leon looking back on his odd adolescent years with his sister, Ursula. As adolescents, they share an imaginary (?) friend named Pin who was always there with them. Pin is an elaborate, adult-size, anatomical medical dummy come to life. It’s clear that Pin has a lot in common with their dead father with the big differences being Pin’s translucent flesh where every vein, organ and capillary can be seen.

Leon and Ursula are orphans. Their wealthy parents die in a car accident and leave a considerable fortune to the teens who continue living in the same creaky mansion in New York’s Catskills Mountains with Pin, the chatty, erudite medical mannequin who may or may not be real. The threesome are rather isolated up in the mountains living off the dead parents’ inheritance.

We are treated to flashbacks of their dysfunctional upbringing and the siblings' unconventional attitudes towards sex and desire. The sexual exploration gets rather explicit, so consider yourself warned. If you know about the incestuous work of V.C. Andrews, the novel often reads like the author was auditioning for the ghost-writing job he landed later in his career. A plot begins to develop when Ursula finds a boyfriend, and Leon is not pleased. Neither is Pin.

This paperback is so weird but also so readable. Neiderman keeps the pages turning because the reader is dying to know if we are reading a supernatural horror book or a Vietnam-era gothic about siblings experiencing a shared delusion. There’s plenty of graphic sex along the way, and the compelling weirdness doesn’t lighten up until the novels striking conclusion.

Overall, Pin is an easy recommendation if you’re looking for something completely different. It’s not particularly scary, but you won’t be able to look away.

Monday, October 23, 2023

The Switch House

Tim Meyer is a hotshot young horror author from the New Jersey Shore who has been appearing on a lot of “best-of” lists over the past few years. My first exposure to his work is his 2018 short novel, Switch House.

Angela and Terry are cast on a reality show called Let’s Switch Houses!, which is pretty much what it sounds like. Interestingly, the novel takes place when the couple returns to their own New Jersey house, which as been occupied for the past eight weeks by an unknown stranger. They only learn what was happening in their house in their absence when they sit together and watch the show along with the rest of America.

Even before the episodes broadcast, it’s clear to Angela that something is off in their own house. The place wasn’t frat-party trashed, but nothing feels right. Angela explains she feels like a stranger in a familiar house. The novel is mostly told through Angela‘s third-person perspective, and the author does some interesting tricks to showcase the fact that her perceptions are very different than her husband.

The bottom line is that a witchy lady was doing witchy stuff in their house while they were gone, and now this nice couple has to live in a haunted house. Meanwhile, their lives and family tragedies are being laid bare on reality television for the world to see.

Switch House is a combination of a haunted house story and a woman slipping into madness story. There are some cool plot twists I didn’t see coming, and some genuinely unnerving moments. Fans of paranoid, female-protagonist horror, along the lines of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, and whiplash-inducing plot twists will really enjoy this short novel. Consider it a must-read for fans of contemporary horror fiction. 

Saturday, October 21, 2023

The Drive-In (A B-Movie with Blood and Popcorn...)

Joe R. Lansdale (b. 1951) broke onto the scene in 1981 with a full-length serial killer police procedural called Act of Love. The aptly-titled novel lived up to its name, sparking a literary romance with readers for five decades. He's penned countless novels, series installments, graphic novels, adaptations, and edited numerous anthologies. His 1988 novel The Drive-In (A B-Movie with Blood and Popcorn, Made in Texas), published by Bantam, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award. A friend and blog reader let me borrow the paperback and advised that it was a really fun read. So, I just had to try it out.

The novel is set in a small-town in rural Texas. It's Friday evening, and a giant drive-in movie theater called The Orbit is playing six movies as part of its “The All-Night Horror Show”. Protagonist Jack, who presents the story in first-person, is with a sort of “losers club” that shows up for the night's festivities. But, somewhere in the middle of movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Toolbox Murders, a weird anomaly – call it a comet or alien spacecraft – swoops down and literally covers everything surrounding the drive-in parking lot with a weird flesh-eating black goop. In essence, it is sort of like a slimy alien fence containing just the drive-in theater. Everything else is just lost in the blackness. 

Like most survival horror novels (many which borrow from this very book), the book descends into a fight for survival as the theater's audience find themselves cut-off from civilization. With only a concession stand for food – free popcorn and soda while supplies last – and a lone bathroom, needless to say that humanity quickly shows it's darker self. As the days go on, mob violence takes control with rapes, beatings, shootings (it is Texas), and various factions forming. Jack sides with The Christians until he realizes they have a secret, savage way of surviving the violence. But, things get even more bizarre, deadly, and insane when Jack's two friends become struck by some sort of alien lightning that turns them into demonic cannibals that can do some really far-out stuff. 

The Drive-In is a horrific fantasy with science-fiction elements that bring to mind all of the B-movie black and white classics from the mid-20th century. That's the idea, and Lansdale absolutely nails it. His combination of humor – unintentional or not – sets a framework for these characters to behave in outrageous ways. Aside from the sky-level fun, one could read some subtext about the drive-in movie theater disappearing by the late 80s, replaced by shopping mall caverns and standalone brick-and-mortars that didn't exude the same sort of late night, backseat enjoyment. Additionally, it could show the sharp contrast of the old B-movies compared to the graphic, more mature movies that were being released in the grindhouse 70s and 80s formula. Sort of an invasion from nowhere of a barbaric savagery that far surpassed the practical “safe” effects of black and white Hollywood. 

Two more books in the Drive-In series were published, The Drive-In 2: Not Just One of Them Sequels (1989) and The Drive-In: The Bus Tour. Additionally, all three books are published as an omnibus titled The Complete Drive-In. 

Friday, October 20, 2023

Halloween - The Scream Factory

The Halloween film franchise has been going strong for nearly a half-century. Who knew that a babysitter killer could spark so much interest from fans while simultaneously creating enough timelines and multiverses to compete with Marvel Comics. Depending on your level of fandom, you are just casually watching Michael Myers stalk his prey through 11 films (Halloween III doesn't count) or piecing together the various movies into separate timelines. For me personally, this is my favorite horror franchise and I watch the films religiously. In my mind, I've organized them all into various categories and timelines, but I've never bothered with the novels. 

In paperback format, there are novelizations for seven Halloween films and at least one fan-fiction novelization (Halloween 5 by Jake Martin). However, besides the novelizations, Berkley published three original paperbacks in the late 1990s – The Scream Factory (1997), The Old Myers Place (1997), and The Mad House (1998). These three novels, averaging 150 pages, were catered for young adults and featured Michael Myers doing what he does best – hunting teens in Haddonfield, IL. The books were authored by Kelly 'O Rourke (aka Kelly Reno) and aren't related to each other. These are stand-alone stories. This review is for The Scream Factory, the first of the three paperbacks. 

Ultimately, this novel only references events in the 1978 Halloween film. There is a mention of a body count, but it isn't correct. The book ignores any sequels, which makes it much easier to simply enjoy as a stand-alone horror novel. The knowledge that the Halloween film ended with Michael Myers being shot by his doctor and then disappearing is the only prerequisite needed. 

It's now 1997 and the small town of Haddonfield talks about Michael Myers as if he is an urban myth. The town's youth mostly designates the killer as a thing of legend, nothing more, nothing less. Myers hasn't been seen since 1978. High school student Lori Parker collaborates with her friend Sally to throw a large Halloween party in the basement of Haddonfield City Hall. The party, aptly titled The Scream Factory, will be a gathering of high school students and a local band (fronted by Lori's romantic interest). 

The events prior to the party leads to Myers appearance. In a series of murders, Myers begins killing some of Lori's friends and members of the town's staff. Myers is described as being covered in mud and having dirty hair, which brought to mind the imagery of “homeless” Myers in Rob Zombie's Halloween remake. Myers also does some things that are more in line with Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th), showing supernatural strength by dragging a large tree across a highway. But, at other times he is calling Lori on the phone and making bizarre noises or placing jack 'o lanterns at various locations (with a knife). Rather odd behavior that seems to contrast with the movie versions.

The Scream Factory isn't great, nor is it scary. But, I will state for the record that this is more of an “adult” horror novel than young adult in terms of savage violence and some gore. I'm not completely convinced this is a young adult book despite the clownish cover art. If you just have to consume everything Michael Myers, then by all means read this. Otherwise, just stick to the films, novelizations, and the occasional graphic novel. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Chasing the Boogeyman

Richard Chizmar is a horror and suspense novelist who was plucked out of near-obscurity to collaborate with Stephen King on a couple of well-received co-authored novels. His 2022 “hunting a serial killer” book, Chasing the Boogeyman, is a clever bit of meta-fiction taking place in 1988.

The concept behind this novel is fairly audacious and unique, so pay attention or you’ll be lost from page one. First, the book is fiction - like Silence of the Lambs or any of the thousand serial killer mystery-thrillers you’ve read. Second, the book is written as if it’s a true crime paperback. Same style, formatting and pacing. The curve ball is that the main character is horror author Richard Chizmar telling the story of the killer terrorizing his home town in Maryland. This is where it gets meta. Yes, Chizmar is a fictional character in his own novel.

All of this works rather well as Chizmar takes the reader back to Edgewood, Maryland in 1988. A gruesome murder of a teenage girl snatched away from her bedroom at night has everybody terrified. And then it happens again. And again. The police are getting nowhere, and the media dubs the serial killer, The Boogeyman.

22 year-old Chizmar and his female reporter friend at the local newspaper take it upon themselves to undertake their own parallel investigation as the police seem to be chasing their tails. The progress they make creates both a bond and excuse for resentment from the local police, who don’t always take kindly to the meddling of amateur sleuths.

The solution to the mystery was straightforward and very satisfying in its execution. Chizmar has recently published a sequel called Becoming the Boogeyman that you should avoid like the plague until you fully absorb the solution to this one.

Chasing the Boogeyman is a fantastic addition to the serial killer mystery genre and is definitely worth your time. The genre has been beaten to death over the last 40 years, but somehow Chizmar’s gimmick breathes new life into the setup. Recommended.  

Monday, October 16, 2023

Boys in the Valley

Boys in the Valley is a terrifying 2023 horror novel by Philip Fracassi about a Catholic boy’s orphanage in 1905 Pennsylvania where an incident occurs causing a conspiratorial madness to descend upon a group of young orphans.

Much of the novel is told in the first-person by a good-hearted orphan boy named Peter, who is trying to decide between the priesthood and a romantic entanglement with a sweet girl in town. Other chapters are told in the third-person following residents of the isolated orphanage.

There are mean priests and kind priests among the staff, but they are all taken aback when the sheriff visits with an injured madman in tow. It’s unclear whether the man needs medical attention or an exorcism, but his brief visit among the orphans seems to infect a group of the boys who suddenly become violent and menacing.

The menace of the “bad group” of boys is so unnerving because they aren’t initially flesh-eating psychotics. Instead, they are whisperers and plotters who are clearly planning something evil. It’s like a gruesome Lord of the Flies where the bullies quietly kill the others in ways to inspire terror, confusion and revulsion. The madness escalates into some truly disturbing butchering.

There’s a wonderfully-complex character named Brother Johnson who is basically a criminal living as a monk. He can’t stand the boys and loves to be their disciplinarian. But when the murders begin, the former criminal may just become an ally to the “good boys” in the house who are directly under threat by the others.

Boys in the Valley is violent and unsettling, but not particularly terrifying. However, horror is a very personal genre and what scares one reader doesn’t necessarily frighten another. In any case, it’s a great action novel and definitely worth your time. Highly recommended. 

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Lady Satan #01 - A Macabre Beginning

Warren Publishing experienced market success in the 1960s and 1970s with their take on the old EC black-and-white horror theme. At magazine size, their eye-popping roster of titles wasn't governed by the Comic Code, which allowed for more creative freedom. With magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland, Creepy, and Eerie, the books proved to be an international success for most of its 25-year run. The publisher inspired countless titles and imitators, including Skywald Publications. 

Skywald was founded in 1970 by former Marvel Comics production manager Sol Brodsky and I.W. Publications owner Israel Waldman. During the company's short existence, 1970 to 1975, the publisher produced an assortment of horror anthology titles including Nightmare, Psycho, and Scream. Some of these titles included recurring characters, which was the case with Lady Satan.

Lady Satan, not to be confused with the 1941 character from Dynamic Comics, first appeared in the October 1973 issue of Scream. The character is featured on the issue's front cover, lavishly painted by Josep Maria Miralles (Creepy, Nightmare), and in the opening story, an origin tale called “The Macabre Beginning”. 

Readers are introduced to the young African-American woman named Anne Jackson. She lives in Massachusetts, was a high-school star athlete and academic, and is wealthy from an inheritance she received from her deceased parents' estate. With her friend accompanying her, the two drive into the city of Salem. There, they watch a macabre public performance of three cloaked men reenacting the Salem Witch Trials. In an impromptu audience participation, one of the cloaked men points to Anne to come on stage. But, when Anne walks on, she is immediately transformed into an entity known as Black Anne, the Queen of Salem Witches. 

As Black Anne, Anne Jackson discovers there is a witch in the audience, one of thirteen witches that live in a cave and worship her. When she journeys to the cave, she is provided robes and an awesome black leather outfit. She then takes the pledge to marry Lucifer and become the Bride of Satan! But, when the Devil appears, a tragedy occurs. The story ends on a cliffhanger. 

The story is penciled by the talented Ricardo Villamonte, who created amazing artwork for Secrets of Haunted House, Beowulf, Man-Bat, House of Secrets, and House of Mystery to name a few. His pencils on page six with the large panel of Jane's face is really something special. This story is written by Al Hewetson, who also worked as an associate editor at Skywald. Hewetson penned stories for Warren publishing, so his “horror mood” is certainly applicable for this ultra-dark Lady Satan story. Hewetson wrote hundreds of stories for Skywald using his name and a variety of pseudonyms. 

“The Macabre Beginning” is an excellent beginning to the Lady Satan character and possesses the same dark flavor as a Vampirella issue or an old Hammer Horror film. The character appears three more times in Skywald's comics, Scream issues #2 and #3 as well as Psycho #19. Thankfully, all of these stories are collected in one digital volume called Lady Satan 1974, published by Nuelow Games. Highly recommended, get it HERE.

Friday, October 13, 2023

Friday the 13th - Mother's Day

The Friday the 13th film franchise isn't a stranger to media tie-in fiction. Nicholas Valentin Yermakov, using the name Simon Hawke, authored four novelizations of film installments (Friday the 13th I, II, III, VI) and popular crime-fiction author Michael Avallone also authored a novelization, Friday the 13th III (using an alternate ending not filmed). Arguably, the film franchise “jumped the shark” long before 1993, but it was this year that the Jason Voorhees character ventured into an unusual area – Hell.

After seven films of Jason attacking camp counselors, the eighth film, Jason Takes Manhattan, placed the hockey-masked murderer on a yacht and in Manhattan of all things. But, as odd as that film was, it would pale in comparison to the wildly outrageous Jason Goes to Hell

1993's Jason Goes to Hell re-positioned the unstoppable undead character into a more supernatural universe that incorporated other people performing as the Camp Crystal Lake killer. In this film, the long rumored idea of Camp Crystal Lake being haunted or cursed comes to fruition. Jason's heart is apparently affected by a supernatural power, so when a possessed coroner takes a bite out of Jason's heart, he becomes the killer. Through the course of the film, various people are “possessed” by Jason's curse. While some fans embraced the film, others felt it went a little far and distanced itself from what made the film franchise so successful – suspense, atmosphere, terror. Jason Goes to Hell also kick-started more unusual franchise additions like Jason X (Jason in space!) and Freddy vs Jason

If nothing else, Jason Goes to Hell does deserve some credit for thrusting the film franchise back into media tie-in fiction after a seven year absence. In 1994, Berkley published four young-adult novels that tie-in to the events that took place in Jason Goes to Hell. These four stand-alone novels, Mother's Day, Jason's Curse, The Carnival, and Road Trip. The books were all authored by William Pattison using the pseudonym Eric Morse. In 2011, Pattison released a fifth book, The Mask of Jason Voorhees, as a free PDF download. Being a fan of the film franchise, I decided to try the books out beginning with Mother's Day.

After numerous murders, Camp Crystal Lake now lies abandoned. Somewhere in the vicinity, a hunter named Joe Travers is stalking through the forest and stumbles on a white stone. Curious about the stone, Travers begins digging beneath it and discovers a rotted cardboard box containing Jason's deceased mother's head, which is somehow alive. The head begins to talk to Joe and gives him specific instructions to obtain construction equipment to dig up Jason's hockey mask. In doing so, Joe dons the mask and becomes possessed by the spirit of Jason Voorhees. 

In Newkirk, Massachusetts, the book's young protagonist, high-schooler Carly receives an invite from a high-school dropout named Boone. The plan is for Boone, Carly, and four other kids to take a weekend trip to Camp Cystal Lake to party. Carly, a shy virgin (the prerequisite for Final Girl material) agrees to go if her mother will consent. Later, Carly discovers that Boone called her mother and pretended to be a teacher to gain permission for the trip. So, these six kids head to the abandoned Camp Cystal Lake campground where Jason Voorhees is now alive and well through the body of Joe Travers. This should be fun.

Like the film series, the campers receive a warning when they stop for gas just outside the campground. A man named Ned warns the group “...there's evil in the air all around this lake. If you live here too long, it gets in your blood, it gets you thinking bad things.” Later, readers discover how true that statement is when it is disclosed that Ned lives in a house with his mother's dead body. Obviously, the campers ignore Ned's warning and embark on the camping trip.

Pattison's storytelling is fast-paced and surprisingly violent considering this is a young-adult novel. At just 114 pages, the body count begins to rise around page 80. With six potential victims for “Jason” to prey on, the action moves around the campground with familiar kills happening in the lake's water, around the cabins, and in the dense forest. As the body-count dwindles to just Carly (not a spoiler, anyone worth their salt should realize she is the survivor), the book encompasses that same frenzied feeling executed by the various films – final girl versus Jason. The chase scenes scurry around locked cars, wrecked motorcycles, open graves, and the hiking trails around the lake. 

It was obvious that Pattison really enjoys the Friday the 13th franchise, and his writing was top-notch even with the irritating teenage point-of-view (boy-chasing, social uneasiness). In terms of the violence I alluded to earlier, the book also presents some nightmarish sequences containing slimy grotesque worms. The combination of hack 'n slash and supernatural elements was excellent. If you enjoy the film franchise, then I highly recommend Mother's Day. It has everything you know and love about the films. 

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

A Woman Possessed

A Woman Possessed was a 1961 paperback by Harry Whittington, writing as Whit Harrison. The book is a crime noir paperback packaged as a sleaze novel for the original Beacon Books release. Fortunately, it’s been reprinted as a double by Stark House along with 1952’s Prime Sucker. The new edition includes an insightful introduction by pop culture scholar Cullen Gallagher.

As with the best of Whittington’s novels, he wastes no time getting into the plot. Convicted murderer Dan Ferrel is an inmate on a prison road gang swinging a grass sling to cut down the weeds along the steamy highway. Nobody else knows that Dan is expecting company. Namely, a woman named May who should be roaring up any minute in a blue car to facilitate his escape from the shotgun-toting guards.

Of course, the escape happens and Dan is on the run. May is smitten for Dan, but it’s clear that Dan is just using his psychological hold over May to manipulate her into facilitating his getaway. Dan has another woman on his mind - an old flame with whom Dan has a score to settle.

The second plot thread involves Dan’s brother, Paul. He’s the good kid of the family who is going to attend medical school and make something of himself. Paul just started dating a night club singer — always a disreputable profession in these books — and the songbird is pressuring Paul to join her in a heist, so they can be together with a little cash for a change.

The prison guard overseeing the road gang is Virgil Hawkins, and he’s a gun-crazy psychopath just looking for a reason to kill an inmate. When Dan escapes the road gang, Virgil takes it as a personal affront and takes vacation time to hunt Dan himself. This was a great storyline that I wish the author had further developed.

This is top-tier Whittington: Violent, exciting and compelling. The Beacon Books imprint also means sex scenes a few notches more graphic than the usual 1961 fare. There’s really nothing not to like about this one, and thanks to Stark House, you can read it without spending an arm and a leg. Recommended. 

Monday, October 9, 2023

The Sleeping City

“The Sleeping City” was a novella that originally appeared in the Fall, 1952 issue of Thrilling Detective. It was authored by Mary Hauenstein using the pseudonym of Marty Holland. I enjoyed and reviewed Holland's suspenseful potboiler novel The Glass Heart, and was curious to see what she could do with a hard-hitting heist plot. Both The Glass Heart and The Sleeping City are available as a twofer from Stark House Press, so it made for easy accessibility.

Wade works as a plainclothes cop and lives with his fiancĂ© Betty (separate bedrooms) in her brother's house. He's anxious to climb the career ladder, get hitched, and ultimately find a place of his own. His big break comes when the Gangster Squad's Captain Roberts offers up a sole undercover assignment. Wade is to assume the role of a Chicago hood named Cox, who is expected by a local corrupt businessman named Thompson. The theory is that Thompson is assembling a heist crew to knock off a bank.

The central portion of Holland's novella focuses on Wade easing into his role as a notorious gunman. The real Cox was nabbed at the airport by the cops, and Thompson only knows of Cox through word of mouth and referrals. So, it's an easy infiltration for Wade, as long as he can act and play the part. The idea is that Thompson, Wade, and a couple of smooth thugs are going to rob an armored truck when it picks up a large bankroll. Heist-fiction is always about assembling, planning, and executing, and Holland's approach is no different. But, there's a wrench in the gears with a beautiful woman named Madge, who is part of Thompson's crew. 

Wade falls for Madge, despite being engaged to Betty, and begins to fantasize about the two of them actually going through with the robbery and making a clean break into the High Sierras to live a life of wealthy anonymity. It's more than a romantic escape, as Wade begins to question his own meager existence and potential future suburbanite lifestyle with Betty. Holland introduces a stark balance with Wade and Madge's relationship compared to a bird with broken wings that Wade and Betty are nurturing back to health. It's really quite clever. Also, in a flashback scene, readers discover that Wade saved Captain Roberts' life during WW2, so there's a devout allegiance between the two. 

“The Sleeping City” was a superb story that included a rewarding, furious finale. Holland pulls no punches and delivered some of the best descriptions of gunplay even when compared to her male contemporaries of the time. Her vivid details like “shotgun shooting ejected shells over the shoulder” and “the .38's like little swarms of bees buzzing” added so much to these combat scenes. In terms of violence, her writing of the inevitable gunfight was similar to a much later writer, Marc Olden, who had a real knack for it. 

As a bonus in Stark House Press's reprint of The Glass Heart novel, “The Sleeping City” is a mandatory read. It contains everything we all love about heist and crime-fiction. Holland was a talented writer that is unfairly overlooked. Thankfully, Stark House Press is giving her career much love and respect. Recommended.

Friday, October 6, 2023

The Glass Heart

Marty Holland was born Mary Hauenstein in 1919. She began her writing career by authoring short stories for the pulps. Her debut full-length novel was Fallen Angel, published in 1945 by E.P. Dutton and Company. The book was sold to 20th Century Fox and adapted into a film of the same name by Otto Preminger. Her second novel, and the subject of this review, is The Glass Heart, originally published in 1946 by Julian Messner, Inc. The novel, which was adapted into an unfilmed screenplay by James M. Cain, has been reprinted by Stark House Press as a two-in-one alongside the author's novella The Sleeping City, which was originally printed in the Fall, 1952 issue of Thrilling Detective.

The Glass Heart, also published as Her Private Passions, begins with protagonist Curt Blair stealing an expensive topcoat from a patron in a ritzy hash joint in Beverly Hills. Blair, a professional deadbeat, beats out the pursuit of the police by ducking into the house of Virginia Block, a middle-aged woman who just happened to be expecting her new gardener to arrive from an employment agency. Blair has enough streetwise moxy to pass for the job and accepts a measly $20 per week salary to cater to Block. But, the deal comes with free room and board and a convenient way to escape the police.

Blair discovers that Block is a miserable, wealthy bitch that is extremely tight with her money. She rarely pays any of the laborers that work at her house or at her sprawling walnut ranch. She possesses an uncanny knack for ripping people off, but still maintains that she is somehow helping everyone around her (like an ex-wife I know). Blair catches on quick, and is about to hit the road, when another roommate moves in – an attractive long-legged female that enjoys Blair's...company. The two go at it hot and heavy, but then another woman moves in and Blair becomes fascinated with her and her tragic history. 

This was a really entertaining novel and showcased Holland's extraordinary ability to write with a male mindset. Blair behaves like any red-blooded American deadbeat, but the level of detail – mannerisms, thought patterns, physical descriptions – would have been challenging for any other female writer. There's even a clever sort of reversal when Blair says (something to the effect) that he can think like a woman. The inevitable countdown for these four wily characters to blow is a potboiler similar to James M. Cain, which is probably what drew him to the story. If you love the high-tension, stressed love, hushed murder aspects of mid 20th century crime-noir novels, then The Glass Heart should surely be your next read. Highly recommended! 

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

To the Stars #03 - Starworld

Along with series titles like Stainless Steel Rat and Bill, the Galactic Hero, Harry Harrison wrote a number of science-fiction and fantasy novels during his long and respected career. I've concentrated on reading the author's trilogy To the Stars, Homeworld (1980), Wheelworld (1981), and today's topic, Starworld (1981). 

The story so far is that Earth is completely ruled by the rich that have established a two-class one-world government administered by the United Nations. You have the rich controlling everything, including Earth's far-reaching “territory”, a series of slave planets that serve as manufacturing and service for the lower-class Proles. A whiz engineer named Jan figures out that Earth is hiding human history and is seized by the authorities and sentenced to death on a farming planet. All of this is captured in the first book, Homeworld.

In Wheelworld, Jan orchestrates an uprising on the farming planet to usurp an old woman's rigid authority. Her concept of being complacent and living to serve Earth with harvests of corn is overthrown by Jan's forward-thinking, liberal approach to do things in a more democratic way. Jan later discovers that his short uprising on Earth led a series of events that have forced Earth into a war with the only country not participating in the one-world government, Israel, as well as rebels from all of the slave labor planets. On the last page of Wheelworld, Jan joins the rebellion to take down Earth's power-hungry leaders.

Starworld is a buzzsaw filled with non-stop action as Jan and other patriots form a strategic plan to organize the rebellion into a fighting force. This fertile story-line incorporates a lot of different elements ranging from espionage to military combat. At the root of Harrison's riveting narrative is a dilemma facing Jan – he must learn to trust the man who murdered his sister (events that occurred in Homeworld). Enhancing the plot development is preparation for a spacecraft battle and overtaking a military base in the Mojave Desert. Jan also has a romantic relationship with a woman that plays a key part in the rebel's success.

Once you've read Homeworld and Wheelworld, you get the idea where this novel is heading. It's much more epic than the two prior installments and often places Jan in a minor role for some of the developing plot. While the military campaign and ultimate war seems like a grand spectacle, the novel is still less than 200 pages, so an org chart or notes isn't a requirement. This is lightweight science-fiction for casual genre fans. Recommended!

Monday, October 2, 2023

To the Stars #02 - Wheelworld

Harry Harrison was a popular science-fiction author that created a number of memorable series titles and characters. His most popular works are those involving the Stainless Steel Rat and Bill, the Galactic Hero. While I haven't explored those titles yet, I did enjoy my first foray into the author's To the Stars trilogy, Homeworld, originally published in 1980. Needless to say, I continued my space-travels with the second installment, Wheelworld, published one year later.

This trilogy, which has nothing to do with another of Harrison's works called Deathworld, is fairly easy to understand and enjoy, so those of you loosely reading science-fiction should be tall enough for this ride. In Homeworld, readers learn that in the 23rd century, Earth is ran by a one-world government administered by the United Nations. The rich make up a conglomerate of authority that rules the proles, the other class of humans that simply exist as slaves in manufacturing and service. Earth's rich and powerful controls the outlying planets and moons, creating slave planets that simply manufacture goods to ship to Earth. The people on these planets live a life of labor, void of any knowledge of human history.

Jan (male), the series hero, is a microchip whiz that lives a life of luxury on Earth. He figures out the whole conspiracy that forces the proles into servitude and tries to stop it. By teaming with the Israelis, the only country that isn't part of the one-world government, Jan learns about the hushed human history, the plight of mankind, and the big lie fed to the world by “big brother”. By the end of Homeworld, Jan is captured, his sister is murdered, and he is sentenced to life as a slave on a farming planet. 

As Wheelworld begins, readers learn that four years have passed since Homeworld's final page. Jan is living on the agriculture planet Halvmork. Here's the deal on this planet, because it is an integral part of the story. The planet, which is much smaller than Earth, is off-tilt by a few degrees which creates one massive season every four years. On this planet, there is twilight on one side of the planet and temperatures hovering around 80s degrees for four consecutive years. Jan, and the other harvesters, grow corn during this time. After four years, the weather shifts on that part of the planet to 150 degrees and nonstop sunlight. So, after four years, Jan and the others await ships to arrive to take the corn back to Earth. Then, via mobilized transports (like large tanks), the entire population travels thousands of miles to the other side of the planet to take advantage of the four year period that is twilight and 80 degrees there. Cool, right?

This population of slavers has its own governing body, an old woman who is antiquated in her ways and butts heads with the forward-thinking hero. Jan is in a romantic relationship with the old woman's daughter Alzbetta, and the two want to become married but it is forbidden. This is a splendid side-story that propels the book's central plot. As the book begins, it is harvest time and the four years is coming to an end. The sun is beginning to shine and the forecast is heating up. But, the ships don't arrive, which is a major problem. 

Jan makes the decision to take all of the corn on the motorized trek across the planet. His reasoning is that the ships may arrive on the other side of the planet and the corn will be needed there. But, the old woman refuses to do this so Jan has to strong-arm her family to do the right thing. This creates a physical fight between Jan and a family enforcer, which leads to a riveting trial and execution thing at the book's end. But, the real pleasure of Wheelworld is the “wheeling” across the planet as the team fights through volcanic ash, huge crevices in the Earth, swarms of insects, and the human turmoil and factions that develop on the road trip. 

Honestly, Wheelworld can work perfectly as a stand-alone novel. It is a road trip adventure as Jan and the team work their way from Point A to Point B to avoid natural disasters. In some ways, the book reminded me of Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny as a futuristic obstacle course pressed for time. In the trilogy, this is really the hinge that gets from the Earth action in Homeworld to the Earth War story in Starworld. But, regardless of your approach, Wheelworld is a fantastic novel and a great reading experience.