Monday, October 18, 2021

Invisible Fences

Norman Prentiss is a Maryland author that has appeared in Baltimore's City Paper, Writer Online, and Southern Poetry Review. He won a Bram Stoker award in 2009 for his short story "In the Porches of My Ears". His work includes The Fleshless Man, Four Legs in the Morning and The Narrator. His novel, Invisible Fences, won a Stoker Award in 2010 for Superior Achievement in Long Fiction.  The story was published by Cemetery Dance and is available in both physical and digital versions.

Invisible Fences begins in the post-hippie 1970s and features a young boy named Nathan and his slightly older sister Pam. Their mother suffers from agoraphobia, the fear of the outside. Her sickness leaves a deep etching in Nathan and Pam's growth. The idea of an "invisible fence" is created by their father through the use of scary stories or horrifying events that securely keep the family from exposure to the horrors of the outdoors.  

As the narrative advances through the years, it's an emotional roller coaster through Nathan's childhood and eventually the transition into adulthood. As a man, Nathan is now experiencing a hefty emotional weight related to something from his past. He also is burdened with taking care of his parents, which leads to some recollections of his early childhood and the things that happened.

For the most part, Invisible Fences is revealed to readers through a murky, broken looking glass. That is the main reason this 150-page novel works so well. It requires some imagination from the reader while also forcing them to arrive at their own conclusions. Was there something evil outside? Did Nathan and Pam's parents protect them for a reason? Or, was it all a cautionary tale from challenged parents? Prentiss asks these questions in a subtle and clever way. The book's emphasis on growing and evolving is important. Invisible Fences forces us all to face dark truths. 

As a short novel, Invisible Fences is extraordinary. If you love dark, emotional rides that span a lifetime, then Norman Prentiss will amaze you with his storytelling gift. This was a non-stop page turner. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Terminator Salvation: Cold War

I've enjoyed the entire series of Terminator films. I remember watching Terminator 2: Judgment Day on VHS back in the early 90s and was astounded by the storyline and special effects. I experienced mixed reactions on Terminator 3 but overall, I thought it served its purpose. Those two films are important for my review of Greg Cox's Terminator Salvation: Cold War (2009). This novel is set in the time period between the second and third films. This was the day Skynet started World War 3. Cox chooses the year 2003 to place the story's action.

The book's narrative includes a Russian submarine firing on Alaska in retaliation for Moscow's bombing. The submarine Commander hears an urgent message broadcast by John Connor (the series hero). The radio message explains Skynet's hostile takeover and the need for humanity to unite to combat the machines. Later, the Commander and his crew team up with the Resistance forces to fight Skynet. 

The events in the book occur over a 15 year period. Additionally, Cox's narrative also simultaneously presents events in 2015 from the perspective of a Russian resistance force in the Alaskan wilderness. They are attempting to destroy a Skynet train that is transporting uranium to Canada to improve weapons.

The book describes some awesome scenes of T-600 machines fighting the Russians in the snow and forest. I think this would have looked fantastic on film while also presenting a different look to the franchise. The book also includes the familiar Hunter-Killer machines and some really unique snowmobile Terminators - T-600 torsos mounted on snowmobile treads. 

Greg Cox is no stranger to movie and television tie-in novels. He has authored books in franchises like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek, Underworld, Roswell and many others. I felt that with Cold War, Cox was able to deliver an alternative look at the Terminator machines while still creating an action-packed story. If you are a fan of these films or graphic novels, you should find this book enjoyable.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

The Association

Bentley Little (b. 1960) was born in Mesa, Arizona. He earned degrees in communications and comparative literature at California State University Fullerton. His first novel, The Revelation (1990), won a Bram Stoker Award for best novel by a new author. Since then, Little has averaged nearly one horror novel per year since 1990. I've had the opportunity to read many of his novels, including The Association. It was originally published in 2001 by Signet and most recently has been reprinted by Cemetery Dance.

In the opening chapters, Barry and Maureen move from Los Angeles into a gated suburban community in Utah. Upon moving into their new house, Barry and Maureen receive a book of "conditions, compliance and restrictions" regarding the Homeowners Association that they are required to comply with. Unfortunately, with the hustle and bustle of moving in and becoming situated in their new home, the couple fails to read it. They are later shocked when they discover what type of community they are residing in. 

The HOA contract prohibits the two from hosting any minorities in their house. Caucasian is the only prohibited race. Additionally, no one that is gay is allowed to be residents or guests in the community. Further, both Barry and Maureen are prohibited from reproducing offspring. The two quickly find that they aren't allowed to work from home (Barry is a writer). They also find that they must arise bright and early to clear off any pine cones, dead grass, twigs and branches from their property each day. They are prohibited from planting any shrubs, they aren't allowed to paint and they can't include any family photos as home decor. 

These outrageous rules and regulations require that each house must have a camera inside that is monitored by the HOA. Barry and Maureen are subjected to sexual harassment and the HOA is allowed to use deadly force whenever a resident breaks the rules. The local police aren't allowed jurisdiction inside, prompting a legal war between the town and the HOA.

Like Little's The Store (1998), The Policy (2003) and The Resort (2004), The Association follows the same formula - corporations wielding authority on unsuspecting people. The novel's sadism is turned down compared to Little's other works, but there are still some violent and unsettling scenes for readers. If you are familiar with this author, you'll find no surprises. The Association is a disturbing horror novel with a unique perspective on home buying. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Cop with Wings

In 1950, Bruno Fischer became a success story with his bestselling novel House of Flesh. Prior to that, Fischer was concentrating on writing full-length mysteries while also contributing to the dime magazines and pulps. He authored hundreds of stories in the 1930s and 1940s for magazines like Dime Mystery, Dime Detective, and Black Mask. I recently located a July, 1946 issue of Mammoth Detective and was happy to find a Bruno Fischer story inside. 

Fischer's "Cop with Wings" is a 5,600 word short story with illustrations by H.W. McCauley. In the story, Van Sheridan is the protagonist, a bold detective sergeant working in a crime-infested town. The city's town hall and most of the businesses and interworking are controlled by a savvy criminal named Peter Holland. Sheridan has butted heads with Holland before, but on this night it's over something unexpected.

Tonight, Van Sheridan and his girlfriend Emily are in Peter's house asking for his marriage blessing. Confused? Emily is Peter's daughter. Van Sheridan is forced to swallow his pride, accept a partial defeat, and ask his nemesis for a marriage blessing. Peter is outraged by the request and angrily advises Emily that she won't receive a penny of his fortune if she marries Van Sheridan. Further, Peter swears that he controls the city's police force and that Van Sheridan will be fired. After the heated argument, Emily asks Van Sheridan to leave the house and that she will discuss the affair with Peter alone.

As Van Sheridan is leaving the house, he overhears Peter telling Emily that she is "messing around with other men..." Contemplating the accusation, Van Sheridan strolls the streets and decides to go back to the house. In the drive, Van Sheridan overhears Peter yelling at someone before the booming sound of a gunshot. Racing into the house, Van Sheridan discovers Emily is standing over a dead man. Shockingly, he also sees Peter holding the smoking gun.

This was such an effective story and Fischer's writing is top-notch. I found the character development as a smooth presentation that changed the roles significantly by the story's end. Fischer's ability to transform this simple "whodunit" into a riveting mystery is reliant on the key statement of "...other men." Just that simple piece of dialogue creates a completely different narrative. The reader is aligned with Emily, but then doubt and suspicion quickly sweep in to create emotional confusion. This is just brilliant writing and I loved the way it was presented. You can read this story for free HERE.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Mansion of Evil

By the middle of the 20th century, publishers began experimenting with their consumers by offering different formats for books. Instead of relying on a slim comic book, the idea of a "graphic novel" developed. The idea was to offer more text and story, essentially creating a longer comic book narrative. These new graphic novels wouldn't possess the standard internal advertisements and predominantly were one-shots. They weren't necessarily part of a long, continuous series. With this new marketing, the dominant paperback publisher of the time decided to test the waters.

In 1950, Fawcett Gold Medal published their one and only graphic novel, Mansion of Evil. This 129th Gold Medal paperback was authored by Joseph Millard, a talented writer who wrote science-fiction, mystery, and westerns. His most popular literary work was the Man with No Name, an eight book series of westerns based on the three Spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood.

In a clear tribute to author Brett Halliday (real name Davis Dresser), Millard's protagonist in Mansion of Evil is Beth Halliday. She works as an exhibitor at Melton's Art Gallery. Her fiance is a high-profile reporter named Larry Brennan. Beth's most recent art auction is the work of a notable painter named Maxwell Haimes. The artist stays out of the spotlight and remains secretive to many of his closest associates.

When Beth and Haimes are introduced, Haimes becomes excitable and slightly unstable. He advises Beth that she resembles his former wife. Additionally, he explains that his former wife, who was accused as a gold digger, was run off by his agent, leaving him heartbroken. A large portrait painting of her is left unfinished, but due to the remarkable resemblance Beth has to his wife, he can use her as a model to finish this masterpiece. 

In a fast-paced sequence of events, Haimes grabs Beth and promises to pay her $500 if she will quickly accompany him to his studio to finish the painting. Beth accepts the proposal, but becomes frightened when Haimes advises that she will be gone a few days and that she can't return to her apartment to pack any of her belongings. Escalating the fear, Haimes drives Beth to a mansion in the country - a mansion that he claims no one knows he owns.

Millard's mystery novel is a combination of suspense and horror with an overlapping central question - who is Laura? Readers are teased throughout the narrative as Haimes continues to refer to Beth as "Laura". Soon, Beth is spiraling into a sea of chaos as Haimes promises two associates that he will be throwing Beth down a massive staircase to prove her death was an accident. When a nurse sedates her, Beth realizes she's about to die in this mansion of evil. 

Millard's problem is that he doesn't provide enough information to keep the reader hooked. He ends each chapter with some captivating event that suggests all will be revealed in the next chapter. But, Millard hesitates to offer any answers to so many puzzling questions. It's written as though readers are waiting a full month before the next issue. Instead, it's just a page turn to the next chapter. I'm not sure why the story was structured this way or the reason why Millard leaves the carrot dangling for so long. By the time everything is revealed, I had lost all vested interest.

If you love mysteries where readers are totally baffled by the events for two-thirds of the book, then Mansion of Evil will please you. I needed something more to keep the pages turning. Instead of answers, there were just more questions. No thanks. You can read this book for free HERE.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 95

On Episode 95, we explore author Steve Fisher's pulp titles like Captain Babyface, Sheridan Doome and Big Red Brennan. We also delve into Fisher's full-length novels and his transition into Hollywood. Tom reviews the new Stark House Press reprint of Lorenz Heller's 1959 novel Crime Cop. Eric gets Gothic-crazy in Sanford, Florida and talks about his shopping experience at the Daytona Beach Flea Market. Listen on any podcast app, stream below or download HERE

Listen to "Episode 95: Steve Fisher" on Spreaker.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Corrosion

Jon Bassoff teaches high school in Colorado. He's also a novelist with eight published books, including The Disassembled Man, which is scheduled for a film adaptation starring Emile Hirsch. My first experience with Bassoff is his debut book, Corrosion, originally published in 2013. It now exists in both physical and digital versions through Down & Out Books. 

Corrosion is a powerful crime-fiction novel with comparisons to Cormac McCarth (No Country For Old Men). I can't say I've ever read a book quite like it. The story is set in a rural mountain town amidst disparity, depression, and poverty. The beginning of the book is from the viewpoint of Joseph Downs, a disfigured Iraq war vet who drifts into town and meets a whore named Lilith. Lonely and broke, Joseph finds acceptance in the arms of Lilith and will do anything to keep her. 

The middle of Bassoff's narrative switches the time-period and perspective. This portion is from the viewpoint of Benton Faulk, a young boy living in this small town seven years prior to Downs' arrival. His father is deranged and his mother is dying. Faulk escapes his miserable life by obsessing over a waitress named Constance while also fantasizing about becoming a war hero in Iraq. 

These two characters, and their experiences, eventually cross paths and the end result is a moving piece about loneliness and rejection. It's hard to describe any other portions of the book for fear of spoiling your enjoyment. That would be a terrible disservice to you. I highly recommend Corrosion, it's a solid first effort from an author that you should be reading.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Reckless #01 - Reckless

Maryland native Ed Brubaker (b. 1966) is both an artist and comic writer. It would be difficult to browse any comic book store and not find a title written by him, or one to which he has at least made a contribution. Serial titles such as Captain America, Batman, Daredevil, X-Men and Sandman occupied Brubaker for more than thirty years. Beyond superheroes, Brubaker loves crime-fiction and what he describes as those painted cover paperbacks that his father liked to read. Due to his love of the crime-fiction genre, Brubaker teamed up with prolific U.K. artist Sean Phillips (Hellblazer, Judge Dredd) to write a number of awesome graphic novel titles like Sleeper and Criminal. One of their most recent collaboration is a graphic novel series called Reckless. I'm starting with Reckless Vol. 1., which was published in December of 2020 by Image.

The first thing you need to know is that Reckless was written for the 1970s and 1980s men's action-adventure and crime-fiction fans. If you love David Morrell, Robert B. Parker, Jon Messman, and Lawrence Block, Reckless is for YOU. The basic premise is quite simple. Ethan Reckless is the lone hero who performs complicated tasks for money. It's not that different than the 1940s and 1950s private-eye books, but Reckless isn't a licensed detective and he is mostly working illegally. Reckless is similar to Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder character in that regard. The icing on the cake is that these books are set in California in the early 1980s.

Ethan Reckless became an FBI agent in the early 1970s. In flashback scenes, Brubaker explains that Reckless was working undercover to infiltrate a group of Vietnam War protesters. Mostly these groups were peaceful, but this particular assembly is planning on bombing large portions of the city. When Reckless attempts to stop a bombing, he's caught in the blast. The explosion creates some facial scarring and Reckless loses portions of his memory. After that incident, Reckless eventually finds himself at odds with his fellow FBI colleagues. He eventually quit with three years of pension. Once that ran out, Reckless began solving problems for people. In the early days he describes his "office" as just him and his surfboard.

Fast-forward to Los Angeles in 1981 and Reckless now works out of an old abandoned theater. He has a phone number that people can call to report their problems. His female punk rock assistant handles the calls and offers Reckless the job selections. Reckless is shocked when Rainy advises him that someone on the phone is asking for Donovan Rush. This was his old undercover name when he was working the protest bombings. 

After obtaining a time and place, Reckless arrives at a roadside diner to find that his old flame Rainy is the one asking for him. She was one of the protesters that Reckless fell in love with prior to the explosion. She explains that she was involved in a bank robbery in 1974. The group stashed the money with a promise that they would all lie low for a few years until the heat died down. Once she was able to locate her partner, Rainy learned that the money is gone and he's now living a posh life in northern California. She wants Reckless to retrieve the $100,000 she's owed from the robbery.

Reckless is a stylish throwback to the books we read, review, and love here at Paperback Warrior. It's smack-dab right in our wheelhouse. This first volume is 150 pages and is just a well-written, action-packed narrative with plenty of twists and turns. The art is exceptional with plenty of violent details - this isn't for the squeamish. The bank heist is really just a small portion of the book, instead the storyline weaves in and out of the FBI investigation, CIA drug runners, a phenomenal origin, sex, and a gritty, Hell-bent revenge angle. If you've been reading Paperback Warrior reviews (or listening to the show), trust me when I tell you to read this book. You won't be disappointed.

Note - The second volume of the series is called Friend of the Devil and is set in Los Angeles in 1985. Like the first volume, there's retroactive storytelling from the 1960s and 1970s that play a prominent role in the 1985 job. The third book is called Destroy All Monsters and will be released in October of 2021.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Wyoming

Philip Ketchum (1902-1969) was a top pulp contributor throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Using the pseudonym Carl McK Saunders, Ketchum authored over 100 hard-boiled stories featuring Captain John Murdock, a detective destroying crime rings in fictitious Central City. In the late 1930s, his 12 installment fantasy series Bretwalda was featured in the pages of Argosy. In the late 1940s, Ketchum made the transition to full-length fiction and turned to the western genre. With dozens upon dozens of paperbacks for publishers like Popular Library, Eagle, Fawcett Gold Medal, and Ace, Ketchum is admired for his high-quality western storytelling. The first experience I had with him was his 1967 western novel, Wyoming. The book was initially published by Ballantine.

After the Civil War, Dan Morgan headed west to carve out a frontier living. In Wyoming, Morgan finds a beautiful stretch of wilderness and starts building a home. After clearing land, planting potatoes and constructing a small cottage, Morgan bought horses and livestock. After settling in, two gunmen step onto his property and shoot him. The men burn the cabin and steal his animals.

Shocked by the heinous events, Morgan is left with nothing and forced to walk through the wilderness. He had previously stumbled on an old wagon road and a widowed woman named Cora. At that time, Cora explained that her husband had been killed and that she had no place else to go. She defiantly declined Morgan's help and settled in to wait for help by her wagon. Unarmed, with no supplies or horse, Morgan makes his way back to Cora's wagon to ask for assistance.

Morgan and Cora make a deal. She will provide him everything she has...but herself. In exchange for the horse, wagon, supplies, and valuable gun, the two will form a business partnership. She will help Morgan rebuild in exchange for 50% of the farm's eventual profits. Between a rock and a hard place, Morgan accepts the deal. After the two rebuild the cabin and begin to settle in, the riders come after Morgan again. This time, Morgan and Cora flee to Wyoming City as their cabin and supplies burn again.

Ketchum is a fantastic storyteller and I was glued to the action and propulsive plot. Morgan's desperation to make a living in a rugged wilderness is admirable. When he finds that a land baron named Gilby is cheating potential landowners, the book's second half ratchets up the gunfire and intensity. 

Perhaps the most intriguing portion of Ketchum's presentation is the role Cora plays. Unlike Louis L'Amour, Ketchum places more responsibility and value on his female characters. Instead of the traditional hero coming to the aid of the widowed woman, Ketchum spins the narrative. Cora and Ketchum don't immediately have a romantic relationship (if ever), but instead are relying on each other as 50/50 business partners. Cora is iron-willed, independent to a fault, and a tremendous fighter. In the mid-20th century, western authors didn't place a strong emphasis on female characters. I really liked Ketchum's "against the grain" direction.

Overall, Wyoming is a fantastic western chock-full of violence, action, mystery, and a unique character development. It also questions the protagonist - is he vengeful or self-righteous? While not as crafty, I think Ketchum is comparable to Arnold Hano. The two authors have a more abstract presentation of the traditional western formula.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

After the Fade

Few authors have the uncanny ability to tell stories with a mesmerizing authority. Ronald Malfi has that gift and uses it to show us chilling displays of morbid art. From supernatural works like Floating Staircase and The Narrows to the gritty rural dilemmas presented in Skullbelly, Malfi demands your attention. It demands that you sit still while the madness inject itself into your conscious. Like the parasites in After The Fade that slowly inject their stingers into helpless prey. It is this slow deterioration of Malfi's characters that mirrors our own descent as readers. Malfi provides instantly likeable characters that we can bond with, while bringing their demise in what amounts to as a "must see" of downfall and doom.

In After The Fade, originally published by Delirium in 2012, the author introduces us to a small tavern filled with a Cheers style cast of characters. Who wouldn't drink with old Mr. Peebles, the stereotypical drunk sailor with an eye for forgotten bar tabs? How about flirting with forty something bar keep Tori, cute as a button and tough as nails? Malfi introduces us to main character Tommy, a musician who invites his girlfriend Lauren to the tavern for the big break-up only to find that the world outside has been invaded by hordes of insect-like predators. 

Malfi patiently waits for us to become attached to these characters and then brings on Armageddon quickly and efficiently. This is a valuable trait that Malfi utilizes with remarkable success. It is the bonding before bombing us. We know it's coming... but Malfi makes us watch. 

After The Fade is a novella constructed around the question, "what happens after the music fades?" Is the silence an outro or really an intro? How comfortable are we with the thick silence after the fade?
Malfi presents these questions with an idea that certainly is influenced by the age old concept of taking average people and putting them in extraordinary circumstances. 

The struggles of confined survivors have been presented often in horror culture, yet Malfi still has that unique ability to provide a different perspective on the plight of humanity. That is what transforms a really good horror author into a powerhouse of style and substance. After The Fade proves all of this and indeed provides an uncomfortable and chilling silence after the last sentence is read. Malfi does not disappoint.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Demons in Darkness

Gerry Conway (b. 1952) is a prolific comic book and screenplay writer. On screen, Conway has written or produced countless shows ranging from G.I. Joe to Perry Mason. In comics, he authored DC’s Justice League of America for eight years and helped create the Punisher character for Marvel. I’ve seen and read a lot of Conway’s work, but I wanted to try one of his text-only short stories. Thankfully, I found one called "Demons in Darkness". It was published in the fifth issue of Dracula Lives! (1985). This was a magazine published by Marvel Comics imprint Curtis. The story includes frightening artwork by Pablo Marcos (The Mighty Thor, The Avengers).

"Demons in Darkness" is presented in first-person narration from Mason, a young man living in the small town of Tarrington, Rhode Island. Mason is working in a cozy hotel when a guest appears asking for accommodations. The man is dressed in a long black cloak and signs the register as Blake. Mason's boss Lucas seems to be hypnotized by Blake immediately. Who is this strange guest?

When Mason discovers that Blake's suitcase is actually a coffin, he begins to rely on vampire mythology. After a daytime investigation, he learns that Blake is actually the iconic, fiendish Transylvanian vampire known as...Dracula. Mason discovers that Blake/Dracula has hypnotized part of the small town on a quest to find the location of an old abandoned mill. In the backstory, Mason explains the significance of the mill and its rumored connection to the supernatural. Will this small Rhode Island town host an epic showdown between the living and the dead?

Conway's story is a rich, traditional horror tale that features one of the most iconic vampires of all-time. Since Marvel is the parent company, this version of Dracula is the same one featured in the admired, lengthy comic series The Tomb of Dracula (1972-1979). Mason's first-person narration is written in a way that matches the character's young age, making this a more personal account of these horrifying events. If you loved Stephen King's Salem's Lot (1975) or the film Fright Night (1985), "Demons in Darkness" is a must-read. 

Friday, October 1, 2021

To Tame a Land

From 1950 to 1987, Louis L'Amour produced some of the finest westerns of all time. Considered America's storyteller, L'Amour's novels and short stories have been transformed into audio books and successful films. A number of his first paperback books were published by Fawcett Gold Medal. I recently bought the first edition of To Tame a Land. It was published by Fawcett in 1955 and was L'Amour's 13th career novel.

After his mother died, Rye Tyler and his father join a wagon train journey across the harsh Midwest. During the trip, Rye's father is murdered by Native Americans after being abandoned. A savvy and experienced cowboy takes Rye under his wing and mentors him into manhood. Rye learns how to shoot, fast-draw, hunt, play poker and farm, all of the necessary skills a young man must possess to survive in the late 1800s. Eventually Rye meets a young girl named Liza and the two develop an enduring friendship.

After shooting a man in self-defense, Rye is forced into a life of solitude in the mountains. L'Amour's narrative allows readers to follow Rye's transformation from innocent boy to hardened frontiersman. Rye's fast-draw earns him a deadly reputation that he re-enforces in numerous towns. Rye's life becomes a prosperous one as he joins a cattle drive, becomes a cattle owner, and then later becomes a town marshall. But, his true quest is locating Liza's whereabouts. When he learns she has been taken by outlaws, Rye becomes a savage hunter.

At 143 pages, To Tame a Land feels more epic than its shorter length. In many ways it's the proverbial coming-of-age story, the traditional "make a man out of him" through violence and upheaval. I found that L'Amour's writing seemed misplaced with many storylines and outcomes packed into the propulsive plot. It's as if L'Amour didn't really know what the story was but had several ideas that intertwined. Because of that fragmented presentation, To Tame a Land is one of the rare L'Amour novels that I didn't care for. There's better westerns out there.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Worm

I have had the pleasure of reading a couple of gems from horror novelist Tim Curran. His efforts on the creepy Fear Me was impressive, as well as the subterranean nightmare of The Underdwelling. I was anxious to try another of his novels and stumbled on a novella simply called Worm. It was originally published by Dark Fuse and now exists as an affordable ebook through Crossroad Press.

Curran places the reader on Pine Street in a normal, small American town. Quickly, readers are introduced to a half-dozen town residents and interesting facts about their lives. Interrupting these smooth character introductions is a riveting earthquake tremor. Shortly after, a thick black sludge erupts from the crevice and begins to envelop part of the street.

Like a 1950s science-fiction film, disgusting creatures soon emerge as if given birth through this sludge substance. These creatures have a malevolent desire to eat the town's inhabitants. Throughout the novella, the assemblage of characters interacts with each other in a unified attempt to survive the sludge and creatures. 

The pacing and action was superb, but I found myself with very little sympathy for some of the characters. They all seem to be flawed in ways that violate certain ethics and moral conduct for me personally. It is that disconnection with the character that seems to be the basis for my slight disappointment. However, Curran absolutely delivers a hair raising good time with his horrific creations. 

Worm is a throwback to films like The Blob and Night Of The Creeps in a modern style similar to Brian Keene's novel The Conqueror Worms. It is this delightful tradition and homage that makes Worm a quality read for genre fans. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Thirty Miles South of Dry County

Kealan Patrick Burke is an Irish author who won a Bram Stoker Award for his 2005 novella "The Turtle Boy". Along with editing anthologies, writing comics and short-stories, Burke has authored five full-length novels. I discovered the author through his novella Thirty Miles South of Dry County. It was originally published by Dark Fuse in 2016. Now, it exists in a collection called Milestone: The Collected Stories Vol. 1. It's self-published in both ebook and paperback.

Burke invites you to a place called mining community called Milestone. It's a raindrop on a rural route that few have seen...willingly. You see, Milestone is a place you visit once a lifetime after certain circumstances - dire or otherwise - have occurred. With invisible walls that seem to surround it, I felt like the town was similar to the video game/film Silent Hill. It's shrouded in fog and has mysterious forces that seem to affect people in different ways. The dead and the living call the town home. 

When an elderly, dying man named Tanner finds his friends have disappeared, he makes the fifteen mile drive to Milestone. There are many reasons why he has avoided the town his entire life. Once he arrives, he sees horrific things, including a mysterious self-appointed town mayor. To Tanner's dismay, the town knows his secret. What is it?
 
With Thirty Miles South Of Dry County, Burke presents a vivid portrait of rural America, brush stroking with remarkable detail considering his Irish upbringing. Tanner is the embodiment of the aging small town Southern man. The town of Milestone is a macabre exhibit that's surrounded with a smooth Gothic curtain. There's mystery, suspense and menace packed into this scary short novel.  

This book also irrigates previous roots sewn in Burke's novel Currency Of Souls by utilizing some of the same characters and locale. The two works are independent and compliment each other in much the same way that master storyteller Stephen King frequents Derry and Castle Rock. It is this enhancement that should satisfy long time Burke fans while still enticing newer audiences.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Storm on the Island

Steve Fisher (1912-1980) was a prolific American author and screenwriter. Fisher cut his teeth on the early pulp magazines before transitioning into full-length novels and screenplays. I've enjoyed his short stories and was happy to discover another of his literary works on Archive.org. The novella is called "Storm on the Island" and it was published in the July, 1938 issue of The American Magazine

After her father‘s retirement from the Navy, Myrna invests some of his money into buying the Hawaiian Heaven Hotel off Pearl Harbor shore. She runs the small hotel and serves beer to the sailors who need a midpoint between the water and Honolulu. It’s a quiet, peaceful life until the emergency radio begins announcing that a Navy submarine has become trapped in underwater debris. After three days of monotone and grim announcements, the men on board have begun to lose the remaining oxygen. 

The sub, S14, is stuck on the ocean floor, wedged in discarded wooden wreckage with torpedo tubes that are jammed. Hoping for a rescue attempt, the Navy sends divers Harry Morris and Richard Brennan down to the vessel to attempt to clear the tubes. If they are cleared, the men can be safely ejected. But, the attempt fails and only Brennan makes it back to the surface alive. 

On the last night of the rescue attempt, readers learn that a guest in the hotel has been murdered and their corpse placed in a seldom used wine closet. Who’s dead, who’s the murderer and how is it related to the submarine disaster? The bulk of this complex mystery is brought to life when Brennan checks into the hotel awaiting a Navy request and the obligatory press interviews. 

Fisher’s hotel ensemble is a cast of likely suspects, each possessing a possible motive for murder. It’s a traditional mystery complete with a competent Hawaiian detective named Mulane probing for answers. Brennan and Myrna strike up a romance, but when Myrna’s father is murdered, all fingers point to Brennan as the killer. 

I really enjoyed this short novel, and found that Fisher was really in his element. Fisher himself served in the Navy aboard a submarine stationed in Hawaii, so his writing has a descriptive sense of realism. The romance angle is Fisher’s signature. Combining these two ingredients into a hotel murder mystery was brilliant. 

Storm on the Island is a captivating mystery with unique characters in an exotic location. Even better is that the story exists for free at archive.org HERE.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Shifting

Author Steven Savile was born in Newcastle, England in 1969. In 1997, he moved to Stockholm, Sweden and launched a prolific writing career. Savile has authored television and video game tie-in novels and stories in series titles like Warhammer, Stargate SG-1, Torchwood, Doctor Who and Stellaris. With over ten full-length novels and a number of short story collections and novellas, it was just a matter of time before I would stumble upon one. My first experience with the author is his horror novella Shiftling. It was originally published in 2013 by Dark Fuse.   

Shifting, set in the 1980s, blends coming of age storytelling with a small town mystery.  Like Brian Keene's Ghoul and Ronald Malfi's December Park, Savile crafts his story around a select group of kids who find their lives disrupted by evil. The story has the required elements of good, traditional horror fiction - a sinister house, an underground lair and a carnival. Savile could easily conjure an elementary ghoul or goblin to prey on these young characters, instead his mature talents as a creator goes well beyond that. 

This compelling narrative uses two time frames to present the events, one in 1985 and another present day. It is this retroactive sequence of events that allows readers to interpret the past through the characters' hazy recollection and misguided memories. The central horror concept is an old house and a series of underground tunnels where the terror resides. 

While there are certain horrific scenes throughout Shifting, it is the coming of age factor and its shedding of innocence that headlines this thought provoking tale. Kudos to Savile for a fantastic effort and one that clearly shows innovative ideas are still on the loose.

Friday, September 24, 2021

The Old Man's Place (aka The Hard Guys)

John Sanford (1904-2003, born as Julian Shapiro) experienced a short career in law before discovering the literature of Ernest Hemingway. In 1931, Sanford wrote his first novel, The Water Wheel, the first of three independent titles that took place in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. After reading Sanford's amazing noir novel Make My Bed in Hell (1939), I was excited to try another of Sanford's novels. Thanks to Brash Books, The Old Man's Place was re-printed this year for the modern public. This Sanford novel was originally published as a hardcover in 1935. It was subsequently reprinted by Perma Books in paperback form in 1953. In 1957, Signet published the book as The Hard Guys. The novel was adapted into a movie in 1971 as My Old Man's Place

After his mother's death during childbirth, Trubee Pell was raised by his father, Walter, on a farm near Warrensburg, New York. After abandoning an unfortunate marriage, Trubee joined the army and served during World War I. It is there that he met two low-life scoundrels - James Pilgrim and Martin Flood. The audacious trio boozed it up during the war and afterwards bummed around the U.S. avoiding labor and responsibility. Out of ideas, Pell suggests that the three of them go back to New York and shack up with his father. 

Walter lives a simple, farming life in solitude. At first he's happy to see his son, but soon realizes that tribe has changed significantly since the war. The three men physically and verbally abuse Walter. They force him to work, cook their meals and provide free lodging. While mostly drunk, the men spend their days shooting, illegally hunting and robbing. During a home intrusion, James steals a stack of nude magazines. In one of the books, he finds an ad for dating. 

Like the dating apps of today, James sends out $1 and a brief biography explaining his physical appearance and attributes. The company then forwards this information to a woman in his area. In this instance, James' letter is sent to a young woman from New Jersey named Anna. Her parents have died and she is looking for a husband and a new life elsewhere. James, who is short and fat with rotten teeth, explains in his letter that he is tall, handsome and has a large farm. When Anna arrives at the Pell farm, she is shocked to find out that James does not fit his biography. In addition, she is surrounded by three vicious and sexually charged men in a foreign place miles away from anyone.

Sanford's The Old Man's Place is a carefully designed character study bursting with tension and intrigue. I found myself so emotionally invested in these characters and their raw, primal instincts. The author creates this slow spiral into some very dark places. The ethical, morally centered Walter experiences so much loss and heartache as a father. I was able to identify with this character so much and I felt so much sympathy for him. Anna, who borders upon the angelic, is pushed into this pit of vipers of violence and moral depravity. Sanford's narrative is saturated with rage and grief and has this unusual subtext on human suffering.

Like his novel Make My Bed in Hell, John Sanford is nothing short of extraordinary with The Old Man's Place. It's darkly wonderful and honest, well ahead of its time considering the 1935 publication date. Sanford is seemingly timeless, possessing a rare skillset that rivals some of the best noir authors of all-time. My hat is tipped to Brash Books for affordably inviting modern ages to experience this sensational author. 

Thursday, September 23, 2021

The Underdwelling

Tim Curran is a novelist from Michigan. Since 2003, Curran has authored nearly 15 novellas and over 25 full-length novels. His works are mostly horror-fiction with some fantasy and science-fiction elements. I've read a handful of his novellas and was anxious to try The Underdwelling. It was originally published in 2011 by the now defunct publisher Delirium. It now exists as an ebook via Crossroad Press. 

The tale is set in a small community in rural Michigan. It's here that third-generation miner Boyd works in the deep underground caverns of Hobart Mine. He has a wife and a baby on the way and isn't afraid of the backbreaking, gritty hard work. But, being the new kid in the caves warrants a sort of hazing. He's mistreated as an incompetent rookie by his co-workers. 

The senior crew members place Boyd on heavy grunt work on the lower bottom section of the mine. He's forced to dig out large limestone rocks so the crews can harvest the precious ore. After a disastrous break in the mine's interior walls, Boyd and four others fall into a huge underground chasm of petrified forest. 

As the five men begin to claw their way back out of the rubble, they are surprised to hear bizarre sounds coming from the lower darkness. Exploring this petrified forest, the group finds what resembles a village comprised of fossils of various animals. When the sounds start to creep closer, Boyd and his co-workers find that something is among them in the dark. 

The Underdwelling displays Curran's phenomenal storytelling skills. His descriptions had me breathing the dense dust and grime with these five characters. The sense of unease and isolation was so thick that I felt rushed just to read it. I wanted to escape this darkened prison and reach the surface light. The atmosphere, characters and pace made this story a real pleasure to read. Highly recommended. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Tender is the Flesh

Augustine Bazterrica is an Argentinean writer of novels and short stories. Her second novel, Tender is the Flesh, earned literary prominence in her country. The 2020 Dystopian work has received international praise as a powerful, stunning look at capitalism and industrialized farming. After being encouraged by a friend, I borrowed her copy to check it out.

In the future, animals have been contaminated by a deadly virus. Due to the health risks, most of the world's animal populations have been destroyed. Due to lack of animals, cannibalism has become legal. Body farms have been created that raise humans in the same way that cattle are raised today. These humans (called heads) are raised to consume, so they have no intelligence beyond the walls of the cage. Their vocal cords are removed and based on ethnicity, race, age and gender, humans are packaged into categories and sold. Human meat (known as special meat) is then bought by processing plants (slaughterhouses) where the entire organism is used for food or manufacturing. 

Marcos is a second generation employee of the meat processing industry. He acts as an account executive for "meat runs" where he reviews processes and procurement. After experiencing the loss of a child, Marcos goes into a deep depression and his wife moves out. This loss evokes empathy for the people who are slaughtered. Most of the author's narrative is devoted to Marcos contemplating the whole meat industry and its negative impact on mankind. 

After Marcos is gifted a woman, high human grade, he begins to look after her. Naming her Jasmine, Marcos develops an illegal relationship with her that results in a pregnancy. If the law finds out he had sexual intercourse with a "head," he will be slaughtered. In order to keep the relationship and pregnancy a secret, Marcos hides Jasmine from his home and starts a process of resigning from his work. Complicating matters is the death of his elderly father and a strained relationship with his nagging sister. 

Tender is the Flesh is inspired by several novels. In many ways it resembles the 1953 dystopia novel by Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451. In this book, the protagonist begins to question the government's strict rules and the importance of free will. Other influences range from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) and the 1973 film Soylent Green, which was loosely based on Harry Harrison's 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!. More recently, the Japanese anime The Promised Neverland, originally released in 2019, is close to the premise of the story.

As much as I wanted to like Tender is the Flesh, I found it too reliant on graphic torture and death. The central story of Marcos becoming an enlightened citizen was lost in the dense atmosphere of dismemberment and gore. Frequently, the author details the human slaughterhouse, the processes, and additional bi-products of this savage society. In disturbing scenes, Bazterrica describes the brutal torture of puppies and the raping of an adolescent girl. These scenes exist merely for shock value and reminded me of the insane carnage of Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door (1989).

I appreciated the social warnings and the clear criticism of animal cruelty, corporate greed and capitalism. There are positive takeaways, but it requires a strong stomach and the ability to distance yourself from the violence. I found it distasteful and over the top. Read at your own discretion. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Lost Hills

Lee Goldberg, twice nominated for the Edgar and Shamus Awards, has written a number of serial titles like Ian Ludlow, Monk, Charlie Willis and Diagnosis Murder. In addition to scriptwriting, Goldberg collaborated with Janet Evanovich on the successful series Fox & O'Hare. One of his most well-received series titles is Eve Ronin. The series was launched in 2019 with Lost Hills and continued with two sequels, Bone Canyon and Gated Prey. To delve into the character and the series, I'm starting with Lost Hills.

Eve Ronin was a deputy in Lancaster, a charter city in Northern Los Angles County. After she made an off-duty arrest of a drunken and abusive celebrity, Eve soared to popularity. Her arrest was captured on a video that went viral. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's department needed positive publicity, so Eve was promoted to detective in the Robbery-Homicide division of the Lost Hills Sheriff’s station. Her partner is Duncan Pavone, a veteran that is less than four months away from retirement.

As one can imagine, Eve faces a lot of criticism from her colleagues. They're not happy about the shortcut she took to get her new job. Further, they feel that her lack of homicide investigation experience is detrimental to the department. Her critics are sexist, unapologetic and unprofessional. Eve's cases will be more difficult to resolve due to the unnecessary obstacles she is forced to confront. 

Eve and Duncan are sent to a house near Topanga State Park, a dense forested area in the Santa Monica Mountains. Once inside the home, the two partners discover a grisly slaughterhouse. The walls and floor are saturated with blood, conveying the violence and death that has taken place. The victims appear to be a single woman, her two children, and the family dog. Mysteriously, there are no bodies. After Eve explores a nearby hill, she is assaulted and knocked out by what looks like a furry monster. 

Goldberg's narrative is a tight, comprehensive procedural that is stylishly episodic in nature. It's easily accessible and was presented like a solid, well-written television show. Eve's determination and commitment to solve the case is admirable. It created a long-lasting, but highly enjoyable, investigation into this poor family's past, their connections and the possible suspects and motives that potentially brought about their horrific demise.

With Lost Hills, Lee Goldberg has introduced a remarkable, tenacious female detective in Eve Ronin. She's flawed, but determined. Inexperienced, but courageous. Outmanned, but defiant. Goldberg places this unlikely hero in a problematic, fast-paced pursuit to find a killer, effectively establishing her as the reliant hero we've always wanted...and deserved.