Ben Walker

About Ben Walker

Ben Walker emerged into the East Midlands some time ago and lurks there still. A horror fan since age 9, he enjoys everything from the bizarre to the mainstream, especially stories with B-movie leanings. He talks about writing / makes bad jokes @BensNotWriting, and reviews whatever he likes (or doesn't) @BenWReviews

Father William: Part 1 by Shaun McLaren – Book Review

fwilliamFather William: Part 1 by Shaun McLaren – Book Review

Inevitably, when you put a priest in a horror story, there comes that question of trust. Do we trust that Father Merrin is able to beat evil in The Exorcist, seeing as he’s a last resort? Why should the Thorns trust the ramblings of Father Brennan in The Omen? There’s a healthy lack of trust in religion throughout many macabre tales, but the church is generally seen as a force of good.

Not so in Shaun McLaren’s Father William (Part one). Right from the off, you can tell the titular Father’s a wrong ‘un. That side is well hidden from the townspeople, until young girls start going missing. Suspicion grows as their disappearances are linked to offers of redemption by wicked old William. And just who are those weird masked figures hefting around wriggling sacks in the night?

The story has the rough, pulpy feel of a Guy N Smith novel, with the same kind of melodrama, mixed with overly floral descriptions of locations evocative of the time period. There are also constant reminders that men are men and women are women. Though where Smith added plenty of gore and nastiness to his B-movie shenanigans, there’s little here to make your spine feel chilly or guts feel like a faulty Indesit. The horrors are swift and brutal, but with a nasty edge that feels unpleasant more than unsettling.

Father William is definitely a rotter, but by the end he comes across more cartoony than scary, all sat on a throne waving a fist, Cobra Commander style. The story presents a more serious tone until then, with William coming across as a sneakily manipulative character. So seeing him literally tossing lackeys around really diminishes what went before. The same goes for the other characters, who flit and sit around without having much impact on anything, or each other. Sure, this is part one of a series, but as a starter, it leaves you more than a bit peckish for something meatier.

One final sin the book commits is coming to a screeching halt. No cliffhanger, no compelling reason to pick up the next part. Just a full stop, right as things seem like they might be getting interesting, and it’s a full stop that seems to answer the only question you might have. Maybe with room to grow, future instalments of Father William’s saga will be more compelling. I don’t trust I’ll be there to see them though.

Score: 4/10

Pick up a copy of Father William here:

Amazon UK: www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1521544034
Amazon US: www.amazon.com/dp/1521544034

ICE (A Tale Of Horror) by Frank Pickering – Book Review

ice1Frank Pickering’s ICE hopes to chill your spine with a tale of tragedy on a mountain leading into a series of haunting encounters with a weird mountain guardian and the odd bit of snowy suspense.

Mountain and arctic environments are rich territories for horror. There’s a threat built in right there, the same as setting your story in space, or in the ocean. Vast, threatening, sometimes unknowable spaces. Places where the everyday person may not go, with risks all around. You can seed fear in reader’s minds just by using an isolated setting, and from that, you can layer on all kinds of thrills.

But you have to have characters you care about. ICE doesn’t present you with any. Killing off a few cringeworthy teenage characters early on barely has any impact. The tragic hero who returns to the mountains an indeterminate amount of time after his partner is killed just gets on with things, so his link to previous events feels pointless. There’s more love here for skiing than the cheeky authorial glee of leading you into a place of terror. It feels less like a journey of fear and more like a description of events, flatly journalistic at times, and never creepy.

That’s a shame, because there’s definitely a love of language in this book, but the sometimes poetic descriptions distract from the mood they’re trying to create. Right from the first line, where personification of a valley doesn’t quite work, reading this novel felt like an uphill struggle towards tension which never pulls taut enough.

There’s no real climax either, no escalation of the threat laying in wait under the mountain. It’s kind of like visiting a museum to see a specific exhibit, finding it replaced with a sign reading this item will be returning soon, shrugging your shoulders and then going home. You may get a faint glimmer of interest, but it’s not going to be handed to you.

There are books out there which handle the combination of icy conditions and creeping dread far better – Thin Air by Michelle Paver, and Ararat by Christopher Golden spring to mind. If you’re looking for chilly thrills, look there, not here.

Score: 3/10

Amazon US: http://www.amazon.com/dp/1782011994
Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1782011994

Garden of Fiends: Tales of Addiction Horror – Book Review

gofGarden of Fiends: Tales of Addiction Horror – Book Review

Garden of Fiends pulls together eight tales of addiction blended with horror. Now you might think that addiction is horrid enough on its own, and you’re right. Only in this collection, editor Mark Matthews has selected stories which draw on real life, but don’t rely on it for the horror elements. There are tales of demons and ghosts here, all bound to the struggles addictions bring with them.

Opening with A Wicked Thirst by Kealan Patrick Burke, you’re immediately thrown into a world of panic, where a date is juxtaposed with a brutal drowning. This reads like the returning memories of a blacked-out drunk, with events gradually falling into place as the harrowing story goes on. I had to take a break by the end of this one, it’s a hell of an opener.

The One in the Middle by Jessica McHugh is a hard-to-stomach tale of addicts at their lowest point, forced to sell flesh to a cannabalistic high society. There’s a hint of Burroughs about this one, with sci-fi elements meeting the down & dirty everyday horror, in a city trying not to repeat its own mistakes.

Everywhere You’ve Bled and Everywhere You Will by Max Booth III involves a bleeding body part and a horrific tragedy involving shared illness. This goes past the point of horror into mind-fucking insanity. A skilful blend of many horrors.

First, Just Bite a Finger by Johann Thorsson is a flash fiction piece about being addicted to cannibalism, and it’s a short-sharp shock of a metaphor, feeding into the worries that peer pressure brings.

Last Call by John FD Taff features an ex-alcoholic coasting through life without respecting his journey to quick sobriety. The horror here comes right at the end, less brutal and more tragic.

Torment of the Fallen by Glen Krisch involves a daughter trying to reconnect with her estranged father. You’ll definitely feel the pain of finding a loved one devastated by drugs here, only there’s demonic forces at work too, which hopefully you’ll never feel. Unless you like the idea of being eaten alive by rats?

Garden of Fiends by Mark Matthews is quite simply, a heartbreaker. Here, a father tries to pull his daughter away from an addictive relationship, drifting too close to her world for his own good. The horror and despair conjured by this novella-length offering has tinges of the supernatural to accentuate the horror of loss.

The collection ends with Returns by Jack Ketchum, a ghost story less about addiction than the others, but listen, it’s Ketchum. You know you’re not coming out the other side of this one with a smile. It’ll move you before the midway point, and if you’re a cat person, it might just ruin you.

That rare themed anthology that offers a great selection of stories with no duds, I would fully recommend Garden of Fiends to any horror fan. None of the stories here are frivolous, they all respect addiction for what it is, and that means you’re not in for an easy read. That said, it’s still an essential purchase for the short story aficionado.

Score: 10/10

Amazon US: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B06X9X1WYS
Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B06X9X1WYS

And you can follow Wicked Run Press @WickedRunPress

At The Cemetery Gates: Year One – Book review

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There’s something simple and evocative about the words cemetery gates, isn’t there? A pair of rusted, wrought iron doorways, ready to creak open and welcome you into a world of death. Or maybe you’re a Pantera fan like me and you’re thinking of Dimebag’s noodling giving way to that crushing riff.

At The Cemetery Gates Year One has that same kind of promise in its title, bringing to mind a person on the verge of some creepy discovery, and the cover is similarly creepy, with a Stephen Gammell kind of vibe to it. But a good cover & title isn’t everything, as I found once I stepped inside the world of John Brhel and Joe Sullivan.

The collection kicks off with A Dark and Desolate Recurrence, featuring a couple trapped in their car during a blizzard, saved by a mysterious figure. This turns into a bewildering “who owns this house?” story, culminating in a clumsily-delivered ghost encounter. This suffers from don’t go upstairs syndrome where all logic is thrown out and you end up yelling at the characters for making bad decisions. The couple hear murderous noises upstairs…so decide to look for something to eat. That kind of thing. It’s a weird choice of opener, seeing as there are far stronger stories in the collection.

Only problem is, those strong stories take a good long while to materialise. With 14 stories to pick through, I found myself nitpicking more than enjoying the variety of tales on offer. Many of the stories share a fascination with time loops which gets wearying after a while, and the more varied stories veer from a sub-par Psycho imitations to a subversion of teen slasher tropes which still feels like it’s been done before.

And so it continues, with characters sharing uninteresting, everyday conversations before anything happens, over-explaining of ideas or feelings, and a general lack of scares or chills. I was ready to give up entirely but I’m not a quitter. I don’t walk out of movies and I always finish a book no matter how much I don’t want to.

Good thing I did, because some of the later stories are actually pretty good. There’s a blast of dark comedy in New Year’s Eve, What A Gas!, some Evil Dead style schlock in the fun-but-flawed The Call is Coming From Inside the House, more pitch-black humour in An Epistle From the Dead. It’s just a shame that the final story falls back into the same ponderous over-explaining of the twist that the earlier stories were guilty of.

This is a shaggy haircut of a book, desperately in need of a good trim, a bit of pampering to make it shine. As is, it’s too flat and dull to recommend, with only a few decent stories in the bunch, but this is year one. Styles change, and maybe after a few seasons have passed, there’ll be something more vibrant coming from these two author’s heads.

Score: 3/10

Book links:

Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01MFZXHJJ/
Amazon US: http://www.amazon.comk/dp/B01MFZXHJJ/

I Have The Sight by Rick Wood – Book Review

Dead girl. Halloween theme.

Dead girl. Halloween theme.

I Have The Sight by Rick Wood – Book Review by Ben Walker

For many, the most chilling thing about a possession story is lack of control, whether it’s a malevolent demon taking over someone you love, or the idea that your own mind may be pushed out by forces unknown.

An important thing in a possession story then, is to touch on this theme of control. Not to harp on about it, but The Exorcist does this masterfully, as Chris’ life rapidly goes from happy to hellish, Regan becomes a vessel of hatred and chaos, and both Karras and Merrin realise their faith is no protection from fate.

In I Have The Sight, Rick Wood plays off this core concept of control, with titular sight-haver Edward (Eddie) King showing his confident demonologist side before walking us down the road he trod to get there. And as it turns out, it’s a long hard road out of…you know where.

I’ve realised recently that The Exorcist may have spoiled me in terms of expectations for this kind of story. Judging …Sight on its own merits, it’s a perfectly serviceable story. But compared to the grandparent of all exorcism tales, this is a less weighty take on the genre.

Reason being, the opening chapter sets up a demonic showdown, then weaves back & forth between past & present to reveal that Eddie is really the one in need of of help. So there’s your lack of control. Even though Eddie seems helpless for the majority of the story, he’s still introduced as a hero type. So when the demonic threat emerges, it never comes off as threatening as it could’ve, because by page thirteen, it’s already clear that Eddie has control. Taking us back through a shaky past doesn’t change that, so the tension never really builds enough to make you worry for him.

Along the way, there are some knockabout exorcism/demon battle scenes, which end up favouring physicality (hands beating back demonic flames, slashing claws, force powers etc) over mental games, which didn’t really do it for me. I can appreciate the visuals, but they felt like acrobatic fight scenes from a movie (which would make sense given the author’s background in screenwriting), rather than complelling narrative nightmares.

Taken as a standalone story, …Sight works fine as a one-off read. However, it’s the start of a series, and I’m not convinced that I want to follow Eddie’s journey any further. Most questions about his past are answered throughout, so there’s no itch in my brain for more, even with the final question the story lazily throws out. Check it out if you’d like a novel spin on the standard girl in peril exorcism trope, just don’t expect pea soup and terror.

Score: 5/10

Book links:

Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01MFDCMYT/
Amazon US: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MFDCMYT/

And you can follow Rick Wood on twitter @rickwoodwriter

Dark Teardrops by Catherine Tramell – Book Review

rsz_546375522Dark Teardrops by Catherine Tramell – Book Review

Catherine Tramell takes a lofty stab at greatness with Dark Teardrops, comparing it to The Exorcist in her back cover blurb, taking a shot at the reams of poor imitations which followed William Peter Blatty’s (RIP) influential possession horror.

Dark Teardrops, the blurb claims, is aimed directly at fans of Blatty’s novel. Now, I’m a big Exorcist fan. It’s one of the horror stories I come back to yearly, whether it’s movie, screenplay or novel. I defend the film passionately to anyone who criticises it (rightly or wrongly). So okay, I thought, reading the author’s promise. Let’s see if you can live up to it.

Sadly, by page five, the promise was broken. Dark Teardrops has aspirations of greatness, but like tears themselves, those aspirations dry up quickly. Jim and his daughter Brisia are no Chris and Regan, and this story favours eventual gore over the slow build of dread.

Overloaded with huge paragraphs, some more than half a page long, there’s no drive to the drama. By page five of The Exorcist you’ve met three key players, and realise that ancient evil is lurking in the shadows. All Dark Teardrops can offer by then is an old woman looking at photos, talking to herself.

Still, horror does eventually come into play, and things become more graphic, but it’s too sudden a shift in tone. With no build-up, the gore and rote “little girl swearing” possession stuff feels a bit out of place. One day it’s family breakfasts and fond looks, the next day it’s dogs being beaten to death with baseball bats. And even though the viscera flies in some imaginative, shocking ways, there’s a slightly B-movie feel to the prose; more shock value than spine-tingling.

And then there’s the onomatopoeia. So much onomatopoeia. Ring ring! goes a phone, peep! goes a bird, beep beep! goes an ECG…and on it goes. These sound effects are mostly used as scene breaks, which completely ruined any tension or scares beforehand. I can’t take a brutal assault seriously if the next line afterwards is ding dong! – that’s like blowing a slide whistle at the end of Sleepaway Camp.

Despite all these faults, it’s clear that the author is in love with language, and with writing. There’s a great scene in which the possessed Brisia humiliates a teacher with a sharp literary analysis of Don Quixote. This really stood out for me, thanks to its clear & genuine passion. If the rest of the story were as well-written as that single outburst, there’d be a higher number at the end of this review.

The final chapter does go some way to redeeming the story, with a powerful confrontation between demon and family, but it’s a foghorn of a showdown, too blaring and noisy to really resonate emotionally.

Overall, Dark Teardrops was too much like a poorly edited half-novel to recommend as a good read. Though it did make me want to go back to The Exorcist, so it’s not all bad.

Score: 2/10

Book links:

Amazon UK: www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B017BE3EGO
Amazon US: www.amazon.com/dp/B017BE3EGO

Bad Apples 3: Seven Slices of Halloween Horror – Book Review

bad3Bad Apples 3: Seven Slices of Halloween Horror – Book Review

Is there a better time of year for horror than October, and Hallowe’en? I say no! The nights are getting cold, bringing a shiver to your spine whether you want one there or not. So you draw yourself close to a loved one, layer up your clothes and try to stave off the chill. The trees begin to cycle through their whole death/rebirth thing. Kids murder their teeth with candy. It’s the time of year when anything can seem horrid, given enough imagination. And the contents of Bad Apples 3 certainly are imaginative.

Belle Souffrance is a superbly weird tale, involving an artistic mind gone mad and a bizarrely 1980’s style murder weapon. With shades of Nightmare on Elm Street meets Laserblast meets Broken Monsters along the way, the story wraps itself in the past a little too much, but sheds its pretence for a weird ending that more than makes up it.

Chocolate Covered Eyeball is like a body-horror version of Hansel & Gretel, with greed being punished in a deliciously gruesome manner. Superb visuals mix with sickening, bizarro gore to make this one that might just put you off trick-or-treating for good.

October’s End turns in on itself, a nightmarish ouroboros of a story. A true nightmare is one that never ends, and that feeling is perfectly captured here.

The Uncle Taffy’s Girl was the first miss in this collection for me. Despite some cool imagery thanks to the brilliantly-named bargain bin horror novels described within, there was too much dialogue in this one, and stilted sentences. I can see what the author was going for, but after the first three tight, dense stories, this was a bit too freewheeling to be enjoyable. Points for a creepy, protracted dismemberment scene though.

Last Stop takes the old never trust a stranger trope and turns it into a gleefully nasty B-movie headfuck. As much as I hate “gor blimey guv’nor” English dialogue, the trashy action pulled me through to the up yours, all hope is lost ending, which was effective if a little bit silly.

Body of Christ delves its hand back into the bucket marked body horror and comes out with a fresh, repulsive take on Communion wafers and their meaning. Finding terror in both zombie/cannibalism, and everyday loss, I loved how far this story pushed its concept, and the B-movie style stinger at the end.

Pulp took me a while to get through, and I still don’t know how I feel about it. The story started off well enough, despite a few Final Destination-style horror icon nods, but soon began to throw in way too many horror movie references. And as the story plods on, those references and nods start to overshadow the core concept,which was neat enough, but came into play way too late for me to care enough the characters wrapped in this weird resurrection fantasy. As a short or a movie, this would be a lot of fun. At its current length, not so much.

So overall, there are no truly rotten apples in this bushel. For sheer creativity alone, this is well worth a glance. If you can stand to prise your fingers from your face as you peer through them…

Score: 8/10

Book links:

Amazon UK: www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1537096524/
Amazon US: www.amazon.com/dp/1537096524/

Kanye West: Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft & Joshua Chaplinsky – Book Review

kanye-west-reanimatorKanye West: Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft & Joshua Chaplinsky – Book Review

Out now from Yolo House Publishers (links at bottom of review)

As if you couldn’t guess from the title, Kanye West: Reanimator blends the life and work of Yeezy with Lovecraft’s classic tale of mad science. And yes, it’s hilarious. So what better way for me to pay respect to such a glorious mash-up than to review Joshua Chaplinsky’s hilarious short to the tune of Mr West’s (Kanye’s, that is) verse in his horror-influenced tune, Monster? There isn’t one. So let’s do it!

Funniest living-dead spoof out huh?

Some might say that’s a tall order

But Chaplinsky’s tale is devilish

Spinning rap and Lovecraft into a killer mix

Kanye’s life gets spliced with Herbert West’s

Raising the dead with music and some assist

The focus is on humour with a horror twist

But that doesn’t make the narrative shit

I heard people saying parodys are stale mayne

But they’d be great if done in this vein

Knowledge of hip-hop bordering on insane

But still paying respect to a classic tale

The joke about fresh beats sometimes wears thin

Then puns come in that still make you grin

Taking this hit from number one to number two though

Is how this reads like it’s for fans of the “Kanye show”

Where you just watch to see what he’s gonna do now

Which by the end brings in celeb-bashing, now

Seems like a cheap way of getting laughs now

That’s where my enthusiasm started to cool down

‘Cause the story can’t come back from this

And my best advice is to just drop the cheap diss

Have you ever read some Chuck Tingle?

He gets far more laughs than this

That might involve far more sexises

But he embraces pure absurdness

Still this book was like a present wrapped in the past

If you don’t like that style, kiss my ass.

Score: 8/10

Book links:

Amazon UK: www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0692516123

Amazon US: www.amazon.com/dp/0692516123

Within the Dark Places by Duncan Thompson – Book Review

wdp resizeWithin the Dark Places by Duncan Thompson – Book Review

Darkness bends and curls itself into every piece of dark fiction ever told. Whether it’s the emotional darkness inside a person driving them to terrible acts, or the very real darkness under the bed, that hiding place for the unspeakable, every terror tale needs a bit of the old black stuff.

Some stories take the darkness and turn it into a threat – from Alan Wake to The Darkness (the comic, not the Kevin Bacon movie), Pitch Black to Lights Out. In visual mediums like these, it’s easy – and very effective – to represent the lurking horrors in the dark. When a novella like Duncan Thompson’s Within the Dark Places tries to do it though…the results are mixed.

Reading very much like a screenplay-turned-story (spoilers: that’s exactly what it is!), Within… starts with a nameless couple being apprehended by mysterious, frostbite-inducing creatures, before introducing a group of men on a similarly-doomed camping trip.

What follows is pretty paint-by-numbers horror, with the group being picked off one by one, tensions rising as dark secrets are revealed, and a chance for one man to rise above it all and become a hero. There’s nothing much here that hasn’t been done before, but it doesn’t wear out its welcome too quickly. The characters pretty much do what you expect, and there’s some gore along the way which keeps things interesting, but this is a story light on surprises.

In an alternative universe, Mr Thompson succeeded in making this taut little tale into a movie, and that’s a universe I’d like to visit, because the evil in this short read doesn’t grab hold quite as tight as it should. As a movie (or as a longer book, exploring the darkness-induced madness in more depth), I can see this working a lot better, simply because the shadow monsters didn’t scare me.

Watching a looming shadow on the big screen still gives me shivers, even the well-worn silhouette of Nosferatu lurching up that staircase. But tell me in a book that a shadow is moving around, killing people, and sadly, the best I can do is shrug. That’s just me though – I like my literary monsters to have a bit more meat on their bones. Exploring the psychological part of this would have been a lot creepier than following the movie-style “kill the monsters” formula used here.

The equivalent to a solid B-movie offering shown later night on the Horror Channel, Within… isn’t an essential read, but it’s definitely entertaining.

Score: 5/10

Book links (pre-order only at time of writing):

Amazon UK: www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1910832278
Amazon US: www.amazon.com/dp/1910832278
Rowanvale Books: www.rowanvalebooks.com/book/within-the-dark-places

Kill For a Copy – Book Review

kfoc1Kill For a Copy – Book Review

Out now in Paperback and Kindle from Dark Chapter Press

Titling a short story collection must be hard. You either have to go for something weird and evocative like Stephen King’s Skeleton Crew, or a bold title like Stephen Jones’ Best New Horror. More obtuse titles draw you in with the promise of mystery rather than quality, but when you go down that bold road, the one that promises quality before you even crack the spine, you really need to deliver.

Whatever you call a short story anthology, the reality is that there are always going to be duds. Kill for a Copy from Dark Chapter Press is no exception, but there’s enough good stuff in here to make it worth picking through, notably:

Robert J. Stava’s Blynd Haus . This may sound like a great German synth-rock band, but it’s actually a bizarro creature-feature story, which really gets going after a slow start. Creepy fun.

Silver Bullets by Steve Jenner just drips with detail, reading like a factual account of tomb-raiding, weird artefacts and living skeletons. I went in expecting werewolves and got something more like dark fantasy.

S.L. Dixon offers a laugh-out loud take on the killer animals genre in Bovine Rule – it’s a mad mash-up of Black Sheep and Maximum Overdrive of all things.

Redwood by Angus Fenton drops you into the titular town with an unseen monster nipping at someone’s heels, and doesn’t reveal the beast until the very end. Solid, entertaining stuff that reads like a transcript movie (which I’d like to see!).

Brian Barr’s Bedlam Betty is like a pulp retelling of Clive Barker’s The Forbidden, seen through the lens of comics rather than modern folklore. Good stuff.

Last of all, M.R Wallace’s Madness in Death Valley lurks around the edges of Lovecraftian horror with a pulpy first-person account of desert monsters. If you like the last account of a man gone mad kind of story, this is a worthy addition to that subgenre.

As for the other two-thirds of the 17 tales on offer, some were just too short to have any impact, and others revelled too much in their gory concepts to offer any meaningful chills. There’s also some weird sci-fi in here, including a story about imprisonment in a virtual world and the heralded death of the world.

Killer cooks, werewolves, possession…one thing this collection doesn’t lack is ambition or variety. But, as much as its title promises unmissable chills, this wasn’t one that I’d be willing to pick up an axe and get choppy for.

Score: 5/10

Book links:

Amazon UK: www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0993062032
Amazon US: www.amazon.com/dp/0993062032