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/

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

The Seance: A Gothic Tale of Horror and Misfortune by Jack Rollins – Book Review

theseanceThe Seance: A Gothic Tale of Horror and Misfortune by Jack Rollins – Book Review

Gothic horror is something that’s hard to get right nowadays. Maybe because we’re so far removed from the eras and beliefs that inspired that kind of storytelling, or maybe it’s because it’s a fairly niche market. Still, writing this kind of horror in the modern age can be a good thing – for one, older works can drag on for too long, and with hindsight, a modern author can make a snappy Gothic story that hits all the same notes. Which brings me to The Séance by Jack Rollins.

The story involves man of science Albert Kench, who visits his ailing sister Sally in a progressive mental home. After the shocking revelation that his sister has lost more than just her mind, he teams up with an old flame. Learning of a fraudulent séance, and a cursed mirror, Albert sets out to track down the man responsible for his sister’s affliction, but finds more than he can imagine waiting for him in the dark streets of old London.

Published in 2014, you’d be forgiven for thinking this short story was a repackaged release of some 1900s chapbook rather than something written in the modern age. Rollins uses old-time language very effectively to pull you into a Victorian-era world, and there are no slip-ups. This is pretty rare for a modern attempt at a Victorian story, and it’s all the more effective for this.

This was a quick read, and a fun one, owing much to the EC Comics style of pulp horror, where a disbeliever is forced to confront the fantastic. As you might expect, Arthur’s scientific mind finds it hard to accept the supernatural doings that come into play, but by the end he’s left with little choice but to accept that demons are very real, and very dangerous – just like their followers. Again, this is typical of a lot of stories in the Gothic/pulp tradition, which means that it’s fairly easy to see where the story is going.

theseance1Still, the thrills and frights are schlocky in the best way, with effective weird imagery during the séance, and a few dollops of grue & gore towards the end. And while the ending isn’t a massive shock, the last line really digs a knife into you.

If you’re a fan of old horror comics and classic tales of terror, there may not be much here to surprise you, but The Séance is a solid story, and worth checking out. Victorian stories seem to be right in Rollins’ wheelhouse, as he has a few others out there – and on the strength of what he’s produced here, I’d recommend shopping around for those other efforts too.

Score: 7/10

Book links:

Amazon UK: www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00NCD08ZY/
Amazon US: www.amazon.com/dp/B00NCD08ZY/
Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-seance-jack-rollins/1120362770?ean=9780993062018

You can find more titles from Dark Chapters Press on their website at www.darkchapterpress.com

And you can follow Jack Rollins @jackrollins9280

Die Dog or Eat The Hatchet by Adam Howe – Book Review

diedog-largeDie Dog or Eat The Hatchet by Adam Howe – Book Review

It turns out Adam Howe is an author I’ve read before without knowing it, and maybe you have too. For reasons known only to himself, he used a pseudonym to enter – and win – a Stephen King-judged writing contest around 15 years ago. I still have that story in the back of my dog-eared copy of King’s gift to writers, On Writing, and King gave the young author a more direct gift when he met him after the contest. He scribbled a note in one of many books he signed for Howe, which simply read “don’t give up.”

After nearly a decade of trying to break into screenwriting, Howe finally slammed back onto the horror scene in 2015 with the super-enjoyable Black Cat Mojo and this, his newest offering, which makes me glad he eventually took King’s advice.

A mere glance at the first story’s title – Damn Dirty Apes – brings to mind Charlton Heston getting all aggravated in a big net, and the story that follows is just as ugly and worthy of laughter. A ex-boxer gets drawn into a Roadhouse-style biker gang bar-room brawl which leads to a mad hunt for the Bigfoot-wannabe cryptid known as the Bigelow Skunk Ape. This is a gleeful, hugely enjoyable mix of gore and perversity from the mind of a man who’s definitely watched too many cheesy 80’s movies – or just the right amount, depending on your tastes.

Next up is the titular Die Dog…, a shiver-worthy tale which skilfully wrongfoots the reader. Starting with a murderer escaping from the nuthouse, hapless victim in tow, you might think so far so standard, until the second part whips you in the face with a sordid mix of head-humping rednecks, a nightmarish ride-along with a corpse and one very hungry mutt – not to mention some good old-fashioned poetic revenge. This one veers close to Edward Lee territory and is not for those who shy from graphic scenes and cruelly imaginative uses for severed limbs.

The final bite of terror comes from Gator Bait (also available as a standalone novella). This is more of a noir tale, involving a three-fingered piano player/serial cuckold-maker who finds himself working at a dive bar. Soon after, he falls for the racist barkeep’s femme fatale wife. Temptation lurks through this story, as does the threat of being fed to a big bloody alligator which lives below the bar. Both the pianist’s lust and the gator’s hunger are well sated before the end. And even if you guess the ending before it comes, who cares? It’s a great ride.

With a bonus section filled with story notes about the inception of each messed-up tale, this is a must for lovers of creepy thrills, demented villains and raw, bloody vengeance. Seek out anything Howe writes. I intend to, and I truly hope he sticks with King’s advice for a long time.

Score: 9/10

Book links:

Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1936964252/
Amazon US: http://www.amazon.com/dp/1936964252/
Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/die-dog-or-eat-the-hatchet-adam-howe/1122889459
Kobo: https://store.kobobooks.com/en-us/ebook/die-dog-or-eat-the-hatchet
Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/587838

Rage and Redemption in Alphabet City by Amy Grech – Book Review

Rage-and-Redemption-in-Alphabet-CityRage and Redemption in Alphabet City 

Amy Grech’s latest short story collection smushes five tales together into a pulpy mass of noirish sex and death, with a side helping of cruelty. While the title promises salvation for its unfortunate cast of deviants and down-and-outs, most of them seem doomed to suffer, whether they deserve it or not.

The title story, which is also the longest, shifts easily from colourful bar-room flirting to inevitable, almost casual murder. You could almost mistake the story for erotica until the knives (well, scalpels…) come out, but it’s the kind of erotica that never quite delivers – which might explain the cocktails called Blue Balls which one character enjoys. More satisfying was Grech’s use of the people of Alphabet City – they’re almost Lynchian, with oddballs drifting in the background or bouncing off one another, delivering perverse melodrama and violence in equal measure. She paints a vivid world for her characters to live in, then darkens it through their actions. By the end, you’ll either feel sorry for or ashamed of almost everyone in this weird corner of NYC.

From there, the stories get shorter but no less dark. .38 Special blasts its initial bout of eroticism away with sudden, shocking violence. Sadly, the story then runs out of steam, taking us through a slow game of Russian roulette with no clear winner in the end.

Cold Comfort plays out the other way around, with another bar-room encounter quickly leading to some torrid, kinky sex. While the sex falls flat, it takes a backseat to themes of obsession and revenge. It’s a snappier mix of the first two stories, with way more drive and a gleefully dark ending.

Prevention was the stand-out of the bunch; a sordid tale of a downtrodden man and his demanding mother, and what happens when sibling rivalry goes too far. After the first three stories, which all trod quite similar ground, it was good to see the author use a different take on the revenge formula. It seems more like Grech had fun with this story, which made it all the more enjoyable.

Rounding out the quintet is the most unique offering, Hoi Palloi Cannoli. Essentially, it’s a bizarre dystopian version of Willy Wonka, with a cheeky final twist. While it takes a bit too long to get to the one-two punch of its final scene, this story is different enough to the others to make you want to reach the end.

It’d be nice to see a wider range of stories in any future collections, along with some better editing, but there was enough variety here to make me curious about Grech’s other short fiction, which has been featured in plenty of anthologies & magazines. You can visit her author page at http://www.amazon.com/Amy-Grech/e/B00389UW5S for more, or her website at http://www.crimsonscreams.com

Score: 6/10

Book links:

Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0692535500

Amazon US: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0692535500

Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/rage-and-redemption-in-alphabet-city-amy-grech/1122902190

Kobo: https://store.kobobooks.com/en-us/ebook/rage-and-redemption-in-alphabet-city