I’m Not Sam by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee

I'm Not Sam by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee.
I’m Not Sam by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee.

What if you awoke one morning to find your wife — your soulmate, the love of your life, the person you know better than anyone else — is no longer herself? Instead, she insists she’s a seven-year-old named Lily.

This is the simple-yet-effective premise that drives I’m Not Sam by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee.

Narrator Patrick Burke (a nod to fellow novelist Kealan Patrick Burke) wakes after a night of passionate lovemaking to find his wife, Sam, is gone, and Lily has apparently taken over her body. What do you do when your wife breaks from reality and insists she’s a little girl? Take her to a doctor … then take her toy shopping!

The horror of caring for a loved one who is “gone, yet still here” lies at the heart of I’m Not Sam. The relationships we cherish most in life are frail, and without warning a loved one can suddenly become a stranger. Don’t think so? Talk to anyone who loves a person with mental illness or Alzheimer’s disease.

Patrick is able to “cure” his wife using a chilling and disturbing brand of therapy. Unfortunately the cure may cost them their marriage, and will forever change Patrick and Sam’s perceptions of one another.

The novella’s close, told from Sam’s point of view, feels a bit forced, but Ketchum and McKee deliver with the meat of the story, and its haunting look at the inherent frailty of our most cherished personal relationships.

BOBBY’S BOTTOM LINE: This terse thriller will leave you wanting to hug your loved ones!

Book Review: I’m Not Sam by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee

I'm Not Sam review
Check out my review of Ketchum and McKee’s I’m Not Sam.

I’m Not Sam by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee

What if you awoke one morning to find your wife — your soulmate, the love of your life, the person you know better than anyone else — is no longer herself? Instead, she insists she’s a seven-year-old named Lily.

This is the simple-yet-effective premise that drivesI’m Not Sam by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee. (read full review …)


Blood & Sawdust by Jason Ridler

Jason Ridler takes a bite out of the vampire genre with his action-packed, fast-paced novel, Blood and Sawdust.

blood & sawdust, Jason Ridler
Blood & Sawdust by Jason Ridler

B&S reads like a backroom MMA bout with vampires, or Fight Club with a supernatural twist. B&S has its origins in movies like Bloodsport and Street Fighter as much as it does the novels of Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson. There’s a noir feel to B&S. Damsels in distress, double crossing gangsters, bone-breaking goons — its all here, along with genuinely snappy dialogue and strong pacing which elevates this novel.

Milkwood and Malcolm are lovable losers, and Ridler does a fine job revealing backstory while keeping the tale moving forward. Malcolm is a 13-year-old hustler, living in the shadow of an abusive brother. Malcolm wants to avenge his mother’s murder. Milkwood is a vampire who wants to avenge his late father’s reputation as a “jobber” — the perpetual loser in the professional wrestling ring. Both find what they’re looking for on the fringe fight circuit, where brutal death-matches are held in clandestine locations, away from the eyes of police and regulatory commissions.

Ridler’s fight scenes are savage and engaging, inviting readers into the poetry of violence. There are a couple of groan-worthy twists and turns in Blood and Sawdust, but overall Ridler keeps it humming along nicely, building toward a satisfying conclusion.

I look forward to more tales of Milkwood and Malcolm!

A fast-paced, neo noir mix of MMA, vampires, ancient evil, and gangsters!

Desperation by Stephen King and The Regulators by Richard Bachman

Sifting through old computer files, I found this November 1996 review of Stephen King’s Desperation and Richard Bachman’s The Regulators. Enjoy! — R

en King Desperation review
Desperation by Stephen King.
Richard Bachman The Regulators review
The Regulators by Richard Bachman.

Stephen King’s Desperation, and The Regulators — penned by King’s alter ego, Richard Bachman — feature the same cast of  characters in polar opposite roles.

In Desperation, the Carver family of Wentworth, Ohio — father Ralph, mother Ellen, son David and daughter Pie — encounter an evil spirit named Tak while crossing the Nevada desert.

In The Regulators, the Carver family — Father David, mother Pie, son Ralphie, and daughter Ellen — are going about their daily routine in suburban Wentworth, Ohio, when their simple existence is turned into a surreal child’s nightmare by (you guessed it) the evil spirit, Tak.

King doesn’t really tell us what Tak is. Evidently, it’s an ancient Lovecraftian spirit trapped beneath the earth’s surface, waiting to be set free. Why? Again, King doesn’t really provide a solid motivation for Tak in Desperation.

Things aren’t much different in The Regulators, though Tak does reveal a few of his favorite earthly pleasures: watching TV, drinking chocolate milk, and feeding off the pain and suffering of humans.

The villainy that is Tak has more holes than Swiss cheese, but Tak isn’t what carries these stories along. That responsibly falls on the shoulders of  King’s compelling characters. Allowing the family members to assume different roles over the course of two novels adds a depth to their characters that no single book could illuminate alone.

One of the more interesting characters is Johnny Marinville, the character most closely identified with the author himself. Marinville is a “literary lion” in both books, and in Desperation, Marinville is making a cross-country trek by motorcycle, much like King himself did on a promotional tour for 1993’s Insomnia.

Desperation is the weightier of the two books, and not just because it’s 300 pages longer. King tries to tackle some larger-than-usual themes in this book, like God’s propensity for “cruel refinement.”

The Regulators is faster-paced and plot driven, leaner and meaner than Desperation. King doesn’t tackle any major issues here, just tells a whirlwind story. Maybe writing under the Bachman pseudonym allows King a certain “non-artistic” freedom. The Regulators is packed with lots of  delightfully fun blood, guts, and gunplay.

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

20th Century Ghosts Joe Hill
20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts is good. Very good. Like, Books of Blood good. Like, Night Shift, and Skeleton Crew good.

Even the stories in this collection that don’t aim to deliver more than a plot twist and a good scare are polished gems. And some pieces qualify as priceless masterpieces.

“Best New Horror” asks the question, who’s weirder: horror writers, horror readers, or the horror editors who bring the two together? Hill employs nice story-within-a-story framing techniques is this modern take on the classic EC-style horror tale.

“20th Century Ghosts” is the only traditional ghost story in this collection. It’s an effective ode to old movie houses and the people who love — and haunt — them.

“Better Than Home” and “Voluntary Committal” both deal with living with — and loving — people with mental disabilities. Hill demonstrates the challenges and mysteries of such relationships beautifully in this passage from “Voluntary Committal.”

“At times, my brother made me think of one of those tapered, horned conch shells, with a glossy pink interior curving away and out of sight into some tightly wound inner mystery.”

Great writers make it look easy, and Hill is no exception. Saying he has “a way with words,” is a massive understatement. Saying, “Hill has his way with words” is more accurate. He bends them to his will, and makes them do his bidding in tales like “The Cape” and “Last Breath.” These tales flow so naturally, it’s easy to overlook the skill required to create them.

The best writing crafts words to convey great ideas. This is demonstrated in “Pop Art,” another tale about loving a disabled person. In this case, the affliction is, well … inflatibility.

The narrator’s childhood friend is an blow-up boy named Art. (“Pop Art” … because he’s, like, a balloon. Get it?) It’s an absurd joke, (see SpongeBob SquarePants’ “Bubble Buddy” episode for another brilliant take on the same concept) except Hill renders it so poignantly, it becomes a masterful mediation on life, death, and life after death.

Art dreams of being an astronaut, traveling to worlds beyond this one, then realizes everyone gets the chance to live this dream with death’s ultimate release.

“You get an astronaut’s life whether you want it or not. Leave it all behind for a world you know nothing about. That’s just the deal.”

Art possesses a Zen-like serenity that eludes the narrator, a boy who is all too familiar with the world’s harsh cruelties. When Art tells him an angry dog named “Happy” would be more pleasant if it wasn’t penned up, the narrator disagrees.

“It is my belief that, as a rule, creatures of Happy’s ilk — I am thinking here of canines and men both — more often run free than live caged, and it is in fact a world of mud and feces they desire, a world with no Art in it, or anyone like him, a place where there is no talk of books or God or the worlds beyond this world, a place where the only communication is the hysterical barking of starving and hate-filled dogs.”

Hill hits it on the head, and out of the park with this description of life in a world of cruel, artless dunderheads.

If pressed to find a flaw in 20th Century Ghosts, my only critique would be too many of the stories use a child protagonist, which is a kind of writer’s crutch. Casting a kid as a hero can be a cheap literary trick because:

  • It allows you to dumb down your story, seeing things through “the eyes if a child.”
  • It gives your characters a reason to do stupid things, because, “they’re just kids!”
  • It hijacks the reader’s own childhood memories, imbuing the kid characters with an intimacy and nostalgia the writer didn’t earn.

Admittedly, this is more of a personal writing peeve than a criticism. Hill writes amazing stories. His ideas are fresh, and his characters are honest, engaging, and human no matter what their age.

Maybe it’s uncool to say, but Joe Hill has big shoes to fill — his father is Stephen King, after all. One of the reasons he writes under the name Joe Hill is because doesn’t want his work compared to his Dad’s, and to dispel any belief he was given a publishing contract because of his family heritage.

Joe Hill needn’t worry. He might be following in his old man’s footsteps, but he’s wearing snowshoes, and leaving pretty impressive tracks of his own.

Book Review: 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

Book Review: 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

Check out my review of Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts.

Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts is good. Very good. Like, Books of Blood good. Like, Night Shift, andSkeleton Crew good. Even the stories in this collection that don’t aim to deliver more than a plot twist and a good scare are polished gems. And some pieces qualify as priceless masterpieces. (read full review … )

Little Deaths by John F.D. Taff

Little Deaths by John F.D. Taff
Little Deaths by John F.D. Taff

 Little Deaths by John F.D. Taff is a strong collection of creepy tales, served up in a variety of literary styles. Taff experiments with different storytelling techniques, sometimes cribbing prose styles and themes from grand masters of the genre. In lesser hands this work would be hack, but Taff puts his own unique spin these horror genre tropes.

Taff summons a cool Lovecraft vibe in “The Closed Eye Of A Dead World,” and plays with Poe’s prose in “But For a Moment … Motionless.” “Helping Hands” is Taff’s self-admitted attempt at a moody “ye olde Englande” piece.

Other references are more contemporary. “Child of Dirt” pays homage to the 1970s cult horror film, It’s Alive. “The Mellified Man” riffs on a couple of lines from Peter Straub’s Ghost Story.

“Here” is a touching —and, at times, terrifying — goodbye to a faithful friend. “Snapback” is an excellent example of a modern epistolary tale. In Mary Shelly’s day, epistolary novels were told as an exchange of letters. Taff uses email exchanges to illustrate this time-bending tale of Armageddon.

Speaking of Shelly, the best tale in this collection — “Bolts” — pays homage to Frankenstein. Taff’s take on codependent relationships and self denial is chilling and sharp.

Little Deaths showcases Taff’s writing skill and knowledge of the horror genre. No matter how dark things get, Taff has fun with these tales, and that feeling comes across as you read them.

Book Review: Little Deaths by John F.D. Taff

My review of Taff collection, Little Deaths 

little deaths cover
Check out my review of John FD Taff’s Little Deaths.

Little Deaths by John F.D. Taff is a strong collection of creepy tales, served up in a variety of literary styles. Taff experiments with different storytelling techniques, sometimes cribbing prose styles and themes from grand masters of the genre. In lesser hands this work would be hack, but Taff puts his own unique spin these [read full review…]

Homegrown Puppies or How We Fostered A Pregnant Stray Dog

Back in January 2013, my wife and I fostered a pregnant dog named Buttons.

buttons head
Meet Buttons!

Buttons was on the “kill list” at a shelter in West Virginia, but some kindly animal rescuers transported her to the Bloomingdale Animal Shelter Society in Bloomingdale, NJ. We agreed to foster Buttons, and find homes for her and her puppies. It was one of the most reward things my wife and I have ever done. Read all about it below, and check out our Buttons Had Puppies Blog.

Meanwhile, we’re keeping tabs on all the puppies in their new homes (including Momma Buttons, who was adopted by my brother’s family in Massachusetts.) We got to puppy-sit June Carter Cash recently, and Jimi Hendrix is coming for a week later this month. (Check out some great video of Jimi swimming here!) It’s awesome watching “the kids” growing up!

Here’s the full story (well, the full backstory, anyway. The story of Buttons and her puppies continues to be written!)

Homeless, Pregnant, and Alone

Shortly after New Years, my wife and I learned the Bloomingdale Animal Shelter Society (BASS) took in a pregnant dog, named Buttons. My wife and I hadn’t actively volunteered at BASS in many years, but we told the group we could foster Buttons if  “you’re really desperate and can’t find anyone else.”

The shelter called us two weeks later.

Buttons wass 25-pound Corgi/Beagle/Something mix that had the misfortune of finding herself in a high-kill animal shelter in West Virginia. Buttons arrived at our house January 22.  She was very sweet, very pregnant, and barely more than a baby herself – she appeared to be a little over a year old.

A few days later, we took Buttons to Dr. Dawn Garro in Butler, NJ. She did an X-ray and predicted Buttons would have between eight and ten puppies. Whoa!

Eight Is Enough!

Buttons gave birth to eight puppies in the wee hours of Monday, February 4. My wife and I had a feeling the puppies were coming that night. Buttons seemed particularly tired and uncomfortable, and was spending a lot of time in her crate (which my daughter christened, “Button’s Place.”)

My wife and I bickered about something stupid that night because we were both nervous about the impending birth. It was the middle of night — what if something went wrong? Neither of us had any experience birthing puppies. We didn’t have any experience birthing anything except for our two kids, and then we were in a hospital with doctors and nurses around. We didn’t give birth on a blanket in the living room.

Buttons and her babies.

Fortunately, Buttons knew what to do. We heard a tiny yelp around 2 a.m., and when we checked the crate, Buttons was no longer alone. It looked like there was a tiny white mouse in there with her. The first pup was born.

It was almost 40 minutes before the next puppy arrived, but they came more frequently after that. The last puppy was born around 6 a.m. Buttons licked her pups clean, and got them each latched on and nursing. Sure, the birth experience was a bit messy and gross, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it’d be.

In fact, it was amazing. The way Buttons instinctively cared for her tiny, squeaky puppies was both feral and beautiful. Except for the birth of my own children, it was one of the most powerful and moving things I’d ever seen, and my wife seemed equally affected. This was life in its purest, most basic form.

Musical Mutts

We named the puppies after musical legends: Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, June and Johnny Cash, Elvis, Pearl, Adele, and Jimi Hendrix.

buttons babies
Buttons’ babies get a rock star welcome!

A few days after the puppies were born, we noticed Buttons hiding something under our daughter’s bed. It was Bob Dylan! We put Bob back with the litter, but Buttons moved him again! Bob was the first puppy born, and the smallest of the litter, (Adele was the last and the biggest). Was Buttons kicking him out of the pack because he was the runt?

Later, Buttons carried Jimi Hendrix upstairs, and stashed him under my daughter’s bed! Dr. Garro said Buttons might be looking for a new nest for her pups, one that offered more privacy or warmth. We covered the crate with a blanket like a giant birdcage, and put a space heater nearby. Buttons seemed to like this. She didn’t try to move her babies again after that.

The puppies are flourishing. We recently took the whole litter (and Momma) for a vet visit, and Dr. Garro thought all the pups looked healthy, and were developing nicely.

“Buttons is doing a great job. So are the two of you,” Dr. Garro told my wife and I. ”The hard part is over.”

But I think the hardest part is yet to come. Four weeks from now the puppies will be old enough to leave our home, and move on to “forever homes.”

buttons place
Buttons Place … always!

My wife and I have fostered and re-homed many dogs over the years, and it’s always hard saying goodbye. But these puppies have earned a special place in our hearts. How are we ever going to say goodbye? We love them!

Visit buttonshadpuppies.wordpress.com to learn more about Buttons and her puppies, and keep up on the continuing adventures of Buttons and canine kids!

Originally published in Wayne TODAY, March 2013