Black Mad Wheel By Josh Malerman

Black Mad Wheel by Josh Malerman

Josh Malerman’s Black Mad Wheel is an excellent tale of a 1950s army band recruited to track down a mysterious musical weapon (and its equally mysterious owner) in the South African desert. The title could refer to vinyl records or the spin of  reel-to-reel recording decks. It might refer to the tires of an army jeep stuck in the sand, or the ever-turning wheel of history. Or it could refer to life itself, the way we circle back, again and again, to the things that hurt and haunt us. Malerman leaves it open, and Black Mad Wheel is all the better for the ambiguity.

Protagonist Phillip Tonka should have listened to his mother when the army requested his band, The Danes, travel to South Africa to investigate a strange and potentially dangerous sound.

“Mystery,” she says, “is bad enough on its own. But mystery with the army?” She shakes her head. “Means they’re hiding something.”

Indeed, Black Mad Wheel is packed with twists, turns, betrayals, and a few moments of hold-your-breath suspense. This novel is not only set in the 1950s, it has a post-war mood that reverberates throughout the story, including a budding romance between Phillip and his nurse, Ellen.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I suppose we’re all a bit wounded.” 

They stare at one another, connected by the hospital and more.

Perhaps the most interesting twist Malerman presents is that the sound is not a weapon, but the opposite, something capable of stopping the endless cycle of war.

While the ending hits a few sour notes, this book is 95% awesome. Malerman strikes a memorable chord in the pantheon of musical fiction with Black Mad Wheel.

And Her Smile Will Untether The Universe By Gwendolyn Kiste

And Her Smile Will Untether The Universe By Gwendolyn Kiste

Gwendolyn Kiste has a wonderful way with words. In her hands they are beautiful and savage, comforting and terrifying, heart-wrenching and healing.

And Her Smile Will Untether The Universe contains some true gems, tales thick with atmosphere and murky mood. “Evening settles softly on the orchard like black tar dripping from the sky” and later, “the air tastes of nicotine and abandoned dreams.

These stories are about dysfunctional families, twisted sisters, and haunted mothers and fathers.  “The Clawfoot Requiem” is reminiscent of William Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily,” while “All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray” reads like a nightmarish fairy tale about forgotten princesses.

“My father counts the money each night, pacing circles like a vulture that dines on the carrion of frail dreams.”

and

Little girls don’t earn the right to question the wisdom of men. We can smile and blush and nod our heads, but we can’t tell them no.”

and

“Girls are always expected to carry an impossible burden in life, like a thousand bushels of apples strapped upon a single back.”

Stories like “The Man in the Ambry”, and “Ten Things To Know About The Ten Questions” showcase Kiste’s powerful prose and unique take on familiar horror tropes, while the title tale, about an old film star brought to life by a fan’s love, is fueled by poetry and romance.

“The way you hold me,” you said, your gaze bright as wildfire, “it’s like I’m falling, but you’ve already caught me.”

And the final line:

“And in the final frame, as the universe fades to black, you’ll save each other.”

Indeed, if only we could all save each other. And Her Smile Will Untether The Universe is a brilliant, lyrical, and moving collection of tales.

Chills by Mary SanGiovanni

Kathy Ryan has problems. Her brother is a psychopath who tried to kill her when they were young, and now a band of cultists have unleashed an otherworldly invasion on the otherwise quiet town of Colby, Connecticut. Kathy is also emotionally drained from her job battling supernatural monsters. Guarding the inter-dimensional gateway against ancient intruders is difficult work, described in Mary SanGiovanni‘s Chills as:

“It was science and science fiction and magic and religion and physics and mathematics all sort of rolled into one.”

And:

“This here is the language of creation and destruction itself, the language that echoes the sound of the Convergence, the substance between dimensions and the space between the stars.”

It is no wonder that Kathy drinks. Heavily.

Mary SanGiovanni creates an otherworldly winter wonderland in Chills. Described as “H.P. Lovecraft meets True Detective,” Chills reads more like a road episode of the X-Files, if Fox and Mulder or combined into one powerful female protagonist.

Kathy has help on her quest to shut the inter-dimensional doorway and keep the world-eating Old Gods out. Teagan not only provides a romantic foil for Kathy, he also helps her solve a linguistics problem (who knew Old Gods spoke Gaelic? Top o’ the mornin’, Cthulu!)

Detective Jack Glazier loses a loved one, but saves the day, surviving a face-to-tentacle brush with the Old Gods. SanGiovanni makes magnificent monsters, from her Blue People, to her fish-headed assassins, to the messy tentacle-monsters at the novel’s conclusion. But her finest achievement is the way she transforms the weather itself into a fully flesh-out character in Chills. The snow is alive, spawning screaming creatures who “sound not much different in timbre from the waling gust of wind.” Old Man Winter is a mean bully.

“The creatures, though, had raised an incredible din. It sounded to Jack like wind and thunder, and it was growing louder.”

The backbone of this novel is Kathy’s relationship with her damaged brother, Toby. SanGiovanni does an excellent job describing Toby’s detachment:

“Everything is happening around you and you’re in the center of it, but you’re not real, not really there. You’re just . . . superimposed on the world.”

And the suffering of individuals with mental disorders:

“It was unsettling to watch anyone die slowly of intellectual malnutrition in the deserted wasteland of a broken mind…”

SanGiovanni is at her best when she’s world-building (or, other-world building, as the case my be). Her mythos borrows Lovecraft’s structure, but expands upon it in delightful and strangely logical ways (something Lovecraft himself often failed to achieve). SanGiovanni’s prose is lyrical — almost poetic —her characters are believably flawed human beings, and her mastery of tone and atmosphere makes Chills a chilling, edge-of-your-seat read.

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What Do Monsters Fear? by Matt Hayward

What do monsters fear?

Responsibility. Withdrawal symptoms. Owning up to their past mistakes.

One of the recovering addicts in Matt Hayward’s creep-fest What Do Monsters Fear? sums up the plot in a few well-chosen words:

“Three strung-out fucks are gonna stop an ancient evil god?”

Hell, yeah, they are! Because the ancient evil god—a body-snatching baddie called Phobos—has underestimated the drive and determination of men with nothing left to lose.

There’s a claustrophobic quality to this novel comparable to the trapped arctic explorers in John Carpenter’s The Thing. Tensions ratchet up by as Phobos picks off victims and terrifies those that remain. Like Freddy Krueger or Pennywise, Phobos knows what scares you, and takes perverse pleasure in torturing victims with their own deepest fears and phobias.

Hayward’s writing engages the senses and propels the story forward, like when he introduces the shifty doctor:

“A waft of aftershave drifted from him, tainting the honest smell of raw wood.”

Or describes the death of supernatural beings:

“Unlike in the movies when a supernatural entity died, the cat didn’t dissipate into nothingness with a sizzle. Instead, it burned and burned, the smell of charred flesh and singed hair filling the space. Dark smoke packed the room.”

Hayward employs the same multi-sensory technique even when the scenes get visceral:

“Shelly’s body slopped from the table and splashed to the floor.”

Poor liquified Shelly makes another appearance later on:

“He stepped in Shelly Matthews. The liquefied blob of flesh quivered like a fried egg beneath his heel. One eye blinked within the mess and stared back at him.”

Yuck! Sucks to be Shelly! Beyond the blood and monsters, What Do Monsters Fear? tackles the issue of addicts in recovery, and the way they view themselves as they attempt to turn their lives around.

“Peter hated to admit it, but for the briefest moment, he related to the monster.”

But men and monsters alike get second chances. Seeing elderly drunk Henry’s redemption is perhaps the novel’s most triumphant moment.

“I was useful for once in my miserable piece of shit life… My actions meant something.”

That’s the kind of validation we all seek, both addict and non-addict, man and monster alike.

Hayward has a great sense of pacing and a cinematic writing style that makes What Do Monsters Fear? a fast, fun read! He leaves the door open for potential sequels, and implies that the worst kind of monsters don’t live in alternate, cosmic dimensions but inside the hearts of men.

(And women. Chill out, ladies. You’re evil, too.)

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Brain Dead Blues by Matt Hayward

Irish author/musician Matt Hayward puts his impressive writing chops on display in his short story collection, Brain Dead Blues.

The lead story, “God Is In The Radio,” owes much to H.P. Lovecraft’sThe Music Of Eric Zahn,” only it’s more coherent and satisfying than the original. An aging rock star finds an inter-dimensional doorway hidden inside the notes of his latest tune.

Those little off notes in a Blues lick. The ones that make you think of sex and sin… Those blue notes and the tritone are where the secrets lie.

Music and melody drips from every page of Brain Dead Blues, and Hayward sets a colorful scene will a handful of well-chosen words.

The place smelled of sawdust and stale beer, but to him, it smelled like the raw stench of live music.

The intersection of melody and monsters is where Hayward shines brightest.

Something about the melody got under his skin, wriggled about like a maggot, infecting him. He vomited three times.

At times, Hayward uses his tales to portray the sad path modern music has taken.

Honestly, no one gives a shit! We’ve devalued music so damn much that people just expect you to bleed for free.

The real artists, the real musicians, they’re left working in coffee shops and garages across the globe for next to nothing…

A love of Lovecraft is evident in Haywards prose, from panicked, unreliable narrators, to creepy, cosmic creatures.

Other worlds. Worlds that would make you lose your mind even if you only gave them a glance.

Their faces did look eerily similar to an angler fish, lower lip eating the upper.

Hayward’s other literary strength is weaving fairy tales, folklore, and traditional horror tropes into something wholly original. “The Faery Tree” draws inspiration from “The Monkey’s Paw” while turning the “Tinkerbelle”-notion of fairies on its head. “Cordyceps” turns people into exploding seed spores, while “Critter” blends the best parts of ET and When Animals Attack! Even something as innocuous as a will-o’-the-wisp becomes a unearthly nightmare in Hayward’s hands (“An Angel And A Reaper”).

There are vampire and werewolf stories in Brain Dead Blues, but neither are what you’d expect. The vampire tale—“You Get What You Pay For”—is more of a rumination on eternal life and endless loss, while tipping its hat to the “creepy curio shop” trope. The werewolves in “King Of The Gypsies” belong to a kind of monstrous Fight Club that holds love and family sacred.

As an accomplished musician, there is a palpable rhythm and pacing to Brain Dead Blues. It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it…until one of Hayward’s strange creations pops up and scares the shit out of you. 

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A Head Full Of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

A Head Full Of Ghosts by Paul TremblayPaul Tremblay’s A Head Full Of Ghosts is a beautiful novel, a post-modern tale of demonic possession that leaves you questioning where truth lies in our surreal/unreal world.
Publisher William Morrow sums up A Head Full Of Ghosts:
The lives of the Barretts, a normal suburban New England family, are torn apart when fourteen-year-old Marjorie begins to display signs of acute schizophrenia.
To her parents’ despair, the doctors are unable to stop Marjorie’s descent into madness. As their stable home devolves into a house of horrors, they reluctantly turn to a local Catholic priest for help. Father Wanderly suggests an exorcism; he believes the vulnerable teenager is the victim of demonic possession. He also contacts a production company that is eager to document the Barretts’ plight. With John, Marjorie’s father, out of work for more than a year and the medical bills looming, the family agrees to be filmed, and soon find themselves the unwitting stars of The Possession, a hit reality television show. When events in the Barrett household explode in tragedy, the show and the shocking incidents it captures become the stuff of urban legend.
Fifteen years later, a bestselling writer interviews Marjorie’s younger sister, Merry. As she recalls those long ago events that took place when she was just eight years old, long-buried secrets and painful memories that clash with what was broadcast on television begin to surface—and a mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed, raising vexing questions about memory and reality, science and religion, and the very nature of evil.
Like a brilliant gem, A Head Full Of Ghosts looks different from different angles. Overall, it’s a story about the bonds of sisterhood. It’s also an indictment of our reality TV culture and the toll it takes on reality itself. Viewed from another angle, it’s a straight-up tale of demonic possession packed with genuinely scary moments, suspenseful scenes, and plot twists that leave the reader satisfied—and a bit haunted—after reading.
That’s how good horror stories work and Tremblay has crafted a great one. He freely pulls from pop culture influences—from Richard Scarry books to Lovecraft’s Elder Gods mythos—and deftly weaves them into a plausible framework for his story.
At one point Tremblay describes the older sister’s disheveled appearance:
Her black hair was a dead octopus leaking and sliding off her scalp.
Conjuring images of both Lovecraftian monsters and the pale she-demons that stalk modern Japanese horror, like The Ring.
What kind of demon is at work here? Tremblay implies it’s the vengeful ghost of the Internet itself when Majorie reports:
I was born with all of the universe’s information hidden in the infinite folds and wrinkles of my gray matter, and the information itself decides when it wants to come out and be known.
At times Tremblay implicates the readers as voyeuristic sadists, as we watch “the terrible and systematic torture of a mentally ill teenage girl under the guise of entertainment.” Then he flips the script so you feel like you’re no more than a morsel of food slipping into a monstrous gullet.
“I could eat the world. Merry, pass the sauce, please,” Majorie said, and winked at me.
All the characters are fully realized and accessible. Your heart breaks for the Barrett family as outside forces—perhaps demonic, perhaps dogmatic— tear their lives apart.
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The Croning by Laird Barron

The Croning by Laird Barron
The Croning by Laird Barron

Something amazing happens in Laird Barron’s The Croning.

The hero saves the day simply by forgetting to act. He agrees to let his mind rot away (perhaps the most terrifying fate of all) while his witchy woman makes off with their newborn grandchild.

That’s the happiest ending possible in this twisted tale that combines the legend of Rumplestilskin, Ira Levin’s secret satanic societies, and Lovecraft’s cosmic horror mythos.

Laird Barron is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. His stuff is way out there, there’s a palpable sense of the strange in his prose, and he uses cools words like sybarites and decorticate.

Protagonist Don Miller is the last to learn he’s a pawn in an ancient game. His wife is a witch hell-bent on double-crossing a race of demons that long to suck humanity dry and wipe the Earth clean.

Every smart husband knows when to back off, and Miller has learned not to pry into his wife’s affairs or ask too many questions.

She’d given him a long, wintry look, the coldest he’d ever received prior or since. Then she said, Leave a girl her secrets, Don.

Miller willfully turns a blind eye, and maybe that’s the secret to their successful marriage. That, and the long absences Don and Michelle take from one another. A nosey federal agent points out what Miller refuses to see about himself:

I’m guessing you’re exactly the rube she needs to maintain her cover as a cute little lady scientist. Who’d suspect her of anything with Gomer Pyle hanging around?

The Ancient Evil at work here is called Old Leech, and it’s straight outta Stoker, yo.

This was a colossal worm that had swallowed whole villages, cities… A leech of nightmare proportions, a constellation rendered against granite, and it had shat the populations of entire worlds in its slithering wake through the night skies.

There is a lot of weird stuff going on here. Hollow Earth Theory. Toothy, limbless creatures that live inside ancient trees. Sacrificial dolmens, like Stonehenge, in the middle of the Washington State. Vortexes to other dimensions.

The conspiracy is everywhere, as Don learns, and his own daughter is not immune. Don’s turncoat boss gives a glimpse into the vastness of the enemy:

“They worship a deity that ate the fucking dinosaurs, several species of advanced hominids and the Mayans. Opened a gate and slurped them through a funnel.”

And as Old Leech’s human servant puts it:

We venerate the Great Dark, the things that dwell there… Our cult is monolithic with tentacles in every human enterprise throughout history, into prehistory.”

“Ah, like Amway,” Don notes.

Barron’s language is equal parts noir and poetry.

You are a mosquito trapped in the sap of a sundew.

And later:

You’re a flea on the belly of a mastodon.

Barron’s writing makes you feel small and frightened, which is all you can ask from good horror fiction.

The Croning can trace its literary roots back to Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife. But Leiber’s “classic” novel is dated and quaint (and more than a little paranoid) by today’s standards. The Croning is a more wholly realized tale that digs deeper into the fertile soil of myth and fairy-tale, and employs more believable characters to deliver its message.

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Sixty-Five Stirrup Iron Road by Edward Lee, Jack Ketchum, Brian Keene, Bryan Smith, J. F. Gonzalez, Wrath James White, Nate Southard, Ryan Harding, and Shane McKenzie

Sixty-Five Stirrup Iron Road
Sixty-Five Stirrup Iron Road

 This is a good book written for a great cause; to help fund the medical bills of writer Tom Piccirilli. Pic’s colleagues in hardcore horror decided to pitch-in on a round robin novel to help support their friend. For that reason alone the book is worth buying.

Sixty-Five Stirrup Iron Road is written by, and in collaboration with, Brian KeeneJack KetchumEdward LeeJ.F. GonzalezBryan SmithWrath James WhiteNate SouthardRyan Harding, and Shane McKenzie. All gentlemen are heavy hitters in the world of gore-and-sex horror stories, and they all bring the Grand Guignol goods here.

Things start out fine, with a sex-demon prologue preceding new residents Chuck and Arrianne moving into the titular house, the scene of creepy and kinky crimes. Of course, nothing ever dies (when it should) in horror (or elsewhere), which is bad news for Chuck and Arrianne.

Each chapter of Sixty-Five Stirrup Iron Road is written by a different author or combination of authors. Through a series of violent and sexual scenes, a story of erotic obsession and possession emerges.

But by the third act everything derails. The authors get caught up in a gross-out contest rather than plot or character development, and a sharp detour into meta-fiction near the novel’s end feels like a convenient way to wrap things up rather a serious literary effort.

The funniest lines are delivered by Nate Southard (as himself), who laments the state of the horror genre while acknowledging the novel’s gratuitous nature.

“I can’t believe I wrote that dog bowl shit. You think Laird Barron would do that? Or Lee Thomas? Or Sarah?”

“Which Sarah? Langan or Pinborough?” asks equally-guilty author J.F. Gonzalez.

“Either,” Southard says, but quickly reconsiders. “Okay, well maybe Pinborough would, but you get my point.”

Sixty-Five Stirrup Iron Road ends up poking fun at horror in general and splatterpunk in particular. The authors clearly have fun with the material even as the story falls to pieces around them. But that’s not important; pick this one up to help out Tom Piccirilli.

Then do both yourself and Tom Piccirilli a favor, and buy as many Tom Piccirilli books as you can find. My favorites are Pic’s noir-flavored The Midnight Road and November Mourns, along with supernatural mystery, The Night Class. Piccirilli is a master of the written word leaving deep footprints on the landscape of mystery, suspense, and terror, and deep impressions on readers touched by his work.

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Header and Creekers by Edward Lee

Header by Edward Lee
Header by Edward Lee
Creepers by Edward Lee
Creepers by Edward Lee

There is something beautiful and poetic about  the splatterpunk redneck fiction on display in Edward Lee‘s novella Header (1995) and the long-form novel Creekers (1994).

Lee’s redneck horror pays homage to Richard Laymon‘s novels of backwoods terror as well as James Dickey‘s classic, Deliverance. Lee’s work is violent and nasty, but his pacing and dialogue are so swift and on-target, you’re knee-deep in foul shit before you even know what happened.

Headers is a twisted novella about rednecks that drill holes in peoples’ skulls and stick their erections inside. Creekers is about backwoods inbreds, and the slick tight rope they walk between an ancient evil and the modern plague of drugs.

The drug trade is the backdrop in both Headers and Creekers. Both stories have lawmen protagonists who are down on their luck and looking for redemption. It doesn’t work out so well for either guy.

Both of these novels are rollicking fun, even if they’re bloody disgusting. Like a Quentin Tarantino movie, Lee’s work seems to revel in a cartoonish level of violence and gore while searching for some kind of existential meaning beyond the mutilation and torment of the physical body. There are lots of dirty sex scenes, too. What’s not to like?

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Our Great Abbess by C.L. Holmes

Our Great Abbess by C.L. Holmes
Our Great Abbess by C.L. Holmes

In the interest of full disclosure, I was fortunate to read an early draft of C.L. Holmes’s Our Great Abbess, and I enjoyed it so much, I asked if I could publish it. Read more about Abbess below, or go get it here.

Our Great Abbess blends historical fiction and religious horror to tell a compelling tale of cloistered nuns in a secluded mountain abbey, under siege by starvation, disease, marauders, and internal sabotage.

The young nuns of St. Agnes Convent face starvation, and there is no money in the treasury because the former prioress went mad and gave it all away. (Mad Reverend Mother Oxtierna has been banished to the abbey’s dungeon.) The Governing Mothers reach out to Baron Jack for help, but he denies them. A plague has wiped out much of the population of Europe, and war with a neighboring kingdom is imminent. The Baron can’t spare any resources for the Sisters unless he gets something in return: he wants one of the young nuns to serve as a sex slave for his army.

Shocked and disgusted the Mothers reject the Baron’s offer. But things go from bad to worse. The villagers think the woods surrounding the abbey are haunted by vengeful spirits and refuse to help. Friars from a brother are friendly, but also destitute. Scouting parties sent out for help have never returned.

Prioress-by-default Tabitha musters the courage to accept the Baron’s offer. She will sacrifice herself to the Baron’s savages so that the rest of the nuns can survive. But the Baron’s offer has changed. Now he wants all the nuns in the Abby as sex slaves, though Tabitha can spare one girl.

Our Great Abbess traverses some dark waters and doesn’t pull punches. Nightly rapes by masked marauders are just the beginning of the horrors the sisters of St. Agnes Convent must endure. But the novel ultimately empowers women rather than objectifies them.

Abbess is a book filled with powerful women who rise up no matter how desperate the situation or unrightous the indignity. Tabitha kicks ass, outwitting her male suppressors to keep the Abbey going at all cost.

“As Tabitha saw it, the convent was a transition point between the world and heaven.”

Tabitha is joined by a cast of equally strong and memorable women. Wicked and mad Oxtierna. The naïve but not-so-innocent Marta. Suspicious and conniving Isadore. Our Great Abbess is a big, sprawling novel, but the pacing is strong throughout, buoyed by a driving narrative, interesting sub-plots, and beautiful language.

The male supporting cast gets some of the books best lines, like these from a maudlin Baron Jack:

“It is inevitable. Life is just our fattening ourselves for the dirt maw, standing precariously on its lip, then it’s in we go.”

And Tabitha’s faithful servant Clovis contemplates the nature of suffering and God’s plan for each of us.

“There are no ‘supposed to be’s.’ God gives us what we are, and changes his mind on occasion, and we’re left to deal with the reality of it.”

Our Great Abbess reads as if John Jakes penned a round robin novel with George R.R. Martin, Clive Barker and Umberto Eco. The novel bristles with historical intrigue, authentic dialogue, genuine suspense and no-holds-barred horrors.

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