Sweet Miss Honeywell's Revenge by Kathryn Reiss, Harcourt, 6/04, $17, ISBN 0-15-216574-6
Story Time by Edward Bloor, Harcourt, 4/04, $17, ISBN 0-15-204670-4
I've read three previous young adult novels by Kathryn Reiss, two good ones and one very good, Paper Quake. Her latest is a ghost story and while it doesn't displace Paper Quake as her best, it comes quite close. The protagonist is a twelve year old girl whose new dollhouse has some strange qualities. Things move around inside of their own volition, and enactments within its walls become a creepy foreshadowing of things to come. Young Zibby eventually realizes what the reader has known all along, that the dollhouse is haunted, and that she's going to have to exorcise the ghosts or suffer the very unpleasant consequences. Genuinely spooky, and I really liked the main character. On the other hand, I've never read anything by Edward Bloor before, but I'll certainly want to again. His is a sort of young adult ghost story as well, though more satirical than frightening, except by implication. The setting is a school for advanced students but it uses a repressive, stifling method of teaching, and something decidedly sinister is loose within its halls. Lighter in tone and in language as well, but it's deceptive because there's a really good story here. Two of the better young adult offerings I've read in the past year or two.
The Book of Doppelgangers edited by Robert Sterling, Betancourt & Company, 2003, $32.95, ISBN 1-59224-950-7
Doppelgangers, evil twins, have always been among my very favorite themes for horror stories. The idea that there could be an alternate version of oneself waiting to steal one's life, or reputation, or just cause trouble is a fascinating one. The editor cites Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde as an example, although I've always considered that more of a werewolf tale. The stories included here are, however, much more doppelgangerlike. An obvious entry is Edgar Allen Poe's "William Wilson", one of his most effective tales. "The Horla" by De Maupassant is really a vampire story, but it's a good one. Other classics here include stories by Hans Christian Anderson, J. Sheridan LeFanu, Algernon Blackwood, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Honore de Balzac, and others. There are no recent stories in the collection, but there are no mediocre ones either.
Floater by Lucius Shepard, PS Publishing, 2003, $16, ISBN 1-902880-79-X
William Dempsey is an honest but not particularly brilliant police officer who is under a cloud because of his involvement in the fatal shooting of a man apparently innocent of any crime. Following the dismissal of charges against him, he begins to experience a strange visual phenomenon that is the first stage on a journey which will take him deep into an obscure branch of voodooism, and involve him in a surreal battle between warring aspects of the supernatural. The story is told with Shepard's usual brilliant flair for language, the ultimate confrontation is bizarre and fascinating, and the story as a whole is a small classic of occult fiction. If more horror fiction was written with this level of quality, the genre would certainly enjoy wider popularity than it does at present.
More Tomorrow & Other Stories by Michael Marshall Smith, Earthling, 2003, $40, ISBN 0-9744203-0-1
This limited edition hardcover is quite a good deal for the price. In addition to the quality of the fiction, which is very high, there's plenty of quantity as well, nearly five hundred pages of short stories. Almost half of the stories here were new to me, either original to the collection or previously published in hard to find collections or magazines. Several of the stories are SF or fantasy, but the preponderance is horror, including vampires, zombies, Frankenstein, Lovecraftian horrors, mysterious cats, killers, and less familiar horrors. Smith's stories are of consistent quality, but of particular note are the title story, "The Vaccinator", and "To See the Sea".
All the Lonely People by David B. Silva, Delirium, 2003, $45, ISBN 1-929653-57-3
Chase is just an average guy running a small bar until someone shows him what he claims is a "spirit box". After that, nothing is quite the same. The people around him seem subtly changed, he has hallucinations and lapses of consciousness which he cannot later remember, and his eyes have grown sensitive to sunlight. Then one of his friends barricades himself in his house and warns Chase of some unspecific menace ahead. The low key, subtle effects of disorientation and misperception give the story an effective aura of strangeness, although the ending was mildly disappointing after the great buildup.
Smoke and Shadows by Tanya Huff, DAW, 4/04, $23.95, ISBN 0-7564-0183-6
The Henry Fitzroy vampire detective stories have always been my favorite from Tanya Huff, and while this isn't actually part of that series, it has a common character and some of the feel of those earlier books. Tony Foster, Henry's protector in times past, is now working for the production crew of a new vampire detective television series when he runs into supernatural trouble of his own. At first he's not convinced that it isn't just imagination, the strange sightings around the studio and the atmosphere of foreboding. Then there are inexplicable accidents and eventually a murder, and Tony can no longer pretend that he doesn't know there's an evil force at work. I generally like contemporary fantasy better than the thinly disguised historical novels that dominate the genre of late, and particularly when they're suspenseful and as well written as this one.
At Chrighton Abbey and Other Horror Stories by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Wildside, 2003, $12.99, ISBN 1-59224-033-X
Mary Elizabeth Braddon is one of the minor ghost story writers of the early 20th Century, producing only a handful of stories, even fewer of which are generally known. Four of the five are ghost stories, and the last has a kind of rationalized, non-supernatural vampire. By far the best is "The Cold Embrace", although the title story is a pretty good Christmas ghost story. "Eveline's Visitant", the only story I hadn't read before, is rather minor, but "The Shadow in the Corner", which I didn't remember at all from my first reading, is quite good.
Spectre by Stephen Laws, Telos, 2003, $9.95, ISBN 1-903889-72-3
I first encounter Stephen Laws back when Tor was publishing a very good horror line, but with the collapse of horror, most of his work remains unavailable in the US and I've been slowly hunting down British editions over the years. This was one of the ones Tor published, and it's actually not one of his best, although it's still one of the better horror novels from that period. A group of friends begins to die, one by one, and in each case their image disappears from a group photograph. What is going on, and can the survivors solve the puzzle and avert their own doom? This is a great buy at the price, and there's a more expensive hardbound edition for those who prefer that. Hopefully Telos or some other publisher will bring more of Laws' novels back into print.
Death Grip: Legacy of Terror edited by Walt Hicks, Hellbound Books, 2003, $7.99, ISBN 0-9742447-1-6
Ready for a collection of all new suspense stories, supernatural and otherwise? Here's a nice thick one, nineteen stories of terror ranging from India to America, with monsters and mayhem enough for anyone. The best entries are by Charlee Jacob, Michael Arruda, Patricia Russo, D.G.K. Goldberg, Christopher Fulbright, and Joseph Ezzo. There's a good variety of themes, settings, and types of characters, and with only a few exceptions the level of the writing is quite good. Perfect for curling up in bed with on a dark night, stormy background optional.
The House of the Temple by Brian Lumley, Endeavor, 2003, $45, ISBN 0-9728656-3-2
This limited edition hardcover (which also has a much more expensive lettered edition) contains a novelette and a short story. The novelette, which bears the title, is an early Lumley excursion into the world of the Cthulhu Mythos, and it's typical of its type, although better written than most. The protagonist travels to the home of his recently deceased uncle and discovers an unsavory family tradition which has passed on to him. Lumley was one of the better writers of Lovecraft pastiches, and this is a good one. The second story is a humorous piece of only passing interest. The several interior illustrations are by Alan Koszowski, and they're very impressive, as is the creepy Alan Clark cover.
The Curse of the Zwilling by Don Sakers, Speed of C, 2003, $19.99, ISBN 0-9716147-2-5
Don Sakers turns to occult adventure for his latest novel. The protagonist is a college professor at an obscure school which has, coincidentally, a very large collection of arcane artifacts and paraphernalia. A series of strange incidents leads to the revelation that a supernatural entity thousands of years old has discovered this treasure trove and seeks to control it so that its power will become supreme on the Earth. Our hero and several students join forces to resist the creature, and we're off to the races. Technically a horror novel, but this is more in the tradition of the occult adventure stories of Seabury Quinn, William Hope Hodgson, and others. I actually liked this a lot better than the author's previous SF, some of which was quite good.
In the Face of Death by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Benbella Books, 4/04, $14.95, ISBN 1-932100-29-6
I reviewed this a couple of years back when it appeared in electronic format only, I believe, but I'm not surprised to see it in physical book form now. Although St Germain is not in this one, it involves one of his lovers, who wanders around in Civil War America and gets caught up with General William Tecumseh Sheridan. It doesn't have the sweep of most of the St. Germain's, but in some ways it's a tighter, more interesting story, and the historical period is one I find of great interest.
House of Bones by Dale Bailey, Signet, 12/03, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-21079-4
On the surface, this is another straightforward and not particularly original horror novel. Dreamland is a housing development slated for demolition, but there are rumors that it is inhabited by the spirits of the dead. A wealthy eccentric and several companions decide to spend a night there to investigate the rumors before it is gone forever. Sounds familiar, right? Well, the set up certainly is, and some of what follows is not particularly surprising. What is surprising, and what makes the novel really stand out, is the closely described characters and their intricate and fascinating interactions. One of the best of its type I've read since The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.
Borderlands 5 edited by Elizabeth E. & Thomas F. Monteleone, Borderlands Press, 03 /04, $35, ISBN 1-880325-37-3
The Borderlands series has the reputation of being horror fiction, but that's only partly true, particularly in the case of this volume. The stories here are sometimes horrifying, but they are more likely just to be very strange, and also very good. There are excellent stories as you might expect from some of the major names in the field Stephen King, Whitley Strieber, Gary Braunbeck, Bentley Little, David Schow, and John Farris. That's not particularly surprising. What did surprise me was the very high quality by relatively unknown writers, who in fact have most of the very best stories in the collection. Gary Braunbeck provided my favorite, a very strong opening story about a man with a face you just have to talk to. Almost as good is John Platt's "All Hands", which I won't describe but which is unlike anything you're likely to have read recently. If the quality dips slightly from there, it's only because the opening two were so well done. There are no bad stories in the book not even a mediocre one but I also want to mention in particular the stories by Dominick Cancilla, Jon Merz, Tom Piccirilli, and Barbara Malenky. I certainly hope the gap before the sixth in this series isn't as long as the last was.
Waltzing with the Dead by Russell Davis, Betancourt, 2003, $32.95, ISBN 1-59224-615-X
Back before fantasy and horror were split off by publishers as separate genres, it was not uncommon to find single author collections which dabbled with space travel, magic, and the supernatural, all between one set of covers. That doesn't happen as often now, but Russell Davis' first collection is one of those exceptions. There are stories here that deal with alien abduction, supernatural danger, magic, the future, vampires, alternate history, and amazon warriors. The better ones include "A Kiss at Midnight", "Dead Tire", "The Death of Winston Foster", and "Sacrifices". There's a brief introduction by Ed Gorman, a few stories never previously published, and a handful of poems sprinkled among the stories. Davis demonstrates the ability to write in diverse styles and to deal with a wide variety of subject matter. Although none of these stories are going to jump out and grab you, they are the work of a writer who clearly has the potential to appeal to a wider audience.
Feral by Brian Knight, Five Star, 12/03, $25.95, ISBN 1-5941-4065-0
The bogeyman is one of the enduring figures in horror, although most horror fiction using that theme casts another character serial killer, vampire, werewolf, etc. in that role. There are few stories that leave the figure as vague and undefined as the name implies. This first novel recognizes the advantages of an unknown terror and uses them to good effect. A young girl has been kidnapped by the bogeyman and has escaped after years of captivity. Now she must rely on the possible assistance of her distraught father and a woman still mourning the death of her own daughter. An effective, creepy story from a potentially significant new talent in the genre.
Headhunter by Tim Curran, Dark Animus, 2003, $10, ISBN 0-9729327-0-4
This chapbook consists of the title novelet plus a second shorter story. The short concerns the strange goings on at a freak show, and it's only mildly interesting. The title novelette is much better. The setting is the Vietnam War, and the author does a very good job of evoking that time and that place and the pretty horrible things that were going on even without supernatural intervention. But there's supernatural horror here as well, a kind of Asiatic abominable snowman who prowls the battlefields, preying on American soldiers. We see things through the eyes of a journalist covering the war, who gets just a little bit too interested in what seems to be a wild story. Quite well written and the chapbook, which runs about eighty pages, is a good buy for the price.
The Syndicate by Jon F. Merz, Pinnacle, 10/03, $5.99, ISBN 0-7860-1536-5
Jon Merz continues his saga of Lawson, a vampire enforcer whose job is to make sure that rogue vampires don't break the rules imposed on them by their hidden society. This time the conflict is more personal than ever, when his cousin is kidnapped at the bidding of a group of vampire gangsters who want to pressure him into cooperating with them. Needless to say, Lawson isn't about to surrender gracefully, and even though he isn't entirely successful this time, he stays true to his word and we just now the bad guys are going to get their just desserts eventually. A satisfying blend of the supernatural and a traditional crime novel.
Haunting the Dead edited by Philippe Boulle, White Wolf, 9/03, $6.99, ISBN 1-58846-837-2
This is a collection of four novellas all set against the backdrop of the Orpheus Group, a subset of the World of Darkness shared world universe and game system. Orpheus conducts investigations by astrally projecting its agents into the world of the dead, but unfortunately their meddling is about to have some unanticipated and highly unpleasant consequences. Stefan Petruchka, Seth Lindberg, Allen Rausch, and Rich Chillot have each contributed a long story, of which the first two are the best, filled with murder, mystery, and a mildly gruesome reunion. These stories are a pleasant break from the vampire and werewolf clan novels that dominate White Wolf's line, and hopefully an indication that they will broaden their offering in the future.
Fear in a Handful of Dust by Gary A. Braunbeck, Wildside, 5/04, $32.95, ISBN 1-59224-603-6
Gary Braunbeck is well known within the horror genre for his fiction, particularly a succession of first class short stories. What I hadn't realized was how extensive a body of non-fiction he has written as well, reviews of films and books, overviews of the field in general, and other related subjects. Much of that material has been incorporated into this book, which is also more than a bit of an autobiography, and Braunbeck uses his personal life and his commentary interactively, so that each helps to clarify and expand on the other. There's very little here that's light and fluffy; most of it is very serious and some of it movingly revealing. If you're serious about writing, you'll want to see how a serious writer examines his relationship with his craft.
Apprehensions and Other Delusions by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Five Star, 12/03, $25.95, ISBN 0-7862-5352-5
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, creator of the vampire Saint-Germain, has written at shorter length comparatively rarely in her career, but the infrequent shorter pieces have often been just as memorable as her novels. This new collection is predominantly horror, and contains some of her best short fiction, including "Novena", "Fruits of Love", "Confessions of a Madman" and "Lapses". There is also one short story original to this collection. Several of the stories are very obscure, having previously appeared in small press collections or as chapbooks, and this will be the first opportunity for most to read them. The themes are varied but predominantly traditional madmen, unhealthy cravings, a cursed airport, and so forth. Her writing style tends to be complex at times, but never so much that it becomes inaccessible, and her horrors although comparatively undemonstrative are no less disturbing for their quiet presentation.
The Fifth Harmonic by F. Paul Wilson, Hampton Roads, 2003, $22.95, ISBN 1-57174-386-3
F. Paul Wilson goes from horror to the metaphysical in this new novel. The protagonist is terminally ill and desperate. Although he believes himself resigned to death, he is determined not to surrender without exploring every conceivable possibility, even the mystical ones. He falls into company with a strange woman who claims to know how he can use the Fifth Harmonic, an ancient occult force, to cure his body, and he follows her on a journey into a remote part of the world in a last attempt to find a cure. What follows is light adventure mixed with occultism. It doesn't have the intensity, fast pacing, or suspense of his other recent novels, and I have to say that at times I found my attention wandering, although other parts were quite good. An interesting diversion but without the power of his other work.
By Moonlight Only edited by Stephen Jones, PS Publishing, 2003, $55, ISBN 1-902880-71-4
Stephen Jones has started a new series of horror anthologies in the tradition of the "Not at Night" series. They contain mostly reprints, although there's a good new story by David Case in this one. The other contributions are of varying familiarity but generally high quality. The stories by Joe Lansdale, Lisa Tuttle, and Harlan Ellison were familiar to me, but there are also good though less well known pieces by Peter Straub, Tanith Lee, Christopher Fowler, Hugh Cave, Marc Laidlaw, and Terry Lamsley. A very good collection, but the high price tag probably means that the less well known stories contained herein still aren't going to see as wide an audience as they deserve.
Chaos Bleeds by James A. Moore, Simon Pulse, 8/03, $6.99, ISBN 0-7434-2767-X
Seven Crows by John Vornholt, Simon Pulse, 7/03, $6.99, ISBN 0-689-86014-5
Now that Buffy the Vampire Slayer has ended, the future of the line of tie-in novels is uncertain, but so far it seems to have survived. The first title takes its cue from the Buffy computer game, which I haven't seen. Ethan Rayne has returned, this time seeking Buffy's help against the First, the final season's Big Bad. Moore has a better feel for the characters than was found in many of the earlier tie-ins. John Vornholt also revives an old character, Riley Finn now a Federal agent teamed with his new wife. Riley has uncovered a smuggling ring run by vampires and called for help, and both Buffy and Angel appear, a four way combination that provides almost as much conflict as the bad guys. Two very good remedies for those of us going through Buffy withdrawal.
Brujah by Myranda Kalis, White Wolf, 11/03, $6.99, ISBN 1-58846-832-1
Here's another war of the vampire clans set against the Middle Ages in Europe, specifically Paris in this case. There's more dark intrigue, political maneuvering, and such than actual physical action this time, and parts of the novel are quite interesting. As a whole, however, it didn't hold my interest very well. I didn't care for any of the characters and the author never really made historical Paris come alive for me, or come undead for me as I suppose would be more appropriate.
Fangs and Angel Wings by Karen E. Taylor, Betancourt, 2003, $32.95, ISBN 1-59224-612-5
Karen Taylor is known almost exclusively for her vampire novels, and this collection of her short fiction which includes virtually all of her published stories has vampires in it, but lots of other things as well. There are witches and dinosaurs and angels and other creatures of myth and legend. Some are horror, some are fantasy, a couple are even science fiction. There's a strong romantic flavor in many of the stories, and a streak of humor in some of the others. None of the stories really leaped up and grabbed me, but there were only a couple that I didn't care for, and "Obsession", "Romeo Falling", and "The Presence" were particularly entertaining.
The Bleeding Season by Greg F. Gifune, Delirium, 2003, $50, ISBN 1-929653-56-5
There's a familiar opening in Greg Gifune's new horror thriller, but it's only to set you up for a very wild ride. Four middle aged men stage a reunion in which they are remembering the fifth member of their circle, who died as a child, when all of their lives are turned on end by the suicide of one of their number. Even more disturbing is the knowledge that the dead man led a secret life, in which he was responsible for endless cruel and evil acts. Experienced horror readers will leap ahead of the protagonist to conclude that something supernatural is involved, and indeed it is, a very scary demonic force. Gifune's work has appeared mostly in the small press to date, but I predict that won't last long.
The Doorkeepers by Graham Masterton, Leisure, 2003, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5240-7
Most of Masterton's previous novels have been horror but this one moves in the direction of SF, or at least fantasy. An American travels to England to investigate the murder of his sister, and finds himself engrossed in a mystical mystery that leads him to the gateway between our world and a parallel universe where the Puritans took over England in the 16th Century and most major historical events we remember never occurred. There he and his girlfriend become fugitives from the Hooded Men, a local police force, and attempt to track down the group of men responsible for the death and mutilation of his sister. This one's not up to Masterton's usual high standards. Their discovery of the gateways feels very contrived and the ensuing series of chases and escapes wasn't lively enough to distract me from the unsatisfying set-up.
Malkavian by Ellen Porter Riley, White Wolf, 2003, $6.99, ISBN 1-58846-831-3
The Wounded King by Philippe Boulle, White Wolf, 2003, $6.99, ISBN 1-58846-858-5
Two of the recent crop of World of Darkness novels are set in other historical periods, and although neither really feels like a horror novel to me, both are pretty creditable dark fantasies, and of course they both have vampires. The first is, I believe, a debut novel set in the Dark Ages of Europe. The various vampire clans are caught up in the mysticism of that age, as well as their own mythos. It's a pretty good story with only a few rough spots. The second title is even better, set during the Victorian age, and the end of the author's trilogy within the overall series. Our protagonist has finally found her missing mother, but rival bands of vampires are closing in on them. The trilogy was pleasing enough that I'd like to see the author try something in another vein, preferably without vampire tribes.
Endangered Species by Nancy Holder and Jeff Mariotte, Simon Pulse, 2003, $5.99, ISBN 0-689-86210-5
Now that Buffy has come to a close, it's spinoff is the only game in television town for vampire lovers, and this new tie-in novel dabbles in both worlds. On the one hand, we have a supernatural menace stalking Faith in prison, and in the other, we have Angel faced with a crucial decision. If something could be done that would wipe out all of the vampires on Earth, should he help, even though that would mean his own death as well. Holder and Mariotte have both contributed several books to the Buff/Angel universe, alone and together, and this is one of their more thoughtful ones.
The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks, Three Rivers Press, 2003, $12.95, ISBN 1-4000-4962-8
Although this book length humorous guide to surviving a plague of the risen dead is a bit too long to sustain the laughs for over two hundred pages, there is in fact a great deal of very funny though low key material in it. Much of it is, on the other hand, pretty good advice under the circumstances. How to hide, cover your trail, destroy access to your position, etc. There are some illustrations as well, but they're not humorous either. This probably would have worked much better as part of a collection rather than being drawn out to book length.
The Necromancer by Douglas Clegg, CD Publications, 9/03, $35, ISBN 1-58767-071-2
Cold River by Rick Hautala, CD Publications, 9/03, $30, ISBN 1-58767-073-9
Roll Them Bones by David Niall Wilson, CD Publications, 9/03, $30, ISBN 1-58767068-2
CD Publications continues its program of limited edition hardcover novellas with these three titles. First up is a prequel of sorts to the Harrow series of loosely inter-related novels. This one tells the story of the introduction of Harrow's legendary Justin Gravesend. It's more interesting because of its relationship to the three Harrow novels than in its own right, and is the weakest of the three titles, though nicely written in parts. Next up is Rick Hautala's not quite a ghost story. The protagonist is a recent widower who is not adjusting well, and he starts seeing strange creatures emerging from the water. This includes some of the creepiest scenes Hautala has ever written, which is going some, and makes this the strongest of the threesome. Close behind is the third title, in which a group of young adults return to their hometown to find out the truth behind their youthful encounter with a witch. The surprise ending is a bit of a stretch, but the story is so engrossing that you probably won't notice until after you've finished and had time to recover.
Hastur Pussycat, Kill! Kill! edited anonymously, Vox 13, $35, no ISBN
Lovecraft fans, particularly that subset which has no sense of humor, are probably not going to like this at all. This is a collection of satires of the Cthulhu Mythos, including stories by Mark McLaughlin, John Urbancik, Whitt Pond, and others. A few of the titles should give you a good idea what to expect "Mork Shaggoth and the Death of Love", "Law West of the Miskatonic", "Gumshoe Cthulhu", and "Crispy Dagon and a Side of Fries", for example. Most of them are quite funny, some very clever. The illustrations are barely adequate and the typeface varies from story to story, but the book is otherwise handsomely produced. The perfect gift to inflame readers who believe Lovecraft stands at the pinnacle of horror fiction.
The New Neighbor by Ray Garton, CD Publications, 9/03, $40, ISBN 1-58767-044-5
Here's a new edition of the 1991 Charnel House limited edition hardcover. It's almost the prototypical story of the evil new neighbor, in this case an attractive woman who moves into an ordinary neighborhood and is soon seducing various people, knowing instinctively how best to appeal to the idiosyncrasies of each and every one. But her form of love is deadly dangerous and it isn't long before the reader realizes that we are talking serious succubus here. Few surprises but rock solid story telling and a sense of inevitability that carries you kicking and screaming to the end of the story.
Infernal Angel by Edward Lee, CD Publications, 9/03, $40, ISBN 1-58767-075-5
Following up on his very impressive City Infernal, Edward Lee returns to Hell itself for this new novel. Two people from our world each with a personal set of motives make use of a doorway into Hell, which takes the form of a giant, horrible city. Since they're both still alive, they have powers in the infernal realm that make them superhuman, or perhaps I should say superinhuman. Their conflict is intriguing, but the star of the story is the setting itself, a nightmare world that you'll remember long after you've set the book aside.
Shivers II edited by Richard Chizmar, CD Publications, 2003, $20, ISBN 1-58767-072-0
This is an all original horror anthology and easily one of the best of the past few years. Although ghost stories are not a popular theme among modern horror writers, three of the best in this collection are exactly that, the entries by Thomas Monteleone, F. Paul Wilson, and Rick Hautala. But there are plenty of other first rate stories on other themes as well, including Tom Piccirilli's story of a very strange Oriental actress, Kealan Patrick Burke's tale of a vengeful church group, Thomas Tessier's encounter with a telemarketer, J.F. Gonzalez on storms, Patricia Lee Macomber's tale of dead dogs, and other fine stories by Gary Braunbeck, Bev Vincent, David Barnett, Robert Morrish, and Graham Masterton. A top notch collection for horror fans.
Dark Matter by Billie Sue Mosiman, Betancourt, 2003, $32.95, ISBN 1-59224-616-8
I was already well aware of the fact that Billie Sue Mosiman had written several first rate thrillers, supernatural and otherwise, but only vaguely realized that she had written quite a body of short fiction as well. This first collection is drawn from a variety of sources and includes a considerable range of subject matter, including familiar dangers such as vampires, werewolves, and psychopaths, but also branching out into fantasy and SF for its devices, including worldwide disasters and magic. "Man of the Dead", "Assassination Days", "A Watery Silence", and "The Anomaly of Mondays" are my favorites. There are three stories that appear here for the first time, and the least of them is still pretty good.
The Afterlife by Gary Soto, Harcourt, 9/03, $16, ISBN 0-15-204774-3
Young teenager Chuy is leading a perfectly ordinary life until the day he finds himself a ghost, hovering about his dead and badly damaged body. Someone has murdered him, and he doesn't know who was responsible or why. Fortunately, some of his friends can still see him even though he's dead. Unfortunately, bits and pieces of his body are becoming invisible with the passing of time, and he realizes that he must hurry if he is to solve the mystery of his own death before it's too late. A fairly entertaining teenaged variation of a familiar adult horror theme.
Low Red Moon by Caitlin Kiernan, Roc, 11/03, $14, ISBN 0-451-45948-2
This is the sequel to Threshold, in which two psychically gifted people were able to defeat a supernatural entity. Time has passed and they have mostly managed to forget what happened, marrying and moving to a new home. Things seem to be getting better until he is asked to help with a murder investigation and she begins to have hallucinations of murder and mayhem. Of all the standard horror monsters, werewolves are the ones I find the least interesting in fiction, probably because very few writers can think of anything new to do with the theme. Kiernan is one of those very few, and she's also one of the even smaller subset who can drag the reader completely into a story so that we feel the emotional ups and downs of the characters. I liked this a lot better than its predecessor, and I liked the first one just fine.
Nocturne by Elaine Bergstrom, Ace, 9/03, $6.50, ISBN 0-441-01109-8
Bergstrom's fifth novel about the Austras, a family of vampires of both the good and bad sort, is inevitably going to be compared to Anne Rice. The two protagonists on a human opera singer, female, and a charming male vampire who wants to live a normal life and ignore his vampire heritage. They become romantically involved, but the course of true love is going to run a bit rougher than usual, because an evil force is abroad and it may take more than human powers to defeat it. The novel strikes a good balance between the supernatural and the romantic elements, good enough to find an audience within both groups of readers.
Freddy vs Jason by Stephen Hand, Black Flame, 2003, £5.99, ISBN 1-84416-059-9
I picked this one up to read in a near trance, amazed that the oft announced but never produced pairing of two of the more prominent horror film figures had finally taken place. Firstly, I always thought it was a bad marriage. The Freddy films are above average horror, rarely used the death-after-sex clichι, occasionally showed some actual innovative thinking, and had lots of interesting imagery and nice special effects. The Jason movies are routine hack and slash, almost carbon copies of one another, with minimal action, virtually no plot, mediocre effects, incredibly predictable scenes, and an uninteresting and brainless villain. Judging by the novelization, there was little effort to compromise. Instead we have slightly better actors in the same old script. But as bad as the movie appears to be and it appears to be very bad indeed it can't possibly be as awful as this novelization, one of those gems where you can open to a random page and find awful examples almost without looking. This looks to be a disaster in every conceivable way.
Angel Cafι by Jill Morrow, Pocket, 7/03, $6.99, ISBN 0-7434-7573-9
Here's the opening volume in a new paranormal series. The title refers to a cafι where a psychic offers messages from the beyond. The protagonist is a young widow who turns to the psychic out of curiosity, not because she really believes that it's possible to communicate with the dead. But the woman is communicating with something, some mysterious force that casts doubts on the accepted story about her husband's death, and who turns out ultimately to be something very different from what she imagined. A little slow on the build up but after that it's a suspenseful and occasionally eerie thriller.
Fireworks by James A. Moore, Leisure, 2003, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5247-4
The author makes no secret of the fact that he was inspired by Stephen King's The Tommyknockers for this novel, which it closely resembles in many ways. The setting is a small town where a fireworks display wakens something sleeping under the ground, not a supernatural entity but rather an influence from a mysterious vessel from outer space, crashed and buried near the town. Before long, most of the townspeople have been recruited into a secretive organization, and it's only when news reaches the outside that the government finally acts. If I hadn't already read the King novel, this would have been a very creepy little book. Since I had, some of the edge was gone, and while it was still an entertaining thriller, it was also quite predictable.
The Awakening by Shannon Drake, Zebra, 10/03, $6.99M ISBN 0-8217-7228-7
Drake wanders a bit from her usual style of vampire novel for this new thriller. A visitor to Salem, Massachusetts, intends only to perform musically and move on. Some of the local inhabitants are taking an odd interest in her, however, and eventually she, and we, learn that she is referred to in a prophecy, and that she is supposed to perform an essential but not particularly pleasant role in an ancient ceremony. This time the evil might be too powerful even for a group of good vampires to overcome. The plot slows down occasionally and the novel probably should have been somewhat shorter, but the result is reasonably suspenseful, if not particularly horrific.
The Face by Dean R. Koontz, Bantam, 6/03, $26.95, ISBN 0-553-80248-8
Most of Dean Koontz's horror novel are rationalized as science fiction, although their tone is very much that of mainstream thrillers. This one's an exception because it is genuinely supernatural, although the supernatural force is on the side of good rather than evil. The villain is an insane anarchist serial killer who plans to kidnap the young son of the world's most famous actor. Opposing him is the chief protagonist, a security officer and retired policeman, and the boy himself, who is easily the most engaging character in the novel. When a corpse absents itself from a morgue, mysterious phone calls that don't show up on phone logs arrive at the mansion, and a mysterious presence uses mirrors to move around, the reader may not be sure exactly what's going on, but the suspense builds steadily and inevitably toward an exciting and satisfying conclusion. There's a little twist in the final pages that really didn't work for me, but it didn't diminish the powerful impact of this suspenseful and engaging thriller.
Shadows over Baker Street edited by Michael Reaves and John Pelan, Del Rey, 10/03, $23.95, ISBN 0-345-45528-2
A blend of Sherlock Holmes and the Cthulhu Mythos seems like such an interesting idea that I fully expected this to be a first rate collection, and for the most part I wasn't at all disappointed, although a few of the stories have little or no Sherlock Holmes in them. In his place are John Watson, Mycroft Holmes, Irene Adler, and other non-Doyle fictional characters like Carnacki and Dr. Nikola. The collection opens with an exceptionally good story by Neil Gaiman, set in an alternate England where the Old Ones have conquered the Earth. This is followed by the two weakest stories in the collection, however. Elizabeth Bear's tale of a conjured tiger has Irene Adler in it, almost as an afterthought, and while it is a tolerable weird story, it is not a Lovecraftian horror and it is not Holmesian mystery. Steven Elliot-Altman follows with one that is both, but which uses such a clumsy artificial style in an apparent attempt to provide atmosphere that I found it nearly unreadable. Things improve after that however with a good stories from James Lowder, Poppy Brite, Michael Reaves, Tim Lebbon, and John Pelan, and excellent stories from Brian Stableford, Barbara Hambly, and Paul Finch. Caitlin Kiernan adds a low key but very effective story that peripherally touches the world of Dracula and newcomer John Vourlis describes a plague of supernatural insomnia. Solid tales by Simon Clark, David Niall Wilson, F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre, Patricia Lee Macomber, and Richard Lupoff round out a remarkably good collection.
The Dark edited by Ellen Datlow, Tor, 11/03, $25.95, ISBN 0-765-30444-9
Ghost stories are such an old standard of supernatural fiction that they have often been abandoned in favor of more trendy horrors in recent years, and at first glance one might well think that the form's possibilities have just about been exhausted. But every once in a while a Peter Straub or Rick Hautala will surprise us with a compelling ghost novel, and sometimes there's a whole collection of stories that prove there's still some spirit left. The most recent of the latter is this first rate collection of very diverse ghost stories, which range from traditional ghosts to ghosts that aren't actually that at all. There are haunted clocks and boats and hospitals and a wide variety of other focal points, and the quality of the stories rarely drops to the merely good, while some are exceptional. Picking out favorites almost seems unfair when it's such a large and excellent group, but I was particularly impressed by Tanith Lee, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen Gallagher, Charles L. Grant, and Jack Cady. I often suggest that readers read theme anthologies in dribs and drabs to avoid overdosing on similar stories, however well written, but in this case the individual stories are so varied that such caution is completely unnecessary.
Lost Boy, Lost Girl by Peter Straub, Random House, 10/03, $24.95, ISBN 1-4000-6092-3
Tim Underhill is very concerned about his teenaged nephew, Mark. Mark's father is a petty tyrant and bigot, and Mark recently discovered his mother's body after she committed suicide. There has also been a series of disappearances of young boys in the area, probable victims of a mysterious serial killer. What he doesn't know is that Mark has become obsessed with an abandoned house that once belonged to another serial killer, one who was related to his mother, and who has left a lingering part of himself behind. I don't want to reveal too many of the mysteries of the plot, which seems deceptively simple but is actually quite complex. There are some truly frightening scenes, and Mark's father is one of the most convincing, pitiful semi-villains I've ever run across in fiction. This is a haunting, moving, and memorable piece of supernatural fiction from one of the genre's major talents.
Gateways by F. Paul Wilson, Forge, 11/03, $25.95, ISBN 0-765-30690-5
Repairman Jack is back, and this time he's brought his family. A call from his brother advises Jack that their father was in an automobile accident and is in a coma. Jack hastens to Florida, expecting nothing out of the ordinary, but there are some peculiar circumstances surrounding the accident, which we will eventually discover is linked to a series of human sacrifices. Jack's opponent this time is double layered. There's a swamp women with an uncanny ability to raise deadly creatures to do her bidding, but there's also a darker presence lurking in the background. On the other hand, he has a new ally, because his father has also been hiding the secrets of his past. Another exciting supernatural adventure featuring the man with no identity, this time accompanied by a more than usually interesting cast of supporting characters.
King of All the Dead by Steve Lockley and Paul Lewis, Telos, 2003, $17.95, ISBN 1-903889-61-8
Two sisters save the life of a man who was attempting suicide, and almost immediately they are attacked by a malevolent force in the form of a terrible storm. One of the sisters dies and the other barely escapes with her life. She and her companion are then beset and bemuddled as dead creatures, human and animal, pursue them, sometimes warning that the King of the Dead wants what belongs to him. There's not a great deal of plot in what is essentially a series of chase scenes, but that's not the point. The creepy atmosphere is extremely well done and some of the individual images are haunting. The surprise ending isn't really a surprise, but that doesn't matter either. This is one to read just before going to bed, or for a quiet walk in a dark graveyard.
Darksome Thirst by Morven Westfield, Harvest Shadows, 2003, $14.95, ISBN 0-97417403-3
Tired of good vampires or bad ones who run in clans and act more like gangsters than the undead? If so, you might want to chase down a copy of this first novel, which features a nasty and somewhat untraditional bloodsucker. Westfield's vampire appears more by suggestion than physically, a hint of shadows, a sense that you're no longer alone. A young woman who initially thinks it's just her nerves becomes disabused when she notices two small bruises on her neck and realizes that she is unusually tired. Ranged against the undead interloper is a coven of Wiccans, and the battle of wits and will is on. The author does a very good job of establishing atmosphere, and the evil force is nicely handled. There were a couple of awkward spots in the dialogue, but the characterization was convincing and the story engrossing. Overall, a very promising debut.
The Fallen by Thomas E. Sniegoski, Simon Pulse, 3/03, $5.99, ISBN 0-689-85305-X
Leviathan by Thomas E. Sniegoski, Simon Pulse, 7/03, $5.99, ISBN 0-689-85306-8
These are the first two volumes of a new young adult, supernatural series, perhaps inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but carving out new territory. There's a war among the angels, and our teenaged protagonist discovers that he is a member of one sect, the one destined to unite those angels who remained in Heaven with those who have fallen. But there are evil Powers who don't want the conflict ended, and they're determined to wipe out any being who might advance that cause. Accompanied by a magical dog and other allies, Aaron survives his first two encounters, but there are at least two more volumes to follow.
To Wake the Dead by Richard Laymon, Leisure, 2003, $24, ISBN 0-8439-5104-4
The late Richard Laymon was noted for his heavily emotion laden and explicit horror, as well as his strong sexual themes. This new novel is no exception, even though it uses a standard if not hoary horror theme for its central premise. The mummy Amara has been wakened from her sleep and rises periodically to claim one victim after another. In the background, there is murder, lust, envy, and other more human emotions, although the emphasis is definitely on the lust. Laymon's emphasis on the sexual side of his characters, which often gave the impression that they were constantly in a state of sexual excitement, works with some of his novels but disrupts the story in others. I'd have to classify this one as slightly in the latter category, because the constant grotesque eroticism really distracted me from the mummy and her depredations, and I rarely felt any sustained tension from what one would think would be the central plot.
Vampyrrhic Rites by Simon Clark, Hodder & Stoughton, 2003, £18.99, ISBN 0-340-81940-5
The sequel to Vampyrrhic features the three surviving protagonists. Although they believed that they exterminated the race of vampirish creatures that lived beneath the lake in their town, they are about to discover otherwise. I like my vampires evil and somewhat unearthly, and Clark delivers on that score. There are some very creepy scenes, particularly one in which two people in an automobile are pushed into the lake by unseen hands. Unfortunately, the creepiness doesn't always work, probably because I never really identified with the characters, not even the three heroic figures who discover their work is not done. I'd still give it a qualified recommendation, because when it's good, it's very good, but Clark doesn't manage to sustain it steadily.
Thirteen Horrors edited by Brian A. Hopkins, KaCSFFS, 2003, $19.95, ISBN 0-935128-04-2
Twelve original short horror stories and an excerpt from the new Michael Slade novel add up to a consistently high quality anthology, and that's exactly what we have here. I enjoyed every story in this collection, which is a rarity in itself. Graham Masterton does his variation of the evil Santa Claus with relish and Jessica Amanda Salmonson takes us inside the mind of a very disturbed, and disturbing, person. John Shirley shows us one of the more extreme computer games of all time, and Michael Bishop takes us on a journey to a darker underside of Latin America. There's a tendency toward more subtle, less overt horror, but the stories are no less chilling, and there are new tales by Charles L. Grant, Gene Wolfe, Melanie Tem, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Edward Bryant, and several others. You won't want to miss this one.
Dance with the Dragon by E.F. Watkins, Amber Quill, 2003, $14.50, ISBN 1-59279-933-7
The plot for this horror novel is a familiar one, but the other manages to keep jogging away from what we expect to happen often enough that it kept me interested. A young woman is kidnapped/enticed into a mysterious cult, and when her family can't recover her through the usual means, they resort to a mysterious psychic who appears to have genuine powers. He in turn tells them that the leader of the cult isn't necessarily shamming, that he may have genuine powers, which he has used in the pursuit of evil. On the other hand, it isn't always clear whether or not the investigator is using his own for the pursuit of good. There's some mildly unconventional vampirism, captures and escapes, battles and mysteries solved. Characterization is reasonably good though unexceptional, and the dialogue has some rough spots. Worth a look by vampire fans, but casual horror readers might want to look elsewhere.
The Book of Final Flesh edited by James Lowder, Eden Studios, 2003, $16.95, ISBN 1-891153-78-1
His Immortal Embrace, edited anonymously, Kensington, 9/03, $12, ISBN 0-7582-0475-2
Ghosts, vampires, werewolves, zombies the four standard bearers of traditional horror fiction. If you had asked me which of the four was least likely to prove a viable subject for original anthologies, I would have picked the last. After all, how much can you do with a shambling, animated corpse? Well, as it turns out, you can do quite a lot as this, the third in a series of zombie anthologies, demonstrates quite clearly. The settings range from the historical to the futuristic, from America to Asia to outer space, and they aren't just clunking automatons. They're dangerous, deadly, and sometimes intriguing as well. The best tales in this particular selection are by Sarah Hoyt, Mark McLaughlin, Scott Nicholson, Scott Edelman, Tim Waggoner, and Christine Morgan, but there were only a couple that I thought were flat and the overall quality is surprisingly high. Back to our four stalwarts, I would have put vampires at or near the other end of the spectrum, because there is so much vampire fiction lately that a wide variety of possibilities seemed to loom ahead. Unfortunately, in this case the stories four very long ones by Hannah Howell, Lynsay Sands, Sara Blayne, and Kate Huntington are fairly standard romances with a vampire as one of the pair of lovers, and not always the male. Individually, each one is competently done and entertaining, but in combination, they will appeal only to those who don't mind reading mild variations on the same romantic theme.
The Harvest by Scott Nicholson, Pinnacle, 9/03, $5.99, ISBN 0-7860-1579-9
I was moderately impressed with Scott Nicholson's first horror novel, The Red Church, so I wondered if he'd be able to match it with his next. I needn't have worried, because he surpassed it. The protagonist of this new one is a woman who has odd, possibly prescient dreams, and recently they've been hinting at a new presence in her rural community, an insidious and ghastly evil. Slowly and inevitably things begin to escalate, and I'm not going to tell you too much and spoil the fun. Suffice it to say that there are indeed ghastly things about to emerge from the swamps, and there will be face sucking and other horrible dooms for many of the characters before it's over. A very atmospheric, often creepy, sometimes weirdly humorous, and definitely well written horror novel.
Surviving Frank by David A. Page, Five Star, 8/03, $25.95, ISBN 0-7862-5634-6
We've had lots of vampire detectives so it's time to make room for a werewolf detective, although in this case the werewolf is a bit untraditional and only makes part of the transformation. His new partner is a perfectly ordinary cop whose secret job is to investigate his new chum and discover whether or not he has been bending the rules a bit too far. Instead, the two of them become more closely linked as they uncover a plot to murder the mayor. This first novel is an amusing and generally very successful blend of the supernatural and traditional mystery themes. The dialogue didn't quite ring true in a few spaces, but they were minor lapses in what was otherwise a suspenseful and engaging first novel.
Minion by L.A. Banks, St Martins, 2003, $12.95, ISBN 0-312-31680-1
Just as vampire stories have become a sub-genre of horror fiction, so vampire hunters are becoming a sub-sub-genre of their own. This first novel posits a team of people who secretly spend their nights hunting vampires. The protagonist is a performing artist who is a member of this group and who is alarmed when it appears that the vampires are striking back in organized fashion. This is folded around another subplot involving vampirelike murders among the criminal element and elsewhere, murders in which the bodies are hideously mutilated rather than just drained. It's not long before we know that our heroine is pitted against a kind of ubervampire. Everything turns out right, of course, but not before the issue is in doubt more than once. A pretty good villain and an interesting protagonist, and I suspect we haven't seen the last of her.
Crawlers by John Shirley, Del Rey, 11/03, $14.95, ISBN 0-345-44652-6
Horror must be coming back after all, because this is a science fiction novel and it's being marketed as horror. The plot is superficially taken right out of a "B" sci-fi flick. A secret military experiment with nanotechnology goes awry, and efforts to contain it fail, leading to an infestation in a typical small town. The micromachines run wild, slowly taking over some of the local wildlife, then extending their control into human bodies. The government agents watching the place dither and argue among themselves as the local people remain oblivious, are taken over, or slowly begin to realize that something very wrong is happening. Shirley takes a standard plot and breathes new life into it with some genuinely unsettling sequences, a cast of believable if not always likeable characters, and his usual strong narrative skills. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see this as a film in a year or two.
The Slab by Jeff Mariotte, IDW Publishing, 9/03, $16.99, ISBN 1-932382-07-0
A series of murders which may be the work of a gang of serial killers leads a police officer and several civilians into an investigation of a remote part of the desert. They're on the right track, of course, but they're going to find more than they bargained for. In the depths of an abandoned mine dwells a long dormant and blood hungry evil creature who longs for the day it can once again touch the surface world. Moderately suspenseful, well plotted though a bit predictable, ably charactered, and written fairly skillfully. The big bad was a bit of a disappointment after the suspenseful buildup, but that's a common problem with stories of this nature.
Evilution by Shaun Jeffrey, Invisible College Press, 2003, $14.95, ISBN 1-931468-13-3
A young woman moves to a small, remote town, seeking peace and quiet. She gets a lot more than she bargained for. Something mysterious is going on in town, people disappear, strangers move unseen in the darkness, and everyone seems just slightly on edge. Eventually we discover that the town is home to an experiment in human evolution, one that has gone predictably awry. The prose is competent, the plot reasonably well thought out, but very, very predictable. Should appeal to fans of Dean Koontz's later work.
Wicked: Witch by Nancy Holder and Debbie Viguie, Simon Pulse, 2002, $5.99, ISBN 0-7434-2696-7
Wicked: Curse by Nancy Holder and Debbie Viguie, Simon Pulse, 2003, $5.99, ISBN 0-7434-2697-5
This imprint never sends review copies so I didn't know this series existed until I stumbled across it in a bookstore. Nancy Holder is a talented writer who has produced several of the best of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer tie-in novels, and here she is co-authoring an original young adult series that's a nice sort of knock off of the Charmed setup. In the opening story, a teenager is orphaned when her parents die in an apparent accident and goes to live with her two cousins, who turn out to be witches. The threesome are then off on a series of sometimes quite nasty and suspenseful adventures. In the second volume, they find out things are even worse than they think, have to rescue a member of a rival coven, and discover the secret of the death of the protagonist's family. These might not be intense enough for hardcore horror fans, but they're well told stories and certainly superior to most of the young adult fiction I've seen lately.
Blood and Fog by Nancy Holder, Simon Pulse, 5/03, $$6.99, ISBN 0-7434-0039-9
Mist and Stone by Diana G. Gallagher, Simon Pulse, 5/03, $5.99, ISBN 0-689-85789-6
By the time you read this, Buffy the Vampire Slayer will have seen its final episode. I'm not sure if the tie-in novels will continue, but if they're as good as this one, it will be a shame if they don't. Buffy and Spike are trying to track down a typical demon in Sunnyvale, but the heart of the book is Spike's recollections of his adventures in the past, when he was forced to ally himself with an earlier slayer in order to defeat a creature that we know as Jack the Ripper. Tense, suspenseful, well plotted, and fun. The second title is a Charmed novel, and just as the television program seemed pale and trivial compared to Buffy, so does this tie in. The three witches team up to save a troubled youngster from a supernatural evil, and although this one's better than most of the earlier novels in the series, it's still pretty minor. It also continues to use the television shows creator's name on the cover rather than the author's, which can only be found inside.
Tropic of Night by Michael Gruber, Morrow, 2003, $24.95, ISBN 0-06-050954-6
This is a horror novel masquerading as a thriller, but that's all right because it works either way. Or doesn't work, depending on your point of view. The plot won't make you sit up and take notice. Someone is murdering pregnant women, apparently in connection with some ritual. The police officer protagonist is led to a female anthropologist who is living in hiding, and whose specialty was shamanism. She tells him that the killer is using authentic supernatural powers, but naturally he doesn't believe her until very late in the book when the bad guy escapes under impossible conditions. The story isn't groundbreaking, but it's competently plotted and executed. Now the caveat. The narrative moves back and forth between third person past tense and first person present tense. I dislike present tense narrative in general, but it is even worse when it's mixed like this. The switches were so distracting that I had trouble finishing the book even after the story had caught my interest. It's a first novel, and hopefully the author will think twice about doing this again.
Fuckin' Lie Down Already by Tom Piccirilli, Endeavor Press, 6/03, $45, ISBN 0-972656-1-6
When a police officer makes life too uncomfortable for a mobster, a small time drug addict is hired to kill him and his family. The hitman performs his duties in brutal fashion, but there's something neither he nor his employer counted on. Dead or not, the cop isn't about to lie down and stop moving until he has revenge. This is a short story published as a signed, limited edition hardcover of two hundred copies (also available in a special traycased lettered edition of 26 for $100). The story is a good one, and not for the weak of stomach, but at this price it's obviously aimed at collectors rather than the average reader.
Sesqua Valley and Other Haunts by W.H. Pugmire, Delirium, 2003, $50, ISBN 1-929653-37-9
The author of this collection has been published primarily in small press magazines and anthologies, not because his writing isn't good enough to appear in more widely known places but probably because his take on things is just a little bit too weird for most editors. His stories, in this case, are usually set in Lovecraft's universe, mostly as a subset in Pugmire's own Sesqua Valley setting, and the influence by HPL can be found in characters, plots, and language, although the individual stories almost always go off onto territory of their own. Many are just plain weird, in a good way, and Pugmire achieves his effects through subtle touches and horrific situations rather than by draping the pages with gore. My favorites are "Born in Strange Shadow", "The Darkest Star", and "The Host of Haunted Air".
The Place Called Dagon by Herbert Gorman, Hippocampus, 2003, $15, ISBN 0-9721644-3-X
Lovecraft cited this novel in his Supernatural Horror in Literature, but as far as I know it has been unavailable for most of a century. It was the only supernatural novel Gorman wrote, and he is otherwise forgotten, but the novel is worth reprinting not just because it so obviously influenced Lovecraft. The story is narrated by the new doctor in an inbred New England town who becomes unwisely interested in a reclusive resident, his mysterious wife, and the arcane rites which he is rumored to practice. The resolution is considerably less imaginative than Lovecraft's Cthulhu, and is actually a bit of a disappointment, but the prose is excellent, in fact, if Gorman had been more active in the field we might be referring to Lovecraft as a Gormanian writer. The conversations among the characters are intelligent, witty, and often fascinating. A minor classic, perhaps, but one that has been overlooked for too long.
Shades of Night, Falling by John J. Miller, Ibooks, 2003, $12.95, ISBN 0-7434-5858-3
According to the cover copy, this is the first volume in an original Twilight Zone trilogy. Well, the Twilight Zone connection is dubious. I suppose this story might have appeared as an episode, but it would have been an atypical one. The remaining two volumes, which I suspect involves the same family but perhaps not the same characters, will be written by John Helfers and Russell Davis. What we have here is a novel of the supernatural, set in 1840s New York state, a rural community which has a history of mysterious occurrences, disappearances, and manifestations. When a man is found with his heart torn out, some in the town suspect that an ancient evil is afoot again. One of the Noir sons, heir to a magical heritage, receives communications from ghosts and through dreams, and struggles to master his abilities in time to avert a tragedy. This has a lot of the feel of the recent film, Sleepy Hollow, including a dead Hessian striking out from the grave. Miller gets credit for a creepy atmosphere and a relentlessly developing plot, but readers expecting something that Rod Serling might have done are probably going to be puzzled.
Lasombra by David Niall Wilson, White Wolf, 4/03, $6.99, ISBN 1-58846-820-8
Slave Ring by Tim Dedopulos, White Wolf, 4/03, $6.99, ISBN 1-58846-814-3
The Seven Deadlies by Greg Stolze, White Wolf, 4/03, $6.99, ISBN 1-58846-806-2
The three titles above illustrate most of the breadth of White Wolf's World of Darkness series, jumping around in time as well as space. The first two are vampire novels, and the first, by Wilson, is the best of the three almost by an order of magnitude. The setting is just after the fall of Constantinople, and it's not only human society that has been disrupted. The various vampire clans are in disarray and a power struggle is inevitable. Dedopulos switches the setting to contemporary America. His protagonist is a vampire whose job is to enforce the rules to help conceal the existence of their kind from humanity. His latest investigation uncovers an alliance between some of the criminals of his own type and a group of humans. A straightforward, competently told adventure story. Neither book is as much horror as dark fantasy, but they're both fairly suspenseful. The Stolze book isn't badly written either, but the plot didn't engage me as much. His protagonist is a demon rather than a vampire, one who escaped from Hell and is now playing the role of the son of a wealthy televangelist. He's caught in a three way struggle among the personality he dispossessed, his fellow demons, and an angel who wants to send him back where he came from. It has some good moments, but not much suspense.
The Deceiver by Melanie Tem, Leisure, 5/03, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5097-8
The Harkness family has a kind of guardian angel, a presence which hovers over them, helping them through the various crises in their lives. But there's always a catch when things seem too good to be true. If you're fond of blood and gore and violence in your horror, then this book isn't for you. It's very restrained, what is often referred to as quiet horror, but that doesn't mean it isn't effective and unsettling. The very mundanity of the setting, the ordinariness of the characters, the relatively minor overt terror, all combine to set the reader's nerves on edge. We keep waiting for the shoe to drop, because we know it's coming sooner or later.
The Girl's Got Bite by Kathleen Tracy, St Martin's, 5/03, $14.95, ISBN 0-312-31258-X
Here's the revised and updated version of one of the guides to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the previous edition of which I reviewed a while back. The most important component is the episode guide, which is complete up to the beginning of the seventh and apparently final season. There are new interviews with Anthony Stewart Head and Emma Caulfield, plus other new material. Perhaps the most interesting element is the bloopers, incongruities in the final version which weren't picked up by continuity people.
Punish the Sinners by John Saul, Brilliance Audio, 2003, $26.95, ISBN 1-59086-834-X
John Saul is one of the few horror writers to have weathered the collapse of the genre a decade back. He first appeared in the 1970s and quickly specialized in demonic child novels, which unfortunately became rather repetitive. His later work has varied considerably in quality, but he seems to have acquired a loyal audience. This novel first appeared in 1978 and it is still, in my opinion, his best work. A medieval secret from the Thirteenth Century impinges on the modern world, driving a number of the students at a small girls' school to suicide. In the background, a secret society convenes for purposes known only to itself. Quietly creepy, quite suspenseful, and well read by David Daoust. This is an abridged, five hour version on six CDs.
The Thomas Ligotti Reader edited by Darrell Schweitzer, Wildside, 2003, $19.95, ISBN 1-59224-130-1
Thomas Ligotti is easily the most literarily interesting horror writer in the field today, although he has never been prolific and as of late seems almost to have disappeared from the scene. His few collections are all masterpieces, however, and it's not at all surprising that someone would bring together a group of critics to examine his work. Included here, along with an interview and a very detailed bibliography, are articles by edited Schweitzer, S.T. Joshi, Ben Indick, Matt Cardin, and others examining separate facets of Ligotti's fiction, plus a short essay by Ligotti himself. An informative and useful companion to one of the most original writers practicing today.
Masters of Midnight, edited anonymously, Kensington, 2003, $14, ISBN 0-7582-0421-3
Vampire fiction continues its evolution toward being a separate genre with this collection of four original gay erotic vampire novelets. Obviously this is targeted toward a very specific audience, and it's interesting to note that a large enough one exists to support this theme. The authors are all new to me, and in most cases they seem more interested in describing detailed erotic scenes than in telling a story. The exception is Michael Thomas Ford whose offering has a nicely told puzzle and whose prose is the best in the book.
Scream Queen by Edo van Belkom, Pinnacle, 4/03, $5.99, ISBN 0-7860-1562-4
The relationship between horror fiction and horror movies has been just about as close, i.e. not close at all, as that between science fiction and sci-fi. The typical horror film features a bunch of mentally challenged people putting themselves in the path of danger and never recognizing that they're in trouble until it's too late. Edo van Belkom captures the essence of Hollywood horror in his new novel. Two movie producers, a pair of really obnoxious brothers, decide to rig a supposedly haunted house and do a feature based on having a group of young people spend a night there. They continue with the project even after one fatality and one serious injury among the crew preparing the set, which they decide is good publicity. They even ignore a warning from neighbors who insist there really are ghosts here. As you might expect, angry spirits start the body count early, and the deaths are messy and violent.
Face by Tim Lebbon, Leisure, 5/03, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5195-8
Tim Lebbon's newest from Leisure is reminiscent of the Ruger Hauer film, The Hitcher. A family picks up a mysterious man in a snowstorm, then drops him unceremoniously when he makes cryptic, disturbing remarks. Unfortunately, he's not through with them. They begin seeing him everywhere they go, and he can speak so that only they can hear what he says. The father assaults him in a bar, to the mystification of his companions, but the teenaged daughter finds herself oddly drawn to him. Moody, atmospheric, and with a feeling of unavoidable fate lying just ahead, this is another fine book from one of the emerging new voices in horror fiction.
The Mothers and Fathers Italian Association by Thomas F. Monteleone, Borderlands, 2003, $50, ISBN 1-880325-20-9
Tom Monteleone has been writing his acerbic, witty, and thought provoking column for almost thirty years and in four different magazines, most recently Cemetery Dance. Horror fiction is obviously a central theme, but the articles are not what exactly what you might think. There are no dispassionate book reviews or critiques here; in fact, I'm not sure Monteleone can be dispassionate about anything. These are insider stories, pointed opinions, insights, speculations, ruminations, reminiscences, and diatribes. You won't agree with him all the time, and at times he might well make you angry, but he will make you think about what he's saying, one way or another. The price tag on this might seem pretty steep, but on the other hand, there are fifty columns here, and that works out to one dollar each, with is a very cheap price for so much stimulation.
Dead on My Feet by William Mark Simmons, Baen, 6/03, $24, ISBN 0-7434-3610-5
A few years back I read a very amusing horror comedy titled One Foot in the Grave, with a vampire detective as hero. Well, Sam Hain (note the pun) is back for a new and even greater (and funnier) adventure this time, along with his ghostly wife and other companions. After being told by a voodoo witch that he has to avert a supernatural cataclysm, he sets out to solve a mystery that involves, among other things, a blistered baby, a dead janitor, the works of William Faulkner, the secret government of the United States, and an apocalypse or two. Snappy dialogue, lots of amusing details, a clever plot, and a generally witty sense of humor combine to make this one of those rare novels that combine levity and the supernatural in just the right balance.
Craven Moon by Billie Sue Mosiman, DAW, 6/03, $6.99, ISBN 0-7564-0120-8
The third adventure of Malachi, half human, half vampire, is the most ambitious so far. Although Malachi shares some of the powers of his vampiric forebear, he lives in daylight and has a normal family and a normal life. Some vampires are willing to leave him in peace, but there are others who fear that he may become their greatest enemy. It turns out to be a self fulfilling prophecy, because when they attack his family, they turn him from a neutral into an active opponent. The setting is about twenty years from now and we follow the protagonist all over the world as he seeks his destiny in a world about to undergo a massive religious resurgence. The unique setting provides some original twists in what is more of a dark futuristic fantasy than a horror novel. Mosiman breaks some new ground here, which would be interesting in itself. Coupled with a compelling plot, it's a book that lifts itself above the wave of recent vampire novels.
The Gathering Dark by Christopher Golden, Ace, 7/03, $6.99, ISBN 0-441-01081-4
Christopher Golden returns to the world of Peter Octavian, jumping ten years into its future. Octavian's identity as a vampire is now known, although he has subsequently regained his mortal nature. The world is aware as well of the other supernatural creatures that formerly hid among us, and which now operate increasingly in the open. But something terrible is afoot. Demonic forces are interfering as they never did before, and entire cities are disappearing into their control. Octavian is no longer a vampire, but he still retains his magical powers, and it's up to him to use them to save the world, a world which still distrusts him because of his past. The emphasis on magic and mayhem is even more than in the previous books in this series. Novels in which demons operate freely in the world have proliferated lately, although James Blish still holds claim to writing the best of them. Golden isn't far behind, though, and if this is the end of the series, it's going out on a very high note indeed.
Monstrosity by Edward Lee, Leisure, 4/03, $$6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5075-7
Edward Lee has gained a reputation as a writer of gross out horror fiction, which is true as far as it goes, but which unfortunately obscures the fact that he's a pretty good writer even without the eviscerations, weird sex, and violent killings. This novel is a case in point, although it's not one of his best efforts. A homeless woman discharged unfairly from the Air Force is hired as security director for a secret government laboratory, supposedly pursuing research into a cure for cancer, although the reader knows almost from the outset that something sinister and ghastly is actually going on. She begins to suspect things are wrong after a plague of oversized insects and animals, a dip into some quicksand, the discovery that her predecessor disappeared under mysterious circumstances, revelations about some exceedingly kinky sexual activity, and the discovery of a crazed young woman who insists she was repeatedly raped by a monster. The plot moves quickly and directly toward the climax and the unraveling of various mysteries, and for the most part it's suspenseful and effectively chilling. There's a caveat, however. The protagonist's acceptance of her incredible luck is just a bit too easy to be convincing; a woman as intelligent as she is should have suspected something was wrong much sooner than she did.
Last Resort by Wendy Webb, Marietta, 2003, $13.99, ISBN 1-892669-21-8
Here's a book with something to please everyone. It's a murder mystery, a cat story, a contemporary witch adventure, and there's even some supernatural horror. The protagonist is an unconventional psychic who wins a trip to a health spa where a dead body promptly upsets everyone's stay. Although her psychic powers are unpredictable, it doesn't take much insight to realize that the supernatural goings on are relevant to the murder, and she and her trusty familiar, a cat, investigate mundane and not so mundane motives in an effort to solve it. Thoroughly amusing, and Webb manages to keep the fantastic element from making the murder mystery implausible.
The Destructor by Jon E. Merz, Pinnacle, 3/03, $5.99, ISBN 0-7860-1535-7
The third adventure of Lawson the vampire is easily the best yet. Either the character is growing on me or the author is improving as he goes along. Probably the truth is a little of both. I like my vampires evil, frankly, so I looked at this series initially as a classier version of the World of Darkness series from White Wolf. Lawson is a Fixer, a vampire whose job it is to make sure that the rest of the vampires adhere to the rules, to prevent humans from discovering their existence and wreaking havoc. But now he has a new enemy to face, and a formidable one. The chief villain this time is half werewolf, half vampire, and her shapeshifting abilities present him a unique challenge. I still occasionally have difficulty sympathizing with an undead protagonist, but most of the time Merz overcomes my reservations and provides an exciting and engrossing supernatural adventure.
The Vampire's Violin by Michael Romkey, Del Rey, 4/03, $6.99, ISBN 0-345-45208-9
I've been inundated with vampire novels so far this year, good vampires, bad vampires, and ambivalent ones. This one's a bad guy, the latest in a string of vampire novels from this author, some of which have been quite good, others not so good. Happily, this is one of the former. The vampire in question is very old and he's gotten nostalgic. He wants to find a magic violin he possessed once in the past, but he has no idea where it is. Elsewhere, there's a young, indifferent violinist who discovers that if she plays the antique instrument her grandfather found in Europe during the second World War, her playing is transformed into something truly remarkable. Everything seems to be going her way, but that's only because she doesn't know that one of the undead is on her trail. It's not a great vampire story, but it's a good one.
The Shadow Guests by Joan Aiken, Starscape, 2/03, $5.99, ISBN 0-765-34530-7
There are quite a few young adult novels that use the same basic plot as that found in this 1980 novel, but I can't think of one that rivals Joan Aiken's for its pure storytelling and smooth prose. Cosmo is living with his rather eccentric aunt and trying to fit in to a new school when something totally unexpected arises to complicate his life. Ghosts appear to him, not to frighten him but to enlist his help in fighting a supernatural danger. Cosmo solves the problem, of course, and learns a good deal about himself along the way. If you've never read this and want to recapture the feeling of being young without sacrificing literature standards, this is your chance.
Ashes and Angel Wings by Greg Stolze, White Wolf, 3/03, $6.99, ISBN 1-58846-805-4
White Wolf's World of Darkness series has been around for quite a while now, so it obviously has its audience. They've been doing vampire and werewolf clans for quite a while, and now they seem to be taking on demons and angels as well. In this new entry, by an author I haven't encountered before, an incarnate demon has become an influential member of organized crime, destined to reach the top leadership before long. As nasty as he is, he finds himself falling prey to human emotions, including affection for a young woman, an act which could endanger his mission or change his destiny, depending upon how fully he embraces his new existence. The setting and background are a bit too stiff and formal for me and I never really cared if the protagonist redeemed his soul or rotted in Hell.
The New York Stories by H.P. Lovecraft, Hippocampus, 2003, $15, ISBN 0-9673215-8-1
Lovecraft wrote five stories during his brief life in New York City, a period which editors S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz characterize as the most unhappiest of his life. Four of the stories are among his better work "Cool Air", "The Shunned House", "In the Vault", "The Horror at Red Hook", and the fifth, "He", isn't terrible. There are copious notes for each story and some other added material including a brief squib by Frank Belknap Long. Fans won't buy this for the stories, which are readily available elsewhere, but may be interested in the detailed notes.
Forbidden by Richard Lee Byers, White Wolf, 2/03, $6.50, ISBN 1-58846-811-9
The Madness of Priests by Philippe Boulle, White Wolf, 2/03, $6.99, ISBN 1-58846-829-1
White Wolf seems to have confined its publishing program to its game related lines of late, but those seem to be doing well. The first title is the conclusion to the Dead God trilogy set within the Scarred Lands universe. An elven priest has been attempting bring a dead god back to life, but his adversaries have thwarted him through two previous volumes and things look pretty bad for him as the conclusion draws near. But this is standard fantasy action adventure, so you know things are going to come out right eventually. Competently written but nothing new here. The second title is part of the World of Darkness series. I generally find the vampire and werewolf novels in this sequence uninteresting and repetitive, but this is the second in a subset by Boulle that is quite different. They're set during the Victorian age and they have a much different feel to them than does the rest of the series. In this volume, a young woman is trying to rescue her mother, abducted by a band of evil sorcerers, but her exploration of the dark underside of the world reveals more hideous dangers than she expected. Pick up the previous volume, A Morbid Initiation, and read them both.
The Fury and the Power by John Farris, Forge, 2/03, $25.95, ISBN 0-312-87728-5
As with any genre, much horror fiction consists of variations and retellings of other horror fiction plots. Truly original ideas and concepts are pretty rare, and it's difficult sometimes to even give the impression that there's anything new in a novel. John Farris doesn't have that problem. The protagonist is a young woman with the extraordinary power to create a doppelganger of herself who can act independently, and even travel through time with some limitations. Such a character would seem so powerful that nothing barring a team of Marvel superheroes could provide a threat, but she has an enemy far more deadly, a supernatural creature that has existed for eons and which is so powerful that the lords of the universe split it into two parts. Now it wants to be reunified, and the protagonist is one brick in the road it needs to follow. Taut, exciting, clever, and sometimes surprising, this is one of the more out of the ordinary novels you may read this year.
The Dwelling by Susie Moloney, Atria, 2/03, $25, ISBN 0-7434-5662-9
At first glance, this looks like a haunted house story, and if you skim through the pages you might confirm your first opinion. There are the usual signs thing slightly wrong with the architecture, doors that open by themselves, etc. But this is actually a story of the "bad place" because there are no over ghosts. It's the house itself that's the source of the evil. The manifestations are actually fairly low key and the terror more psychological than physical. We follow the history of the house, through a series of short term owners, none of whom stay very long, somewhat framed by the observations of the real estate agent who handles the property. This is more a story of character with some supernatural overtones than a horror story, but it's unusually well done and should provide some subtle chills along with its insights into its well drawn characters.
Stolen by Kelley Armstrong, Viking, 5/03, $24.95, ISBN 0-670-03137-2
A couple of years ago, I read a pretty good werewolf novel titled Bitten, in which a young woman comes to terms with her altered existence, an interesting variation of many similar vampire stories, but with a rather more realistic character. It wasn't a great novel, and neither is this, its sequel, but there's a definite movement in that direction. A very rich man with a penchant for hunting involuntarily impresses a number of supernatural and magical beings, including witches, vampires, and our familiar werewolf friend, into his plans for a massive hunting party. Needless to say, the reluctant guests are designed to be the prey rather than the hunters. Parts of the novel are very exciting, and the lead character is as interesting as ever. For some reason, there have been very few good werewolf novels, but maybe that's about to change.
The Taint of Lovecraft by Stanley Sargent, Mythos Books, 2002, $20, ISBN 0-9659433-9-9
Here's a collection of stories, poems, and essays all related in one fashion or another to the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and most previously published in some of the small press magazines that specialize in his canon. Some of the stories are pastiches, others attempt to expand the Cthulhu Mythos, and with mixed results. This is not really a collection for mainstream readers. The references are often ingroupish and the stories assume that you are already familiar with the particulars of the Mythos. The opening story, set in outer space and in the future, is a terrible choice to be positioned there because it's the weakest entry in the book. If you're a Lovecraft fan, you should find this interesting, but if you're a more generalized horror fan, you should probably look elsewhere.
Fat White Vampire Blues by Andrew Fox, Ballantine, 7/03, $13.95, ISBN 0-345-46333-1
The glut of recent vampire novels has made me wary of the topic, but it only took a few pages to convince me that this first novel was definitely something out of the ordinary. The vampire protagonist, who lives in New Orleans, has been dining on the blood of people with a rich diet, and he has ballooned to over four hundred pounds, may be coming down with diabetes, and the female vampire who made him doesn't want to see him any more. As if that wasn't bad enough, a young vampire named Malice X has decided to make life miserable for his older fellow undead, and the local vampire council no longer has the energy to take a hand in things. The battle between the two is brilliant, bloody, and frequently very funny indeed. The novel is crisp, original, witty, clever, and a thorough joy to read. I'm not sure which direction Fox's career will take from here, but I'll certainly be going along for the ride.
The Best of Dreams of Decadence edited by Angela Kessler, Roc, 3/03, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-45918-0
I've never quite understood the fascination with vampires as romantic figures. They're undead, after all, sleep in dirt filled coffins, drink blood, and do all sorts of nasty things. But there's no question that for many readers, they are symbols of sexual power. Dreams of Decadence is a magazine that specializes in exactly that kind of story, although occasionally they publish an atypical tale as well. This anthology is culled from that magazine, and the stories will be new to a wide number of readers for that reason. There are a lot of stories here, more than forty, but they're comparatively short. The best are by Sarah Hoyt, Ann Schwader, Tanith Lee, Lawrence Watt-Evans, Josepha Sherman, Charlee Jacob, Lyda Morehouse, and Laura Anne Gilman. Most of these will appeal primarily to a specialized taste, but there aren't any bad stories here, and if you share that taste, this is a bloody good feast.
The H.P. Lovecraft Tarot, Mythos Books, 2002, $40, ISBN 0-9659433-8-0
This is the second version of this collection of 78 tarot cards, with text and figures drawn from Lovecraft's Mythos stories in place of the traditional characters. The artwork is by Daryl Hutchinson, who has apparently redesigned a substantial portion of the deck for this printing. A fairly lengthy softcover book is included which explains the details of each card, and the cards themselves are treated to make them sturdy and stain resistant. Despite the sometimes grotesque subject matter, the artwork is quite good and the resulting set is sure to be a highly sought after collectors' item.
Jinn by Matthew B.J. Delaney, St Martins, 2003, $24.95, ISBN 0-312-27670-2
The first half of this first horror novel is very impressive. It opens during World War II with US soldiers on a search mission on a Japanese infested island, only to find themselves being hunted by a mysterious creature they never quite see but which seems superhuman. Then there's a jump to the near future, when a billionaire salvages part of a sunken warship aboard which something has managed to stay alive for six decades. Shortly after the wreckage is put on display in Boston, a series of horrible murders stuns the police, in particular two detectives assigned to the case who have a dark secret in their own past as well. All's well for the first two hundred pages, which I read at a single sitting. But as the mystery unravels, so alas does the novel to some extent. The first misstep was minor. An ex-convict sends the detectives to a prison in Boston Harbor to question another inmate about a mysterious solitary confinement hole, and the subsequently revealed information about the warden who presides over the dismemberment of several prisoners under his charge is implausible. The subsequent slaughter of an entire SWAT team also seems to pass without much attention. Then one of the detectives is off to Russia to investigate some artifacts, which conveniently provide most of the explanation, although at great and sometimes tedious length. The story picks up again in the closing chapters, but I'm afraid much of the momentum had gone out of it for me by then. It's a very promising debut, but not an unblemished success.
Islands by Sara Stamey, Tarragon, 2003, $14.95, ISBN 0-9724986-1-3
Archaeologist Susan Dunne travels to the Caribbean to look into her brother's supposedly accidental death while doing a little research at the same time. It isn't long before she begins to suspect foul play and a connection to rumors of a sunken ship full of treasure, rumored to be protected by supernatural entities as well as a fanatical cult. Throw in rumors of illegal drug trade, impersonations, and other nasty goings on and you have the makings for a nice, solid mundane thriller. But this is hardly mundane. The voodoo in this one is real, and if Dunne doesn't realize that quickly, and discover how to use her own abilities, she's likely to follow her brother to an early grave. I don't remember Staley's earlier novels being this intense and gripping, but you'll be caught up in this one almost from the opening chapter.
The Ghost in the Gazebo edited by Edward Lodi, Rock Village Publishing, 2003, $14.95, ISBN 0-9721389-1-9
New England has also seemed the setting of choice for American ghost stories, and this collection illustrates that point a dozen times. The quality of the stories vary from good to mediocre and seem to be about evenly split between new and reprints. The best selections are by Joy Smith and Lenora Rogers. None of the stories are particularly daring; they all mimic standard ghost story fiction, which has become almost as formulaic as romance fiction. A few small chills but no major shudders.
Club Dead by Charlaine Harris, Ace, 5/03, $6.50, ISBN 0-441-01051-2
The third adventure of Sookie Stackhouse, the feisty companion of vampires, maintains the high standards of its predecessors. The series obviously owes something to Laurell Hamilton's Anita Blake novels, although Harris has created an interesting variation, and the tone is not nearly as dark, at least most of the time. There's an undertone of genuine humor that tempers the sometimes nasty events taking place. This time Sookie's off searching for her vampire lover at a posh hangout for the undead, and when she finds him, he's apparently making time with another woman, another live woman, that is. But not everything is what it seems, and before she finds out the truth, she will have to deal with shapechangers, murdered bodies stashed in closets, and other dangers and mysteries. I usually like my vampires to be unrelievedly bad, but I can make an exception when the story is good enough.
Hamlet II: Ophelia's Revenge by David Bergantino, Pocket Star, 2/03, $6.99, ISBN 0-7434-5624-6
I think this horror novel, first in a series "based" on the plays of William Shakespeare, was intended for the young adult audience, but you wouldn't guess that from the packaging. A college football player inherits an old castle in Denmark shortly after his father is murdered under mysterious circumstances. In an effort to forget about his problems, he and a group of friends travel to the castle, only to find themselves confronting the ghost of Ophelia, risen and seeking bloody revenge. Lightweight but competent horror novel amusing primarily because of the ways the author draws the parallels to Shakespeare.
White Bizango by Stephen Gallagher, PS Publishing, 2003, $14, ISBN 1902880-50-1
I believe this is the first non-fantastic title from PS, and it's a good one. Stephen Gallagher writes very excellent horror fiction, not frequently enough, along with thrillers, into which category I'd put this short novel, even though for most of its length the reader isn't sure whether the magic is real or not. The narrator is a police detective who encounters a voodoo master when he interferes with a kidnapping, as a consequence of which he is nearly autopsied while still alive. The balance of the novel is his battle to track down the bag guy, and while he never once believes that his opponent is anything more than a very clever con man, the reader might not be quite as certain. This is one you'll devour in a single sitting because Gallagher never lets his story flag and drags you breathlessly along for the ride.
The Rising by Brian Keene, Delirium, 4/03, $50, ISBN 1-929653-41-7
Zombies were forever changed for horror writers when George Romero's Night of the Living Dead appeared. The influence on Brian Keene is obvious, although he's taken the original concept for a diverting ride. In Keene's universe, zombies are not mindless, staggering creatures but intelligent, their bodies possessed by the spirits of angelic beings dispatched to some nether world by God in the distant past. Now they are returning to reanimate the dead, human and animal, and in such numbers that they seem destined to supplant the human race entirely. We witness all this from various viewpoints, a man trying to rescue his trapped son, a scientist trying to figure out just what is happening, and other survivors seeking to survive if not to fight back. Parts of this are pretty gruesome, which is a plus for some readers and a minus for others. It's not the most cheerful of stories, but it's well written, suspenseful, and frequently scary. For real collectors, a slipcased, leatherbound edition is also available for $175.
Louisiana Breakdown by Lucius Shepard, Golden Gryphon, 4/03, $21.95, ISBN 1-930846-14-2
I could almost read Shepard's prose even if there was no story attached because it's so rich and satisfying. Fortunately, there is a story attached here, and it's a fascinating one. The protagonist is a motorist stranded in a small Louisiana town who discovers that virtually everyone he meets is psychic to some extent. He falls in love with an enigmatic young woman who holds some undefined special place in the community, and eventually discovers that she is the reigning symbol of the deal reached between the town and a supernatural creature to ensure its continuing "luck", although it's not clear that either party to the bargain is actually getting full value. The story is about characters and tension rather than explicit horror or brooding supernatural sequences, but it's scary at times and engrossing all the time.
Letters from Hades by Jeffrey Thomas, Bedlam Press, 4/03, $14.95, ISBN 1-889186-32-5
Rarely but occasionally writers have attempted to portray Hell itself, and usually it comes across as a place of unrelenting horror and misery. Jeffrey Thomas has a slightly different vision in this story of a newly arrived damned soul who discovers that, at least superficially, Hell is a lot like the world of the living, with cities, businesses, and various shades of evil. There's plenty of supernatural elements as well, like the Overseers and the angels that hunt down the damned. But then he intervenes on behalf of a demon and this act of apparent selflessness causes a chain reaction that could alter everything and precipitate the final battle between Heaven and Hell. A quirky, original, sometimes perversely humorous, and always fascinating novel, the first by a writer whose previous reputation rests on a considerable body of quite good short stories.
Laughing Man by T.M. Wright, Leisure, 2/03, $5.99, ISBN 0-84395084-6
T.M. Wright and Charles L. Grant have always been the two names most immediately associated with the concept of quiet horror, that is, horror which sneaks up on the reader and derives its impact from suggestion and slow development of atmosphere and revelation rather than by describing lurching corpses, dripping entrails, or the other more visceral images of horror fiction. After a gap of several years, Wright has begun appearing in book form once again, and of the more recent novels, this is without question the best. His protagonist is a police detective who has an unusual affinity for the dead, and affinity which gives him extra clues with which to solve crimes. But every advantage has to be paid for, and the price in this case may be more than he is willing to pay. Creepy, convincing, and compelling.
Unbound by Tim Vargo, Willowgate Press, 3/03, $12.95, ISBN 1-930008-04-X
One of the failings of many horror movies, and some horror novels, is that their creators fail to get the audience interested in the fate of the protagonist. If we like the character, we want them to survive; if we hate the character, we want to see them suffer or die. If the character is uninteresting or merely annoying, it's hard to generate much emotional involvement in the story, and the suspense of the plot is diluted. This new horror novel presents a character complex enough that we really do care, but for mixed motives. Lewis Freed is not a particularly likable character, but his personality has been shaped by horrible events which arouse sympathy if not empathy in the reader. As he struggles with the legacy of an abusive, alcoholic father, his dreams are troubled by a sinister figure that might just be his imagination, but which ultimately proves to be much more. A dark, introspective, and very impressive debut novel.
Serenity Falls by James A. Moore, Meisha Merlin, 1/03, $20, ISBN 1-892065-66-5
Although this might sound like a steep price tag for a paperback novel, you're going to get your money's worth with this one, in terms of both quality and quantity. It runs well over eight hundred pages, and for the most part it's very tightly plotted and integrated. A comparison to early Steven King is inevitable, because it's the kind of novel King might have written. A mysterious force arrives in a small town and occupies the body of one of its residents. Once established, it sets out to bring about the systematic destruction of the entire community, through violence, mistrust, hatred, and fear. The relentless efforts of the antagonist are opposed by a young boy who slowly wakens to the danger while those around him remain oblivious. You'll become immersed very quickly, and once caught up in the story, you'll find it difficult to put the book away until you've finished it.
Road to Hell by Gerard Houarner, Leisure, 1/03, $5.99, ISBN 0-8439-5065-X
This is the sequel to Houarner's The Beast That Was Max, although I believe it was actually published earlier in a small press edition. Max is a man troubled by internal demons, quite literally, which resulted in a running battle with government agents and other enemies and victims in the first book. Now Max is back, but so is his son, a young man who ages with phenomenal speed and who is the conduit through which the victims of Max's violence hope to gain revenge on their killer. And just to keep things interesting, his mortal enemies are still on the prowl. This time Max is fatally outnumbered, but even at the end there's a hint that more may be in store for him. The nature of the protagonist's character and situation makes it a bit difficult to identify with him, but Houarner manages to immerse his readers anyway. For horror readers who are looking for something a little bit different.
The Restless Dead by Hugh Cave, Leisure, 1/03, $5.99, ISBN 0-8439-5082-X
A university professor who specializes in studying voodoo legends tries to help a family that has been suffering from a voodoo curse. Despite his background, he is caught unawares by the reality of the curse, and the intensity of this particular manifestation which includes a secret under the house that I won't tell you about because it would spoil the suspense. As with most of his novels, Cave understates things very effectively rather than overwhelm the reader with visceral horror, and the novel is more effective because it sneaks up on you when you're not looking. Cave's own expertise on voodoo also gives it a much more credible air than many others that have dealt with similar themes. You might almost believe that it could be true.