Already Dead by Charlie Huston, Del Rey, 2005, $12.95, ISBN 0-345-47824-X
Do we really need another vampire detective series, even a pretty good one? Well, whether we do or not, it's here with the first adventure of Joe Pitt, a good guy vampire and a bit of a loner. He doesn't belong to any of the vampire clans and is in fact on the wrong list for a cult of the undead who have plans for him. Vampirism is a virus, you see, or more properly a vyrus, but the results are about the same. He can't stand the daylight, has super strength, and is hard to kill, and his job right now is to track down a kind of zombie killer another virus without dying in the process, if that's the right term. Nice crisp prose although the dialogue seems almost skeletal at times. And a word of warning: this is written in present tense, a technique that puts off some readers, including this one.
The Occult Detective by Robert Weinberg, Twilight Tales, 2005, $12.00, ISBN 0-9711309-9-X
I'm not sure why there have been so few occult detectives. Maybe it's because an element of suspense if removed when you know there's a recurring character who is, presumably, immune to being killed by the supernatural menace in each individual story. In any case, although the few that do exist Jules de Grandin, Carnacki, etc. are well remembered, contemporary writers don't seem much interested in that form. Robert Weinberg is an exception. The seven adventures of Sidney Taine collected here were published over a period of more than a decade, and in a number of different places, mostly anthologies. I had read five of the seven previously, and remembered "The Midnight El" and "Terror by Night" before I re-read them. Two were completely new to me. His adventures tend more to the fantastic than supernatural horror, but they're all exciting and well deserve being brought back into print as a unit.
Looks Could Kill by Nancy Collins, Black Flame, 2006, $7.99, ISBN 1-84416-316-4
The Final Destination films would never have appeared on my list of movies likely to spawn a series of novels. The premise, if you haven't seen either film, is that if you cheat death, Death itself will act as a conscious force to restore the balance. The plot was clever once, and almost twice, but leaves little apparent room for development. Nevertheless this is the first original novel based on that series, the first by Collins. She takes some minor liberties with the original concept, because now we have a disfigured woman who makes a deal with death, one that requires that she arrange the death of a close friend. The story shows promise at times, but eventually slips back into the predictable.
Forever Will You Suffer by Gary Frank, Medallion, 2006, $6.99, ISBN 1932815694
Although this horror novel gets off to a good start, it loses its way after a while. The protagonist is still grieving for his dead family, killed in an accident years earlier, when he discovers that his cab driver is a zombie, that his girlfriend is being troubled by a stalker, and that reality itself has become fluid. The cause is a misdeed he committed in a previous life, and the story goes through various convoluted shifts before he has a chance to put things right. Not badly written but the plot should have been simpler and tighter.
Midnighters: Blue Noon by Scott Westerfeld, Eos, 2/06, $15.99, ISBN 0-06-051957-6
This is the third in a young adult supernatural fantasy series, of which I've seen neither of the previous volumes, although I will probably look them up after reading this one. Westerfeld has proven to be an interesting and rewarding writer in the past, and the concept for this series, a pocket of time that exists outside the normal course of events, and its effect on five teenagers who are aware of its existence, is intriguing. I'm not sure what might have happened earlier in the series, but this time the teens are faced with the possibility of infiltration of our world by mysterious and presumably evil creatures which live outside our reality. Creepy at times, and quite suspenseful throughout.
Adrift on the Haunted Seas by William Hope Hodgson, Cold Spring Press, 2005, $11.00, ISBN 1-59360-049-6
The Shadow at the Bottom of the World by Thomas Ligotti, Cold Spring Press, 2005, $13.00, ISBN 1-59360-058-5
I have long believed that horror fiction is at its best in the short story, primarily because it is difficult to sustain the desired level of emotion for the length of an entire novel. Cold Spring Press an imprint I've not seen before has provided an excuse to reread two of the very best short horror writers, from very different backgrounds and times, but with much in common as well. William Hope Hodgson was a British writer who produced only a small amount of fiction before dying young, but a surprising amount of it is very memorable and he remains one of the major figures in early supernatural fiction. This volume is labeled as his "best" stories, always a debatable term, but his most familiar stories are all here, "Voice in the Night", "Out of the Storm", "The Derelict", and others. A large number of them involve sea travel, a common theme in his work. I was surprised to note the absence of "Horse of the Invisible". Thomas Ligotti is in many ways the successor to H.P. Lovecraft, because he often invokes the same sense of cosmic forces working behind the scenes. Like Lovecraft, he uses very intricate prose, and more skillfully. This collection draws stories from previous volumes and brings together a number that have been unavailable since their first publication. There are sixteen in all, including several of his best works. Both books are handsomely bound and professional in appearance, in keeping with the very high quality level of the contents.
Working for the Devil by Lilith Saintcrow, Warner, 3/06, $6.99, ISBN 0-446-61670-2
Contemporary fantasy is nothing new, but there has been a decidedly different twist to much of it following the popularity of Laurell Hamilton's Anita Blake series. Some authors influenced by her success have been simply imitative, but others have managed to find their own distinct take on a world similar to ours but one in which the magical and supernatural are a part of everyday life. The protagonist of this which appears to be the first in a series is a necromancer who hires out her skills, in this case to the devil himself, who wants her to track down and destroy a rebellious demon. Dante Valentine is a loner who gets more than she bargained for this time. Her adventures are enlivened by occasional humor and the story is helped considerably by the author's inventive imagination. There's even a touch of non-sentimental romance. This looks like a very promising series.
Touch of Evil by C.T. Adams and Cathy Clamp, Tor, 3/06, $7.99, ISBN 0-765-35400-4
The protagonist of this supernatural romance has been enslaved by a band of vampires who wish to turn her into their queen, despite her disinclination in that direction. Betrayed by her former lover, she is unwilling to trust anybody, so when a handsome male werewolf suggests that he might be able to save her, she is reluctant to put much credence in what he says. But pretty soon they're communicating with more than just words, as you'd expect in a romance novel, and the plot is pretty straightforward from there onward. Unsurprising but solidly written.
The Haunted Screen by Lee Kovacs, McFarland, 2006, $29.95, ISBN 0-7864-2605-5
H.P. Lovecraft in Popular Culture by Don G. Smith, McFarland, 2006, $32.00, ISBN 0-7864-2091-X
Both of these books on supernatural elements in popular culture come with a high price tag, but if that doesn't scare you off, each has its appeal. The first in an essay on ghosts in literature and movies and concentrates primarily on the different ways that ghosts are betrayed, either as romantic spirits or gothic threats or in other ways. Although the author does a good job of covering the topic, the book is rather short and the black and white stills included don't do much to illustrate the topic. More interesting is Smith's survey of Lovecraft's themes in movies, television, comics, music, games, and elsewhere. It opens with a very brief survey of Lovecraft's fiction, and the bulk of what follows is devoted to film versions, each with a detailed description and critique. The brief section on films that were distantly inspired by Lovecraft is more debatable; the concept of alien monsters did not originate with HPL. The remaining sections are more superficial and primarily bibliographic rather than descriptive or critical. I couldn't think of anything that the author had overlooked.
A Taste of Crimson by Marjorie M. Liu, Lovespell, 2005, $6.99, ISBN 0-505-52632-8
Through a Crimson Veil by Patti O'Shea, Lovespell, 2005, $6.99, ISBN 0-505-52647-6
A Darker Crimson by Carolyn Jewel, Lovespell, 2005, $6.99, ISBN 0-505-52658-1
I couldn't help but be aware of the fact that vampire romances have become quite popular, but so few come my way that I didn't have a strong feel for what was going on. To remedy this problem, I recently started sampling the genre, and found it more diverse than I expected. As a case in point, we have these three titles part of a multi author series set in an alternate Los Angeles where vampires and werewolves share the world with humans. Liu's novel has an exciting plot the truce among the various parties is beginning to unravel, perhaps at the instigation of some force which thrives on violence - and a young woman finds herself drawn to a man with an unsavory reputation. The prose doesn't rise to the same level, however, and the dialogue in particular is leaden. O'Shea's contribution has almost the same basic plot, but the writing is much better, and there's a fairly intriguing mystery to be solved. Jewel takes the story in a new direction. The schism continues to grow, but there's a new player in the game. Apparently demons have begun to infiltrate the renamed Crimson City, and one of them may have kidnapped the protagonist's daughter. Not as well written as the previous one, but reasonably engaging. There's an earlier title in the series by Liz Maverick and at least two continuations scheduled for next year.
The Hunger by Susan Squires, St Martins, 2005, $6.99, ISBN 0-312-99854-6
I Hunger for You by Susan Sizemore, Pocket Star, 2005, $6.99, ISBN 0-7434-6744-2
After Midnight by Teresa Medeiros, Avon, 2005, $6.99, ISBN 0-06-076299-3
Private Demon by Lynn Viehl, Signet Eclipse, 2005, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-21705-5
Continuing my survey of vampire romances, we have four recent titles, two by authors known outside the romance genre, Lynn Viehl (who writes SF as S.L. Viehl) and Susan Sizemore. Susan Squires was a new name to me, but her historical vampire thriller, set in 1811, is actually quite good. The female protagonist is the vampire this time, reformed but tormented by her past. She falls in love with an English spy and helps him in his campaign to find out what's going on in France, during the course of which efforts they discover a darker truth. The Sizemore novel is third in a series, and bears some slight resemblance to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The heroine is descended from a line of vampire hunters, but refuses to accept the reality of the situation until she is attacked by bad vampires and rescued by a good one. Sizemore's work is, as always, workmanlike and entertaining. The same is true for Teresa Medeiros, whose work I have sampled before. Nothing earthshakingly new in this reasonably suspenseful story of a woman who falls in love with a mysterious aristocrat who never appears in public during the daylight, but it has some entertaining twists and turns. Finally we have the second in a series by Viehl, featuring a part time police consultant who finds herself in love with a mysterious man who invades her dreams. Although this last is quite well written, I found it much harder to involve myself in the story and my attention wandered several times before I finished it.
How to Marry a Millionaire Vampire by Kerrelyn Sparks, Avon, 2005, $5.99, ISBN 0-06-075196-7
This vampire romance gets high points for being very much out of the ordinary, and also for having a very amusing premise. The vampire hero loses a fang and needs to find a dentist to replace it before his unnatural healing powers heal the wound and leave him asymmetrical. The female protagonist is a dentist with an unnatural fear of blood and a deadly enemy. Unfortunately, the high points end there. Humor and serious sequences can be mixed in the same novel, but only if done skillfully. In this case, the transitions are jarring. Add two dimensional characters and occasionally awkward dialogue and the result is a disappointing rendition of what might otherwise have been a good book.
Infernal by F. Paul Wilson, Forge, 2005, $25.95, ISBN 0-765-31275-1
The latest Repairman Jack novel has three interconnected plots. When terrorists massacre airline passengers including Jack's father, he is thrown together with his estranged brother. Plot one involves Jack's efforts to track down the parties responsible for the massacre and exact revenge. Plot two involves his brother's corrupt lifestyle and his imminent arrest for influence peddling and other malfeasances. Plot three emerges when the two travel clandestinely to Bermuda and recover an artifact from a ship sunk in the late 16th Century, a mystical artifact which his brother believes to be priceless but which is actually a dangerous supernatural trap. Although the story moves right along, I thought this was probably the weakest in the series. Brother Tom is a cad whose eventually partial redemption is predictable, the supernatural menace is defeated by a half cheating solution, and the most interesting plot the terrorists is truncated and never completely resolved, presumably spilling over into the next in the series.
Cruel Winter by Anthony Izzo, Pinnacle, 9/05, $6.99, ISBN 0-7860-1732-5
New writer Izzo suggests the influencer of Stephen King in this story of the Winters, wealthy mother and spoiled son who have moved into a large mansion built on the ruins of a sanitarium in a small northeastern town. Shortly after their arrival, the first in a series of mutilation murders takes place, perpetrated by a loathsome creature living in the tunnels under the estate. Their son becomes friends with three boys and a girl, who get drawn into the strange happenings when a gang of bullies targets the newcomer. Much of this book is very good and the writing itself is uniformly good. My one criticism is that the chief villain, the mother, takes so many risks and makes so many obvious mistakes that it is hard to believe that she had actually escaped detection for two centuries before finding her Waterloo. A very good if not entirely convincing first effort.
Parish Damned by Lee Thomas, Telos, 2005, $8.95, ISBN 1-84583-040-7
This is a novella of the supernatural, which opens more strongly than it concludes. The people of Coral Point are hit every few years with a mysterious and perhaps fatal disease, and those who contract it are rumored to have gone into the sea to commit suicide and avoid the unpleasant death that awaits them. But this year things are going to change because an outsider wants answers and the answers involve something far worse than a small plague. Well written but the conclusion wasn't really satisfying.
Dispatch by Bentley Little, Signet, 10/05, $7.99, ISBN 0-451-21677-6
Bentley Little's newest almost got past me because the local bookstore didn't shelve it in the horror section. Like most of his previous work, it centers on what appears to be a rather mundane part of the contemporary world. The protagonist spends much of his life writing letters, for which he has an unprecedented talent. He can complain to manufacturers and earn himself free gifts and other letters, more personal ones, can actually influence the emotions and actions of the people who receive them. The term "man of letters" takes on a whole new meaning in his case. But his extraordinary talent attracts the attention of someone else, someone who recruits him as an employee. Unfortunately, he finds himself working for an evil force powerful enough to consume even him, and his boss doesn't look favorably on resignations, no matter how well written. This was easily the best, and most seductive, of Little's recent novels.
Berserk by Tim Lebbon, Leisure, 1/06, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5430-2
This is the first mass market edition of what is certainly Lebbon's best book to date. The protagonist is frustrated by the events surrounding his son's death. Military authorities insist he died in a training accident, but he suspects the sealed coffin doesn't really contain the body. His investigation leads him to a mass grave which he excavates, but what he finds is something out of his worst nightmare and something that might well slip into yours. I don't want to give away too much but this is a superb and shocking horror novel, and definitely not for those with weak stomachs. The child character, Natasha, is particularly memorable.
Hate Kill - Repeat by Jason Arnopp, Black Flame, 2005, $7.99, ISBN 1-84416-271-0
Death Moon by Alex S. Johnson, Black Flame, 2005, $7.99, ISBN 1-84416-273-7
These two movie tie-ins show the diverging threads of the Friday the 13th Films. The first title is closer to the original movies. Two serial killers decide that Jason is a kindred spirit, so they journey to Crystal Lake to join forces. Unfortunately for them, Jason doesn't like competition, or partners. The second title, which is less plausible but paradoxically more interesting, follows Jason into the future. Jason has been revived and fortified with advanced technology, but he still doesn't follow instructions or work well with others, and he goes on a rampage at an exclusive girls' school on the moon. The first book is considerably better written, but doesn't have as many amusing incidents as the other.
Protege by Tim Waggoner, Black Flame, 2005, £6.99, ISBN 1-84416-255-9
Dead Man's Hand by Steven A. Roman, Black Flame, 2005, £6.99, ISBN 1-84416-177-3
Two more horror film tie-ins from an imprint specializing in that form. The first is a Nightmare on Elm Street novel, in which Freddy Krueger takes on an apprentice of sorts, but as usually happens in these cases, the apprentice gets ideas of his own and has to be dealt with. This was actually quite well written and I always thought this was the only really intelligent slasher film franchise, although it has had its ups and downs. The second is based on The Final Destination, whose premise is that death is a physical force and that if you avoid death through prescience, it comes looking for you. The concept is interesting but very limited and the novels in this series of which this is the fourth have tended to follow very much the same pattern. Some of the death scenes are cleverly done, but there's nothing new here at all.
Operation Vampyr by David Bishop, Black Flame, 2005, $6.99, ISBN 1-84416-274-5
This is the opening volume in the Fiends of the Eastern Front trilogy, set during World War II. The protagonist is a German participating in the invasion of Russia who discovers that some of the Romanian troops fighting alongside the Germans are actually vampires. Horrified, he switches sides, intending to alert the Russians to the danger, but the vampires are determined to protect their secret. There's some possibly unintentional humor mixed into this blend of the horrors of war and the horrors of the undead. Bishop is a workmanlike writer who manages to keep even the most implausible situations sounding as though they might really happen.
Dark Furies edited by Vincent Sneed, Die Monster Die Books, 2005, $14.95, ISBN 0-9759904-1-1
There were only a couple of authors in this collection of horror stories about beauties and beasts whom I had ever heard of previously and, alas, most of the stories were equally unmemorable, although none are terribly badly written. They tend to be predictable and a few are awkwardly constructed, and the prose is occasional self conscious and clumsy. The best entries are by Patrick Thomas, C.J. Henderson, and James Chambers but their stories are not sufficiently interesting to outweigh the others. I've never heard of this publisher but they put out a nice looking book; they just need to work on upgrading the contents.
Riverside Blues by Erik Tomblin, Earthling, 2005, $14, ISBN 0-9766339-2-2
In this novella, author Erik Tomblin has created one of the most quietly disturbing supernatural tales I've read in some time. The protagonist is an elderly man who has returned to the town where his wife was mysteriously killed many years before. There he renews his acquaintance with the local sheriff, a rival for his wife when he first married. The reader will guess early, and the author tells us very quickly, that the sheriff is actually the murderer, and therefore suspicious when the protagonist decides to clean up the woody area where the body was hidden. So far it's a pleasant if not particularly surprising mystery, but that's when Tomblin twists things. The missing woman shows up, naked, unaged, and with amnesia. Her husband conceals her existence, but his increasingly odd behavior convinces the sheriff that he suspects something. Very well written, very strange, and very impressive.
Dark Whispers by Chris Blaine, Berkley, 2005, $6.99, ISBN 0-425-20629-7
This is the opening volume in a series of novels centered on the Abaddon Inn, a mythical Victorian establishment of dubious reputation in Cape May, New Jersey. "Chris Blaine" is a house pseudonym and a look at the dedications and thanks will tell you this one is by Craig Shaw Gardner. His novel is set in the 1980s when the inn is purchased by John Dalton and his wife. Dalton is the son of a magnate who is also a control freak, and he isn't happy when his son uses the money from an inheritance to establish his independence. The inn has a mind of its own as well, and it isn't long before strange events begin to occur and the ghosts of the past reach out to influence those living in the present. Nicely tied up with some chills and thrills along the way, and you know you're just waiting for Dalton senior to get his comeuppance.
The Unwelcome Child by Terese Pampellonne, Pinnacle, 12/05, $6.99, ISBN 0-7860-1726-0
The protagonist of this first horror novel is a woman who suddenly finds herself pregnant even though doctors have told her for years that this isn't likely. What should be a welcome event proves otherwise, however. The prospective mother appears to be falling into some form of madness. She has become superstitious and talks of an evil force threatening her child, and grows increasingly reluctant to leave the Victorian home where she is living. It is up to one of her friends to uncover the truth, and discover that it is the house that is responsible for the miraculous conception, and that despite appearances, this might prove to be more of a curse than a blessing. Occasional mild awkwardness in some of the dialogue, but it's infrequent and minor and the element of suspense is very well handled.
The Reckoning by Sarah Pinborough, Leisure, 2005, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5550-3
The Backwoods by Edward Lee, Leisure, 2005, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5413-2
A variation of the haunted house story is the "bad place", usually also a house as in the case of the first of these titles, the author's second horror novel. The house in question this time was the site of some strange and disturbing occurrences many years before and the main characters, now adults, are drawn together for a fresh conflict in the present when one of their number, who left town but never quite managed to leave it behind him, returns to confront the past, and discovers that the evil force is, if anything, more active and malevolent than ever. Not at all badly written, but I could see most of the plot twists coming well in advance. There's a homecoming in the Edward Lee novel as well, this time involving a woman who returns to a rural town always prone to violence but never as bad as it is now. Mutilated bodies, emptied graves, and a hint of dark sorcery complicate her life as she uncovers secrets and horrors on every side. Lee has few rivals portraying the really twisted possibilities of human evil, even without the supernatural, and this is one of his more effective recent novels.
The Midnight Work by Kassandra Sims, Tor, 12/05, $7.99, ISBN 0-765-35394-6
Here's another of those novels that are impossible to pigeonhole. It's part of Tor's supernatural romance line and it's about a woman who has just been turned into a vampire, but it's nothing like what you might expect. Sophie doesn't resent being turned because she really likes her new lifestyle, although there are a few side effects that she could do just as well without. And she really likes the vampire male who converted her, even though he thinks she's the reincarnation of a woman he loved in the distant past. But things really get going when she attracts the animosity of a deadly fairy, and must turn to a disreputable alchemist to defend herself, sort of. There's a nice balance of serious plot and comic relief in this one, and the romance is adroitly handled as well. One of the more pleasant surprises in this line.
Reading Angel edited by Stacey abbott, I.B. Tauris, 2005, $15.95, ISBN 1-85043-839-0
I've seen a shelf full of books about Buffy the Vampire Slayer but comparatively little about the spinoff show, Angel. This collection of essays looks at every aspect of the show, thematically and technically, everything from the music chosen to the way the stories deal with racial prejudice and other social issues. The only contributor whose name is familiar to be is Roz Kaveney, but the majority of them are soundly written and there are often interesting insights into the show that had not occurred to me before.
Supernatural Literature of the World edited by S.T. Joshi and Stefan Dziemianowicz, Greenwood, 2005, $300, ISBN 0-313-32775-0, 0-313-32776-9, and 0-313-32777-7
This three volume compendium of articles about writers of supernatural fiction and of specific works is a very welcome addition to the reference section of any true connoisseur of supernatural fiction. The individuals essays, by a wide variety of people, cover all of the classics and most of the better contemporary writers working in the genre, providing brief but informative career and plot summaries and placing the individual entries in the larger context of the field as a whole. There are lots of black and white photographs sprinkled through the text, and the third volume contains a helpful index of fictional characters and an extensive though not comprehensive index of motifs. The price on this is probably high for casual readers, but others should feel that they've gotten their money's worth.
Grave Sight by Charlaine Harris, Berkley, 10/05, $23.95, ISBN 0-425-20568-1
Charlaine Harris takes a break from her popular Sookie Stackhouse supernatural mystery series for this new title, which moves closer to our world but otherwise has many of the same elements. The protagonist is another woman with supernatural talents, in this case the ability to sense the place and to some extent the circumstances of an individual's final moments of life. Perhaps understandably, even the people she helps look at her somewhat askance, but she makes no apologies for her talent. One day she finds herself in a small town where a child has been murdered, and for some reason her talent doesn't work as well as it usually does. Even worse, the killer isn't done. The core of the story is a familiar one the psychic versus the serial killer but Harris gives it a nearly complete makeover and the results are excellent.
Forgotten Souls by T.G. Arsenault, Five Star, 12/05, $25.95, ISBN 1-59414-383-8
This first novel hovers on the borderline between contemporary fantasy and horror. The chief protagonist is a woman who for most of her life has found solace in graveyards, drawn to the dead, some of whom have not passed on peacefully to the next stage of their existence. She encounters a man with a supernatural ability to sense the dead. Their encounter is not accidental because an evil force once thwarted is about to strike again, and they may be the only ones who can stand in its way. For the most part, this was quite a striking story, very low key and character driven. There are occasional moments when the prose seemed unpolished, but in general the author does an excellent job, particularly in developing the almost surrealistically creepy atmosphere.
The Smoke Thief by Shana Abe, Bantam, 10/05, $15, ISBN 0-553-80448-0
The author could have cast this new novel as a vampire romance without much difficulty, because it has a great many parallels to that subgenre. In this case, the drakon a secret society of inhumans which lives in the contemporary world, outwardly indistinguishable from the rest of us are shapeshifters who can assume the form of dragonlike creatures. Their secret is put in jeopardy when one of their kind begins to pursue a career as a master burglar, attracting unwelcome attention. The other drakon are determined to discover the identity of the criminal and preserve their secret, but even they are about to have a big surprise. This contemporary fantasy is also very much a romance novel and their were times when the author seemed to have strayed a bit from her main plot to incorporate those elements, but her prose is very readable and I found myself genuinely caring what happened to the principle characters.
Tales Out of Dunwich edited by Robert Price, Hippocampus, 2005, $20, ISBN 0-9748789-9-5
In case you can't tell from the title, this is a collection of stories set within the Cthulhu Mythos created by H.P. Lovecraft. Although all the stories but one are reprints, most of them come from relatively obscure sources so you're not likely to have read them already unless you're a fanatical Lovecraft fan. There's a 1937 story by Jack Williamson, for example, and the Eddy Bertin tale a pretty good one is original to this volume. Other contributors include Brian McNaughton, Nancy Collins, and Richard Lupoff. Truth in advertising I have a story in this one as well. Over all a very good selection, but the cover doesn't seem to fit the book.
Follow by A.J. Matthews, Jove, 10/05, $7.99, ISBN 0515-14015-5
Ghost stories have, for the most part, been conspicuous by their absence in contemporary American horror fiction. Among the exceptions are many of the novels of Rick Hautala, who lurks here under a pseudonym, but uses much the same subject matter. Pamela Gardner narrowly escapes with her life after a strange vehicle pursues her down a lonely back road one night, her life saved in part by the intervention of the ghostly figure of a friend of hers who was recently murdered. The author makes no serious effort to conceal from readers that Pamela has been chosen as the next in a series of victims by a mysterious serial killer, who has so far managed to avoid having the authorities suspect that his victims have a common killer. The ghosts are not the villains this time, but have returned for their own purposes, and the unfolding of what follows is the basis for a suspenseful story, one of those in which we know all along what must happen ultimately, but become fascinated with the route the story takes to get us there.
Keepers by Gary A. Braunbeck, Leisure, 9/05, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5577-5
Gary Braunbeck's very strange imagination brings us another very unusual novel, this one featuring a man who knows that he has forgotten something important in his past, and who hears a dying man say that the Keepers, whoever they may be, are coming. A series of increasingly bizarre incidents follows, including menacing men in bowler hats, if they really are men, savage dogs that not everyone can see, and other disruptions to the world as we believe it is. Some of the images are very effective, and the story is at times exciting and involving. My only problem with it is that it became so strange, and the story becomes so wrapped up in the odd images, that I began to feel distanced from what was going on and alienated from the protagonist. I enjoyed reading right until the end, because I wanted to see what other tricks and twists Braunbeck was going to throw at me, but most of the suspense had dissipated by then and it felt more like an offbeat fantasy than a horror novel.
Blood Angel by Justine Musk, Roc, 10/05, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-46052-9
There was a flurry of horror fiction connected to popular music some years ago, resulting in such excellent novels as Armageddon Rag by George R.R. Martin, but also unfortunately a goodly number of very forgettable novels and short stories, so many that it became a clichι that has now largely been abandoned. First novelist Musk revives a version of that theme in this unusually compelling story of the supernatural which weaves together separate and individually weird stories involving invaded dreams, a mystical predestination, and a rock singer whose popularity results not just from the quality of the music she produces but its very nature. Quite well written, both in plot structure and prose, and hopefully the harbinger of a major new talent.
Now We Are Sick edited by Neil Gaiman and Stephen Jones, DreamHaven Books, 2005, $9.95, ISBN 1-892058-10-3
Now here's the kind of poetry collection I can really enjoy. The editors have brought together thirty poems filled with grotesque images, dripping entrails, blood and gore, death and dismemberment, grotesqueries and monsters. The contributors include Brian W. Aldiss, Ramsey Campbell, Terry Pratchett, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, Alan Moore, James Herbert, Storm Constantine, and many others, including reprints from Robert Bloch and R.A. Lafferty. Most of them are quite hilariously funny. The intertwining of humor and horror is rarely as effective as in these, particularly the contributions by Aldiss, Moore, Salmonson, and Harry Adam Knight. Definitely not for kiddies. Unless you have very interesting kiddies.
Bloodstone by Nate Kenyon, Five Star, 1/06, $25.95, ISBN 1-59414-438-9
An alcoholic and a prostitute travel to a small town where their unlikely partnership places them squarely in the midst of a growing evil. Violent acts are breaking all around them, and the reader will be well ahead of the characters in realizing that this isn't just ordinary violence but something stirred up by a malevolent supernatural force. Although to some extent, what follows will not be greatly surprising to seasoned horror readers, the author has a few cards up his sleeve and reveals them at opportune times. The narrative is occasionally a bit hesitant but not enough to seriously interrupt the growing suspense and there is an exciting climax to bring things to an end.
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, Little, Brown, 2005, $17.99, ISBN 0-316-16017-2
Although this doesn't look like it from the packaging, Twilight is a novel of the supernatural, although it is more of a vampire romance than a horror story. The relationship between a curious woman and the mysterious man who becomes the object of her obsession is much more restrained than in other novels using similar plots, more intellectual than physical, and rather ethereal at times. She figures out what he is but falls in love with him anyway, while he displays conflicting tendencies, and may not himself know what he wants. The story goes on a bit too long and the climax doesn't really resolve the issues raised earlier, but it's not a bad book and should certainly find some enthusiastic fans.
The Midnight Hour: Saint Lawn Hill and Other Tales by James Chambers and Jason Whitley, Die Monster Die Books, 2005, $14.95, ISBN 0-9759904-2-X
I had not previously heard of either the author, the illustrator, or the publisher of this collection of related stories, which involve a team of paranormal investigators who sometimes find the real thing, sometimes not. The book itself is handsomely produced and the artwork varies from okay to quite interesting. The prose itself is more consistent and generally quite good. The plots involve supernatural plotters, the undead, and the usual variety of horrid images, although the author often gives them a nice little twist. I'm sure we'll hear from this author again and if the publisher produces more titles of equal quality, horror fans will probably learn to know the imprint as well.
Accursed by Amber Benson and Christopher Golden, Del Rey, 11/05, $13.95, ISBN 0-345-47130-X
This is the first of the Ghosts of Albion series to appear from Del Rey, although I believe there is an earlier book in the series from Subterranean. The premise has been used before, although rarely as effectively. The protagonists have a magical mission to protect England from the ravages of the supernatural. To this purpose they have enlisted the ghosts of famous English citizens, including Lord Byron. The problem this time is that a terrible plague is spreading through Victorian London, and the disease is associated with the manifestations of supernatural creatures who threaten to overrun the entire country. This is a kind of occult secret history, and part of the fun is having the ghosts of famous people like Lord Nelson weigh in as the battle progresses. The authors do a good job of bringing Victorian England to life, and the conclusion suggests that more adventures are on their way.
The Journal of Professor Abraham Van Helsing by Professor Allen C. Kupfer, Forge, 2005, $9.95, ISBN 0-765-31012-0
This short novel of the supernatural is cast in the form of Van Helsing's diary, starting before the incidents recorded in Bram Stoker's Dracula and continuing afterward. We learn a good deal about the vampire hunter's background and motivation, and more about the nature of the undead. For me this was more interesting as a curiosity than as a novel and Kupfer's Van Helsing did not seem to me the same character that Stoker portrayed. There are also a few moments of mild satire. The footnotes are a nice touch.
Manitou Blood by Graham Masterton, Leisure, 2005, $6.99, ISBN 08439-5425-6
If you like me are very tired of all of the nice vampires in contemporary fiction, you're going to have a pleasant surprise in this one, because the plague of vampires that sweeps over Manhattan in this new novel by Masterton, fourth in the very loose Manitou series, is just what you've been waiting for. The action starts when a doctor finds a young woman vomiting blood, blood that turns out not to be her own. Within hours, blood drinkers and exsanguinated corpses are showing up all over the city, along with their slaughtered victims. Those afflicted with what is believed to be a new disease share a nightmare and other similarities, and the truth begins to come out only when a psychic observes an unusual manifestation, which eventually leads him to a confrontation with a kind of super vampire and the even more menacing personality which controls him. Bloody, fast paced, and deftly told.
Giants of the Frost by Kim Wilkins, Warner, 1/06, $6.99, ISBN 0-446-61728-8
This longish novel straddles the genres of fantasy and horror, so I suppose it's the kind of thing we've started calling Dark Fantasy. The protagonist is a young woman who takes an assignment at a remote weather station on an island in Scandinavia. The spooky stuff starts almost immediately, strange dreams, stories of ghosts, objects disappearing mysteriously. Then the story shifts to the realm of the Norse gods for a long time before returning, and we discover that our heroine is to be both menaced and aided by creatures from Viking mythology. Although some of this is all very suspenseful and effective, the transition back and forth disrupted the tension for me and I came away with the impression that the author had written two very different novels and stirred them together.
Lost on the Darkside edited by John Pelan, Roc, 9/05, $7.99, ISBN 0-451-46043-X
For the most part, original horror anthologies have not succumbed to the current trend to have a central theme, and therefore the stories are much more varied and the anthology, as a whole, tends to be a more rewarding reading experience. That becomes even more evident when the quality of the individual stories is also above average, which is the case with this new collection, featuring stories by Ramsey Campbell, Michael Laimo, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, Gerard Houarner, and others, a good blend of established writers and talented newcomers.
Undead and Unreturnable by MaryJanice Davidson, Berkley, 11/05, $21.95, ISBN 0-425-20816-8
With Undead and Unwed, MaryJanice Davidson introduced one of the most unusual vampires of all time, a Minneapolis woman who would rather shop than suck, and who eventually finds herself involuntarily acclaimed as queen of the vampires. This is her fourth outing, a blend of quirky humor and standard horror themes with an undercurrent of light romance. Betsy is planning to marry another of the undead and is caught up in the usual pre-wedding frenzy, but there is a serial killer preying on the living, and a host of ghosts who want Betsy to help them with their problems, to say nothing of vampire politics and the difficulties she encounters accommodating her new life imperatives. Not quite as amusing as the first three, perhaps a sign that Davidson has exhausted the possibilities of the set up, but still a lot of fun.
Valley of Lights by Stephen Gallagher, Telos, 2005, $9.95, ISBN 1-903889-74-X
I first read this in a US paperback edition back in 1987, and at the time I thought it was one of the best horror novels published during the avalanche of genre titles during the late 1980s. Gallagher has never confined himself to a single genre, however, and little of his other fiction has fallen into that category. The novel returns to print here in somewhat different form, the author's preferred version, along with a long story, an interview, and an article about the writing of the novel. The set-up is a neat one. Someone is kidnapping people, wiping their memories and personalities, but keeping the vegetative bodies alive for some purpose of his own, eventually revealed as backup bodies for a villain who can shift his personality from one to another. A tense and gripping mystery ensues, pitting the protagonist against an enemy who is perfectly willing to die, since he will be immediately restored to life elsewhere.
In Golden Blood by Stephen Woodworth, Dell, 10/05, $6.99, ISBN 0-440-24252-5
The third adventure of Natalie Lindstrom, psychic channeler, sets off in a very new direction. The first two novels had her working with law enforcement agencies, quick to use her skills but less than benevolent in their treatment of her, but this time she has decided to pursue a less dangerous career. Her ability to channel the spirits of the dead seems to provide a unique tool for archaeology and she joins an expedition to South America where she plans to use her skills to contact those who lived in the area ages in the past and use their knowledge to direct the expedition's efforts. But the emotions that produce murder in the present were present in the past as well, and Natalie's endeavors are about to intrude into conflict in both ages. Woodworth does his usual fine job, and this new direction gives the series a fresh look.
The Tower by Simon Clark, Leisure, 8/05, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5492-2
British horror novelist Simon Clark returns with an interesting variation of the haunted house story. A group of musicians has gathered at a remote house to rehearse and prepare for what they hope will be a successful career. Their arrival is marked by unusual circumstances, the discovery of a mysteriously inert dog lying in the road, a clock that tolls the hours but which cannot be located, a power failure during which one member experiences a horrifying and very lucid hallucination. Or is it more than just a product of her imagination? Clark unravels his web slowly and relentlessly, immersing his characters in a situation that is uniquely strange and impressively suspenseful.
Ruthless by L.G. Burbank, Medallion, 2005, $11.99, ISBN 193281521X
Despite the low price, the publisher is releasing this as a hardcover, the second in a series of historical fantasies involving a vampire who has been chosen as humanity's champion. Mordred Soulis travels to a frozen land to recruit the aid of another vampiric king, Lir, who is descended from the Valkyries. Together they battle Vlad Drakul against the backdrop of the Inquisition, in a novel that is basically fantasy despite the presence of vampires, concentrating on larger than life or perhaps that should read larger than death characters and their clash of wills. Well enough written to be entertaining if you're interested in the subject matter.
Ivy Cole and the Moon by Gina Farago, NeDeo, 2005, $25.95, ISBN 0-9763874-2-5
I had very mixed reactions to this apparent first novel, which follows the adventures of a female werewolf in a small Southern town. The title character's lycanthropy is very well imagined, the author having studied real wolves in order to shape Ivy's behavior. The plot moves quickly, and often violently, as Ivy kills her first victims all of whom apparently deserve to die, at least in her estimation. Then the situation is turned around when another werewolf shows up, and Ivy's friends begin to die as well. The basic plot is well worked out and convincing. What bothered me a little was that, despite everything, Ivy IS a monster. She abrogates unto herself the right to judge who should live and who should die, and despite her tribulations along the way, she seems to have been rewarded rather than punished. Murky morality aside, the prose is good enough that I suspect we'll see more from this newcomer.
Frankenstein Meets the Hunchback of Notre Dame edited by Frank J. Morlock, Black Coat Press, 2005, $20.95, ISBN 1-932983-38-4
Here we have a highly unusual volume. There are three separate works here, two of them plays translated from the French by editor Morlock, who has himself added a short story linking the two. The first is a stage adaptation of the Frankenstein story, written in 1826, which restructures the story somewhat, turning Doctor Frankenstein into a magician who summons the monster's soul from beyond the pale. It was written by Charles Nodier, Antoine Beraud, and Jean Toussaint Merle. The second play, as you might guess, is an adaptation of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, written by Hugo himself. The new story by Morlock has the monster confronting the Hunchback, with a guest appearance by Dracula. A very unusual selection of works, of both historical and literary interest.
Heat by Nancy Holder, Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2005, $6.99, ISBN 0-689-86906-1
Keep Me in Mind by Nancy Holder, Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2005, $6.99, ISBN 0-689-86956-8
Both of these are set in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe. The second title is actually a multi-path gamebook in which you take the part of Buffy and try to make decisions that will enable her to defeat an ancient sorcerer revived by series character Ethan Rayne. It's kind of fun, but there's little meat on the bones. That's not true of the first title, a longish but very exciting crossover with the Angel spinoff series, which also involves an evil sorcerer. This one has plans to raise an army of demons and menace the world. Both novels are set within the context of the series, one while Buffy is in high school, the other after the advent of Dawn. Apparently additional novels are planned which will actually take place in the world after its transformation at the end of Buffy.
Vigil by Robert Masello, Berkley, 6/05, $7.99, ISBN 0-425-20350-6
In line with the current packaging of horror fiction, this is just called a "novel" and the picture on the cover doesn't give it away either, so you need to look closely to spot this one. Masello wrote at least three earlier horror novels, all of which were entertaining but unremarkable. This one, after a gap of several years, is easily his best. The discovery of an unclassifiable skeleton entombed in rock in Italy starts a sequence of events which will threaten the entire world, and the small cast of central characters in particular. The creature not only predates the entire record of life on Earth, but it is not even entirely dead. I don't want to spoil any of the surprises here so I'll just say that it is suspenseful and convincing, even if the chief villain doesn't quite live up to his bad reputation when the chips are down.
In Shadows by Chandler McGrew, Dell, 9/05, $7.99, ISBN 0-553-58604-1
With his fourth novel, newcomer McGrew proves once again that he can create distinct, appealing characters and immerse then and his readers in a suspenseful and often complex supernatural mystery. This time there's a mix of voodoo and ancient evil involving a boy who is both blind and deaf, who might be cured thanks to the existence of a supernatural force in rural Maine. One should always beware gift horses, obviously. The other characters include a pair of detectives who often steal the show and a voodoo adherent who may know more than is being revealed. It all adds up to an exciting story, and I suspect it would make a pretty good movie.
Parting the Veil by Jay Davis, Tor, 7/05, $7.99, ISBN 0-765-34836-5
I missed seeing the hardcover of this last year, so was happy to find a paperback edition. The author was half of a collaborative team who produced two very fine horror novels about fifteen yeas ago, but who has been absent from the field since the horror genre imploded in the late 1990s. This new one is supernatural, but probably not horror. The protagonist is one of those rare individuals who was restored to life after a brief period of clinical death, and like several other fictional characters, he discovers that he has been changed by the experience. He now possesses a unique ability to tap into the souls of others, even cure them of their ills. Unfortunately he discovers that true evil really does exist, and wrestles with problems of morality. A satisfying mix of serious moral issues and overt suspense, with an inspirational message that is handled with rare delicacy.
Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner by H.P. Lovecraft, edited by S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Hippocampus, 2005, $20, ISBN 0-9748789-5-2
This is a little too peripheral for me but it's undoubtedly a welcome book for dedicated Lovecraft fans. Kleiner, who died in 1949, was one of Lovecraft's earliest regular correspondents, and there's almost three hundred pages of text here to prove their long relationship. The two argued about a variety of issues, usually not directly related to horror fiction, and included here are a number of poems Lovecraft wrote responding to Kleiner. There is also a small amount of related correspondence with others. A handsomely prepared and substantial book for HPL scholars and true fans.
Totally Charmed edited by Jennifer Crusie, BenBella, 11/05, $14.95, ISBN 1-932100-60-1
I'm afraid I lost interest in this series late in the first season, so I'm really not a good judge of the relevance or accuracy of this particular collection of essays. The series involves three sisters, all of whom are witches, although Shannon Doherty was replaced somewhere along the way. It seemed very random when I was watching it, but I gather that a more consistent background was developed later, and the authors here explore that imaginary world. Among the contributors are Richard Garfinkle, Robert Metzger, Vera Nazarian, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Tanya Huff, John Hemry, Jody Lynn Nye, Anne Perry, Laura Resnick, and Maggie Shayne, so as you might expect the quality of the writing is quite high. Not enough to inspire me to try watching it again, but probably of great interest to those fond of the show.
The Loch by Steve Alten, Tsunami, 2005, $27.95, ISBN 0-9761659-0-2
I'm a soft touch for Loch Ness Monster books, particularly when they're as well written as this one. The hero is Zack Wallace, a brilliant young scientist with very bad luck who returns to his childhood home on the shores of Loch Ness when his estranged father is arrested for murder. Although skeptical of the existence of the creature, there are odd inconsistencies in Zack's belief system, which we begin to understand as revelations unfold about his early experiences there. Many of the usual elements a string of mutilation deaths, hordes of curious tourists, the obligatory pompous rival and sexy love interest but Alten rises above the occasionally banal plot elements to give us an interesting scientific mystery, enveloped in two interrelated human puzzles, and some exciting action scenes. A real page turner from one of the better thriller writers of recent years.
Dreamspawn by Christa Faust, Black Flame, 2005, $7.99, ISBN 1-84416-173-0
Suffer the Children by David Bishop, Black Flame, 2005, $7.99, ISBN 1-84416-172-2
I've always loved horror movies, even mediocre ones, and the original Nightmare on Elm Street was one of my favorites. The sequels were less interesting although they did start to develop a dream mythology that was intriguing. Now we have the first two in a new series of novels based on that series, both bringing Freddy Krueger back for some new predations. The first of these titles is squarely in the tradition of the films, although rather more thoughtful, with Freddy finding a way to begin insinuating himself into the dreams of the local teens again. Once there, he can create an illusion of death that is mirrored in the real world. In the second title, a group of teenagers volunteer for an experiment with a new sleeping medication, and discover that it places them in dreams so real that they cannot distinguish them from reality. I wasn't really surprised by anything in either book, but both are quite suspenseful and do a good job of capturing the atmosphere of their inspiration.
Ashes by H.R. Howland, Berkley, 6/05, $6.99, ISBN 0-425-20353-0
Grave Intent by Deborah LeBlanc, Leisure, 7/05, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5553-8
The horror genre appears to be making a modest comeback of late, and here are two above average titles to support that shift. The first and better of the two twists an old horror tale as an archaeological expedition in South America disturbs an evil force which then begins a journey across the world, leaving death and devastation in its wake, seeking another of its own kind. Very suspenseful and very rapidly paced, this one should keep you turning pages feverishly. There's a gypsy curse in the second one, invoked when someone steals a magical coin from a gypsy girl's grave, unleashing a vengeful magic against the living. Some individual scenes are very effective and the novel overall is quite readable, though perhaps a bit slow at times.
Blood Relations by Jes Battis, McFarland, 2005, $32, ISBN 0-7864-2172-X
The subtitle is "Chosen Families in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel", which sort of tells you what this one is about. The author explores the different nature of families in the show, and obviously the Scoobies form a sort of family as does Angel and his friends in that series. The subject is covered with only occasional lapses into dense academese and should be readily accessible to the average reader, and a lot of the observations here are interesting. And it's always fun to revisit such a compelling world, even at third hand.
The Priest of Blood by Douglas Clegg, Ace, 10/05, $19.95, ISBN 0-441-01327-9
Douglas Clegg has been flirting with historical horror for a while and now he has jumped in with both feet. The protagonist in this, the first in a series, is a man with an unusual affinity for hawks and similar birds, but whose life is thrown into turmoil when an unwise romance leads to his involuntary enlistment in an army off to fight in the Crusades. Although he comports himself honorably, there is a degree of distance between himself and his fellow soldiers, which becomes a chasm when he encounters a mysterious woman in the ruins of a dead city, a woman who is actually a vampire. That will lead him to discover his true destiny, as a leader of the undead. Although there are some very good moments in this, particularly the hero's initial encounters with the vampires, the story bogged down for me shortly afterward, in large part because I was unable to identify with any of the chracters. It's encouraging to see Clegg diversifying his subject matter, but experimentation doesn't always produce superior results.
Undead and Unappreciated by MaryJanice Davidson, Berkley, 2005, $21.95, ISBN 0-425-20433-2
I've only seen one of the previous two novels in this series of humorous, romantic vampire novels, but I enjoyed that one, and this follow up is nearly as good. Our somewhat scatterbrained protagonist has been crowned as queen of the vampires. She can't understand why people resent the fact that she kills to stay alive, and she misses some of the conveniences that can only be found during the hours of daylight. As if that wasn't bad enough, now she discovers that she has a sister, and that the sister was sired by the Devil himself and is destined to take control of the world. Which just won't do at all. This series might be about the undead, but it certainly isn't likely to be unread.
Song in the Dark by P.N. Elrod, Ace, 9/05, $24.95, ISBN 0-441-01323-6
Elrod returns to her vampire detective, Jack Fleming, who in recent volumes has been caught up in his own personal war with organized crime. There's a price on his head and under normal circumstances, he'd have a sporting chance, thanks to his vampire nature, but things are not normal lately. He has been subject to strange seizures, his bloodlust has become so strong that he is having difficulty controlling it, and there's another killing which drains off his energies at a very crucial time. Jack Fleming has proven to be the most enduring of the vampire detectives, and Elrod has managed to keep his story and circumstances interesting from volume to volume.
States of Grace by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Tor, 9/05, $25.95, ISBN 0-765-31390-1
St Germain is back, the gentleman vampire whose adventures have been sprinkled across two millennia. This time he is once again caught up in the middle of the Inquisition, as well as a complicated web of espionage, international politics, personal spite, and other difficulties including a human who has discovered his secret and who intends to kill him. As always, Yarbro does an exemplary job of bringing the historical setting to life, and St Germain has become such a familiar character by now that he feels like an old friend rather than a character on a page. Despite everything the book has going for it, I felt a bit deflated when I was done, probably because so much of it seemed familiar, as though individual scenes from earlier books had been reassembled in a new configuration. I'm not sure where the author can go with this series perhaps St Germain on the moon?
Carpe Demon by Julie Kenner, Berkley, 7/05, $12.95, ISBN 0-425-20252-6
The spread of fantasy and horror themes through other genres continues, this time with a domestic comedy adventure about a housewife whose unusual hobby is that she battles demons in her spare time. Our heroine hasn't been active for a while, so it takes her a while to get started when a demon shows up at the local grocery store, and things become decidedly more hectic from that point on. I wasn't expecting much from this, but it's actually quite good, and the cover is not going to tip you off that there's a good bit of supernatural fiction inside. I'm a bit curious to see where the bookstores are going to shelve this one. It's not exactly Buffy the Vampire Slayer but the blend of humor and horror is very similar and works almost as well.
Never Seen By Waking Eyes by Stephen Dedman, Infrapress, 2005, $15.95, ISBN 0-9766544-0-7
I've enjoyed all of Stephen Dedman's novels, but I was only vaguely aware of him as a short story writer, although this collection focused my attention on several very good stories that I remembered reading in the past, and provides quite a number from obscure sources that were new to me, along with one original tale. They are predominantly horror, with a few SF thrown in, the best of which are "Heir of the Wolf", "The Lady of Situations", "A Single Shadow", and the title story. This is another publisher new to me so I'm not sure how easy it would be to find, but it's certainly worth a little searching.
Whisper in the Dark by Joseph Bruchac, Harper, 7/05, $15.99, ISBN 0-06-058087-9
Outcast by Lynne Ewing, Volo, 2005, $9.99, ISBN 0-7868-1813-1
A couple more young adult novels here. The first is a stand alone and deals with the legend of the Whisperer in the Dark, a native American supernatural threat transplanted into the modern world. A mysterious voice on the telephone, not particularly veiled threats, and teens in terrible danger. Nicely wound up with a very creepy ending. Lynne Ewing brings us the third in the Sons of the Dark series, a sort of magical version of the Roswell novels. Four young people living in contemporary America are actually fugitives from another reality altogether, and they're having some difficulty blending into our alien culture. Kyle, the protagonist, is the only one who knows the truth about his roommates, but their uneasy friendship is taking a decided turn for the worst when they apparently begin spreading uncomfortable rumors about him. Sometimes a bit simplistic, but pretty good of its type.
Blood Red by James A. Moore, Earthling Publications, 2005, $40, ISBN 0-9765339-1-4
James Moore may be one of the best kept secrets in horror fiction, but I think the secret is finally getting out. His latest novel is certainly indicative of a mature and confident talent. He tackles vampires this time, but not the uncertain, introspective, and sometimes romantic vampires that fill much recent horror fiction. His are downright nasty, and there are a lot of them, and they're about to escape into our world just in time to make Halloween in one small town more than just a scary holiday. Moore mixes traditional devices with innovative ones, and never lets the tension settle down once the plot gets thoroughly underway. For those of us who like our vampires evil, Moore provides the real stuff.
The Book of Renfield by Tim Lucas, Touchstone, 2005, $14, ISBN 0-7432-4354-4
Tim Lucas, whose first novel Throat Sprockets made a very favorable impression for its unusual interpretation of vampirism, twists our perceptions again in this new one. The easy description is to say that this is the Dracula story told from the point of view of Renfield, the insane toady who spies for him until Dracula kills him in a moment of pique. As with the original, this story is told in epistolary form, as a series of documents, primarily the journal entries of Dr. Jack Seward, chief official of the asylum where Renfield is confined (most of the time). Lucas explores the mind of a madman and through that distorted lens casts the classic story in a new and interesting light. The thrills here are more intellectual than visceral, but they are none the less real.
Dark Moon Rising by James M. Thompson, Pinnacle, 2005, $5.99, ISBN 0-7860-1616-7
City of the Dead by Brian Keene, Leisure, 2005, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5415-9
These two novels make use of standard horror themes, werewolves and zombies. The first title is a werewolf novel, although in this case rationalized. The protagonist undergoes a radical surgical operation which transformed his DNA such that he physically transforms at times and becomes a primitive, brutal, and powerful night hunter. Unfortunately, he lives in a city so the prey available is largely people. I didn't expect the novel to end as it did, and I think it's rather weak, but the story itself was enjoyable. The second is, plotwise, a standard zombie novel in the George Romero tradition. As the reanimated dead attack anything alive, a group of people barricade themselves into a skyscraper and try to withstand the siege. Keene is an adept enough writer to find new ways to explore this theme, and there's certainly more than adequate suspense. Less ambitious and original than his other novels, but no less well written.
Revenge Gifts by Cindy Cruciger, Tor, 9/05, $6.99, ISBN 0-765-35225-7
This new entry in Tor's paranormal romance series is one of the best. A woman who runs a website that specializes in selling equipment to help people get revenge ignores suggestions that she might be in a questionable line of work. Things start to get more complicated when an admiring man shows up, who seems interested in her personally as well as in investing in her business. Then the bad things start happening, signs like black cats that presage increasingly serious problems in her personal life. Clearly she has been placed under a curse, but by whom and for what reason? A light, supernatural adventure with touches of humor and a romantic understory, and apparently a first novel as well.
The House of Cthulhu by Brian Lumley, Tor, 9/05, $23.95, ISBN 0-765-31073-2
Before Brian Lumley invented his world of super vampires, he had an enviable reputation as a writer working within the Cthulhu Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, contributing additional details and creating his own little subset of that world. This collection of short stories, originally published as a book in England in 1991 but never before available in the US except I believe a small press edition, contains ten of these stories, most from the 1970s. Since this is noted as Volume I, it is probably not the complete British book unless Volume 2 is going to be another collection entirely. The stories are very uniform in quality although the title story, "The Sorcerer's Book", and "Lords of the Morass" might have a slight edge on the others. These are something of a change of pace from Lumley's more recent work, but it's still surprising it took this long for their to be a mass market edition.
Nobody True by James Herbert, Tor, 9/05, $25.95, ISBN 0-765-31212-3
It's been quite a while since I last read a novel by this author and I was looking forward to his return. Unfortunately, the event did not live up to my expectations. Although this new novel is an interesting mystery and is certainly well written, the plot is so old and well used that it felt as though I was re-reading the book. In fact, Herbert himself used a very similar plot in his earlier Fluke and I read an even closer approximation a week ago from Lee Killough. The protagonist has been murdered, but he doesn't remember the details of his own death. A disembodied spirit, he wanders the city, searching for the serial killer whose victim he was, horrified to discover that his surviving family may be next on the list. Some ingeniously imagined scenes and relatively suspenseful, but not one of Herbert's best works.
The Color of Light by Karen White, New American Library, 2005, $12.95, ISBN 0-451-21511-7
If you're in the mood for a relatively gentle, reflective, and familiar ghost story, this is a title you should keep in mind. Jillian Parrish and her daughter relocate to a small community following her divorce, where they encounter a man with whom she was romantically involved years before, until he became a suspect in the disappearance of one of her friends. Although she never believed him to be responsible, he is bitter about what he sees as her lack of faith in him. The sense of implied menace begins to grow when Jillian's daughter develops an imaginary companion, a mysterious person with the same name as that of the woman who disappeared many years ago. Low key and done many times before, but smoothly written.
Four and Twenty Blackbirds by Cherie Priest, Tor, 10/05, $13.95, ISBN 0-765-31308-9
This first novel is an unusual ghost story that takes several of the familiar devices of horror fiction and reassembles them in a new and interesting arrangement. The protagonist is a young woman who is the latest in a line of magically talented people, at least one of whom turned to the figurative dark side of the force. She is the target of yet another dark figure, one who feels obligated to kill her before she too can turn evil. Her protection comes in the form of three family ghosts, who watch out for her, although ultimately she must save herself, and only after solving a convoluted mystery. Well plotted, well peopled, and well written. It would make an interesting movie.
Killers of the Dawn by Darren Shan, Little Brown, 5/05, $15.99, ISBN 0-316-15626-4
This is the ninth adventure in the Cirque Du Freak, young adult vampire series, with our hero now proclaimed as a vampire prince. The honor is a bit dubious, since he seems to have accumulated more enemies than ever, both within the vampire community and the greater human one. Okay adventure, but this series is starting to seem repetitious to me despite occasional memorable scenes. It may be time to consider tying this one up.
Killer Karma by Lee Killough, Meisha Merlin, 8/05, $23.95, ISBN 1-59222-006-1
Lee Killough's newest supernatural mystery uses a familiar device. The protagonist is a police officer who is murdered in the line of duty, but in such a way that it appears he may have been a criminal himself. He returns as a ghost to solve the mystery of his own death, but initially he suffers from amnesia and through the entire book he is hampered by his inability to communicate with others or manipulate physical objects, although the rules bends at times when it is convenient to the plot. The set up and opening chapters are a bit contrived. The amnesia is a helpful device to allow information to be provided to the reader piecemeal, but in practice it seems artificial and makes us just a bit too conscious of the author's presence. Once past that section, however, the story opens up into a rewarding and generally very entertaining adventure mystery.
The Lovecraft Chronicles by Peter Cannon, Mythos Books, 2005, $15, ISBN 0-9728545-3-3
Lovecraft fan Peter Cannon has here produced a quite unusual novel, cast in the form of three lengthy memoirs by associates of H.P. Lovecraft, exploring an alternate world in which his relationships with three very different women become the focus of the narrative. Although I enjoyed the book quite a bit, I confess to being a bit concerned by the fact that there is no way to tell that it is fiction from the book itself, whose blurbs suggest that Cannon simply collected three existing essays, including one by Lyda Long, wife of Frank Belknap Long. Fans will know something is wrong because of the anachronisms, but readers less familiar with Lovecraft's life may misconstrue this as being what it appears to be rather than what it is.
The Forbidden by L.A. Banks, St Martins, 6/05, $14.95, ISBN 0-312-33622-5
L.A. Banks continues her vampire huntress series with this fifth installment. Banks has developed a fairly innovative vampire mythology in the series, which often attempts more ambitious themes than most recent vampire stories. This time an evil creature is threatening to open a doorway to Hell itself, which results in a battle between two powerful and sexy female forces. Better written than most similar works, but the vampire characters are oddly bloodless and flat at times.
Urban Shaman by C.E. Murphy, Luna Books, 6/05, $13.95, ISBN 0-373-80223-4
The protagonist of this supernatural romance novel is a feisty police officer who also possesses supernatural powers including super healing, a development which understandably worries her. There's also a mystical coyote who shows up in her dreams and tries to tell her that she is the only chance humanity has of fending off a major supernatural event. This is a romance novel, so there's a likeable male character as well. The dialogue is occasionally snappy and the story moves right along. I would not be surprised to find out that Murphy is the pseudonym of an experienced writer because the novel does not feel like a first effort at all.
The Beloved by J.F. Gonzalez, Midnight Library, 2005, $17, ISBN 0-9755144-3-1
One element missing from most recent horror novels is subtlety. Authors and publishers seem to have become convinced that readers want action and grotesquerie rather than mystery and strong character development. New writer Gonzalez, who has written some interesting material previously, outdoes himself in this new novel, a sort of psychic vampire story involving people who use up ordinary people by draining away their emotions, their personal wealth, and even their lives. Although he has been published primarily by the small press, I don't think it will be long before his name becomes more widely known.
Windwalker by Naasha Mostert, Tor, 2005, $6.99, ISBN 0-765-34929-9
About thirty years ago, one of the most popular forms of paperback fiction was the gothic, a loosely applied term but one associated at the time with books sporting dark towers with lights in the window, beautiful women in white dresses, and dark, romantic looking strangers. Some of them were pretty awful but there were also some very good writers working that particular area, and this new paranormal romance novel would have fit in with them quite well. The female protagonist is working as caretaker of a mansion where her photographs reveal ghostly images related to a family crisis in the past. The male is one of those family members, living far from his ancestral home, but plagued by visions of a mysterious woman, who turns out to be the caretaker. A nicely tied up blend of mystery, romance, and the supernatural.
Moon's Web by C.J. Adams and Cathy Clamp, Tor, 8/05, no price listed, ISBN 0-765-34914-0
This writing team returns to the secretive world of werewolves, more properly shapeshifters, in this second adventure of a Mafia hitman who turns into a werewolf and becomes an intermediary between organized crime and the hidden culture of shifters. This time things are becoming potentially catastrophic for both sides. A prominent crimelord's girlfriend has been kidnapped, contributing to a growing animosity that might well erupt into open warfare. Although the shapeshifters are probably more powerful, they don't want to risk exposing their existence to humanity at large, although given the background, it seems very unlikely that they could have been kept secret as long as they have been. Nevertheless, our hero has to rescue the kidnapped woman while attending to his own love lift. I have some difficulty identifying with a professional killer, however reformed, but otherwise this was an effectively told story of suspense.
Underground by Craig Spector, Tor, 4/05, $23.95, ISBN 0-765-30660-3
Craig Spector's new horror novel starts off quite well. During a tour of a sprawling southern mansion, a diversion causes an uproar, allowing one of the tourists to penetrate into a closed portion of a house where he performs a magical ritual and crosses into the world beyond the mirror, or at least all but one of his hands makes the transition. What follows is a less striking but still interesting plot about an ancient evil that has rooted itself in a slave holding family for generations, and a pact among several friends to deal with the problem years later, in much the fashion of a Stephen King novel. But somewhere along the line, the story spins out of control. I think the main problem is that there are just too many characters for what is actually a fairly short book. There are the seven friends, plus the husband and daughter of one, a handful of black militants allied with them, the father and son duo in the evil family, flashbacks to the past and the relationship between a slave owner and his magically empowered slave, and a host of minor characters. There is just not enough time to get to know any of them very well, and that meant that ultimately I didn't care whether they lived or died. Many recent novels have a much better but shorter novel embedded in them. This one needed to be considerably longer to be emotionally effective.
Judgment Day by James F. David, Forge, 2005, $24.95, ISBN 0-765-30915-7
This very long novel is an uneasy blend of SF and supernatural elements. As Judgment Day approaches, the devil begins to gather his forces, including a very odd mortician who becomes his chief lieutenant. A group of devoutly religious people, one of whom has developed an inexpensive, revolutionary space drive, eventually colonize another planet in order to escape the chaos. Unfortunately, chaos follows because satan's minions are unwilling to let anyone escape. An oddly constructed and uneven novel which I found very difficult to get into, at least in part because even the religious characters supposedly on the side of good struck me as unpleasant. Like most novels of this type, it also simplifies controversial issues. There are portions of the story that work well, but as a whole it is disjointed and unconvincing.
Night of the Loving Dead by James Futch and James Newman, Demonic Clown Books, 2005, no price or ISBN provided.
This is one of a line of horror novellas from this British small press publisher, whose line of authors are entirely unknown to me. I'll have to say upfront that this particular one did nothing to make me to run right out and sample any of the others, although it's not terribly done. The story involves a hospital morgue where, at night, the dead come back to life, transformed into sex craving monsters. There's some self conscious sexual posturing and a few bizarre images but not much of a real story. It takes more than just grotesque events and dialogue to make a good piece of fiction, and the reasonably good prose here is pretty much wasted.
The Experiment by Pat Cadigan, Black Flame, 2005, $7.99, ISBN 1-84416-169-2
Believe it or not, this is a sequel to the most recent Friday the 13th movie, Jason X, in which Jason returns to life in the far future. In this case, he's resurrected by military forces who want to turn him into the ultimate weapon. Obviously no one in charge had ever watched any old horror movies or they would have known that this just wasn't going to work. Cadigan manages to provide an exciting story, mostly by avoiding the clichιs of the film, but her original work is obviously much better than this.
Blood In, Blood Out by Lucien Soulban, White Wolf, 2005, $6.99, ISBN 1-58846-866-6
Volume two of a series based on the various Vampire role playing games from White Wolf. As with most of the other novels from this publisher, the setting is the gritty underworld where vampire clans exist in large numbers, battling each other as well as dealing with their own internal politics. It might have been my mood, but this one seemed more convoluted but less substantial than most of the others I've read, with flat dialogue and a great deal of predictable politics and intrigues. Technically horror, I suppose, but it felt more like fantasy.
The Demonologist by Michael Laimo, Leisure, 2005, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5527-9
Flesh Gothic by Edward Lee, Leisure, 2005, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5412-4
The Abandoned by Douglas Clegg, Leisure, 2005, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5410-8
Three recent horror novels from Leisure, all of which share the theme of the influence of evil spreading into the minds of the innocent. In the first, and most interesting, Michael Laimo takes us inside the mind of a man who is having visions, horrible visions of violence and death, disturbing enough in their own right but more so when he realizes they are reflections of actual events. Laimo is shaping up as one of the more promising of the current crop of young horror writers. Ed Lee's novel is more polished, but somewhat less interesting. An orgy at a sprawling mansion ended with the slaughter or disappearance of everyone except one survivor, and one of the missing is possibly the man responsible for it all, retreated into a mysterious other world of the supernatural. Lee has several times now taken his readers into very bizarre alternate realities, and although this one isn't quite as vivid as some of his other work, it is certainly out of the ordinary. And last we have Douglas Clegg's latest novel of Harrow House, which is about to be reopened by its new owner, and with a brand new program of death and damnation. None of these will knock your socks off, but all of them will keep you turning the pages to find out what's going to happen next.
The Brian Lumley Companion edited by Brian Lumley and Stanley Wiater, Tor, 2005, $26.95, ISBN 0-312-85670-9
Although this book bears a 2002 copyright, I've never seen it before, and assume this is either a reissue from another publisher or an earlier Tor book I didn't know about. As you will surmise from the title, it contains non-fiction relating to the fiction of Brian Lumley, predominantly horror, a contributor to the Cthulhu Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, and creator of the Harry Keogh Necroscope vampire novels. The individual articles are by writers like Stephen Jones, Robert Price, W. Paul Ganley, and others. The subjects are varied and include bibliographies, concordances, series information, notes on rare editions, and general commentaries. A very nice volume with everything the Lumley fan could possibly want.
Dead As a Doornail by Charlaine Harris, Ace, 5/05, $22.95, ISBN 0-441-01279-5
This series about a mind reading, crime fighting cocktail waitress from rural Louisiana in a world where vampires and were creatures are accepted as an element of everyday life just keeps getting better as it goes along. The present volume has a very good mystery. A serial killer has been summarily executing shape changers and our heroine's brother, who is about to become a were-panther himself, is the prime suspect. Naturally she has to clear his name and to do that she has to track down the real killer. Comparisons to Laurell Hamilton's Anita Blake series are inevitable so let's just say that the breast beating angst is turned down considerably so that it doesn't interfere with what is actually a very entertaining story. The previous four volumes in the series are all worth your time as well.
The Dark Chamber and Other Bad Places by Frank Chigas, Medusa Press, 2005, $40, ISBN 0-9725324-0-4
I had a distinctly mixed reaction to this collection of short stories, none of which I have ever encountered previously and which were, I suspect, published in small regional publications if at all. They are horror stories, supernatural and psychological, and some of them have quite good plots and others are rather minor. What really makes this a difficult book to recommend is that while there is some very good writing here, it is mixed with some rather bad sections as well. A lot of the stories felt as though they really needed one more draft. The title story, "The Inheritors", and "The Copper Bell" were the three I liked the best. If the asking price was a little lower, I'd be more inclined to suggest you try it.
Within the Shadows by Brandon Massey, Kensington Dafina, 2005, $14, ISBN 0-7582-1069-8
Andrew Wilson gives up his very successful life when he meets the woman of his dreams, choosing instead to join her in a remote, mysterious southern mansion. Not surprisingly, there are some dark secrets connected to the family and the house itself, including a mysterious, supernatural force that seems to be connected to a single room on the second floor. In due course we have a thickened plot, with killer cats, unusual behavior on the part of his wife, and a growing sense of menace. Massey does a very good job of developing the creepy atmosphere in the novel and his characters are believable, but I thought that the climax failed to live up to what had gone before.
The Home by Scott Nicholson, Pinnacle, 8/05, $6.99, ISBN 0-7860-1711-2
Scott Nicholson's latest horror novel stretches its metaphorical wings considerably. The story concerns a teenager who has been assigned to an institutional foster home that uses some rather unconventional psychological techniques to discover the "problems" of the residents. Our hero is the son of an unscrupulous scientist who tinkered with his brain, and the sessions begin to unleash powers best left untouched. Before the story ends, we have incidents of precognition, a translation to an entirely different reality, and the discovery that the boy's father is even nastier than we originally thought. Well written and often suspenseful, but I found the last few chapters a bit too chaotic.
Rabid Growth by James A. Moore, Leisure, 4/05, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5172-9
Here's a creepy story for you. Chris is an ordinary sort of person who begins to notice that the people he knows are undergoing some pretty radical changes, psychological initially but eventually including physical transformations that become outright grotesque. Perhaps even more disturbing is that many of those people seem to be blaming him for the changes they are undergoing, as though he was some kind of Typhoid Mary. At the same time, he becomes the chief suspect in a string of brutal murders, so he has to avoid an inquisitive police officer while tracking down the truth, the possession of a human being by a malevolent force. Moore always delivers a good story, but I found this one even more compelling reading than usual.
In the Midnight Museum by Gary A. Braunbeck, Necessary Evil Press, 2005, no price listed, ISBN 0-9753635-1-4
This small press has been releasing short novels in hardback form, of which series this new title is easily the best. Gary Braunbeck has been producing first rate weird fiction with decidedly different viewpoints for a considerable time already, and this is one of his best. The protagonist is a failed suicide who believes that the drugs he took were responsible for some decidedly bizarre visions, but the visions continue even after he is no longer under their influence. He learns that his new perception has made him aware of an evil entity who threatens the world, and that he is the only human who might be able to change things. A very strange and compelling story, understated and haunting, a treat for his fans and an exciting introduction for new readers.
The Black Stranger by Robert E. Howard, Bison, 2005, $17.95, ISBN 0-8032-7353-3
Another volume in Bison's reprinting of much of the short fiction of Robert E. Howard, this one concentrating on his fantasy and supernatural fiction. Most of his best known non-Conan stories are here, including "Pigeons from Hell", "The Horror from the Mound", "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth", and "Black Canaan", along with one Conan story and quite a good selection of his other work. Despite some crudeness in the prose, Howard's stories are frequently powerful and his imagery is often very memorable.
Sex and the Slayer by Lorna Jowett, Wesleyan, 2005, $22.95, ISBN 0-8195-6754-4
Buffy the Vampire Slayer attracted considerable academic interest, and it seems that the interest continues even after the show is gone. The author of this book length study examines the show from a feminist viewpoint and explores the ways in which the program portrayed gender roles, both the females and the male characters. Some of her conclusions seem to me a pretty far reach, but she does avoid most of the jargon usually associated with such books, and fans of the show should find it enjoyable even if not academically inclined.
Every Which Way But Dead by Kim Harrison, Harper Torch, 6/05, $6.99, ISBN 0-06-057299-X
Rachel Morgan, bounty hunter in a world where vampires are part of everyday life, is back for her third and most exciting adventure. This time she has several problems all rushing toward one confrontation. There's a resurgence of criminal activity, not all of it supernatural, her vampire roommate has regained her taste for human blood, and her victory in the previous volume left her soul in jeopardy. Now she has to avoid becoming a demon's plaything, save her roommate, dispose of various villains, and stay out of Hell itself. Harrison has constructed a good variation of the kind of alternate reality Laurell Hamilton created with the Anita Blake series, and is starting to add new riffs of her own. A blend of horror and fantasy that straddles both genres, and with a touch of romance as well.
November Mourns by Tom Piccirilli, Bantam Spectra, 6/05, $6.99, ISBN 0-553-58720-X
The protagonist of this atmospheric and very impressive novel travels to a remote part of the country where he investigates the death of his sister against the backdrop of a complex society based on superstition and, just possibly, authentic magic. He is troubled as well by disturbing dreams which he has been experiencing for some time, dreams in which a menacing figure appears, a figure which he now begins to believe may have an actual basis in fact, and a connection to the death of his sister. Piccirilli's prose is brilliant, his characters superbly delineated, and his plots are always original enough to grab me early on and hold me to the end. This is one of his very best works and is certain to figure highly in the Stoker Awards this year.
Devil's Footsteps by E.E. Richardson, Delacorte, 8/05, $15.95, ISBN 0-385-73263-5
Young adult horror fiction has declined considerably since the collapse of the Goosebumps and similar series, but just as adult horror seems to be making a slow comeback, so too is the market for younger readers. This one is about the boogeyman, or a boogeyman, the Dark Man in this case, a mysterious entity who preys upon random children from a small town. Bryan is a teenager who is tormented by the disappearance of his brother Adam, apparently a victim of the Dark Man. Even his parents seem to have forgotten their lost son, but Bryan remembers and he is determined to find out what happened. His investigation leads to the uncovering of a secret, and Bryan is faced with a difficult decision. He can have his brother back as though he had never been gone. But to do so, he will have to cooperate with the Dark Man and ignore the fate of all of his other victims. No surprises in the ending, and more mystery than horror, but well constructed and convincingly concluded.
Steel Ghosts by Michael Paine, Berkley, 1/05, $6.99, ISBN 0-425-20070-1
Quite a few years ago, the pseudonymous Michael Paine produced three very good horror novels, then disappeared. This new title is in some ways every bit as good as those earlier efforts, but in other ways not as rewarding. The premise is that an abandoned, crumbling steel mill in a remote Pennsylvania town is haunted by all who have died there, and that the ghosts have unusual powers, can manifest flows of molten metal and otherwise destroy intruders. The mill also appears to be a gateway to Hell itself. The protagonist grew up in the town and returns after the passage of many years to scout the mill as a movie location. He finds a dying town and two old friends whose lives have been ruined, and with whom he gets caught up in a complicated mix of violence and love. One of them is a widow whose only son suffers from mental illness, and who appears to be a living link between our world that of the dead. Lots of what follows is spooky and most of it is suspenseful. Complete success eludes the author, however, because the ghosts are so powerful that it is obvious early on that the protagonists can only survive by chance, not through their own efforts. The ghosts seem to strike out randomly at times, rather than simply at those trying to raze the mill. A good read, but not a great one.
Unspeakable by Graham Masterton, Pocket Star, 2/05, $6.99, ISBN 0-7434-6294-7
Graham Masterton is one of the most reliable horror writers around, and even his least interesting books have always managed to entertain me. Some of his more recent novels have been less overtly fantastic than his earlier work, although often still just as horrifying because of the intense evil of some of his perfectly human characters. That's the case of this rather understated novel about Holly, a deaf investigator for a child protection agency, who becomes the subject of a Native American curse after she becomes involved with an abusive, psychotic man who nearly killed his wife and son. Her luck starts to go bad, people begin dying around her, and then things begin to go seriously wrong. Although the supernatural content appears only in the second half of the novel, I was thorough pulled in by the more mundane evil of some of Holly's clients, and by the odd relationship between herself and a police officer subject to rather extreme fits of behavior. This one sneaks up on the reader, and you don't realize how completely you've been pulled in until you try to set the book aside for a while, and discover that you can't.
The Mysteries by Lisa Tuttle, Bantam Spectra, 3/05, $21, ISBN 0-553-38296-9
New novels by Lisa Tuttle come at great intervals, but they are always worth the wait. Her newest is a not easily categorized blend of supernatural fantasy wrapped up as a detective story, and you're not going to want to miss it. The protagonist is a detective who specializes in missing persons, and who has a considerable talent for it, but who is really perplexed by his latest case, involving the disappearance of a young woman who may have vanished from our reality entirely. The author mixes Celtic folklore with contemporary thrills and creates in Ian Kennedy a three dimensional character who makes us care about what happens in the story. This is a novel that is going to be talked about.
Dark Notes from NJ edited by Harrison Howe, GSHW Press, 2005, $9.95, ISBN 1-933274-00-X
This collection of fourteen dark fantasy and horror tales is from the New Jersey/Garden State Horror Writers group, each of which was inspired by the lyrics of musicians from that state, like Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra, Patti Smith, etc. It's a clever idea for an anthology, and the connection between music in various forms and horror fiction has been noted more than once in the past. The results are a fairly mixed bag, no real clunkers but nothing that shines in the darkness either. The best offerings are by Shikhar Dixit, John Passarella, and Dan Foley.
Savage Membrane by Steve Niles, Ibooks, 2/05, $6.99, ISBN 1-4165-0409-5
The copyright page indicates this first appeared in 2002, but I have not idea where. It's a very short horror novel written very much in a comic book style, and I would not be surprised to find out the author has worked in that media as well. It's the first in the Cal McDonald, Monster Hunter series, and it pits the protagonist, who defends the world against evil, against a mysterious killer who literally sucks the brains out of the skulls of its victims. Pretty lightweight, about an hour's reading, but not unpleasant.
Afterlife by Douglas Clegg, Onyx, 12/04, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-41167-6
There was a rash of novels, some of them quite good, a few years back, each of which involved a person with psychic powers who was linked to or could somehow eavesdrop on the mind of a serial killer. Usually the balance of the novel would consist of the killer trying to identify and eliminate the psychic while the latter tried to bring his or her opponent to justice. Douglas Clegg, who has been improving steadily as a writer, takes part of that theme and gives it several new twists in his latest, and the result is a quite gripping suspense thriller with some decidedly eerie sequences. Clegg has quietly begun to emerge as a major player in the horror genre, and I would not be surprised to see his name on the bestseller lists before much longer.
Desolation by Tim Lebbon, Leisure, 3/05, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5428-0
Tim Lebbon has very quickly established a reputation for unusual, original, and evocative horror novels. This new one is right in that mode, and possibly his best book length work to date. We see events unfold through the eyes of a young man raised by an insane father who isolated him from the outside world. Now he is attempting to fit in, but he has a secret of his own, something that stays in a box in his room. As if that wasn't bad enough, his neighbors in the apartment building aren't all that well balanced themselves and the conflicts and tensions build quickly and are headed toward a violent confrontation. But as a last resort, he can always open the box. I can't tell you what is in there, but you're going to want to know.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes, soundtrack by Basil Kirchin, Perseverance Records, 2005, $17
Dr. Phibes Rises Again, soundtrack by John Gale, Persevererance Records, 2005, $17
Two of my all time favorite horror movies are these two Vincent Price vehicles about the deformed madman and musical genius who commits multiple murders in his quest to bring his dead wife back to life. I hadn't realized how good the soundtracks were until I received these from a new label, one dedicated to film soundtracks, but they are both surprisingly good. With the caveat that I am hardly qualified to be a music critic, let me say that the first title hangs together better as a single unified work. The mood rarely varies and the quality of the individual pieces is quite high and consistent. There is also a suite of unused music included. The second title is more variable, with a few cuts I didn't like as much, but another few I thought were very good indeed. There are more titles coming, so let's hope that finally someone might possibly bring out the soundtrack from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai.
Gil's All Fright Diner by A. Lee Martinez, Tor, 5/05, $23.95, ISBN 0-765-31143-7
There's something for just about everyone in this first novel, humor, gore, vampires, rustic Americana, a mystery, and a buddy story. The protagonists are the buddies, one a vampire, one a werewolf, although both are of the relatively benevolent variety. They are on a trip when they stop at a diner that has a recurring problem with zombies, and since they need the money, they hire on to solve the problem. Unfortunately, the problem is a little more complex than simply a plague of mindless dead bodies. Someone has a deeper reason for wanting the diner to go out of business, and a werewolf and a vampire just make the job a little more difficult. Lots of good stuff in here, including a really unusual sense of humor. Just the thing to take your mind off your problems. At least you don't have zombies knocking at your door at all hours of the night.
Scarecrow Gods by Weston Ochse, Delirium Books, 6/05, $50, ISBN 1-929653-68-9
It's kind of a shame that this first novel is appearing in a limited edition only three hundred copies because it's quite unusual and certainly deserves a wider readership. It's a kind of apocalyptic novel of good versus evil set in an America that looks an awful lot like ours, although it might not be. The chief protagonist is a black man disfigured during the war in Vietnam and now an outcast in a rural part of Tennessee. He eventually becomes the fulcrum of a small group opposed to a charismatic religious leader who is actually seeking an unholy power. The sometimes exaggerated characters are quite crisply drawn, and the story is filled with clever and sometimes twisted inventions, not the least of which are the mysterious entities named in the title. I suspect it won't be long before we saw the author's name on a book from a major publishing house.
Broken Angel by Brian Knight, Delirium Books, 6/05, $50, ISBN 1-929653-69-7
Another fine looking limited edition from Delirium Books, by a writer I've already noted as one to watch. This time the horror is more subtle. The novel is primarily about a strange three way friendship in a small town, three youngsters one of whom, Angel, is suffering from some kind of amnesia. All three are outcasts of a sort, but Angel is definitely the one furthest out, and the only one who frightens other people in town. Because Angel has a secret she's keeping even from herself, a secret that can make bullies turn and run for cover. Some very fine writing and good characterization. The ending though perhaps unavoidable was something of a bummer, not because it's badly written but because I didn't want it to happen that way
Host by Bryan Eytcheson, Delirium Books, 2005, $17.95, ISBN 1-929653-67-0
Although marketed as horror, this first novel is also science fiction of sorts. One of the protagonists is exposed to some contaminated animal parts, after which he is inhabited by a mutated parasite that interferes with his ability to perceive reality. Elsewhere, an investigator finds a connection between an avaricious drug lord and a toxic waste dump, and it's pretty obvious where the two separate story lines are going to converge. The story is written in a violent, sometimes ugly string of bizarre scenes and events, and I never really liked any of the characters very much, although I don't think I was supposed to. I'd say this one shows a lot of potential, and individual scenes of very good writing, but that the novel is not written at a consistent level of quality. It impressed me enough to make me watch for his next.
A Hunger Like Fire by Greg Stolze, White Wolf, 12/04, $6.99, ISBN 1-58846-862-3
In Northern Twilight by Jess Hartley, White Wolf, 11/04, $6.99, ISBN 1-58846-861-5
A new subset of the World of Darkness vampire world kicks off with the first of these two titles, but other than a bit more concentration on character development, this looks typical of the earlier ones. The main protagonist is a female vampire who is trying to retain her human nature despite the need to drink blood, but finds herself being seduced by the power of her new existence. She gets involved in an oddly balanced relationship with one of her prey, and some of what follows is entertaining if not particularly new and surprising. The second title is part of the Exalted series, which I assume is based on a game I'm not familiar with, and which is much more sword and sorcery. The story is mostly a prolonged chase with episodic encounters, competently told but no more than that. Both of these series, particularly the first, seems to have gotten caught in a rut in the road.
What Rough Beast by H.R. Knight, Leisure, 2005, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5456-6
If I remember correctly, this is not the first novel to team Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini together to solve a supernatural mystery. This time they're out to unmask a magician whom they believe to be a charlatan. Unfortunately, when they interrupt one of his spell casting sessions, they inadvertently set loose a powerful supernatural entity which stalks the streets of London looking for victims, and which could potentially become a threat to all of humanity. Knight has an interesting plot and is sometimes quite skilled at creating scenes but the prose, particularly the dialogue, is often awkward and unrealistic. Another draft might have made this a much better novel.
Horn of Plenty by Thomas F. Monteleone, Borderlands Press, 2005, $25, ISBN 1-880325-56-X
When I started to read this chapbook, I had some mild misgivings because the story, though very well written, seemed at first to be simply a retelling of a familiar one, the haunted musical instrument that provides success at the cost of the musician's soul. The narrator is the head of a small jazz ensemble who begins to suspect that the mysterious horn used by one of his players is more than it seems when he begins to waste away, and although his inclination is to destroy it, the thrill of success interferes with his judgment. That's where the story starts to move away from the predictable. The horn's owner dies halfway through, after forcing the narrator to agree to keep the horn with the group. He does so, but initially locks it away, intending to do without its magical help. But although they find a good replacement, they don't find a great one, and when the newcomer admits he has no instrument of his own, well, there's an obvious solution. The story is a good one, but the real novelty to this chapbook is that includes a CD with the author reading his own work, a format intended to be the first in a series called Dark Voices. Monteleone has the right voice for this sort of thing and makes an excellent reader.
The Bitten by L.A. Banks, St. Martins, 2005, 14.95, ISBN 0-312-32408-1
Apparently this is part of the Vampire Huntress series, the previous volumes of which I have never seen, which may explain why I felt very confused at times as I was reading it. Banks has an unusual take on vampires, who are a kind of dark angel, neither all good nor all bad, who exist on Earth and in a mystical Hell, where they contend with another mixed race, were-demons. The protagonists are two were-demons who are changing into vampires, and whose torrid love affair is interrupted when one of the most powerful vampires steals a sacred artifact that could affect the outcome of Armageddon. The story is wide ranging and fast paced, and has more of the feel of fantasy than horror. I suspect some of my difficulty reading it was because I was missing pieces of background, so you might want to track down the earlier volumes before reading this one.
Wildwood Road by Christopher Golden, Bantam, 4/05, $12, ISBN 0-553-38208-X
Christopher Golden has an unusual talent for portraying the world as we know it, and then introducing some element that is just strange enough to be disturbing without actually disrupted our belief in his creation. His newest novel is a case in point. The protagonist falls asleep while driving and nearly has an accident, as a result of which he finds the world slowly changing around him, or at least his perception of it. A mysterious girl disappears and his own wife is inexplicably altered. As he seeks to escape from unidentified and possibly in human creatures who are following him, he realizes he must solve the mystery or face losing everything he has ever known. Golden kept me guessing almost to the very end of this one, and I was on the edge of my seat for a good percentage of that time as well.
Derik's Bane by MaryJanice Davidson, Berkley, 2005, $6.50, ISBN 0-425-19997-5
I think that this is the third in the Wyndham Werewolf series, and I've already put the first two titles on my search list. They are romance novels, but they also involve werewolves and this one is so good that I recommend it even to those who are turned off by that label. The protagonist is a lycanthrope on a mission to track down the reincarnation of Morgan Le Fay, who is fated to cause terrible trouble in the world. Unfortunately, her new manifestation is ignorant of her true nature and her fate, and the werewolf falls in love with her. The two of them then set out to find a way to avoid destiny and remain together. Lighthearted, occasionally comic, and thoroughly engaging.
The Soulless by L.G. Burbank, Medallion, 2004, $6.99, ISBN 0-9743639-9-5
I'm not familiar with this imprint, but based on the ads in the back, they seem to be specializing in weird fantasy and horror fiction. This is the first in the Lords of Darkness series, which involves the wakening of a vampire hero whose destiny is to protect the human race from occult evils. At times it seems more like an historical fantasy than anything else, with various famous names popping up. The basic story isn't bad, but there are times when events seemed to unfold artificially and the characters rarely rise above the level of stereotypes. It might be interesting to see what the author does with the theme in subsequent volumes.
Like Death by Tim Waggoner, Leisure, 1/05, $6.99, ISBN 0-8439-5498-1
The protagonist of this unusual, atmospheric horror novel is the only survivor of a massacre that occurred during his childhood. Years later, he is looking into the disappearance of a young girl when he discovers the existence of the Shadow Realm, a place of horror and mystery normally inaccessible to the living. The rules of reality are different there, and it is possible for one with a very strong will to effect the world around him. Waggoner does a very good job with his characters and an even better one in creating bizarre images and landscapes through which to conduct his readers. At times this felt more like a dark fantasy adventure than a horror novel, but who pays any attention to labels?