to Horror Reviews

of Horror Reviews

Books for Review should be sent to: Don D'Ammassa, 323 Dodge Street,  East Providence, RI 02914

 Last Update 4/30/10 

I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells, Tor, 2010, $9.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2782-6

Although this is packaged to look like a mundane thriller - and the title suggests the same - it is actually a novel of the supernatural.  The protagonist is a teenager whose family runs a mortuary who is convinced that he is fated by various forces into becoming a serial killer.  He is in fact almost completely emotionless and is fascinated with dead bodies and violence and seems likely to become a self fulfilling prophecy.  At the same time there is a serial killer at work in his town, one who mangles each victim and steals organs.  As you might expect, their paths are going to cross, but we eventually learn that in this case, it's not a human being who is responsible.  The protagonist, John Cleaver, is reasonably interesting although it's hard to feel a lot of sympathy for him, and my interest had begun to falter by the time we actually got to the major confrontation and climax. It's not a particularly long novel, so the hesitation wasn't a serious flaw.  Everything seems to be cleared up at the end - our hero even discovers emotion - and the monster is dead, but this is the first volume in a trilogy so things may not be as they seem.  Not great but pretty good, and more promising than many another first novel.  4/3010

The Shadowy Thing by H.B. Drake, Hippocampus, 2010, $15, ISBN 978 0-9824296-8-6

Originally published in 1928 as The Remedy, this is one of the more obscure novels which Lovecraft cited as an influence on his own work, which is pointed out in some detail in the introduction by S.T. Joshi.  The plot involves a man who has extraordinary hypnotic powers which eventually allow him to actually take over the bodies of other people. In fact, when the villain is killed, he is able to project his spirit into another man's body and survive after a fashion.  His nemesis is the protagonist of the novel, a boyhood acquaintance who thwarts him from time to time, although in a very real sense it is the hero's sister who proves to be his undoing.  The writing is mildly archaic and the novel is a good deal less explicit than most contemporary horror, but there is some good mood setting and the story moves along smoothly toward its inevitable conclusion.  Not a classic by any means, but it's easy to see why Lovecraft would have been fond of it.  4/27/10

Dead in the Family by Charlaine Harris, Ace, 2010, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01864-2

The tenth outing of Sookie Stackhouse and her vampire friends and enemies.  When this series first began to appear, I liked it enough to track down many of Harris' earlier straightforward mystery novels.  I enjoyed them as well, and the Sookie novels have been pleasantly consistent in quality, with the latest being no exception.  I can even put up with benevolent vampires when they're done this well. The near apocalyptic events of the previous book have left the supernatural community with a mild case of generalized post traumatic stress syndrome, and Sookie is no exception. As she attempts to put her life back together, and explore her romantic relations with a vampire, she is initially unaware that not everyone has put the recent war behind them, and she is a prime target for at least one of those remaining evil powers.  Underlying the suspenseful adventure story is an examination of prejudice which doesn't just apply to supernatural beings revealing their real nature, unfortunately.  This isn't exactly urban fantasy because it's not all that urban, but Harris remains my favorite of all the writers writing in that general vein.  4/21/10

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen, Seth Grahame-Smith, and Tony Lee, illustrated by Cliff Richards, Del Rey, 2010, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-345-52068-5

Although this was clearly a funny-once joke, the mini-flood of imitations and now this graphic novel version of the modified Jane Austen classic illustrates the paucity of humor and originality in modern literature. In case you haven't heard of it, the prose version consists of the Austen novel interspersed with references to and attacks by zombies.  The graphic version follows the same pattern and is visually unimpressive since much of it consists of people standing around talking.  The occasional zombie interludes are uninteresting either visually or contextually, particularly since it is all in black and white.  That will not stop people from buying this, of course, but I do wonder why/  4/19/10

Heads, You Lose! by R.L. Stine, Scholastic, 2010, $5.99, ISBN 978-0-545-16196-1

Bites edited by Lois Meltzer, Scholastic, 2010, $4.99, ISBN 978-0-545-15890-9

Both of these are aimed at younger readers, the first being part of the Horrorland series, an extension of the once very popular Goosebumps franchise. Kids find a magic coin which has sometimes unpredictable results, eventually transplanting them into a dangerous place where they find themselves fleeing for their lives from oddly menacing figures.  It's very much like earlier volumes in the series, not too scary and occasionally lightly funny.  If you can suspend your adult mind for a while, this can be fun.  The second title is a collection of very short stories, most by writers whose names are unfamiliar to me, and all about vampires - if you hadn't already guessed that from the title.  Best in the collection were the stories by Neal Shusterman and Terry Black, collaborating, and by Kevin Emerson.  This one's not particularly scary either, but sometimes amusing.  4/18/10

A Dark Matter by Peter Straub, Doubleday, 2010,

Since this is by Peter Straub, it goes without saying that the prose is smooth, the characters deftly drawn, and the story well plotted.  A group of teenagers and college students fall under the influence of an itinerant guru of sorts who enlists their aid in performing a ceremony which results in the death of one and the disappearance of another.  Years later, the protagonist tries to sort out just what happened by interviewing the survivors, whose stories sometimes contradict one another. There is a strong resemblance to Rashomon obviously and while I'm reviewing this under horror, it's more of an occult mystery and in fact there is virtually no element of suspense at all, just strangeness.  Although I enjoyed this as much or more than most of Straub's novels, I had some nagging problems.  First of all, I never was convinced that the group would have been drawn in so deeply after a single conversation with Mallon, the guru, no matter how impressionable they were.  I gave Straub a pass on this because there's some kind of astrological explanation that suggests this was all predestined.  The larger problem I had is that the world doesn't seem to function like ours even in mundane ways.  For example, the protagonist is trying to recreate what really happened, but he makes no effort to find contemporary accounts in the newspapers or elsewhere, even though the dead man had his head and armed pulled off, which would have made pretty spectacular news.  We readers are never told anything about the investigation by the police except that everyone was questioned.  One of the group, now married to a Senator and Presidential aspirant, is confident that her involvement will never be revealed, which makes no sense at all considering how thoroughly candidates' background are checked (except by the McCain campaign perhaps).  None of this kept me from enjoying the novel, but it did make me restless at times.  3/28/10

Evolve edited by Nancy Kilpatrick, Edge, 2010, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-894063-33-3  

The traditional vampire is almost absent from contemporary fiction, replaced by misunderstood, maladjusted, repentant, romantic, and various other modified forms.  Some of this has been fruitful; some of it has resulted in formulaically mediocre stories.  For better or worse, the vampire has become something other than a loathsome risen corpse.  Nancy Kilpatrick has collected here a number of original stories that explore some of the possible variations, including a very good story by Tanya Huff and others by Kelley Armstrong, Claude Lalumiere, and a full cast of lesser known writers.  There were only a couple of stories I actively disliked – I hate present tense narration – and a couple I actively liked.  Most of them have a romantic or even erotic component and several present interesting twists.  This should appeal mostly to vampire fans but the quality level is high enough to entertain more general interests as well. 3/24/10

Firefly Rain by Richard Dansky, Gallery, 2010, $15, ISBN 978-1-4391-4863-1 

This horror novel, originally published by Wizards of the Coast back in 2008, is an annoying combination of good and bad elements.  The chief bad element is one I have noticed in occasional other horror novels – and a whole lot of bad horror movies.  The world just doesn’t function the same way the real one does.  The protagonist loses his business and returns to the family home, now vacant following the deaths of his parents.  There he becomes virtually a prisoner.  His car is stolen, the police are reluctant to investigate, and his caretaker – who obtains information with almost supernatural quickness – is secretive and aggressive.  And I don’t care how remote the town is, they would not cash a check for someone other than the one named on the check without a very good reason, and our hero doesn’t even question it when the caretaker cashes his insurance check for him before he has even seen it. What bothers me is that the protagonist accepts the situation too readily, and the whole setup feels so artificial that any real suspense is derailed before it can get started.  Which is a shame because the premise is otherwise an intriguing one and the writing is solid.  The explanation of what’s going on was innovative but by the time I reached it I no longer believed in the characters. 3/18/10

Cthulhu’s Reign edited by Darrell Schweitzer, DAW, 2010, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0616-5

What would the world be like if Cthulhu and his minions returned to Earth?  Robert Bloch speculated about that in Strange Aeons and now editor Darrell Schweitzer has collected a number of new stories on that theme, opening with a bizarre Ian Watson story of a group of people trapped in a cemetery as reality shifts. Don Webb follows with a story showing how life would go on in many of the same ways, after a fashion, as does editor Schweitzer a while later. Ken Asamatsu describes the consequences when a small group of people try to escape the interdimensional invaders by hiding in a structure with no angles.  Will Murray speculates about the resistance movement and conjures Shub-Niggurath. Matt Cardin examines the effects on organized religion.  John Fultz suggests that humanity itself might be transformed.  Cthulhu adopts Manhattan as his new home in Gregory Frost’s contribution and even death provides no escape in Brian Stableford’s story.  Richard Lupoff presents a more scientific view of the phenomenon and the collection ends with Fred Chappell’s depiction of a surviving culture.  There are additional stories by Jay Lake, Laird Barron, and others.  My favorites were those by Stableford, Frost, Chappell, and Watson. 3/17/10

Snow by Ronald Malfi, Leisure, 2010, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-6355-7 

Malfi has written a number of thrillers that I haven’t read, but I think this is his first straight horror novel.  Four stranded travelers find themselves in a remote town inundated with snow but, more importantly, a special kind of snow that can form solid shapes and invade humans, wearing their bodies like puppets.  There is nothing subtle about this one, which is one long sequence of chases and escapes as they try desperately to stay alive in the midst of one of the stranger menaces in recent horror fiction.  I had some minor quibbles, mostly because the creatures seem so powerful that I wasn’t entirely convinced that the strategies employed against them would actually work – and sometimes they don’t.  Their true nature is never explained, barely hinted at, which didn’t bother me but it might annoy readers who like their loose ends tied up neatly at the end.  There is some pretty good character development early on but most of that goes by the way once the action starts.  I did think the brief coda in which we see that not all of the creatures are gone was unnecessary and unwise but it wasn’t enough to spoil the book for me.  Recommended. 3/15/10

The Dream of X and Other Fantastic Visions by William Hope Hodgson, Night Shade, 2009, $35, ISBN 978-1-892389-43-5  

A couple of years ago, William Hope Hodgson was the dead guest of honor at Readercon and in preparation I read or re-read every bit of fiction that I could find by him.  Alas, Hodgson died young and didn’t leave a whole lot, but what he did leave is often of exceptional quality.  This is the fifth volume in Night Shade’s reprinting of his work – I haven’t seen the others – in a handsome hardcover edition.  In addition to the most common versions, the book includes alternates and even counterfeit work written in Hodgson’s style.  This particular book includes a good many of his lesser known stories, and while a few of them are pretty minor, they are written so stylishly and skillfully that they still hold up well. Note however that many of them are not fantastic.  Hodgson wrote a wide variety of stories including many about life at sea.  Among the most notable from this particular selection are “Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani”, a Carnacki story, and “The Ghost Pirates”, the last one of my particular favorites. Hodgson sometimes reworked the same material but that repetitiveness is not evident in this nicely edited selection.  2/26/10

Haggopian and Other Stories by Brian Lumley, Solaris, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-679-4  

This very large – over six hundred pages – collection of short stories covers most of the earlier part of Brian Lumley’s long career and includes some of his best stories from that period.  They range in subject matter from fantasy to horror to occult adventure, even though they are all connected in some fashion to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. There were only a few I hadn’t read before, and a few more that I had read but which had not been previously collected.  Among the better ones are “The House of Cthulhu”, “The Mirror of Nitocris”, and “The Thing from Blasted Heath”.  Some of them are minor but most are nice solid stories that expand upon Lovecraft’s creation, which some HPL fans consider blasphemous.  Lumley has provided notes about the stories some of which are very interesting. Generally I think he was better at book length than at shorter forms but there are some definite exceptions to that rule included here. Given the sheer volume of material here, you'll more than get your money's worth if you are at all fond of this kind of story.  2/26/10

Darkness on the Edge of Town by Brian Keene, Leisure, 2010, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-6091-4 

A small town in Virginia wakes up one morning to find themselves cut off from the rest of the universe, surrounded by an impenetrable blackness that is almost physical.  No one who ventures into the dark ever returns and people in close proximity have hallucinations and visions that are disturbing and dangerous.  The only clue to what is going on is the strange markings left by a local resident whom everyone believes to be mentally unstable.  No, this isn’t a Stephen King novel, although it reads initially like a cross between “The Mist” and Under the Dome.  Keene follows a handful of characters – none of them particularly appealing – as they explore the limits of their prison and discover the horrifying truth about what has happened.  Except it’s not particularly horrifying and there’s not a whole lot of suspense.  Keene has done some very good stuff but it feels like he’s just going through the motions for this one.  No real depth to the characters, not much of a plot, no surprises, and not even any really cathartic violence or horrific events.  Given the source, this is very disappointing. 2/13/10

Keeper of Light and Dust by Natasha Mostert, NAL, 2010, $15, ISBN 978-0-451-22909-0  

I’ve read two previous novels by Natasha Mostert, both variations of the haunted house story, and both very good. This time she has turned, alas, to contemporary urban horror/fantasy with a protagonist who has magical talents which she uses secretly in various ways around London. I say alas not because the result of this change of direction is unsuccessful but because it’s such a heavily traveled path lately that Mostert might well get lost in the shuffle, particularly since it hews so close to familiar paths. Our heroine gets emotionally involved with a brilliant, dashing man who turns out to be a kind of psychic vampire - a not very remarkable variation of a familiar cliche, and things get more complicated when she later finds herself torn between two lovers, one of whom might well destroy the other.  All of this is overlaid with a background setting of martial arts.  Mostert was able to breathe new life into the haunted house story so I wouldn’t be surprised if she succeeded here as well, although for me the various story elements never rose to the level of the prose.   One of the better written books of its kind but definitely not a groundbreaker.2/5/10

Bad Blood by Mari Mancusi, Jam, 2010, $9.99, ISBN 978-0-425-23264-4  

This young adult vampire series has been around for a few years, although I’ve never seen any of the earlier books. It has all the elements of the many similar series – a restricted society of good vampires, a few evil ones, a human girl in love with one of the undead – although as with most, there is little resemblance to the classical vampire. Our heroine can’t be queen of the vampires because she’s too human, but the candidate who takes her place has some anomalies in her personality that are suspicious.  I won’t reveal the secret here, but most readers will be way ahead of the protagonist in figuring out what is going on.  Not bad, but with nothing particularly interesting either. 2/5/10

Decay Inevitable by Conrad Williams, Solaris, 2010, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-84416-749-4  

I’ve read one previous novel by this author and found The Unblemished Ones to be quite outstanding.  In this new one we have a blend of science fiction and horror tropes as a secretive experiment goes awry and an almost unstoppable killer tries to destroy the evidence. I don’t want to say too much about the plot of this one because it might spoil some of the effect, so suffice it to say that it deals in part with the nature of death itself, forms of power unique to the book, and sundry matters.  The prose is vivid and engaging without becoming artificial and the story accelerates rapidly and keeps the pressure on almost unrelentingly.  The cover art is a bit odd but then so is the story.  Williams does not appear to be particularly prolific, but the finished product, when it does emerge, has so far been well worth the wait.  1/28/10

Original Sin by Allison Brennan, Ballantine, 2010, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-345-51167-6  

This is the opening volume of another urban fantasy/horror series by an author of several previous thrillers. Her protagonist, who once was exposed to demonic possession, is on her own now, though still badly traumatized by memories of her past experience.  She is also determined to track down and neutralize her mother, a modern day sorceress who has acquired immense power over the world of the supernatural.  Eventually she teams up with a failed priest, a sheriff, an occultist, and others to oppose her mother, whose quest for even more power has led her to unleash several supernatural creatures into the world. There’s a romantic subplot, inevitably, and a kind of climax although this is only the preliminary battles – there’s a short excerpt from the next in the series included.  Brennan writes well and there are some novel twists and turns in this one, though perhaps not enough yet to mark this one as likely to rise out of the ever growing crowd of competing series. I’m surprised that this particular subgenre hasn’t become over saturated yet. 1/24/10

How to Make Friends with Demons by Graham Joyce, Night Shade, 2009, $24.95, ISBN 978-1-59780-142-3 

I’m lumping this in horror even though I’m not sure it really fits in that category, despite the title.  Graham Joyce impressed me when I first read one of his books many years ago and he has never ceased impressing me since.  This one is about demons, both the literal and the figurative ones, but it puts both types in an entirely new perspective.  The protagonist is engaged in classifying the demons, differentiating the real ones from the illusions, but the story is not so much about what he does as it is with what he is.  He encounters a variety of other people – each of whom has demons of his own – and there really isn’t a great deal of overt plot until the second half of the book.  This is not meant to horrify the reader but to provide insights into human nature and play with the concepts the author establishes early on.  It’s a literary novel in the best sense of that term, literate, intelligent, and about something. 1/24/10

Seven Deadly Pleasures by Michael Aronovitz, Hippocampus, 2009, $15, ISBN 978-0-9824296-0-0  

This is a collection of rather odd horror stories – though some don’t really feel like horror – by an author I’d never previously heard of.  My strongest impression was that he employs unusual viewpoint characters.  His plots are also quite out of the ordinary and sometimes individual scenes are extremely effective.  A couple of them, “Passive Passenger” and “The Exterminator” worked quite well for me, as did parts of the short novel, “Toll Booth.”  The others struck me as uneven at times.  There are times when the prose flows well and others when it felt jerky and artificial.  I did like the fact that the author avoids most of the overworked themes of the genre and strikes out into new territory. With experience, Aronovitz could be a name to watch in the field. 1/15/10

Spellbent by Lucy A. Snyder, Del Rey, 2009, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-345-51209-3  

This is the opening volume in a new contemporary fantasy series and, like many of its kind, it frequently overlaps with horror fiction.  The protagonist is a young woman who is just learning to use her magical powers when they are put to a crucial test. She and her mentor are still experimenting when a portal to Hell or some such place opens and a demonic creature comes through the opening and attacks her.  Stripped of her friend’s council and power, she finds herself alone and beset by a small army of enemies.  She concludes that her only chance of winning the battle is to find her lost mentor, but pursuing that quest will lead to more revelations and even greater dangers.  A fairly promising debut that avoids much of the overdone baggage I’ve come to expect from this subgenre and even has some original things to say.  Good enough to keep me on the alert for the next in the series, The Devil in Miss Shimmer. 1/6/10

Blind Panic by Graham Masterton, Leisure, 2010, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-6268-2  

The Native American medicine man Misquamacus makes his fifth appearance in the newest Graham Masterton horror novel.  This time he has managed to possess other spirits and turn them into his instruments as he launches a plague of blindness on modern America.  The President is stricken, airliners crash, motorists lose control, and isolated individuals are treated to even more specific threats including time travel.  I’m a big fan of Masterton but I have to say that this is probably the weakest book I’ve ever read by him.  There is just no suspense at all and despite some effective scenes in the early chapters, the story is marred by too many viewpoint characters and a scale and frequency of attack that becomes monotonous rather than frightening.  I think it’s time for Misquamacus to be retired because all the possibilities of his existence seem to have been exhausted. 1/5/10

Bag of Bones by Stephen King, Simon & Schuster Audion, 2005, read by Stephen King

Listened to this one during our holiday travels this year.  It was one of the best of the recent King novels, one of the few told in first person, and filled with memorable incidents although for some reason I had forgotten much of the main story.  It's about ghosts, revenge for an evil committed by generations past, and mostly about grief and recovery.  The protagonist is an author whose wife dies unexpectedly.  After four years of aimlessness, he discovers a mystery surrounding her final year alive, befriends a young woman and her child who are locked in a custody battle with an insane multi-millionaire, and discover a supernatural curse of sorts that has affected western Maine for generations.  Some of King's best writing ever is in this one, particularly the first half of the novel.  He's also quite good at reading the material.  This is actually the first King book I've revisited even though several of them are among my all time favorites.  1/1/10

 

MORE REVIEWS