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

Last Update 6/30/14

Stoker’s Manuscript by Royce Prouty, Putnam, 2013, $26.95, ISBN 978-0-399-15855-1

A Romanian orphan raised in the US has become an authenticator of historical manuscripts. When a new, handwritten draft of Dracula appears – with a prologue and epilogue never published – he is hired by a mysterious Romanian family to authenticate it, purchase the manuscript, and personally deliver it to Transylvania. Readers will have no doubt about the name of the family, which is led by Dracula’s youngest brother, who wants to use the document to find the final resting place of Vlad. Yes, they are vampires, but the author plays with the legend considerably. They are a non-human but not really supernatural race whose members, divided into two types, are immortal but unable to reproduce since the last of their females died centuries ago, Or so it seems. There’s a theological explanation that is mostly nonsense. Otherwise it’s quite good, although I didn’t really care for the way it ended. A promising debut. 6/30/14

Ghouljaw by Clint Smith, Hippocampus, 2014, $20, ISBN 978-1-61498-965-0

A collection of fourteen short stories, half of which are original to this collection, the other half published in small circulation venues. Most of the stories are what I think of as mainstream contemporary horror. They tend to be oriented toward physical action rather than tone and atmosphere, the protagonists vary considerably but tend to be fairly conventional in their outlook, but the horror element is as likely to be psychological as physical. A few of the stories have perfunctory endings although the plotting is strong in most. Best of the lot are the title story, "Benthos," and "The Jellyfish."  The author's style seems to me better suited for longer fiction and I would be interested in seeing what he could do at novel length. 6/28/14

The Montauk Monster by Hunter Shea, Pinnacle, 2014, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7860-3475-8 

Several vaguely canine but very powerful and vicious beasts appear in Montauk and begin attacking local residents, even carrying a police officer away. They are clearly no known breed of animal, which stuns the local police. People bitten who survive fall prey to a fast acting infection that almost literally melts their bodies. Although certainly well written, there are some minor problems. There’s a scene where the chief protagonist has his gun trained on one of the creatures, but even though there are several human lives at risk, he doesn’t shoot and allows it to escape. I found this completely implausible, particularly since he is not frozen in shock or anything similar. I was also rather disappointed when we find out that the government is secretly covering up the existence of the creatures. There is further deterioration halfway through when the feds show up and strongarm the police without showing any identification. And if they are so determined to hush everything up, why is there no security on the island where the problem originated in a government lab? And with army, FEMA, CDC, and other agencies arriving in force, not to mention that the entire staff at the lab was killed along with a number of others, it’s pretty obvious the story isn’t going to be covered up. The closing chapters are just a succession of battle seems culminating in the government dropping a nuke on Montauk. My suspension of disbelief wasn't flexible enough for this one.  6/26/14

Burnt Black Suns by Simon Strantzas, Hippocampus, 2014, $20, ISBN 978-1-61498-083-4 

Although I enjoyed the previous work I had read by this author, I was not prepared for such an excellent collection as this one. There’s a story that reminded me of “At the Mountains of Madness” and another that I could have sworn was by Robert Aickman. There are a copy that verge on surrealism, which I don’t really care for, but they are both wonderfully handled. The style varies from the almost baroque “By Invisible Hands” to the relative gentleness of an historical piece titled “Beyond the Banks of the River Seine.” The title story is particularly well done. I’d be very surprised if this isn’t nominated for best single author collection on the next Stoker ballot. 6/22/14

The Leopard Couch by Sax Rohmer, Black Dog, 2012   

This is a collection of Rohmer’s supernatural and fantastic stories. About half of them had been previously collected or have appeared in another form under another name. Oddly enough, his best known story, “Tcheriapin”, is not included. They generally involve ghosts, curses, and magic but the fantastic elements are more involved with tone than the actual plot. Although of some historical interest, they range from readable to rather awkward in terms of contemporary readers. Rohmer’s short fiction was not as good as his novels, and his straightforward mysteries are generally among his better work. 6/20/14

Strange Country by Deborah Coates, Tor, 2014, $26.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2902-8

This is the third in a series about Halie Michaels, who can see the spirits of the dead and other signs of the supernatural, apparently as the result of her experiences in Afghanistan. The second was a mild letdown from the first, but this one rises back nearly to the top, even though a lot of this is rather more mundane. Someone has been killing people with a high powered rifle, the victims apparently but not necessarily chosen at random. And Halie has received a series of oddly disturbing anonymous messages that seem designed to get her to visit a specific location. And by the end, we may learn something very surprising about our protagonist, about which I can't be more specific without spoiling things. Solid writing, a good plot, and a satisfactory outcome. 6/18/14

The Evil Is in the Ice by Danny Odato, Outskirts, 2014, $19.95, ISBN 978-1-4787-2796-5

This science fiction horror story would not have been out of place in one of the pulp magazines of the 1940s. The discovery of some unusual bodies - which turn out to have some very unusual properties - puzzles scientists, who are then dismayed when it appears that an awesome force may have been unleashed which could destroy the world as we know it. Much counterplotting ensues. The story is straightforward and relatively unsophisticated, and the author is at his best when describing the action rather than concentrating on his characters. The dialogue is occasionally awkward but the narration is much better. More nostalgic than cutting edge. 6/18/14

Bloodmaster by Mary L. Quijano, Pinnacle, 1989 

As far as I know, this author only had two other books, both SF and both self published, and I’ve never read or even seen either of them. The early chapters of this horror thriller suggest why. The female protagonist has the boss from hell, except that he’s so over the top that it’s impossible to believe in his malevolence. Nor does the management set up in the company she works for make any sense. Nobody in such a subordinate position would be responsible for purchasing, inventory control, production, and marketing. If they were, they’d report to the CEO, not an intermediary. Anyway, they have an altercation during which she sees him transform into a demonic monster. Or is it an illusion? She begins to have the same experience with other people. Meanwhile, the Pope has fallen into a coma. It’s all part of a clever plot by the Devil to take over the Roman Catholic Church. Don’t bother looking for this one. It’s a yawner. 6/16/14

2 Spruce Lane by Gretchen Travis, Ballantine, 1975 

Gretchen Travis wrote one other novel, which I have never seen. This one is a haunted house story. The plot advances predictably. We begin to discover the history of the house, whose original owner committed suicide in the basement after a love affair that ended badly. The husband is seriously injured while cutting down a tree and it turns out that the previous owner had a similar experience.  The wife begins to feel that she is not alone in the house even when she obviously is, at least physically. There’s a distracting subplot in which the previous owner, who believes in spiritualism and who thinks she contacted her daughter while living in the house, interacts with another woman who also believes she’s a medium. Their adopted son begins to get into trouble at school, which is very unlike him, and becomes inordinately attached to a cat. Everything is pretty obvious and the story is formulaic, which is kind of a shame because Travis wrote pretty good prose and her characters show signs of life. 6/11/14

The Slayer of Souls/The Maker of Moons by Robert W. Chambers, Stark House, 2014, $19.95, ISBN 978-1-933586-48-9 

I read both of these novels a very long time ago and remembered nothing except that I’d struggled with the prose from time to time. I did this time as well although I liked them better than I expected. The first one involves a magical assault on the US by a secret organization based in a remote part of China. A young woman with magical talents of her own is in a position to oppose them but is reluctant to get involved and she has already had her soul destroyed, although she gets a new one when she falls in love with a secret service agent. We never find out exactly why she had such powerful magic. In the second, and more interesting, story a pair of hunters stumbles upon a mysterious young woman, black magic, arcane living creatures, and more. Chambers was a significant influence on Lovecraft, though not as good a writer. 6/5/14

The Revenant of Thraxton Hall by Vaughn Entwistle, Minotaur, 2014, $25.99, ISBN 978-1-250-03500-4   

Arthur Conan Doyle is the protagonist of this unorthodox murder mystery. Shortly after killing off Sherlock Holmes in his latest story, Doyle is summoned by a woman who identifies herself as a medium and who tells him she will be murdered in two weeks’ time if he doesn’t help. Doyle is skeptical of her claim of prescience and declines. Following a prophecy of his own death and an invitation to a society of paranormal investigations, Doyle is off to Thraxton Hall accompanied by Oscar Wilde.  Thraxton Hall is dilapidated and much of the staff is literally blind, which is sensible since the house is kept in darkness due to its owner’s porphyria – sensitivity to light. The owner is also the medium who consulted Doyle back at the start. Along the way Doyle sees one obviously real ghost and dreams that Sherlock Holmes has come to life. There are a number of odd characters at the gathering, including one who appears to be able to levitate, and some of their interactions are quite interesting, although the socializing goes on for rather a long time before anything advances the plot. When one of the guests is strangled in a locked room, Doyle suspects that the levitator may have come in through her window. Although there is some genuine supernatural content, this is basically a slow paced detective story. Interesting, sometimes very much so, and first in a projected series. 6/3/15

Brujo by William Relling, Tor, 1986 

William Relling was a very promising writer whose career nosedived with the collapse of the horror boom. He switched to mysteries but never had the traction there that he’d enjoyed in horror, and he later committed suicide. This was his first published novel. A powerful Native American shaman wakens from a generations long sleep and begins using the local wildlife – seagulls, wild pigs, etc. – to attack the interlopers on what he views as a sacred island. The protagonist is Trevor, divorced, spending a weekend on the island with his young son and his girlfriend at the request of a business associate. Their party is attacked by gulls on the way to the island and a few other isolated people are killed. That evening, bats smash through the windows of a restaurant and a rock singer who was performing there, and whom we know to have been mentally assaulted by the brujo, leaves with them circling his head. The attacks continue – rattlesnakes and a cloud of insects that force a plane crash. Fortunately, Trevor’s son has previously unsuspected mystical powers of his own which become obvious when the attack becomes more general. This is a first novel and there are some problems. The brujo shows his animal minions how to use human technology against the populace, but how would he have known? He died more than a century earlier and has been buried alive since then.  The ending is about what you’d expect with no surprises. It’s well written and exciting and it was a promising debut. 5/28/14

Suffer the Children by Craig Dilouie, Gallery, 2014, $16, ISBN 978-1-4767-3963-2  

This lies somewhere between zombie apocalypse and vampire plague. All of the children in the world suddenly sicken and die, but they don’t stay dead. They’re back and they’re hungry and unfortunately what they are hungry for is human blood. There’s a greater degree of tragedy here because obviously some of the parents are determined to protect their blood drinking offspring. The story will hold your interest although it’s not as effective as it might have been. The characters should really have been better developed so that we cared more about their fate. The dialogue is occasionally a bit awkward. A satisfactory thriller but not likely to be a bestseller. 5/26/14

The Revenant of Rebecca Pascal by David Barker & W.H. Pugmire, Dark Renaissance, 2014, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-937128-8

This novella is set in H.P. Lovecraft's mythical town of Arkham. A poet is possessed, although no one seems to notice except that she begins to act rather strangely. She has purchased a part of the local graveyard to build an elaborate tomb among other things, and she has the bodies of her family members moved as well. There's little overt horror in this moody  tale, although a cult shows up late in the story and there are some weird phenomena as you might expect in Arkham. Possession stories rarely work for me for some reason. I can accept someone being influenced by an outside source but not simply displaced. On the other hand, this really isn't a story about possession as much as it is an exercise in atmosphere and strangeness. I was actually more reminded of William Hope Hodgson than of Lovecraft. That's not a bad thing. 5/17/14

Bliss House by Laura Benedict, Pegasus, 2014, $25.95, ISBN 978-1-60598-572-5

Although there have been some bad haunted house stories over the years, it is one of the popular plots in horror fiction that seems to work almost all the time, particularly when an author inserts some unusual plot elements. The house of the title has a long and somewhat dubious reputation as the site of bizarre events. It is purchased by a descendant of the original owner, a widow whose daughter was horribly disfigured in the same accident that killed her husband. She hasn't been there long before she starts to see ghostly figures and then someone is murdered inside the house. Even worse from her point of view, the influence of the house is affecting her daughter. The blend of ghost story and murder mystery works itself out logically and with a sense of inevitability. I have enjoyed this author's previous moody, low key novels of the supernatural and this one is probably her best effort so far. 5/15/14

Motherless Child by Glen Hirshberg, Tor, 2014, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-3745

Conventional and unconventional vampire motifs combine in this unusual novel. Two young women raising babies without husbands have a surprise visit from a mysterious musician, whose departure the following morning leaves them blood and confused and eventually aware that they have become vampires. Rather than put the children at risk, they leave them in the care of an older woman and set out into the world, determined not to surrender to their blood drinking nature. Meanwhile, the musician and his mother are on a very different trajectory, but one which will eventually converge with theirs once again. There are twists and turns galore here and I was never able to confidently predict how the story would end. It's monstrous but also very human and not quite like any other vampire novel I've encountered. More thoughtful than creepy, although there's some creepiness as well, particularly toward the end. 5/11/14

Innocent Blood by James Rollins & Rebecca Cantrell, Morrow, 2014, $27.99, ISBN 978-0-06-199106-6  

Second in the Order of the Sanguines series. Although I normally enjoy Rollins’ work, the first in this series bothered me a bit because the “good” guys didn’t seem to me much better than the villains. Two groups are battling for control of human destiny – one being the Vatican, the other a secret group of strigoi, i.e., vampires. This time the struggle is over the fate of a single boy who may be akin to angels. There’s a good deal of adventure in a variety of locations, and much of that is quite good, but I was still struck with the bloodthirstiness of both sides and the suggestion that God is perfectly happy inflicting horrible pain and suffering on is worshippers. 5/9/14

Hell Has Its Demons by Mark Lord, Alt Hist Press, 2014, ISBN 978-1495982859

I guess you could call this an alternate history dark fantasy horror novel since it touches on all of those terms. The premise is that the demons of the Middle Ages were real and could be summoned by anyone with suitable knowledge of the occult. Some individual with those powers develop a plot to use supernatural forces to seize the throne of England. A minor scholar whose views on the subject have engendered some potentially dangerous controversy decides to prove the existence of demons in order to vindicate himself. He visits a village where an upsurge in possession and other arcane events seems the perfect place for him to test his theories, but he finds much more than he bargained on, including a sundered romantic relationship that is about to take a startling turn. Moderately well written and far enough out of the ordinary to generate more appeal than it might have otherwise. It's another of those novels where the author tends to skimp on physical description from time to time and I occasionally had no sense of the physical location of events taking place, which I always find frustrating. Not a fatal blow but an occasionally irritating one. 5/3/14

Deadroads by Robin Riopelle, Night Shade, 2014, $15.99, ISBN 978-1-59780-513-0

This horror novel has a very regional flavor, set in the bayou country of Louisiana. There is one family which passes along the ability to see into other realities. For generations they have helped wandering spirits to reach their destinations. When one of the family is killed while investigating a series of deaths that have other worldly implications, his family unites to solve the mystery, although they have almost as much trouble getting along with one another as they do dealing with demonic forces and other inhuman threats. Despite the supernatural content, this is more quietly suspenseful than one would normally associate with horror, and it can arguably be considered a dark fantasy. The prose is excellent and the characters varied and convincing, if sometimes a bit annoying. I think this is a first novel and if so, it's a very good one. 4/29/14

Macabre Tales by Fitz-James O’Brien, Doubleday, 1988 

Dream Stories and Fantasies by Fitz-James O’Brien, Doubleday, 1988 

Fitz-James O’Brien was an Irish American who died during the Civil War, leaving a small body of fiction behind. The first volume of this collection, edited and with notes by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, contains eleven of them, opening with “The Lost Room,” in which a boarder returns to his room to find it occupied by the spirits of cannibalistic magicians. Expelled, he is never able to find his room again, just a blank wall. “The Child Who Loved a Grave” is very short but effective, a child whose love for a beautiful grave leads to his death and subsequent burlal in it. “The Diamond Lens” is technically SF. An obsessed man develops a new type of microscope and falls in love with a woman living in a drop of water. “A Pot of Tulips” is a quiet ghost story and one of the weaker entries in the book. Tragedy follows a meeting with a man who possesses hypnotic powers in “The Bohemian” and another acquires a kind of X-ray vision in “Seeing the World.” “What Was It? A Mystery” is his best known story.  The narrator and a friend capture an invisible creature which eventually dies in captivity without ever becoming visible. “The Wondersmith” is about a man who uses dark magic and it’s a bit too long for its story. “A Dead Secret” is rather dull despite being about madness and an abducted child. The final two stories are vignettes, but both are quite good. The second volume was far less interesting. It’s divided into two sections, the first of which is dream stories. “A Terrible Night” is the best of these, an atmospheric horror story. The rest are minor, mostly whimsical fantasies. The Fantasies section is even less interesting. Many of the stories seem to have been influenced by the Arabian Nights.  More of interest historically than literarily, but a few of the stories are minor classics. 4/28/14

The Well House by M.S. Matassa, Outskirts, 2014, $14.95, ISBN 978-1-4787-2335-6

This actually falls somewhere between supernatural horror and fantasy. The premise is fairly interesting. A man whose wife is locked in a coma begins having dreams which seem to have some relevance to her condition. Eventually he gets a lead that enables him to actually reach the images he has been dreaming about, which leads to another plane of reality. There he has to confront and defeat the evil force that is holding his wife's consciousness captive. I won't spill the secret here but most readers will be able to anticipate it well in advance. The prose is pleasant and some of the imagery is quite striking. I had some difficult identifying with the protagonist, whose personality could have used a bit more development, but otherwise it was quite readable. 4/27/14

Snowblind by Christopher Golden, St Martins, 2014, $25.99, ISBN 978-1-250-01531-0  

The town of Coventry is hit by a major blizzard during which several people die or disappear, in some cases taken by mysterious entities whose nature is not revealed to us. Twelve years later another blizzard approaches and everyone in town is on edge. Then strange things begin to happen. Some of the townspeople are apparently possessed by the spirits of those who died in the first storm. As the second storm approaches its worst, the living and the dead must work together to prevent an even greater disaster. I liked this one a lot although there were so many different viewpoint characters that the momentum occasionally faltered. 4/22/14

Community by Graham Masterton, Severn, 2013, $32.95, ISBN 978-0-7278-9673-5

Michael and his girlfriend are forced off the road by an aggressive driver resulting in a terrible accident. He wakes up in a hospital with amnesia but is told that that he is actually Gregory Merrick, with an elaborate background.  He is told that his recovery will take most of a year and that he will be temporarily housed in a small community adjacent to the medical facility. Very quickly we are shown hints that something is wrong – a mysterious van, peculiarities among the residents, and so on. Then Michael catches two people in lies, although he pretends not to have noticed.  Then he notices that some of the residents don’t leave footprints when they walk across the snow. Michael is rather slow in figuring out what’s going on, or even realizing how weird it all is, but otherwise the story moves fluidly toward its conclusion. The explanation is pretty obvious except for the details. Good but not among Masterton’s best. 4/21/14

Ghosts of Punktown by Jeffrey Thomas, Dark Regions, 2014, $14.95, ISBN 978-1-62641-012-1

Hideous Faces, Beautiful Skulls by Mark McLaughlin, Wildside, 2014, $14.99, ISBN 978-1479401888

Through a Broken Window by L.F. Falconer, Outskirts, 2014, 10.95, ISBN 978-1=4787-3069-9

I've been on a two day spree of short horror fiction which includes these three new collections. The first of these bleeds across the border with science fiction quite a bit, as have previous Punktown books by this author. Thomas almost never disappoints and this isn't one of those rare occasions. Punktown is inhabited by a wide variety of characters, many of them twisted in strange directions. Some are aliens, some human, and some undefined. Some of the stories, including the long and very good novella "Life Work" are original to this collection. Others have appeared in a variety of places. "In His Sights" and "A Semblance of Life" are also quite good, the others range from entertaining but slight to almost very good indeed. I almost lumped this into SF because many of the stories technically qualify, but Thomas uses SF themes and devices for entirely untraditional purposes and the collection seems more appropriately located in horror. Mark McLaughlin's stories tend to be much shorter and rely more on a single thrust than a nuanced blend. It's harder to pick out exceptional stories here because they are predominantly rather similar in quality and structure. A few of them don't seem to be horror at all and a few are more mood pieces than stories. This is best read in batches, I suspect, because taken in one chunk the stories are less likely to leave a lasting impression. The third author is a name I've not seen before. Several of the stories have interesting ideas and there are flashes of interesting writing, but the book badly needs an editor to correct the dangling modifiers and other occasional grammar problems. The stories were good enough that I read them all, but I kept encountering odd metaphors and constructions that threw me out of the text. 4/19/14

Searchers for Horror edited by S.T. Joshi, Fedogan & Bremer, 2014, $30, ISBN 978-1-878252-26-5 

The common thread in this collection of new horror fiction is the weird place, which is defined in many different ways by the various contributors. The themes and plots are nicely varied – everything from Lovecraftian monsters revealed in a fractal to remote parts of the world. The only thing I found a bit disappointing is that while all of the stories involve weirdness and/or the supernatural, and a few were even somewhat unsettling, there were very few that generated much suspense or any actual sense of horror. I was particularly impressed by the stories by Richard Gavin, Caitlin Kiernan, Jonathan Thomas, Simon Stranzas, Brian Stalbeford, and Nancy Kilpatrick. There are several black and white illustrations by Rodger Gerberding but I have to say I don’t think they added anything to the book. 4/18/13

Deep Like the River by Tim Waggoner, Dark Regions, 2014, $12.95, ISBN 978-1-62641-063-3  

Alie is still experiencing guilt feelings about the death of her baby when her sister takes her canoeing on a small river. They find an apparently abandoned maybe lying on a beach and decide to take it to the rental place and call the police. Both sisters have strange experiences on the way – glimpses of a shadowy shape lurking in the woods and some kind of water serpent that resembles one from their childhood with a mildly abusive father. The fantastic events multiply and it’s obviously a reflection of her baby’s death and her guilt for having shaken her too violently in a moment of pique. The end is a bit disappointing – the resolution is murky at best – but the imagery is very effective. 4/15/14

Ana Kai Tangata by Scott Nicolay, Fedogan & Bremer, 2014, $30, ISBN 978-1-878252-08-1

It's also a pleasure to find a good new author, and it's particularly pleasant to find one who writes short novels and novelettes, which has always been my favorite story length for SF and horror. This is a collection of eight tales - some short stories, at least one approaching novel length - and although technically I suppose they're horror stories, most of them are almost independent of genre. Other than some poetry, I think this is the author's first book, and only three of the stories have previously been published elsewhere. Some of the stories have conventional horror elements but they are almost always transformed in some fashion. "Tuckahoe" and "The Bad Outer Space" were the two I enjoyed the most and only one of them seemed a bit too long for its premise. I didn't even mind the occasional use of present tense narrative, which is unusual for me. There are several black and white illustrations by David Verba which I thought were just okay. A potentially very interesting new writer in the genre who is particularly adept at atmosphere. 4/11/14

Grey Face by Sax Rohmer, 1924 

The protagonist of this early and rather awkward Rohmer occult mystery has two problems. First, he seems to have fallen into a stupor after looking at a statue of Buddha given to him as a present, and second, the woman he loves and her maid insist that he has made no effort to call or write to her for several days despite his distinct memories of having done so. Although he is a professional writer, he still does work for the British intelligence services from time to time. Meanwhile, a couple of very peculiar people are attracting unofficial scrutiny from the police and a couple of nosey civilians. One is a charismatic woman, the other man with some odd physical characteristics, including the texture of his skin. There are too many investigators in this one and it’s hard to tell them apart, but one finds a dying woman who encountered the deformed man and cries out the book title before dying. Various portions of the story involve mind control, super science, ancient knowledge, hypnotism, and other wonders, but the story is chaotic, with far too many changes of point of view, and it’s rather a chore to get to the end.

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