Short Take: “Dweller,” Jeff Strand

Rating: 5 out of 5

In Jeff Strand’s Dweller, it’s 1960. 15-year-old Toby Floren, the class weirdo, finally makes a friend. Only this isn’t an ordinary friend. This is a monster, with sharp teeth and claws. It lives in a cave in the forest, and Toby names it Owen. Over the decades their relationship survives, although it has its rough patches. Toby pours out all of his troubles to Owen, and Owen listens to it all.

The book has longer sections separated by glimpses of Toby and Owen’s lives. Toby has an extremely active imagination, but reality only measures up when it comes to Owen. Toby is badly bullied in school. Even as he ages he’s a loner. He has just enough self-awareness to realize that certain things would make him come across as creepy, but he only barely manages to talk himself out of them. His thought processes always seem to be a bit left-of-center. When he starts heading into dangerous territory, it’s always easy to see how he goes down the slippery slope–while the reader is sitting there waving their arms and trying to get him to stop before things go bad.

Owen generally sees humans as food, making his relationship with Toby all the more bizarre and dangerous. They bond as Toby gives him snacks, and eventually they develop a sort of sign language between them since Owen can’t talk.

There’s drama, horror, gore, and some very touching moments. Well worth reading!

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Review: “The Deep,” Nick Cutter

Rating: 3 out of 5

Note: If fatphobia is triggering for you, just skip this review and the book altogether. It’s really bad.

Nick Cutter’s The Deep: A Novel introduces us to Dr. Luke Nelson, a veterinarian. Although he hasn’t seen his brother, genius scientist Clay, in years, he’s snapped up by the government to help out with a project Clay is involved in. Clay is 8 miles down under the surface of the ocean in the Mariana Trench, studying a possible miraculous cure-all agent they call ambrosia. There’s a disease going around called “the ‘Gets”–everyone who catches it starts forgetting more and more, until they finally forget to breathe. The hope is that ambrosia might be the one thing that cures it. Clay and two other scientists are trying to harvest some ambrosia to study. The problem is, the folks up top have lost contact with the little facility they have down there (the Trieste), and one of the last things Clay transmitted was a bizarre-sounding appeal for Luke to “come home.” One of the other scientists came up on his own and was found quite horrifically dead. The folks in charge hope that Luke will be the key to finding out what’s going on, and he’s quickly sent down to the Trieste with Lieutenant Commander Alice “Al” Sykes.

I love it when the weird stuff starts happening early on in a horror or paranormal novel. We all know it’s coming; it’s overly coy to keep it out of reach. The Deep dives right in, with the ‘Gets, the ambrosia, and the insanity of sending three scientists 8 miles below the ocean’s surface. When Luke and Al get down there, things have already gone very, very wrong. One of the two remaining scientists seems to have gone insane. True, this can happen when you’re alone, in the dark, in such an inhospitable place, but this is something else. Clay doesn’t seem all that odd, but I mean, this is Clay–he’s always been impassive, cold, and uncaring about anyone except himself. As he says, why would he have sent for Luke? Luke can’t do anything for him. There are very weird things going on in the various labs, but most of the doors are locked and Luke can’t tell what’s going on inside of them.

The insane and weird events build nicely, but there was at least one stretch toward the end where I felt like it wasn’t really ramping up fast enough. It got over that, though. There are a lot of memories that Luke spends his time falling into–apparently it’s something about the Trieste, or whatever else might be down here with the ambrosia. Thus we see into Luke’s life quite often. It does become relevant, I promise. He’s had a hard time of things–his son Zach disappeared some years ago. And he and Clayton did not exactly have a normal upbringing.

This is where I tackle the thing that pissed me off about this book. Luke and Clayton’s mother. She’s a horrifying monster of a woman, capable of terrible things. She’s also a walking, talking veneer over the face of some serious fatphobia. The details of her fatness are almost lovingly lingered on and very obviously meant to make her seem more disgusting and monstrous. Nearly every time she’s brought up there’s a nod to her fatness whether it’s relevant to anything or not. When she trauma-eats after a very violent event, even that is made to be disgusting. Then there’s a brief mention of a man who killed a bunch of children, and of course he’s labeled “rotund.” In Nick Cutter’s world, fat equals evil. Fat equals disgusting. Fat equals disturbed. People who are fat abuse children, molest children, and kill children.

It’s a shame, because this is a really creative book other than that. I love how things work out in some very unexpected ways. However, there’s a seriously major plot point that never gets at all wrapped up–it drops away into nowhere after being worked up into something that seems very unnatural.

Content note for a fair amount of animal harm, because Clay has no morals and experiments on animals, even referring to each one as “it.” There’s also off-the-page child death and molestation, and of course a bit of gore.

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Review: “Blaze,” Krista D. Ball

Rating: 4 out of 5

Blaze (Tranquility) (Volume 1), by Krista D. Ball, is the first book in the “Tranquility” series. (It is also found in: Beginnings: first novels in multiple series by Krista D. Ball.) Lady Champion Bethany is third in command of the elven Service (she’s Elorian, or a half-elf, herself). Lately they’re taking in humans for training from a neighboring kingdom as part of an attempt at diplomacy. She finds herself taking an interest in one of them–Arrago–and isn’t sure why. He’s never held a sword before, so he can’t enter training right now. Instead, since she goes through aides like water, she hires him to be her aide. She also has a “fit” in which she experiences visions including him. That part is because, as only a few people know, she’s the eldest daughter of the Goddess Apexia. Unfortunately, Bethany’s twin sister, Sarissa, who was exiled years ago for studying forbidden magic, has returned. And she plans to bring Apexia’s temple down around the ears of the elves. Not to mention killing off all of Bethany’s friends, and stealing dangerous magical texts from the temple.

I had a weird time with the growing affection between Bethany and Arrago. She’s 133; he’s 20. Admittedly 133 is young for an elf or Elorian, but she also comes across as older. He’s fairly sheltered and naive, which doesn’t help the discrepancy. So it was a little hard for me to buy into the relationship and the pair’s supposed chemistry. What I really love, though, is the fact that Bethany is the temperamental warrior, and Arrago is really happier being a clerk than picking up a sword (he’s also fussy enough to be very good at it). It’s a wonderful turnabout from the usual fantasy cliches.

I found the pacing and narrative clumsy and cumbersome at first, with way too much rumination and background-explaining. Also, a large part of the beginning of the book was spent on the details of how recruits are trained, which becomes almost entirely irrelevant when Arrago drops out to be Bethany’s aide. I feel like anything that’s had that much wordage spent on it should play a greater role.

I didn’t like the fact that everyone was either celibate outside of marriage or “a whore.” I see too much “women who have sex are whores” in real life that I don’t want to see it in my escapism.

With all the things above that I didn’t like, I expected to give the book a 3/5. But the further I got, the more the writing smoothed out and settled into its groove, and the more “alive” the characters felt. Ultimately, what really shows that it worked out well is that I’m interested in reading the next book!

Serious content note here for rape, on the page (but handled well–ie, not in any way lurid). Also, child death and abortion.

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Short Take: “The Land Below,” William Meikle

Rating: 5 out of 5

In William Meikle’s horror/adventure novella The Land Below, ex-military man Daniel Garland gets talked into going caving with Ed and Thomas Ellington, as their guard. Ed is looking for a lost treasure in Austria, left by the Teutonic Knights. Local shepherd Stefan and his dog, Elsa, discover the trio at the entrance to the caves and decides to come along to help out. (He doesn’t know about the treasure–he’s just afraid that something might eat the explorers.) When the group takes an inadvertent waterfall ride Tommy is injured, and the whole group finds themselves face-to-face with a dangerous underground predator.

This is kind of a by-the-numbers cave-dwelling monster story, but then that’s why I picked up this book. That was exactly what I was looking for, and Meikle always delivers with fun, engaging stories. Whether I’m reading a monster story or a cosmic horror story (or a fusion of the two), I always know I’ll enjoy and be satisfied by his work.

The trio didn’t pack a whole lot because they didn’t expect to go far, so this isn’t a novel’s worth of exploration. They meet several nasty monsters, find out the truth of the treasure, and their lives are changed forever. Daniel and Stefan in particular were interesting characters, each with a sort of dependable solidity to them. Also Elsa brought a bit of joy to the page. There’s creative problem-solving, interesting discoveries, and, well, perhaps some unfortunate actions taken. This is a fun short read!

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Review: “Dark Whispers,” Krista D. Ball

Rating: 5 out of 5

Dark Whispers (Spirit Caller Series Book 2), by Krista D. Ball, starts up shortly after Spirits Rising ends. (It is also found in: Beginnings: first novels in multiple series by Krista D. Ball.) There have been two teen suicides in the town where Rachel acts as a grief counselor, and the school has employed her to help the kids through them. When she witnesses another attempted suicide, she starts to wonder what’s going on. Then there’s a mysterious man she’s spotted who seems to have taken an interest in her. But every time she looks into his eyes, she suffers horrid memories of her own lowest point, and then forgets she ever even saw him. Just to add to the mess, a woman shows up claiming to be Rachel’s birth mother, but her mind doesn’t seem to be all there–she’s trying to warn Rachel of something, but she can’t verbalize it. And Jeremy’s apartment flooded when his girlfriend Donna was supposed to be visiting, so they’re both staying in Rachel’s guest room.

The Jeremy-Donna-Rachel issue is interesting. Donna is, according to Rachel, a perfect goddess. Beautiful, talented, everything. Upon hearing that Rachel isn’t happy with her weight, Donna decides to fill her fridge with healthy food and take her jogging. I guess I just find that unreasonably pushy. Also, Donna’s starting to wonder whether Jeremy is stringing Rachel along as a sort-of backup girlfriend, and I’m not so sure she’s wrong about that. Which just makes me like Jeremy even less. I hope Rachel moves past her desperate crush on him at some point, because I just don’t like their (lack of) chemistry.

The mysterious man who keeps going after Rachel is really interesting. Obviously I can’t say much about him without spoiling anything. Dema, the very old spirit who took to Rachel in the previous book, is around even more now. She seems to be having a bit of fun with Rachel, but also has ulterior motives. I look forward to learning more about her.

The issues brought up regarding Rachel’s bio-mom definitely get interesting. I also found it fascinating to learn more about Rachel’s relationship with her adoptive mom. Next I hope we see more of her father.

Content note for suicidality, memories of suicide, attempted suicide… it’s a dark one, folks. But handled very well.

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Review: “Jane Doe,” Victoria Helen Stone

Rating: 5 out of 5

Sure, it’s become more common lately to delve into the minds of sociopaths in our fiction. We’re fascinated by these people and want to understand how they do what they do. In Victoria Helen Stone’s Jane Doe: A Novel (A Jane Doe Thriller), we get a much better look at a sociopath than any I think I’ve seen before. Jane knows what she is, and she’s okay with that. Sometimes she wishes she could feel what others feel, but for the most part she leans into her well-developed ability to manipulate others. Now she’s gone back to Minneapolis–the place she grew up–temporarily leaving behind her apartment in Malaysia. A friend of hers–one might say her only friend, and the only person who mattered to her–killed herself in this town. Jane is determined to ruin those she feels are responsible. She has her own version of not-quite grief, and she aims to deal with it.

Jane shapes her appearance and words to perfectly appeal to the abusive, manipulative man, Steven, whom Meg was seeing off and on. It’s a fairly horrifying look at how some people manipulate others and prey on their low self-esteem. (Heard of “negging”? Yeah, that. Among other things.) As she analyzes each thing he does and her response to it, we can’t miss what a horrible person he is. And yet he seems to genuinely care about the Church, and loves his father the pastor, so he doesn’t fall into a one-note stereotype. (This also serves to remind us that just because a person is “good” in one way or another, doesn’t mean they can’t also be abusive.)

Jane goes back and forth a bit on whether she wants to kill Steven or ruin him in some other way. Her plans evolve over time as she learns more and more about what makes him tick and what secrets he’s hiding. At the same time, she’s hooked up with an old college friend, Luke, who sees her as the one that got away, and who’s accepting of her oddities. She knows she’ll have to leave him behind when she goes back to Malaysia, but she isn’t good at denying herself things that she wants. She’s also incredibly impulsive and impatient. She’s perhaps the only sociopathic character I can remember seeing who isn’t a serial killer, and who doesn’t have some sort of odd total patience with plotting and planning. Waiting only happens when she knows it’ll get her something she wants–like Steven’s ruination. She also spends some time trying to figure out for herself what exactly love is. It’s fascinating to see how she strives to understand “normal” people, and not just see normal people try to understand her.

Content note for sex talk and sex. (They’re handled pretty bluntly, not erotically; see also that whole thing about Jane being a sociopath.) Also for verbal abuse.

As soon as I read this one I downloaded the sequel. I want to see more of Jane.

Being a sociopath doesn’t automatically make someone a genius at killing. I’m learning on the job here.

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Short Take: “The House on Abigail Lane,” Kealan Patrick Burke

Rating: 5 out of 5

Kealan Patrick Burke’s horror/paranormal novella The House on Abigail Lane is written like a set of research notes or journals regarding the strange events associated with number 56 Abigail Lane. First, of course, there are the disappearances. Sometimes people head up to the second floor and just never come back. It took people a while to realize there was a pattern, because nobody really looked into the disappearance of one of the construction workers. Of course there are other strange happenings besides the disappearances. Some folks see odd things inside the house. Someone tried to burn the place down, and the only damage was smoke damage on the outside of the house. Once, for a short time, dozens of dogs and cats sat on the lawn facing the house, then left as mysteriously as they’d arrived. As for the things people have seen in the house, well, those vary wildly. A ten-foot clown. A lighthouse with a beach down below. A field of sunflowers. A giant “god.” For years so-called paranormal investigators tried to crack the secrets of the place, until one person labeled it “a calamity of physics.” Of course when the story reaches the 2000s, the house goes viral.

Even though some of the events are fairly innocuous, and others could be explained as PTSD, hallucinations, people running away, and so on, it quickly becomes clear that there are patterns at work. But the house endures through it all–police, ghost hunters, researchers–and keeps its secrets close to the vest.

My one worry was that, like many haunted house stories, this would have a weak ending. When you have a cipher as big and as seemingly unchangeable as “a house,” good and meaningful endings can be hard to come by. There’s one set of events that really delves into some of the madness and, while not tying every string together, gives a few ideas away. And the story of course neatly sets up the possibility of something more happening in the future (I’d love to read that follow-on!).

One thing that makes this a little hard to get into is the fact that there is no real protagonist other than the house, and it’s fairly reticent. There’s little violence, so what there is has impact. I really enjoyed this little tale.

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Short Take: “The Secret Name,” Eve Harms

Rating: 3 out of 5

Eve Harms brings us the short tale The Secret Name (Kendra Temples: The Demonic Diaries) in the form of a series of blog posts. It’s an intriguing and original attempt, but it often makes the scary material feel like it’s being held at arm’s length.

Kendra Temples is in desperate need of a job–her boyfriend Steve is getting pretty upset at the amount of back rent she owes. When she finds a job listing for a librarian for a private book collection, she knows she’s found her dream job. Unfortunately, after interviewing, she hears nothing back for a couple of months. She reluctantly agrees to work for Steve’s creepy father in his tanning salon. When she finally hears that she got the librarian job, she quickly dumps the tanning salon gig. The library in question turns out to be very old and HUGE, and in particular Eli, the wealthy film producer, wants her to find the occult section. When Kendra hears screaming within the house and finds out Eli has a wife locked away, she starts becoming suspicious as to what’s really going on.

Kendra does everything that the star of a horror movie would do while the audience sits back and rails about how stupid they’re being. She charges into all the places she’s not supposed to be. She breaks every promise she makes to anyone, seemingly without even hesitating to think about it. She fails to listen to every warning. It makes it really hard to relate to her as a protagonist. She’s also a bit of a flake who rarely takes anything seriously.

Between Kendra as a protagonist, the reliance on Kendra being a foolish flake to forward the plot, and the fact that the blog entry format keeps things at a remove, I can’t give this more than a 3/5. I wish I could, because the story is interesting, and the images of books and papers included in the story are really neat.

Content note for a little bit of animal harm.

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Review: “Midnight in the Pentagram,” ed. Kenneth W. Cain

Rating: 4 out of 5

As a note, I end up giving most multiple-author anthologies a 4/5 largely as a result of the fact that most people’s personal tastes won’t wholly match up with those of the editor, but the stories have usually gone through an editor who has motivation for finding the good stuff. It balances out a bit. Midnight in the Pentagram, edited by Kenneth W. Cain, fits that pattern.

I have a handful of favorites in here. Brian Moreland’s “The Corn Maidens” involves a young woman with a disturbing power, and a village with equally disturbing traditions. I absolutely love how this one played out.

Top billing (in my mind) should go to Laurel Hightower’s “The Other.” It’s a fascinating look at a possessed man’s life. He’s losing time, his wife suddenly seems to hate him, and his things get moved around. This is an incredibly powerful story.

“Angel Dust,” by Shannon Felton, is a bizarre story of drugs, possession, and demons that’s oddly intriguing. James Newman’s “I Know He Loves Me (He Just Has a Funny Way of Showing It)” is another possession story that takes things in an unexpected and fascinating direction. There seems to be a bounty of excellent possession stories, like P.D. Cacek’s “Diminishing Returns,” in which a woman with Alzheimer’s seems to be possessed.

Todd Keisling’s “The Gods of Our Fathers,” set in the same universe as his “Devil’s Creek,” is absolutely beautiful, and very dark. A girl whose father turned away from the Old Gods to the Christian god tries to find a way out of her life of pain and terror.

“A Night Above,” by John Quick, is a hilarious (and oddly touching!) story of a demon summoned to a slumber party, and I loved it!

Charlotte Platt’s “Family Business” introduces us to Lisa, who has followed in her family’s business of restoring and repairing antiques. A mysterious visitor named Levi brings her an artifact to be repaired, and things get strange from there. Action, horror, and a nice shiver down your spine!

Many other stories are quite good–there are plenty of possessions, summonings, and other intriguing stories to read.

Things that made some of the other stories not as good for me included one in which an aging aunt is completely and utterly stereotypical, right down to magically taking a pie out of the oven just as her unexpected visitors arrive (there are a couple of other stories with very stereotypical characters, but not many). Some stories feel like they end just a tad bit too soon, not quite taking us to an adequate resolution. One story has an odd clumsy rhythm; I think it’s because typically high-stress parts of a story have at least some shorter sentences to help convey that choppy feeling, and this story just kept the same “normal” pace throughout (it takes away from the tension and drama). A few stories seem to hurry their way through, and could have used a bit more detail.

Content note for: self-harm, racial slurs, child molestation and abuse, animal harm, rape, abuse and murder of slaves, death of a baby, highly detailed torture, xenophobia, and of course, since this book contains a wide range of horror stories, gore. I definitely recommend reading this one. Many stories are just wonderful, and most of the rest are very good. The theme is covered very well, and all of the stories feel as though they fit.

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Review: “Camp Slaughter,” Sergio Gomez

Rating: 2 out of 5

Maybe I should learn not to pick up books that Amazon algorithms recommend to me. Sergio Gomez’s Camp Slaughter isn’t bad, but it isn’t particularly good, either. Lakewood Cabin is advertised as the most secluded cabin for rent in Pennsylvania. However, it’s also the site of a number of disappearances. Nadine Lang and her husband Stephen find someone in the cabin when they hear a noise in the middle of the night. That doesn’t go well for them. Sometime later, Fred and his friends go along with Gavin, who’s something of a jerk, to have a week-long vacation at the cabin. Meanwhile, Emeril and Molly are searching for the truth about the area. Emeril is a paranormal researcher, while Molly is a documentarian. They have a rather successful YouTube channel.

The killer, Ignacio, is a mish-mash of obnoxious and even bigoted stereotypes. Naturally the serial killer/cannibal is fat. Naturally he’s mentally challenged. Sometimes he’s a bit childlike; couldn’t see that coming (that was sarcasm). Of course he has a second identity that takes over sometimes. Of course he has a job as a janitor somewhere, where he does such a good job that his bosses love him. (His job is only brought up once and then never seen again, despite the fact that there were characters and some fair details introduced there.)

Some of the details don’t add up. I mean sure, Ignacio is a janitor, but he seems to run around leaving massive splatters and pools of blood (and decapitated heads) so carelessly that someone should have noticed something at some point. Especially with the people who go missing, and his farmhouse not so far away. Everybody also seems to make an awfully swift leap to deciding the killer must be a cannibal. Literally the only evidence they have of that is the fact that people go missing and their bodies are never found.

Sometimes the perspective shifts way too quickly, literally between one paragraph and the next, and you often have to read another page or two before you even realize it’s happened.

There is some decent thriller/slasher fare in here, which is why this gets a 2/5 instead of a 1/5. Obviously, content note for lots of gore with a side of mutilation.

SPOILER WARNING: I wish this book could make up its mind whether it wants to be a supernatural thriller or an “ordinary” thriller. Ignacio apparently sees the souls of the dead, except that this only happens once in the book and never has any relevance to the plot. Likewise Emeril senses something paranormal about part of the lakeside area, but it never has any relevance to the plot and never gets mentioned again. The only strange thing that appears consistently is Ignacio’s bizarre suped-up hearing, and there’s never any explanation for why, when he can hear a person’s heart beating from comparatively far away, screams don’t disable him. It feels like the author couldn’t decide whether he wanted to actually have anything paranormal in here or not. Also, the teens do not make sure the killer is dead. One of them was about to, but the other told them not to. Like, really? Hasn’t at least one of them seen a horror movie? Ignacio also took two bullets–one probably in a bad place–and kept going without any sign of weakness (maybe I should have put that up under stereotypes too). There’s also a moment when Molly picks up Emeril’s gun–which he’s shot a couple of times with no chance to reload–and suddenly it’s fully-loaded. END SPOILERS

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