Review: “The Corpse Garden,” S.H. Cooper

Pros: More excellent short horror stories!
Rating: 5 out of 5

This is the second anthology I’ve read by S.H. Cooper, and it’s just as excellent as the other. The Corpse Garden: A Collection Of Short Horror Stories includes 14 tales of murder, mayhem, and a lot of bad luck.

There’s a kid who grows up seeing the worst possible outcome for any event. He buries his reactions as his parents get fed up with him. He ends up having to be subtle in how he protects his younger sister, but the story doesn’t say during this period what happens when he can’t warn people of things, and that needed to be added in order to make the rest of the story read right. (Note that this is my only negative in the whole book.)

There are bullied kids who find unusual protectors. There’s a 12-year-old girl diagnosed with schizophrenia who is terribly afraid of what the shadows are telling her to do. There’s a teen who, during a game of truth or dare, recites the taboo phrase three times that’s supposed to summon the local supernatural legend.

There’s Poe the crow who brings unusual gifts to a woman who just moved into a new house. There’s a guy who works in phone sales who keeps getting bizarre calls from “Rosie”–at first it seems harmless, but things escalate.

In that other Cooper anthology, there’s a short story about a key that can open any door. It shows you “what’s really inside,” and can let what’s inside out. This key returns in this volume, picked up by a man who thinks everyone else is happier than he is.

A woman buries her fiancé on what should have been their wedding day, and a man inherited an inn with very specific rules about when to stay out of the nearby marshes.

There’s more, but some stories are harder than others to encapsulate in a sentence or two. There are tragedies, traumas, and triumphs. All of the stories hit me on an emotional level, and I look forward to reading more by Cooper. Content note for slurs, animal harm and death, child death, and attempted rape. Nothing is very explicit or gory; it’s mostly off of the page.

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Review: “The Dead Game,” Susanne Leist

Pros: Meh
Cons: So chaotic, random, needlessly complicated, and self-contradictory
Rating: 2 out of 5

Susanne Leist’s The Dead Game: Book One of The Dead Game Series sounded intriguing. Invitations to a party at an abandoned mansion, things turning deadly… awesome. Unfortunately, it really didn’t work out so well.

End House in Oasis, Florida, has a long and storied past tainted by evil. Linda has moved to town and opened a bookstore, and she’s in a friend group with Shana (who reads tarot cards), sarcastic Mike, sweet David, “Barbie doll” Louise, mysterious Todd, and a few others. They all get invitations to a party at End House. Only Mike actually wants to go, but no one else will let him go alone. When they arrive at the house, it immediately plunges them into hell-house territory: giant circular saws, tigers, body parts, and so on. Most of the group makes it out, only to gradually realize that there’s something wrong with the entire town. Linda and Shana do the rounds of the townspeople trying to get information, only to be told point-blank that they’re dealing with two warring groups of vampires.

Yeah, I know, vampires and “hell house” don’t really go together in general. They also don’t go together in this book. There’s a lot of stuff that just gets jumbled in together. Toward the end the author keeps introducing new supernaturals or new complications one right after another in the space of a few pages each. It’s like the supernatural elements of the story are all piled on top of one another with no real structure.

The pacing in this book is terrible. Some things are drawn way out. Other things are piled one on top of another. The opening could be creepy, but it’s done in such a quick monotone that it feels more like a summary. In fact, a lot of the beginning of this book feels like it’s summarizing some other novel, even though this is book one in a series.

Most of the characters are stereotypes of one kind or another, and fairly flimsy ones at that. Only Linda gets any real background, and it’s uninteresting and utterly irrelevant to the story, making it a waste of space. The background of people in Oasis going missing is tossed into this same section and similarly summed up as though this were book two or three in a series. No one except Mike thinks it’s a good idea to go to the party, and the locals, like Todd, discourage them, so frankly it’s very difficult to believe that they all decided to go anyway. Shana even drew tarot cards–“I drew the Angel of Death, which means death”–and then totally argues that it isn’t dangerous to go, even after noting that her cards are “never wrong.” This is the kind of inconsistent back-and-forth that colors the entire book.

Next, Linda and Shana decide to go door-to-door asking people about End House. This reads like a video game, where the character goes to each door in turn, clicks on a person, gets one or two mysterious lines of dialogue concerning the plot, then moves on to the next door.

Events feel sudden, random, disjointed, meaningless, arbitrary. Todd notes at one point that it’s Friday the 13th, but this is never mentioned again and seems utterly irrelevant to everything. When the group of friends goes to End House for the party, they don’t even bother waiting for their mysterious host before splitting up to search the place. And of course, the promised death traps jump out with no lead-in and no connection to anything.

When “demons” are mentioned, people accept it all too casually. The main characters meet a character called Wolf who acts cartoonishly evil, and then they just kind of brush it all off and forget about him for a while. Once the vampires come into things, there are The Watchers (yes, “The” is capitalized), The Elders, The Dead, and a whole taxonomy of groups, which is totally at odds with the expected feel of an advertised haunted house story.

Then, oh yes, we have the cliché of the old, evil vampire who falls in insta-love with the heroine, and who hypnotizes her, and of course her quasi-boyfriend blames her for falling under the vampire’s spell.

Linda and Shana are, unfortunately, not the brightest bulbs in the shed. They do things like go check out empty mansions alone even though they have friends who could go with them. They deliberately put themselves in harm’s way to force Todd and the sheriff to come to their rescue. When one of their friends starts acting weird after a major trauma, they just laugh about it and act like it’s no big deal. It’s facepalm-worthy.

Enough tropes and clichés get roped into this story that it sometimes feels like: “This is the part where trope X happens, and now cliché Y happens… what do you mean they’re contradictory?”

There’s a handy deus ex machina that takes care of every unwinnable task, which is such a cop-out. Everybody also stops to handily explain themselves. A vampire slayer shows up and everyone takes their existence super-calmly. The story has more false endings than a maze and just gets ridiculously over-complicated at the end.

I really can’t recommend this one. It’s a total jumble of contradictions, deus ex machinae, and clichés.

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Review: “Playing Possum,” Stephanie Rabig

Pros: So much fun!
Rating: 5 out of 5

You may or may not remember Alan Baxter’s The Roo [review], a classic-horror-style, terribly fun novel that started as a joke based on an article about an aggressive kangaroo and a mock-up novel cover. Well, apparently that wasn’t the only cover that got made in that vein, and so Playing Possum was born, authored by Stephanie Rabig.

The possums seem to have gone crazy! They’re attacking people, and those who are bitten start to change. Vanessa is worrying over her girlfriend, Tiffany, who was attacked in the parking lot outside of her job. Vanessa’s cousin Sophia, who loves animals with all her heart, insists possums just aren’t like that, and rescues a bunch of babies after their mother is shot. Unfortunately, it seems the town may be under a curse, and they’re going to need some help to survive the growing army of possums!

Honestly this book is just so much fun. From the raucous family who come wielding potato cannons, to the beautiful relationship between Vanessa and Tiffany, I loved it. The characters have way more depth than you’d expect from a book that’s kind of half-joke. Vanessa lives with her aunt (the police chief), her uncle, and her cousin because her father threw her out for being gay. Sophia and Tiffany are interesting young ladies. Aunt Becca clearly kicks some ass, and uncle John is a sweetheart. The other townspeople–the few we see in any depth–are either fodder for animal attacks or interesting side characters who definitely add to the story.

I absolutely recommend this book, and I hope more authors get drawn into this! Content note for animal harm, of course, although there’s also plenty of animal love. I wish I could explain some later developments in this book that I love, but I don’t want to spoil it. I’ll just say that the ending was awesome!

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Review: “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” Robert Ford, Matt Hayward

Pros: Like a horrific, paranormal house of cards!
Rating: 5 out of 5

In A Penny For Your Thoughts: (The Lowback Series – Book 1), by Robert Ford and Matt Hayward, Joe has spent eight years in prison. Now that he’s out–and clean of drugs–he’d like to stay that way. His friend and neighbor Kenny wants to rope him into some ethically questionable dealings, but he does need the money. One day while he’s hiking the Lowback Trail, he unearths a jar full of wishes taped to pennies. It’s some child’s hoard. He opens one, and it’s a wish for a bike. When he gets home, Kenny has left a bike for him! But when he opens the next wish, it’s a wish to take someone else’s bike from them, and Joe ends up meeting Ava, a rather cunning young woman who blackmails Kenny and Joe into including her in their shenanigans. Wanting to see if the wishes coming true was just coincidence, Joe tricks Kenny and Ava into opening wishes of their own. Before long, it seems like wishes are spreading like a plague. And not all of them come out well. In fact, it seems that Joe, Kenny, and Ava are up to their ears in danger.

The story that gradually unfolds about these wishes, and the pennies taped to them, is fascinating. It’s handled well, and the pacing is great. It absolutely kept me glued to the page. This world is strange, and even stranger than the main characters realize. I’ve already pre-ordered the sequel (don’t worry–this volume ends somewhere satisfying; it isn’t a cliffhanger).

The characters are fascinating. It’s hard to really like any of them, but they all feel very real. I did get, I guess, attached to some of them, is the best way to put it. The plot twists and turns, and I get the impression that whatever was fulfilling those wishes was deliberately trying to spread things around and keep things going.

The town is vividly portrayed, and really comes across as the kind of town where there’s a lot of drug use and a number of problems going on. Much like the characters, it felt… real.

All in all this is definitely a diverting read! It’s great for when you need to distract yourself from everything else that’s going on.

Postscript: OMG! Someone besides me remembers Sho Kosugi in “Ninja III: The Domination”!

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Review: “White Pines,” Gemma Amor

Pros: Stunning rural cosmic horror
Rating: 5 out of 5

I absolutely love Gemma Amor’s horror novel White Pines. Megs (Megan) has just been informed by her husband that their marriage is over. Since she just inherited a tiny cottage from her grandmother, she packs up the van and heads off to live by herself in the Scottish woods for a while. When she gets there, the locals seem almost to have been waiting for her. She spots an island off the coast that she can barely tear her eyes away from, and when she moves away from it her head starts to hurt. A colleague, Matthew, with whom she once had a one-night stand, shows up–he’s been in love with her for a while, and doesn’t want to waste any time now that she’s “available.” Megs, however, has more important things to think about. Like that island, her piercing headaches, and the mysterious tunnel under her house. Before she knows it, she’s caught up in events beyond her reckoning–and she’ll never be the same again.

One thing that amazed me about this book is that Amor managed to make a dream sequence that was interesting and meaningful, and that furthered the plot. I so rarely find visions or dreams in fiction to be worth the space they take up.

Megs hit a chord with me. Her confusion and anger and frustrated questioning of “why?” rang so true as she tried to deal with the reality of her marriage having fallen apart without her even having recognized it was happening. Of course she ends up having much more important things to think about, which keeps the divorce thread from becoming overly depressing.

The cosmic horror/rural horror aspects of this are fantastic. There’s a very bizarre thing going on in this rural town, and the residents will go to great lengths to keep it secret. Fortunately (unfortunately?) for Megs, she is not an outsider, even if she hasn’t been there since she was a child. Soon she’s going to be forced to realize that her missing finger wasn’t lost in an accident like her mother said it was. She’s connected to the island. And no one but her can save her.

Content note for mild sexual material as well as some body horror. Most of all I love the way this book ends; one problem with cosmic horror is that it’s hard to end in a satisfying manner, but Amor pulls it off!

“The Island deceives.”

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Review: “Pandemic,” A.G. Riddle

Pros: Impressively grand scope!
Cons: I hope some coincidences get resolved in the next book!
Rating: 4 out of 5

A.G. Riddle’s long novel Pandemic (The Extinction Files, Book 1) dumps us straight into the realm of pandemic apocalypse. Dr. Peyton Shaw, who’s a highly-placed epidemiologist with the CDC, is sent to Mandera, Kenya to help deal with a new hemorrhagic fever that’s extremely virulent. Meanwhile, we also meet Desmond Hughes, who woke up in a hotel in Berlin with no memory of who he is. He finds some extremely abstruse clues, as well as a dead body in his hotel room. He escapes the police, and seems to have great knowledge of how to outwit his pursuers. He meets up with a journalist who was going to use him as a source to expose something horrible, but he has no memory of what that might be. Peyton and Desmond are connected through their past, as well as through this pandemic. There’s a mysterious organization called Citium that’s been around for more than 2000 years, and the pandemic is one part of its plan to “fix” the human race. Did Desmond have something to do with setting this in motion? And can he help to stop it?

The characters are a high point in here. Plenty of detail goes into them; we find out bits and pieces of Desmond and Peyton’s pasts as Desmond’s memories are unlocked bit by bit. There’s a wide array of characters, but enough detail went into them that I didn’t have any trouble remembering who each one was. Most if not all of the bad guys genuinely believe they’re trying to save the world–some of them absolutely believe that the casualties of the pandemic are worth what comes after.

There are definitely too many coincidences and unanswered questions. There are three parts to the Citium’s plans: Rook, Rendition, and Rapture. Rendition is Desmond’s baby, but by the end of the book we still have zero information about what it is, and I have no guesses. Hopefully the next book will live up to the drawn-out expectation. Also, Peyton and Desmond were from very different places, and met by happenstance at a Halloween party. The idea that there are multiple connections between them that go back much farther than that beggars belief. Especially paired up with some other coincidences and connections. I’m moderately hopeful that Riddle will be able to make this believable in the next volume, but I can’t see how.

This is definitely a matter of individual reader taste, but if you like a book where it’s obvious the writer has done lots of research and wants to share it with the audience, this is the book for you. There’s plenty of interesting info about everything from pandemics to Berlin tourism. This does keep things a little bit slow at times, but it’s balanced by a decent amount of action of various types.

I’ll definitely read the next book, but it isn’t my highest priority. This volume was enjoyable enough to want to continue and hopefully find out more.

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Review: “Allison,” Jeff Strand

Pros: Had me on the edge of my seat!
Rating: 5 out of 5

Jeff Strand’s Allison takes the girl-with-supernatural-powers-gets-pushed-too-far trope and makes it delicious again. Allison found out the hard way that she can move people with her mind. Unfortunately she has very little–if any–control over this, so whenever her emotions spiral out of control (good or bad), she tends to break bones. She’s resigned herself to a life of hermitude. Then one day she instinctively catches a pregnant woman who nearly falls, and her abilities help out a bit. She’s terrified she might have hurt the baby, so the father of the baby, Daxton, decides to pretend that the baby died so as to extort some money out of her. When her emotional reaction to the news causes him to discover her powers, he decides that the guy he works for, a mob boss, would reward him for capturing her. Meanwhile, Cody, a young man who’s willing to believe what he’s seen with his own eyes, gently calms Allison down and asks her about her powers. The two of them hit it off, but Allison knows she can’t get too close to him.

I love the characters in this book. In particular, Allison and Cody are both quirky enough that I could read whole pages of even their most mundane dialogue and not get tired of it. I love that Allison is a strong, middle-aged woman. She’s been stuck with this power-as-curse because the only thing she can affect is the human body, and there’s no way to practice that without breaking a lot of bones. So this means she can’t trust herself around anyone. But this also means she doesn’t use her powers as a cure-all. She’s a gutsy woman who will grab whatever’s to hand and start swinging when the bad guys come for her.

Daxton and the mob boss, as well as Daxton’s pregnant girl Maggie, also add a lot of depth. They’re neither cartoonishly evil nor overly misunderstood. They have their own agendas and loves and hates.

If you want to read an awesome paranormal short novel about a woman with power forced to go up against a bunch of bad guys, grab this one today and give it a read! Content note for torture, some blood and guts, and very mild sexual material.

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Review: “From Twisted Roots,” S.H. Cooper

Pros: Absolutely excellent short horror stories!
Rating: 5 out of 5

S.H. Cooper brings us From Twisted Roots: Thriller, Horror, and Mystery Short Stories. I absolutely love this collection. Each story packs a punch, even though they’re all a little different. Some end in tragedy. Others in victory. There’s revenge served cold, and even heartwarming endings. All of them have that emotional impact, and a thread of fear runs through them.

There’s a woman who still has two teddy bears her grandfathers gave her. Each one has a recording of the man saying “I love you, Sadie,” whenever it’s squeezed. But one night, the script changes. There’s a woman whose family has a tendency to get “messages from the universe” when someone dies, and she just got a message that seems to be from her daughter. So she races home to find out what’s going on. (I had my hand over my mouth with my eyes wide on this one.)

There’s a free carnival for children, and a bullied girl who calls her bully just before she does something terrible. A little girl disappears, and her family gets a tape of her talking to them once a year. A young boy feeds a monster that lives under the house, named Smidge. There’s a mean neighbor in one tale who refuses to allow any child near his property. One family’s grandmother always has a reason why her family shouldn’t visit her at her home, until she has no choice but to take her granddaughter for a night.

Hazel has to visit her beloved Grandpa on his farm for a little while, but something strange starts to happen to the animals in their pens. Another little girl tells her family they’re no longer allowed to kill spiders because the queen spider is protecting her. One teenager learns a valuable lesson from her father’s D&D games, while another takes advantage of her single father’s desire to give her everything she wants. A stuffed animal meant to protect a little girl takes on a new role. A little old lady has a bit of magic of her own when two people want to make her leave her home.

There’s a grandmother who warns her grandchildren to stay away from “the little people,” and another who makes “annoyance curses” at her grandchild’s bullies–ones that come true. Another little girl remembers her “past lifes” and tries to warn her mother about events that repeat themselves.

There are plenty of surprises, but even when I can guess what’s coming the stories are so engrossing that it just doesn’t matter. It doesn’t in any way take away from the suspense. There are a ton of stories in here, and they’ll definitely get you through some of the current craziness in the world–this is some quality escapism here. The characterization is excellent, the quickly-sketched-out worldbuilding is engrossing, and the variety of material is wonderful. Most stories have an element of the paranormal to them, but not all. (And in some you can’t be sure.)

Content note for suicide, rape (not shown on the page), torture, child death, child abuse, animal death, and human trafficking. All of these things are handled bluntly and with a minimum of gory detail. Most of them happen off of the page.

Sometimes, though, you just have to smash a psychopath in the face with a door half a dozen times.

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Review: “Thunderbird,” Chuck Wendig

Pros: Deeper and deeper into the worldbuilding…
Rating: 5 out of 5

Chuck Wendig’s Thunderbird (Miriam Black 4) picks up about a year after The Cormorant left off. Miriam is trying to find Mary Stitch, also known as Mary Scissors, who supposedly knows how to remove one’s “gift” or “curse”, depending on how the individual thinks of their psychic powers. Unfortunately Mary moves around a lot. Miriam is currently in Arizona, and Gabby is with her. Miriam nearly gets killed by someone who’s trying to kidnap a child, and thus ends up embroiled in a terrorist plot to bomb a courthouse. Once again, she’s stumbled across people like her–psychics, with their own unusual powers. One is a human lie detector. One has had a vision of the apocalypse, involving plague and invasion. Miriam is pushed to her limits–and beyond–in her attempt to stop a bombing and get rid of her curse to see people’s deaths. It seems that Death has a blind spot when it comes to her, however, and her ability to control the birds is leveling up. Both come in handy when she winds up mostly-dead and abandoned in the desert.

Miriam tried to contact Louis at the end of the last book, but apparently he’s gone and found someone else and is engaged to be married. Despite the fact that Miriam has left him behind on multiple occasions, this isn’t easy for her to face. I like the fact that she thinks all of the selfish thoughts we’d all like to pretend don’t go through our heads when we have to be the bigger person. I also like the fact that sometimes Gabby calls Miriam on her “woe-is-me” drama (although to be fair, sometimes Miriam has earned that pity party).

The apocalyptic visions intrigue me. I really hope that the last two books in the series will get into that more, because it isn’t resolved in this book. One of the things I find most interesting about the various psychics Miriam comes across is that these are the only people who can change fate, each in their own way. Miriam knows that each death she foretells will happen exactly as predicted no matter what she does… unless she trades a life for a life (kills one person to save another). One of the ways she knows something is up with a militia that chases after her is because they manage to kill someone who should have lived much longer. The whole system is really original and creative.

Content note for blood, violence, and animal harm. Also, I’ll note once again that Miriam can be a bit offensive, but I never get the impression the author condones her offensiveness–rather that Miriam is meant to be a work-in-progress as a human being.

Gabby admired Miriam for knowing exactly what she was and leaning into it, even if what she was happened to be a drunken clown car crashing head-on into a tractor trailer carrying beehives.

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Review: “The Cormorant,” Chuck Wendig

Pros: A fascinating bloody mess!
Rating: 5 out of 5

Chuck Wendig’s The Cormorant (3) (Miriam Black) is book three after Blackbirds and Mockingbird. In book one, we discovered that Miriam Black has an unusual power: the first time she touches someone skin-to-skin, she sees how and when they’ll die. She’d become a scavenger–she waited for people to die and took their money to live off of. She met up with conman Ashley and trucker Louis and figured out how to finally cheat fate–by trading one life for another. In book two, Miriam had to stop a serial killer stalking schoolgirls. It turned out to be another psychic, someone culling girls who would “poison” the lives of others. They believed they were doing something similar to what Miriam does, and wanted her help. She, of course, disagreed. Now Miriam finds herself in the hands of the FBI, agents Grosky and Vills from the BAU, who seem to think she might be a serial killer. She starts to relate her story of what’s been going on, and chapter by chapter we find out that an old friend is now stalking Miriam, killing people she’s touched and leaving her messages in her visions of their deaths. He’s gained some power of his own, and seems to outwit Miriam at every turn. She realizes that he’s going to kill her mother, and even though she isn’t fond of her mother, she’ll do everything she can to save her.

Miriam has been experimenting with saving lives, but it isn’t as profitable and doesn’t always end well. It also requires her to kill. It’s interesting to watch her try to come to terms with when and how she should interfere with fate. The Trespasser is still coming to her, and it isn’t thrilled with her little experiment. It apparently doesn’t want her to interfere in all of the murders and violent deaths she sees. She’s learning that situations can have nuance. She also experiments with living with roommates, which similarly doesn’t go entirely well. She has yet to find a decent way to live with what she is.

Miriam turns out to be bisexual in this volume, and I like that. It isn’t made a big deal of; she just spends the night with Gabby, a woman she meets in a bar, and their relationship is one more target for Miriam’s stalker. I think my favorite part of this volume is watching the ways in which Miriam’s stalker is manipulating her, because he knows how to use her powers against her in this way. Wendig is really building up a fascinating world where it comes to psychics.

Miriam also enters the sights of a drug dealer, Tap-Tap, who has been told that she stole his cocaine shipment. When he finds out she hasn’t, he makes it her responsibility to find out who did and bring them to him. Miriam is kept limping around Florida half-crazed not always even aware of what she’s chasing. I’m curious to see what the next book will bring!

Content note: animal harm, torture and violence, and also Miriam can be offensive sometimes. (I don’t get the impression from reading this that we’re meant to condone this, or that the author does–it’s just that Miriam’s a work in progress as a human being.)

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