Review: “Mongrels,” by Stephen Graham Jones

Rating: 5 out of 5

In Stephen Graham Jones’s Mongrels: A Novel, werewolves are real. Our young teenaged protagonist listens to his grandfather’s crazy stories about being a werewolf, and later realizes there were secrets and lessons hidden in each of those stories. He’s together with his uncle Darren and aunt Libby now, as they travel from town to town, trying to stay under the radar. They’re always stealing new cars and working cruddy jobs. Our protagonist is so utterly driven to be what his aunt and uncle are that he develops their behavioral traits, even as each year passes and it becomes less and less likely that he’s going to change.

There are fascinating details about being werewolves. Like the fact that eating trash is a quick way to die, because items you might eat while in wolf form could kill you when you change back. There are other unusual ways to die, also, like getting used to eating fries, or wearing stretchy pants. These sound humorous, but they’re actually fairly horrific. Our protagonist also starts to realize that since every werewolf family seems to pass lessons down through stories, different lessons might be known by different families.

This doesn’t really have an over-arching active plot. It’s more the coming-of-age of the protagonist through a series of events. He’s based his entire identity on the belief that he’ll shift and become a werewolf, while he stubbornly remains human. The overall story shows us what it means to be werewolves in the modern era, and what happens when you want to be something so very much while it stays out of reach. As such, there are some mysteries that don’t get solved by the time the family leaves town. I didn’t particularly feel frustrated by this, the way I might in some other books. The werewolves in this book are just so interesting that they totally kept me glued to the (electronic) page.

Content note for sometimes-graphic animal harm and death. (To werewolves, most animals are prey, and they don’t always kill cleanly.)

I was changing.
I didn’t know into what.

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Review: “The Halloween Store,” Ronald Kelly

Rating: 4 out of 5

Ronald Kelly’s The Halloween Store and Other Tales of All Hallows’ Eve is a collection of seven stories (plus an essay). As you might guess from the title, they all have to do with Halloween in one way or another.

My favorite story in here is “The Halloween Store,” the first entry in this book. It’s another variation on the curiosity shop trope, but it has several developments that make it much more than that. I admit the other trope in here (three boys plus one girl who is a tomboy) is getting a little shopworn, but it isn’t a big deal.

“Mister Mack is Back in Town” is a very odd tale that has less to do with Halloween. Kyle’s daughter Rebecca and her friend Hannah have gone missing, and this is something that’s happened before in the town’s history. This one has a very different feel from the rest of the book, as much sci-fi as horror.

“Blood Suede Shoes” is kind of well-worn modern folklore, but what it lacks is what makes it better–I’d expect this sort of story to have sexual violence in it, and it doesn’t.

“Clown Treats” follows several teens as they trick-or-treat, and they get some very unexpected treats from a drunk clown. (You can see the genesis of this story if you read the author’s essay at the end.)

In “The Cistern,” Jud Simmons decides to pay a visit to his old hometown. He ends up offering to take a kid, Calvin, to the festival, and has a wonderful day riding the rides and chowing down on fair food. But this is a horror collection, so you know it can’t be that simple.

“Pretty Little Lanterns” sees Sheriff Jonah Townshend trying to catch a serial killer who likes to strike around Halloween and leave the skulls of his victims lit with candles (much like a jack-o-lantern). Nosy, gossipy Miss Gladys, the town librarian, thinks she’s figured out who the culprit is, but the Sheriff has little reason to believe her.

“The Amazing and Totally Awesome Fright Creature” pulls on those old advertisements you used to find in comic books, advertising things you could send away for. Aaron and his friend Ricky send away for the “Amazing and Totally Awesome Fright Creature!” When a tiny little salamander arrives, they think they’ve been had. Yeah, not so much! The end of this one actually left me laughing (in a good way).

This isn’t a stunning anthology, but if you’re looking for a bit of Halloween horror fun, it’s worth it!

Content note: a light hand with the gore and one single instance of animal death are really all you have to worry about.

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Review: “Dead Awake,” ed. by Stanley Wiater

Rating: 4 out of 5

Dead Awake: 12 Tales of Darkness contains–you guessed it–12 short horror stories by a bunch of excellent authors.

Sisters of Slaughter bring us “To Burn the Black Church.” It’s a brief exploration of an evil oddity, and touches on how a person’s faith (or lack thereof) might impact their interactions with a pinch of cosmic horror.

A.C. Fraser’s “High Tide” introduces us to a man who just wants to save himself and his kid when the Flood (some sort of high-speed infection) breaks through the wall. There’s an interesting question of what (or whom) people will be willing to leave behind in return for the hope of being saved. This story does end a bit abruptly.

Mark Allan Gunnells’ “Clown Craze” introduces us to Paul, a professional clown who’s lost a lot of work since mysterious scary clowns have started showing up here and there. Finally he’s been hired to work a Halloween party! Sometimes when you look too much like an evil thing, you can’t expect things to end well. This was another rather abrupt ending to a very short story. (My one beef with horror short stories is that many of them end very abruptly, or too early, or in the middle of what might make a great climax if there was more to it. There’s a handful of those stories in here.)

“The Dancer in the Pines,” by C.W. Blackwell, starts off when young Josephine finds a pair of ballet slippers next to a pond–and gets scary from there. It develops into more detail than I’m accustomed to seeing from this sort of setup, but squanders that by leaving off in what feels like the middle of the climax.

In Michelle Renee Lane’s “The Hag Stone,” a mother has brought her son Jack to meet her boyfriend, Richard. All seems to be fine and dandy until Jack goes missing while Richard is with him–then things turn deadly. I always enjoy a story in which creeps get their due!

Ethan Pollard’s “The Cellar” is a very cosmic horror-type story. A person seems to be caught in a house that has no exit, and something in the cellar beneath him keeps knocking on the floor, circling him. I wasn’t sure where this one was going, but the ending made it work. Be careful what promises you make…

Jill Girardi’s “Hunger” takes place in Malaysia. Miss Hai-Er has fled Hong Kong and her boss, Wu Jing. She’s hiding out in a boarding house that’s more than a little eccentric. And it seems like all of the older residents have a strange sort of skin disease. Still, she doesn’t want to be found by Wu Jing’s people, so she’s going to have to roll with it. Nice to see characters of all ages involved, and I love how this works out.

In “Matriphagy,” by Sadie Hartmann, a mother goes missing for a few hours. When she returns her face is blank, and she goes to her room and locks herself in. Her two children have no idea what to do with this. I love that I can really see kids reacting in reality the way these two do.

Mama was abducted by aliens. We think.
And then she came back.

Catherine McCarthy’s “Immortelle” is definitely one of my favorite tales in here. There’s a young woman who makes immortelles, precise displays to be placed on graves that commemorate the deceased. Now she’s making one for a child whose ghost watches her work. I love the turns this story takes. It definitely gave me a shiver.

“The House on Dandy Lane,” by Christy Aldridge, introduces Joe Harrison, a traveling salesman for Mount Olive Cleaning supplies. Most people slam their doors in his face, but an odd old woman finally lets him in. He realizes she’s too far gone to realistically make a decision on buying products, but hey, a sale’s a sale, right? He’s certainly willing to try. This is a great story of the banality of small-time greed.

Justin Montgomery’s “Sometimes They Linger” is fantastic. It takes place several months after the death of Maddee, the beloved dog belonging to Beverly and John. Beverly is still grieving, and sometimes she thinks she hears Maddee in the night. But John is angry that she seems to be wasting away in her grief rather than moving on. Beverly thinks that if Maddee came back, it would be wonderful. John, who loves a good horror story, is convinced it would be terrible. Guess we’ll just have to find out, won’t we? I love the way this story explores the complex feelings involved when you lose a beloved pet.

Sylvia Elven’s “Fireflies” captures the story of Julie, who’s spiriting her sister Rose away from an abusive relationship. When a flat tire compels them to stop, more than one danger shows up to take advantage of their ill fortune. For some reason this just wasn’t as arresting as I felt it should be. Maybe because the supernatural aspect of it seems to have little personality to it.

Content note: mostly mild gore, but with one live skinning.

I definitely think this anthology is worth picking up if you enjoy horror short stories!

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Review: “Brain Storm,” Cat Gilbert

Rating: 3 out of 5

In Cat Gilbert’s Brain Storm (The Taylor Morrison Psychic Thrillers Book 1), Taylor is just starting to realize she’s a telekinetic. Most of the signs she could see as her imagination running wild, but when she really wants a man’s coffee and it comes flying right at her, she can’t pretend any more. Unfortunately, that man seems to realize something strange is afoot, and he starts following Taylor. Along with Taylor’s friends and acquaintances (lawyer Trinity, Trinity’s Mama D, and detective Jonas), she falls into the middle of some sort of conflict between two groups that want her. She knows that one of the two is definitely bad, but she really isn’t sure about the other either.

Taylor and her acquaintances are on the run, and twisty allegiances occasionally put them in the bad guys’ crosshairs. There are some definite parallels to Firestarter, particularly in that there are people who want to use her as a weapon. The buildup of Taylor’s abilities makes for great pacing. The book skirts the fact that no one’s ever been able to prove that psychic abilities exist by claiming: “take away the choice, and you lose the ability.” (Thus also showing why the purported good guy group doesn’t in any way force psychics to work for them.) Which… aren’t there ways to test for psychic abilities that the psychic might choose to participate in? And how on earth would the very act of participating in a test take away abilities? This is extremely flimsy justification for the fact that no one knows psychics exist. I think it would have been easier to just say that some people know they’re real and others just refuse to believe and leave it at that.

I’m not entirely fond of Trinity as a character. Her archetype is “woman who was abused as a child and as a result hates all men,” and I just don’t enjoy hates all men/hates all women characters. It makes it hard for me to identify with Trinity. Also, Mama D is pretty much the stereotype of the tough-love, needs to feed everyone, beloved mother. Some of the other characters are more complex and interesting, such as the detective. I also feel like Taylor herself was never fully-realized on the page, other than her overriding character trait, which is to try to protect her friends by cutting them out of the loop. Over and over.

All in all good but not great, and I’m wobbling on whether I’ll read the second book in the series.

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Review: “Elsewhere,” Dean Koontz

Rating: 3 out of 5

Dean Koontz’s Elsewhere is the author’s take on the multiverse theory. Jeffrey/Jeffy and his daughter Amity live by themselves, as Amity’s mother left them a long time ago. A local homeless man, Ed (Amity calls him Mr. Spooky) gives Jeffrey a box and tells him to hide it and never open it, much less touch what’s inside (what Ed calls “the key to everything”). Shortly thereafter, folks who look like government spooks come racing into town in search of Ed and his mystery item. In order to better hide it, Jeffrey ends up taking the item out of the box, and it looks like an odd sort of smartphone. When an accident happens and the device is activated, it takes Jeffrey and Amity to a parallel universe. Soon Jeffrey and Amity are racing to outwit John Falkirk, the man in charge of the maybe-maybe-not government forces.

I’ll dive straight into my one major beef with this book. While Ed the homeless guy is okay because he’s a genius on the run and seeking “a life of few possessions,” this book is pretty clear that other homeless people are whiners, lazy, and/or stupid. (“The old man never lamented his homelessness or made excuses for it.” “Neither a hobo impoverished by laziness nor a pitiable vagrant condemned to poverty by a low IQ…”) So what about people who got laid off through no fault of their own? How about people escaping abusive relationships who have nowhere to go? What about people evicted because they have no money because pandemic? Okay, okay, I’ll stop before I get too worked up. Anyway, yes, I’m aware it could be said that it’s just the main character’s views, but in every other way he’s wholesome, and I do not get the impression that this attitude is meant to be a character flaw.

I love the fact that Jeffrey and Amity figure out they’re in a parallel universe fairly quickly rather than going through all the stereotypical denial typical of stories like this. It probably helps that they have a deep and abiding love for genre fiction. It turns out that wherever they are when they activate the device, that’s the physical location they’ll show up at in the other dimension. The device seems to have more than 180 dimensions catalogued in it, and some of them are marked with very important warnings–there are some truly awful things out there. Amity becomes fixated on the idea of finding a version of her mother who doesn’t have the two of them and might want to come home with them.

Although we only see a handful of worlds, we get a little variety in. There’s a fascistic regime where people turn each other in to the government at the drop of a hat. There’s a world in which sentient AIs hunt people. There are other worlds with less obvious differences. Unfortunately, they’re fairly stereotypical in nature. I’m just surprised that there wasn’t any explanation for the fact that, by all rights, they should have shown up in the same places as furniture, or if a hotel were built a little differently, outside a whatever-story window. I would have liked at least a little technobabble excuse for that.

The book does explore the emotional repercussions of having so many parallel selves, and I think that’s the best part of the story. Can you salve your hurt feelings by killing or harming a parallel of the person who harmed you? Will finding your mother/wife in another dimension result in playing happy families? Does the disposition of your other selves matter to you? The answers are different depending on the person. There are also some good themes of courage, danger, and love wound throughout.

Content note for sexual content and child death.

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Review: “Girl on Fire,” Gemma Amor

Rating: 5 out of 5

Gemma Amor’s Girl on Fire is a wonderful, wild ride of a book. Ruby Miller crashes her car and is inside of it when it goes up in flames. Yet somehow she survives unscathed. Shortly thereafter, men try to prey on her–and she discovers she can produce fire from nothing. She no longer needs food or sleep, but she always feels thirsty no matter how much she drinks. Everybody wants to find Ruby once she starts burning things down. Some want to stop her; others want to study her; still others want to use her as a weapon. And throughout all of it, she burns with rage stored up from the abuse she received at home.

Any empathy Ruby may have had has been burned clean out of her. And when people try to start trouble, her solutions tend to be massive overkill. She may well be the apocalypse made human.

The book moves from perspective to perspective as various people get involved in Ruby’s story. Some sections employ a perspective that’s done surprisingly well here: we hear only one half of a conversation, entirely one person’s voice as they speak to or with their audience. It sounds strange, but it’s very effective. I love the fact that point-of-view switches are clearly labeled at the start of each section, so you always know who’s talking. This is kind of a patchwork story, focusing on specific incidents in Ruby’s life, but there’s enough arc to make it coherent.

This is really a story about empathy (or the lack thereof) between both strangers and acquaintances. It’s also about rebirth. It asks the reader what, if anything, does abuse justify? It also asks us to consider that the apocalypse could genuinely be started by one person’s pain. All in all it’s both beautiful and in some places, rather scary. Ruby is both protagonist and antagonist, and Amor makes that work!

Content note for child abuse and molestation, as well as attempted rape.

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Review: “Clown in a Cornfield,” Adam Cesare

Rating: 4 out of 5

Adam Cesare’s Clown in a Cornfield is a really interesting take on a slasher novel. The adults and teens in the tiny, boring town of Kettle Springs aren’t getting along all that well these days. When Quinn and her father, a doctor, move out in the middle of nowhere, Quinn discovers that some of the teens have checkered pasts. One of them even burned down the factory that his father owned and most of the adults worked at. Of course this hasn’t stopped the kids from pulling the occasional prank, and their latest, though small, seems to trigger some pent-up rage. The town’s mascot is a clown named Frendo, and soon he shows up, killing a few people. When he shows up at a party most of the high-schoolers have thrown for themselves, things get bloody fast. Can Quinn and her new friends survive the night?

The characters are really good in this one. They all have some depth to them. Quinn is neither an instant badass nor a shrinking violet. Cole–the kid who burned down the factory–seems to have a kind of sadness to him. Others seem curiously hostile. Quinn’s father, the doctor, is excellent–highly skilled, dealing with his wife’s death, and kind of quirky. Sheriff Dunne is clearly not a nice guy, but he knows how to make the townspeople sit up and listen.

Unlike many slasher books, which are often set in the 80s (or 70s-90s), deliberately before the advent of cell phones, this is set nearly in the modern day. Not only do people have cell phones, but some of them have popular YouTube channels. There’s a nice theme of generational divide, which, considering some of what’s been happening lately, is a timely subject. I do think the author skillfully captures the small-town feel.

There’s plenty of gore caused by sharp implements, guns, and so forth. Once people start dying the tension ratchets up nicely; before that the story felt a little aimless.

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Short Take: “Go Down Hard,” Ali Seay

Rating: 4 out of 5

Ali Seay’s thriller novella Go Down Hard introduces us to Jack and Meg. Each is a serial killer. Each lives out in the middle of nowhere. Each has their own reason for killing–for Jack it was environmental, for Meg it was traumatic. Then, one day, they discover that they’re neighbors, and that they have something in common. They’re cautious about each other. Their guard is up. But they’re both having trouble deciding: sleep together? Try to kill each other? Or one and then the other?

My only negative with this book is that I think it needs to be a bit longer. There’s too little build-up between Meg and Jack having their serial killer meet-cute, and then finally deciding what they want from each other. I’d have liked that to be drawn out just a little more. (And I rarely say that–I like action-filled stories.) I would have also liked a little information about how and why Meg is moving out into the middle of nowhere.

I liked the characters. Meg is a whiskey-swilling (probably borderline alcoholic), snarky woman who kills men who prey on women. Jack is a serial killer who gets off on hearing people scream (specifically women). Meg likes to pick people up on dating apps. The only other (modern-day) characters (there are some flashbacks) are one of Meg’s targets, and a young woman who has the hots for Jack. This is a very narrowly-focused story.

Of course no matter what they decide, you know they’ll have to end up at odds at some point. And that portion of the book totally delivers!

Content Note: There’s a rape scene in here. And of course there’s gore.

“I’m a killer, not a pervert,” he said.

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Review: “Operation North Sea,” William Meikle

Rating: 5 out of 5

Operation: North Sea is the latest “S-Squad” book from William Meikle. This is a series with plenty of military-vs-monsters fun with a touch of horror (occasionally a hint at cosmic horror), and a touch of adventure. In this volume, the lads get to deal with a kaiju! In particular, a giant sea monster. When it attacks an oil rig, Captain John Banks, Sergeant Hynds, Corporal Wiggins (Wiggo), and privates Wilkins and Davies are sent to investigate. They meet up with our old friend Alexander Seton, who helped out when the lads went up against the Loch Ness monster, and who has an interest in old magics. He thinks he might have a way to deal with this new sea monster, but it’s so wacky no one wants to give him the chance. Everyone would rather shoot at or blow up the thing, even though Seton believes neither will make a difference.

This wouldn’t be the best intro to the series if you haven’t read it before. Most of it would make sense to a new reader, but certain parts of the ending might seem mildly anticlimactic if you don’t have the background on them.

Wiggo is starting to have to take charge of some situations now that he’s been promoted, and he’s still working out how to do that. Davies and Wilkins are relegated to the background in this book, and there isn’t much seen of Hynd, but Banks is right in the thick of things. The focus is definitely on the monsters and other dangers, but we do get to have slivers of growth for the characters. I think it’s an excellent balance. There are also a couple of local characters that give the story some added color.

As a note, many authors, when trying to impart a particular accent in a book, do it by spelling words oddly phonetically, which backfires. The reader spends so much time trying to puzzle out every word, and it slows the story down horribly. Meikle is perfect in this regard. He just writes what the characters say, and, probably because he’s actually from Scotland, he doesn’t jazz it up at all. The differences lie in the words that are used and how they’re put together. It’s enough to totally put the voices into your head, and it doesn’t slow down the reading at all.

There’s plenty of action, lots of tension, some excellent characters, and a monster that leaves us with a few unanswered questions. I loved this installment in the series, and I can’t wait to read the next.

“And yon big beastie that ate the supply boat? What are you doing about that?”
“Fuck all,” Wiggo said cheerfully. “What do you expect me to do, give it a biscuit?”

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Review: “The Cassowary,” James Sabata

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

James Sabata’s The Cassowary is meant to loosely go with Alan Baxter’s “The Roo” (possessed kangaroo), Stephanie Rabig’s “Playing Possum” (were-possums), and “The Buck Stops Here” by Sean Seebach (were-deer). Each novel is a monster story that attempts to balance humor with horror. I enjoyed “The Cassowary” more than the were-deer, but less than the other two.

Michael Flanders is a zookeeper at Arizona’s Toscana Wildlife Preserve. One night, he stops off to feed the cassowary, a dangerous large bird. The safety features at the zoo are impressive, but the cassowary has an odd light emanating from its eyes and seems to have… changed. When the cassowary starts killing people and escapes, zookeepers Jerome and Kaitlin and zoo veterinarian Thomas set off to find it and bring it in–preferably alive.

There are lots of scenes of the cassowary killing various people who only exist for the duration of those scenes. It’s gory and the scenes are good, but it takes too long for actual common threads and characters to be established. Because of this, it was a while before I found anyone to care about–so I wasn’t pulled very deeply into the story.

Especially near the beginning there are multiple people speaking in the same paragraphs, leading to a fair amount of confusion. There is some interesting commentary on social media both positive and negative: the escaped bird ends up trending, and while instant updates on sightings are very useful to the zoo keepers, people also die because they’re determined to get a selfie with it.

The book does eventually come around to explaining why the cassowary is this way (and why it keeps getting bigger!), and it’s a fairly entertaining tale. I also loved the fact that the cassowary once gets referred to as a “Lovecraftian turkey.” Another thing I enjoyed was a few humorous cassowary illustrations spread out in the book!

Content note for child death and gore.

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