The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack





Darkness Falls by Les Martin

This is a novelization of an episode of The X-Files TV series aimed at middle school children. I vaguely recall seeing the episode decades ago but really only remembered the very end. It’s a nice plot for the show. A group of loggers has disappeared in the deep forests of the northwest and Mulder and Scully are investigating. As often happens in classic horror stories, the location of the investigation isolates them from any realistic possibility of reinforcement if they get into trouble. With them are an official from the logging company and a representative of the Forestry Service. The reader will immediately guess that they are “red shirts” included in the story to have someone to kill off. The corporate man is convinced that extreme eco terrorists are behind the disappearances, but the reader already knows it is something far worse.

When Mulder and Scully’s vehicle is disabled by an eco-terrorist booby trap as they approach the logger camp, the sense of isolation grows more intense. The camp is deserted but shows signs of a rapid departure. There are also plenty of signs of sabotage, feeding the eco terrorist theory. But when they begin to investigate the woods around them, Mulder and Scully discover that the loggers were logging forbidden old growth trees—one of which has a highly unusual tree ring—and that at least one of the loggers was killed in a bizarre fashion that ended with him being cocooned. This is actually a hint at a major weakness of the story. Presumably the other loggers were killed in camp but there are neither cocoons or bodies showing their remains.

Anyway, Mulder and Scully begin to get evidence of what happened when they stumble upon an eco-terrorist raiding their camp. He doesn’t simply sit down with them and tell them everything he knows, but evidence begins to develop that the loggers have released something in the forest and only light wards it away from the camp. The camp’s generator with its dwindling fuel supply becomes a critical element of the story as Mulder and Scully slowly shift from trying to discover what killed the loggers to trying to survive their visit to the camp.

I’ve always liked this ending.

X Marks the Spot by Les Martin

This is a novelization of the first episode of The X-Files television series aimed at school age kids. It’s a very quick read and if you watched the series or even were lucky enough to see the first episode, it will bring a pleasant smile to your face as Fox Mulder and Dana Scully meet for the first time and begin to investigate whether or not The Truth Is Out There. I’m not sure it would be so enjoyable if you haven’t had experience with the TV series. There is not a lot of depth here and I suspect there was very little (if any) extra added that wasn’t in the original script. Still, if you enjoyed The X-Files, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

The plot revolves around a number of dead young men and women who were all members of the same high school graduating class. It’s a small town and the autopsies are not top notch, but strange marks noted on some of the victims link their deaths. The town, however, has a confessed murderer and doesn’t want anyone doing anything that might throw his conviction in doubt and start their worries again. Except…the deaths are continuing and Mulder and Scully, without any real support, are all that stands in the way of the next person dying.

Chris L. Adams

The Blonde Goddess of Tikka-Tikka by Chris L. Adams

Chris Adams continues his homage to the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 1940s with this quick novella about an adventurer who would fit well into a story by Robert E. Howard. The problem he encounters, however, is all H.P. Lovecraft and Adams does a very good job of building suspense as ancient horrors return to the earth. This is a fast moving tale which you’ll want to read in one sitting. There’s a tiny twist at the end of the story that gives some well-appreciated justification to the villains’ actions. I’d happily read a sequel.

The Banshee of the Atacama by Chris L. Adams

Several years ago, Chris L. Adams wrote a great short story called Blonde Goddess of the Tikka-Tikka which mixed a little of the Tarzan atmosphere with a dash of H.P. Lovecraft. He’s just published the sequel and man was it worth the wait.

Ansen Grost has the unique background of being a descendant of Vikings raised by the Arapaho at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. He’s a mighty warrior who carries a mystical tomahawk. He served in World War I and has had trouble settling down after his experiences there. In Scotland he comes across an old man looking for someone to find his missing daughter for him. It seems like a simple enough task except that the young woman, Mhairi, is lost in the wilderness of South America and she has an unhealthy interest in the supernatural. Ansen agrees to go look for her which opens the first half of the novel.

I’m not going to give a blow by blow of the book, but it’s worth noting that—as was the case with Tolkein—the journey is a significant and important part of the story. We learn a tremendous amount about Ansen and how his years away from the Arapaho have damaged him. We also meet two members of the critical supporting cast and get to understand their unique personalities. This is far more important than it would be in a typical adventure story because Adams has intertwined a truly spiritual quest with his Lovecraftian adventure and that wouldn’t have been successful without the time and care he puts into introducing these characters.

The main action of the story comes when Ansen and company finally find Mhairi, but the circumstances are not anything I could have imagined before the start of the story. There are demons and dark gods and monsters by the hundreds, but the most pivotal creature is the banshee of the title and if they can’t uncover her secret motivations, they just might trigger the end of the world.

I opened the book expecting a fairly straightforward adventure story, but Adams gave me much more. This is a deep and complicated tale which draws upon multiple world mythologies to create an adventure I will not only long remember, but return to again and again in the future.

On a Winter’s Eve by Chris L. Adams

This is the story of a very troubled man and how a horrific event in his youth continues to affect him in his old age. The trauma was so great that he has had himself institutionalized more than once to stop the nightmares from rearing their heads in his waking hours. So right up front he’s confessing you can’t trust him, even as he insists that he’s sane and what he’s going to report is true… It’s a great beginning to a very creepy tale that would have found a comfortable home in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft.

The narrator goes on to tell of a long-ago night when the snow fell thick in the deep woods. Peering out a window he found a set of hellish eyes peering back at him. What is even more troubling is that when he screams in fright, his parents don’t seem to think he was having a nightmare. Instead, they prepare for the most desperate kind of war.

I can’t say more of the plot without spoiling the story, but I will make a note on the writing itself. Adams’s prose is particularly vivid and striking, even when he’s describing truly horrific things. It helps confirm the age of the narrator in the reader’s mind, as well as to leave absolutely no doubt about what happened on that Winter’s Eve—whether the narrator is ultimately trustworthy or not.

Vampire on the Orient Express by Shane Carrow

Lot of people have set mysteries on the Orient Express in homage to Agatha Christie’s famous novel, but I’ve never before seen one quite like this. Carrow’s undead are quite frightening and the threat feels very real…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Carrow opens by introducing his two main characters—an American deserter from the French Foreign Legion and an English spy. Both are on the famous train and the early chapters shows them meeting members of the supporting cast and settling down for their long trip. Then screams break the peace of the night and they encounter something that their minds don’t want to grapple with—but which they know in their hearts is not human. I want to stress here how well done this first encounter is. They don’t just discover a victim with fang marks on her neck—they metaphorically grapple with something clearly supernatural and being young men of the early twentieth century, that’s not something they easily accept.

From that point forward, things get much worse very quickly. They meet an Eastern European count and countess whose eyes are so sensitive to light that they wear shaded glasses. The reader is quick to think Dracula but honestly, things are far worse than I thought they would be. Carrow is drawing more on the early Eastern European myths rather than on the modern urban fantasy genre for his source material, and frankly, this makes his undead much more spooky.

The pacing also surprised me. Midway through the book he gives us what I had expected to be the climatic concluding action but it’s really the tip of the iceberg. If you like vampire stories, this is a good one.

The Graveyard Classified Series

The Dark Man by Desmond Doane

Two years ago, Ford Atticus Ford lost everything over a terrible decision to allow a five-year-old girl to be put in danger on his hit television show, Graveyard Classified. He literally encouraged her to confront a demon by herself on live television and she was clawed bloody by the monster. His misjudgment (and doesn’t that seem like a very understated way to describe what he did) destroyed his life, but he has slowly put it back together by seeking redemption through doing low profile, mostly pro bono, work for police departments across the country who have run into dead ends and need a miracle to advance their investigations. Part of the genius of this story is that Ford is a very sympathetic character and Doane makes him that way by making Ford very honest with himself—even when he doesn’t fully understand why he made the choices he did that led to the little girl being injured.

The novel revolves around Ford’s latest bit of police work, but it never strays far from the event that wrecked his life. A woman either committed suicide or was murdered years earlier and her diary has surfaced heating up a cold case. The problem—the investigating detective has a terrifying supernatural encounter in the woman’s house and calls Ford for help. That investigation is creepy and fascinating and we get to see how Ford took his fascination with the supernatural and made a television show out of it. We also realize very quickly that ghosts, demons, etc. are very real.

When the supernatural threat proves to be much more serious than Ford at first suspected, he reaches out to his former best friend, Mike, who won’t speak to him because of what happened to the little girl. Again, Doane shows his strength as an author. Mike had been the voice of reason and caution who didn’t do everything he could have to stop the danger to little Chelsea, but certainly looked to be the one with the stronger moral compass. Except—now that he’s broke as a result of some bad investments and his marriage has collapsed, Mike wants Ford to do a follow up Graveyard Classified movie to finish the investigation that broke the show. He wants to take advantage of Chelsea again, as do the girl’s parents, because their princely court-awarded damages have run out. It’s all utterly fascinating. The man the world vilifies for his callousness is the only one actually worried about the little girl.

Despite their badly damaged friendship, Ford and Mike have to figure out how to pull it all together if they are to defeat the new demon and save it’s intended victim. This would have been a great story in and of itself, but be warned, Doane has larger plans for Ford and Mike. There problems don’t end with this book.

The White Night by Desmond Doane

Doane picks up the stories of Ford and Mike in two concurrently running mystery/adventures where in Ford finds himself going up against the mysterious black-eyed children and Mike finds himself going head-to-head with another demon. We get much deeper into Mike’s disaster of a life this time, which proves even more interesting than the demon he is preparing to confront.

As for Ford, his problem is brought to him by a woman he hates, which again proves he is a fundamentally decent man. He puts away the very real harm this woman has done him to try and save her life.

Both mysteries were absolutely fascinating, but there’s an even darker third storyline developing. Little Chelsea Hopper, now seven years old, is still being haunted by the demon that injured her. Unfortunately, she can’t tell anyone, and we can watch it corrupting the poor little girl. That cannot bode well for Ford as he tries to learn enough to save the little girl he failed so disastrously when she was five years old.

This novel charges forward from beginning to end and will leave you ready to leap immediately into the next (and final?) book of the series.

The Belly of the Beast by Desmond Doane

Who is the “she” who ghosts warn will betray Ford Atticus Ford? It’s an increasingly important question as Ford and Mike prepare for their final confrontation to save a little girl from a demon they believe to be at the “right hand” of Satan. The problem is, there are a lot of women close to the problem including the little seven year old girl herself who the reader knows is being touched by the demon in her dreams every night.

The final book in the Graveyard trilogy is every bit the conclusion I was hoping for. Ford and Mike are back and in every single chapter the odds against them seem to grow worse. But they have grown tremendously in the past two books and it’s easy to believe that their heads and values are finally in the right place to wage war with the devil. It’s no longer about the money, or the fame, or their wrecked careers. They’re putting it all on the line for a little girl whom the reader is pretty sure is being manipulated by pure evil into making them lose their souls.

I thoroughly enjoyed this trilogy and this book is the best of the lot. Stake out some time. You won’t want to read them one at a time, but straight through like it was one massive book.

Kolchak the Night Stalker

Cry of Thunder by Joe Gentile

This novel is built on an interesting concept. Sherlock Holmes and Kolchak the Nightstalker both work on the same mystery even though they are separated by roughly a century. The mystery begins with the discovery of a gigantic bird in the old American west. The bird turns out to be a Thunderbird. It continues with Sherlock Holmes running a nice little investigation into criminal activity in London. And ends with Kolchak getting pulled into an investigation of that Thunderbird that lots of people want to stop him from completing.

This is a strange book. The individual parts are interesting, but after completing it, I find the connections confusing—especially between Holmes and Kolchak. It’s also not in any way clear to me why people are trying to stop Kolchak’s investigation. So I enjoyed seeing Holmes and Kolchak, but the story itself didn’t hold together for me.

Kolchak and the Lost World by C. J. Henderson

What a delight to find a new adventure of Kolchak the Night Stalker. After the events of the television series, Kolchak finds his reputation as a journalist in the toilet, but he rebounds through his reporting on a human serial killer. That success gets him the opportunity to travel to Ecuador to do an article on a war between two rival drug gangs. Unfortunately, Kolchak quickly learns that much more is going on in Ecuador than he had realized. The drug gangs are fighting over access to a legendary lost city.

It was a tremendous amount of fun to “see” Kolchak again but frankly this was not the best adventure. The lost city and the events around it are just not explained fully enough to be satisfying, but the journey was good enough that I’d gladly give another new Kolchak book a try. Here’s hoping that there will be many more.

Clark Ashton Smith

The Black Abbot of Puthuum by Clark Ashton Smith

This is the first story by Clark Ashton Smith that I have read in which there were good guys to cheer for—good guys—not nice guys. The heroes reminded me considerably of Conan the Barbarian. They’re mercenaries and thieves, but they also have a definite moral code and it does not involve letting evil spirits get away with beautiful women. As one would expect from Smith, the tone is vividly dark, but what I found most refreshing about it was that my enjoyment came from caring about the two heroes and wanting them to survive—not from wondering what horrific death Smith had in store for them. This is a very fine adventure tale brought to glorious life by the talents of narrator, William L. Hahn who has picked and collected these classic Clark Ashton Smith tales for modern audiences. I’m looking forward to the next one.

The Death of Malygris by Clark Ashton Smith

One of the things that stands out about Clark Ashton Smith’s short stories is that there are often no good guys to be found in the pages. In this excellent story, a great necromancer has died—or has he? As other magical powers seek to confirm Malygris’ demise and to profit from it, they continue to run afoul of his nefarious preparations to punish people who try to do precisely that. This is a story about watching bad things happen to bad people. On its own, it’s quite creepy, but with William L. Hahn’s narrative talents, it is far more insidious than that—so much so that you’ll be looking twice next time you drive past a cemetery.

The Double Shadow by Clark Ashton Smith

What a creepy tale! This is the first Clark Ashton Smith short story I have ever listened to, but I’m going to have to seek out more. Smith has the gift of creating beautiful and yet sinister prose and narrator, William L. Hahn, has the chops to bring the story to eerie life. This story is a great length for enjoying in one sitting and will certainly help you to understand why Smith is considered a master of the pulp era. But beware—when you finish it you’ll be glancing over your shoulder to check out your own shadow.

Necromancy in Naat by Clark Ashton Smith

I have had the pleasure of reading a half dozen or so Clark Ashton Smith stories over the past year and this is easily the best of all of them. It starts with a classic problem in fantasy literature. The hero, Yadar, is trying to rescue the love of his life, Dalili, after she has been captured and enslaved. By the end, this will cease to be a simple recovery story and turn into a genuinely touching romance—something I never expected from Clark Ashton Smith whose previous stories led me to think he saw women as either prizes or evil seductresses.

In the opening pages, Smith mentions many adventures that Yadar endures in what are essentially throwaway paragraphs. Some authors would have used these adventures to build a novel. Smith uses them to exquisitely construct Yadar’s reputation with the reader. He’s a Sinbad or a Conan, capable of both martial feats and great cleverness, and these clearly incredible challenges he overcame are barely worth mentioning as footnotes compared to the true story to come. And what a challenge the real story presents. Dalili has fallen into the possession of the Necromancers of Naat and turned into a zombie. You read that right—before the story truly beings—Yadar has lost. And yet, Smith still manages to create a fantastic story that ends with a haunting and yet surprisingly beautiful expression of true and enduring love.

I’ve always enjoyed Clark Aston Smith’s work, but this story makes me realize just how capable he truly was.

I’d like to add a note about the narrator of this story, because it’s through him that I discovered these Clark Ashton Smith tales. Will Hahn is an amazingly talented reader who brings drama and excitement with every word he utters. So when I found out he had chosen to narrate a handful of stories from CASiana Enterprises Ltd., I wondered what it was about them that drew his interest. After listening to the tales, I not only understood, it made me want to see what other gems he’s uncovered and could share with the rest of us.

Phoenix by Clark Ashton Smith

Here’s a pleasant surprise—a science fiction suicide mission to save an entire planet. Smith brings his considerable narrative powers to a straight adventure piece, rather than the horror that I’m more familiar with in his work. It’s a great little tale given a little extra zest by the dramatic reading of narrator Will Hahn.

Witchcraft of Ulua by Clark Ashton Smith

After reading this tale, the reader might wonder if Clark Ashton Smith has a negative view of both women and sex. His hero is a celibate scholar being tempted by a woman with demonic powers of seduction. It’s a very quick read, brought to dramatic life by narrator Will Hahn. I enjoyed every word, but have to say that the most impressive part is how long our celibate hero plods about his life ignoring his problem before he finally breaks and runs for it. I think the vast majority of people would have either succumbed or fled far earlier.

Weird West

The Cowboys of Cthulhu by David Bain

The Cowboys of Cthulhu is a very quick short story introducing the Riders of the Weird West series. It revolves around a gunfight in which the heroes discover that their opponents are far from human. As the titles suggests, Cthulhu is interested in our planet and it’s up to a couple of gunslingers to try and stop it from breaking through into our world. I liked the story, but it’s mostly useful in setting up the next (technically the first) book in the series. So read it to meet key characters in the coming book and get a taste for things to come.

I received this book from Free Audio Book in exchange for an honest review.

Riders Where There Are No Roads by David Bain

This is a fascinating story about a group of gunfighters, outlaws, and a buffalo soldier who find themselves in an afterlife no one could have expected riding a weird version of a desolate old west trying to stop a demonic figure from harvesting more souls. It’s intriguing from start to finish. Our main hero, Wayne, has an encounter early in the book with a sort of lawman of this weird west and is unwillingly recruited into service. He stuffs his badge into the glove compartment of his old truck and promptly forgets about it until years later his young son discovers it and accidentally opens a portal to another world. The story is about the men and woman who try and help Wayne rescue the child and put an end to this particular evil. It’s a compelling story that fits well both in the western genres and the Cthulhu subgenre—quite creepy in places and yet, ultimately about grit and morals in a lawless land. I liked it a lot.

I received this book from Free Audio Book in exchange for an honest review.

Wolf Hunt

Wolf Hunt by Jeff Strand

George and Lou, the atypical heroes of Wolf Hunt, have just become two of my all-time favorite characters in fiction. They had me laughing right from the beginning of the novel and their banter was enough to take the gruesome edge off even the most horrendous crimes that Ivan the Werewolf commits throughout the book. They’re a little bit dumb, seriously stubborn, and surprisingly heroic and human as they try to make up for the admittedly stupid mistake that sets a seriously sadistic werewolf loose on the world. It seemed like a simple job—transport a caged man a few hundred miles—but we quickly figure out that nothing involving George and Lou ever goes smoothly. Things happen to them, and around them, and, unfortunately, to anyone in the vicinity.

There is a lot to love about this novel—but for the serious fan of werewolf books and movies two particular items stand out head and shoulders above the rest. First, Ivan, is a phenomenal werewolf villain. He is so clever in his psychological sadism that the author’s family might want to have him checked out by a mental health professional. Ivan gets in everyone’s head as he taunts them on his way to dismembering and killing them. It’s sick, but that’s what makes a great villain so fun to hate, isn’t it?

The other absolutely amazing thing about this book is the creative—but pretty untraditional—ways in which George and Lou continue to go after Ivan. It turns out that silver bullets just aren’t that plentiful in the state of Florida and that forces them to get clever—not A-Team clever by any means, but creative none the less. I was astounded by the miriad ways they managed to hurt this basically unkillable-by-conventional-means creature. All the while soaking up tremendous amounts of damage themselves.

As if these three characters were not wonderful enough, Strand adds an innocent victim—accidentally kidnapped along the way by George and Lou—and their handler who set them up with the job. Again, wonderful characters who had me laughing my posterior off throughout the book.

Now, lest I give you the wrong impression, Wolf Hunt is not a comedy. It’s a serious action/horror adventure, but the humor sure does add tremendously to the fun even while the action and the evil deeds of Ivan continue to ramp up the feelings of suspense until the very last page of the novel. Ivan is a serious monster on both a human and lycanthropic levels and you will want him to die just as badly as George does.

I suspect that this would be a great book in paper or electronic format, but it was my good fortune to encounter the audio version, so let me just add a few words of praise for the performance of Scott Thomas. All of the key figures in this book have totally unique voices that make them easy to identify. More importantly, Thomas really draws out the humor in the banter. I am really impressed that he did this without once breaking down into peals of laughter himself, as I did consistently while listening to it.

In summation, let me say that Wolf Hunt is a gem of an adventure novel, but it should come with a warning not to listen to it while operating a motor vehicle.

I received this book from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

Wolf Hunt 2 by Jeff Strand

If you enjoyed Wolf Hunt you’re going to love Wolf Hunt 2. George and Lou are back and funnier than ever. They’re on the run after their problems in the first book but quickly get roped into helping Mr. Dewey capture another werewolf. They are made an offer they truly can’t refuse and that’s important because the werewolf is a fourteen-year-old girl and it’s only the threat of being burned to death that makes George and Lou violate their personal code against harming children. They justify it to themselves by promising that they will rescue the girl after she bites Dewey and turns him into a werewolf, but you can feel how much it bothers them that they are going after a child.

To make matters worse, everything goes wrong from the very beginning. The various criminal groups involved in the plot are nominally working together but act at cross purposes. George and Lou are trying to protect the girl (who understandably hates them) while keeping themselves alive. And in the background three very angry werewolves are getting closer and closer to making their own rescue attempt with a heap of vengeance against George and Lou thrown in for good measure.

These werewolves are one of many critical elements in the story. Will they be heroes, antiheroes, or outright villains? All the possibilities are open and Strand does a great job of crafting them into excellent three-dimensional antagonists. He also does some superb character development with George and Lou and the two new characters of interest, Eugene and the kidnapped girl. There’s a lot to love here and at times their struggles choked me up with emotion, just as their squabbles often doubled me over with laughter.

All of that beings said, I think it’s the surprises that solidified this book as a five-star experience. There were five or six times in the story where I thought—oh, that’s clever, I can see where this is going. Each of those times I was one hundred percent wrong and usually because Strand was even more creative that I had imagined. I admit that there were a couple of times when I wish I had been right—but that’s for emotional reasons—not because my idea would have made the novel better. This is simply an impressive book all around.

As was the case in the original Wolf Hunt, narrator Scott Thomas does an extraordinary job of capturing the humor and the pain in this story with his excellent characterizations. There is a lot more emotion in this book than in the first novel and Thomas seamlessly captures all of the nuance. His talents make a great story beautiful.

Wolf Hunt 3 by Jeff Strand

Anyone who has read my reviews of Wolf Hunt 1 and 2 knows that one of the things I like best about this series is the author’s ability to surprise me again and again and again. Well nothing you’ve read before can prepare you for what’s coming this time. George and Lou are back in action (yes, I know Lou’s dead, but there are werewolves in this story so you should know that absolutely anything is possible) and everything that made you love them in books one and two is back again, bigger and better.

George and Lou are two of the strangest heroes in all of fiction. They are not nice men. They are petty criminals who hurt people for a living. But the willingness to stop at breaking a few bones and leaning on deadbeats makes them come off looking like honest-to-God saints compared to the true villains of the piece. Add to that the sarcastic, drive-your-car-off-the-road-its-so-funny humor, and you are in for a wild adventure.

George and Lou and a surprise cast member are off to kill the werewolf king to prevent him from starting a war to subjugate all humans to lycanthrope rule and as you might guess from the previous books, they have no chance of pulling their mission off. It’s not even clear they can reach the werewolf king’s home because of the long list of men seeking vengeance upon them for their actions in the previous books. It’s one hilarious mishap after another as George and Lou discover that you don’t have to be a lycanthrope to be one sick customer.

Scott Thomas reprises his role as narrator of the audiobook and I’m very glad he did. His characterizations first brought George and Lou to life for me and they continue to make this series excel. He’s the sort of talent who could get a base hit out of any wild pitch, but when you give him a real treasure like Wolf Hunt 3, he hits it out of the stadium and into orbit.

I got this book free from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

The Haunted Forest Tour by Jeff Strand and James A. Moore

Jeff Strand’s Wolf Hunt series comprise my favorite werewolf novels of all time, so I was quite excited when I came across The Haunted Forest Tour and was really curious to see where Strand’s crazy mind would lead us. I’m happy to say that not only was I not disappointed, Strand and his co-author, James A. Moore, blew me away.

The premise of the novel is lovingly established in the opening chapter when a homeowner and the local sheriff try to figure out how someone managed to plant a decades old tree in the middle of the homeowner’s porch. It’s a perplexing problem without an apparent solution—at least until more trees start to spontaneously sprout all around them. The image is quite gripping. In seconds, trees are reaching full growth and causing destruction all around them.

The story then picks up several years later when an enterprising American has started a tour service into the haunted forest. All kinds of fantasy creatures from ogres to demons to things that defy categorization exist within the trees. Up to now, the tours have only penetrated the perimeter of the forest, but now, to celebrate Halloween, sixty lucky individuals are going to ride straight through the center of this marvel. Unfortunately, their “luck” is not of the “good” variety.

As all great horror writers do, Strand and Moore take the time to make you like a large cast of characters ranging from a young child to a grandmother, and from tourists, to employees, to scientists. It’s fun to try and guess which ones will die and which will survive, but shortly after the disaster in the middle of the forest begins to unfold, you will start to wonder how anyone can escape this situation.

And this is a huge part of why this book is so brilliant. The tourists and employees treat the Haunted Forest as a bizarre natural wonder, but it is so much more insidious than that. There’s an intriguing mystery to be solved at the heart of the forest and the stakes are much greater than the survival of the few people trapped within it. Strand and Moore play totally fair here—doling out clues and false leads between shocking revelations fast enough to make you resent anything that interrupts your reading.

Finally, the authors pass the most important test of the horror novel—the cause of all the problems is equal to the great buildup they give it. And the solution is simply genius…

In Alpha Order by Author

The Loch by Steve Alten

I read Meg back in 1997 and enjoyed it but for some reason never picked up another Alten novel until coming across The Loch recently. In many ways, writing about the Loch Ness Monster seems to be a natural for an author who made his reputation writing about a prehistoric super shark that survives into the modern day. The Loch did not disappoint me. If you have a fascination with Loch Ness Monster, then it’s almost certain that you’ll enjoy this book.

To start out with, we have a hero, Zach Wallace, with issues—his father sucks and he’s also just gotten blamed for a terrible investigation-gone-astray in the Sargasso Sea. As if that isn’t enough, almost drowning for the second time has given this marine biologist a serious case of hydrophobia. So he’s not in the best of moods when he learns that his father is about to be tried for murder and that he wants his son to come home to Scotland to offer moral support. He almost doesn’t go—and soon enough wishes he didn’t.

While his father is manipulating him to bolster his court case which one might call “The Loch Ness Monster” defense, something begins killing visitors to the Loch. Drownings are way up and now people are being bloodily murdered on land. It appears that Nessie may be real after all and she’s angry.

The best parts of this novel are when Alten gets into various theories about what the Loch Ness Monster might be and how it might exist in the freshwater loch. That was all fun. Less fun was the very poor portrayal of the Scottish legal system. I also wish Alten had decided to steer clear of the Knights Templar as I thought they were a needless complication to the story that in my opinion distracted from the true tale. That being said, this novel is a lot of fun and if you’re willing to just run with it, you’ll be glad you read it.

The Siberian Incident by Greig Beck

First contact horror stories are a dime a dozen, but this one really worked for me. The horror part of the story starts in flashbacks to the distant past while the modern storyline gets established. American Marcus Stenson has won a contract to restock the sturgeon supply in Lake Baikal deep in Siberia. He and his wife are excited about the project but are unready for the interest that the Russian Mafia takes in their venture. That storyline alone was worth the price of admission and it almost makes you forget that Beck has something much more sinister in the works for his readers.

The actual aliens are wonderfully done. They’re creepy, they’re lethal, they’re absolutely terrifying, and while we expect at least some of the cast of good guys to survive, it’s not clear at all how they’re going to do it. Most importantly, the eventual resolution to the storyline is credible. The bad things are as bad as we expect them to be and the good guys efforts mostly make sense as well.

So if you’re looking for a novel with interesting challenges of both a real world and a horror genre nature, you should give The Siberian Incident a try.

The Majestic 311 by Keith C. Blackmore

I think this novel had one of the best blurbs promoting it that I have ever read, but I don’t think the novel lived up to its blurb. It wasn’t that the blurb was dishonest, it’s that the book took a large number of turns that felt “out of the spirit” of the blurb to me. The basic plot, as laid out in that blurb, is that in 1903 a 13-car train dubbed The Majestic 311 disappeared while going through a tunnel under the Rockies and 7 years later, train robbers mistakenly scramble onto the 311 when it appears in place of the locomotive they are waiting for. What I expected to follow was a horror mystery regarding how those outlaws come to understand where they were and finally manage to get off the train again. Technically, all of that happens, but in the middle of it are half a dozen excursions to other worlds that frankly quickly became highly tiresome and never seemed to be truly connected to the train. Instead of investigating the train and its mystery, most of the novel focuses on our train robbers exploring (albeit unwillingly) other worlds and that just never caught my attention. The little bits that focused on the Majestic 311 itself were pretty good, but they are truly a very small part of the overall novel.

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

I’ve been watching Scooby Doo television shows and mysteries for my whole life. The early series is almost a meme in and of itself. The episodes were totally formulaic and they always ended with a mask being pulled off the monster’s head to expose the villain. Later the gang began to encounter some genuine supernatural entities, but nothing truly terrifying. All that’s going to end if you open Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero, because the Scooby gang—or at least Cantero’s counterparts for the famous quintet—is about to uncover one of the ancient entities of the Cthulhu mythos and this is every bit as disturbing as such an encounter should genuinely be.

First off, let’s be clear that while Cantero has great fun playing with the Scooby formula his characters are not one-for-one knock offs of Fred, Velma, Shaggy, Daphne and Scooby Doo. So push that out of your mind and you’ll enjoy the story a lot more. Instead we get Peter, Keri, Nate, Andy, and their dog, Sean (later replaced by his grandson, Tim). Together these intrepid pre-teens formed the Blyton Summer Detective Club where year after year they protected Blyton from a lot of creepy villains wearing masks. They thought that’s what they did in their last case too, but it turns out that a lot more was happening beneath the surface. There really was some serious supernatural stuff going on that their young minds couldn’t process and thirteen years later it has driven one of them to suicide, another to alcoholism, a third to uncontrollable bursts of rage, and the fourth to commit himself to an insane asylum in the hopes that the doctors can stop him from seeing the ghost of his dead friend.

So this is not the Scooby Doo of my childhood, but that’s good because this is a much more awesome story than that cartoon was structured to tell. The surviving members of the Blyton Summer Detective Club have to pull themselves together, return to the scene of the original crime, and come to grips with the unbelievable fact that the apocalypse is about to occur and only three meddling sort-of-grown-up kids and their dog have any chance at all to save the world. Cantero knows both the Cthulu genre and the Scooby Doo classics and he brilliantly mixes both together here for a story that kept me on the edge of my seat never knowing where he was going. Every few chapters he hit me with another surprise. And now I find myself sad the story is done and desperately hoping for a sequel, even if it is just a crazy villain hiding behind a mask.

The Eerie Adventures of Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe by Peter Clines

This is a strange book which proports to be co-written by Daniel Defoe and H.P. Lovecraft. It’s a fairly faithful retelling of Robinson Crusoe with three substantial differences. Crusoe is a lycanthrope, changing into the beast on the full moon. The island he is marooned on contains a church to Cthulhu (the dreamer). Oh, and Friday is not human.

On the one hand, it is a very clever story, reworking all the events of Crusoe’s life around his lycanthropy. Clines’ lycanthropes are not like those of most urban fantasies. Crusoe is not stronger and hardier in his human form than other people. And he doesn’t seem to have to worry about losing control and changing other than at the full moon. In fact, the lycanthropy really didn’t seem necessary to the story at all until the very end of the novel.

The H.P. Lovecraft elements, on the other hand, really do add some tension to this tale. Cthulhu enters Crusoe’s dreams and the cannibals visiting the island (including Friday) worship Cthulhu. This adds some definite tension to the story, especially when Cthulhu attempts to prevent Crusoe from escaping the island.

Overall, I put this in the category of an interesting idea which fits in well with many others of Clines’ novels which are tributes to Lovecraft, showing how the Cthulhu mythos could fit into modern novels. I’m glad I read it, but it’s far from the best of Clines works.

The Junkie Quatrain by Peter Clines

Peter Clines has earned his zombie spurs with his superhero zombie universe series, Ex. Now in the Junkie Quatrain he has created a whole new zombie apocalypse which he introduces in 4 sharp novellas. There’s a lot to love here, so let me take them point by point.

First, the zombies are great. They aren’t the walking dead, but the shattered remains of a virus-ridden humanity. They’re fast and they will chase you until they drop from exhaustion. They are ravenous, eating anything that moves. They have a pack mentality—but not every zombie gets to be part of the pack and they turn mercilessly on their own at the first sign of injury or other weakness. And best of all, Clines realizes this is not sustainable. Hunger and the elements will eventually end this zombie threat (or at least greatly reduce it). And because it was caused by a virus it is potentially curable. All of this makes these zombies feel very different from most other series.

Second, civilization hasn’t fully collapsed. The CDC is still working, trying to find a cure. Enclaves have developed. At one point, we learn that the U.S. is looking at 92 million deaths—horrific, but not The Walking Dead. There is still hope that civilization can be saved or at least salvaged.

Third, Clines gives us great characters in each of the novellas. These are people we can sympathize with (and in at least one case that was very surprising). They also have challenges that make sense and it was easy to imagine myself in their positions in most of the cases.

Best, however, was the way that each of the novellas intersected with each other. This really pushed this collection over the top into a simply great story and shows how thoroughly Clines thought everything out. It also means, however that the story does not advance very far chronologically. Clines better be planning to write volume 2.

Terminus by Peter Clines

Okay, I admit it. I have a thing for Cthulhu stories, especially really smart ones like Terminus by Peter Clines. This is a novel in which the author has really thought about the whole Cthulhu subgenre and asked interesting questions like, why haven’t creatures this powerful already eaten the entire planet. And his answer is…they have. And they’re getting ready to do it again.

This one has a really well thought out explanation for Cthulhu, and absolutely fantastic competing plots as heroes and villains struggle to keep the monster away or bring him here out of the deluded belief that somehow life will be so much better after all life on the planet has been consumed. Throw in some mad scientist style science and a great cast of characters and you have a novel that I think H.P. Lovecraft would have been proud of. This novel does for the Cthulhu subgenre what Clines’ Dead Moon did for the zombie apocalypse—gave it a totally new and interesting spin. If you like stories about Things Man Was Not Meant to Know, you’re going to love Terminus.

The Beast of Devil’s Rock by Michael Cole

The thing I liked most about this novel was that Cole didn’t use a typical winter monster to try and kill his hero, Ron Weller. I was expecting a yeti or a sasquatch, but got something far more terrifying instead. Of course, if I had looked more carefully at the cover I would have known what monster the book had in store for me (that’s not a tree in the background) but I didn’t and as a result I discovered a novel that was as big on the creep factor as it was on the action.

The novel opens up with Weller and his partner stuck on the side of the road in a snowstorm. Weller is digging their police car out. Neither of them is very happy and they get less so when the discover a damaged car further up the road—engine running, all kinds of damage, but no driver. Things quickly go from bad to worse as they look for the driver in a blizzard. They find signs that more people are missing and then they have a tragic run in with the monster. Weller survives, unable to truly believe what he’s seen, and the other cops think he’s crazy even as they start to search for the missing deputy. This was one of the better parts of the story as the cops mercilessly tease and insult Weller, but we the reader know that they are getting closer and closer to finding out there’s way too much truth in his unbelievable tale.

Let me end with a warning: don’t eat while reading the second half of this book. It won’t be good for your digestion. What it will be good for is high speed terror as a bunch of police officers trying to survive a horror they were never trained for.

Cthulhu Reloaded by David Conyers

Here’s a particularly disturbing look at the Cthulhu mythos and how it might interact with modern society. What makes this book so good is that it is comprised of several short novella that follow the same character, an Australian Intelligence Officer, over the course of a couple of decades of his career. We watch him discover the other worldly, and get pulled deeper and deeper into the insanity. Each story is interesting in and of itself, but as they progress and the conspiracies grow and the monsters and their manipulations get revealed, everything becomes so much more disturbing. Earth is on a terrible path toward destruction and it’s not clear that anything can divert it from its doom. I guess I’ll have to read the next book to find out.

Dracula vs. Hitler by Patrick Sheane Duncan

This is a World War II novel about the resistance fighting in Romania to drive out the Nazis. It is also a story of Dracula, the monstrous vampire from the Bram Stoker novel. That Duncan weaves the two stories together so well proved to be a pleasant surprise.

The novel opens with the Romanian resistance achieving success in their battle against the Nazis—so much success that special forces are called in to counter them, driving home the SS’s well-deserved reputation for brutality. The resistance is rapidly being picked apart when one of its leaders—Van Helsing from the original novel (now an old man)—decides that the only way for the Romanians to continue the fight is with the supernatural aid of Dracula. So, with the help of his daughter and the grandson of John Harker, he revives the vampire initiating the main part of the novel.

Here Duncan has a choice to make as to the direction of his story. Will he write Dracula the monster or the man? The monster might have proved more interesting, but it would certainly have been harder to bring about his confrontation with Hitler had he gone that route. Instead, he chooses to resurrect the patriotic prince of history with the superhuman powers of strength, healing, and the ability to mesmerize. I personally wish he’d gone the further route of the bat, mist, and wolf, but it’s Duncan story, not mine.

As the novel proceeds, a love triangle is developed involving Harker’s grandson, Van Helsing’s daughter, and Dracula that added additional tension to the story. The reader will also immediately note the two mistakes the resistance makes that lets Hitler find out that a vampire is confronting his army. This leads to the final and best phase of the story as the Nazis try to capture the count to turn him to their own uses. Watching Dracula confronted by human foes who know what they are contending with was very exciting.

Overall, this was an exciting and immensely fun read. If you are curious about the title, you’ll probably enjoy the story.

Zombies and Chainsaws by Mike Evans

Question: What do you get when you combine an illegal chemical dump in a graveyard and a group of expert tree removal specialists? Answer: Mike Evans’ descriptively titled novel, Zombies and Chainsaws—an action-packed extravaganza of four men trying to fight their way out of the zombie apocalypse. I’ve read a great many novels built upon the zombie theme and for sheer fun, this one stacked up well. As with most books in this genre, I knew the plot before I listened to the first words of the story and judged the book by the three-fold test of character, action, and realism. Evans goes to town on the first two tests. His characters worked for me. Many were sympathetic, which meant I cared what happened to them, and others work as people I hoped the zombies would get their hands on. The action was also top notch. Chainsaws don’t appear in these books that often and Evans convinced me that they were the Excalibers of anti-zombie weaponry. It was only in the “realism” category that the novel had any problems. For example, I suspect that one call in the early 1980s to the CDC claiming that zombies are over-running a small midwestern town would not have been taken seriously—but ultimately it’s a small complaint. If you want a fast-paced, action-filled, zombie novel that requires absolutely no thinking to enjoy, you should take a look at Zombies and Chainsaws.

I received this book from in exchange for an honest review.

Ararat by Christopher Golden

I’ve been reading Christopher Golden novels for more than twenty years starting with a couple of Buffy the Vampire novels, moving on to his Body of Evidence and Prowlers series, and quite a few others. I like the author and generally think he’s worth giving a try. Unfortunately, Ararat was not one of his better books.

After an earthquake causes an avalanche high up on Ararat in Turkey, a cave is opened up for the first time in millennia and inside is an object that might just be Noah’s ark. Everyone recognizes that it is too high up in the mountain to have ever been deposited there by a flood, but it does indeed appear to have been a vessel made for transport on the water some 5,000 years ago. It also contains a coffin with a horned humanoid in it. As the scientists and government representatives try to keep the archaeological exploration proceeding, many of the people fear they have discovered a demon. Then people start to disappear and die.

All of the build up works pretty well and I was greatly enjoying the novel, but when the couple of handfuls of survivors—convinced that a demon is hunting and possessing them—decide to run for it I started to lose my patience with the book. They all worry about bringing the demon back to civilization and they all run for it anyway to a totally predictable ending.

As if this wasn’t disappointing enough, there is never any real attempt to explain how the ark got up on the mountain in that cave and that was a great disappointment. In fact, I really didn’t think there was much of an effort to explain any of the “horror” elements. It just didn’t seem to me that this was up to Golden’s usual standards.

A Heart in the Right Place by Heide Goodman and Iain Grant

Looking for a simple werewolf story? This novel is that and a whole lot more. (I guess that makes it non-simple, but you won’t mind at all.) The story purports to be about a young man and his dying father taking a father-son trip into the Scottish Highlands to try and rectify their relationship before dad dies. You quickly get the impression that neither of them really want to do this and that they are doing it for the mother/wife. This turns into an absolutely great part of the story after a fairly slow start, but it’s not, in my opinion, the heart of the tale.

That would be Finn. Finn is a totally psycho assassin who in addition to being a sociopath is also a control freak. She is fascinating from moment one to moment last. Her need to control everything never lets her quit and she is really just a delight every time she appears on a page. I feel a little bit bad liking the “bad gal” more than anyone else (and I want to be clear, I really like Nick and his Dad by the end of the book), but she is just a delightfully evil creation—not someone you would ever want to meet or even hope exists in the world, but a wonderful villain to fuel the story.

Finn has been given the not-as-simple-as-it-looks task of procuring a heart from a still living man named Oz. Nick, trying to set up his perfect weekend with his dad, has the misfortune of having the bottle of 30-year-old Scotch he purchased for the occasion misdelivered to Oz’s house by the postal service. This small misfortune will lead to some very bad decisions on Nick’s part coupled with incredibly bad luck as Finn mistakenly believes that Nick is Oz and chases him and his father into the Scottish Highlands. None of that is a spoiler, it’s just the basic scene setting for the plot.

Complicating Finn’s life is that she’s been given a minder for this “hit” and she doesn’t play well with others. The minder is a corporate type who is big on planning and is keeping one important surprise away from Finn for much of the tale. They don’t get along well, but it helps to flush out Finn’s character quite a bit.

Finally, there is the werewolf who makes an appearance early enough to inject some serious high octane into the rest of the story. Everything goes crazy once the werewolf makes an appearance and while I correctly predicted some of the consequences, I didn’t predict all of them. I love the take that Goody and Grant have on werewolves and would love to see them do more on this theme. In fact, I’m going to have to look over their other series to discover if they are as delightful as this book.

Rolling in the Deep by Mira Grant

I like the way this novella is structured. It opens with a passage from a documentary in which we learn the Atargatis is a modern-day ghost ship from which all crew and passengers disappeared without a trace. Then we switch over to a narrative in which we watch a documentary film crew boarding the Atargatis—knowing they are going to disappear before the voyage ends. The crew works for the Imagine Network to film a documentary on Mermaids. They’re bringing their own actresses to play the mermaids in case they don’t find any on their own. So there are plenty of people on board to have a tragic ending.

Over the rest of the book we watch the ship reach the Marineras Trench and begin a scientific exploration no one expects to succeed, but that actually produces results the scientists are not initially willing to believe. For me, the most poignant lines of the story come when the survivors are trying to escape from their hungry discovery. One of the scientists has a little breakdown in which she realizes that they had come on this expedition thinking of mermaids as pretty women—but that’s not the mermaids of myth and legend. They are vicious creatures who lure sailors to their deaths—just as they do in this very enjoyable novella.

Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu: The Adventure of the Deadly Dimensions by Lois H. Gresh

It seems that more and more authors are anxious to pit Sherlock Holmes against the elder gods. I thought this one started out stronger than most because it focused not on eldritch creatures but on a perplexing impossible machine that seems like it should be explainable (it is, after all, a machine built by a man in London) but that doesn’t seem to work according to any rules that Holmes can understand.

That was a cool problem. In investigating it, Holmes comes across a cult that leads towards what I think of as more typical Cthulhu-esq problems. Holmes always felt like Holmes, and Gresh gives Watson some serious problems with his wife and son that added some depth to the character. I wasn’t particularly enthralled with the villains, but overall I enjoyed the story.

Cryptid Zoo by Gerry Griffiths

Gerry Griffiths knows how to set up a horror story. In this novel about an eccentric zoo featuring legendary creatures like the sasquatch, the thunderbird, and the kraken in a Jurassic Park style zoo, the first half of the novel is all about creating that feeling of uh-oh. As our main family tours the exhibits and the guide happily talks about how this animal is super bright, likes to solve problems, and can survive out of the water for short periods of time, the reader is happily imagining how all of those precious little talents are going to turn into a nightmare for the characters in about fifty pages. It’s a tremendous amount of fun, and Griffiths sets the stage for a couple dozen of these bizarre creatures to get loose and wreak havoc on our cast of tourists and zoo employees.

When the animals begin their inevitable escapes the tension grows dramatically. The first deaths begin to occur, followed by the first narrow escapes, until finally the expected chaos is rolling across the zoo and our various groups of heroes are struggling valiantly to survive. I only have two complaints. The first is that I just can’t imagine that any zoo would set up its electronic locks to open if the power went out. I mean, think about that for a moment. Zoos do not want the lions and tigers (or in this case, the flying snakes and the Chupacabra) escaping every time there was a power outage. And it wasn’t necessary. The first breakouts had already occurred in completely believable ways. Those monsters could have ended up freeing the others as a natural result of their destructive behavior.

My second complaint is that the novel ends too quickly. There is a ton going on and it’s all really interesting and I would have liked to see a lot more of it. The cryptids were already introduced and I could have happily read another hundred pages of our cast of heroes surviving their encounters with them. But then, many of the monsters escape into the wild so maybe Griffiths ended it where he did so he could have a sequel.

Dinosaur Lake by Kathryn Meyer Griffith

It’s always fun to read about modern encounters with dinosaurs. Usually those fatal meetings occur in faraway places—an unknown island, the middle of the Amazon, caverns deep beneath the earth. What makes Kathryn Meyer Griffith’s tale so unique is that she chooses to introduce her dinosaur in a national park in the United States and therein lies both the strengths and weaknesses of the story.

The largest strength is the unusual setting—in the continental United States—where the dinosaur has a large number of human prey within easy reach. Unfortunately, this is really where the strengths end as well. No one carries their cell phones so they can’t take pictures of the growing evidence that a dinosaur is around—tracks, animal carcasses, and eventually the dinosaur itself. While everyone is naturally skeptical of the idea that a dinosaur could be alive today, not only are people disappearing but two very large boats are demolished by something and there is literally nothing known in the region that could damage them in that fashion. So even if you don’t jump to “dinosaur” as the solution, the idea that you should close the park and investigate isn’t far-fetched—but they don’t.

Then the dinosaur starts eating large number of people—again, no cameras—but this results only in a couple of FBI guys being sent. Why not send the National Guard? And the press finally comes (in time to get eaten) but really, they should have been swarming much earlier. Finally, our intrepid investigators manage to get a mini sub put in the lake, but still can’t get really serious infantry weapons (and people trained to use them). Again, if you’re arguing you need a sub armed with missiles to go after your monster, don’t you think that perhaps the navy might send expert teams to operate it? Or again, the National Guard might be mobilized to bring serious firepower to bear on the creature?

These weaknesses in just thinking out logically what kind of response the government would make to a creature killing lots of people really made it difficult to suspend disbelief in this novel. It’s still fun—tracking a dinosaur that keeps munching on the trackers is sort of the heart of a modern dinosaur story—but it isn’t the great novel I think this could have been.

Supermarket by Bobby Hall

I have mixed feelings about this novel. The first time I read it I put it down in the middle of chapter five planning to never finish it. But I hate to buy a book I don’t actually read so many months later I picked it up again. This second time, the book basically worked for me. It’s the story of Flynn, a young man desperately trying to put his life back together by finishing a novel. His girlfriend left him because of his inability to finish things and he has convinced himself that failure here means he’s destined to be a loser all of his life. His novel takes place in a supermarket, so he gets a job as a minimum wage “floater” hoping that working in an actual supermarket will help him complete his book.

Flynn is an untrustworthy narrator, something that the reader immediately begins to suspect when his best friend, Frank, is never around when anyone else is. Frank is a weird guy who is messing with Flynn’s life but Flynn never really does anything about it. He likes Frank, is fascinated by him, and believes he is critical to finishing his novel. But the reader recognizes very quickly that Frank exists only in Flynn’s head, making the reader wonder how many other things exist only in Flynn’s head. Part I ends with a predictable crisis leading to part two in an insane asylum where doctors try to help Flynn and the reader sees more signs that he is continuing to invent reality around him even while in recovery. (Again, keep your eye out for people who no one else ever talks to.)

Flynn has evidently spent two years in the insane asylum without actually ever taking his medications. This really bothered me. People on meds get bloodwork done all the time so that the doctors can analyze whether or not the meds need to be increased or decreased. The doctors would have known almost immediately that Flynn wasn’t taking his medications and done something about it. So this will cause you to wonder if even the insane asylum is a figment of Flynn’s imagination. This playing with reality is really the heart of the whole story and it continues to the last words of the book. It’s clever, but ultimately not particularly satisfying. I mean really, was Flynn even writing a book?

Extinct by Ike Hamill

Extinct presents a particularly creepy and isolating vision of the end of the world told from two very different points-of-view. Robby is an exceptionally intelligent thirteen-year-old with an unusual ability to analyze situations which gives him odd, but mostly credible, insights into what is happening around him. He is a thoroughly likeable character. He and his family are trapped on their island in a snowstorm on Thanksgiving when first the power goes out and then people start disappearing all over the islands—lots and lots of people. As they explore what is happening around them, they begin to witness people “disappear” and Robby and his family and a couple of neighbors decide to make a run for it. This storyline is totally engaging and utterly intriguing.

The second storyline (told in alternating chapters) did not work nearly so well for me. It is slow to develop, but the underlying mystery (starting with carnivorous plants and getting stranger from there) is a good one. The problem is that the story is told from the point-of-view of Brad. The kindest thing you can say about Brad is he is odd. He is also, despite the apparent effort to make him look intelligent, dull, uninteresting, and capable of repeated acts of ridiculous stupidity. He hides information from key people repeatedly for no reason that I could ever discern. He also passes up opportunities to learn information about what is happening just because he is obstinate. To make things worse, despite not appearing to be a particularly physical guy or having any combat training, he wins a fight with a monster of a man that more than strained credulity. I was never happy when the story returned to Brad’s perspective.

The first third of the novel is the best part of the book. Hamill does a great job of creating a truly perplexing and horrifying mystery that appears to be at least partly supernatural in character. There is a great deal of suspense and a lot of discovery without actually clarifying any of what happens. After this, the novel begins to lose its punch. Robby constructs a theory of what is happening that seems to come completely from left field and convinces a number of other survivors to help him enact a plan to save the world. The plan is strange and far-fetched, and I don’t think the now fourteen-year-old boy received enough push back on it, but it does set the stage for the last third of the novel when the excitement picks up again.

There are several genuinely creepy and frightening moments in this book and the conclusion basically worked, even having a heart-wrenching moment in which I (had I been in the book) probably would have made the wrong choice and gotten killed. In addition, I really liked a couple of the supporting cast members. In Extinct, Hamill has set the groundwork for a strange new world and I’m curious what he will do in the sequel.

I listened to this book in audio format so I’d like to conclude with a couple of comments on the excellent narration. For huge sections of this book, there isn’t a lot of dialogue. The pacing is slow and measured building suspense as the characters try to figure out what has happened to them. Kyle Tait does a superb job of cultivating the tension and helping the text build the atmosphere that Hamill obviously wanted to create. In addition, his voices are memorable. When one of the characters reappeared approximately twelve hours since we had last seen him, I knew who it was before the text identified him. That’s a pretty extraordinary accomplishment for a narrator.

I received this book from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

The Trellborg Monstrosities by John Houlihan

H.P. Lovecraft fans are going to want to read this book. Toward the end of World War II, British intelligence learns that the Nazis are messing with Eldritch powers somewhere in remote Norway and they send a team in with a civilian expert to eliminate the threat. The novel is a first person account by the major who led the mission and we watch him slowly come to grips with the fact that the world has supernatural elements in it.

On one level, the novel reads like any WW2 covert operations story. The team has to infiltrate enemy held territory in great secrecy, and the occupying Nazi troops are a great threat. But on another level, there is this growing understanding that things are not right and not normal, and when they finally learn what’s going on the novel pops into high gear as the British soldiers desperately try to stop the Nazis from releasing a force that could turn the tide of the war. It’s exciting from beginning to end, and the feel of the book is very much as if Lovecraft was writing it himself.

Carter & Lovecraft by Jonathan L. Howard

Carter & Lovecraft is a fresh new look at the Cthulhu mythos. Carter is a police detective whose partner commits suicide minutes after shooting a horrific serial killer of children. Lovecraft is the last living relative of H.P. Lovecraft. The two come together through what certainly appears to be a supernatural intervention and quickly become involved in investigating a sorcerous-style murder in a world that doesn’t think these things are possible.

There’s a lot to like about this book. The first is the concept of the twist or the fold—a way in which the Cthulhu mythos warps reality. Magic is about working with the twist (the serial killer was trying to understand it) but some people can naturally influence it which is the key to the story and a hint at why the original Lovecraft and his friend Carter were so important.

At its heart, this is a great supernatural mystery with a ton of fun interactions (such as a man drowning in his car without any water being present). But it’s also laying the groundwork for a new vision of the Cthulhu mythos which certainly seems worth exploring.

Deep Night by Ambrose Ibsen

Deep Night is a supernatural detective story that plays fair with the reader even as it offers a healthy portion of make-the-hairs-stand-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck terror. As with all good horror novels, author Ambrose Ibsen builds the reader’s feelings of unease slowly and with a brilliant mechanism that absolutely everyone can relate to. A woman is awakened in the middle of the night by a tapping on her window. Just think about that for a moment. It’s almost midnight and she’s shaken from her sleep by a quiet tap tap tap on her bedroom windowpane When she builds the courage to peak outside, no one is at her window, but she catches sight of a figure watching her from the street. She quite sensibly calls the police, but the responding officer doesn’t find anything. The next night, matters progress further and when the police again come up empty handed, the woman goes in search of a private investigator to discover who is harassing her.

Enter Harlan Ulrich, formerly of Toledo. He’s lazy and uninterested in the case until his landlord increases his rent and he realizes if he doesn’t earn some money he’s going to lose his office. It was in many ways an unfortunate way to introduce the character because it made Ulrich initially unlikeable. We, the reader, knows this woman desperately needs help and he seems uncaring about her predicament. Fortunately, Ulrich quickly wins the reader back by sticking with the case when it immediately goes bad. You see, Ulrich quickly uncovers evidence that the client’s nocturnal visitor is not human.

From this point forward, the novel revolves around the investigation into why the client is being harassed by a supernatural creature. The creature’s appearance is quickly connected to a painting the woman has just acquired so Ulrich opens his investigation by looking into the painting’s origins and how it came into the woman’s possession. This investigation did not take the direction I initially assumed it would, and that’s always a good thing. Not all of the twists and turns in the rest of the novel were as surprising, but when an author fairly provides the clues to a mystery, he has to risk readers putting the pieces together faster than his detective does.

This novel is boosted by the excellent vocal talents of narrator, Kyle Tait. He provides excellent pacing and clearly discernable voices for all the characters. His low voice and quiet style added significantly to the tension Ibsen builds in the story as the scope of the supernatural problem is uncovered. If you like solid detective stories with a healthy (or should that be “unhealthy”) dose of the supernatural, you’ll enjoy Deep Night. I intend to read the next mystery in this series.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

As Halloween approaches, it seems like a good time to read one of America’s first ghost stories, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. My generation probably knows this story best because of the Disney animated cartoon, but the actual tale is better, more sophisticated if not genuinely scary. It’s the tale of Ichabod Crane, a geeky superstitious schoolteacher, who runs afoul of a physically tough local man and his gang of friends when both men decide to woo the daughter of a wealthy farmer. Things do not end well for Ichabod, but was he the victim of his rival or of the legendary headless horseman?

Wilders by Cass Kim

With the flood of “zombie apocalypse” style novels saturating the market these days, it is refreshing to find a new take on the old theme. Cass Kim’s book stands out from the pack for two main reasons. First, her equivalent of the zombies (and for the record, her story does not have zombies but the far more creative “wilders”) have not yet completely destroyed civilization. Humanity (at least in the United States) has adapted to what keeps getting referred to as the “half-pocalypse”. Life is not easy in the new normal, but it is livable. This provides a quite different story environment than the typical tale and that was very refreshing.

The second reason Kim’s book leads the pack of this subgenre is that it is not about simple survival but something much more important in the grand scheme of things. (It’s difficult to write about this without giving away an important plot twist.) There is plenty of action in the book, but larger issues than personal survival are dealt with on a very intimate level that really struck home with me.

So those are the big issues that can be summed up as Wilders has a unique flavor for this subgenre, but by themselves they would only have made this an interesting book—not a great one. Fortunately, Kim populates her world with a believable cast of teenagers who are trying to thrive in the half-pocalypse. It’s a difficult balance which Kim handles with a master touch dealing with the basic immaturity of young people when the consequences of teenaged rebellion can include being eaten alive by wilders. Add to that parents who are emotionally damaged by the civilization-threatening events and Kim has created a social environment that quickly builds sympathy for her cast and adds quite a bit of tension to the story.

Finally, every novel can benefit from superb narration and Liz Brand certainly does her part to bring this book to life—especially excelling at young, easily differentiated, voices.

I received this book from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

Sherlock Holmes and Count Dracula by Christian Klaver

Instead of having Holmes fight Dracula, Klaver has the two team-up to go after a horrible foe. Anyone with even the slightest amount of imagination will guess that that foe will be Moriarity and probably a vampire Moriarity. The foundation for this partnership is that Dracula isn’t the monster of legend but a deeply honorable and likable guy who happens to be a vampire. His wife, Mina, is also a vampire. And now, vampires are appearing everywhere, and Holmes and Dracula need to find out who is generating them and rescue Dracula’s wife, Mina, from their clutches.

The plot is actually pretty slow moving and never really caught my interest. The best part of the novel (and the only real surprise) was that Watson and his wife get turned into vampires causing more than a little difficulty and heartache. Afterall, some vampires are just nice bungling sidekicks and others turn into monsters of the night.

There were a couple of good action scenes and a nice twist at the end, but overall, the book never captured my imagination.

At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft

I think it’s important to start this review by recognizing how tremendously influential Lovecraft in general and At the Mountains of Madness is in particular has been. He basically created and popularized the whole Things Man Was Not Meant to Know subgenre of horror / fantasy / sf or whatever it really is. The Elder Gods threatening the very sanity of the planet comes from Lovecraft and not only do his motifs show up rather blatantly in works like Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October as well as more recent series like John Ringo’s Special Circumstances and Larry Correia’s Monster Hunters International, I suspect that you would never have gotten a TV show like the X-Files without Lovecraft.

So Lovecraft is hugely influential (the World Fantasy Award used to be a bust of Lovecraft) but that doesn’t mean that he’s an easy author to read. Most of the problem is that he was writing in the 1920s and 1930s and his fiction style comes off as slow moving and dated. At the Mountains of Madness takes the form of a narrative account of a disastrous expedition to Antarctica written long after the expedition’s survivors returned with the hope of dissuading the next expedition from beginning. It is filled with long and impressive descriptions of the geology of the continent and the remarkable discovery of a series of fossils the like of which have never been seen on the planet. Isolated from the rest of the world the scientists begin to discover that a wholly unanticipated species inhabited the earth tens of millions of years ago and the more they discover about this early life form the more horrific the story becomes.

And yet, while it is definitely creepy and Lovecraft has many subtle tricks to increase the reader’s understanding that things are going badly wrong, it is still a very slow moving story thanks to the narrative style. Today this book would have been written as a third person narrative following the expedition in “real time” and the action scenes that are quickly summarized in the original would have been fleshed out to play a much more significant role in the book, but that’s not how Lovecraft wrote and I think it makes the book harder to approach for today’s readers.

I listened to an audio version of the novella narrated extremely well by Edward Hermann who did a masterful job of bringing the text to life, but even so it remains a slow moving story. That being said, I still highly recommend it due to its influence over the decades since it was published.

1 Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows by James Lovegrove

Sherlock Holmes is renown for his keen analytical mind and his amazing powers of deductive reasoning. He’s a detective totally grounded in the physical world. So, what would he do if he was confronted by a mystery not of this world? More to the point, what would he do if confronted by the mind-bending otherworldly entities of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythologies?

If your first thought was—Holmes would either die quickly or go insane—this would not be a good novel for you. But if you think instead that after eliminating the impossible, he would turn to other explanations, no matter how improbable, then you are going to enjoy this book.

Lovegrove suggests that a significant portion of Sherlock Holmes career was spent protecting the world from the entities that humans weren’t meant to know, and this first novel was a compelling and exciting read. I’d like to see more.

2 Sherlock Holmes and the Miskatonic Monstrosities by James Lovegrove

The second volume of James Lovegrove’s Sherlock Holmes series does not achieve the heights of the first. The biggest problem with the book is that it is really two books in one with seventeen chapters being devoted to the journal of one of the people Holmes is investigating. In other words, Holmes and Watson disappear for nearly half the book as Lovegrove traces the adventures with things man was not meant to know of a party they are interested in. Frankly, it was a very poor way to give the reader the information in that journal and for most of those seventeen chapters I lost all interest in the story.

The story, of course, is that Sherlock Holmes is trying to track down some evil supernatural activity in the region of London. The investigation is pretty much what you would expect, until interrupted by the journal. There are two great surprises at the end of the novel—one of which the journal is important to uncovering—and those surprises made me glad I read the story, but I still regret the long diversion into the journal.

3 Sherlock Holmes and the Sussex Sea-Devils by James Lovegrove

Lovegrove finishes his trilogy about Sherlock Holmes and the Cthulhu mythos on a high note. I was pulled in right from the first chapter and kept turning pages (metaphorically) until the end. Almost immediately, the stakes are made clear when Mycroft Holmes and the entire Diageneses club are murdered to limit England’s ability to respond to the latest plot of Moriarity-turned-elder-God and Sherlock is consumed by a rage that seems to threaten his ability to be the great detective.

Yet the best part of all was the encounter with the Sussex Sea Devils themselves, with an obvious nod to Lovecraft’s Innsmouth. What follows was a sea voyage that was a bit drawn out, but then it was a very long voyage. And the conclusion over the fate of the cosmos was absolutely superbly Sherlock Holmes.

I think fans can quibble a bit with Lovegrove’s use of a certain elder god, but the overall impact of this story was completely satisfying.

The Scavenger by Aidan Lucid

In this novella by Aidan Lucid, three friends encounter supernatural evil made all the more disturbing because it’s a twisted reflection of their own secret hopes and desires. That’s really what makes this novella so much fun. Lots of people have played with the “magical wish gone wrong” idea, but Lucid did it with far more finesse and subtlety than most writers. The wishes genuinely seem to be working out wonderfully, but when they go awry the hairs on the back of your neck will stand up and tingle. I hope Lucid will show us more of these three friends in future stories.

Unlucky Charm by Aidan Lucid

Aidan Lucid returns to the characters of The Scavenger with a new adventure as Jared, with his growing supernatural talents, is drawn into helping two pretty decent guys survive coming into possession of a cursed object. The book is slow getting started, but roughly one-third of the way in the action gets serious as two ghosts begin to seek vengeance upon the two friends. At times, this was very creepy, and it was always serious.

What this book comes down to is a process for identifying and breaking the curse that I thought worked very well. It was neither impossibly difficult or ridiculously easy—and the ghosts were always out there putting serious time constraints on the effort to save the two would-be victims—a rescue which is by no means certain.

Devil’s Island by Mark Lukens

This book has a great ending. Too often in horror novels the buildup is not matched by the discovery of what is causing all the supernatural trouble, but this time it did in a fascinating and even thought-provoking way. If you like the history of the Caribbean, you will likely be very pleased with Lukens’ explanation for why this island has come to be called Devil’s Island.

The plot is pretty straightforward. A dying billionaire has decided to make a documentary on a haunted island and the mansion that still stands on it. To accomplish this, he draws together some desperate individuals and pays them lots of money to help him make his film. The reader recognizes right from the beginning that the documentary is a scam and that there is something on this island that the billionaire thinks will save his life. Seeing as there is a lot of supernatural horror here (and in the opening chapter we actually witness demonic things kill and chase people) it feels like the unwitting employees are serving a role as primarily sacrifices or bait.

The only thing wrong with this part of the book is that it takes a lot of time before people start disappearing and dying. In the opening chapter, the impression is given that the horror begins in earnest about a half hour after they arrive, but with this larger group of stranded (the boat isn’t coming back for two days) individuals the demons are a little more patient. I actually think it would have been better not to give us that first chapter because it set in me expectations that weren’t fulfilled and I still don’t know why, but that’s really the only problem I have with the story. If I had started reading at chapter two, none of those expectations would have existed and I would have been totally happy with the way Lukens rolls out his plot. There is a ton of creepiness along the way and as I said before, the ending was great and the reason that all of this happened really resonated with me.

If you like horror and haunted houses, give this one a try.

Cold Water Veins by Amy Lukavics

There is no denying that this novella is creepy, but as too often happens in the world of horror, the threat did not live up to the buildup. In fact, we never really discover what the threat is—it comes in, does its damage, and leaves. And the heroine is not even smart enough to get out afterward, living in appalling conditions to be close to her sister who any reasonable person would define as lost.

In addition, the characters were hard to credit. They grew up in a purposely isolated village that seemed to be existing at an at best nineteenth century technology level—no electricity, horses instead of cars, etc. The heroine and her sister were taken from this environment and brought into the rest of America when they were young girls. Not once upon their return to the village twenty years later did they miss having a cell phone, television, music, running water, microwave ovens, or any of the conveniences we taken for granted in modern society. I just didn’t find that credible, and I guess that sums up my whole experience of this novella—not credible even given the suspension of disbelief we willingly offer for this genre of story.

The Werewolf’s Fifteen Minutes by Jonathan Maberry

What a delightful treat this short story is. Rarely do I finish a book and immediately want to restart it again, but that’s what happened with The Werewolf’s Fifteen Minutes. The plot revolves around the consequences of a totally down on his luck young man posting to YouTube a video of himself transforming into a werewolf. At first, everyone thinks it is just great special effects, but then he proves he really can transform and he is rocketed into stardom. But there’s a reason we talk about “fifteen minutes of fame” and when Gary’s time is up, things get really interesting as anyone with even a smidgeon of empathy will feel for this guy. But the reason the story is so wonderful is what happens next. This is quite possibly the best ending to any werewolf story ever. An utterly disturbing delight!

December Park by Ronald Malfi

There are two parts to a great horror story—the buildup and the monster that is causing all of the trouble. In December Park, the buildup—the characters, the problem, the slowly increasing tension and sense of danger—is all great. Unfortunately, the big bad monster causing the problems did not satisfy the expectations that the excellent build up had created in me.

The problem is that kids are disappearing in a small town and originally the police don’t even want to admit that there is anything wrong. It seems clear they knew there was trouble—early on the first body is uncovered—but they don’t know what to do about it and so they do pretty much nothing. Our heroes, a young boy and his friends, work themselves into a game of investigation in which they seem to be making much more progress toward uncovering the villain (nicknamed the Piper as in Pied Piper fame) than the authorities are. Interspersed along the way are the sorts of problems school aged kids have including older bullies.

I thought this part of the novel ran a little long, but there is no question that it kept my attention and had me flipping pages to learn what would happen next. Unfortunately, the resolution—i.e. the Piper—just didn’t make any sense to me. It came out of left field and I just couldn’t figure the motivations. It bothered me so much that I almost reread the book to see if I had missed something when I realized it just wouldn’t have mattered. Nothing the author could have told me earlier would have made this resolution of the book sit well with me.

It's a shame. This novel was well on its way to earning five stars, but it lost its way in the last few chapters leaving me disappointed.

The Snow by Flint Maxwell

This very short book is really the prologue to a larger story rather than a complete in itself novel. Three friends go to a lake for the July 4th holiday and are shocked to discover they are snowed in over the night. Electricity goes out, cable goes down, cell phone coverage is lost as it appears the rest of the country and the entire world is also buried in snow.

But that’s not the worst of it, because something unworldy is out there in the snow that brings out the worst in individuals it encounters and brings their deepest fears to life.

The setting isn’t bad, but the story barely gets started in this book. Many series advance their tales in complete chapters, but this simply isn’t one of them. While lots of questions are raised (like what the heck is happening?) no answers are generated over the course of the book and there is no sense of any progress being made by the heroes. I don’t understand why this book was published in this form—especially when it is so short. I haven’t read the sequel, but I would guess that this book should have been combined with it.

That being said, it’s a good start. The characters are engaging, their situation is dangerous, and the mystery of what is happening

Chimera by Michael McBride

This is a mad scientist story. Trying to save the world from global warming, Dr. Mira Stone has genetically engineered a biological organism that should stop the warming of the oceans. To test it, she joins a team of scientists in the artic and they don’t stop their experiments even after they go wrong and the organism starts mutating, evolving, and taking over other creatures which it then mutates as well in frightening ways.

There is a lot of tension as a rescue team is sent in together with some bigwigs from the company who owns the research station. The rescue team figures out pretty quickly that they are not being told what is really happening and the plot is somewhat predictable in that regard. The big problem with the plot is that we are supposed to care about Mira Stone who created this mess and I frankly didn’t. She’s well intentioned, but the road to hell is paved with that kind of intention. As happens often in this genre—totally predictably for a genetically created organism that is loose in the wild—there is very little chance that the organism can really be stopped at this point no matter how much short-term success the rescue team might have. Most of the story is told from Stone’s POV and yet I, like most readers, I assume, was cheering for the monster to finish her off since she caused all the trouble.

Terror Peak by Edward J. McFadden, III

This novel breaks roughly into three parts. The most creative and interesting is the first part where a group of extreme snowboarders are caught in an avalanche and Chance, the protagonist of the story, is nearly killed. I frankly would have been happy if the entire tale of “terror” had been his efforts to not be crushed, suffocated, and frozen by the extreme conditions. It was frankly fascinating, and he comes very near to death more than once, and each time he loses consciousness he has a dream or vision of dead members of his family both castigating him for his life choices and warning him about something terrible on the mountain. A clue to just what that terrible thing might be comes in the form of a red-eyed and clawed monster that tries to kill him. Chance would like to think this is another vision, but it injures him suggesting it is not.

The second part of the story comes after Chance is rescued by his friends and has returned to the small seasonal camp/town where other extreme sports enthusiasts gather—sort of like the big base camp at Mount Everest. A woman disappears from the camp and there is only a bloody trail giving any hint to what happened to her. Chance joins the woman’s husband and others (including a documentary film crew) to try and save the woman. They track her up the mountainside in increasingly bad conditions only to discover her in a cave with a very hungry abominable snowman. More deaths occur leading to the final part of the book.

Apparently having discovered that there is a fresh source of meat at the camp, a veritable troop of abominable snowmen spend the last third of the novel attacking the sports enthusiasts in increasingly severe weather conditions. The creatures are smart, and things go very badly for the humans. But frankly, the seemingly endless number of the creatures begins to weigh on the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief. Do all of these ravenous carnivores live on an isolated mountain top? Where are they getting the food they need to survive? I suppose it is theoretically possible that there are enough deer and bear but frankly it didn’t seem likely—especially that high up. And it also seems probable that any hunters or sports enthusiasts on the mountain would have been disappearing in very large numbers with this many monsters wanting to eat them. I think it would have been far better to have had only one monster hunting to bring food back to its very small family.

That being said, the final siege is exciting and while I had guessed how the survivors would escape, it was still interesting to see them enact their plan and have all the expected things go wrong with it. This is more of an adventure tale than a horror story, but still worth reading.

Darkened Streets by Wayne Phillips

There are no werewolves or vampires in this intriguing monster story. Instead, Phillips gives his reader a unique creature that causes a genuine threat to the community. After the creature escapes secret army custody into the nearby community, three young college students find themselves trying to figure out how to protect their town. They’re not getting much help from the army which is more interested in preserving the secrecy of its screwup then it is in saving lives. The creature has a strange power over electricity which made it very interesting. I wasn’t sure how they were going to defeat the monster, but I liked their ultimate solution.

The Man Who Haunted Himself by Ismael Reed

This is a difficult book—interesting but not truly likeable. The problems start with the main character, Garnett, who is something of a sociopath interested only in money. He’s also a genius with amazing scientific gifts, but he has no ethical compass at all to help him use his talents in a responsible way. For example, as a child he kidnaps a neighbor, ties him up, and is preparing to try and switch his brain with a cat’s. That experience (and the boy was not playing, the cat brain had already been removed) should have led to him being institutionalized and getting serious help, but his mother merely bribes the parents of the other child so that her son will not suffer any consequences. It should not surprise the reader, therefore, that when the boy grows up, he decides to save his own life by having his brain transferred into the basically healthy body of a high school football player who is brain dead but otherwise physically okay. He doesn’t bother to get anyone’s permission. He just acts as he wants to do.

Then the story gets even more difficult. For Garnett, an African American man, is now inside the body of a white bully who is a member of the most racist white supremacist family living in America’s most racist white supremist community. There is no subtlety here—just the sort of offensive interactions that you see in civil rights documentaries when Governor Bull Connor is setting the dogs loose on protestors and swearing that blacks will never enter white schools. It’s completely over the top and actually diminishes the opportunity Reed is trying to create to discuss some important issues in our society. And keep in mind that the voice through which he is trying to make the case that racism is wrong (something every American should agree with) is someone he purposely made thoroughly dislikable.

There was one scene that I found touching as it unfolded. Garnett talks a young man out of bring a gun into their school and killing a bunch of people. But when thinking back on the scene, I had to ask myself, why did Garnett care? It was out of character for this utterly self-absorbed person to put himself out without some profit for himself. So the best scene in the book was actually poorly written.

Black Tide Rising 5 The Valley of Shadows by John Ringo and Mike Massa

This book goes back to the first days of the coming zombie apocalypse to follow the other Smith brother—Tom—who runs global security for the Bank of America and (in book 1) was responsible for producing the anti-zombie vaccine that was so important to his brother Steve (and Steve’s family’s) survival in books 1-4. It is a refreshing read because after spending three books fending off zombies in a gutted world, I had forgotten how tense the situation was as the world first started to fall apart. It makes me want to go back and reread the entire series.

So while the growing threat they pose drives all the action of the book, this is not really a novel about the undead, but about the practical politics necessary to motivate politicians and other influential people to recognize the true extent of the threat and act to save the planet. Most people are simply unable to mentally accept how dangerous and out of control the situation is growing. And then there are those who see this as an opportunity to increase their wealth and power. Add in those driven insane by the apocalypse and you have an incredibly exciting novel.

There is an Easter Egg buried in this book for those who have read others of Ringo’s novels. Ghost from the Paladin of Shadows series is on the edges of this book. I’d love to see Ringo write a novel about how Ghost and the Keldara dealt with the zombie apocalypse.

The Reyes Incident by Briana Morgan

Despite succeeding in creating a very creepy atmosphere, this book doesn’t make a lot of sense. A young woman covered in blood shows up at a smalltown police station talking about killer mermaids. The story then proceeds on two plotlines—neither of which makes a lick of sense.

In the first storyline, the police chief recruits his daughter to interview the “witness”. For reasons I can’t comprehend, this interview takes many days to complete despite the author having the witness give her account to the reader in brief chapters. So, a first-person account that takes maybe ten minutes to read apparently takes a full day of listening. And this goes on throughout the short book. So that what essentially should have taken no more than an hour or two of real time to relate, apparently takes a week.

I think the author does this to justify breaking for scenes showing the police investigator’s marriage falling apart. But it doesn’t work. Nor does the officer’s complete infatuation with a witness who is talking about killer mermaids eating her friends.

Now don’t get me wrong, I figured that killer mermaids really had done the job, but there is no way that a cop who does not believe mermaids exist would have the same reaction. I think that’s what explains the police chief putting his daughter on the case. He’d kept her to petty crime before this. Obviously, he knew she was credulous and would sympathize with the witness, which was a great way to get the witness to go on the record before he charged her with murder.

The second storyline is composed of the witness’ account of what happened to her and her friends—except they weren’t her friends and from her own account it made no sense that she had gotten together with them to film a weird exploration of a flooded bunker for YouTube. Neither does the decision of the five explorers to go deeper into the flooded bunker when they first encounter obviously predatory mermaids. Once they’re trapped deep beneath the earth with the monsters, their actions make slightly more sense, but no one sane would have gotten that far. So, the reader is right in sync with the police if they’re wondering what really happened to the kids.

I really wanted to like this story, but it just doesn’t work at all.

Cthulhu Armageddon by C.T. Phipps

One of C.T. Phipps’ many strengths is his vivid imagination and this book highlights that as he brings to life what the world might look like after the elder gods of the Cthulhu mythos break civilization. Unsurprisingly, it’s not a nice place to be, but we have one kicka$$ hero to guide us through the apocalypse who makes every moment exciting.

The plot revolves around a strange construction—the black cathedral—which has appeared out of the desert and from which child-kidnapping hordes emerge. At the start of the novel, our hero tries to rescue those kids and gets his whole team killed. Then his world further falls apart as he prepares himself to go back to the black cathedral and get some serious vengeance.

It’s a good story with lots of action and a couple of nice surprises.

Undead Ultra by Camille Picott

This is a very interesting twist on the zombie apocalypse story. Kate and Frederico are two ultramarathon runners—people who routinely compete in 50- and 100-mile races. They are out running when the zombie apocalypse hit and decide to try and get to their young adult children who live in towns roughly a hundred-twenty and two hundred miles away. When their car is almost immediately wrecked and they learn the military is putting checkpoints on the roads to try and slow the apocalypse, they decide to run to their children. So, the book is a combination of avoiding zombies and the authorities and watching their bodies deteriorate from the punishment they are putting them through. Along the way, the reader learns a lot about ultramarathoning.

The book is very exciting and there are a couple of highly emotional moments. There is also a fairly significant weakness. For example, at one point they get captured by drug dealers who think the two runners were messing with their drugs. The drug dealers do not believe that they are running two hundred miles to save their kids and the two runners never think to show them the text message chain that actually documents what they are doing. I don’t know if this would have mattered to the drug dealers, but most people would have showed it to them. Also, twenty-four hours into the zombie apocalypse and the drug dealers have already replaced their guard dogs with zombies? That seemed like an awfully fast adaptation to me.

Still, it’s an exciting way to observe the developing zombie apocalypse.

Malevolent Nevers by Tom Rimer

I have to start this review with a confession. I misunderstood the opening of the blurb and it led me to expect a very different kind of book that the one Mr. Rimer wrote. The lines are: “Abel Ward just wants to reconnect with his son. After being a ghost for seventeen years, he’s returned and trying to be a parent again.” I don’t know about you, but when I see a horror novel talking about ghosts, I expect to see ghosts. And what a cool premise—ghost dad trying to connect with his boy. Alas, that’s not the kind of ghost Rimer intended us to think about, but the mix up messed up the first fifteen or twenty chapters of the book for me as I started thinking, maybe I misread and Abel is going to become a ghost.

Anyway, mix up or not, the novel starts a bit slow, Abel is a mess trying to straighten himself out. His son is an annoying teenager with sometimes difficult to follow speech patterns and who somehow has a cool girlfriend who is left behind when Abel learns that his 105 year old great aunt is dying and he is apparently guilted in to coming to visit her with his boy.

It takes a few more chapters, but things finally start to click. It’s a spooky old house on marshy land. The aunt is insane. The neighbors and people of the town all know something bad about the aunt (and apparently Abel) and clearly fear something terrible is about to happen, but they aren’t talking about it. Abel’s also being manipulated by his first crush who is now a housekeeper for his dying aunt.

So things are bad and the reader, the aunt, and the neighbors clearly think something supernatural is going to go down, but Abel, realistically I would judge, isn’t willing to even think about such a possibility. And when his aunt insists she not be buried in the family plot but be left out to be gathered up (by what she doesn’t say), Abel won’t even try to comprehend what she’s talking about. And he certainly isn’t ready to believe that none of his ancestors are in the family plot either.

Then the aunt dies and things get progressively worse until Abel and his son (and the girlfriend who took the bus to join them) have to fight for their lives to survive the problem at the aunt’s home.

As horror story plots go, this one is pretty good, but I do have some major frustrations with it. First off, while I can understand Abel getting all worked up and driving a thousand miles to be with his aunt when she died (she raised him and he ran away from home thirty years earlier and feels guilty) I just can’t understand why he stayed on afterward. The excuse it to get the home ready to sell, but frankly, it’s not clear anyone would ever buy it, and certainly two weeks of work around the house wasn’t going to add any value. And his son is desperate to go back home. It just made no sense and it makes less sense every single day as things get worse and worse.

I also don’t understand why no one would just sit Abel down and explain why they thought his house was cursed and that the whole town would die if he didn’t do exactly what they told him to do. He might still have said no, but they keep telling him he knows what he has to do, and he keeps saying he has no idea what they’re talking about, and they are afraid of dying but won’t tell him what’s going on. That made no sense.

My last big problem with the book is that we never find out how Abel’s family became keepers of this curse of the Malevolent Nevers. We learn just enough to survive the current problem, but not enough to understand why they got into this arrangement in the first place. Despite the big house, they aren’t wealthy. They aren’t powerful or influential. In a classic deal with the devil, you expect people to get something out of the deal but I don’t see what they got. The only thing I can imagine is that they made the deal to protect their neighbors, but if that’s the case I would have liked Rimer to tell us.

I don’t want to end the review on a negative note. Once the mystery of the aunt started to unfold, the story became quite gripping and I read the last three-quarters in one sitting. Rimer can really build suspense and I’m glad I read the book.

Catchers by Ben Rock and Bob DeRosa

This is a story about a couple of dog catchers. The man is on his last day on the job before he retires and the woman is on her first day as she gets ready to replace the man. The two get a call that turns out not to be your typical wild animal problem. I was thinking they were going to run into a werewolf—dog catchers, torn up animals, things being not quite what they seem—it seemed a natural storyline. But it turns out that authors Rock and De Rosa had a lot more on their mind than a simple werewolf story.

They build the tension expertly, starting with a small, apparently routine problem and building to a point where things are out of control. They don’t even have a gun to defend themselves and they are creating makeshift weapons as they try to find someplace where these creatures that are like no animal they have ever seen try to eat them. There are bites—remember my werewolf theory? And there are deaths. And there’s a whole lot of action as things get worse and worse and worse.

And all the while, each chapter starts with the newbie being interrogated under mysterious conditions by a man who clearly doesn’t believe anything she’s saying. We believe it—after all, we are “seeing” all the stuff she’s reporting on going down. But the effect of these interrogation scenes is the growing certainty that things are going to be even worse once the heroine actually escapes the pack of monsters trying to eat her.

This is a great, fast-moving, story with excellent voice acting and sound effects. And the ending is absolutely wonderful.

Moonbane by Al Sarrantonio

I picked up this book expecting a werewolf story but got a zombie apocalypse in lycanthrope clothing. The novel opens with a meteor storm which deposits thousands (tens of thousands?) of werewolves around the world—werewolves who immediately begin biting people who also turn into werewolves and begin to overrun the globe.

Now think about that for a moment. I’m all for putting a new twist on a genre, but this really isn’t a lycanthrope story at all. Werewolf tales and their brethren typically focus on the duality of man and beast and the need to control the violent animal urges in the infected victims. They don’t have to be mysteries (i.e. who is the werewolf) but man/beast should play a major role in the story, not be a minor almost forgotten subplot that sort of half-surfaces once in a while as the werewolves rapidly overrun the planet.

But let’s take this tale on the author’s terms. The werewolves invade and quickly rip the narrator’s family to pieces—killing his wife and infecting his son. The son could have been a major player that would have greatly enhanced this story, but he never takes on a serious role. Instead we follow the father as he attempts to join up with some humans who believe they have the key to getting rid of all the werewolves and saving humanity.

What follows is a trek across the wasteland that has become part of our country as the survivors attempt a truly monumental counterstrike against the lycanthropes. There’s a twist here that was the best part of the story, but again, without giving anything away, it made no sense that anyone could have been so foolish as to create the situation in which that twist could threaten anything.

In the final analysis this is a book with moments of great potential that just didn’t quite find its way.

I received this book from in exchange for an honest review.

The Last Storm by Sam Sisavath

Here’s a wonderfully creepy horror story about two groups of people who take refuge in an abandoned high rise to escape a hurricane. One group is a criminal team who has just pulled off a robbery. The other is two cops, a prisoner, and a civilian mother and her seven-year-old child. The tension between the two groups is great and could have made a thriller-style tale, but that’s not what Sisavath has in store of the reader. There’s something supernatural happening in the abandoned high rise and he expertly increases the tension as bad things start to happen to the large cast.

One of the cops makes what I think was a major mistake when the trouble starts to heat up. She and her group have been taken prisoner and there is no hint at this time that the criminals intend to do them the ultimate wrong. But she tries to escape anyway with many serious unintended consequences—and that not only ups the tension, it fuels the supernatural storyline.

The novel quickly falls into the “who will survive” type of tale, but Sisavath makes it very interesting. He also does a good job of letting the reader learn a lot about the supernatural threat without actually telling anything about it. If he makes one mistake, I think it is in the ending when I expected the supernatural—I’ll call it a curse even though Sisavath avoids that term—to be passed on to one of the survivors. I don’t want to say more as I don’t want to spoil the story. Even without this “the threat is not really over” problem, it’s a very good tale.

Ferocious by Jeff Strand

There are few genres in which characterization is more important than the horror genre. If you don’t care about the people to whom terrible things are happening, it’s hard to care deeply about the book. When I picked up Ferocious by Jeff Strand, I was a little bit worried about his ability to pull off the characters mentioned in the blurb—a recluse raising his niece off the grid in the middle of the wilderness. It seemed quite likely the author would slip into caricatures as he wrote about a zombie apocalypse in the backwoods. I could not have been more wrong. In the very first chapter he establishes Rusty Moss as both a hard man who hates people and someone that you absolutely have to love. In the next chapter he establishes Rusty’s niece, Mia, just as credibly. And this father-daughter style team will capture your heart as they struggle to survive one of the weirdest twists on the zombie apocalypse that I have ever read.

Strand is a master at building tension—not only with the ever-growing level of danger but with the very credible mistakes that Rusty and Mia make throughout the novel. They never do anything stupid, but many of their plans and reactions go badly awry. This makes them remarkably human as they deal with a horror they can’t quite believe is really happening to them.

One of the best distinguishing features of this novel is the vast array of zombie creatures that threaten Rusty and Mia. Strand has really thought out the strengths and weaknesses of the various undead forest animals so there is never a point in which the action gets routine. Even the smallest animals are dangerous and this gives the novel a decidedly different flavor from every other zombie story I have read.

Finally, I’d like to take a moment to talk about the vocal talents of narrator Scott Thomas. It’s not an easy thing for a man to craft a believable voice for a seventeen-year-old girl, but Thomas pulled it off and without his ability to do this, the audio book would not have worked nearly as well. He also catches the humor and affection in the back and forth banter of Rusty and Mia. His narration takes an excellent story and gives it that extra touch of magic to finish bringing it to life.

Silver Bullet by J M. Thomas

Most vampire stories written these days fall under either the urban fantasy or horror genres and take place in either the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. Thomas puts a nice twist on the genre by placing his story in the Old West and postulating that a war is going on between vampires trying to expand their numbers and lycanthropes striving to destroying them.

Pete is a lawman who finds himself turned, but not yet lost to the pure evil and bloodlust of full-on vampirism. He gets captured by a tribe of were-coyotes who give him a chance to prove that despite his new condition, he remains on the side of the angels. It’s a great way to introduce a new series, because Pete doesn’t know anything about the supernatural world he now inhabits and his painful lessons educate the reader as well.

Vampires prey on each other as much as people, running fight clubs in which they square off against each other as gladiators. Pete has to find a way to survive the club without completing his turn, while simultaneously figuring out a way to destroy the vampires abusing him. It’s a great first book to a promising new series.

I received this book free from Audiobook Boom in exchange for an honest review.

The Beast of Brenton Woods by Jackson R. Thomas

There’s not a lot of buildup to this short novel. Almost from page one, the werewolf makes its intensely bloody appearance and the bodies start piling up as the creature begins a rampage that appears to be intended to depopulate the entire town.

That being said, Thomas still manages to create a lot of likeable dinners-in-waiting in this book and a lot of jerks we can’t wait for the werewolf to munch upon. There are two elements that really complicate the story. The first is the suspicion that one of the young teens is somehow related to the werewolf. The other is a couple of corrupt cops whose violent tendencies get mixed up with the werewolf’s predations.

While the race to get into the action prevents any real buildup of tension early in the novel, there is still concern over which characters will survive. My major complaint is that I never felt an adequate reason was given to explain why the werewolf suddenly returned to Brenton Woods, just as there was no hint at where it has been for the past generation. Given its full moon body count and endless appetite, it seems likely that this creature has left thousands dead in the generation that has just passed (dozens each full moon). So where are those bodies? And why doesn’t law enforcement (national? global?) seem to have any idea that it exists? This creature has been gorging itself for at least a generation. You just can’t lose a dozen or two dozen people from a random town every month in extremely gruesome manners without someone noticing a pattern.

Still, if you don’t think very hard, it’s a lot of fun.

Tales from the Gas Station by Jack Townsend

This is an unusually gripping story that pulled me right in from the beginning and didn’t let go until I finished the last page. Jack works the cash register at a 24-hour gas station, basically taking care of the entire facility while he’s on shift. Jack suffers from an unusual medical condition which should lead to an early death and dive him crazy along the way. That makes him the very definition of an untrusty narrator as he describes the absolutely extraordinary things that happen at this gas station, mostly after dark. To give you a hint at the sorts of problems he encounters, there’s the ghost of a cowboy in the gas station bathroom. He doesn’t do much and certainly doesn’t harm people, but he’s a ghost and that’s unusual. Then there are the hand plants growing out back. Never heard of a hand plant? You’ll have to read the book to understand, but they are, to say the least, unusual. He’s got crazy raccoons, absolutely bizarre customers, and a heck of a lot of supernatural happenings pretty much from start to finish.

As strange as all of that is, it’s not why you’ll like the book so much. That reason is quite simply Jack. He’s got a wonderfully odd way of looking at the world around him and the truly bizarre things happening never seem to faze him in the way they would you and me. He’s not particularly brave, he’s just…odd. And that totally atypical way of viewing the world adds a tremendous amount of dark humor to the story. Most people do not react calmly when they learn their friend has accidentally run over some one and, not knowing what else to do, stuck the body in the trunk of their car. Jack not only reacts calmly, he’s able to put the whole episode out of his mind and function as if it didn’t happen until it pops up again. It’s just strange enough to make the whole situation extremely fascinating.

Then there’s Jack’s psychiatrist. He isn’t likable. Isn’t supposed to be likable. He’s totally dismissive of the bizarre events Jack relates to him, which is annoying to the reader. But we know Jack is supposed to be going crazy, so isn’t it possible that the psychiatrist is right?

And that’s what ultimately makes this book such an enjoyable read. It seems highly improbable that everything that Jack reports actually happens. It also seems highly improbable that nothing he reports is actually happening. So, if you’re looking for something refreshingly new to read, take your car down to the gas station, fill up the tank, and meet the weird cast of this novel.

Irkalla by John Triptych

Four cave divers exploring a new and elaborate cave system in the Philippines stumble into John Triptych’s version of a threatened zombie apocalypse. The problem begins with a billionaire industrialist with non-existent ethics who is funding a search for a cure for cancer. He has to do this in secret because he is already in legal trouble all over the globe for his gene and DNA manipulations. He has been creating a monster to test his cures on and—you guessed it—the monster has escaped. What’s worse, the monster has infected humans with a mutant form of rabies that has had the unfortunate side-effect of turning them into aggressive “zombies” who can infect others.

The cave divers find themselves in the middle of all of this when they stumble upon both the monster and some infected while exploring the cave network. The group was often frustrating as they made some truly terrible decisions but that is often par for the course in this sort of novel. It certainly breeds a lot more tension as the plot winds its way toward the conclusion.

Typhon by John Triptych

There’s a new sea monster swimming the ocean depths and it’s almost as scary as the men who designed it and are trying to cover up its existence even as the body count grows ever higher. There’s a lot of death in this book as one would expect from a creature able to sink ships. Unfortunately, that means that most of the people you meet in these pages will be casualty list by the end of the book. A lot of the fun comes from hoping that many of the frankly evil bad guys will be among those numbers. This novel will especially interest those who like deep sea diving and submarines. I can’t attest to the accuracy of these accounts, but it certainly felt real to the non-specialist. So if you like your monsters over-sized and your body count mountain high, you might give Typhon a try.

Dads vs. Zombies by Benjamin Wallace

I really like the zombie apocalypse subgenre. I read the spectrum of them from the very serious to the spoofs and from the science-based virus-style infection to the supernatural cause. So it is with some authority that I state that this was one of the best zombie apocalypse novels I have ever read. It has a solid plot that would fit in nicely with any book in the genre (three men trying to reunite with their families as the world falls apart around them) but it’s the extraordinary level of humor that lifts this book to the top of the ladder.

The novel opens with our three dads (John, Chris and Erik) at the bowling alley where they have been forced to join a league by the much-hated president of their Home Owners Association. The three men don’t appear to like each other very much and it’s fairly clear that at least one of them (John) probably isn’t liked by much of anyone. The laughs start early in the chapter and continue to the end of the book. The banter between these three men is superb as Wallace draws out each man’s very distinctive character. Forced to walk home because they’ve been drinking, the zombie apocalypse comes to unlife around them and they don’t notice. By morning, the world has gone to hell and our three dads are trying to figure out how to find their families and reconnect with them.

Then the mistakes begin. In many of these novels the heroes are super smart and physically capable. They kill zombies better than Rambo. That does not describe our dads. John, especially, has an almost superhuman ability to do something stupid. And these blunders both add to the tension and create extraordinarily funny situations. Laugh out loud funny. Grab your sides funny. Rip yourself a new hernia funny. Get your eighteen-year-old son to start listening to the book with you funny. It’s that good.

It also took me in directions I didn’t expect several times. Part of this is because John continually does such comically stupid things. But many are also just good plot twists. I was sorry when the book came to an end because I just wasn’t done listening to it yet. Fortunately, I see on Audible that Dads vs. the World is coming so the humor will continue.

One Night in Drake Mansion by Channing Whitaker

Here’s a book that feels a lot like Shirley Jackson’s classic The Haunting of Hill House with a modern twist. A reality TV show has offered a reward of one million dollars to be split between five people if they manage to stay in a famous haunted house (the Drake Mansion) from dusk until dawn. One’s an actress, one’s a medium, one’s a ghost hunter, one’s a medical student, and one’s a supernatural debunker. Everyone is very excited when they enter the house and start to explore, wondering why a whole family disappeared here eighty years before and why so many people who have entered the house since have died.

Then, as you might imagine, strange things start to happen—things the paranormal enthusiasts instantly claim are signs of ghosts while the skeptic offers completely plausible non-supernatural explanations. To add tension to the story, the group comes across the journal of Drake, the former owner of the mansion, and we begin to relive the experiences of him and his family just before they disappeared, raising the very real probability that the mansion really is haunted.

I’m not going to give away the ending. It’s extremely well crafted and will have you playing with both supernatural and mundane explanations for what is happening in the mansion. I will say, it’s exciting to the end and a totally satisfying resolution to the mystery.

Hide by Kiersten White

I put this book on my “to read” list long enough ago that I had forgotten what it was about. Therefore, I started off thinking I was reading about a genuine reality show that was either bad from the start or going to go that way. When the supernatural elements started to come into play, I was not happy about it. I felt like I had sat through a very long build up and this wasn’t what I wanted, but the creepiness of the basic plot—a pact with the devil that has to be renewed with blood every few years—slowly won me over.

The best character in the whole book is the villain Linda who thinks she’s earned her demonically given success because of her efforts to keep the pact alive by killing distant family members. Watching her argue that she’s Christian while protecting her pact with Satan was amusing. Her twisted character was the best drawn one in the book. Many of the other characters were likeable and a couple fairly sympathetic, but no one was as interesting at the villain.

I’ll also point out that the ending surprised me. I’m not certain what I would have done if I had found myself in these circumstances, but I don’t think I would have thought of doing what the players do in the end.