Occultober Day 1: Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero
Welcome to Occultober 2021! Over the course of this month, I’m going to introduce you to 31 books or series that play with the horrific and the supernatural. You know what I mean, books that delve into the darker side of fantasy and fiction and get downright spooky. So tighten your seatbelts, and brace yourselves for a thrilling ride. And if you like what you see, please feel free to leave a comment on the review or a recommendation of a book you think I might want to feature in next year’s Occultober event.
Now, to launch all of the spookiness for 2021, I offer Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero, a book clearly inspired by everyone’s (at least everyone of my generation) favorite cartoon, Scooby Doo, Where Are You?
I’ve been watching Scooby Doo television shows and mysteries 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, 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 Cthulhu 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.
Occultober Day 2: The Siberian Incident by Greig Beck
For day two of Occultober we make our first venture into the world of alien invasions with Greig Beck’s fantastic novel, The Siberian Incident. 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.
Occultober Day 3: Strangers by Dean Koontz
For Day 3 we turn to a novel that has haunted and intrigued me for decades. I think I was in high school when I first read it, and its scenes and images have lingered in my thoughts for decades. And by scenes, I don’t just mean an image or two. From the very first chapter, Koontz starts cultivating feelings of suspense and ever-increasing tension that will have you desperately turning pages, or, if listening to it in audio as I did this time, finding excuses to keep the book playing long after your commute is done. What is especially impressive for an author who made his reputation in the horror genre is that it’s not even clear that there is going to be a supernatural element for half the book. It opens with a man who finds himself hiding in the closet after apparently sleep walking. He’s sore, he’s frightened, and he has no idea what is going on. But it isn’t until he pulls himself together and sits down at his computer to continue writing his book that things get really eerie. He finds that while sleep walking he has typed page after page of just two words: “I’m scared. I’m scared. I’m scared.”
Koontz then shifts focus to a young doctor on her day off who panics and flees in a fugue state when she notices a pair of black gloves. Next we meet a retired marine who is suddenly terrified of the dark and is trying desperately to hide his fear from his wife. None of these people have any apparent connection, yet they are all showing evidence of psychological suffering they can’t explain. Later in the book we meet a young child who has become terrified of doctors and a priest whose deep and abiding faith suddenly collapses so that he throws the chalice in the middle of Mass. And the list goes on. What makes this all the more frightening is it is way too easy to imagine yourself suffering these almost normal problems which means that you will enjoy a high level of empathy with each of these very well drawn characters.
As we get deeper into the novel, elements of a vast conspiracy begin to be uncovered with the real possibility of danger for the people trying to find out why they are suffering these bizarre symptoms. This ramps up the tension to a whole new level as we also began to meet people who have gone over the edge and even killed themselves as a result of the psychological harm they have suffered. At the same time suppressed memories begin to pop free in those sufferings and they separately begin to evolve plans that will ultimately bring them together to find out what incredible event triggered all of this.
I don’t want to give away the end of this novel, but I found it to have a totally satisfying conclusion. The chief villain, when he is revealed, is both frightening and believable. This is a long book—nearly 30 hours in audio—but every page is worth reading.
Occultober Day 4: The Valley of Despair by Chris Adams
Midway through our first week, I’m turning our attention to the multi-talented painter-author-poet, Chris L. Adams. Chris is an expert on the pulp era adventure stories and brings that sense of horror and adventure into his paintings and his stories. He’s also carving out a reputation as quite the painter of authentic-looking maps and I’m proud to say that he’s painted two for me—one for my Legionnaire series and one for my Winterhaven books. You can find examples of all of this at his website at https://www.chrisladamsbizarretales.com/
In his short novel, The Valley of Despair, Chris creates a story that the great authors of the past—people like Burroughs and Howard—would have been proud to pen. It took only one short chapter to convince me I was in for a thrill ride. German WWI pilot Erik von Mendelsohn has crashed in the jungle and is trying to survive a group of apes that have taken the wrong kind of interest in him. Desperate to escape, he reaches the edge of the jungle near a high cliff face and the apes who are in hot pursuit…refuse to follow him past the tree line. It’s a simple idea very subtly conveyed in the story, but it set all the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. These totally aggressive and fearsome animals won’t follow our hero as he attempts to climb the cliff face to get away from them. It’s difficult not to ask yourself—what are the apes afraid of? What the heck is Erik getting himself into? And the tension just keeps ratcheting higher from this point forward.
Erik is a well thought out character—he’s smart, a bit impulsive, and a little too curious for his own good. The supporting cast is equally interesting. I don’t want to give away the plot, but the people Erik finds and gets into trouble with are equally brave and capable—and the problem they have to confront is better thought out than most “lost world” adventure-style stories I’ve encountered. In short if you want a fast-paced well-developed adventure story with great characters, you should give Valley of Despair a try.
This book is free on Kindle Unlimited.
Occultober Day 5: Irkalla by John Triptych
I have always found caves to be a great location for spooky literature. They’re dark, they’re claustrophobic, they’re a little bit alien, and those inside of them are isolated from the world at large. Everything is just a little bit worse when your hundreds of feet underground and can’t easily get back to civilization.
In Irkalla, 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 of tension as the plot winds its way toward the conclusion.
This book is free on Kindle Unlimited.
Occultober Day 6: Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter by Laurell K. Hamilton
When Laurell K. Hamilton published Guilty Pleasures in 1993 there weren’t a lot of other books like it out there—now the urban fantasy genre is packed full of tough female protagonists who go toe-to-toe with the undead and other supernatural beings on a regular basis. With Guilty Pleasures and the following books, Hamilton helped to establish the modern urban fantasy subgenre. The first novel and its immediate sequels have all of the components generally thought of as urban fantasy. The setting is a recognizable United States of America with the big change being that supernatural creatures are known to exist and society is trying to wrap its head around the implications that result from that. There’s a touch of romance, but the basic story is about our heroine, Anita Blake, and a mystery/adventure involving the supernatural side of her world. The stories are gritty and very violent with much of the excitement being the uncovering of this alternate world.
Urban fantasy series are not static and Hamilton’s Anita Blake has evolved tremendously since its ground breaking beginning—an evolution which has pulled her far away from her “I don’t date vampires, I kill them,” beginnings. The middle part of the series involves Anita being infected with a supernatural condition called the ardeur and needing to feed succubus-like on lovers to survive. She also gets increasingly confused as to whether the vampires and the werewolves are all bad guys. By the final third of the books, she’s become something the Blake of Guilty Pleasures would have hated, but the world is not black and white to Anita anymore.
I started reading these books in 2001 just before Hamilton made her first shift in the direction of the novels. Like most authors (maybe all of them) a good book/series gets me thinking about how I would do a spin off, or what character I would insert into this world to add some excitement without stealing the thunder from the main already-established characters. More important yet, Blake’s adventures made me seek out a lot more urban fantasy novels and eventually led me to write a bunch of urban fantasy books myself. I can’t give the Anita Blake series total credit for that interest, but it certainly greatly strengthened my appreciation for and love of the genre.
When Hamilton’s interest changed, my enjoyment in the series diminished. It started to change right after Obsidian Butterfly (the single best novel of the series) and went off the deep end with Cerulean Sins. The love triangle and the mystery/adventures that had dominated the first books just didn’t seem to interest Hamilton anymore and so Anita Blake got infected with the ardeur and suddenly needed to have sex with seemingly every man she met. If she didn’t feed, really bad things happen. Since Anita Blake had always been interested in monogamous relationships, this new power was emotionally difficult for her to handle, but handle it she did and book after book became much more about sex and the emotional baggage that came with it than how she would defeat the latest threat to St. Louis and the world. Frankly, I found the change disappointing and off-putting. These passages always felt like distractions from the plot of the story and I always felt like the novels would have been better if the actual sex had happened behind closed doors. But, based on reviews I was reading, I did what most people did. I skimmed through Hamilton’s new obsession as I sought out the nuggets of plot that had originally attracted me to the series.
Eventually, Hamilton got interested in plot again and sex began to take up a smaller percentage of the story. To be fair, the series lost me before the transition and I stopped buying the books, but every once in a while I’d pick one up in the library and see that worthwhile things were happening again. Based on the number of books in the series, it’s about time for Hamilton to change it up again. I wonder which direction she will take it.
Occultober Day 7 Hunting Among Us by Gilbert M. Stack
For the seventh day of Occultober I’d like to spotlight the latest book in one of my own series, Hunting Among Us.
Urban fantasy is filled with vampires and werewolves and other creatures out of legend. For Among Us, I and my co-author for the first two books, Marc Hawkins, wanted to create something unique that the reader could see inspired the stories of other supernatural creatures. So we created the dynum and the aegrum, both former humans who were transformed due to their exposure to a mysterious substance called the dark waters. Both groups are long-lived, with the dynum effectively immortal if they avoid violence. The aegrum, for their part, mutate as a result of their exposure to the dark waters and suffering creeping madness.
The story focuses on a young woman, Mina Raintree, who accidentally comes to the attention of this shadowy community and the two rogue dynum who are trying to help her survive her discovery. In this third book in the series, the conflict explodes again as truly ancient dynum become directly involved in the conflict. Here’s the back-of-the-book blurb:
War is coming to Philadelphia as the unaging converge upon the city, threatening to take their battles out of the shadows and into the glaring light of the modern day. These horrors out of legend represent different houses and hold different agenda, but all agree that it is time for the rogue dynum, Trevalian de Treville and Mutswana the Hunter, to pay for the crime of refusing to bow to the great powers that rule this shadow society. And the blood brothers have never been more vulnerable. Trev has given his heart and his protection to a young mortal woman who refuses to understand the very real danger confronting them. Her insistence on publicly staying in Philadelphia has told the unaging world where they can find the hated duo. Can even the Iron Count and the Hunter survive when their enemies are Hunting Among Us?
Hunting Among Us (and the whole series) is available on Amazon both for purchase and as part of the Kindle Unlimited program where it can be read for FREE.
Occultober Day 8: Working for Bigfoot by Jim Butcher
For the eighth day of Occultober, I present to you Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden—the most famous wizard in urban fantasy. He’s not quite got Gandalf’s name recognition yet, but he’s probably a close second. If you read Butcher’s fantastic Dresden Files, you get presented with an extremely well thought out urban fantasy world and get to watch Harry grow tremendously from a young wizard with a chip on his shoulder to a mature man striving to save the world.
For Occultober, I considered offering the first book in the series, Storm Front, which is a wonderful first novel. On reflection, however, I decided to offer Working for Bigfoot instead as it gives you three different glimpses of Harry Dresden as he develops in his career plus Bigfoot—and who doesn’t like to read about Bigfoot?
Bullies, evil teachers, and a girlfriend’s family from hell…those are the sorts of problems that Harry finds himself in the middle of when he agrees on three separate occasions to take on the job of looking after a sasquatch’s half breed son. The boy doesn’t know his father is a bigfoot. He doesn’t know anything about magic or supernatural creatures. But his problems all involve that hidden world to some extent or another—which explains why he needs Harry Dresden.
The book is broken up into three novellas, each with their own little mystery, and each with a solution so unique that there is no feeling of “following a formula” to the set of stories. As they happen over the course of the young man’s childhood, they also show the son of bigfoot growing and maturing, figuring out how to be himself in a world that doesn’t quite know how to respond to him. He’s very tall, rather homely, and filled with strength and energy which makes no sense to those who don’t know the truth about him. (That includes himself.)
Jim Butcher has always been a great author and this book showcases his talent quite well. If you’ve been wondering what all the fuss about Harry Dresden is about, this is a great place to start.
Occultober Day 9: Devil’s Island by Mark Lukens
It’s time to get back to the genuinely spooky stories that are the heart of Occultober. To that end, I present Mark Lukens’ 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.
And that’s really where all the scariness comes from—investigating a haunted house where there is very real danger while we wait for the billionaire to betray everyone. Lukens builds a ton of tension and it’s really a great story, but what puts it over the top is the ending—very well thought out and exceedingly creepy. It’s always a relief when all of the tense buildup turns into a threat that is worthy of it.
There is a minor problem with the book which I feel should also point out. You should skip the first chapter. My guess is, an editor insisted it be written so that everyone would know that the island was really haunted, but it built up unfair expectations in me. The victims in chapter one appear to meet their end about 30 minutes after they reach the island and that made me expect people to start dying right away when the main story begins. Instead, Lukens takes his time, building tension and empathy with the characters. So just skip the first chapter and enjoy the real story on Devil’s Island.
Occultober Day 10: Terminus by Peter Clines
H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu keeps popping up in more and more works today, but few people have thought through the concept and modernized it as well as author, Peter Clines. Cthulhu or Cthulhu-like beings threaten in many of his novels, but in Terminus he gives us a full-blown invasion of Things Man Was Not Meant to Know and it is everything you would expect of such a horror.
What puts it over the top, however, is that Clines has given substantial thought to how the Cthulhu-esq creatures could survive depopulating planets. In other words, 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.
While the end of the world plays out, heroes and villains struggle to either keep the monster away or bring it here (because obviously life will be so much better after there isn’t any left on the planet—yes it’s crazy but you would have to be crazy to want Cthulhu to come to town). 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.
Occultober Day 11: Monster Aces by Jim Beard, et. al.
The modern urban fantasy genre is mostly grounded in the world of today, but a few authors like Jim Beard and his colleagues have created fantastic adventures grounded in the 1920s when the genre opening works of the pulp masters were first being written creating a sort of historical fiction urban fantasy.
The two volumes of Monster Aces brings together a multitude of capable authors sharing a group of adventurers who have dedicated their lives to destroying monsters that most people don’t believe exist. The series reminds me a lot of Doc Savage and his crew. There is no scientific genius among the Monster Aces, but they each have their specialty and the camaraderie between the men and one woman works well.
The stories cover many of the classic monsters (sometimes with a twist) and frankly interesting situations. We also see the authors play with historical figures like Gilgamesh and Ponce de Leon. There’s always something to enjoy in these pages.
Occultober Day 12 Black Dawn by Nathan Ameye
Video games have long experimented with the horror genre, so it’s not surprising that the Literary Role-Playing Game subgenre does the same. I was quite skeptical of the whole LitRPG concept when I first heard of it despite the fact that in college I wrote a novella (unpublished) that fits squarely into the category. Now I read a ton of them and many are very well done. My favorites tend to be those in which the experiences in the game world help the characters face and resolve their problems in the real world. Black Dawn takes that concept to the extreme by making the real world become the game world.
The premise of the story is that aliens screw with earth’s physics to make them follow game mechanics—a process that kills the vast majority of earth’s population. The suggestion is that five or six thousand years ago, this is how the world functioned and for some reason that stopped. Now it’s back and demons have begun to populate the world. Three friends are camping when the event happens and they manage to survive character creation and their first encounter with a demon. Then they set about finding out what’s happened to their town.
Okay, so the premise is definitely weak, but how else are you going to get game mechanics into modern day earth. On the positive side, this is an action-packed, fast-moving adventure which is frankly lots of fun. It mixes the need for the heroes to combine solid real-world tactics with game strategies. It captured and held my interest throughout the novel. The only thing I didn’t like is that dice are actually rolled when the characters try and use their skills. While it’s true that dice are rolled in RPGs, my friends and I always saw that as an approximation of the chance that our characters could perform an action. If we were actually trying to perform said action instead of pretending to while we sat around a table, the dice would be unnecessary. We would succeed or fail. I thought the dice were just a little too much RPG in the LitRPG, but other than that, I loved the book.
Occultober Day 13 The Trellborg Monstrosities by John Houlihan
Things Man Was Not Meant to Know return for the thirteenth day of Occultober as I feature a novel H.P. Lovecraft fans are going to want to read.
Toward the end of World War II, British intelligence learns that the Nazis are messing with Eldritch powers somewhere in remote Norway. Nazis make an excellent villain in these sorts of powers because, let’s face it, they are an example of the human equivalent of Things Man Was Not Meant to Know.
Fearing that whatever the Nazis were up to could impact the war (which is finally moving in the Allies’ direction), the British 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 tremendous 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.
Occultober Day 14 Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows by James Lovegrove
We’re sticking with the Cthulhu mythology for the fourteenth day of Occultober, but this time we’re throwing into the mix the most rational detective to ever grace the pages of literature.
Sherlock Holmes is renowned 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 testament to that idea. I’d like to see more.
Occultober Day 15 Blood Ties by Gilbert M. Stack
One of the things that made Dracula so effective is that it began by taking an English man out of his normal world and placing him in what was effectively another world—Transylvania, which was described in almost medieval terms. I wanted to recapture that sense of helplessness that comes from being dropped into a foreign environment way outside a person’s comfort zone when I wrote Blood Ties. So, I take a capable lawyer with some baggage, throw in a grieving son who is not thinking very clearly, and rip their world apart in the ancestral home of the paranormal adventure. My tag line for this one is: In the quest for immortality, a relative is a terrible thing to waste.
Here’s the blurb: It seemed like such an easy case. All attorney Liz Dunn had to do was escort Ryan Hart to meet his long lost uncle in the tiny country of Carpathia on the Transylvanian border. Ryan stood to gain a ten-million-dollar estate. Liz wanted the hefty check that would keep her law firm in the black. But Ryan’s dying uncle, the enigmatic Stefan Carpathios, planned to get something far more sinister in return. In an ancient land where legends come to life, Liz is about to discover that the world is much more complex than she believed and a blood tie can be an exceedingly dangerous thing.
Occultober Day 16: The Rules of Supervillainy by C. T. Phipps
Can something be spooky if it makes you laugh? I think you’ll agree the answer is yes if you give C.T. Phipps’ Supervillainy Saga a try. On the surface it’s the story of Gary, a troubled man who gets a package
in the mail that turns out to be the magical cloak of the recently deceased superhero, Nightwalker. Gary dons it and instantly decides to fulfill his lifelong dream of being a supervillain. He names himself Merciless—which really proves to be a terrible name because Gary is filled with mercy and concern for those around him even as he pretends not to care.
As one would suspect of a superhero story, Gary’s life is filled with melodrama and bizarre coincidences. His brother was a “c-grade” retired supervillain murdered by one of the new “tougher” heroes, starting Gary down his “villainous” road. Apparently every woman he’s ever dated is on the path to being a supervillain or superhero as well—and of course he runs into all of them. He’s constantly stuck between his desire to be “evil” and his hatred of the idea that the innocent get hurt which leads him to become what he calls an anti-villain with hilarious results.
Hilarious is a good word to describe the whole series. Many of the villains feel like they could fit in well on the set of the 1960s Batman series. The cloak is sentient and talks to him. His henchwoman (ex-girlfriend) thinks he’s the best boss in the world because he doesn’t want sexual favors. (Gary is happily married to a woman who wants to be a superhero.) His henchman and villainous mentor is a strangely honorable Satanist. And it gets weirder and weirder from there.
And yet, Gary/Merciless walks the dark magic side of the superhero genre. He encounters death (personified), vampires, zombies, a Cthulhu inspired monster, and that’s just the beginning. If you stop to really think about what he’s facing, it’s smack in the middle of the horror field, although Phipps is so dang funny that you’ll be laughing your way through even the nastiest of situations.
What comes through most clearly as you read or listen to this novel is how much C.T. Phipps knows about the superhero genre and how important it is to him. If good parody truly comes from love of your subject, I think Phipps has been engaged in a torrid romance with superhero comics for the last forty or fifty years.
Occultober Day 17 It’s a Bad, Bad, Bad, Bad World by Curtis M. Lawson
How can bad be so much fun? If you’re curious, take a look at Curtis M. Lawson’s tale of two magical daggers that act as vampires, transferring the life, vitality, and soul of the person stabbed to the person doing the stabbing. Old people become younger and stronger. Injured people heal instantaneously. Sick people become healthy. All at the small price of being turned into a crazed homicidal maniac.
Naturally, most people don’t believe the legend behind the daggers is true. They just see extremely valuable artifacts of an earlier age. When the knives are sort of accidentally stolen, lots of people become interested in possessing them. Most initially want to claim the reward, but just about everyone gets seduced by the very real power of the blades. This makes for a madcap adventure in which large numbers of people are seeking the prize in a very dark parody of the famous comedy, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
The truth is, I expected to like this book, but was surprised by just how quickly I fell in love with it. Lawson’s characters are fantastic—quirky (if not outright weird)—and many of them are really, really, bad. All of them are in over their heads. Watching people struggle to obtain or regain possession of these magic items was fascinating. Wondering who would ultimately survive made for a gripping and extremely fast-paced storyline. Honestly, my only problem with the tale was that it came to an end.
Fortunately, there’s a sequel.
Occultober Day 18 Diving into the Wreck by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
This novel doesn’t technically fit in Occultober, but it sure does read like it does. It’s a science fiction adventure that reads like a ghost story. The heroine, usually referred to as “Boss”, makes her living “diving” on old spaceship wrecks, exploring the detritus of 5000 years of humanity out among the stars. She’s an odd bird. When she was a young child, her mother and her entered a place called “The Room of Lost Souls” on an abandoned space station and her mother never came out again. Her father abandoned her to her grandparents who were less than happy to be responsible for a grandchild whose trauma had produced emotional issues. So Boss is very much a secretive loner making her living in a very dangerous line of work, bringing people around her only because it is necessary for safety in these dives.
The novel focuses on the consequences of finding a 5000 year old ship where it had no business being. It’s a ship with an abandoned military stealth technology that Boss’ nation is secretly trying to rediscover so it can pick up a stalled war with its major enemy. And that is the crux of the story. What is the stealth technology? How does it do what it does? And why does it horribly kill just about everyone who comes into contact with it—except Boss? Add in one of the galaxy’s worst fathers and a superrich businesswoman with her own set of daddy issues and you have a really exciting tale, yet none of that explains why this is a great story. I think that the novel succeeds not because of its fantastic plot and mystery, but because Rusch brilliantly creates the tone of an old-fashioned ghost story to reveal layer by layer what is going on as she tries to pierce the mystery of The Room of Lost Souls that sits at the heart of the entire mystery. Where do people who enter the room go? And is there any way for Boss to find her mother again?
Occultober Day 19 Miss Knight and the Ghosts of Tsavo by Vered Ehsani
Here is a lovely urban fantasy set in the English Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria. It begins with one of the best opening lines I have ever read: “It’s an uncommonly known fact that a strong pot of tea will obscure a werewolf’s stench.” What follows is just as good as those first words. Miss Knight (or Mrs. Knight as she insists as she considers herself to be still married to her husband who has become a ghost) is a rather atypical adventuress. In many ways she struggles to maintain a façade as a proper Victorian lady, but in practice she is an agent of a society that investigates and regulates the paranormal—something she is well suited to do because of her peculiar gift to recognize the paranormal and speak with ghosts.
The plot of this book involves her and her adopted family having to travel to Africa after the father of the family’s poor investment strategy leaves them bankrupt. So much of this book reads like a colonial novel—the reactions of Miss Knight and her family to living in a part of the world very different than London society. The other part is an investigation into two ghost lions that are still killing people. It’s frankly a delightful story, sedately paced but never feeling overly slow. There are some nice surprises along the way and a great setup for the next book.
I’d like to say thank you to Amazon Top 500 Reviewer Charles Van Buren who brought this excellent novel to my attention on the Written Gems Discussion Group on Goodreads.
Occultober Day 20 American Monsters by Adam Jortner
If you enjoy a good horror story (and everyone reading these Occultober reviews should), this book will teach you a lot about where those images come from in America, and how they have been cultivated over the history of the nation. It’s a very quick but fascinating read. In addition to looking at the historical roots of things like spirits and witches, Jortner also spends a great deal of time looking at how movies, televisions, and novels have shaped the images. The popularity of monsters, and the way that those monster stories are told, has a lot to do with the stresses, fears, and problems of American society. Therefore, it should not be surprising that racism and civil rights are often underlying themes of the monster tale. Another fascinating theme is whether or not we can really govern ourselves when the people in charge in the stories often show themselves to be idiots. American isolationism, the Cold War, the proper role of science in our society… all of these themes pop up again and again as do stories about what happens when teens or women start to get a little independence in our dangerous world. Each section fascinated me and my only complaint is that the book wasn’t longer.
So if you’d like to know what your love of horror, the supernatural, and urban fantasy says about our society, take a look at American Monsters.
Occultober Day 21 The Vampire’s Mail Order Bride by Kristen Painter
The Vampire’s Mail Order Bride represents the light side of Occultober where witches and vampires and werewolves aren’t actually all that spooky. It’s all the fun of Halloween without truly being scary. I thought hard about whether or not to include it in Occultober, but then decided that there is a place in the celebration for the little town of Nocturne Falls where this book and the ones that come after it take place
The plot is pretty straight forward. Our heroine, Delaney, witnesses a mob murder and has to run for it. While getting off the streets to hide, she stumbles into a business that arranges prospective matches between lonely men and women—a modern-day mail-order bride service. She steals a file and impersonates the bride-to-be thinking that if she can just get away for a few weeks she can figure out what to do about her mob problem.
On the other end of this relationship is a four-hundred-year-old vampire whose grandmother wants him to get married and have children so she can have some great-grandbabies. That, by the way, tells you another critical point about this book. Vampires are really just people with fangs. They aren’t evil. They don’t appear to have a particular strong bloodlust. They eat regular food in addition to blood in packets. And really aren’t vampires by most people’s definition of the word. Anyway, our vampire, Hugh, hasn’t gotten over the death of his wife four hundred years ago. And he’s angry that his grandmother is interfering in his life, but agrees to give the mail order bride she’s arranged for him a 30 day chance to win his heart.
As everyone reading this review has already imagined, the two fall instantly in love but Hugh fights his passion fearing that he will cause Delaney’s death as he did his first wife. Most of the problems—an ex-girlfriend, the mob—really aren’t problems at all. They are just foils to force Hugh to realize Delaney is the perfect woman for him.
And it works! Painter has assembled a charming little town that celebrates Halloween every day and it’s just a lovely setting for her light romance with a touch of supernatural for flavor. I include it in Occultober for those who like to flirt with the supernatural without getting into the violence and bloodshed that marks most urban fantasies.
Occultober Day 22 The Pembroke Steel Series by Gilbert M. Stack
As we enter the fourth week of October we return one final time to my own work and my first paranormal series, Pembroke Steel.
Now that the Great War is done, ace pilot Mitch Pembroke just wants to spend a few peaceful years enjoying the Roaring Twenties before he settles down and takes the corner office in his father’s company, Pembroke Steel. Unfortunately, peace is the last thing Mitch can find. Trouble follows wherever he goes and not even his best friend, boxer-turned-bodyguard, Kit Moran can keep him out of all of it. Pembroke Steel blurs the line between historical fiction and dark fantasy—so you never quite know what you’re going to get—a horror story with a supernatural monster at its core, or one that only looks that way?
The Pembroke Steel stories were a lot of fun to write in a large part because I got to play with reader expectations in each and every tale. You can try them all for free on Kindle Unlimited, or purchase them at the same link on Amazon, starting with the opening novella, Lazarus Key.
Occultober Day 23 The Ghosts of Kali Oka Road by M. L. Bullock
For day 23, we are returning to the good old fashioned ghost story with The Ghosts of Kali Oka Road. This is not a perfect book, but man did I have fun reading it. The story opens with two high school kids parking on Kali Oka Road to make out. Instead, they end up having a fight. The girl jumps out of the car and the boy threatens to leave her. Then something terrible and seemingly supernatural happens and the girl’s wrist is suddenly dropped near her boyfriend followed quickly by her severed head. Panicking, as anyone would, the boy actually does the right thing—he races to the police with his story and ends up in psychiatric observation. No sign of the girl (or her severed body parts) are discovered and the young man spends the rest of his life under suspicion of having murdered her. But we know he didn’t—and he wants answers to what happened and the supernatural things he saw the night she died.
Enter Cassidy, a wealthy young woman who is haunted by the disappearance of her sister, and who is occasionally driven to paint her visions. This time when she paints a mansion in her dreams, she starts to experience what happened to a woman nearly two centuries ago. Her vision drives her to seek out a semi-professional group of ghost hunters calling themselves Gulf Coast Paranormal who are actually already looking into the mansion—which was on the road where the young girl was murdered in the first chapter.
Everyone in this story, the high school sweethearts, Cassidy and her ex-boyfriend, the two co-owners of Gulf Coast Paranormal, and most importantly, the ghosts on Kali Oka Road are having major relationship problems. I predicted this would be the key to solving the supernatural mystery but you’ll have to read the book to find out if I was right. What we definitely get is a supernatural problem that pulled me right in and kept me happy for every page of the novel. As I said in my opening statement, the story isn’t perfect. Everything isn’t tied together with a nice little bow and that means that I didn’t learn enough about a couple elements of the mystery, but I loved what M. L. Bullock gave me. The characters were fantastic and believable and the tensions their personalities generated really boosted the story. In addition, the supernatural elements really worked for me. And there are enough threads—plot lines not tied to the primary mystery—to have me eager to dive into the next novel.
I suspect we’ll see this series in Occultober again.
Occultober Day 24 The Land Below by William Meikle
For Day 24 we turn in a different direction for spookiness, delving into the hidden world under the earth. I’ve been reading books like The Land That Time Forgot and The Lost World for decades. There’s something about modern people running into dinosaurs that just grabs my interest and keeps me coming back for more. So it was with great anticipation that I jumped into The Land Below and despite a setup that led me to believe that I knew everything that was going to happen before I began, this book pleasantly surprised me again and again.
So let’s get down to basics. A scholarly young man (Ed) has stumbled across a reference to a hidden treasure of the Teutonic Knights and organizes a very small expedition to go and find it. The expedition consists of his know-it-all brother (Tommy) and a retired soldier with serious experience of combat and crisis (Danny). The expectation is that Tommy will lock horns with Danny throughout the book, constantly endangering all of their lives when they find dinosaurs in a cave in Austria. Except—none of that happens.
At the mouth of the cave in Austria they encounter the last two (accidental) members of their expedition, a shepherd (Stefan) and his dog who end up tagging along for no truly good reason and getting trapped in the cave with the others.
This is when things get interesting. Instead of dinosaurs, Meikle has built his subterranean world on ancient Germanic legends introducing the wyrms that are the forerunners of European dragons. He also builds very serious tension through the injuries his heroes receive, recognizing that you can’t just take a serious wound and then act as if nothing happened in the next chapter.
The only thing that never really worked for me was the character Stefan. He decides to go along too readily and he never really is upset by anything that happens. I kept expecting him to be revealed as a descendant of the original Teutonic Knights sworn to protect their hoard of hidden treasures. The fact that he wasn’t struck me as a lost opportunity.
The novel concludes with an absolutely wonderful scene that could have inspired so many of those ancient legends, at least if you assume that much of what is found predates the Teutonic Knights and was simply discovered by them.
Occultober Day 25 On a Winter’s Eve by Chris L. Adams
As we enter the last week of Occultober we return to the spectral world of ghosts, goblins and worse with a truly creepy story—author, artist, and poet, Chris L. Adams’s tribute to the masters of the pulp era, On a Winter’s Eve, where a backwoods family learns just how dangerous it can be to look out the window at the falling snow.
It turns out that there are other-worldly creatures that come out at such times and they don’t like humans very much. Adams expertly builds the tension page by page as this isolated family comes under assault by the creatures surrounding their small home. Since the story is told from a first-person perspective years after the event, you know the narrator is going to survive, but it doesn’t feel that way as the danger mounts and the body count expands. This one will linger with you and give you second thoughts about looking out the window to watch the snow.
Occultober Day 26 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…
Occultober Day 27 Half Dozen of Horror by Clark Ashton Smith
If you thought yesterday’s pick sounded creepy, wait until you get a look at today’s stories—a collection of six tales by Clark Ashton Smith, a master of the horror genre from the pulp era. A couple are fantasy adventures with a dark flavor, one’s a science fiction piece, and three are genuine horror from start to finish. All are worth reading, or preferably, listening to Will Hahn read the stories to you. Here’s a quick guide to a few of the stories:
My favorite by far is “Necromancy in Naat” in which Smith surprised me with his ability to cultivate a sweet romance in his horrific setting. It’s a story that should be appearing in “best of” compilations everywhere and I find myself still thinking about it a lot long after I finished listening to it. The creepiest in the collection is “The Double Shadow” for building that unsettling feeling of dread so important in this genre. The most fun is “The Black Abbott of Puthuum” in whose pages Conan the Barbarian would have felt at ease (well, not at ease, per say, because there are foul magics threatening the heroes, but you know what I mean). And if you are looking for selfless daring do, “Phoenix” takes the prize. That’s not to downplay the remaining two stories, but they can’t all be the best in the volume.
If you’re like I was and have heard Smith’s name but never read one of his stories before, this collection will give you a strong appreciation of just how good he really was.
Occultober Day 28 High Strangeness by Will MacLean
I love a good radio drama, and lately, thanks to audiobooks, the format has been revived in fully dramatized stories. That’s what you get with High Strangeness, a quirky, often funny, tale of paranormal craziness that is so out of hand it will quite likely destroy life as we know it. A fanatical paranormal investigator stumbles into an actual otherworldly event and runs afoul of a secret government agency that both investigates these happenings and tries to shut up anyone else who finds out about them. A lot of the action is delightfully over the top. You’ve got clones, cow mutilations, a bizarre religious cult, rival paranormal investigators, coverups, the aforementioned end of the world, and an awful lot of fun. The book is set up for a sequel and I’m certainly hoping we get one.
Day 29 Awaken Online: Catharsis by Travis Bagwell
As Occultober nears its end, I offer another LitRPG novel.
One of my long-running complaints about LitRPGs is that while they all seem to start with a person in the real world living a crummy life that he or she wishes to escape, there is rarely any genuine synergy between the game experience and the real-life experience. We see character growth in the game, development of tactics, greater self-awareness, and often enhanced maturity, but that growth occurring in immersive game experiences rarely has any impact on the player’s real-life experiences. That’s not the case in Awaken Online: Catharsis. More than any other book which I have read in this subgenre, it consciously uses the gaming experience to influence how the player deals with life in the real world and it does so in a way that develops the plot in both game and life.
The book is a little bit slow getting started as it establishes just how crummy our protagonist’s, Jason’s, life really is, but once the game gets going the tension builds and the pages fly past. Jason gets expelled from school when the administrators side with a bully over him because the bully comes from wealth and Jason doesn’t. He seeks to escape his problems in an online game which is much more sophisticated than it first appears. We learn about this sophistication through a supplemental narrative at the beginning of each chapter. The game is run by an artificial intelligence which is out of control, making changes to the game rules, and demonstrating the ability to both access players’ memories and write onto their memories. But since there is money to be made, the company hides this from government regulators and starts the game anyway. Evidently they have never seen the movie, The Terminator.
In the game, Jason discovers that his nemesis Alex, is the hero of light, Alexion, who, because he was a beta player, has a ridiculously high-level character. Jason is encouraged by NPCs to act on his desires (i.e. seek revenge and power) and become a necromancer. As he develops his skill he discovers that kills made by his zombies give him experience. He also discovers that his city is being betrayed by the nobles and the guards to Alexion’s kingdom, and so he decides to try and frustrate their plans. He takes his small horde of zombies and by using excellent tactics, is able to wipe out all the noble families in the city in one crazy night. His levels shoot skyward and he decides to take out the guards as well cleverly creating a zombie apocalypse and transforming the city into an undead metropolis called the Twilight Throne. This is big news in the online community and Alex/Alexion quickly swears to take down the undead realm setting the stage for the real conflict of the novel.
This is where the novel really shines. The contrast between how Alexion runs his army versus how Jason rallies his city and fights for them is quite strong. Jason is extremely clever using psychological warfare to defend the Twilight Throne. He gets roundly criticized by many players for this but essentially he is defending while they are making an unprovoked attack upon him. By contrast, Alexion continues to act as a bully without any real sense of strategy. It is purposely ironic that an evil person is running the forces of light while a good person is mobilizing the dark. Overall this is one of the stronger books in the LitRPG subgenre.
Occultober Day 30 The Green Brain by Frank Herbert
On the second to last day of Occultober, we turn to one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time for a look at a very horrific future.
Frank Herbert’s novels have often included ecological themes and in this one he seems to have taken his inspiration from Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and the War on Crop Eating Pests—birds, rats and insects. In China, this effort to eradicate pests put special emphasis on the killing of swallows because they ate the crops. Swallows also, as it turns out, ate their body weight in insects every day and without them the insects could not be stopped from ravaging harvests exasperating the famine caused by other policies of the Great Leap Forward. Yet, China found it ideologically difficult to admit that Mao’s policies had had such devastating results and it is in this that I think Herbert found his idea for The Green Brain.
China is leading the world (except for North America and Western Europe) in a program to destroy all insects so that they will not eat food needed by people. China is convinced (and tells people that in China they have already marvelously succeeded) that all the ecological niches filled by insects can be filled by mutated bees. Unfortunately, these policies have resulted in horrendous crop failure in China and they need a scapegoat they can provide to the Chinese people so that their leaders can stay in power. To find this scapegoat, they have come to Brazil where their agent is spreading rumors that men hired to exterminate the insects in the jungle are secretly repopulating the jungles with mutated insects in order to continue earning the huge bounties they make from their work.
There are two heroes in the story—one is Joao Martinho, the man chosen as the Chinese scapegoat. The other is the Green Brain of the title—a mutated insect collective that is trying to figure out how to convince the humans to turn away from their path of destruction that is destroying the world. It is part of Herbert’s genius that these insects can be both the source of horror in the story and a force that we can also hope succeed.
The heart of the story is very similar to Herbert’s book Angels’ Fall which he wrote early in his career but wasn’t published until after his death. It involves a trip down a mighty jungle river in an unpowered airplane floating on pontoons. At every turn, intelligently directed insects pursue our heroes.
This isn’t Herbert’s best novel, but it’s a good story so long as you remember that it was written before our modern satellite system was in place. China’s schemes would be impossible with satellite imagery showing that they had turned their nation into a desert.
Occultober Day 31 Graveyard Classified by Desmond Doane
As Occultober draws to an end once again, I offer you the first book of the best horror trilogy I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. It’s got everything you could want in a horror series—fantastic supernatural threats, a meaningful plot, and really wonderful characters.
Two years before the start of the first book, The Dark Man, 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. And from there in the last two books they need to discover just what kind of men they really are.
This is a fantastic trilogy.