Review: The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum

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The Girl Next Door
By Jack Ketchum
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't know that I've ever been so completely gutted and repulsed by a book before. The Girl Next Door was a sickening read - it's grim and grimy, and so dark it's a miracle you can even read the words on the page. This is a bleak, bleak, bleak story of child abuse of the worst kind, and just when you think the depictions of imprisonment, assault, and torture cannot get any worse, Ketchum peels back yet one more layer of the onion to draw tears from your eyes. I did not enjoy The Girl Next Door, but I respect the hell out of Jack Ketchum for writing it and it is a masterclass, perfectly executed, powerhouse of a novel. You don't just read The Girl Next Door - you experience it, and if you're really lucky you survive it.

After their parents are killed in a car crash, Meg and her crippled sister Susan are left to the care of their closest kin, an embittered single-mother, Ruth. Ruth has several boys of her own, but anytime her ire rises it is Meg who becomes the focal point of her anger. We learn of their relationship and the repulsive degradation that defines it, as well as the reason for Ruth's aggression toward Meg, through the eyes of 12-year-old David.

I read The Girl Next Door as a part of a buddy read with Sadie, Richard and our Instagram friend, Dani. One point of contention that arose early on was the issue of David himself. Each of us found ourselves angry at the boy, hating him for his complicity by way of inaction, and wishing he would do something, anything, to stop the torment occurring at his neighbor's house. We kept wanting this little 12-year-old, this child, to step up and be the hero, to rise up against the evil adult Ruth and end her. We found ourselves hating him almost as much as Ruth and the rest of Meg's abusers.

This story is horrifying on multiple levels, but knowing that it is based on the very real victimization and murder of Sylvia Likens makes it all the more gut-churning and infuriating. You want so badly to make it stop, and the only comfort seems to be in knowing that this is a fictionalized account, and that Ketchum actually is pulling his punches. While the cases of Meg and Sylvia are comparable, The Girl Next Door, despite it's extreme brutality, is blessedly sanitized (if only barely) from the real-life events it's inspired by. Like Sylvia, Meg is abused by her guardian, the guardian's children, and even other neighborhood children over the course of her captivity.

Our minds struggled to conform and accept the plausibility of all of this. How could this possibly happen? When confronted with the truths inherit in The Girl Next Door, we rebelled and tried to deny, but that's simply impossible. We know better. And we know that the mob mentality that sweeps through the Chandler house and the small New Jersey cul-de-sac they inhabit is entirely all-too plausible. This story is extreme, but it does not exist in a fictional bubble. We wanted to insist that this couldn't happen here, or to us, that we would have been better than David, that we could have and would have stopped Ruth despite the odds against us. Maybe we could and would have. Or maybe, if push came to shove, what truly frightened us most of all was the possibility that we would have been just as indifferent, just as willing to ignore it, as Meg's neighbors. We would have failed her and Sylvia Likens and Kitty Genovese and scores of countless others who are abused and murdered.

The Girl Next Door broke me. But, clearly, it's also given me plenty to think about, and more than enough things to feel. Beneath the brutal violence against Meg and the psychological assault this book wages against its readers, it's a startling and well-realized depiction of the horrors of mob mentality and bystander effect. What makes it so damn chilling is it's realism, it's plausibility. This is not exploitative torture porn, and nobody should read this book for enjoyment or escapism. This is a book designed to make you angry, to drag you out of your comfort zone and infuriate and shatter you completely. What makes it so damn frightening is that, at its core, the demons within these pages are not imaginary monsters but actual human beings. Humans are the worst monsters of all.

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Review: The First One You Expect by Adam Cesare

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The First One You Expect
By Adam Cesare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tony Anastos is a smug, smarmy, self-involved, low-budget indie horror filmmaker. He and his friend, Burt, make and release low-rent slasher flicks, but when they cross paths with Anna, a sexy minx with dreams of stardom, Tony is struck with a minor epiphany. Anna is his new star, and her glitz and glamour are going to catapult both of them into the big-time. She's his key to creating a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign to fund his next film, which will see Anna wow the gore-hounds as a cinema's new, preeminent, slasher villain.

As is the case with prior books from Adam Cesare, particularly Video Night and Con Season, the author's love and affection for the horror genre in all its many forms bleeds through the page. And as with Con Season, you get an authentic insider's feel for the material as Cesare, a former Boston University film student, guides reader's through the behind-the-scenes process of indie film-making. If you've read any of his prior material, or check in with his YouTube channel with any degree of regularity, then you know first-hand just how much a horror buff Cesare is. He knows his stuff and all the various levels of genre fandom, from the low-budget indie flick scene to the sprawling conventions.

All of this is, of course, on display in The First One You Expect, a quick, down-and-dirty horror novella about film-making and the price one may pay, willfully or otherwise, to reach their dreams. Tony's an odd-duck of a character, one that isn't really likable but who is at least depicted honestly. He's not a good guy, but possesses an unusual amount of self-awareness, even as he brushes aside whatever thin, shallow bits of morality remain. He does stupid things and makes plenty of bad decisions over and over again. While he worries about the long-term repercussions of these actions, it's usually not enough to stop him from dreaming big, even if these dreams only serve to dig him a deeper hole. Tony is really his own big bad in this story.

Anna makes a wonderful foil for Tony and Burt, and by book's end I found myself wishing this title were longer than its novella length simply to see more of Anna in action. Like Tony, I wanted to know more about her and get inside her head (an impossibility, as The First One You Expect is confined only to Tony's POV). You can sense a deep sea's worth of story surrounding Anna, even if the story is strictly about Tony's reactions to her. She's a great character, though, and her and Tony's burgeoning work relationship gives this book an edgy noir flavor that I appreciated.

Fun and compulsively readable, The First One You Expect kept me turning the pages, and Cesare's prose is deceptively easy writing that rapidly moves the story along. The ending caught me a bit off guard with its abruptness, and what I wouldn't give for a few more pages to spend in Tony's cynical and bloody world. This is a good one gang!

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Review: Glimpse by Jonathan Maberry

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Glimpse: A Novel
By Jonathan Maberry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Forced to give up her child at the age of sixteen, recovering drug addict Rain now lives a life in the shadows of regret and plagued by nightmares. When she finds herself running extraordinarily late for a job interview, she's discovers she's even later than imagined - Rain has, inexplicably, lost an entire day and has no memory of the twenty-four hours between Thursday and Saturday. Dejected, Rain encounters a mysterious woman on her train ride home who gives her a pair of cracked glasses and then vanishes. When looking through the fractured lens, Rain catches glimpse of people otherwise unseen...including a strange young boy in the company of an even stranger, older man - a man she knows as Doctor Nine, a man who has been haunting her nightmares.

Jonathan Maberry is a hugely prolific author, and one that I wish I could say I've read more of over the years. Although he's perhaps best known for his Joe Ledger series, I've only previously read his zombie stuff, the YA Rot & Ruin series and Dead of Night. I enjoyed those five titles quite a lot, but they did little to prepare me for what to expect here.

Glimpse is a far cry from those zombie thrillers, and Maberry crafts here a complicated, twisty, layered work of horror. I spent a good long while puzzling over how the various pieces and characters fit together while Maberry constructed and slowly built this tapestry of damaged characters and haunting encounters within New York and the strange, ethereal land of The Fire Zone. This is an assuredly more complex story than those earlier, straight-forward zombie pulps. It also has a surprising amount of depth to it, and the amount of information and story within belies the page count. When I say Glimpse feels like a much longer work, I mean this in the best possible sense. This one's a dense little sucker, hefty in its ideas and methodical execution.

Glimpse also feels a heck of a lot like the offspring of Joe Hill's NOS4A2, and I couldn't help but wonder how inspired Maberry was by that earlier work, or if this book would have existed without Hill's influence. There's a lot of commonalities between the two books, circling a number of similar themes and occurrences, and while they share a lot of the same genetic material (a strange villain capable of maneuvering between this world and another by way of a uniquely identifiable classic car, and The Fire Zone is almost a direct inverse of Christmasland), Glimpse stands well enough on its own, and Maberry is certainly comfortable enough in his own authorial skin, for this work to feel similar without being a derivative retread of the other.

At it's core, Maberry is writing about hope and redemption, of fighting for a better life in times of hopelessness. I would have liked to have seen more of the nicely creepy Doctor Nine, but the apocalyptic intonations and mythological folklore baked into the character are absolutely wonderful. Glimpse slowly builds toward a catastrophic, potentially apocalyptic, climax whose scale so terrifyingly casts a huge shadow over the characters that you can't help but feel a foreboding sense of hopelessness. The question then, of course, is how, or even if, Rain and her small support group of recovering addicts, can possibly overcome the all-encompassing terror surrounding them.

It's heady stuff, and Maberry does a remarkable job strumming all the various strings he's pulled together here. Glimpse is loaded with great characters, and I'd be remiss not to mention the tattooed psychic PI, Monk, who deserves a book of his own one day, and some very well depicted moments of fright and terror. All of this is wrapped up in a mind- and time-bending, perfectly executed, package.

[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley.]

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Review: Weekend Getaway by Tom Deady

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Weekend Getaway
By Tom Deady
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've had some crummy weekend getaways in my time, but certainly nothing on par with what John and Rachel Baxter are forced to endure. Rather than spending a romantic weekend repairing their marriage, the two's road-trip gets off to a rocky start when they're followed by a menacing, souped-up black truck to their rental cabin in the woods.

To say much more would be to spoil Tom Deady's fast-paced novella of violence and mayhem, so that's all the synopsis you'll get from me. Weekend Getaway chugs along with eye-watering rapidity, and while the abuse John and Rachel Baxter endure are well depicted it's the emotional element of the work where Deady really shines. John suffers from panic attacks, and filtering the first half of this novella through his paranoid, anxious viewpoint provides a wonderfully charged narrative. I couldn't help but get swept up in John's nightmares, while at the same time questioning their validity and his reliability as a narrator. Deady uses this paranoia to great effect, directing readers toward a specific threat and then an even grander reveal.

I will admit, though, that there were a few specific plot-points and conveniences that very briefly interrupted my willing suspension of disbelief, though. There's a late-game revelation about the nature of the sadistic villain that didn't quite jibe with me and felt like an unnecessary addition. Although this particular aspect didn't entirely work for me, it did nothing to rob me of this story's sheer entertainment value overall. I was pretty well swept up in the Baxters misadventures and curious to see how Deady was going to wrap up everything.

Weekend Getaway is the perfect, breezy, weekend read. It's jam-packed with peril and occasional viciousness, kind of like the Baxter marriage, come to think of it...

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Review: Old Order by Jonathan Janz

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Old Order
By Jonathan Janz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Written in 2010, Old Order caused quite a sensation among fans of Amish Romance. As some of the Amazon customers have pointed out in their reviews, "it is totally smutty and definately [sic] not a family or christian read." "I guess one doesn't think of horrors like this in
Amish communities." "Without a doubt one of the most disgusting and vile things I have ever read."

Oh. Wait, hold on. Nope, sorry, those early reviews were apparently not meant to be the glowing endorsements they most certainly should be within the finer circles of horror readership, but they're just as effective I'd say. And let's face it, if that last review quote I pulled isn't cover blurb material, I don't fucking know what is!

So, Old Order. It's decidedly not an Amish Romance, although in Jonathan Janz's afterword it's stated that this novella practically flew straight onto a number of ereaders and that, based on the volume of disappointed one-starers, readers partial to plain people didn't know what the heck they were getting themselves into. Apparently none of them read the book's description and just blind bought the book based on the previous cover's depiction of a barn. Seriously.

What Old Order is is a groovy slow-burn work of erotic horror. Con-man Horace, posing as an Amish ne'er-do-well who's been kicked out of the community, trades back-breaking labor for room and board in the hopes that he can relieve a family of their precious valuables. Janz kicks things off with plenty of titillation and then takes a turn toward the paranormal bizarre, and then rapidly shifts gears into a finale I never saw coming.

Old Order has a nice 80s vibe to it, and it would have fit right in with the Hot Blood series of erotic horror anthologies where sex and scares were part and parcel. At around only 50 pages, this is a quick read, and there's a few moments of hair-raising intensity powerful enough to churn butter and a few barn-raising scares along the way. Horror fans just might find themselves living in an Amish paradise with this one.

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Review: Devil's Row by Matt Serafini

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Devil's Row: A Novel of Werewolf Revenge is a solid enough work of fantasy horror, but one that I struggled to form a deep connection with.

Acting as a prequel to Feral, Matt Serafini takes readers way back to 1700s Constanta and the shores of the Black Sea. In the book's opening moments, a group of Vatican-sanctioned hunters slaughter a pack of werewolves and gravely wound Elizabeth. Presuming her dead, they attempt to make their way back to Constanta. Elizabeth, though, is far from dead, even if the werewolf inside her has been cowed by the injuries inflicted upon her. With her pack dead and her lover slaughtered, Elizabeth follows the hunters' scents, tracking them through the forests and hellbent on revenge.

Serafini certainly doesn't shy away from the violence, and Devil's Row is quite an action-packed affair as the various characters sift through one bloody encounter to the next. I never felt entirely connected to the characters, and there wasn't a lot of room for development in any of the cast between the harshness of the world they inhabit. Despite the plentiful number of encounters between the hunters and their various supernatural foes, the pacing of Devil's Row is rather deliberate, rather than full-on frenetic. I would have preferred a more pacey read, but the slower nature is fitting given the fantasy elements and period setting, which often demand a more leisurely turn of the pages.

Although I enjoyed Devil's Row well enough, it wasn't exactly the perfect match to my tastes I had been hoping for. That said, I'm certainly intrigued enough by the world Serafini has crafted here, and enjoyed his writing quite a bit, that I'll definitely give Feral a read. This particular book makes for a fine starting point to Serafini's werewolf series, but I suspect the modern day setting of Feral will be more suited to my sensibilities.

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MASS HYSTERIA: A 2018 Audiobook Listener Awards Finalist

This has been a big week for award announcements! On Monday, the 2018 Splatterpunk Award Nominees were announced, along with final ballot for the 2017 Stoker Awards. Yesterday, the 2018 Audie Awards finalists were revealed. And today, finalists for the first annual Audiobook Listeners Choice Awards were revealed, with my book, Mass Hysteria, narrated by Joe Hempel, listed as one of the five horror finalists.

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I don't know if I can adequately explain how much this means to me, but suffice to say I am deeply, deeply honored. 

Probably not too many of you know this, but Mass Hysteria almost never was. I had some pretty deep reservations about releasing this particular book due to the extreme and graphic content depicted within. I was in a pretty different place, both personally and professionally, when I wrote this book in 2015, and over the course of writing Mass Hysteria my wife became pregnant and our first child was born within days of my penning that horrific and bleak final chapter. If you've read Mass Hysteria, you can probably understand just how difficult some of these scenes were to pen. I trunked the book for a good long while before I began editing it in 2016 and found myself having to put the book aside once more. I was unsettled and uncomfortable with the material, and I was no longer sure if it was a work I wanted to be associated with.

Fatherhood had changed me, and it was a long time before I began to feel comfortable with Mass Hysteria, or at least as comfortable as one can feel with a book like that. It wasn't until 2017 that I was really able to look at Mass Hysteria with a more critical eye and accept the book for what it was and what it could be. While there were still scenes within it that I was (and still am) uncomfortable with, I found myself at an impasse. I could either release it, or I could forget about it. 

Ultimately, I think I made the right choice, and thankfully it seems to have paid off! Readers have responded well and have been very supportive of the work since it released in August 2017. Mass Hysteria was a Top 10 finisher in Horror the 21st Annual Critters/Preditors and Editors Readers Poll, and Cedar Hollow Horror Review included it in their list of Best Horror Books of 2017. Now, I am in the delightful place of seeing Mass Hysteria listed as a finalist in the Indie-centric and small press publisher-focused Audiobook Listener Awards for Horror - and alongside Michael McDowell and Brian Keene no less! Pardon me, but holy shit! All of this, of course, is due in no small part to the efforts of my editor Shay VanZwoll at EV Proofreading & Editing, and Joe Hempel's outstanding narration, and the humbling and outstanding dedication of my wonderful, loyal readers.

To top it all off, this announcement came right on the heels of yesterday's release of Broken Shells, my latest horror novella, which has generated a nice bit of early buzz thanks to a number of overwhelmingly positive advance reviews. So, yeah, not a bad couple days so far!

The Audiobook Listener Awards is a "listener's choice" award, and the winner will be selected by you, the listener! Voting in each of the award categories is open until May 31, 2018. Listeners can vote in each category once a day until the competition closes. You can find all of the award categories and finalists here, so please take a moment to check it out and cast your ballots. If you want to head straight over to the Horror category and vote for your favorite title, this link will take you directly there! You may want to bookmark the announcement page or your favorite categories, and remember to vote regularly so you can help your preferred title claim the top spot.

If you haven't had a chance to brave Mass Hysteria yet, head on over here to learn all about this book. You can find the audiobook edition of Mass Hysteria for sale now on Amazon, Audible, and iTunes.


NOW AVAILABLE

Antoine DeWitt is a man down on his luck. Broke and recently fired, he knows the winning Money Carlo ticket that has landed in his mailbox from a car dealership is nothing more than a scam. The promise of five thousand dollars, though, is too tantalizing to ignore.

Jon Dangle is a keeper of secrets, many of which are buried deep beneath his dealership. He works hard to keep them hidden, but occasionally sacrifices are required, sacrifices who are penniless, desperate, and who will not be missed. Sacrifices exactly like DeWitt.

When Antoine steps foot on Dangle's car lot, it is with the hope of easy money. Instead, he finds himself trapped in a deep, dark hole, buried alive. If he is going to survive the nightmare ahead of him, if he has any chance of seeing his wife and child again, Antoine will have to do more than merely hope. He will have to fight his way back to the surface, and pray that Jon Dangle's secrets do not kill him first.

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Now Available: BROKEN SHELLS: A Subterranean Horror Novella

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99c For A Limited Time!

Amazon | iBooks | Nook | Kobo

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Broken Shells is out! After spending a few months with Patreon readers, my latest release has finally gone wide and is now available on all major platforms in print and eBook.

If you're a Kindle reader who still have lots of love for paperbacks, you can buy the print copy at Amazon and get the Kindle eBook for free through Amazon's Kindle Matchbook program. 

For a limited time, you can buy the eBook for only 99c at any of the retailers listed below. But act fast, because in a short while, this digital edition of Broken Shells will be selling for its full retail price of $2.99.


About Broken Shells

Antoine DeWitt is a man down on his luck. Broke and recently fired, he knows the winning Money Carlo ticket that has landed in his mailbox from a car dealership is nothing more than a scam. The promise of five thousand dollars, though, is too tantalizing to ignore.

Jon Dangle is a keeper of secrets, many of which are buried deep beneath his dealership. He works hard to keep them hidden, but occasionally sacrifices are required, sacrifices who are penniless, desperate, and who will not be missed. Sacrifices exactly like DeWitt.

When Antoine steps foot on Dangle's car lot, it is with the hope of easy money. Instead, he finds himself trapped in a deep, dark hole, buried alive. If he is going to survive the nightmare ahead of him, if he has any chance of seeing his wife and child again, Antoine will have to do more than merely hope. He will have to fight his way back to the surface, and pray that Jon Dangle's secrets do not kill him first.


What Readers Are Saying

"A fun and nasty little novella...If you’re a big creature-feature fan (digging on works like Adam Cesare’s VIDEO NIGHT or Hunter Shea’s THEY RISE) you’re going to love this book." - Glenn Rolfe, author of Becoming and Blood and Rain

"An adrenaline-fueled, no punches pulled, onslaught of gruesome action! Highly recommended!" - Horror After Dark

"Broken Shells, the latest release from Michael Patrick Hicks... is another fine piece of...pulpy horror which moves along at eye-watering speed... You’ll have fun rolling with the punches. I found myself cheering on hard-as-nails Antoine in his brutal fight for survival." - HorrorTalk

"A dark and nasty...novella I won't soon forget, mostly thanks to the nightmares I've already had." - Frank Michaels Errington

"The very definition of a page-turner. Michael Patrick Hicks delivers right-between-the-eyes terror." - The Haunted Reading Room

"Ghastly fun ... Broken Shells is an exceptional horror novella." - Dangerous Dan's Book Blog

"Broken Shells is a visceral experience, with oodles of ooze, gore galore, dry heaves and vomit, and some Alien worthy introductions to razor sharp creepy crawlies. ... This, my friends, is horror done right!" - Schizanthus, Goodreads review

"Michael Patrick Hicks has out done himself this time! When I didn't think his work could get any better, he goes and surpasses my expectations. From start to finish, you will get your money's worth." - Cedar Hollow Horror Reviews

"Michael Patrick Hicks has managed, in only 120 pages, to craft a terrifying, steamroller of a story. ... The author makes you immediately connect with the main character Antoine, who is down on his luck and just looking for a possible break. When Antoine is thrust into the dark, you are along for the ride, whether you like it or not. And in the dark is where this story shines. Hicks makes you feel dread, like the walls are closing in as you read." - One-Legged Reviews

"Hicks does a fine job of emotionally grasping the reader with his character creation. You'll come for the story of survival, and stay for the darkness and gore. If you enjoy extremely gruesome creature horror and pitch black underground tunnels, then Broken Shells is right up your alley." - FanFiAddict

99c For A Limited Time!

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