Review: Sick House by Jeff Strand [audiobook]

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Sick House
By Jeff Strand
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My original SICK HOUSE audiobook review and many others can be found at Audiobook Reviewer.

Usually, the haunted house and the home invasion story are two separate tropes within the horror genre, although it could be argued the two certainly have a fair share of overlap, particularly in terms of how the terror is delivered. In Sick House, Jeff Strand tears down whatever walls were separating these particular types of stories to deliver a tale of a home invasion from beyond the grave, one that is, in typical Jeff Strand tradition, laced with plenty of humor in between buckets of blood and gore.

Few authors straddle the realms of comedy and horror as well as Strand, and it can be a difficult balancing act to simultaneously make a reader laugh and feel grossed out. For Strand, though, it’s a natural talent and his comedic chops are firmly on display here. Paige, the thirteen-year-old daughter of new homeowners Boyd and Adeline Gardner, is quintessentially Strand, constantly trying her parents with her outlandish, ribald commentary that leaves Boyd demanding to know, “Why are you so comfortable with me?!” The dialogue between each of Strand’s characters is witty and tack-sharp, and it’s always a pleasure to listen to the character’s conversations unfold.

This lightness, however, is offset by moments to makes you squirm and, eventually, sheer brutality. Shortly after moving into their new home, the Gardener’s begin to notice that their freshly bought groceries rot with incredible swiftness, and soon several of them become ill. Odd occurrences mark their days with increasing rapidity until the ghosts finally make their presence known and the terror sets in. Strand delivers a number of extremely well-executed and shockingly violent set pieces as the Gardener’s struggle to survive, but it comes with a minor caveat. Some of the metaphysical shenanigans got a little too cartoonish for me, but I still found Sick House to be solidly entertaining overall.

Joe Hempel’s narration is wonderfully straight-forward, which serves to help keep the material grounded. I think that a less capable narrator might be inclined to ham it up and lean hard into some of the book’s slapstick elements, but Hempel acts as the straight man to Strand’s comedic stylings. Hempel and Strand make for a great double act, and I can only imagine how hard it must have been for Joe to not crack up at some of the material he reads here. Thankfully, the narration is smooth and flawless, uninterrupted by gales of laughter and gasps of discomfort, which is left entirely up to the audience to supply.

[Note: Audiobook provided for review by the audiobookreviewer.com]

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Review: Kill Creek by Scott Thomas [audiobook]

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Kill Creek
By Scott Thomas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Scott Thomas makes one hell of a horror debut with his Stoker Award-nominated haunted house novel, Kill Creek - so strong a debut that I found it hard to believe he's a first-time author. Turns out, Thomas has a bit of a pedigree in television and was nominated for an Emmy for his work on the R.L. Stine TV series, The Haunting Hour. While Kill Creek is his first novel, Thomas definitely knows his way around a horror story, and his work here carries a nicely cinematic style with more than a few movie-ready scenes and set pieces.

After being duped into agreeing to an interview by an Internet website mogul, four authors find themselves unwittingly gathered together for an overnight stay at the abandoned and decrepit Finch House. For the wealthy Wainwright, this is a chance to speak to his idols, the modern masters of horror, and rake in lots of lucrative web-clicks. For the authors, it's a gimmicky way to promote their work, score some quick cash, and waste a night in a supposedly haunted house before returning to their lives, check in hand. If you know your way around a haunted house story, I don't have to tell you that things don't go quite according to plan...

Thankfully, Thomas throws in a few juicy curveballs here and there, slowly inching his narrative toward a finale of all-consuming madness that chills in all the best and brutal ways. Thomas, however, knows that he has to earn the premise's payoff, and he spends a lot of time building up his central cast. While the focus is on Sam McGarver, the most Everyman horror author of the bunch, characters like TC Moore, Sebastian Cole, and Daniel Slaughter - a horror-ready name if ever there was one - carry enough personality and intrigue to keep this slow-burn narrative hustling along. Moore, in fact, was my favorite character in this story - a brash, take-no-prisoners attitude, whiskey swilling, tough gal are always right up my alley narratively-speaking, and her introduction immediately captivated me.

Although it's become rather cliche to have a horror author as the protagonist of a horror novel, it works surprisingly well here. Usually the protag's occupation is ancillary, but in Kill Creek it's a primary focus and a linchpin for the work itself. Thomas is clearly well-versed in horror and genre tropes, as well as the career of writing and some of its more self-depreciating aspects. At one point, McGarver jokes that he's a writer, which means he spends most of his time procrastinating on the Internet. But it's his introduction as a college lecturer, wherein he delivers a presentation on gothic literature to his students, that makes a solid argument toward the credibility of not only McGarver's skill as an author, but Thomas's as well. The fact that Thomas creates this band of authors is one thing; the fact that he created them with such attention toward their pedigree and bibliographies is another. It's common to see horror authors experiencing a real-life horror event in fiction, but this is probably the first time I've wanted to actually read these fictional author's works. I wish I could buy a TC Moore book for my Kindle right now, or dig into a Sebastian Cole book next, and that alone should speak volumes to how much I appreciated Thomas's character work here.

Narrating Kill Creek is Bernard Setaro Clark, and hot damn, he's a fine reader. While much of his delivery is direct, Clark has a few aural tricks up his sleeve that really impressed me. Clark knows when to act up the material a bit, changing tones and pitch, and sometimes flat-out shouting, when needed. He also pulls this nifty trick of creating spatial distance between characters by turning away from the microphone at certain points. Say a character is shouting from across the room - rather than speaking directly into the mike as he would for our POV character, Clark turns away slightly, giving a sense of depth to sell the impression that there really is a character yelling from across the rom. It's such a simple thing, but so well executed, and not something I've often heard in other audiobooks. Of course, it's also possible I'm easily impressed, but I appreciated these moments a heck of a lot when they occurred. Clark's narrative skills certainly get a workout in the book's climax, as McGarver and company are forced to contend with the threats lurking within the Finch House once and for all.

Kill Creek isn't just a mighty fine haunted house novel, but a wickedly impressive debut for its author, who manages to wring the story for all its worth and deliver some pleasantly shocking twists along the way. This sucker builds like a roller coaster, slowly ratcheting its way to the top, and then violently dropping readers down a twisting thrill-ride that pulls their stomach up their throats. To put it mildly and succinctly, Kill Creek fucking rocks.

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Review: The Bog by Michael Talbot [audiobook]

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The Bog
By Michael Talbot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My original THE BOG audiobook review and many others can be found at Audiobook Reviewer.

The Bog is an old-school work of 1980s quiet horror. Michael Talbot slowly sets the stage, introducing archaeologist David Macauley and his family living abroad in the UK on a research grant. David specializes in studying bogs, particularly the corpses found preserved within. In a small English village, David uncovers not just a spate of bog bodies, but colorful legends – legends that point toward the true nature of an ancient evil responsible for the death of the bodies he is now unearthing. As readers slowly settle in for what first appears to be a creature feature, Talbot serves up a few interesting twists alongside a couple doses of personal tragedy and plenty of foreboding dread.

One of the things I most appreciated about The Bog was Talbot’s plotting. Even the most seemingly insignificant plot points and character beats play into the larger narrative and receive certain payoffs as the story resolves. A character’s veganism, a child’s fascination with the word ‘moxie’, a tavern’s clienteles apprehension over the appearance of a moth all lead to larger elements within the story, and the introduction of these minor points help to, in various ways, bring The Bog full-circle by book’s end. Throughout the story, Talbot introduces a number of concepts that I enjoyed quite a bit, particularly in regards to the nature of the evil infecting the small hamlet Macauley and his family find themselves inhabiting, which dovetails nicely with David’s work as a historian and scholar.

Reissued by Valancourt, The Bog is narrated by Matt Godfrey. I’ve only recently become familiar with Godfrey’s work, but he’s quickly earned with me the reputation of being a solid reader. I can expect a natural delivery complemented by subtle performances and distinct voice-work for each of the characters. In that regard, The Bog meets expectations. Each of the male and female characters presented here is clearly delineated and unmistakably unique. Listening to this book through my car’s audio system during my daily commute, I could not detect any flaws in the audio production, and the sound is crisp, clean, and well-modulated.

Readers looking for some high-end 80s horror should find a lot to enjoy in Talbot’s work. While The Bog is a bit of a slow-burn, it is ultimately quite enjoyable. Patient readers will be greatly rewarded by the way certain puzzle pieces of the plot align and snap into place as the story progresses.

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Audiobook Review: Night Society by Ambrose Ibsen

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Night Society
By Ambrose Ibsen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My original NIGHT SOCIETY audiobook review and many others can be found at Audiobook Reviewer.

Walking past an abandoned house, Mike is struck with inspiration to form a small club called the Night Society. He and his friends, Russell and Jim, agree to take part, and the plan is to break into the house and scare one with another with a spooky game of show and tell. During their inaugural meeting, Russell plays for them a CD of an audio file he downloaded from a torrent site, filling the house with the noise of a woman’s brutal murder. In the days that follow, the three men are witness to sights they cannot explain and they begin to realize they are being haunted by the victim whose violent death they had recently listened to.

Although I had initially suspected Night Society of being little more than an imitative riff on The Ring, Ambrose Ibsen does a fine job taking this story in a novel direction after building up a number of suspenseful scenes, along with a few moments of genuine creepiness, pushing the narrative toward a downbeat and desolate finale that works suitably well. Although Night Society isn’t particularly groundbreaking or original, Ibsen arranges the story’s familiar tropes in some crafty ways and kept me engaged. A lot of this engagement stems from his three central characters, whose point of view Ibsen alternates between from one chapter to the next in round-robin fashion. Each are affable losers content to lazily coast through life with little in the way of aim, with Jim being the group’s resident jackass and quick to chide Russell, a man-child whose apartment contains far more role play games and miniature statues than furniture. Mike is the most level-headed, but the strain that follows their first disastrous meeting of the Night Society becomes readily apparent over the course of this audiobook’s not-quite six-hour runtime.

Having listened to a number of Joe Hempel’s prior readings, Night Society fully met my expectations on the narration front. Hempel has a natural style, and his narration always makes for a smooth, easy listen. The production is professionally handled with no hiccups to speak of, and the audio is crisp and clear.

Night Society was my first encounter with Ibsen, and although it’s not a particularly unique or original find within the horror genre it is solidly entertaining and kept me interested throughout. I’ve little doubt that I will be giving this author another look in the future; in fact, knowing that Hempel has narrated a number of Ibsen’s other titles makes it a downright certainty.

[Audiobook provided for review by the audiobookreviewer.com]

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Review: Star Wars: Last Shot by Daniel José Older [audiobook]

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Set in the month's following Chuck Wendig's Aftermath trilogy, Daniel José Older explores the rise of a singular threat in a post-Imperial galaxy. In the book's opening moments, Lando Calrissian is attacked in his home on Cloud City by a mysterious hooded figure demanding the Phylanx Redux Transmitter, a mouthful of a galaxy-changing MacGuffin if ever there was one. While Lando doesn't possess this transmitter, he learns that its last known whereabouts were aboard the Millennium Falcon, leading him straight to his ol' buddy Han. Soon enough, the two scoundrels have assembled a new team to help them as they rocket across the galaxy in search of this mysterious device and a rouge evil scientist, Fyzen Gor, who Han encountered ten years previously.

The big draw behind Star Wars: Last Shot, of course, is Han and Lando themselves. Older does a remarkable job bringing Lando to life here, capturing the sleek, cool style of Billy Dee Williams, with a particular eye towards the character's penchant for fashion. Knowing that the clothes make the man, Lando's always been the best-dressed smuggler in the galaxy, and Older pays particular attention to that, as well, describing the man's careful deliberation when it comes to selecting his clothing for events and encounters, as well as a closet full of stylish and colorful capes.

Lando, of course, is off-set by his partner in crime, and Han is as rumpled and grumpy as ever as he tries to cope with fatherhood. With the Imperial Empire run off to the Outer Rim, Han is struggling with his place in life and the oftentimes stationary requirements of being a husband and father. He wants to roam free among the stars, and instead finds himself dealing with a screaming two-year-old whose sleep has been interrupted by noisome droids and urgent late-night calls for Leia. Of course, once free of familial commitments, Han longs to return. As a father of a two-year-old myself, I could sympathize with Han and his emotional and psychological state pretty well here, particularly as he attempts to soothe his distraught son and steps on a bunch of Lucasfilm's Lego-equivalent blocks.

While Older gives us plenty of insight into Han and Lando, and injects a handful of new diverse characters into the Star Wars universe (an Ewok hacker, an agender pilot [as with Wendig's Aftermath trilogy, you can expect lots and lots and lots of pearl-clutching from the anti-diversity, cultural homogeneity-only crowd for this book, too!], a Twi'lek love interest for Lando), he's also sure to pack in plenty of action that help wrinkle the plot and stymie the search for the transmitter. There's also some intriguing looks at the results of Gor's Frankensteinian experiments and the cult that has formed around them. The story itself is unraveled across three time-lines, with the events of the present-day story informed by Lando's and Han's individual, and unwitting, encounters with Fyzen Gor and Phylanx Redux Transmitter in the previous decades.

For the audio edition, Random House has brought in three narrators to tackle the various story threads. Marc Thompson handles the bulk of the novel, with Older narrating Han's story from ten years ago, and January LaVoy reading Lando's segments set twenty years prior. While Last Story probably didn't need three narrators to get the job done, the various performances help shake things up a bit. Thompson, a Star Wars audiobook staple, does a fantastic job as expected. His performances are consistently excellent, and Last Shot is no exception. His performance of Lando is exceptional, and he does a solidly gruff Han Solo, too. If I have any quibble at all, it's in his performance as Taka Jamoreesa, a twenty-something hotshot pilot, who Thompson reads with an annoyingly Jack Black-esque inflection. LaVoy taps into Lando's vocal mannerisms with a cool, entertaining reading. Older does a solid job, although his presentation is not as professionally refined as his co-narrators. Rounding it all out is the usual high-level production quality of a Star Wars audiobook, with the narration enhanced with sound effects, music, and voice digitization for droid characters. All in all, Last Shot makes for an easy, captivating listen that's a heck of a lot of fun.

Readers looking for a solid bit of entertainment fueled by two of the most popular characters in Star Wars should find a lot to enjoy in Last Shot. I'm always game for more Han and Lando adventures, though, so I'm hoping Older is able to return to this galaxy far, far away for at least one more outing. It'd be a shame if this were his last and only shot with these characters.

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Review: Walk the Sky by Robert Swartwood and David B. Silva [audiobook]

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Walk the Sky
By Robert Swartwood, David B. Silva
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My original WALK THE SKY audiobook review and many others can be found at Audiobook Reviewer.

In its opening moments, George and Clay, a pair of men on the run from the law and fleeing through the desert, come across a small boy lying near-death beneath the hot sun. The boy is the sole survivor of a massacre that wiped out a nearby town and when they take it upon themselves to care for the boy and investigate, George and Clay find themselves captured by bandits and tied up in jail. The men are to be sacrifices for the inhuman evils roaming the desert, the nightmarish creatures that wiped out the town and demand blood, creatures that only come out at night.

Co-written by Robert Swartwood and David B. Silva, Walk the Sky is a very well-done work of western horror. It’s also Silva’s final piece of work, having passed away in 2013 mere weeks after the publication of this title as a limited edition hardcover by Thunderstorm Books. As such, Walk the Sky is dedicated to Silva, who, as an editor, author, and Bram Stoker Award winner, has a long, and very rich, legacy within the horror genre. Silva was not just a friend and mentor to Swartwood, but a co-author on one other title they penned together, At the Meade Bed & Breakfast. Listening to Walk the Sky in audio format, it’s hard for me to tell where Swartwood’s style separates from Silva’s, and their prose blends together seamlessly. The end result is a perfectly engaging story filled with terrific characters, some of them quite smarmy, and a rich supernatural spine binding them all together.

On narrating duties is Matt Godfrey, whose soft, natural reading style is one I’m quickly becoming a fan of after listening previously to his smooth delivery of The Happy Man from Valancourt Books. His subdued Southern twang lends a certain richness and authenticity to this particular work, and his use of a rougher, gravelly voice for Clay lends to that character an air of American Western classicism that I quite enjoyed. All in all, this a polished and professional production.

Walk the Sky takes a number of Western genre tropes – outlaws on the run, gun-toting bandits, a town ruled by an iron fist – and twists them in a number of satisfying ways, with particular motives being wrenched in response to an ancient, mysterious force. Of the handful of supernatural historical horrors I’ve read thus far in 2018, Walk the Sky is easily my favorite, sitting tall in the saddle as the best of the bunch.

[Note: Audiobook provided for review by the audiobookreviewer.com]

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Review: The Happy Man by Eric C. Higgs [audiobook]

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My original THE HAPPY MAN: A TALE OF HORROR audiobook review and many others can be found at Audiobook Reviewer.

In the opening moments of Eric C. Higgs’s The Happy Man: A Tale of Horror, we learn of a murder – the Marsh family has been shot dead next door. We’re told this by Charles Ripley, whose first-person account gives us insight into the San Diego neighborhood he inhabits. The victims next door are not the only murders this neighborhood has seen recently, and Ripley recounts the events leading up to this penultimate act of violence. In fact, strange things have been brewing ever since the Marshes moved in…

Outside of his marriage, Ripley doesn’t have a lot of friends and few men he can connect with. He quickly bonds with the newly arrived Ruskin Marsh, and their wives form a fast friendship. As Ripley and Marsh become better acquainted with each other, Charles is introduced to a very rare work of writing from the sexual libertine Marquis de Sade. Entranced by Marsh’s own sexual exploits and lack of inhibitions, Ripley soon finds his own constraints diminishing and begins straying into extramarital affairs and, soon enough, darker exploits encouraged in de Sade’s writings.

Narrated by Matt Godfrey, The Happy Man is a slow-burn work of suburban horror that finely balances placidity with hair-raising, horrifying drama. This is a well-crafted work of psychosexual drama, and Godfrey’s reading of the material captures the feel of a neighborhood friend telling you a crazy story. At only a bit over 5 hours long, Godfrey keeps the narrative moving along nicely. Higgs, meanwhile, keeps the work grounded, and the moments of horror are never implausible or outlandish. Higgs earns each of his twists and turns by giving us believable characters and a pot-boiler narrative that slowly builds toward the inevitable.

Written in 1985, and recently reissued by Valancourt Books, The Happy Man taps into the anxiety of The Other with its themes of sexual promiscuity, casual drug use, fear of immigrants, and the rise of the Christian Right and their idea of what constitutes family values. While this latter is never overtly mentioned, given the period Higgs was writing in I can’t help but feel like much of this book is a response to the political climate surrounding it. Marsh is very much a hedonistic figure, the kind of guy Nancy Reagan would encourage you to Just Say No! to, and his arrival to this suburban neighborhood threatens to destroy everything his fellow yuppies hold dear, upsetting the balance of their perfectly coiffed all-American lifestyles. With its themes of racism and the sexual objectification of women, The Happy Man is very much a product of the 1980s, yet much of horrors its reacting to, and certainly expounding upon, still feel topical today. Higgs takes all the fears of 80s Evangelicalism and runs with them toward their worst-case finale – the destruction of families at the hands of an outsider. It’s telling, though, that while Mexican immigrants are often blamed for some of the seedier aspects of this white collar, upper-crust San Diego subdivision, the root cause of their problems lie much, much closer to home. Perhaps, in between the moments of eroticism and shocking violence, Higgs was trying to tell us something after all.

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Review: City of the Dead by Brian Keene [audiobook]

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My original City of the Dead: Author's Preferred Edition audiobook review and many others can be found at Audiobook Reviewer.

Set immediately following the final moments of Brian Keene’s Bram Stoker Award-winning The Rising, a small band of survivors manage to flee the zombie-infested suburbs of New Jersey. Their escape is not exactly scot-free, however, and Jim, Frankie, Martin, and Danny are hounded by a pursuing band of the undead who quite nearly finish them off. They’re rescued, though, and spirited away to Ramsey Tower, an impenetrable New York City skyscraper at the heart of the city where scores of survivors have found shelter and a chance at survival. Unfortunately for them, this rescue puts the survivors out of the frying pan and straight into the fire. Ramsey, an old, perverted, wealthy old tycoon with a reality TV show and dementia (hmmm…I wonder what other old, perverted, wealthy real estate tycoon with a crappy TV show and dementia Keene could have based Ramsey on?) will do anything to survive. Anything. And Ob, the undead leader of the zombie hordes, has set its eyes on Ramsey Tower and the death of everyone hiding within.

With the ground-rules of Keene’s zombie apocalypse well-established in The Rising, this Author’s Preferred Edition of City of the Dead ups the ante a fair deal and provides a wealth of gore, dismemberment, and mayhem. New York has become a necropolis, and in between all the flesh-chomping and headshots, Keene expounds on the goals of Ob and the demonic Siquissim. One of the things I’ve grown to appreciate about Keene’s The Rising series is the way the author infuses traditional zombie apocalypse tropes with a welcome dose of cosmic horror. Anybody looking for solid, edgy Romero-esque carnage will feel right at home with these two novels, and will likely appreciate the spark of originality Keene injects.

The Rising‘s narrator, Joe Hempel, returns to the microphone for City of the Dead to deliver a lively reading. Having narrated more than 150 books, Hempel has a comfortable, familiar reading style that makes for a companionable listen, one that’s smooth all the way through. His production skills are top-notch, as well, and you won’t find any blips or aberrations in the recording to yank you out of the story.

Readers who bemoaned the ending to The Rising can rest assured that Keene delivers a definitive finale to City of the Dead. Personally, I found the ending to The Rising to be very well-done, but I know there’s also a surprising number of readers out there who need every single thing spelled out for them and who are unable to infer details unless they’re beat over the head with them. Well, fear not – City of the Dead has an ending and nobody need fear the mistaken appearance of a cliffhanger!

City of the Dead takes all the best aspects of The Rising and plumbs its cosmic mythological depths a bit more. In some ways, it’s a nastier, darker, dirtier work than the prior story, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Ramsey in particular is a real piece of work, and Keene gives his living characters enough warmth and humanity to stab you in the heart when you least expect it. Thankfully, Keene softens some of the considerable tension and long, violent action set-pieces with moments of dark humor, usually thanks to a cat named God, as well as a few scenes of heartwarming familial repartee. City of the Dead is definitely worth a visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.

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