Review: Hell Divers IV: Wolves by Nicholas Sansbury Smith

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the final moments of the third Hell Divers novel, Deliverance, Nicholas Sansbury Smith promised to change up the formula a bit and deliver a fourth novel covering some terrain we hadn't seen too much of in this sky- and radioactive wastelands-focused series. Smith immediately delivers on that promise in the opening chapter of Wolves, shifting the focus of his series from the deadly skies to the equally terrifying seas.

As a fan of aquatic horror and survival at sea stories, this is very much a welcome expansion to the Hell Divers canon, but it's not all smooth sailing for the book's characters. Xavier "X" Rodriguez and his partner Magnolia Katib has hit the high seas on a mission of revenge, aiming to track down the Cazadores, a cannibalistic cult of killers, and lead the small remnants of humanity of the Metal Islands, possibly the closest thing left to paradise on Earth.

Although X's adventures by boat are a large part of Wolves's focus, Smith hasn't forgotten about the airships and their crew. The addition of the airship Deliverance has helped make life more comfortable for those aboard the Hive, but they can't get too cozy just yet. After all, it wouldn't be a very exciting story if half the book's characters were able to just lounge about sipping tea. There's still plenty of action left for those characters in the skies, and the fresh squadron of Hell Divers manage to find themselves in way over their heads in short order.

Smith keeps this book running right from the opening pages, with the pace cranked all the way up to frenetic, juggling some big action set pieces between both the A- and B-plots. Wolves is a fast, energetic read, and it's easy to sink into the narrative. The climax is exciting as hell with its Mad Max-at-sea action - a welcome source of post-apocalyptic inspiration, and one I hope Smith elaborates on further in the next book.

However, with a fifth Hell Divers title on the way in the first half of 2019, a lot of Wolves feels like prelude, giving it a middle-child vibe a lot of series suffer from. Wolves cannot resolve all of its plot elements, and much of what's here is set-up for Captives, purportedly the series finale, to resolve. That said, Smith certainly packs Wolves full of new material, expanding on the historical record of his series and introducing some new and highly durable threats that I hope to see more of soon.

Between the change of scenery and a few new enemies for X and his fellow Hell Divers to confront, Smith has injected a welcome bit of freshness into the end-game of his series. Wolves sets the stage for the grand finale, but as the Hell Divers series as a whole has shown, for Smith, the sky isn't the limit - it's just a good place to start.

[Note: I received an advanced reading copy of this title from the author.]

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Review: Mister Jack by Chris Kosarich

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Mister Jack
By Chris Kosarich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let me begin with a small admission, dear readers. I am not a big fan of framed narratives - a story being told within a story - and Mister Jack is constructed in such a fashion. Once I glommed onto the type of story Mister Jack was going to be, my defenses were raised. I hate to admit it, but Chris Kosarich had to overcome a fair bit of bias on my part; unfair to him, perhaps, but still true. He was going to have to tell me one hell of a story to keep my attention and overcome my ingrained dislike of framed narratives. Did it work? Well, if you noticed the four-star rating already, you probably have a pretty good inkling of whether or not Kosarich was successful.

Readers are introduced to a trio of high schoolers heading out to a Halloween party, but first they have an important stop to make. It's high school tradition for kids to venture out to the decrepit, possibly abandoned, homestead of Josie Howard - a witch, according to local legend- and egg and toilet paper her house. Before they can get on with their prank, though, they find themselves face to face with Howard and are soon enraptured by her story of the urban legend, Mister Jack.

Mister Jack is a pretty simple story when all is said and done. Mike, Tully, and Maddie are there primarily to just sit around and listen to Josie's story, and the bulk of this small novella's page count is dedicated to Howard's recitation. Even though this type of narrative isn't my favorite, I still found myself highly interested in Kosarich's book for a few reasons.

First off, Kosarich absolutely nails the voice of Josie. I had no trouble picturing her or hearing her voice in my head, right down to her southern Floridian lilt. She is positively engaging, and thankfully so is her story. The legend of Mister Jack himself is the second reason Mister Jack the book worked so well for me. His is the type of legend that grabs you by the shirt collar and demands attention. The meat of Jack's story is compelling enough that I got over my own personal hurdles with framing conventions and I was able to get lost in Josie's story. Kosarich's framing gambit absolutely paid off, and while I'm still not a fan of this particular narrative technique I do have to give the author plenty of credit for making it work so well.

In presenting the story of Mister Jack within the overarching story of these three high schoolers and their encounter with Josie, Kosarich managed to pique my curiosity a few times. Although I haven't read Kosarich's previous works, it's clear he's an author who knows what he's doing. He plants a few seeds throughout Josie's narration that call into question her reliability as a narrator and why she has chosen this particular trio of teens to engage with. As engaging as the story of Mister Jack was, I was equally invested in uncovering Josie's motivations, motivations that provided an extra layer of much-welcomed tension and mystery.

Mister Jack is packed with a surprising amount of story that belies its rather short page count. There's enough meat built into this story for Kosarich to write a book or two about Summerdale's past and Jack's legacy, and if he ever elects to return to this particular urban legend I am absolutely here for it. The character of Mister Jack has so much freaking potential it would be a shame if we're not treated to a few more stories of his, and I'm hoping the author is now busy figuring out ways to shock and entertain us with more of Jack's Halloween exploits.

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Review: Camp Slasher by Dan Padavona

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Camp Slasher, Dan Padavona’s latest, is the type of book whose title lets you know exactly what you’re getting into.

Cut from the same cloth as horror slasher flicks like Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp, Padavona unleashes merciless violence upon a group of people working to rebuild the defunct Camp Black Bear. While the group struggles with clearing out an infestation of wolf spiders and struggling with the dramatics of interpersonal conflicts, a deranged killer lurks in the woods nearby, watching and waiting for his perfect moment to strike.

It’s all pretty standard killer camp stuff, but it doesn’t disappoint, particularly if you’re a sucker for these types of stories. Padavona does find a unique entry point into the mayhem, though, by injecting a worthwhile subplot of police drama and investigation into the disappearance of a woman and a group of hikers.

I was a bit surprised by the focus on the police officers, actually, having expected Camp Slasher to focus entirely on Camp Black Bear. Padavona spends a fair amount of time on political intrigue – Sheriff Bracken McCain is up for reelection, and one his deputies, a slimeball appropriately named Craven, is running against him and working hard to undercut everything Bracken does along the way. There’s a goodly amount of conflict baked into their relationship and Craven is one of those love-to-hate characters.

In fact, there’s a number of loathsome men populating Camp Slasher that readers will be pining to see meet their gruesome ends. Padavona stocks Camp Black Bear with perhaps more than its fair share of dangerously entitled men that you just cannot wait to see maimed and butchered, and while it strains credulity just a bit it does lead to some wonderfully satisfying scenes of tension as things spiral out of control.

Credit where it’s due, Padavona knows how to write some grisly, violent scenes. This is evident right the book’s opening chapter, which, if it weren’t already clear from the title, lets you know this is a horror book that won’t be pulling any punches or shying away from the gory bits. Even tense scenes of potential violence are deftly executed. There’s an early scene involving a cabin full of spiders that had this arachnophobe squirming in his seat, all hairs standing on end, thanks to some colorful word choices and stage-setting on the author’s part that let me see and hear things a bit too well.

Deftly paced and loaded with plenty of drama that helps pave the way for a bit of the ol’ ultra-violence, Camp Slasher should help satisfy those cravings for some 80s-styled summer vacation pulp horror. If you’ve been missing Jason Voorhees, Padavona has a new maniacal woodsman to introduce you to.

[Note: I received an advance reading copy of this title from the author.]

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Review: Stranded by Renee Miller

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Stranded
By Renee Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Anybody who has been following my reviews for a while likely knows that I have a particular fondness for arctic-based horror. Drop a group of folks in the middle of a freezing and inhospitable terrain where they are blinded by snow, frostbitten, and mentally at their wits end and at each other’s throats, and let the blood spill. I love shit like that, and Renee Miller clearly does, as well.

Stranded has all of the above, plus a mysterious monster rooted in indigenous folklore. While the creature is of the rough and tumble sort, this book's cast is heavily loaded with plenty of greedy human monsters to root against, too. Half the fun of Stranded is in seeing a lot of these bastards get their comeuppance, and Miller does a fun job of thematically arguing the point that greed is the root of all evil.

A handful of contestants are picked to compete in a brand-new reality show called Stranded, an extreme survival show where the stakes are raised with a bit of matchmaking. The players are whisked off to a remote, uninhabited arctic island in the Canadian north to seek fame, fortune, and glory, but a few of them have some dark secrets they’re hoping to escape. There’s a corrupt cop hoping to circumvent the investigation into her pay-off from pimps, and an unstable sex addict on the edge. Not to mention the show’s skeevy creator, producers, and crew who won’t let trifling nuisances like a spate of murders and disappearances wreak havoc with their guaranteed hit.

As I said above, there’s a lot of people to root against, and not many to root for. Stranded gets pretty dark and readers who need likeable protagonists to cheer on will likely find a few things to fret about here. Me, I’m good with nasty people meeting their nasty end by way of even nastier supernatural forces, and in this regard Miller delivers all kinds of violent fun. What I most appreciated, though, were the subtle layers of commentary about greed and its relationship to the monstrous force at play here. Miller doesn’t beat her readers over the head with preachiness or demands for her audience to repent, but there is a nice bit of thematic meat on this novella’s bones.

Most of all, though, Stranded is a fun, quick read, the kind of pulpy entertainment that’s right up my alley and hits all my sweet spots. It’s got blood-drenched snow, a terrible climate for its characters to endure or succumb to, and a nifty creature to boot. Renee Miller has crafted a brutal tale of monsters and madness, one that will make your blood run cold. Perfect for fans of The Thing, Stranded is arctic terror at its chillingly scary best.

[Note: I received an advance reading copy of this title from the publisher, Unnerving, to provide a publication blurb. I have chosen to review Stranded, as well, because I dug the hell out of this novella and hope you will too.]


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Review: The Pale Ones by Bartholomew Bennett

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The Pale Ones
By Bartholomew Bennett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bartholomew Bennett makes his horror debut with The Pales Ones, a slow-burn work of literary cosmic horror.

In this first-person account, we are introduced to a used book dealer who makes his way through the day-to-day patrolling the discount racks of charity shops for novels he can resell online. His dealings bring him into the orbit of Harris, another seller with a favor to ask and a spate of secrets to hide...

Bennett gives us hints of horror throughout The Pale Ones, small flashes of insight into that which lies beyond, hidden just out of view and slanted slightly askew from one's direct perspectives. At one point in their collecting of battered, broken spines and battered books, Harris talks briefly of magic and the secrets of illusion and revelation. It's a singular moment upon which The Pale Ones turns, shifting from a tale of shelf hunting into something more ambitious and deeper - if, that is, our narrator can be believed as Bennett begins to introduce some subdued moments of madness and hints of insanity.

You would think that a horror story involving books would be right up my alley, and while I appreciated The Pale Ones it's a bit too slow and uneventful for my tastes. I kept waiting for something big and impactful to occur, but Bennett keeps things decidedly quiet, taking a very soft and understated approach. There are elements within the narrative, though, that point toward twistier, thornier issues, the story wrapping around itself in Möbius strip-like fashion. It's interesting, if not deeply engaging; neat, but lacking any lasting power or splashiness to make it truly memorable.

[Note: I received an advanced readers copy of this title from the publisher, Inkandescent.]

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Review: Out Behind the Barn by Chad Lutzke and John Boden

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Out Behind the Barn
By Chad Lutzke, John Boden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not often do I finish a horror story and think immediately that it was quite lovely. Yet, that was my initial reaction to Out Behind the Barn, a slim novella from Chad Lutzke and John Boden.

That's not a whole lot else, frankly, that I can say without spoiling Out Behind the Barn. It's a slowly paced family drama, and the authors are absolutely methodical and deliberate in their parceling out of information. They drop hints to the nature of their characters with sly winks and nods, rather than through a pounding impossible-to-miss delivery. It's no mistake that the boys, Ronny and Davey, read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe and Ray Bradbury during their homeschooling sessions, and Lutzke and Boden use their characters' love for these authors to prime the pump of readers expectations.

Such is the manner in which seeds are laid, and when it comes time to reap their fields in the story's climax, Lutzke and Boden do so with the same reverential quietude that came before. I've not read Boden's work before, and Lutzke is an author I've only recently discovered. Of the former I can definitely say I'll be reading more of his material. Of the latter, I feel I can positively say that Lutzke is a writer who prizes emotional gravitas. He seeks out the hearts of his characters and plumbs their depths with familiar intimacy to the point that he stops writing characters and begins writing actual, full-fledged people.

Maggie and her boys are no exception. Each feels supremely realistic, and like most people, they have their secrets. What's most striking about Out Behind the Barn, though, is its eloquent sadness. There's a darkness here, an irreparable degree of psychological damage borne of deep sorrow, but also an atmosphere of love and hope. It is, after all, a story about family, of the rights and wrongs committed upon one another, as well as the damage. Oh, most certainly the damage.

[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from the authors.]

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Review: The Fungus by Harry Adam Knight

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The Fungus
By Harry Adam Knight, John Brosnan, Leroy Kettle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Fungus by Harry Adam Knight (a pen-name for collaborators John Brosnan and Roy Kettle) is a page-turner right from the get-go, wasting absolutely no time at all thrusting readers into the horror of a grandiose and apocalyptic plague. Knight hardly lets up on the rapid-fire pace, packing in plenty of mayhem, violence, and gore as the UK collapses quickly and totally.

As with Slimer, another Knight collaboration recently reissued by Valancourt alongside The Fungus, this is a story of science gone awry, however it's far more epic in scope. Knight showcases the peril of unintended consequences as a scientific answer to the problem of world hunger sees genetically modified fungus infecting broad swathes of England, turning the island nation into a no man's land forcefully quarantined by Europe.

I've got a heck of a soft spot for fungal horror and The Fungus hit on all the right notes for me. I loved that Knight drew on multiple species of fungus, and it's clear the authors did their homework in figuring out the various horrifying ways these modified strains would impact humanity. All those pesky homo sapiens suffer from things like dry rot, are eaten alive or violently explode, or develop symbiotic or parasitic relationships with the various types of fungus. Brosnan and Kettle threw in so much variety in these apocalyptic strains that it was absolutely impossible for me not to appreciate their studiousness and creativity, as well as the utterly twisted imagination required to pull it all off.

When it was originally published in the late 1980s, The Fungus proved to be the most successful of Brosnan and Kettle's Harry Adam Knight works, and I suspect this reissue may repeat that bit of history. I'm also hopeful that Valancourt will be able to secure to reprint rights to other Knight titles, like Bedlam and Carnosaur, as well as Brosnan's Simon Ian Childer pseudonym. Now that I've gotten a taste for Brosnan's and Kettle's works, I want and need more, and quickly too!

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Review: Slimer by Harry Adam Knight

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Slimer (A Star Book)
By Harry Adam Knight
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After their yacht sinks, a group of drug smugglers find safety aboard a seemingly abandoned oil rig in Harry Adam Knight's Slimer. But since this is a horror novel, you know damn well there's nothing safe about an oil rig left derelict in the middle of the North Sea, shrouded in fog and pounded by storm-churned waves. One look at M.S. Corley's gorgeous new cover for this Valancourt edition of a lost 1983 classic should help further solidify that assumption.

Valancourt, a heroic small-press publisher responsible for rescuing forgotten horror stories from the dustbins of publishing history, have outdone themselves with a pair of Knight novels to kick off October. This and The Fungus arrive just in time to satisfy Halloween reading splurges (along with a re-issue of James R. Montague's Worms), and I'm finding myself in a bit of eco-horror heaven.

Knight, a pseudonymous nom de guerre for UK authors John Brosnan and Roy Kettle, have crafted an energetic thriller rooted in scary science and influenced by horror classics like The Blob and John W. Campbells' Who Goes There (the basis for the 1951 film, The Thing from Another World, and John Carpenter's immortal 1982 classic, The Thing). Searching for the secret of immortality, a covert group of scientific researchers have created something new, something beyond their wildest dreams...something wildly monstrous.

While there's a clever bit of sci-fi shenanigans at the core of Slimer, it's merely crafty set-up to get us into the blood and guts of survival for these stranded criminals. Brosnan and Kettle avoid getting bogged down in the technicalities or plausibility of the science, but when they do slow down enough to explore the background of their story Knight presents a really nifty spin on Richard Dawkins's selfish gene theory. I also really dug the psychological aspects of their particular brand of horror here, particularly their explorations of what happens to the victims of this book's creature.

Slimer has a high body count and Knight is focused on action over characters, which makes it difficult to get too attached to anybody aboard the rig. This is a book geared primarily toward the spectacle of fun gory horror and, unfortunately, the characters are paper-thin as a result. The men are reduced to simple archetypes: Paul is the leader, Mark is the drug addict, Alex is the giant asshole. No further depth or dimension required. The female characters don’t even receive this much development, sadly, and are largely indistinguishable from one another, existing primarily to provide scenes of titillation and victimization.

The characters are really this book's biggest hurdle for me, particularly the redolent, dated whiff of 1980s misogyny, but Slimer remains a highly entertaining bit of escapist pulp. Despite the central premise being overly familiar nowadays thanks to both the prior works of horror that have clearly inspired it and those works that have since followed, such as Paul E. Cooley's The Black and Pig by Edward Lorn and Craig Saunders, Knight shows a few sparks of originality in their execution thanks to the science underpinning it all. Thirty-five years after its publication Slimer shows only a few signs of its age; it's still a spry, fast-paced work of action-packed horror.

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