Blood & Gristle

•July 6, 2010 • Leave a Comment

By Michael Louis Calvillo
Bad Moon Books
ISBN: 978-0-9844601-0-6
2010; $21.95

When I received this for review, the name Michael Louis Calvillo was one that I recognized, but couldn’t place. That is not meant to be a slight against the author, but I read so many books and short stories that unless what I read is truly memorable, the author of such work sadly slips through the cracks in my overstuffed memory banks. Well, I’ll tip my hand a bit early about what I thought about this book by saying this; after reading Blood & Gristle I don’t think I’ll have any problems remembering this author’s name from here on out.

Blood & Gristle is a collection of twenty very strange short stories. The book, by Bad Moon Books, is an attractive trade paperback made even more fetching with the inclusion of disturbing ink illustrations that start off each tale by artist Daniele Serra. Now that the niceties are out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff, and good stuff this is, if at times downright bizarre.

“Head Two” starts off the collection and is a good example of what you can expect in this book. It’s a very short tale, only four pages, but it’s focused, intense, and wonderful in its weirdness. Without giving too much away, imagine kids and severed heads. Oh don’t worry, it’s not what you think, it’s weirder than that.

Another story I really enjoyed was “The Box”. It starts off with a teen that was a lot like me when I was a youngster so that right away got my attention. The kid finds the titular box on the doorstep of his house and at first I thought the story would be a riff on Matheson’s “Button, Button”. It’s not though, and Calvillo’s story is very much its own and a wonderfully bizarre one at that. It’s also one of the longer stories in the book.

“Evolutionary Principles” was another tiny tale that I liked a lot for its efficient prose. It’s about a woman watching a man commit suicide and how it affects her. Another short-short (there’s a lot of stories here that come in under the five page mark) was “Gell-Us-See” which seemed to be a bit of insanity captured in words about the green eyed monster that lives in all of us. Another surreal shortie was “Consumed”, a story ostensibly about a man trapped under a pile of rotting corpses (yummy), but underneath its putrid surface there’s a bit more to the tale than that.

The last story I want to shine the light on is the final one in the book, and the one that gives the collection its title – yet oddly it doesn’t quite seem like fiction. “Blood & Gristle” is a tale about a man coming to terrifying grips with his own mortality and how he tries to cope with it. Namely, that man becomes a writer, presumably of dark and horrifying things. Hmmm, could this be a bit of an autobiography, by chance?

I thoroughly enjoyed Blood & Gristle. There wasn’t a stinker in the bunch, although some stories were a bit too weird even for me upon first reading. However that just gave me an excuse to read them again. In addition to the quality of the writing, I like the juxtaposition of very short stores in between the longer, meatier ones, and as mentioned the art was a very nice touch indeed. I can recommend this book to any fan of weird horror fiction and as I said, I’ll definitely remember the name Michael Louis Calvillo. If you read Blood and Gristle I’m positive you won’t soon forget it either.

– Reviewed by Brian M. Sammons

The Castle of Los Angeles

•July 6, 2010 • Leave a Comment

By Lisa Morton
Gray Friar Press
ISBN: 978-1-906331-15-3
2010; $14.00 Trade Paperback

From UK publisher Gary Fry and his Gray Friar Press comes Lisa Morton’s first novel, The Castle of Los Angeles. Lisa has been gaining ground with numerous anthology and magazine appearances – as well as winning a Bram Stoker award for her recent novella The Lucid Dreaming. Here she clocks in with a longer work.

The premise is somewhat simple. Beth Ortiz is a theatrical director who takes up residence in The Castle, a reputedly haunted old theater partially inhabited by a popular, but reclusive artist. The artist, Jessamine, is heavily into mysticism and develops a strange fixation on Beth. It is also evident very early on that the castle is in fact haunted and strange things start to occur.

Morton has been a bit up and down for me in her writing honestly. This is typical of writers working their way up the ranks. The Castle of Los Angeles is a decidedly more mature work though. The characterization is strong and Lisa keeps the chapters short and tight to keep the suspense going. In his introduction, Gary Braunbeck says that Lisa must have worked in the theater in the past, as her observations of this lifestyle are spot on. I would have to agree and I think this adds a depth and realism to the story. A strong first novel by a writer to watch.

– Reviewed by James R. Beach

When Darkness Loves Us

•July 6, 2010 • Leave a Comment

By Elizabeth Engstrom
Apex Publications
ISBN: 978-0-9821596-6-8
September, 2009; $14.95

Seeing this reissue of Elizabeth Engstrom’s first book brings me back. I happened across it in the late 1980’s and it made an immediate impact on me. Elizabeth had a strong story in one of Charlie Grant’s anthologies and I had remembered the name and took a chance on this book. It’s remained a favorite of mine since then. Little did I know, it would have an even bigger impact on me later on in my own life. Fast forward about 13 or 14 years and I’m sitting in a writing workshop headed up by Mrs. Engstrom (an excellent and much in demand writing teacher as well) and picking her brain on publishing. I learned a lot from her and she also granted an interview and contributed a brand new story to my fledgling publication, Dark Discoveries. Her name and credibility led to others taking a shot on my new venture and for that I’m ever grateful (and led to other appearances in DD over time). And it all started with this book right here.

But enough of the personal aside! Let’s get on with the book. When Darkness Loves Us is actually two novellas put together. The title story is about a young woman, Sally Ann, who is trapped underground and has to learn to adapt and continue to survive – even in the face of giving birth to a child in the midst of this predicament. The second novella, “Beauty Is…”, tells of a woman named Martha who is born without a nose who is considered to be the town idiot, but is much smarter than people think and quite special. The story alternates between her upbringing and family life, to the current time period and her breaking out of her shell and taking command of her life. The outcome is slightly predictable, but no less devastating.

In a new forward, Engstrom states that she did very little in the way of revision to the stories – other than a couple minor fixes – as it was an early work and she would have ended up rewriting the whole thing. My opinion is that the stories still hold up very well. There are certain traits that remain evident in her writing to this day such as: strong female protagonists and solid secondary characters, quirky premises and good plot lines and conflict resolution. Liz really cares about and loves her characters and it shows through – even in this early work.

The late Theodore Sturgeon (a Science Fiction/Fantasy writer known for his strong sense of love imbued in his work), states in his introduction to the 1st edition (reprinted in this new version): “And now I envy you, and anyone who has not, but who is about to, meet Elizabeth Engstrom. Behind that soft-voiced style is power, is surprise, is – well, that ferocity I mentioned.” If this is your first taste of Elizabeth Engstrom’s writing, I envy you as well.

– Reviewed by James R. Beach

The Occult Files of Albert Taylor

•May 10, 2010 • Leave a Comment

By Derek Muk

Impact Books

ISBN: 978-1449541958

2010; $14.95 

Though all of Derek Muk’s eleven stories (nine reprints and two first publications) in this anthology are all supernatural in theme, and all have the same protagonist, an anthropology professor named Albert Taylor, they are each unique enough not only to keep you interested, but also intrigued until the last word. Each story is presented as a different case study from Taylor’s files, and the topics of these files touch on all the popular issues that you’d expect to find in an occult collection.

They range from a story about vampires on the Hawaiian Islands (“Competition”) to a couple about UFO’s and ET’s in Northern California (“Sun Disc” and “Ghost Town”). Most of the stories are pretty straight forward, search-and-find, investigative style tales and are prone to spoilers so I don’t want to say too much about any particular one. But I will say that “Footprints” and “Dear Boss,” stories about Bigfoot and Jack the Ripper, respectively, were two of my personal favorites because of their surprise endings. And “The Exhibit,” which pits Taylor’s investigative skills against fifteenth century Spanish inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada, was also a very fun and exciting read.

Unlike other authors of the occult genre, Muk will not bore you with lengthy descriptions of scientific research or quirky gadget lingo. These stories are strictly about people and the fear of the unknown, which makes them easy to relate to and enjoy. Fans of shows like “The X-Files,” “Twilight Zone,” and “Fringe” will find this anthology especially appealing.

– Reviewed by Jeremy Hepler

Thought Forms

•May 10, 2010 • 1 Comment

By Jeffrey Thomas

Dark Regions Press

ISBN: 978-1-888993-71-4

2009; $18.95

Dark Regions press, after publishing the Jeffrey Thomas collection Voices from Hades not long ago, is back with a new novel by the author. Well, not exactly new. It’s one that Thomas wrote back in the 1980’s but never published. Not an uncommon move for Mr. Thomas as he’s done this with various Punktown stories and novels he (and sometimes with his brother) wrote in their early years. Certainly can’t fault him, strike while the fire is hot, right?

The novel centers on two cousins, Ray and Paul, who start to experience strange happenings in their daily lives. Ray’s parents were murdered when he was much younger and he was raised by his Aunt and Uncle (Paul’s parents). When he becomes an adult, Ray moves into his parents house and that’s when strange things start to happen. Thomas has a knack for coming up with bizarre premises and disturbing imagery and he certainly uses that to full effect here.

Using alternating plotlines, Thomas weaves the stories between the two main characters. There are many things to recommend about the book though – strong imagery, solid characters, well crafted suspense within the chapters, original story  –  but there are a couple of knocks against it. The first is that the setting is in the mid-1980’s and he doesn’t update any of the dated references. If he had the characters reflecting back in time on what happened that might work a bit better, or if he had just updated it to the current time. The second is that the chapters are quite long. On one hand, it gives him more time to flesh out the characters, but on the other I think it loses some of the suspense and focus at points. Maybe he could have cut up the chapters and alternated them more frequently. That way the suspense is kept a bit tighter and maybe even use cliffhangers. So a couple of quibbles, but I’d recommend the book even with the faults as Thomas has still crafted a very creepy tale.

– Reviewed by James R. Beach

Within His Reach

•April 17, 2010 • 1 Comment

By Steve Gerlach

Tasmaniac Publications

ISBN:978-0-9806367-1-0

$14.00 Trade Paperback

$80.00 Lettered Hardcover

 From down under comes a new novella by Steve Gerlach, Within His Reach. Known for more extreme horror in the Richard Laymon/ Jack Ketchum vein, this is quite a departure for him. This story is very much an homage to Rod Serling and his Twilight Zone television series. The introduction by William F. Nolan sets the tone by touching on his own fond memories of the show, and all of his friends who were (both major and minor) contributors to it. It’s a nice way to kick off Gerlach’s trip into the fifth dimension.

The story follows Arnold Enright, who currently resides in an iron lung in hospital after being struck down with polio. Arnold’s been there for six years and his wife left him early on with their unborn daughter – who he hasn’t seen since she was born. He’s pretty much given up hope when his doctor proposes a radical surgery. But when Arnold wakes up he gets a big surprise.

This is a well-written, touching and poignant story. Reminiscent of “Where is Everybody” in some ways, it also has the nostalgic feel of “A Stop at Willoughby”. The ending was a tad predictable – especially if you’re a fan of the original series, but you’ll still enjoy the ride. Part of the charm of TZ was exactly that – if you’ve seen a few of them you know the type of ironic, O’Henry twist endings that were part and parcel to it. Gerlach captures the spirit of the Twilight Zone, as does Alan M. Clark’s artwork. Whether you’re a fan of the show, or just like a good fantasy story, I think you’ll like this one.

– Reviewed by James R. Beach

Neverland

•April 13, 2010 • Leave a Comment

By Douglas Clegg
Vanguard Press
ISBN: 978-1-59315-541-4
April 2010; $15.95

Douglas Clegg is one of only a few dark fantasy writers who can make a huge splash with a re-release. He’s just that good. Book after book, he consistently shows an unmatched ability to write creepy, suspenseful, and wickedly humorous thrillers. Vanguard Press’s re-release of Neverland, originally published in 1991, is no exception. In this coming of age story, Clegg draws you in from the get-go with great child characters who act, think, and speak in ways you would expect from a child.

Every summer Beau Douglas – a young boy on the verge of adolescence – and his family vacation at his Grammy Weenie’s ancestral home on Gull Island, Georgia, a place where the locals (Gullahs) spread dark tales of mass murder and ghosts. Soon after arriving on the island, Beau follows his cousin Sumter into an old shack they are forbidden by their parents to enter. Immediately after Beau and his twin sisters begin hanging out in the shack which they call Neverland, they become infatuated with the dark creature Sumter keeps in a crate and claims is a god named Lucy. In the shadows of Neverland, the children begin bringing their childhood dreams, both good and bad, to life with the help of Lucy. With Sumter as the ringleader, they go on a macabre journey through rebellion and worship and sacrifice that eventually turns the entire island into a place of relentless nightmares.

Clegg brings Beau and the other characters to life in Neverland with short, breezy prose that makes this book very hard to put down. Clegg is truly a master of imagination and fantasy. “Neverland” is one of the spookiest, most unpredictable adolescent tales that I’ve read in a long while. And it’s believable. That’s what makes it so frightening. If you’ve read it before, I say do so again. If, like me, you missed the first printing, you need to get a copy of this one.

– Reviewed by Jeremy Hepler