Book Review – Prep School for Serial Killers by Tara Platt

I must admit, that when I started reading this book, I had a vague idea in my head: boarding school, rich kids, teen romance, probably some alcohol/drug abuse, some student surely in love with their teacher (or vice versa), and some above-the-law kids thinking they can get away with murder.

That is not remotely what this book is like. This book is Handmaid’s Tale meets Hunger Games meets Josh Malerman’s Inspection. This is a future where pills have taken away humanity’s ability to feel much of anything, and kids who test high enough on the sociopath scale are sent off to special schools where they are actually trained to be assassins. When they reach their last two years of school, they take part in Killslip Day, when every student is assigned to kill another, and the class size is halved by day’s end.

Enter protagonist Anathema, who discovers a secret diary from the past hidden under a loose floor tile, a diary which makes her start wondering about things she’s never considered before, and maybe even feeling. Add to her new mental muddle the fact that every student in this school must be constantly on alert lest one of their classmates (or teachers) murder them out of turn, AND that she has begun noticing some highly suspicious activity among certain students and faculty, and Anathema is in for one heck of a school year.

The actual plot takes awhile to get going; the first half of the book sometimes feels like a school syllabus of ways to poison and torture people. Once that second half hits, however, and the plot thickens up nicely, with one dangerous mystery piling on top of another, the pace picks up and snowballs to a tense conclusion on Killslip Day, when Anathema must make choices that will alter not only her life, but may possibly put things into motion that will affect the world.

Anathema herself is a character that takes a while to like. In the beginning she’s rather cold and unrelatable. As the story progresses, however, she gains a bit of humanity and I found myself rooting for her in the end.

A school-based thriller unlike any I’ve ever read, this one leaves itself wide open for a sequel and I hope we get one. I’d like to see what the students of the Prep School for Serial Killers do, the choices they make and the beliefs they follow, as they go out into the world.

Book Review – The Dead Unleashed, edited by Matthew Hollis Damon

The Dead Unleashed is a monster of a book, coming in at 567 pages containing thirty stories.

Though it may take awhile to read, the time is well spent as editors Matthew Hollis Damon and Marie Lanza have curated an excellent and varied anthology. I thought, when I first started the book, that I was in for a lot of similarly-plotted zombie tales. After all, the basic zombie scenario doesn’t tend to waver all that far off course.

Well, I am not ashamed to say that I thought wrong.

There are plenty of predictable (but still entertaining and well-written) zombie stories here, but there are also a LOT of stories that take the plotlines and the character of the zombie itself into totally new territory.

Marie Lanza gives us a conspiracy theorist’s dream in her tale, “Operation Z”, while Joseph C. Dinallo mixes Lord of the Flies with young love in “Our Last Day of School Ever”. Jay Wilburn throws out some sneaky baseball references along with some landscaping-stones-to-the-head in his story, “Overhand Follow Through”, and RJ Spears made me absolutely cheer with delight with his tip-of-the-hat to Ray Bradbury in his contribution, “The Living Dead Man”.

I laughed when I read Chad A. B. Wilson’s tale of hipster zombies who think humans smell like tacos (“Hipster Apocalypse”) and Kurt Newton’s story of a Christmas party, a Ouija board, and a zombie done wrong (“The Merry Maskless Christmas Eve Ball”). Other stories had a surprisingly heartwarming feel to them, like Steve Oden’s “Planted” and Stanley B. Webb’s “The Disincarnate”.

You’ll find these and many other bloody good tales of zombies – and a ghost or two, some taxidermy brought to life, and Death themself – in this outstanding collection.

Book Review – The Carnival and Other Stories by Charles Beaumont

The name Charles Beaumont will be familiar to some, as a fairly prolific writer of short stories in the mid-twentieth century, and especially as a writer of almost two dozen Twilight Zone episodes.

The stories in this collection feel like Twilight Zone episodes. I had Rod Serling’s voice narrating in my head as I read. These tales are often weird more than horrifying, although a good deal of psychological suspense and tension certainly makes them unsettling. Beaumont takes situations which are quite mundane but then injects some wacky little bit of un-reality into them, and that’s the beauty of his stories. They almost seem like they could really happen. They are close enough to the lives we live to make the reader stop, with a sinking feeling in the gut, and ponder just how far off in the future these things might happen, or whether or not some of them could he happening all around us, and we’re just too blind to see.

Beaumont isn’t all anxiety and despair, though. He injects a good bit of snarky cynicism and outright outlandishness into his stories as well. He throws out impossible descriptions like they’re no problem at all, and as a reader, you’ll find yourself backing up to make sure you read the last sentence correctly. Then you shake your head and chuckle and keep reading.

There’s a lot of great weirdness here. Though some of the stories focus on more sobering themes, many are just plain fun. The story that will probably be sticking with me for a good long while is “Mass for Mixed Voices”, in which a man in an alternate/futuristic society finds solace from the idea of death in his garden.

I highly recommend this book to fans of The Twilight Zone, readers who love weird fiction, sci-fi/fantasy horror, a good psychological horror, and anyone who is already familiar with Beaumont and wants a gorgeous collector’s edition.

Book Review – Classic Monsters Unleashed, edited by James Aquilone

Nostalgia (noun) – a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.

That is the overwhelming emotion I felt while reading this book. There’s something amazingly comforting about revisiting old characters – Dracula, Frankenstein and his monster, The Wolf-Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and many more. It’s like meeting an old friend on the street and stopping to chat for awhile and see what they’ve been up to since you last saw them.

These stories take the old classic characters and breathe new life into them in ways which are inventively new and clever while still showing the greatest respect for the original tales.

Most authors in this anthology will be familiar names to those who love horror, especially readers who have spent some time hanging around the indie scene. These are top-notch writers, and the stories, while depicting horrible things, are beautifully written with skill and finesse.

Normally with an anthology, I’d share three or four of my favorite stories, but with this one every story is so good that doing that doesn’t seem fair. I will single one tale out, however: Kelsea Yu’s “A Tale of Wickedness”. If I had to pick a favorite, this would be it. It is a story both disturbing and heartbreaking, and I did not realize which monster it was based on until the very end. Prepare to have your childhood shocked into ruin with that story, folks.

This whole collection was a delight. If a horror book can make someone happy, this is the book to do it.

Book Review – Symphony of the Damned, edited by TroyAnthony Schermer

There are two basic kinds of anthologies: those with a strict, well-defined theme and those which simply contain a broad variety of stories within a certain genre. Symphony of the Damned is one of the latter. The general theme seems to be simply: horror. The stories here are all over the place – in a wonderfully multifarious way.

The beauty of anthologies like this is that there’s sure to be something here for everyone. If there are a few stories which don’t grab the interest of the reader, it’s easy enough to skip over them and go to the next. (I did this with two or three tales, simply because it was obvious from the start that they were sci-fi horror, which I don’t generally care for.)

The stories which stand out as clear winners will vary according to the reader’s preference, but here were my favorites:

“#22” by Matt Martinek – A man purchases a piece of serial killer memorabilia and discovers that the killer lives on in his artwork.

“Heartache” by Buck Hanno – imagine being a patient who is awake but unable to move or react in any way during a four-hour-long major surgery. Imagine the pain and the panic. Enjoy.

“The Essence of Me” by David Lowrie – an aging sorcerer hides himself away in a hoarder’s paradise of a house, always careful to make sure that no part of himself ever leaves the house lest his old enemies use this leaked part of his essence to find him. Of course, one can never be completely sure…

“The Death Party” by Catherine Jordan – a story in which lovers of Mr. Poe will find much to get excited about.

“Sins in the Flesh” by J. Miles Parker – this one is more of a novelette than a short story, taking up the last seventy-four pages of the book. It reads like a schlocky teen horror flick from the 1980s, complete with a group of people in an old abandoned hospital, ridiculous sex scenes, and bizarre, grotesque monstrosities. It’s disgustingly good fun.

This anthology is one of those that’s great to keep on your bedside table, picking it up to read a story or two each night before going to sleep. It’s sure to give you pleasant nightmares.

Book Review – Ancient Sorceries by Algernon Blackwood

Blackwood’s tales are classics. Of the four stories in this particular collection, I had clear memories of having read two before. The thing which stands out to me in Blackwood’s writing is his use of the first-person narrative and his skill at using that point of view to impart a real sense of anxious fear into his writing. He gives the barest hint of foreshadowing so that we know something strange is going to happen, but makes us rush through the tale alongside the narrator trying to figure out exactly what that strange thing is. Building tension is his forte.

The stories included are:

Ancient Sorceries – a man on holiday takes a detour in a little town where no one is what they seem, and must fight against the hypnotic allure of a lithe young lady and vague memories of his past self, lest he find himself stuck forever in the dreamy little village. Readers with ailurophobia will find this tale especially disturbing.

The Listener – a poor writer rents suspiciously cheap rooms in an otherwise-empty boarding house, only to be plagued by visions of a shadowy figure who listens at his door, sneaks into his rooms, and drives the narrator half-mad as he fights to maintain control of his own mind against the figure’s increasing strength.

The Sea Fit – four men gather in a hut near the sea, and it’s all fun and games until the old sea gods come calling for a willing sacrfice.

The Willows – two friends on a trip down the Danube find themselves stuck on a shrinking island as strange sights and sounds rub their nerves raw and time ticks slowly toward a seemingly inevitable conclusion. Exactly who or what the strange forces are remains a mystery to the end.

Blackwood wrote during the early part of the twentieth century and thus his style straddles the line between the Victorian writers of Gothic tales and the more modern stories of mid-century authors. A bit wordy at times but worth the work, these are stories which start out slow and pick up steam like a train headed straight for a steep cliff.

Book Review – Mirrormaze, edited by Cliff Jones Jr.

It’s hard to write a review when you’re not quite sure you’ve touched back down in reality yet, but here goes…

Mirrormaze is an anthology unlike any other. I’m not sure I can form many coherent sentences after reading it, so here’s some words and phrases:

Fever dream,
Bad drug trip,
Good drug trip,
Hallucination,
Past life experience,
Waking dream,
Heatstroke mirage,
Semi-conscious mind-drifting.

The stories in this collection take place in that vague, shadowy land halfway between waking and dreaming. There are strange things here, bizarre things, feelings of panic and helplessness but also of dream-quest clarity. The books starts out by addressing the reader directly, informing you that you’ve just accidentally introduced a strange new drug into your bloodstream and then run for safety into a mirrored funhouse in the midst of an abandoned amusement park. It then allows you to progress through the stories in choose-your-own-adventure style, which adds wonderfully (horrifically) to the feeling of disorientation and outright weirdness that flows through the entire book.

The stories are all well-written, beautifully written, actually, and the writers obviously have some crazy stuff happening in their imaginations. I’ll be happy to recommend this book to lovers of the strange and unusual, as soon as my eyes uncross and the room stops spinning.

Book Review – The Horror Zine’s Book of Werewolf Stories, edited by Jeani Rector & Dean H. Wild

If the image of a bank of clouds rolling back to reveal a glowing moon makes something tingle deep inside you…

If a chorus of distant howls causes a stirring in your blood…

If the image of a man, silhouetted against the moonlight as his bones crack and his face elongates into a snout and hair sprouts along the ridge of his back makes you pump your fist in the air and shout, YES!”…

Then this book is for you.

The Horror Zine’s Book of Werewolf Stories brings together twenty-five shirt-ripping, teeth-baring, guttural-snarling stories from names big and small. The collection includes tales written from both the victim’s and the wolf’s perspective. There are werewolves who are bloodthirsty monsters and those who try their hardest to retain some sense of humanity. There are stories which question whether their characters are werewolves at all or men suffering from psychiatric delusions. There are wolves at war, wolves at sea, wolves in the woods and wolves in the city.

A few stories which stood out to me:

“The Change” by Ramsey Campbell – a psychological horror in which a writer becomes obsessed with – and then paranoid about – the strangers who gather just beyond his window in the blue glow of a bus stop lamp, and regresses to a primitive form of himself in his distress.

“Savages” by Trish Wilson – a feral child is found and held for observation, until the wolves who raised him come back for what’s theirs.

“The Midnight Club” by David North-Martino – a serial killer who lives for the thrill of the hunt gets what’s coming to him when his prey turns to predator.

“Origin of the Species” by JG Faherty – easily my favorite story in the whole collection, this one gives us a fascinating origin story for the werewolf race.

With an introduction by Stephen Graham Jones and a foreword by WD Gagliani, this anthology of moonlight metamorphosis is a great addition to any horror lover’s library, and a much-needed tome on a worthy but oft-overlooked horror character.

Book Review – Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations, edited by Eric J Guignard

My review for this one is going to be short for the simple reason that this particular subgenre is not one of my favorites. Please don’t take that to mean this book is not good, because it absolutely is.

This collection is full of tales of peoples and places long-forgotten. Some are real places lost to the mystery of history, some are imaginary worlds in which the ravages of time have all but erased the evidence of certain locales and beliefs. One or two even take place in imagined futures in which our own time is seen as the past.

The writing is flawless; anthologist Eric J. Guignard knows how to pick and assemble a group of stories around a common theme. I think fans of alternate histories and fantasy/sci-fi horror will find this a fascinating book full of unique stories.

Book Review – The Basement of Dream by Simon Bleaken

In The Basement of Dreams & Other Tales, Simon Bleaken takes his readers on a twisted journey into a series of bizarre fever-dream landscapes. Lovecraftian and sci-fi horror are prominent; strange alien creatures and cosmic voices echo throughout the tales.

Within the collection are stories set in the real world (if you don’t mind the real world having strange creatures lurking about), stories on distant planets, and stories in desolate fantasy lands.

My favorites of the lot include:

“The Basement of Dreams” – a young man looking for companionship finds something else entirely when he’s tricked into a labyrinthine portal to terrible lands beyond imagination.

“The Forbidden Panacea” – a weary traveler seeks healing in the temple of a goddess, where his own sins will come back to haunt him.

“The Watcher from the Wall – a story absolutely dripping in Lovecraftian homage. An artist begins to see strange marks on the wall of his Arkham apartment, marks which soon reveal the visage of a man who seems to be emerging slowly from the empty space beyond. Who is the man, and what exactly is happening to him? A hidden journal will reveal all, but is perhaps best left hidden.

“Underhill Rectory” – easily my favorite as it’s the one story that veers away from cosmic and sci-fi horror and stays firmly within spooky-haunted-house territory. A man buys and begins living in an old rectory, only to have strange noises and moving objects haunt his days. A ghost story with a little twist at the end (because apparently Bleaken has to have at least a tiny bit of weird mixed into every story).

This is a great collection. Fans of Lovecraftian terrors and sci-fi/fantasy horror will like it best, but intelligent writing and wonderfully described settlings will make these stories highly enjoyable even for those (like me) who generally prefer other subgenres.

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