Friday, October 30, 2015

Tomes Of The Dead: Empire Of Salt

Tomes of the Dead: Empire of Salt by Weston Ochse. Originally published by Abaddon Books, April 2010. Approx. 301 pages.

I really enjoyed the two Tomes of the Dead that I read last year, Stronghold and Viking Dead, so it was a given that I would review at least one this Halloween season. The first one I tried (not mentioning the name now, I'll give it another go another time and maybe a review next year) was pretty difficult to get into, so I shifted Empire of Salt to the top of the pile. Weston Ochse has spent way too long on my "to read" list, especially since I've heard nothing but rave reviews of his work in both the military fiction and horror genres.

So, what was Ochse's take on the shambler trope? And how did it fare? Empire of Salt is, quite simply put, an excellent zombie yarn. It combines a fresh take on the often stale undead formula, mixes in a good amount of shoot-em-up action, and incorporates a solid young adult underpinning that is enjoyable, not annoying or cloying. This is no mean feat.

The titular Empire of Salt is, in actuality, none other than the actual Salton Sea, the man-made sea resort in California, which is now derelict, and almost vacant, its penned-in waters an acrid, rotten, beer colored body of water, yielding daily bounties of dead and decaying fish.

Into this faded resort rolls a broken family; teen siblings Natasha and Derrick, their alcoholic father Patrick, and their live-in nanny, Auntie Lin. They've been drawn West by an economy in shambles, and the inheritance of a restaurant on the Salton Sea (due to Patrick's father dying in a sudden, rather gruesome manner). They leave behind the relative domesticity of Lancaster County, PA, in search of a new start. This is all quite hard on the teens, especially since they recently lost their mother as well. So, they have to place all their eggs in one basket and hope for the best. At least there is the promise of life near the sea.

Of course, as mentioned before, the current state of the Salton Sea is, well, less than ideal. Living among the decrepit trailers is an oddball mix of resident leftovers and castaways. Those who were too stubborn to sell or leave when things literally turned sour, and those who simply had no place else to go.

But there is more. Always, there is more. In addition to the inherent weirdness of the area, there is a sense of danger and foreboding. Rumors. Cryptic warnings to "beware the green", whatever that means. Mysterious traffic in and out of the local desalination plant. And then, just when Natasha and Derrick's family opts to stay and try to keep the restaurant going, people start disappearing.

Then things get much, much worse. Well, you can guess that there are zombies involved, naturally.

So let's take a gander at the story elements and see how they gelled into a solid tale.

Setting the scene: Ochse brings the Salton Sea to life for the reader. Given its current state of affairs, I cannot testify if that is a good thing or not. Seriously, though, he has a masterful grasp on descriptive writing. And it's not just in the background painting. Actions have a genuine fluidity as well. But as for the environment, Ochse throws us headfirst into a warped postcard with a panorama of piss-colored water and rusty trailers, hollow shells of dreams that once were.

Characters: Very good. The dramatis personae are all fun. The characters are given a lot of respect in honest portrayals. Every one is flawed; and most very much so. But all characters have something noteworthy, or catchy. They work well as comic book standouts, or memorable folks from a great B-horror movie (honestly, I would love to film Empire of Salt as an 80's style VHS horror flick). The core group, however, especially the teens, are outstanding. Don't get me wrong; I have nothing against teen leads, or YA fiction. It's just that it seems that much harder to do well, and maintain any semblance of authenticity. Oches does it here. In the acknowledgements, he mentions using his own kids as source material. He must have really been paying attention to what they said and how they acted, because he nails the teen portrayals.

Pacing: Pacing is good. We get a satisfying kill early on, that a good chunk of introduction before things take off. Some of the character interplay does not work as well as it should here. These folks are fleshed out well enough to carry the scenes, but it seems more written in a way to endear them, with all their individual quirks, to us.

There is no lagging in the middle of the narrative. The climax redefines breakneck. And brutal. Plus, even though the book ends in a somewhat open manner, it is a satisfying conclusion.

Action: Plenty. And it is some of the best described action you'll read in this type of book. The military sequences ooze authenticity. The zombie scenes play on all the potentials for horror these creatures bring to bear. There are some real tense moments, some scenes that made me jump a bit. That doesn't happen all too often, and it happened a few times at the end here.

Zombies: So what does Ochse do to make zombies, which some may think are stale and oversaturated, something unique and fresh? First of all, he crafts his scenario to explain why the zombie outbreak here is a localized, contained threat, and not an epidemic. He also creates a unique backstory for the existence of the zombies, and this gives him room to play with appearance. These guys are pretty frightening; green, mottled skin, glaring yellow eyes, and physical capabilities on par with there condition at the time of infection. Plus, they are pretty hard to put down. Ochse does not do them the disservice of having them drop like ragdolls with any old glancing blow to the noggin. No, it takes a dead-on shot right through the brain (and Ochse also knows that that particular money shot is not always obtained on either the first, second, or even third shot). In short, these zombies are winners.

Fear Factor: Yeah, there are some scares here. You really expect some levity based upon the fun back and forth early on. It doesn't last. Then you realize that Ochse doesn't wear kid gloves when he writes for his characters. Absolutely no one is safe here. And that gets scary after you spent fifty or sixty pages getting to really like people too.

All in all, this particular Tome of the Dead comes highly recommended. Only in general release in ebook format right now, you can still get a paperback copy in the secondary market (although the price tag is sometimes a little higher due to Ochse's name value). I got my copy pretty cheap on eBay, and I think that it most have been an early edition that didn't go to market, because there are a bunch of typos throughout. Some pretty glaring ones too. Or maybe that's in all editions. If anyone has a copy and sees them, please let me know.

Anyway, grab Empire of Salt. Definitely great zombie reading.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

That's a great cover. Look at the color scheme and rot effects on that zombie. Plus, this is one of the few times where you do get the cover scene in the book. Most of these Tomes of the Dead books have solid covers, and this is one of the top ones.

Cover Final Score:


Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Valley Of The Lost

The Valley of the Lost by Robert E. Howard. As appearing in The Black Stranger and Other American Tales anthology. Approx. 19 pages.

Although I was raised on Robert E. Howard's sword & sorcery epics, the older I get, the more and more I can appreciate his Western tales. Especially his weird Westerns. The Valley of the Lost is a horror Western, taking cues in its basic framework from another Howard masterpiece, the Bran Mak Morn epic "Worms of the Earth". But don't get me wrong; this story is much, much more than a literary palette swap. The Valley of the Lost is one of Howard's strongest yarns, in terms of tone, terror, and ferocity.

In Worms of the Earth, we had the tension stemming from the Roman occupation of Pictish lands. In Valley, what we get is a good, old-fashioned early Texas family blood feud. This one involves two clans; the Reynolds and the McCrills (plus a slew of cousins, friends, and hired guns). As the story opens, John Reynolds, one of the last of the fighting Reynolds, is on the run from a mob on the McCrill team following an intense shootout in town. His egress leads him into hiding in an area that the Natives term "The Valley of the Lost", which the white man had truncated to "The Lost Valley" (it's amazing how a small alteration changes the meaning entirely). As he waits for the McCrill clan to regroup and resume their pursuit of him, Reynolds ventures into a mysterious cave where his enemies have left one of their fallen members, in an attempt to retrieve the dead man's ammunition. What he discovers in the cave is a horror beyond his imagination.

This point is where the similarities between and differences in execution arise between Worms of the Earth and Valley of the Lost. In Worms, there were subterranean creatures which Morn sought to contract to enact his revenge. These were abominable creatures, who had degenerated badly from their once human stock.

In Valley of the Lost, there is no employment being pursued. Reynolds stumbles upon the lair of the remaining threads of a serpentine race, whose once thriving civilization had fallen victim to tide after tide of marauding hordes. This last vestige of that once proud, magical race has also suffered genetic blows due to the many years in exile below ground. In essence, they are shorter, beady-eyed versions of Sleestaks...

One of the many things that terrified 5 year old me.

They also still retain some of their magical prowess, including a terrifying ability to control the dead, giving us a taste of remote control zombies (there are two scenes with these; one an action sequence, and one a flashback, which are done very well). 

Also, in one vivid scene with a nice Lovecraftian touch, Reynolds is treated to visions of these creatures' history across the panoramic eons of time; their rise, their fall, and their degradation. Of course, the instant accumulation of such base knowledge is beyond maddening, and for the second time in this story, Reynolds has to mount a ferocious escape. Will he succeed?

I will say that The Valley of the Lost has some of Howard's strongest writing. Note: I don't know when this story was first published, but the editor's note in this anthology states that the text was taken from REH's typescript. Reynolds is a fierce character; here is a man driven solely on rage and anger. Howard's Western tales always have this strong vibe to them - it might be argued that his Western yarns are of an actual stronger quality than his sword & sorcery ones (quite a statement given the immense impact of his fantasy work). Perhaps it is also the benefit of writing what is near and dear to you. Whatever the reason, native Texan Howard makes this Wild West Texas come alive. 

The creature effects are fairly well done here. The darkness, permeated with an eerie green glow sets an effective mood. The action scenes are fast and furious. Best of all, these culminate with a very strong ending. 

With a few genuinely chilling moments thrown in to boot, The Valley of the Lost is a superb Weird Western that is perfect for Halloween Season reading!

Score: 9/10

P.S.: You can enjoy an audio reading of this story here. Personally, I'm not too crazy on the voice acting, but it still makes for a good hour of background noise.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Nightmare At 20,000 Feet

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet by Richard Matheson. Originally published by Ballantine, 1962. Approx. 21 pages.

Ah, now here we have a true classic. It is unlikely that you have not seen at least one of the screen adaptations of this, one of horror Grandmaster Richard Matheson's most popular stories. Whether you prefer the Shatner version or the Lithgow one, they are both terrifying in their own rights.

But how many of us have actually read the story that serves as the basis for this tale? And what exactly makes this yarn so enduring?

The fact is that Nightmare at 20,000 is more than a story of what may or may not be an actual monster tampering with the works of an airplane. It is about fears, phobias, and frustrations.

Our protagonist, Wilson, is traveling coast to coast on a business trip. we get the sense that he is pretty harried; no big fan of flight, irritable stomach issues, a general dissatisfaction with his life in general, Even his job comes with the fear of attack from looming youth gangs; hence, Wilson has taken to carrying a gun with him for safety.

But are these boogeymen real or in his head? The true test comes when, during the storm-tossed plane's flight, Wilson is sure he sees something, something very much like a man, tampering with one of the plane's engines. Not only that, this hunched, hairy creature is taunting him; taking advantage of the apparent fact that only Wilson is aware of him.

Wilson's calls for help make him seem, of course, all the more irrational. But, the creature's tampering is upping the stakes more with each minute. Who will ultimately win this battle of wits?

Matheson starts this story off extremely well. He uses a situation most of us can sympathize with: wariness of air travel, as the basis for understanding the danger. Along with this fear is the crippling claustrophobia of being in a plane, and the utter impotence of not being able to help in any way should anything start to go wrong.

The plane roils, so does Mr. Wilson's stomach. Even his mental state is tossed and turned. This really sets the overall tone.

The climax, however, is a tad bit rushed. It could be argued that the endings to either the TV episode or the movie version tied things up in a more satisfactory manner. Each of those end with a "kicker"; there is some evidence that shows something odd did, in fact, happen to the engine. The close here is a bit ambiguous; which is fine as well. We are left more to ponder whether Wilson lost his sanity, or made a desperate grab at something meaningful in what he already felt was an meaningless existence. Or, was there actually a creature on the wing? An actual gremlin, like the ones the men returning from the War talked about.

Track this story down and give it a whirl, it makes for a nice half hour of reading in the days before Halloween. Or revisit one of the film versions. The original Twilight Zone series is on Netflix, and this is Season 5, Episode 3. The movie version isn't too hard to find, just skip to this story (the last one, because the other ones kind of suck).

Final Score: 8/10 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Girl Next Door

The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum. Originally published by Warner Books, 1989. Approx. 320 pages.

Did you ever consider that the monsters, boogeymen, and other fantastical, grotesque creatures we envision are actually security devices? Identifiable, somewhat other-than-human manifestations of all the attributes we can easily point at and say "See that? That there is the face of evil." Why is it that we do that? We do it for so long, we do it so naturally, that we embrace the fallacy, the vain hope, that these values come from these monsters, as if our world would be utterly devoid of them.

We should only wish.

The truth is that the roots of these evil tendencies lay nowhere else but in our own black hearts, our own twisted minds. It is so convenient to paint an ugly face and say that it is the evil one. But no, evil is in us. It festers behind our flimsily constructed moral barriers; it oozes out in casual displays when there is general consent and allowance. And sometimes, true evil is right next door.

The Girl Next Door is a terrifying story. It is a true horror tale. It is not horror in that there is a demon, or devil, or slithering creature. It is horror because it tells what man can do to fellow man; or, as is the case here, woman to woman. And the horror aspect is amplified by its true crime underpinnings; yes, The Girl Next Door is based loosely upon (but fairly close to), the real life tragedy of Sylvia Likens.

The Girl Next Door is told from the first-person perspective of a boy named David, a seemingly normal All-American kid in the 50's, living in an idyllic little down in New Jersey. His house is on a row near the woods, and everybody knows everybody, all the kids play together, you know the deal.

Well, you also know going in that something bad is going to transpire. The opening chapters center on an adult David, and the whole account is being recorded as his testimonial. Or perhaps it is a confession.

Whereas David's house puts forward a semblance of normalcy (or at least a facade of one, since divorce for his parents is always seemingly on the horizon); his next door neighbors, the Chandlers are another story. There are three boys there; twins roughly David's age, and a younger urchin nicknamed Woofer, whose experiments with insects shows the hallmarks of a budding psychopath. Without a doubt, though, the most dynamic character at the Chandler's is the matriarch; single mother Ruth.

Ruth Chandler is a fantastically realized character. She is an aging beauty, who feels somehow that it is life that didn't meet her halfway. To her, her life has been a tragedy of circumstantial failures; she came from comfortable means and should have become elevated higher, she managed an office building when the men were fighting in World War II, only to find herself unemployed when they returned. Plus, her husband never made good on all his grand plans; he promised her the world and then handed her a desk globe. She condemns him as a lout, but a helluva man's man as well. The fact is, of course, that none of these portions of her past were as grand as her hindsight storytelling. All her confidence derives from regaling the ever-present clutch of pubescent boys with these tales of hers, as she drinks and chain-smokes her days away. The boys are infatuated with her manner and her looks; she's pretty hot as far as moms go, and the way she acts - she's one of the guys. She'll sneak you a beer or a cigarette, and you can always come and stay over. And so, she runs her home like a faded queen in her castle.

And then Meg and her little sister Susan arrive. Second cousins, they become orphans when their parents die in a horrific car crash. The girls did not emerge unscathed either; Meg (who is roughly two years older than David), carries a jagged scar down the length of one arm, and frail Susan is left in braces; most of the bones in her lower body shattered. Being a last family option, Ruth agrees to take them in. There is no way this could have been easy, though; her resources were already stretched thin with her own brood of boys (although, like most examples of American Trash, there is no shortage of beer and cigarettes in the house).

For David, meeting Meg is like a bolt of lightning hitting him straight in the heart. I do believe that this is what they refer to as a "sexual awakening". Ketchum writes these scenes fantastically; truly capturing emotions I haven't felt in almost thirty years, making you feel them like it was only yesterday. The awkward nervousness, the hesitations, the fear, the awe at the pure beauty and goodness of a young lady who seemingly stepped down from Heaven and into your life.

But, for some reason, things just don' t seem to click between the girls and their new mother figure, especially between Meg and Ruth.What starts out as tension and dislike for the beautiful teen descends into a cycle of hair-trigger punishments handed out for minor infractions.

Of course, things only get worse from there on. On beneath the anger is a seething undercurrent of sexual tension. Tension from Ruth's boys directed at Meg, and Ruth's inability to deal with her star fading as Meg's continues to rise.

As the severity of the punishments and mental abuse escalate, Meg tries to seek help from a local police officer. This, of course, being a small town in a different time, offers no help whatsoever to Meg, and only leads to Ruth finding out about her plea for assistance. Here is where everything takes the dramatic turn for the worse.

In the basement of the Chandler house is a concrete bomb shelter, built by Ruth's husband during the Red Scare. Meg is moved down here so that more brutal and intricate punishments can be unleashed on her. And the frightening thing is, because we are the creatures we are, the punishments do indeed get worse and worse, and attract a wider swathe of participants: local neighborhood kids.

At this point even David is a silent participant. Guilty of doing nothing, he watches and witnesses. In a brutal show of honesty, we are told the full palette of emotions that these scenes evoke in him; from horror and fear to excitement, arousal, and, perhaps most frightening of all, a sort of indifference. For as the sheer volume of pain inflicted rises, it seems possible to desensitize yourself to the shock of it all.

Isn't that always the case, though? As soon as the venue changes to somewhere private, out of public view, these true, abominable aspects of ourselves can shine through? That's why the bomb shelter is such an apt metaphor for the dark caverns of our own hearts.

Jack Ketchum can write great slasher fiction, we all know this. I think there is a part of us that wishes we could write off this book as spinner rack horror novel exploitation, going for shock value by upping the ante and putting a child in danger. But it isn't. Too often, way too often we read or hear about extreme cases of cruelty. Where people can make a concerted effort to systematically torture someone. Even as I write this, not two hours away from me here in Upstate New York, six members of a church are being held for beating a young man to death over the course of a 14 hour "counseling session".

It all goes back to what I was saying before about morality. We are simply not moral creatures; we just all consign ourselves to silent, mutual agreements to not to certain things to each other in the hopes that we get extended the same courtesy. But take someone off that map, and all bets are off. Plus, couple this with the fact that assent spreads through crowds like a plague.

Back to the book, Ketchum has written it very well. The characters are all brought to real life; even the background ones. The setting and scenery are real to the touch as well. He shows a mastery of tone as well. Since he introduces the lingering knowledge that something bad will transpire right from the opening chapters, all mundane and normal things come with a sense of dread. He chooses situations that will reflect that "up and down" feeling; from David's first meeting of Meg to the utter terror of trying to go next door and talk to her, to the elation of going up in a Ferris Wheel together, only to experience the gut-churning descent.

Ketchum also sets a perfect tone in depicting the violence. In the beginning, it is a shock, even a sort of grand event, that matches the heady excitement of the assailants and audience. But as it continues, it is just numbing depictions, mind-numbing, soul-crushing, life-destroying. As it reaches a climax, you don't even wish for just a miracle or a rescue, just an end. Any kind of end. Any kind of respite for this poor girl.

David makes an identifiable and sympathetic protagonist. On paper, it is easy to hate him. Hate him for "doing nothing", for bearing witness, even for his understandable arousal. But remember what it was like to be his age; under the full authority of adults, and small town protocols. These were oppressive guidelines to abide by, and in the end, he really does try his best.

In fact, the only problem I have comes towards the end. This is where there is a sense of justice is exacted. Sorry, but that is too clean of a resolution. The fact that the real life perpetrator of these crimes, Gertrude Baniszewski, was allowed a life, and ultimate parole, perfectly shows us how truly warped this world's priorities are. Other than that, it is a great book. Not a book to enjoy, and not a book to hide from. Truly a heart-wrenching experience.

If you are so inclined, you can watch the movie based on the book here:

You can also watch the movie An American Crime, based upon the actual Likens case, here:

And here are some interesting photos and such from the Likens case:

Final Score: 9/10

Friday, October 16, 2015

Hobgoblin Is Getting Republished!

It is very rare these days that a snippet of news gets me truly excited. You know, those announcements that stoke a new excitement, or tap a nostalgic vein and yank you forcefully down memory lane. On a recent saunter through some familiar sites, I spotted one such example.

I think I made it abundantly clear in my review of it how much I love John Coyne's 1981 fantasy role-playing inspired horror yarn Hobgoblin. If you haven't read my review yet, please give it a look here.

Well, on a visit to John Coyne's website (where my review is generously linked), I saw the news: Dover Publications is repubshing Hobgoblin, to be released on November 18th! Check out the great new cover:

Isn't that neat? I mean, I love the cover on my old copy, but this really taps into the influences of Celtic Mythology that is utilized in the book.

You can pre-order the new edition of Hobgoblin on Amazon here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Hounds Of Tindalos

 The Hounds of Tindalos by Frank Belknap Long. Originally published in 1929. Approx. 14 pages.

Today we take a look at one a classic Lovecraftian tale that has had a massive pop culture impact, Frank Belknap Long's The Hounds of Tindalos.

Hounds tells the tale of a tragic author named Halpin Chalmers, who decides to undertake a foolhardy experiment. By obtaining a mysterious East Asian narcotic, be plans to achieve a mental state in which he can perceive what is referred to as the Tao - which apparently is not a philosophy, but a way of seeing the true spectrum of time. To Chalmers, the concept of true time transcends so far beyond Einstein's concepts of curved space. Chalmers believes our present time is just the limited view available to the average person, a tiny slit of a glance into the real truth. Chalmers believes that with the help of the drug, he will see and experience all of the pasts, and futures, along with the present, running concurrently. And so, with his friend (and our narrator) Frank attending to him, he embarks on his narcotics-induced voyage.

Chalmers gets to see all the he dreamed, and more.

Chalmers also discovers nightmares he never expected, and worse. And, as is the true threat of these scenarios, sometimes when you look into the eye of evil, evil looks back.

The Hounds of Tindalos is a perfect primer for Lovecraftian myth. In fact, it had such a lasting impact that the Hounds themselves were incorporated into Cthulhu Canon. These creatures, born from a dark deed that transgressed in the infancy of time, move, as do other dark denizens, along angular time (not the curved time that we pass through). Once they have caught your scent, they are tireless in their pursuit, and they can reach their quarry through angles. Just think about that; look around whatever room you are in, and count all the right angles, and think of how you might best avoid the dread demonic dogs.

Frank Belknap Long writes this story extremely effectively; it moves along at such a brisk clip. The concepts posited here are both astounding and terrifying. Like some of the best horror readers, he leaves the actual conceptualizing up to the end user, and just crafts the accommodating mood. The reader is left in doubt of exactly what is there; the only constant is terror.

There is wonder here as well. Perhaps the most thrilling scene in the story is where Chalmers recounts his journey through time, bearing witness to so many major historical events. For those raised on classics and not Twitter feeds, how grand that concept must have been.

As mentioned, the hounds pop up in many other stories, and have influenced other pop culture genres as well. Take a look at some of them on the wiki page here.

The Hounds of Tindalos reside in the public domain, which is full of angular space. So watch the corners of your computer screen. Read the full story here.

Or, need some nice Halloween listening? Why not enjoy an audio reading of the story?

Need more tunes? How about the classic song by Beowulf?

Or the Metallica song influenced by The Hounds of Tindalos?

Or maybe the group that took their name from them?

Enjoy! And remember, "They are lean and athirst!"

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

In The Pines

In the Pines by Karl Edwards Wagner. Appearing in the Where the Summer Ends (Volume One) anthology, published by Centipede Press, May 2012. Approx. 30 pages.

I first discovered In the Pines a few years back. It hooked me instantly then, and I've made sure to read it at least once a year since then. Up to recently, I was hesitant to post single stories from anthologies, but now that I am definitely past that obstacle, I figured it was time to give this classic horror tale a proper write-up.

The thing that makes In the Pines hit so deeply is not necessarily its horror elements, but more of how it portrays the emotional condition. Bear in mind that Wagner was classically trained as a psychiatrist, and the mental deterioration of the protagonist lends authenticity and credibility to the horror of what transpires.

Gerry and Janet Randall are a young couple that had everything going for them. Gerry's career was going well, they were happy, and they were starting a family. One day it all changes when Janet gets into a car accident (it's not mentioned how it happened, just that it is her fault). This accident claims the life of their young child, leaves Janet nearly handicapped, and totally destroys their finances. As Janet leans more on self-pity, Gerry teeters off into alcoholism, and the emotional deconstruction begins.

We first meet Gerry and Janet as they are heading to a mountain lodge in Tennessee (they are from Columbus, OH) in the hopes that the time away will help with their mental convalescence. The lodge itself is in a scenic locale, but is somewhat rundown. With not much to do, Gerry explores that cabin and comes across a painting. Nothing so odd about it at a first glance; just a painting of a young lady in the dress of the 20's, set against a landscape of pines, much like those that carpet the Tennessee landscape. But to Gerry, there is a connection with the beautiful woman in the painting that he cannot deny, or refuse.

Ok, at this point you don't need a crystal ball to tell that there will be some kind of spectral bond between Gerry and the girl in the painting. That's not a spoiler; he finds the picture early on, and that's what sets the action in motion. As his research into the girl in the painting goes from curious to obsessive, he falls deeper and deeper into his alcoholism, becoming more and more distant and disgusted with Janet. And that's not all; the further he falls into his stupor, the more the girl in the painting seems real. Almost real enough to touch...

I mentioned before that it is a realistic portrayal of the emotional condition that makes this story hit home, and that is true. Wagner does not go the easy route, and have Gerry become "possessed" or turn into a gibbering madman. No. What happens in this story is built upon an existing foundation; there was already guilt, and resentment on the hands of both parties. Perhaps having all the security, safety, and happiness in your world cruelly yanked out from under you like a carpet is too much for even the strongest of us to bear. This is something that Wagner masterfully observes in a one page introduction to In the Pines; a truly gloomy, somber, heartbreaking page that sums up the feeling of absolute emptiness that plagues so many of us (these emotions aren't necessarily predicated upon the loss of a child). And so, all the anger, bitterness, etc., is cultivated from seeds already long taken root.

And that's what makes this terrifying. Imagine being trapped in a prison of your own heart. You cannot fault either Gerry of Janet for the deep fathoms of despair that they felt. As Wagner himself puts it in the last paragraph on the first page: "These places are best left to the loneliness of their grief..." It makes to whole notion of a retreat as bad a joke as their life had become. Of course, dark thoughts are always happy to fill the deep tears and recesses in our hearts.

The horror aspects of In the Pines are very effective, if somewhat predictable. You can see or guess what is coming, but the characters and placement are so real (I believe Wagner was a native of Tennessee, and you get a real sense of him writing what he knows) that you can't help but get jolted by them. Actually, the very ending was handled much differently than I had expected and it gives me a bit of a jump every time.

Perhaps the only thing I don't care for in In the Pines is a short segment where Gerry comes across the diary of a former cabin resident (the artist who created the infamous painting). These kinds of scenes, to me, always come off as shoehorned in for forced exposition, so it takes away from an otherwise seamless narrative. Other than that, In the Pines is pretty much flawless.

We all have our individual tastes, of course, but I usually refer to In the Pines as one of my top horror stories. If you can track down a copy of it (Wagner's stuff is always kind of tough to get), give it a whirl.

Score: 9/10

Oh, and if you have a few minutes, give this song (which serves as the basis for the title, and is referenced a few times in the story) a listen. Can't beat classics like this:

Thursday, October 8, 2015


Götterdämmerung by Jonathan Green. A Sniper Elite: Nazi Zombie Army short story, originally published by Abaddon Books, February 2013. Approx. 31 pages.

Just a quick mention before I get into the actual review - as of the time of this writing, this story is available for download absolutely FREE over at the Abaddon Books/Rebellion Publishing site. There's really no reason not to grab a copy. Link is here. Now, on to the review.

Ok, say what you will about the inherent evil of the Nazis. But, you cannot deny, they were the best dressed folks at the big party. I cannot help but wonder if a little bit of that, combined with the sheer heights of their evil, have kept them so relevant in pop culture even seven decades after World War II. 

It seems these days that there is a thriving sub-culture catering to the Nazi Zombie genre (actually, there have been books and movies for decades as well). You would think people would be tired of it by now. I guess some things never die. Exactly the case in point here.  

In Götterdämmerung, we meet a crack British sniper team tasked with a most urgent mission; infiltrate the city of Totenstadt, and eliminate a high value asset named von Teufel, a high-ranking member of the Nazi Party's occult division. 

The story opens with a bang, dropping us into the midst of a thrilling action sequence. This segues into a meeting with a deranged Nazi scientist, who leads our merry covert band down a true pathway to Hell. This all culminates with a scene which delivers on the promise of the title, set against the backdrop of a nightmarish Nazi occult machine. I haven't seen such a nightmarish summoning device since Urotsukidoji introduced us to the infamous Nazi Death Rape Machine...

Please, please, PLEASE forgive me using the horrid edited dub. It's all I could find on Youtube.

So, what works here and what doesn't? Götterdämmerung is a solid little Nazi zombie yarn. The opening scene is great; Green really captures the feel of the battle. For a moment, I didn't want it to stop being a traditional WWII story. As far as the supernatural elements go, kudos to Green as well. The climactic set-piece is, again, well constructed and well imagined. 

I will say that the best action takes place in those first few pages. The action in the latter portion has some real highlights, but it gets confusing at times too. 

Characters? Well, we don't get to know too much about the characters. Which is fine, since they are supposed to be going in deep cover. We get their names, and enough characteristics to make them likable (especially the two primaries; one is resourceful, and one is a tad jocular. Basically all you need for a short tale anyhow). As far as their prowess as snipers, and resourcefulness as commandos, that is done well too. However, again, in the later scenes, when all literally goes to Hell, so do their techniques. There is, though, one moment which I had a problem with: I don't care if you agree to follow a demented Nazi scientist to the target location, but I doubt any covert operative is going to willingly offer his full name, and nickname, plus the names of his fellow operatives to said nutcase. Then again, we can also assume that they were all operating under aliases, so there's that.

But what about the important stuff? Mainly, the zombies? They are done nicely, when they finally show up. Green puts his own touches on them to differentiate them from standard zombie fare. They are creepy, too. I just wish we could've gotten at least one or two more paragraphs with them (see, I'm not greedy). Just enough time to see some various stages of decomposition; time to see a broader range of their possible attributes so that we could quantify the true danger that the Nazis now had at their disposal.

Again, the zombies are done well, but to be honest, the setting of that final scene, and Green's description of the sheer horror of what was going on, were more scary than the monsters themselves. I hope that doesn't come off as backhanded praise; I honestly think the scenery trumped the actors. All of them. 

Solid Nazi zombie action here. A great read for an October night. Head on over to Rebellion Publishing and get your copy now.

One last thing that I feel I need to mention: there are, unfortunately, a fair amount of typos in this short story (I counted 3-4 pretty glaring ones). This kind of thing, you don't blame the author (or take points off), since we all make typos in our texts. It's just, the editor should've caught them. These things aren't the end of the world, but they do detract from a seamless reading experience.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Do I need to say anything? Just look at it.

Cover Final Score:


Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Into The Wood

Into the Wood by Robert Aickman. As appearing in The Wine-Dark Sea collection, Approx. 40 pages.

Approaching the Halloween season, I began harassing friends (as usual), whose opinions I hold in high regard, for horror recommendations. Not what would promise or guarantee the most fright, or shock, or blood and gore. Just what they thought was the apex of the genre. One friend's recommendation was to try Robert Aickman, whose stories fall much more firmly into the category of "strange" than horror. He also recommended that I begin with the short story "Into the Wood" which appears in The Wine-Dark Sea" collection. So, how did it fare? Well, again, it is not what you might think of as "horror". But I can say this...even though I finished reading it a day or two ago, it still hasn't left me, and I don't think it will any time soon.

Margaret Sawyer is a middle-aged Englishwoman, whose husband owns a construction firm. She is seemingly happy, and seemingly relegated to the mundane lifestyle of the housewife of decent means. This all changes when her husband takes a road-building contract in a remote area of Sweden.

On an outdoor excursion with some business associates and their wives, Margaret takes notice of a peculiar lodge in the woods. She is informed that in older times, it was a Kurhus, a sanatorium. Now, however, it seems to be inhabited by rather normal folk. With her husband heading off to Stockholm for more business dealing, Margaret opts to spend some time there, and finds that in fact nothing in there is normal, and, quite possibly, she might not leave there as what she might have termed her normal self.

For, you see, the Kurhus is a care center for insomniacs; true insomniacs, those who, from a certain point on, have never slept. At all. The tendencies and personality traits of these people make them pariahs in normal society. Most peculiar of all, the spend their evenings traversing a labyrinth of paths that surrounds the Kurhus. For what purpose, it is not clear.

A tale of insomniacs. That doesn't sound too chilling, right? So what makes Into the Wood stick with you? Aickman's English mastery, and his ability to weave a layered, intricate, moody tale. From the beginning, we don't find ourselves comfortable in Margaret's English home, and as soon as the narrative shifts to Sweden, the atmosphere becomes gloomy, and barren, just as the panorama is described. It is that same uncomfortable chill that clutches at your chest and doesn't let go. Events that transpire in and around the Kurhus feel insulated by the dense woods around them; isolated, and cut off from normal society. Completely intentional and meaningful.

My personal favorite aspect of Aickman's writing here is his intelligent wit. The best example is seen on the first page. Talking about Margaret's husband's business card (remember he is in construction), it lists his title as "Earth Mover"; even though, "he seemed to have neither the back muscles of Atlas nor the mental leverage of Archimedes". I mean, really, how can you top that.

Aickman uses clever tricks as well to make Margaret a much richer character than her outer appearance would imply. Pay careful attention to any physical cues when he is describing her movements. One good example is when her frustration over how she is supposed to dress leads to an offhand remark about the lack of eroticism in her marriage. You can see that repressed under the English housewife template is a simmering spirit. It makes you wonder; who are the ones that are actually asleep here? And, once one becomes truly awakened, will sleep, in the conventional sense, ever be had again?

The concept of insomnia itself is handled brilliantly. The average person would most likely find nothing wrong with the concept of perpetual wakefulness, but, strip away all these preconceived notions, and consider a lifetime without the respite of rest. It is no big surprise that Aickman can hint that perhaps this truly chronic insomnia may be at the root of legends of vampirism.

There are even some moments that are chilling in the classic sense. Any of the times we find ourselves on the twisting paths around the Kurhus, it taps into rooted fears of the dark, of the unknown, and of being lost.

If you like your horror with a catchy cover, a definable boogeyman, and an ending with a ribbon on it (even a bloody one), well, there's nothing wrong with that. But probably Aickman's work won't be for you. However, I definitely recommend everyone give one or two of his stories a whirl.

And so, I leave you with this line from the story, which seems to sum it up so well:

"Losing one's way was largely an act of intention."

Side Note: Just an odd mention, and I don't know if this appears like this in the British printings. For some reason, after the first few pages, the name of Margaret's husband changes from Harry to Henry. Is this an editorial oversight or a dimensional shift? We may never know.

Score: 9.5/10

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Nekht Semerkeht

Nekht Semerkeht by Robert E. Howard. Unpublished story fragment, edited by Steven Tompkins. Approx. 14 pages.

I had been planning on reviewing a different horror tale by Howard to kick off the October reviews, but when I was leafing through the introduction for this anthology, I stumbled on the synopsis for the story fragment Nekht Semerkeht. Having been on the lookout for a good conquistador tale ever since getting hooked on Aguirre: The Wrath of God a few months back, I decided to give it a look.

Just a quick disclosure before the review: this is a story fragment, not a complete tale. Editor Tompkins states that he combined the two existing drafts, along with outline notes, to get what we read here. I understand now that there is a version of this same tale, completed and released in 1977 by Andrew J. Offutt in his "Swords Against Darkness" anthology. I will definitely have to grab a copy of that in the future to take a look-see, but for now, we work with what we got.

Nekht Semerkeht is the story of Hernando de Guzman, an aged conquistador who has been separated from his group, and, in his lost meanderings, stumbles upon a village full of mysterious sorceries, and, possibly, the thing that truly stokes a fire in the wandering Spaniard's heart: gold. Somewhere in there as well is the titular sorcerer; an Egyptian wizard who is obviously very far from home, but possessing of immense power.

Now, I have no idea when Howard actually worked on this story, I have read that it was indeed one of his later ones. That explains a lot of the emotion contained herein. For, while what story we have is stretched across a paper-thin premise, this is one of the, if not the, most heart-felt Howard piece I have read.

The whole thing kicks off with an intense fight scene between de Guzman and an Apache warrior. The scene is taut, and well-done, showing much maturity over classic REH brawny, bloody scuffles (not that I don't love those as well). What follows from here, up until de Guzman discovers the village, is a pilgrimage of personal despondency which I cannot help but imagine somewhat paralleled what Howard was feeling in his life. There are repeated themes of not belonging, death being a true answer, the new land being too strange, but the home of your youth being an evaporating dream. Some truly heart-breaking stuff here.

When the story falls back into being more of an actioner, it does so in strong form. De Guzman is a compelling conquistador; in no ways a nice man, he is cunning, resourceful, and extremely lusty. Nekht Semerkeht has got to be one of the more sexually charged Howard shorts I have read, and that is a good thing.

Unfortunately, it is from the middle on that we can see that this is, indeed, just a fragment of what could've been. Whatever the capability of the magic being employed by those in the village, not explored. What brought Nekht Semerkeht to Mexico, and what was his rise to power like? Not expanded upon, sadly. I read some speculation that the foundation of the idea of an Egyptian sorcerer in Mexico was Howard's concept of how both areas have pyramids. That would've been great. As it is, the story climaxes with a routine duel between our primary combatants, and a long paragraph outlining what will happen next.

So now, you might be thinking, "what does any of this have to do with horror?" Well, not much. More like historical fiction with bonus sorcery, to be sure. But, there are two scenes near the climax which feature some nicely done creatures. There is a grand scene with an altar, a very naked and nubile young lady, and feeders from the sky. And, right before that, there is a very brief scene, only about a paragraph long, which presents a very creepy exchange in a pitch black corridor.

And there you have it. I am not rating this, since it is just a fragment. Maybe next year, I'll have a review of the completed Offutt version, and we can look at them side by side. Anyhow, you get one of the more emotional Howard tales, some sorcery, a little horror, and a bad ass conquistador lead. Enjoy!