Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Story Sample: Richard Writhen

Piggybacking from my recent review of Richard Writhen's novella "The Hiss of the Blade" (Celestial Ways Saga Book 1). I have to admit, it was tough to encapsulate the experience of reading his prose in a succinct manner -  rich vocabulary, poetic delivery, and evocative, yet brutal matter.

So, perhaps instead of explaining, the best thing to do is experience it. That's why I am happy to share this short excerpt from Richard Writhen. This is a sample from the Celestial Ways Saga Book 2, which will be released in 2018 with the title "The Angel of the Grave"...

Without further adieu, here is the excerpt. This portion is called "The Tiny Ones":

In the southwest corridor of the dry desert nation of Galgran lay the capitol city of Hruute. It was in a hovel there that two girls and a woman were sitting down to their meager supper, only afforded by that day’s earnings on the streets; porridge for dinner was par for the course in Sadine’s home; it wasn’t glamorous, but then very little about her early life was. Her mother was named Candace Cottrell, a heavy-set woman with strands of gray suffusing her long, faded brown hair; it stuck out at multiple angles from her head as she sat at one head of the large wooden dinner table. The two girls slouched on one side of it, their forearms unabashedly leaning on its lacquered surface as the three of them sat to eat their evening meal. But several minutes into the near-silent repast, as Sadine twirled her spoon in supper and Rebecca began to take a few hesitant bites, a hard knock sounded at the front door. Candace was nonplussed, but she made to quit her seat. “You two. Make yourselves scarce.”

“But mama! I’ve barely started eating …”

“No lip. Go to the basement, now.”

“But … for how long?”

“I said no lip, girl! No clue, go now.”

So Sadine and Rebecca exchanged earnest looks of consternation with each other, then they both looked back at Mama Cottrell only to encounter a steely eyed look that defied them to protest further. The two girls pushed back their chairs from the table, picked up their bowls and walked over to a floor-to-ceiling cupboard that was to the right of the small sink at the southern wall of the tiny apartment to place them in a dirty basin there. Then they headed downstairs to the basement level with their heads subtly hung, as there was nothing to do downstairs but sleep or stare out windows that were at ground level; not very interesting. Mama Cottrell opened the front door as they went, and conversed in low tones with a man who sounded young, but had a deep voice. They sounded as if they were negotiating or haggling, but the children missed the end of the conversation, reaching the bottom of the stairs and closing the decrepit wooden door there behind them.

The man left as quickly as he’d wandered in at the hour of four first clock the night before; having sobered up considerably over the space of the past several minutes, he barely staggered this time. The two girls waited in a hushed silence for several minutes, barely moving. Finally, Sadine stirred first, shuffling out from their makeshift cubby hole under the bed and walking barefoot over the scarred hardwood floor and up the stairwell to the ground floor and through the kitchen. Rebecca was still frozen in place, and could merely wait for her to come back. Finding the front door hanging open in a last act of ignorant carelessless on the man’s part, Sadine gave a great sigh, one that seemed far too large for her eight-year-old frame, and stuck her head outside to look up the street, then retracted it when she saw no sign of him. She pushed the door closed with a tiny hand that seemed almost to her as if it were someone else’s, then she went wearily back downstairs to the basement, having gotten little sleep the night before.

“She’s … gone.”

“What do you mean? She’s right here.”

Becky popped up, over the side of the bed. Her hair was mussed from brushing the underside of what they passed for a box spring and she blew it away from her face, only to be confronted with the glassy eyes of the corpse of Sadine’s mother.

“Oh gods … what happened to her?”

“That brute happened. That’s what happened. That pig killed her. “

Sadine put both hands to her forehead, as if squeezing it, then let out a small shriek, startling her friend; then she shot to her feet and stormed up the stairs and across the kitchen before throwing open the front door and heading down the street, beginning to sob. Rebecca followed her out; the morning was relatively peaceful in the pre-dawn of five first clock, all gray and misty. The sun hadn’t yet surmounted the horizon fully. After several minutes of inactivity, Rebecca faced Sadine and laid both hands upon her shoulders, trying futilely to make eye contact at first. But Sadine slowly began to calm down, and as she brushed her long brown hair out of her face, she found the other girl’s eyes, which were filled with a profound amount of sympathy. Rebecca slowly began to speak, asking the most obvious question that sprang to mind.

“What should we do now?”

Sadine cast her gaze downward again. “What can we do. We start begging. Or worse, be like her.”

Rebecca laid one small hand on her friend’s right shoulder. “She did love you, Sadie. I know she wasn’t perfect, but … she did. In her weird little way, of course.”

“Yeah … in her little way indeed.” Sadine shrugged her off and began walking barefoot down the pebbled walk that passed for the road that ran past her home. Rebecca darted back into the house, went down the stairs as quickly as she dared, then went for their shoes, nervously glancing at Candace’s body as she did so. With a pair in each hand, she retraced her steps in the earth and avoided the clumps of gravel so as not to cut her feet; Rebecca was about fifty feet further along the road than she had been, head hung and eyes staring, unseeing, at the roadway. Rebecca patted her left shoulder, stopping her and pointed with the only free finger of her own left hand at the pair of tiny shoes in her right hand, raising her eyebrows in silent entreat.

If it hadn’t been for Rebecca, her best friend through thick and thin, maybe Sadine would have fallen to the wayside of society much sooner and thus perished; but as it happened, they at least had each other to lean on in those first few, strange years of co-mingled youth and terror. The next several weeks passed by in a fugue of hunger and uncertainty. The two girls went from place to place, eventually sneaking out of one of the city’s gates and trying to make a hardscrabble living out in the countryside, among the farms and villages. They wound up, more often than not, hiding in empty stable stalls and under bridges that were large enough; thankfully spring was still upon the lands of the nation of Galgran and they at least were not accosted by the cold … which was more than could be said of the roving predators that they encountered on an infrequent basis. They always employed a buddy system, however; never splitting up, they became even more inseparable than before and afforded not a speck of trust to outsiders and strangers.

A woman approached her about thirty-five minutes later while she and Sadine were casing the village, walking parallel paths down two thoroughfares and checking in at every other alleyway. You want some food, no? Well … if you’ll take work, I have some chores that need minding.” Rebecca gave her an odd look, as the woman looked like the human equivalent of a stray cat. She was willowy as a reed, with hair that was a shade between tawny and light orange, long waved and unkempt; she wore a dress that was a dark forest green and black-beaded bracelets with matching, woven necklaces that had a strange symbol as their centerpiece. If she has food, she certainly has no need for it, thought Rebecca suspiciously. But that was not her response; “Chores?” said she, favoring the thin woman with one of her best, patented little smiles, designed to charm just about anyone that she happened to come across. “Sure, I guess we could help you, derr ...”

“Derr?” The woman returned her mock cheerfulness back at her sevenfold with a hearty grin. “How refreshingly … old fashioned. You can just call me Miss, like the other ladies in town. Miss Agneta Khaine. Have you been here long?”

“No … miss. Me and Becky have just been going around the outer villages … mostly looking for food, or maybe some small coin ...” The woman’s long face straightened out into a strange blankness of expression. “Yes … of course. Food. Well, the first step is to find your friend.”
Rebecca’s eyes narrowed, and she looked at the ground for a moment before meeting the woman’s gaze again. “Oh, she’s never far, miss. We keep close to each other ...”

The woman led them to the outskirts of the village. There, built into the side of a hill and partly underground, was a small hovel with two front windows and a wooden door.

“I learned most of what I know from my great-grandmother. I was even younger than you two are now, when she taught me.”

Rebecca looked at Agneta suspiciously. “That young?”

“Sure. I couldn’t control it very well, of course. That stuff comes with age. But I could perform the odd parlor trick, even then.”

“Huh.” Rebecca looked over at Sadine, who seemed to shrug imperceptibly. Like what, what can you do now?”

“You think that I have to show off for the likes of you? Two runaways?”

Sadine seemed irked by the woman’s dismissal. “That’s not what we are, miss. It didn’t quite happen that way … I mean, voluntary and all that.”

“Indeed not, indeed … Well, I can do stuff like this. And with that, the woman raised her right hand up to her own eye level and she murmured a word to it, which sounded like “coursu.” It instantaneously burst into flames, and she gazed at it, a mad gleam came into her eyes. The two girls were aghast; they had never seen anything like it. “Well, I can do stuff like … this.” And with that sentence and a corresponding grin, she began to whip the thin limb about. The two girls almost danced backwards, trying to avoid it at all costs, and she gave chase, thrusting it at each of them in turn, causing them to whip open the still-unlocked front door and run shrieking out into the night and seek refuge in the woods that surrounded the domecile. The weird woman stopped at the woods’ edge and the arm’s flame guttered out with another word uttered from her full lips. She began to call out to them, a small smirk playing upon the lower half of her face, but her well-lashed eyes remained dark and cold.

Well, there you go. I hope you enjoyed what you read.

If you are interested, here are some links providing background info on, and interviews with, Richard Writhen.

The Hiss Of The Blade

The Hiss of the Blade (Celestial Ways Saga: Book 1) by Richard Writhen. An independently published novella, originally released January, 2017. Approx. 185 pages.

The Hiss of the Blade is the opening novella in a projected trilogy by self-published author and personal friend Richard Writhen. The interesting thing is; it is not only part of its own trilogy, but it was released as part of a "trilogy" of novellas which take place on the fictional planet of Cedron (his other two novellas, A Host of Ills and A Kicked Cur, transpire over different time periods). Further, Writhen is carving out a name for himself by writing in a genre which he terms "gothdark"- the simple take being grimdark with gothic tones. The end result is very satisfying; giving us a dark, moody tale which posits high stakes for all those involved.

Before getting into the review proper; here's a look at the current blurb (note: I had gotten the original paperback, and the blurb on that one was a bit more vague):

"Two petty mercenaries are falsely accused of switching sides in a feud between two rich and powerful magnates; an ex-miner on the run from a murder charge becomes a reaver and embroiled in a romance; an industrial lieutenant is recruited to help capture a serial killer and an entire city is in danger of being ensorcelled by an ancient monk."

That is a fairly accurate synopsis for what transpires in THotB. Part of the allure of the rich tale is that Writhen weaves seemingly unrelated threads and story lines into a central convergence point. The aforementioned mercenaries, for example, are tasked with hunting the rogue ex-miner. The story of the serial killer; which bookends the novella, and provides some of the best (and most grotesque) content, holds portents for future installments. And, everything that transpires leads back to the two magnates: a pair of union heavies (one controlling the mining industry, and the other the dairy/agriculture channels) whose game of perennial one upmanship generates waves which flood over the entire region.

Since this is a novella, too much detail leads to issues with spoilers. It's better to focus on the elements involved, especially since Writhen has a very unique authorial style.

Writhen writes in a style which he has termed as "gothdark"; which is to say that it contains elements of gothic and grimdark. The result of this genre copulation is prose which is dark, rich, and evocative. Even when the action is at its most brutal, or the most base slang words are being slung, there is something inherently poetic about the delivery; as if the entirety of the narrative is one of the baroque paintings used for the cover come to life.

Seeing as though he packed a ton of characters, as well as a multitude of story lines, into a compact page count, I also need to laud Writhen on being able to wrangle the maximum amount of detail out of the least amount of words. Honestly; there is no lack of vivid imagery throughout THotB.

The action throughout is top-notch as well. The opening scene; focusing on the serial killer at work, is orchestrated in a manner both disturbing and brutal. There are duels and fisticuffs throughout the story as well; and in each instance the events are composed in a manner both bone-crushing and balletic.

And, finally, there is the lore. One would be hard-pressed to generate a successful fantasy series without the underpinning of an intriguing backdrop. The reader gets dropped straight into THotB without preamble or fancy maps; and from there they are immediately swept up in the action. As the story progresses, however, details are revealed. We learn the basic geography, then the history, religions, etc. The best part is that it is all well-thought out, detailed, and believable.

It's laudable that Writhen is able to pack so much mythology, so many events, and so many distinct characters into a tome that is under 200 pages. In fact; if there is anything that works against the book; it's that there isn't enough room for each character to shine. Meaning; each character could carry the novella as a sole protagonist, but in the situation here they work as a fine ensemble.

So, we can look forward to the further development of these characters in Book 2.. Well, for those of the characters that made it through this installment, at least.

With a classically beautiful cover, and a name derived from the poem "The Sewing Bird" by Fitz-James O'Brien, The Hiss of the Blade delivers a deep and unique experience. Looking forward to continuing this series.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Shades Of Santa

Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas to one and all!

Well, the reason for this post is to promote this anthology.

Shades of Santa, independently published by Things in the Well (edited by Steve Dillon), is a collection of 37 flash-fiction, X-Mas themed dark fiction and horror tales, all divided into 6 separate categories:

Sleigh Bells
All is Calm
The Naughty List
Is That Really an Elf?
Carols, Choirs, and Vocal Chords
Snow People

Sounds cool, right?

Well, the main reason why I am promoting this collection is because....I have a story included in it!

That's right; I finally sold my first piece of flash fiction. My story, "Santa's Little Helpers", appears in the "Is that really an elf?" category.

So, give this collection a whirl. 37 short stories, each one exactly 666 words.

And, all proceeds go to Charity:Water.

Here's the wraparound:

And you can buy it on Amazon here.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Greater Evil

The Greater Evil by Peter Fehervari. A Tau short story, originally published by The Black Library, November 207. Approx. 52 pages.

As you all know, I've been keeping my Warhammer 40K reviews going up at my new blog; however, a new Peter Fehervari short is such a momentous occasion that I had to take a few minutes and post it here as well! Thanks as always for stopping by!

There are few greater causes for celebration than the release of new material from personal favorite author Peter Fehervari; so this week began on a blissful note. On Monday; The Black Library released Fehervari's newest short story, The Greater Evil, which is a Tau-centric tale that weighs in at a whopping 52 pages (nearly twice the length of the average short story; so you're definitely getting more bang for your five bucks).

Now, I will tell you right up front; this story is spectacular. I am seeing a lot of comments within the Facebook groups I frequent that cite The Greater Evil as Fehervari's best short story to date. In all honesty; I am somewhat inclined to agree. I'm pretty sure, as well, that if you read my past reviews of his works, you will see similar sentiments being expressed. This speaks to his overall evolution as an author; certain tales of his have been more dark than others; some more complex with his endless puzzles and riddles. Others are more character driven; while others come up as more accessible to the general palate. The Greater Evil, on the other hand, combines the best of all of these qualities. This is a wonderful, dark, vivid tale that serves as a testimonial that Fehervari has established himself as the best author for writing certain factions.

Now; a note before I continue: there were be a lot of commenting on the merits of the writing here; rather than on the story as a whole. The reason for this is that the blurb for The Greater Evil deliberately leaves the 'bad guys' (well, the faction the Tau is fighting here; 'bad guys' has a lot to do with geography and what side of the fence you are standing on) in the shadows. So, before I go on, here are the details from BL's website, so you have an idea of the basic premise:

A T'au Empire story

An expedition to discover the fate of a long lost Water Caste ambassador and bring an Imperial world into the T'au Empire faces grave peril…

Peter Fehervari continues to build his little corner of the Warhammer 40,000 universe in a tale of mystery and danger that will leave you guessing right to the very end.

In the far reaches of the Damocles Gulf, an expedition of the T'au Empire heads for the system known to the Imperium as Yuxa, there to bring the influence of the Greater Good to humanity – and investigate the reappearance of a Water Caste ambassador thought lost years before. Joined by a mysterious Ethereal and defended by gue'vesa auxiliaries – soldiers once of mankind's Imperium, now devoted to the Greater Good – the expedition's leader expects a trap/ But what he finds may just change his perceptions of the galaxy. 

That being said; let's dissect this fantastic story.


PF is a meticulous, thoughtful, and insightful author; and his characters directly benefit from this, all of them becoming imbued with true gravitas and authenticity. In any Fehervari work; almost any one of the characters could arguably carry a solid novel on their own, and this is certainly the case in The Greater Evil.

In The Greater Evil, we have a trinity of characters at the fore. First off is Voyle, a former Guardsman currently serving as a Gue'vesa auxiliary. He is a formidable warrior; and has subscribed fully to the philosophy of the Tau. However, like most of the leads in Fehervari's stories; Voyle is a man with a burden hanging around his neck like an albatross. In this case; it is the events that led up to his becoming stranded upon a derelict ship. He carries the guilt of allowing his comrades to die; as well as a festering rage against the Imperium for abandoning him. But, Voyle is also plagued by voices. Voices that keep dragging him into the past....into those pivotal moment. Are these murmurings voices from the past; or the future?

In this short, Fehervari also gives us a new type of Ethereal, known as a "Seeker", here represented by the intriguing character of Kyuhai. Personally, I like the concept of Seekers; who are more Shao Lin monks in comparison to the traditional wizened Confucian sage types that Ethereals are normally portrayed as. Granted; this might prompt some discontent among Tau purists; but I believe the logic underpinning the concept is sound enough to not only justify, but also validate its inclusion. And, Kyuhai is an interesting character. He has the wisdom; as well as the bottom-line pragmatism necessary for his position; but his martial skill allows him more front-line, hands-on involvement.

Also, another nice touch to the concept of the Seeker is that Kyuhai eschews a traditional Honour Guard; opting instead for the assistance of two exceptional kroot warriors. Anyone who has read any of Fehervari's works knows how he excels at writing for these avian conscripts of the Tau Empire - from the skrab infected horrors of Fire Caste, to the determined shaper of Fire & Ice.

Finally, we have a Water Caste ambassador named Adibh. She is yet another example of a well-realized, balanced female Tau character crafted by PF. Always seeking a proper balance in her approach to problem resolution; especially considering their position in being part of seeking a non-violent concordance with the gue'la.

Adibh has all of her personal feelings and values challenged when she is tasked with getting to the bottom of the issue regarding a face from the past - the 'lost' ambassador mentioned in the blurb - who also happens to be a longtime friend of hers; as well as a once-potential pairing mate.

And honorable mention goes to Akuryo; the thoughtful Fire Caste commander whom his loyal gue'vesa troops dub "Stormlight". He manages to steal every scene in which he appears; and acts, even in an inadvertent manner, as a major catalyst in the realization of Voyle's personal arc.

As with other Fehervari stories; there is always the chance of an 'old friend' coming for a visit. I was able to place one major character from a previous work; and there is another one whom I am guessing at, but am currently stuck.


Fehervari never disappoints in the action department. There is a nice setpiece that dominates the middle of the story (as well as a solid training sequence at the opener). It's always noteworthy how much thought he puts into the mechanics of weaponry; as well as the tactics, of all factions involved.

For me, however, there is one scene that really stole the show. In The Greater Evil, as well as in Fire Caste, there is a scene in which a Crisis Battlesuit is unleashed. And this, this is done masterfully. Also, this scene involves a more traditional, conservative Fire Caste warrior; one who is able to make the on the spot battlefield decision to prioritize saving battle drones over wounded gue'vesa troops; because the former have a greater net value than the latter. It is a perfect reminder that even though the Tau present a more 'humane' option than the cruel brutality of the Imperium; the efficiency upon which their house is built often takes emotion out of the equation.


As always; Fehervari brings his setpieces to life. He delivers vivid, unique imagery, time and again. His take on the gue'vesa troops is truly original, and somewhat bizarre - humans who, in their acceptance of Tau doctrine, have their skin stained blue and faces tattooed with concentric rings.

As mentioned, the setup and detailing of the deserted ship that serves as the theater for Voyle's backstory is a spacebound horror house for the records; more terrifying than the Nostromo or the colony on LV-426.

The hulk hovering above the planet Scitalyss - also known as the Unfolding Nexus - where the latter part of the story transpires; is another bastion of inherent 'wrongness' that keeps the reader looking over their shoulder at each turn.

Word Games:

Of course, the most to have with a new Fehervari release is to try and connect the dots between stories; and also find hidden meanings in names and word choices. As always; there is a lot to be found here.

I've been poring over The Greater Evil for close to a week now; and I'm sure I'm only scratching the surface on the hidden gems that PF has tucked away in here. As we all know, the Dark Coil of his tales snake along of their own accord.

Speaking of snakes, there is something of a serpentine theme going on here. This is evidenced in some of the names. The planet that the Unfolding Nexus hovers above is called Scitalyss. The system that Scitalyss is located in is known as the Yuxa system. This system is of particular interest to a celebrity Tau high ambassador named O'Seishin. If that name rings a bell; it is because he figured heavily in Fire Caste.

It also bears mentioning that aside from Scitalyss, there is only one other life-sustaining planet in the Yuxa System. A lovely little world known as Phaedra....

The name of our troubled gue'vesa soldier, Voyle, has a dead giveaway for one of the big story twists in it if you check it out on Wikipedia.

Also, the direct translation of the name of the aforementioned Fire Warrior commander, Akuryo, holds a significance in regards to Voyle as well.

If I am reading correctly, there is also a connection between Voyle's backstory and the ending of a recent Fehervari story.

Well, I'm sure I am missing plenty more. If you do spot any; feel free to mention them in the comments.

In Conclusion:

So, to reiterate, The Greater Evil is yet another fantastically written notch in Peter Fehervari's belt. The quality of his writing has evolved so profoundly; and he has shown without a doubt that he is the best author in the Black Library stable for writing Tau. Tau are so much more than angular; anime-inspired fighting suits. There is a pervading philosophy throughout their race which perhaps positions them as a more benevolent 'master' in the war-torn universe of the 41st millennium....but as with all philosophies, there are always dark corners.

And when you need to explore the dark corners of the universe, you can do no better than Peter Fehervari.

Now, I could possibly see some having issue with the ending of this story. While I feel that The Greater Evil offers a conclusive ending; it is obvious that it is the beginning of a larger story begging to be told. Just to reiterate; it is not an open-ended, ambiguous ending (although I never mind those if they are done right), nor is it a cliff-hanger that denies closure to the reader. Here's hoping that Black Library gives him the chance to add more to this excellent story.

Oh, I must also mention; The Greater Evil both opens and closes with two of the greatest lines that I have read in any 40K fiction. The opening line; an exordium of sorts (is it any coincidence that Voyle's guard unit was the "Exordio" Void Breachers?), prepares the audience for the kind of twisting narrative which Fehervari is famous for. And then, the final line bludgeons the reader mercilessly over the head with a cold truth; a cold truth that reveals itself at a point far past any hope of a remedy.

As always, I simply cannot recommend this story highly enough. Get it now, get it here.

Friday, October 13, 2017

From The Ice They Came

From The Ice They Came by Eric S. Brown  and N.X. Sharps. Originally published by Severed Press, April 2017. Approx. 136 pages.

From the Ice They Came, a neat little collaborative novella by Brown and Sharps, is a fun romp that combines military action, psychic powers, and Lovecraftian influences. The end result is fast paced, self-aware, and, towards the end, absolutely drenched in blood and ichor. Before we dissect it, let's take a look at the back cover blurb, which summarizes all quite nicely:

"Without warning or explanation U.S. Army Captain Robert Gilman is escorted to a cutting-edge research base in the Antarctic tundra by the shady multinational Ward Consortium. Competent but otherwise unexceptional, it turns out that his long suppressed abilities could be the lynchpin to decrypting the enigma posed by a tablet that predates human history. Isolated from civilization, presented with the carrot and the stick by the Consortium, and surrounded by others with special abilities of their own, ultimately curiosity compels Gilman to travel down the rabbit hole. But the further he delves, the greater the strain on reality becomes, and before long he discovers the Eibon Complex may well be ground zero for an inter-dimensional invasion by forces beyond human comprehension."

Let me just start out by stating that there is nothing either "new" or groundbreaking here. FTITC cobbles together elements of Lovecraft, The Thing, X-Men, and a slew of other iconic properties into a decadent morsel of entertainment loaf. Also, as mentioned, the writing is done in an an easy, breezy, self-aware style that helps move the proceedings along quickly. This is not a deep book; but rather something akin to an old B-movie classic. This is not a damning indictment; but actually high praise.

While our characters are instantly recognizable, they are also fairly memorable. Robert Gilman (nice 40K nod there) is a fairly even blend between military type and pop-culture referencing geek. He does his best to be a hero in the face of the unknown and impossible; all the while cultivating his dormant psychic skills.

He is, of course, given a romantic interest, as well as a pretty-boy foil. There is an interesting character in the leader of the team of red-shirts, er, military contractors tasked with guarding the base. And, the whole shebang is overseen by a classic corporate ice queen.

Again, nobody new, but still fresh.

There's two primary settings to focus on here. First is the facility. Centered in the middle of Antarctica, it is a high-tech hub in the midst of the world's most barren tundra. The description of the facility itself is well-done, but the Antarctic wasteland is an afterthought. When writing for that setting, you want to stress how remote it is (hence cut away from help), and how brutal the weather is. This is done to a degree, but not as much as it could have been (see Alan Dean Foster's novelization of The Thing for a primer on this).

The other setting is the "dream world"; the world in which, during the middle of the story, we snatch glimpses of the bizarre landscapes in which the creatures dwell. Here Brown and Sharps flex a bit more authorial muscle; painting with Lovecraftian shades of hallucinogenic colors and impossible geometric influences.

Ah, yes. The "They" of the title. You actually get a lot of creature bang for your buck in this novella. There are two types on offer: lobster-mantids and brutal, overgrown space amoebas. The descriptions of the creatures themselves, as well as the devastation which they unleash, is superb.

Again, the pacing here is nice and brisk. If you are a normal reader, you can probably finish this in the time it takes to watch a movie; a good pairing for the cinematic feel of the prose. We start with the bonding scenes of the group in the facility, move on to a few weird jaunts through the hellish dreamscapes, and then it's about thirty straight pages of explosive climax.

The action is well-done; replete with plentiful gunplay and flying gobbets. One might complain that the psychic powers of the Gifted aren't used more in the climax; but a key issue is the physical/emotional drain that usage foists upon the user.

In summary; if there is one complaint that I can offer, it is (and other reviewers have pointed it out as well) that the proofreading here is really poor. I usually don't quibble about typos here and there; but in this book we are averaging 1-2 a page. I put this on the publisher more than the authors; but still, it is a deterrent to fully enjoying the book.

So, I saved this book for October, which is when I am usually looking for a good scare or two. Alas, there are no scares here, but plenty of action and witty, self-aware quips and references. Don't take it all too seriously, and you'll have a great time.

Plus, it has a solid (open) ending.


This is a nice enough cover, especially for a small press book. However, there are no critters like this in these pages.

At first glance, I thought that this was some sort of Cthulhoid creature, with tentacles across the mouth. Upon closer glance; well, I'm not sure. It looks sort of like a helmet and humanoid face.

Either way, it reminds me of Nemesis Enforcer from the G.I. Joe Movie.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Nice Giveaway Being Offered By Grimdark Magazine!

Grimdark Magazine (GDM) is currently hosting a pretty fantastic giveaway, ending on September 30th!

Here's the details:

"COMPETITION TIME: Win a signed and lined hardcover of Anna Smith-Spark's The Court of Broken Knives and a limited edition hardcover of Evil is a Matter of Perspective signed by all 19 contributing authors. One randomly picked winner will take both books.
1 like = 1 entry
1 comment + tag a mate/s = 3 entries
1 share = 5 entries
Book selfie (*a selfie of you with your own ebook / paperback / hardcover copy of either The Court of Broken Knives or Evil is a Matter of Perspective) = 10 entries
If we hit 1k likes, I'll throw in three paperbacks of Evil is a Matter of Perspective to three more random picks.
If we hit 1.5k likes, Anna will throw in three signed paperbacks to three more random picks.
Available to all countries.
Multiple comments do not equal extra points.
Maximum entries per entrant = 19
Maximum books won per person (in regards to stretch goals) = 1
Competition closes 30/9/2017 midnight AEST
Books cannot be won by GdM staff
Likes, comments, and selfies must be on this original post.
Kindle books count for book selfies"

Image may contain: text

Entries MUST be made on the original post. See here.

Good luck everyone!

Monday, September 25, 2017

Bond Unknown

Bond Unknown by Edward M. Erdelac and William Meikle; edited by Neil Baker. A James Bond "weird stories" short story/novella anthology. Originally published by April Moon Books, September 2017. Approx. 250 pages.

HachiSnax Note: I received a digital copy of this book from the editor in exchange for a fair and unbiased review. This is exactly what I intend to offer. I want to thank Neil Baker for the opportunity; as well as Ed Erdelac for putting my name out for consideration in reviewing it. Cheers, gents!

Ok, let me start this review with the declaration that I am not a James Bond authority; I have always been a casual enjoyer. My parents took us to the movies fairly often; and I would peek at holiday marathons on TBS, or channels like that. I read some of the Fleming books in my youth; but had to put down recent reading of fare such as John Gardner's Scorpius, because, well, it just wasn't very good.

I guess the point I am trying to make is that even though I am not a Bond "superfan"; I was intrigued and excited by the premise here - weird tales starring everybody's favorite suave spy. This excitement was enhanced by the knowledge that Erdelac would be penning a novella contribution here. I am not familiar with Meikle's work; but a quick look at his Amazon page shows some interesting stuff.

Well; we'll find out soon enough. His tale is up first.

Into the Green:

I think a good primer before going into these types of stories is to determine how do you like your Bond? Which of the actors/attitudes resonate with your best enjoyment of the character? Meikle starts off with this note:

"I’ve been a Bond fan as long as I can remember, and back then
when the world was young JB was Scottish, hard as nails, and a
bit of a bastard. That’s how I like my Bonds, and that’s how he
appears in my story here, which starts with Commander Bond, a
British submarine, and a strange research station in Alaska."

Ok, cool. I prefer my Bond in the Connery/Moore vein myself, as well. In Into the Green, we follow Bond on a mission to Anchorage to investigate some odd goings-on at a research facility. These weird happenings include a dramatic rise in the usual chill Alaskan weather; strange sounds akin to singing in the night sky, and the deaths of a few scientists. One of these scientists was a relative of someone high up on the British food chain; ergo, Bond is on the case.

Here's the short version, up front: I did really enjoy this story (the shorter of the two offerings; coming in at roughly 50 pages). There is some very good stuff in here. However, there are also some aspects the felt a little rushed, or just outright incomplete.

Characters: First and foremost, how is the Bond representation? The story will live or die based on this, right?  Meikle gives us a solid rendition of Bond here. He abides by the tenets that he laid down in his author notes. This Bond is lethal, suave, and, most importantly, always cool under fire.

Sadly, we do not have a dashing Bond girl for him to charm the pants off of; although that may have been a bit incongruous to the narrative.

If there is one complaint that I could posit about Bond here; it's that he doesn't do much in the way of actual intelligence work. At one point, he throws a few pounds into the local rumor mill to see if he gets any nibbles; but that's all pretty much on par with what you might see on an episode of The First 48.

Secondary characters; well, an old friend of Bond's - Duncan MacDonald - is a solid addition. Other familiar Bond dramatis personae such as M and Moneypenney, on the other hand, are little more than name drops.

Then, there is our villain, Kaminski. Sadly, this was the biggest misfire here. Whereas we can often complain about a villains tendency towards expository dialogue preceding their demise; by the end of this story, we have little idea about any solid motive. There wasn't enough given to let us hate this guy; thereby making it difficult for us to garner any satisfaction out of what happens to him.

Story: The concept, in theory, is solid. Meikle has a nice concept in what I'll just term the 'Green'. In essence, it is some kind of object or artifact that allows for mass mind-control. The problem, again, comes in lack of a supporting story for it. What is the beginning and end? Where did it come from; and to what purpose is the drive for seeing its true power unleashed?

On the other hand; we can appreciate the danger of 'dancing in the Green' when we see it as a parallel for the spread of Communism at the onset of the Cold War. There are no indications in this tale that state exactly when it occurs; until, that is, a hint at the end places it in probability around the early 60's. If we appraise the story by dint of this metric; then we can accept that the fact that the Green seeks to rob all sense of individual liberty is frightening enough; and indeed epitomizes all that Bond has fought against.

Meikle writes with a very nice, descriptive style. As mentioned; it makes for a Bond that 'feels' like Bond. The action scenes are brisk, and well-choreographed. His detailing of locations is a bit hit-or-miss. With Bond stories; you often hope for exotic locales. Here, you get Alaska and back home in the UK. For the scenes in Britain, Meikle falls into a habit of mentioning landmarks and such by name. I don't mind having Google open to look up places I am not familiar with; but I needed a little more in the way of a description that made this or that location feel relevant to its inclusion. It helps with the reader immersion.

All in all, a very good story. A little slow at the start; lots of twists and turns in the middle, and a rousing ending. What more could you ask for?

Looking at the few criticisms, it may seem as though I did not like this story much. However, on the contrary, there are so many good things about it. Also, I finished reading this, and writing the review a few days ago, but there is just something about this story that sticks with you. It lingers within your consciousness, much like the "Green" itself.


Next up, we have a novella by Ed Erdelac. Now, I've been riding on a high from Erdelac's work ever since his phenomenal anthology, Angler In Darkness. Obviously, my expectations for this story were fairly high.

I'm happy to report; I was not disappointed in the least.

Mindbreaker is simply a masterwork. It has, in every aspect, the look and feel of a Bond movie (or novel, for that matter; however, the writing here has a definite cinematic flair to it). Also, the addition of the "strange" elements are done in an excellent manner as well.

Mindbreaker begins with a head-fake: a seemingly normal job for 007 as the Crown Princess has been abducted by what appears to be Middle Eastern fanatics.

Of course, nothing is as it seems - or ever will be again. This is no standard outing; princess rescue mission for Bond. Instead, he finds himself seconded to an even more clandestine division than his own MI6: a shadowy group known as the "O" Division. His new orders involve exactly no princesses; but boil down to the extraction of two scientists in Cairo, and a whole lot of "need to know".

Armed with the barest framework of available intelligence; bond sets off for Egypt. What awaits him is both exciting and terrifying.

Before we look at the separate aspects of the story; let's ponder for a moment a shortlist of the ingredients that one usually finds in a Bond adventure: a capable, sexy Bond girl; a deadly, sexy villainess (and both with ludicrous, innuendo-laden names? check!), a tougher than nails antagonist, dryly humorous one liners, top of the line sports cars, exotic locations, and unique 'gadgets'. And yes, these are all present in Mindbreaker.

Characters: Another winning representation of Bond here. Erdelac's Bond is suave and debonair, but also practical, pragmatic, and lethal. He is also a bit of a damaged superspy; nearing mandatory retirement, he has also suffered greatly courtesy of some mental tinkering and brainwashing courtesy of the Russkies. This Bond is rightfully leery and cynical of the outlandish entities that O Division is pitching to him as gospel; the question becomes: as he realizes bit by bit the validity of their existence, will he possess the proper mental capacity to surmount the odds?

Bond girl Petra "Pet" Bottoms makes for a great character here as well. One of the scientists to be rescued; she also has ties with the mysterious O Division. Characters like her fall squarely into one of two categories: asset or nuisance; with the majority getting lumped into the latter. Luckily, due to Erdelac's strong character development, Bottoms is definitely in the former.

As mentioned, our villains are top-notch here. Beatrix "Trixie" Treat is a perfect example of a twisted, manipulative, malicious b-word. And, the other antagonist, Fesche, starts out seemingly as another hulking henchman; only to showcase surprising depth, resilience, and cunning.

Also, although I cannot detail it too much due to possible spoilers; both of them are already in deep with the powers that be surrounding the titular Mindbreaker (the truth of which is terrifyingly impressive).

Lastly, a character that deserves great praise is that of D.; the head of the secretive O Division. A truly odd character; in appearance much like John Lennon in Yellow Submarine, he is seemingly the polar opposite of the traditional M. However, he is a true mastermind with a finger on the pulse of knowledge that could turn the strongest minds into jelly.

Secondary Characters: Very good as well. In Mindbreaker, we get appearances from old favorites like M and Moneypenny that carry a feel of authenticity; not just name-dropping. Erdelac also gives us memorable characters such as 008 - William Ibaka, who I'd love to see more stories showcasing.

I'm going to list the Princess here as a secondary character. Her appearances bookend the story; and she is actually fleshed out quite well. There is a realness, as well as a genuine sadness to her, that allows for the reader to be truly sympathetic with her. Even when she does a stupid action; it's clear that it is a natural action predicated upon a diet of misinformation that she couldn't conceivably had had the ability to overcome.

Action: The pacing and action here are unbelievable. Bond stories should have action, intrigue, and romance. There should be no room for slow pacing or boredom. At roughly 200 pages, Mindbreaker straddles the line between long novella and short novel. The sheer amount of action crammed into that rather economical page count is pretty impressive.

As for the action scenes themselves, they are masterfully planned and executed. Erdelac knows to keep Bond a lethal, dirty fighter when up close, and a crack shot when the Walther is in play. There is no need for long, protracted brawls, or twirling gun play. Also, I must mention one action scene - involving Corsican mobsters attacking a train - that is one of the better sequences that I have read in quite a while.

The 'Strange' Factor: Ah, now we get to the crux of the matter. Where Into The Green offers something of the unknown for Bond to combat; in Mindbreaker Erdelac opts to toss Bond into the mind-breaking world of Lovecraftian/Cthulhu mythos. I haven't read any of his other Lovecraftian tales; but from what I can see in display here, he is one of the few authors who can get it right. Far too many authors try to go for the shock and horror of describing the elder horrors - yet, the true horror is in knowing that they exist; that they've always existed. True abominations just out of sight; itching at the periphery of our vision. And, sometimes, they find a way to tear through the gossamer-thin dimension that separates us from them.

Erdelac wisely opts for a slow, easy transition; incrementally introducing the more strange elements. We come to acceptance at the same speed as Bond; and, by the genuinely frightening climax, we have near eschewed Fleming entirely and fallen into the fathomless depths of Lovecraft's mind.

There are so many more details that I could pack in there; but I think it best for the reader to enjoy the ride on their own.

And then, the whole thing ends with a superbly written, truly poignant ending.

In closing, I want to mention, again, how much I truly enjoyed this anthology. As we all know, not all crossovers are meant to be - they don't all yield that coveted "chocolate and peanut butter" combination. Honestly, I was a bit wary about this one - wasn't there just a tad too much incongruity between Fleming's superspy and Lovecraft's Elder Gods? Luckily, the contributions of Meikle and Erdelac show that it is truly possible, especially when the authors respect and understand the source material. I mean, given past scenarios, supervillains, etc., we know that the Bond universe is fertile ground for the outlandish. So, perhaps, a Lovecraftian pairing had been written in the stars all along.

Also, it bears noting that each story comes with an accompanying picture. I truly liked the picture for Into the Green; as it offers a great portrait of Bond himself (whenever I read Bond lit; I tend to picture a surlier, burlier Roger Moore; but to each their own). The picture for Mindbreaker is a bit more generic; focusing on an underwater discovery by Bond and Bottoms. A much better pic would've been one in this vein:

Keep this in mind towards the climax....

So, again, if you can, give Bond Unknown a shot. My only complaint at this point is that it isn't a 400 page anthology, with even more stories in it. Perhaps if this one is successful....

Head on over to April Moon Books and order your copy today (only print for now). Support small press! For, without publishing houses like this; these titles don't get to see the light of day.

Visit William Meikle here.

Check out Ed Erdelac's blog here.

And once more, thank you Neil Baker for the privilege of reading this for review. Great work!

Monday, August 28, 2017

Angler In Darkness

Angler in Darkness by Edward M. Erdelac. A short story anthology, originally published August, 2017. Approx. 329 pages.

Here we have a collection of tales, most collected from previous publications; with some that were previously unpublished. You have a fairly diverse group here; starting off with a slew of weird Westerns, and then giving us a mix of kaiju stories, Irish mob tales with a supernatural twist, tales inspired by Japanese folklore, and unique takes on classic stories.

This is one of the rare anthologies where, quite frankly, every story is a winner. There are no middling or marginal entries here. If you haven't read any of Erdelac's work before, consider this a perfect primer, or sampling platter. I really enjoy the interests from which he sources his material, and he always seeks tirelessly to put fresh/unique twists on all of them. Many stories have elements of the weird and horrific, and he makes sure to grant these takes legitimacy via logical execution. Also, he writes some of the best, bloodiest action scenes out there.

I will say that the arrangement of the stories threw me a bit. The collection is front-loaded with the Western tales, and then the remaining stories are somewhat randomly ordered. Also, there were a few typos throughout - averaging about one or two per entry. No dealbreaker for me; but they are out there.

But, again, great stories, and a sweet cover to boot! Here are my takes on the individual entries. Enjoy!

The Mound of the Night Panther: The first story in the collection tells the tale of Auguste Oudin; a trapper of French and Indian heritage who sets off on hunt for gold, and instead unearths a terrible history lesson.

After bringing some priests down to the States from Canada, Oudin barters with a local Indian boy for a gold-flecked gaming piece. To him, this is a veritable treasure map, leading to a claim, and prosperity. However, what he finds instead are a collection of huge monumental mounds; too massive to be barrows, and permeating with a palpable aura of foreboding.

Setting up camp, Oudin finds himself approached by an Indian elder; who begins to share with him the history of the sacred land...

Ok, you can tell from the premise that all will probably not go well here. However, what makes this story pop is Erdelac's respect for the source material, attention to detail, and talent for portraying vivid, brutal acts of violence. Native American lore is ripe with great material; and in this tale we hear of the Mishipijiw, the terrifying "water panther". We also find ourselves awash in the blood-soaked pages of this culture's history.

On a personal level, there is another reason why this story resonated with me. I remember when I was a little kid, we went on a school trip to the Museum of Natural History. Well, actually, it was a fairly popular school trip destination, but I remember one time most of all. Maybe I was the right age for being impressionable to the material, maybe it was a great tour guide. But in this visit, I first learned the story of Romulus and Remus, as well as the Indian tribes that played games in great arenas, with their very lives on the line. And now, Erdelac has incorporated elements from both legends; tales from separate continents, into one powerful short story.

All in all, a direct premise yields anything but a simple story. Erdelac pulls you back in time, drags you through a hallucinogenic nightmare, and leaves you in a place where the tenuous membrane between reality and legend isn't just blurred, it is torn to shreds. Great story to kick off an anthology.

Killer of the Dead: Here we have another 'weird Western'; but in this case, it's a fast, violent piece with all the surprise and power of a sudden gut-punch. The premise here is simple and direct: a young Indian boy, staying up late to greet the men of the village when they return from a hunt, bears witness to a quartet of pale riders as they massacre they village. There is a twist, of course; these riders are not just typical white men: they are not only in for wanton slaughter; they also suck the very life out of their victims.

Killer of the Dead gives us a setup, a conflict, and a resolution; but the execution ensures that it yields much more than that. Erdelac focuses on the right details to make each character identifiable and memorable (especially the villains). This is a difficult task when working within a very tight word count. The violence is also well done; brutal and pulpy. But, perhaps my highest praise can be awarded to the "vampire elements": for example, the imagery of their cheeks drawing in as they take deep drinks from their prey is something that sticks with you.

This is a great little story. As said, it's very short, and very violent. There is no expository backstory involved; but the details given tell you all you need to know. Actually, allow me to correct myself - there is a bit of backstory, if you take the minute to read the author's intro. Here, Erdelac lists some of the inspirations that went into this tale; including the criminally underrated vampire film Near Dark.

Bigfoot Walsh: The third story in the anthology is also a Western tale. Here we have the first person POV of  Keidel, a liberal-minded Dutch doctor who helps both settlers as well as local Indians. He joins up with a group of Texas Rangers to investigate a brutal raid (read: murder spree) that the Rangers are eager to pin upon the Comanche Indians (with whom the locals have a tenuous treaty in place). With the dual hope of preserving this treaty, as well as assisting any survivors, he sets off with them.

Along the way, they meet up with the titular Walsh, a quite literal Sasquatch type who is an excellent tracker/pathfinder for the Rangers. He has some leads of his own in his mind as to who the culprits are, and the group sets out with new purpose. No one, in the end, is quite prepared for what they are about to face.

Bigfoot Walsh is yet another excellent entry. Violence is the very lifeblood here; and of the first three stories, this is the one that yields the most primal ferocity and pent-up rage; as the story escalates from a routine search into something akin to Eaters of the Dead.

On top of all the other great elements here, it is the character of Walsh that seals the deal. Erdelac makes him into such an interesting entity that he outright steals every scene that he is in.

If there is one thing that I could cite as a detraction to the tale, it's the character of Keidel. I know he is integral in that he will 'bear witness' to what transpires, but I think he could've done more to show his overall mettle in the climactic action piece. Other than that, solid all around.

Devil's Cap Brawl: This is the story that first introduced me to Erdelac's work; and I originally read it in the Kaiju Rising anthology. So, I'll just copy paste that review here:

This was a fun one. Devil's Cap Brawl is set in the Dead West universe (also published by Ragnarok, I've read a bit of the first book - Those Poor, Poor, Bastards by Tim Marquitz - and really enjoyed it).

In this story, workers for a railroad baron literally unearth a long-buried miscreant monster as they go about blasting through the titular mountain. Luckily for them, they find that they have a rather unconventional ally on their side. I really don't want to get too much into it, for the sake of avoiding spoilers.

The writing here, as in the other Dead West books, is balls to the wall and full throttle. A lot of the stories in this anthology have curses, but this takes it to a new level, peppered throughout with some quite politically incorrect language. The fact that the protagonists nickname was bestowed upon him for the sheer volume of blasphemous language he uses is one clue. The fact that he is also a brash, back street brawling Irishman in the 1800's in charge of Indians and Chinamen should give you another hint of what kind of language is in store.

Erdelac does a great job in painting the scenery, fleshing out his monster, and choreographing the action. I had a bit of trouble at first with the "good guy", but he made it work. This story is the badass bastard offspring of the frantic coupling of classic Western pulp tales and good old fashioned giant monster stories.

Spearfinger: In Spearfinger, a Cherokee half-breed sheriff named Ben Burnham is on the trail of a town ne'er do well who has committed a pretty heinous crime. As his quarry flees up a mountain, attempting an egress to Arkansas, Burnham, the victim's loved ones, and all else involved find themselves within the domain of a horrifying creature known as Spearfinger.

Although this is another Western story, Erdelac flexes some serious horror chops in this outing. He imbues his characters with enough depth and personal baggage to make them all empathetic, an his depiction of the titular creature is pretty bone-rattling. But his best work is in the descriptions and detailing, shown in such colorful metaphors as comparing the click-clacking of branches in the wind to "the applause of skeletal hands". That's good stuff right there.

See also some influences from other books and movies peppered throughout. The crime committed by the slow-minded Waterback carries shades of Cormac McCarthy's "Child of God". There are also scenes evocative of the body-snatcher horrors of "The Thing".

This is a great story that I will avoid going into too much detail on, so as to avoid spoilers. But it is Erdelac at his violent, terrifying top form.

In Thunder's Shadow: I really enjoyed the premise of this story. Set during the Bone Wars, we follow academic Calvin Pabodie and his grizzled guide Neb Bukes as he sets out to research the area where a fossil was discovered.

In this story, Erdelac gleefully fleshes out a full-blown dinosaur adventure based upon the old, staged Huachuca/Thunderbird photos. Coupling his already mentioned versatile and colorful prose with truly memorable characters yields a yarn the spoke directly to my younger, dinosaur-obsessed self.

Pabodie is a classic, textbook academic character on a quest for a new discovery. Bukes, on the other hand, absolutely steals the show. He is a cantankerous combination of Rooster Cogburn and Matthew McConaughey's character in Reign of Fire.

I cannot laud enough Erdelac's job in making the pteranodons seem 'real' here. Instead of just trying to impress the reader with size or danger, he makes them living flesh; as if they are terrifying entities that you can reach out and touch - or ones that could reach out and snatch you.

Also, this story has some of the most vivid and imaginative violence in the whole book. I mean, in how many stories does the protagonist get knocked out cold by a donkey leg blown off in an explosion? You tell me.

The Blood Bay: I am reviewing these stories as I read them; but I'm predicting that this might just be the best tale in the anthology. The Blood Bay, as Erdelac explains in the introduction, plays off of the narrative of Steinbeck's 'The Red Pony' (one of my least favorite books of all time), and then ups the ante by incorporating such legendary equines as the Man-Eating Horses of Diomedes and Alexander the Great's own steed, Bucephalus.

In The Blood Bay, we meet Jonas, a sullen young boy whose father has absconded for greener pastures; leaving him in the care of his alcoholic mother and bitter grandmother. After a gruesome turn of events, his father comes to collect him, and try to integrate him into the better life that he has made for himself. This is no easy transition for a boy already molded by bitterness; although a glimmer of hope soon arrives in the form of the titular steed.

Gifted to Jonas by his appeasing father, there is a wildness and fierceness about this new horse; as well as something unsettling to all those around. As misfortune begins to falls upon Jonas' new 'family', we quickly realize that this is not just a wild-spirited horse; it is no less than a creature transplanted from the aforementioned mythologies. And, while we see the thin veneer of the 'perfect life' of Jonas' father, Famous Fallon, erode over the course of the tale, we cannot help but stare in awe at the perfect bond between the boy and his horse.

It is, indeed, the depth of the characters that make this story the minor masterpiece that it is. It is the strength of these characters that bolster the premise, which is so ludicrous that it is bold. I was blown away by the character of Jonas - here we have a true representation of a boy hardened way too early in life, due primarily to the actions of those who should have looking out for him instead of themselves. The harsh life lessons he learns early on are the drivers for his tightly coiled anger and reticence. And, it frightens me to a degree; since I have seen boys my son's age, around where we live, who come from tough or broken homes, who carry themselves and speak much in the same way as Jonas. I find myself seeing their faces as I read the words coming out of his mouth.

The action and violence in this story is much like as in the other tales; it is dark, brutal, bloody, oftentimes sudden and shocking, but never over the top or superfluous to the narrative. It must be a difficult balance to strike; but it is done successfully here.

The Blood Bay is a frightening story that will likely haunt you for days after reading it.

The Exclusive: According to the author intro for this tale, this one ties into the Merkabah Rider series, which has definitely been on the TBR horizon for a while. This tale might be responsible for moving it up a few rungs in reading expediency.

In The Exclusive, we meet Barry Twiggs, a reporter at a New Mexico newspaper who most decidedly opts to step on precisely the wrong toes (continuously) when he commits to printing all the dirt he can dig up on local magnate Tom Cotter. This leads to harassment, assaults, and, finally his untimely death. However, in this surprisingly clever and deep story, death is just the beginning. For, in this story, death brings Death, and Twiggs offers the proposal to hear His side of the story.

I don't know how much the Angel of Death appears in the Merkabah Rider series; but, if he is handled this well in them, he might just be the kind of scene-stealer that Death in the Discworld series always was.

The best part of this yarn come in when Erdelac uses Death (or, properly, Samael) as a mouthpiece to recount happenings from the very beginning of time. We get hints about Satan's fall from grace, and of Adam and Lilith's earliest transgressions and petulance. These are very engrossing and interesting portions.

Erdelac also makes Samael a sympathetic soul: a being who is, in turns, stoic, withdrawn, rageful, dutiful, and mournful. But, what allows us to find commonality with him is that he has, like all of us, suffered at one point from that most tragic, and deeply felt hurt of all: the loss of love.

The portrayal of Twiggs is well done, also. Personally, his banter with Samael gets a bit too cute at times, but I can understand the Erdelac is trying to keep some levity flowing through some otherwise sombre material. Plus, as we can see over the full course of the story, Twiggs is not just a one-note narrator. Like Death, he has a story to tell as well. And, it is a truly heartbreaking one.

Tell Tom Tildrum: Ah, yes, there was some really good stuff in this story. Although, I will say, to truly enjoy this tale at its fullest, you might want to do a bit of homework first. Definitely read the author's intro, as well as Erdelac's blog post about what went into making this tale. Then, if you aren't familiar with them, read up on some of the notorious exploits of "white hunters" as well as the Happy Valley Set.

So, this story first appeared in an anthology called 'Tales from the Bell Chair', the premise of which posited an exclusive club which members could only join by regaling the current members with a shocking personal tale, and having it be riveting enough to garner their approval. Nice. Very cool.

In Tell Tom Tildrum, the prospective new member is one Captain Howe, who will choose to tell a certain story from among his drink and drug-addled days of running with the Happy Valley folks. The tale he tells recounts a lion hunt that goes horribly, horribly wrong. And that's all I'll say on that, so as to avoid spoilers.

Erdelac's 'method writing', making the setting so palpable that it allows for complete reader immersion, is what truly elevates the story here. It is not just making the horizon feel alive; there is something great in how he captures the mindset of these people; for whom their personal hedonism allowed them to blithely eschew anything that even remotely resembled a moral compass.

For me, the end sequence came off as a bit over the top - well, to be honest, I never wanted the story to leave Kenya - but, it does make sense in the tying up the narrative, so I can't complain. It also incorporates the angle of citing the classic fable "The King o' the Cats". Plus, the closing lines are, in equal amounts, beautiful and jarring.

Mighty Nanuq: As previously mentioned, my first exposure to Erdelac came from his Kaiju Rising contribution. Little did I know just how many 'giant monster' tales he has under his belt. Here we have another stellar kaiju outing from him, with a tale that originally appeared in Mechanoid Press' anthology "Monster Earth". I guess the premise in that collection is that each country has a "national kaiju" of sorts; akin to the country specific jaegers in Pacific Rim. Not sure if all of these stories tie in to WWII, however.

So, in Mighty Nanuq, Erdelac chooses to focus on the titular creature, the local representative for - Canada. Well, not exactly the first country to pop into one's mind when veering towards discourse on the Great War, but Erdelac has stated that he wanted to do a story focusing on the Inuit, and this was a grand opportunity.

Nanuq focuses on Hal Anawak, who is retiring from his post in Canadian Intelligence; and his relationship with his estranged, angry young activist nephew Matthew. Actually, I should clarify on the importance of the activist angle real quick - in the backdrop of this story is the occupation of Alcatraz Island by Native Americans in the late 60's. I had never in fact heard of this story; and I appreciate an author who can send you running to the history books without shoving an agenda down your throat.

Matthew is more of a rally attending, fist pumping activist; and he harbors a bit of resentment for his uncle, whom he believes to have sold his heritage to become the white man's stooge. Over the course of the story, he is going to get a real education.

Erdelac manages to pack a lot into this story. I don't know if it is a part of this anthology, or just this story, that these monster stories showcase a relationship between the monster and a "master" of sorts (one who as either direct control or influence; with Nanuq it is the latter). As Hal helps Matthew come to grips with his shaman lineage, we get a flashback to WWII, and how Hal began his work with the Canadian government. This is where we get to the meat of the kaiju action, as Nanuq does battle with an abominable, stitched together Nazi horror.

Kudos on a well-choreographed battle, too. Erdelac hit all the right notes on a giant monster scrap - size, scope, and brutality. On paper, Nanuq might seem a bit bland - just a huge polar bear wit bright blue eyes. But, in the finished product, he is a sight to behold.

Erdelac shows strong finesse in other detailing aspects as well. In describing a Nazi U-Boat and its crew, he perfectly portrays the shape of it and the different uniforms of the crew in basically the space of a paragraph. He does this by stressing the important details and letting the reader's imagination fill in the blanks.

Finally, the story caps off with a return to the 'present' of 1969. And, in tying things up, he integrates elements of duty, heritage, and racial politics, all without teetering into the exploitative or hamfisted. No mean feat, there.

A Haunt of Jackals: Every good anthology deserves a follow-up, it stands to reason. So, there Mechanoid followed up Monster Island with 'Betrayal on Monster Island', which again features a contribution by Erdelac.

In Haunt of Jackals, Erdelac gets to play around more with his created Nazi "Monstrum" program. Here, we meet a group of Mossad Nazi hunters as they go deep into Paraguay to retrieve the Monstrum equivalent of Dr. Mengele.

Of course, the doctor has not been idle in all of these years since the war. And, as our protagonist, Boaz, attempts to close the deal on the pick-up, he is treated to a taste of the doctor's efforts.

Remember, in the Monster Island world, each country gets its own monster. Dr. Austerlitz' calling is in making monsters. It piqued the interest of the Nazis and their deep coffers during the war; and now, it has attracted new suitors - the Mukhbarat, Iraq's Intelligence Agency. This, of course, does not bode well at all for Boaz's new home state of Israel.

What we have in 'Haunt of Jackals' is 99% of a great kaiju story. Why only 99%? Well, let's heap the praise before we pick the nits.

We definitely get a solid lead in Boaz. Erdelac has made this aging, hardened Nazi-hunter into a real person. Boaz has survived the camps; whereas his family did not. He carries the wide palette of emotions that I am sure many Jews did as they made Israel their new home, and tried to find some closure with what had happened: anger, sadness, frustration, fear, and hope. Boaz knows that his shelf life is expiring, and he wants to go out with a big catch.

We also get some fantastic kaiju, yet again. Once again, there are creatures that seem little more than giant animals (in this case, the pair of striped hyenas), but what Erdelac has done to make them memorable (especially their breath weapons) is extremely commendable. On the Israeli side, there is a defender as well. Not surprisingly, it is a type of golem; but the execution brings to mind a type of Krav Maga Daimajin.

Another important aspect of kaiju stories is location. I'm sure one of the best parts of planning a giant monster tale is determining just where they are going to destroy. Are they going to take down famous landmarks? The author's hometown that he or she always hated?

The important thing in bringing these areas to life, of course, is making sure to capture what actually gave that area its importance. You don't just talk about smashing apart New York City and describe the buildings falling; you need to make it feel like NYC for authenticity.

The point I am trying to make here is that Erdelac does this in an astounding manner during the story's climax in Jerusalem. Through Boaz's eyes, we can truly process the importance of the religious landmarks being destroyed. Giving us a sense of the true value of these monuments increases the urgency driving all efforts to stop the rogue creatures. This touch adds a real sense of reader investment.

So, I guess that brings us to the one thing I had an issue with - the ending. And that is; it all ends way too abruptly. I'm not talking about an ambiguous ending. I literally mean you may go back and forth on that page, expecting a new chapter to start because that is really how suddenly it all ends. I thought perhaps there was some kind of error, but this story is bookended on both sides with well-chosen Bible passages, so I knew that it was over.

Perhaps it was setting the stage for more stories with Boaz? If that's the case, I'm on board. Apart from the abrupt end, this is a fantastic kaiju tale, with a unique choice for setting that was executed in a fantastic manner.

The Better To See You: According to the author intro, the idea for this entry arose from some story swapping between Erdelac and his seven-year old daughter. What it is is a new, modern take on the classic Little Red Riding Hood story.

The Better To See You is the shortest tale in the book so far. But, within that economic page count, it delivers a lot of evocative, image heavy prose, as well as palpable tension and danger.

I really can't say much more about it. We all know the origin story. Going from that, it's best to just sit back and watch what daughter and father did with a modern, alternate take.

Conviction: What a raw, powerful story here. In Conviction, we meet Abassi, a young boy growing up in a truly hellish landscape - the former Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago. Abassi is a bright boy with real artistic talent - all skills that are usually suffocated beneath the broken families, oppressive poverty, and oppressive gang presence/control that ghettos are often so rife with.

But, there's more to this story. Actually, it is something that has been done before. This is one of those stories where the theme is "if you believe hard enough, it will become real". This sounds routine until you run it through the lens of the absolutely hellish landscape which Abassi must walk everyday.

Continuously harassed by the local gangs, plagued by the memories of what they did to his sister, and even talked down to by his own grandmother, Abassi finds a glimmer of hope in Ms. Orozco (a guidance counselor or social worker, or someone in that capacity); only to have that one glimmering ray of benevolence yanked away from him; consumed by the ever-hungry furnace of ghetto misery.

Once that happens, Abassi will use the power of belief, as well as his artistic talent, to paint new pictures.

So, if The Blood Bay is going down as my favorite story in the anthology, then this is a close second. As I mentioned, the premise of "belief becoming real" has been done before, but I've never seen it done like this. Not many authors can effectively capture a prose snapshot of the projects, but Erdelac does it here. I seriously cannot lavish enough praise on the legitimacy that his attention to authenticity has imbued this story with. From the desolate panorama, to the spot on 'hood dialect, even down to the gang-specific writing on the walls, he has truly brought the projects to life.

Then, there are the "pictures" themselves. What I truly love about this story is that, at the turning point where Abassi begins to make his pictures real, you cannot tell for sure if this is literally happening; or if it is the coping mechanism of an unreliable narrator. The pictures themselves are terrifying in proposal, without going into exploitative, full detail. Erdelac is a shrewd enough author to give the reader enough notes so that they can fill in the details in their own minds; and then be horrified by the results. There is some amazing stuff here; and we have to come to terms with how satisfying it is to the vengeful spirits within us.

And through this all, Abassi remains a strong protagonist. He is never held up as a cheap prop to curry sympathy for those whose dreams and talents are crushed on a daily basis by the ghetto meat grinder. As outlandish as the story proceedings become; he never turns into a cartoonish villain. Abassi is, from beginning to end; a smart boy with a good heart that has become hardened way before his time by the environment which he lives in. And, in the end, all he wanted to do was draw a beautiful picture.

Crocodile: When I was reading the descriptions of the stories in this anthology, this is one of the ones that sealed the day. What a deliciously ludicrous premise: a Pizza Hut cashier at a seedy Interstate truck stop falls in love with a modern day (read:sparkly type) vampire. That's great stuff. As if to up the ante, Erdelac even finds time to use elements of the classic Peter Pan story as the underpinning for the narrative.

It's fairly apparent that Erdelac is having a fun time with this story. What we have is a stinging indictment on the current state of vampire fandom. The observations run the gamut of shrewd quips right up to blatant mockery. The girls of my youth that touched themselves to Lestat have grown up and spawned a legion of teenyboppers that gush and fawn over sparkling pansies like Edward Cullen. And Gwendolyn, our protagonist here, is a prime example of this demographic. There's a good deal of fun poked at her narrow-mindedness and naivete; even though there is a real kind of sadness to her narrow little world; a world of dirty, lusty truck drivers that only the attention of a pale, fanged, waifish pretty boy can offer liberation from.

Taking all of this outlandish, and seemingly incongruous inputs, and making an engaging, cohesive story out of them was no mean feat, but Erdelac has done it. I won't teeter into spoiler territory by going into too much detail; but even at the point where you can see that things are not going well, there are some fresh surprises. Also, the attention to detail; as well as an authentic sense of place, really bring the location to life. This story blends the levity and tension of the scenario in a seemingly effortless manner. Cannot recommend enough.

Philopatry: In this story, an old South Boston priest seeks out a former altar boy turned hitman to solicit his 'services'. It turns out that there has been a recent string of gruesome murders; and the priest, Father O'Malley, has come in possession of the identity of the killer via the confession booth. It's a tough call for our erstwhile killer, Terry Dunne. But, given the heinous nature of the killings, he opts to help put an end to them.

Again, I really don't want to go into too many details here, for there are some surprises. Then again, Erdelac gives the biggest of these away in the author's intro, so there's that. There's also something really interesting in those notes: it turns out Erdelac had written an initial version of this book in High School; we have no idea how rough or raw that version was, but if the framework was the same, it's very commendable.

So again, without letting loose with spoilers; I can still comment on all the things done right here. Again, we have characters that are superbly fleshed out; as the reader you feel as though you are in their heads; grappling with their inner demons. I haven't spent much time in Boston myself, but there was a real sense of placement.

And then there is the violence. Most of the stories in this anthology have had some fairly brutal scenes in them, but the action scenes in Philopatry are some of the best, bar none.

The whole story reads with a seamless, cinematic quality; culminating in a rousing sequence, and capping off with a scene that begs for a serialized continuation.

Also, kudos for the history lesson on St. Mercurius.

Sea Of Trees: The interest in Aokigahara, Japan's 'suicide forest', has been a true cultural phenomenon, spread like wildfire courtesy of the internet. Erdelac offers a fresh story here, using the forest as his basis. As he notes in his introduction; instead of doing a ghost story, he focuses on how the occurrences of suicides within the forest spike in correlation with the close of the fiscal year. He uses this as a springboard for the plain and simple tragedy that is the inarguable fact that we are ruled to such a large extent by money. Our security in our quality of life is tied to designed paper; or, in modern times, dancing numbers on a computer.

This brings us to our protagonist, Manabu. It is easy to sympathize with, and, for many of us, outright identify with Manabu (especially those of us that weathered the Great Recession). Working insane hours in an accounting job; Manabu should have been able to carve out some semblance of an enjoyable life. But, in modern day Japan, still unable to right itself after the burst of the economic bubble of the 80's, life is a never-ending hamster wheel of exorbitant rents, bills, and loans due. So, even with a decent position; Manabu is still living paycheck to paycheck, over 15 hours a day, and only barely keeping his nose above water.

Correct that. He was. Now, after the close of the fiscal year, his company decided that "he was a redundant expenditure", and so, he has no options, and no safety net.

Then again, he has no family, and no children. By that metric, an easy egress via a stroll into the suicide forest seems a logical solution.

I never expected this kind of take on the Aokigahara legend. I also never expected the execution to be this good, either. The opening scenes were kind of a crushing blow; bringing to mind a lot of painful memories of when financial burdens were a lot more oppressive. Also, the scenes with Manabu's mother never failed to bring a tear to my eye. It really shows us how tragic it is that that pure, honest maternal love has to be replaced by indentured servitude to currency.

The tone switches gears a bit towards the middle, as Manabu meets a 'grave robber' of sorts, allowing for a bit of honest discourse and introspection.

The 'third act', if that's what we should call it, adds a bit of dark humor to the dark material. I really did not see the story panning out like this, but it does tie the story up nicely.

Read this story; get you priorities in life straight, and don't take anything for granted.

Thy Just Punishments: From the Aokigahara suicide forest, we find ourselves transported back to South Boston. Once again we have the church seen in Philopatry, and a tenuous reference to that story (a mention of Terry Dunne heading to jail dates this tale as a bit before that one). In Punishments, we meet Father Tim O'Herlihey, a real dirtbag of the cloth who drones through the monotonous rituals of his calling, as he dips his fingers into the collection boxes to support his habit of betting (and losing) at the track. He also has a side gig as well - as a "occult hitman" to the Irish mob. I won't go into the detail of what qualifies as an occult hitman; it is a really cool concept, executed with precision by Erdelac.

The Just Punishments is another of the shorter entries in the anthology; and, according to the author notes, one of Erdelac's first outings with putting a humorous touch in his tales. I'm guessing that makes it an earlier story for him; since he really seems to have found his stride in imbuing deft (and sometimes overt) touches of humor through his tales.

The best thing about this story is the fact that O'Herlihey's main foil is a shriveled little Irish biddy; transplanted from a neighboring church undergoing renovations. She sees through his B.S. with a clarity beyond the capacity of her rheumy old eyes, and harries him at every turn with a doggedness that type usually only reserves for clipping coupons and bingo night.

If there is anything I could recommend for this story; it'd be a little more info on the amount of money O'Herlihey has pilfered, and the true extent of his gambling habit. Also, an idea of just how many 'hits' he has performed; all of these could solidify his scumbag status a bit more and allow us to truly enjoy him getting his "just punishments".

On a personal note, I really enjoyed the author's intro here. Being raised Catholic as well, there were some similar stories here. Erdelac tells of the incident that turned him off of church, as well as a story about a little old lady. For me, the incident that turned me off of church involved a little old lady and an asshole priest. Just putting that out there; for it seems that as we get further into the book, Erdelac opens more and more in his notes; making them just as interesting as the stories.

The Wrath Of Benjo: With this story, Erdelac truly saves the weirdest for last. The concept for Wrath of Benjo takes root in the idea of tsukomogami, a Japanese legend that postulates that tools, or items, can acquire a spirit after a century. In this unique tale, we meet a toilet, long idle, that comes self-aware after existing for a hundred years.

Crossing paths with this long-forgotten, yet eternally proud commode is Araki, a news photographer who finds himself bouncing along the back roads of the boonie village in the midst of a tumultuous storm. However, the storm is not the only source of turbulence; there is also a roiling, raging unrest in his bowels. Seeking any port in the storm; he comes across the forgotten Benjo.

Then, in his naivete, he makes the error of doubting Benjo's studious attention to his duties.

Not a good idea when your ass is literally on the line.

What follows is a true gross-out climax; and I'll just leave it to you to read since it is probably the shortest, yet wildest, tale in the book.

The only things that didn't really work here was that it decidedly felt like a modern day story; yet Erdelac had to mention advanced technology in other areas of Japan to suggest that the events transpire in the future. Since Benjo is a Western style toilet, his hundred year sentience wouldn't occur until later this century. Still, a lot of gross fun here; even if I was wincing almost the entire time.

You can get your copy of Angler in Darkness here. At $3.99 for 18 great stories, it's a steal.