People Live Still in Cashtown Corners – Nightmare Fuel

The edges of my vision are flickering as vertigo climbs my legs. This is normal. My diet has been out of whack and I’ve been fighting a head cold for, oh, maybe three weeks. It seemed like a good time to settle into reading “People Live Still In Cashtown Corners” by Tony Burgess. Or, maybe it was the worst time. Who knows.

After picking this up at the last ChiSeries Ottawa night – which was the last reading I did on October 9 for the launch of Postscripts To Darkness IV – I resolved to move it to the top of my reading pile. “Pontypool” was a favorite and with that reading night and launch, I was technically published alongside the man. As usual, I bought other books since then that leapt to the ‘top of my reading pile’ burying the book alive.

After wrapping another novel, I basically turned its last page into the first page of “Cashtown”. That was at ten o’clock this morning. I was finished by noon. On the button. I know this because the last line rung in my mind as I put the book down in order to come back to planet earth when the church bells began to sound off.

If I were to recommend not only the book, but the environment in which to read it, I’d have to say it must be read in one sitting at the very least. Perhaps adopt a bad diet a few days before hand. If you drink, stop for a week. Be ill. Influenza, a cold, it doesn’t really matter. Be confused. A little social drama brewing in a circle twice removed will help. Be out of sorts. Feel weird. This will only help to heighten the experience.

Sure, the experience will be different for everyone, but I must say this one chilled me sufficiently. Looking for short but very hard-hitting horror? This is a good bet. I like true-crime so the images included did the fun job of building the story for me. All in all, the look and feel of the book helped. It is not average book size. It is not average book length. These are more things that take you out of the ordinary and sell Cashtown Corners to your imagination, other than the fact that the physical location actually exists. I enjoy the first-person point of view which is done extremely well in this case. I also enjoy finding one barely noticeable typo in good books. I found one, and it has a typo too. 

Sadly, I can’t imagine this being shoe-horned into a screenplay let alone made into a film. Since Burgess is also great at scripting, he’d be the obvious choice but I just can’t let go of the story in my mind to trust anyone to bring it to life in just the right way.

Take one part ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’, your favorite Saladfingers episode, and kill scenes from the film ‘Maniac’ then stir until you are well shaken and that is what reading “People Live Still In Cashtown Corners” is kind-of sort-of like. While it does have quiet parts and revolting parts, the storytelling is where this grabs you by the throat with both hands to whisper in your ear. Hearing the inner dialogue of Mister Clark and nothing else is a trip through a dark, dark madhouse. You can’t help but put yourself in the head of this man since you are led there with a beautifully set up world crafted by a gifted author.

“Bob Clark owns the Self Serve in Cashtown Corners. It’s the only business there and Bob is the only resident. He’s never been comfortable around other people. Until he starts to kill them. And murder, Bob soon discovers, is magic. People Live Still in Cashtown Corners is Bob’s account of a tragedy we all thought was senseless.” – ChiZine

All Hallow’s Read 2013 (Day 3)

ThirtyMiles

Today’s suggestion is for all of the newbies to the genre. No doubt you came to our dark neck of the woods from Mystery, Thriller, Crime, or some other sort of speculative fiction genre, but have you ever faced a piece of writing that combines pretty much all of the above?

Thirty Miles South of Dry County is not only a brilliant foray into Kealan Patrick Burke’s unique style of storytelling, but it’s also an amazingly fun romp through a crazy, far-out-there, dystopian world that, well, isn’t actually too far-out-there. 

One of the greatest things about helping new readers along the path of finding great stories is that I get to throw my absolute favorite reads at them. I read this novella when I was looking at the 2013 Stokers Finalists and, in all honesty, I think it should have won.

While Gene O’Neill’s winning novella, The Blue Heron, is a phenomenal piece of speculative fiction, Burke’s entry is so instantly memorable it would easily make incredible viewing as a TV show, a la The Walking Dead or The Killing. Easily. (Burke, if you’re reading, you need to pitch this, man. Pitch it!)

It also helps that Burke is a looker, and a good face to have at the forefront of the genre, right ladies? (Yeah. I went there)

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The Thief of Broken Toys by Tim Lebbon

thief-of-toys_coverHorror isn’t always about monsters. Some of the best horror – quiet horror, if you will – deals with loss, life, and love.

No one seems to know this better than Tim Lebbon, and he’s willing to share with readers in the most effective manner in his novella, The Thief of Broken Toys (Chizine Publications). Beautifully crafted and elegantly delivering blow after blow to readers’ hearts and souls, this 2010 publication is a relentless study of the destruction death delivers to loved ones, and especially to parents. Continue reading

Alone by Brian Keene

When it comes to Keene’s fiction, it’s usually hit or miss with me. I’m not a rabid fan, nor am I a hater, and the man has some serious chops, that much we all know. It’s not often that I don’t like a piece of the man’s writing, mainly ’cause he’s got the genre in the palm of his hand, but when his fiction is a “miss” in my eyes, it’s usually his shorter fare. This, thankfully, is not the case with Alone. Well, that’s not true. I didn’t dig the ending so much, but the first two acts of the novella are borderline brilliant.

Insomuch as Keene’s signature voice is very strong in this tale, he’s coming from a place of loneliness and despair, hinting at the fact that the man knows what it is to go through some serious pain. It also just so happens that I read this book during a very tough period of my life (which I’m still not even halfway through), and so it hit home in so many different ways. Loss, desperation, separation, and the overwhelming sense of being alone… sigh… such is life. And Keene does a great job of taking a story and embedding the emotions right into your heart, giving you no choice but to feel what the main character is feeling – even if you’ve work oh so damned hard to stomp that shit down into a corner of your soul.

Thanks for dredging this stuff up, Dr. Keene. I hope someone has a couch appointment available for me soon…

When Daniel Miller wakes up one morning, something has gone terribly wrong. The power is out. The phones are dead. The house is silent. The street is shrouded in fog. Both his partner and their adopted daughter are missing. So are their neighbors. And so is everyone else in the world. Daniel Miller is the last person left on Earth… or is he?

So, in the midst of a separation and a brutal case of the blues, I ventured forth and started reading a story titled “Alone“. Smooth move, Poindexter. And no doubt, it had to be written by one of the kings of lonely, beaten down characters, Brian “more metal than your mom” Keene. Seriously, what was I thinking? I’ve read his work before. I knew what I was getting into.

He kicked my ass with Dark Hollow, one of my favorite books this genre has to offer; whooped me silly with Dead Rising and City of the Dead; did a number on me with the short story Burying Betsy; and played with my emotions through a few other pieces of genre mastery (even his entry in the hard to find Excitable Boys, Full of It, which is just wonderfully disgusting). Granted, I wasn’t so much a fan of Ghost Walk, Urban Gothic, An Occurrence in Crazy Bear Valley, or The Damned Highway, but most of what this man has to offer hits me in a place that usually stays quite well hidden. It’s literature like this that speaks to the blue-collar boy in me, and evokes something that I try to keep out of the public eye for the sake of retaining some semblance of composure. Something that was utterly torn out of hiding with Alone.

See, when Keene wants to talk to you about being alone, being scared, or being separated from that which you love, you have no choice but to identify with it. That’s what this novella does without blinking – it makes you feel.

Now, I know my usual snarkiness and sarcastic banter is what keeps people coming back for more (if only to figure out how not to review a book), but I’m going to have to put that on hold for a minute and tell you why this story is so goddamned different from all of the other pieces of horror fiction you’re apt to find out there.

First of all, Keene opts to introduce a main character in a homosexual relationship – something I can’t possible applaud louder for. Growing up on Poppy Z. Brite and Clive Barker, being a huge fan of LGBT horror fiction, and being one of the most sexually secure man-droids you’ll ever meet, I have to give it to Keene for taking the initiative to step outside of the boy’s club suppositions and do something else with the character in this work. And what’s more is the fact that Keene writes his character without a single stereotype or misgiving about the man’s sexual orientation. This is a big and down-to-earth move for such a notable fixture in the genre. Why others can’t do this, and that includes authors that are heavily into the LGBT scene, I don’t know.

When I started reading this novella, I wasn’t really sure what I was heading into, but it started off feeling a little like Darkness On The Edge Of Town. I dug the hell out of that book, and was sure that I was in for a good old Levi Stoltzfus kind of tale. I was wrong, as I’m usually told by the ladies, and was instead treated to Dan’s silent torture and mental collapse.

Keene uses the idea of suspending one’s disbelief well with this one, creating scenarios and rules that make a helluva lot of sense in his world, and not a lick of such in reality. It’s not until the end where you find out just why things happen the way they do, and by that point it doesn’t even really matter what’s going on. I felt like my ears were plugged, by breath was catching, I was claustrophobic, and sure that Keene had watched the last 4 months of my life from behind a tree – creepy Bollywood style.

The ending played out a little too easily for me, but it still rings true with the intention put forth for the entirety of the story. You can tell where the tale is going, but if you’re like me, you read for the sake of absorbing, and not for the whole “what happens at the end” crap that some other folks do. Keene’s got his swagger on high, but it’s this ending that makes things feel a little rushed. Regardless, he writes a mean story of heartache and loss when he wants to, making this reader feel a little uncomfortable when things hit this close to home.

Not to say that I’m stuck in a muffled, grey covered world or anything. I can just empathize with poor old Dan’s “what the fuck is gong on”, is all.

For a buck or two, Alone is a brilliant tale that will kick your heart’s ass, and beautifully exemplifies Keene’s ability to write you into a state of awe and woe, and keep you coming back for more.

C.

Soft Kiss, Hard Death by Tobin Elliott

It’s always wicked to me to see how a particular type of character can have so many different faces when taken on by different creative minds. Think of the original Hulk vs the two subsequent film portrayals. Hell, look at vampire fiction and werewolf fiction, or even mystery and suspense. They all broker in folks who stalk the pages of uniformity, and create a recipe or formula that gives the reader what they want.

And then you have something like the Truman Mysteries - now 3 books into the series. The series is in its infancy, really, but you can tell right off the bat that the character at the forefront of the books is going to go through massive overhauls throughout the series’ span, but always land back on square one. Now, what makes this different for me is who’s writing the damned thing. Kurtz gave us a gravel voiced, love lorn hardass; Zuern came at the reader with a funnier, more slapstick kind of lead character, and now Elliott (the only author so far without a “z” in his name) is giving us a brick-punching, hard as nails, tough-man who might just make my top pick for frustratingly obscure Halloween costume this year.

Elliott’s version of this story starts with a bang (no pun intended) and, unfortunately, ends with a whimper.

From Amazon:

Sam is hired by a man whose extramarital dalliance has resulted in a lot more than he bargained for when the girl in question deposits something horrible inside his body and then promptly dies. Now Sam finds himself chasing the dead girl’s doppelganger all over the City, from seedy bars to the city morgue, in an effort to discover what she is and how he can stop her before she can spread her bizarre brand of lovemaking to another poor sap!

I’m sorry. I’m totally giggling about that pun. hahahahaha. Seriously. Go read the book and then reread that. Heh heh heh. Sorry.

Though it’s been said around the water cooler that, if (when) the Truman series sees a print version, the reader will be in for a brilliantly brutal ending that I’m quite positive Elliott can only deliver. See, of Elliott’s work that I’ve had the pleasure to read, one similar theme kind of jumps up and kicks me in the face every time. This is an author who likes to make people suffer. And no, it’s not because his writing is crap – it’s very much the opposite. Elliott has a command of the language in such a way that he is able to make use of less in order produce more. The man’s style is blunt and visceral, a tour de force of grotesque, jarring, and mentally scarring visions that will remind you at once of both Ketchum and Brandner. It’s not hard to make that comparison once you’ve read Elliott’s chapbook, Vanishing Hope, and, if you can get your hands on it, his short story, Stealing Cory.

Elliott has a flair for the flesh… meaning that he really likes making his characters deal with things that they really shouldn’t have to.

Truman is no exception to the rule. Elliott whoops him a-plenty, but it’s the supporting cast that get got in all manners of shuddery grossness. I… ugh… I don’t even want to tell you. Let’s just say that our male readers are going to cringe, and our female readers, especially those who’ve passed children through their southern gates, will… well… yeah, they’ll cringe too.

Now, anyone who remembers me before I lost my mind and went traipsing through the tulips of insanity, knows that I love me some gruefully gross monster-things. The gnarlier the better, is what I say. Elliott offers a hideous platter of sick things in this story that remind me of a period in history when a younger Donald Sutherland had a reason to scream, and something came spew-lunking straight outta Craig T. Nelson’s mouth. Extra points if you can name the references there. If you can’t… what the hell is wrong with you? Seriously? Get out of my house. Now.

Moving on…

When Elliott marries the point of contact for our monsters to start a-killin’, and introduces their final destination, and then brings us to the stinky underbelly of what they actually are – the reader is left with a yearn for a nice hot shower, and a brillo-pad towel dry just to get the yuck off. The descriptions Elliott laces throughout this story are thick with realism and made this reader want to gag. I don’t really even want to describe this anymore. It’s just gross. Good gross… but gross.

Another thing Elliott is aptly suited to describe, apparently, is women. My lord, what I wouldn’t give to have a look at the woman he talks about in this book. The effect that she has on poor ole’ Sam doesn’t end there. Eve doesn’t just play her wicked little seduction out on Mr. Truman, but instead radiates outwardly and into the minds of whoever is reading it, causing our fascination to grow, and our distaste for Truman to grow along with it. Call me deranged, but I was hoping the bastard got all sorts of killed, just in hopes that there would be more Eve to spread around. And then Tobin went and took my “spread around” comment and realized it fully, and I started feeling ridiculous because I was coveting a freakin’ character in a book.

Like I said at the beginning of this piece, I found the ending to be a bit lackluster, especially for what I’ve become accustomed to with Elliott’s work. The whole of the story is very well paced, the dialogue is fun, and the gore is glorious. To have it end in such a BLAM!-and-now-the-story-is-over kind of way just felt like reliving my love life in my teenage years – a lot of talk and no great finale. (How’s that for TMI?) And again, the water cooler gossip says that this ain’t gonna be the case for long, but insomuch that I haven’t read differently, this is the way the cookie crumbled for me.

A worthwhile venture, nonetheless, as The Sam Truman mysteries are always a blast and a wicked fast read to be enjoyed with a beer, or in my case a coffee, and the expectation that entertainment is secured for at least an hour’s time. Elliott has proven now, that he can swing his stick in a few different playing fields. Next up, hopefully, we’ll see the sequel to Vanishing Hope, and a few other stories from this Crazy Canadian Creep.

C.

Die, You Bastard! Die! by Jan Kozlowski

Every once in a while a book comes along that totally side swipes you. A piece of fiction in this genre almost always allows you to experience some sort of emotional peak, but it’s rare that one lulls you into a sense of security, only to flip around and turn someone you’ve become accustomed to, or even begun to find yourself attracted to, into a goddamned human pincushion.

And yeah, I’m looking right in the direction of Jan Kozlowski at the moment.

This small imprint is beginning to look a lot like the island of misfit toys to me, complete with deranged clowns and outcasts who have more passion and ability in their little finger than the masses on the mainland. When I saw that Kozlowski had a book coming out, with a title like this no less, I was actually quite surprised. Here’s a woman who looks so completely unassuming, is always painfully polite or excited about the genre, and she’s releasing a story with the legendary John Skipp. Shit, I still remember the first time I read Skipp and Spector’s Book of the Dead back when I was just about to head into my teens.

Based on that, I should have seen this coming.

Claire is a first-rate paramedic, with a heroic devotion to saving lives. She is also a survivor of unspeakable abuse, who has rebuilt herself entirely, as far from home as she could get.

But when her aged father is hospitalized, after a crippling fall, Claire is dragged back into a brutal nightmare of sexual depravity, and deepest betrayal. Where the only question left is, “How can I possibly survive?”

 And the only answer is, “DIE, YOU BASTARD! DIE!”

-from amazon.com

Die, You Bastard! Die! opens up with an intriguing plot and a heart-wrenching scene of sadness that won’t leave your mind any time soon. The big bastard that this author depicts is the epitome of human scum who preys on the smallest and weakest members of our society. An act like this is definitely something that makes me, as a father, uncomfortable as hell, but it’s also something that would make any person with a heart and a brain cringe with horror on a regular basis. I don’t care how fucking hardcore you are, child abuse and sexual molestation is an act that should reward you with pains beyond that which a cenobite can deliver. End of story.

Now, when Kozlowski sets the scene with her main character, it’s easy to assume what’s coming next. About halfway through the story, you feel a sense of closure overcoming the plot, and literally wonder what’s coming next. I really looked at the rest of the story and wondered what the hell all of these extra pages were for if this was going the way I thought it was.

I’m also starting to wonder if the word “gullible” is in the dictionary or not because I totally fell for the ruse.

This author kicked the shit out of me like only Jack Ketchum did when I read Off Season for the first time. My mistake was in the fact that I assumed, and we all know what assuming does.

Yeah, I’m an ass.

But so are you if you think you’re going to walk away from this one unscathed.

Sheer will is the one of the only ways a reader could possibly sit through the rest of this book, and retaining the hope that redemption will be sought is the other. The crimes perpetrated on this main character are absolutely atrocious, but Kozlowski has her own brand of justice to mete out by the climax of the tale. And my, oh my, does she do it with style. Think I Spit On Your Grave mixed with a little bit of the most depraved Japanese hardcore spatter flicks you can muster, and then reinvent it in your own mind. If you have an imagination like mine, you’re totally screwed. Sorry.

Kozlowski is definitely fresh breath in this stagnant genre. Her voice is unassuming and works much like a lullaby before a terrifying scene in horror movie. She has a mastery over the written word unlike any other, and truly knows how to craft a brutal scene. The fact that this one affected me so much actually pleases me, as it’s something I find doesn’t happen all that often. Mind you, I read this while I was in the middle of a really good run of books, and it still kicked my ass. I have no doubt in my mind that this is the beginning of an incredible career for this author, and will be waiting with baited breath for more of her output.

Personally, I want to thank her pre and beta readers for being the guinea pigs to such a wonderfully poignant, but brutal work of fiction. The core of the tale is unfortunately true, as children and young people all over the world are exploited and wounded all of the world on a daily basis. While I usually balk at the idea of reading and reviewing a piece of work that centers around this issue (it’s a sore spot for me that I really don’t like visiting), I have to congratulate Kozlowski for not exploiting the nature of the beast, and delivering a very fact oriented and interesting story.

Like I’ve said before, Ravenous Shadows is definitely in the right place at the right time, and I have no trouble saying that this little imprint will become a powerhouse in years, or even months to come. And for those of you who are questioning whether Skipp can “pull it off” again? You bet your sweet ass he can. This line of novellas is proof that the man is on top of his game, as always.

If you’re not afraid to traipse into a world of depravity and sorrow, grab yourself a copy of Die, You Bastard! Die! at Amazon today.

C.

Catching Hell by Greg F. Gifune

Samhain is back with another novella in their horror line that is just bristling with energy, viciousness, and an 80s slasher appeal that leaves no corner of the horror genre to rest. Gifune is in top form here with Catching Hell, unleashing a barrage of classic b-movie intensity and a writing style worthy of being compared to my beloved Richard Laymon, and the Splatterpunk legends of yore (even if they hated the title). So, buckle your seatbelts kiddies. We’re about to go on a ride.

Summer, 1983.

As fall approaches and the summer stock theaters on Cape Cod close for the season, three promising young actors and a stagehand pile into an old Ford Fairlane and head for a vacation resort in Maine. Hoping for a relaxing getaway before pursuing their dreams, the instead encounter a bizarre storm while on a lonely stretch of highway and soon find themselves stranded in the strange rural community of Boxer Hills.

At first glance it seems a harmless little backwoods town, but Boxer Hills has a horrible secret and a deadly history. It’s a place of horrific age-old rituals and a legendary evil that will let no one escape without paying a terrible price. Before the sun rises on a new day, they will have to fight their way through the night and out-of-town, or risk falling prey to a demonic creature so profane few will even speak its name.

They were young, reckless and chasing Hell. What they hadn’t counted on was actually catching it.

When Samhain launched their horror line with Don D’Auria at the helm, I knew we’d be getting some stellar works from the genre’s best midlist authors. What I didn’t bank on was the mostly romance publisher upping the ante and letting loose some great e-book novellas as well – something that most of the bigger publishers in the genre don’t do. First up we were given the incredible literary stylings of Ronald Malfi. Borealis was a blast and an absolutely terrifying read. Now we’re being treated to the whirlwind, chaos-driven madness that long time genre heavyweight Greg F. Gifune has to offer. If this keeps up, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to catch my breath.

In the case of Catching Hell, Gifine pulls no punches, opting instead to go straight for the throat, effectively leaving all subtlety to the amateurs and the scribes of the creeping dread. This novella is about catching hell, and with that the author rips straight into the story and provides a wild ride bereft of anything even resembling meandering or slow. The order of the day here is speed, folks, and that’s just how he executes this novella – at a break-neck velocity capable of wowing and completely blowing out any ideas of a leisurely read.

Gifune’s characters are strong. That’s pretty much the only thing than can be said about them that won’t sound like I’m blowing smoke. These kids are strong-willed, strong minded, and powerfully written. The choices they make are all rational, realistic, and don’t end them up in a happily ever after kind of scenarios, but instead have actual consequences that directly affect their present situations. This, in my opinion, is very rare in the horror genre. Gifune remarks at the end that this novella is loosely based on a real-life event that he, himself, was a party to. If it was anything like the craziness that goes down in this novella, I want to hear more. This is the stuff of nightmares.

The major attraction with this novella is that while Gifune delivers, as I’ve said, a great piece of Splatterpunk/80s b-movie styled fiction, he completely avoids massive clichés and other heaps of genre silliness. The brunt of the story is told in a matter of fact way that barely requires the reader to suspend any disbelief. The only instance where the reader might find it to be absolutely necessary is upon revealing the ‘demon’ or ‘bad guy’, his cloaked minion (a defrocked minister), and the description of the evil thing, itself. I tend to like my demons with a little more exposition, but this one will do in a pinch. It’s not hard to find information on the ancient demon Lithobolia (a demon who seems much more frightening in other works of literature), but Gifune’s incarnation is the first I’ve read about it in modern tales but, unfortunately, feels hardly like an adversary worthy of such fear, and more like filler for an explanation as to why this cult is effecting such horrible practices on innocent parties that wander into the backwoods town of Boxer Hills.

Regardless of the demon itself, Catching Hell is a wickedly fast-paced ride through Gifune’s madness, and a piece destined to become a ‘best of‘ somewhere down the road. This is easily one of my favorite reads of the year and makes me want to check out more of this author’s work.

Catch some hell over at Samhain Publishing and/or Amazon. You can check out more information at Greg F. Gifune’s webpage, and say a big ol’ hello over on Facebook.

C.