A couple weeks ago, I was approached by the founder of the New York Journal of Books, an online review site designed to fill the gap left by the decrease (or cessation, in some cases) of book reviews by traditional print sources. Their staff of reviewers is comprised entirely of authors, editors and other publishing industry professionals, or people qualified in other fields. I anticipate reviewing at least one book a month for their site.
CAVEAT: I’ve known the author for several years, and he consulted me regarding some of THIS DARK EARTH‘s military content. In exchange, he designed the cover to my 2009 short story collection, MAGICK & MISERY. I certainly got the better end of that deal–readers love that cover. He even sent me the copy of the novel I read. Having said that, I wouldn’t have reviewed the book if it sucked, and that’s about all I figure I’d owe him. I think John would agree.
I’ve read a lot of zombie books, and I’ll probably never stop reading them. THIS DARK EARTH does contain a few of zombie fiction’s tried and true plot devices–mainly because acting as though the the zombie apocalypse WOULDN’T bring out the worst in humanity is the height of idiocy. It also contains several great characters–Lucy, Knock-out, Gus, Tessa, Broadsword and Wallis, to name a few. Every part of the book is heartfelt and possessed of a sensitivity I wouldn’t have expected from John–and which, along with John’s unique style of writing, sets the book apart from the rest of the zombie genre.
There’s a slim chance I’ve read a zombie book as good as this one before–like I said, I read a LOT of zombie fiction. THE RISING is probably this good, if you really need a comparison. The Woodbury (Governor) story arc of Kirkman’s WALKING DEAD (though that’s really comparing apples and oranges). But nothing comes to mind as being better. If you’re a horror fan, and even if you’re growing tired of the living dead, pick this one up.
Dying to Live: Last Rites by Kim Paffenroth is the third in a series of post-apocalyptic novels—this time, focusing on four characters from the previous books that were exiled from their community at the end of the second book, Life Sentence, two living humans and two intelligent undead. When one of the humans falls ill, the group takes refuge with a different community, which is run a bit differently—they have an economic system and luxuries, for one, and no respect for the undead, for two. Needless to say, once the group discovers the truth about their benefactors, they aren’t too pleased. While the philosophical content common to this series is still present, it rarely takes the form of long, plot-slowing lectures, which is always welcome. You wouldn’t imagine half a novel could be told well from a zombie’s POV, either, but Paffenroth does it well.
Ghoul by Brian Keene has been the target of a lot of hype since it’s publication in 2007. While Keene always turns out a superior product, there are certain novels of his that most every fan of his will tell the uninitiated they simply must read—The Rising and City of the Dead, The Conqueror Worms, Terminal and Ghoul—and while I’ve read almost all of Keene’s available output since first picking him up around 2008 or so, I’d never read Ghoul. The Deadite re-release of the novel seemed like a perfect time to fix that. It’s definitely everything you’ve been told—an excellent coming-of-age horror story firmly rooted in the Eighties, with conflicted characters and a bit of an unhappy ending. I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone, die-hard horror fans and people who rarely pick up the scary stuff alike. You may also have heard about the movie based on the book. I can’t imagine it holding a candle to the novel, but I’m picking up the DVD the first chance I get.
The Infection and The Killing Floor by Craig DiLouie are a pair of novels set after an Infection sweeps across the planet, turning people into mindless zombies. The first novel introduces a mixed group of civilians and military personnel. The plot is very organic—the group hides out in a hospital before breaking out and making it to a FEMA community. Once there, the story takes a more solid direction: the community is sending out a small group to blow up a bridge in order to reduce avenues through which the Infected can approach.
The second book picks up right after the bridge is blown, and follows many of the characters introduced in The Infection as they go their different ways: a few strike off in separate directions of their own, another returns to the community and yet another discovers that he’s the result of another of the Infection’s many mutations: a carrier who, while not Infected himself, spreads the disease by releasing airborne spores. It also introduces another group of military personnel, charged with guarding a scientist who just might be able to cure the Infection—if he can find a pure sample.
DiLouie has an electic writing style that is catchy for the most part, save a sentence or two here and there that jolts you from the story momentarily. What pulls you right back in are the excellent characters he’s created, and the relationships built between them. DiLouie’s apocalypse comes with an additional twist—there are not just zombies to content with, but grotesque monsters created by evolutions of the virus: two headed, giant, fanged worms and hairless, jumping monkeys with infectious stingers, just to name a couple. While DiLouie says there are no plans for a third book at the moment, The Killing Floor ends in such a way that begs for another sequel. He’d be crazy not to write it—and I just might go crazy if he doesn’t.
The Undead Situation by Eloise J. Knapp wouldn’t have been disappointing at all had it not been billed as “Hannibal Lecter during the zombie apocalypse.” But, having seen that, I was prepared for the novel twist of someone eating a fellow survivor’s liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti while all hell broke loose outside. Instead, we get an unemotional asshole who lets a girl into his house and hangs her out the window for kicks, and then pretty much does nothing too heinous—he kills some zombies, and a few bad people, and that’s about it. A couple of past murders are mentioned, but they come off as being included solely to establish Cyrus’ credit as a bad man. The best part of the book is the blossoming relationship between Cyrus and another sociopath-type, a female ex-Marine named Blaze, who eventually warm up to each other. The ending is killer, too, I’ll give it that. But, a sociopath-in-the-apocalypse story is the sort of thing that deserves to be done all the way, and this wasn’t it.
The Junkie Quatrain by Peter Clines is a quartet of short stories set in a world where a virus has spread across the planet—a virus that makes people impulsive to the extreme for several weeks before killing them. By impulsive, I’m talking murder, nymphomania, cannibalism, etc. They just can’t help themselves. The stories are interconnected: I don’t want to ruin everything, but by way of example, a sniper who kills a Junkie at the beginning of one story and is never seen again for the rest of the tale is seen again in another story, and is the main character of a third. The characters in all four stories are similarly connected. By the time you read the last one, you learn the secret of the Junkie virus. It’s a complete, satisfying collection with a novel concept that I highly recommend.
The Seven Habits of Highly Infective People by William Todd Rose is two stories in one: the modern-day narrative of a mental patient who can jump into the bodies of people in the future and who kills a woman in his time to prevent the outbreak of a zombie infection, and the story of Ocean, a girl in the future who is rescued from zombies by a small group of survivors who might not exactly have her best interests at heart. While the title makes the book sound like a self-help spoof, it’s actually a quick, fun read.
Zombie Bitches From Hell by Zoot Campbell takes an atypical, if not completely new, take on the zombie apocalypse—only women become zombies, and they’re vulnerable via the ovaries instead of the brains—and stirs in the usual survival-fight plotlines, resulting in a decent afternoon-killer of a novel. It’s confusing at times—at one point in the story, a little girl becomes part of the survival party without any mention of the rest of her family or why she was brought along, and Campbell doesn’t make full use of his characters; at least once, the aformentioned little girl isn’t even mentioned in a major scene, and later, she’s used in a manner that would have had far more impact had she been better developed. I’d never unleash a novel on the world in this state, but it does get points for not being so bad I had to put it down unfinished.
Hero by Wrath James White and J.F. Gonzalez throws an elderly black civil rights activist into the direct path of a mixed-race hospice nurse with a psychopathic hatred of African Americans. Those familiar with White and Gonzalez will probably expect a bit more graphic nastiness than Hero provides. It’s still plenty disturbing, however—reminiscent of Stephen King’s Misery, though antagonist Natsinet is anything but activist Adelle’s Number One Fan. While not as over-the-top as other works by these authors, this seamless collaboration packs in enough torture, dismemberment and murder to satisfy any discerning appetite.
While I find the novella to be Brian Keene‘s least fulfilling storytelling medium (I eagerly anticipate his every novel and have enjoyed every short story and comic he’s written, though), The Cage feels most like a complete story of the ones I’ve read. A lunatic gunman walks into an electronics store at closing time, wastes two of its eight employees, and locks the other six up in the back room. He retrieves them one at a time, leaving the rest to wonder what’s going on at the front of the store—until it’s their turn, of course. Cage is part of Keene’s Labyrinth mythos, though I’m not going to spoil it by mentioning which of the Thirteen the story involves. As with every Keene novella I’ve read, it left me wanting more (which I guess is more of a compliment than a complaint), but at least it read like a complete story, while a couple others I’ve read seem more like part one of a novel that would be seriously badass if finished.
Genital Grinder by Ryan Harding is a collection of eight stories most would consider “torture-porn.” Prefaced with an introduction by veteran splatter author Edward Lee, Grinder is by no means in the same category as the thought-provoking but sadistic works horror fans have read by Wrath James White, Jesus Gonzalez, Richard Laymon and the like. For the most part, this collection is gross for the sake of being gross—and if you expect anything different from a book called Genital Grinder, I say the blame lies with you rather than the author. A notable deviation from this theme is the final story, First Indications, which I honestly didn’t quite grasp. The rest of the book did exactly what I was hoping it would when I cracked into it, though—it entertained me for a few hours and made me damn queasy in the process. I particularly enjoyed the references the stories made to events taking place in preceding stories, and the recurring characters Von and Greg who appeared in several pieces. If I had to pick out one standout piece, it’d be Development, which actually did have a storyline and possibly the least gratutious gore of the whole book.
Quarantined by Joe McKinney follows Detective Lily Harris and her partner, Chunk, as they investigate a mysterious death inside the walls of superflu-contaminated, quarantined, San Antonio. When the detectives uncover the secrets behind the murder, the novel turns into not only a police procedural but also a survival-escape story. In many ways, Quarantined reads like a protoype for McKinney’s Dead World zombie novels (walled-off southern Texas city, disaster outbreak, police protagonists), but this standalone novel takes place in a different world and doesn’t feature any supernatural elements at all—it’s conspiracy-driven, rather than a fight for survival against a physical threat. As usual, McKinney offers a compelling story drawn heavily from his experiences as a San Antonio homicide detective and disaster response specialist.
I purchased Ganymede by Cherie Priest at my local bookstore the day before my flight to World Horror and devoured it between the flights there and back. It’s the fourth of her Clockwork Century steampunk books, set in an alternate 1890s America where the Civil War is still raging. I was slightly apprehensive at first after having to set aside Dreadnought (the third book) a third of the way through because it didn’t hold my interest. At this point, I’m invested in the series, though—I’ll be taking another stab at Dreadnought soon enough, I’m sure, and will probably find something to like. I’d been looking forward to Boneshaker, the first novel, for nearly a year before it’s release, and Clementine, the Subterranean Press-released novella, was nearly as good.
I found Ganymede, which revisits Boneshaker’s pirate Andan Cly as he undertakes one last illegal operation in order to finance his retirement, to deliver on the promise of Boneshaker better than any other book in the series to date. For those eager to meet another of Priest’s plucky heroines, we have Josephine Early, a mulatto cathouse owner and one of Cly’s former lovers. For readers looking forward to revisiting old friends, Briar, Zeke, Mercy and Swakhammer all make appearances. If you’ve never read a Clockwork Century book yet, you can certainly jump in with Ganymede (these novels are all self-contained, though they do build on each other), though I’d recommend at least reading Boneshaker first.
Red Empire and Other Stories by Joe McKinney collects his previously released novella Red Empire and seven short stories, some written specifically for this collection. McKinney fans know him best for his zombie stories (he took home a Stoker this year for Flesh Eaters, his third Dead World novel), but there’s not a zombie in sight here, but for one story. Like most of McKinney’s work, many of these stories take place in Texas and feature police. The novella in particular reminded me of the mid-90s-era Dean Koontz novels I enjoyed before I figured out they all followed the same formula—but with the possible romance between the male and female leads left to happen after the story, rather than bogging down the action. A solid collection, and a must for any McKinney fan.
Rust and Blood by Ed Kurtz collects nine short stories, many brand-new with a few reprints. Kurtz has a great writing style, and even the stories that failed to suspend disbelief for me held my attention all the way through. I ripped through the collection in a couple of hours. The premises behind ‘Hungry’ and ‘Pearls’ were a bit farfetched, but both were fun–‘Pearls’ in particular was an uncomfortable read for a guy who had a nickel-sized, inch-deep chunk of necrotized flesh carved from his thigh a couple years back. ‘Sinners’ and ‘Roadbeds’ were confusing, to be completely honest, but the rest of the book is packed with solid, old-school horror–‘Family Bible’ in particular was a great read.
Faint of Heart by Jeff Strand is a self-published novella featuring Rebecca, a young wife who is kidnapped from her home the night after her husband, Gary, goes off on a hunting trip with a couple of buddies. Her kidnapper and his accomplice force her to relive everything Gary did the day before—or else. Strand is great at making a reader care about his characters in a short amount of time, and screwed with my expectations expertly. I also appreciate his economical, to the point style. Faint was a quick, exciting read that I blew through in one sitting.
The first two Sam Truman Mysteries novellas—Catch My Killer! by Ed Kurtz (released this month) and The Last Invasion by Brandon Zuern (coming in May) are the first in a new ongoing series of pulp novellas from Abattoir, an imprint of Kurtz’ Redrum Horror. Abattoir plans to release a new digital novella every six weeks, with print omnibus editions collecting every four or so. If I had to compare the Sam Truman series to anything else I’ve read, it’d be Shroud’s Hiram Grange series, in that both feature down-on-his-luck investigators-for-hire who solve paranormal mysteries. Killer! introduces Sam Truman, an involuntarily-retired private investigator who doesn’t have a pot to piss in. He intercedes in an attempted robbery at a diner by blowing away the perpetrator, only to be later visited (and hired) by the ghost of a murder victim housed in the robber’s corpse. In Invasion, Sam is hired by the family of a missing girl, and uncovers much more than a simple kidnapping or disappearance. Kurtz was born to write noir pulps; Killer! flows effortlessly and is grounded firmly in the series’ 1960s setting. Invasion is Zuern’s first published work, but hopefully not his last.