Epeolatry Book Review: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet: Horror Stories

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Title: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet: Horror Stories
Author: Richard Matheson
Genre: Horror
Publisher: Non Basic Stock Line
Release Date: 5th January, 2002

Synopsis:

Remember that monster on the wing of the airplane? William Shatner saw it on The Twilight Zone, John Lithgow saw it in the movie-even Bart Simpson saw it. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is just one of many classic horror stories by Richard Matheson that have insinuated themselves into our collective imagination.

Here are more than twenty of Matheson’s most memorable tales of fear and paranoia, including:

“Duel,” the nail-biting tale of man versus machines that inspired Steven Spielberg’s first film;

“Prey,” in which a terrified woman is stalked by a malevolent Tiki doll, as chillingly captured in yet another legendary TV moment;

“Blood Son,” a disturbing portrait of a strange little boy who dreams of being a vampire;

“Dress of White Silk,” a seductively sinister tale of evil and innocence.

Personally selected by Richard Matheson, the bestselling author of I Am Legend and What Dreams May Come, these and many other stories, more than demonstrate why he is rightfully regarded as one of the finest and most influential horror writers of our generation.

Nightmare At 20,000 Feet (336 pages, pub Jan 5, 2002) is a collection of twenty short stories, previously published in an eclectic mix of magazines from Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine to Playboy.

 In addition to his well-known novels, many of which have been turned into successful Hollywood films, Matheson has decades of short story publication behind him. He’s also written episodes for much-loved TV shows like “The Twilight Zone”.

 The title story, the first in the anthology, explores the terror of aviation flying. My son has a private pilot’s license, so I don’t believe that terror to be true, but it’s fun to suspend disbelief. The rest of the book explores a variety of themes. In “Mad House”, forty-year-old English lecturer Chris Neal is pushed to his limit by the breakdown of his marriage, the strains of teaching, and that old friend—writer’s block. He reminded me of a turbo-charged version of Vladimir Nabokov’s heroes—broken and overwhelmed by all the demands placed upon him, slowly losing touch with reality. Unlike Nabokov’s gentle sufferers, Chris embraces his anger:

 “His thoughts drained off. He felt empty and helpless. He felt as though he could never write another word for the rest of his life. Maybe, he thought, sullenly displeased with the idea, maybe it was only the upset of her leaving that enabled my brain to find words.”

 Pressures of a wholly different kind face Jules in “Blood Son”, a vampire tale with a difference. I don’t know why we always assume the victim resists that first bite. I love how Matheson’s short story comes with a lighthearted twist:

“He found the page on the vampire bat. He tore it out and threw the book away.

He learned the selection by heart.

He knew how the bat made its wound. How it lapped up blood like a kitten drinking cream.”

My personal favourite is “Wet Straw”, in which John passes the lonely hours with a visit to an art gallery where he discovers that the pictures trigger powerful and painful memories of his late wife:

“He stopped in front of it.

It was a painting of a countryside. There was a big barn down in the valley.

He began to breathe heavily, and his fingers played on his tie. How ridiculous, he thought after a moment, that such a thing should make me nervous.”

“Wet Straw” was sad and moving, but also profoundly discomforting. 

You could say that about a lot of Matheson’s fiction, and I think emotional honesty lies at the heart of its continuing appeal.

Enjoy!

Epeolatry Book Review: Berserker: Green Hell

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Title: Berserker: Green Hell
Author: Lee Franklin
Genre: Horror
Publisher: HellBound Books
Release Date: 7th July, 2019

Synopsis:

A terrifying debut novel set during the Vietnam War.Australian Lance Corporal Terence ‘Pinny’ Pinfold and his squad find themselves in the midst of the living hell of the Vietnam War.Known as Reapers, their job is to go in after the firefights, collect dog tags and any evidence of war crimes. As each soldier tries to make some sense out of a senseless war, there are more questions than answers as mutilated, butchered bodies are discovered the further to the North they venture. Pinny soon finds himself at the very core of the real war – in a secret underground facility amongst hybrid creatures which belong only in the very worse nightmares. With Pinny’s aboriginal bloodline, the enigmatic Doctor Jacinta Harding believes she has found the perfect specimen… Pinny might survive the war, but he might not save himself.

Berserker: Green Hell (183 pages, Hellbound Book LLC Publications, 2019) by Lee Franklin is her debut novel. This book takes place during the Vietnam War and follows a group of Australian soldiers, known as Reapers, as they gather evidence of war crimes. The Reapers soon discover that they are not alone in the jungle and they must fight their way back to safety. As they attempt to make it back to civilization they discover the Americans have built a secret facility and may have some connection with the beast stalking them.

Lee writes with vivid descriptions and settings. Her tale’s action comes off as believable, and her bio mentions she served in the Australian Army. What I enjoyed is that this book leans into the Australian culture. The exposition on aboriginal bloodlines, the slang, and race tensions provide newness for American readers. If you like war-type violence, you’ll enjoy this read as Lee does not shy away from writing it out on the page. There are times I felt she could have used some more restraint to build tension. In the early chapters, Lee often tells the reader what they are seeing, instead of showing us and letting the reader create the image. No first book is perfect; my reader copy had a few typos and grammatical errors.

I was not totally satisfied with the ending. The lesson that Pinny learns about power and responsibility felt like it had not been earned. Lee appears to have a second part in mind, so perhaps she plans to dig deeper into Pinny’s psyche. The vivid descriptions and the Australian characters kept me interested to the end.

I would recommend this book to readers who enjoy creature horror and government conspiracies. 

I rate this book 3 out of 5.

Epeolatry Book Review: Hollow Heart

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Title: Hollow Heart
Author: Ben Eads
Genre: Dark Fantasy Horror
Publisher: Crystal Lake Publishing
Release Date: 29th November, 2019

Synopsis:  Welcome to Shady Hills, Florida, where death is the beginning and pain is the only true Art…

Harold Stoe was a proud Marine until an insurgent’s bullet relegated him to a wheelchair. Now the only things he’s proud of are quitting alcohol and raising his sixteen-year-old son, Dale.

But there is an infernal rhythm, beating like a diseased heart from the hollow behind his home. An aberration known as The Architect has finished his masterpiece: A god which slumbers beneath the hollow, hell-bent on changing the world into its own image.

As the body count rises and the neighborhood residents change into mindless, shambling horrors, Harold and his former lover, Mary, begin their harrowing journey into the world within the hollow. If they fail, the hollow will expand to infinity. Every living being will be stripped of flesh and muscle, their nerves wrapped tightly around ribcages, so The Architect can play his sick music through them loud enough to swallow what gives them life: The last vestiges of a dying star.

Hollow Heart (158 pages, a Novella pub. Nov. 29, 2019) by Ben Eads is on the surface about a paraplegic ex-Marine and former alcoholic, Harold. Harold is fighting against an evil calling itself, The Architect. The only way Harold can defeat The Architect is to destroy the heart of the god that the Architect has created. If the Architect succeeds with his god, the whole world will be changed into hallucinatory horror: 

“It looked like a hundred atomic bombs had gone off and paused, containing imperfect, translucent spheres. As its impossible shape moved, singeing the ocean and world around it, the globes containing myraid versions of annihilation formed crude legs and arms. Its sound passed through Harold, shaking his ribs, rattling his teeth. Sea and earth were gobbled up as it lumbered into the ocean, as graceful as a car accident. Patches of sand that turned to glass reflected pieces of the abomination.”

On a deeper level the novella is about fathers failing their sons, and trying like hell to change. Main characters Harold and his son Dale interact with a supporting cast: love interest Mary, a strongly descriptive Terrell, dead Dalton, and throwaway Sheriff. For the first half of the novella, the story takes place in a Floridian trailer park where the characters seem to move in and out of the scene as if in a play. The action kicks in during the second half of the book.  

Hollow Heart has a dreamlike quality that works for it and against it. Confusion with character dialogue and some plot points mixes with an awesome villain and great monsters. While much of the action seems to take place off-page with Harold unconscious, there are some scenes of absolute truth, such as when Harold confronts his dead abusive father: 

“Harold cracked his neck as if preparing for a brawl and secretly hoping for one. ‘You left me when I was just a child. The only thing worse? After you bashed in mom’s face in, you…’ Harold looked at his shoes, massaged his temples. ‘You fucked up mom’s face for good, you asshole. You took the only thing in my life that made everything better: her smile. I saw the light go out of her eyes.’ Harold loaded a round in the chamber, pointed the barrel at his chest, ‘While she was down, you kicked her in the stomach. She had a fucking seizure.’

Harold’s trigger finger quivered.

‘I made up for it boy,’ Oliver said, crossing his arms. ‘Got on the wagon, paid for all of it, and your Mother forgave me. You didn’t even show up to her funeral because I paid for it. You only remember the bad times. Can’t say I blame you. Now is not the time to—‘ ”

Now for the nitty gritty: 

The prologue could have been part of the novella itself. 

There is confusion over which characters are speaking. 

A lot of action in the novella takes place off-scene, resulting in telling without showing. That issue could have been fixed by changing the character’s point of view. 

Also, confusing plot points with The Architect’s motivation which could have been addressed more. Harold seems secondary as a character. Things happen to him; he doesn’t make the action happen. Dale lacks substance and believability. 

On to the part that will delight the author and readers: 

The villain is pure gleeful delight. The monsters are very good due to hallucinatory description. In a pivotal scene, The Architect wakes up the god he’s created with his own special violin:

“A spine from a child appeared in his left hand, a bow in his right. Tiny ribs jutted from the sides, curved upward to secure nerves that quivered in anticipation of his touch. The Architect brought the bow across the nerves and began to play. A chorus of screams filled the room as if its owners were being burnt alive.”

The novella possesses strong dialogue and good prose. My favorite characters are Terrell the meth-head and dead Dalton. Their presence carries the book and lends it a wonderful “B” movie quality. Imagery within scenes and interaction between fathers and sons are my favorite parts of the novella. Eads gets a lot right with this second novel, but in my opinion, he still has some areas of his craft to hone.

3/5 stars

Epeolatry Book Review: High Wired On

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Title: High Wired On
Author: David Russell
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Searle Publishing
Release Date: 20th June, 2002

Synopsis: The 95 page novella High Wired On by David Russell, (published Jan. 24, 2019) features Billy, whose world is decaying around him. Everything that could go wrong seems to, and it’s starting to take its toll. When Billy begins to hear voices in the corners of his mind whispering promises of salvation, his crumbling world begins to distort. Whether for better or for worse, that still remains to be seen. 

“His confidence was crumbling fast. Once he could whisk through the crowds which surrounded him, assured that he was skimming over the surface of life, in no danger of being swallowed up by its depths, but now . . .”

The prose is the first thing that stands out in Russell’s work. What begins as a story recounting a man’s early life to his present day (being recounted by some form of researcher, implying this man’s involvement in some important event), quickly transitions into something prophetic, fantastical, and altogether unconventional. 

While there is no doubt Russell masters writing, and the sentences he weaves emit an abstract, unique beauty, it borders on the self-indulgent as the story takes multiple breaks to composite monologues via dialogue or narrative voice. The author postulates on one subject or another, though (to his credit) stays relevant to the plot at hand. However, this dream-like prose is briefly interrupted through grounded and straight-forward text, shattering the illusion and making for a jarring read. Such a change may have been interpreted as reality in the distorted story, but the frequency of shifts in writing style are far and few between, so it feels less significant and intentional. This problem is distinct in the dialogue, where long-winded replies and statements move to surreal territory as characters become less and less believable in the way that they speak. The simplistic and natural dialogue betrays the more theatrical and otherworldly dialogue. 

Despite its shortcomings, the narrative voice—at times—produces elegantly constructed sentences that add to the oppressive force Billy feels, which leads to an extrapolation of his inner turmoil. Billy’s sense of isolation and ostracization bleeds forth due to the more impersonal nature in which it is written. This detachment meant that I, as a reader, couldn’t connect with Billy. It made it harder to empathize with him on his journey, especially with Billy being the central focus. Brief sentences and smaller chapters are used for backstory—who Billy was as a child, what his family and love life were like, and where he worked. With so little time spent on these aspects, he feels distant. Given how introspective and analytical this story wishes to be, even with these lengthy internal monologue paragraphs, Billy comes across as just a name, a vehicle for the plot. 

Taking into account the short time spent on Billy as a character and the short length of the book (not even surpassing 100 pages), it’s hard to root for Billy, get invested, or understand his decisions. When events do occur, it feels as though he’s stumbled upon them. None of his choices have any impact upon the outcome, which leaps from one to another in such a rapid fashion that substance can’t be absorbed or digested. This is especially the case when the story gives the impression of leaving its entirety up to interpretation. Barely anything on the surface level ties it all together.

High Wired On feels less like a story and more like a platform for Russell to pontificate on various subjects and express his inner musings and ideals. It’s a maelstrom of long-winded delusions about a man (broken by society) who questions if his existence is real or purposeful. More metaphor than meaning, High Wired On is recommended for those seeking a challenge. Dive into its depths of pretension, and salvage some form of worthwhile experience that only the reader can define. 

High Wired On can be found on Amazon!

2/5 stars

Epeolatry Book Review: Third Corona Book of Horror Stories

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Title: The Third Corona Book of Horror Stories
Author: Various, ed. Lewis Williams
Genre: Horror
Publisher: Corona Books UK
Release Date: 1st October, 2019

Synopsis: In response to our worldwide call, we received a total of 824 horror short story submissions for this book – adding up to a staggering total of over three million words. But we read them all, selecting only the best of the best stories to include in this book. That is why when we say this book is something special, we mean it and that when we say it contains the best in new horror short stories, that is no hyperbole. We love horror, and the stories included in this book prove that it’s a genre where great imagination and great writing are more than possible. From the opening story ‘Suds and Monsters’, which might put you off washing dishes for good, to the closing story ‘Scythe’, which brings the proceedings to a short sharp close, each contribution will bring new horrors to unsettle you. We can guarantee you will find brilliant new horror writing here, but what you won’t find is a collection full of those who have star names (yet). We’re proud to include here both a story from at least one author who has sold books in the millions and a story from at least one author whose work has never been published before. We’ve simply included the very, very best of the stories, without fear or favour, to bring you the very best modern horror anthology possible.

Corona Publishing is in their own words, a ‘UK-based independent publishers of the brilliant, innovative and quirky.’

I attended the UK Ghost Story Festival in Derby and met the two people behind Corona—Lewis Williams and Sue Eaton.  We sat for an interview which has appeared on the Horror Tree site https://horrortree.com/guest-post-uk-ghost-story-festival/.

Since I’d already been aware of Corona Books, I made a mental note to read their latest anthology collection, The Third Corona Book of Horror Stories (224 pages).

Corona received an overwhelming number of submissions—824—for this anthology. One submission was from me; my story received an ‘honourable mention’.

19 dark tales have been gathered from both sides of the Atlantic. Experienced writers and at least one début author are included in this collection. So, there is a mix of US and Brit-style dialogue and slang.

A variety of horrors await the reader. The anthology is well edited and put together; I was impressed by the quality.

The opening story ‘Suds and Monsters’ by Christopher Stanley proved to be a strong start. You’ll never view doing the washing the same way again! Horrific. 

Tricia Lowther’s, ‘The Haunting of April’, also grabbed my attention. 

‘Heights’, apart from being well written with a climbing scale of spooky haunting, stars a dog. And I am rather fond of dogs. 

Jo Gilmour’s, ‘Angel’, is visceral. It tugs at your guts and heart right from the ominous opening line, ‘Daddy always wanted a boy.’ Which set my alarm bells ringing. 

A shout out to Jess Doyle’s, ‘Luna Too’, for originality and a twist I didn’t see coming. 

Probably my favourite story is, ‘Lily’s Kids’, by Florence Ann Marlowe. Marlowe’s tale leapt off the page and remained in my memory afterwards. Set in a small American town in the Depression era, and told mainly from a teenage boy’s point of view (Jimmy). It describes his and his younger sister’s fatal meeting with three children who are ‘raggedy scarecrows’—the titular Lily’s Kids. Marlowe builds the tension and allows readers to work out what’s going on by dropping hints, and yet holding back till the final skin-crawling reveal. Marlowe is a writer from whom I would like more stories to read.

There are no weak links in this anthology. All the stories pull their weight. Yes, there are stories I didn’t enjoy as much, but that I believe that goes to a reader’s personal taste. I did feel like a couple narratives finished a little early for me, and I would have liked more details from others.

Don’t miss out on the series of useful and interesting author biographies at the rear.

Overall a strong, entertaining anthology.

4/5 stars

Epeolatry Book Review: Blackthorn

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Title: Blackthorn
Author: Terry Tyler
Genre: Dystopian YA
Publisher: Independent
Release Date: 25th November, 2019

Synopsis:  The UK, year 2139.
One hundred and fifteen years ago, a mysterious virus wiped out ninety-five per cent of humanity.
Blackthorn, the largest settlement in England, rose from the ashes of the devastated old world. It is a troubled city, where the workers live in crude shacks, and make do with the worst of everything.
It is a city of violent divisions, crime, and an over-populated jail block, until a charismatic traveller has a miraculous vision, and promises to bring hope back to the people’s lives.
Blackthorn falls under Ryder Swift’s spell, and the most devoted of all is the governor’s loyal servant, Lieutenant August Hemsley.
Twenty-one-year-old Evie has lived her whole life in the shacks. She and disillusioned guard Byron Lewis are two of a minority who have doubts about Ryder’s message. Can they stand against the beliefs of an entire city?

Summary: Blackthorn (509 pages) by Terry Tyler is about an English settlement on the brink of a working-class uprising and civil war. In the year 2139, Evie Woods (age, early 20s) is a lower class citizen trying to survive in a world destroyed by disease, famine, and war. As tensions rise in Blackthorn, trusted friend of the community and adored traveler, Ryder Swift, returns to town. He experiences something miraculous that sets Blackthorn on a new path to salvation. While Evie works to sort out her own feelings about Rider and his experiences, she’s forced to consider what might be in store for her personal future and the futures of her loved ones in Blackthorn. When it seems Blackthorn’s new path may be headed toward an end more dangerous than its beginning, it is up to Evie and her friends to set things right.

Evaluation: This story is incredibly timely. Considering our current political and cultural climate, at times it almost reads like a cautionary tale. 

I am not typically drawn to 1st person narratives, so for me, the writing style was a bit difficult to navigate. And the chapters felt like journal entries from the characters, rather than living, breathing moments of action. I found myself unable to become fully immersed into the tale; however, the action moments (although passive) pulled me in. 

I really enjoyed the concept. In most dystopian future stories I’ve read, the focus is strictly on basic survival: food, shelter, and the like. Blackthorn incorporates spiritual revival and survival in a uniquely endearing manner. The subplot of the people trying to navigate love and connection with each other, while trying to survive as best they can on what little they have, is also great fun. That relatability elevates the account and made me care for these characters. Though this story was a bit challenging for me stylistically and at times the dialogue seemed unnatural and weighted, I was able to follow the plot. Each character had a distinct voice. No action felt superfluous; every moment moved the plot forward and gave insight into character motivation. 

Grammatically, the story was pretty tight. There were only a handful of typos. One thing that confused me—character point of view switched in Chapter 37. POV had been in 1st person throughout, but then in chapter 37 it switched to 3rd person. 

The books conclusion works for me. I think it entails great skill to write an ending that leaves the reader wanting more but not necessarily needing more. It’s a fine line to tread, and I believe Tyler accomplished it successfully.

Recommendation and rating: I would recommend this book to folks who enjoy a good dystopian YA but may be looking for something that asks different question about what is essential for the survival and rebuilding of humanity.

I rate this book a 3 out of 5. Although the passive tone of the narrative makes it difficult to stay immersed, the book has solid world-building. It offers a unique concept, relatable and recognizable tropes, distinguishable characters and interesting moments of action.

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