to Horror Reviews

of Horror Reviews

Books for Review should be sent to: Don D'Ammassa, 323 Dodge Street,  East Providence, RI 02914

 Last Update 8/31/08

The Sweet Scent of Blood by Suzanne McLeod, Gollancz, 2008, £6.99, ISBN 978-0-575-8428-5 

Part 2 of my attempt to catch up on paranormal urban fantasy/horror. I had thought that the current fashion for feisty female heroines in an urban fantasy setting was pretty much an American phenomenon, but apparently it is spreading to the UK as well.  This is the first in the Spellcrackers series.  The Spellcrackers are an organization whose purpose is to locate and neutralize evil magic, all of this organized by a council of good witches.  There are vampires in the world as well, but they’re no more villainous than the living.  They are accepted into polite society and most of the time they behave themselves.  I’m not big on domesticated vampires, but the tide is obviously against me.  But our heroine, who has some considerable magic properties of her own, isn’t fooled by the façade and she knows that deep in their hearts, vampires are predators, and some are more predatory than others.  A preponderance of short, clipped paragraphs put me off occasionally, but otherwise this was pretty good, even had a few original twists.  8/31/08

Storm Born by Richelle Mead, Zebra, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-1-4201-0096-9 

Apparently this is the first in a new urban fantasy series.  As if we didn’t have enough of them already.  At least this one is slightly different.  The protagonist, Eugenie, is a shaman who expels interlopers from a magical world into our own.  Unfortunately, transport works both ways and a human teenager has been kidnapped into the world of magic.  She decides to ride to the rescue, enduring encounters with fairies, demons, and other mythical creatures.  There’s a mild touch of humor, and a heavy dose of eroticism, mixed with a fairly melodramatic plot.  Some of the settings are noticeably well done and the characters are moderately interesting.  That's an awful lot of qualified compliments, perhaps in part because I'm overdosing on the feisty female protagonist, almost as tired a character as the steel jawed, two fisted male.  And to be fair, the writing is better than average. The original aspects help make this one more interesting than most, but since it’s a series, I fear they will be done to death in subsequent volumes.  Her earlier novel, Vampire Academy, was more interesting. 8/31/08

Speak of the Devil by Shari Shattuck, Signet, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22480-4 

I've accumulated quite a stack of paranormal mysteries/romances/urban adventures so it's time to buckle down and read a bunch of them.  First up is a good one.  Greer Sands has well developed psychic powers, which she tries to use for the benefit of people around her.  Unfortunately, some of her prescient visions appear to be inescapable and others too vague to be useful.  Her teenaged son shares her gift for the psychic, but he is less experienced and his abilities more tentative.  He too attempts to use them to assist a friend, and he too catches a glimpse of an undefined but distinctly dangerous entity lurking in the near future.  The two dangers will eventually coincide and mother and son will have to risk a great deal to prevent a wide ranging disaster.  I’d read a previous mystery by this author and liked it.  This venture into the supernatural was even better. 8/30/08

Just One Bite by Kimberley Raye, Ballantine, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-345-50365-7 

The success of MaryJanice Davidson’s humorous vampire romances inevitably meant that there were going to be imitations, and there have been.  This, for example, is the fourth in the Dead End Dating series.  Lil Marchette, a benevolent vampire, runs a high end dating service, but she gets more than she bargained for when another, not so benevolent vampire, also a major mob figure, demands her services to find his perfect mate.  Unfortunately, the woman who best fits his specifications is her own friend and personal assistant, and Lil isn’t about to sacrifice her to keep the peace.  The maneuvering starts from there.  Mildly entertaining but only minimally funny. And I still like my vampires evil. 8/30/08

The Secret of Laurel Oaks by Lois Ruby, Starscape, 2008, $17.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1366-9 

This one is supernatural but not really horror. Ruby has written a number of young adult novels in the past, but I think this is her first venture into the fantastic.  The plot has almost become a cliché, I’m afraid.  A family visits an old, abandoned Louisiana plantation.  Teenage daughter pokes around and runs into Daphne, the ghost of a young woman who used to be a slave on the plantation.  Daphne can’t go on to her reward because she was unjustly accused of murder during her lifetime.  I’ve never really understood the rationale for this gimmick.  Why would an innocent person be punished for the crimes of others?  Why aren’t they the ones who are stuck in limbo?  Anyway, live girl helps dead girl figure things out and brings the truth to light and everyone lives, or dies, happily ever after.  Not badly written, but not likely to be of interest to more sophisticated readers. 8/28/08

Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer, Little, Brown, 2008, $22.99, ISBN 978-0-316-06792-8

Inevitably this, the fourth and final book in the Twilight Saga, is going to be compared to the last of the Harry Potter books.  It is also very long, well over 700 pages, and it also has a following among adult readers as well as the target young adult audience.  Similarly, I suspect that most of the fans of the series will have read this within the first few days of publication, which probably makes this review largely superfluous.  For those who haven't been caught up by the series, it concerns a young girl who discovers that werewolves and vampires are real.  She gets romantically attracted to members of both communities, has to decide where her own future lies, and gets into trouble with less admirable representatives of these hidden cultures. I never saw the attraction of this series, frankly, but then I'm not a teenaged girl.  Maybe I'd feel differently.  Except that I suspect most teenaged girls are going to have the same problems with the conclusion that I did.  It's a fairy tale ending rather than a happy one.  Everything turns out just a bit too good to be true - and I was a bit uneasy with the idea of leaping into pregnancy so quickly.  I doubt this series will have the lingering popularity of the Potter books for a couple of reasons.  For one, the characters never really undergo any real pain in their relationships, and other than the superficial changes, they remain very much the same at the end of the book as at the beginning.  Also, the Potter books did not reflect an existing adult story type.  The Twilight books are toned down versions of paranormal fantasies available by the shelf full.  There's nothing different here to attract older readers.  Which is not to say that Meyer doesn't write well for her audience, because she does, but there's not much meat on these bones, and I don't see a sharp difference between this and similar series by P.C. Cast, Rachel Caine, or L.J. Smith.  8/27/08

Dead and Gone by Harry Shannon, Delirium, 2008, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-934549-01-7 

Jack Wade is a talentless actor who moves his comatose wife to a remote cabin which just happens to be built on the site of a Native American burial ground in an area which they believed to have been haunted by a malevolent spirit that somehow summoned the spirits of the dead.  Wade is surrounded by a small group of unpleasant characters, ameliorated a bit by a policewoman who finds him attractive and appealing.  Unfortunately, the legends are right, and the body count starts to rise.  A direct to DVD film – with the author in the cast – appeared this year as well, so I’m not sure whether novel or screenplay came first.  On the good side, this nicely invokes several horror film tropes, and some of the creepy sequences are quite well rendered, particularly those set before the main carnage starts.  On the bad side, I didn’t like any of the characters except the policewoman, and even she wasn’t among my favorites, so I really didn’t care if they got sliced and diced.  I also found the set up improbable.  If the comatose woman was broke, what about social services?  They would certainly have paid for her maintenance in a hospital or nursing home.  Even more significant, if her coma was induced by use of an experimental anaesthetic, why hasn’t Wade sued the hospital, which would certainly not have turned her out under those circumstances? And finally, one of my pet peeves.  People feel nauseated when they see something that appears nauseous, not the other way around. 8/21/08

Found You by Mary Giovanni, Leisure, 9/08, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-6110-2 

This sequel to the author’s first novel, The Hollower, has a much more polished feel to it.  The monster is original, a creature which haunts its victims and which can change into various shapes and guises when it manifests itself.  The pace this time is just as frantic as in the first novel, but it is more controlled and focused and, perhaps because I knew what the creature was – at least to some degree, I was drawn into the story much more quickly.  There are some really bizarre images and some very effective scenes sprinkled through the novel, and the characters felt as though they had more depth this time.  Although most of the horror is in your face, there are some subtle bits as well.  A very noticeable improvement and a promise, I hope, of better things to come. 8/15/08

Key to Redemption by Talia Gryphon, Ace, 9/08, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01644-0 

Third in the Gillian Key series.  Key is a member of a paramilitary paranormal group, which sounds more strained than it really is.  There’s a war going on among the vampires and she is helping those opposed to Dracula and his minions, who are the real bad guys.  Her role is to help bruised psychologies and, in this case, one of her patients is the Phantom of the Opera.  Although I enjoy a lot of the little touches, there are times when the conflicts of personality, overt and covert, seemed too convoluted to be entirely believable and I think I’m a bit overdosed on vampire clan wars because it all felt rather awkward this time, a problem I didn’t have with the first two books in the series.  This one may have just come up on the top of the stack at the wrong time, but it didn’t feel as polished as her earlier work. 8/12/08

The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard by Robert E. Howard, Del Rey, 10/08, $18, ISBN 978-0-345-49020-9

I recently re-read a large portion of Robert E. Howard's not inconsiderable output and was surprised in general to see that he maintained a fairly high quality level even at his most prolific.  Among the adventures, fantasies, and westerns was a substantial number of stories of the supernatural, all of which are included in this new volume, which also contains a handful I hadn't read before.  Although none of the new ones are lost classics, there are several found classics included here including "Pigeons from Hell", "The Horror from the Mound," "The Cairn on the Headland," "Black Canaan," and "The Dead Remember", along with a large number of very fine stories.  Although Howard is often described as a member of the Lovecraft circle, and he is clearly influenced in some of the stories, Howard's characters are less passive than Lovecraft's and even the really creepy ones have elements of adventure as well as horror.  This is a very fine collection from an author who is generally not thought of in connection with the horror genre, but who should be.  8/9/08

Degrees of Fear and Others by C.J. Henderson, Dark Regions, 2008, $19.95, ISBN 978-1-888993-37-8

One of the more prolific and interesting writers in the small horror press is C.J. Henderson, whose occult detective stories are particularly entertaining.  Unsurprisingly, the twenty stories in this new collection - which range from horror to detective story - are drawn primarily from that venue, and equally unsurprisingly they're pretty good, although there are only a couple that actively stand out, notably "The Laughing Man" and "Juggernaut."  Henderson nods to the great detective story writers, to H.P. Lovecraft, and to many other sources here.  He is primarily a storyteller rather than a stylist, although his prose is certainly clean and readable.  His protagonists tend to be active rather than passive, and generally win through, although that out come is not always certain.  Most readers will not have had access to much of his work, which means this will be chock full of material new to them.  8/9/08

Legacy by Jeanne C. Stein, Ace, 9/08, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-441-01626-6

One of the problems when a subgenre suddenly becomes very popular is that there is a rush of new writers, the market bloats, and after an unpredictable period of time it crashes and most of the writers move on or disappear.  It would be nice to say that it’s the lesser writers who vanish, but that’s not always the case.  I suspect there is a crash in the contemporary urban fantasy/paranormal romance looming somewhere on the horizon and I’m hoping that my favorites survive if it happens.  A case in point is this series about Anna Strong, a bounty hunter turned reasonably benevolent vampire.  The evil vampire who changed her is gone, but in this new adventure she has to deal with a pack of nasty werewolves, one of whom has claims against Strong.  Yes, all the trappings are here, werewolves and vampires and so forth.  The flood of similar novels tends to dilute the effect of the individual ones, but it’s important to remember that the plot and setting are popular because they have strong story elements that appeal to a broader – or at least different - range of readers than does, perhaps, straight horror or fantasy.  Stein is one of the best at this.  I hope Anna Strong stays around for a good long while. 8/8/08

Masquerade by Melissa de la Cruz, Hyperion, 2008, $8.99, ISBN 978-142310127-7 

The sequel to Blue Bloods continues the story of teens and vampires in a world where the undead are just another part of life.  Or something like that.  Anyway, someone has started murdering young vampires, which is decidedly uncool, and our heroes want to find out who’s responsible and put an end to it.  I thought this installment in the series took itself a bit too seriously but there’s a moderately good mystery, good storytelling, and the author develops more details about her version of a world of vampires.  I could probably get away with calling this fantasy but I still think of vampires as the exclusive property of the horror genre. 8/1/08

The Rising: Selected Scenes from the End of the World by Brian Keene, Delirium, 8/08, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-929653-98-0 

Although there are exceptions, I have not generally cared for zombie fiction.  Zombies have always struck me as vampire variations – undead, contagious, etc. – without the brains and, particularly in movies, they just don’t seem as threatening as most other supernatural creatures, although protagonists seem to find ways to fall prey to them almost constantly.  Anyway, Brian Keene has written some of the exceptions and this collection of very short stories is set in and develops the world he created in his zombie novels.  That said, I didn’t particularly care for this one.  There are a few stories that work, but in general they’re too short to pull me in and tend to be variations of one another.  The last few are the best part of the book, which helped a bit, but I still didn’t think it measured up to his better work. 8/1/08

Lord of Bones by Justine Musk, Roc, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-46220-6

 Justine Musk’s new novel is packaged to look like a paranormal romance/urban fantasy but it is definitely at the horror end of the spectrum.  Jess, a woman who has visions in her dreams, is teamed up with a teenaged boy on a quest to run around the country pursuing humans who have been possessed and displaced by demons who want to bring about Armageddon.  Although they are reasonably successful at raising the body count, they face a greater problem because an even more powerful demonic presence is poised to enter the world, something so powerful that they may be unable to defeat it.  This one’s a little bit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer mixed with the Phantasm movie series.  The story moves a bit slowly at times, but is generally quite fast moving and enjoyable. 7/31/08

Covenant by John Everson, Leisure, 8/08, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-6018-1 

This short, intense horror novel first appeared from Delirium books in a limited edition a few years ago, but I missed it then.  Like many horror novels, it demonstrates that it is not so much what the plot is about but what an author does with it that matters.  This one is about a malevolent spirit which resides in a remote place, but whose maleficent influence extends into a nearby town, causing a rash of teenage suicides, other deaths, and with other untoward effects.  Eventually the protagonists learn the truth and attempt to do something about it.  The strong points of the novel are the evocation of a creepy sense of hidden menace and the well drawn characters who are sufficiently human and likable that the reader cares what happens to them.  Nice to see this one come out in a mass market edition because it certainly deserves a wider audience than its previous edition reached. 7/26/08

The Northwoods Chronicles by Elizabeth Engstrom, Five Star, 8/08, $25.95, ISBN 978-1-59414-705-1 

 Although Elizabeth Engstrom has not been a particularly prolific author, she has produced a steady series of quietly suspenseful novels and stories over the years, several of which stick in my memory.  This is something between a collection and a novel, a kind of supernatural version of Wineburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson.  The town here is called White Pines Junction, a very rural community that has some very unusual properties.  As the stories progress, we learn more about the magic that lives in the woods, that snatches children away from their families, that prowls just beyond the limits of vision and hearing.  Some of the stories are quite subtle, and there’s not a great deal of overt horror, just quiet suspense.  The book makes an effective counterpoint to the more explicit stories that dominate much of the genre of late.  Having just finished novels about zombie rebellions, ravening werewolves, and supernatural serial killers with a taste for mutilation in recent days, I found this to be a refreshing and entertaining change of pace. 7/13/08

The Sirens by William Meikle, Black Death, 2008, $12.99, ISBN 978-0-9799881-2-7

 Apparently this is the sequel to something called The Amulet, which I have not seen, in a series called the Midnight Eye Files.  The protagonist is a private detective who, in this volume, is trying to track down a missing man on a remote island off the coast of Scotland.  He is soon up to his eyeballs in kelpies and a family curse, and attempts to help despite overwhelming odds.  The story is well constructed although there are perhaps a few too many flashbacks, which occasionally disrupted the flow of the story and became more distraction than anything else.  I’m not a big fan of kelpie stories, but this one reminded me a bit of Sarban, which is most definitely a compliment. 7/12/08

The Vampire’s Photograph by Kevin Emerson, Scholastic, 2008, $5.99, ISBN 978-0-545-05801-8

The Sunlight Slayings by Kevin Emerson, Scholastic, 2008, $5.99, ISBN 978-0-545-05802-5 

These are the first two volumes in a new young adult supernatural adventure series that seems to owe considerable to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Except that this is told from the other point of view, sort of.  Oliver Nocturne is a vampire, but he doesn’t share the bloodlust and general ickiness of parents and friends of that persuasion.  In the opener, a human teenager – a girl naturally – takes his picture, which isn’t supposed to be possible, and that opens the possibilities of exploring his peculiar nature and destiny.  He makes other human friends as well, but that doesn’t always work out well for them.  In volume two, one of the latter returns as a zombie, although happily he doesn’t seem entirely unhappy about his new existence.  But the girl is back as well, and it may be that she has secretly turned into a ruthless vampire slayer.  Can Oliver be next on her list?  A little youngish for me, but not badly done, enlivened by a couple of amusing twists.  The third in the series, Blood Ties, follows. 7/7/08

Ghostgirl by Tonya Hurley, Little, Brown, 2008, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-316-11357-1 

The unusual packaging – odd dimensions, transparent cutout in the cover, sidebars in the text – is perfect for this unusual young adult novel, which mixes satire, the supernatural, romance, and sentiment.  The protagonist is a young teenager who never quite fit in with her peers, or anyone else, and felt as though she was invisible.  Then she’s dead and really is invisible, but she’s still at school.  In fact, not a whole lot feels different and she’s still determined to shed her shell and become a member of the popular set.  Quite ambitious for someone who is discorporate.  The appeal in this case isn’t limited to its target audience.  It should resonate with a wide variety of readers. 7/4/08

The Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell, Tor, 2008, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1939-5

My favorite Campbell novel is Ancient Images, which dealt with a missing horror film.  When I read the description of his latest, I had visions of another book of the same type, and to a degree that's what it is.  A down on his luck writer is commissioned to write about an old time comedian whose films have somehow become almost impossible to obtain.  His investigations lead through a number of bizarre locations before he discovers that the truth is not just a sinister plot or simple neglect but is connected to an older and far less natural evil.  There were parts of the book that I enjoyed for their atmosphere and the settings, but I was unable to really enjoy the book because of a personal prejudice.  It's written in present tense.  Those not troubled by this technique may well like it considerably better.  7/2/08

Ghost Walk by Brian Keene, Leisure, 7/08, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-5645-0 

If you’re going to set up an outdoor Halloween amusement attraction, what better place than a stretch of woods that already have the reputation of being haunted?  The problem with that is, the rumors might be true.  Ken Ripple creates a spooky trail with some harmless devices to scare the paying customers, but they’re about to get much more than they paid for when the actual evil that resides there.  Some of the manifestations are clever although it isn’t particularly hard to guess what’s going to happen.  Although this is somewhat restrained compared to Keene’s other novels, the element of suspense is stronger and the story goes by surprisingly quickly.  6/24/08 

The Devil You Know by Jenna Black, Bantam, 7/09, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-553-59045-6 

Jenna Black tills the same soil as Laurell Hamilton and much recent paranormal romance fiction, but her stories are dark enough that I’d put them at the horror end of the spectrum rather than fantasy.  Her protagonist in this one is an exorcist who knows first hand what it’s like to be possessed by demons, and when she finds herself being drawn into a kind of supernatural war, she discovers that her normal weapons might not suffice this time.  She also discovers that some of her human friends aren’t exactly as they represented themselves.  The romantic elements aren’t overly intrusive in this one, and I’d be very surprised if it wasn’t the first in a new series.  There’s nothing light hearted in this one, though, despite the exorcist’s plucky personality.  Better than average of its type, but if you don’t like the type, or have overdosed on it, you should look elsewhere. 6/24/08

In Odd We Trust by Dean R. Koontz and Queenie Chan, Del Rey, 2008, $10.95, ISBN 978-0-345-49966-0 

This is a graphic novel based on the character featured in three of Koontz’s novels.  Odd Thomas is a young man with extraordinary supernatural powers to communicate with the ghosts of the recently deceased.  He lives in a town that seems to attract evil menaces.  In this case, it’s a mysterious killer.  The graphic is black and white throughout, but very cleanly rendered.  The story is quite good and there’s even some detailed character development.  Included is a brief essay by Koontz about the character, an excerpt from one of the novels, and some odds and ends about Odd Thomas.  One of the more entertaining graphic novels I’ve encountered. 6/19/08

The Last Vampire by Patricia Rosemoor and Marc Paoletti, Del Rey, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-345-50104-2 

What’s this one about?  Well, the army uncovers a dessicated corpse that has an extra chromosome.  They inject that into a few soldiers who develop unusual powers – mind control, the ability to turn into a fog, super strength – but they don’t understand the process.  Then a voodoo witch who knows the body is a vampire uses magic to resurrect and control it, because she wants the vampire to convert her brother, who is terminally ill.  The vampire – who turned himself into one through the use of alchemy – was once an Inquisitor, although he doesn’t like the Catholic Church and now he’s looking for the Philosopher’s Stone, which can make him immortal.  He’s long lived but not undead at the moment.  He bites our hero, one of the soldiers, who acquires some extra powers and teams up with a good witch to derail his plans and destroy the monster.  Doesn’t sound too bad, right?  Well, guess again.  The book is full of little problems that add up to genuine sloppiness.   

First of all, the attempt at a scientific rationale is inconsistent and pointless.  The scientists insist that there “has to be a rational explanation” for the vampire’s return to life even though they’ve already seen solid matter transformed into fog and other clearly supernatural events.  Why would alchemy have added a chromosome to the villain’s body? Why bother when it’s clearly magic?  And I have a few questions about the basic setup.  For example, if the strike team of genetically altered soldiers is so secret, how did the hero’s brother know what they were subjected to so that he could apply for admission to the program.  Again, if it’s so secret, why are they allowed to display their physical transformations at a crowded airport where a plane has been taken hostage, which would obviously be covered by scores of cameras?  Why, if this is such a touchy, new, experimental project are the physically enhanced team members allowed to carry on with their ordinary lives?  Why, when the younger brother becomes obviously unstable, is he not only kept on the team but not even watched more closely? Why is it that the voodoo witch who is so incredibly powerful and knowledgable is unaware of the vampire’s powers?  How does it just happen that the army would bring in a cultural anthropologist as a consultant who happens to be an even more powerful witch than the voodoo priestess and who just happens to have lost her father and brother to the same vampire back before he became mummified?  And why did they bring her into the case? Oh, and she’s also an aura reader.  Why does our hero have flashbacks about the villain’s history when the others affected with his protoplasm don’t?  How is it that a man who is part of arguably the most secret military project in the world can object when his superiors ask questions about what he is doing with his spare time?  How can he continue to be leader of the team when he is clearly protecting his brother – and why would the government allow brothers to serve together in the project anyway?  How is it that no one seems to know that the army does not have the power to arrest civilians? 

Okay, I had more than a few questions.  There are more, but I won’t go on with the list, which runs another page and a half in my notes.  The big questions is, why did no one – authors or editors – not notice these breaks with reality and correct them?  Did no one actually notice – which makes me shake my head – or did they just figure that readers aren’t bright enough to realize how dumb this is all is – which is what I suspect.  And here’s the worst part.  This is part one of the Annals of Alchemy and Blood, so there’s more to come. 6/16/08

Dark Resurrection by Michael Paine, Dark Horse, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-1-59582-052-5 

A novel based on the Universal Mummy movie, the Boris Karloff one, not the more recent revival, or the shambling quasi-sequels.  Two siblings whose family has already been devastated by the curse of Imhotep’s tomb decide to travel to Egypt.  Not very bright of them.  There they get involved with the discovery of a sealed tomb, and with the machinations of a mysterious character named Ardath Bey, whom we know from the movies is the restored Imhotep.  Once again the body count rises before his plans are disrupted.  The author does a good job of recreating the atmosphere of the original film, and sketching in the historical Egyptian setting, but I was kind of disappointed that the story is, essentially, just a variation of the original.  It’s also less suspenseful than it might have been, but there probably wasn’t much that could be done about that given that we know who Ardath Bey really is. 6/13/08 

Pandora’s Bride by Elizabeth Hand, Dark Horse, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 978-1-59582-035-8 

This is an original novel based on the classic horror movie, The Bride of Frankenstein, though that title was a misnomer since she was actually the bride of the monster, not of Frankenstein.  In the film, she dies almost as soon as she is brought to life, but Hand assumes that she survived the conflagration and escaped undetected.  She reaches a city and goes into hiding, but given her appearance, concealment is not going to be easy.  Although Hand remains loyal to the original, she is able to turn the story in an entirely new direction.  The Bride becomes a sympathetic, even tragic figure, more so than was true of the original monster, whom I always thought was more victim than sinner.  Her adventures are fascinating, artfully told, and original.  Of all the new novels Dark Horse published in this revival of the Universal Monsters themes, this is easily the best. 6/13/08

Vicious Circle by Mike Carey, Grand Central, 7/08, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-446-58031-1  

Felix Castor returns for his second adventure in this series which more than slightly resembles the Harry Dresden series by Jim Butcher, though a shade darker in tone.  Felix Castor is a kind of private investigator slash exorcist who has the usual trouble paying his bills and several of whose friends are cursed or possessed.  Humor and horror mix as Castor hopes to supplement his meager income as a police consultant by taking on a private assignment, but he gets in over his head when he stumbles into a plot to free one of the head demons from Hell and return him to the Earth.  Well plotted and with an appealing protagonist, but I was less interested in the supporting characters.   As with The Devil You Know, Castor’s first outing, the emphasis is on low key adventure rather than horror or atmosphere, but this time I thought it went on for just a bit too long.  Toward the end I found myself growing impatient for things to be resolved and tidied up.  It’s quite good up to that point though, and others may not be similarly affected. 6/10/08

Other Gods by Stephen Mark Rainey, Dark Regions, 2008, $19.95, ISBN 978-1-888993-56-1 

Some of the stories in this substantial collection of dark fantasy and horror fiction have been previously collected but most have not.  The majority are from small press magazines and collections, which doesn’t mean they aren’t professional quality, particularly in this specialized field.  In fact, this is a uniformly good collection with a few stories that stand out a little way, although the general quality is so high that you might not notice.  His settings are contemporary, even familiar, but there is always something lurking just out of sight.  Usually something nasty.  The treatment varies from understated to quite explicit.  Among the best of  the stories are “Fugue Devil”, “Elegy”, “Silhouette”, “The Jack-O-Lantern Memoirs”, and the title story, but there’s not a bad story in the collection.  A must-read for horror fans. 6/8/08 

Hunter’s Moon by Michael Jan Friedman, Dark Horse, 2007, $6.99, ISBN 9781-59582-134-8 

A couple of years back Dark Horse comics licensed a bunch of Universal Horror characters for a series of novels about each, an ambitious project that seems to have died very quickly.  This was the Wolfman novel, the further adventures of Lyle Talbot, cursed to change into a wolf whenever there’s a full moon.  There are very few werewolf novels that I’ve enjoyed, largely because they almost all have virtually the same of two plots.  In one, we have to figure out which of the characters is the werewolf.  In the other, we know from the outset and watch as the inevitable carnage ensues.  This is one of the latter.  Talbot is taken in by a secret, ancient order of people who claim that their mission is to give shelter to those afflicted with lycanthropy and prevent them from unwilling hurting others.  He welcomes the sanctuary, but obviously it isn’t going to last.  The author does capture the mood of the original film, but since that’s also my least favorite of the classic Universal horror movies, it’s not surprising that the story only moderately interested me. 6/8/08

Black Lightning by John Saul, audibook read by Paul Gigante, Brilliance Audio, 2008, $36.95, ISBN 978-1-4233-5581-6

This horror thriller gets off to a pretty bad start.  An obviously insane serial killer has been mutilating bodies for years, but he has finally been captured and is scheduled to be executed, thanks in part to Anne Jeffers, a priggish, egotistical journalist who makes his death a personal quest despite her admission that a number of her colleagues believe the case against him was flimsy.  We are also told that Craven believes her to be the chief architect of his doom, which is not only implausible since he was caught and convicted in Connecticut, not her home town of Seattle, but not supported by anything the author tells us.  Nor do we find out what the evidence is that convicted him.  One also wonders why, if he was accused of such bizarre crimes, he wasn’t judged insane, but that’s peripheral.  There’s also a glaring lapse of logic.  The killer, Craven, has never admitted his crime to anyone yet Jeffers is aware of the private terms he uses for his “research”.  How, pray tell, does she know that? 

There are a bunch of small problems in the opening chapters that wouldn’t be serious individually but combined made it very difficult for me to get immersed in the story.  We meet Jeffers husband, an architect who apparently doesn’t understand the cost of materials, and their teenaged daughter and ten year old son.  Hubbie is struck by an unpredecented fear of heights on the day of Craven’s execution, but he refers to it as a “familiar fear”, which makes no sense if it was unprecedented.  There is a protest vigil outside the prison, which the television stations are covering live round the clock, which also struck me as unlikely, as did the fact that the two kids are glued to the set throughout until Dad makes them turn it off.   Dad also opposes the death penalty, except for Craven and Ted Bundy, whose cases have “strange parallels” that are never explained.  This inconsistency jarred as well. 

Anyway, on to the story.  Craven requests a private interview with Jeffers during which he repeats his claim that he’s innocent and tells her that the murders will start up again as soon as he’s dead.  He’s executed just as Dad has her husband has a near fatal heart attack. The aftermath interviews and press conferences go on for a while, serving no purpose in the story and repeating the usual clichés.  We next learn that Craven was not in fact the killer, that the real murderer is now planning a personal vendetta against Jeffers. 

The story slows again.  Now Jeffers is less sure of her previous conviction and decides to continue investigating.  The reactions of her editor and the local police are both negative, but her interaction with them both feels forced and unrealistic.  The “real” killer’s first murder after the execution – a prostitute he follows home – is so unbelievably badly developed that I turned off the CD and almost didn’t go back to it.  I finally forced myself to resume, although I was not nearly as interested.  There’s a supernatural explanation for the return of the manic killer, but I won’t tell you what it is just because Saul still does have his fans.  For me, the glacial pace and the occasional lapses of realism were fatal. 6/3/08

High Marks for Murder by Rebecca Kent, Berkley, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22204-1 

Although this has been published as a mystery, which it is, it is also a novel of the supernatural.  The setting is very early in the 20th Century at an exclusive finishing school in England.  One of the staff is found murdered on the grounds, struck by the proverbial blunt object, a tree limb.  The protagonist is the headmistress, who is present when the body is found and who begins to catch glimpses of a shadowy figure invisible to everyone else.  Yes, it’s the dead woman’s ghost, haunting her former boss until she uncovers the culprit, one of the students.  I often lose patience with stories of this type because if the ghost could come back at all, surely it would be more capable of revealing the truth than just lurking about looking reproachful.  That said, there is also too much of the ghost, which seems to lie in wait around every corner and in every shadow.  I’m putting this in horror because it’s a ghost story and I try to be consistent, but it’s neither horrifying nor particularly suspenseful.  I also found the story rather rushed and, despite a decent mystery element, not particularly compelling or involving. 5/30/08

Blind Spot by Terri Persons, Berkley, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-425-22046-7 

Stories in which people have psychic powers are often difficult to classify.  If the author suggests a physical explanation, like telepathy, then I call it science fiction.  If the power is acquired through possession of a magical artifact, it’s fantasy.  If it’s a supernatural endowment, than I lump it with horror.  So what do you do when the author doesn’t make any effort to explain it?  Well, in this case, since it involves tracking down a vicious killer, I decided to call it horror, but it’s packaged as a mystery, and you could read it as any of the four genres depending on your preconceptions.  So what’s it about?  Bernadette Saint Clare has a kind of clairvoyance that allows her to see crimes through the eyes of the criminals involved.  The plot is a familiar one from this point on.  The latest killer is particularly nasty and she has to catch him before he kills her.  There are a few small side plots to keep things moving.  I’ve read this same basic plot many times before, but it still resonates, and this new one is very well written and has a more than usually interesting protagonist.  I would not be surprised to see a sequel. 5/28/08

Tower Hill by Sarah Pinborough, Leisure, 7/08, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-6052-5 1253 

Sarah Pinborough has turned out a string of several well crafted reprises of standard horror themes, including this one in which the new pastor of a church unfortunately unearths an ancient evil that had been lying dormant there.  Before long the local inhabitants are committing horribly violent acts against themselves or their friends and neighbors and the reader, and eventually the protagonists, realize that something more than ordinary perversity is at work here.  The action escalates smoothly and there’s a reasonable degree of suspense, although the transparency of what is going on diminishes the effect a little.  There’s also a typical rousing climax where all is revealed and repelled at last.  The author writes well enough that I look forward to the possibility that she might try something a bit out of the ordinary at some point. 5/25/08

The Jigsaw Man by Gord Rollo, Leisure, 8/08, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-6012-9

Technically, I suppose I shouldn't tell you much about the plot of this first horror novel because that would spoil the surprises, but actually given the title and opening chapters, most readers should have a pretty good idea what's going on well in advance.  Michael Fox is considering suicide when he is approached by a man who offers to purchase one of his arms for a small fortune.  He agrees, but obviously that's only the beginning in this modern take on the Frankenstein story.  Organ transplanting taken to the ultimate extreme.  Fox has second thoughts, and third and fourth, and begins making trouble for his supposed benefactor, who turns out to be his jailer, tormentor, and potential murderer.  There's plenty of violence and a bit of gore, but I found it strangely lacking in suspense despite the otherwise creditable writing.  It might just be that the story didn't resonate with me because the story is well designed and executed.  There's a hint of Richard Laymon without the warped erotic content.  5/22/08

Monster Blood for Breakfast! by R.L. Stine, SBS, 2008, $5.99, ISBN 978-0-439-91871-8

A student athlete who understands the importance of a good breakfast gets a bad turn when someone adds monster blood to the menu.  That leads to an outing at a theme park where things are not as they seem either.  This is part of a revival of the Goosebumps series from a few years ago, comical horror for quite young readers.  There were other novels in the past dealing with Monster Blood, making this a kind of series within a series.  These are very definitely for quite young readers with no appeal for adults.  Puzzles and links to a web site are included.  5/21/08

Ravenous by Ray Garton, Leisure, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-5820-1

A woman is attacked by a rapist whom she swears wasn't human.  Although he is apparently dead, he gets up and walks out of the morgue, killing and partially devouring a police officer in the process.  The local sheriff isn't sure just what's happening, but he sure doesn't like it.  I'm not really a fan of werewolf novels because most of them quickly devolve into a quest to discover who of the various characters is actually a shapechanger.  Garton avoids that cliche.  We know who the daddy werewolf is. If we miss the obvious, there's a character who approaches the sheriff and tells him exactly what's going on, although naturally the sheriff thinks he's a nut.  Even when more half eaten bodies show up and people claim to have seen an oversized wolf, he refuses to accept a supernatural explanation.  Most of the characters either become werewolves or get eaten by them.  The novel does succumb to the vampire fallacy, i.e., if the condition can be spread so quickly and easily, why hasn't the world been overwhelmed long ago?  Garton ratchets the pace up considerably in the closing chapters but I found the end to be disappointing.  5/6/08

Hungers of the Heart by Jenna Black, Tor, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-5718-2

Fourth in the Guardians of the Night series, vampire romances in which an elite group of undead enforcers helps protect normal humans from predatory vampires.  Drake is a vampire who cooperates with the Guardians but takes human victims, always choosing people who deserve to die - a morality I find less than satisfying.  Drake finds himself in the middle of a crisis when a prominent Guardian disappears just as a major confrontation with another contingent is about to take place.  He also gets caught up in an effort to rescue a prisoner from an evil European vampire, and there's the mandatory intense romantic element to add yet another complication.  As with the previous books in this series, the story is ably told and moderately suspenseful without offering the reader anything new or surprising.  5/5/08

Hellbent & Heartfirst by Kassandra Sims, Tor, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-5801-1

I have an ongoing problem categorizing a lot of paranormal romances that could be fantasy or horror, depending on your inclinations.  This one seems to be clearly at the horror end of the spectrum.  The two protagonists are a woman who has decided to donate some time to helping post-Katrina victims and a man who specializes in magic and who is on the trail of a lamia/witch who preys upon children.  Naturally a torrid romance evolves between them, but while that's off stage, there is considerable violence, sometimes rather horrific.  The novel is unusually intense, in more ways than one, for this genre, or sub-genre, and is also quite different than the few other titles I've read by the same author.  5/4/08

Inferno edited by Ellen Datlow, Tor, 2008, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1558-8

A non-themed horror anthology was a welcome arrival, particularly one with such a quality selection of stories, although many of the stories are really dark or weird fantasy rather than horror. It opens with the first piece by K.W. Jeter I've seen in a while, an indescribable story about a man with the corpse of his girlfriend strapped to his back. Stephen Gallegher follows with a conventional but effective ghost story. Laird Barron, whose short fiction I've started to take note of, continues with another indescribable and very fine story involving bugs, first contact, and the future of humanity. Nathan Ballingrud is similarly eccentric in his story of fallen angels, which are also the theme of Elizabeth Bear's recounting of a very strange encounter around a pool table.

Christopher Fowler has the first definitely creepy story, about party guests whose presence inevitably leads to death. Mike O'Driscoll has an okay tale and then John Grant follows with another good story, this one about a boy whom death avoids, although it strikes at everyone around him. "Ghorla" by Mark Samuels is distinctly unsettling and weird, although I thought the end needed to be a bit more clear. Joyce Carol Oates has a very short piece with a powerful punch. Lee Thomas and P.D. Cacek both have okay stories, and Paul Finch has a very good one, creepy, well written, and unusual, followed by Lucius Shepard, not one of my favorites by him, but still quite good. Simon Bestwick has a strong story about a bizarre child molester. Conrad Williams has a low key piece, followed by Pat Cadigan's "Stilled Life", the first of four very fine stories that conclude the volume, the others being by Glen Hirschberg, one of my favorites of his, Jeffrey Ford, and Terry Dowling. Either I'm jaded or this was light on the "terror" component in favor of weirdness, but there was no absence of high quality writing in this far above the average original selection. 4/30/08

Mister B. Gone by Clive Barker, Harper, 2007, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-06-018298-4

I somehow managed to miss reading this when it appeared last year, but it surfaced in my stack recently. The story opens as a monologue to the reader about a young demon who relates the incidents of his unhappy childhood and tries to convince the reader to burn the book. The demon gets trapped and brought to the World Above for what is more of a fantastic satire than a horror novel, despite the blurb calling this a return to the "classic horror story." It's not. The demon has various adventures in the 15th Century, where the humans seem to be as unappealing as he is. Some of the episodes are quite amusing, others seemed flat or even repetitious. It's a relatively short novel and the prose is impeccable, but the story still seemed to go on rather too long for my taste. 4/30/08

The 5th Witch by Graham Masterton, Leisure, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-5790-7

I've rarely been disappointed by Graham Masterton's horror novels and they tend to gravitate, or maybe levitate, to the top of the stack of books to be read. This one rates somewhere in the middle of his range. Three gangsters in Los Angeles are hosts to powerful witches, whose abilities are enhanced by the presence of a fourth who appears to have lived multiple lives. They institute a reign of terror, killing police officers in wholesale lots, invoking monstrous creatures, blindness, windstorms, lightning, and other deadly forces. The protagonist is a detective who believes the truth right from the outset, and acts against the witches with the aid of a good witch. Except that it's not always clear where everyone's loyalties lie. Plenty of gruesome deaths and a fast paced plot., but I kept wondering why witches so powerful would content themselves with running a drug trafficking operation in Los Angeles when they, theoretically, had the power to destroy even armies sent against them. 4/30/08

Daemon by Harry Shannon, Delirium, 2008, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-929653-94-2 

I had never heard of Harry Shannon before, although this is not his first book, and the plot summary didn’t sound promising.  A military style security expert is furious when his ex-lover’s body is partially devoured in the morgue after she is killed during a security breach.  I was expecting some crazed serial killer, or perhaps a demonically possessed killer, particularly given the title.  Well, it’s sort of the latter, but not exactly.  For one thing, there seem to be several killers, and none of them have anything in their past to suggest such horrible depredations.  And they also seem linked in some fashion to the protagonist, and perhaps to his last overseas mission, the assassination of a serial killer somewhere in Iraq.  I’m tempted to reveal the surprise revelation but I’ll refrain.  It’s not something entirely new, but it’s a device I’ve always liked and there are only a handful of novels that make use of it.  Very well written, although it took me a while to become comfortable with the protagonist, and nicely constructed.  Possibly my favorite novel so far from this publisher.  As a side note, I’ve already reviewed two other Delirium titles in their original hardcover editions and they’re now available in trade paperback.  They are All the Lonely People by David B. Silva and Scarecrow Gods by Weston Ochse.  It’s nice to see these books finally getting a larger audience. 4/17/08 

The Wolfman by Nicholas Pekearo, Tor, 5/08, $23.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-2026-6 

The tormented werewolf, cursed to kill when there is a full moon, is an image I connect more with films than with books, thanks I guess to a childhood watching Lon Chaney on Shock Theater whenever I had the chance.  This posthumously published novel – the author was killed working as a police officer – takes that image and blends it with the more contemporary horror of a vicious serial killer.  The protagonist is the werewolf, who has found a compromise with his situation.  He only kills people who really deserve it.  Leaving aside the moral ambiguity implicit there, we have him living temporarily in a small town when he learns of the existence of a serial killer who specializes in young girls.  Seems like a potential candidate for his own next murderous outbreak, but there’s a problem this time.  Several problems in fact.  I’ve always thought the werewolf theme provided very limited material for stories, and there’s really nothing very new in this one.  Pekearo did rearrange them into a configuration that feels fresher than it really is, however, and I ended up finding this quite enjoyable.  It’s particularly good for a first novel, and unfortunate that it is also his last. 4/17/08

The Undead: Headshot Quartet edited by Christina Bivins & Lane Adamson, Permuted Press, 2008, $14.95, ISBN 978-1-934861-00-4 

Four novelettes about zombies, all by authors I don’t recognize.  The first, by John Sunseri, is set in Aruba.  A renegade hitman finds himself in the middle of a zombie uprising that is being directed by hideous sea creatures which turn out to be the minions of Cthulhu.  The formula is slightly modified in that they don’t rise from their graves, just emerge from the ocean, but otherwise they’re the standard Gene Romero brand that eat brains, shamble a lot, fall to pieces as they rot, don’t speak, and seem to exist in unending numbers.  The gangster and a woman join forces with a priest and others to stay alive, exchanging snappy dialogue along the way.  The snappy dialogue, alas, does not consistently ring true, and the zombie thrills are so familiar that they’re generally less than thrilling.  Fortunately, the three remaining stories are all outside the mold, with varying results.  Ryan Thomas has the best in the book, a novella which is as much an espionage mystery as a zombie story.  Someone is behind the rise of the dead, using them for his or her own purposes.  Can the mastermind’s identity be discovered before it is too late.  David Dunwoody chooses a much smaller scale, a remote cabin near a cemetery where the uneasy dead have a hidden agenda.  The mood setting is quite good initially, but other parts are corny or overblown and that destroys the effect.  Last is D.L. Snell’s unusual story set in a fairly typical zombie nightmare, but with a protagonist who has miraculous – though limited – powers and two companions with peculiarities of their own.  It feels a bit like a novelization of a graphic novel, but it’s not bad at all.  So there are two successful stories and two that are not, which isn’t bad considering that none of these authors are exactly household names. 4/16/08 

Day by Day Armageddon by J.L. Bourne, Permuted Press, 2007, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-9789707-7-2 

This publisher specializes in zombie fiction, so it’s not surprise that this story is set in a Gene Romero style zombie nightmare.  It’s cast in the form of a diary, a soldier battling the walking undead in a variety of contexts.  Unfortunately, the text so badly needed editing that I was constantly thrown out of the story and into proofreading mode.  Even the dedication has a grammatical error.  It’s “people who”, not “people that”.  “Who” means people, “that” means things.  Then we have “to much trouble”, “taking an effort” instead of “making an effort”, commas separating independent phrases instead of semi-colons, dropped words, dangling and misplaced modifiers, “we must have went”, and so forth.  At one point the character feels surreal.  How do you feel surreal?  You can feel that events or your surrounding are surreal, but how do you feel surreal yourself?  At another point the protagonist speeds toward the directions he jotted down.  Really short trip that, presuming they’re still in his hand.  Unforgettable, but for the wrong reasons. 4/16/08

Necronomicon by H.P. Lovecraft, Gollancz, 2008, £20.00, ISBN 978-0-575-08156-7

No, this is not a translation of the manuscript by Abdul Alhazred.  It's a new cross collection of Lovecraft's stories, labeled "the best weird tales", although that of course is always a matter of taste.  It does contain most of his best known - "The Colour Out of Space", "The Call of Cthulhu", "Pickman's Model", and "The Haunter of the Dark", to name a few, but also some of the less successful ones as stories, e.g. "Herbert West - Reanimator" and "From Beyond".  The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, a short novel, is also included.  This is a nice solid 800 plus pages with no dustjacket and a lengthy, illustrated afterword by Stephen Jones.  Collectors will have to have it, of course, and it's a great way to introduce someone to HPL, but for obvious reasons there is nothing new here for seasoned fans.  4/13/08

Coffin County by Gary A. Braunbeck, Leisure, 5/08, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-6050-1

It's always a pleasure to find a new Gary Braunbeck title in the stack because I know that even if it's not one of his best, it's still going to be different enough to stick in my memory.  That's the case with this one, set in a mythical town in Ohio that has been the site of a number of convergent mysteries - the explosion of a casket factory, the lynching of a man generations past, legends of a tree that bleeds when cut and contains demons, stories of a boogeyman that may be based on reality.  Then there is a series of murders, a team of detectives who discover more than they counted on, a mystical manifestation that kills but with deep regrets, and other wonders.  I have to admit that this took a bit too long to come together for my tastes.  It was a little like the second season of The Lost, when I started to get impatient for at least some explanations or hints of a pattern.  It does come together eventually, and there are some really brilliant scenes along the way, but it doesn't quite measure up to the best of his previous work.  4/5/08

From Dead to Worse by Charlaine Harris, Ace, 5/08, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-441-01589-4

The eighth adventure of Sookie Stackhouse, a waitress in a world of vampires and other creatures of legend, takes place in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  The undead world is also recovering from a devastating event, an explosion at an enclave of vampires.  Although everyone wants things to return to normal, there are missing people – both living and unloving – including Sookie’s current beau, who can change into the shape of a tiger.  The real attraction of this series for me has been the interaction of the characters, who seem much more realistic than, say, those in the recent Anita Blake novels by Laurell Hamilton.  Harris also manages to poke gentle but pointed fun at a few institutions along the way.  This installment seemed even more low key than its predecessors, but it was a much more comfortable read, an encounter with old friends in a new situation.  As a sidebar, I recently read three of the author’s non-supernatural Aurora Teagarden mysteries and enjoyed them immensely.  4/2/08

Dominion by Greg F. Gifune, Delirium, 5/08, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-929653-93-5 -1206

 Greg Gifune’s latest is, on the surface anyway, a fairly standard horror thriller.  The protagonist is devastated by what appears to be the accidental death of his wife.  Depressed and disoriented, he allows his life to fall apart and becomes increasingly distanced from reality.  Or at least from the reality with which we’re familiar.  Then he starts received messages from someone who claims that his wife is still alive, which is true after a fashion, but not in the way he hopes.  As he desperately tries to discover the truth, he learns that the border between life and death isn’t quite as well demarcated as he always believed to be the case.  I think this is the best novel I’ve read by Gifune, not just because it’s an interesting premise, but because the writing itself seems so much more composed and controlled.  I was halfway through the book almost before I realized it, and the story by then had such a firm grip that I read compulsively to the end.  I’m glad to see Delirium is releasing this as a trade paperback because it deserves to be widely read. 3/31/08

History Is Dead edited by Kim Paffenroth, Permuted Press, 2007, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-9789707-9-6 -1204 

Zombies seem to be making a comeback.  There has been a rash of zombie movies, there are a slew of zombie computer games on the horizon, and zombie fiction has been popping up all over the place.  This collection of original stories has an interesting premise, that zombies not only are real, that they have lived – or unlived – among us for thousands of years and that they are not the shambling, mindless things we see on the movie screen.  The authors explore the possibility that they are at times a force for good, for progress, that they have been involved in pivotal political organizations as well as elite artistic endeavors.  In many of the stories, frankly, the term “zombie” is somewhat less meaningful, but several of them have interesting premises and skillful delivery, particularly those by Jonathan Maberry, John Peel, and Christine Morgan.  There’s certainly considerable variety here as well, but I made the mistake of reading this over the course of only a couple of days and I started to lose interest toward the end. 3/30/08

Succubus in the City by Nina Harper, Del Rey, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-345-49506-8 -1201 

Yes, as you might guess by the title, this is another paranormal romance, first in a series.  The protagonist is Lily, a succubus in the employ of Satan, who seduces mortal men in service to her master.  Unfortunately, she begins to tire of the game and develops a genuine need for romance in her life.  Alas, that isn’t very practical when your lovers are incinerated regularly.  There is also some difficulty when a smart – and handsome – detective begins to connect Lily to a string of missing persons and starts asking difficult questions.  But he’s cute and Lily finds herself caught between conflicting impulses.  This is played largely for laughs, and there are times when it is quite amusing.  Rather lightweight as an urban fantasy, but not bad as romantic comedy with supernatural overtones. 3/30/08

Darker Loves by James Dorr, Dark Regions, 2008, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-888993-41-7  

This collection of James Dorr’s often quirky, frequently uncategorizable stories opens with a twisted little tale of justified vengeance that fits right in with the collection’s title.  A strange story of a Gulf War veteran who confronts a symbolic form of greed follows.  Other stories explore the unusual effects of a swimming pool, a strange correspondence between human society and that of bees, and a similar parallel between the games people sometimes play and an old carnival attraction called a chicken dance.  “King Rat” is my favorite in the collection, the story of a man who develops a kind of extrasensory ability to see debts.  Hard to describe briefly, but very effective in the story. “Ice Vermin”, my second favorite, involves an Arctic expedition and, as you might expect, vermin. A few of the stories are set in strange, otherworldly cultures that could be either SF or fantasy depending upon how you look at them, and some of these are related to one another.   There are also several poems which I found interesting but unexceptional, though certainly better than a lot of the verse I’ve seen in some small press venues.  The collection is quite good overall and should appeal particularly to readers looking for something a little different. 3/18/08

Midnight Rising by Lara Adrian, Dell, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-440-24444-8  

This is the fourth in a vampire romance series which pits good vampires vs bad ones.  Our hero is one of the former who has a double challenge – another nasty rogue and a living woman who has discovered the truth about the undead and is in a position to reveal their existence to the world.  On the other hand, the woman – a reporter – has very mixed feelings about what she has learned.  Should she talk, remain quiet and pretend she never stumbled into the hidden underworld, or should she accept and become a part of it.  Since we know this is a romance it is clear that her attraction to, and from, the male protagonist is going to persist so we’re a step or two ahead of the characters.  Not badly written and marginally better than the third in the series, but very much in the standard format for vampire romances. 3/17/08

Chosen by P.C. Cast & Kristin Cast, St Martins, 2008, $8.95, ISBN 978-0-312-36030-6

Feast of Fools by Rachel Caine, Berkley Jam, 6/08, $5.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22463-7

 The first of these two YA novels is the third in the House of Night series, vampire romances for young adults, written by a mother and daughter team.  Zoey, the likable vampire teen, is back again, this time dealing with the troubles of her best friend, who is having difficulty adjusting to her new life as one of the undead, if that’s not a contradiction in terms.  Zoey’s life is itself growing complicated because she is engaged in a juggling act with three separate boyfriends.  As if that wasn’t already enough on her plate, there’s a new mystery in this volume.  Someone has started killing vampires, sort of.  Is it another undead character trying to eliminate competition, a secretive vampire hunter on a mission, or is the explanation something else entirely?  I’m not going to tell you.  You’ll have to read it to find out.  Although technically a romance, the young adult format tends to strain out the excesses of many books with roughly similar plots, so what is left is a distilled supernatural adventure story.  The high school atmosphere is very realistic, despite the unrealistic elements 

Rachel Caine provides a more grim story in the fourth in her young adult Morganville Vampires series.  The characters this time are college students in a small town where the balance between the living and the undead is carefully managed.  Or at least that’s the case until a newcomer arrives, a kind of fundamentalist vampire who doesn’t believe in these new fangled ideas of co-existence and who plans something of a bloodbath among the warm blooded inhabitants.  Our heroine realizes the truth just as he prepares to spring his trap.  I’m a fan of Caine’s adult fiction and I find her YA stuff to measure up to her previous work quite well.  Oddly enough, during the past few months I’ve noticed that vampire fiction for young adults tends to be more interesting than titles targeted at a more mature audience. 3/15/08

Nightshadows by William F. Nolan, Darkwood Press, 2008, $17.99, ISBN 0-978078-4-1

Although I've enjoyed novels by William F. Nolan over the years, it has always been his short stories that I liked the best.  This new collection of relatively recent stories is a mix of the very good and the merely good.  Generally speaking he is at his best when writing about Hollywood, as "In Real Life" and particularly "DePompa", an unsettling story about a character who more than slightly resembles James Dean.  Oddly, Nolan is weakest when using familiar themes like the werewolf in "Wolf Song" and in other stories about vampires, ghosts, and aliens from outer space.  There's a Sam Space story, a spoof of the tough detective story and space opera, but it's only mildly funny.  On the other hand, his weird take on Snow White is definitely memorable as is the bizarre "Killing Charlie".  There's a cute superhero story and a nice Halloween haunted house piece, and another good one in which a man evokes a demon and meets his younger self.  "Blood Sky" is one of the most interesting treatments of the serial killer I've read, particularly in the short form.  "Ripper!" has the legendary killer returning, this time in Arizona where London Bridge now stands.  It's my favorite in the collection.  Overall, a very strong collection with a few relatively weak stories sprinkled through. 3/14/08

Bitchfight by Michael A. Arnzen, Badmoon Books, 2008, $15

I'm not sure just where this chapbook should appear because like much of Arnzen's work, it defies easy classification.  The protagonist is a veterinarian with a gambling problem that gets him into trouble with the mob.  He agrees to make a house call, expecting an injured pet, and finds himself accompanying a man who has trained his five year old daughter to act like a dog and fight in bloody battles with other young children in this savage parody of dogfights and the like.  When the handler gets killed, our hero finds himself cast as his successor, and then discovers the even more bizarre truth about where these children come from.  Included is a very lengthy afterword in which Arnzen feels constrained to justify his use of the title despite its current political incorrectness.  A very disturbing book so be warned.  If you can get past the appalling concept, however, it is both a biting satire and in some ways rather weirdly funny.  3/14/08

Small Favor by Jim Butcher, Roc, 4/08, $23.95, ISBN 978-0-451-46189-6

When this series first started, I thought they read more like horror than fantasy, but they've been shifting in the other direction more and more and that's where I'd categorize this one.  For the sake of consistency I'm including it here because that's where I reviewed the earlier books in the series, but the boundaries between genres are so artificial that you can pretty much set your own.  This is the tenth adventure of our well worn hero, who has been having a much more pleasant life of late thanks to a dearth of enemies, monsters, and magical threats.  That's an obvious sign that things are about to change.  He even seems to be on relatively good terms with the White Council, although he still owes some favors to the Sidhe, and that's when his trouble gets going this time.  I won't reveal any of the surprises, but suffice it to say that there's another organization working behind the scenes, and the simple mission Dresden undertakes to perform is anything but.  Lots of the usual action, not as much of the convenient manipulation of his abilities to help the plot along that bothered me in some of the previous books, and an exciting chase sequence for a climax.  I recently watched the television adaptation, which I thought emphasized some of the milder faults of the series - the rules of magic don't seem consistent - but avoided others, like the constant stream of beautiful women requiring rescue. This one has its ups and downs, but it's mostly pretty good. 2/26/08

Fires Rising by Michael Laimo, Leisure, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-6064-8

I think this is possibly Laimo's best written novel to date, although I wish he'd found a more original plot to use it on.  There's an excavation going on at an old church and they find something buried that they didn't know was there.  You guessed it.  When they open it they release a demonic force that soon begins manipulating, and killing, characters with gleeful abandon.  There is also a local priest who should have paid more attention to the bad dreams and odd visions he has been having lately.  The violence and supernatural content is so constant that it loses much of its effect, although if you just read it as a headlong rush into horror - akin to the Evil Dead movie series - then you should like it.  A few of the characters are well drawn, the others are mere spear carriers. 

Shapeshifter by J.F. Gonzalez, Leisure, 2008, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-8439-5973-4

I'm not sure why it is, but I almost never enjoy werewolf novels.  There are a few - The Wolf's Hour by Robert McCammon, The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore - but those are novels that avoid the standard ploys of werewolf stories.  The plot in this one - which I believe was actually first published back in 2000 - is pretty close to standard.  Our shapeshifting hero is not happy with his lycanthropy and is trying to control it, but his amoral boss discovers his secret and blackmails him into eliminating certain business rivals.  You can probably guess that at some point the worm turns and the aftermath is a mix of predictable and unpredictable consequences.  Well written but certainly not as original as his later work which sometimes also uses familiar horror tropes, but usually in much more innovative fashion than is found here.  Not a bad book certainly, but below his usual standards.   2/19/08

Season of the Witch by Natasha Mostert, New American Library, 2008, $14, ISBN 978-0-451-22335-7

I never saw last year's hardcover version so I was happy to see it show up in paper promptly.  I really enjoyed Windwalker, the author's previous novel of the supernatural.  There are a number of similarities between the two, a creepy old house concealing a dark secret.  The protagonist this time is a remote viewer, with the power to see things from a distance, a useful talent for someone who is interested in stealing other people's secrets and making a profit in the process.  He visits the house in question while investigating a disappearance and finds the two owners to be fascinating characters.  Also very dangerous and powerful, linked to an ancient form of magic.  There's a kind of occult murder mystery, a well constructed and indescribable puzzle, and an interesting set of sophisticated mind games among the various characters.  Much better than the previous book, which I actively liked.  It ploughs new ground as well as giving fresh life to old situations.  2/14/08

Operation: Save the Innocent by Tony Ruggiero, DragonMoon, 2008, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-896944-60-9

I've had very inconsistent luck with this imprint.  Some are surprisingly good for a small press, others were so disappointing that I never got past the opening chapters.  I think this is the first overt horror novel I've seen from them, although it's more political thriller than horror novel.  It just happens that the warring factions within the US government are using trained assassins who are also - get ready - vampires!  Some of the vampires are good and some are evil.  Some are free and some are locked up.  Some of the living people are on the side of the angels, and some are definitely not nice people.  The prose is mostly pretty good.  The dialogue is occasionally but not fatally stiff.  The plot's not too bad either.  The only significant problem for me was that the tone never quite jelled and, frankly, the vampires weren't particularly scary, gruesome, or creepy, so they might as well have been Six Million Dollar cyborgs.  Oh, and I hate the title.  2/11/08

Demons Are a Ghoul's Best Friend by Victoria Laurie, Obsidian, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-451-22341-8

I think I'll award this one a special ribbon for worst title on an adult novel so far this year.  It's the sequel to What's A Ghoul to Do?, a close runner up.  Laurie is the author of a series of novels about a psychic detective that I haven't seen, and this is a secondary series about M.J. Holliday, who solves crimes - natural and unnatural - and spends a lot of time sending demons back to Hell, although the author's definitions of demons, ghouls, ghosts, and so forth isn't always clear.  The most frustrating part is that, these cavils aside, the book itself is quite good, a nice blend of light horror, suspense, and humor. There's a touch of romance as well. Holliday is trying to exorcise a particularly mean spirited ghost (or demon) who plagues staff and students at a rural boarding school.  Most of the story involves her efforts to find out the secrets of the disembodied presence's past and chase it back to the netherworld.  The story plays out fairly conventionally but it's a good fun.  Oh, and it won't retain the ribbon I awarded it for long because the sequel has been announced - Girls Just Haunt to Have Fun - which is even worse.  2/10/08

The Price by Alexandra Sokoloff, St Martins, 2008, $23.95, ISBN 978-0312-35751-1

I suppose that technically speaking I should put a spoiler alert here, but the surprise in this one is so obvious from the outset - and the title gives it away as well - that it hardly seems necessary.  The protagonist is an up and coming politician whose career is put on hold when his young daughter is diagnosed with cancer, a virulent variety that seems terminal.  There have been some odd things going on in the hospital though, a lot of people recovering who shouldn't have.  And there's a mysterious man who hangs around, and some behavioral changes in the politician's wife, and then the daughter starts to get better.  Guess what?  It's a deal with the devil variation.  The blend of medical thriller and the supernatural is a good idea that in this case doesn't work as well in practice as it should.  This might have been a pretty good short story, but the suspense just doesn't sustain itself in this one, quite a letdown from her previous book, The Harrowing.  Not that it's badly written.  I believed in the characters and the original set up engaged me, but I just didn't stay hooked, particularly once I realized what was going on - far too soon.  2/10/08

Duma Key by Stephen King, Scribners, 2008, $28, ISBN 978-1-4165-5251-2

I am delighted to see that Stephen King’s retirement from writing has not taken, even if his later work is generally less fascinating than his earlier ones.  This latest has another great protagonist, Edgar Freemantle, a wealthy businessman who lost an arm and suffered other major injuries in an accident, including a head injury that leaves him subject to sudden rages and inappropriate word choices.  His wife divorces him and his grown daughters are pursuing their own lives, so he decides to take some time off and rent a cottage on a remote Florida key where he can continue his recovery and perhaps indulge his long abandoned wish to draw landscapes.   He makes a friend and in general the change seems to have been very beneficial.

Things continue to be going reasonably well, but something on the island is affecting Edgar.  On occasion, his missing arm seems to be there.  A section of the island makes him and his daughter physically ill when they try to enter.  And most of all, his paintings have begun to convey messages suggesting clairvoyant visions and precognition – the love affair by his soon to be ex-wife, the unfortunate future of his daughter’s lover, and so on.  Then he has a waking vision of an old friend and realizes the man is going to commit suicide.  Added to this is the mystery of his neighbor, and landlord, the aging Elizabeth who suffers from dementia, but who seems to know things about him and the island that she should not.  There is a mystery surrounding her and Wireman, a lawyer who works as her full time companion and caregiver.  More mysteries come thick and fast and it’s a long time before we start to see the connections among them – a long dead magnate who enjoyed skin diving near an old sunken ship, two drowned sisters, a child prodigy who stopped drawing and won’t talk about it, an abandoned house, a series of paintings that seem surreal but are not, and other tidbits.  King weaves them all together in his usual deft manner and there really isn't anything approximating a gruesome scene until three quarters of the way through, and even that is quite short.  And the last 150 pages are a thrill ride.    2/8/08

Apricot Brandy by Lynn Cesar, Juno, 2008, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-8095-7204-5

This seems like an unlikely title for a horror novel, although I suppose it's just as much dark fantasy as horror.  The genre border slippage has led to some interesting books, but it does cause some classification problems.  Anyway, this is the second book I've seen under the Juno imprint, a relatively new mass market paperback line.  It is also the first thing I've read by the author, as it appears to be a first novel.  The premise is based on Mayan mythology, a source that neither horror nor fantasy have made any real use of in the past as far as I can remember.  One of their deities, Xibalba, has only been sleeping and now he's pissed off and ready to reassert himself.  Standing in his path in a modern day woman of Mayan ancestry who has some potent powers of her own, not enough to thwart a god perhaps, but if she can call upon the spirits of countless women sacrificed in the past, just maybe she can make it an equal battle.  The broad outline of this one has been done before, of course.  I was reminded at times in fact of The Manitou, Graham Masterton's first novel.  The mythology is sufficiently different to make it interesting for that alone, and the resolution is quite good.  There are a couple of odd constructions and repeated words here and there, but not enough to present any serious bother.  A satisfying change of pace from your everyday horror novel.  2/7/08

Waking Brigid by Francis Clark, Forge, 2/08, $25.95, ISBN 978-0-7653-1810-7

As a rule, I do not care for historical horror stories.  I'm not sure why, perhaps because I have more trouble identifying with characters from other time periods - although that doesn't bother me with non-horror fiction.  Fortunately, I wasn't bothered by it this time.  The setting is post Civil War era Savannah.  The title character is an Irish nun who has an uneasy relationship with the church because of her family's pagan background.  She gets drawn into a locked room murder mystery, actually a locked cell mystery, which is only the symptom of a much greater danger and conflict lurking behind the scenes.  There are satanists in Savannah - and I generally don't care for novels about satanic cults either, but it didn't bother me this time - and a balancing force of good magic practitioners, which makes the city a war zone once again, although this time it's a much more subtle war.  That doesn't make it any less deadly.  Very powerfully and often movingly written, relentlessly suspenseful, and with a more than usually appealing protagonist whose complex background makes her the key to the resolution of the battle, as well as a very interesting person to follow.  As far as I know this is a first novel, but it's more polished than those of many far more experienced writers.  1/13/08

Lover's Bite by Maggie Shayne, Mira, 5/08, $7.99, ISBN 9780-7783-2518-5

The Darkest Night by Gena Showalter, HQN, 5/08, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-373-77246-9

     Paranormal romance continues to be hot, obviously.  Maggie Shayne is one of the more entertaining practitioners, and even though I've long since overdosed on vampire romance, it's still possible to recognize that she's one of the leaders here.  This new one focuses on a woman who is involved in a tempestuous, confusing relationship with a charming vampire, and conflict with a group of evil vampires who are breaking the unwritten laws of vampiredom.  There is also a mystery involving her ancestry and a few other plot twists, but for the most part, what we have here is another familiar blend of eroticism, suspense, and ambiguity about the undead - just better written than most of the others.  The second novel is the first in a trilogy, and the second book I've read by the author, although I have no recollection at all of the first.  It's also a paranormal romance, but somewhat out of the ordinary.  It is also pretty well written, although the dialogue is rather dull in spots.  Her protagonist is also a woman, who is troubled by a psychic ability that is not at all welcome.  When she learns of a secret organization in Budapest who might be able to help her, she travels there, unaware that she will meet - and inevitably fall in love with - a man suffering the curse of immortality.  Somewhat out of the ordinary for paranormal romance.  The Darkest Kiss and The Darkest Pleasure will follow later this year.  Neither of these will knock your socks off, but you're not likely to throw either of them across the room in frustration either.  1/9/08

Darkside by Tom Becker, Orchard, 2007, $16.99, ISBN 978-0-545-03739-6

The vampires and werewolves are among us has swept much of currently fantasy and paranormal fiction, so we shouldn't be surprised that there are a growing number of similar series targeted at younger readers.  This is the first of one of the type - volume two, Lifeblood, is due out later this year - and it's set in London, reminding me at times of Simon R. Green with a darker twist.  Jonathan, our hero, has recently discovered that all of those dark creatures that are supposed to be legends are actually real, and that they have a hidden community in London.  The plot isn't bad at all, and there are some suspenseful moments, but the prose is clearly aimed at a fairly young group, with choppy, uninteresting dialogue and lots of suggested but never really fleshed in imagery. The non-fantastic bits often don't ring true and I found it very difficult to believe in either world, the Darkside or the real London. 1/7/08

Oogie Boogie Central by M. Stephen Lukac, Delirium, 2/08, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-929653-91-1

Oogie Boogie Bounce by M. Stephen Lukac, Delirium, 2/08, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-929653-92-8

     The first of these was previously published by Medium Rare books back in 2003.  I vaguely recall reading it then but it seemed new to me this time through.  Milo Detective is a department store detective who crosses trails with a serial killer, but this isn't your usual slasher style horror thriller.  Because this killer has a little something extra, something that makes him more than human.  But that's okay because Milo has an unsuspected talent as well.  He can absorb the memories and even some of the talents of dead people and give them a kind of faux immortality inside his own brain, or at least for as long as he manages to stay alive himself, which isn't as simple as it might be.  Because, as we discover in the new sequel, Milo is having some difficulties adjusting to the presence of these discorporate passengers, and his odd activity is causing some comment among his acquaintances.  That would be unsettling enough, but there's also a mysterious group of people who know of the existence of supernatural powers and they've become aware of his existence.  Finally, there's a psychic megalomaniac with dreams of power and a plan for acquiring it, at Milo's expense.  Lukac writes quite fluently and entertainingly and I'm rather surprised that these two weren't picked up by one of the major publishing houses.  I'm sure Delirium will will treat him well, but these are better than a good portion of the fiction I've read from the big guys this past year.  1/6/08

Staked by J. F. Lewis, Pocket, 3/08, $14, ISBN 978-1-4165-4780-8

This is another one of those novels that treads on the borderline between modern urban fantasy and conventional horror.  The protagonist is a vampire, and rather an anti-hero, not entirely evil but definitely not one of the good guys either.  He certainly has enough  problems to keep him busy, starting with a girlfriend who finally wears down his resistance, convincing him to turn her into another of the undead, but who promptly sets off on her own course once the deed is done, suggesting that he was just a tool.  Then there's his business partner, who isn't too happy with their arrangement and may be equally inclined to pursue other matters.  Then there's an unpleasant encounter with a werewolf, which ends up with the shapechanger dead and our hero having to deal with his pack mates, all of whom want to avenge their fallen comrade.  Oh, and did I mention that he's having problems with his memory?  Much action follows, murder attempts, magical attacks, and so forth.  It's enough to make a vampire wish sometimes that he was really dead. The story moves well and some sequences are very good indeed, certainly impressive for a debut.  The plot is reminiscent of the early, and best, of the Anita Blake novels.  I imagine this is the first in a projected series.  Why not?  Everyone else is doing one.  1/5/08

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux, 1910 

Gaston Leroux is known in France for his detective fiction, but the only one of his novels to be widely read in English is this classic story of abduction and terror in a French opera house.  This is at least the third time I’ve read it, and it remains one of my favorites of the “classic” horror novels, one of the few to contain no fantastic content.  The opening chapters are actually my favorite part of the book.  New managers take over the opera house and refuse to believe in the existence of the Opera Ghost, who always enjoyed a reserved box under the previous management as well as an annual stipend.  When they refuse to submit, an interesting series of events convinces them to reconsider.  Everyone pretty much knows the story after that.  The Phantom eventually abducts the promising young singer, whose lover descends into the labyrinth under the opera house to rescue her, although it turns out that she rescues him.  Erik, the Phantom, releases them both at last and dies of a broken heart.  Unlike the movies, incidentally, he was not deformed in a fire or other accident but was born that way. 1/4/08

The Deadly Catch by Damien Graves, Scholastic, 2008, $5.99, ISBN 978-0-439-89395-X

This is part of a series of young adult horror collections, with three stories to each volume, under the house name Damien Graves.  The only volumes I've seen so far, including this one,  have been written by Allen Frewin Jones.  The first is about a creature lurking in the water, reasonably suspenseful but with a terrible ending.  The second is about efforts to catch some intrusive mice, that get turned around until the humans are the ones in the trap.  Reasonably suspenseful but with a terrible ending.  Finally there's a story about a young girl whose ambitions get her in real trouble.  Reasonably suspense and with a not bad ending.  All three have downbeat endings which makes them seem formulaic.  I don't recall if that's true of the other two volumes I've read.  For the Goosebumps crowd, with a slightly darker twist.  1/1/08