Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

This novelette makes a strength of its simplicity. Two guys. One white. One black. One a sad sack alcoholic. One a convict. Both trying to figure out the circumstances that brought their lives to this. And maybe, just maybe, to break free.

Literally in the case of Walter, the inmate, who makes his escape from prison the night that Ron is out in the woods on a hiking trip. They run into each other. Hang out. Talk. Compare notes. Then each man goes on to meet his respective destiny.

Well-drawn characters, concise storytelling and a good eye for detail keep this one tight and compelling.

Available on Kindle:

Pay DeadI’ve got a weird obsession with cards.

A while back, for reasons I can’t fully explain, I became fascinated with card sleights and began seeking out magicians and card mechanics who could show them to me.

I’m not talking about one of those ponderous, drawn-out, self-working card tricks your 12-year-old nephew tries to show you at family gatherings. I’m talking about someone who can swiftly, elegantly and invisibly shift cards around. Who can draw one card that magically turns into another in his hand. If you’ve never seen that kind of effect performed up-close by someone who really know what he’s doing, it’s hard to describe just how mind-blowing it can be.

The reason, I think, is because we tend to think of cards as inherently random. “It’s all in the draw of the cards.” You play the hand you’re dealt.” The idea of someone being able to manipulate them feeds into a primal fantasy of telekinetically directing the roulette ball’s trajectory, or the fall of the dice. Of controlling the very principle of randomness.

So I guess it was inevitable that I was gonna like the horror novel “Play Dead,” by Michael Arnzen, which is all about cards and that fantasy of controlling fate.

The story concerns a professional poker player named Johnny Frieze, who loses everything at the beginning of the book. He ends up in a Las Vegas homeless shelter. This being Vegas, many residents of the shelter owe their destitution to gambling.

But Johnny gets word of a high-stakes contest that could reverse his losing streak. Turns out there’s a mogul recruiting gamblers from the shelter to take part in a game called “Butcher Boy.” Here’s the catch. Players have to make their own decks — out of Polaroid photos of their murder victims.

I don’t even want to offer any hints as to what the rich puppetmaster’s motivation is, other than to say it’s very clever. “Play Dead” also incorporates one of my favorite narrative approaches to horror, in that it keeps you guessing as to whether something supernatural is really going on, or whether major characters just happen to be bugfuck insane.

The story unfolds as a tense, chilling and queasily hilarious exploration of obsession, addiction, gambling, chance, fate, and the kind of my-dick-is-bigger-than-your-dick dynamics that crop up whenever men compete in any endeavor. Arnzen manages the difficult trick of letting the horror and humor serve as counterpoints, with neither detracting from the other.

It’s a good book for the horror fan who’s getting a bit too jaded, and wants to read something new. It doesn’t easily fit into any subgenre of horror that I’ve ever encountered. No werewolves, vampires, ghosts or zombies here. Doesn’t even really fit the psycho killer mold either.

I don’t want to give the false impression that “Play Dead” is some kind of anti-gambling screed. Still, Arnzen seems to understand that the very existence of a multimillion-dollar gambling industry — one that owes its profitability to vast numbers of people voluntarily offering themselves up as de facto human sacrifices — is eerie enough without throwing any vampires or zombies into the mix.

DeadoutWith his second novel, “Deadout,” Jon McGoran appears to be carving out a nice little niche for himself in the thriller genre. Like his debut, “Drift,” the intrigue centers around genetic modification in agriculture.

That description doesn’t get your heart racing? Trust me. McGoran’s novels paint a nightmarish picture where any entity with the money and know-how can warp the planet’s natural processes for malignant and deadly ends. Worst of all? They’re based in contemporary science. Picture a 1950s mad scientist horror movie, except where the lab-grown monsters are entirely plausible.

Like “Drift,” “Deadout” also uses a contemporary scientific news peg as a framework. In this case, the disappearance of bees.

“Deadout” brings back some characters from “Drift,” including Philadelphia police detective Doyle Carrick as the hero. A good thing about Carrick as a character is that he doesn’t know anything about all this genetically modified biological hocus-pocus either. That allows him to serve as a reader surrogate while he learns the basics to solve the case.

By bringing back Carrick, McGoran could have run the risk of what I call “Die Hard 2 Syndrome.” That’s when you have a regular-guy protagonist who just happens to stumble into an extraordinary situation in the original story. And then he just happens to stumble into a very similar extraordinary situation in the sequel, for no reason other than a twist of fate. “What? Terrorists are taking over the airport we’re in, similar to the way terrorists took over the building we were in that one time? Darn the luck!” (See also: “Speed 2 syndrome.”)

But McGoran gets around it by keeping the character of Nola Watkins on as Carrick’s organic farmer girlfriend. That gives him an excuse to walk into situations where some kind of agriculture-related nefariousness is going on.

Speaking of “Die Hard,” Carrick resembles that movie’s John McClain in his characterization as a salt-of-the-earth tough guy with a relatable and endearing streak of emotional vulnerability.

That comes into play early on when Carrick and Watkins are having some trouble in their relationship. They head out to Martha’s Vinyard, where Watkins has scored a temporary job. There, they find that farmers are desperate because the honeybees necessary to pollinate their crops are disappearing. A corporation is offering to bring in genetically modified bees to make up for that loss.

Could there be something sinister going on behind the scenes? (Spoiler: Yeah. There totally is. It’s a thriller. Did you really expect the answer to that question to be “no?”)

I don’t want to reveal much more. I will say that the story goes to some pretty dark places before it plays out. As in “Drift,” a big part of the fun is the jarring incongruity between the wholesome organic farming milieu, and the scary motherfuckery revealed once McGoran pulls back the curtain.

One welcome addition to “Deadout” missing from the previous book is the suggestion of vast, shadowy forces looming on the periphery of the action. Carrick’s work, McGoran implies, is just beginning. Fine by me. If there’s an upside to the fact that modern science is venturing into some ominous places, it’s the fact that McGoran should have no shortage of material in the foreseeable future.

Dope ThiefDope Thief by Dennis Tafoya is about a couple of guys who rob dope dealers for a living, and have to go on the run from some dangerous characters after they mistakenly pick up a big stash of organized crime loot.

Except it’s really not.

I mean, yeah, that’s the basic plot. But the book is really about how our past has a way of haunting us at every turn, and our attempts to escape from that. It’s also about the question of whether we can shed our family history. And whether — for all the emotional baggage and misery it can bring us — we’d really want to.

The protagonist, Ray, and his partner are a couple of bottom feeders in a criminal community extending into Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey. They make their living disguising themselves as DEA agents, ripping off small-time drug dealers, and making off with their money and dope.

In a clever twist, they’re able to get away with it because they provide a kind of service to the larger operations — getting rid of small-time dealers who might eat into profits.

Yet Ray isn’t a violent man. Or a bad guy, for that matter. He had an alcoholic father and a troubled youth that included some jail time. He just kind of went along with where his life was taking him, much the way another young man might go the college-and-career route without even considering other options. For him, the whole theft operation represents the path of least resistance — a chance to get money for a minimum of effort.

But he’s not getting any younger, and knows he can’t keep it up forever. Inevitably, that wake-up call comes when a job goes bad, people get killed, and he and his partner end up the unwilling possessors of some New England bikers’ money.

It starts out in pure thriller territory. An initial car chase from the scene of the original botched operation is particularly suspenseful.

From there, the story takes some unexpected directions. And I’m not talking about plot twists — though there are a few of those — so much as emphasis and pacing.

Tafoya doesn’t let up on the suspense. But for stretches, the central plot fades into the background as Ray comes to grips with the chain of circumstances that led him into this predicament. Sure, he knows he’s made some bad decisions. But he finds himself facing the question of whether his life experiences left him equipped to make any better ones.

More importantly, does he have it within himself to rise above those experiences and decisions, and make something better of his life?

Tafoya addresses those questions in a surprising extended coda, where minor characters and circumstances that would merely serve as color in another crime thriller turn out to be vitally important.

Crime thrillers often get criticized for piling on the slam-bang action, at the expense of characterization and deeper insights. With Dope Thief, fortunately, it’s not an either/or proposition.


AddisonI’d be the first to admit I’m not a big “serious literature” guy. I love books, and I’ve read a lot of the “classics.” But I’m more into genre fiction. Give me a choice between, say, Camus and Elmore Leonard, and I’m going for the latter.

So I don’t read a lot of poetry – a literary form than doesn’t lend itself to depictions of shootouts or kung fu fights. That might change, though, since I’ve discovered a wonderful poet named Linda Addison.

I recently read a volume of her poetry called Being Full of Light, Insubstantial. When the very title of the poetry collection is gorgeous, I figure that’s a good sign.

She was a recent guest speaker at a group I belong to called the Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers, which is made up of writers of lots of different genres, but tends to skew toward horror and science fiction. (Great group, by the way. If you’re a writer anywhere in the vicinity of New Jersey, you ought to consider joining.)

I missed that meeting, unfortunately, because of a computer-related crisis. But I met the group for their customary lunch afterward, and had a chance to talk to Ms. Addison.

Man! Describing her as “charming” doesn’t do her justice. VERY cool person.

I was blown away when I found out the extent of her genre fiction creds. Her first poem was published in the seminal “Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine,” and her poetry’s won not one but three Bram Stoker Awards.

And I’ll admit, Philistine that I am, to being a little bit puzzled as to how poetry could be considered genre fiction. Horror poetry? How does that work?

But then I started thinking about it. How about Charles Baudelaire? How about Edgar Allan Poe? How about “The Erl King” by Goethe? Couldn’t they all be considered “horror poetry?” Hell, if I really dove into it, I could probably come up with a list a mile long. (more…)

Halflings CourtWhen I was a kid, I successfully campaigned for my Boy Scout patrol to change its name from the “Owl Patrol” to the “Vampire Patrol.”

See, this was about 1979, and vampires were still pretty freakin awesome. Animated corpses with diabolical powers clawing their way out of their graves, hell-bent on tearing open some throats? Come on. What’s in that scenario for a 12-year-old boy not to love?

Little did I know that pop culture vampires had already begun their steady decline into wussification (which I’ve previously touched on here).

Anne Rice — a guilty pleasure of mine, I must admit — painted them as a bunch of preening pretty-boys in “Interview With the Vampire,” published three years earlier. In subsequent decades, they would increasingly become the domain of black-lipstick-wearing goth types.

Then the “Twilight” series came along. And in retrospect, we might as well have dubbed ourselves the “Twinkly Happy Prancing Little Unicorn Patrol.”

But vampires aren’t the only folkloric creatures to make a pop culture transformation from scary and dangerous to twee and sparkly. In a previous generation, the same thing happened to fairies.

Yes, fairies. As in Tinker Bell. As in the gay slur referencing the (offensive, ignorant and untrue) stereotype of gay men as a bunch of mincing weaklings. As in the benign, childlike beings that have graced countless pieces of eye-searingly tacky home décor. Those things.

They used to be badass. (more…)

As I’ve mentioned before, I love horror movies. But my friend Rob Schlotz REALLY loves them. Every week, he scours the local Redbox for horror films and checks out every one of them. And for the record, yes, he does have a life. More so than I do. Although that’s not setting the bar very high.

As far as I’m concerned, that makes him eminently qualified to review horror movies. See, he and I don’t always agree on movies. In fact, we frequently disagree — leading to bitter arguments, slammed doors, tearful recriminations and, not infrequently, fisticuffs.

But I want to provide reviews on this blog that will be valuable to horror fans. And I figure that since Rob’s such a horror fan, that’s precisely what qualifies him to write reviews. If he likes something, and you’re as big a horror buff as he is, you may like it too.

Another advantage is that Rob checks out the “Grade B” offerings in addition to the mainstream Hollywood stuff. And as I’ve written about before here, Grade B horror films have historically produced some hidden gems. Maybe Rob will stumble across a few of them.

We’ll see how this goes, but I’d kind of like to make this a regular feature. Feel free to chime in if you have any comments, or if you just want to welcome Rob aboard.

Well, enough of my gum-flapping. Take it away, Horror Maven! (more…)

HoverCover.inddIt’s funny, how Central Pennsylvania can get under your skin.

It’s pretty low key. Not a lot happens. But it has a way of sneaking up on you. Suddenly, you realize that you’re more emotionally invested in the place than you’d realized.

Author Rick Fellinger does a very effective job capturing that quality in his short story collection “They Hover Over Us,” featuring short stories set in the region.

See, I know what I’m talking about. I recently moved away from Central Pennsylvania after living there for more than a decade.

This is the stretch between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. It’s a largely wooded area dotted with industrial cities that – for the most part – have seen better days. Political strategists and the area’s residents themselves refer to it jokingly as Pennsyltucky.

It’s an area in a sense defined by its lack of extremes. Not dirt poor, but certainly not affluent. Not quite country and not quite urban. Just kinda … there.

Or so it seems at first.

But since I left less than a year ago, I find I dream about it often. Once you get to know the people – and that takes a bit of time and effort – you run into some pretty profound and nuanced life stories. It’s like a cavernous space, where the very stillness and emptiness makes the softest sounds echo and reverberate with unexpected depth.

Those are the people, and the stories, Fellinger writes about in “They Hover Over Us.” (more…)