Book Reviews: Fantastic Tales of Terror: History’s Darkest Secrets

With history, unless you saw it for yourself, you can’t know if a story is strictly true or if it has a darker story lurking in the shadows. History may contain any number of untold mysteries and secrets. Perhaps communist werewolves reached the moon before Apollo 11. Maybe a sinister creature actually caused the Hindenburg disaster. Who is to know? Except… maybe you.

Allow me to introduce Fantastic Tales of Terror: History’s Darkest Secrets, a horror anthology by Crystal Lake Publishing. Inside you’ll find stories of famous events and historical figures told through the grim lens of 23 spectacular horror writers. The anthology includes both established and emerging authors, guaranteeing that you’ll find an old favorite and someone new to love.

The settings extend from the prehistoric to the near-present, subjects from the pioneering inventions to mythic figures, and themes from comedic to disturbing. All, however, are incredible feats of imagination.

Though each piece is worth reading in itself, several stood out as exceptional among the rest.

“Mutter” by Jess Landry (a contestant from the Next Great Horror Writer Contest!) explains the events that led up to the Hindenburg disaster and gives a wondrous origin story for one of America’s most famous cryptids. Lanrdy’s writing, as always, overflows with vivid description and excellent characterization. She hides an amazing twist in the story and brings everything to a thought-provoking close that stuck with me long after I set the book down.

Mort Castle’s story, “Rotoscoping Toodies”, reveals a surprising past for Walt Disney and some of his most successful works. The life-like characters and interesting premise drew me in from the beginning. But the true reason this story stuck with me was the dark ending and horrifying implications.

Lastly, “Sic Olim Tyrannis” by David Wellington was my favorite inclusion. In a market saturated with zombie stories, this was a refreshing take on an old and over worn genre. Vivid descriptions brought the setting to life and Wellington managed to imbue the story with emotion despite using no dialogue.

If you love history, dark tales, or both, Fantastic Tales of Terror: History’s Darkest Secrets is an engaging and worthwhile read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Triple Axe by Scott Cole

Triple Axe by Scott Cole is an outrageous grindhouse exploitation novella packed with plucky porn stars, frozen sex toys, and a B-movie vibe straight from the gritty screens of 1970s drive-in theaters.

Triple Axe coverReleased by Grindhouse Press on July 2, Triple Axe is about Jesse Jinx, a porn star who dreams of starting up her own film company, one that treats the actors more fairly and respectfully.

The problem is a killer is on the loose, using an ice-cold sex toy to dispatch porn stars at an alarming rate. The villain’s motive is as equally outrageous as the plot.

Likable leads Jesse and her friends Selina and Foxy Roxoff are survivors, not victims, and decide to protect themselves with, you guessed it, axes.

Triple Axe never takes its plot too seriously and works as a horror-action-comedy. Imagine Uma Thurman’s Bride character from Kill Bill if she were a porn star fighting off serial killers instead of international assassins. Now, multiply Uma by three.

I could tell the author had loads (sorry) of fun creating names for the porn actors.

At 89 pages in length, Triple Axe is a quick read with an over-the-top climax (sorry again) and a feel-good female empowerment theme.

Book Review: This Ae Nighte, Every Nighte and Alle

This Ae Nighte, Every Nighte and Alle is a fascinating tome of narrative poetry and a cornucopia of dark treats. The author, Frank Coffman, is an accomplished poet, and the tales woven throughout the verse are wondrous.

This Ae Nighte, Every Nighte and Alle

Coffman’s work begins with the description of a book, one of great power. It is, like Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, bound in human skin and inked in blood. The difference is, this volume is authored by a sorcerer and augmented through the ages by seven others.

The first part of This Ae Nighte, details the sorcerer’s creation of the book and his quest to cheat the devil. (He aims to keep his soul though it is bound for Hell.) The second part concerns individual stories contained within the book. Here, you’ll find vampires, werewolves, and other horrific monsters familiar to those who enjoy dark fantasy.

 

I also enjoyed “The Killing Man,” “Convert,” and “The Strigoi.” These poems spark the imagination. I could almost see the monsters, the forests, the blood, and the hang rope in my mind’s eye.

I loved this book. Coffman’s verse is beautiful, precise, and captivating. My favorite poems involved the sorcerer’s transformation into a Lich (a creature animated by the soul of a dead sorcerer.) He is all-powerful in this form and in control of terrifying monsters. No one can stop him, save one. And, believe me, this hero isn’t what you’d expect.

Frank Coffman

As a novice poet, I appreciated Coffman’s introduction to each poem. (I didn’t know a sonnet from a strophe until I’d read this book.) For those eager to learn about poetry, he provides a “poem glossary” at the back of the book. For the more advanced reader, he’s supplied a new and interesting style.

I highly recommend This Ae Nighte, Every Nighte and Alle. Not only is it a great read for dark fantasy fans, it will also appeal to the Horror Addict in everyone.

BOOK REVIEW: Fat Free Nation by Naomi Downing

Fat Free Nation cover.jpg

Fat Free Nation by Naomi Downing is a compelling indictment of an out-of-control bureaucracy and the unintended consequences of government meddling. It’s also a damn fine dystopian novella every bit as intense as The Hunger Games.

Downing sets the stage of her dystopian world with a quick introduction:

“The year is 2148 and because of the rise of overweight people, our government created a law that everyone must be within a certain weight range. All junk and fast-food has been outlawed but can still be found in the many black markets. All citizens from the age of eight to twenty-nine who are overweight are sent to government-run weight loss camps. Over the age of thirty and overweight is a death sentence. The camps are split into three age groups. Camp One is for anyone ages eight to twelve, Camp Two is ages thirteen to seventeen, and Camp Three is ages eighteen to twenty-nine. If you age out of a camp and are not within the healthy weight range, in other words you can’t go from one camp to another, you die.”

Fat Free Nation is a fast-paced, dialogue-driven story about Jenna, an overweight 17-year-old who along with her twin brother is on the run from the fat police. From the opening, Downing efficiently establishes the relationship between the likable, feisty, book-loving protagonist Jenna and her protector-brother Will.

By the end of the first chapter, the twins are captured in a raid by authorities, including a sadistic bureaucrat named Major, and transported for orientation into a fat camp where failure results in execution.

Jenna enters fat camp weighing 210 pounds, which is 90 pounds over the government’s limit by law for her age. Jenna and Will have been on the run for 10 years, so adjusting to the highly regimented rules of the camp are tough on their free spirits.

The camp reminded me of an extreme amalgam of prison and Army basic training where the instructors enjoy torturing teenagers. Campers are tagged with trackers on their ankles, forced to write truthfully in journals, and given every opportunity to exercise.

I liked how Downing describes Jenna’s attitude when she arrives at her cabin at fat camp.

“The screen door creaked as Jenna walked in, there was no solid door. There were eight beds, four on each wall. As Jenna walked to the one at the end the smell of sweat and blood filled her nose. The door to the bathroom area was open and inside Jenna could see five toilet stalls, a row of sinks, and an open shower area. At the foot of her bed there was a closed door. Jenna dropped her bag onto the bed, wafting the stale odor of dried piss into her nose.

“Charming,” Kasey wrinkled her nose.

“I’ve lived in worse,” Jenna shrugged.

The fat camp boss Major is as cruel of a villain as I’ve encountered in a story. I winced every time Jenna forgot to address Major as “sir” because the omission usually resulted in physical abuse for the heroine. I wondered how much more punishment Jenna could take.

Major is extremely unhinged psychologically. If he finds contraband, he punishes the teens with ten or more lashes of his whip or 24 hours in a sweat box. Disrespect gets a bullet to the face. Escape attempts result in slit throats. Major revels in intimidating and torturing the campers.

My favorite moment in Fat Free Nation is in Chapter 4 when Jenna understands her desire to survive is stronger than she realizes.

“I don’t want to die, Jenna thought, this world sucks but I want to live.”

That’s as raw and honest of a self-assessment as a character can make.

Major’s right-hand woman is Starling, an assistant who follows the sadistic camp leader’s orders to the letter but doesn’t feel any joy about her job performance. Starling shows a surreptitious sympathy for Jenna.

About a third of the way into the story, a tragedy results in a bombshell revelation followed by another stunning disclosure. I’ll stop here to avoid any spoilers, but the rebellious Jenna’s will is tested time and again.

The only issue I had with Fat Free Nation is the final scene — really the final sentence — because I’ve never been a fan of cliffhangers. With that said, the last sentence is a hell of a moment.

Published by J. Ellington Ashton Press and released August 17, Fat Free Nation is a gritty dystopian novella as well as a powerful metaphor for prejudice and government overreach in our own world today.

Perhaps the most telling moment in Fat Free Nation is a scene where rage and vengeance are about to overtake Jenna, but a voice from the past lends her strength.

“I know you’re hurting and want to hurt them, but you can’t. We need to stay the sane ones in this fucked up world.”

That’s not only a powerful reminder to Jenna, but to everybody as we go forward in the highly charged political and socio-economic atmosphere of the 21st century.

Book Review: Lost Highways edited by D. Alexander Ward

Roads are, by design, a space in between — between cities, between the looming wilds on either side of the pavement, or between two versions of oneself. They exist in a perpetual state of flux. Millions of people pass along highways, driving through towns and lives they will never know and through stories stranger than they can imagine.

Lost Highways is an anthology of short stories and artwork edited by D. Alexander Ward and presents 20 stories that you’ll never see from the safety of the passenger seat.

The stories are equal parts entertaining and enlightening. No two ever present the same theme, stretching the anthology’s premise of roads and highways to the limits of connectivity. Each author interpreted the theme in a novel and inspiring way.

Lost Highways was gripping throughout. It presents a wide array of styles within the horror genre: philosophical musings, psychological terror, gruesome violence, and tingling suspense. At no point did I consider a story to be predictable.

Though the anthology is superb from start to finish, several stories stood out to me while reading. “A Life that is not Mine” by Kristi Demeester presented a bleak look at life where the road is both a prison and an escape. Demeester’s writing was haunting and the prose almost lyrical. “The Heart Stops at the end of Laurel Lane” by Jess Landry (an alumni of the HorrorAddicts.net Next Great Horror Writer Contest!) straddled the line between harrowing and heart wrenching and left me reeling through each new revelation. “Outrunning the End” by Cullen Bunn was a trippy experiment in fiction that blurred the lines of reality on the page. These are my favorites, but each story is excellent in its own way and all the contributors should be commended for their work.

Overall, Lost Highways is an expertly curated collection of the best that horror has to offer. I highly recommend taking a look. If you’re especially brave, you might consider making it your companion on a long road trip.

BOOK REVIEW: The Crackhouse in the Desert by Dani Brown

The Crack House in the Desert is a horror novella written by Dani Brown and released by J. Ellington Ashton Press on July 4. Kindle length: 133 pages.

The Plot

In a bleak, dystopian America, a man journeys through the desert to solve the mystery of an apocalyptic event.

The Player

Vict is a survivor in a post-apocalyptic world who’s tapped to help humanity unlock the secrets of the past to save the future.

The Review

Is The Crack House in the Desert a metaphor for humanity’s addiction to self-destructive behaviors that destroy the environment? It could be.

Grim and thought-provoking, Crack House is a viscerally descriptive view of the future of humankind and where it could wind up if it continues along a course of drug addiction, environmental irresponsibility, and living without purpose.

Crack House is the story of a man named Vict and his journey to investigate the past to find hope for the future. Living an impoverished life inside a desert shack, Vict is transported by mutant fish people to an underground facility in the mountains where a human enclave delves into ancient medicine and technology to resurrect the dead and to determine what caused the apocalypse.

Vict is surprised to find he’s an expected guest at the facility. His first meaningful encounter is with a woman named Poppy who says cryptically, “We’ve been watching you, Vict. We sent the fish people to collect you when everything was meant to be ready. We know about your dreams. We sent the storm.”

Vict’s dreams suggest he can resurrect dead bodies, which affords him the chance to discover what destroyed most of humanity and created mutants. However, the knowledge is locked away in his memories, but he knows the answer lies somewhere in a place called Arizona.

The strength of Crack House is Brown’s ability to describe her post-apocalyptic world. It’s a desolate, poisoned world full of death and decay. A world where vomit burns holes in clothing. Humans are covered in oozing, pus-filled blisters. Maggots are considered healthy snacks. Corpses are spit to the surface by rainstorms. And women use their bodies in the most unsavory ways to acquire basics like tarps and buckets from men and mutants.

Some of the most gut-wrenching parts of the book are in the first four chapters when Brown describes Vict’s mother.

“His mother couldn’t do much of anything, except smoke her escape as she pried crust away from the spot between her legs, waiting for an entry that sometimes didn’t come at all. She couldn’t even chew on her meth pipe anymore, not without teeth.”

The Crack House in the Desert is dark and dismal, but Vict’s determination offers enough light to brighten the story to a shadowy dusk.

While the ending – specifically the final two paragraphs – of Crack House confused me, I was not confused about Brown’s ability. Her writing is powerfully descriptive, and her revelation of the cause of the apocalypse is surprising and original.

Book Review: Freaks edited by Toneye Eyenot and Michael Noe

Are you looking for stories that stick in your dreams? Ones about people twisted both inside and out? You might regret what you wish for.

Freaks, a collection of stories and poetry edited by Toneye Eyenot and Michael Noe, contains 19 chilling tales of monsters, murderers, and madmen.

This anthology is not for the faint of heart. The stories inside may vary in style and subject matter, but the collection holds nothing back. Each is gruesome and stretches the limits of what you as a horror addict can stomach. The authors explore the depths of human depravity, then dig down a few more feet just for good measure.

Each author put their own spin on the anthology’s theme of horror in the realm of circuses and carnivals. The stories are a good mix of the supernatural, the speculative, and the frighteningly realistic. There are killer clowns, sure, but what about a man with a killer appetite, or a roadshow zombie attraction, or a carnival ride that is actually alive? Not all freaks are easy to identify and the worst ones are really the ones that are monsters on the inside.

My personal favorite entries are “Two for the Show” by Tina Piney and “Clownbear’s Last Performance” by Brian Glossup. Both authors created compelling characters within a short span, a difficult task when also including spine-tingling imagery and suspense.

If you’re brave enough to chance reading this, I can guarantee that you’ll be looking over your shoulder and sleeping with the lights on. And no way in hell are you going anywhere near a circus. If you feel a little squeamish, I think that’s the point.

Freaks appeals to a certain variety of horror addict. If you love to stretch the limits of what is appropriate to publish, take a look. If you want stories that will make your skin crawl and stomach churn, check this out. If you want to question your sanity and that of the authors and maybe of humanity in general… read Freaks. And don’t say I didn’t warn you.