Book Reviews by Chris Hallock

Watcher of the Dark by Joe Nassise

Watcher of the Dark cover

What’s worse than waking up in a fleabag motel on the wrong side of Los Angeles? How about being kidnapped by an assemblage of wicked sorcerers and demon half-breeds hellbent on taking over the world? That’s the predicament fugitive Jeremiah Hunt finds himself dealing with at the start of Watcher of the Dark, the third book in Joe Nassise’s ongoing Jeremiah Hunt chronicles. Hunted by police and plagued by the frightening visions of his “ghost sight,” Hunt finds himself navigating the “City of Angels,” now ground zero for a power struggle between some very powerful, very evil beings.

When we last saw Hunt in sweltering New Orleans, he was forced to part ways with his companions Dmitri and Denise, the latter whose heart he sunk an ancient dagger in to save her soul (and his own) from Death personified. Now, Hunt is taken by Fuentes, the Magistar of an L.A. underworld replete with spectres, wizards, poltergeists, and demons. Fuentes has forcefully enlisted Hunt to join his band of “gifted” beings in a quest to obtain a mystical key rumored to unlock the gate to Hell and ensure Fuentes’s rule. Fuentes, however, doesn’t consider that the sardonic Hunt may have plans of his own, not the least of which is reuniting with his lost friends.

Just as he did in Eyes to See and King of the Dead, Nassise keeps the story trimmed of excessive exposition and moves things along at a fast clip. Temperate Los Angeles may not possess the enchanting creepiness of Louisiana or the spooky ambiance of picturesque New England, but Nassise is still able to deliver frightening sequences involving a plethora of vicious paranormal monsters. Los Angeles is not without its own occult legends, and Nassise serves up a surreal cocktail of chilling L.A. folklore where supernatural...

Joe & Me by David Moody

Joe & Me cover

The bleak post-apocalyptic horror of David Moody’s tales are delivered with his startling cynical observations about human nature: people rarely react altruistically in extreme crisis. For example, in the Hater series (Hater, Dog Blood, Them or Us), the book’s anti-hero Danny McCoyne makes enormously selfish choices in the name of self-preservation. Even if that means playing on both sides of opposing factions; he’ll kill members of either side if it gives him an advantage. Moody can certainly be described as a pessimist in this regard, but he’s only being honest about how human beings might react when given the choice between principles and starvation.

Moody’s chapbook Joe & Me is an apocalyptic tale with a slightly different cellular composition. It’s still the gloomy look at an apocalyptic event we’ve come to expect from him, but delivered on a much more intimate scale than were used to seeing from Moody. Joe & Me is told at the genesis of a cataclysm from the perspective of those responsible for mankind’s demise. It’s an effective character-driven piece that benefits from Moody’s morose, but no-less-intriguing mix of fantasy and scientifically-sound horror.

Si is a stay-at-home dad who cares for his seven year old son Joe while his scientific researcher wife Gill–the breadwinner–works diligently on a secret lab project aimed at ending disease. Her work is compassionate, but subject to government scrutiny. Gill’s conflicts with the government and military over funding and ethics leaves her with little time and energy for Si and Joe, and the family dynamic is strained as a result. Si has no trouble with his role at home, but does long for quality time spent with the entire family. The family perseveres, but an accident at Gill’s lab leads...

King of the Dead

I described Eyes to See—the first book of Joseph Nassise’s “Jeremiah Hunt Chronicles”—as a travelogue of the macabre. In that story, the Bram Stoker-nominated author set his protagonist’s horrifying encounter with a shape-shifting specter in the city of Boston. In doing so, he created a map of terrifying encounters set in some of Boston’s most famous areas. In Nassise’s follow-up, King of the Dead, he takes his readers down south to sweltering New Orleans. The change-of-scenery sets the stage for another emotional journey into the terrifying world of mighty supernatural evil.

Returning for another round is hardboiled supernatural investigator Jeremiah Hunt, now a fugitive on the run. Readers may remember that Hunt is blind—the price for dealing with a corrupt shaman—but gifted with the ability to see ghosts and other supernatural entities. Hunt’s sardonic view of the world remains intact, especially as the supernatural world continues to challenge his already tentative grasp on his life. Back at his side are his companions Denise Clearwater, a master of dark arts, and Dmitri Alexandrov, a Russian giant who can transform into a ferocious polar bear at the first sign of danger. The trio find themselves in the middle of a plague besieging New Orleans, the victims inexplicably paralyzed in a catatonic state. 

As Hunt observes, New Orleans is an entire city haunted by the victims of Hurricane Katrina, the emotional residue of the disaster as palpable as the region’s oppressive humidity. Nassise capitalizes on the atmosphere, as well as the sociopolitical state of the ruined city and its neglected citizens. The metaphor is a powerful statement on the fragility of a city’s populous when their trusted leaders have turned...

Exoskeleton

Shane Stadler’s Exoskeleton is a harrowing debut novel that explores the ancient, albeit still used tactic of torture. Torture has historically been employed by those in or seeking power to bend the will of those they subjugate. In the hands of barbaric groups, it’s an exercise in mindless brutality. In so-called progressive societies, torture has been used as a tool of experimentation to achieve a purported higher purpose. No matter the justification, its ultimate purpose is inflicting terror. The line of barbarism is so thin as to be invisible, and no amount of justification seems adequate. The moral implications are of much larger consequence than the miniscule information collected in the name of military intelligence or medical science. The author makes no bones about where he stands on the issue of its use.

Exoskeleton is the story of Will Thompson, a promising physics professor now falsely imprisoned on fabricated rape charges. As a volunteer in an “accelerated rehabilitation” program, he trades decades of imprisonment for a compressed punishment that involves a number of highly intense pain experiments over the course of one year. He’ll be pardoned from a lengthier sentence in exchange for his participation. Once completed, he may reintegrate into society, if he survives.

Thompson is taken to a monolithic building deemed "Red Box" because of its ominous blood red colour. The next year of his life inside the red building will test his mental and physical limits. He’s immediately stripped of his clothes, identity, and dignity as he’s subjected to grotesque torture experiments designed to break his will. He’s the guinea pig in a secret project that operates in the shadows of government and corporations, hidden away from the public’s eye...

Soundtrack to the End of the World

When you imagine survival in the wake of a zombie apocalypse, is there musical accompaniment? Surely you've got the perfect song or album queued up in your head for fighting off bands of roving zombies. Now what if that music was the cause of the apocalypse in the first place? Instead of a bite, what if the zombie plague spread through sound itself? This is the intriguing concept explored by author Anthony J. Rapino in his unique zombie book Soundtrack to the End of the World. The zombies in his story aren't the typical undead we've grown accustomed to, but they certainly are a terrifying threat.

Marty Raft, a giant with a heart of gold, has noticed people are acting stranger than usual lately. He and his best buddy, aspiring stand-up comic Corey, see a naked man walk casually into traffic at the bus stop. A serial defecator leaves feces scattered throughout Corey's apartment building. These may be ordinary occurrences in a city like New York, but they still draw Marty's attention. These seemingly random and bizarre occurrences might have a common root.

Marty and Corey receive an invitation to attend a secret rock club from a fat stranger claiming to be their friend Skinny Fella. Intrigued by the cryptic card with handwriting curiously matching Skinny's, the two decide to pay a visit. Corey, along with the other club-goers, is transfixed by the sounds of the band performing that night. Marty, sporting headphones and his favourite music on a portable player, ignores the thumping music that obviously has the rest of the club enraptured. The mob, along with Corey, is affected in a way more profound than stage dives and crowd surfing.

It seems a new trend in music has the power to steal souls. As the sounds reach a larger audience, it...

Me'ma and the Great Mountain

Me'ma and the Great Mountain comes to me lovingly hand-bound by author and illustrator Lorin Morgan-Richards. It's the writer's foray into dark fantasy, his antidote to overly sanitized stories that shelter children from life's harsh realities. The book is a heroic quest set against the backdrop of destructive colonialism, as a young girl is forced to flee her village home in the wake of greedy settlers mining in the nearby mountains. Here, the author represents vast numbers of real life displaced and annihilated indigenous people, but told through the eyes of a little girl named Me'ma.

Morgan-Richards knows the best fantasy fiction isn't safe. His story tackles mature themes in a way that's accessible to youngsters, but doesn't candy-coat the topic. The author presents his themes¾colonialism, exploitation, and environmentalism¾in a graspable manner using fantastical characters and creatures. His world is one in which noble animals speak, and humans are often monstrous beasts. While sophisticated youngsters can easily digest the adventure story, it also gives them much to think about in terms of responsible stewardship of the Earth and its inhabitants. To say that the author’s ultimate goal is to instill empathy would not be far-fetched.

Me'ma is a young villager from Sunken Creek, forced to flee when settlers destroy her home. Accompanied by her pint-sized living dolls, Xetacu and Tchesue, she sets off on a journey beyond the Great Mountain that overlooks their village. Me'ma and her companions hope to find safety beyond the mountain, but must brave the treacherous path through the grand purple mountain to get there. On the way they encounter many strange characters, some benevolent, others not to be trusted. Me'ma must also face the evil...

A Song After Dark

The world is on fire

How do you view human nature? Do you take the optimistic view that a little good resides in everyone? Do you side with pessimists who expect the worst in people, even in the best of situations? In a world overflowing with senseless violence, it’s a challenge to hold the optimist’s outlook. Can anyone really deny that human beings are responsible for most of the evil shit in the world? Would a little extra love, or perhaps a better economic situation, have made any difference in extinguishing wicked tendencies?

Like his psychopathic character Zach, author Grant Palmquist wants his readers to search the darkness within their own hearts in his debut novel A Song After Dark. The book is a character study of an unrepentant killer and his unwitting accomplice. Palmquist isn’t interested in providing explanations for the evil that people do; in the scope of atrocity in the world, the real horror is that there are no comforting explanations.

Zach, born into privilege, lives a relatively easy life replete with a comfortable house, a snazzy car, and the clout that comes from being his father’s son. He also imbibes hard drugs, sex, and instances of sudden violence. Zach is the manifestation of childhood cruelty, those behaviours we’re supposed to grow out of once we start discerning right from wrong. For whatever reason, Zach never matured beyond a childhood curiosity of inflicting harm. To him, there is no right or wrong, only survival of the fittest. He acts upon his impulses, seemingly unable to control himself. The view of himself is that of a god, and we are all insects waiting to have our legs plucked off.

Norman, an average teen living in Texas, is invisible to his peers and abused by his father...

Marlow

Aaron Thomas Nelson's action/horror graphic novel Marlow has the distinction of being the first comic I've ever read in a digital format. I've been adverse to it since the inception of e-books, and especially when it comes to the comic medium. I still don't like it, but I sucked it up, and made a pleasant discovery along the way; I was able to get down and dirty with each panel, able to blow them up and still retain a high resolution image. This allowed me to get very intimate with the violent, corrupt world that Nelson and illustrator Matthew Reynolds created. In a way, I was thrust to the forefront of battle, certain I'd need to wipe up gory matter after finishing.

Unfolding somewhere between Apocalypse Now and Night of the Living Dead, Nelson marries two genres not commonly found cozying up to one another in comicdom: the zombie horror tale, and the black-ops underground war story. While the gory zombie violence is certainly up front, Nelson’s conflicted protagonist also offers a conscience into the story. Infusing philosophy on the nature of man, Nelson elevates things above the standard fare. Clearly, the author's influences go beyond Romero and multiple viewings of Commando. This is no Call of Duty: The Zombie Edition. Admirably, Nelson is just as interested in philosophical discourse as he is with carnage.

Meet Marlow, a man stricken with a dreadful nano-virus that is slowly turning him into a zombie. Marlow is a gun-for-hire working for Nupharm, one of the world's leading pharmaceutical companies. Providing Marlow with pills to stave off the infection, Nupharm is able to string him along for their dirtiest missions. The pills make Marlow human, but only temporarily. It is, by no means, a cure. Nupharm is content keeping Marlow on a...

Nightjack by Tom Piccirilli

Like the chameleon altering its paint job to deal with stress or to fool predators, humans are equipped with their own coping camouflage. Each of us is capable of adapting to most reasonable situations by simply adjusting our personality to suit the moment. It's a survival technique that allows us to shape ourselves in response to a variety of people and environments. But what if we had the ability to summon from within a completely disparate personality to deal with a seemingly insurmountable challenge or trauma? Say it was a challenge in which we would normally be ill-equipped or even totally incapable of tackling. Yet, this deep-seeded personality, almost an alter-ego, somehow possessed all the skill to deal with it swiftly and effectively.

This is the concept explored by Tom Piccirilli (Shadow Season, The Night Class) in his latest novel Nightjack, a sort of film noir influenced crime thriller by way of some mind-bending Matt Ruff or Philip K. Dick notions of multiple personality, the effects of mind altering drugs, and how those factors might help or hinder you in battling would-be assassins. Piccirilli has crafted a page turner that satisfies those looking for a little cerebral workout with their violent action. At a very trim 188 pages, there is never a dull moment, but there is also enough depth to keep one intellectually engaged.

William Pacella is a patient at the Garden Falls Psychiatric Facility in New York. His memory is in tatters due to the unorthodox treatments and drugs he's received under the care of Dr. Maureen Brandt. He suffers from multiple personality disorder, ending up in the hospital on his own accord, though he has no recollection of admitting himself. He receives flashes of memory revealing that his wife, Jane, was...

Shadow of a Dead Star

If it gets into enough hands, Michael Shean’s Shadow of a Dead Star is going to have a huge following. That's because it's well-written, nicely paced, and offers some surprising turns in a genre often referred to as tech or future noir. A list of fitting reference points you'll see mentioned will include Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (or Blade Runner if you prefer), Neal Stephenson, Cyberpunk, William Gibson, CSI, maybe even some work by Warren Ellis. I'd venture to include a few more unconventional influences, namely Clive Barker or Mary Shelley.

Set in Seattle 2078, Shadow of a Dead Star is a grimy, nightmarish vision of a dystopian future. It also functions as a procedural crime drama complete with crime bosses, anxious detectives, and plenty of mystery. Because it falls within the realms of tech noir, it means we have to accept that some folks are walking around with cybernetic implants or with their brains wired to computers. Instead of relying on wit and instinct, agents now have an arsenal of advanced software, cloaking devices, and smart guns. If you can embrace all that, you’re in for quite a ride.

It's an utterly bleak, technology-saturated, cynical world created by Shean. His vision of the future is inhabited by the “connected” super rich, the desperate folks living on the fringe of society, and the violent struggles for control that fall in between. Shean capitalizes on Seattle’s dreary climate, an expanse now separated into New City (the corporate core), Old City (an untamed urban ruin), and The Verge (slum-like border between the two zones). The book is hyperviolent with detailed descriptions of bloodshed and viscera, melted flesh and protruding bone. Also detailed is a fully realized world of uber technology,...

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