The Siren and The Specter – Jonathan Janz

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There’s atmosphere a plenty in Jonathan Janz’s latest, THE SIREN AND THE SPECTER. Creepiness and dread oozes from each subsequent page after page. David is a cynic. He has to be. It’s his job. Debunking hauntings has paved the way for a decent living. Now David’s college pal invites him to Virginia to write about the place he and his wife just bought, the notorious Alexander House. Chris and Katherine hand over the keys and David plans on staying in the house for a month. Their motive for having David write about the house is clear. Publicity. David is a best-selling author and they want him to write about his experience to drum up publicity as they plan to make the house a tourist attraction. David doesn’t mind. He’s disproved more haunted houses than he can count. In fact, he’s yet to find any credible evidence to support hauntings and his skepticism has sold a ton of books. Why should the Alexander House be any different? Well, guess what? This house isn’t like all the rest and it’s due to Judson Alexander, the man who built the house back in the 1700s. He was one nasty S.O.B.and he’s not ready to vacate the premises anytime soon.

SIREN has a lot going for it. Janz creates interesting characters and David is the one that’s fleshed out the most. So much so, that his character has created some nice discussions when we read this as a group. To some, he’s an egotistical shit head that deserves all the nastiness that comes his way. For others, myself included, I found that his college past seemed to lead to an unfortunate turn of events, but not one that he should be solely blamed for. Characters with this much layered depth stick with you, rattling around in your psyche, long after the story has been put back on the shelf. That’s a good thing. Emotions run deep in SIREN. You have characters you feel for, some you relate to, and others that you absolutely loathe. There’s a lot there. Sometimes too much. And thats the only negative that I have. Specters make up the mother load of story. Ahh…but it’s called The SIREN and the Specter and I felt the siren is a little out of place in the tale. I simply think that it didn’t add anything and really wasn’t necessary. Others may think otherwise. Have yourself a go at it and decide for yourself.

3 1/2 Skeletons in the Closet out of 5
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The Mark – Lee Mountford

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The combination of old school and modern horror merge nicely in this demonic ghost story from Mountford. Imagine, if you will, you’ve had a rough week and you’re still trying to get the remnants of an abusive relationship out of your system. So blowing off a little steam at the local pub with your friends seems like as good of a way to spend a Friday night as any. You take a taxi home, a little worse for wear, but nothing a good night’s sleep and some Advil in the morning won’t take care of. You pass out and in the middle of the night you’re awakened to hear an intruder creeping up your stairs. You attempt to get away, but he gets the best of you. Thinking you’re about to meet your end, he pulls out a syringe, jams it in your neck and depresses the plunger. Out go the proverbial lights. When you awaken, its morning, you’re lying facedown on the kitchen floor, no one is in the house with you and you have these strange symbols carved on your back bleeding through your shirt.

What the hell, right? That’s exactly what I was thinking while I was reading this. Mountford does a great job with character development in THE MARK. Not only do you feel for Kirsty, you’re walking in her shoes every step of the way. You’re trying to figure out just what in the hell is going on. All the while, Mountford keeps dropping these creepy, skincrawling scenes on you and he does it with such a nice touch. There’s a slow build up of dread, as he builds the characters and atmosphere, and slowly unwinds the story. At times, he dangles you over the edge for a few moments before he plunges you over the edge. And this is where his story telling is a cut above many of his peers. He doesn’t just beat you over the head repeatedly without giving you a chance to think or care. No, he dangles the danger just out of your reach and makes you crane your neck to try an peer around that corner and get just a glimpse of what lies ahead. He makes you want it and that’s why I enjoyed this story so much. This is my first time reading Mountford and I’m impressed. I think you will be too.

4 1/2 Codex Gigas out of 5
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Practitioners – Matt Hayward & Patrick Lacey

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I’ve been noticing more and more collaboration novels in the horror genre lately. I’ve always been curious as to how two different authors can concoct a story together and keep everything seemlessly cohesive. Matt Hayward and Patrick Lacey are able to do just that in Practitioners. You really can’t tell who wrote what. The tone, pacing, characters and delivery are evenly matched. So kudos to them for being able to utilize the age-old saying, “Two heads are better than one.”

Practitioners uses elements of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Phantasm, Hellraiser, and various Lovecraft tales and brings it all together through the plight of Henry Stapleton. Henry is a police detective on administrative leave while he attempts to pick up the pieces of the senseless and seemingly random murder of his wife. Henry is trying to make sense of it all, but appears to be losing his mind due to his excessive drinking and inability to seperate hallucinations from reality. In an attempt to get a handle on his life, he visits a spirituality center in a downtown strip mall that promises to teach him how to interpret and control his troubled dreams. This is where the story picks up steam and crosses back and forth from crime drama to horror to fantasy and back again. Oddly enough, this is also when the story becomes more focused. Even though I was enjoying the characters, I felt that the beginning was too muddied to understand what I was reading. I get that the writers were trying to keep everything in shadows, but to me, maybe the delivery could’ve been a little better, a little clearer. All in all, a solid story from two talented authors.
3 1/2 Alternate Realities out of 5
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Baal – Robert McCammon

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To say that I like Robert McCammon’s writing is like saying fish kind of like water. He is, without a doubt, my favorite author that ever put ink to paper. His writing has wrung out every emotion possible from within my soul and has helped shape who I am as a reader, writer and as a person. Yes, his writing is simply magical. So, it was a no-brainer when the opportunity came around to participate in the Robert McCammon Challenge. The RMC is where you read his work in chronological order, one a month, until you’ve completed them all.

Baal is McCammon’s first novel published way back in 1978. Many authors would kill for their first novel to have this level of quality. You can see that it doesn’t quite live up to the standard he set with his later works. Baal has shades that bleed through of the gifted storyteller that was to mature. McCammon was only in his mid-twenties when he wrote it.

It starts off well enough, with the rape of a woman in an ally who later gives birth to a child that is not quite like every other child. As you can imagine, this child grows up to be the demon, Baal. The story has three seperate parts. The first is rape and the life of Baal being shuffled in and out of every orphanage school you can imagine. This is where McCammon shines. Baal is Damien from the Omen to the tenth power. Throw in a little Isaac from Children of the Corn and you get the idea as he round up his minions to do his bidding.

The second part has Baal as a man leading some religious building/gathering in the Middle East. The bleak atmosphere radiates from the pages. You literally feel like your dying of thirst and your skin is blistering, but the transformation into Part III is hurried and muddled.

The last part again uses McCammon’s uncanny ability to build the setting and atmosphere to it’s fullest height. The arctic landscape pictured here makes you shiver and your hands go numb as you follow the characters chasing Baal. Then there’s the ending. Not my favorite. In fact, it felt like McCammon had spend all of his energy on creating the journey that he didn’t quite know what to do with the ending. While it’s not bad – I’ve definitely read much worse from other “masters” of horror – it feels very anti-climactic. Michael’s ability to control Baal without much trouble what-so-ever seemed like a stretch. You’ll see what I mean once you read it. Overall, still a very solid read that lets you have a glimpse of a newborn master storyteller learning how to walk.

3.5 Mangled Hands out of 5
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Apparition – Michaelbrent Collings

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Every once in a while, you run across a book that has a pretty hight rating, an intriguing sounding premise and some really nice reviews to back it up. So, you enthusiastically pick it up and begin reading. It’ll start out slow, but thats okay. We’ve all read books that seem to stumble around the first 25% until they find their footing and then they take off. As you approach the 40% mark, you think, “damn, this thing better have one hell of a second half!” Then, for many people, there comes a point where you pass the “point of no return”. This is where you’ve already invested so much damned time in the story that you now just have to ride it out. Others can simply toss the book and move on. I’m not cut from that cloth. I have to finish it, even if I’m cussing it out every other page until the end. Stupid, I know. But that’s how I’m wired.

So, as you’ve already figured out, APPARITION was that way for me. The premise is good. Delving into the phenomenon of filicide and to see if there’s another reason that parents decide to kill their own children besides they’re crazy, perhaps something ancient and evil. I like it. I’d like to go down this road and see where it takes us. For me, the road that is APPARITION was a long, tedious and frustrating one. First of all, barely anything happens for the first 50% of the story. Now don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a slow burn if its told right, ala Peter Straub and Charles L. Grant. But this wasn’t a slow build up, it was an excruciating exercise of patience. One of the things that didn’t work for me, was when Collings would write from the little boy, Matthew’s POV. When he would switch into that character’s telling of the story, I wanted to slit my wrist. Throughout the the story, he had Matthew talking and thinking anywhere from a 3-year old little boy to a college junior psychology major. I also found that the description of the characters thoughts kept stumbling over each other. At numerous points in the story, I wanted to scream, “I KNOW! You just said that for the hundredth time… now get on with it!” Now, I do think Collings can write. In fact, there were a couple of scenes in the first half that literally made my skin crawl and I would think, “Alright! Here we go” and then it would go back into the plodding, repetitive pacing that plagued the entire story. Unfortunately, the characters weren’t interesting or sympathetic enough for you to invest in their well-being. And the ending was “meh”. Nothing shocking, surprising or the least bit satisfying. So there you have it. That’s my review. Now, keep in mind, many other people like this story, many of whom I respect their opinions and I usually agree with the majority of the time. So you may like it too. For me, APPARITION didn’t work.
2 Children Swallowing Demons out of 5
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We Came Back – Patrick Lacey

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WE CAME BACK is the impressive sophomoric effort from Patrick Lacey. While, yes, there are shades of King’s SOMETIME’S THEY COME BACK and CARRIE, WE CAME BACK is it’s own monster. A high school revenge tale that takes on a twisted life of it’s own. We can imagine the Melvins in the world. We’ve seen many a teenager in the news that has taken his own life with their high school as their stage as they paint the walls red with their own blood and brain matter. We’ve all experienced various levels of bullying and, while we may not go so far as agreeing with Melvin’s solution to take his own life, we do understand where he’s coming from. We can also imagine what it would do to small, close-knit Lynwood High. Ten years later, the old high school is closed and abandoned. A new school is built on the other side of town. The teachers are doing their very best to forget that there ever was another Lynwood High. That the old brick building with the chained doors and roof leaking into the classrooms never existed. The students are chalking up the stories of Melvin’s ghost wandering the halls as an urban legend. Frank Tanner is especially trying to forget that day a decade ago. Frank was a young teacher that witnessed Melvin’s suicide first-hand. Now his straight-laced daughter is dating the new goth kid and damn, if he doesn’t look familiar. And damn, if she isn’t acting up like never before. Is this all just teen rebellion or is there something evil about her new boyfriend?

Lacey builds the layers nicely in WE CAME BACK. The characters are three dimensional and realistically fleshed out. The atmosphere slowly builds and ratchets up as the story unfurls. He really does a nice job with this one. No sophomore jinx here. I’m looking forward to novel number 3.
4 Pasty White Complexions our of 5
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The Incurables – Jon Bassoff

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Every once in a while, a book comes along that has a subject matter that really stick with you. The Incurables struck that chord with me. I’m kind of a sucker for horror with a historical setting. Bassoff’s offering is set in 1953 and uses a real character with a sordid legacy, Dr. Walter Freeman. Dr Freeman created his name in the history books by being the physician noted for the controversial psychiatric procedure, the lobotomy. In fact, he streamlined the surgery by foregoing the traditional methods of exposing the brain with an incision in the skull and developed the trans orbital lobotomy. If you’re not familiar with that procedure, it involved an ice pick and inserting it in the tear duct of each eye socket, using a mallet to break through the soft bone behind the eye, and scrambling the patients gray matter by wiggling the pick around inside the brain. Freeman was a carnival barker-like salesman with his new procedure and would often “advertise” it as a cure-all to whatever ails you. By the early 1950s, Freeman had performed his lobotomy on thousands of patients, including the infamous Rose Kennedy.

I have to admit, I didn’t know much about lobotomies. Oh sure, I’d heard the term and knew it had something to do with messing with the brain and that it turned many people into drooling vegetables. What I didn’t know was the history of the procedure and how prevalent it was in society for so many years. I also didn’t know anything about Dr. Walter Freeman. While reading The Incurables, I found myself looking up all sorts of information on the internet about the subject and I found it chillingly fascinating.

Bassoff uses this sordid character and macabre nugget of American history and weaves a captivating tale involving Freeman being fired from his position and forced to take his carnival act on the road across the United States. He paints a chilling and vibrant tale of horror in a seedy small town in Oklahoma where Freeman preys on the desperation of bleak town rife with mental illness. The writing style is smooth and easy. The characters are well fleshed out and memorable. If there is a down side to the story, it would be that there really isn’t a sympathetic character in the whole bunch. They’re all various degrees of train wrecks. However, I found The Incurable to be an extremely enjoyable read and found that it left a haunting and lasting mark in my psyche.

4 1/2 Bloodied Ice Picks out of 5
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