THE FINAL RECONCILIATION by Todd Keisling (Crystal Lake Publishing, release date February 03, 2017. Digital only formats)

Author Todd Keisling has created a horrific composition in THE FINAL RECONCILIATION, combining heavy metal music and horror mythos for a compelling configuration of a novella. It’s a quick-paced and captivating read that craftily builds tension right up to the final bloodbath.

Remove your Mask!

A progressive metal band from Southeastern Kentucky parlays a successful EP release into a two-record contract with a major music label. Outside forces, in the guise of an entrancing ethereal groupie, exert a subliminal influence on the creation of their first (and final) album. Their new music has the ability to effect a trance-like state among both performers and audience, and opens a doorway into an otherworldly realm. These events are foreshadowed early in the novella, and will come as no surprise to readers. Still, the final resolution is even more intense due to the power of the narrative and the suggestions that have been introduced along the way.

Keisling’s primary characters, the four members of the rock band The Yellow Kings, are convincing and realistic. In a question and answer video on You Tube, Keisling reveals that he is not a musician and does not have a background in rock music, aside from being a listener and fan. He acknowledged being influenced by the music of Opeth, Alice In Chains, and Tool in imagining the sound of The Yellow Kings. His characters are fully realized. Knowledgable music fans and readers will easily empathize with them, especially lead guitarist Aiden Cross, who serves as narrator of the story.

The novella is preceded by liner notes from The Yellow King’s unreleased album, The Final Reconciliation. Chapter titles correspond to the Track Listings of the album. The fourth chapter, entitled Track 4: The Usurper’s Ascent, also represents the point at which listeners of the sole live performance of the album begin to fall under the supernatural influence of the music.

Just before The Yellow Kings sign a major contract, lead singer and rhythm guitarist Johnny Leifthauser meets an alluring gypsy vixen and falls under her spell. The other band members are introduced to Camilla Bierce, who soon becomes their groupie and accompanies them to Los Angeles. During a night of drunken exotic debauchery at Camilla’s loft, she seduces all the band members and influences the future direction of their music. Her loft houses an otherworldly collection of art, artifacts and other supernatural curios, none more disturbing than the life-size statue of Hastur, a misshapen Elder God.

The story begins thirty years after the final appearance of The Yellow Kings. A news reporter arrives at a nursing home where lead guitarist Aiden Cross, the sole surviving member, tells for the first time of the events that led up to the studio recordings which culminated in the fatal concert.

Keisling was inspired by The King In Yellow, an 1895 story collection by Robert W. Chambers that also influenced the writing of H. P. Lovecraft. He pulls elements and themes from Chambers’ work, especially The Yellow Sign short story, and weaves them into THE FINAL RECONCILIATION. All the stories in Chambers’ collection include references to The King In Yellow, a play in book form which induces madness in those who read it.

Keisling takes many of Chambers’ concepts, including the mysterious city of Carcosa, the Yellow Sign, strange hooded figures on an eerie shore, and modifies and enhances them for even greater effect. The hooded figures hide behind pale whitened masks, under which coffin worms thrive. The description of Hyades, now a music club, the inhabitants of Carcosa, and the acolytes of Hastur are visualized in good and grisly detail. Camilla, Keisling’s deceitful muse, is named after a character in Chambers’ dangerous play.
Author Keisling also manages to include the scenes of sexuality and bloody, brutal violence through suggestion and summary rather than elaborate graphic descriptions. Yet, they will still remain vivid in the readers’ minds due to his narrative skills.

It’s an impressive story, and is scheduled to be included in a forthcoming anthology from Crystal Lake Publishing.

DISCLOSURE: A digital copy of this novella was provided by the publisher, with the hope of an honest and unbiased review.

WASTELAND GODS By Jonathan Woodrow. Horrific Tales Publishing. 362 pages. Trade Paperback edition, published February 29, 2016. $12.99.   ISBN-13: 9781910283103.

Disclosure: A digital copy of WASTELAND GODS was provided at no charge, with the hope of an honest unbiased review.

WASTELAND GODS entertains and engages the reader on multiple levels. It’s a character study of the effects of extreme grief and mourning on a solitary man, who soon becomes estranged from his family and lets his despondency take him in new and frightening directions.

It’s also a murder mystery as the main character, Billy, travels some unsavory roads in search of the brutal killer of his son. Nearly driven to mental breakdown by the intrusion onto his personal computer of the snuff video of his son’s death and taunting by the killer, Billy seeks to numb his consciousness with daily consumption of alcohol. And, in the latter part of the novel it becomes a story of redemption and transformation.

The savage murder of Billy’s son leads to a coincidental encounter with an otherworldly stranger, the mysterious Dr. Verity, who enlists him as her assistant in the Wastelands. The Wastelands occupy another plane of reality (or unreality), a vast barren landscape of sand, dirt and landfill detritus. Once the proper subject is identified (they kind of pop into the landscape), Billy has to perform the one task that Dr. Verity cannot do, that of cleansing before Verity executes the ending. These are supposedly extremely evil characters, whose cruel tendencies have been identified at an early age so that Verity and Billy can stop them before their damage is done. Verity extends a carrot to Billy to entice him to cooperate – – she may be able to help put him on the trail of his son’s killer.

Not everything is explained or reasons given. Both Billy and the reader have to accept some things on faith. The who, what, when, and why are part of the mystery and one of the story elements that kept us reading. Is the Wastelands part of another dimension? Is it an interpretation of Limbo, Purgatory, or even Hell? Is it all in Billy’s gin-soaked brain? Perhaps a visualization and symbol of his grief and self-loathing?

The sad state of Billy and his relationship with Dr. Verity engaged our attention, much more so than the opening of the story which was very jarring and disturbing. There are extreme scenes of brutality in several places of the novel. However, they are essential to the story and not splatter for splatter’s sake. It’s Billy’s agonizing journey into the depths and his attempts at recovery that will hook readers. Woodrow is a skilled writer and illustrates Billy’s circumstances so well that we feel sorry for him, and want to reach out and help find the answers. But we can’t. We can only keep reading.

Billy’s daily ritual of drinking at home, then drinking at the local bar while hoping to meet Verity again, coupled with a lack of acknowledgement and communication with his spouse, leads to separation. He turns to his aunt for comfort, and seeks a release for his pent-up feelings through painting. He later finds a new purpose in a small town that his investigations lead him to. It seems he may be off the wagon and ready to begin a new life. But his transformation is interrupted by the interference of Dr. Verity.

Midway through the novel, Woodrow introduces some themes that seem more appropriate to a science-fiction novel. However, he mixes them in with the horror for a clever and complicated blend of the two. The reader gets just enough detail to understand and accept it, but a full explanation is not provided. Rather than take the reader out of the story, it engages even further. We wanted to unravel the puzzle and kept reading.

Things come to a head quickly in the latter part of the novel, with an unexpected ending that disappointed at first. Billy has a decision to make as a final resolution, and it may not be the one that readers were expecting. After finishing the novel and trying to think about it from Billy’s point of view it then made perfect sense. As a final way to differentiate his work from others in the genre, Woodrow wraps it up with a positive message of hope rather than the standard downward spiral horror tropes.

Hopefully, Woodrow is not finished with the Wasteland. It’s a rich setting, ripe for further stories and a hope that the intriguing Dr. Verity will also return. Recommended.

THE DEEP by Nick Cutter (Pocket Books /Simon & Shuster) 502 pages.  Paperback, August 2015.  $9.99 ISBN #978-1-4767-1774-6

Here’s what the Goodreads summary reveals about THE DEEP:

From the acclaimed author of The Troop—which Stephen King raved ‘scared the hell out of me and I couldn’t put it down.…old-school horror at its best’ comes this utterly terrifying novel where The Abyss meets The Shining.

A strange plague called the ’Gets is decimating humanity on a global scale. It causes people to forget—small things at first, like where they left their keys…then the not-so-small things like how to drive, or the letters of the alphabet. Then their bodies forget how to function involuntarily…and there is no cure. But now, far below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, deep in the Marianas Trench, an heretofore unknown substance hailed as “ambrosia” has been discovered—a universal healer, from initial reports. It may just be the key to a universal cure. In order to study this phenomenon, a special research lab, the Trieste, has been built eight miles under the sea’s surface. But now the station is incommunicado, and it’s up to a brave few to descend through the lightless fathoms in hopes of unraveling the mysteries lurking at those crushing depths…and perhaps to encounter an evil blacker than anything one could possibly imagine.”

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I finished reading THE DEEP in bed just before midnight on November 8 as the Presidential elections were wrapping up. Not wishing to watch any more television news accounts of the voting, I went to bed shortly before 11 p.m. I didn’t have a warm feeling about the results. I wanted get a good night’s sleep rather than worry about the election. The rest of my family had also retired for the evening, and it seemed like a good quiet time to finish the book.

I wasn’t as disturbed by the ending of THE DEEP as I thought I might be. As I read through the last third of the book I had a sense where things were going, so I wasn’t surprised. The ending was satisfying but very ominous and dark.
A constant presence in the book is the sense of extreme claustrophobia, detailed in all it’s excruciating agony by the skillful pen of Nick Cutter. I got a personal preview of that as I read the last page in my bed, put the book down, and turned off the lights. Surrounded by blackness, I closed my eyes and managed to fall sleep.

After waking, I learned of the shocking election results. I did not anticipate this outcome. I’m afraid it’s an indication of the temperament of our nation. It feels like I’m still engaged with the ending of THE DEEP. Ominous. Dark. I feel the walls moving in.
I still choose hope over hate. I’m hoping that a man who’s words can be so divisive can also become a changed man whose words can bring people together, to work together and accomplish something positive.
I didn’t mean to write a political commentary here. But, the connection between book and reality was so strange and ironic that I felt it relevant to mention. Let’s turn our attention back to THE DEEP, a book that has earned over 1,000 reviews on Goodreads. Reader opinions are mixed, as you might expect from a horror novel as relentless, tenacious and malicious as this.
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Nick Cutter is definitely a new voice in horror fiction, and one to keep an eye on. I’m certainly going to explore THE TROOP, his earlier novel as well as his other works. Nick Cutter is a pseudonym used by Canadian author Craig Davidson to separate his horror fiction from his conventional literary fiction. His horror fiction seems to be out-selling his other works, which is good for horror fans. There should be more to come. Before Nick Cutter, he also wrote two horror novels under the pseudonym of Patrick Lestewka.
The blurbs on the back cover of the paperback, as well as the summary at Goodreads and other sites can be a little misleading. A reader might think that the ‘Gets is the primary conflict of the book. It’s just the mechanism that Cutter uses to set up the real conflict — which occurs in the pitch black atmosphere that surrounds and applies pressure to the research station in the depths of the deep, deep sea.

The ‘Gets is a marvelous construction, a destructive cocktail of several diseases including Alzheimers, Parkinsons, measles and the bubonic plague. It’s a bit disappointing that Cutter didn’t see fit to add some more scenes about the outbreak and some of the consequences. Other writers might have devoted half a novel or more on this. Cutter obviously had a larger and more complex threat envisioned for this novel.
When we first hear of it in the early chapters, the virus is already widespread and gaining ground everyday. There is one extremely graphic and horrifying scene where Luke Nelson, the main character, tries to assist a victim.

A virus of this magnitude commands the attention of health organizations and governments across the globe, willing to spend the money and resources to find an effective means to eradicate it, or worse case scenario, contain it. The discovery of “Ambrosia”, a mystery substance from the depths of the ocean that might protect its host from the ‘Gets, prompts the quick outlay of millions to erect the Trieste, a research station eight miles below the water’s surface to harvest and study Ambrosia in the deepest, darkest and coldest depths of the Mariana Trench.

Among the three scientists confined to that research station is the brilliant Clayton Nelson, the estranged older brother of Luke. One of those scientists fled the station, only to return to the surface in a mutilated state of death. Government agents soon contact Luke, when the research station loses communication with the surface. The last message received was a request for his assistance. Soon after, Luke is transported to the Hesperus, the massive ship that serves as the surface command center for the Trieste, being prepared for descent in a two-person sub to reach the undersea station and investigate.

Along the way the reader learns of Luke’s personal descent into despondency that occurred long before these events. Luke is trying to reconstruct his life after the mysterious disappearance of his young son and the subsequent break-up of his marriage. He and brother Clayton have sibling issues of incompatibility, perhaps brought on by a horrific childhood together suffering the torments of a dominating and character-destructive mother. Confinement to the research station will soon cause these memories to come to the surface again, as Luke recalls all his childhood and adult fears in waking nightmares where the lines between reality and dreams blur and fuse together.
He does reach the station, courtesy of the capable navigation of Alice “Al” Sykes, a brave athletic Navy lieutenant who provides shuttle service between the depths and the surface. What they find are the two scientists working independently and secretive, along with two Labrador Retrievers, plus some mice and bees, all destined for experimentation with Ambrosia.

When some mishaps cause conditions at the research station to imperil sustained survival, neither scientist can be persuaded to leave. Clayton is obsessed with studying the substance while the other scientist, Dr. Toy, has seemingly gone mad and locked himself in.
All this time in confinement, surrounded by darkness and icy, highly pressurized water takes its toll on the inhabitants. Nightmares and waking visions constantly play with their sense of reality. Cutter details the impact of such a claustrophobic setting for maximum impact. Each character is not only fully realized but each also experiences their own personal form of madness. Are all these visions, one more horrific than the next, just in their heads or are they real? Are there really miniature black holes opening up all over the ship, or are the inhabitants experiencing a shared hallucination?

Is Ambrosia a ruse, designed to provide a vehicle for something much worse than the ‘Gets to invade the surface world? Or is it a universal cure for not only the ‘Gets, but other debilitating diseases as well? Trick, or treat?
Once we become immersed in the depths of this book, Cutter does not stop bringing the horrific visions, one after the other, each more gruesomely described. Cutter excels at depictions of body horror and mutilation.

It’s not hard for readers to feel the fear of these characters as they try to overcome the challenges and find a way to leave. Cutter makes you care, even when you may have to let go. At least, the ending provides a release.
THE DEEP is not flawless. It does drag in passages, and some readers may grow weary of the numerous flashbacks. However, the best parts are so engaging and creative that Cutter deserves the attention he is currently receiving.

REVIEW: “The Streets” by Robert Dunbar

The Streets By Robert Dunbar Uninvited Books, 2015 Trade Paperback ($18.00), Kindle ($4.99) 334 pages ISBN-10: 098304578X ISBN-13: 978-0983045786 ASIN: B0161OHSTE www.uninvitedbooks.com In a desolate city, as ravaged and dangerous as a post-Apocalyptic wasteland, horrors prowl the back alleys. Struggling to survive, a group of young people find themselves trapped in a decaying asylum …… Continue reading REVIEW: “The Streets” by Robert Dunbar

ARTICLE: “Past and Future: Esoteric and Exoteric Philosophy in Weird Fiction”

As with everything else, the philosophy behind dark, weird, and horrific fiction has evolved over time. This philosophical evolution of horror fiction arguably began in earnest with Edgar Allan Poe—though Poe also nurtured a sense of romantic love, which conquers, as well as defeats, his harshest poetry, e.g. “Alone.” Bleaker still, and more callous in… Continue reading ARTICLE: “Past and Future: Esoteric and Exoteric Philosophy in Weird Fiction”

REVIEW: Expiration Date edited by Nancy Kilpatrick

Like most dark fiction anthologies, Expiration Date is about death. Unlike most collections, however, editor Nancy Kilpatrick does not hand us page after page of brutality, horror, mutilation, and death that haunt our worst nightmares. The authors here explore the horrors of death, but through well-planned chapters, this anthology does, as Kilpatrick suggests in her… Continue reading REVIEW: Expiration Date edited by Nancy Kilpatrick

Artist Spotlight: Samuel Araya

      And lastly, we turn our attention to our Artist Spotlight, the amazing Samual Araya and his full cover art for A Darke Phantastique.   Samuel Araya is a professional illustrator. His work has appeared in a variety of media, from videogames, T-shirts, posters, and records, to cards and books, including two editions of the prestigious Spectrum: The… Continue reading Artist Spotlight: Samuel Araya

UnseamingUnseaming
by Mike Allen
October, 2014
Antimatter Press
222 pages; trade paper; $15.95
ISBN: 978-0-9889124-1-0

 

Unseaming is the first collection of short stories from author Mike Allen. With a prominent blurb from Thomas Ligotti and introduction by none other than Laird Barron, this book is positioned to hit the mark squarely within the Lovecraftian/True Detective “New Weird” fiction movement, but it may be more at home in the newly-forming nebula of dark magical realism.

What sets this effort apart from the pack is the marvelous ability of Allen to set up place and character without meandering off the story path—while maintaining a style of prose which remains rhythmical, yet never comes across as mandarin.

The themes explored are varied and fascinating. In “The Hiker’s Tale”, Allen takes us on a journey into the Appalachians, exploring the Melungeon background and folklore surrounding a shapeshifting hiker. The very next story, “Stone Flowers”, reads like an old fairytale. It is beautifully written, poetic, and deeply emotional. And such is the entire collection.

Allen plays with form and point-of-view with a mastery that enhances and enchants without being distracting or coming across as arch. The most impressive example of this is “The Quiltmaker” which is made up of sixteen “squares,” a pattern, “the piece trimmed free,” and “the scrap leftover.”
Highly recommended. I read and savored every word.

 

 

Khaki KillerKhaki = Killer
by Connie Corcoran WilsonQuad Cities Press, April 2014. 235 pages. Trade paper.
ISBN: 978 0982 444 825

 

Here is book three in Connie Wilson’s award-winning paranormal thriller series, following The Color of Evil and Red is for Rage.

The story is set in a high school in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and the complex plot involves a serial killer, kidnap victims, a pregnant teenager, a dying girl, a climatic Mano-a-Mano fight on a bridge, a collapsing staircase, and a main protagonist (Ted McGreery) who possesses a special power (Tetrachromatic Super Vision) that allows him to read good-or-bad auras.

Wilson keeps the action moving briskly in a tight time frame from December of 2004 into June of 2005.

Having been a teacher for more than thirty years, she knows her subject. (Her first book, in 1989, was a volume on teaching.)

Says Wilson: “My true inspiration for this book was a double homicide that took place in my real-life setting of Cedar Falls.”

Wilson’s Style is non-intrusive, grounded and smooth. It more than gets the job done in holding a reader’s attention from front page to last.

I’d advise you to grab a copy of Khaki = Killer for yourself and one for the teenager in your family.

Trust me, you won’t be sorry.

 

Motherless Child

By Glen Hirshberg

Hirschberg Motherless

260 pages, Signed Limited Edition of 500 ($40), 2012

ISBN: 978-0-9838071-1-7

Earthling Publications

 

Shirley Jackson Award-winning author Glen Hirshberg returns with what may be his best — and is certainly his most unique—novel. Motherless Child from Earthling Publications is a vampire tale, but it’s like no vampire story you’ve read before. After a night out on the town, young mothers and best friends, Natalie and Sophie, wake covered in blood and, somehow, different. Neither can truly remember the night before, except that it involved a travelling musician called the Whistler. Now, as a hunger grows inside them and they begin to piece together what happened to them, they flee their children, mothers, jobs, and lives in a desperate attempt to protect everyone they love. But the Whistler isn’t through with them, and their families aren’t safe.

As he has shown in his collections, The Two Sams, The Janus Tree, and American Morons, and his novels, The Book of Bunk and The Snowman’s Children, Hirshberg has a knack for subtlety, dread, and a wonderful imagination for playing on horror’s oldest and most well-known tropes. The vampires in Motherless Child aren’t like those you’re used to. They’re different, but subtly different. He twists each “rule” just enough to make it unique, but not enough to leave it unidentifiable, because that’s not the point of this story. Throughout, his prose is, as always, wonderfully evocative and fully realized. He uses metaphor and simile to enhance not only the character, tone, and atmosphere, but also the setting and tension. Every aspect of the story works to create a unifying effect rarely seen — or at least rarely seen done this well — in any novel in any genre. This is Hirshberg’s best writing to date, and that is, as you know if you’ve read him, quite a compliment.

Equal parts road novel, McCammon-esque southern horror, King-ian exploration of the depth of friendship, and a study of family and sacrifice worthy of Gary Braunbeck, Motherless Child is sure to appeal to any horror fan—or any fan of good writing and good stories—out there. This is a deep novel, a novel that makes you think, but at the same time, it’s a fun novel and a novel that makes you feel. For fans of Hirshberg, this is one more masterpiece to add to your collection; for everyone else, this is an introduction to a horror writer who is one of the best working today and possibly one of the best ever.

—Christopher Shearer

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