Book Review: Shock Totem #6

shocktotem6Shock Totem #6
K. Allen Wood, editor
Shock Totem Publications
ISBN: 978-0988272323
2013; $6.99 trade paperback, $2.99 ebook

I reviewed Shock Totem #5 when that came out and found the magazine’s sub-title ““curious tales of the macabre and twisted” to be apt. I said then that Shock Totem was “one of the strongest horror fiction magazines on the market today” and now, having read issue #6, I stand by that assessment.

Let’s start with Shock Totem #6’s table of contents:

* The Spectacular Inspiration Suit, by John Boden (Editorial)
* For Jack, by P.K. Gardner
* Orion, by Michael Wehunt
* The Hard Way: A Conversation with Gary McMahon, by John Boden
* Ballad of the Man with the Shark Tooth Bracelet, by Lucia Starkey
* She Disappeared, by Ryan Bridger (Narrative Nonfiction)
* Strange Goods and Other Oddities (Reviews)
* No One But Us Monsters, by Hubert Dade
* The Cocktail Party, by Addison Clift
* Bloodstains & Blue Suede Shoes, Part 4, by John Boden and Simon Marshall-Jones (Article)
* Lighten Up, by Jack Ketchum
* Magnolia’s Prayer, by John Guzman (2012 Shock Totem Flash Fiction Contest Winner)
* When We Crash Against Reality: A Conversation with Lee Thompson, by K. Allen Wood
* The River, by Lee Thompson
* Howling Through the Keyhole (Author Notes)

Mild plot spoilers for a couple of the stories contained in this issue follow.

There’s too much going on here to go through each item individually, so I’ll just note a few of this issue’s highlights. As with other issues of Shock Totem, this one contains a mix of first-time or mostly unknown authors and some bigger names. I like and respect that. Many readers will be drawn to Jack Ketchum’s story because he’s a big name, but as good as it was, I have to say that I enjoyed some of the other tales in this issue as well if not more than “Lighten Up.” This issue opens with “For Jack,” a strong entry from first-timer P.K. Gardner meditating on the idea of “soulmates” and the compromises that people have to make in relationships. Oh, and a really cool serial killer. I look forward to reading more from Ms. Gardner. Horror fiction naturally plumbs the depths of the meanings of various fears, but “No One But Us Monsters” by Hubert Dade manages to tell a fascinating story of a man who’s afraid to go down into his dark basement. I know that premise makes this sound like a very mundane, small story, but it really resonated with me. This was definitely one of the stand-outs of the collection and was a real testament to Dade’s wordsmithing skill. I normally shy away from politically infused fiction, but “The Cocktail Party” by Addison Clift was a truly horrifying short piece – seriously, it’s a gutpunch once you realize what’s going on – that explores a very visceral side of the raw abuse of power by political elites. Clift’s notes on the story imply that his inspiration involved his disgust over abuses of power during a previous administration, but given recent revelations about apparent government abuses of power and trust, this is an extraordinarily timely piece. I’ve also got to note that Shock Totem continues its tradition of including a substantial author notes section in the back of the issue, which I really appreciate. I always like to read author’s reflections on their work, and I wish more publications would follow Shock Totem’s lead here.

There were no clunkers in Shock Totem #6. The stories ranged from good to wonderful. As with the rest of the magazine’s run, I recommend this latest issue heartily. This is exactly how a horror fiction journal ought to look.

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Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: The Phantom Detective: The Nasty Gnomes by Robert Reginald

{C57645F1-CAAF-4A71-B579-C404C453873F}Img100As I noted in my review of Reginald’s first new Phantom Detective book, the Phantom Detective was an extremely long-running pulp vigilante (a la the Shadow and Doc Savage) whose original adventures were published from 1933-53. Those works are now all in the public domain and being reprinted by Adventure House. A few years ago, John Betancourt of Wildside Books commissioned two all-new Phantom Detective novels, both written by Robert Reginald, and THE NASTY GNOMES is the second of those.

Mild plot spoilers follow.

THE NASTY GNOMES picks up where THE PHANTOM’S PHANTOM left off (note, though, that knowledge of the first novel is not required to enjoy this one). The Phantom Detective, the alter ego of Richard Curtis Van Loan, has nominally retired, but he has recently established a detective bureau on the West Coast to continue his work. Van Loan has returned to his old stomping grounds of New York City, where the city is being plagued by a rash of savage attacks by little people (it’s 1953, so they’re more commonly called dwarfs and midgets), who engage in a campaign of terror by repeatedly robbing, threatening, brutalizing, and extorting citizens before escaping into New York’s network of underground tunnels. Worse, these little guys seem to disappear even after they’ve been shot or otherwise put out of commission. Van Loan realizes he can’t deal with this crime wave alone, and quickly recruits a team of assistants, just as he had in California. The story gets a bit more complicated than that when it becomes apparent that the swarms of evil little people (the eponymous “nasty gnomes,” of course) are actually pawns of a larger conspiracy spearheaded by a crypto-John Birch Society represented in the story by real-life McCarthyite attorney Roy Cohn. The addition of Cohn and allusions to McCarthy and his witch hunts are a nice addition to the novel. (If Wildside had continued with new Phantom Detective novels, I suspect Cohn and this group would have popped up again.)

Just as with THE PHANTOM’S PHANTOM, this novel explores some of the moral dimensions of vigilantism and the effects of violence on a man like Van Loan. Keep in mind that this is a man who, during his active days of crime-fighting, probably killed hundreds of criminals over the years. He obviously enjoyed his work, and perhaps relished the violent side of detective work just a bit too much. Exploring that set of issues adds some richness to the narrative that many similar novels written in the original pulp era mostly lacked.

Though Reginald’s aging Phantom Detective is more of an investigator and strategist than a brawler, this is very much a novel in the pulp tradition, much more so than Reginald’s first Phantom Detective novel. How could it not be, after all, with scores of midgets swarming out of alleys to attack passers-by before escaping into the sewers with their loot? It’s a rollicking good story, and I certainly recommend THE NASTY GNOMES to fans of pulp fiction vigilantes, especially those looking for a bit of an update to the pulp avenger formula.

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Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers

John Creasey and “The Cinema Crimes”

The Cinema CrimesYou may recall that I had the fortune to acquire a large collection (~200 books) written by prolific British novelist John Creasey (who also wrote under many pseudonyms). I made available a checklist/bibliography of John Creasey’s works because all of the sites pertaining to Creasey I found online were incomplete, incorrect, or both. In my initial post I requested help in identifying errors and omissions in my own bibliography. One kind soul by the name of Morgan Wallace took up the challenge and contacted me to let me know that he had spotted an error. I had one of Creasey’s books, The Cinema Crimes, listed as a stand-alone children’s novel, as does every online resource devoted to Creasey that I know of. Mr. Wallace has a copy of The Cinema Crimes — I do not — and informed me that not only is it not a children’s book, but it was a Toff story (i.e., part of the long-running Toff series). I think that’s fascinating because no one that I have seen has ever listed this one as a Toff story. He was kind enough to forward me a high-quality scan of that book cover. I don’t believe this appears elsewhere online, at least not in this high of quality. As you can see from the cover, it’s definitely not a children’s novel.

Just one more mystery related to Creasey’s writing, I guess. I’ve updated my files and made the current version available on the blog here under “Resources.”

Oh and Morgan also pointed me to a great resource I was not aware of: The FictionMags Index, for which he has done a good bit of cataloguing. The good folks there have attempted to catalogue “the “Gaslight” magazines of circa 1880-1914, the pulp magazines of the first half of the 20th century, the “Big Slick” magazines of the mid-20th century, the digest-sized magazines of the 1950s and 1960s.” Wonderful! Please check it out if these kinds of magazines and authors are of interest to you.

Uncanny Books

This blog, Tales from the Bookworm’s Lair, has and always will be about my love of books. Mostly, I publish book reviews here, and don’t plan to change that. On occasion, I’ve also posted book-related comedy stuff I’ve encountered, notes about sales and coupons from publishers and book retailers, interviews with authors, bragging about book acquisitions, etc. I’ll continue to do that. But I do want to make an announcement here, because, well, it’s my blog and I can do that. It’s also a book-related announcement, so it’s not exactly out of place.

I have formed a small publishing company, called Uncanny Books. I plan to focus on publishing quality genre literature, including science fiction, fantasy, horror, and pulps. A lot of this fiction will be entirely new works that have never seen the light of day, but some will be what I’m calling “Uncanny Books Classics,” works that have fallen into the public domain but that are not widely available (or available electronically at all, in many cases). Needless to say, I’m excited about this new venture. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a very long time, and it feels great now that I’ve founded the company.

I’ve also got my first open call for novels. The submission period begins on July 15, 2013 and ends on September 15, 2013. Out of these submissions I hope to publish one or more books that can become the kernel of shared worlds that other authors can explore (think series like Thieves World, Wild Cards, and so forth).

Please feel free to visit the new Uncanny Books website at
The open call for novels page can be found at
And please follow Uncanny Books at Twitter:

Book Review: Smoking on Mount Rushmore by Ed Lynskey

17228169I was a little worried when I began reading this new short story collection from Ed Lynskey because while I’ve enjoyed three of his stand-alone novels (reviewed HERE, HERE, and HERE), I have never read either his short fiction or the crime series for which he is famous. I need not have worried, as I was able to slip right into the groove with these stories.

Mild plot spoilers follow, but as these are mystery/crime tales, I promise not to ruin any of them for you.

SMOKING ON MOUNT RUSHMORE includes sixteen stories, ranging from gritty crime to almost-cozy-type mysteries, to slice of life tales. That makes for a shifting tone across the stories, but I thought that added some enjoyment to the collection, as I never knew what to expect when I began a new story. For example, “The Thief of Hearts” was a low-key lead-in to the collection about a young female college student who falls for the wrong guy. The stories then shift to some darker, more noirish tales. As with much of Lynskey’s fiction, most of these stories are set in the gritty and rural byways of Northern Virginia and surrounding areas, and that sense of place is one of the strongest features of Lynskey’s prose.

The majority of these stories have previously appeared in other anthologies (from 2000-2010), but it’s always nice to see single-author collections appear. Two of the stories in SMOKING ON MOUNT RUSHMORE – two of the longer pieces in fact – are all new: “Sins of the Father?” and “Juror Number Three.” The latter story, about a woman serving on a sequestered jury whose marriage is falling apart, was especially strong. A number of Lynskey’s iconic characters featured in their own series appear here. The private investigator Frank Johnson shows up in five of the stories, including one with an especially good title: “How to Defuse a Terrorist.” Johnson’s bounty hunter sidekick Gerald Peyton also appears in two stories here, and Lynskey’s female P.I. Sharon Knowles also makes an appearance in one story.

The title story, which closes out the collection, is especially strong. Derek has been called up for active duty and is set to be shipped off to Iraq in three days. He convinces his young wife Cerise to indulge him in one last fantasy before he has to deploy: he wants her to give him a striptease on top of Mount Rushmore. So begins a roadtrip for the couple in which we find that Derek, Cerise, and their marriage are a lot more complicated than they first appear.

While I think I prefer Lynskey’s novels to his short fiction (though to be fair that’s my view of most authors), this collection serves as a very good introduction to Lynskey’s work. If you like his characterization, dialogue, and plotting in these shorts, then I’m sure you’d like his longer work, as Lynskey’s novels seem to play out similarly.

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Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Tantra by Adi

8190863622.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Stories about tough-as-nails women who hunt vampires and other things that go bump in the night are not exactly new. Indeed, there’s practically a cottage industry of such fiction. But how many of those are set in India? TANTRA is certainly the only one I can think of.

Mild plot spoilers follow.

Anu Aggarwal is a young Indian woman who has been living in New York City for the last several years with her fiancé Brian. Anu isn’t exactly an ordinary emigrant though; she fights vampires for a living using the mystical powers that an international organization trained her in. One night, a vampire kills Brian, and the killer’s trail leads Anu back to Delhi, so she returns there and lives with her over-protective aunt while hunting Brian’s killer. Anu’s return to India is a kind of culture shock for her, as she has been away long enough to become Westernized. Not surprisingly, she resents the social and cultural constraints on what a young unmarried woman can do in Indian society. Anu’s family wants her to go on arranged, chaperoned dates and meet a man to marry; she just wants to kill the bad guys. Anu’s vampire hunting quickly gives way to a very different kind of threat (possibly too soon; I’d have liked to see a new, Indian-centric take on the vampire). Anu quickly becomes embroiled in an even larger confrontation than she had imagined with an evil guru who has mastered the black magic of the tantric arts and plans to murder hundreds of kidnapped street children to become even more powerful. Anu herself must learn new mystic/psychic arts if she is to succeed, since brawn, reflexes, and quick wit alone will be insufficient to win the day.

TANTRA is a kind of paranormal romance thriller. There’s plenty of action, car chases, brawls, and mystic duels, alongside flirtation and romance. There is no graphic sex, nor does the romance descend into mushiness. I suspect that a comparison between TANTRA and Buffy the Vampire Slayer is inevitable. Indeed, TANTRA is essentially the story of Buffy with the serial numbers filed off and transported to India. In that sense, TANTRA is not an entirely original premise, but it’s entertaining nevertheless, and the Indian setting and culture makes this a memorable read. I don’t know much about India, its culture, mythology, folklore, religions, etc. In fact I think the only fiction I’ve ever read that was set in India – other than a couple of the Flashman novels – was Dan Simmons’ SONG OF KALI (if you have not yet read that, I recommend seeking out a copy immediately after you finish reading this review). As unfamiliar as India was to me, at no time was I lost while reading TANTRA; indeed, it served as a gentle introduction to contemporary Indian culture.

Presumably, TANTRA is intended as the start of a series since – despite the initial premise – it’s not really a book about vampire-hunting, nor is the murder of Anu’s fiancé ever resolved. There’s certainly room for the characters and setting to grow, as there are mere hints of many of the supernatural elements touched on in TANTRA. For example, what exactly is the organization that trained Anu? What are their goals and capabilities? What do vampires think about the fact that a group of humans is hunting them? What other supernatural elements exist in the setting of TANTRA? It seems clear that Hindu mysticism is real, and we know there are vampires, but what else?

I recommend TANTRA not because the premise is particularly original – it is not – but because it provides an interesting, fresh cultural milieu and set of supernatural powers that should be of interest to most Western readers. This seems to be Adi’s first novel, but he’s a talented writer and I look forward to reading more from him. And I certainly enjoyed the glimpse inside Hindu mysticism and beliefs about the supernatural provided by TANTRA.

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Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers