Book Review: Scavenger Hunt by Michaelbrent Collings

48337923._UY2700_SS2700_Scavenger Hunt
Michaelbrent Collings

Written Insomnia Press, October 2019
Reviewed by Andrew Byers

Michaelbrent Collings has written a number of books in which a group of strangers who don’t know each are thrust into terrible circumstances by outside forces and then must struggle to survive. He’s back with a fresh take on this premise in Scavenger Hunt.

Here, five people—Solomon, a reformed gangbanger; Chong, an ill-tempered man of mystery; Elena, director of an orphanage; Nicole, a young hooker; and Clint, a down-on-his-luck guy with a missing sister he still mourns—are torn out of their ordinary lives and wake up in a warehouse wearing collars and watches they can’t remove. The collars are straight out of Suicide Squad and will be remotely triggered to explode if their wearers don’t do precisely what their captor—a freaky dude in a mask who calls himself Mr. Do-Good—wants. The watches are smart watches that allow Mr. Do-Good to issue orders. And boy, does he have some strange orders for them. They are sent across town to some shady neighborhoods to perform tasks that don’t initially make much sense. It rapidly becomes apparent, however, that each of Do-Good’s tasks helps reveal a new piece of the puzzle that explains why they find themselves in the predicament they do. Assuming they complete all of Do-Good’s tasks on time and without disobeying his orders, they will be released. But we all know that a guy like Mr. Do-Good isn’t going to make it easy on them.

As it turns out, of course, each of these five people is not quite so ordinary as they might initially appear, and unsurprisingly, their pasts are linked in key ways. Most of them also aren’t quite as innocent as they might have appeared at first, but I don’t want to spoil the plot in significant ways, because this is first and foremost a horror novel that revolves around a dark secret in everyone’s past. There are small clues scattered throughout the novel about the identity of Mr. Do-Good and the reasons why these five people have been chosen.

Obviously, a story like this depends on the characters involved. Collings’ characterization of ordinary people—especially ones with a secret in their past—is used to good effect here. We come to know each of the characters well through the course of the novel, diving deep into their backstories and learning why they ended up in the worst situation of their lives. These backstories are really the heart of the novel and where we see the characters’ true depths (and the depths to which at least some of them have sunk in the past).

Comparisons with the Saw film franchise are probably unavoidable, given that in Scavenger Hunt a villainous mastermind has kidnapped a bunch of strangers and placed them in a difficult bind where they must decide between suboptimal choices, but the superficial comparison ends there—this is not an example of torture porn. I won’t give away any of the plot twists here, that’s really the fun part of the novel, but I will say that I very much enjoyed the novel’s resolution. About halfway through, I thought I knew where things were headed; I was partly right about how all of these people were connected, but didn’t anticipate all the twists and turns. A good story with great pacing and a satisfying resolution. Definitely recommended.

Book Review: Terminal by Michaelbrent Collings

Michaelbrent Collings
Written Insomnia Press
Reviewed by Andrew Byers

Michaelbrent Collings is a master of taking a familiar premise and putting his own unique spin on it. That’s the case with his latest, Terminal. The novel’s premise is one we’ve seen before in films like CircleCube, and many others. Please note, I’m not giving away the ending here, and the premise is clearly laid out in the book’s marketing materials: A bunch of strangers are trapped in an isolated place—here, a bus station in the middle of nowhere in the wee hours of the morning—and forced to select one of their number to survive; the rest will die. An impenetrable fog rolls in, so they can’t see what’s going on outside (though they do occasionally see things they’d rather not in the mist). Phones and other technology don’t work, so there’s no calling for outside help. Something that calls itself The Other explains the rules of the “game” to them and ensures they understand that the rules are going to be enforced with lethal finality. If anyone ventures outside the bus station prematurely, they will be killed, horribly. They have until dawn to make their decision. The vote must be unanimous, which means the most obvious way to survive is to ensure that everyone else is already dead.

With a plot like this, the story will make or break on the strength of its characterization. How does Collings do? Let’s start with the cast of characters: The single mom with a troubled childhood who runs the bus terminal; her teenage daughter; a tired cop who’s at the end of his career; a pair of newlyweds; an autistic man; a gangbanger; a grifter; a famewhore; a traveling saleswoman; and a madman who may have experienced this all once before and lived to tell the tale. All ordinary people, more or less, but interesting archetypes, and for the most part they simply want to get home or to wherever they were headed next before the horrors began. It’s a good set of characters and given that most of these characters have dark secrets buried in their pasts that are going to come to the fore during their final night on Earth, sets up some great conflicts and confrontations.

There are a couple of twists at the end that I’m not going to give away, but I will simply say that I didn’t expect the resolution of the story, or the unveiling of what was behind it all, but I probably should have. In any case, the novel’s resolution felt satisfying and that’s the important part.

While the characters, naturally, spend a great deal of time trying to figure out exactly what is going on and why this is all happening to them, and speculating that it must be aliens or other monstrous, inhuman beings to blame, Collings makes clear that the story is about man’s inhumanity to man. We don’t need aliens or monsters to explain evil—other people are explanation enough. Fun novel, fast paced, and if you’re a horror fan, this would make perfect summer reading for the beach. Great story, recommended.

Book Review: Predators, by Michaelbrent Collings

51ayww74wxlMichaelbrent Collings is one of those solid horror authors who always delivers exactly what you expect he will. He’s done so again with his latest horror thriller, Predators, set in Africa when a photo safari goes disastrously wrong. Lots of horror authors have used animal antagonists, including some unlikely ones (Guy N. Smith’s Crabs series beginning with Night of the Crabs comes to mind), as well as the obvious Cujo by Stephen King. Predators is Michaelbrent Collings’ Cujo, and I mean that in the best possible way. Though Predators is set on the African plains, you might expect that lions or other big cats would be the primary antagonists—not so! Here, Collings’ ill-fated safari tourists are stalked by hyenas. If you think of hyenas as cowardly dog-like scavengers that can be scared away by loud noises or a rolled-up newspaper applied to the snout, you’d be very, very wrong. Take a look at some clips of hyenas on YouTube and you’ll quickly realize that they are fearsome predators in their own right who operate in large packs and are more than capable of taking down humans….

A book like this depends not just on a clever premise—which we have here—but excellent characterization, which is also present in spades. The chief protagonist is an aspiring children’s book writer named Evie who has been psychologically and physically battered by her husband (he’s on the safari as well). Needless to say, Evie must come into her own in Predators if she is to survive. Though she’s led a deeply tragic life, she’s an engaging character. Evie is joined by a host of others: a loving family composed of a dying man, his blind daughter, and the girl’s spitfire grandmother; a gold-digging actress and her sugar daddy; a YouTube sensation who isn’t living if he’s not taking a selfie or livestreaming; and Naeku (and her brother), the local safari guides. It would be all too easy for such characters to fall into stereotypes, but we don’t have that here; these are fully realized characters in their own right, with interesting motivations, backstories, and development. We’ve also got chapters from the perspective of the hyena pack’s alpha female, which added considerably to the story. I’ve seen animal perspectives done well and done poorly, but Collings has done a good job of presenting the alien mindset of a nonhuman species without becoming silly or unrealistic as these can sometimes become. We’re left with a desperate race for survival and escape against seemingly impossible odds and horrific violence—what a great recipe.

Were there a couple tweaks I would have liked to see made here? Sure, there almost always are. For instance, the motivations of the terrorists who try to hijack the safari are only hastily sketched out; the hijacking attempt needs to happen to set the disaster in motion, but it’s not really clear why they do what they do. That is quickly forgotten once the action moves forward. Also, by the end of the novel Evie is simply in too rough shape and lacks the physicality to go truly head-to-head with a hyena matriarch, as awesome as that would have been—but fortunately she’s not saved by a deus ex machina. These quibbles aside, Predators was a thrill ride. Good characterization and action, with an intriguing premise. Highly recommended.

(This review originally appeared on Hellnotes.)

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Book Review: Crime Seen by Michaelbrent Collings

cfrimeseenMichaelbrent Collings has built a reputation for himself as an extremely prolific author of mostly fast-paced thrillers steeped in horror. He continues that tradition in CRIME SEEN, a short novel about a police detective pursuing his wife’s murderer. Because it’s a Michaelbrent Collings novel, though, you can be sure that nothing is exactly as it seems.

Evan White and his partner, the hard-nosed Angela Listings, are pursuing leads to the brutal murder of Evan’s wife when they come across the madman who probably did it. There’s a problem though: it appears that the killer can’t be stopped with mere bullets and can disappear or reappear in the blink of an eye. How exactly does a ghost – if that is indeed what he is – kill people, and why is he taunting Evan, daring Evan to catch him? Coming to question his own sanity at times, Evan has no choice but to follow the tantalizing clues the killer leaves. The path leads Evan to Tuyen, a young Vietnamese-American woman who runs a mystical trinket shop and is somehow involved. The deeper Evan gets into his investigation, the more the weirdness begins to mount, especially once all the evidence points to the murderer already being dead, raising the question “How do you kill a man who’s already dead?” That’s all I want to say about the plot and resolution of the novel, as the premise requires a gradual series of revelations about the characters and the nature of the crimes and I don’t want to ruin it for other readers.

CRIME SEEN begins as a straight-forward police procedural hunt for a murderer, but weird elements – things that can only be supernatural – start playing an important role almost immediately. These are genuinely creepy at times and lend a real sense of menace to the proceedings. What initially seems a straight-forward, linear kind of mystery is anything but. While there aren’t a great many characters in the novel, Evan and his partner Angela are aptly drawn, and it’s interesting watching their relationship develop and be revealed. CRIME SEEN is a short novel that is fast-paced and doesn’t take long to finish. You’ll have to allow yourself to go with the flow in CRIME SEEN. Be patient – wait for events and revelations to play out. The pay-off is worth the wait. Recommended, especially if you are looking for a quick read and enjoy supernatural elements mixed in with your police procedurals.

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Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: The Colony: Genesis by Michaelbrent Collings

colony-genesis-michaelbrent-collings-paperback-cover-artThe Colony: Genesis
Michaelbrent Collings
ISBN: 978-0-9838071-3-1
2013; $8.79 trade paperback; $0.99 ebook

I’m a little bored with stories about zombies. Don’t get me wrong, I like them plenty, it’s just that I’ve read a lot of them and most of them tend to be pretty similar. So I wasn’t quite sure how I’d like Michaelbrent Collings’ first novel in his new zombie series, THE COLONY: GENESIS. I need not have worried – it’s really fast-paced, it’s engagingly written, and yes, it does have something new to say about zombies. It’s also the start of a new series.

Mild plot spoilers follow.

Ken Strickland is a pretty ordinary guy: he’s a high school teacher living in Boise, Idaho, with his wife and three young children. The day begins ordinarily enough – Ken is giving a test to his students – when they witness a plane falling out of the sky. Then another. Then all hell truly breaks loose when half of Ken’s students begin savagely attacking the other half, tearing them to shreds and shrugging off horrific injuries. Those bitten also quickly turn into brutal, unthinking killers. Ken survives the initial onslaught, but knows that his family is downtown, so he begins a desperate quest to (1) simply survive and (2) try to save his family, eventually joining a small number of other survivors of the catastrophe. This isn’t an ordinary zombie novel, and to be clear, it’s not even truly a “zombie” novel in the sense that it involves the dead coming back to life to consume the living; the seemingly mindless killers are still alive, but are driven to kill in the same way that the infected of the film 28 Days Later or Steven King’s CELL are. It quickly becomes apparent that there is some weirdness (beyond the obvious) going on here. For one, why did roughly half the population suddenly become mindless, savage, and enraged, while the other half were unaffected? For another, why do the killers periodically stop what they’re doing, in unison, and pause before resuming their killing rages, and why are these pauses growing shorter and shorter? And what’s going on with the insect populations, which also seem to be behaving strangely?

There is one element of GENESIS that I should note because I think it could matter to some readers: the book ends on a cliffhanger. We’ve been following Ken as he and his companions make their way through the zombie-infested ruins of Boise to the last known location of Ken’s wife and children throughout the book and, well, we don’t yet know what their fate is at the end of the book. We also don’t yet come to understand why or how any of this happened. We just have questions, and few answers by the end of the novel. I didn’t find it unsatisfying, as two sequels are already available, but some readers might be annoyed by the fact that this isn’t truly a “stand-alone” kind of novel. Frankly, I am genuinely curious about the circumstances surrounding all this.

THE COLONY: GENESIS is a quick read: the action is very fast-paced and tends toward the cinematic. Characterization is not deep (but then again, this is a story about people just trying to stay alive and facing almost impossible odds, so there isn’t that much opportunity for deep reflection and motivation). If you’re looking for a quick read of survival horror, and an interesting take on zombies, then I would highly recommend THE COLONY: GENESIS.

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Review copyright © 2014 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Strangers by Michaelbrent Collings

StrangersAfter reading STRANGERS and his previous effort DARKBOUND, I’m beginning to get the impression that Michaelbrent Collings doesn’t like secrets. I mean, he really doesn’t like secrets – characters who commit dark acts and manage to get away with them by keeping them secret end up meeting messy fates, while those who eventually ‘fess up usually turn out a bit better. Like most good horror thrillers – and STRANGERS is very much a thriller in the slasher movie vein – it thrusts seemingly ordinary people into a horrific situation where they struggle to survive while being tormented by a brutal psychopath. The horror is ramped up because the killer seems to know everything there is to know about the intimate lives of each member of the family, even (especially) those things they don’t know about each other. It’s a genre that Collings does very well.

Some mild plot spoilers follow.

STRANGERS has a great premise: an “ordinary” suburban family – mom, dad, a teenage boy, and a teenage girl – are subjected to terrible torments inside their own home. Out of the blue, a madman has rendered them unconscious for an unknown period of time, done God knows what to them and their home, then sealed them inside their own house so they can’t escape. To top it all off (literally), he’s placed a termite tent over the whole house so he can play his sick games with them as long as he likes and no one will be the wiser. After all, who wants to go poking around inside a house that’s probably filled with poisonous gases just because you haven’t seen the neighbors in a while?

But I should clarify that, despite all appearances to the contrary, this family is not exact “ordinary” (is any family?) and, as I alluded to above, each member of the family has a secret. Because of these secrets they keep from each other, they are, in many ways, strangers to each other (hence the title). I’m not going to spoiler you on what these individuals’ secrets are; after all, those gradual reveals are part of the fun. Suffice it to say that these aren’t the ordinary kinds of secrets most family members keep from each other – someone snuck the last piece of cake, or one of the kids broke something and blamed the dog – these are no kidding, big deal kinds of secrets. The kind that unfortunately leave you open to being preyed upon by a madman with a twisted sense of justice (or one who just likes screwing with people). The madman’s plan for this family plays out in a fairly creepy, gory, and, I think, satisfying fashion. As always, Collings pulls no punches; his fans demand no less, I’m sure. This is certainly not a book for the faint of heart.

STRANGERS offers some interesting reflections for us. The family of the novel is able to be isolated and tormented because they are disconnected from the lives of everyone around them, even those closest to them. Aside from the obvious precipitating secrets they kept from their family members, we have no indication that any of their friends or family members were ever particularly worried about them when they went missing for a week, or did anything to help. If an entire family drops off the face of the earth for a week and their house becomes enclosed in a termite tent overnight with no warning, shouldn’t someone, somewhere do something about it? Wonder about the whole thing, maybe get suspicious, start asking questions, something? Anything? I think that Collings is also asking us to ponder if, in a sense, aren’t we all really strangers to each other? Sure, we know lots of stuff about the people around us, especially those closest to us. But isn’t it possible that even our loved ones could have a whole side to them that we don’t know about, and may never learn about, because we’re all disconnected on some fundamental level. And, by the way, shouldn’t we do something about that? STRANGERS is certainly recommended, especially if you’re looking for a well-done slasher novel with a particularly interesting premise.

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Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers

Book Review: Darkbound by Michaelbrent Collings

1482016990.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_I haven’t read a splatterpunk novel in a good while. I used to read splatterpunk all the time in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, stuff from Clive Barker and Poppy Z. Brite especially. The sub-genre didn’t end in the 1990s, of course, and there’s undoubtedly plenty of great “splatterpunk” fiction that’s still being produced today. I personally just haven’t read any in a long while. Until I read DARKBOUND.

It’s my understanding that David Schow coined the term, possibly as a joke, to describe the kind of ultra-violent, ultra-gory horror fiction that he and others were writing. No haunted houses, delicate explorations of the human psyche, or mere hints of the supernatural here. Splatterpunk is visceral and in your face (as the “-punk”) would imply, and as a literary sub-genre I don’t think it ever got the respect it deserved. It became, I think, one of the primary inspirations for what eventually came to be called “body horror,” about graphic destruction and monstrous transformations of the human body. Sure, it’s scary to think about someone being frightened or psychologically scarred, or witnessing some terrible event, but in a lot of ways that really matter, isn’t it even worse when terrible things are inflicted not on one’s mind but on one’s body? That’s a deeply personal kind of violation I think we can all sympathize with, and let’s be honest: it certainly provides great fodder for horror fiction. Michaelbrent Collings has provided a great example of contemporary splatterpunk in DARKBOUND.

Mild plot spoilers follow.

DARKBOUND opens with six strangers on a New York City subway platform. They each seem to be something other than ordinary passengers as they board the same subway car of a train. Jim, the viewpoint character, seems to be an ordinary husband and father who just wants to get home to his family, but it’s clear that we don’t know everything there is to know about him from the start. His traveling companions are an old Latina grandmother; a creepy guy who looks like a prototypical child molester; an attractive, well-dressed female lawyer or Wall Street executive; a gangbanger; and a giant of a man from Eastern Europe. All strangers to each other, all trapped in a nightmarish subway ride. I don’t want to ruin the story, or its twists and turns, so I’ll refrain from being too specific about the characters or plot. Suffice it to say that this is a subway ride none of them will ever forget.

I should also note that this is a case of a classic unreliable narrator, and, reading between the lines, that should be clear from the outset of the novel. I hesitate to reveal anything substantive about the backgrounds of the main characters, as that is an important set of revelations throughout the novel. I will only say that, while generally effectively presented, I wasn’t shocked by what we saw of the characters; it was all telegraphed pretty clearly. That didn’t diminish the horror of what I was reading, but it meant that some of the plot twists weren’t as shocking, per se, as they might have been.

DARKBOUND is fast-paced, brutal, and gruesome. Collings never shies away from clearly depicting horrible events in detail. This is not a horror novel for shrinking violets. Ultimately it is also not a novel that depicts blood and gore for its own sake, though that only becomes apparent later in the novel. The things that happen to these characters…well, they aren’t exactly unwarranted.

I certainly recommend DARKBOUND as a fun, fast-moving horror/thriller novel. It’s a very quick read that I devoured in just a couple sittings. It’s not for the faint of heart, but if you appreciate the value of some gore in your horror fiction, you should check out DARKBOUND.

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Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers