Monday, April 6, 2015

REVIEW: Rich Hawkins - The Last Plague

BOOKS of the DEAD REVIEW

Title: The Last Plague
Author: Rich Hawkins
Publisher: Crowded Quarantine Publications
Purchase from: Amazon 

Review by: John Milton

‘The Last Plague’ is the debut novel from British author Rich Hawkins and principally follows the plight of four friends marking the impending marriage of one of their number on a stag weekend. As I’m sure you can guess from the brief synopsis provided, not all goes according to plan.

Without betraying too much about the plot, this is NOT a zombie story and is far from average horror fayre. With this book, Hawkins has conjured up a legion of nightmarish creatures and unleashed them on England, sparing none of his characters from their murderous onslaught.

The fact that this is the first novel length offering from Hawkins is belied by the quality of the writing here, with highly descriptive narrative prose, leaving little for the reader to guess at. Hawkins’ particular style will sate even the most inured gorehound, with evisceration, death, dismemberment and the rending of flesh seemingly par for the course in this title.

On what may be viewed as an overly critical point, Hawkins may be guilty of overuse of some particular vocabulary here. However, it is a small point to note and doesn’t detract from the quality of the work. Thankfully, Hawkins has stepped away from making any of his central characters ex-special forces or gun-toting cops. The four men on the stag weekend are ordinary guys facing an extraordinary situation and subsequently, their thoughts and motivation are notable for being more realistic than perhaps those that may be found in other horror tales, given that one of the prevailing expressions of emotion here is absent in many similar tales: fear. Despite being a fairly straightforward action based plot, it is the reactions and interactions between the characters that really allow this tale to come into its own. These men are struggling to survive and make it home to their loved ones.

 Described as “violent”, “gruesome”, “gory”; ‘The Last Plague’ weighs in at more than 500 pages and the author has lain waste to, at the very least, the south of England, with an army of monsters of indeterminate origins that’s only desire seems to be the consumption of human flesh.

If you’re not persuaded by my review then take a look at that cover. That beautifully horrific cover tells you all you need to know to convince you to part with your hard-earned cash and pick this book up.


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Monday, March 30, 2015

REVIEW: William Meikle - The Hole

BOOKS of the DEAD REVIEW

Title: The Hole
Author: William Meikle
Publisher: DarkFuse
Purchase from: Amazon 

Review by: John Milton

Sleepy American town, strange things start to happen. Sounds familiar, right? You’d be right. However, that generic synopsis relates to ‘The Hole’ by William Meikle and in reality, is an entirely inadequate description to cover this novella length horror adventure tale.

“It starts with an odd hum that brings headaches and nosebleeds to the inhabitants of a remote, sleepy country town. Then a sinkhole begins to form…and out from that hole comes the townspeople's worst nightmares.

Facing their fears and the growing madness, a group of survivors descend into the collapsed area in an attempt to save what is left of their town. Sacrifices will be required, but will they be enough?

The hole is growing…spreading…and the horror within it is growing stronger…”

Kicking off proceedings with the hums, headaches and nosebleeds described, this small town is soon gripped by fear and panic as massive sinkholes and crevasses start to swallow up their town. Little do the townsfolk know, this is just the beginning of the horror for them and they are confronted with that which they fear the most...

Despite having the feel of a classic drive-in movie with plenty of scares and screams, ‘The Hole’ is pretty far from a by-the-numbers horror and Meikle conjures up a unique adversary for the protagonists to deal with and adds a backstory adding a sense of history and depth to proceedings. That being said, this tale isn’t without humour and Meikle manages to drop in not only a couple of movie references but also one of his own back catalogue too!

Although the author is a Scotsman living in Canada, ‘The Hole’ strikes me as a straight up piece of American horror that’s an entertaining, quick read with a villain that, at least to my mind, is unique in the genre. I’ve yet to read anything from this author that I haven’t enjoyed and ‘The Hole’ is another that most certainly doesn’t disappoint!


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Monday, March 23, 2015

REVIEW: Gord Rollo - The Jigsaw Man

BOOKS of the DEAD REVIEW

Title: The Jigsaw Man
Author: Gord Rollo
Publisher: EnemyOne
Purchase from: Amazon 

Review by: John Milton

195 years ago, more than half a century before the invention of the telephone and more than 100 years before the first demonstration of television, Mary Shelley’s vision of science gone awry Frankenstein was published. Shelley’s idea has been replicated in countless films, plays, on television and in books; and the character of Frankenstein’s monster has been utilised and reimagined throughout modern pop culture as well as the within the genre itself.
The resurrection of the dead and the “mad scientist” have been familiar themes to the horror genre ever since Frankenstein hit the bookshelves and it could be said, has inspired the latest book that I’ve read, Gord Rollo’s The Jigsaw Man.

The following synopsis sets the scene:

“A BROKEN MAN DOWN ON HIS LUCK...
Michael Fox is a homeless man living in a garbage dumpster beneath the Carver Street Bridge in Buffalo, NY. He's bitterly depressed and ready to commit suicide; anything to put an end to his miserable existence.

AN OFFER TOO GOOD TO REFUSE...
When a mysterious billionaire surgeon offers Michael two million dollars for his right arm, he thinks his luck might be about to change. Little does he know that the surgeon has other plans for him. His arm is only the beginning. Bit by bit other pieces of Michael's body are surgically removed; his natural body stripped away and then reassembled using other harvested parts from thirteen different 'donors'.

A MODERN DAY FRANKENSTEIN...
Now Fox isn't sure if he's a man or a monster, or whether or not he'd be better off dead. One thing he is sure of though, he's not checking out of this world until he finds a way to make the people responsible pay for turning him into the experimental nightmare known as... The Jigsaw Man.”

Comparisons between Frankenstein and The Jigsaw Man are inevitable but Rollo has created a story here that, although similar on a prima facie basis, is original, modern and truly horrifying. The author’s central characters, backgrounds and their motivations were all compelling and ultimately, believable. Much like Shelley’s work, The Jigsaw Man has at its heart two characters: the doctor and his “creation”. However, Rollo’s characters, I would suggest have a well-developed backstory and despite their differences, are motivated by the same thing: providing for their respective families. Mike Fox is not only the focus of the reader’s attention but provides the narrative voice for this tale. Admirably, Rollo didn’t neglect to create a truly credible story for Fox and explores not only the reasons that this man ended up on the street but also the rationalisation of the proposed voluntary amputation.

Gorehounds will not be left disappointed with this title. Given the subject matter, nightmarish surgical procedures are par for the course but I have to confess that I wasn’t prepared for some of the scenes set out by Rollo here.

Critically, I’d suggest that the synopsis provided is not only overly long but also betrays much of the storyline, robbing the plot of much of its potential impact. That is not to say that The Jigsaw Man is bereft of surprises for the reader. Rollo takes his tale on some unforeseen twists that will shock even the most callused of horror fans.

At fewer than 400 pages, The Jigsaw Man is a well-balanced horror novel with gruesome events, action and dark humour that would make for a particularly effective transition to the big screen. As it stands, this is a book that will keep you engaged for its duration and is more than worthy of some of your time and money.


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Monday, March 16, 2015

REVIEW: John F.D. Taff - The End In All Beginnings

BOOKS of the DEAD REVIEW

Title: The End In All Beginnings
Author: John F.D. Taff 
Publisher: Grey Matter Press
Purchase from: Amazon 

Review by: John Milton

I’ve never hidden the fact that I’m a massive fan of John F.D. Taff. Having first sampled one of his short stories in an anthology collection, I was struck by the tone of the work which could easily have been its own episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ or ‘The Outer Limits’. It would be fair to say that much of Taff’s work is of that ilk, tackling the strange and macabre but all with a certain charm and flair that is perhaps lacking from the work of others.

‘The End In All Beginnings’ is a collection of five tales from John F. D. Taff that is in effect, a showcase of emotionally dark and horrific tales from this author who is fast becoming known as the ‘King of Pain’.  At times, Taff has a real knack of seizing on a reader’s emotions and each harrowing story in this collection is cerebral, with acclaimed author John F.D. Taff raising emotionally challenging issues surrounding loss and death, causing the reader to pause for thought before being compelled to read on…

The tarot cards depicted throughout Taff’s collection of novellas here act as harbingers, warning the reader of the content of what is to come… disaster, disease, despair, destruction and of course death all feature heavily in these clever tales which wrench on the reader’s emotions and don’t let go.

By way of warning, this collection won’t suit all tastes. I’d suggest those of a sensitive disposition ought to steer well clear, due to the potentially upsetting nature of the contents therein.

The five stories within TEIAB are unique and distinct in their own right but as described, all impact on the reader’s emotions in different ways...

‘What Becomes God’ kicks off this collection with a retrospective look at how the narrator of the tale dealt with the long term illness of his friend; and the consequences of his own actions and prayers...

‘Object Permanence’ starts in an asylum with a man seemingly losing his mind; a theme that runs throughout this story as more becomes lost, one way or another.

 ‘Love in the Time of Zombies’ is perhaps the closest to a straight-up horror tale in this collection but the reader ought to be forewarned that much like the course of true love, things don’t go smoothly!

 ‘The Long, Long Breakdown’ explores the lengths a father will go to protect his only daughter; his only surviving connection to the life he once had.

‘Visitation’ may best be described as a sci-fi ghost story which, despite the bizarre description, is incredibly touching.

Veteran writer John F.D. Taff goes straight for the emotional jugular in this collection of five intelligent but disturbing novellas where death is the overarching theme and the lengths people will go to in order to save their loved ones in one way or another feature heavily, giving even the most robust of genre fans cause to stop and think…


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Monday, March 9, 2015

REVIEW: Great British Horror, Vol. I - Various Authors

BOOKS of the DEAD REVIEW

Title: Great British Horror: Vol I
Author: Various Authors
Publisher: Horrific Tales Publishing
Purchase from: Amazon 

Review by: John Milton

Horror anthologies can often be a bit hit and miss. For every great story in a collection, there’ll be at least one that’s “ok”... English author Graeme Reynolds has taken the bull by the horns with ‘Great British Horror: Vol I’ and has assembled some of the finest modern British genre writers to deliver a collection of tales with something to cater for all tastes within horror.

Before even considering the stories themselves, it is worthy of note that all of the proceeds from this book go to Centrepoint, a charity that supports homeless children and young people, and gives them a chance to get their lives back on track. As if that wasn’t reason enough to scoop up this title, the reader really does get tremendous value for money since Great British Horror: Vol I is not a collection of short stories but is comprised of EIGHT novellas and full length novels! At a conservative estimate, I would suggest that if this book were to be published in hard copy, it would be anywhere between 1200-1500 pages long!

GBH1 really does have something for every genre fan: haunted houses, nightmarish visions, werewolves, shapeshifters, demonic possession, serial killers and much more!

For me, the following stories within the collection are particularly noteworthy:

Craig Saunders contribution: ‘Insulation’, sees a writer move in to a new flat which comes complete with a creepy landlord who really takes an interest in making his tenants right at home...

‘Happy Ever After’ by Matt Shaw deals with themes surrounding obsession, purported feelings of love; and sees a cat and mouse game develop between predator and prey that kept me engaged until the very end.

In ‘Duplicity’, Ian Woodhead brings a tale of carnivorous shapeshifters to England and conjures up a story that brings to mind such classic films as ‘Invasion of the Bodysnatchers’.

Iain Rob Wright’s ‘Sam’ is a tale of exorcism/ demonic possession that at first blush, may seem a little clich├ęd. I implore you to give ‘Sam’ a chance and you will not be disappointed. Naturally, when tackling such subject matter comparisons will be drawn to ‘The Exorcist’ but I would suggest that although such a comparison may be inevitable, ‘Sam’ is incredibly plausible, delivering characters whose actions are credible and weaving together a story that has wonderful twists, turns and never fails to unleash the horror!

Scottish author William Meikle contributes his story ‘The Copycat Murders’, a story which for me injected a heavy dose of the supernatural into an 80’s slasher flick/ police procedural, coupled with a decent shot of The Twilight Zone!

There were two clear standouts within this collection: ‘Whisper’ from Michael Bray and ‘High Moor’ by Graeme Reynolds. In ‘Whisper’, Bram Stoker Award nominated Michael Bray takes what could have been just another haunted house story and infuses the property with a 500 year old history bathed in blood, adding real depth to his story and creating a unique tale that sets ‘Whisper’ apart from its contemporaries.

 In ‘High Moor’ Graeme Reynolds has gifted the world a robust British addition to the werewolf sub-genre which does not simply conform to the genre archetype or tread the increasingly popular and woeful Twilight-type route. This is a solid action horror with visceral scenes, dark humour and realistic characters that does not simply rely on its scenes of bone-shattering transmogrification but shows how characters have dealt with the aftermath of werewolf encounters and the suffering of the cursed and how they cope too.

Crammed in at the end and omitted from the contents page, the reader will discover a handful of “bonus stories” that came to me as a nice little surprise!

On a critical note, this collection has quite a few typos throughout which can, at times, be more than a little distracting from the flow of the stories contained therein. However, this does not detract from the overall power of the collection, the value for money it presents to the reader, or the fact that by purchasing this title, you really are contributing to a worthwhile cause.

I consider myself to be a fairly avid reader but this collection took me the better part of two months to finish! For less than the price of a pint of lager, you will receive a collection of novels, novellas and short stories that will keep you thrilled, frightened and shocked while at the same time, making sure your hard earned cash goes to those who are in genuine need of support.


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Monday, March 2, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Philip Hemplow - Sarcophagus

BOOKS of the DEAD REVIEW

Title: Sarcophagus
Author: Philip Hemplow
Publisher: Independent 
Purchase from: Amazon 

Review by: John Milton

In my experience, synopses for horror stories can be quite generic. It is a genuine rarity for a book’s blurb to capture my imagination. Perhaps that’s why I was so impressed with the opening sentence in the description for Philip Hemplow’s ‘Sarcophagus’. Simple, yet effective: “Something terrible is stirring in the wreckage of Chernobyl.” As a child of the 80s and the Chernobyl Disaster one of my earliest memories of world affairs, I needn’t have read any more of the synopsis at this point since my interest had already been piqued in this title with that one line.

Hemplow has taken real life events (the disaster itself and projects to limit radioactive contamination) and created a race against time to complete the “sarcophagus” of the title before an impending snowstorm destroys what remains of the damaged reactor and creates yet another nuclear catastrophe. This storyline in itself would have made for a perfectly competent thriller in its own right. However, the author has decided to imbue his tale with a significant horror aspect, drawing not only on local lore but also on the mythos created by H.P. Lovecraft, thus conjuring up a truly unique addition to the horror genre.

The initial portion of the book sets the scene and introduces the reader to the protagonist, Dr Cox; the situation she faces and her relationships with the other principal players. It is not until Dr Cox reaches the site that the horror truly begins to unfold.

Critically, the weak point for this tale is its length. Sarcophagus is a novella and I would suggest suffers for it a little. Although the story is rich, courtesy of the already established real life events of the Chernobyl disaster, some aspects felt a little rushed and I am of the opinion that with a little more development, that this title would be a truly awesome novel.

Given its length, Sarcophagus will take you no time to read at all but I would commend this title to fans of the horror genre as it is a well-researched tale fraught with peril courtesy of trigger-happy militia, madmen, rabid dogs, malevolent beings and a collapsing nuclear reactor!


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Monday, February 23, 2015

REVIEW: John McCuaig - Pyramid of the Dead

BOOKS of the DEAD REVIEW

Title: Pyramid of the Dead
Author: John McCuaig
Publisher: Severed Press
Purchase from: Amazon 

Review by: John Milton

In my opinion, tales of fiction can often be greatly enhanced with the inclusion of a bit of historical fact. Stories such as Vlad by C.C. Humphries, Anno Dracula from Kim Newman and Shadows in the Mist by Brian Moreland are prime examples of horror tales that have twisted historical fact to create truly worthwhile reads.

Scottish author John McCuaig is no stranger to taking events from the past and letting his imagination seize on an idea and weaving a story around memorable events of the past. Having sampled McCuaig’s work before and been impressed by his short story The Demons of Glencoe which featured in Children of the Plague, I was drawn to the author’s 2012 novel, Pyramid of the Dead.

The book comes with the following synopsis:

“In the 16th century a few hundred Spanish Conquistadors, led by the great Francisco Pizarro, landed on the shores of the Incan Empire in search of gold. Just a few months later the mightiest realm in the world lies in ruins, its once beautiful cities destroyed and its citizens butchered. Greed and lies, betrayal and vengeance mix with the black magic of the High Priests to set free an ancient evil from the underworld. As these lands descend into a deadly chaos an uneasy alliance is formed between the last of the Spanish soldiers and the Incan warriors, led by Minco, the Protector of the capital city Cuzco. Setting aside their well earned mistrust and hatred, together they must venture deep into the jungle to find the Forbidden City, to strike at the very heart of evil itself, the Pyramid of the Dead.”

With my love of history and horror; and familiarity with McCuaig’s work, I had no hesitation in picking up Pyramid of the Dead after reading the synopsis. Additionally, I was impressed with the cover art which for me, was evocative of an old-school movie poster; a feeling which recurred as I read the book.

To my mind, taking events and figures from history is a formula for success, when done correctly, since much of the story and the characters themselves have already been created and depth within the lead players is already present since their backstory is already set in stone. Such a foundation serves Pyramid of the Dead well since this tale is very much an action-driven horror with Spanish conquistadors and Incan warriors facing off against a zombie army marching on the command of an ancient demon. For me, the whole story conjured up memories of Hammer Horror films such as She and Plague of the Zombies; which is no bad thing!

There are no real surprises or twists contained within this tale. Pyramid of the Dead is full of stoic heroes, greedy conquistadors, maidens in distress all facing off against an army of the undead led by the villain of the piece, who the reader is set against from his introduction. The fairly linear nature of the plot is no criticism since Pyramid of the Dead is a robust action-horror that delivers with ancient cities plagued by the undead, massive set-pieces that a Hollywood budget would fail to do justice to; all bathed in buckets of gore.

Critically, the book is a little on the short side at under 200 pages. However, it doesn’t feel rushed or under-developed, perhaps in part to the pre-existing backgrounds to some of the main players.

Refreshingly, with this book being set around 500 years ago, there’s certainly no semi-automatic weapons or chainsaws for despatching zombies. Setting aside the handful of muskets present, this is all very much hand-to-hand combat and as such, there’s some pretty brutal scenes involved.

Pyramid of the Dead is a quick, bloody, satisfying read and I sincerely hope that the author continues to deliver high quality historical horror in the future.


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