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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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

New Home Office

Books of the Dead Press has moved to a new town, which is to say, I've moved to a new town and I've dragged my home office with me. We are now located in Collingwood Ontario. That's the good news, because I love Collingwood. It's a great place to be.

The "less than perfect news" is this: the house is a bit of a disaster and it needs a bunch of renovations. For this reason Books of the Dead Press will be a slow moving machine for the next month or so. I'm currently without an internet connection––this blog post is being created at the Collingwood Public Library, which is NOT a quiet place to be, and the recent book reviews, for the record, were created weeks ago and are scheduled for release every Monday morning. Sadly, until the house is fixed there is no home office to work from.

When you run a small press publishing company there is never a good time to put things on hold. My apologies go out to my authors who are waiting to be published, the momentary lack of promotion for all my titles, and to the authors in Simon Dewar's great anthology Suspended in Dusk, who have yet to receive their contributor copy. Rest assured, at some point soon it will be business as usual.


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Monday, February 16, 2015

REVIEW: Wayne Simmons - The Girl in The Basement

BOOKS of the DEAD REVIEW

Title: The Girl in The Basement
Author: Wayne Simmons
Publisher: Infected Books
Purchase from: Amazon 

Review by: John Milton

I know what you’re thinking: yet another crime thriller to add to the burgeoning heap of unread titles amassed on your Kindle. I’d suggest to you that ‘The Girl in the Basement’ by Wayne Simmons ought to make its way rightfully to the top of your ‘To Read’ list immediately...

“In the UK, a teenager goes missing every three minutes. 
Goth girl, Kayley Sands, is one of them. 
After a night out in Manchester, Kayley wakes to find herself strapped to a bed in a damp, dingy basement. Her captor is insane, his intentions unclear. 
Now, facing the demons from her past could be the only way to ensure a future…”

At first blush, TGITB appears to be a straightforward enough tale. However, this story immediately sets itself apart from more middle of the road fayre in that the prologue sets the tone and as proceedings unfold, Simmons expertly adds depth to his tale, revealing the back stories of the principal characters as the situation becomes increasingly dire for young Kayley Sands.

For me, a particularly interesting aspect of TGITB was the narrative of the same events, switching between abductor and abductee, offering what I considered to be a novel aspect not often seen in other work within the genre.

Critically, this tale is barely novella length and took me about 90 minutes to read it. However, the author has told a lean, tight story that leaves the reader with little concern about whether aspects of the plot could have been further explored.

For those unfamiliar with the work of Simmons, the author has a short but fine pedigree in horror novels, garnering rave reviews from fans, critics and fellow authors alike. TGITB bears some of what may come to be regarded as the hallmarks of this author’s work, such as a strong female lead, brutal visceral prose and a very realistic almost grimy feel to proceedings.

TGITB is a short, disturbing read from Wayne Simmons, an author who was described by award-winning writer Joe McKinney as “...the bare knuckle boxer of the zombie genre. He hits hard, and he's absolutely relentless.”


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Monday, February 9, 2015

REVIEW: Darren O. Godfrey - Apathetic Flesh

BOOKS of the DEAD REVIEW

Title: Apathetic Flesh
Author: Darren O. Godfrey
Publisher: Books of the Dead Press
Purchase from: Amazon 

Review by: John Milton

With the advent and seemingly unstoppable deluge of ebooks now available, the avid horror fan is apparently spoilt for choice when deciding on what to read next. However, one thing that isn’t guaranteed is quality.  Which brings me nicely to my latest review, that of ‘Apathetic Flesh’ by Darren O. Godfrey.

‘Apathetic Flesh’ is a collection of short stories, which can all comfortably be categorised as horror and yet, the collection as a whole has a distinctly unique feel. In the pages of this title, zombies, vampires and werewolves are notably absent. Godfrey’s own style of storytelling is altogether “different” and that is not meant as a sleight on his work.

Immediately with the first story ‘Inland, Shoreline’, hooked me in with a tale of a man haunted by the killing of his cousin and switching between flashbacks of 1977 to the present day. In common with the majority of the work contained herein, the twist at the end is a kicker...

For me, the most memorable and striking of the collection was ‘Angus Abernathy and The Animals’, with a gang of talking animals that would be distinctly out of place in your average Disney movie!

‘Fire in the Hole’ has all the hallmarks of a crime tale but as already stated, comes with a twist that makes it a difficult story to pigeonhole.

For some, ‘Apathetic Flesh’ will prove to be a troublesome read. Much of the subject matter is unsettling, bizarre and disturbing; and at times, I found myself reading over sentences and paragraphs to ensure that what I thought I read had actually just happened. For me, this was part of the appeal of this collection, coupled with Godfrey’s, at times, near-poetic prose.

At a little more than 300 pages long, Godfrey packs a lot in with more than twenty of his strange and horrific tales. I’d never heard of this author before but after reading this collection of his short stories, I’m eager to find out more about his work. I’d suggest that those who have become inured to the glut of generic horror titles available will be suitably refreshed by picking up ‘Apathetic Flesh’.


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Monday, February 2, 2015

REVIEW: Brian Moreland - Dead of Winter

BOOKS of the DEAD REVIEW

Title: Dead of Winter 
Author: Brian Moreland
Publisher: Samhain Publishing, Ltd.
Purchase from: Amazon 

Review by: John Milton

I can’t believe that it’s been a year and a half and more than forty books ago that I read WWII horror novel ‘Shadows in the Mist’ by Brian Moreland! Having been thoroughly impressed not only by the story told therein but also with the level of detail and research that went into the tale, it was always my intention to return to this particular author’s work.

‘Dead of Winter’ is a tale of horror set in Canada in the late 1800s and is a distinctly different animal to SITM...

Opening in the winter of 1870 in the frozen Canadian wilderness, Moreland immediately introduces scenes of horror that may shock a more conservative reader and the body count starts to ramp up within the first few pages. Having established this pace, the author doesn’t offer any respite to his characters until about a third into the book.

Despite the relentless nature of the book, it never feels rushed. Each scene felt well narrated and all key players in ‘Dead of Winter’ have their own particular characteristics and backstory developed, lending greater depth to the book as a whole and generating degrees of empathy for some and revulsion for others. Moreland’s prose is incredibly descriptive and at no point did I encounter any difficulty in visualising the characters, creatures and scenes created by the author.

On a critical note, some readers may experience something of a lull after the first third or so of the book. However, I’d suggest that this decrease in pace is essential to both the progress of the book and the development of the central characters, since the author takes the reader through how the characters collect themselves and deal with the events of the first frantic and bloody stanza.

It’s safe to say that those who like their horror gory will not be disappointed. I gave up trying to track the body count within a few chapters after it had easily soared into double figures. That is not to say that ‘Dead of Winter’ is a pointless gorefest. The author has clearly researched his source material well and wonderfully blends sub-genres within horror such as cannibalism, demonic possession, lycanthropy, serial killers and satanic worship. Furthermore, there are aspects of this story much darker than the horror tropes identified above and the tale takes some turns that I simply did not expect and the author certainly doesn’t spare any of his characters when doling out the misery.

For me, ‘Dead of Winter’ was reminiscent of the 1999 horror film ‘Ravenous’ starring Robert Carlyle and Guy Pearce. However, where the film is content to deal with the issue of cannibalism almost exclusively, Moreland’s book goes much further and delves much deeper into some truly dark corners. Moreover, ‘Dead of Winter’ in its own right, would translate incredibly well to a big screen adaptation, given its wonderful locations, nightmarish creatures and fantastic action sequences. In short, ‘Dead of Winter’ is a hugely impressive read that will sate the hunger for horror of the most voracious of genre fans.


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Monday, January 26, 2015

REVIEW: David Moody - Strangers

BOOKS of the DEAD REVIEW

Title: Strangers
Author: David Moody 
Publisher: Infected Books
Purchase from: Amazon 

Review by: John Milton

Undoubtedly best known for his epic zombie series ‘Autumn’, and the ‘Hater’ books which garnered the attention of none other than Guillermo del Toro, it would be unfair to pigeonhole David Moody as “The Zombie Guy” and in fact, the ‘Hater’ series isn’t about zombies but that’s another matter entirely! Moody has explored other genres such as science fiction and dark fantasy but here with ‘Strangers’, he has created  a horror tale that in the author’s own words is “the closest I’m ever going to get to a vampire novel”.

“A spate of brutal murders occur in and around the small town of Thussock. The bodies of the dead – savagely mutilated, unspeakably defiled – are piling up with terrifying speed. There are no apparent motives and no obvious connections between the victims, but the killings only began when Scott Griffiths and his family arrived in Thussock...”

The synopsis provided above sets the scene adequately but fails to take into account some of the flourishes that truly draw the reader in. Moody brilliantly captures the feeling of a small, rundown Scottish town after industry has pulled out leaving the town and its inhabitants near destitute. Moreover, that small town vibe is confirmed by the treatment and suspicion in which the new arrivals are greeted with. The rumours travel fast and mere gossip soon becomes established fact...

Stripping back the horror element here, the story is principally about a dysfunctional family, struggling to make a fresh start in a new town and contending with the financial and domestic difficulties that come with such situations. Attention to the development of the characters in this regard makes ‘Strangers’ all the more compelling. Similarly, the author has clearly done his homework here and it is appreciated that Moody has been mindful of what may be seen as minor details such as differences in Scots legal procedure. However, such awareness served to heighten my own enjoyment of the story, since more than mere lip service has been paid to the fact that the tale is set in Scotland.

Naturally, ‘Strangers’ won’t appeal to everyone and indeed, those looking for some kind of vampiric tale containing capes, castles or even the sparkling undead, will be left sorely disappointed. Setting aside what this book isn’t, ‘Strangers’ is Moody’s attempt to emulate one of his literary heroes: bestselling British author, the late James Herbert. The result is a gory, dark tale of horror with fully developed central characters that certainly doesn’t hold back on the viscera; so much so that I genuinely felt uncomfortable with the description of the injuries and mutilation suffered by one of the victims here.

Without being gratuitously salacious, ‘Strangers’ is an achievement in itself in that it is a “dark and dirty” novel that hooks the reader in immediately with a murder in the opening pages and thereafter, introduces the main players in proceedings while ramping up the tension, paranoia and bodycount without sacrificing the plot for the sake of gore.


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Saturday, January 24, 2015

Enter: John Milton

Great news, everyone. 

Books of the Dead Press has teamed up with the highly respected John Milton. John is a huge supporter and voracious consumer of horror fiction. He has spent many years vigorously promoting authors and small press publishers alike, and the horror community is better because of it. 

Here at Books of the Dead Press, we are not only a fan of what John does, we feel lucky to have the opportunity to work with John and showcase his reviews. 

Welcome to the Books of the Dead Press team, John! 

Thanks for being awesome. 

Follow John on Twitter here: @JohnMiltonAE


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