Book Reviews

Book Review: The Final Reconciliation by Todd Keisling

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Todd Keisling

The Final Reconciliation 
by Todd Keisling
Crystal Lake Publishing
Release Date: Feb 3, 2017
*** Review copy received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review***

Description

TAKE OFF YOUR MASK. Thirty years ago, a progressive rock band called The Yellow Kings began recording what would become their first and final album. Titled “The Final Reconciliation,” the album was expected to usher in a new renaissance of heavy metal, but it was shelved following a tragic concert that left all but one dead.

The sole survivor of that horrific incident was the band’s lead guitarist, Aidan Cross, who’s kept silent about the circumstances leading up to that ill-fated performance—until now.

For the first time since the tragedy, Aidan has granted an exclusive interview to finally put rumors to rest and address a question that has haunted the music industry for decades: What happened to The Yellow Kings?

The answer will terrify you.

Inspired by The King in Yellow mythos first established by Robert W. Chambers, and reminiscent of cosmic horror by H. P. Lovecraft, Laird Barron, and John Langan, comes The Final Reconciliation—a chilling tale of regret, the occult, and heavy metal by Todd Keisling.

Review: I’m not sure why, but a good chunk of horror readers, myself among them, tend to be big fans of heavy metal music. Years ago, I reviewed a fantastic anthology called Living After Midnight: Hard and Heavy Stories edited by David T. Wilbanks and Craig Clarke, which was put out by Acid Grave Press, and each of the stories had the name of a heavy metal band, like Judas Priest or Iron Maiden, and they were amazing. You can imagine my excitement, then, when I discovered that Todd Keisling’s new release from Crystal Lake Publishing, The Final Reconciliation,  is another book that combines metal and horror.

Aidan Cross is an aging former rock stair who was in a band called The Yellow Kings. A producer is speaking to him about the band’s history, something we are told from the get-go is a rare phenomenon, and it’s all to do with something horrible that happened years ago to Aidan and the rest of his bandmates. He has spent most of his life after this incident trying to reconcile what they all went through. It doesn’t take long for us to discover that whatever it is that has happened, Aidan is the only one who walked away.

Interestingly, I thought that this story would have been set in the 70s as it started off with that kind of a vibe, but The Yellow Kings are a relatively recent band, which Keisling suggests by including names of other more recent metal acts, such as Mastodon and Opeth (two of my very favourites!) Aidan speaks about how the band’s music consists of 15-minute epic rock journeys, which is something that has not been popular for a long time. In spite of this, the band gets word  that they’ve received funding to go on tour.

Another name for them is King Crimson 2.0, which I found interesting because the other vibe I got from The Yellow Kings is that they would be British (like King Crimson), but they’re from Texas as it turns out. Aidan paints an interesting portrait of his bandmates, including the lead singer, Johnny, whom he describes as being the sort of fellow that would have become a creepy horror writer if he had not picked up a guitar in his youth.

One of the best things about this book is the authenticity factors–Keisling has a very good knowledge of band experiences, details of being on tour, as well as the dynamics between bandmates. When the band gets its first dose of success, the “groupies” are not far behind, including one memorable girl in particular, Camilla. Aidan sets her up for the reader as the reason why everything went downhill for the band, and it was certainly interesting to see how it all unfurled. I had some theories about whether she was a succubus or a siren or another vixen type of mythological creature, but regardless of that, she makes it clear that there is a dark master the band can help her serve, and it doesn’t take long for things to spin out of control after that.

The lead-up builds to a high crescendo at a concert, the results of which are devastating and highly impactful. So, if you’re a huge fan of the King in Yellow mythology and stories or if you’re craving another hit after watching the first season of True Detective, then pick up Keisling’s book. It’s a phenomenally well-told story delivered in the form of a quick but memorable read, and it’s something that horror readers will enjoy even if they’re not huge fans of metal. With each release, Keisling gets better and The Final Reconciliation is no exception.

About the Author

todd-keisling

Todd Keisling is the author of A Life TransparentThe Liminal Man (a 2013 Indie Book Award Finalist), and the forthcoming collection, Ugly Little Things.
He lives somewhere in the wilds of Pennsylvania with his wife, son, and trio of unruly cats. Visit his website, and connect with him on social Facebook or Twitter.

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Book Review: The Eighth by Stephanie M. Wytovich

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the eighth stephanie wytovich book cover

The Eighth
by Stephanie M. Wytovich
Dark Regions Press
November 2016
***Review copy received from publisher in exchange for an honest review***

Description: After Paimon, Lucifer’s top soul collector, falls in love with a mortal girl whose soul he is supposed to claim, he desperately tries everything in his power to save her from the Devil’s grasp. But what happens when a demon has to confront his demons, when he has to turn to something darker, something more sinister for help? Can Paimon survive the consequences of working with the Seven Deadly Sins-sins who have their own agenda with the Devil—or will he fall into a deeper, darker kind of hell?

Review: Having been a fan of Stephanie Wytovich’s poetry, I was very excited to see her prose in the form of her novel The Eighth, recently released by Dark Regions Press. The author is known as an amazingly gifted poet, so it was no surprise to me that right away her word choices and descriptions struck me as vivid and magnificent.

Although I was a bit confused as to the fact that the main character, Paimon, is, in fact, a demon (some of the initial descriptions suggest a monk or priest with a flair for sado-masochism), it quickly became apparent that our setting was Hell, described as having a “chilled embrace,” which I thought was neat.

Paimon punishes himself because he feels it is the only way he can atone for his sins. He serves none other than the Devil, Lucifer, but is at a point where he is conflicted about that, having done it for so long. He doesn’t particularly like doing assignments on mortal ground, i.e. Earth, so when his next assignment is there, we know it will be a bumpy ride for him.

He is haunted by the death of a woman, Marissa, and more about this mysterious relationship is revealed as the book goes on. His fellow demons don’t make things easier for him either, getting quite gleeful when he is in pain. I liked the incorporation of Greek Mythology in the form of making the ferryman, Charon, a character.

Essentially, Paimon is a soul collector, and he specializes in women who come from troubled backgrounds. The demonic clan he belongs to also demands a certain number of souls for him to harvest per year.

We then meet our other main character, Rhea, a human woman, who is dealing with a boyfriend she suspects is cheating with her best friend. Anyone with depression will recognize that the voice she hears in her head is the inner critic that torments and pesters at our brains daily.

One part of Paimon that was challenging to sympathize with was the fact that he comes from a background of having been rejected quite a lot by women when he was human. He uses that as a justification of taking pleasure in exacting revenge on the women whose souls he harvests. His dialogue was a bit too informal at times, as well, so while more consistency would have made his speech stand out more, his lines are wonderful for the most part.

Another minor quibble I had was the detail about how Rhea had supposedly never been intimate with her boyfriend after a relationship of seven years. Nonetheless, Paimon uses this point as one of the chief things to mess with Rhea’s head and it’s good ammunition.

Paimon wonders why women are so blind to seeing when they’re being manipulated, but one of the big reasons he points to in order to account for this is his view that they trust too much and fear too little. I wish the author had gone even deeper with conveying Rhea’s pain and showing more of how destructive her depression is.

“The girl was so desperate for affection that she’d turned to a complete stranger for help.”

Switching gears, I want to talk a bit about the demons of this universe. They have fangs and sometimes act more like vampires, but there are definitely interesting and distinct ones among them. One of the more unique demons apart from Paimon was Arazel, a female demon of lust that I took a shining to. She wasn’t over-the-top or mean for the sake of being mean and although we meet her midway through the book, she ended up being one of my favourite characters.

In this version of Hell, there is also a group of demons called The Seven. They are “keepers of the deadly sins”, as in the seven deadly sins, Paimon says of them: “You need to fear them more than the Devil,” which is interesting because at a few points in the novel, he also refers to Lucifer as his saviour so there’s an interesting duality to their relationship.

Speaking of the Devil, he’s a no-holds-barred kind of representation–jealous, vengeful, violent, angry, manipulative. Basically, all the things you would want to see in a Devil. I also enjoyed the tongue-in cheek reference to Virgil, citing the Pit as one place in Hell that not even he knew about.

Dante’s Inferno is, of course, one of the clearest influences on this novel as well as Milton’s Paradise Lost so take those two texts and mix them with a Barker-esque twist and you’ve got The Eighth. This novel also reminded me of The Monk by Matthew Lewis with some interesting parallels there, as well. If you love any of those books or just love horror novels about hell and demons, definitely pick up The Eighth.

Book Review: Fear the Reaper, ed. by Joe Mynhardt

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Fear the Reaper
ed. Joe Mynhardt
Crystal Lake Publishing
Purchase information
404 pages, 2013
*** Review copy purchased online *** 

Things start off with “Hecate” by Adam Lowe, which is about the Greek goddess of witches, Hecate. The language in this poem is very evocative and the poem ends on a creepy note.

Next up we have “The Life of Death” by Mark Sheldon. It starts out on a more humorous note. It’s anachronistic on purpose, making similes to modern-day references. This is the origin story of Death, real name Mortimer (nicknamed Morrey). It’s a sad tale, ultimately, but humanizes Death, which makes things more interesting.

“Stumps” by Jeff Strand is about an immortal main character but immortality doesn’t mean he can’t be killed or wounded. The price is incredibly steep to maintain his status. Others figure out what he can do, and although it’s a grim tale with macabre elements, there is humour, as well, and it was one of the best pieces of the bunch.

In “Death Squared” by Rena Mason, two boys, Billy and Trent, ride their bikes to the house of a female classmate who recently committed suicide. Trent learns the hard way that once you damage someone badly enough, you can never take it back. When you remain faithful to someone you know is as horrible as Billy is, you can never erase that stain from your soul no matter how hard you try to scrub it off. I also enjoyed the ominous note upon which this story ended.

“The Culling” by Richard Thomas reminded me of The Lottery and The Hunger Games. In this twisted tale, the townspeople sacrifice their own to appease beasts. There’s a wonderful twist at the end that I won’t spoil, but this story was one of the more memorable ones.

Robert S. Wilson introduces a main character who can stop death from happening in “The Death Catcher” but the thing is that after people cheat death, they don’t feel as good as they thought they would. This story had a definite sci-fi bent to its horror and reinforced the theme that a person can try to cheat death but won’t get very far.

“Spectres” by Taylor Grant is about Matt, who seems to have just come out of a coma. It’s also more in the sci-fi horror vein. He wakes up with someone else’s memories after volunteering to spend ten years frozen in a statis. He learns the hard way that everything comes at a price, and I thought this story ended on a very effective gut punch.

“Der Engel Der Liebe” by Dean M. Drinkel is historical fiction tale set in Vienna in 1870. This is another story that wastes no time making circumstances absolutely horrible for the characters involved. If you like stories of Jack the Ripper, you’ll enjoy this macabre tale.

Next up is “Do No Harm” by Joe C. McKinney, which is about a doctor who gets kidnapped by vampires so that he can figure out why a boy they ‘turned’ isn’t transitioning into a full vampire. He’s got his work cut out for him and the results turn out to be very interesting.

To cap off the anthology, we have “Non-Returnable” by the late Rick Hautula. In it, a bookstore employee is worried that her boss will fire her. He hassles her about a physics book she decided not to buy, but her life starts to take on some truly bizarre turns. It’s very fitting that this story would be the last.

Overall, Fear the Reaper is another good quality anthology from Crystal Lake Publishing that features great horror stories centering around the theme of Death and they’re all very diverse so there is something for every horror reader to enjoy.

Book Review: Vile Men by Rebecca Jones-Howe

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Vile Men
by Rebecca Jones-Howe
Dark House Press
2015
170 pages
*** Review copy from the library ***

A few people recommended Vile Men, a short story collection by Canadian author Rebecca Jones-Howe, when it first came out at the end of last year and they mentioned how impressed they were with the writing, so I recently had the occasion to read it and I’m glad I did. Far from being simply a short story collection that revolves around the theme of terrible things happening to women, the stories are a heady mix of different perspectives that will have you reeling after you’ve finished each one. It’s a quick read, but these stories are very heavy and will definitely make an impact on you.

The first story is “The Paper Bag Princess,” which puts a whole new–and far more disturbing spin–on the children’s classic by Robert Munsch than you would think. It’s about a girl who puts a paper bag on her head when she is intimate with men. She has different faces depending on their preferences. In one way, it’s incredibly tragic that she feels she has to do this and that it’s the only way she can, but in others it’s also her way of getting back some control. This set the tone for the rest of the collection very well.

Next up we have “Blue Hawaii” which revolves around a girl who is a former alcoholic and she now lives with her sister and her baby. She gets involved with a male neighbour who has a different drug of choice and things descend from there, but this story definitely did not end the way I thought it would.

“Tourist” continues the departure from where you think the story will be going and then it goes in a completely differeny way. This time we meet a girl who falls for an older man but lives with her friend and the friend’s husband, who are trying to have a baby. She knows it is an odd arrangement, but doesn’t really have anywhere else to go. The protagonist turned out to be a very disturbed individual, but I liked seeing her journey mapped out. With this story, I felt a bit let down because I was holding my breath waiting for something momentous or earth-shattering to happen, which it never did, but other than that, I enjoyed this tale a lot.

“There’s a certain kind of man who goes for damaged girls.”

The first story of the collection to feature a male point of view is “Grin on the Rocks” about a guy who is pursued by older women, or so he would have us believe. It turns out he has far more sinister intentions and this is a story that is full of trigger warnings for women, so I would advise discretion. It will make you very angry in parts.

Probably the center-piece of the collection comes with “Masturbating Megan’s Strip Mall Exhibition” which focuses on a girl who, ahem, pleases herself to customers at the adult entertainment store where she works. The genesis of how she got her nickname really hit home for me, but instead of bothering her, she seems to have twisted it to subvert her identity as an adult. Readers should make sure not to miss this story.

“College Glaciers” concerns a university student with erotic fixations who is drunk and/or high while taking a cab late at night to get back to her dorm. Once again, the author turns the reader’s expectations on their head with how things turn out, so I liked this tale.

“He’s older because they always are.”

Following that story is one called “Slippery Slopes,” which is a bit on the longer side but is another powerful read. Luke has major anxiety. He has a smoking problem (cigarettes). He also has a wife, twin children, and she is expecting another child on the way. He keeps insisting that there is a child in their neighbourhood who is going around stealing from people and the entire story builds to a crescendo. He crosses so many lines and you will find yourself questioning whose side you are on by the end.

“Thinspiration” plays on our culture’s obsession with girls who go to dangerous lengths to be thin. A gunman takes the main character hostage and orders her to drive, but it’s not clear where they’re going. When he pulls up to a restaurant, something unexpected happens and although I found this tale to be a bit more anticlimactic in some ways as compared to the other stories, there was definitely power in the exchange of the characters toward the end.

Perhaps the most directly horror-related or horror-themed story is “Better Places,” another viciously disturbing tale of a woman who finds herself in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. She finds a haven with a guy, but what he puts her through is worse than what the zombies could do. This is one of the most unflinching and raw stories of the entire collection and again, if you’re sensitive to the subject matter of assault, read this one at your own peril. This one was a far more satisfying read for me and definitely one of the ones I would rate higher.

“Historical Hotties” is the story of two teenaged girls who are desperately freaky. The protagonist is hugely unpopular and she approaches a Goth-type girl in the class to work on a project in pairs. What’s so bad about them? Well, for starters, the protagonist things Stalin (yes, that Stalin) is attractive. Not just a little bit either. This story also examines how strange and fraught with tension the protagonist’s relationship with her parents, particularly her father, is, and will leave you reeling after you’ve read it.

Next up is “Cat Calls,” a story that turns the phenomenon of men calling out crude and lascivious things to women as they pass by or whistling to them on its head by making a man the object of the affections of a seriously depraved young woman on the Vancouver SkyTrain subway. We learn that the male protagonist is married, a bit unhappily despite his insistence otherwise, to a woman with whom he tried to conceive but they’ve had difficulties. She has succeeded as a realtor and the dynamic of their relationship has changed more than he thought it would. This story definitely has a huge gut-punch for an ending and it was also one of my favourites.

Another creepy story is “Modern Beasts,” which is about a young girl, Eva, whose mother drops her off at the public library each day while she goes off to protest against the government. The head librarian, Mindy, isn’t particularly nice but she has a boyfriend, Owen, who is. He takes an interest in Eva and tells Mindy that he can watch her and read to her. This story will destroy any reader who struggled with their parents as a child. Anyone who was desperate to hang on to that special someone, the adult who “got” them and didn’t see them as a hindrance or an annoyance…this story will ruin you.

The last tale, “Ghost Story,” was about a couple who are in London, England, on a trip. It’s the creepy and unsettling tale of what happens when Melody’s lover, Lewis, goes missing, and all the implications of that event.

One of the things that stuck out most about this collection for me is how painfully accurate the author’s depictions were when it came to the decay of relationships between couples who have been together for a while. It’s inescapable in some ways, but there’s nothing sadder than one person in the relationship who is still completely head-over-heels for their partner but the other person hasn’t reciprocated that in a while.

The unifying thread of the entire collection is how unflinching and honest these stories are. They are raw. The author does not hold back her punches. At all. They are devastating and they can contain many triggers for women, but they are a fascinating look at what happens when characters do the things they know they are not supposed to, but they do them anyway and cross the lines into the furthest reaches of themselves, which makes for a gripping and fascinating book.

I would not classify this book as a horror collection, but many fans of horror, mystery and suspense will enjoy it. Others still who like contemporary pieces of women’s fiction that are the furthest thing from romance will also enjoy this book. But really, anyone who wants a substantive collection of short stories that explores the furthest depths of the human psyche needs to pick this book up. It is a book that will challenge you as a reader. It is not easy to get through, but ultimately it provides a cathartic reading experience.