Three Horror World Reviews: 'Vacation', 'Heart of Glass', and 'Nine Frights'

Vacation  by  Matthew  Costello;  Thomas  Dunne  Books;  2011;  320  pgs;  $24.99  US

Welcome to Paterville!  Family getaway for all away from it all.  In this "anti-zombie" tale from master storyteller Matt Costello, the future isn't very bright.   In fact, his so-called "vacation" turns out to be anything but relaxing; thankfully, readers benefit plenty from his near-future hell.

Costello has yet to pen a bad novel, from Wurm to Homecoming to Nowhere, and collaborations with F. Paul Wilson only bring out the other's strengths.  After succeeding in videogame battlegrounds (Rage and 7th Guest fame), he returns to a very familiar haunt.

Jack Murphy works as a NYPD cop, stereotypical in his dedication and anger at the system but loyal as anyone else to ever wear the shield.   Instead of busting druggies and wiseguys, his new frontier includes "Canheads," something much worse than zombies.  When the world's food supply dwindles and the answer has an "adverse" effect on the population, cannibalism sets in among those who tried the cure.  These Canheads still live and rip apart at the seams of humanity, forcing Americans to tighten up and roll into balls of defensive seclusion.

The safe sites only shrink as the enemy strengthens, and Jack's job continues to lose perspective.

When his wife books the family for a true getaway, he balks at the idea, unable to let go of his inner cop.  Even when they finally arrive at "Paterville," a camp resort in upstate New York, he armors up the station wagon and is ready to play Rambo.

Ed Lowe runs Paterville like a twisted Disney World, pushing for customer satisfaction yet always seeming to be hiding something.  What ensues will terrify and is quite realistic in its scope.

Perfect for today's dreadful outlook, paranoid enough for our economy and fitting for the mob mentality which decides so much for the country, Costello's 17 year tale resonates like it was written yesterday, which is why the novel length works so well.

Forget the zombies.  Vacation is the real deal and one can see how it might grow into the 21st century if our world keeps spiraling in the toilet.

Recommended for anyone who loves a good thriller, even one which hits too close to home for many.  Truly frightening stuff.

— Dave Simms

Heart of Glass by David Winnick; Bad Moon Books; 2011; 40 pgs

Heart of Glass was my first exposure to the fiction of David Winnick, but I doubt it'll be the last I hear of him. Winnick formerly worked as a freelance journalist for Wizard magazine, and based on the Author Bio at the back of the chapbook, this might very well be his first piece of published fiction. The heart of the story is simple: Adam and Sonia are a young married couple who have hit a rough patch…Adam feels that the love has gone out of their relationship, at least on Sonia's side of things. They go through their life together in an almost robotic manner, working and doing chores and watching TV, but Adam longs for the days when Sonia loved him with the same burning intensity that he still feels for her. One day, while shopping at a local antique mall, Adam spots an unusual treasure: A jigsaw puzzle made entirely of glass. With fond memories of a childhood spent assembling puzzles with his parents and sister, Adam purchases it, hoping that it could be the thing that helps him reconnect with the seemingly distant Sonia. Things are about to change in their relationship, but not necessarily in the manner that Adam might have hoped.

Winnick has an easy-to-read, engaging writing style, and he makes the young couple seem very real, especially to anyone who has been married themselves. I especially appreciated the way that he conveyed Sonia's point of view, in what had previously been a very one-sided narrative. Although Heart of Glass is clearly headed into out-of-the-ordinary territory from the very beginning, the final few pages, where events leave the realm of the everyday, is where Winnick started to lose me. I didn't dislike the ending, but it did feel rather abrupt and out of place with what had gone before.

— Dan Reilly
(editor's note:  Heart of Glass was originally only available as a paperback giveaway by Bad Moon Books at the World Horror Convention 2011, but Crossroads Press released an eBook of it in May 2011 which is currently still available)

Nine Frights by Jeffery J. Mariotte; ITL Publishing; 2011; $3.99 US

Jeff Mariotte (sometimes credited as Jeffery J. Mariotte) might be the most prolific dark fiction/horror writer of our times.  By my count, he is listed as sole author or co-author on over 47 novels and listed as a contributor to over 53 anthologies, short story collections, and comic book/graphic novel adaptations.

The stories Jeff Mariotte presents in Nine Frights run the gambit from hard core horror to dark fantasy, and from gore laden prose to imaginative, speculative imagery.  But there is a theme that unifies all of these stories and it is a poignant one; it involves the lessons of humanity.  You don't often see short horror stories that even hint of man's virtue, how our love for others is intrinsic and how our first thoughts in a horrific situation would be for the welfare of others. Yet each and every one  of the stories in Nine Frights, as upsetting and as dark as most of them are, leave the reader with a positive perception of human nature, a glimmer of hope, or at least an understanding of why choices were made.

In "Janey In Amber", the author gives us a story of a woman who is so lonely and so at odds with the world that she has invented a husband, and she lives with this deception and all its complications despite the consequences to those surrounding her.

What some may consider one of the most brutal stories in this collection, "Santos del Infierno"  tells the story of a man who teams up with a low life and searches for a puzzle involving seven Santos; religious idols that depict vile pornographic acts.  The thing is, despite the lowlife killing the man's wife and daughter earlier in a horrific car crash he still hooks up with him after the lowlife convinces him that they are "brothers in pain".  Fans of Clive Barker will delight in this story which includes one of Barker's Cenobite characters.

"The Strip," more than any other story, superbly illustrates Mariotte's humanity thread, but does so in a bloody and heartbreaking manner.   This is a story of true love told over a backdrop of a plague that turns people into flesh eating zombies and details the sacrifice one man makes for a stranger that did him right; a woman he has grown to love.

The end piece, a change-of-pace tale that is more fantasy than dark fiction, concludes the collection on a huge high and life-affirming note.  "World of Books" is a tale of two young people, Kevin and Caitlin, who are brought to a huge bookstore by their mothers and allowed to roam its vast aisles.  In their travels they come to a door, and despite the admonition written on it, they enter through and discover themselves in a new world populated by characters from novels.

The five remaining stories in Nine Frights are just as enjoyable and compelling as the four described above and readers will certainly find the majority of them, if not all of them, to their liking.  And while the endings of all of these stories will most definitely not put a smile on your face, they will leave readers affected and hungering for more.  So here's hoping that Jeff Mariotte follows up this collection with a companion piece real soon, Nine Frights was different enough and enjoyable enough that fans are sure to want more.

— TT Zuma