The Mortecarni: Book Review

Stories about ravenous undead are a dime a dozen, and they all have pretty much the same core plot: A virus/disease/catastrophe unleashes mindless, flesh-eating revenants, and the humans who remain fight to stay alive. Every zombie book I’ve read is set in the present day and describes a post-apocalyptic world. It’s popular because it’s familiar and readers know what to expect. For prolific readers like me, the repetition gets old. When authors shake things up and deviate from the norm, it gets my attention.

The Mortecarni by Kelly Evans is a unique take on the undead, set in an actual apocalypse—the Black Death—that killed 30-90% of the population of Eurasia. I received a reading copy with no cover, no blurb, and no idea what I was getting into, so I was completely surprised by it.

The prologue is vague but tantalizing. Why were a group of soldiers and archaeologists tearing apart a monk’s grave? One scientist mentions that the monk was a physician, and the book they find in his tomb is a triumphant discovery. To my surprise, the next chapter plunged me into medieval Wales, circa 1347 and my question from the prologue is answered in the first sentence:

“My name is Brother Maurice and I hunt the mortecarni, pathetic creatures unnaturally risen from death to pray upon the innocent.”

My interest was immediately piqued. I have enough knowledge of Latinate languages to know “dead flesh” when I see it, but…a Monk? In 1348? Hunting zombies? Part of me was thrilled, the other part cringing. Would the author do right by Medieval history or was this going to be full of “olde tyme” myths that are endemic in modern media?

The third son of a wealthy merchant, Maurice is taught to read by his mother and learns rudimentary healing from farmers and “wise women”. Since he has two older brothers to carry on the family business, he’s sent to a monastery for further education. His talent in the healing arts convinces the Brothers to send him to study at Salerno’s Schola Medica Salernitana to become a physician. There, he befriends Falayh, an Arab raised in Spain as a Christian.

Brother Maurice’s holy duty takes him across Europe to teach the skills in healing to his monastic brothers so they might heal the sick in body and spirit. At one stop, he encounters an illness never seen before: an infection of rotting flesh that robs the afflicted of their senses and drives them to attack others. The infection spreads, and the only cure he can find is death. The monastery is ravaged, and when word reaches Pope Clement in Avignon, Maurice is sworn to secrecy and sent on a mission to end the mortecarni—by the sword or by a cure—and it endangers both his life and his faith.

I was riveted and read the book in two sittings. It’s like the author took historical fiction, mystery, coming-of-age, and zompoc, and combined them all like an alchemist to make something new and different. Brother Maurice’s conflict over faith and duty is heart-wrenching. And oh, what he must do. Evans assails us with horror that doesn’t turn away from the blood, madness and rotting flesh that this kind of story calls for. It’s definitely not for the squeamish. Even day-to-day “medicine” was a horror with leeches, bleedings, and the worst: draining the buboes of plague victims to save their lives. Evans does her research, and you can get a taste of it on her Twitter page. Her feed is full of links to medieval arts, sciences, and history, and she also writes historical fiction in addition to horror.

Evans did an excellent job showing this historical period, and at the same time acknowledging the realities of the age, like literal witch hunts and the erasure of women, extreme measures taken to stop the bubonic plague, and the indifference of otherwise “holy” men.

One thing I loved was that this book can easily stand alone, although the author’s site shows a sequel in the works. The story wraps up in the modern age, where the answer to the mystery Brother Maurice pursued is rediscovered. We don’t need to know who these modern-day people are; we’ve seen their struggle play out in the 14th century and know what they’re up against. The words of a humble monk will once again have meaning, his work and soul redeemed.

It’s good stuff, so if you’re looking for a completely different take on the zombie genre, this is the book for you. Kelly Evans is an author to watch!

Book Review: Feral

Synopsis:
Allie Hilts was still in high school when a fire at a top-secret research facility released an airborne pathogen that quickly spread to every male on the planet, killing most. Allie witnessed every man she ever knew be consumed by fearsome symptoms: scorching fevers, internal bleeding, madness and uncontrollable violence. The world crumbled around her. No man was spared, and the few survivors were irrevocably changed. They became disturbingly strong, aggressive, and ferocious. Feral.

Three years later, Allie has joined a group of hardened survivors in an isolated, walled-in encampment. Outside the guarded walls the ferals roam free, and hunt. Allie has been noticing troubling patterns in the ferals’ movements, and a disturbing number of new faces in the wild. Something catastrophic is brewing on the horizon, and time is running out. The ferals are coming, and there is no stopping them.

Review:
My first encounter with James DeMonaco’s work was the film Skinwalkers, which I hated. However, The Purge was fantastic, so I started reading Feral with a hopeful attitude. Having Brian Evenson as a co-writer was encouraging since I’ve read Father of Lies and enjoyed it. I’m also a fan of post-apoc fiction; another thumb on the scale for this book.

Feral started out strong. The confusion and fear during the outbreak are realistically portrayed. Scenes of sudden and horrific transformations are vividly described, as are the deaths of those unlucky enough to get caught by the feral packs of crazed men. The first few chapters hooked me, and I settled in for the rest of the book.

Allie is a bonafide badass, using her old skills as a lacrosse star in all new ways. She’s a lone hunter type of woman; hyper-alert and determined to keep her young sister and herself alive. Small camps of women who survived the outbreak live in fortified camps, keeping in touch via radio. Allie is one of the few who are brave (or reckless) enough to spend days outside the minefields and barricades while she thins out the feral population and scavenges for supplies. The ferals have a “hive” of their own and have taken over the river docks, where no woman dares approach for fear of literally being torn apart. It doesn’t take much to foresee the coming conflict.

There’s a lot to like in this book. It’s certainly entertaining. Narrow escapes, tense chase scenes, and extreme zom– er, feral-killing rampages will satisfy the bloodlust factor. The women in the camp do their best to survive while trying to create a sense of normalcy for the children and young teens among them. It’s no surprise that all of them are traumatized, but many of them pair up for comfort. There’s a romantic subplot, but revealing the details involves spoilers, so that’s all I’ll say.

Another bonus comes from the author’s skill at screenwriting. We get multiple points of view on the story that play out like scenes in a film. The storytelling here feels cinematic, so people who are more accustomed to watching TV and movies will be right at home here. As a book, it works, but it would be a kickass movie; enough so that I wonder if this started out as a screenplay.

It’s easy to see that Feral leans heavily on zombie and post-apocalyptic tropes. Catastrophic outbreak of an experimental pathogen? Horrific transformations into a bestial form? Hordes of indiscriminate killers who want to eat human flesh? Band of plucky survivors who figure out they can mask their scent with the blood of dead ferals? Forbidden romance and putting one’s life before someone you love? It’s all been done before. But as I’ve strongly hinted throughout, if you’re a fan of zompoc fiction, you’re going to enjoy Feral.

Book Review: Covenant

The roots of the horror genre are tangled around humanity’s fear of death and the abominations that transcend it. Vampires, zombies, and demons all fit this description, but the earliest, and possibly the most widespread in human culture, are the ghosts of the unquiet dead. While many authors turn their imaginations toward new ways to terrify, ghost stories have scared us for centuries untold. Allan Leverone has delivered a solid example of such a tale.

The book is a quick read, thanks to the author’s skill in building tension and keeping the story well-balanced between Lindie and the Padgett brothers. Part I sets the tone by introducing the villain and his campaign of cruelty and depraved acts of murder. However, these first few chapters don’t reflect the tone of the rest of the book.

Part II takes us to modern times. Justine and Lindie Cooper move to New Hampshire, buy their first house, and begin fixing it up. During their remodeling work, Justin Cooper dies in a suspicious accident, and Lindie is the prime suspect. She knows she’s innocent, but a local detective won’t give up until all his avenues of inquiry are exhausted. She also notices oddities in her house. Now convinced the place is haunted, she hires Verna Watson, a local medium for help.

Lindie Cooper is easy to empathize with as she struggles to grieve her husband while trying to discover the cause of his death. She has no friends, save for her new boss, and the questions surrounding Justin’s death has everyone whispering. But the town has secrets of its own. When the drug-running Padgett brothers run afoul of the local police, the lines between crimes of the past, murder, and supernatural activity get crossed.

While the plot was predictable, I was surprised by the characters. Lindie’s story examines not only her grief but also her struggle to overcome ostracism and find a friend amidst so many unfriendly faces. Even the detective breaks out of his hard-boiled shell to confront possibilities he never expected.

Overall, Covenant is an entertaining novel that fans of ghost stories and paranormal activity will enjoy. It’s not breaking any new ground, but it is a skillfully written, page-turner of a ghost story with great characters, a terrifying villain, and a satisfying ending.


Publisher’s Synopsis:

When Justin and Lindie Cooper move into their dream home, a rambling, oddly-shaped “Handyman’s Special” in Covenant, New Hampshire, they are completely unaware of their house’s violent and tragic history.

Within a week, Justin Cooper is dead under suspicious circumstances, and Lindie must deal not just with her grief, but with a police investigator—and a town—convinced she is trying to get away with murder.

But that’s not her biggest problem. Because evil resides in her home, an entity that is more than a century old.

And it’s angry, relentless and determined to eliminate Lindie Cooper next.

Nightmares: Book Review

nightmares-cover

Ellen Datlow is a master curator of fiction, and though she calls herself a “horror enthusiast,” I don’t think it’s a stretch to say she is also one of the guiding hands of the genre. Her Best Horror of the Year anthologies are a snapshot of current trends in horror, offering readers a sampling of new and established authors in one volume. Nightmares expands on those best-of collections and represents Datlow’s favorite short fiction from the years spanning 2005 to 2015.

Every story in the collection is exceptional. This surprised me. Usually, anthologies contain a tale or two that made me wonder how it made the cut, but not this one. There were a few stories that I’d read before and was delighted to read again. Sometimes, a story brought up personal terrors and was hard to read, but isn’t that what horror is supposed to do?

It took me several weeks to read all 24 stories because I had to think about what I’d just read. I spent a few nights staring at the ceiling trying to chase the afterimages out of my brain so I could sleep.

Here are the stories that kept me awake:

“Closet Dreams” by Lisa Tuttle left me with fear scrabbling at the inside of my ribcage. A survivor of an ordeal at the hands of a depraved child molester can’t let go of the past. Her abductor had forced her into a closet during the day so no one would hear her if she screamed for help. After her escape, and years of therapy, the dreams of the closet still haunt her. She tries to glean clues from her dreams – something that can give the police a means to find her captor – but all she can see is the dark, and the room beyond the crack under the door.

“Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8)” by Caitlín R. Kiernan made me read it twice. Twin sisters cruise across a landscape of blood, depravity and blind, obsessive love. They mark their map and memories by the bodies in their wake. To me, they may be escaping hell or hurtling toward it, or perhaps they’re already there.

The story that challenged me the most was “Omphalos” by Livia Llewellyn. It’s transgressive and brutal, pushing the boundaries of parental cruelty into a nightmare of a vacation. Their love is abusive and drives their daughter June into territory that only she can see on the map. Her father wants her to take him with her, but she alone knows the way to the center where chaos and darkness lies.

There are so many more. This is the best anthology I’ve read all year and a must-have for any horror fan’s bookshelf.

America’s Most Haunted Hotels: Book Review

America’s Most Haunted Hotels: Checking in with Uninvited Guests
By Jaime Davis Whitmer with Robert Whitmer

Ghost stories are a staple of the horror genre, and they always have a little sharper edge when the magic words, “based on a true story” appear under the title. Ghost hunting has taken on its own genre, as either pure entertainment or amateur scientific research, sometimes a combination of both. I readily admit my deep affection for a good haint tale, and this book delivers spooky real-life accounts as well as practical information about haunted tourism. If you’re a writer, having a solid nonfiction reference like this is handy.

Jamie Whitmer is an author, ghost hunter and traveler. Her book Haunted Asylums, Prisons and Sanatoriums was published in 2013, and this could be considered a sequel of sorts. She opens the book with practical information on what it takes to do a full paranormal investigation at sites like old prisons and hospitals. These are expensive and time-consuming since the entire building must be rented to do an investigation.

However, haunted hotels can be investigated for the price of a room, and many offer ghost tours for those who just want to visit. If you’re an avid spirit-seeker without a big budget, this is much more affordable. The Whitmers were able to use the tools of the trade in their room, or within hotel common rooms with permission from the manager. (It never hurts to ask.)

In the introduction, the author shares her experiences with spirits of the dead and her ideas of how and why these hauntings occur. Her husband, Robert, also shares his views. He’s a practical man and says he is “open to the possibility that things exist that I cannot see…I go into this endeavor with an open but cautious mind.”

The author researched the hotels featured in the book. She opens each chapter with the history of the original owner(s), photographs of the hotel, notable events in town, the natural landscape and features, and tales of famous deaths, hauntings and other sightings that gave these hotels their notoriety. Some of those stories are apocryphal and don’t stand up to the author’s historic scrutiny. She and Bob both write separate first-person accounts of what they did—or didn’t—experience during their stay at each place.

Occasionally, the couple is delighted with their stay in the hotel but disappointed that they experienced nothing more than a great night’s sleep. Of course, ghosts aren’t on the payroll and don’t always show up when people want them to! On other stays, Ms. Whitmer writes of doors mysteriously opening, corner-of-the-eye glimpses of people who weren’t there when she turned her head, and an emotional experience that left her shaken.

It’s hard to resist the charm of these old hotels. If you enjoy “ghost tourism” and are looking for a firsthand guide to the top 10 haunted hotels, you should read this first before planning your trip. The people who led their tours were engaging and knowledgeable and clearly enjoyed their jobs. While room and tour prices will change, the authors do their best to help you plan your trip accordingly.

I’m scheduled for a stay on the Queen Mary in a few months, and eager to tour and see the places that the authors described so beautifully. While I doubt I’ll see a ghost, I will know a bit more about the history of this great ship-turned-hotel, and the Whitmer’s account of their stay will have me keeping watch out of the corner of my eye.