Book Review: Whisper Lake

Title: Whisper Lake (The Turning, Book 2)
Author: Micky Neilson
Publisher: Self-Published on Amazon
Genre: Horror
Format: eBook (410 pages)

Whisper Lake Micky Neilson Werewolf Novel
I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Summary (from Amazon): “In this prequel to The Turning, the year is 1991. Jason Emblock, a U.S. soldier in Iraq, is sent back home to the small town of Whisper Lake after a vicious animal attack. But the beast that bit him was no ordinary animal. Now Jason is becoming aware of the changes–enhanced hearing and sense of smell–even as he reconnects with his lover, Celine Armistead, and seeks to confront his childhood friend, CJ, who tried to force himself on Celine while Jason was away. CJ’s life has its own complications: drug addiction and a strained affiliation with the violent drug trafficker Boil, whose schemes threaten to destroy Whisper Lake. But the deadliest threat may not come from Boil; because the beast within Jason… is about to slip its leash.”

Whisper Lake opens with an author’s note: I know you’re thinking, ‘If Whisper Lake is a prequel, shouldn’t I read it before The Turning?’ Actually, I started this series in the middle, but I intended it that way. The twists and turns will be more meaningful if you read The Turning first, then Whisper Lake. And yes, there is already a sequel in the works.”

When I devoured Micky Neilson’s previous book, The Turning, I couldn’t put it down. It was a solid throwback to old-school wolf lore with a few fresh twists, and Whisper Lake is no different. Jason Emblock begins his story like most protagonists in this subgenre: as the victim of a vicious attack that nearly kills him. From there he returns to his hometown to recover and deals with the burdens that he now has to bear. In fact, the characters’ struggle to accept the fallout from their decisions is a consistent running theme throughout the story, and it serves the narrative well.

The overall tone of Whisper Lake differs from that of The Turning, in that the latter was a more suspenseful cat-and-mouse game, centered on the POVs of no more than three major characters (and quick vignettes of minor ones). Whisper Lake puts the spotlight on a wider array of actors on the stage. With that being said, no one player is lost in the game. From tragic hero Jason to stubborn survivor Celine to the troubled CJ, every character is fully realized and given ample attention. While the narrative changes POV from chapter to chapter, it’s never confusing, and always compelling. Neilson treats everyone as an essential portion of the story. There’s no gristle here; everything serves the narrative.

The main antagonist, greasy druglord Boil, is a far different villain than the calculating Alexander (the assassin) of The Turning. Boil is a physically repulsive sleazeball who has, through his legitimate transportation front and illegal drug-running business, secured a financial grip upon the small town. He has the gift of gab and knows how to whip a crowd up into a frenzy. He bypasses traditional channels of PR and presents himself directly as a man of the people. Despite his facade, Boil is not a gentleman, and accepts zero responsibility for his actions. The current political relevance of this antagonist, whether intentional on the author’s part or not, made me loathe him with a passion. Nielson has a gift for crafting great villains, and Boil is right on the money. He succeeds in doubling the tension in the story and driving the external conflicts that the protagonists are going through, in addition to their internal struggles.

While Whisper Lake is a werewolf tale at it’s core, it avoids treading the same worn moonlit path done in werewolf stories past by interweaving its lycanthropy with high drama and elements of crime thriller. While the same struggle exists between humanity and primal desires that we’ve seen since The Wolfman, the protagonists (and an antagonist) mirror the same conflict in non-wolf-related decisions. Whisper Lake takes a fresh turn in wolf lore, making connections with an ancient Babylonian goddess and a second deity who harnesses the power of the moon. Neilson has, again, made a slight but fitting contribution to the werewolf mythos.

There is a point early in the story in which it’s revealed that a female character had terminated her pregnancy some time in her past. I want to take a moment to sing praises about the delicacy with which abortion was discussed in Whisper Lake. The character who had terminated her pregnancy was neither a hero nor a villain as a result of it, and when a friend came to her asking for advice for a similar situation, she gave the best advice she could, which was to relate her own experience and say that it was the right decision for her, at the time. She offered the most important thing she could in such a situation: her support. Kudos to the author for treating the issue with finesse and not exploiting it for sensation. Considering the themes of the book (bearing the burden of consequences and accepting responsibility for the things that happen in one’s life), this bit of backstory makes sense and gives a fair bit of insight into the character’s decisions later on.

Whisper Lake delivers the goods and expands upon elements hinted at in its predecessor. I heartily recommend this book to readers who enjoyed The Turning, and anyone who fancies a taut bit of wolf lore by extension. 5/5 stars. Grab it on Amazon.

Book Review: At The Cemetery Gates

At the Cemetery Gates: Year One, by John Brhel and Joseph Sullivan

I remember going to sleepovers as a kid, and staying up into the wee hours of the morning trading scary stories and urban legends in hushed tones with my friends. We’d swear up and down that we knew someone who knew someone who knew the girl whose boyfriend was murdered by the hook hand killer. We’d retell local legends, and stories we’d read in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.The tales were short and sweet, getting to the good stuff quickly and allowing for the storyteller to embellish for maximum effect. It spawned an entire generation of horror fans, including authors John Brhel and Joseph Sullivan, who paid homage to the Scary Stories collections with their newest book, At the Cemetery Gates: Year One.

The following aren’t short stories so much as they are digestible suburban fables.

Cemetery Gates Media presents a collection of fourteen twisted tales clocking in at 168 pages of consumable bites of horror and dark fiction, written in the very style that made Alvin Schwarz’s tales so popular two decades ago. Rather than setting everything up neatly like a regular short story, Brhel and Sullivan condense their stories into compact vignettes that are ready for retelling around a campfire, or in a bedroom late at night.

Favorites include:

Passion’s Paroxysm, a quick glimpse into a day in the life of a mistreated husband. The surprise ending make this tale destined to be an urban legend

The Girl With The Crooked Tooth, a thoroughly eerie homage to Edgar Allen Poe, complete with a creepy dude with an odd obsession with a woman. I don’t like dental stuff, so this one really got under my skin. The beautiful prose and unsettling imagery stuck with me.

New Year’s Eve, What A Gas!, about a simple mistake leading to catastrophic consequences. If you like the stories that play on fears of being killed at random, for no good reason, this is sure to titillate.

Considering that I couldn’t find a bad thing to say about this collection and found it to be even more enjoyable than their last anthology, I give this book the full 5 stars. Many of these stories are trope-heavy, but that’s how good lore works. It follows a basic template, and works as a means of expressing universal fears in American society. Anonymous murderers, poison in our food, and systematic conspiracies that affect the marginalized are all things that many of us worry about.  Urban legends synthesize those apprehensions into morsels of dread that serve to remind us that death awaits us everywhere, at all times. I’d heartily recommend At The Cemetery Gates to readers who want a little something to nibble on before bed each night, and to young horror fans who want something juicy to regale to their friends between classes. Find it on Amazon.

Marvelry’s Curiosity Shop: Book Review

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

     The Twilight Zone is one of my favorite shows ever. I’ve watched season after season, over and over, year after year. It never gets old for me. I’m attracted to short, weird tales that manage to enthrall and shock me in 30 minutes or less. Likewise, I also enjoy short story collections for the same reason. Bite-sized stories of suspense and the unexplained will always have a place on my bookshelf.

Marvelry’s Curiosity Shop, by John Brhel and Joseph Sullivan, is one such collection of stories. 12 fantastical tales of terror and mystery await in a retired stage magician’s shop. Dr. Marvelry (pronounced, “Marvel-rye”) has traveled the world and collected scores of curious objects. From the book summary:

“A phonograph that seemingly replays a tragedy. Fertility dolls that are more than decoration. A bedeviled mannequin. These are just some of the relics this eccentric shopkeeper has collected over the years.”

He seems like a nice enough man, but Dr. Marvelry seems to have no problem selling these cursed items to unsuspecting customers, without really giving them proper warning about the objects’ power. Seems kind of messed up, right? I had some trouble trying to figure out Marvelry as a character, whether his intent was malicious or not. In any case, he himself was featured in a couple of the stories, and was largely sympathetic.

As for the stories, they were a load of fun. My favorite tale in particular was “Seams of Consequence”, about a vintage sewing machine that served its purpose a little too well. It could have easily been an episode of The Twilight Zone, right down to the eerie, but fitting, ending. “A Gift Ungiven”, about a professor that purchases an ancient Native Amercian artifact, would have been a favorite had the ending been given more thought. Unfortunately, many of the stories ended sooner than I had hoped, usually with a character giving exposition in the final paragraph to explain the climax. Stories as strong as these deserve to be explored to their full potential, even if it means upping the word count a bit. I’m hoping that, in their next collection, the authors max out the narratives a bit more to let readers feel the full impact of the spectacular climaxes. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more by Brhel and Sullivan.

The stories are told in a narration that takes some getting used to, but still consistent. Think of someone telling you tales by a campfire; there’s going to be much more “tell” than “show”. Once I got past that, I found the stories to be quite enjoyable. The authors took the time to weave the cursed objects, characters, and places within one another’s stories, which really brought the collection together, rather than just slapping together creepypasta-style tales together with a common theme.

I would recommend this book to fans of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, who want some light reading that’s creepy, but won’t give them nightmares. With the exception of one story with sexual themes (“A Made Match”), I think a YA audience would have a good time with the book, as well. Find it on Amazon.

Review: The Turning

Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The werewolf is one of the most tragic monsters in literary history. Their condition is a curse, a constant struggle to deal with and suppress their primitive nature. Once the moon turns man to beast, his hunger is voracious, his lust is insatiable, and his violence is brutal. As humans, acting upon these urges has been generally frowned upon and sometimes shunned in societies both past and present. But we are wild creatures; always have been. We’ve hunted and gathered, we’ve been fruitful and multiplied, and clawed our way to the top tier of the food chain to ensure the survival and thriving of our species. Unfortunately, we’ve tamed ourselves in the past few centuries. The domestication of man has come at a cost: the suppression of our wildness. The werewolf represents our most basic instincts: consume, copulate, kill. Wolf lore has portrayed this beast as representing society’s struggle with our animal nature, and our attempts (and failures) to hide what we really are.

The Turning, by Micky Neilson, is a howling homage to the awesome werewolf lore we all grew up on. Neilson assumes that you’re already familiar with the old-school rules (the cursed is at the mercy of the moon, has superhuman strength when turned, can be killed by silver bullets, etc.) and goes a step further by adding new twists, like an anaphylactic-like reaction to colloidal silver. The story follows Brandon Frye as he deals with his curse after being bitten. Brandon does what most would do, once bitten: tries to avoid hurting others, by any means necessary. For him, this means going off the grid, closing himself off, and taking pills to suppress his more primal symptoms. In his quest of self-isolation, he boards a cruise ship to Alaska, where he meets the tame and sensible Ginny. Ginny is a passive player in her life and rarely listens to her gut, until she takes a chance on the handsome, masculine stranger with a mysterious past. Their romance is sudden, passionate, and sexy as hell. Neilson does not shy away from sexual themes, and is not afraid to explore the concept of sexuality as a repressed primal impulse through Ginny and Brandon’s relationship. Their graphic trysts are sure to cause a few raised eyebrows and earmarked pages for readers.

I gotta be real, I re-read the juicy parts a few times. Don’t judge me.

As Brandon and Ginny enjoy each others company on the high seas, a hunter is in pursuit. Brandon is the target of a different kind of predator, who is part of something big; something foreboding. Despite being a mortal human, this predator is a formidable foe for our lycanthropic protagonist. Alexander stalks his prey methodically, enjoying the thrill of the hunt. Unlike Brandon, Alexander is conscious of his primal “needs”, and revels in satisfying his impulses, to the point of getting deep,depraved gratification from slowly extracting life from others.

I want to take a minute to talk about how much I loved this villain. Alexander made me squirm at his sadism, and cry out whenever anyone crossed his path. One of the scenes that stood out for me was when Alexander was having drinks with a woman whom he was using for information about his prey. He never referred to her as a woman, or even human. He called her, “the cow”, “the pachyderm”, animal terms befitting the subhuman she was, in his eyes. The author put some serious work into this character (as he did with all characters in this story, even the minor ones), and it shows. He serves as a revolting antithesis to Brandon, and I really, really wanted to see him get his just desserts. This guy was a real piece of work.

I can’t say much more about the plot without spoiling things for the reader, but I will say that the climax was action-packed, and the ending made me gasp, “Dude, NO WAY!”

The only negative comment I have isn’t really all that negative; the book ended too soon. I need more. Fingers crossed for a series!

TL;DR: If you are a fan of the old-school werewolf movies like An American Werewolf in London or Silver Bullet, or if you just need a solid supernatural page-turner that’ll make you laugh out loud and hit you with some serious feels, I’d highly recommend that you pick up this book on Amazon. Snuggle in on the night of the next full moon, and enjoy the ride…