Book Review: BRIEF CASES (The Dresden Files)

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brief cases dresden filesJim Butcher
ACE
2018

It’s been three years since the last book in the Dresden Files series was released. Three long years without our favorite Chicago-based wizard detective to experience exciting supernatural wackiness vicariously through. Fortunately, there’s been a recent publication of another short story collection by Jim Butcher, something that will tide me over until the next book in the series comes out. Loves me some Dresden Files.

Anyway, yeah, Brief Cases was recently released through ACE Books, collecting several short stories that Butcher wrote for other publications, plus one that was only released on this collection, if I have my information correct. Let’s dive in and see what we got, shall we?

  • “A Fistful Of Warlocks”

We take a trip back to the Wild West of the 1800s, where the warden Anastasia Luccio rides into the town of Dodge City, hot on the heels of a warlock, and teams up with a deputy sherif named Wyatt Erp to take on the warlock’s posse and their zombie horde.

  • “B Is For Bigfoot”

Harry Dresden takes a case from a Bigfoot named Strength of a River in His Shoulders (River Shoulders for short) to check up on his son, who goes to school in Chicago. The kid might be being picked on by bullies; only, it turns out to be more than that.

  • “AAAA Wizardry”

Dresden regales a class of young wardens in training with a tale of when he took on a case involving a boogeyman to illustrate the five “A”s of wizardly investigation.

  • “I Was A Teenage Bigfoot”

Once again, Dresden takes a case from River Shoulders, this time to check up on his son — who is now a teenager and attending a private school — and find out why he’s sick. On account of, the son of Bigfoot shouldn’t be getting sick, let alone lain out in the infirmary. It might be black magic afoot…but you’d never guess for what ends.

  • “Curses”

Dresden is hired to try and get a curse put on Wrigley Field in 1945 lifted so the Cubs can actually win for once, darn it. This takes him deep in the realm of the Tylwyth Teg, to speak to the caster of the curse. Who knew the creatures of folklore were big baseball fans?

  • “Even Hand”

A story told from the point of view of John Marcone, the Chicago crime lord that’s a perpetual thorn in Dresden’s side. Here, Marcone is best upon by a rather nasty member of the Fomor — Cantrev Lord Mag — who’s there to collect a baby that was stolen by the White Court’s human servant Justine. Things go boom.

  • “Bigfoot On Campus”

One last case from River Shoulders, and this time he wants Dresden to check in on his now college-age son due to a premonition of danger. Which may hold some water, as Dresden discovers that the kid is dating the daughter of a White Court vampire.

  • “Bombshells

Told from Molly Carpenter’s point of view, from her post-wizard apprentice days, due to Dresden still being considered dead at this point; she takes a mission to infiltrate a Swartves stronghold to rescue Dresden’s half-brother Thomas Raith; only, she discovers things aren’t as cut and dried as they seem. To be fair, they never are.

  • “Cold Case”

Another one from Molly Carpenter’s point of view, this time as the newly-minted Lady of the Winter Court. She is charged with collecting a long-overdue tribute from the Miksani. After arriving at the small Alaskan seaport, she discovers the reason why they’ve been so tardy, and teams up with the young Warden Ramirez to get things back in order.

  • “Jury Duty”

Harry Dresden is summoned to jury duty in the case of a former bodyguard for a crime boss accused of the murder of a man one year prior. It seems fairly cut and dried only Dresden has that inkling that something’s not quite right. So he goes investigating, along with one of his werewolf friends. Wackiness ensues.

  • “Day One”

A story told from the perspective of everyone’s favorite polka-loving, Sword of Faith-wielding mortician, Waldo Butters; this one concerns Butters’ first case as a newly-minted Knight of the Cross, which involves a rogue baku that’s feeding off the fear of the children in a hospital ward.

  • “Zoo Day”

The final story in this collection has Dresden taking his ten-year-old daughter Maggie and his dog (and current guardian of Maggie) Mouse on a daddy/daughter/doggie day at the zoo to look at some animals. This one takes turns with the point of views, starting with Dresden, who encounters a young warlock; Maggie, where she faces off with some nasty haunts that are possessing other kids at the zoo; and finally Mouse, where he meets a dark figure from his past. Also, there’s french fries.

Of the stories in this collection, I believe I enjoyed “A Fistful Of Warlocks”, the three involving Bigfoot and his half-human, half-bigfoot son (especially the “Bigfoot On Campus”, as things really go boom there), and “Zoo Day”, as we not only get a good story involving Dresden trying to be something he’s not accustomed to — being a father — but also the three points of view, one being the ironically named Mouse. That was great, there.

Mind you, all the rest of the stories contained are all top-notch, containing the quality type of action, mystery and humor that comes with this series, only contained in easily digestible bite-sized pieces. I’m afraid I went through my Kindle edition of this a bit too fast, as per usual. It was that kind of engrossing. Recommended.

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Book Review: STRANGE WEATHER

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joe hill strange weatherJoe Hill
William Morrow
2017

Joe Hill’s follow-up to his fantastic novel The Fireman is a collection of four novellas, titled Strange Weather. Of course, being a fan of Joe Hill, I purchased my copy of Strange Weather the same week it was released. But, in kind of a first, I got my copy as an e-book through Google Play. Not that this will become the future standard for my literary indulgences, mind you. Just went with this format for kicks and giggles.

So, four short novels collected in one binding. Let’s dive in and see what came out of Joe Hill’s brain droppings, shall we?

  • “Snapshot”

A successful middle-aged man reminisces back to the summer of 1988, where he runs into a creepy guy with a camera you really don’t want to have your picture taken with.

This was a pretty taught thriller with an object that seems to call back to the Stephen King novella “The Sun Dog” from the Four Past Midnight collection. But, “Snapshot” is far from a rip of that story. The two feature instant cameras that do weird stuff, and that’s where the similarities end. The camera in “Snapshot” is far more sinister. The story also manages to be emotionally wrenching, with the theme of losing your identity and saying goodbye to your past. I also found myself empathizing with the main protagonist, as I too was the fat young teenager back in ’88. What a year. No creepy gangly old men with cameras, though. That I know of.

  • “Loaded”

A disgraced mall security guard shoots and kills the jilted mistress of another mall store manager, a Muslim woman and her infant son shee was carrying, and a young man who witnessed the incident, thinking it was all a terrorist attack. He’s hailed as a hero of the community, everyone praising him, including his estranged wife and young son. Until a reporter from the local paper starts digging for the truth, and the “hero” finally snaps under all the pressure.

“Loaded” is one of those super tense thrillers where the real life terror depicted in the story is only amplified by the real life horror that plays out on the news at home, with shootings seemingly on the rise. Hill did a rather good job with making the antagonist nunced and sympathetic to a point; though in no way do you really side with him, as what they’re doing is despicable, but you can kinda see where he’s coming from. Overall, a very good story that rather pissed me off with the ending, there. Well done, sir. Well done.

  • “Aloft”

A young man’s first attempt at skydiving, to honor the wishes of a friend that died of cancer, results in him getting stuck on a cloud that’s not really a cloud (at least, it doesn’t act like actual clouds do…which is an understatement), and he’s stuck trying to figure out how to get down, and the cloud doesn’t seem to want to let him go.

The fun thing about speculative fantasy fiction is the taking of an otherwise absurd-sounding concept, and spinning it into a yarn that makes it work. “Aloft” does just that, with a concept that sounds more like a comic strip gag — a guy skydives and gets stuck on a cloud. Joe Hill takes this and makes it right engrossing, giving things a nice mystery surrounding his situation, as well as working out some relationship issues.

  • “Rain”

One afternoon in Boulder, Colorado, it begins raining razor-sharp crystalline shards that kills or seriously wounds anyone caught outside in it. This includes the girlfriend of our story’s protagonist, who, soon after the first freak storm, sets out on foot to Denver to try and find her girlfriend’s father to inform him of his wife and daughter’s tragic demise from the freak storm, and try to make heads or tails of what’s going on, and try to survive.

In a note in the afterwards portion of this book, Joe Hill admits to writing “Rain” as kind of a satire of his own post-apocalyptic novel The Fireman. Maybe I’m not smart enough to get the satire part; it’s probably too subtle for a meathead like myself to notice the first time reading. I do, however, recall reading a story in a collection of youth-oriented science fiction stories back in grade school, one that involved a kid playing outside on a planet his human family have settled on, and almost getting caught in a flash storm that rained sharp crystals from the clouds, much like in this one. Only, that story wasn’t as nuanced or, you know, set on Earth as “Rain” is. A lot more plot, a lot more character development, and…well, let’s just say this is probably the best kind of kooky cult types you want to be stuck next to. Give or take singing Genesis songs in the middle of the night.

Once again, Strange Weather manages to solidify Joe Hill as one of my top favorite genre writers in the past ten years. He has one of the most fertile imaginations I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing, and this collection is further proof of that. Highly engrossing, time seems to just fly by as I read this. Highly recommended, this.

Movie Review: CHARLOTTE

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charlotteRuthless Studios
2017
NR

Once again, Amazon Prime movie streaming service, you got me. You had me thinking Charlotte was going to be a horrible low-budget knockoff of the Annabelle movies. I mean, look at that video art up there. Decrepit-looking doll with a hand put up to her lips in the universal “ssshhh” gesture, with the subtitle of “The Doll Behind The Horror”. That image alone promises nightmare-inducing unintentional laughter-inducing scary doll horror goodness.

But no, that cover — just as concepts like “love” and “human decency” — is a lie. Instead of scary doll horror movie, we get an anthology collection of eight low-budget horror shorts plus the obligatory wrap-around gathered together in an 85-minute exercise in mediocrity, with maybe a couple of bright spots scattered in there.

So, the movie starts with the standard wrap-around short, titled “Ragged Damned”, where we’re introduced to the doll that I assume is the titular Charlotte, as it’s never really mentioned what the doll’s name is. Also, it looks nothing like the doll on the cover art of the movie. Anyway, said doll somehow takes the babysitter hostage, tying her up to the couch and forcing her to watch the series of short films while slowly…turning the babysitter into a doll, somehow. It just hurts trying to figure out the logic of this.

Anyway, the first proper short, “Counter Parts”, concerns a woman who had lost one of her legs and both of her eyes in a prior accident. She decides to get back her missing bits by way of VOODOO MAGIC! cursing her more famous twin sister. Of course, there’s a lame twist at the end, here…

The second short, “Dollface”, takes place on Halloween, where a woman’s husband goes missing whilst returning a lost purse, and stumbles upon a caged up girl. Turns out, the kid is caged for a purpose…

Short number three — “Tickle” — involves another babysitter, this one telling her charge the story of a troll that likes to sneak into the bedrooms of sleeping children to…TICKLE THEIR FEET! And of course, the troll is real…

In “Good Evening”, an old man summons something from his basement, and offers it finger food. And that’s it, really…

In the fifth short, “Get Off My Porch”, a suburban guy is terrorized by girl scouts he refuses to buy cookies from. And the girls are very persuasive…

In “The Judas Cradle”, a young woman comes to in a dark, dank basement with a mysterious guy tied up to a chair (just your standard Tuesday for your Uncle NecRo). Then another man — presumably the kidnapper — comes down to explain the situation for everyone…

In “My BFF”, a bratty kid receives a mysterious package containing a doll from the Uncanny Valley, and the mother doesn’t like it…for obvious reasons…

Finally, the last short, “Howl Of A Good Time”, a young girl sneaks into a horror movie festival, where she discovers the horror fans and movie theater employees aren’t what they seem. But, that’s okay, as the girl isn’t what she seems, either…

Where to begin on this. Let’s start with what I thought were the better parts, namely “Get Off My Porch”, and “Howl Of A Good Time”. Both were great fun, having something of a Robert Bloch feel to the style, especially with “Get Off My Porch”. I should point out that the FX company Scream In The Dark Productions worked on “Howl Of A Good Time”; I bring it up because they hail from my neck of the world in Nebraska, and it’s always good to be able to support some home-grown talent when I can. Mind you, this didn’t sway my opinion on the quality of the short, as I was unaware of this until the credits rolled and I could confirm this. I also want to say that “Good Evening” gets an honorable mention, due to it leaving things unexplained and in the shadows, as it were, making the mystery of what’s going on rather intriguing. Otherwise, all of the other shorts, and especially the wrap-around, are forgettable weak sauce. The only reason to really watch this is for the two shorts I mentioned, otherwise it’s not really worth the price of a rental.

Movie Review: The DARK TAPES

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dark tapes, theEpic Pictures Group
2016
NR

Oh, hey, look: a found footage anthology movie. On the Amazon Prime streaming. Who’da thunk it? Well, I chose to watch this due to the cover art itself, so let’s get this review over with.

If you’re new to this blog of mine, you may have noticed that I have kind of a low expectation upon found footage movies. I watch ’em because sometimes I’ve been surprised before, like with the V/H/S series, or with the first Cloverfield movie. But more often than not, they’ve turned out to be formulaic and stale, mostly involving invisible ghosts and such, always at some haunted location. Or family curse. I’m looking at you, Paranormal Activity series. I do very much enjoy the anthology style of horror movie, so at least there’s that going for The Dark Tapes. So, does this anthology flick stand up, or does it fall flat? Let’s see…

The first segment is kind of the wrap-around short, the one that is shown in segments between the segments, acting as a lose glue to hold the films together. It’s called “To Catch A Demon”, and starts kind of weak, but then gets a bit more interesting as the segments go on. It does have a Lovecraftian sci-fi feel to it, and works on a certain level, with the low point being when the trans-dimensional creature speaks. Kind of unintentionally funny, there. Anyway, the first proper short is “The Hunters And The Hunted”, which comes off as a cheap Ghost Hunters/Paranormal Activity knock-off, for the most part losing me in the “been there, done that” feeling, when suddenly there’s a twist at the end that made me nod and smile in approval. Good save, there. Up next was “Cam Girls”, and is pretty much the weakest short in this, more or less an excuse in girl-on-girl titillation and gore, all on web cams. The end “twist” is the biggest middle finger to those watching. I do give them props for not featuring any nudity in this one, just letting the story stand on its on unmitigated suckiness. And finally, “Amanda’s Revenge” centers on the titular young lady who finds herself constantly visited and tormented by otherworldly beings, frightened at first but then figuring out a way to turn the tables and chase away these ETs for good.

Overall, there’s a lot of really good ideas featured here in The Dark Tapes that suffer greatly from the execution. The strongest point here, I thought, was the wrap-around “To Catch A Demon”, which reminds me of the Lovecraft story “From Beyond”. Second best is “Amanda’s Revenge”, with “The Hunters And The Hunted” saved from a strong ending but still doesn’t justify the weak first part. “Cam Girls” is just pointless. The low-budget effects can be off-putting at times, as well as some of the acting.

In the end, The Dark Tapes doesn’t do anything to justify the continued production of found footage movies, other than they’re cheep to crank out and make money on. Check out the three V/H/S anthologies for a much better example of doing the style right.

Music Review: CRIMSON THORN – Anthology Of Brutality

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crimson thorn anthology of brutalityCRIMSON THORN
Anthology Of Brutality: 1992-2002 The Complete Collective Works
Bombworks Records
2017

As death metal goes, Crimson Thorn ranks up there in my Top 3 favorites. They’re one of the most heavy, brutal, gut-churning-ly fantastic groups to ever have graced my earholes. I caught them live at Cornerstone 2002, around the time when they released their final full-length Purification, a show that congealed my insides and left me with a warm, tingly sensation that I’m 86% sure wasn’t just a minor stroke brought on by the show. If I had one complaint about the band, it’s that the production quality–especially on their first full-length release–left a lot to be desired.

Fortunately, and at long last, the good folks at the always-awesome Bombworks Records understood this, and released a three disc boxed set of the Crimson Thorn albums, along with a few extra odds and sods, all of which are completely remastered to finally showcase the death metal the way it was supposed to be listened to: where you can feel it down deep in the bowels of your very being.

Disc one contains the 1994 debut full-length Unearthed, plus the Plagued demo from 1993. Disc two contains 1997’s Dissection, plus their contribution to the Tribute To Living Sacrifice compilation (“Anorexia Spiritual”), and “Something Else”. Disc three contains 2002’s Purification release, plus three live cuts from a show in Minneapolis: “Intro/Imminent Wrath”, “Sarcastic Deviation”, and “Putrid Condemnation”.

If you’re anything like me, then you already own all of these releases, including the Live In Minneapolis DVD. Well, there’s still a very good reason to get Anthology Of Brutality, and that’s because the remastering has made everything sound superb. The sound is no longer muddled–especially on both the Plagued demo and Unearthed releases–and all of the delicious brutality goodness is made nice, clear and solid. If you’re tired of not being able to crank up Crimson Thorn’s discography as you’d like, Anthology Of Brutality has got you covered.

If you’re wanting a physical copy of the boxed set itself, this was limited to 500 copies, so you’d probably want to be quick about it. However, the songs are also available for digital download from Amazon, which is where I purchased my copy, and if you’re okay with that, it still sounds fantastic. Either way you go, Anthology Of Brutality comes highly recommended by your Uncle NecRo, and gets an enthusiastic five-out-of-five Metal Horns Up.

Movie Review: SOUTHBOUND

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southboundDark Sky Films
2015
R

“This next one might be familiar to some of you. It’s for all of you out there who don’t want the night to end. So go ahead, make some mistakes. You can always get it right the next time.”

Interlocking tales of highway terror revolve around malevolent spirits at a truck stop, a mysterious traveler, a car accident and a home invasion.

Southbound is an anthology type horror film that, while not really a sequel entry in the V/H/S series of horror anthology movies, does feature work by many filmmakers that worked previously on those movies as well. No other tie-in, as Southbound is its own entity. Just found that interesting for some odd reason.

The concept here involves a dark desert highway (cool wind in my hair) where travelers on this stretch confront their worst nightmares and darkest secrets as weird supernatural stuff happens to them. There are five stories that interlock throughout the movie:

“The Way Out”
We open on a couple of guys driving a beat up pickup down the highway, where it’s clear that, due to their appearance and general behavior, something bad had just happened not too long prior. They’re being pursued by these ghastly apparitions (that will be popping up in all of the other bits in the movie), and they stop at this run-down diner/gas station to freshen up and maybe shake the things off of their tail. Of course, they soon realize they’re stuck in a bizarre reality, and after one of the guys is finally killed by one of the apparitions, the other is led to a motel, and is trapped in one of the rooms in his own personal hell…

“Siren”
Cut to another room at the motel, and we are introduced to three college-age girls just waking up and leaving their room, and take off in their van. Turns out these girls are a band called The White Tights, and while motorin’ down the road, they get a flat. They’re picked up by a weird, eccentric couple (think the Brady Bunch parents but more over the top), who take them to their home and feed them burnt meatloaf. One of the girls doesn’t eat due to being a vegetarian, so she doesn’t get to become part of the secret cult the couple are a part of. She escapes being chased around, has some disturbing visions of a dead friend, and runs out onto the highway, only to be hit by the guy in the next story…

“The Accident”
The guy who hit the girl was distracted by talking to his wife on the cell phone (don’t dial and drive, kiddies). He panics, and instead of bolting he does the noble thing and stays with her, calling 911, who directs him to drive her to the nearby town and directs him to the hospital. Only, it turns out the hospital is abandoned. For quite some time. And he’s being instructed on how to administer treatment…which doesn’t go well. And then the EMT and dispatch on the phone start laughing at him. Then he gets a new set of clothes from one of the lockers, along with a new phone and car keys to a new car, then leaves…

“Jailbreak”
Which is when we discover the “dispatcher” that was talking with the guy was really a woman on a pay phone watching the guy drive off. She then goes to a bar named The Trap, where a guy with a shotgun comes in demanding where his sister is. He takes the bartender hostage and forces him to take him to where his sister is, which turns out to be a mystic tattoo parlor located in the back side of an ice cream parlor. There, he finds his sister doing some old school tattoo work, and he announces that he’s there to rescue her…only she tells him she’s there by choice and doesn’t want to leave. The guy responds by killing the bartender and kidnapping his sister, driving off into the darkness…where the car breaks down off road, and his sister tells him she was the one who killed their parents all those years ago, and she deserves to live in the town. Demons then grab the guy and pull him out of the car as she walks back into town…

“The Way In”
Back at the ice creme parlor (which is named Freez’n Over….ha ha ha), a girl and her parents are finishing up their food. Turns out the girl is about to head off to college, and this is their last weekend together. They head over to their vacation house and are settling in, when suddenly three unexpected guests in masks show up and hold the parents hostage, as the girl was able to hide. One of the masked invaders alludes to knowing a dark secret the dad is hiding, then kills the mother. The girl attacks, and runs away while her father is killed, one of the killers holding up a picture of a girl that we first saw in the opening story. The girl returns to attack, but is accidentally killed…and that’s when those ghoulish apparitions begin appearing out of the ground, and the two remaining guys from the first story take off in their pickup…

Of them all, I liked “The Accident” and “Jailbreak” the most, in that order. The other three were all right, and had their moments. As a whole, there was a good creepy vibe going on, and I liked the way things were tying in with each other. But overall, there wasn’t much to really blow my mind about. The shorts were well-made, and you are entertained, but that’s about it. Southbound works best if you think of it as a horror anthology comic book brought to life, like Creepshow. It’s worth checking out some night.

Music Review: PANTOKRATOR – A Decade Of Thoughts

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pantokrator - a decade of thoughtsPANTOKRATOR
A Decade Of Thoughts
Momentum Scandinavia
2007

In what I do, with collecting, listening to, and blogging my thoughts on so much \,,/METAL\,,/ that graces my earholes over the past couple of decades (plus some change), it comes to a point where a band has to be extra specially awesome to stick out. Pantokrator is one of those bands. Ever since picking p the In The Bleak Midwinter / Songs Of Solomon split with Sanctifica at Cornerstone 2002, they’ve managed to maintain a presence in my Frequently Played playlist since.

And like many other Death Metal bands imported from Europe, there was going to be releases that I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint and get leading up to what was available in the States, without paying an arm and a leg, or spelunking in the feted depths of rarities and opp trading and selling. Ebay was still in its early stages, after all. Fortunately, the next best thing to having all the demos and early EPs re-released on a boxed set collection, in 2007 Momentum Scandinavia released a compilation entitled A Decade Of Thoughts, featuring selections from the demos, EPs, and other work of the past ten years leading up to this.

On this particular compilation, there are cuts pulled from 1997’s Unclean Plants / Ancient Path demo (“Punish The Evil”, “Unclean Plants”), 1998’s Even Unto The Ends Of The Earth demo (“Via Dolorosa”), 2000’s Allhärskare EP (“Lamentation”), 2001’s Songs Of Solomon EP (“Come Let Us Flee”, “Separated By Night”), their 2003 full-length Blod (“Bundsfoervant”, “Gudablodets Kraft”, “Tidevarv”), the “Leviathan” single that was released earlier that year, plus four previously unreleased songs: “Nebuchadnezzar” (which would go on to be “The Madness Of Nebuchadnezzar” on the full-length Aurum release later that year), a cover of Vengeance Rising’s “Cut Into Pieces”, “White Robes” and “Psalm 29”. The production on all of the songs is very good, and the music is…well, it’s Pantokrator. Meaning it’s some very high-quality progressive death metal, even in their early stages.

Overall, A Decade Of Thoughts is a good compilation. I would have maybe preferred a few more selections from the albums that only had one cut represented on here, but for a chance to take a look at the earlier works of one of my favorite death metal bands, this was enough to slate my thirst.

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