[Book Review] Small Press Roundup: ‘Red Empire,’ ‘Stainless’ and ‘By the Time’

Small press horror is always a crapshoot. Better have your lady friend kiss those dice before you roll, cause with indie fiction you never know what you’re gonna get. But for some reason, an unusually stellar streak of small press titles have arrived on my doorstep the last several weeks, and pure luck may be the only explanation. A trio of novels––by authors Joe McKinney, Todd Grimson, and J. David Osborne––really stood out of the pack. And while my expectations were admittedly low, it’s always nice to be pleasantly surprised. Whether you’re intrigued by grisly vampire romance, nature vs. human smackdowns, or the horrors of Siberian prisons (and who isn‘t really?), these guys can really bring the heat. The Red Empire and Other Stories
By Joe McKinney
Redrum Horror
January 1, 2012

Joe McKinney is the author of the apocalyptic Dead Worldseries, but there’s nary a zombie to be found in The Red Empire and Other Stories. Tales about crime dominate this 9-story anthology, which makes sense when you consider that when he’s not writing, McKinney is a San Antonio police sergeant with 15 years of law enforcement experience. He throws in a couple of ghost stories and a non-fiction piece for good measure, but the highlight of the book is the title piece. In his horror novella The Red Empire, McKinney gleefully introduces mutant red ants and an escaped convict to a rain-drenched town, and cranks the ingredients into a pulpy, page-turning stew. It’s a 1950s monster movie, in story form.

3.5 Skulls out of 5

Stainless
By Todd Grimson
Schaffner Press
January 18, 2012

Todd Grimson’s vampire novel reads like a gruesome, grown-up sequel to Let Me In…except that Stainless was published 11 years before John Lindqvist’s new horror classic hit bookstores. Along with the similarly excellent Brand New Cherry Flavor, Grimson burst onto the horror lit scene back in the mid-90s with Stainless––now getting a re-release from Schaffner––but lately his literary output has been limited to short stories popping up in an online mag here and there. Too bad, cause even 15 years later, Stainless really holds up. Justine is a 400-year-old vampire; Keith is her human familiar. Moving back and forth in time, Grimson tells the story of their grim romance, from their first meeting after Keith’s hands had been maimed by drug dealers to their final confrontation with a sadistic vampire leader. Blood will flow and heads will roll, but Grimson keeps his story grounded in emotion and reality. Some will undeniably cower away from the uber-bleak characters, but Grimson is an excellent writer, and those with a renewed interest in this increasingly popular subgenre owe it to themselves to give Stainless a look.

4 Skulls out of 5

By The Time We Leave Here, We’ll Be Friends
By J. David Osborne
Swallowdown Press
December 10, 2010

It was a short story in last year’s Demons anthology that first turned me on to J. David Osborne, and it turns out his 2010 debut novel is even better than expected. This spare, violent, hallucinatory survival piece about rival Russian gangsters in a 1953 Siberian prison reads like the hard-edged framework of a richly drawn epic. Osborne sketches a vivid outline and allows his readers to make some obvious (and not so obvious) connections on their own, while constantly allowing the threat of calculated brutality to linger in the background. Speaking of brutality, a few of his stronger scenes will make even the most jaded horror lover squirm. (Hint: tattoo removal.) By The Time We Leave Here, We’ll Be Friends is a bleary, opium-addled fever dream from a highly talented new author. Osborne is one to watch.

4.5 Skulls out of 5