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This is a collection of a dozen or more short-stories which chronicle the adventures of various heroes as they deal with increasingly bad situations. They're the heroes facing hell (hence the title) and, in many ways, this is a surprisingly uplifting book. The heroes rarely come to a bad end and, when they do, it is a genuine surprise.
At Hell's Gates is a book by such notable indie horror authors as Jacequline Druga (Contagion), Stephen Kozeniewski (Braineater Jones), Shana Festa (Time of Death), Stevie Kopas (The Breadwinner), and Paul Mannering (Tankbread). Quite a few of the vignettes deal with the characters from these works and if you're familiar with any of them, you're probably going to get more out of the stories than someone who is not.
At Hell's Gates is a mixture of good, okay, and stories I found myself indifferent to. My favorite story is probably The Err Apparent by Tim Marquitz, which is a R-rated version of the Dresden Files with the Devil's nephew as its protagonist. Another standout is The Princess and the Flea by Paul Mannering. I wasn't familiar with either work beforehand but both were incredibly enjoyable and encouraged me to check out their universes.
Some of the stories are ones that weren't so great, however. None of them were bad, per say, but some of them felt like they were teasers for the book worlds they came from rather than complete stories themselves. The best of At Hell's Gates is when the tales decide to show something in its entirety. Journal of the Undead: The Beginning by S.G. Lee is an example of one of the complete stories which is stronger for it.
If there's a flaw with At Hell's Gates, it's the fact the vast majority of the stories are zombie ones. I think the anthology promoters would have done well to highlight this fact. Calling it At Hell's Gates: Zombies or something similar might have made things better, IMHO. Here, I expected a more diverse variety of stories and found, instead, a zombie anthology with a few outliers.
Not every story will blow you away but it has a pretty good average against professional anthologies I've read. There's also some real gems in it as well. Given it is less than half the price of a comparably sized independent book, I think it's well worth the price to check out. The fact the profits go to charity also means that I encourage horror fans to pick it up.
In conclusion, At Hell's Gates is a worthy edition to any horror fan's e-library.
I must say that all of the authors brought their unique styles to each story and I liked some more then others.
When all is said and down, this was an excellent effort by all involved.
I must admit some of the evil expressed in several stories was not my cup of tea but several other stories deserve further looking into of those author's other works.
At Hell's Gate is a new anthology of stories by a group of authors primarily known for their work with zombies for Permuted Press and edited by well-known editor Monique Happy and James Crawford (who also contributed a story to the anthology). The editing is great, and I found very little that I could pick at. As is usual, the stories run the gamut of tastes and styles, but I'll do my best to hit each one.
Black Crow Laughing by Devan Sagliani covers events in his Undead L.A. universe and recounts the events of two young kids in love as they try to survive trapped in a zombie-surrounded shed. The main character recounts how they came to find themselves there and then describes their eventual attempt to escape. The story is good, providing both action and character development in equal draughts. It's one downfall for some might be that it's the kind of zombie story you've read before, but that is not going to be a bad thing for hardcore zombie fans.
The raucously titled Exploding Shit Zombies by Stephen Kozeniewski adds some flavor to the events in his novel The Ghoul Archipelago, and fans of that book will notice a few nods to it. The story is fast-paced and humorous in a way that I think many will enjoy. It also makes an interesting point or two about zombie biology and how hordes of a different kind might form, which I liked. It's a little short on character development, but it's too enjoyable for the reader to really care. One of the top stories in the book for me.
No Shelter by Lesa and Matt Kinney delves into their own Dead, but Not for Long books and details a group of bikers and homeless people who try to protect themselves from a burgeoning zombie crisis. I have not read this book series, so I cannot comment on what it adds to their lore, but as an outsider there were a lot of characters to follow. I was not a big fan of the general writing style personally, though it is decently written. The dialogue also did not work for me in whole, but I suspect that there are plenty of people who will like it. The pacing and plot are good, but not quite distinct enough from the typical NotLD scenario to really grab me. To a degree, you can't go into an anthology expecting to click with every story, but I try to remember that just because I did not like the story does not make it poorly-written. I'll give the authors some credit for subverting the usual trend of bikers as bad guys trope that we often see in zombie novels. Furthermore, the main character is far from infallible and as the reader I felt like he actually feels bad about some of the choices he made, which was an accomplishment for the writers I think.
Ollie Ollie Oxen Free by Shana Festa is an addition to the Time of Death universe and chronicles the attempts of one of Emma Rossi's nursing friends as she attempts to escape the growing zombie crisis. The story is good and adds a bit to the lore of ToD, particularly since I had wondered what had happened to Ollie after reading Induction. The pacing moves the story along at a good clip and the writing is entertaining. The tone and style of writing are in keeping with ToD, which is good for those who liked it. It's not quite my speed, but as I said, I liked the story all the same.
Nefarious by Stevie Kopas is the origin story of Moira from her Breadwinner Trilogy and her attempts to come to grips with the apocalypse. Though I've not read her books, this story was good. The characters are sketched out well and those we're not supposed to like feel appropriately evil and detestable. Overall, it was enjoyable as a standalone, and likely welcome for those who have read the series.
Home Defense By James Crawford expands on the Blood Soaked and Contagious series and follows two men as they attempt to protect their neighborhood from the unique and foul-mouthed dead of those books. While it's an entertaining and well-written story, I'm not sure that I got all I could out of it having not read the books. Regardless, as a standalone, it was a fun read.
Stories From the Apocalypse by J. Rudolph is an internal recounting of events by a young woman caught up in the zombie holocaust and her reconciling the decisions she's made. Though connected to a book series that has not yet been released, which bears some problems as possibly spoiling some of the surprises contained therein, it is a well-done character exploration that weightily conveys the mourning and regret the narrator's regret about some of the choices she's made. If the whole book is as good as this book, it ought to do well.
Next is Journal of the Undead: The Beginning by S.G. Lee, from his upcoming Journal of the Undead book. It tells the tale of a young Army doctor sent to a secret military facility in the steamy jungles of South America. As time goes on, though, he finds that things are more than they seem. I enjoyed this story – the action and pacing were good, and the characters were likeable. Not only that, but it brings a much-appreciated change of scenery from suburban America as the backdrop for it's story. I'm a bit picky about military based stories, just because of my interests and reading on the subject, but this one does a decent job of getting a feel for it, though it might distract some. There are a few times where the dialogue doesn't feel quite right, but they're easily overlooked.
Hour of the Beast by J.M. Martin has the distinction of being the first non-zombie story of the bunch, and it retells the story of a young pregnant woman as she tries to find out why her once-doting husband has become cold and angry towards her. The writing on this one is good, and the medieval, fantasy tone of it is handled well. Definitely worth a read.
The Err Apparent by Tim Marquitz follows the devil-related monster hunter of Demon Squad fame as he attempts to hunt down a shadowy killer stalking around a small New Mexico town. This one is great – it has the horror and humor feel of the TV show Supernatural, and the action, pacing, and characters are all engaging. This story did exactly what it set out to do: it entertained, but also made me want to seek out the author's other work as well. A top choice for me.
Cracked: A Deadland Saga short story by Rachel Aukes tells of the remnants of an Army platoon attempting to escape Des Moines, Iowa after it's been overrun with the dead and before it gets bombed into dust. As the title suggests this is connected to the Deadland Saga books. This one did not quite do it for me; not because it was badly written or unentertaining, but the characters as soldiers did not feel quite real. I'm certainly no expert on the subject, but it just did not feel right to me in terms of lingo and attitude. There's not a bad story in the book, however, and I certainly did not feel cheated of my time to have read this one.
Undead Britain by Frank Tayell is a story in his The Evacuation world and tells of a woman's trials as she attempts to flee a zombie-infested London with her family, and her determination to keep a promise to someone no matter the cost. This is another decent story, and it's well written, but personally, it did not quite grab me and suck me in as some of the others did. The characters are well-defined, however, and for those who like a lower-key less action-y zombie tale, they'll like this one.
The Weight of Darkness by Sean T. Smith occurs in his Wrath universe and covers the exploits of a small special forces unit trying to navigate through a disease and madness-riddled Europe (the Vatican in particular as it so happens). Anyone who has read my reviews of the first two books in this series will not be surprised when I say I liked this story. Lean, balanced, and enticing the reader with just enough information to want to read the next book in the series. Anyone looking for a non-zombie, non-EMP apocalypse story should go right to this one like I did. Then go read Objects of Wrath and Children of Wrath. They're both worth it.
Jacqueline Druga finishes up with a trio of stories The Husband, Seth, and The Fertile. Each is quite distinct from the other – the first is a Tales From the Crypt-type story of a fed-up wife who kills her husband in a very unique way. Seth is the story of a minor psychic who's asked to complete a task for a strange young man and reaps an unexpected rewards as a result. Finally, The Fertile tells a story of a young adventurer trying to slip unnoticed through the realm of giant alien Gods in order to help his people. Druga knows how to write characters, and for that she's become popular with many. I tend not to get into her stories personally as they tend to fall more into the drama vs. action realm which I'm more drawn to. That's not to say that the stories are bad though, and some readers will definitely enjoy that her stories are all a bit more subdued than the zombie apocalypse or hunting demons.
All-around it's worth the meager asking price particularly considering all the authors donated their time and talent to the anthology for nothing in return. The stories are all entertaining in one form or another and many of them expand on universes that the reader may already be familiar with. In a few cases it may spur them to check out something new.