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Book Review: The Very Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan by Caitlin R. Kiernan

NOTE: This review was originally published at High Fever Books in March 2019. That website has been closed, so I am republishing it here.

Publisher: Tachyon Publications

Release Date: February 19, 2019

Pages: 432 pages

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

A best of collection is a wonderful concept. Especially if you’re writer Caitlín R. Kiernan, who has published over two hundred and fifty short stories. This is her third ‘Best of’ collection, which speaks to the absolute wealth of her bibliography. For The Very Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan, Tachyon and the author decided to draw stories from her limited-edition publications. This is great, because it gives us an opportunity to experience works that we may have missed in the past. The stories within this collection are powerful and diverse, each one polished to perfection. You can see the hours of work poured into every page. I expected an incredible collection (Caitlín R. Kiernan never disappoints), and she truly delivered.

The TOC is 20 stories deep. Each of them is its own little monster, with a patchwork of different genres and influences. You can see Caitlín’s own brew of Lovecraftian horror in stories like Andromeda Among the Stones or Houses Under the Sea. There are tales of dark fantasy, fantasy noir and more traditional weird fiction. Not all of them would be considered horror, but a thread of darkness is almost always present. Each story is well-written, packed with fibrous prose and rich description at every turn of the page. As you work your way through this stacked book, you can see what makes for an essential Caitlín R. Kiernan story. They are often about loss and the murky power of the sea. The narratives are usually fractured and then sewed back into something emotional and monstrous. The endings are quieter than most short fiction in the genre, but there is always something lurking beneath the silence.

While I loved nearly every story in the collection, a few stood out for me. The Ape’s Wife is a sorrowful version of a story we know very well. La Peau Verte is a piece about the truth of fairy tales that ends with a gut punch. The Prayer of Ninety Cats is a horror tale told with a vivid cinematic flair.

‘The Very Best of’ is not hyperbole. This is a collection released by a multiple award winner at the top of her game. Each story is a testament to the power of fiction and the versatility of genre fiction as a whole.

Book Review: Final Cuts: New Tales of Hollywood Horror edited by Ellen Datlow

NOTE: This review was originally published at High Fever Books in April 2020. That website has been closed, so I am republishing it here.

Publisher: Anchor

Release Date: June 2nd, 2020

Pages: 480 pages

Horror fiction (as a genre) owes a lot to cinema. This relationship is often mutually beneficial, though not always. As literature informed the early days of terror on the silver screen, the evolutions and trends of on-screen horror raised and informed the writers that toil away in its fertile soil. With Ellen Datlow’s newest anthology Final Cuts: New Tales of Hollywood Horror, I think we can see true evidence of that. The language and images within this book capture some of those terrors in their own unique fashion.

I enjoyed every story in the collection. I think that some are stronger than others, but as I always state in my anthology reviews, this is to be expected. I’ve captured some thoughts on individual stories here, but know that Ellen Datlow has once again assembled a marvelous TOC.

We start the anthology off with Dale Bailey’s Das Gesicht. It’s a poignant remembrance of the early days of the film industry, which makes a lot of sense considering this book’s subject matter. I love that the horror on display here isn’t overtly supernatural; the mistakes and pain we create during our short lives are horrific enough.

Kelley Armstrong (Drunk Physics) next gives us a modern ghost tale that uses the complications of the Youtube age to great effect. This is a relatable character piece that has some memorable twists on the way to its conclusion. Nothing ground-breaking, but I enjoyed this contemporary tale quite a bit.

I also enjoyed the multi-layered madness of both Insanity Among Penguins (Brian Hodge) and Altered Beast, Altered Me (John Langan). I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the devastating Folie À Deux, Or the Ticking Hourglass written by Usman T. Malik. This story is about the horrific melding of memory and trauma; the fears we have as children that we must now witness as adults. Like many of the stories in Final Cuts, this one focuses on the vile actions of a murderer. This is a powerful and vengeful piece, and may very well be the stand-out of the collection.

Nathan Ballingrud’s Scream Queen and Gemma Files’ story Cut Frame offer up compelling views of women in the world of film. Each story is about the horrors these women have to endure and the wild harm that comes from vile (men) people. Hungry Girls also plays in this same realm, told with Cassandra Khaw’s lyrical style. This is where we see the major theme crop up for this book: the horrors that Hollywood can inflict on women. Most of the aforementioned stories (including Garth Nix’s pulp-tastic Many Mouths to Make a Meal) have overt variations on this. In the age of the Me-Too Movement, this anthology comes at the right time. Bravo and yes.

For those of us that love to watch cinema and fiction mix, Final Cuts is a treat. It’s a timely work that truly brings something for everyone.

Book Review: Nox Pareidolia edited by Robert S. Wilson

NOTE: This review was originally published at High Fever Books in January 2020. That website has been closed, so I am republishing it here.

Publisher: Nightscape Press

Release Date: October 31st, 2019

Pages: 599 pages

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

What do you look for in a horror anthology? Is it new names in the table of contents? Or is it the old masters that draw you in? Are you looking for remixes of well-loved tropes, or something completely new? Let me step up and help you out here: these are all good answers. We live in a time where we are inundated with stellar anthologies that have all these things and more. There are so many publishers to look at as shining examples: Word Horde, Undertow, and yes, Nightscape Press.

Nox Pareidolia was edited by Robert S. Wilson and released (fittingly) on Halloween 2019. The first thing I noticed as I started into this for review, was the art. There is the cover to start us off (courtesy of Don Noble), and then all of the interior illustrations by Luke Spooner. The art is as break-taking and as vital as every story in the TOC. Each one gets a piece, and each is a fitting accompaniment.

The product summary describes Nox Pareidolia as ‘a new vision of weird and horrific ambiguity’. That’s unbelievable accurate. Un-themed horror anthologies live and die by their variety, and Nox Pareidolia lives up to its ambiguous promise. Weird fiction appears in all of it’s forms here: surreal (Hello by Michael Wehunt), achingly modern (When the Nightingale Devours the Stars by Gwendoyln Kiste, Watch Me Burn with the Light of Ghosts by Paul Jessup), and the classically strange (The Many Rooms of Agatha Tate by Wendy Nikel). There is a lot of content here, and a little something for all fans of weird fiction in 2020.

            The only issue I have is that some of the stories don’t have enough room to breathe. Stories like these thrive in the ambiguity, but I often found myself sad when a story would abruptly end in the middle of the story’s apparent climax. This wasn’t a deal breaker, but something I took note of us I worked my way from story to story.

If you want a whirlwind glance into modern weird fiction, Nox Pareidolia is the book for you. Every flavor of strange and eerie can be found within, crafted by some of the best folks in the ‘biz. At a page shy of 600 pages, Nox Pareidolia is worth every penny.

Book Review: Lock Every Door by Riley Sager

NOTE: This review was originally published at High Fever Books in November 2019. That website has been closed, so I am republishing it here.

Publisher: Dutton

Release Date: July 2, 2019

Pages: 384 pages

My rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

You’ve heard of the classic novel and celebrated film Rosemary’s Baby? You may also be familiar with The Sentinel or even a specific season of American Horror Story? If you’re familiar with horror tales like these, Riley Sager’s newest novel will feel very familiar to you. Riley even pays tribute to Ira Levin in the Dedication! It’s clear that the author loves the urban Gothic, and wanted to write a novel in the same mold. Homage is a wonderful thing! But here’s the problem: if it’s done poorly, it can end up feeling derivative and stale.

As much as I enjoy this kind of Gothic story, Lock Every Door misses the mark. Granted, while it’s always entertaining to see this kind of story set in the modern day, the story just isn’t meaty enough to support itself. The novel starts with Jules Larsen, a young woman with a past (of course) and nowhere to go (yep). When she receives an offer to move into a swanky apartment building called The Bartholomew (in Manhattan!), she jumps at the chance! All she has to do is housesit, and she gets paid a fat check. It’s almost too good to be true (it is). For starters, there are just a few house rules. No one can visit her. She’s not allowed to talk to any of the other guests. Oh! And other house sitters have been going missing.

            I don’t mean to say that a formulaic plot can’t be interesting. That’s one of the best parts about the horror genre. But it’s important to find innovation and new angles within the tropes. Unfortunately, this plot never finds either. The only thing interesting about our protagonist is in her past, and even that’s something you’ve seen a million times before.

            The Bartholomew itself is an interesting location, but that’s only because of a couple of the characters within its historic walls. An elderly author and a friendly doorman stand out to me. They are two of many characters that play a part in the plot to come. For a moment, there is a mystery here. Who can Jules trust? What’s happening at The Bartholomew? It won’t take you long to figure it out, and when you do, you may find it hard to care.

I wanted to like Lock Every Door. Riley Sager’s debut novel, Final Girls, was a brisk exploration of the slasher genre. It went places. It had interesting characters. I requested this book for review because I wanted to see how the author would play around in the cob-webbed playground that is the literary Gothic. But Lock Every Door never comes together. The plot is bare bones, the characters are mostly dull, and the protagonist is a bit plain. Itnever shakes off the chains of the urban Gothics that came before. If you want this kind of story, go to the classics. Lock Every Door isn’t what you’re looking for.

Book Review: Best Horror of the Year Vol. 11 edited by Ellen Datlow

NOTE: This review was originally published at High Fever Books in September 2019. That website has been closed, so I am republishing it here.

Publisher: Nightshade Books

Release Date: September 3rd, 2019

Pages: 480 pages

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Putting together a ‘Best of’ collection must be a real challenge. To consolidate a year’s worth of horror fiction into 20 plus stories must be nothing short of a Herculean task.

It’s a good thing we have Ellen Datlow. She’s one of the most esteemed editors in the horror field, and she’s been doing these particular collections for ten years. Ten years of selections, each plucked from the darkest depths of the genre. After all this time, it might be fair to ask if she’s lost her touch. After all, a good run must someday end. Has this particular series lost its touch?

Spoiler alert: not even close. It’s as great as ever. The books (of course) starts with a deep dive (a summation) into the year. It’s a curated list built for horror/thriller fans, going over novels, collections and other anthologies. If your TBR pile wasn’t already massive, it will be after this summation. If you were concerned that Ellen hasn’t done her homework, you will be glad to know that every effort has been made to see every spooky corner.

Now for the stories. An eclectic bunch, most of them from some of the greatest names in the genre. While not every story worked for me perfectly, it wasn’t because they weren’t well written and interesting. The nature of an anthology of like this is that every creation is has its own orbit. And that’s why a well curated ‘Best Of’ anthology is so important. We need room for all kinds. So that begs the question. Which stories do I think stand above the rest?

Let’s start with the opener. ‘I Remember Nothing’ by Anne Billson. It’s one heck of a way to start. It’s a grisly piece and very startling. A little further ahead is the very disturbing ‘Painted by Wolves’ by Ray Cluley. It is the most effective story of human evil in the anthology, and may be the most disturbing within it’s page count.

‘You Know How the Story Goes’ from novelist Thomas Olde Heuvelt takes an urban legend to chilling heights. It’s my favorite story in the book, and a reminder of why you shouldn’t pick up hitchhikers. From there, I enjoyed the formal terror of ‘The Donner Party’ (Dale Bailey) and the familiar-but not-quite tale of John Langan’s ‘Haak’. In the final half of the book, I enjoyed stories from Thana Niveau (White Mare), Laird Barron (Girls Without Their Faces On), and several others.

As I stated earlier, Ellen Datlow doesn’t put out bad anthologies. With her annual anthology, you are guaranteed to get a buffet of horrors both loud and quiet. If you have the cash for one horror anthology, this is a worthy purchase.

Book Review: Nothing is Everything by Simon Strantzas

NOTE: This review was originally published at High Fever Books in May 2019. That website has been closed, so I am republishing it here.

Publisher: Undertow Publications

Release Date: October 16, 2018

Pages: 260 pages

My rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Around the time I started reading Simon Strantzas’ new collection, I was in the midst of an obsession with the works of Robert Aickman. Maybe obsession is too strong of a word, but I’m going to stick with it for now. Though I think Aickman deserves to be filed in the horror genre, his stories aren’t always visibly terrifying. While he often plays with the tropes of the genre, the signposts featured take on a unique form. I’ve seen several reviews comparing the fiction of Robert Aickman and Simon Strantzas, particularly in regards to the collection I’m reviewing right now. I think that’s incredibly apt. They both exist in the same strange country, though Simon’s stories feel like the natural, modern, evolution.

While the comparison may feel lazy, I think that it’s important that I use this framing device to express how I feel these ten stories. Much like Aickman’s best, the tales featured in Nothing is Everything are not easily dissected. Though the language is clear, the events and subtext of each work is dense and often ambiguous. The first story in the collection (In this Twilight) is a good example of this. Focused on a young woman at a bus station, it comes with a melancholy edge. The unease and wonder that permeates the collection starts here, but the horror comes with a certain level of sweetness. Our Town’s Talent and These Last Embers follow, layering on two healthy doses of the unreal. Like Aickman, these stories feature locations and scenarios (the signposts) we’ve seen in the genre before. But unlike Aickman’s often clinical style, Strantzas uses emotion and expectation to great effect. I think I felt these most in the story ‘In the Tall Grass’. To say I was affected by this tale would be an understatement.

The last story I want to talk about is the final piece in the book. ‘All Reality Blossoms in Flames’ is a novella that follows art restorer Mae Olsen as she’s drawn into the web of an extremist group known as Enfants Terrible. As we live in the headspace of Mae, we feel the emotion and fears of an artist and woman lost in a world that she thought she understood. Statements are made about the nature of art and our place beside it. It’s a stellar story in a collection full of them.

Here’s my final word: Strange fiction is often a balancing act. If you go stick to close to reality, the story comes off as mundane. But if you drift too far off into the uncanny, the story becomes messy. While I think Simon does a great job of toeing the line, I don’t think every story worked for me completely. If you love a well-told strange tale, this is the perfect collection for you.

Book Review: Sefira and Other Betrayals by John Langan

NOTE: This review was originally published at High Fever Books in April 2019. That website has been closed, so I am republishing it here.

Publisher: Hippocampus Press

Release Date: April 20, 2019

Pages: 408 pages

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I love a John Langan story. They are often complex, using multiple narrative layers to construct a puzzle box of terror and emotion. His characters are not thin-paper cutouts that exist to be tortured. A Langan monster is not your standard horror creature. His bizarre creations make for exciting reading. And, equally important, they serve a larger purpose in his stories.

Horror author John Langan has chosen betrayal as the theme for his third collection (preceded by Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters and The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous). As you can imagine for a writer of Mr. Langan’s caliber, he finds a wealth of material with that theme. It is interspersed through every rich sentence and every dense paragraph. The two new stories (Sefira and the religious nightmare At Home in the House of the Devil) and six reprints included in Sefira and Other Betryals. The titular story may be one of the best examples of the main theme. Sefira is a brilliant road trip novella as well as an exploration of a marriage shattered. It’s brilliant and crammed full of body horror. It serves as a perfect introduction to the rest of the stories within.

If I had to pick a couple other favorites, I’d start with In Paris, in the Mouth of Kronos and The Third Always Beside You. In Paris, in the Mouth of Kronos is a noir heavy indictment of torture and the War on Terror. It’s ending is starling and awe-inspiring. On the other side of the coin is the much quieter The Third Always Beside You. As mentioned in his Story Notes (more on those in a moment), John Langan set out to produce a different kind of vampire story for an Ellen Datlow anthology. The power of this story ties once again in the relationships of its characters.

I’m glad that the collection is closed out with lengthy Story Notes. I’ve always been a fan of these kind of sections (where the author’s talk about the influences for the stories and other fun details). And because of the layered nature of these stories, it helped me to wrap my head around the eight tales I’d experienced. Not every story is perfect, but they all have their strengths. I read a lot of horror fiction, and it’s stories like these that make me want to be a better writer. Sefira and Other Betrayals is proof that horror can be literary. But these stories are not the stuffy texts we were forced to read in high school. Not even close.

Book Review: Will Haunt You by Brian Kirk

NOTE: This review was originally published at High Fever Books in February 2019. That website has been closed, so I am republishing it here.

Publisher: Flame Tree Press

Release Date: March 14th, 2019

Pages: 288 pages

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I went into Will Haunt You nearly blind. I didn’t know anything about the plot, or really what to expect. After hearing some excellent early praise for Brian Kirk’s new novel, I decided to read the prequel, OBSIDEO (more on that later). After I got through the first couple of chapters, I thought I knew where I was headed. Something strange, something violent. Perhaps a mix between Bentley Little and Brian Keene? But while Will Haunt You does sit at the table with Little and Keene, this isn’t a reheated narrative. It’s heart-breaking and visceral, while also bringing its own brand of dark humor. It’s a horror novel that wears its ingenuity and wit on its bloody sleeves.

This book focuses on aging rocker Jesse Wheeler. After reading a book given to him by a fellow band member, Jesse is dragged into what turns out to be the worst kind of nightmare. He’s chased, tortured, and forced to confront his demons in life. His tormentors are cruel and seemingly omnipotent. Will Haunt You plays with perception and conspiracy in a way that I rarely see. I had a blast reading through this. It certainly helps that Jesse is an excellent character to travel with. He’s both wry and realistic, with just the right amount of self-deprecation. His actions are largely driven by his wife and son, who play major parts in Jesse’s hellish journey.

But while I think Jesse is great, he’s not the true star of the show. I want to avoid dragging you further into Spoiler Town, but I will say that the antagonistic force of Will Haunt You is utterly terrifying. This haunting takes on many forms, and I enjoyed all of them. The horror of this book is bizarre and feels like something that came dripping out of a monster’s fever dream. A great horror novel often earns its crown through its set pieces, and Brian delivers them in spades. I had no idea what would be waiting for Jesse around each corner. Each new location brought out a fresh bout of anxiety for me. Who can be trusted? What form will the next torment take?

As a Bizarro horror novel, Will Haunt You really works. It’s inventive, emotional, and harrowing. The central thrust of the book makes for thoroughly engrossing reading. Some writers have trouble making their strange happenings believable, but Brian Kirk is certainly not one of them. The only real gripe I had was that the ending, which didn’t quite coalesce for me. It wrapped up too quickly, leaving me a bit confused. It’s not a deal breaker by any means, but that’s a testament to how excellent the rest of the book is.

If you love weird fiction, Will Haunt You is worth your time. Pick up the book. Embrace the oddity. Just be prepared for what waits for you after that last page…

Also: Brian Kirk wrote a short companion piece called OBSIDEO. It’s a potent piece of Creepypasta that is the perfect introduction to the book that follows. Seek it out, and heed the warnings inside. Trust me. Would I lead you astray?

Book Review: The Worst is Yet to Come by S.P. Miskowski

NOTE: This review was originally published at High Fever Books in January 2019. That website has been closed, so I am republishing it here.

Publisher: Trepidatio Publishing/Journalstone

Release Date: Feb. 22, 2019

Pages: 208

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I grew up in a town like Skillute, Washington. Well, not exactly. But the similarities are certainly there. A small town, complete with American flags and a sense of calm. But then you start to look a little deeper. You start to see the deep cracks in the foundation. Granted, the cracks in my town are nowhere near as deep or twisted as Skillute’s. But that’s one of the many strengths in S.P. Miskowski’s new novel, The Worst Is Yet To Come. It’s all about a sense of place. This novel is a reflection of how the world we live in can change us, how it can bend and break us into monsters if we’re not careful. While I haven’t read any of her previous novels featuring Skillute, I never felt lost or out of my element. That speaks to the skill she’s brought to her creation.

S.P. wastes no time shepherding us into the story. We are quickly introduced to Tasha and Briar, pulled together in a way that almost feels like destiny. In those early pages, as the two girls are quickly bonded together by an act of righteous violence, I could start to feel the wheels turn. As the focus on our protagonists shifted to the other characters, I found the urge to hold my breath creeping up. I knew something bad was coming, but I wasn’t quite sure what form it would take.

This novel comes in at a brisk 208 pages. Every page is used effectively to deliver atmosphere, character, and most importantly, dread. The themes (motherhood, the past manifest) are themes that we’ve seen in S.P. Miskowski’s work before. But their usage here feels reflective of our world in 2019. Many of the problems that these characters face are the same problems wrought large on social media and news coverage. These problems are handled with a care and depth that you’re unlikely to come across very often, especially in speculative fiction. Though these ideas sound big, they are presented in such a fashion that they never felt unrelatable.

S.P. Miskowski is one of the greatest writers working in horror today. Her grasp of language and her skills at crafting a story are immense. By the time we hurtle into the conclusion, we’ve been dragged through the mud and we don’t quite come out unscratched. The ending may seem abrupt, but I suggest you take a moment to dwell on it. Bad things happen in Skillute. And not everyone will come out safe on the other side.

Last of 2020 (Wrap-Up)

Photo credit: Universal Pictures

The year is over. I’d like to say that I’ll miss 2020, but I’m not a very good liar. This year was a wash in so many ways. But I’ve touched on how bad everything is a few times here on my blog, so I wanted to just say that and move on.

This is my annual wrap-up post, so I’ve come with plenty of things to share. Let’s talk fiction:

Fiction

Pank Magazine Header.

It was a reprint heavy year for me, but I did have a few original pieces go out. The first was ‘The Mouth that Opens’, which was featured on the Nocturnal Transmissions podcast. It’s no secret how much I love this story, and I think the Transmissions team did an incredible job.

The next story was another audio reprint, this time in the newly launched ‘The Night’s End Podcast’. ‘They Come Crawling’ is a Lovecraftian piece that I originally published in a Miskatonic themed anthology. If you want some classic Lovecraftian, it’s the story to read.

’The Eldritch Film Club’ was published at Pank Magazine for their Halloween month. After that, I put up a story for National Cake Day over at my Curious Fictions page. These are both free reads, so you can check them out whenever.

The last story was published last week. ‘To Pull A Circle Straight’ was published in Exeter Publishing’s ‘From the Soil: A Hometown Anthology’. It features a fictional version of my hometown. Come for the pizza, stay for the vengeance.

Non-Fiction

In February, I launched a gaming focused website called Game Loot. It’s hosted over at Medium. I’ve been wanting to write about video games for quite some time, and Medium allowed me to explore and experience this in a very cool way. I wrote over 40 articles, including a few that I am very proud of. I’ve developed an audience, and I’m proud of the work.

If you’re curious, a couple of them really stand out. I wrote a beast of an article highlighting all the games I completed in 2020. I’m like it quite a bit—I worked on it all year long—and I think it’s very much worth a read. I wrote a very long piece on Persona 5 Royal, as well as an article about Pokemon Blue. I also wrote a piece on Shiny Pokemon for SUPERJUMP on Medium as well.

A website I used to write for went under, leaving a good number of my reviews unavailable. I’ve republished them here, with new links in my Bibliography section. I reviewed tons of great horror books, so if you are looking for a recommendation, I’d suggest going there.

Everything Else

I tried to fill my time in 2020. I played tons of video games, watched lots of movies, and hit my reading challenge goal over at Goodreads. That’s always a cause for celebration!

I was also interviewed over at Horror Talk Radio, where I talked about publishing and the industry as a whole.

I hope that the new year is better. I just got a huge acceptance, and I can’t wait to share that with everyone. I’ll also be working on putting a short story collection to shop around, but that may be a future goal.

Happy New Year, gang.