Stories in the Lonesome October

The Seventh Victim. Photo credit: RCA

It’s spooky season again. I’ll be keeping this post brief. I’m reading and writing as always. I’ve got a few new pieces out in the world:

Let’s start with the most recent one. My Halloween story ‘Wolves at the Door’ was published by the good folks over at Dread Imaginings. I’m proud of this story. I wrote it (and two others) during my first two-week quarantine. This is the last story to see publication from that group and that makes me feel a little bit weird.

This story is an attempt to create a surreal horror piece. I was really inspired by Jeffrey Ford at the time of writing, and I think it shows.

The other story that has come out since I last posted was ‘Stories for the Coldest Nights’. This is one of the other quarantine stories. It won the Pandora Prize at Space City Underground. This is my first award for writing, and it came out in August.

Enjoy some Halloween sweets and your favorite paperback. The lonesome October will be gone before you know it.

Reaching From The Light

Photo credit: Debra Hill Productions

It’s been a bit since I’ve posted, but I figured it was time to reach out with some updates.

I had two flash fiction stories published in Mid-March. The first is entitled ‘She Watches Us Sleep’ and is published over at Timber Ghost Press’ website. They have been putting out some great stories lately, and I’m happy to join the team.

The other story is a reprint, revived after Curious Fictions went under. It’s my sci-fi horror piece ‘Manifesto: Abnormality at Z33.1’. I’m quite proud of this story. I put it out on Simily, which is an up and coming service that publishes short articles/fiction and funnels payment back to the writers.

I hope everyone is doing well. More updates soon.

Book Review: Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

Author: Cassandra Khaw

Publisher: Tor Nightfire

Release Date: October 19th, 2021

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

Nothing but Blackened Teeth is a rare kind of horror novella. It’s a luxurious thing, keening and crackling with regret, haunting, and eventual viscera.

From the start of the story—as we are introduced to our principal characters—we can see the writing on the wall. There is Cat, a woman who is reluctantly attending the destination wedding between her best friend Faiz and his snide fiancé Nadia. The destination is a rotting Heian-era manor somewhere in Japan. This outing is being paid for by the story’s fourth major character, an all-American frat boy named Phillip. Cassandra Khaw’s story captures an interwoven mess of interpersonal relationships that are as overgrown and broken as the house where the plot unfolds. The story is part Gothic and part rotted fairy tale, complete with candles and legends of old.

Cassandra Khaw unspools Nothing but Blackened Teeth with powerful sentences that hum and crackle with energy. They’re the kind of sentences that other writers get jealous of, and I’m course including myself in that generalization. In turn, she builds her paragraphs carefully, each utterly readable sentence teeming with choice turns of phrase and description. The horror is present from the very first page and grows as our characters are consumed by the eerie atmosphere.

The true mark of a good horror writer is the ability to find the emotion beneath the terror. Cassandra Khaw does that and so much more. She can find the horror in nearly every moment, whether it’s in a mirror’s reflection or in the very human smell of international travel. Nothing but Blackened Teeth is a triumphant new work from Cassandra Khaw, and it will undoubtedly be an end of the year favorite when it releases in the cool of October.

(An ebook copy of Nothing but Blackened Teeth was provided for an honest review by Tor Nightfire.)

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.