Book Review: Behold, edited by Doug Murano

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Behold anthology cover art

Behold 
Edited by Doug Murano
With a Foreword by Josh Malerman 
Crystal Lake Publishing
Release Date: July 28, 2017
Get the book here

* Please take a moment to support the Thunderclap campaign for Behold *

*** Review copy received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review *** 

Lisa Morton’s story “LaRue’s Dime Museum” kicks things off and starts in a very Cthulhu-meets-1940s pulp mood. The main character, Julie, starts off by finding some old photographs of a travelling circus and she finds out from the modern-day shop that the place, LaRue’s, closed sometime in the 1960s. Fans of Lovecraftian horror will enjoy this story. Julie has a bit of an obsession with film noir movies from the 1940s and the Humphrey Bogart type. Pretty soon, she starts to see some of these people from the old photographs and thinks she’s going mad. There is a definite plot twist towards the end and I found this story to be an enthralling introduction to the anthology overall.

Next up, “Wildflower, Cactus, Rose” by Brian Kirk starts with the point of view of the child of a woman who has had a botched surgery gone very bad. Both of them struck me as possibly turning out not to be human, particularly the child. The unreliable narrator trope is a running undercurrent throughout the piece, which adds interesting layers. The imagery is also very vivid and well-described in this tale of the perils of corporations and their effect on the environment in the name of profit.

Probably my favourite story in the anthology was by Hal Bodner, “The Baker of Millepoix.” It starts off with a man, Henri, who, after losing his husband, Marc, moves to the small French town that Marc was originally from. I enjoyed the foray into French culture and language, even if the dialogue and a few characters tended toward the over-the-top at times. Nonetheless, the incorporation of opera was a nice addition. Henri becomes a baker and beyond that I can’t say much without giving away the plot, so I will say that if you enjoyed the film Chocolat, you will appreciate this story, although this one has a decidedly more interesting twist.

Legend Clive Barker’s offering is called “Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament” and begins with a (trigger warning) woman who is attempting to kill herself. It’s a story that reads like a hallucinogenic experience, a quality that some of the other tales in this anthology share, and again the theme of the unreliable narrator is executed here, pretty much to perfection.

The first of two poems from the sublimely talented Stephanie Wytovich, “An Exhibition of Mother and Monster,” was a fascinating composition and a good bridge to the next story, John Langan’s “Madame Painte: For Sale,” which makes what I’d have to say is one of the most interesting uses of garden gnomes that I’ve seen in fiction.

Next up, we have another living legend’s tale, that of Neil Gaiman, called “Chivalry.” Within the first third, I recognized the piece as a riff on Song of Roland, the epic poem that tells the story of Roland’s quest for the Holy Grail. Essentially what happens in the Gaiman piece is an old woman, Mrs. Whitaker, buys the Holy Grail (without knowing what it is, of course) at an antique or thrift shop of some kind. But instead of Roland coming to her house and asking for the relic, Sir Galahad does (spelled as Galaad in this story).

The story is, of course, intended to come across as comedic to a certain extent, but Gaiman, being the absolute master he is, juxtaposes the humour with the more serious elements of the tale very well. Continuing the train of living legends featured in this anthology is Ramsey Campbell, with his story, “Fully Boarded.”

Canadian Erinn Kemper follows with her story, “In Amelia‘s Wake,” a sort of supernatural Grapes of Wrath type story involving what really happened to Amelia Earhart set in Alberta, Canada, in 1937, right before World War 2.
Readers who have a penchant for historical mysteries, particularly those having to do with Ms. Earhart, with an Unsolved Mysteries vibe, will enjoy this tale.

One of my perennial favourites, John F. D. Taff, has a story of a Concentration camp survivor called “A Ware That Will Not Keep” that involves a supernatural element from Jewish mythology, and that’s all I’m going to say because I don’t want to spoil it. This is another case of a story where the protagonist’s grandfather, Lev, may not be telling the complete truth and reinforces the message that everything, but especially revenge, comes with a high price. Taff’s offering is one of the strongest the anthology has to offer because of how he utilizes story structure so well.

Patrick Freivald’s offering, “Earl Pruitt’s Smoker,” is an ominous tale set in the world of beekeeping, and has a very creative spin on hive hierarchy with a creepy, unsettling ending thrown in for good measure. Following this is the second of two amazing poems by Stephanie M. Wytovich, this one even more evocative than the first, and it’s called “As a Guest at the Telekinetic Tea Party.” The imagery was magnificent in this one, as well.

Lucy A. Snyder’s story, “Hazelnuts and Yummy Mummys,” reads like a cautionary tale for authors and takes place in a setting most are familiar with: at a writer’s convention or conference, albeit in this case a fictional one. Any author who has ever sold books at a convention in the dealer’s room will be familiar with the scenario that begins the story. The protagonist, Miss Bower, is trying to keep busy over Halloween weekend at this convention purposely so that she can preserve her sanity as much as possible owing to a tragic event that befell her a few years ago, but we don’t know what at first. The story also deals with themes of mental health issues and it reads like a hallucinogenic trip. Still, the story is full of surprises.

Other notable offerings include Kristi DeMeester’s “The Wakeful,” which was probably the most disturbing story for me in the anthology and involves a school teacher getting entangled in the creepy life of one of her young female students. If you want disturbing body horror, look no further than this tale. Furthermore, there is a reason why DeMeester has been one to watch for the past few years.

Also notable was “Through Gravel” by Sarah Read, which deals with an underground-ish people, the Kindred, and how they have struggled to reproduce for more than eight years so when they finally do, it is very momentous, but also  fraught with much angst because there is a lot at stake here. This story is a wonderful example of the ‘beautiful horror’ theme that Murano started with Gutted, which I also reviewed.

Last, we have Richard Thomas’s story, “Hiraeth,” a memorable, post-apocalyptic tale with shades of Cormac McCarthy that I found to be thematically similar to the Sarah Read story, so if you enjoyed her story, Richard’s will also prove to be gratifying and was a perfect way to cap off this anthology.

Behold marks yet another stellar anthology of horror fiction from Crystal Lake Publishing. Editor Doug Murano has assembled an intricately quilted patchwork that collects a unique combination of well-written stories that continue the theme of beautiful horror established by his previous anthology, the underrated and remarkable Gutted. As with any anthology, some stories will resonate more with certain readers, and everyone will have a different list of favourites, but the pages of Behold contain memorable tales you won’t soon forget.

TV Review: Supernatural Season 12

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Source: Wikipedia

Spoiler disclaimer: This post will discuss some spoilers from Season 12 of Supernatural, so if you haven’t watched the season finale yet or aren’t caught up, skip this post and come back when you’re caught up. 

After I watched the final episode of Season 11 of Supernatural, I did the equivalent of throwing a book across the room in reaction to the set-up for yet another season of the long-running (and I mean long) CW drama. But I recently got around to watching Season 12 to see if it would pique my interest in the show again, and I can honestly say that I was surprised at how interested I was in each episode. Some fans have lamented that the series has gone on for this long, and cite Season 5 as the true ending of the show for them, and that’s fine, while others have stuck around to see what else the show has to offer. Although I was ready to throw in the towel after the somewhat uninspiring and lacklustre Season 11, I’m glad I gave Season 12 a chance because it’s the most interesting that the show has been for years.

This is the first season in a long time where I found myself actually genuinely interested in each episode and I think it was because even in the episodes where there was a “Monster of the Week,” it somehow related to the current drama that was going on with the Winchesters and their involvement with the dastardly British Men of Letters or with the Lucifer subplot.

To be frank, I was surprised that the show had never done a “Lucifer is going to have a baby, we have to stop that thing from being born” narrative before, but I think the writers and/or showrunners considered it would be a good angle to pursue since so, so many others shows and films and books have explored that territory before. Although it remains to be seen in the upcoming “lucky” Season 13 what the consequences will be of such an event, it’s safe to say that Castiel’s visions of sugarplums and rainbows probably won’t be it. I will say that the mother of this child, Kelly, annoyed me to no end, I did prefer it when Lucifer chose the vessel of the fictitious former Hair Metal Glam superstar, ably played by Rick Springfield, which was a very cool addition this time around.

I’m not going to spoil the ending of the season finale, but I will say that I’ll be interested to see whether the two (wait, make that three) characters who we are convinced are dead actually are in fact dead, because as we know on this show, the concept of death and being gone can be fluid and not exactly absolute. Lucifer’s schtick is starting to wear thin on my patience, and I wanted to see a deeper, more personal subplot with Crowley where they really get into the meet of the feud as opposed to just skimming the surface. Still, it provided for a good looming threat in addition to the mostly stuffy British Men of Letters. Speaking of which, most of them did a good job getting on my nerves, especially Lady Bevel (I preferred the actress’s turn as Valerie on Season 7 of The Vampire Diaries), but I thought Mr. Ketch deserved more characterization and more exploration as to why he became the way he did. And of course, with Mik (sp?), at least there was an interesting layer of knowing that the British Men of Letters were definitely up to no good but that there was some grey characterization mixed in so it wasn’t all black and white.

With the return of the boys’ mother, Mary Winchester, nee Campbell, who used to be a hunter in her own right, I know there have been some mixed reactions with some fans being not too keen on her involvement, but for a show that has been on as long as this one has, and that keeps on chugging along, the writers constantly need to be doing something new, and I think this was definitely interesting territory to explore at times. I was expecting the whole time for something to go horrifically wrong–she would be yanked away from Sam and Dean as quickly as she had come back, that it would be a demon in disguise playing a cruel joke, that it would be like a clone or not really her, that she would turn against them at one point. I don’t think she answered enough about her involvement with Azazel, but nonetheless, it’ll be interesting to see what happens to her in the next season.

The episode in which Dean is hit by a memory spell and as a result starts to forget everything about himself, including his name, could have gone a very schlocky route but I thought it was a nice turn that allowed Jensen Ackles to show more of his acting chops, and although the cause was supernatural, it turned from comedic to very serious as the affliction mimicked the effects of watching a loved one go through dementia or Alzheimer’s, and it was very painful.

Two other things I really liked about this season were the plotlines involving hunters all across America becoming the hunted thanks to the British Men of Letters, and the introduction of more Princes of Hell, including Dagon and Remiel. I’m not gonna lie–I was totally panicking at first and thinking, “Wait…but they killed Azazel! How can this be?” for a moment or two. The introduction of the cool lance as a weapon which had very real consequences made me wish it would stick around. Speaking of weapons, although I did like seeing the Colt in action again, I thought that with the Alpha vampire episode, it served a very good purpose and the tension was real, but in the following episode with the God Pan, it felt like overkill and like the weapon was getting kind of overused by that point.

And of course, there’s the question of a certain beloved character who we saw again in the final episode when Castiel discovers that the impending birth of Lucifer’s son created a rift between earth and some sort of Bizarro world alternate dimension. It begs the question of how the two worlds will co-exist or function alongside one another, similarly to the sections we saw of Limbo when Dean was stuck there a few seasons ago.

This season’s big plot hole: So, since Castiel killed Billie, aka the Reaper, aka Death, who took her place as Death? Last time the Winchesters tangled with the first version of Death we saw on the show, there was a time when the dead weren’t going where they were supposed to go and it was creating huge problems. I expected the characters to address this plot hole in the following episode, but it wasn’t really mentioned in a big way since then. Theoretically, shouldn’t Castiel become the new Death? Or shouldn’t another Reaper pop up to take Billie’s place? I hope they’ll address that in Season 13, because it’s a pretty big plot hole.

For those who watched Season 12, what did you think? Overall thoughts? Ideas for what will happen in Season 13? What did you like or dislike the most about this season? Sound off below!

Book Review: All that Withers by John Palisano

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All that Withers short story collection john palisano

All That Withers
by John Palisano
Cycatrix Press
December 2016 (paperback)
292 pages
View the Book Trailer
*** Review disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. *** 

The first John Palisano novel I read was one released a few years ago, Nerves, which I reviewed for Hellnotes. Since then, he has had numerous subsequent releases and his latest is a short story collection called All That Withers.

We start things off with a story called Happy Joe’s Rest Stop. As the title suggests, the main character, Greg, is at a place called Happy Joe’s, which is indeed a rest stop where people that are in transit from place to place drop in to get some food and freshen up before the next leg of their journey. It seems to have more of a buffet atmosphere and more of a self service customer type of experience. Greg notes that they are in Nevada. Everything seems normal until the lights go out. Then there is an explosion. Instead of Stephen King’s man in black from the Dark Tower series, this time it seems we have of the Man in White who we see at the very beginning of the short story as a man wearing a white cowboy hat. At first Greg thinks that it’s possibly an earthquake or a series of earthquakes, but then quickly thinks it has to be terrorists. Greg starts calling for his father.

It was at this point that I started to guess that perhaps our friend Greg is not of the mortal earth and he’s in heaven or some version of heaven. As things turn black outside, the Man in White sort of shrugs and says that this is how it’s supposed to be, which kind of led me to think if he is maybe some sort of angelic character or if he is a deity of some kind. There are creatures. But it is not quite clear what they are. It doesn’t take long for some pretty icky descriptions of violence to follow, but the story maintains its breakneck speed in amping up the reader’s interest. Things end on an interesting note with the reader scratching his or her head and wondering what has just happened, which is appropriate for a story like this.

Splinterette switches gears to a snowy landscape. A character is caught in some kind of a storm and thinks that he is seeing a demonic version of his wife. He nicknames this creature Splinterette. This story ends on a note that is surprising and definitely not what the reader would expect, and it is one of the most poignant pieces of the collection.

What might be twins or if not twins but people separated at birth begins The Geminis, which revolves around characters who have a close bond, although we do not learn the name of the narrator at first. We do know that the name of the similar character is Lia. She is a designer while the main character is a filmmaker. They seem to be harmonies or balances to each other. The language in this piece is very immediate, which gives this story a very active sense of pacing.

The narrator seems to have some kind of an out of body experience or a hallucination that is very resonant. For readers who like their horror mixed with music or just prefer the short stories with musical elements, this story will satisfy those. This story speaks about the magical connections we sometimes have with the people with whom we fall into romantic relationships with and can’t explain–of how it is possible to have such a seemingly deep and unique connection, which as any reader knows who has had this before, can be ripped away at any moment and made to disappear, often without any explanation. It is a very existential piece that poses philosophical questions about life and what it all means to the reader.

Next up, Available Light begins with a narrator who tells us that he or she became the neighborhood monstrosity by their 6th birthday. There has been some kind of early mishap with playing too much under the sun and as a result, this character is not meant to go out into the sun. To say this character’s family is unsupportive is an understatement. This individual’s mother also has issues, which is putting it mildly. Ultimately, the story is about how some forces are may be meant to return from where they came, and disturbances of the natural order.

Long Walk Home is great if you like military horror that’s also kind of existential while My Darkness Travels on Sunshine calls on the author’s experiences in the film world highlighted through the story of this budding filmmaker, Dana. To say that her professor is eccentric and difficult is an understatement. Despite the tremendous and very negative odds that Dana must overcome, she chooses to tackle them head-on rather than running away from them. She has a painful and scarring incident in her past but it’s not what the reader would assume. Healing takes on a different form here.

Switching gears, The Haven has shades of Clive Barker and is a more visceral story than the others, while To The Stars That Fooled You continues the Barker-esque themes and undertones with an almost biblical horror and Lilith feel but also has the author’s musical background and expertise thrown in. 

Mother You Can Watch marks a sort of fusion of the forms of the short story with the format of poetry. It’s a very short piece and seems to be an homage to the film Psycho. For a story to get you into a Halloween state of mind, look no further than Outlaws of Hill County.

Returning to the filmmaking theme is Welcome to the Jungle, intentionally named for the monster Guns N’ Roses hit. This time, we venture behind the curtain of the actors’ world and Hollywood exposing just a few of the seedy underbelly activities that go on with some beastly terrors thrown in. For fans who want more gore, you’ll get it in spades with this tale. 

Wings for Wheels is a fusion of music and motorcycles with a James Dean vibe while The Curious Banks of the Wabash River takes us all the way over to Salt Lake City and the confusion as to where it really is. Needless to say, the piece ends on a terrifying note. 

The Tennatrick proves that some beasts don’t go away that easily while Vampiro is a very clever take on a vampire story. X is for XYX is definitely on the creepier and more unsettling end of the spectrum. I feel like I should preface it with a trigger warning and mention that if you’re sensitive to issues dealing with suicide, you may want to proceed with caution. The story is about a suicide that shouldn’t have failed but does. What happens is slightly more psychedelic than that and also creepy but good because the ending is unexpected. 

Sunset Beach reminds me of an interesting episode of The X-Files while Forever seems to imagine what the afterlife is like, starting off with some good images, mentioning Valhalla, but it’s a very clever tale that pet owners will be struck by, and it’s written in second person present tense, which imbues this story with a striking sense of immediacy. Gaia Ungaia is a creative story that ends on a chilling note. 

Another thing I appreciated about the collection was that John included explanations at the end of the book for what inspired or prompted him to write each tale. This is a collection that is difficult to sum up because the stories are of an excellent calibre (some of which are award-winning and/or nominated) and the themes all range from so many different topics that reflect the author’s own experiences, making this a fascinating quilt of some of the most unique and eclectic horror fiction out there. If you have not read and discovered the wonderful work of John Palisano, start with his short fiction in this collection. It’s a wonderful place to begin and will only increase your appetite to devour more of his work. 

Book Review: Yes Trespassing by Erik T. Johnson

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Yes Trespassing
by Erik T. Johson
Written Backwards Press
April 2017
436 pages
*** Review disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. ***  

I hadn’t heard of Erik T. Johnson before reading Yes Trespassing, but after reading the glowing endorsement from horror writer John F.D. Taff, whose work I do respect and admire, it set up the short story collection for me in a good way. Rather than give a story-by-story breakdown, what I will say is that Johnson is a writer who knows how to play with the reader’s expectations. One story, “The Black Tree’s Box,” in particular, was well done. It used various elements, including a possibly unreliable narrator, to spin a pretty good yarn. It also plays with chronology of the characters and of events in a very interesting way.

Rather than suffering from the fate of some short story collections that have stories that are all too similar or thematically not very different or make the reader question whether they’ve just read something very similar recently, Johnson’s collection offers a wide variety of stories on different themes and keeps the reader guessing as they make their way through the collection. In addition, the use of hand-drawn illustrations made this book reminiscent of House of Leaves or other books that have creatively incorporated hand-drawn notes and marks to give the overall design a feel as though it has been written down on lined paper, similar to a student’s notebook.

It is fitting that Michael Bailey and his press, Written Backwards, is the publisher of this superb collection. Johnson’s work has appeared in other Bailey anthologies, including Qualia Nous and the recently launched You, Human as well as Chiral Mad 2. From a print culture perspective, this collection makes an interesting use of marginalia or readers’ commentary and annotations as part of the text, not necessarily on the main pages of the stories, but in the front matter and the end matter as well as for the story and chapter titles, which uniquely uses typographical elements and creates a dynamic overall aesthetic element that runs as an undercurrent throughout the book.

If you prefer the type of slipstream or Weird horror, you will thoroughly enjoy Johnson’s short story collection. If you’re looking for a horror collection that features the standard tropes of vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghosts and so on, then you should likely look elsewhere because you’re not going to find anything cliched or overdone, or “been there done that” about these stories. Instead, you will find originality, good storytelling, and a compelling collection of tales.