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Book Review: Behold, edited by Doug Murano

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Behold anthology cover art

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.


Book Review: Writers on Writing Volume 3

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writers on writing volume 3 book cover

Writers on Writing, Volume 3
(Crystal Lake Publishing)
Review disclaimer: I purchased a copy of this book 

I have enjoyed the first two volumes of the Writers on Writing series from Crystal Lake Publishing so I jumped at the chance to pre-order the third and most recent volume, which is a worthwhile investment for any writer. The essays are a mixture of the business side of writing as well as craft and they all feature topics that most writers would do well to read about. Whether you struggle with finding time to write or with self-confidence and putting yourself out there as an author or indeed how to create three-dimensional characters, this series has you covered.

Volume 3 features essays by such authors as Jonathan Janz, Hal Bodner, and Kealan Patrick Burke to name a few. It covers effective characterization, the art of being a book reviewer, and how to inject your fiction with more raw vulnerability and emotions without being, you know, melodramatic. Each of the pieces were engaging, well-written, and easy-to-follow as with the previous two volumes, so if you’re a writer striving to improve, consider this series an investment.

“Creating Effective Characters”
The first piece of Volume 3 kicks off with Hal Bodner who discusses the problems new writers face when learning how to create three-dimensional characters. They get a lot of non-specific comments that make writing seem like an airy fairy process and can often be quite frustrating when they’re trying to unlock their creative process.

He cleverly demonstrates effective characterization by playing around with the personal anecdote format. A particularly useful bit of advice is for writers not to rely on physical descriptions to make a character come alive. Try to avoid bogging the reader down with the protagonist’s life story all at once–we need only enough detail to create a basic mental sketch of who the character is.

“Fictional Emotions; Emotional Fictions”
James Everington talks about how to emotionally engage readers. One technique is to give readers a character whose headspace they can share, something frequently used in YA and children’s literature. Atmosphere is another important factor, particularly in horror. It’s vital to establish a sense of dread that permeates throughout the work but the trick is this requires using ordinary and familiar places. He does a good job breaking down the other methods in his piece and highlights all of them with good examples.

“Home Sweet Home” by Ben Eads
The next piece by Ben Eads focuses on how to find markets to submit to.  First, he breaks down the difference between paying markets and “for-the-love” (exposure). He then discusses small presses and the importance of doing one’s homework. Google is your friend, but also talk to others on forums, social media, but also in-person events to find out about their experiences with publishers before you submit.

Ben’s piece also emphasizes the importance of finding good beta readers. Getting professional feedback on one’s work is key. Working with editors is a huge investment, so while he recommends it, he also cautions writers that it’s not for the faint of heart.

Kealan Patrick Burke‘s essay is one that I was looking forward to as soon as I saw that he was going to be part of this volume. His piece focuses on the identity that we cultivate as writers and how that can sometimes go off the rails. He discusses his own experiences and how he wasn’t feeling quite so writerly in the wake of a divorce as well as having to re-integrate himself into the workforce.

“And every day that passed without putting pen to paper, a little piece of me died.”

He’s had to struggle with day jobs, too, and understands how much they drain our energy so there’s little left for writing. What I took away from his piece was that he put in the work and got to where he is with work, plain and simple. He worked harder than he thought he could. Obstacles will always exist, but a true writer at heart will work to find a way past them. Finally, if we want our writing to happen, we must fight to make it so.

“How About Them Free Books, Eh?” by Nerine Dorman
South African author and editor Nerine Dorman talks about being a book reviewer. First, she explains the perils of book piracy and the advantages of free resources such as Project Gutenberg. Next, she talks about word of mouth as the most effective way to promote books. Reviewers are one of the best kinds of folks who generate word of mouth.

In the next part of her essay, she outlines how to become a reviewer, including a very useful breakdown from start to finish that covers blog platforms (i.e. WordPress), how to maximize visibility of book reviews through social media, and protocol for tricky situations a reviewer may encounter. I was also glad to see she included some do’s and don’ts of reviews.

“Treating Fiction like a Relationship” by Jonathan Janz
Probably the piece I anticipated reading most was from Jonathan Janz, and I’m happy to say it lived up to my expectations. Janz focuses on the importance of vulnerability for a writer and how we all put up walls because no one likes to feel hurt or foolish. Writing is a tough business and many quit. Although it feels safer to stop being open, to withdraw and to put up walls when things get difficult, we’re also depriving ourselves of positive experiences.

He advises writers to keep in mind that most writing advice out there centers on what NOT to do and sometimes it’s a good idea to stop letting that be a barrier, because the downside of rules is that they can stifle us and keep us from being authentic. Authors must dig deeper to convey true emotion and make the reader cry with your characters or get angry with them or celebrate with them after a hard-fought battle.