horror book reviews

Book Review: Haunted Nights, edited by Lisa Morton and Ellen Datlow

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Haunted Nights Horror Writers Association Anthology book cover
Haunted Nights
edited by Lisa Morton and Ellen Datlow
Anchor Books
October 3, 2017
*** Disclaimer: Review copy received from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I was not compensated or paid in any way to review this product. *** 

Description: Sixteen never-before-published chilling tales that explore every aspect of our darkest holiday, Halloween, co-edited by Ellen Datlow, one of the most successful and respected genre editors, and Lisa Morton, a leading authority on Halloween. In addition to stories about scheming jack-o’-lanterns, vengeful ghosts, otherworldly changelings, disturbingly realistic haunted attractions, masks that cover terrifying faces, murderous urban legends, parties gone bad, cult Halloween movies, and trick or treating in the future, Haunted Nights also offers terrifying and mind-bending explorations of related holidays like All Souls’ Day, Dia de los Muertos, and Devil’s Night.

Table of Contents:
“With Graveyard Weeds and Wolfbane Seeds” by Seanan McGuire
“Dirtmouth” by Stephen Graham Jones
“A Small Taste of the Old Country” by Jonathan Maberry
“Wick’s End” by Joanna Parypinski
“The Seventeen Year Itch” by Garth Nix
“A Flicker of Light on Devil’s Night” by Kate Jonez
“Witch-Hazel” by Jeffrey Ford
“Nos Galen Gaeaf” by Kelley Armstrong
“We’re Never Inviting Amber Again” by S. P. Miskowski
“Sisters” by Brian Evenson
“All Through the Night” by Elise Forier Edie
“A Kingdom of Sugar Skulls and Marigolds” by Eric J. Guignard
“The Turn” by Paul Kane
“Jack” by Pat Cadigan
“Lost in the Dark” by John Langan
“The First Lunar Halloween” by John R. Little

Review: Who better to present a series of short stories revolving around the theme of Halloween than the Horror Writers Association? Each of these twisted tales collectively comes together to form a trick or treat bag haul—readers will recognize their own individual favourite “candies” so to speak and some will be sweeter or more savoury than others but in that bag of goodies will be something for everyone. Standouts for me included “A Kingdom of Sugar Skulls and Marigolds” (Guignard), “A Flicker of Light on Devil’s Night” (Jonez), “A Small Taste of the Old Country” (Maberry) and “With Graveyard Weeds and Wolfbane Seeds” (McGuire).

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Book Review: Vile Men by Rebecca Jones-Howe

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vile men book cover

Vile Men
by Rebecca Jones-Howe
Dark House Press
2015
170 pages
*** Review copy from the library ***

A few people recommended Vile Men, a short story collection by Canadian author Rebecca Jones-Howe, when it first came out at the end of last year and they mentioned how impressed they were with the writing, so I recently had the occasion to read it and I’m glad I did. Far from being simply a short story collection that revolves around the theme of terrible things happening to women, the stories are a heady mix of different perspectives that will have you reeling after you’ve finished each one. It’s a quick read, but these stories are very heavy and will definitely make an impact on you.

The first story is “The Paper Bag Princess,” which puts a whole new–and far more disturbing spin–on the children’s classic by Robert Munsch than you would think. It’s about a girl who puts a paper bag on her head when she is intimate with men. She has different faces depending on their preferences. In one way, it’s incredibly tragic that she feels she has to do this and that it’s the only way she can, but in others it’s also her way of getting back some control. This set the tone for the rest of the collection very well.

Next up we have “Blue Hawaii” which revolves around a girl who is a former alcoholic and she now lives with her sister and her baby. She gets involved with a male neighbour who has a different drug of choice and things descend from there, but this story definitely did not end the way I thought it would.

“Tourist” continues the departure from where you think the story will be going and then it goes in a completely differeny way. This time we meet a girl who falls for an older man but lives with her friend and the friend’s husband, who are trying to have a baby. She knows it is an odd arrangement, but doesn’t really have anywhere else to go. The protagonist turned out to be a very disturbed individual, but I liked seeing her journey mapped out. With this story, I felt a bit let down because I was holding my breath waiting for something momentous or earth-shattering to happen, which it never did, but other than that, I enjoyed this tale a lot.

“There’s a certain kind of man who goes for damaged girls.”

The first story of the collection to feature a male point of view is “Grin on the Rocks” about a guy who is pursued by older women, or so he would have us believe. It turns out he has far more sinister intentions and this is a story that is full of trigger warnings for women, so I would advise discretion. It will make you very angry in parts.

Probably the center-piece of the collection comes with “Masturbating Megan’s Strip Mall Exhibition” which focuses on a girl who, ahem, pleases herself to customers at the adult entertainment store where she works. The genesis of how she got her nickname really hit home for me, but instead of bothering her, she seems to have twisted it to subvert her identity as an adult. Readers should make sure not to miss this story.

“College Glaciers” concerns a university student with erotic fixations who is drunk and/or high while taking a cab late at night to get back to her dorm. Once again, the author turns the reader’s expectations on their head with how things turn out, so I liked this tale.

“He’s older because they always are.”

Following that story is one called “Slippery Slopes,” which is a bit on the longer side but is another powerful read. Luke has major anxiety. He has a smoking problem (cigarettes). He also has a wife, twin children, and she is expecting another child on the way. He keeps insisting that there is a child in their neighbourhood who is going around stealing from people and the entire story builds to a crescendo. He crosses so many lines and you will find yourself questioning whose side you are on by the end.

“Thinspiration” plays on our culture’s obsession with girls who go to dangerous lengths to be thin. A gunman takes the main character hostage and orders her to drive, but it’s not clear where they’re going. When he pulls up to a restaurant, something unexpected happens and although I found this tale to be a bit more anticlimactic in some ways as compared to the other stories, there was definitely power in the exchange of the characters toward the end.

Perhaps the most directly horror-related or horror-themed story is “Better Places,” another viciously disturbing tale of a woman who finds herself in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. She finds a haven with a guy, but what he puts her through is worse than what the zombies could do. This is one of the most unflinching and raw stories of the entire collection and again, if you’re sensitive to the subject matter of assault, read this one at your own peril. This one was a far more satisfying read for me and definitely one of the ones I would rate higher.

“Historical Hotties” is the story of two teenaged girls who are desperately freaky. The protagonist is hugely unpopular and she approaches a Goth-type girl in the class to work on a project in pairs. What’s so bad about them? Well, for starters, the protagonist things Stalin (yes, that Stalin) is attractive. Not just a little bit either. This story also examines how strange and fraught with tension the protagonist’s relationship with her parents, particularly her father, is, and will leave you reeling after you’ve read it.

Next up is “Cat Calls,” a story that turns the phenomenon of men calling out crude and lascivious things to women as they pass by or whistling to them on its head by making a man the object of the affections of a seriously depraved young woman on the Vancouver SkyTrain subway. We learn that the male protagonist is married, a bit unhappily despite his insistence otherwise, to a woman with whom he tried to conceive but they’ve had difficulties. She has succeeded as a realtor and the dynamic of their relationship has changed more than he thought it would. This story definitely has a huge gut-punch for an ending and it was also one of my favourites.

Another creepy story is “Modern Beasts,” which is about a young girl, Eva, whose mother drops her off at the public library each day while she goes off to protest against the government. The head librarian, Mindy, isn’t particularly nice but she has a boyfriend, Owen, who is. He takes an interest in Eva and tells Mindy that he can watch her and read to her. This story will destroy any reader who struggled with their parents as a child. Anyone who was desperate to hang on to that special someone, the adult who “got” them and didn’t see them as a hindrance or an annoyance…this story will ruin you.

The last tale, “Ghost Story,” was about a couple who are in London, England, on a trip. It’s the creepy and unsettling tale of what happens when Melody’s lover, Lewis, goes missing, and all the implications of that event.

One of the things that stuck out most about this collection for me is how painfully accurate the author’s depictions were when it came to the decay of relationships between couples who have been together for a while. It’s inescapable in some ways, but there’s nothing sadder than one person in the relationship who is still completely head-over-heels for their partner but the other person hasn’t reciprocated that in a while.

The unifying thread of the entire collection is how unflinching and honest these stories are. They are raw. The author does not hold back her punches. At all. They are devastating and they can contain many triggers for women, but they are a fascinating look at what happens when characters do the things they know they are not supposed to, but they do them anyway and cross the lines into the furthest reaches of themselves, which makes for a gripping and fascinating book.

I would not classify this book as a horror collection, but many fans of horror, mystery and suspense will enjoy it. Others still who like contemporary pieces of women’s fiction that are the furthest thing from romance will also enjoy this book. But really, anyone who wants a substantive collection of short stories that explores the furthest depths of the human psyche needs to pick this book up. It is a book that will challenge you as a reader. It is not easy to get through, but ultimately it provides a cathartic reading experience.

 

Book Review: Chiral Mad 3 edited by Michael Bailey

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Chiral Mad 3 Book Cover

Chiral Mad 3
Edited by Michael Bailey
Written Backwards/Dark Regions Press 
380 Pages
2016
Review copy purchased online 

I’ve been wanting to read Chiral Mad 3 ever since I heard it was coming out. Having been thoroughly impressed by the stories in the previous volumes, and seeing the all-star lineup unveiled bit by bit before the book’s release made me eager to get my mitts on a copy. This anthology features a mixture of short stories and poetry as well as artwork.

Now, I will say right off the bat that I didn’t review the poetry in this anthology, not because I didn’t think it was excellent (it was). The quality was, unsurprisingly, sublime, but I’ve never felt comfortable reviewing poetry. However, what I will say is that the placement of the poems functioned as a unique complement to each of the stories. As well, the artwork deserves high commendation because it truly enhanced the quality of each of the pieces.

“The Poetry of Life” by Richard Chizmar kicked things off. At first I thought this was a second introduction and I also thought it was non-fiction because of the use of the personal memoir style, which was very believable. That, folks, is what we call an exercise in how to paint a believable character.

Next up, “The Last Rung on the Ladder” by Stephen King focused on a character who gets a letter with some dangerous significance, particularly to his elderly father. Even though said letter contains just a sentence, that one sentence is bad enough that the protagonist decides it’s better kept as a secret.

King has done a masterful job in just a few pages of establishing curiosity in the reader and tension at wondering what’s so bad about this note. Well, for starters, the author of the letter is Katrina, the younger sister of the protagonist. He hints carefully at an incident that occurred in a barn when Katrina was eight years old.

As well, King’s use of language, particularly through the intimate reflections of the protagonist, were executed very well. On a sadder note, it was difficult to observe how relationships disintegrate and how one traumatic event could be the root of so much dissension. When I discovered the big reveal and the contents of the letter, it floored me and broke my heart. If it doesn’t break yours, you have no soul as far as I’m concerned.

“A Rift in Reflection” by Hal Bodner starts with a character, Philip’s, death. Philip finds himself in a graveyard where there is a community of the dead. There, he is reunited with David, his lover who passed away decades ago. We learn more about Philip and David’s relationship and everything seems relatively quiet until there’s an earthquake. This story has a sad, bitter ending.

In “Windows, Mirrors, Doors” by Jason V. Brock, Marion is dealing with the fallout of her identical twin sister’s death. I found this piece to be existential and philosophical, so if you’re into that when it comes to your horror, be sure to read this tale. The creep factor is definitely high, as well.

Paul Michael Anderson takes us into a tumultuous household in “The Agonizing Guilt of Relief (Last Days of a Ready-Made Victim)”, which is about a young man, Ben, who tries to protect his younger brother, Jude, from their abusive father. For anyone who has grown up under similar circumstances, Jude will be a difficult character to take in. He certainly was for me, mostly due to the fact that he made excuses for his father throughout the tale, as well as for the kids at school who were beyond horrid to him.

It was painful to see how hard he worked to impress them and to get them to like him. Ben, who has been accepted to university, is in constant turmoil as to abandoning his little brother but also needing his own independence. The moral is that someone can spend so much time trying to protect someone else only to end up endangering them. This story had a lot of shades of gray both in the sense of the characterization but also in the sense of the reader discovering that a situation that seems clear cut at first is not always so.

“The Black Crow of Boddinstraße” by Emily B. Cataneo is a tale of anthropomorphism that depicts a bird as the main character who goes to a junkyard of unwanted things, convinced that’s where it belongs. However, it has also made a connection with a girl that it sees through a window and hangs on to the hope that perhaps things may not be so bleak after all.

Continuing the bird theme, we have “A Flash of Red” by Erinn L. Kemper that deals with a girl, Claire, who sews a bird feather into her skin. After that, people start paying attention to her including a cute guy. They watch passengers get on buses together and for a while, it seems like things are picking up. She learns, however, that being seen in this new way can also have dire consequences.

Trigger warning: If you struggle with depression, OCD or negative thought spirals, the following story may be difficult for you to get through. “Red Runner vs. The Surgeon, Issue 18” by Jessica May Lin is a very cleverly-told story that breaks the fourth wall, so to speak. Red, the main character, is a comic book hero who is starting to take a life of his own, opposite to his creator’s wishes, and he complains that his creator is forcing him to do dumb things. It’s an entertaining yarn, and even though I could see the ending coming–not to mention, I felt terrible with the sense of inevitability–it’s a well-woven tale that takes a lot of skill to pull off. Comic book fans will dig this one.

“The Dead Collection” by Mercedes M. Yardley was one of my favourites. It features a protagonist named Anika who starts to amass a literal band of ghosts that follow her at all times (yes, even in the shower). When someone close to her dies, they become part of her “collection”, including a cat. She has no control over it. For me, this story painted a near-perfect picture of a metaphor for what it’s like to live with post-traumatic stress disorder. People who suffer from this condition feel like they’re carrying around ghosts in their heads, convinced that someone who traumatizes them is actually present even though the logical part of their brain tells them it’s impossible.

I want to highlight one of the lines from this story. It is haunting, chilling, memorable, and tragic all at the same time:

“Living mothers weren’t meant to have dead children.”

The ending to this story delivers one of the saddest gut punching twists in the anthology.

“Watch Me” by Meghan Arcuri is about Elle, a girl who lives across from a woman, Ava, who is a seductress that Elle wants to emulate. In the beginning, we see Elle doing just that but then we backtrack a little bit to find out how she got to that point. Ava’s point of view is even more illuminating, and lets the reader know the whole sordid tale of what’s going on. The ending did seem a bit abrupt for my taste and although I could see the ending coming, it tied everything together in a neat way.

Josh Malerman takes us into “The Bigger Bedroom” with Barry and Brian, both eight, who have moved to a new house with their mom and dad. The bigger bedroom belongs to Barry. It doesn’t take long for things to go downhill, and things do just that when Brian wakes up scared in the night, convinced that he’s hearing his brother’s voice.

There’s a lot of mystery and a build-up to a big reveal at the end. In an unsurprising move, there’s a graveyard near the house with a family plot, and although more astute readers will likely know where the story is going by a certain point, it still had a very disquieting vibe that reminded me of the early works of Stephen King.

“That Perilous Stuff” by Scott Edelman is about a woman who returns to her mother and brother’s house. They’re both hoarders. Although this story was a bit on the longer side and did make me question where everything was leading a few times, the narrative picked up at the midway point when the protagonist set out on a mission that she believed would liberate her mother from her situation and the ending pulled everything together well.

Leaning more towards the science fiction horror spectrum, “3-Dot People” by Gene O’Neill introduces shades of Philip K. Dick. This story concerns a guy with memory loss and a woman, Ms. Jilly, who says she can help him, but as is often the case in stories like these, some characters have a very peculiar definition of what they mean by “help” and this story is no exception.

“Silver Thread, Hammer Ring” by Gary A. Braunbeck is one of my favourites of the bunch. Set after the Civil War of the United States, this story revolves around John Henry, an ex-slave who dreams of a bird-man and wonders if he will become it. His brother, Martin, died under horrific circumstances, which is an undercurrent that runs through the piece.

Racial tensions, Klansmen, and Greek Mythology all intersect in this tale that sees John Henry applying for work at a railroad. He gets the job and is thought to be excellent with a hammer, possessing strength beyond what one man should. Soon after, he and his railroad workers encounter a guy with a bull’s head intent on ruining their work.

We discover that there are two bosses, Minos and Daedalus, warring and these men are caught in the middle. Yes, there is an Icarus if you’re wondering, and he has an interesting role to play. The hammer also has a very interesting provenance that I won’t spoil.

This was also one of the stories that ran longer. While most of the dialogue was good, some of it did veer into ebonics territory. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the fact that this tale didn’t feature a grim ending but instead a redemptive arc.

If you’re into Weird Westerns with high levels of creepiness, you’ll enjoy “The Offering on the Hill” by Richard Thomas, which is very much a man vs. nature story about a gunslinger who wants to get to a mountain but is warned that madness lies that way. For those of you who tend more to the military horror side of things, be sure to check out “Those Who Watch From On High” by Eric J. Guignard.

One of my other favourites was “The Whipping Girls” by Damien Angelica Walters, a stand-out of this anthology. It features Erika, a young girl driving to the Kansas-Colorado state line. She quit her job on a whim and decided to leave her life behind. She is running, and although I thought of many reasons, the ultimate reason turned out to be hard-hitting.

Erika’s mother was definitely on the not-so-nice side, which is putting it mildly. As the story progresses, Erika encounters younger versions of herself and it becomes clear that she is trying to run away from herself. This story combined post-traumatic stress with self-hatred, a potent and explosive combination with anyone who has ever gone through them. The ending, although inevitable, broke my heart.

Capping off the anthology, we have “Seconds” by Jack Ketchum. This story is about a female professor sleeping with her much younger male student. With shades of “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde, this story highlights the theme that things are not always what they appear to be, and that some characters have histories far darker than they initially let on.

To say that this is anthology has been put together well would not do it justice. The fact that editor Michael Bailey manages to pack so much immense quality and talent in all of his endeavours is truly astounding. If you’re a horror fan, you must make his anthologies a part of your library.

Book Review: Children of The Dark by Jonathan Janz

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children of the dark book cover jonathan janz

Children of the Dark
Jonathan Janz
Paperback, 293 pages
March 2016
Sinister Grin Press
Buy on Amazon
Review disclaimer: I purchased a copy of this book

Summary: Will Burgess is used to hard knocks. Abandoned by his father, son of a drug-addicted mother, and charged with raising his six-year-old sister, Will has far more to worry about than most high school freshmen. To make matters worse, Mia Samuels, the girl of Will’s dreams, is dating his worst enemy, the most sadistic upperclassman at Shadeland High. Will’s troubles, however, are just beginning. (continue reading description…)

I’m a huge fan of Jonathan Janz’s books, so when I heard he had a new release coming from Sinister Grin, I knew I had to find out more. Even though the plot description didn’t immediately pique my interest, Children of the Dark blew me away.

At first glance, it seems like a coming-of-age story set in a small town, but it’s a deceptively simple coming-of-age story mixed with small town horror told through the fifteen year-old protagonist, Will Burgess. Janz is a master storyteller who knows how to make readers care about his characters and I’m glad I went into the book not knowing what to expect, because it made it all the more satisfying to connect with Will and all those he cares about.

Janz’s work has an addictive quality that always keeps me turning the pages. This is the kind of book that is so engrossing that it almost made me miss my subway stop a few times. Children of the Dark is incredibly absorbing and it sucked me in completely.

I thought the author painted a very nuanced, complex portrait of teenage boys (and girls, not to mention some of the parents involved who were just as immature and selfish as teenagers at times) and even though Will’s expressions and thoughts were a bit too mature for his age and social status, I felt Janz balanced this with a healthy dollop of teenage boy characteristics that felt authentic and consistent.

Will’s best friend is Chris, who, even though he’s far more well-off financially isn’t exactly one of the popular kids. Chris proves himself to have a noble heart, which made him likable. Rounding out the cast are Rebecca, Chris’s crush, and Mia, Will’s crush along with the two jocks that torment Will and Chris for much of the book, Brad and Kurt (as well as Eric Blades, another popular but delinquent teen).

The only major gripe I had with this book was the fact that at certain times the author spoiled his own plot. I don’t know if this qualifies as a trope or plot device, but it makes me batty when stories do this: “Little did s/he know that just around the corner, danger lurked in wait for him/her” or some variation on that. This book did feature the plot device/trope a few times, which irked me both as a writer and as a reader.

However, one of Janz’s strong suits is the relationships and interactions between his characters. He did a great job with his depiction of the strained relationship between Will and his pill-popping mother. He captured Will’s loathing and resentment of his mother mingled with his caring for her and showing her softer edges as well as her absenteeism. Will’s relationship with his younger sister Peach, in which he functions as a de facto father figure, was also done well and tugged at my heartstrings.

The setting is a small town that has a forested area of caves called Savage Hollow, and it turns out to be just as foreboding as the name suggests. We learn soon after a few sightings of creatures with green eyes that there are things called the Children that I won’t spoil, but what I will say is that this book is pretty much the creature feature type of horror at its best, except you’ll care about the characters.

It’s the rule of good storytelling that just as things seem to be looking up for the main character, like when people who can help him come along, the author takes those characters away and hurts everyone who means something to the main character. Will Burgess is no exception.

Then there’s the matter of the serial killer, known as the Moonlight Killer, Carl Padgett, to exacerbate the already overwhelming threat that the Children bring to the story. I have to admit that when he first showed up, I wrote him off as the typical serial killer without much depth, but I’m happy to say that I was quickly proven wrong. There were some very interesting things relating to him that I was not expecting, which made the story even more compelling.

One of Padgett’s most vivid features was this infuriatingly smart brain that really got under my skin because I have known people like him who, even though they may not necessarily be book smart, are very cunning when it comes to understanding human nature and how to manipulate that to their advantage. I have to say it was a mild relief to find out that there was a supernatural explanation for this, which, again, I won’t spoil, but it ties into the plot in ways that made it impossible for me to put this book down.

Janz knows how to tug at the heartstrings of readers and to cause maximum amounts of anguish. Without spoiling the plot toward the end, there is a Sophie’s Choice moment that I thought was incredibly emotionally resonant and for me, Janz has proven yet again what an evocative writer he is.

The ending, and the epilogue in general, were things I thought the author handled well because as I later discovered, Children of the Dark is a prequel of sorts to Savage Species, which I thought was interesting.

Make sure that Children of the Dark is on your reading list this year, because even though the year has just begun, this novel is hands-down one of the best novels of the year as well as one of the best in the genre, period.