Horror Fiction

Book Review: Horror Library Volume 6, edited by Eric J. Guignard

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Horror Library Volume 6 
edited by Eric J. Guignard
Cutting Block Books (Farolight Publishing)
April 2017
352 Pages
*** Review copy received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review *** 

Bram Stoker Award®-winning editor and writer Eric J. Guignard helms the newest addition to the Horror Library series of books from Cutting Block Books, Horror Library Volume 6One of the things I appreciated most about his stewardship over the anthology was his decision to include little blurbs before each story to introduce them. I have enjoyed this technique in other anthologies he has edited, and thought it was a great idea to incorporate it here as well. Guignard wrote in one note of the anthology that he had a mandate to uphold whereby he tried to publish as many new and/or previously unheard of authors who are not as well known in the horror genre, so although you are not going to see such big names of the titans as Clive Barker or Stephen King, do not let that fool you because this anthology has an extremely high calibre of stories.

We start off with a disturbing ghost story entitled “I’ve Finally Found You” by Garrett Quinn. Con is a troubled young man who is still struggling with the death of his mother. He soon finds out that sometimes it’s best not to poke around where one shouldn’t, and in this particular case, it involves him messing with a CB radio that he believes may be able to help him communicate with his mother’s ghost. If you are chomping at the bit for the new season of Stranger Things to return as I am, this story will slake your thirst in the meantime.

Jackson Kuhl presents “Cartagena Hotel” about a small town in Texas called Ophir where construction workers are disappearing but the reason is unclear and the reader is not sure who is telling the truth or what is truly responsible for the disappearances. Although I felt that the pacing was a bit rushed toward the end of the story, I liked the disturbing implications of this tale.

Next up, “The Night Truck” by Stephanie Bedwell-Grime is the tale of a woman who must heed the consequences of what happens when she ignores her grandmother’s superstitious warnings about darkness in an old house. This is the perfect story to read around Halloween.

Connor De Bruler takes the reader all the way to a Tuscan village in Italy with”Il Mostro” (in Italian, this means “the monster”). Two friends, Earl and Ethan, are wandering around a village when they go to a restaurant where the only other people are the bartender and a man from France. The protagonists are struck by the oddity and unnaturalness of the place, particularly as it concerns a mural that seems like it could be from a Guillermo del Toro movie. Although I was initially a bit confused as to whether Earl and Ethan were tourists on vacation or if they were running away from something, the main theme this story emphasizes is that if something seems too good to be true, it likely is.

Bentley Little reminds us just how unnerving plumbers can be in “The Plumber” while Josh Rountree offers up a World War I tale of historical military horror in “Snowfather.” Next, veteran author Jeffrey Ford presents a semi-autobiographic tale called “Five Pointed Spell” about a protagonist who has traded his city life in New York for farmland in Ohio so he can support his current wife’s dream job. This story does a great job capturing the consequences of people who say they want to live off the grid and be in remote areas who then find that actually, they don’t like it very much and it was not how they imagined when they begin to settle in. Although the ending struck me as a tad anticlimactic, I think it also has a clever edge because it is one of those stories that leaves the reader to guess at the implications of what has actually happened.

For those looking to satisfy their airplane horror lust, John M. Floyd’s “The Red-Eye to Boston” will do the trick. This story is a testament to why it is probably a good idea to minimize speaking to other people on airplanes.

Raymond Little takes readers back to the glitz of 1930s Hollywood in “Elsa and I,” a story in which the ghosts of the past continue to haunt the present for the protagonist.

The first of my two favourite stories from this anthology is “Mother’s Mouth, Full of Dirt” by Rebecca J. Allred. This story deals with a little girl, Vilte, who believes her dead mother still lingers around the house she shares with her physician father. The reasons for the demise of Vilte’s mother are, although easily inferred from the backstory, also shrouded in secrecy. The creep factor is very strong in this tale, and although I was not expecting “tooth horror,” which is a kind of subgenre I have noticed in the past few years, this story takes an excellent and creative spin on that motif. Also notable was how well Vilte fills the role of unreliable narrator.

In “Predestination’s a Bitch,” Sean Eads presents the only humorous horror story in the anthology in this tale of a disgruntled IT worker, Clyde, who finds that his colleague, Roger, tells some off colour jokes that turn out to have very real consequences. I struggled with the offensiveness of some of the jokes at first, but toward the end, I felt that Eads did a good job building up suspense and tension and helping the reader realize the danger that is unfolding at the same moment as the protagonist.

My number one absolute favourite story of this anthology came from Marc E. Fitch, and it’s called “The Starry Crown.” The main character is a doctoral candidate working on his dissertation. He has left behind the comforts of campus life to do field work in the Deep South. More specifically, he is studying folk songs from the southern states “that had neither a time or place of origin not a known composer.” He is particularly interested in songs sung by slaves and slave owners, backwoods preachers, and so on. He is determined to find out the meaning of the lyric “starry crown” in a song that is shrouded in mystery. Fitch mentions a real book, G.H. Allan’s Slave Songs of the United States and explains some of the possibly fictionalized backstory of why this starry crown song confused Allan. He got it from someone called Cobb in South Carolina.

Rather than continuing to describe my ever-increasing interest in the plot, I will sum up by saying that this is another story that warns the reader that it is possible to uncover too many stones in the search for the truth and that even if we do manage to go to great pains to find it, sometimes the results will make us wish we had not. This is a disturbing, unsettling, and phenomenally well-written story. I hope to be able to read more work from this author in the future.

Vitor Abdala presents a short, but creepy tale of cyber stalking in “Instant Messaging” that is another cautionary tale while JG Faherty presents a criminal who gets summoned by the Devil to work for him on “The H Train” only to realize the true price too late.

Another of the memorable stories for me was “Kalu Kumaraya (My Dark Prince)” by Jayani C. Senanayake. This tale deals with the mythology of Sri Lanka, a kind of dark and morbid love story but in a good way. The protagonist invents an imaginary friend as a child, which seems innocent enough until this “friend” starts causing a lot of trouble in the real world. Kalu seems to function as a sort of dark genie. He makes life very difficult for the protagonist, particularly as it relates to her ability to form relationships with boys her age. Once the myth gets explained toward the end, ultimately it seems that some cycles are not that easy to break, which I found disturbing indeed.

Lucas Pederson’s “We Were Monsters” deals with an alternating timeline between the present and 1994 when the protagonist had an aunt (who wasn’t actually a blood relative) who was into vampirism. He and his group of friends soon dub themselves after all the Universal monsters and encounter a disturbing creature that would make all those movie beasts shriek in terror. This tale also ends on an ominous note.

Another favourie for me was “Waiting for Mrs. Hemley” by Thomas P. Balázs, a tale of psychological horror that has shades of The Silence of the Lambs. There is a particular quote from this story that I wish I could frame, which is when the protagonist, a psychiatrist, says: “The unconscious is a bottomless chasm of trauma and repression.” This tale turned out to be one of the most interesting and unconventional–definitely not at all typical–takes on zombie fiction that I have seen in years.

The ghosts of the past continue to haunt yet more protagonists in Jay Caselberg’s “The Ride,” this time concerning a guy, Jason, who lost his girlfriend four years ago when she went missing, but he has been suspicious of the authorities ever since because they never found a body. When a person goes missing, there is always the weight of the dread where their loved ones wonder if the person is dead or if there is still a possibility that they are alive. Will they ever see that person again? It is maddening and frightful to contemplate.

A person does not simply “get over” something as unsettling as this. At best, a person learns to live with it but to do that, one has to move through it, and that is definitely easier said than done. Jason decides to investigate in Scotland, because he knows he is not going to be able to let this go. This trip makes him feel productive–like he is taking action and like he is doing something, so he can give himself a semblance of control over the situation, or as much as it is possible to have control in a situation like this. In the end, he learns that sometimes it is best not to investigate too far because a person may not like what one discovers when going poking around for the truth and that some things are best left buried and unexplored.

Ahna Wayne Aposhian gives us the trope of the old woman who comes to people in nightmares and sits on their chests, preventing them from breathing, in “Old Hag.” The protagonist, Wendy, used to have a happy marriage but since her night terrors, her husband has become unsympathetic and brusque. If you like your body horror in hefty doses, this is the tale for you.

Another of my favourite writers, Edward M. Erdelac, gives us a memorable tale called “Hear the Eagle Scream.” Edward writes an interesting brand of historical horror that spans many different interesting locales and characters and this story is no exception. This time around, a man named Jim Thiemann is the owner of Longview Ranch in Scurry County. Although I initially placed this story as Wild West setting from the 1800s, it was probably closer to the early 20th century.

A man named Horace comes up to Jim telling him he’s the man for the job that is being advertised on a sign outside the ranch. Although skeptical at first, Jim gives Horace a chance and is very pleased with the results. This is one of those brilliant twist stories in which the reader spends most of the time convinced that the protagonist is in some kind of impending danger only to find out that the real source of trouble is far from what is expected.

Finally, to cap things off, Carole Johnstone presents “Better You Believe,” which is mountain horror at its finest. If you enjoyed The Abominable by Dan Simmons or The Ruins by Scott B. Smith, you will get a kick out of this story.

This anthology deserves 6 out of 5 stars. It is always difficult for any anthology series that continues to sustain momentum and to show that each new volume is even better than the last, but Guignard was the absolute perfect choice to be at the helm of the newest “Horror Library.” He has a spectacular ability to select stories that are all fantastically well-written and of such a high calibre that is rare to find in anthologies. Even the stories that did not interest me as much in Horror Library Volume 6 were impressive and I was stunned by the fact that there is not a single dud in here.

I think that Volume 6 deserves a lot more attention than it has been receiving as far as reviews and reader reactions go, because Guignard has done a masterful job.  You are not going to find another horror fiction collection out there that tops this one except possibly Ellen Datlow’s Year’s Best Horror (now up to Volume 9), but I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that this anthology is on par with hers in terms of quality. This is one of the best horror fiction anthologies of the year and I truly hope Guignard gets the recognition he deserves particularly with regard to awards.

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.

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.