horror reviews

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: 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.

Book Review: The Final Reconciliation by Todd Keisling

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Todd Keisling

The Final Reconciliation 
by Todd Keisling
Crystal Lake Publishing
Release Date: Feb 3, 2017
*** Review copy received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review***

Description

TAKE OFF YOUR MASK. Thirty years ago, a progressive rock band called The Yellow Kings began recording what would become their first and final album. Titled “The Final Reconciliation,” the album was expected to usher in a new renaissance of heavy metal, but it was shelved following a tragic concert that left all but one dead.

The sole survivor of that horrific incident was the band’s lead guitarist, Aidan Cross, who’s kept silent about the circumstances leading up to that ill-fated performance—until now.

For the first time since the tragedy, Aidan has granted an exclusive interview to finally put rumors to rest and address a question that has haunted the music industry for decades: What happened to The Yellow Kings?

The answer will terrify you.

Inspired by The King in Yellow mythos first established by Robert W. Chambers, and reminiscent of cosmic horror by H. P. Lovecraft, Laird Barron, and John Langan, comes The Final Reconciliation—a chilling tale of regret, the occult, and heavy metal by Todd Keisling.

Review: I’m not sure why, but a good chunk of horror readers, myself among them, tend to be big fans of heavy metal music. Years ago, I reviewed a fantastic anthology called Living After Midnight: Hard and Heavy Stories edited by David T. Wilbanks and Craig Clarke, which was put out by Acid Grave Press, and each of the stories had the name of a heavy metal band, like Judas Priest or Iron Maiden, and they were amazing. You can imagine my excitement, then, when I discovered that Todd Keisling’s new release from Crystal Lake Publishing, The Final Reconciliation,  is another book that combines metal and horror.

Aidan Cross is an aging former rock stair who was in a band called The Yellow Kings. A producer is speaking to him about the band’s history, something we are told from the get-go is a rare phenomenon, and it’s all to do with something horrible that happened years ago to Aidan and the rest of his bandmates. He has spent most of his life after this incident trying to reconcile what they all went through. It doesn’t take long for us to discover that whatever it is that has happened, Aidan is the only one who walked away.

Interestingly, I thought that this story would have been set in the 70s as it started off with that kind of a vibe, but The Yellow Kings are a relatively recent band, which Keisling suggests by including names of other more recent metal acts, such as Mastodon and Opeth (two of my very favourites!) Aidan speaks about how the band’s music consists of 15-minute epic rock journeys, which is something that has not been popular for a long time. In spite of this, the band gets word  that they’ve received funding to go on tour.

Another name for them is King Crimson 2.0, which I found interesting because the other vibe I got from The Yellow Kings is that they would be British (like King Crimson), but they’re from Texas as it turns out. Aidan paints an interesting portrait of his bandmates, including the lead singer, Johnny, whom he describes as being the sort of fellow that would have become a creepy horror writer if he had not picked up a guitar in his youth.

One of the best things about this book is the authenticity factors–Keisling has a very good knowledge of band experiences, details of being on tour, as well as the dynamics between bandmates. When the band gets its first dose of success, the “groupies” are not far behind, including one memorable girl in particular, Camilla. Aidan sets her up for the reader as the reason why everything went downhill for the band, and it was certainly interesting to see how it all unfurled. I had some theories about whether she was a succubus or a siren or another vixen type of mythological creature, but regardless of that, she makes it clear that there is a dark master the band can help her serve, and it doesn’t take long for things to spin out of control after that.

The lead-up builds to a high crescendo at a concert, the results of which are devastating and highly impactful. So, if you’re a huge fan of the King in Yellow mythology and stories or if you’re craving another hit after watching the first season of True Detective, then pick up Keisling’s book. It’s a phenomenally well-told story delivered in the form of a quick but memorable read, and it’s something that horror readers will enjoy even if they’re not huge fans of metal. With each release, Keisling gets better and The Final Reconciliation is no exception.

About the Author

todd-keisling

Todd Keisling is the author of A Life TransparentThe Liminal Man (a 2013 Indie Book Award Finalist), and the forthcoming collection, Ugly Little Things.
He lives somewhere in the wilds of Pennsylvania with his wife, son, and trio of unruly cats. Visit his website, and connect with him on social Facebook or Twitter.

Book Review: MOJO Conjure Stories, Edited by Nalo Hopkinson

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mojo conjure stories editor nalo hopkinson book cover anthology

Mojo: Conjure Stories
Edited by Nalo Hopkinson
Warner Aspect
April 2003
352 pages
*** Review copy paperback purchased online ***

I discovered this anthology many years ago and it was difficult to come by a copy, but I found one online a while back and finally had a chance to dig into its wonderful contents. People who lament the lack of diversity in speculative fiction would do well to pick up this anthology.

The story “Rosamojo” by Kiini Ibura Salaam stuck with me as it was a powerful tale of an abused little girl and the magical abilities she struggles with in the confines of her family. The ending, though a gut-punch, was satisfying.

One of my favourite stories of the anthology was “Lark Till Dawn, Princess” by Barth Anderson about a former drag queen who has relived the last of his glory days and laments the death of his “house mother”, Magnifica the Crimson. This story painted a fascinating look into the drag world that reminded me of the documentary, Paris is Burning.

There’s a very interesting appearance from Papa Legba and some great background about Magnifica’s hidden connections to the voodoo world. This story was a joy to read from start to finish and ended on a note of hope.

“Heartspace” by Steven Barnes concerns a character, Calvin, who despises his father for many good reasons. He agrees to a visit along with his half-sister and at one point describes her as a “crippled pigeon returning home to die,” which I found incredibly poignant. Then his father seems nice and caring and very unlike himself, which we later discover there’s a dark reason for.

Gregory Frost’s story “Prowl” is a tale of an ex-slave who fought during the Civil War and explores the Gullah myths and legends. “Fate” by Jenise Aminoff is about a woman who recounts giving birth to her son, Eshu, who she names after a trickster deity. They both have a bad fall when he’s young and the theme becomes an exploration of how nothing can ever be completely certain in life.

In “Trial Day” by Tananarive Due, a girl’s half-brother is on trial for possibly committing armed robber, but the family is desperate to keep him out of jail, which will almost certainly mean him getting the electric chair while “The Skinned” by Jarla Tangh tells concerns beings known as The Skinned who “prowl the night streets unseen” and who bullets, blades or fire cannot hurt. This story was more rooted in African folklore and had interesting elements.

“Asuquo” by Nnedima Okorafor is about a girl who can fly but has to keep it secret from everyone. She has a “chi”, a soulmate, who isn’t allergic to her, and is told not to find this person. The fact that her entire family is allergic to her presents its challenges, as one might imagine, and this story stayed with me as one of the stand-outs of the volume.

Barbara Hambly, one of the most prolific speculative fiction writers whose works span many different genres, tells the story of Ajax, the main “gang driver” on a Louisiana plantation called Bellebleu. I found it to be a memorable and atmospheric read.

In “White Man’s Trick” by Eliot Fintushel, we explore the role of a white actor in a troupe consisting mainly of African-American actors while Neil Gaiman’s story “Bitter Grounds” deals with a very interesting piece of Haitian folklore via an academic who is about to present a paper on the legend of the Haitian coffee girls, undead children who went door-to-door selling a chicory coffee mix.

Overall, this anthology contains a strong mix of memorable tales with a diverse table of contents and it really deserved to get much bigger fanfare than it did at the time of its release. I hope that more readers who demand increased diversity in their speculative fiction will have a chance to discover this gem.