Tag: Horror

Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica

A warning before I get going: this book is profound but incredibly brutal.

In a world where all meat (and all animals) have become poisonous to humans thanks to a virus, humans are now bred to be the primary source of meat. “Special meat” if you will.

Marcos, the primary character, has not had the best go of things lately. His child died, his wife left him, and his father is in a care home suffering from dementia.

Then, out of the blue, Marcos is gifted a female “head” of the highest quality. Disenfranchised by what the world has become, and how his life has spiraled, Marcos begins treating this “head” more and more like a person.

I’m not going to lie. While this book is insanely short, it has probably been one of the hardest things I’ve read in years. The accepted brutality is just so nonchalant, and that really makes it a very hard pill to swallow. The writing is just beautiful — especially considering this is a book translated from Spanish — but the subject matter, along with the day-to-day descriptions of humans as livestock really sinks in.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the book. I love the hell out of this, and I think it’s something that everyone should read. If anything, I think it leans towards sympathetic while the society went very brutal.

The ending alone is worth the ride.

What Kind of Mother by Clay McLeod Chapman

For those who have read my reviews previously, it’s no secret that I am a big fan of Mr. Chapman’s work. There is a certain way he approaches a story that evolves the absolute normal aspects of everyday life into a spiral of fascinating terror, and What Kind of Mother does exactly this.

Deeply entrenched in southern gothic horror, What Kind of Mother tells the tale of Madi Price, a mother who is forced back to her hometown of Brandywine, Virginia in order to have any semblance of a relationship with her seventeen-year-old daughter. With nothing really to her name, Madi ekes a meagre living reading palms at the local farmers market and a rundown motel on the edge of town.

Then Henry McCabe enters the story. Henry is an old high school flame, and now fisherman, who now spends his time posting flyers in the desperate search for his infant son who went missing five years ago.

Madi gets involved, and then the whirlwind really starts.

Reading Henry’s palm, Madi begins to be haunted by nightmarish visions of the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, and then the familiar Chapman spiral begins.

One of the things I absolutely love about Mr. Chapman’s works is the way he creates a tiny postcard of a setting, and then just pours on the flavor. Moisture is a huge theme in this novel, and it really did not help that I have been dealing with the Summer heat and humidity of North Texas while reading it. I swear I had a cloying claustrophobia whenever I sat down on the patio to continue reading. It might be in my head, but that’s what I’ve come to expect from a Chapman novel.

This is definitely a novel of zigs and zags. Situations are turned upside down, and it was often hard for me to figure out if I had figured out a twist prior to getting to it, or if I was just led to believe I had figured it out.

I will tell you one thing, Clay McCleod Chapman has absolutely ruined crabs for me. I’m not sure I can even be in the same room as them now.

Road of Bones by Christopher Golden

Cover design: Jonathan Bush

Traveling the infamous Kolyma Highway in the coldest parts of Siberia, Felix Teiglund and his friend Jack Prentiss hope to be able to pull together a documentary film or television series about life in the coldest town on Earth. When they finally arrive the town appears to be uninhabited aside from a mostly catatonic little girl, Una, who their guide recognizes as the child of some of the other missing townspeople. In the process of investigating the empty town, they decide to pack up and take Una to her great grandmother’s gas station which is further down the infamous road of bones.

Mr. Golden sets the scene incredibly well, and the isolation and desolation definitely play a great part in this tale of supernatural horror and suspense. Very quickly, the group are confronted by mysterious shadow wolves who attack them: seemingly in an attempt to get to Una. In the process, Teig and Prentiss’ guide, Kaskil, is killed, and the party goes on the run to rush away from the town. The thing is, the wolves seem to be keeping up quite handily.

Yup, these folks are in a mess of peril.

The Kolyma Highway is a daunting subject to tackle, and Mr. Golden does it great justice. There is probably no other stretch of highway with such a gruesome history. Stalin had it built to connect his Siberian gulags, and it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of prisoner bodies lie beneath the pavement: a morbid tomb for the poor souls who constructed the 1,262 miles of it.

This novel is all about the futility of survival when the elements — be they natural or even supernatural — are very much not in your favor.

Sure, there are several quite confusing portions of the book, but the story progresses in a manner that very much compelled me to try and find the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ll leave it to you to decide if that actually happens. Definitely some great Summer reading.

Ghost Eaters by Clay McLeod Chapman

Erin is haunted, and it is by choice.

If that seems rather innocuous to you, then you have yet to dive into Clay McLeod Chapman’s latest gem: Ghost Eaters.

Stripping the romanticism and fantastical glamour out of the concept of interactions with the supernatural, and, instead, diving right into every worst part of addition, loss, despair, and not the best kind of self-discovery.

Ghost Eaters is about desperation, and, while the irony of not being able to put down a drug-centric book was not lost on me, it is not a pretty tale.

The story centers around Erin, a girl with a few dreams, and some lofty plans to get her life where she wants it to be. The problem with Erin is that she is enthralled by her college ex: Silas. Silas is a dreamer, an addict, and a wandering soul. Silas, however, holds heavy influence over Erin, and — possibly more importantly — their mutual friend Tobias.

Slight spoiler alert: Silas dies, and then the insanity begins.

In her grief in trying to figure out just how she can find some closure with his death, Erin will do just about anything to close the book on Silas. Enter Tobias and Ghost: a drug that Silas and Tobias had been “working on” to see the dead.

Let’s just say things get worse from there.

One of the things that I love about Mr. Chapman’s stories is something that actually somewhat annoys me with many other authors: things are not tidy. Much like real life, not all storylines are cleanly wrapped up in a bow, and, for me, this really gives his worlds a more realistic tint. With Ghost Eaters this approach really focuses the madness and decent into Erin’s chaotic spiral. I have described this book to friends as “Haunted Trainspotting,” and I feel that there is a kinship in the portrayals of addiction that are compelling as well as repellent.

Progressing through Ghost Eaters made more more and more itchy. Yeah, it’s that visceral.

I enjoyed the worldbuilding in this novel because it rides a fine line between being placed in the very concrete space of Richmond, Virginia, while also straddling a liminal space of filth and madness.

Yes, it’s horror, but it is also social commentary, and one of the best damn books you could pick up this year. As usual, Mr. Chapman’s mind has spun up a world that I’d rather not live in, but I sure as hell enjoyed visiting it.

Whisper Down the Lane: A Novel by Clay McLeod Chapman

If you grew up in the 1980’s, there is a chance that the “Satanic Panic” affected your life in some way. For myself, a nerdy, Dungeons & Dragons playing kid growing up in semi-rural New Mexico, the “Panic” glanced off of a lot of our community. There were always whispers of rituals and Satanic graffiti popping up in abandoned buildings, and many many rumors of both the humorous and downright terrifying swirled around us constantly. Proctor and Gamble were a company who promoted the occult through their product logos, Liz Claiborne went on Oprah and said she gave profits to a Satanic cult, and even McDonalds and the Smurfs were in on the rise of Satanism and the Mystical in our nation that was quickly sloughing off it’s good Christian roots.

This is the world that Mr. Chapman brings Whisper Down the Lane into.

This is the story of Richard… or is it Sean… an art teacher at an elementary school in a sleepy little town that has just gained a bit more attention by the hipster city-set looking to come to somewhere “quaint” to raise their brood.

Something, however, is rotten in the city of Danvers, and it very strangely starts to mirror Richard’s — or is it Sean’s — past.

Then we start to learn some things. Richard Bellamy used to be Sean Crenshaw: a boy who, in 1982, was pulled into what can only be described as one of the biggest shitstorms of the Satanic Panic.

Rather than say anything more about the plot of this gem, let’s take a look at Mr. Chapman’s approach to building terror and uncertainty into a story. In The Remaking, Mr. Chapman totally drew me in with an approach he similarly uses here in Whisper Down the Lane. I like to think of it of the old adage about putting a frog in a pot of water and slowly bringing it to a boil. The frog (allegedly) won’t notice until it is far too late. That is how Mr. Chapman writes horror, and Whisper Down the Lane is a perfect example. Yeah, this weird Sean story is building in alternate chapters, but Richard really has his shit together. Then, quite suddenly, peanut butter meets chocolate, and the whole house of cards explodes. There is such a subtlety of tone, and even sanity, that just makes this novel a joy to read. Yes, it’s not perfect, but it is a wonderful homage to so many other masters of the craft. Certain scenes and situations may seem clichéd, but that is because they draw from the very origin of the cliché, and that is the purest form of flattery. Plus, it really does add to the depth of the story in a way that isn’t remotely cheesy or contrived.

Hell, there’s even a “made for TV” movie reference in there.

Alien – Alien 3: The Lost Screenplay by William Gibson (by Pat Cadigan)

** This book was provided to me by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review **

The story of how this novel came to be is almost as good as how it ended up.

Many, many moons ago — back in 1987 to be precise — William Gibson was tapped to be the first of what turned out to be ten writers to tackle the script for what was to become the third film in Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise. Gibson ultimately produced a second revision, in 1988, which toned down the story a bit, but the studio still passed on it.

This second revision was adapted into a comic series by Dark Horse Comics in 2018, and an audio drama in 2019 by Audible Studios, but the first revision remained in the dark aside from being passed around the internet on Alien fandom sites and message boards.

Now, in 2021, it sees the proper novelization it deserves; and from the Queen of Cyberpunk herself, Pat Cadigan.

To say that I was excited to read this book is an understatement. I have been a fan of both Gibson and Cadigan since I was a mere kid, and this is exactly the “peanut butter in my chocolate” type of collaboration that I dream about.

This story is gritty as all hell. Focusing largely on Hicks and Bishop after being “rescued” with Ripley and Newt in the Sulaco where they ended up at the conclusion of Aliens, this version of Alien 3 goes from “Ehhh, things might be ok.” to “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” to “Oh yeah, everything is totally screwed.”

We see a whole lot of evolution in the Xenomorphs in this story. Their adaptation and speedy evolution is both terrifying and, for franchise fans, fascinating given the total lore that already exists. These bugs are a total game changer when it comes to their propagation and swarm-like spread.

Through it all, however, we see the laser-focused persistence of Hicks and Bishop. Naturally, as should always be in an Alien story, there is some thinly-veiled political intrigue, and the ever-present idiocy of “The Company” to help push the story along a bit.

What’s striking about this book is that it is a total redirection of the bigger story. Ripley is probably in it for about two chapters before everything gets focused on the Artificial Person and the Marine. I applaud the change, and how a lot of material and memories from Aliens was referenced to give some extra sparkle to the situation the two find themselves in.

Ms. Cadigan tackled this project just perfectly. There are some scantly disguised references to the current COVID-19 pandemic that I found rather amusing, but the bigger story really lends itself to that kind of comparison. Being a fan of her previous writings, falling into a cadence and rhythm that I’m familiar with really helped churn through the pages. The dialogue encompasses so many damn emotions, but nothing ever gets to a point where the broader picture is derailed for lack of detail or cohesiveness.

All-in-all, this was one hell of a novel to read, and I’m both incredibly happy I got to enjoy it, and very sad that I’m done with it. I really, really, really hope this sees the screen someday. If only so I can see some Xenomorph lemurs. Oh yeah, there are lemurs.

The Last Shimmer by Sage Hyatt (Ryan Hyatt, ed.)

Short fiction, like a well-executed amuse-bouche, is very hard to pull off satisfyingly. Due to the nature of the back-lying mechanics of it, there is just so much opportunity to lean on one pillar of the story structure while not paying enough attention to one of the others.

Miss Hyatt understands this. The Last Shimmer balances a very well-developed storyline along with fully formed characters and a richly described setting in a way that is downright envious.

Without giving too much of it away, The Last Shimmer is the story of Tiger Lily Dander, her friend Stacy and the fanciful supposition of:

What if our shadows turned on us?

It works, it really really does, and, like I said before, Miss Hyatt develops a situation and a group of characters that work incredibly well for this piece.

This is twenty-seven pages of wonderful middle-grade horror with an absolute bow on top. Sure, it is not my normal fare, but I’m very much reconsidering the role of short fiction as a sort of palate cleanser between bigger works. I definitely needed this, and I really think all of you will enjoy it as well.

Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

** This book was provided to me by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review **

Sorrowland opens with our protagonist, Vern Fields, out in the woods giving birth to twins all by her lonesome. Yeah, that’s an opening that will grab your attention.

If that were not enough, there is a malevolence — Vern calls it the Fiend — in these woods that harrows Vern and taunts her with offerings of baby-symbolic death: constant dead animals with accompanying baby accessories.

What we learn of Vern in the first half of the book is downright horrifying. She is a 15 year-old Black albino, very visually impaired, and raised in (and escaped from) a Black-centric compound/cult/commune known as the Blessed Acres of Cain.

I hate reviewing books where I feel like any little bit of detail I give could give away a major plot surprise, and Sorrowland is definitely this kind of story. There are minutiae galore, but, in an amazing display of story organization, Mx. Solomon has a wonderful little path for each and every one of them. The “everything in its right place” person in me adores this.

Ok, back to Vern. Over the next few years, Vern raises her two children — Howling and Feral — in the wild woods with zero human contact aside from the continued harrowing by the Fiend. Howling and Feral grow bigger and become more wily and rambunctious in their free environment, but Vern senses that she is going through some changes.

All the while, she is in constant fear of being discovered by someone who will drag her and her children back to the Blessed Acres of Cain. Back to the horrors of Ascensions, daily “vitamin” shots, and general tyranny under the gaze of her husband who is the leader of this commune.

And that’s it! That’s all I’m letting you know. Just let me tell you that shit definitely escalates from there.

I’ll be brutally honest, when I started it, I wasn’t really in the right headspace to appreciate the nuance of how this story was setting up. It wasn’t until I realized that there was a much bigger tale here than one of just mere survival that I was totally missing. Mx. Solomon deftly sets up a grim tableau and then proceeds to stack piece after piece upon the stage in a slow build of mystery, intrigue and mild horror until it seems that no outcome will be remotely acceptable in the “happy ending” category.

For me, Sorrowland is a story about the myriad aspects and facets of self-reliance. Never before have I experienced a character that so defines the concept of “grey area” in personality and actions as Vern Fields. I often found myself shaking my head at her sheer obstinance, but, as I began to realize that Vern only trusted Vern (and sometimes not even that), her methodical approach in a fuzzy world was what she equates with survival.

Don’t even get me started on electricity food.

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

I’ve been hearing about this novella through various outlets for a few months, and it sat on my stack longer than I would have preferred for a “short” piece of fiction.

Normally, I take breaks from “big” story undertakings to cleanse my palette with something easy to consume. Ring Shout is far from easy to consume.

Set in 1922 Macon, Georgia, the story opens with our main character, Maryse Boudreaux sitting atop a cotton warehouse in downtown with her two comrades-in-arms and best friends, Chef and Sadie. The trio is watching a Fourth of July Klan march proceed below them whilst planning out a special surprise for a pack of Klu Kluxes.

In this particular tale of alt-history and horror, Klu Kluxes are fantastic beasts of immense strength and hate who hunt down black citizens with animalistic fervor. Sadie and her friends hunt them.

As Ring Shout progresses, we learn that — as in many tales of good versus evil — there is a new resurgence in Klan evil that is rising up surrounding a new showing of G.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation that is getting ready to be shown at Stone Mountain, and Sadie’s group aims to disrupt and stop it.

Diving deep into the mystical, it appears that Griffith created the film to entrance a nation of white people into spreading more and more Klan hate, but Sadie has her own brand of mystical support to help stop it.

As social commentary, Ring Shout is pretty damn powerful. Rather than make light of the highly overt racism that was paraded around in the early to mid 20th century, the situations and stories help create a more rational picture of the mistrust and animosity that existed between the races.

As a horror story, the novella hits all the suspenseful highlights. There are mysterious monsters, Lovecraftian otherworldly overlords, and a whole lot of cultural lore and tradition. The monsters are made all that more terrifying by the ideologies they represent, and the “big bad” is about as terrifying as it gets.

I was often reminded of Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country as I was making my way through this one. While there is a lot of the same themes and tone, there are decided differences, in my mind, that make Ring Shout a more raw experience.

Whether you are a fan of horror or not, Ring Shout should definitely be on your reading list.

Lovecraft Country: A Novel by Matt Ruff

While I do not want to address the television adaptation of this novel, it is definitely the elephant in the room, and I will be honest that I picked up this book because the show trailer looked so fascinating (and I had ignored the recommendation last year from a dear friend).

OK, elephant addressed.

Lovecraft Country is a marvelous tale of horror, science fiction, and navigation of Jim Crow America of the 1950’s. Delightfully broken into vignettes and paying a whole lot of homage to H.P. Lovecraft’s style both in subject matter and story construction.

Throughout the bigger work, a larger story arc is weaving itself featuring arcane rituals, mystical objects, powerful magicks, Indiana Jones-style adventure, and more than a little overt racism.

Wrapped around the larger story are small tales of new worlds, cursed objects, hauntings, debts paid and self-discovery. Again, very much flavored with the struggles of being Black in America during a time where being non-white put one at a very overt and accepted disadvantage.

While the book was a relatively quick read, I found the world-building quite intricate and well-developed. The protagonists are very likable: even with their quirks and flaws; and the “villains” run the gamut of mystical to brutish.

Quite the literary treat.