Eric Raglin is quickly becoming one of my favorite proprietors of short fiction. To understand why, you only need to glimpse at the variety showcased in his debut collection, Nightmare Yearnings.
Raglin understands how to distill a story to its core elements, forcing the reader to focus on the pieces that make the story truly scary without having to wade through anything superfluous to get there. The end result is sixteen stories that will all make you feel.
Sure, some might make you feel afraid to turn the light off at night. Some might make you feel nervous about visiting Spain. Some might make you feel a little hesitant about what those birds outside your window are really up to. Some might make you feel all kind of ways about drain cleaner.
But they’ll make you feel.
Nightmare Yearnings is not shy about embracing the weird either. “Mother’s Tongue” lets you know the kind of thing you’re in for right off the bat. It’s followed by “Ivory”, one of my favorites from the book. Equal parts creepy and fantastic, it sinks its talons into the reader, drawing them in for the remainder of the ride. Stories like “Gray Matter” and “For My Final Girl” stand on their own, but benefit immensely from Raglin’s author notes at the end, providing insight into what went into writing the piece, as well as where you might have seen it appear before. Putting these at the end of the book allows readers to learn a little more without risking spoilers.
Story collections rarely earn five stars from me. By their nature, they are striking diverse tones and attempting to appeal to a wide audience, often ending up uneven. Nightmare Yearnings brings sixteen stories to the table over the course of 190 pages and never drags for a moment. While I enjoyed every story on some level, some of my favorites not yet mentioned included “Under the Hoof, Upon the Horns”, “Lockdown”, “Smaller”, and “When Mothman Came to Queer Lake”.
If you consider yourself a fan of short fiction, or if you’d like to see what can be done in the medium, I can’t recommend Nightmare Yearnings highly enough.
Cynthia “Cina” Pelayo is many things – a loving mother and wife, friend, writer, and publisher. All that can be surmised in a few words – warrior with heart. Pelayo is a Puerto Rican female from Chicago, who was a journalist covering true crime before diving into the world of prose. All that resulted in a person who has seen a lot of ugly things. Someone who has witnessed and been consumed by all the suffocating shadows of humanity. But most importantly, someone who has vital stories to share with the world. Pelayo is an artist that bleeds on the page.
Every. Damn. Time.
Her prose is poetic, each line filled with hard truths, some so hard the veracity compels certain types to lash out on the author as opposed to the real-world monsters described in her stories. Pelayo’s lines have this aesthetically pleasing syntax, and a smooth cadence that demands for more books from her readers. Back to those hard truths for just a moment. They are often reflections of the reader. Who are you, really? What are you willing to do when the reality of how the world actually works appears before you? She’s a writer who is bound to eventually have a wider audience, more attention on what she has to say, and unapologetically stands behind what she believes in.
The first long-form work I experienced of Cina’s was her 2021 release, (published by Polis books) Children of Chicago. I read that alongside her poetry collection Into the Forest and All The Way Through (more on that collection in a moment). They pair beautifully together, like a fine cheese and aged wine. Be warned, they aren’t easy reads, strictly in the sense that the content cuts deep. For Children of Chicago, it’s about children killing children and the downward spiral of the life of Lauren Medina, our protagonist. For Forest, it’s the heart-breaking amount of women who are still cold cases throughout the United States. Forest is a collection of true crime poems, specifically about (infants to elderly) females who have been kidnapped, tortured, killed, and left for the maggots. It was refreshing (yet, irrevocably sad) to see Puerto Rico included in the list of United States locations. Often times, PR is treated like a ghost—this invisible entity that won’t bother you if you don’t acknowledge it. Both books deal with the worst this world has to offer. All those cruel and malicious monsters target the same thing—women.
What women go through in these stories, in their final moments, is enough to shred your heart apart and leave it for the predators. For all these reasons, I implore you, be it the first time you’ve heard of Pelayo, or maybe you’ve heard of her but that book of her’s is stuck in that To Be Read hell pile, consider making a point to have her book jump to the top. It deserves it.
The initial response from some readers was polarizing. Some viewed this story as bashing on Chicago due to it focus on the overwhelming amount of violence within the Windy City. That intrigued me as a reader. That intrigued me as a person. I want to listen/read/witness stories that pull intense emotions out of people.
Children is a love letter to fairy tales, the tradition/history of storytelling, and the city she not only loves but lives in. Pelayo is Lauren Medina, our protagonist. That isn’t an educated guess on my part. That comes straight out of Pelayo’s mouth.
If you know Cynthia “Cina” Pelayo, if you read her tweets, if you read her books and poetry collection Into The Forest and All the Way Through, you’ll learn real quick that she is a lot of wonderful things, and all those wonderful things are shielded by a hardened edge to protect her loved ones and herself from the horrible things in the world.
Lauren Medina’s case, finding out who the Pied Piper is, and why he’s coming back, is both haunting and exciting to the heart and imagination. To date, she is the only author I have ever compared to Thomas Harris. In both the fact that their roots are in journalism, covering true crime, and in their writing style. However, with Pelayo being a Puerto Rican woman from Chicago and Harris being a Caucasian man from Tennessee, their writing voices are unique in their own right.
Children isn’t a glorification of violence in a city which does have its share, unfortunately. It’s a spotlight on a real problem. It’s a spotlight on an issue Pelayo wants to end. It’s a recognition in narrative form that makes the heart bleed and the eyes shed tears.
If this book has yet to hit your radar, consider it hit now. More importantly, consider reading this story before its sequel comes out. Pelayo is a voice that will only be amplified as her career grows. This is just the first big book to come out for her inevitably expansive bibliography.
Next up for Pride Month is an article by one of our favorite human beings. Briana Morgan is the author of Unboxed, The Tricker-Treaterand Other Stories, and more.
Say It Five Times: How Candyman Sparked My Queer Awakening
by Briana Morgan
Candyman made me gay. No, wait—let me explain.
It didn’t make me gay so much as it made me question my sexuality and my attraction to different genders. Gay isn’t even the term I prefer to describe my orientation. I’m bisexual, attracted to people across the gender spectrum. Have been all my life, didn’t figure it out until I was in my early twenties. Specifically, in the year 2015.
Anyway, Candyman. The movie came out in 1992, the year I was born, and I didn’t get around to watching it until twenty-three years later. If you’re not familiar with the movie, here’s the synopsis:
“Skeptical graduate student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) befriends Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams) while researching superstitions in a housing project on Chicago’s Near North Side. From Anne-Marie, Helen learns about the Candyman (Tony Todd), a [hook-handed] figure of urban legend that some of her neighbors believe to be responsible for a recent murder. After a mysterious man matching the Candyman’s description begins stalking her, Helen comes to fear that the legend may be all too real.”
It’s good, right? If you like horror movies—especially the urban legend subgenre—you need to watch this one. Tony Todd and Virginia Madsen are brilliant in it. Beyond that, they’re beautiful. That must count for something.
As a woman who thought I was straight, my attraction to Tony Todd was inevitable. My attraction to Virginia Madsen, however, stirred up something foreign to me. For years, I’dfought this feeling, but presented in a great horror movie, it was undeniable. I couldn’t stop looking at Helen. I drowned in her eyes and was happy not to surface.
That’s when it hit me—I felt the same way about her as I did Tony Todd. The same. The realization hit me like a car crash.
I couldn’t lie to myself about who I was anymore. I knew that since this feeling kept popping up; it wasn’t going away. I could either reject it and deny myself total contentment in my identity, or I could choose to embrace it—as terrifying as that was—and in doing so, embrace myself, full stop. Unconditionally.
Candyman is a hell of a movie to spark a queer awakening. Throughout the film, Helen grapples with her complicated feelings toward the Candyman. Through their interactions, it’sclear she’s enamored with him despite knowing he could kill her whenever he wants. To a lesser extent, this idea is one I’vestruggled with in my own life as I came to terms with my identity. For a long time, I thought embracing my queerness meant embracing a “lifestyle” I’d been taught to avoid.
I’m an agnostic witch now, but I was raised Southern Baptist in several small towns where everyone knew everyone and there were no such things as secrets. All my life, I’d heard preachers and Christian influencers decree that being homosexual—or anything close to it—was morally wrong and served as a one-way ticket to hell. Going to hell meant being separated from all my friends and loved ones in heaven. I had experienced attraction toward almost everyone across the gender spectrum at that point, and even though I believed it was wrong, there was nothing I could do to make the feelings go away.
Watching Candyman can be frustrating. We watch Helen fall under the Candyman’s spell and risk her life just to spend more time with him. For some people, it’s hard to understand why makes certain choices and follows her feelings when they could get her killed.
I understand. I get where Helen’s coming from. All my life, I pushed my feelings down and tried to deny my truth. It was easier and safer to stick to the status quo. As long as I was good—and straight—I would get to go to heaven.
Candyman was not the first film or piece of media that made me question who I was and who I found attractive. It just seemed to hit me at precisely the right time. At that point in my life, I had graduated from college and lived alone in Florida, far from my family and friends and working a job I hated. I was suicidal. I drank a lot.
No matter what happened, I turned to horror. It’s always comforted me. When I watched Candyman, I latched on to the premise and sank my teeth into the movie. I absorbed it and let it become part of me—or maybe I let it reveal a part of me I’d spent so many years hiding.
In the film, you summon the Candyman by saying his name five times. There’s power in repetition, and it requires bravery. Conviction. Maybe that’s why I’ve never written about my queer identity before.
Like Helen, I’m no longer afraid of how who I love might hurt me. I’m proud of who I am because I’ve fought hard to become her. I’ll say it five times: I’m bi, I’m bi, I’m bi, I’m bi, I’m bi.
May you be brave enough to live your truth. Tell Tony Todd I love him.
In honor of Pride Month 2021, we’re elated to be hosting an article by one of the best new voices in Horror. Eric LaRoccais the author of THINGS HAVE GOTTEN WORSE SINCE WE LAST SPOKE, STARVING GHOSTS IN EVERY THREAD, and FANGED DANDELION. He has a collection being released by Off Limits Press in Fall 2021.
A Horrific Pride: The Importance of Queer Representation in Horror
by Eric LaRocca
Although most writers of horror and dark fiction might prefer the autumn season for its eerie sensibilities and ubiquitous feeling of dread that typically pervades the month of October, I’ve often found myself especially fond of the month of June. Although that’s not to say I’m dismissive of autumn’s spooky charm and chilling atmosphere, my attachment to June is rooted in a sense of belonging I often went without during my formative years as a queer youth.
For me, Pride month has always been a safe time of year—a time to celebrate one’s identity and live one’s truth unabashedly. Although I hadn’t summoned the courage to attend Pride events until recently, June has always been a month of merriment, especially considering it’s the time when my seasonal depression shrinks to the size of a grain of rice.
While most regard horror as a genre that has obliquely maligned the plight of the queer person or worse, simply ignored them, I’ve found the genre to be an inherently queer space ever since I was a child and existing on a healthy diet of Universal classic monster films.
As the horror genre exploits audience’s fears of “the other”—controversial things unknown, unsaid, and otherwise unexplored—the genre intrinsically operates in a distinct realm of queerness not only by serving audiences unusual topics, but by illustrating common themes and personages of the queer community. Horror, in its most prosaic form, fixates on an antagonist—a “monster” —that typically represents a threat to normative behavior. The very presence of the menace acts as a means by which to reinforce a theme of queerness as a hazard to the typical heterosexual formula.
Although throughout the years, in order to keep up with social climates, the genre has drastically mutated from the romanticism of mist-swept Eastern European castles to S&M torture chambers or modern cityscapes, the representation of queerness has remained steadfast and integral to the genre’s efficacy. Despite the genre’s coded exploration of queer themes, there has yet to be a mainstream horror film detailing a plight endured by an openly queer character. However, the genre, much like humanity, continues to evolve. These horror icons have paved the way for future figures to frighten and, more importantly, thrive in queerness. It is my sincere hope that you, dear reader, not only thrive during Pride month, but every month throughout the year.
Malignant Summer is the perfect story to read this summer! Why is that? If you were like me, it was the stretch of time away from school where I didn’t need to worry about tests, waking up at 7am five days a week, and could sit in and watch morning cartoons and play video games. Like the protagonists, I grew up in the 90s with an ardent love for N64 games, running around with my friends, and talking more video games. It’s a reminder of how precious that time is, but for more reasons than it being a fun summer with friends doing silly kid things. We can’t forget that this is a horror, and every great coming-of-age story has some kind of weird, creepy, crawly, monster or creature that changes a kid’s life forever. That’s the point of a coming-of-age story. To talk about the moment leading up all the way up to, that moment where a series of events or one traumatic event changed the way you once viewed the world with an innocent lenses to a cautioned one.
Malignant does something wonderful. It keep the scares and creep factor rolling after our boogeyman is revealed. The monster is almost always scarier when we don’t see them. Yet, Mother is continuously bone-chilling. Her origin story is full of horror, dread, and anchored in our own history. We not only get to know the backstory of our protagonist, Doug, but his friends, the older high school kids, as well as Doug’s main bully, Jewel. The story covers a vast cast of characters while keeping a laser focus on the main issue at hand, and Meyer builds the layers of suspense like a seasoned pro. Malignant spotlights how there is so much more to people than what they show you. There’s a lot of sadness behind some of these kids, and it breaks my heart that it’s a real-world problem. The underlying theme I took away from this story was we are in fact the monsters that create other monsters. We are the plague that destroys what we are given – life, this world to co-exist with other creatures and nature.
Doesn’t go without saying that, once you see the cover, you kind of know that it deals with–man vs. nature. That has become one of my favorite things to read – body horror and when nature knocks our species on our ass and mutilates us into its own image. The thing that plagues this town is an unstoppable force – centuries, perhaps longer, of history that’s been ruminating in the lands, sort of like a Derry and Pennywise situation. But even after we know what we’re dealing with, we don’t really. Meyer only shares so much and for that, I thank him.
This story is bound to have big fanfare this summer as well as for a long time afterward.
If you like brevity in your book reviews, this collection can be summed up by simply saying read Hailey Piper. There’s a reason her short fiction is everywhere (this is not hyperbole) and 2020 saw her release not one, but two top shelf novellas in Benny Rose, the Cannibal King and The Worm and His Kings. She’s that good, and Unfortunate Elements of my Anatomy is no exception. Collecting pieces written from about 2018 to early 2020, Anatomy shows fair range in style, running the gamut from heartwrenching pieces like “The Law of Conservation of Death”, my personal favorite, to humor like “Demons of Particular Taste”. Traditional horror tropes to dark fantasy to twisted nightmares you won’t see anywhere else. Not only does Piper embrace diverse subject matter, but the story lengths even keep the reader on their toes. Piper interspersed flash pieces with stories of a more customary length, ultimately closing with a novelette. “Feast for Small Pieces” is a bombastic opener, reminding this reader of a band leading an album off with frantic drums and thrashing guitar to make sure the listener, or reader in this case, is paying attention. It takes us directly into “The Law of Conservation of Death”, a piece destined to wheedle its way into your consciousness and take root. Try forgetting this one. “I’m Not a Chainsaw Kind of Girl, but…” is a brutal ride, laced with unforgettable description. “We All Scream” lingers with vivid imagery. Possibly the creepiest story in the collection. You’ll never listen to the tinkling bells of the ice cream man quite the same way. “The Burning of the Blueberries” was another favorite. Packed with commentary on toxic masculinity and finding one’s place in the world, Piper explores the concept beautifully, landing in an unexpected, but inescapable place. “Recitation of the First Feeding” closes out the collection. With some parts reminiscent of MR James and others of Clive Barker, this thing is all Hailey Piper, and the collection couldn’t have ended any other way. This is but the first offering of 2021. We’ve still got Queen of Teeth and copious amounts more coming from this talented author before the countdown takes us to 2022, but this is a hell of a way to start things off.
The cover fits the bill perfectly. It looks like it would be the illustration done by monks a few centuries ago. A few crosses in a land of brush, but you know hidden graves are lurking, unseen below. Bodies beneath those. Stories within those skeletons.
I have a hard time saying this about most collections, be it from one of the top dogs in the game today or an independent author, but Jones nailed it. “Seance” is without a doubt the one that stuck out and uneased me the most. It is exactly what it sounds like, only… there are twists I’ve never seen done before in this event. It’s one thing to present a different spin on a commonly used situation within a specific genre. It’s next level stuff when you execute it so well that it conjures up images in your head as if it were unfolding live long after reading the book.
I can’t pick even one more to mention. Every single story in here is a home-freaking-run.
Jones has a way about his writing that makes it feel like you’re sitting down with a nice mug of cocoa or tea, for Uncle Lex to tell you a creepy/scary story before everyone goes to bed… with the lights on, because you’re not going to want to sleep with them out after you dive into a few of these tales. What they did to me was make me look at trees differently. Nature itself is intertwined with humankind in such grotesque manners that it’s actually kind of beautiful. Just know, that in Whistling, you can’t trust you’ll beat witness to anything beyond destruction on varying scales.
Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland was a top five book last year. His grasp on characterization and ability to write compelling action scenes grabbed a lot of attention, mine included. Razorblade Tears is even better. The story kicks off with Ike finding out his estranged son has been murdered. He joins forces with Buddy Lee, a fellow ex-con whose son was married to Ike’s son. Neither man stands especially proud of the way their relationship with their sons played out and together they seek to find the people behind it and make them wish they were never born. You’d be hard-pressed to find two characters in the most self-proclaimed literary of fiction as Ike and Buddy Lee who are as fully-realized and graced with depth as Cosby’s protagonists. They well and truly are not great men, but the author sprinkles backstory and subtext into the narrative sparingly and with such care that the reader finds themself turning the pages at the halfway point and realizing they’d jump right in the truck with these two and do anything to help their cause. Razorblade Tears is loaded with social commentary, and kudos must be given to Cosby for dealing with such heavy-handed topics as racism, homophobia, and another one I won’t name hear for spoiler reasons tactfully and with emotional depth. He’ll receive backlash from those that don’t believe these things are an issue in modern America, and I suspect he’ll brush that dirt off his shoulder without a second thought. There is a particularly poignant scene set in a barber shop that had me quoting Seinfeld. “What is this salty discharge?” It’s only May, so it’s hard to say this is my novel of the year, but at the moment it’s just that. There’s not a single box on my list of what makes a compelling read this one didn’t check. Great characters, emotional investment, stellar pacing, authenticity in spades. You name it. Razorblade Tears is a special, special book and Cosby has a fan for life in me.
I received a copy from the publisher for review consideration.
I’ve started more than one or two reviews by doing something we’re told from an early age to avoid—that’s right, people. I judge a book by its cover. Kealan Patrick Burke’s design for Gulf is just as imaginative and atmosphere-inducing as we’ve come to expect. Another triumph on his long list of other winners. What sometimes gets glossed over is the interior art, usually done by Bob Veon, in Silver Shamrock releases. From the five paneled door at the center of the store to the four claws reaching out from underneath, gouging the floor, Veon’s work here sets the tone for every chapter. The artwork may convey the tone, but the story masterfully establishes it in the first place. Campbells explores a range of tropes, from time travel to alternate dimensions to hell hounds even back to the horror of losing identity. She captures a snapshot large family life—after all what member of a multi-child household doesn’t have a story of being left out, forgotten about, or just plain feeling invisible. Gulf takes the elements that make finding your role within a family difficult and speaks to them with an authenticity. Despite some of the tropes listed above being represented in multiple other works of horror, Campbell brings them together in a way that feels unique and original. You know those stickers or placards that read “For fans of…”? You won’t find one on Gulf, because it’s not a mirror image of a familiar path you’ve traveled time after time. Instead, let’s call this one for fans of character-driven horror. Our main character, David, is pretty easy to get behind. The reader understands his motivations from the get-go and Campbell delivers a satisfying arc. We could also call this one for fans of creature features. Not in a traditional way, but the elements are present if you keep an eye out. Gulf is bleak and eerie, but brimming with heart, and Campbell is an author to keep an eye out for. She’s got a fantasy duology with one book out and the other on the horizon, as well as a forthcoming book on writing, that looks like it will focus quite a bit on world building. Check out Gulf now.