Criterium by Tyler Jones

Review by Patrick R. McDonough

Criterium’s cover is so innocent looking, isn’t it? Sure, there’s fire, but it’s a nice illustration with its soft color scheme. What you don’t see in that cover is who’s riding the bike? What does the fire dance upon? And in what direction do the tips of the flames lick?

Tyler Jones tackles addiction and the loss of a loved one in varying ways, on top of self-discovery. He does all this through the eyes of Zack Ayers, a troubled teen who wants nothing more than his father back. Not only does he want his father back, but he wants the father he knew as a child, not the man he saw decay into a strung-out addict.

Writing about someone with an addiction so often leads to a disrespectful gloss over of addiction itself, by making the person addicted become a monster, having the one addicted see the world in a different reality than everyone else, or by making someone addicted character be all-consumed by that addiction.

Readers familiar with Jones’ work will not be surprised to discover he tackles addiction with the respect and care it deserves. Criterium is about those that are affected by it—the families, the friends, the addict themselves—because at the end of the day, don’t most of us want to be happy and part of a family that offers support and love?

Zack isn’t only responsible for himself. He also cares for his younger sister. His mother is doing the best she can to keep this unit of three afloat, contending with the stress of paying the bills on time, as well as keeping food on the table, clothes on their back, and a warm shelter to sleep in. All of that would be anxiety-inducing enough, but when you add a bike from hell into the picture, pain on a level noone should ever experience, the desire to die becomes the only thing on Zach’s mind.
The bike is what turns this hyper realistic story into the fantastical imaginings of Ray Bradbury and Clive Barker. When there’s pain, it’s ever-lasting. When there’s injury, it’s one that the reader will never forget. Jones does something really damn clever though, he offers hope in the end. Sure, this is Horror, but without hope, you fall to the shadows… and where there are shadows, there’s no room for fire.

Don’t Know Though by Eli Cranor

Review by Patrick R. McDonough

I’ve always known football to be a big deal in the South. Sure, football is a big deal in most places, but down there, it’s on a completely different level. Down there, it’s do or die.
If you’re a fan of audiobooks, Cranor performs the narration for the audio version. From the very first sentence, Cranor pulls you into the life of Billy Lowe with his superb performance–this comes with no exaggeration–one of the greatest narrations of a book I have ever experienced. Cranor knows this world. He knows the people from first-hand experience. He became Billy Lowe and he hooked me for every damn second.

Billy Lowe isn’t a bad kid. There are no bad kids, there are only bad adults that rob the innocence from a child, and that could not ring more true than Billy, his brothers, and the other kids in Don’t Know Tough. Not every kid knows what Billy goes through, but they all know tough in one form or another. It breaks my heart, knowing kids go through the shit Billy Lowe goes through. It takes guts to write the material Cranor wrote. Sure, this is his first published book, but mark my words, Eli Cranor is a fucking master-in-the-making.

Don’t Know Tough is a story about fatherhood, not a singular father-son relationship, but fatherhood as a whole. As a young father myself (to a beautiful almost-two-and-a-half year old son), this book marred my heart. It makes me want to cry to know that any child has to know what tough is.

Billy Lowe is someone that wants to be better, but is constantly reminded of an illusion. That false truth of being who others say he should be. Nothing more than someone that will never make a name for themselves, go to college (his hope and admiration), and live a happy and healthy life. Booze, drugs, sex, these aren’t things Billy Lowe view as sources of true happiness. These are just things around him.

Family, loyalty, protection, love, books—these are bliss. These are hope. When Cranor introduces Heminway’s The Old Man and the Sea as a literal learning tool and exploration device to understand his character by means of incredible dialogue, it was the umpteeth time Cranor made me want to cry.

Billy is only one character (sure, he’s the main character and the driving force behind everything involved) that you’ll meet when reading Don’t Know Tough, but I want you to explore this story for yourself, and the way to do that is to take that dive. Learn what Tough is all about.

City on Fire by Don Winslow

Review by Brennan LaFaro

City on Fire marks the first book in what will be Don Winslow’s final trilogy. That knowledge brings a bittersweet note with it, but that’s quickly forgotten as the New England organized crime story sucks the reader into its pages. It becomes increasingly difficult to think of much beyond the Italian-Irish dispute.

Winslow sets the scene from the get-go. 1980s Rhode Island, primarily focused on the Providence area. In the interest of full disclosure, this was a major selling point as I know the area well. I’ve lived right down the road all my life. The world of film and literature doesn’t spend as much time in Providence as it does Boston and New York City, and reading about the landmarks I’ve passed by hundreds of times and the streets I’ve walked down at 3 a.m. added a level of enjoyment.

Having grown up in Rhode Island, Winslow has a knack for not only the scenery, but the dialect and attitudes of the locals. It helps bring the competing families to life. Once the Morettis and Murphys, as well as their supporting cast, are established, Winslow unleashes an onslaught of intrigue, full of suspicion and suspense, double crosses and vicious violence. No one is safe and no one can be trusted.

City on Fire is a story of family, both adoptive and in terms of blood. Danny Ryan, our main character, struggles to navigate a messy world of relationships, deals, and shall we say career advancement, all balanced with a wife and a child on the way. Winslow masterfully weaves Ryan’s past experience with his parents into the current events transpiring around him.

With notes of The Departed, City on Fire introduces a world where trust is a distant memory, and readers must hold on tight in order to find out where the story will take them next. Understanding it as a modern retelling of Homer’s Iliad adds a fascinating layer, but unfamiliarity with the source material will not hinder enjoyment. Winslow steps on the gas early and as the final pages draw near, the reader has every right to fear he’ll forget where that brake pedal is if and when he needs it.

Dark Stars edited by John F.D. Taff

Review by Brennan LaFaro

Horror is having a moment. So says Josh Malerman, in one of the most memorable forewords a horror anthology has contained in recent memory.

Dark Forces, edited by Kirby McCauley, was a formative anthology for many modern writers. It showcased huge horror authors of its day, some of whom were already household names and some of whom would become so. Dark Forces showed that horror was to be taken seriously as a genre, no longer a red-headed stepchild to be hidden in the darkest corner of the bookstore.

With Dark Stars, John F.D. Taff takes the idea a step further and, because horror is having a moment, Taff sets out to show the versatility of this genre. What better place to start than with Caroline Kepnes, an author who most know for writing psychological thrillers, but the material contained in her novels, and certainly the material on display in “The Attentionist” put elements of the genre on display at their base. Ramsey Campbell’s entry follows, and how incredible to feature a story from one of the original contributors to Dark Forces. Campbell’s story serves as a torch passed from one generation to the next.

One of this anthology’s many strengths is the adherence to the novelette form. The authors are not constrained to wordcount and in many cases (Langan, Llewellyn, and Malerman come to mind) the story is allowed to spread its wings and thrives for the opportunity. While I won’t go through story by story, rest assured that John Taff has assembled a collection with no misses. Every story has something to add to the conversation, a moment.

As with any group of stories, some will resonate stronger with a reader than others. Some of my favorites contained within were Alma Katsu’s “The Familiar’s Assistant”, John F.D. Taff’s “Swim in the Blood of a Curious Dream”, Josh Malerman’s “Mrs. Addison’s Nest”, John Langan’s “Enough for Hunger and Enough for Hate”, and “Trinity River’s Blues” by Chesya Burke.

It’s not hard to imagine horror writers in twenty years, thirty years, citing this anthology as the book that opened up a world of possibilities for what horror can do, how it can affect, and how deep it can cut.

Horror is having a moment. It’s hard not to agree with Mr. Malerman.

The Devil Takes You Home by Gabino Iglesias

Review by Brennan LaFaro

Billed as barrio noir, Gabino Iglesias’ work contains a unique mix of crime, horror, and grit that feels at home down by the Mexican/American border. Iglesias cemented his voice on the excellent Zero Saints and Coyote Songs, but somehow those masterful pieces of work feel like a prelude to The Devil Takes You Home.

Iglesias wastes no time endearing the reader to Mario, our main character; a necessary undertaking for the trials and tribulations to come. If we couldn’t get in this guy’s corner from the beginning, this novel wouldn’t have worked. In the opening chapters, Gabino rips out the reader’s heart and steps on it in a preview of things to come. With many horror books, I might suggest the author enjoys twisting the reader’s guts, but Iglesias writes loss in such a meaningful and personal way, there’s no way he enjoyed doing so. It lends the story an immediate air of authenticity.

The Devil Takes You Home explores the lengths a man at the end of his rope would go to salvage any semblance of happiness for those around him. Mario’s journey of self-discovery is brutal, bloody, and full of surprises. Iglesias doesn’t shy away from showing the reader the worst of humanity, writing scenes he must know will draw a grimace, but also add to the plot. You may hear some readers lament the unorthodox use of bolt cutters. Let me add my voice to the mix.

While Mario feels fully realized and carries the story on his shoulders with ease, the supporting cast adds a layer of complexity that elevates the story from intriguing character study to contender for crime/horror book of the year contender. Juanca, in particular, adds a depth and makes for some of the more alluring wrinkles. Juanca and Mario’s interactions allow Gabino to explore instances of racism and what happens when the perpetrators push their privilege too far and get fed their own teeth.

The Devil Takes You Home is crime, it’s noir, and although I won’t go into detail, horror readers who love Iglesias’ work will find lots to like here as well. The book brims with righteous anger; a portrait of a man dealt one shitty hand after another and how things play out when he chooses not to simply lay down and die. With Devil, Iglesias makes his major publishing debut, but expect to see lots more from this immensely talented author.

The Fall by Alan Baxter

Review by Brennan LaFaro

With last year’s release of The Gulp, Alan Baxter introduced us to a small coastal town in Australia where weird is the norm. Of course, people will draw parallels to Castle Rock, but at least Castle Rock pretends to be normal. Gulpepper is a place to be avoided and tries to warn outsiders by staying off their maps. Because once you’re there… Oh boy.

Continuing in the style of a mosaic novel, The Fall kicks off with “Gulpepper Curios”. Once again, we see the town through the eyes of an outsider first, taking the reader on a tour of the town, see the sights, and witness first hand an ever-expanding cast of the Gulp’s denizens. Where Baxter excels in a story like this is making it weird but pulling back a few layers at time, while ultimately not giving too much away. It gives the illusion that the storyteller is learning about the stark horror of this town right alongside you, the reader. And just like real life, there are some mysteries that remain shrouded to all.

The premise of “Cathedral Stack” works as an exploration of a place even the residents of the Gulp are afraid of. For good reason, it turns out. Isolation drizzles fear like gasoline, leaving the tale vulnerable to ignite at any second, and ignite it does. The characters just want to get back to shore, but the stack has other ideas.

“That Damn Woman” may be the strongest story in The Fall, if not the whole Gulpepper saga. Baxter makes no qualms about addressing social issues through his fiction and this story highlights rural Australia’s problems with both domestic abuse and suicide. It does so in a tactful way while telling an intriguing, suspenseful story about a man trying to get away with murder.

Here, we enter the realm of mild spoilers. “Excursion Troop” shares a few commonalities with “Cathedral Stack”, but its strength lies within Baxter’s ability to pull back the curtain to reveal that these interconnected novellas share a little more than just a mycelial network. It’s at this point the reader realizes that the titular story won’t serve as just a final entry, but a neat bow to tie not five, but ten, novellas together. The more left for the reader to discover about the final story, the better, but it’s a fitting ending to the collection.

If you enjoyed The Gulp, you’ll find a lot to like in The Fall; a more than worthy sequel and a phenomenal opportunity for readers to set foot again in this horrifying little town-by-the-sea without having to risk life and limb… or so you may think.

Love, Magic, and Horror

Love, Magic, and Horror: How Mercedes M. Yardley Became my Dear Friend.

By Patrick R. McDonough

Mercedes Murdock Yardley is an author I never thought I’d have the opportunity to speak with. This isn’t to say I thought she wouldn’t speak to me, but rather, I put her on a pedestal. I did that with a lot of writers when I was just getting started in my pursuit of being a novelist.

How wrong I was! Not only was Mercedes one of the first guests on Dead Headspace, but she and I have formed an incredible bond, an unexpected friendship that I intend to never take for granted. It’s a type of fellowship I share with very few in this industry.

When you’re lucky enough to find those friendships built on mutual respect and appreciation for each other as artists and people, and you just click, there’s really nothing like it.

I tell you this, because over the course of getting to know each other I’ve learned so much about her. Mercedes the mother, the wife, the friend, the writer, the editor, but overall, Mercedes the person. She writes some really dark content, often overflowing with magic, hope, and love. The content makes sense. You see, that’s her personality, that’s her sense of humor. It’s on full display in her editorial debut, Arterial Bloom (Crystal Lake Publishing, 2020), which is a Bram Stoker Award finalist for Best Anthology.

Recently, Mercedes announced a new novel Darling, coming out August 23rd, 2022 (Scroll down for a pre-order link). It’s the story of a girl who’s called back to her hometown (Darling, Louisiana). She demonstrates that love I mentioned earlier with all its potency. Add in some monsters, and revived murdered children, and you’ll get the ingredients to a great story. This isn’t my round-about way of asking you to pre-order a book from my friend, but I wouldn’t hate it if you did.

What this is is recognition for a woman in horror that means the world to me. She’s been there for me when I was at my lowest. She has also been there for me at my peaks, and is directly responsible for the progress in shaping what I hope will be my debut novel. She is someone I want more readers to talk about, as well, for all the reasons I went over and then some.

I once put Mercedes on a pedestal, never thinking she would even talk to me, and now she’s one of my dearest friends (I am so tempted to say one of my Darlings, but that’s creepy and weird, right? I bet that last line made her laugh); a dear friend I just can’t help but be proud of every single day. She’s the type of person that genuinely lifts your spirits and fills your heart with happiness when you’re down. Mercedes is the type of writer that has an aptitude for letting the reader feel her heart, while ripping yours out with a smile. I ask every single one of you reading this to consider trusting my words enough to see the magic, love, and horror she has waiting for you.

Pre-order Darlings here.

Red X by David Demchuk

Review by Patrick ❌ McDonough

Some books come out of nowhere and hit you in all the right ways. I enjoy the story for what it is and usually pick up a few tricks to add to my own writing. Then there’s that other type of book, the one that finds a special place in your heart. These stories change you not only as a writer, but as a person. They make you think about storytelling in a completely new way. I have experienced that three times since I started reviewing books in 2019. Those books are Koko by Peter Straub, Consider This by Chuck Palahniuk, and Red X by David Demchuk.

What is it about Red X that lands on that oh-so-special spot in my heart? Let’s start with the cover. It is specifically designed to make the colors stick out, distinguishing itself from the surrounding books. Then, there’s the deckled pages—unevenly-cut pages–that remind me of well-preserved books of yesteryear.

The architecture, the techniques of tackling this story, the subject matter, the scenes that cover incredibly graphic deaths, and the metafiction are a few facets of what makes this book stand out. Metafiction can pull the reader out of the story easily if not executed well. But, not here. The architecture itself, be it the physical or e-book when you see the damaged page OR the audio version when the distortion and re-run section literally pull the reader/listener in to play with your senses as if you were in the actual story of Red X itself. This isn’t an easy read, but it’s one that any and all horror–hell, any READER–should dive into.
Then there’s the graphic scenes. They’re scattered throughout, but when they’re there, they hit like a fucking mack truck squishing you like a bug on the windshield.

I connected with Red X on a level that I very rarely connect with stories. That is not to say all the books I’ve read aren’t good, most books I read are fantastic, but, like friends, you only have a few that you bond with so strongly that it’s almost hard to describe. I hope that many of you connect with Red X like that too.

Red X tackles the queer community during the aids crisis, for part of it, and if anything, for those that do not identify in the LGBTQ community, it can do what great books do, bridge hearts and help us understand each other.

When It Rains by Mark Allan Gunnells

Review by Brennan LaFaro

The sky opens up and rain pours down. Not an uncommon occurrence by any stretch of the imagination, even when it isn’t in the forecast, but what if it happens simultaneously all over the world? What if there’s something just a little bit off about the rain itself?

It’s a simple enough premise, but Gunnells aims to add to the conversation. The reader believes they’re about to sink their teeth into a disaster story, something in the vein of Earthworm Gods, but the rain quickly turns center stage over to the various refugees.

From there, Gunnells he proceeds to craft a human-centric story that (arguably) could only have been written in the last two years. Human action, and inaction, that readers might previously have written off to being inauthentic, holds a mirror up to modern society.

The use of close third-person and multiple points-of-view allow for characters from all walks of life to speculate about the severity and potential danger in this slime-like rain. These niche societies predictably fracture and devolve, taking the story to places the reader laments, but believes.

Gunnells holds his cards close to the chest for as long as possible, seemingly with a smile as he deals them one at a time. You might think you know what’s left when he’s down to the very last one, but like any seasoned card sharp, or wordslinger in this case, you’ve spent all your time looking exactly where he wants you to.

When It Rains is a character-based novella with all the elements of a thriller. It’s got a little science fiction at its roots, but like most of Mark Allan Gunnells’ work, ultimately deals in humanity.

The Sanguinarian Id by L.M. Labat

Review by Patrick R McDonough

The Sanguinarian Id is a whirlwind that will suck you in, blur time, and leave you begging for more. Labat proves she has an eye for historical accuracy while keeping the story exciting. Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, and like so many others, globally, World War II is a favorite topic of mine. That being said, it’s really easy to focus on the major players in the war that don’t add a whole lot to the story itself. Labat knows this. She knows that even though the majority of the book takes place in Germany, she doesn’t have to tell you a damn thing about Hitler. Why? Because none of that has a direct affect on our protagonist, Hael.

This is a story that happens adjacent to the main stage of World War II, but it isn’t entirely focused on the war, but rather, the effects the war has on the people we normally don’t hear about. Labat’s awareness and understanding of the direction she wants to take the story offers every kind of sign of hope that The Sanguinarian Id is not only worth your time, but Labat is someone to keep an eye on as her bibliography grows.

Id is complex, it’s layered with the anatomical understanding of da Vinci, and it offers promise that her debut will blossom into something not only reflective of our past, but eerily similar to our present. There are too many bad guys to count in this one, and if that doesn’t scream truth, nothing does. The future only holds wonderful paths for Labat’s vampiric epic, as well as the historical horrors, or any other story she chooses to tell.