Gulf by Shelly Campbell

Review by Brennan LaFaro

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.

Velocities by Kathe Koja

Review by Patrick R McDonough

Throughout this collection you’ll find the poetic symphony that is Kathe Koja. From the horrors in a grim near-future, to the mind of someone dwindling into nothingness. There’s a little bit of something for everyone in Velocities.

The collection tackles a few themes spun in an interesting way: abuse, brutality, and victimization. They come in different forms from societal down to the micro level of one person trying to find themselves.

My three favorite stories:

“Baby” – The collection opens with this story and it’s by far the creepiest of them all. It’s one of those short stories I think anyone that enjoys being scared or creeped out can get behind. It sets the bar high for the rest of the collection and without any spoilers, all I can say is nobody puts this Baby in the corner.

“Velocity” – The story of an artist. One being questioned, at points pestered, about his methods. The artform is a niche and a strange one indeed, but the story behind it is heart-wrenching.

“Clubs” – Even when I was in my young 20’s they weren’t for me. The few times I went to a club I could make out whose scene it really was, and who was there just to be with friends like I did. Our protagonist is a lifer, or so it seems. It’s an interesting arc–from being the hottest thing in the club to… well.. not. “Clubs” is another story that gives us the tale of a character that appears to be in their element, yet couldn’t be more lost and alone.

Koja is someone you need to read whether you’re a general reader of horror/dark fiction or a student of the Horror genre. 

Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice

Review by Brennan LaFaro

Taking place on an indigeneous reservation in Canada, Moon of the Crusted Snow roots itself as an exploration in humanity, while also introducing elements that set it apart. While not a horror novel, there are plenty of elements that fit that genre. Any time a book inserts itself into the genre of apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic, I think horror. Really, what could be more terrifying than either the world ending around you or trying to survive in a crumbled society?

Rice’s book benefits from its limited viewpoints. Things are always the scariest, the most tense, when we don’t see the monster. Think Jaws, think Cloverfield. The amount of time those monsters spend threatening from offscreen are some of the most dramatic of each respective movie. In Moon, the apocalypse happens off-camera, so to speak. Because we’re in the heads of the rez inhabitants, once communications go down there’s no way to know what’s happening in the wider world. The reader buys into the hope that it’s a glitch, but as time passes, it seems more and more likely that something’s gone terribly wrong.

We’re treated to a front-row seat of the infrastructure trying to work through the outages and take care of citizens. Enter an outsider, an unlikeable wrench in the gears named Justin Scott, who is punchable as all get-out before his introduction is even complete. As Scott ingratiates himself into town business, the story spirals towards its (seemingly) inevitable confusion.

The story is engaging and the characters are rich and meaty, but its the prose that’s the star of the show. More specifically, Waubgeshig Rice’s ability to engage the reader with his natural storytelling ability. Reminiscent of something you might read from Cormac McCarthy, Moon of the Crusted Snow deserves your attention. Squeeze it in now, because a sequel set ten years later is on the way. You’re going to want to be familiar with this new world.

The Paradox Twins by Joshua Chaplinsky

Review by Brennan LaFaro

The first thing to talk about with Joshua Chaplinsky’s The Paradox Twins is the epistolary format. I guess it doesn’t have to be the first thing, but it’s what sticks out to me most, so you’re stuck. Chaplinsky cites an old saying early-on—that every story has 3 sides: yours, mine, and the truth. After that nugget gets dropped, it’s hard to ignore that the story is told from three somewhat differing viewpoints, with records sprinkled in and the occasional footnote from the book’s compiler, oddly enough also named Joshua Chaplinsky.

The story revolves around two estranged twin brothers who reunite at their father’s funeral, coming to realize immediately they no longer look alike. What follows sees the two brothers, Alan and Max, settling what to do with their father’s house and legacy. Max is a famous YA science fiction writer, and sees the opportunity to turn the event into his next project. His entries in the book jump back and forth between a screenplay and prose, and while they seem exaggerated and one-sided, we only have two other POV’s to the story to base that assumption off.

Alan’s version of the story comes off as the most grounded, and the one the reader tends to put stock in, for better or worse. Throughout the book, it seems like Chaplinsky knows the reader will trust this voice, as the story does the bulk of its moving forward, especially at the beginning, under Alan’s watchful eye.

The final narrator is Millicent, the woman who lives next door to the father’s house, and was unlucky enough to find the body that sets the story in motion. Her much-needed perspective allows us to see an outsider’s view of both Max and Alan, each the hero of their own narrative. Neither man is without their flaws, some bigger than others, and Millie lays them bare.

The frequent editor footnotes makes the book feel more curated, as opposed to varying accounts being collected and slapped together. Sometimes a smart-ass, the narrator voice reminded me more than a little of Ron Howard’s voice overs from Arrested Development. The reader can’t let it escape their notice, however, that the ultimate story being told is being compiled and edited by someone in an attempt to tell their version of the story. High drama, indeed.

The Paradox Twins, to me, was more about the way the story was told than the story itself. It’s a fast-engaging read, and while some might find the constant shifts in POV or media jarring, it’s what carried me through the book in a short amount of time. If mixed media storytelling, where that element is crucial to the finished product, rather than just a gimmick, is in your wheelhouse, you might find this book right up your alley.

Irish Gothic by Ronald Kelly

Review by Brennan LaFaro

Following Halloween Season and Season’s Creepings, Ronald Kelly is releasing Irish Gothic. Technically, it’s not in line with any specific holiday, more country and culture, but putting it out only weeks before St. Patrick’s Day? Mr. Kelly knows what he’s doing. All three of these recent Crossroads Press releases weigh in at a little over one hundred pages—enough to wet your whistle and prepare you for the season.

I alluded to Irish Gothic being St. Patrick’s Day horror, but it’s really not. You won’t find stories about drunk people drowning in Chicago’s green river or Leprechauns getting rowdy in Boston. All the stories take place in, or at least have their roots on the Emerald Isle. There are so many fascinating creatures exclusive to Irish mythology that show up here including, but not limited to, Sluagh, Dearg Due, and Formorians. You also get more traditional cryptids such as the banshee, selkie, and of course, leprechauns. All this bookended by a glossary of Celtic beasties at the end.

Irish Gothic opens with “Flanagan’s Bride”, a terrifically ghastly take on the traditional banshee mythos. For initiated Kelly fans, it’s a bit strange to find his voice narrating a story not set in the southern U.S., but the reader acclimates quickly and Kelly’s down-home voice adds a unique element to a story set across the sea.

This collection shines where Kelly employs his signature brand with non-traditional elements, such as “Diabhal’s Timepiece”, “Letters from Kilkenny”, and “A Fine Wake for Nana Ferree”. “O’Sheehan”, probably my favorite in the collection, eschews the previous element and tells something a little off the wall. It’s unexpected, but an absolute blast, and it’s my selfish hope that Kelly will revisit the character. A short note for “The Spawn of Arget Bethir”—if you have not read Kelly’s book Undertaker’s Moon, it’s in your best interest to save this story until you have. Consider this a plug for that phenomenal small-town horror werewolf book.

If you’ve got some Irish in your blood, come read about the critters that terrorized your ancestors on the Emerald Isle. If not, never fear, Ronald Kelly’s churning out can’t-miss short fiction right now and he doesn’t appear to be stopping anytime soon.

Later by Stephen King

Review by Brennan LaFaro

It’s been a few years since Stephen King collaborated with Hard Case Crime to release something. The last time it happened, we got Joyland—an underappreciated newer work that somehow still finds its way onto the best of lists of a fair few constant readers. Myself included.

Most of the time, I like to go in without reading a synopsis (and I’m glad I did this time, more on that later), so a first-person narrative written from the POV of a man in his early twenties recounting his childhood found me well. Add to that, this particular boy has powers. Peak King wheelhouse right there. Even if the execution faltered, I knew I’d still find enjoyment here to some degree. Thankfully, it didn’t.

Jamie, our protagonist, can see dead people, but don’t roll your eyes yet. King uses inner dialogue to make us very aware he recognizes the Sixth Sense parallels, making a silent promise to take us somewhere different. Jamie utilizes this gift early on for a variety of reasons, all in order to help people. Where it gets interesting is after we establish the rules, when one of the ghosts begins to break them.

Here’s my callback to the synopsis thing. There’s references and lore tied to an earlier King novel. Some people might consider what I just wrote a spoiler, and it is, albeit a mild one. I include it here because the back cover synopsis will not only tell you the same, but will tell you precisely what book’s mythology you’ll be revisiting. For those of you who like to go without any prior knowledge, this is big. The first time I stumbled upon a certain set of words, the book’s tenterhooks, already in place, dug in deeper and refused to let go.

I understand why this was done, with so many readers being lukewarm on King’s newer works, but the surprise hit me in a way I believe the author intended.

The book utilizes crime-story-esque pacing, with short fast chapters that give the reader seemingly unlimited chances to say “just one more” until your right hand has no pages left to hold. The characters are full of life, especially Jamie’s mother, who provides the heart of the story. Arguably, the whole thing revolves around her and King makes it work.

There are instances where the dialogue doesn’t feel terribly authentic to the main character’s age, but when the credits roll, the pros vastly outweigh the cons. If you’ve enjoyed King’s previous work with Hard Case Crime, you’ll enjoy this one. If you’re okay with the potential gimmick of bringing back older elements of King-mythos, you’ll love it. If you’re a constant reader and you’re going to get this no matter what I say, know you’re in for one of the better ones.

I received a copy from the publisher for review consideration.

In Nightmares We’re Alone by Greg Sisco

Review by Brennan LaFaro

Okay, let’s get the gush out of the way. Off Limits Press is doing all the right things. All the releases have been winners and the future looks bright. That said, Greg Sisco’s In Nightmares We’re Alone is right at home. At 250 pages, Sisco’s novel tells a story in a non-traditional way, adhering close to the format of a mosaic novel, yet straying far enough to avoid that label. By 70 pages in, the reader feels like they know the whole story. Where could it possibly go next?

Sisco examines that question by retreading, showing us the same twelve days from a different perspective in Act 2, and from a third in Act 3.

Act 1, “Good Little Dolly” is the high-point of the novel. If the cover freaked you out, the first story will do the same. Sisco puts us in the heard of Macie, a second-grade girl whose mother fixates on doll collecting to fill a hole in her life. Filled with doll horror, and a second sub-genre I’ll leave out to avoid spoilers, Act 1 rockets toward calamity and is one of the more unforgettable pieces of fiction I’ve read in some time.

Act 2, “Growth”, switches subgenre on us going full on body horror when our new main character begins sprouting plants from his finger and toenails. Sisco lets us get to know Casey for a little bit before revealing the connection to the first part of the story, and it pays off, giving the reader a chance to understand this person before preconceived notions can find their way in. The author brings the squirms with this section, but doesn’t skimp on the character development in order to do it.

Act 3, “That Thing We Don’t See”, embraces quiet horror. By this point, the reader knows they will be inside the head of a character who has previously been involved in the story, so Sisco doesn’t keep it a secret. It is, for the most part, an unexpected character, which only furthers intrigue. The title gives you a heads up that we’ll be visiting somber, more existential territory, in this portion, and though I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first, it’s a fitting close to a wide-reaching story.

To tell one complete story in a variety of styles is no easy feat, but it’s pulled off admirably here. There are occasions where Sisco tells the same events from different perspectives. Scenes that could have been stale coming from a different writer provide new insight into characters the reader assumed they had figured out. The theme of understanding what people are going through before judging them is ever-present throughout the story and subtly dropped throughout managing to avoid beating the reader over the head.

Though my introduction to Sisco’s work was through the wonderful story, “Summers with Annie” in Grindhouse’s Worst Laid Plans anthology, this book serves as a fantastic initiation to the author for any reader. Sisco displays his ability to write in a variety of styles, as well as telling a connected overarching story that engages the reader for the entire runtime. Look for more from this author.

I was given a copy by the publisher for review consideration.

A Life Transparent by Todd Keisling

Review by Brennan LaFaro

Before Devil’s Creek knocked the indie horror scene on it’s ass last year, there was A Life Transparent. You just didn’t know it. While elements of horror pop up in the first entry in the Monochrome trilogy in the form of monsters and a creepy villain, the real horror comes from the everyday.

Following main character Donovan Candle, Keisling explores the all-too common idea of falling into a joysucking vocation that doesn’t remotely resemble what you thought you’d be doing with your life. Sacrificing your worth for a steady 9-5 paycheck. Candle begins to flicker in and out of existence and the story snowballs from there, delving into the weird and territory that would feel at home in science fiction.

Keisling’s characters serve as archetypes, telling a cautionary tale as much as exploring a personal journey. The strife revolving around everything from being underappreciated in a dead-end job to trying to balance personal responsibility with truly living make the story and main characters immensely relatable.

The degree of fear harnessed from fading away while the rest of the world remains indifferent around you reaches out to a primal nature within us all.

Keisling keeps the first book in this trilogy well contained while offering up nuggets and leaving some threads to tug on for future stories. We end up with a book that satisfies on its own, but teases the reader with a wider world and further adventures to be had. The expanded version, namely the added coda, go a long way with set up, and the afterword from the author serve to enhance the reader’s understanding and enjoyment.

Check out A Life Transparent from Bloodshot Books and be on the lookout for the other books in the trilogy – The Liminal Man and Non-Entity – coming later this year.

I received a copy from the author for review consideration.


Review by Patrick R McDonough

I went into this knowing it wasn’t going to be anything like Devil’s Creek, in my opinion, Keisling’s best book to date. I knew going in that A Life Transparent is a more philosophical book. So maybe you need to know that going in as well. It’s a story about a man who has a mundane life, wife, and job. Nothing about him is worth writing a note about, never mind a book. That is until he begins to flicker. Flicker like a candle in the wind.

He’s introduced to a world covered in shades of gray. Literally. The Monochrome. It’s a place where the yawning, these towering creatures that can unhinge their jaws and suck you in like they are the walking embodiment of a wormhole, and Cretins, little creatures that jump on people’s shoulders and whisper in their ears, slowly causing others to forget about you. Of course, there has to be a bad guy in this world. A ruler. And there is. But other reviews will surely cover him. I’d like to talk about how the Monochrome could easily be considered an alternate universe like that of The Matrix. What I mean by that is, it’s a world within our world. A world that doesn’t make much sense. A world that abducts people from our world for itself and there is no stopping it. There were certain scenes, particularly the last one that deals with a character named Alice, that reminded me of a later scene in the first Matrix film. For that reason, at times, Transparent put a smile on my face.

I don’t consider this a slow-burn novel, rather, I consider it to be a story that builds up toward pure chaos in book 3. Although this was originally intended to be a standalone, Transparent has a lot of worldbuilding and good pacing in it where it maintains its entertainment value as well. The second book drops later this summer with the third a few months after that this year (2021).

All-in-all, this book is a weird sci-fi with moments of dread. Like any good artist, it showcases Keisling’s ability to throw the reader in a new story while entertaining them from the first to the last page.

I received a copy from the author for review consideration.

Articles

We’re so pleased to be able to host an essay from R.J. Joseph. A wonderful perspective on what celebrating Women in Horror Month as well as Black History Month have always meant, and continue to mean, to her.

Lending a Voice to the Stories of Black Women

By R.J. Joseph

 

My maternal grandmother, Mother Dear, was a soft-spoken woman of few words. At the times when she felt like talking a little bit, about teaching us something about her past—our past—we all gathered around to listen. Those times were few and far between. Mostly, Mother Dear listened and laughed softly at our antics or the stories on the television. I often wondered if she ever wanted to say more and I understood that even if she had wanted to, she wouldn’t have. She was the perfect example of the elderly Southern woman who deferred to everyone around her, especially men and white people. Mother Dear never looked any white people or men in the eye when she spoke to them. She did so with her head bowed, tones hushed, non-confrontational. She never questioned them or their authority. When I think of what Black History Month and Women in Horror Month mean to me, I think of my Mother Dear and the stories she could have told that were silenced by the demands society made on Black women.

I grew up in a different time from sweet Mother Dear but I was still handed down the “strongly suggested” mandate to keep quiet and not speak of certain things. Folks didn’t like a woman who talked too much or who was too smart. Don’t ask too many questions. Don’t have too many answers. Don’t talk about distasteful stuff, especially in mixed company. I got real good at moving around so quietly the adults forgot I was around. This was the only way I could try to see these “rules” in action. How was I supposed to squelch the questions that bubbled up inside me every time I encountered something new? What should I do when someone asked me something and I knew the answer but another adult slowly shook their head from side to side to discourage me from the resulting discussions I so craved? It was difficult for me to remember all the rules, so at a pretty young age, I simply gave up trying to understand them. I asked the questions. I gave the answers. I talked about whatever I wanted to talk about…on paper.

As a child, I hadn’t yet grown into the bravery to tell my horror stories out loud or welcome anyone else into my horror world. My loved ones knew I was full of words and liked to tell stories and they encouraged me in telling certain stories. Appropriate stories, like about morals and good little girls and respecting adults unquestioningly. Mama supported my storytelling wholeheartedly. The rest of the adults in my family, not so much. They tried to steer me away from the dark topics that called to me, begging to be explored. They wouldn’t even talk with me about the things I wanted to know or tell me the stories I wanted to hear. They talked in hushed tones about the distant cousin who perished in a car accident where the details didn’t quite add up. They whispered about hearing unexplained noises on the porch when my paternal grandfather passed away. I wasn’t supposed to hear these things. I grew into a proficient eavesdropper and got all the details, anyway.

The secret knowledge and stolen snippets of stories expanded inside my head. They grew large, nourished by my incessant quest to learn and question everything around me. When they were too big to hold inside any longer, they burst forth, onto the paper. Darkness poured, oozing out from underneath the ink, covering the world outside my imagination. I couldn’t resist my destiny to tell the stories. I gleefully leaned into the generations-long Black tradition of storytelling as a way to pass on knowledge, the way Mother Dear did in those rare occasions she opened up to us. We need this history and these stories so we understand that the stories and history we’ve been fed might not be quite accurate in regards to actual events or our experiences.

Because of Black History Month and Women in Horror Month, my stories and voice are given some validation. I use this voice to speak for the Black women who may have wanted to tell all kinds of stories but who weren’t allowed to. I use this voice loudly, unabashedly, unapologetically. I use this voice to speak for my sweet Mother Dear who could have told us so many stories. They wouldn’t have been horror stories because she just wasn’t into that sort of thing. But her tales would have been welcomed. And revered, just as we revered her.


Rhonda earned her MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University and currently works as an associate professor of English. She has had several stories published in various venues, including two anthologies of horror written by black female writers, the Stoker award finalist Sycorax’s Daughters and Black Magic Women, as well as in Campfire Macabre, a flash fiction anthology, Slashertorte: An Anthology of Cake Horror, and the Halloween issue of Southwest Review. Her academic essays have also appeared in applauded collections, such as the Stoker award finalists Uncovering Stranger Things: Essays on Eighties Nostalgia, Cynicism and Innocence in the Series and The Streaming of Hill House: Essays on the Haunting Netflix Series. Rhonda’s essay from The Streaming of Hill House, “The Beloved Haunting of Hill House: An Examination of Monstrous Motherhood” is also a Stoker award finalist for 2020.

 

Her most recent short story, “Witness Bearer”, can be found in the charity anthology, Twisted Anatomy: An Anthology of Body Horror.

 

Rhonda can be found lurking (and occasionally even peeking out) on social media:

Twitter: @rjacksonjoseph
Blog: https://rjjoseph.wordpress.com/
Email: horrorblackademic@gmail.com

Amazon Author Page: amazon.com/author/rjjoseph

Hearts Strange and Dreadful by Tim McGregor

Review by Brennan LaFaro

Off Limits Press is currently batting a thousand after kicking things off with last year’s Crossroads by Laurel Hightower, followed by The Worm and His Kings by Hailey Piper. Two very tough acts to follow, but McGregor’s Hearts Strange and Dreadful is up to the task.

McGregor was a new-to-me name despite having well over ten books to his name. The historical horror aspect combined with the early-1800’s New England setting caught my attention and the publisher on the back cover cemented it. Hester Stokely, an orphan who lost her parents in a fire, lives with her aunt and uncle in Wickstead, RI. Death rides into town one day in the form of a sickly man on a horse, and the novel unfolds from there.

McGregor interweaves the threads masterfully, slowly unfurling a quiet horror rife with creepy atmosphere, great characterization, and a touch of paranoia as the mystery of what’s happening in Wickstead is revealed. The main element that successfully contributes to the atmosphere is the isolation conveyed surrounding the town. The relative distance to any other towns delivers the kind of small-town horror we get in books like Todd Keisling’s Devil’s Creek but with an added layer of being completely disconnected from the outside world. Whatever is happening, no one out there can help or save them.

The characterisation feels (note feels because I haven’t done the research) very genuine to the time period. Writing a first-person POV from a teenage girl in 1821 is arguably a bold move, but it pays off. McGregor provides insight to Hester Stokely that couldn’t have come any other way. The characters surrounding her, from her Uncle Pardon to Will and Henry, all feel fully fleshed out and move the story into a place that makes us suspect McGregor knew what he was doing from the first word.

I won’t go on about the end of the book for fear of spoilers, but if you begin and feel as though the story is moving too slow, do yourself a favor and stick with it. The set-up is utterly necessary for the payoffs that come later and the emotional weight they bring with them.

Hearts Strange and Dreadful is something of a perfect storm. An intriguing premise brought to life by vibrant characters who make the reader care when events ramp up ultimately resulting in an ending that requires the reader be invested, or it doesn’t work. A gamble on McGregor’s part, but one that pays off in spades. The Off Limits run on quality horror continues.

I received a copy from the publisher for review consideration.