February’s Pesky Psychological Entrails: Why Women, Why Horror

We are honored to be able to share an original essay from Hailey Piper this month. We’ve made it no secret that Hailey is a favorite author of all of us here at Dead Headspace, but her non-fiction pulls no punches and begs for thoughtful engagement. Without further ado…

February’s Pesky Psychological Entrails: Why Women, Why Horror

By Hailey Piper

Another February arrives, which among many things means it’s Women in Horror Month. By now, reviewers and Bookstagrammers have tossed together generous, colorful stacks of horror books and stories written by women ranging from decades ago and yesteryear to today (and maybe the future if they’re lucky to have advance review copies). We carry a long lineage of ghost stories, mad scientists, and brooding threats in the dark. So many that you would think surely by now a woman’s presence in dark fiction would be normal.

Not everyone sees the genre that way. I’m certainly not the only woman who’s had this kind of conversation when speaking to a friend, family member, colleague, therapist, or even a stranger:

Them: “Oh, I didn’t know you were a writer. What do you write?”

Us: “Horror.”

Their eyes widen, or roll, or they grimace or give an uncomfortable giggle: “Oh.”

We might deflect this kind of reaction by saying thriller or mystery or ghost stories, because horror seems a loaded word, but deep down, it’s horror.

And we get asked the big Why? Why horror? Why you? Why, women, why?

Women in Horror Month answers these questions with a single extended forefinger, its nail maybe caked with blood, pointed to our books with a singular message: Look upon our works and despair (or delight). Look at the troubles we write about, the senses and experiences we emphasize. Go read Gemma Amor’s foreword to We Are Wolves, an anthology of women’s horror, and then read the work inside.

It’s not unfair to say we’re inherently equipped for horror, though there’s unfairness in that fact. We experience it as a matter of the world we live in. Even the women who might scoff at other women writing horror are familiar with our living, breathing horror movie, and we’re advised to keep a horror movie’s rules in mind at so many moments because a grim list of instructions might keep us alive. They’re very different rules from those outlined in Scream, and if someone hasn’t lived them, they may not think about them at all. There is inherent dread in so many interactions and possible avenues that our unfortunate response to many situations is: “We’re used to it.” And there’s a horror in that normalcy as well.

And yet it isn’t seen as normal that women write horror? How can we not?

Horror fiction is a place where we can work through the anxieties and realities of the worst in life. Sometimes we’re subtle about it, sometimes not. It’s certainly laced in our work, and what better genre to invite anxiety and evil memories than horror? Horror encourages the breaking of boundaries and taboos. Body horror, domestic horror, the ends of feeling, the beginnings of an empowerment that might be seen as horrific, and yet we cheer for it. We can talk this shit out through monsters, and ourselves, and our monstrous selves.

Women in Horror Month signifies how and where we choose to spill those pesky psychological entrails. We’ve been doing it for some time, yes, but women’s presence in horror hasn’t ended with Shirley Jackson and Daphne du Maurier. Those recommendations stacks that drop around each February show the work that’s been done, is being done, and there’s always more to do. Women in Horror Month is a flashing, blood-soaked sign that asks readers to come and see, and it comes about early in year, usually on the heels of many of the previous year’s “Best of” lists being bereft of women’s work.

It shouldn’t go unnoted that February is also Black History Month, another reason to pick up work by Eden Royce, Tananarive Due, Linda Addison, and that’s just getting started.

Any list of recommendations is only just getting started, because Women in Horror Month’s purpose is not to grant a holiday. Halloween books in October, Christmas horror in December, fine, but February isn’t our holiday. It’s a chance to inject a few options into readers’ eyes. The hope is not for readers to cram as many women’s horror books into their schedules as possible during the shortest month of the year and then read no more women in horror for the next eleven month. Women in Horror Month will hopefully help readers see the rich vastness in these corpse-sprinkled fields and realize this: there’s no shortage of wonderful horror written by women.

When February ends, read us in March, too. Read us in April and May, through summer, spring, and winter. No reader will run out, I promise. The hope is to not only read women during Women in Horror Month, but to incorporate us into each reader’s general reading life.

One of the many cool things about Women in Horror Month is that it spreads. For each person who’s only this February sifting through murderous recommendations lists and finding things that sound interesting, things they gave a chance and didn’t like, things they gave a chance and loved, discovering new favorites, there’s someone who’s first time was last year. Now they’re the one making lists. The hope is that next year, that reader for whom this is their first Women in Horror month will join others who sling endless recommendations before the next Groundhog’s Day rolls around.

And when someone else asks them “Why Women in Horror Month?” that February, they’ll answer with a stack of incredible, horrifying books by women.

Website: www.haileypiper.com

Twitter page: https://twitter.com/HaileyPiperSays

Amazon page: https://www.amazon.com/author/haileypiper

The Searching Dead by Ramsey Campbell

Review by Brennan LaFaro

The Searching Dead is the first book in a trilogy, originally released in 2016 but never widely available in the U.S. Flame Tree Press will be rectifying that over the next couple years, first with this one then with Born to the Dark next October, and The Way of the Worm following that.

My exposure to Ramsey Campbell has been limited, having read only one other novel and various short fiction. Even with that narrow array, the elements that make Campbell a legend in horror are obvious. Atmosphere is the first word that comes to mind, and it’s what makes The Searching Dead such a pleasure. Is pleasure the right word? Campbell tells a coming-of-age story that strays from the typical fare we’ve come to expect in books like It and Ghoul. These books give an authentic account of growing up in the 50’s or 80’s in small-town America, wearing their hearts on their sleeves. And they’re phenomenal. But The Searching Dead gives us a different viewpoint, that of 1950’s Liverpool.

It’s the quiet, subtle friendship between Dominic, Jim, and Bobby combined with the immersive nature of being in a catholic school and a community reflecting the charter of the school that contributes to the atmosphere’s effect on the story. The growth of the ‘tremendous three’, as they’re, dubbed feels authentic, from the beginnings of their collective rebellion in terms of strong language to attempts to explore feelings of friendship and perhaps more.

The book has creepy elements including the development of Christian Noble, the antagonist who begins as a teacher but doesn’t quite fit the community’s expectations. The Searching Dead succeeds equally in setting up his story as bringing us into the lives of Dom, Jim, and Bobby. The inclusion of Noble’s family paints a vivid picture, including his father setting events into motion, as well as his wife and daughter vividly walk us through the upheaval of a normally quiet town.

Like previous work I’ve read by Campbell, The Searching Dead moves at something of a slow-burn pace. New readers may find the pacing not to their taste but should stick with it. Once the cogs of the story begin to click into place, the reader is drawn in, potentially against their will, needing to discover what happens next. It’ll be a long wait for the next book in the series, but I’ll be anxiously looking forward to the next installment.

I received a copy from the publisher for review consideration.

Clementine’s Awakening by Jennifer Soucy

Review by Patrick R McDonough

This all starts with an experience. An experience of living the life of working in a restaurant. Some of us take food service workers for granted. Some don’t think twice about how hard they work or how little pay waitresses and bartenders make if it wasn’t for tips. Some are not even aware of the tug-of-war battle between the kitchen and those running food and slinging drinks to thirsty customers. Soucy demonstrates the experience as brilliantly as one could. As intricate as only an experienced worker in that business could. The very first day Clementine works at O’Hara’s is anxiety inducing. Balancing plates on both arms like it’s some kind of performative act, while trying to please multiple customers and not appear distressed. Then you add the layer of inappropriate behavior from a fellow staffer, layered with more inappropriate behavior from some idiot young man. But have no fear, Rosemary (the friendly ghost) is here!

Layer after layer of experiences of the restaurant life, of the life of a loner, with the series of finding and becoming best friends with Lula. These all stack and Clementine hits the top. Henry. Her piano man. The man she never knew she’d get. And Henry’s feels the same love for Clementine–his southern belle. Life would be pretty awesome with all her new friends and boyfriend, right? That would be a fairy tale. This is horror, and Soucy knows exactly how and when to turn it up to eleven. With bursts of gut-wrenching and fast-paced explosions blood,  terror, and confusion, typically caused by the bad man (the not so friendly ghost), Soucy proves that she’s a force not to be reckoned with. I really enjoyed how Clementine adapted to all the different challenges. She’s the every girl. The every guy. She’s you, me, us. Her insecurities are ours. Her fears are everyone’s.

Soucy walked a fine line between romance and supernatural horror at times. I loved it. It felt like a good ol’ love story, but I know it isn’t. I had an idea how everything ends. And then I read the ending. It wasn’t anything like what I thought it would be. It was so much better.

I received a copy from the publisher for review consideration.

The Gulp by Alan Baxter

Review by Brennan LaFaro

I’ve really come to be a big fan of the mosaic novel, looking at it almost as a cross between a themed short-story collection and a more traditionally linear novel. Gabino Iglesias’ Coyote Songs caught my attention earlier this year, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is an all-timer, and now Alan Baxter offers his take the form. In contrast to the others mentioned, Baxter focuses in on a locale. Specifically, the small harbor town of Gulpepper in Australia, known by residents as the Gulp.

A series of five very vaguely connected novellas make up the almost 300 pages of the novel. A few characters appear in multiple books, a few people wander through the background a few times – their stories yet to be told, and some locations and businesses are visited repeatedly.

“Out on a Rim” is a great introduction to the town and the theme. We spend the story behind the eyes of Rich, a new trucker who doesn’t listen to his seasoned counterpart. The reader sees Rich’s point, because George, the veteran trucker, isn’t rolling in compelling arguments. The Gulp is weird enough by day and you wouldn’t want to be caught out after dark being the long and short. The two men are put in a position where they get stuck in town overnight. George heeds his own advice, Rich doesn’t. Shit ensues. Rich travelling through town gives us the types of sights and people we can expect to come across going forward.

“Mother in Bloom” borders on body horror, but is full-fledged coming-of-age, as two siblings try and cover up the death of their mother. Her remains take on a life of their own, and the two find out how far they’ll go to move on and find a sense of normalcy. This one isn’t for the faint of stomach.

“The Band Plays On” introduces legendary band Blind Eye Moon, although only legendary in this area. After an unforgettable show, four travelers are invited to come stay at the band’s home for a few days. The introduction of the nightmare sequences here are top notch, and one of my favorite parts of the book.

“48 To Go” is Baxter at his best. Tension driven, a character tries to come up with a substantial sum of money in just 48 hours. The lengths he goes to and the outlandish obstacles Baxter dreamed up made this by favorite story of the bunch.

I was on the fence with ‘Mother in Bloom”, but “Rock Fisher” is definitely body horror. A rock fisher catches something a bit strange and it takes over every aspect of his life. This story does a phenomenal job of bringing the book together.

Baxter leaves us in a spot where this feels like The Gulp: Volume One. It’s not so much that he leaves loose ends as he leaves opportunities for further exploration. If you enjoyed last year’s Served Cold, you’ll love this one too. Baxter weaves through different tropes and sub-genres to paint a picture of just how messed up this place is. I, for one, hope I get to visit again.

I received a copy from the author for review consideration.

Review by Patrick R McDonough

Never thought I’d say the following, but I’ve been introduced to a Derry down under. Gulpepper, otherwise known to its denizens as The Gulp, is that place. Where everything seems normal on the surface, but when you start looking around and talking to the people, you’ll find out that the truck driver that delivers to this sea coast town on a regular basis doesn’t like it for a reason. In the Gulp you’ll find an array of criminals, good seafood, a legendary band to match the likes of your favorite rock and or metal bands, and whatever the sea spits out of it.

Without a doubt, my favorite story in this mosaic novel is “48 to Go”, it’s horror, graphic when it has to be, straddles the line of supernatural and weird. I read one particular scene involving guinea pigs while eating a meal. I had to put the book down and finish said meal before returning to that book.

The stories do exactly what they intended on doing. They brought you into Baxter’s fictional world, loosely inspired from the town he lives in, and creeps into your mind, body, and soul, until it’s attached to your brain. Ready to manipulate your muscles and consume your essence. 

Let’s reel back (hehe, see what I did there? Shoutout to the last story, “Rock Fisher”) to the first story “Out on a Rim”. I could relate on a personal level. We start out with a driver (I used to be a driver’s helper, delivering booze throughout my home state), and the new guy, Rich, learning the route that he’ll soon take over. One of the stops is at a chain grocery story in the Gulp. They’re forced to stay the night, the new guy is warned to be careful, but he does not heed the older trucker’s warning. It was the perfect story to begin to ease us into just how strange everything, through the eyes of someone as unfamiliar to this town as you, the reader.

The next story, “Mother in Bloom”, dives into some weird and creepy stuff, involving a mother and her two teenage children. “The story does something for family that only a horror fan could appreciate. That’s what all these stories come down to, family. The perception of what family means, the idea of what it could be, and the dream of the idyllic relationship to get said family. 

The last story, “Rock Fisher” is body horror at its finest. The sea is a strange and alien world within its own right. This story shows us just how otherworldly and terrifying of a place it can be and what lives in it. It wraps up the mosaic novel nicely, bringing all the stories together to a place where everyone knows your name (don’t know if kids will understand that reference, google it).

After finishing “Rock Fisher”, all I said to myself is, I want to read more. There are so many other options to explore. So many places, people, things. Baxter teases the reader with that possibility at the end. Hope it happens!

Highly recommended.

Grade: B

I received a copy of this book for review consideration.

Blood Standard by Laird Barron

Review by Patrick R McDonough

Isaiah Coleridge isn’t a guy you’d want to ever anger. He isn’t a guy that is necessarily bad, though. Just a man who grew up into a family and lifestyle, really. A man that reminded me a lot of Max Payne, only, Coleridge isn’t a police officer. He’s anything but. An enforcer sent to Alaska to keep an eye on a few things. As we soon find out, he does more than play the spectator role. Coleridge is an automated piece of flesh-and-muscle device that makes things happen. Bones snap, legs break, and people spill their guts.

Throughout the book Coleridge proves to be some kind of unstoppable person. I sat back and listened to this audio book unfold as I saw him go from Alaska to New York where it was very clear from the beginning that he was a magnet for this sort of life style. That even if he was bested in the moment, he’d end up winning in the end. Coleridge ends up on a farm that’s hard work for most folks, but Isaiah isn’t most folks. A girl that works on the farm too, one that doesn’t care much for Coleridge, ends up going missing. From then on, the book turns into a missing person case.

Not sure what else to say about a book that has been out for a few years with more than enough reviews from readers and fellow reviewers alike. It’s a book full of brutality with a heart. The heart of a beaten guard dog that only knows how to bite the bad guy. Maybe the good guy a little bit too.

Get to know this beast. If you’re nice to it, it may just be your friend.

Grade: B

I purchased the audio book of this for review.

Review by Brennan LaFaro

I tend to be picky with books in this genre, but seeing Laird Barron sidestep from his unique brand of horror to write action/crime, was enough to grab my attention. Blood Standard and its sequels take us on a first-person journey with Isaiah Coleridge, a former mob enforcer who moves from the wild frontiers of Alaska to upstate New York. Out of necessity, sure, but working toward a simpler life.

Barron establishes early on, however, that Coleridge is not the kind of guy who’s going to easily allow himself to slip into the simple life. I mentioned the first person POV, and honestly, that’s one thing that really worked for me in this book. We take a man the size of a bear and throw him into situations where he’s expected to be a tough guy, it’d be too easy for this setup to fall into familiar, and boring, territory.

Laird avoids that with two key ingredients. First, a phenomenal supporting cast. Everyone at the farm has a unique personality, making for exciting and interesting interactions. Favorite among these is Lionel. We get a hint there is a lot more backstory to be told, just one additional reason I’ll be needing to check out Black Mountain. Second is the genuine sense of humor. Coleridge is an unabashed smartass. Combine the comedy with the action, and the nearly 400 page novel doesn’t have so much as a dull page.

Laird Barron paints the pages with some other unique additions, such as Coleridge’s half-Maori ancestry and his love of animals. Interesting details, certainly, but crucial to the plot as well, and the story behind the dog tags Coleridge carries, especially knowing Barron’s real-life parallels grounds the story in a human and relatable way.

Blood Standard is funny when it needs to be. It’s poignant when it needs to be. It’s brutal when it needs to be. What makes the gears turn is that the author knows exactly what buttons to press and when to press them. Also, we got to see some nazi asses kicked. Who doesn’t want to see that right now?

The End of the Road by Brian Keene

Review by Patrick R McDonough

End of the Road is without a doubt not only one of the best releases from 2020, but one of the most influential and inspiring books I have ever read. An easy 5 Stars.

I do not use the following in hyperbole… End of the Road is my Writing Bible.

It’s the kind a book you need to have in a signed hardback proudly displayed on your shelf to show off to fellow book worms and students of the industry. Brian Keene is synonymous with the horror genre. Not just within the independent circuit, but all of it. He’s had his foot in all the doors. He’s been raised on a diet of those legends that came before him–as any good student does–and personally mentored, and indirectly inspired, a generation of writers, musicians, and all other kinds of creatives and readers alike.

ROAD is pact-full of lessons for writers at any level. It teaches you the ins and outs, the why’s and how comes. The reason for why certain chain book stores and the remaining large chains are surely going to be a thing we long forgot about, such as the compact disc or VHS player.

If you are an aspiring writer (it does not matter what genre you want to focus on, if any at all), I could not strongly urge you enough to read any other book over this one. Sure, King’s On Writing is great, and sure there’s a list of others, but for me, ROAD hit home the strongest. It almost felt like Keene had one of his hands on my shoulder saying, “Listen, kid. This is how I did it. This is who you should read…” and his other gripping a bottle of Knob Creek.

As a writer, reviewer, reader, and fellow podcaster (I’ll even throw in a nutty Irishman that is ruled by his impulses), I’m taking mental notes of what to avoid, what to focus on, and most of all, learning things about a man and prolific genius that I’ve grown to love over the course of the last couple of years.

For those who trust my reviews and use them as consideration for adding yet another book to the TBR pile, I assure you, this one is well-deserving of the very tippity top of that mountain range of beautiful paperbacks, hardbacks, and or digital copies.

Review by Brennan LaFaro

Brian Keene’s The End of the Road has a lot to offer within its pages. Opening it up, it strikes as Keene’s attempt to capture various snapshots of one last trip to bookstores and various venues to sign and promote upcoming releases, before he puts that behind him. You get that of course, the entries touch on a lot more.

If you listen carefully, you get a history of the horror genre. Not just through a big lens either. Keene details what made a mid-list author, ins and outs of publishing, offering his take on, historically, what works and what doesn’t, as well as how the landscape is changing and given the social climate, just how little we can do to stop it. Newer authors will find a lot in here to recount the beginnings of an author who has well over fifty books out in the world and has learned a thing or two along the way. I suppose some might consider it a spoiler, but the most frequently offered piece of advice is if you want to be a writer, sit down and write. Find the time. Keene finds interesting and colorful way to remind the reader of this tenet of success, but the message remains the same.

The narrative spends a lot of time detailing Keene’s struggles after the passings of writers Tom Piccirilli and J.F. Gonzalez. The opening chapters get very personal and the reader has know difficulty grasping the genuine love and respect Keene held for these men. His insights to how they changed his life and trajectory are, as always, honest and introspective.

The writing is razor-sharp. The whole time. Every entry. When Keene wants you to feel the hurt, your eyes will well up. When he wants to make you laugh, your sides will hurt. Before a later chapter mentions his respect for the writings of the late Hunter S. Thompson, it shines through crystal clear. Highly recommended for Keene fans new and old, as well as people looking for a guide to writing horror that wouldn’t know dry if landed in the middle of a desert.