With brooding Gothic influences seeping in and clouding around, the highlights of this unusual story for me were the fantastic writing and the intriguing storytelling.
The strange story that jumpstarts this tale is of a woman in black, Melmoth, who appears at the corner of your eye, following, and reveals herself at your darkest, lowest moment and asks you to take her hand. Her appearance winds through all stories as the book fractures from one narrative to the next, and it seems that once you know about her, you start seeing her. (Don’t look now, but what was that, just beyond the edge of the doorway?) The themes of her vicious loneliness, witnessing, and the burdens we bear—whether self-inflicted or otherwise—are ones that resonated deeply for me and felt timely.
This is a narrative where each door you open leads to another new narrative—a houseful of narratives made up of letters, diary entries, and memories, each of the writers baring their soul, telling the worst thing they ever did, and there—always—is Melmoth lurking in the corners. Who is she? What is she? What will she do? Does she even exist?
Though the main narrative is Helen’s story, it also sets out the testimony of these other poor souls—each one as captivating as the last—leaving behind Helen as the tortured witness, Helen to be haunted by their visages, their actions, their loneliness mixing with her own, their eternal unrest binding them to her and her constant ascetic need for atonement for her own sins.
This is the type of book that leaves a lot of room for contemplating. With the repeated entreaty of the narrator directing the reader to “Look!” throughout the novel, it seems to be asking—is it enough just to look, just to be a witness, just to read the accounts of these horrors? And if it’s not, what action should be taken? What could be enough to right the world, or at the very least one’s own conscience?
I appreciated the depth of the humanity in this book. It deals with very human topics within the specter of the Gothic and supernatural. The book manages to balance on the edge of the fantastic, leaving me wondering about Melmoth the whole way through without sliding into gaudy theatrics.
Still, the book felt a little unfinished to me. Each story wasn’t the full experience, a total view of that character, their wins, their losses, their virtues, their failings. They only showed snapshots; it would take a whole novel of each to get a complete picture. And with so much room focusing on these other stories, there wasn’t as much development with the characters in Helen’s storyline as I would have liked.
Still, this is an atmospheric and wonderfully written tale, perfect for a cold winter’s night.
My thanks to William Morrow/Custom House for my copy of this book to read and review.
A new Murakami is nothing short of a gift. I’ll never understand quite what’s going on in that man’s mind, but I’m glad he gives us a chance every once in a while to peek behind the curtain. That said, I am not a fan of this newest venture.
Plotwise, I can’t say this book worked for me. It felt strongly derivative of his early Wind-up Bird Chronicle, but Killing Commendatore is a deeply watered down, white-bread substitution for that master work of genius. I won’t even go into all the ways these books are similar here, but it is pretty striking. If you’re considering reading a Murakami for the first time, put this one down and go get a copy of that. You can thank me later.
The plot winds around and around this pit behind the rented house where the unnamed narrator is staying without ever really hitting on the importance of the pit itself. I mean, I GET IT: it’s a metaphor for rebirth—he doesn’t even try to hide that one, just wait for it. I almost laughed out loud. But what does it mean? For the character? For the plot? In the end, it doesn’t seem to matter.
Similarly, the narrative winds around and around a painting found tucked away in the attic of this house. There is all this historical background that we learn about the painting and the person who painted it, but all that strangely doesn’t seem that important. Rather it is just the image on the painting itself that is important. But I still couldn’t figure out the purpose. Or its connection to our narrator.
Yes, it’s about the journey. It’s an interruption in the narrator’s life and all of his neuroses, fears, and obstructions are getting out in the open before he can get back to normal life. But what if the journey that’s undertaken isn’t a journey at all? What if it’s metaphorical? What if it’s just a history lesson that doesn’t have any real attachment to the forward progression of the plot? What if it’s just pages and pages of nothing going nowhere only to lead back to the beginning? Is that the point? For it to go on and on and mean nothing at all in the end? Sweet Jesus, I hope not.
The most compelling parts of the narrative for me were the descriptions of painting and the portraits, especially as the main character thought about the creative process and what it meant to be a creative person. I could see the parallels to writing or dancing or playing an instrument or another creative act in this, and it felt as though Murakami was digging deep into the reason we crave creativity and where it comes from. I wish there had been more interior exploration of that.
On a character level, I found it lacking. The main character, an unnamed artist going through a divorce, is standard Murakami fare, but I found him and his lackadaisical sleeping around, record listening, and careful meal-preparing more than a little bland and lifeless. And none of it is new. It’s all just rehashing what we’ve seen from Murakami before.
The characters in the book in general tend toward misogyny and the objectification of women, which is off-putting in general, but especially when it isn’t a specific part of the plot that is purposeful, discussed, or resolved. The one female character we get to spend any real time with is a precocious young girl who is so weirdly and overly obsessed with her (lack of) breasts that they might as well be her only feature. How sad. There are other, certainly more natural, ways to go about showing the coming-of-age period for a young girl that wouldn’t involve constant conversations about breast size with a strange man three times her age. It just felt gross and like a total waste and a complete missed opportunity for an interesting development of a character, and a female character at that.
Am I just not getting it? Looking back at the description from the publisher, this book is supposed to be an homage to The Great Gatsby. Does someone want to explain THAT to me? I am not digging deep enough I guess. It’s really bumming me out that I just don’t get this book. Am I looking too hard at the plot of a book that is supposed to be idea-based? With capital “I” Ideas holding it up at all four corners rather than silly conventions like narrative structure, character, and dialogue? Perhaps. But being a fan of Murakami’s work in general, I think it’s fair for me to think this book is a failure, even if it is supposed to be about Ideas instead of a story.
The Ideas themselves felt unfinished, underdeveloped, and left floating and untethered by the end of the book. What was it all for? The surrealism/magical realism, the history lesson, the father/child conundrums, the painting, and the pit.
Maybe I need to spend more time with it. But for me, an underdeveloped plot and boring characters can’t be saved by a bit of surrealism and Ideas. Especially when we’re dealing with 700 pages.
My thanks to the publisher for my copy of this book to read and review.
I remember camping as a child. I was not much for hiking, I was one of those kids you had to prod along and try to entice with chocolates out of the trail mix and by pointing out a cool rock or flower up ahead to get me to keep walking. I mean, trudging up and up a path with no end in sight for no discernible reason other than to do it always seemed like a drag to me. Beautiful mountain vistas be damned.
But the camping part, that was where the fun kicked in. Gathering around a fire, the thick smell of burning wood, s'mores, hot drinks in tin cans, and the darkness slowly closing over everything. A darkness unlike any you can find in civilization.
No wonder we might be afraid of what’s in the woods.
In The Moor, a vast hiking and camping area called Rutmoor has long been a subject of eerie campfire stories and morbid fascination, but some of those stories are rooted in truth. People do go missing out there in the forest, and they are never seen again.
I loved the setup of the book, with the newspaper clippings and the narration from two different time periods. The main story, set in 2002, follows five boys and one adult who venture into a secluded part of Rutmoor for a summer backpacking trip. Do I need to tell you it isn’t going to end well?
The pacing was strong and at first I was a little confused about which boy was which (one is named Tom and one Tim, which doesn’t help), but it was cleared up by some good characterization. Each boy has his own traits and became familiar to me as the story progressed. I did think one way the story could have been strengthened would have been if the reader had been able to spend more equal time with all the boys. As it was, we spent a lot of time in one boy’s head, and I would have identified better with some of the other boys if we’d gotten to see through them too instead of just watching their actions, if that makes sense.
For tension and scares, I think this book does an excellent job. It reminded me a lot of The Troop, not only because of the kids on an extended camping trip and the news clippings, but because of how tension and paranoia builds throughout both, and also of the first section of The Ritual when as the friends trek through the woods they become more and more anxious and begin to lash out at each other.
This book also has an interesting villain in store, and I didn’t see it coming until far too late! I think Haysom sets everything up in just the right way—it is one that will keep you reading.
Overall, this is a great little read—perfect for your next trip out into the great wilderness.
My thanks to Unbound and the author for sending me a copy of this one to read and review.
This is my first Malfi experience and I know it won't be my last.
These are the types of stories that worm their way into your brain, leave little trails of gasoline, and then light everything on fire when you least expect it. And they aren't just interesting and inventive stories, they are immaculately written too.
One thing that I found interesting was the wide variety of narrators that are used throughout the stories. And it didn't seem to just be a writing exercise for Malfi—each story was using first, third, or even the dreaded second person very purposefully to tell the story from the perspective that would tell it most effectively.
And he really got into the minds of the characters, sometimes in only a few pages! Not only is the dialogue very natural (not the easiest or most natural thing for many writers to get across) but the way the reader hears the private thoughts of each unique characters just impressed the hell out of me. Each story is its own devil. And these beasts have teeth.
The atmosphere created in these stories is something really unique. There is this creeping sense of dread Malfi cultivates early on in the stories, even when all seems normal and fine. You just know that something isn't quite right and you want to look away, but you have to keep reading. You have to know.
A few favorites were: "The Dinner Party," "Pembroke," and "The Good Father" though some of the short conceptual ones like "Knocking," "Closing In," and "In a Pet Shop" were chillingly perfect too. It is really hard to choose. Out of the twenty stories, there were only two or three that didn't hit it out of the park for me.
Highly recommended reading. I'm off to start one of his novels—I've heard great things about December Park!
The final girl trope is a prevalent one in horror films, specifically slashers, where once the action of the movie sets in and her friends are picked off one by one, the mild-mannered (generally “good”) girl has to suit up, grab a weapon, scream a lot, kill the baddie, and limp off into the rising sun, soaked in blood, forever changed.
And yet, women are not really depicted all that heroically in a lot of horror films. They are in need of saving, fall deep into stereotypes, and are constantly objectified and dissected as parts instead of people. Even though she’s the one who survives, the use of the final girl trope isn’t really all that empowering to women.
I like Clare C. Holland’s use of the term “horror heroine” in her collection of poems that returns power to the feminine, to the women who find within them the primal urge to fight and survive by any means possible.
And that definition isn’t just confined to the realm of horror movies. As Holland outlines in her rallying cry of an introduction—it’s been a shitty year. But it’s also been a time of change, of women stepping up and saying “no more,” of role models and fierce, nasty ladies everywhere taking charge. These poems are for them. And if you agree, these poems are for you, too.
Separated into four parts, each poem carries the title of the name of a girl from a horror movie, and the poem itself is her story, from her perspective as a person who has been terrorized, hurt, or otherwise abused by some kind of villain—human, supernatural, alien—sometimes even she is the villain.
The movies range from classics like Halloween, The Brood, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to more recent and indie movies like Under the Skin, The Witch, Honeymoon, and A Dark Song.
There were only a few that I hadn’t seen (added them to my watchlist immediately) and while the context of the movies is helpful and could expand on the reader’s interpretation of the poem, it is by no means necessary to watch them. The poems stand alone as stories of the resiliency of the human spirit and the true badass nature of women.
These are emotional and resonant poems that get to the heart of what it means to be someone who has experienced something traumatic. Through the use of horror films, Holland has also captured a piece of the current socio-political trauma in these pages, and that’s powerful, not only as an argument for why horror is important, but for how we can continue to fight back as creators, artists, and women.
I have to say, I was put off a bit by the cover on this book at first. It is fairly disturbing! The image haunted me, and it reminded me of when I was younger and I would see posters for scary movies at the movie theaters, especially all the Child’s Play sequels, and I was so scared of that creepy doll on the poster that I didn’t watch those movies for ages. Turns out I really like the Chucky movies.
This book was like that for me. The cover is scary, and the stories inside, though they too are scary and dig into different kinds horrors and fears, I found that most of them resonated for me and made me want to read more, want to be a part of the scare instead of running away from it.
Before this, I hadn’t yet run into Christa Carmen’s work, which is a bit surprising seeing as she has had her short fiction appear in places almost too numerous to count. This debut collection is well-earned.
Perhaps this is true of most stories, but as I read this collection, I was often drawn to how the stories revolved around relationships—a marriage just begun, young friends who trust each other, a misunderstood woman cast out from society, a girl trying to get her boyfriend to believe her, a babysitter and the kids who trust her. How these relationships evolve, bend, and sometimes break is the crux of each story, and Carmen offers an interesting peek into the minds of her characters through their interactions and reactions. I found the characters to be mostly believable even when the shocking turns were revealed because of how their personalities had been crafted.
Favorites for me included “Red Room,” “Lady of the Flies,” “Liquid Handcuffs,” and “The One Who Answers the Door.” Overall, I’d probably give the collection 4.5, but I’m rounding up!
This one needs to be added to the list for anyone who is looking for new and interesting voices in horror fiction. I think it would also be a great book for the Halloween season as some of the stories are geared toward that theme, so I’ll be recommending it again at that time next year. Overall, it is a heartfelt, dark, striking, and original collection.
My thanks to Unnerving Press for sending me and the Night Worms copies of this one to read and review.
My first foray in Michael McDowell’s writing and I can say I am impressed. In this slim volume, McDowell manages to create a unique haunted house, fold the reader into the inner workings of a strange pair of rich Southern families, and truly chill and terrify though the weather is boiling and the sun is harshly beating down.
This book isn’t a perfect narrative by any means, but I think I’d consider it one of the great haunted house stories, especially on the conceptual side.
I found McDowell’s colloquial writing to be very inviting and loved the characterization of several of the characters, though they do have unusual names. Luker has great dialogue and is rather humorous, and I felt I instantly understood his relationship with his precocious and worldly young daughter, India. Their rapport is strongly established, and they make quite an interesting pair. Similarly, Big Barbara is quite the character—the opening scene really sets her up as this strong personality who speaks her mind and expects things a certain way.
Beginning with a strange funeral, the plot then progresses slowly toward the haunting, but the investment in the characters is well worth the while. McDowell also sets up the themes of the book very early and layers on them over and over, his knack for throwing in bits of darkness adding an interesting level of contrast and foreboding.
Enter three Victorian houses on a solitary beach, and one of them is being slowly eaten by the encroaching sand—that’s the third house and no one really talks about the third house.
It seems a strange setting for a horror novel (unless, I suppose it’s an aquatic one), but the beach at Beldame becomes chillingly oppressive with its pitch-black nights, complete isolation, strange tides, strange stories from the past, and the ever-present third house that starts to become a character of its own; the black sheep of the family.
Why does everyone ignore the third house, not able to admit their fear of it even as its strange power seems to grow? What really happened to the people who have gone missing at Beldame? What exactly are the Elementals?
I kept imagining this as a movie or show adaptation—it has a very cinematic quality, especially the idea of a house everyone is mysteriously afraid of slowly filling up with sand, and I’d love to see what might be done with it on the screen.
If you are a haunted house fanatic like me, this one is required reading. I’m looking forward to trying some more McDowell too, and I can’t say enough good things about Valancourt Books for bringing this one back out of obscurity.
The plot of The Night in Question is tangled enough that attempting to give a solid synopsis will only result in unraveling it, so if you’re intrigued at all by a cab driver who has information about a crime but doesn’t exactly do the right thing with it, you might want to check this one out.
This thriller plays on the reader’s expectations, making you second guess who is the bad guy all throughout—is it the famous man Paula dropped off? Is it someone else in the apartment where she left him? Is it Paula herself? As the story develops, you find out you really can’t trust anyone, which definitely keeps you reading.
For me though, that’s not really enough—especially for a thriller. It needs to be amazing, to go to the edge and then over it into territory I’ve never explored with a book before. I found this narrative pretty run-of-the-mill as far as thriller fare goes.
I found the alternating chapters from Detective Puhl’s perspective that were tucked in between to be distracting. This seems like a small detail, but I read through a bunch of other reviews, and the detective character isn’t mentioned in one of them. She is a partial narrator but not important enough to call out in the description of the book (from the publisher) or in reviews? It seems strange that she would seem so insignificant, but her stereotypical characterization and lack of real action to move the plot forward made her forgettable. The only reason the chapters from her perspective were in the book at all was to give the reader information that we couldn’t have gotten from Paula’s unreliable perspective, and it just felt like sloppy writing to me. Maybe the book just should have been written from third person omniscient, instead?
The final twists and turns of the book were a bit confusing to me—I felt that everything should have been apparent to Paula much sooner. And of course, the narrative itself hides crucial information until it feels the need to share, which I find unfair as a reader.
How are we supposed to solve the mystery if we aren’t given all the clues? Isn’t that the whole point of reading a thriller? You want to put together all the pieces before the characters, figure out whodunnit and why. If the narrative doesn’t offer the opportunity to do that, I feel it is, at least in part, a failure.
My thanks to Sourcebooks for sending me a copy of this one to read and review.
There are books you read and then there are books you feel—ones that get under your skin and become a part of who you are. Gwendolyn Kiste is a writer like that, one who creates stories that live and breathe, and when they shift into strange darkness, you go with them willingly, almost not realizing you’re leaving reality behind.
The Rust Maidens is set against the backdrop of a small Cleveland neighborhood in the 80s and the slow but inevitable decay of the factories that are the lifeblood for the families who live there. Told through the lens of the girl who saw it all and never recovered, this is the story of five girls who began to rust and inexplicably transform into something not entirely human.
Young girls, just graduating from high school, should have their entire future ahead of them, ready to face the world head-on and seize their dreams. That isn’t really the way it works for the girls from this town, a town where everyone knows everything about you and there isn’t a whole lot of room to breathe without someone gossiping about it. This is the kind of town you get stuck in, marry a mill worker, have kids young, and become your parents.
These girls don’t really have a chance, don’t really own their futures—or their bodies. And what’s the point, anyway, when the town is dying around them? So their bodies take things into their own hands, as it were.
So what is The Rust Maidens about? To me, it’s about choice. It’s about coming of age as a girl and facing every obstacle—no matter how difficult, horrific, or even close to home—to remain true to yourself.
The weaving of supernatural elements is effortless throughout and fuses all the elements of the plot, which is important to me; this isn’t craziness happening for no reason. Instead there is a deeper meaning to every strand of the story. And it will drag you under its spell.
Kiste also has a chilling and entrancing style: extremely atmospheric and unsettling yet with a strange compelling beauty that constantly pulls you in. I loved finding her unique voice when I read her collection And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, and this novel only develops on her strengths.
Kiste is a welcome voice on the horror shelves, the soft beauty of her words mesmerizing, beckoning you to come closer and see, but when you get too close, she smiles and opens wide—and the darkness swallows you whole.
I can’t wait to see what she writes next.
For fans of the modern stylings of Haruki Murakami, Etgar Keret, Carmen Maria Machado, Karen Russell, and Kelly Link, comes another uniquely brilliant voice in short fiction, and one we are lucky to have.
Most of the stories here center around themes of gender and power dynamics, as well as the problems, loneliness, and loss of true feelings and intimacy that can go along with being in relationships.
Motoya has a strangely specific ability to find a very realistic situation, like a married couple losing touch with each other, and turning it on its head, introducing a completely absurd component that shifts the story into the realm of heightened realism, or even all the way to magical realism.
I loved every story.
There is something really special about the way Motoya focuses on the women in her stories. Mostly, her protagonists are women who are stuck in some type of situation—unhappy in their marriage, with their life, with who they are becoming, with how the past is affecting them. They very clearly see how the problems are rooted deep in the threads of their daily lives, but it is shaking the issues that prove difficult.
How do you get back to a relationship with you husband when he doesn’t notice that you’ve become a bodybuilder, insane muscles rippling over your body? How do you stay independent and keep your life separate from your life as a couple when you notice that day by day your face is beginning to look more and more like your husband’s? What about if as a boyfriend, you only wanted to spice up your relationship and instead your girlfriend challenges you to a duel?
These are the types of stories where you just have to let the weird wash over you. I love becoming immersed in these other worlds where at any moment, the strangest things might happen—people can fly away using umbrellas, turn into flowers, cry blood.
My favorite three stories in the collection for me were: “The Lonesome Bodybuilder,” “An Exotic Marriage,” and “The Women,” though I really loved them all. I would adore to read a novel from Motoya!
My huge thanks to Soft Skull Press for sending me this one to read and review, and I also want to thank them for their continued commitment as a company to publishing unique and brilliant voices.
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.