Nice to see a couple of ladies of horror fiction on the Flame Tree Press list for spring. There are so many great women penning horror novels, and I'd like to see a bit more even representation, especially from presses that only publish genre fiction.
This one immediately caught my eye as it is set in Edinburgh, a city that is close to my heart since I studied abroad there. I'd love to go back to Scotland. One of my favorite things I did in the city was a tour of the Mary King's Close. How crazy is it to think that while you're walking the streets of Edinburgh, there is a whole city beneath it, the city of many centuries ago, that they just bricked up and built over? To get to go down and see a bit of that history, hear the stories, and (fingers crossed!) see a ghost is just everything.
This story centers around Hannah, a new tour guide at the Henderson Close. But strange and spooky things begin happening to her and her coworkers and there's no other way to explain them: they are being haunted.
I really loved the beginning of the book: there is a great historical element with a short prologue that sets up one of the main stories that they talk about on their tours, and the description of the tour and the ghost stories really delivered me to the setting.
Once the book gets about halfway, I started feeling overwhelmed with how many different elements were at play. There are multiple different ghosts with different agendas, there is some time travel weirdness that I didn't feel was fully explained (and played by different rules for different characters), there's a demon creature, many different perspectives telling the story, and multiple time periods, settings, and character arcs. It all began to feel a bit jumbled and just too much.
There is one chapter featuring a little boy and the girl ghost so far out of time and place with the rest of the book I completely forgot it until it slotted into place toward the end of the book, and it just felt so obvious that the chapter had been written specifically to create that moment. It just felt so manufactured and out of place. There was just so much going on that I felt the narrative could have been parred down into something more streamlined.
Overall though, it was a fairly interesting ghost story, and I did like the way it all wrapped up. I'm always on the lookout for good haunted tales!
My thanks to Flame Tree Press for sending an advance copy of this one to read and review.
I couldn't wait to read this book. It is a Night Worms book we aren't planning to read until the spring, but I said screw that, since it felt like a perfect wintertime book. A haunted technological mansion in the snow? Sign me up.
This book is heavily influenced by The Shining, and I do mean heavily. I don't think it's a bad thing to look up to your writing idols and get inspiration from them. Everyone does it. Hell, even King steals stuff, like Shardik the Bear: yep, he stole that straight-up from Richard Adams. The difference with great writers is that they make that material their own, they turn it into something new that can pay homage to their influences while being entirely something out of their own imagination.
This book doesn't go there. In fact, it doesn't really go anywhere.
At the beginning, I was completely hooked. It sounds amazing and I was sold: a techno-mansion, an old feud betweens friends (one who got crazy rich and one who got the girl), and the chance to fix everything if only they can get this AI personal assistant who is in the walls of the mansion to work properly (think Siri, but smarter because she learns).
But the book is so slow getting off the ground. It stutters, it falls back to square one, over and over again. It is so repetitive. The book is already long to begin with. How many times do you need to explain the same stuff about when they were in the cabin just starting out? How many times do we need to rehash this love triangle, the alcoholism, the rich vs. poor, etc., before actually diving in to the meat of the story itself? I don't want to be told about all that crap, I want to experience it.
And it took so long to get the the mansion. For being called The Mansion I felt that the book could have spent more time at the place itself. The only times I felt invested in the book were when it was getting into the creepy haunted bits and pieces of the place itself, and those were never fully explored.
And the technological parts: I get that it would be boring to hear about all the zeros and ones, but I felt like the author hadn't thought through (or just didn't have any clue) about what would go into creating something like what these characters were attempting to invent. He could have taken a few notes from Michael Crichton's books; he's just brilliant at incorporating science and technology into his writing in a way that feels plausible, interesting, and feeds the story rather than slowing it down.
And I can't help but to mention how one character, the assistant to the rich guy, just made me plain uncomfortable. The extent of her characterization is that she is black and as beautiful as a Victoria's Secret model, so people underestimate how smart she is. Barf. Seriously? I wonder what'll happen to her. . .
Speaking of the women in general, this book doesn't give them a whole lot to do. I'm pretty sure it doesn't pass the Bechdel Test, but even if it does, the main point of the main girl character is that the two guys are both in love with her and that's why she's there. Her whole life revolves around them and even things that could be her own (writing a novel) turn out to be about them.
This book is just disappointing on so many levels. I have only read the first Hatching book, and I really enjoyed that one. This does not live up to the standard of pulse-racing, high-octane thriller/horror that I remember with that book. It is unoriginal, uninspired, and just plain boring.
Things this book steals from The Shining: (perhaps slight spoilers)
What a waste.
My thanks to Atria/Emily Bestler Books for sending the Night Worms copies of this one to read and review.
I was an instant fan of JoAnn Chaney after reading her first novel, What You Don't Know, a fantastically captivating serial killer novel that is a cut high above the rest of the thrillers out there. I also love that it is set in Colorado, since it's always fun to read a book set where you live.
To be honest, if I hadn't read Chaney's first book and been so blown away by it, I probably would have passed this one up. The cover is terrible, the title forgettable, and I am not generally a fan of domestic thrillers, which is the box this book is weirdly and desperately trying to shove itself into.
But it's so much more than that.
Chaney has this brilliant way of creating a narrative that is about so many different things that when they all tie together it's like a bucket of cold water coming down on you—you didn't realize how closely all the threads were really connected, how all the themes, the characters inner struggles, the mysteries of the plot lines all came together. Brilliant.
This book instantly drew me in: it begins in alternating chapters set in Colorado in 1995 and 2018, following two women. One finds out her husband Matt is cheating on her, and she's going to confront him—but it all goes terribly wrong. The other is going on a romantic getaway weekend in Estes Park with her husband Matt, and things take a turn for the worse when she stands a bit too close to the edge of the cliff.
Yep, you guessed it. Both women wind up dead and the husbands are the same guy. Did he get away with murdering both his wives? What is going on here? Nothing is as it seems in this book, and you really have to read it to untangle all the mysteries!
As a murderino and Colorado native, I recognized that this book has to be based in part on one of our pretty famous murder cases: that of Toni Henthorn, who was pushed off a cliff in Rocky Mountain National Park by her husband. There are lots of similar details: this couple was hiking to celebrate their anniversary, one piece of evidence was a map marked with an X where she fell that investigators found in his belongings, a huge life insurance policy was taken out before her death, and evidence also suggests he killed his first wife in a staged accident in 1995. (He was sentenced to life in prison in 2015.)
Though the book diverges from the true crime events quite a bit, it is interesting to see where Chaney got her inspiration from!
I highly recommend both of her books and look forward to reading more from her in the years to come.
My thanks to Flatiron Books for sending me an advance copy of this one to read and review.
The short page count is perfect for this book—it gets right into the action and doesn't relent. I found the beginning of the story fairly obvious and falling into well-worn story patterns (pregnant girl, abusive guy), so for me, it worked that it moved along quickly and didn't spend too much time digging into cliche.
Where this book really excels is the action in the middle. A woman is alone and enormously pregnant, trapped in a snow storm in a car, and there's something in the woods, watching her. I ripped through those pages, needing to see where the story was going to go. Even if it was a bit over the top, I think it worked, and it definitely kept me glued to the page.
The last third was where this book fell apart for me. It seemed like the rest of the book followed a much simpler and more interesting plot line, and toward the end the plot split and tried to introduce more twists and new elements that, instead of adding surprise and interest, just made the story feel like an overdone soap opera. It didn't work for me. Simple can be better, especially with a slim page count.
My thanks to the author for sending the Night Worms this book to read and review.
Though I’ve watched my fair share of holiday horror films, I didn’t know that this was a book category that I needed in my life!
To be honest, I’m not the biggest fan of Christmas. I am sort of a Grinch, but I never quite get to the part of the story where my heart grows five sizes or whatever. So a collection of tales about the woes, strange and eerie legends, and straight-up Christmas psychos is definitely more my style. And this collection definitely did not disappoint.
When you think about it, there are actually a lot of things to be scared of at Christmas, and I’m not just talking about your grandma’s fruit cake. First of all, Santa. A dude who’s been stalking children all year and judging them breaks into their houses to leave presents?? Why is this a thing?! Why do we tell children this story? Horrifying. And then there’s Krampus, who will whip you or even put you in cage if you’ve been bad. Statistically, more people have heart attacks on Christmas than at any other time of the year, and the suicide rate is also way up. Snow might look pretty from a distance, but it is easily the worst weather for driving in, and if you’re stuck far away from civilization? Goodbye.
I’m just saying. Christmas is a hidden killer. And these stories don’t go for the low-hanging fruit that I’ve mentioned here. There is a lot more originality and not even one Krampus cavorting about these pages. It’ll get you thinking about what’s hidden behind all that Christmas cheer. . .
Standout stories for me were:
“Absinthe & Angels” by Kelley Armstrong: I didn’t even know what “mummers” were before I read this, and now I’m scarred for life. Thank you.
“Christmas in Barcelona” by Scott Smith: This story got to the core of one part of the holidays that can really suck: traveling. I loved the set-up and the characters, and I had no idea where this strange little story was going. Perfectly written.
“Tenets” by Josh Malerman: This story digs into what might happen if you invite a former cult leader to your holiday party. It is one of the quieter stories, but it had a great sense of creeping dread and completely subverted my expectations.
My thanks to Blumhouse/Vintage and the Night Worms for my copy of this book!
If you’re in the market for a wintry creature-feature to snuggle up with by the fire while you watch the snow pile up outside, Ahlborn has written The Shuddering for you. Also, it would be a great choice to take on a weekend ski trip, especially if you’re staying in a secluded cabin in the woods.
The first scene of this book is so beyond good—wow! I was completely hooked. I wished that the book could have kept up with that sort of momentum throughout, because with this style of book, what I really want is to spend time with the creatures, with the horror, and for me, this one didn’t deliver on that.
The scenes that you do get with the creatures are great—I loved the descriptions of their physical features, how they stalked and attacked, and even their personalities. The slow realization of the characters that what they are dealing with is not just some wolves but a completely unknown quantity is a great, tense ride.
Where the narrative got bogged down for me was that it spent a lot of time focusing on the romantic entanglements of the characters, and in particular the will-they-won’t-they tug of war between main character Jane and her old boyfriend. To be honest, I just didn’t see the point of all that runaround and it dragged for me. Of course the characters need some sort of background, some reason for being there, but I felt like that narrative just went around in circles without creating any fresh tracks. None of the characters, their decisions, or their life struggles felt unique or all that interesting to me.
But once the action kicks in, it really kicks in, and I found the second half of the book to be much more engaging. It goes to interesting and innovative places—for characters that are literally trapped in the snow far away from anyone or anything that might be able to help them, once they know what sort of dire situation they are in, they work every angle and it is great.
This was a quick read for me and though it isn’t perfect, it is definitely great as a winter read, and I always enjoy reading books set in the state where I live!
I am always on the lookout for a nice, fun slasher book. For someone who is a fan of slasher movies, there is something especially satisfying about reading those stories translated to the page—the blood, the screams, the stalking—bring it on. If you are nodding your head, then you get me, and you’re going to dig this book.
Set at a summer camp for boys with eating disorders, Fat Camp follows overweight teen Phillip and his few friends as they navigate the festering pool that is life as outcasts, and as if that isn’t bad enough already, take on a crazed killer with a machete.
If you’ve ever looked at yourself in the mirror and felt you didn’t fit in for any reason—and who the hell didn’t have that experience as a teenager?—something in this book will speak to you. Sabata does a great job of conveying life as an overweight teen, from the obvious, like feeling self-conscious about the way clothing fits or having to shower with other boys around, to more detailed observations, like how carrying a suitcase up several staircases can be a huge obstacle.
The main character is also very believable: he wants to fit in and get the pretty girl, but it’s really hard to work out and run and eat almost nothing, and he misses the easy life of vegging out with a bag of Doritos. I can relate. His relationship with his friends is also great; their dialogue and interactions together felt very natural.
I also liked the exploration of social hierarchy, and I thought that this could have been explored and pushed even further in the book. Even at Fit Camp there is a hierarchy of bullies, and Phillip and his friends are on the bottom rung.
While the teenage boys seem to be more fully explored and developed, what I found lacking was the characterization of the women in the book. Phillip’s sister and her friend that come to visit were confusing to me. They were not overly important to the plot and it felt like they were mainly just there to be objects to be stared at and lusted over. The therapist was also a mystery. She was such a helpful presence, but all Phillip seemed to be able to focus on was how attractive she was and it really cut her down as a person. I would have liked to see more well-rounded characters, and women that mattered not just as functions to move the plot forward but as people.
The book is written mainly in first person from Phillip’s perspective. There are a few sections that go to slasher POV, which I really liked—that made it feel like watching a movie. But sometimes in order to forward the plot, the story would need to follow a character other than Phillip, so the narration would switch to third person. Since the setup from the beginning makes it clear that Phillip is telling this from a point in the future, it really did not make sense to me to interrupt his narration with these third-person scenes that he wasn't a part of. The switch in narration was jarring and really did not work. If a book is going to be written in first person, it should be written entirely from that character’s perspective.
Overall, I found Fat Camp to be a fun slasher, like a pretty good B-horror movie from the 80s—one you find yourself laughing at, cringing at, and reveling in the gooshy practical effects. If those types of movies are your jam, you’re going to want to read this one.
My thanks to the author for my copy of this one to read and review.
I love finding an author that you know when you turn to the first page and start reading, you are in good hands. Is there anything better?
Malfi is like that. From the moment I began his short story collection We Should Have Left Well Enough Alone I knew I had stumbled on something special. (And “stumbled on” really is not the right phrase, as Sadie of @mother.horror has been championing Malfi’s books for ages. I’m just a bit slow on the uptake.)
It’s not just that he’s telling a good story, though he definitely is—more on that later. There is just something so real that resonates through his work, something that makes you lose yourself within the pages when you start reading. Isn’t that why we all read? We want to forget about the background noise and just dissolve into another story for a while, one where things might be falling to pieces, but where there might be a logic, a key, something we can try to figure out before heading back to the mundane reality of our own existence.
That’s why I read, why I’ve always found solace in books. And there is something special about a book that cuts through everything like that, that puts you fully in the story.
As far as the narrative itself, there is definitely something to coming-of-age-in-small-town tales. I have a lot of love for the types of stories that depict ragtag groups of latchkey kids going about on their own and solving some kind of mystery that is far above their pay grade. There is a certain mystique to stories depicting kids in general—I think we all miss those days. And children are in a unique position for horror: they believe easily in the boogyman. Their belief makes them a vulnerable target, but it also makes them able to see clearly enough to fight back.
December Park is about the missing children of Harting Farms in the early 1990s and the mysterious figure of the Piper, whom everyone believes to be a serial killer picking off kids, though only one body has turned up. Angelo and his friends are determined to figure out what’s going on by using what they know about the town, its secret places and shortcuts, and any information they can dig up on their neighbors. Everyone is a suspect.
But this book is about so much more than the investigation. It is about the boys and their personal lives, their aspirations for the future, what they share with each other and their families and what they keep secret. It is about the divide between being a child and being an adult, how they see differently, the trust that is lost, and all the forgetting that you do along the way to adulthood. It is about small towns and the way that horrific crimes impact the people who live there. It is about trauma and how events affect people differently. It is about perception and memory.
Though the investigation into the Piper is the main plot thread, I found myself almost more interested in the characters and their lives, which I think is the key to good writing that most authors ignore. So many mystery/thriller books just seemed shoved through a tube where the plot has to go from A to B to C without letting the story develop naturally.
And I really felt a kinship with the boys—their late-night bike rides, their walkie-talkies, how they caused some mischief and chaos, how they stood up to bullies, how they alternately supported and ragged on each other. Getting to know them and watching them grow throughout the narrative is one of the highlights.
When it gets down to the horror—you won’t be disappointed. I wouldn’t consider this book heavy on action, but it has perfect narrative flow, letting tension ebb and flow and ratcheting up the suspense when necessary. By the last 200 pages, I couldn’t be torn away and had to finish. Malfi has a great descriptive voice and you can see each scene—in all the gruesome detail you could ever hope for.
This is such a phenomenal book. I can’t recommend it more highly. On my shelf, it sits beside other great horror coming-of-age stories like King’s It, McCammon’s Boy’s Life, and Simmons’s Summer of Night. I can’t wait to read more of Malfi’s work.
A short Christmas treat from one of the rising modern horror greats.
DeMeester knows she doesn’t always have to get gory or have everything dripping with blood and monster fangs to scare your pants off. Sometimes it is all in the art of suggestion, in the strange moments of “what if” and supplanting the reader’s expectations.
She fills each short scene of this story with dread, leaving the reader with the impression that at any moment, something horrible could happen. That tension of waiting, not knowing exactly when the horror will drop, is always worse than whatever comes out of the closet—at least in my opinion.
Once you know what the monster is, it’s easier to face it. But, like Ashleigh in the story, if all you have are swirling, amorphous half-memories of a horrific scene from a movie you saw when you were little, it will haunt you until you seek it out, though you might not like what you find.
This slim meditation on childhood, memory, film, and how we let the past haunt our lives. There’s a lot to think about in these few pages.
And that illustration toward the end—that was some stomach-dropping-out, nightmare-inducing stuff. But you’ll have to read it to find out exactly what I mean.
My thanks to Tall Hat Press and the Night Worms for the chance to read and review this one.
These stories and illustrations were created in homage to that classic childhood book series, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. If Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell’s chilling and evocative retellings of folk tales weren’t a part of your childhood growing up, you are not only missing out, I’m pretty sure you were caged in a dungeon your whole childhood. Or maybe these stories were just American kid thing?
All I know is that those books were a rite of passage when I was growing up. The stories are definitely spooky, and there is always that one friend who swears the story is really true, it actually happened to her aunt’s brother’s girlfriend, but really it went a little like this. . .
And don’t even get me started on the illustrations. Nightmare inducing, so say the least. I had horrible visions of the one where the spider is crawling out of the girl’s face. And of course, Harold. Now, I think I’d love to get one of those prints framed on my wall, but that’s the sort of weird creepo I’ve turned out to be.
So here comes Corpse Cold, a new folk anthology of the type of horror tales that don’t really have one origin, or at least one you can pin down. These are the types of stories that nowadays pop up on r/nosleep and creepypasta forums, the type you read about late at night, the glow from your computer screen illuminating your face and making the rest of the room look even darker. It is a different type of tale from the days of my youth—there weren’t any cell phones or other technology that invaded folk tales back then. But now, there’s a whole new realm of possibility for what might be out to get you.
The stories are in definite homage to the original Schwartz tales, though I thought they lacked his style, the panache of his delivery on the punch lines especially. I hadn’t heard of most of these urban legends, so it was nice that most of the content was original to me and I had no idea where the stories were going. Overall, I would probably rate most of the stories themselves (in style and substance) at around a 3.
What really punches up the action on these is the artwork. Chad Wehrle does a fantastic job putting his original spin on something similar to the Gammell style and I can’t even tell you which image was my favorite. They are creepy, dark, and perfectly complement the stories, taking them to the next level.
Also, I wouldn’t say that this book is necessarily for adults—I think teens would also enjoy it and the reading level is fine for younger kids. (If they can handle the original, these stories are fine for them too.)
If you know someone who grew up with the Scary Stories books, this would be an awesome gift to give them a flashback to their childhood.
My thanks to Cemetery Gates for sending me a copy of this one to read and review.
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.