As a true crime buff and new fan of horror poetry, this combination of both was a must-read for me!
The collection reads more like a story, following Holmes from his beginnings, to his first forays into crime and other ill pursuits, to the building of his murder castle in Chicago, and beyond. I thought I would read a few each day, but I got sucked into the narrative flow of the poems and ended up reading through it mostly in one sitting. It isn't the type of poetry book you would want to dip in and out of at random, at least until you've read it all the way through once.
Tantlinger bases the work on fact, but isn't afraid to let imaginings and possibilities fill in the holes where we don't really know the truth of what happened with Holmes and his victims.
If you are into true crime, you are probably already aware of the strange interest, that weird compulsive magnetism toward serial killers—those enigmatic and eminently terrifying monsters whose minds we just can't quite comprehend. What is it about them that compels them to horrifying acts and yet allows them to seamlessly blend in with everyone else?
If you are perhaps a bit afraid of poetry, this collection is a wonderful example of how poems don't have to be obfuscating. Tantlinger's use of language is measured, image-driven, and often playful, and her attention to line breaks and spacing give the lines fresh readings upon closer inspection.
I think the whole project could have dug deeper into the psychological component of what makes the man a monster, as it instead stay fairly narrative in structure and substance. There is space in poetry for wonderings, lucid dreamings, what-ifs, and whys that you just can't explore the same way in fiction.
I loved the poems and the story they told, but I'm left with an unfinished feeling as to what the collection was supposed to represent. It could be a lot of things: hidden evil or the cycle of evil, the psychological underpinnings of psychopaths, a study in victimology. . . But I didn't feel that the collection left me pondering a specific great question. I don't think this detracts from the collection at all, hence my 5 stars, but it could have added another dimension to an already strong piece of writing.
Just like the intricate paths, secret hallways, and hidden trapdoors of Holmes's murder castle, The Devil's Dreamland twists through the life and mind of one of America's most infamous serial killers and is sure to leave you with plenty of nightmares for your next trip to dreamland.
A slim horror tale, Tamer Animals has a lot packed into it. The story delves into themes of bullying, homophobia, domestic abuse, racism, and worse—basically all the ways humans are horrible to each other—while following a group of young boys who are just trying to figure out how how to fight these larger violences, or at least how to support each other and get through the days while surrounded by injustice.
Who wouldn't want to get away from all that, if even for a weekend? So get out of town, go camping with your friends. But what happens when the evils you face every day just going to school or even waking up in your own house are not the only evils in the world you have to be afraid of? There might be something worse, something you've never had an inkling of, even in your worst nightmares.
That's what's waiting for the boys in the woods in Tamer Animals, and it's waiting for you too, if you dare to take a look.
The narrative is separated into three distinct sections. The first sets up each of the characters, letting the reader peek into their minds, lives, insecurities, hopes, and failures. The second is the camping trip, which quickly turns bad as one boy, then another, goes missing and strange things happen in the night. The third act is something entirely different, when the boys stumble on something else deep in the woods.
While the mythology of the Goatman is threaded throughout the story, it definitely is not the point of this story, and that is one thing that makes Tamer Animals such an interesting read.
After the initial set-up, the story reads much like a deliciously twisted and action-packed B-horror story. Woodward has a propulsive and gut-wrenching flow; he pours it all on the page, from suspenseful delusion to gooey, chunky gore.
But the story underneath has so many layers—one of the boys has a younger brother who confesses he is unsure about his sexuality. Another boy lives on the wrong side of the tracks, one gets flack about his mixed race. Are these the things that make them who they are? Aren't people all just people? Where does the division, the hatred come from? These are the questions that the book digs into.
One flaw of the storytelling for me was a character who becomes pivotal in the last third of the book who was only in a short scene at the beginning. I had completely forgotten about him by the time he comes up again. Perhaps that was just a failing of my own, but I was so confused by this character and how it reads like we should know who he is, that I had to flip back through the book to see where he was introduced. I thought that more weight should have been given to his first scene, or perhaps something to call back to it later on.
Overall, Tamer Animals is a wonderful horror read, not just for the level of nightmare-inducing viscera, but also for the attention and thought put toward the themes of the book. To me, that is what makes a well-rounded novel, and it shows a lot of promise for what's to come for this writer.
My thanks to the author for providing copies of his book to the Night Worms to read and review.
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 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.
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.
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.
Short fiction isn’t as easy as it sounds. Sure, any old monkey can bang out a couple thousand words and call it a story, but to make characters breathe, worlds come alive, and themes resonate is no short order. And flash fiction: to create a well-rounded story— beginning, middle, and end—in so few words is even more impressive. This slim volume of horror tales does all that, and at the end of each story, you’ll feel your heart pumping, getting that great rise of tension and release that we all come to horror for. I was more than impressed.
His stories dive right in, pulling the reader into a place and a character’s mind. They don’t meander; they get right to the point—and then, BAM! A curveball. Most of the stories swerved to places I didn’t expect, wrenching the knife in at the last minute and really getting to the dark depths of human nature, myths and lore, and creatures you’ll never see coming.
Each one was truly a treat, a delicious vision, a fully-realized story that I found myself wondering about and wanting to spend more time with. That’s how you know short fiction is doing its job and really getting to you.
If I had one nit-picky thing to say, I think the stories were sometimes a bit overwritten—too many unnecessary adjectives and over-explaining of easy things (sometimes you can just say, “he walked down the street” and it actually works better than a flowery, pretty sentence).
I definitely look forward to whatever Demmer writes next. He has a lot of talent as a writer and a great mind for horror. What a treat!
My thanks to the author and Unnerving Press for sending me a copy of this one to read and review.
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.