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.
This is one for the gothic lit lovers.
With a blend of classic and contemporary short stories and poetry all centered around the theme of hauntings, there is a lot to love in the creaking old hallways, dusty bookshelves, and dark corners where sputtering candles don’t quite reach of this anthology.
Haunted house is just about my favorite sub-genre, so I knew I had to get this one when I saw the brilliant cover and some of the great writers featured in the collection. I was also really impressed with how many women horror authors were featured here.
But it isn’t just houses that can be haunted, it can be any and every place we inhabit, down to the very bodies we live in, the paths we take in life (and death), and even the other people we surround ourselves with. Hauntings are everywhere.
And this couldn’t be more evident than in the dark and stormy stylings of these stories. Taking up the mantle of the classic gothic style, I found that these stories and poems were often about relationships, love gone wrong and the haunted nature of human suffering.
Some stories build on classic tales, such as that perennial classic folktale “Bluebeard” or Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Some are set in modern times, some are period pieces, all are wholly original and will shock you with a cold breath of air.
I found the poetry to be a bit weak overall, but the few that worked really worked. The inclusion of this different format of writing was a nice touch, especially in between the stories.
My favorite pieces were:
“The Shadows on the Wall” by Mary Wilkins Freeman, a true gothic work I'd never read before.
"Bloodbuzz of Ravens" by Sara Tantlinger, an evocative and darkly brilliant poem.
“The Call of the House of Usher” by Annie Neugebauer, a nice homage to Poe in style and substance.
“Miss Emmeline’s Mirror” by Catherine Cavendish, it'll make you think twice about mirrors!
Overall, I really enjoyed this collection. If you like gothic works, this is a good way to get a broad scope of modern and classic pieces, and perhaps find a few new authors to love.
An anthology all about the most glorious of holidays for those of us who delight in darkness and revel in terror and frightful stories? You know I’m more than game.
These fourteen all-new stories feature a few writers I was familiar with, but mostly people I’d never read before—which I consider a plus, as one of the things I really enjoy about anthologies is finding new voices to love. I would have liked to see a little more balance between genders: there were eleven stories by men and only three by women in the collection.
This was a very fun-loving (in the darkest way possible) set of stories and I really settled in to reading each story just for the pure fun of it. Each one takes on different ideas about what makes Halloween creepy, from body-snatchers, to serial killers with a thing for decoration, to things that go bump under the bed, to creepy kids, and more.
The stories are not always well-written, often sliding into that “telling” instead of “showing” zone that inexperienced writers fall prey to. I ended up rating each story individually between 3 and 4 stars, which is why the collection as a whole gets 3 stars from me. But what it lacks in sophistication, it definitely makes up for in imagination and pure originality.
All the love seeping off these pages for Halloween is clear and these stories truly evoke the season: carving pumpkins, leaves crackling underfoot, never quite knowing who is behind the masks around you. . . It makes me want to seek out more Halloween-based stories and collections!
My two favorite stories in the collection were “Vigil” by Chad Lutzke—dark and compelling with excellent visuals, and one of the quieter stories—and “Masks” by Lisa Lepovetsky, which really pulled me in from the start and created believable characters and a tense, darkly delicious situation.
I definitely recommend this book to horror and Halloween fans. It is a lot of fun and a very enjoyable read that is perfect to get you gearing up for the big night later this month!
My thanks to Corpus Press and Erin Sweet Al-Mehairi for sending the Night Worms copies of this one to read and review.
Eleanor has a crap life. But I immediately was drawn into her self-deprecating commentary, her often impolite bordering on straight-up offensive behavior, and her startlingly clear insights into herself and human nature (though these thoughts rarely stop her from making bad decisions). She is a great character.
This book definitely lives on the speculative side of the tracks, though I'm not sure I would classify it as horror. For me, it didn't hit that point of creeping dread or terror that I reserve for horror novels. Instead it stays on the humorous side and slips into the weird with potentially a bit supernatural.
I am not quite sure how to interpret this book, and that's something I like about it. The book is set up as though you are reading Eleanor's private blog entries, and at the beginning they seem fairly normal, but as the book progresses and strangeness ensues, I wasn't quite sure if what was going on was what was really happening, if Eleanor was beginning to break away from reality, or if it was something more supernatural altogether.
Holding the reader suspended like this is one of my favorite techniques in fiction and I thought it was done superbly here, with a slow descent into the weirdness that, like the frog in water that's beginning to boil, you aren't fully cognizant what's happening of until it's scalding your skin.
The book is definitely a rumination on cancer, personal (and/or real) demons, expectations, and the paths our choices take us down. It has something of an allegorical feel to it, but I can't quite put my finger on what it all means. It is one I will be contemplating for a while!
Mostly I was just along for the ride. Eleanor is such a unique and interesting voice, and the narrative of the weird and creepy small town of Talbingo kept me involved and wanting to know what was coming next. This story won't give you all the answers and it definitely doesn't stick to a paint-by-numbers sort of narrative. You won't find conclusive endings here but you will find something completely worth reading.
Thank you to FSGxMCD for my copy of this one to read and review.
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.