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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If the first chapter of this book doesn't draw you in, I'm not sure what will. It is a great set-up that immediately throws you in to an action-packed slasher sequence that could be straight out of a 90s horror film.
From there, the story, told from the first person perspective of an anxiety-ridden teenager, goes on to be a very different type of story, one with lots of slow-burn buildup and not so much to show for on the payoff side of the equation.
I also thought there were too many narrative threads going on. For example, I found the title and even the back cover copy, to be confusing, as the "reading buddy" part of the story was a minimal one. Though the narrative attempted to weave in this thread more, it got stuck on all the other story threads and the "reading buddy" really got lost. Which is a shame, because as the title of the book, you sort of expect that to be what the book is about, and I personally found the misdirection off-putting.
What really took this book to 2 stars for me was the ending. To be as vague as possible, it uses a technique to explain the events that set off the novel that I really find unfair and infuriating as a reader.
What I will say for this book is that the author definitely has natural talent as a writer. I found the book to be clean and well-crafted throughout. I think its main issue is that the narrative needed some ironing out and trimming.
My thanks to the author for sending copies of his book to the Night Worms to read and review.
I read a lot of Halloween-centric books this season and this one definitely tops the list. Lisa Morton is not only a great writer, but her intricate knowledge of the holiday, the myths, creatures, and then the pure imagination she spills onto the page makes this a perfect treat for the season we horror fanatics look forward to (and to be honest, celebrate) all year long.
Each of these stories goes deeper than your average tale of Halloween night. These are stories steeped deeply in the lore of traditional Halloween—where it originated, the different lore associated with different places and their Halloween night traditions, and what it has all come down to today. Where it really gets interesting is how she mixes that lore with today's Halloween, and what comes out is this strange, terrifying, and darkly magical confluence of legend and truth.
My favorites were "The Samhanach," "Summer's End," "Sexy Pirate Girl," and "The Enchanted Forest," but I don't think there's a dud in this collection. I really enjoyed them all and wanted to live in them as long as I could. I found the stories to have great empowering characters who succeeded, lost, and truly felt. And I felt along with them.
Halloween can't come soon enough again!
So choose your treat—fun size or full size—that is, if you're brave enough to walk up the sidewalk, past the grinning jack-o-lanterns, skirting the dark shadows. Or maybe you'll just get a trick instead...
I can't wait to read one of Morton's nonfiction books and learn more about Halloween. That's my goal for next year!
This is the type of book that begs to be read in one sitting. It draws you in not with a Michael Myers stabs-his-sister sort of scene that instantly shocks, but with a whisper around a crackling campfire, a story told in a low voice that makes you draw your jacket around you tighter, sit closer to the flames, and try not to think about what might be watching in the dark behind your back, beyond that bright ring of safety.
I really don’t know why I’ve never heard of this book before! I was completely enamored with the style, which I thought moved seamlessly between second and third person in a way that showed a clear talent for writing that is not as easy to find as you’d think.
It is also the perfect book for the Halloween season.
I loved the way the narrative took pieces of pre-existing legends, some classic Halloween tropes, and creepy small-town vibes and mixed them together to create something entirely new and original. The way the story builds to the ultimate reveal is paced so well and that makes it all the more thrilling and heartbreaking—I truly loved every page.
What I found most compelling about the book was the way the characters grew and shifted throughout the book. You begin the book thinking about everyone one way, putting them all in one specific box, but by the end, it’s all twisted around and no one was exactly who they appeared to be on the outside. I really like that as a storytelling and character-building technique.
This will probably become a seasonal re-read for me. There is just something so evocative about the setting and the characters—it is everything I want from horror and from a damn fine story, and I’ll definitely be searching out more of Partridge’s work.
Also, wouldn’t this make a great movie? Dang, I would watch this.
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.