I had to have this novel based on DeMeester’s dark story collection, Everything That’s Underneath, that is by turns disturbing and beautiful.
I wasn’t as impressed with Beneath as I wanted to be, but it is still a worthy horror debut that shows strong talent, a great imagination, and that the women of horror are here to make a name for themselves.
What I liked most about the novel was how many different types of horror it manages to weave into the narrative. There is the very real horror of sexual abuse and how that can impact a person emotionally and physically throughout their life. There is the horror of religion gone wrong, when beliefs become skewed toward something that was never intended. There is pure monster horror with gruesome description and cruelly inventive creatures. There is also great body horror, where it isn’t just the monsters outside, but the monsters inside that wreak havoc.
Those were my favorite scenes—the ones where the monsters and the humans were inextricable from one another. DeMeester has a definite skill for vivid and unearthly description of what is going on inside of people’s bodies. You can really feel it, and it is excellent writing and brilliant horror.
For me, the book dragged in the second half, and I had trouble understanding all of the decisions that the two main characters, Cora and Michael, made.
Rather than the characters making decisions that would direct the course of the narrative, it seemed like the narrative of this book was really the one in control. To me, that makes for a more amorphous, purposeless feeling narrative, which, while building on the dreamlike, ethereal quality of the writing (which I loved) left me feeling unanchored and waiting for something to grab hold of.
If you are a fan of strange monster stories, great writing, and body horror, this is a great book to pick up. I definitely recommend her short story collection too!
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.
The Bone Mother is a very unique set of interconnected short stories. Each story begins with an old (and often haunting) portrait or illustration and each is told from the first person.
The stories have a dark aura, but often the true depth of the darkness isn't uncovered until the very end. Demchuk certainly has a flair for making the reader feel as though they've missed a step in the dark—feeling that strange plummeting of your stomach, the truth of what you though you knew ripped out from under you.
While I liked the interconnected structure, I felt that the world of the stories could have been explored more. The stories are so short, most of them just a couple pages, that I never really felt attached to any of the people or their specific narrative. But at the same time, each story didn't seem to further the world-building enough that I felt I had a full picture of this place, the timeline between characters, or the events that happened there by the time I finished the book.
Though the writing is captivating and there are some truly scary moments, I felt this narrative was just too scattered for me to really connect to it, which would have been fine if it were just a short story collection, but as they are meant to be linked, it left me wanting more cohesion and finality.
I would definitely be interested to read more writing by this author. He has a strong and unique voice, and I love that he decided to shine a light on Russian folklore and history in this way.
My thanks to Chizine Publications for sending copies of this one to the Nightworms to read.
This is an important collection, and a hugely successful one in my opinion. I have already been sharing my love for it and will definitely be recommending it to people who want a good horror anthology, are interested in trying out some new authors they might not have heard of, or just can't get enough of the ladies of horror fiction!
One of the main reasons I was itching to get my hands on this book is because of the King curated collection of the same theme that didn't feature a single female author. Well, Amber Fallon was like, we don't need any smelly invitation to be in your collection, we will just make our own. And so she did. BAM.
There are some women who have already made a name in the horror community in this collection as well as some I'd never read before. I loved the diversity of the stories, the different styles, settings, and voices that were brought to the table.
These three were my favorites:
Damien Angelica Walters's story that opens the collection, "The Floating Girls: A Documentary"—someone remind me to go buy her new book IMMEDIATELY. What a brilliant, inventive story, one I will definitely read again.
"Wilderness" by Leticia Trent has major Shirley Jackson vibes mixed with Trent's effortless prose. Creeping dread levels high!
Nadia Bulkin's "And When She Was Bad" has me moving her books up on my TBR list. I've not yet read any of her books and if this story is any indication, I need to get started!
I am grateful, impressed, and overjoyed that Fallon curated such a great collection. In social and political times like what we are currently going through, it is even more important than ever to support artists, especially women. Writers get to the truth. Stories show us our fears, our weaknesses, and how we might persevere.
The horror genre tends to be male-dominated, but this is an in-your-face reminder that ladies have something to say too, and it's just as badass and downright terrifying as anything that men are bringing to the table.
I can't say enough good things about this book. It is one that horror fans should definitely collect and take note of—these writers are damn talented and I can't wait to uncover their backlists and see what they might come out with next.
My huge thanks to WordHorde for sending me a copy of this one to read and review.
This was my 100th book of 2018, and it couldn't have been a better choice. In fact, it might be my favorite book of 2018 so far.
Some books just really hit you in your heart.
This book, it was more like the heart, gut, throat, chest—a full body knockout.
Karen E. Bender’s stories in this new collection are something different, something necessary for our fragile, tumultuous social and political landscape. She begins in small moments in the lives of her characters and crafts emotional, compelling stories that draw you in, until finally you realize the whole story has been about something much larger the whole time.
A woman struggling to find her way and keep herself afloat goes on three interviews, but her interviewers are all stuck in their own loops of self-misery and can’t see beyond the haze of their own problems, however large or small, and it bleeds across the interviews in an unexpected way.
A girl stuck going to Hebrew school twice a week worries about divide between her Hebrew school self and who she is with her friends at her public school, while in the background, violent crimes are perpetrated against people of her faith in other countries.
In the one genre story set in a dystopian/futuristic landscape, a woman who is lucky to have a job in the diminishing market reads complaints from and awards monetary compensation to people who dislike their jobs but are unable to leave due to restrictions from the government. She is given a promotion, but the complaints take on a darker edge and she struggles to understand the reason behind it all.
Each story is startlingly simple, full of those everyday occurrences that make life both mundane and unique. From simple interactions between strangers in an elevator or on a plane, to the longer narratives, there is a simple clarity, a pure brilliance as Bender turns a light—fiercely—on what is really going on, what really matters.
More than just casting our reflection back at us, these stories dig to the center of socio-political issues in a way that is innately human. You can't help but to feel at the very minimum the unsettling, like walking on uneven ground in the dark, that the stories bring up in your gut. There is something wrong here, I kept thinking, but how can I fix it?
Yes—how do we fix it? Are we, as a country fixable? We are good at commenting on the problems that we see, but are we ready to dig to the root of the problem, to get in there and really clean up the mess we've created?
What will it take?
Reading books like this remind me why writing and reading is so important. Fiction has a voice, and it has something to say, something we should all be listening to.
Huge, expansive and never-ending thanks to Counterpoint Press for putting an ARC of this book in my hands to read and review. It is definitely one I will be recommending to everyone. This book is out in November.
I love a short story collection that shows cohesion even though the stories are all distinctly separate, living in their own dark worlds. DeMeester's short tales have that kind of versatility, where they are interested in unpacking similar themes but never follow the same fanged rabbit down the same twisted hole twice.
Many of these stories, some just a page or two, some closer to twenty pages, center around the idea of transformation, of the liminal quality of the body and the different ways it might be consumed, broken, corrupted, or altered. Sometimes this is a triumphant change, sometimes it is unwanted.
That liminality, that disorienting threshold to transformation that DeMeester has mastered in these stories, often seemed a metaphor for how women's bodies and selves are not quite theirs to inhabit but rather the world's to use or enact violence upon. Here, women take control, becoming the ones who inhabit, who consume, who enact violence.
I loved the intense darkness of the stories and the startling (though strangely beautiful) descriptions of body horror were quite effective. The book is not overtly terrifying, but is unsettling and carries a certain dread that weighs you down as you read—very intense and wonderful.
I definitely recommend this unique collection. I can't wait to read her novel, Beneath!
Man, there just isn't anyone writing novellas anymore, is there?
Longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel, these interesting specimens seem to get short shrift (no pun intended), at least in the publishing world. Maybe people are writing them by the boatload, but they just aren't a salable format.
Well, I am here to say, the novella is not dead—at least not the way Ahlborn is writing them.
These pieces, both around 150 to 200 pages, pack a killer punch, immersing the reader fully in the world of the main characters without all the messy and entangling structural work that a novel entails. Get right down in the dirt and make some mud, I say. Story, character, chaos—let the fun begin.
And boy, does she.
THE PRETTY ONES
This is a period piece set in New York City, 1977, during the reign of the Son of Sam, a real-life notorious serial killer who went around shooting people, mostly brown-haired women—when they caught him, he said his neighbor's dog told him to do it, no joke, look it up. Anyway, in this story, before he was caught, Nell is a stuffy sort of girl, not very stylish, held back by her brother's strict beliefs about the way girls should look and act, but Nell desperately wants to fit in and make a friend. When she decides to make a change, that's when it all goes wrong.
Of the two, this was my favorite. Don't get me wrong—they are both great—but I am such a sucker for a good period piece. I loved all the little details that made this feel like it was true to NYC of the late 70s, especially for a murderino like me, who happens to know a lot about Son of Sam. A serial killer backdrop for a story is beyond perfect; you know I'm on board from the beginning.
Nell is great character, all her motivations are laid bare on the table for the reader. She holds nothing back; it's like reading her constant mind diary. I enjoyed reading her after the introduction where the author discussed her aspirations of becoming a psychologist that eventually turned into writing instead. I was reading all the characters through this profiling lens and it was interesting to get inside Nell's (and possibly the author's?) head a little bit.
I CALL UPON THEE
Maggie got out of her family's crazy house where so much seemed to go wrong, but now when tragedy strikes, she's forced to return home and confront the shadows of her past and possibly the ones in her closet.
I wasn't surprised to read in the author's note that this story had some autobiographical bits in it—or perhaps I was just self-projecting since there were pieces that so mirrored my own experience in my middle school years. Ah well, perhaps it's a story for another day.
In any case, on the surface, this story has a lot of familiar elements (I am being vague here, but I honestly don't want to ruin it for you; the author goes to a lot of trouble to set up this story and I'm not going to be the one to just kick out that careful scaffolding) but what is unsettling is how she takes the familiar and dumps it on its head, putting the reader in unfamiliar territory—the unheimlich, if you like to get Freudian.
All in all, it is a story that is more intricate than it first appears. It has multiple time periods at work, and a lot of the revelations come late in the game, all stacked up on one another. It is a cathartic kind of read, one that would do well if you have a dark and stormy night to cozy up in bed with. Just hope the lights don't go out.
I of course, can't wait to see what's next from Ahlborn. There are not that many women writing horror and doing it well like she is. I love that, it is not only amazing to read, but highly inspiring. I would especially be interested in a short story collection. I have long held the belief that a writer who is a master of short form truly understands how to write—once you have to strip away all the fluff and are only left with the bare bones and stringiest meat of the story, you see what chops a writer really has. If these novellas are any indication, I'd say she has quite a collection of stories to share. And we'd be happy to devour them, raw beating hearts and all.
It's that time of year again. . .
How did this happen? It is so crazy to me that another year has blown by, though this one was no walk through the park.
But we made it and I know one of the things that kept me sane were books. Books are like an escape—somewhere we can pretend that the rest of the crappy stuff in the world isn't going on, or see a different version of reality that is even scarier than the one we live in, or just laugh for a while, or go on an adventure, or a thousand different things. Books are truly magic that way. I read 145 books in 2017, which is probably an all-time high for me, but I think I really needed books this year, as a safe place to go when it seemed like the rest of the world might just fall apart.
In other areas of my life, I feel like I went a bit inert. I didn't write as much as I wanted to—I certainly wasn't as active on this blog as I could have been! But I am planning for next year, planning that goes beyond just flimsy resolutions. I want to get things done.
Beyond all that, I read some great books, some that really stuck with me. I hope you might take a look at my top ten and be inspired to give these books a try sometime in 2018. I'd love to hear your favorite books too, so I can add them to my list.
THE RESURRECTION OF JOAN ASHBY by Cherise Wolas
Though I usually have trouble choosing one solid favorite book of the year, that slot goes to this debut novel with no contest. At 544 pages, it will take a bit of commitment, but every page is truly a gift.
Exploring both Joan's sprawling life and her own writing is such a dynamic and emotional experience and makes this book unique, but I stayed for the beautiful story of exploration of self and discovery of identity—something we can all connect with.
My thanks to Flatiron, and especially Nancy, for providing my finished copy of this book.
HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES by Carmen Maria Machado
This short story collection is a must—for women, for readers, for people who just lived through all the crap of 2017.
The stories here pulse with originality, crossing all the genre lines from sci-fi and fantasy to experimental to crime drama and beyond. She doesn't stop for a breath and barely lets the reader breathe either, pushing them into her characters—their space, their experiences, their bodies—in every story. Where she is most successful, she leaves the reader obscured in the fog; you have to let the stories sit with you and entangle with them emotionally, sometimes more than intellectually. Her writing reminded me of Angela Carter at times.
My thanks to Graywolf Press for providing my finished copy of this book.
LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders
This one is probably not much of a surprise to see here, but I think Saunders is one of the finest writers of the modern age and it was great to see his first novel—a genre- and form-bending (if not breaking) masterpiece—get a lot of attention all year. I both read and then listened to the audio (in that order), which if you like the book I definitely recommend. The audio version has a full cast, sort of like a play, where each character has a different voice actor.
Besides just breaking novelistic conventions, the plot and characters of BARDO are brilliantly conceived and developed. It is a heartbreaking, heartwarming, and truly weird story in the way that only Saunders can invent.
My thanks to Random House for providing my finished copy of this book.
TORNADO WEATHER by Deborah E. Kennedy
This is the story of a young girl who goes missing, which doesn't seem like such an innovative storyline, but it really tells the story of all the people who live in her small town, following a group of them after her disappearance as the continue to go about their daily lives. Each of them have some sort of connection to her, whether it be strong or just tangential, but in the end the story is more about the people left behind—an innovative viewpoint for a mystery story. I can't recommend this one enough.
My thanks to Flatiron for providing my finished copy of this book.
THE FACT OF A BODY: A MURDER AND A MEMOIR by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
I am a true crime buff (murderinos unite) so this one was definitely on my radar early in the year. What I didn't expect was its beautiful and haunting mix of memoir and reporting elements. The writing is simply stunning, the type of writing that really stops you in your tracks and makes you remember why you love reading so much in the first place. And the story, though not some famous serial killer or the like, goes much deeper and really dug into my heart as I read it.
If you read The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson and loved that, this one is for you too.
My thanks to Flatiron for providing my ARC of this book.
HUNGER: A MEMOIR OF (MY) BODY by Roxane Gay
I don't read a lot of nonfiction, but I'm glad that two books can be represented on my list this year. I just read this one a few days ago, but there was no question that it would join the ranks of my top list. Gay has such a powerful voice and telling her story is obviously not something that she takes lightly. This book carries the weight of the actions enacted against her, how she has tried to deal with it, and also realizes that her story is not the only story out there. That is a lot.
MY ABSOLUTE DARLING by Gabriel Tallent
This is not an easy book to read. It has difficult moments that have been very divisive, but there is a such a beauty, strength, and reality in the main character of Turtle, one that felt very true to me. I loved the way the natural world and her movement through it was described so fully, but her interiority was kept close to the vest; it takes a long time for her to come into her own.
This book is probably not for everyone but I loved the writing and can't wait to see what Tallent comes up with next.
SHADOWBAHN by Steve Erickson
This book is doing something so different and interesting, it is difficult to ignore. With fiction becoming something that feels sadly mass-produced—one book does well and then six months later I see a bunch of books come out that all seem exactly the same as that one—it is a true pleasure to read something original, not only in narrative, but it structure and style as well.
The story here can't get any weirder, which in itself I love, but the writing is stunning and Erickson's innovative thinking puts him in my top list.
LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng
Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. How have I not read her debut yet? This layered book deals so acutely with the finer points of character, really showing how there is no black and white, no right or wrong, only shades of gray. Maybe this is a lesson that our whole country needs to learn right now. I loved all the characters, likable or not, and the way the stories come together is both heartbreaking and emotionally cleansing. She is a talent.
THE HEART'S INVISIBLE FURIES by John Boyne
Another huge one at 582 pages, I might consider this one required reading for the state of our nation today. It is not quiet about bigotry and hatred for all classes of people who have been othered, and Boyne has a real knack for showing both the absurdity and the terror of such situations and how it has a lasting impact. A beautiful and important novel.
My thanks to Crown/Hogarth for providing my ARC of this book.
There are definitely others I could recommend and there are others that I didn't get to that I have a suspicion would fight for a spot on this list. Well, there's always next year!
I am hoping to get plenty of reading done in 2018 of course, but I'm making a resolution to focus more on my current collection of books and reading some classics and other books rather than just frontlist titles. We will see how it goes—there's a whole world of books of course, and I'd like to get started right away!
There is an art to the short story. It is not as simple as most people would think. People are daunted and awed by the novel—that long, arduous journey of pages, which of course, is no cake walk itself.
But in those pages, there is room to grow and splinter off in any sort of direction the characters take you, feeling free to meander down any trail the plot draws you down.
A short story has to be tight, has a word limit, has to create all of those feelings and momentums and arcs within the character and the reader in a much tighter scope.
That takes skill. A writer that has a handle on how to craft a great short story really has something.
These stories burn brightly, with a fierce determination, by turns dark and by others comedic, and it all keeps turning like those merry-go-rounds we used to play on as kids until it’s one swirl of nausea-inducing color that makes more sense than the painful world outside.
Behr captures that sense of unrestrained wildness, that captive clarity, the moment of crazed hilarity breaking through the horror.
The stories here, sometimes intertwining, with a consistent tone and dark eye turned toward the world, are narrated by characters lost, broken, set to repeat, and caught up in the uncertain fears we all force on ourselves.
I’ve been ruminating on children in fiction a lot, what with the huge release of It in theaters (and I’ve seen it three times, so sue me, it’s great), and the kids on the page here are hard as nails. They have that bright, intuitive sense of the world that kids so easily grasp and are dealing with so much more than they should have to carry. Brilliantly rendered.
The stories do tend to drop off at their conclusions like that step you forgot in the dark, leaving a bewildered sense of incompleteness. Perhaps stylistic and purposeful, but when overused, one tends to not feel as deeply for the characters, sensing no real conclusion for them will be achieved.
I found the standout stories in the collection to be the ones that center on darkness in more permanent ways, but ways that were only glancing for the narrators, like “A Reasonable Person,” where a juror reflects on her own life and the grisly case she has been assigned to assess, and “Afterword,” where a character reminisces about a young boy she knew growing up who was brutally murdered and how it still affects her.
Stories like these have a deeper resonance, a darkness that sinks to the bones and sits there, chilling and spreading, a real feeling that there is true evil in the world. They show the sparks of a true talent developing in these pages and I’d be glad to see where they go in the author’s work in years to come.
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Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.