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.
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.
Reading a Laird Hunt novel is always an immersive experience. His writing is something that latches on and doesn't let go easily, so if you're sitting down with one of his books, you might just consider your afternoon and evening booked.
Though I think there is definitely a clear narrative to this story, I feel that this book is more about the journey, reading through the main character's experiences and fully coating yourself with the strange and unsettling rhythm and mystery of the words.
There are elements of fairy tale and magical realism in this fiercely lyrical fever dream of a tale; it is the historical reality of strait-laced Puritan New England coming up against the dark and tangled lore of witches and the woods. And it is a darkly empowering delicious journey.
Also, I can't write a review of this one without commenting on the amazing cover art—one of my favorites of the year—and the interior design too. A book can be a piece of art on multiple levels, and this one is definitely a masterpiece.
My thanks to Little Brown for sending me a finished copy 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.
My thanks to Flatiron Books for my advance copy of this book to read and review.
This is only my second run-in with Moriarty and Big Little Lies blew me away, even though I was really skeptical of it. I am one of those people who tend to shy away from those books that everyone is trying to get you to read. I tend to roll my eyes a bit, thinking, it's just a fad, it can't possibly be that good. But dang it if BLL wasn't everything and more that I wanted from a good book.
So I went into this one with my expectations raised.
I definitely loved the way it started. Moriarty is talented at juggling a large cast of characters, getting you inside each of their heads, and creating a bunch of personalities that you are just itching to see interact with each other. She knows how to set up a story, and I really didn't know where it was going to go.
Once all the characters got to the health resort and settled in, I waited for everything to start going down. And I waited. And waited some more.
Yep. That's where it went downhill for me. I really felt that nothing was happening to move the plot forward in a meaningful way. Everything that was taking place felt very rote, and Masha, the owner of the spa who is supposed to be so mysterious and charismatic felt the most transparent to me—and the most flat.
I was so surprised at how the characters really went nowhere, just letting the machinations of the plot drag them along aimlessly, for such a loooooonnnngg time. This isn't a short book y'all!
I was really disappointed by the whole last third. The ending sequence didn't feel appropriate based on the build-up of the story and I was not surprised at all by the final reveals. If I'd read this book before BLL I might not have tried another of her books because it really is just such a mediocre book, which is such a shame because she obviously has a lot of skill as an intricate plotter and great character writer.
I'll definitely be on the lookout for more of her books, but I won't be recommending this one.
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.