And Her Smile Will Untether The Universe By Gwendolyn Kiste

And Her Smile Will Untether The Universe By Gwendolyn Kiste

Gwendolyn Kiste has a wonderful way with words. In her hands they are beautiful and savage, comforting and terrifying, heart-wrenching and healing.

And Her Smile Will Untether The Universe contains some true gems, tales thick with atmosphere and murky mood. “Evening settles softly on the orchard like black tar dripping from the sky” and later, “the air tastes of nicotine and abandoned dreams.

These stories are about dysfunctional families, twisted sisters, and haunted mothers and fathers.  “The Clawfoot Requiem” is reminiscent of William Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily,” while “All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray” reads like a nightmarish fairy tale about forgotten princesses.

“My father counts the money each night, pacing circles like a vulture that dines on the carrion of frail dreams.”

and

Little girls don’t earn the right to question the wisdom of men. We can smile and blush and nod our heads, but we can’t tell them no.”

and

“Girls are always expected to carry an impossible burden in life, like a thousand bushels of apples strapped upon a single back.”

Stories like “The Man in the Ambry”, and “Ten Things To Know About The Ten Questions” showcase Kiste’s powerful prose and unique take on familiar horror tropes, while the title tale, about an old film star brought to life by a fan’s love, is fueled by poetry and romance.

“The way you hold me,” you said, your gaze bright as wildfire, “it’s like I’m falling, but you’ve already caught me.”

And the final line:

“And in the final frame, as the universe fades to black, you’ll save each other.”

Indeed, if only we could all save each other. And Her Smile Will Untether The Universe is a brilliant, lyrical, and moving collection of tales.

Chills by Mary SanGiovanni

Kathy Ryan has problems. Her brother is a psychopath who tried to kill her when they were young, and now a band of cultists have unleashed an otherworldly invasion on the otherwise quiet town of Colby, Connecticut. Kathy is also emotionally drained from her job battling supernatural monsters. Guarding the inter-dimensional gateway against ancient intruders is difficult work, described in Mary SanGiovanni‘s Chills as:

“It was science and science fiction and magic and religion and physics and mathematics all sort of rolled into one.”

And:

“This here is the language of creation and destruction itself, the language that echoes the sound of the Convergence, the substance between dimensions and the space between the stars.”

It is no wonder that Kathy drinks. Heavily.

Mary SanGiovanni creates an otherworldly winter wonderland in Chills. Described as “H.P. Lovecraft meets True Detective,” Chills reads more like a road episode of the X-Files, if Fox and Mulder or combined into one powerful female protagonist.

Kathy has help on her quest to shut the inter-dimensional doorway and keep the world-eating Old Gods out. Teagan not only provides a romantic foil for Kathy, he also helps her solve a linguistics problem (who knew Old Gods spoke Gaelic? Top o’ the mornin’, Cthulu!)

Detective Jack Glazier loses a loved one, but saves the day, surviving a face-to-tentacle brush with the Old Gods. SanGiovanni makes magnificent monsters, from her Blue People, to her fish-headed assassins, to the messy tentacle-monsters at the novel’s conclusion. But her finest achievement is the way she transforms the weather itself into a fully flesh-out character in Chills. The snow is alive, spawning screaming creatures who “sound not much different in timbre from the waling gust of wind.” Old Man Winter is a mean bully.

“The creatures, though, had raised an incredible din. It sounded to Jack like wind and thunder, and it was growing louder.”

The backbone of this novel is Kathy’s relationship with her damaged brother, Toby. SanGiovanni does an excellent job describing Toby’s detachment:

“Everything is happening around you and you’re in the center of it, but you’re not real, not really there. You’re just . . . superimposed on the world.”

And the suffering of individuals with mental disorders:

“It was unsettling to watch anyone die slowly of intellectual malnutrition in the deserted wasteland of a broken mind…”

SanGiovanni is at her best when she’s world-building (or, other-world building, as the case my be). Her mythos borrows Lovecraft’s structure, but expands upon it in delightful and strangely logical ways (something Lovecraft himself often failed to achieve). SanGiovanni’s prose is lyrical — almost poetic —her characters are believably flawed human beings, and her mastery of tone and atmosphere makes Chills a chilling, edge-of-your-seat read.

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What Do Monsters Fear? by Matt Hayward

What do monsters fear?

Responsibility. Withdrawal symptoms. Owning up to their past mistakes.

One of the recovering addicts in Matt Hayward’s creep-fest What Do Monsters Fear? sums up the plot in a few well-chosen words:

“Three strung-out fucks are gonna stop an ancient evil god?”

Hell, yeah, they are! Because the ancient evil god—a body-snatching baddie called Phobos—has underestimated the drive and determination of men with nothing left to lose.

There’s a claustrophobic quality to this novel comparable to the trapped arctic explorers in John Carpenter’s The Thing. Tensions ratchet up by as Phobos picks off victims and terrifies those that remain. Like Freddy Krueger or Pennywise, Phobos knows what scares you, and takes perverse pleasure in torturing victims with their own deepest fears and phobias.

Hayward’s writing engages the senses and propels the story forward, like when he introduces the shifty doctor:

“A waft of aftershave drifted from him, tainting the honest smell of raw wood.”

Or describes the death of supernatural beings:

“Unlike in the movies when a supernatural entity died, the cat didn’t dissipate into nothingness with a sizzle. Instead, it burned and burned, the smell of charred flesh and singed hair filling the space. Dark smoke packed the room.”

Hayward employs the same multi-sensory technique even when the scenes get visceral:

“Shelly’s body slopped from the table and splashed to the floor.”

Poor liquified Shelly makes another appearance later on:

“He stepped in Shelly Matthews. The liquefied blob of flesh quivered like a fried egg beneath his heel. One eye blinked within the mess and stared back at him.”

Yuck! Sucks to be Shelly! Beyond the blood and monsters, What Do Monsters Fear? tackles the issue of addicts in recovery, and the way they view themselves as they attempt to turn their lives around.

“Peter hated to admit it, but for the briefest moment, he related to the monster.”

But men and monsters alike get second chances. Seeing elderly drunk Henry’s redemption is perhaps the novel’s most triumphant moment.

“I was useful for once in my miserable piece of shit life… My actions meant something.”

That’s the kind of validation we all seek, both addict and non-addict, man and monster alike.

Hayward has a great sense of pacing and a cinematic writing style that makes What Do Monsters Fear? a fast, fun read! He leaves the door open for potential sequels, and implies that the worst kind of monsters don’t live in alternate, cosmic dimensions but inside the hearts of men.

(And women. Chill out, ladies. You’re evil, too.)

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A Head Full Of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

A Head Full Of Ghosts by Paul TremblayPaul Tremblay’s A Head Full Of Ghosts is a beautiful novel, a post-modern tale of demonic possession that leaves you questioning where truth lies in our surreal/unreal world.
Publisher William Morrow sums up A Head Full Of Ghosts:
The lives of the Barretts, a normal suburban New England family, are torn apart when fourteen-year-old Marjorie begins to display signs of acute schizophrenia.
To her parents’ despair, the doctors are unable to stop Marjorie’s descent into madness. As their stable home devolves into a house of horrors, they reluctantly turn to a local Catholic priest for help. Father Wanderly suggests an exorcism; he believes the vulnerable teenager is the victim of demonic possession. He also contacts a production company that is eager to document the Barretts’ plight. With John, Marjorie’s father, out of work for more than a year and the medical bills looming, the family agrees to be filmed, and soon find themselves the unwitting stars of The Possession, a hit reality television show. When events in the Barrett household explode in tragedy, the show and the shocking incidents it captures become the stuff of urban legend.
Fifteen years later, a bestselling writer interviews Marjorie’s younger sister, Merry. As she recalls those long ago events that took place when she was just eight years old, long-buried secrets and painful memories that clash with what was broadcast on television begin to surface—and a mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed, raising vexing questions about memory and reality, science and religion, and the very nature of evil.
Like a brilliant gem, A Head Full Of Ghosts looks different from different angles. Overall, it’s a story about the bonds of sisterhood. It’s also an indictment of our reality TV culture and the toll it takes on reality itself. Viewed from another angle, it’s a straight-up tale of demonic possession packed with genuinely scary moments, suspenseful scenes, and plot twists that leave the reader satisfied—and a bit haunted—after reading.
That’s how good horror stories work and Tremblay has crafted a great one. He freely pulls from pop culture influences—from Richard Scarry books to Lovecraft’s Elder Gods mythos—and deftly weaves them into a plausible framework for his story.
At one point Tremblay describes the older sister’s disheveled appearance:
Her black hair was a dead octopus leaking and sliding off her scalp.
Conjuring images of both Lovecraftian monsters and the pale she-demons that stalk modern Japanese horror, like The Ring.
What kind of demon is at work here? Tremblay implies it’s the vengeful ghost of the Internet itself when Majorie reports:
I was born with all of the universe’s information hidden in the infinite folds and wrinkles of my gray matter, and the information itself decides when it wants to come out and be known.
At times Tremblay implicates the readers as voyeuristic sadists, as we watch “the terrible and systematic torture of a mentally ill teenage girl under the guise of entertainment.” Then he flips the script so you feel like you’re no more than a morsel of food slipping into a monstrous gullet.
“I could eat the world. Merry, pass the sauce, please,” Majorie said, and winked at me.
All the characters are fully realized and accessible. Your heart breaks for the Barrett family as outside forces—perhaps demonic, perhaps dogmatic— tear their lives apart.
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Header and Creekers by Edward Lee

Header by Edward Lee
Header by Edward Lee
Creepers by Edward Lee
Creepers by Edward Lee

There is something beautiful and poetic about  the splatterpunk redneck fiction on display in Edward Lee‘s novella Header (1995) and the long-form novel Creekers (1994).

Lee’s redneck horror pays homage to Richard Laymon‘s novels of backwoods terror as well as James Dickey‘s classic, Deliverance. Lee’s work is violent and nasty, but his pacing and dialogue are so swift and on-target, you’re knee-deep in foul shit before you even know what happened.

Headers is a twisted novella about rednecks that drill holes in peoples’ skulls and stick their erections inside. Creekers is about backwoods inbreds, and the slick tight rope they walk between an ancient evil and the modern plague of drugs.

The drug trade is the backdrop in both Headers and Creekers. Both stories have lawmen protagonists who are down on their luck and looking for redemption. It doesn’t work out so well for either guy.

Both of these novels are rollicking fun, even if they’re bloody disgusting. Like a Quentin Tarantino movie, Lee’s work seems to revel in a cartoonish level of violence and gore while searching for some kind of existential meaning beyond the mutilation and torment of the physical body. There are lots of dirty sex scenes, too. What’s not to like?

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The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron

Imago Sequence and Others by Laird Barron
Imago Sequence and Others by Laird Barron

Laird Barron writes weird.

Barron is a good writer, but the stories contained in his collection, The Imago Sequence  and Other Stories, are sometimes hard to figure. You’ll need a dictionary, good map skills, and a working knowledge of mythology, world religions, philosophy, horror fiction, and crime pulps to make heads or tails of these tales.

Don’t get me wrong; just because Barron’s style is strange doesn’t mean his fiction isn’t enjoyable. The stories in The Imago Sequence are rich with interesting characters and concepts, and practically drip with atmosphere.

Barron is a skilled writer and you can see his toil on every page. He blends Raymond Chandler and H.P. Lovecraft, in ways both good and bad. Tough guys stumble through the underworld of crime and the Old West against a backdrop of ancient horrors, cosmic interference, and unreliable narrators. At its best, Barron’s gritty prose conjures Jim Thompson and James M. Cain, gut-punching like a trench-coated henchman in an old black-and-white film. Check out these savory one-liners:

“Somebody slapped a bottle of whiskey in my hand and lost the cork…I tumbled off the wagon and got crushed under its wheels.”

“If the best revenge is living well, second best has to be watching your enemy shrivel like a worm on the end of a hook.”

“Underdog and Popeye couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag until they’d had their fix.”

“Karma, brothers and sisters, has a mouth as big as the world.”

Occasionally Barron’s work is undone by his word choice. Just because you’ve got a big vocabulary is no reason to use phrases like, “great chthonian depths,” “uxoricidal brute,” or “compensation for your temerity.”

The title story is the best in the collection. “The Imago Sequence” follows the pursuit of an ultra-rare trio of photographs that drive viewers insane and/or reveal the secrets of existence, perhaps even the very face of God Hisownself. The crime noir vibe builds to a climax that’s equal parts Thomas Harris’s Hannibal and John Carpenter’s The Thing, imbued with meaty philosophical musings:

“Enlightenment isn’t necessarily a clean process. Enlightenment can be filthy, degenerate, dangerous. Enlightenment is its own reward, its own punishment. You begin to see so much more. And so much more sees you.”

Barron’s reoccurring themes include religion, philosophy, and the meaning of existence, all of which are rendered masterfully in “Shiva, Open Your Eye.”

“Men are afraid of the devil, but there is no devil , just me and I do as I am bid. It is God that should turn their bowels to soup. Whatever God is, He, or It, created us for amusement. It’s too obvious. Just as He created the prehistoric sharks, the dinosaurs , and the humble mechanism that is a crocodile. And Venus fly traps, and black widow spiders, and human beings. Just as He created a world where every organism survives by rending a weaker organism. Where procreation is an imperative, a leech’s anesthetic against agony and death and disease that accompany the sticky congress of mating. A sticky world, because God dwells in a dark and humid place. A world of appetite, for God is ever hungry.”

Damn, Laird! That’s the kind of writing that can “turn your bowels to soup!”

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Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon

Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon
Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon

Is corn scary? It is a rather bizarre plant. It grows tall and fast and has vaguely human qualities, like corn-silk hair and ears.

I never really thought corn was scary, until I read Stephen King‘s Children of the Corn as a teenager. King made corn creepy.

But before King conjured the Children of the Corn, author/actor Thomas Tryon‘s built Harvest Home (1973), a rural-gothic horror novel that was a major influence not only on King, but appears to have helped shaped the work of T.E.D Klein’s The Ceremonies, and Ira Levin’s novels of the occult.

Set in the fictional corn-fed farming community of Cornwall Coombe, Connecticut, Harvest Home offers a familiar set-up. Narrator Ned Constantine and his wife Beth are fed up with life in New York City, so they take their teenage daughter and move to the country. The Constantines fall in love with country living (for a while) and embrace Cornwall Coombe’s quirky traditions. But, as Tryon notes, sometimes simple beliefs hide wicked and troubling superstitions.

Tryon borrows heavily from Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife, (check out my Conjure Wife review here) with it’s powerful cast of female witches and equally memorable cast of wimpy males.

There’s a groovy ‘70s feel to Harvest Home. Like Happy Days, Harvest Home was created in the early ‘70s but reflects a simpler time in American culture. The novel has a cozy movie-of-the-week feel to it as well, which adds to the ’70s vibe. In fact, Harvest Home was made into an NBC mini-series in 1978 called The Dark Secrets of Harvest Home.

Harvest Home is presented more as a gothic mystery than a straight-up horror novel. Tryon’s tome is dulled a bit by time—and by forty years of rip-offs and imitators —but it still manages to hit all the right notes, especially during the racy climax and grimly satisfying Epilogue. Harvest Home finishes strong, and there are not many novels you can honestly say that about.

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The Book of Paul by Richard Long

The Book of Paul by Richard Long
The Book of Paul by Richard Long

 I didn’t know what to expect when I dove into Richard Long’s debut novel, The Book of Paul, other than Stephen King endorsed it and the novel was billed as “ a paranormal thriller.” Based on the cover, I figured The Book of Paul was a mythology-based tale of pirates for young adult readers. The skeleton keys on the cover look like a skull and crossbones on ancient parchment paper, you know?

But by Chapter Four a tattooed Goth girl with labia piercings is blowing a big-dicked muscle-head, so I had to toss my assumptions out the window. This wasn’t young adult fiction.

I’m sure this happens a lot with The Book of Paul. It’s a wild genre-bending ride through mythology, magic, and white-knuckled action adventure.

According to author Richard Long:

The Book of Paul is the first of seven volumes in a sweeping mythological narrative tracing the mystical connections between Hermes Trismegistus in ancient Egypt, Sophia, the female counterpart of Christ, and the Celtic druids of Clan Kelly.

Long’s blend of mythology and realism is stylistically similar to Neil Gaiman‘s, but Long’s prose is leaner and meaner with more of a noir feel, for example:

The tiny .22-caliber bullet was ricocheting inside her skull like a pinball, lighting up old memories of love and cruelty as it whipped the spidery gray filaments of her brain into a six-egg omelet.

Sometimes the action slips into comic book-like mayhem.

The Striker punched him in the throat. “Aaack!” Paul gacked, hitting the floor with a thunderous boom!

The Book of Paul is fun, fun, fun, and Paul is one of the most delightfully wicked villains in modern memory. Evil, funny, and weirdly human (particularly strange for an immortal) Paul delivers some of the novel’s best lines and most powerful insights, like:

Sometimes I think evil is just loneliness with nowhere else to go.

Lonely or not, Paul is a man/demi-god who keeps his eye on the prize, in this case, the fulfillment of a centuries old prophecy.

Characters are the backbone of any good story, and Long has created an unforgettable cast in The Book of Paul. Brainwashed muscleman Martin, Goth princess Rose, in-and-out of the narrative narrator William, confused accomplice Michael Bean and a gaggle of tattooed, body-modified counter-culture superfreaks.

Paul’s backstory and the history of his clan is complex, but Long keeps it interesting with meaty philosophical asides:

“It’s no mystery why we hide from death. We hide because we fear it. The greatest mystery of life is death. What force engineered this necessity? What is this thing we call ‘food’? We eat life, William. We eat life! And we eat it every single day!”

The Book of Paul is a winning genre mashup. Imagine if Quentin Tarantino directed Highlander and you’ll have an idea of what Long has created. As much as I dislike serial novels, I’m looking  forward to the continuing adventures of Clan Kelly. As The Man himself notes:

“Stories never end,” Paul grunted, “at least not the ones I tell.” 

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The Twelve by Justin Cronin

The Twelve by Justin Cronin
The Twelve by Justin Cronin

The Twelve is a well-written action thriller, a good, solid novel. But it doesn’t hold a candle to The Passage, the first book in author Justin Cronin’s post-apocalyptic vampire series.

The Twelve suffers from the same “middle child syndrome” that plagues so may “Book 2s” in a trilogy series. It’s neither a beginning, nor an end. The Twelve also has to follow in The Passage’s deep literary footprints, which is no small task.

There are (too) many of books about zombies/vampires overrunning the planet. But The Passage turned the genre around by introducing a wholly original solution to the age-old “zombie apocalypse” problem. Amy, the young hero of The Passage, gives all the mindless monsters their memories and identities back before dispatching their souls to the afterlife. It’s a beautiful and compassionate moment at the climax of The Passage.

There are no such beautiful moments in The Twelve. There are a lot of terrorist acts by rebel insurgents. There is frequent refugee relocation. Lots of stuff blows up. The “good guys” gather in one part of the country while the “bad guys” gather in another—one of many nods to/rip-offs of Stephen King’s The Stand you’ll encounter in The Twelve.

The Twelve is to The Passage as Alien is to Aliens. Alien is the story of a monster stalking humanity. Aliens is about paramilitary planning and war. The Twelve is more of a military action tale than a supernatural thriller.

Cronin is great storyteller, and his lyrical prose paints vivid pictures. I hope he recaptures The Passage‘s literary magic in the last novel in this trilogy—The City of Mirrors—due next year.

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Horns by Joe Hill

Horns by Joe Hill
Horns by Joe Hill

Every single one of us has got the devil inside, and nobody knows it better than Ignatius Parrish the narrator of Joe Hill’s novel Horns. Ig wakes after a night of sorrowful drinking to find he’s grown horns on top of his head. Worse yet, the horns bring out the worst in everyone Ig encounters.

Ig isn’t a very popular guy. Most everyone in town suspects he murdered his girlfriend, Merrin — even his own parents. The horns give people permission to tell Ig how they really feel about him. It isn’t pretty.

But Ig’s horny head is a blessing, too. The horns allow him to get to the truth behind Merrin’s murder and mete devilish justice out on the guilty.

Horns has excellent plot and pacing, especially in the first half of the novel. Paired down to its bare bones Horns is a balls-out revenge novella, something straight out of EC comics. But Hill adds depth through flashbacks and character development. Merrin and Iggy get fleshed out nicely, and their story takes on the homespun sweetness of a high school romance.

Hill visits delightfully dark places in Horns. (How fun would it be to push your annoying grandma’s wheelchair down a hill and into a fence?) Hill brings some metaphor to the mayhem, too.

It was something, the way the wheelchair picked up speed, the way a person’s life picked up speed, the way a life was like a bullet aimed at one final target, impossible to slow or turn aside, and like the bullet, you were ignorant of what you were going to hit, would never know anything except the rush and the impact.

Hill finds ways to weave thoughtful contemplation into his revenge narrative.

Pi is an irrational number, incapable of being made into a fraction, impossible to divide from itself. So, too, the soul is an irrational, indivisible equation that perfectly expresses one thing: you.

Even though Iggy’s gone demon, he hasn’t forgotten what it means to be human.

I want you to remember what was good in me, not what was most awful. The people you love should be allowed to keep their worst to themselves.

Some of the symbolism in Horns is a little heavy-handed (Ig’s father and brother are both accomplished “horn players”), but overall Hill brings the story home in fine style. While Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box staggered to the finish line, Horns is a fiendish read with a satisfying conclusion.

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