Ginger Nuts of Horror
By Stewart Horn
A gay-themed vampire novel written by a porn star may not sound appealing, but despite its many flaws, I rather enjoyed it.
Daniel and David were childhood neighbours, drawn together by familial neglect. They become friends, then step brothers, then lovers, and form a black metal band together. In their mid-teens they live a fabulously hedonistic life until the night Daniel disappears.
Four years later David has just about got his life back together when Daniel reappears and attacks him, and in the struggle David kills him. It's hardly a spoiler to say that Daniel is a vampire (and not any deader than before), and now so is David.
The first half of the book is completely engaging as we spend time with the boys and find out their history - I especially enjoyed the band scenes, but once the main plot kicks in it loses its way a little. An older vampire gives us a quasi-religious origin story for vampires and hatches a plan to raise an army of vampires to storm heaven and reclaim it in Lucifer's name. It's a grand and sweeping idea but never as interesting as the love story at the book's heart.
Homoeroticism in vampire fiction is hardly new, and Mr. Zeischegg doesn't really do anything new: it's no more sensual than Anne Rice and no more graphic than Poppy Brite. I get the feeling he wanted to shock us, but got too tied up with the romance, and the book is stronger for it. These days, extreme violence, drug use, heresy and gay sex no longer have the power. The underage pseudo-incest is a potential outrage trigger but those scenes are lightly drawn and rather sweet really, not pornographic at all.
If you like vampires, heavy metal, pornography and gay sex I guarantee you'll enjoy this book.
Colors in Darkness is an online site that publishes dark fiction from authors of colour. They’ve put together their first anthology and it does not disappoint. This is a varied and entertaining read.
The concept is that every story is by a different author but centres around the Kretcher Motel in the 1960s. There are certain lynchpin features - such as the fountain in the lobby which doesn’t work any more and, of course, the bewitching Sybline Kretcher, the manager who runs the motel on behalf of the Devil.
The risk with an anthology that demands its stories all contain common elements is that the tales could end up seeming too similar, or the features necessary to give it cohesion could be shoehorned in at the expense of the story. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen here and each author’s interpretation of the commonalities is unique enough that you really do get the impression of looking at the same thing but through different eyes each time and the common elements draw the stories together so that they truly appear as parts of a whole rather than disparate and unconnected narratives.
For me, Sybline was a mesmerising addition each time. Her character alters depending on the situation; she welcomes some guests with warmth, others with hostility, so each author has the leeway to portray the manager in their own unique way. The introduction by Mya Lairis, in which we learn about Sybline’s character and her background, is as much a work of seamless fiction in itself as it is an idea of what is to come.
The Thing in Room 204 - CW Blackwell
This tale was very bold, very concise and nicely self-contained making it a good first story. However, I felt it had a random ending which rather spoilt it for me.
Karma Suture - Tawanna Sullivan
This story was a nice contrast to the first one, showing off the ability of the anthology to deliver diverse tales while maintaining a consistent setting. Whereas the first story was set mostly in the hotel itself, this one has a lot of detail of the world surrounding the hotel, making it an ideal second story to expand our knowledge of the hotel. I thought the ending worked well with its sense of poetic justice, however I didn’t feel there was enough back story for me to really invest in it whole-heartedly.
The Last Days of Jerome Brown - Jordan King-Lacroix
A nightmarish short story and, although it felt a little predictable, it was still nicely written.
Roost - Kenya Moss Dyme
The previous stories had been focussed with just one point of view character which had worked very well in giving the reader plenty of different perspectives of the hotel. However, this short story had four POV characters, and I felt that was just too much. The end result was rather confusing. In one instance, I couldn’t figure out who had actually killed one of the other characters. Luckily with the solid preceding stories, I was invested in the concept by now and happy to read on.
Salvation - Ross Baxter
In the same way that Roost tries to change the pace by packing in more POV characters, Salvation is a story jam-packed with extra information. The premise was interesting, the middle was solid (if a little heavy on information at the expense of atmosphere), and the ending was a lovely twist. However, I felt the final scenes in this tale really spoiled it: they were clichéd and felt crass after what had been a very thoughtful story beforehand. If I read it again, I might stop before I reach the very end!
The Honeymoon Suite: Jacob’s Reunion - Sumiko Saulson
If this story was standalone, I feel it would have been rather weak, but as part of this collection it was well-chosen. I liked the reference to real world events because it made both the story and the hotel feel more grounded.
A Long Way from the Ritz - Eden Royce
I really liked this story. It was subtle and kept you guessing without ever confusing you. It was nicely sinister and well-paced.
A Devil of a Deal - David O’Hanlon
A conversational tone in a story can either work well or entirely ruin the story: I’m pleased to say that it works brilliantly here. This is another story that manages to pack a load of back story into a few thousand words, but it is adeptly done and is directly relevant to the background of the hotel itself. I could have done without the final Lucifer-Scratch showdown but the tale ends on a note of wonderfully dark justice: whatever the outcome, the Devil always wins.
Hollygraham - Sy Shanti
An interesting choice of story where the use of technology contrasts well with the previous stories which are heavy on the supernatural. This had a nice build up and a fun twist, but I felt the ending was a bit of a mess.
Fleshtrap - Querrus Abuttu
Unfortunately for me the inconsistencies in this story ruined it for me. Sometimes it was plot issues - such as how does he know that Gordo needs reminding if he’s never worked with him before? - and sometimes it was editorial issues - such as how can you stare into someone’s eyes and take note of their nails at the same time?
Mister Mackintosh - David Turnbull
After the blood, gore and despair of the previous stories it was refreshing to come across a story that was vaguely happy! I thought it was well crafted and that not one scene was wasted in taking the story forward.
The Adjustors - Dahlia DeWinters
The dramatic irony in this is highly enjoyable. You know what is coming, but the author keeps the tension going so you’re keen to see just how it shakes down. The final scene adds an unexpected depth and poignancy to the rest of the story.
Need - Zin E. Rocklyn
I felt this was an odd choice to end on. It was confusing, with a character called Albert and his friend Albus, meaning you had to really concentrate on what was happening to which character. I also felt that the ending wasn’t explained well enough and I would much have preferred to end on The Adjustors as I felt that was the stronger story.
This anthology would make an excellent holiday read, or perhaps perfect for a commute. The descriptive links mean that it’s easy to sink into each story with familiarity, but the tales are sufficiently diverse that each one is a new experience. Overall, a very impressive collection that is sure to appeal to fans of The Hyde Hotel or The Devil’s Guests.
Colors in Darkness, the premiere online site for dark fiction authors of color presents its first anthology! Amid the upheaval of the 1960s, the Kretcher Motel opened in a poor, desolate part of Atlanta. It still serves its original purpose: to lure those souls who are lost, who are troubled, who are evil…to itself. Check in to view these thirteen dark tales of horror, betrayal, fear, and wickedness, all featuring characters of color. You may never want to leave. The Thing in Room 204 – C.W. Blackwell Karma Suture – Tawanna Sullivan The Last Day of Jerome Brown – Jordan King-Lacroix Roost – Kenya Moss-Dyme Salvation – Ross Baxter The Honeymoon Suite: Jacob’s Reunion – Sumiko Saulson A Long Way From the Ritz – Eden Royce Mister Mackintosh – David Turnbull Flesh Trap – Querus Abuttu A Devil of a Deal – David O’Hanlon Hollygraham – Sy Shanti The Adjusters – Dahlia DeWinters Need – Zin E. Rocklyn With an introduction to the stories by Mya Lairis.
What Do Monsters Fear
Peter Laughlin is an ageing rock star, his life has become an albatross around his whiskey-scoured neck, and he is miserable. Waking in his own filth, with nothing but numbness and misery to fill the spaces and pack the wounds with. He's just about to give up when he decides one last time, to try and get his act together. A small advertisement for Dawson's Rehabilitation. It seems remote and straightforward and likes it might just do the trick.
Upon arrival, he meets his fellow attendees, and they're a motley crew, indeed. After they are briefed on the rules and expectations, Peter and his new friend, Henry, begin to realise something is entirely wrong with this place. It seems like the clinic is the haunt of an ancient God. One that feeds on fear and misery and one that has heard the frantic ringing of the dinner bell.
Matt Hayward's debut novel is a feral dog, it barks loudly and bites with vicious tearing. It builds a cast of well-drawn characters and shows us how quickly things can swivel from bleak and tragic to downright terrifying. The tagline of "The Thing meets One Few Over The Cuckoo's Nest" is entirely on point. When the scares come, and they do come (I'm not sure I'll ever not be haunted by the image of Donald at the window!) they come with fists clenched and teeth bared. A stunning and wickedly fun debut.
What Do Monsters Fear? Is available from Post Mortem Press
Brain Dead Blues
This one came out about a month before What Do Monsters Fear? And is the first exposure to Matt Hayward's work I had. Before reading this, all I knew was that this soft-spoken fellow was a fellow music fan. He was a professional musician and a damn good one at that, and that I could listen to him speak for years. But on to the stories.
The opener is a dark hard rock romp called "God Is In The Radio" wherein an ageing rock god discovers a new power and uses it to channel some even older deities. In "Critter" a strange little girl finds an even stranger monster beneath her bed. "Cordyceps" brings a fungal invasion to a rural mountain community. "Meeting Gregory" is my favourite in the bunch, a tragic and melancholy coming-of-age reflection that is a bitter and salty thing. "The Price You Pay" finds a pawn shop owner in possession of a unique artefact that has a specific segment of the population dying for a glimpse.
"Hunger Pains" finds a big man with a hearty appetite struggling with the end of the world. "The Faerie Tree" offers an examination of the cost of wishes and the high price of faith. "No One Gets Out Alive" is another odd coming-of-age tale about a strange town with an even stranger secret and the pair of siblings, who with the help of others set about changing things for once.
I didn't touch on every story in this collection, but I did like them all. The writing is crisp and clear. The characters are all relatable and the monsters, oh man, the monsters. Hayward understands what fear is. And that a lot of times the monsters we see and fight are just skewed reflections of ourselves. But then sometimes, they are monsters.
Brain Dead Blues is available from Sinister Grin Press.
As a fan of Kelli Owen, I look forward to seeing her every summer and picking up her most recent offering, this year her latest book is entitled Forgotten. And trust me when I tell you that this book is anything but easily forgotten.
We open with Annalise Timmins is the name of the woman found battered and bleeding in the rest stop supply closet. She has no idea who she is or how she got there. She doesn't recall how she got there, her life up to that moment. Her memory isn't the only missing piece from her life.
With the "help" of local authorities, neighbours and friends, doctors and a man who swears to be her husband, Anna finds out that the scariest stranger is the one you can become in an instant. Forgotten is a novella that I can not say much about, the brilliance of the premise is one that relies on one going in with the least amount of information. It is a tragic and sad but also an angering exercise in bad behaviour and not-so-great ideas.
The writing is sharp, and you get a feel for these characters. Forgotten is a tense and uncomfortable read. But it is also a damn fine one.
Annalise Timmins is found battered and beaten in the bathroom of a quiet roadside rest area without her car, her identification, or her memory. To her horror, she quickly learns that more than her memory is missing. Doctors and loved ones alike try to fill in the blanks for her, but she finds it impossible to believe their stories. Wouldn’t she remember these people? Wouldn’t she remember her family? As she tries to piece together the life they claim she has, she suddenly finds herself questioning which is worse: to forget… or to remember?
By Jonathan Butcher
A hairy, scary, shaggy dog’s tale to leave you howling for more
It’s always refreshing when an author – particularly an indie author – takes a risk. J R Park’s werewolf novella Mad Dog is a rollicking read that is particularly enjoyable due to its daring storytelling style. It is told through a series of interview snippets delivered by an array of convicts, wardens, police officers and more, and the book’s dizzying range of voices gives the story its bullet-fast pace and snarling, ferocious energy.
The tale charts the gruesome events that lead to a full-scale, blood-splattered riot at Darkdale Prison.
Mad Dog Mooney is a giant man – thing? - from a nightmare, and poor convict Jimmy Eades is about to learn more about Mooney than he would ever wish. From the opening page that tells us that the interviews we are about to read were conducted as a way of understanding what led to a “second serious incident in as many months”, we know that we are on a downhill plummet towards something horrific.
I’m generally a slow reader, but I ripped through Mad Dog in two sittings, compelled to keep reading whenever I reached the end of a chapter. Being an author myself, I am always impressed when a writer embraces an unusual stylistic choice and makes it work. Park moves the plot forward through a series of what, on the surface, seem like disparate observations and anecdotes from numerous characters, yet pieces the story together like an intriguing jigsaw. I felt like a magician watching a fellow illusionist perform a trick in such an engaging way that it shut off the part of my brain hungry to understand his methods.
The final quarter is well worth the wait and is so filled with action, gore, twists and revelations that I’m almost tempted challenge you to put the book down throughout the climax.
I enjoyed enormously and read it so quickly that I could give it no lower that 5 stars – however, I was not without my minor quibbles. A couple of times in Mad Dog, the characters used phrasing that did not feel typically conversational, and it momentarily took me out of the story. There were also so many different characters that, once or twice, I was slightly confused as to who was speaking. However, these sections were few and far between, and would no doubt be refined if the author revisited another book using the same storytelling device.
Altogether, if you are looking for a fun, pacey, pulpy read to satisfy those full-moon cravings, Mad Dog will certainly scratch that itch. Just buy it, and devour it whole.
“You don’t need my expert opinion of the esoteric to know there was something very, very wrong with him.” - Father Matthews
Mad Dog Mooney was a ghost story. A legend that spooked even the most hardened of criminals. But when he came to Darkdale prison he proved all too real.
The inmates are shell shocked by his arrival and rumours persist of his strange behaviour, whilst accusations of cannibalism from the media are not forgotten.
As tensions grow amongst the prison population, a jail break is planned to take place under the ethereal glow of a full moon.
Mad Dog is an oral history, a compilation of testimonies from witnesses to the atrocity that befell Darkdale prison.
By Tony Jones
“The fightback to save Earth continues
Back in October of 2016 Ginger Nuts of Horror gave Gregg Hurwitz’s first foray into YA writing “The Rains” a five star review for its exhilarating mashup of science fiction, horror and the good old fashioned alien invasion of Earth tale. It might not have been anything new, but it was expertly told and I felt at the time a sure fire way of dragging bored teens away from their computers, social media and handheld devices. I don’t intend to regurgitate the whole review of book one, so the link is here should you want to read it:
“Second Chance” starts pretty much exactly where the first book ended, there is no time to breathe, regroup or hide. We are straight back into the heart of the story with the alien invaders strengthening their grip on the beleaguered remote country town the brothers Chance and Patrick Rain defend to the last supported by lots of other former classmates and local kids. Remember that anyone over the age of eighteen transforms into something no longer human and the days are ticking down for seventeen year old Patrick, the elder of the two brothers…
The previous review noted that not enough was resolved in “The Rains” and we certainly get all the answers and a proper conclusion in this novel. However, that aside it just does not have either the whack or the freshness of its predecessor. I get the feeling the author used up too many of the best ideas in the first book, and lacking the pace of its predecessor it is a much slower read. I think many teens will find it dull and struggle to finish it. There is a huge difference in the excitement levels and pace if you compare the novels and this unfortunately comes up second best in almost every category.
Do not try and read “Second Chance” as a standalone novel, it’s just not going to work as the pair are just so intrinsically linked. Much of the plot revolves around what makes the Chance brothers different and why are the aliens so interested in them? I didn’t think this alone was enough to keep the plot interest at the highest level, but it was nice to see support characters from the previous book appear at different stages.
You could even question why there were two books at all? A good editor could have heavily cut book two and added in what was needed for a bigger and arguably stronger one volume novel. But in today’s publishing the sequel sells, we all know that. As of yet neither of the books has picked up an official UK release, however, Tor Teen have a paperback available on Amazon UK about now. I would recommend that you make your own mind whether you want to persevere with “Second Chance” if you enjoyed “The Rains”.
This area is a very competitive market and teens can be very harsh critics, it takes thirty seconds for a fourteen year old to get bored and so this book is just way too talky to hold the attention of most. Having said that the Chance brothers are engaging characters, there are some good action sequences and the potential romances are handled very well. Also, there are a couple of key death scenes which the author delivers powerfully, the problem being many kids might have switched off before they get there. The book ends with a strong ending and proper conclusion, which I think it needed. I will be very interested to see if Hurwitz returns to YA and if he does, what he does differently next time around.
The Rain brothers fight for the survival of humanity in Last Chance, the thrilling sequel to New York Times bestselling author Gregg Hurwitz's YA debut, The Rains.
The New York Times bestselling author of Orphan X, Gregg Hurwitz, returns to Creek's Cause to follow the Rains brothers as they fight an alien threat that has transformed everyone over the age of 18 into ferocious, zombie-like beings, in this thrilling sequel to The Rains.
Battling an enemy not of this earth, Chance and Patrick become humanity's only hope for salvation.
"The Rains is one of those all-too-creepy-and-believable stories that leaves you looking in your backyard for the next strange weed to poke through the ground. Chilling!"--Ridley Pearson, New York Timesbestselling author
BY TONY JONES
“Horror is when there’s no hope left.”
Who says reviewers don’t buy books? After reading great recommendations from fellow enthusiasts it is sometimes hard not to dip the hand in the pocket… Richard Farren Barber’s “Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence” picked up terrific reviews in both Horror Novel Reviews, written by Paula Limbaugh, and in Anthony Watson’s always excellent Dark Musings horror blog, so I could not resist splashing out on the recently released Kindle version from Hersham Horror. Both Paula and Anthony were bang to rights with their five star assessments and so I am also delighted to give this clever read the big thumbs up also.
Upon starting this novella, for a horrible few pages, I thought I had stumbled yet another zombie offering. However, I soon sighed with relief when I realised that this near post-apocalypse tale featured a deadly virus which decimates out most of the population, but otherwise was zombie free. This was a very meditative read, which moved at a slow and thoughtful pace with little in the way of action or violence. Don’t let that put you off though, as it has a lot to say about the state of the world today and was a cut above most post-apocalyptic tales. The author’s end-notes reflect upon Brexit and the position of Britain as it isolates itself from the rest of Europe. You can mull over these realities when you read this novella, equally you can leave politics aside and judge it as a fine piece of fiction. Both are equally valid trains of thought.
Hannah leads a clean-up crew whose sole job is to gather up and destroy the infected bodies of the vast numbers of people who have died very suddenly in a modern day plague, as many as 2000 bodies are scattered on the outlying fields waiting to be cleared, moved, then burned in a huge pit. The action takes place in an isolated town which has fences keeping surviving infected getting inside their perimeters. Because the other town members are vary of infection they are equally suspicious of Hannah and her crew who live in a separate part of the compound. Much of the story effectively balances the dynamics of Hannah, her job, with her colleagues Andy, Patrick and others. They are a tightknit group who trust each other, but on the other hand don’t really know each other that well.
Dr Andrew Hickman or ‘The Esteemed Leader’ is the charismatic self-appointed top-dog of the group, using motorcycle hard-men known as ‘The Caretakers’ as his muscle to control his fiefdom. The bikers also scour surrounding areas for uncontaminated survivors, who they find sparingly. The story picks up pace when Hannah questions the motives of Hickman, and what he believes they have to do to survive. This is very powerful stuff, and some very fine writing shows us that that impressive character driven scenes can have greater impact that the crash, bag, wallop of action and violence. An example would be when one of her drunken colleagues forces his way into Hannah’s bedroom, it is understated, but totally crackles with realism and humanity.
The story is told from Hannah’s point of view, keeping her sexuality private from the rest of the group she dreads finding the body of her wife Sophie amongst the piles of dead. This recent apocalypse is described quite sparingly and the author says much with very few words allowing the reader to use their own imagination. Early signs of contagion begins with gum infection and eventually spreads to painful ridges on the spine, apart from that information is kept to a minimum. Much of it is a pretty grim, but powerful read, as Hannah increasing questions what they have to do to survive up until the brutal but realistic ending.
My only criticism is as much a query as much as anything else. At a certain point the plot reveals that the virus/apocalypse is only a few weeks old. Because of this I felt the town where the plot is entirely set was too well developed and structured. Just how did these guys get organised so quickly? Hannah and her crew often come across like they have been doing this clean-up job for years, rather than weeks. Where is the chaos of the apocalypse? Maybe I missed something, but that quibble aside this was a terrific pensive look at how normal people deal with death on a catastrophic scale and the lengths some will go to survive. But for others there are lines that they will not cross, issues which are explored brilliantly in this novella. Highly recommended.
After the apocalypse, only the dead are safe.
Once the plague has swept across the world, a small community fights for survival. Hannah leads a crew disposing of the bodies of those who succumbed to the disease. It’s a horrific job – each day spent handling the infected, decaying bodies.
She and the fledgeling community must fight to survive in this stuttering dark new Britain. Will they find a way to live together, or will human nature and the problems of the old world push them to extinction?
Sid is trying hard to make things work. His ex has left him to raise their young daughter. He works a grueling and thankless job with people he calls friends but are really just assholes who are little less shitty to him than others. He doesn't drink or do anything really but work and take care of his kid, oh and pine for the bartender chick he sort of dated once. Typical young man's dream, right?
Well, this all changes when the demons pay him a visit. They fill him in on his supreme destiny and it's a doozy. That's when Sid's life really swerves. When he discovers that the people he's surrounded himself with his entire life are not what they seem, in fact the whole world is nothing but a skewed reflection of what he's always perceived. With a stringent time limit and a lot heaped on his plate, Sid embarks on a fast-paced adventure to save the world, or at the very least his own skin and those of his loved ones before the seriously satanic shit hits the fan.
With a steady hand, Wes Southard holds a mirror up to our world so we can see that it's become nearly impossible to tell who the monsters are--the faces all looks the same, the masks are all blank. The Betrayed is a fiery cocktail that takes a shot of Matheson's I Am Legend and a finger or two of Kevin Smith's Dogma and sets the world on fire with the drop of a match. It's a pulp-fueled race against time that's is a lot of fun. Evil fun.
The Betrayed is available via Amazon or contacting the author.
How well do you know the people around you? Your neighbors? Your coworkers? Friends? Family? Sidney Jameson, a young single father just trying to make ends meet, is being followed. They keep to the shadows, quiet and cloaked in dirty brown robes...and they're getting closer. And what they have to tell Sidney is something terrible. Something he never knew about his past. Something he didn't want to know about his future. The war between Heaven and Hell is the world's oldest story. Lucifer turned his back on Heaven, and God eternally cast him and his faithful to the fiery depths of Hell. Everyone knows the take...or do we? There's only a few hours left before his twenty-fifth birthday, and with the aide of The Dark One Himself, Sidney will discover his place in the battle for humanity, and how only he can stop it once and for all. There's only one problem. The rest of the world is trying to stop him. "Chocked full of blood, brimstone, and genuine heart." - Mike Lombardo, writer and director of The Stall and I'm Dreaming of a White Doomsday
HORROR FICTION REVIEW: PHANTASM/CHIMERA: AN ANTHOLOGY OF STRANGE AND TROUBLING DREAMS EDITED BY SCOTT DWYER
In case you haven’t noticed, we’re currently living through something of a literary horror renaissance. You can’t throw a rock these days without hitting upon some exciting new voice in the genre: a Matthew M. Bartlett, a Livia Llewellyn, a Jon Padgett, etc. These are singular writers, each one exploring themes of the inhuman and irreal (and by extension the all-too-human and oh-so-real) with an eye more towards poetry, atmosphere, and subliminal suggestion than traditional narrative tropes.
Few people appreciate this as well as Scott Dwyer, who runs the weird fiction blog The Plutonian, where he reviews, interviews, and dissects the beating black heart of the genre. Now going one step further, Dwyer has edited and published Phantasm/Chimera: An Anthology of Strange and Troubling Dreams, a self-described “sampler of the cutting edge of weird horror.”
In his introduction, first-time publisher Dwyer reveals his personal philosophy of horror, or more specifically what he dubs “Nightmare Horror.” That is, he promotes a transgressive strain of bleak surrealism which seeks to reflect deeper truths about mundane reality while simultaneously distorting its boundaries in ways both beautiful and grotesque. As testament to this vision, Dwyer offers us 11 stories by authors who themselves manage to reflect that vision while also distorting in ways uniquely their own.
Quick to impress, the anthology opens with “The Wind, The Dust,” a 40-page novelette by Adam Golaski about a pair of fresh-faced college graduates getting an apartment together, only to find themselves plagued by freezing gusts of air, puzzling nightmares, and the gradual unraveling of their lives. On the surface, the tale presents itself as little more than simple, if sad, slice-of-life portrait of everyday mundanity. However, the fringes of the portrait darken and warp as time goes on, creating a sense of unease which builds to a heartbreaking Kafkaesque conclusion.
Matthew M. Bartlett ratchets up the distortion considerably in the story that follows. A grisly freakshow account of a five-year-old’s birthday’s party gone hideously wrong, “Provisions for a Journey” slithers beneath your skin with a nonstop parade of loathsome characters and bizarre imagery, including giant skittering black beetles, a repulsive piñata resembling no animal on Earth, and crooked men with cadaveric smiles.
A sinister grin likewise features in Christopher Slatsky’s “The Bruised Veil,” about an Asian-American college student doing her dissertation on the ghostly Slit-Mouthed Woman of Japanese folklore. Like “The Wind, The Dust,” “The Bruised Veil” flies by despite being one of the anthology’s longer entries. Structured around a pair of vibrantly voiced interview transcripts—one with an old man whose father may or may not have been the Black Dahlia killer, the other with a survivor of a WWII Japanese internment camp—it draws you inexorably into its damning examination of American race relations and systemic misogyny.
Thana Niveau’s “The Last of Liquid Sleep,” meanwhile, offers a more particular and personal perspective of gender oppression. A woman with no memory struggles to assert her own identity against the demands of disembodied male voice hiding in her mind, eating away at her like a psychic parasite. Niveau plays to a variety of emotions here, blurring the line between magic-realism and science-fiction.
Sci-fi trappings (as well as the fear of lost autonomy) also take center stage in “The Hole,” by Brian Evenson. This one drops an exploratory astronaut into a dark pit on an alien world, with only the rotting (and talking!) corpse of a fellow crew member for company. Making use of a less ambiguous, more straightforward approach to storytelling, “The Hole” stands out by providing you a refreshing chance to regain your bearings before plunging back into the murky shadows.
Nowhere are the shadows blacker than in Livia Llewelyn’s “The Hotel Pelagornis, 1899,” a noteworthy highlight even in an anthology full of highlights. A haunting and erotic account of adulterous lovers absconding to a mysterious hotel at the turn of the century, this story unexpectedly mutates along with its characters, shapeshifting into a writhing mass of carnal horror that beautifully captures the shuddering death of one age and the fleshy, glistening birth of a new one.
“Binding,” by Mike Allen, hearkens back to the straightforward style of Evenson’s “The Hole,” but revisits Llewelyn’s themes of secrets, sex, and the passage of time. Here, a group of tabletop gamers listen in rapt attention to a tall tale (or is it?) told by their dungeonmaster, about a horndog swinger who finds an end to his seemingly insatiable lust in the pages of an ancient book. Despite the story-within-a-story presentation (wherein both the storyteller and his audience are lured deeper into the narrative, both figuratively and literally), “Binding” is unusual in just how not unusual it is; its no-frills ghoulish fun is a welcome break from the angst and obscurity that otherwise pervades the anthology.
Of course, Jon Padgett is more than willing to bring the gloom ‘n’ doom with “The Great, Gray Bulk,” though he laces it with enough sly humor that you feel like you’re in on the joke, even when you wish you weren’t. Written as an extended monologue from a motor-mouthed patient rambling to his curiously mum therapist, “The Great, Gray Bulk” reimagines the Hindu myth of Ganesha as a vehicle for the existential terror of human consciousness. While often compared to the work of Thomas Ligotti (and for good reason) Padgett’s fiction is truly a unique animal all its own, as evidenced here.
So too is that of Jean Claude Smith, whose story, “Chrysalis,” introduces us to a once promising poet-cum-alcoholic housewife stuck in a loveless marriage. When a bird flies into her kitchen, speaking words in a language she can’t make sense of, she struggles to decode them. But then more strange messengers come bearing even stranger messages. A perverse tale of transformative self-actualization, “Chrysalis” starts out depressing but ends on an oddly uplifting note.
Clint Smith’s “Fiending Apophenia” proves much more pessimistic. A John Dies at the End-esque story of mind-bending drug use resulting in soul-harrowing glimpses beyond the veil of reality, like Bartlett’s “Provisions for a Journey,” this one is positively overflowing with provocative dream-imagery. All the better to make you feel like you too are getting a quick peek at forbidden truths.
Finally, Jason A. Wyckoff’s “The Last American Lion Pelt” brings Phantasm/Chimera to a close with a macabre mockery of shallow corporate opportunism. A lawyer seeking induction into an elite secret society begins to wonder if he’s at the center of some elaborate practical joke. There’s nothing practical about this gag, though. Nothing funny, either. Almost as long as Golaski’s opening novelette, “The Last American Lion Pelt” finishes things on a similarly oblique and impressive note.
Despite a few too many glaring typos throughout, indicating a need for at least one more copyediting pass, Phantasm/Chimera proves Scott Dwyer is a more than capable anthologist. Making good on its mission statement to assemble some of the very best names in literary horror today, and to depict a vision of the genre that is simultaneously surreal, thoughtful, and deeply unsettling, Phantasm/Chimera is an essential read for anyone interested in the current state of weird fiction.
Phantasm/Chimera is an all original collection of cutting edge Weird Horror. In these pages, you will find an all-star line-up of some of the most innovative and exciting writers working today. Phantasm/Chimera has one goal: To disturb its reader with the most dark and surreal visions ever put to paper. From tales of strange imposters from other worlds to tales of ordinary people hideously alienated from themselves, from tales of black abysses hiding behind human masks to tales of weird and erotic obsessions. Phantasm/Chimera features tales from Adam Golaski, Matthew M. Bartlett, Christopher Slatsky, Thana Niveau, Brian Evenson, Livia Llewellyn, Mike Allen, Jon Padgett, John Claude Smith, Clint Smith, and Jason A. Wyckoff.
I don't like disclaimers on reviews, I never have and never will, however for this review I feel I have to come clean. I have never been that big a fan of Stephen King; I fully appreciate his immense talent and the role he has played in putting horror on the map, he is a writer who never spoke to me as a person, I couldn't connect with his writing. So with that dirty little secret out in the open what did I make of Sleeping Beauties?
Welcome to Dooling a small Appalachian town, home to the Dooling Correctional Institute for women, whose inmates range from those who have just strayed from the path of law-abiding to those who have committed multiple murders and in some cases things even worse than murder. When a strange and baffling disease starts to spread across the world, whose symptoms are as terrifying as they are strange. Where any woman who falls asleep becomes cocooned in a strange weblike gossamer material, that puts them into a state of semi-hibernation, where they sleep seemingly at peace with the world, but be careful any attempt to wake them from their sleep will result in them turning into a nearly unstoppable crazed animalistic killer.
As the world succumbs to this strange plague Dooling and its correctional institute become the epicentre of the battle between good and evil, where the remaining women will try anything to stay awake, where men revert to their seemingly fundamental bullish ways. A few good men and women barricade themselves in the institute to protect the mysterious Evie Black, a woman who can wake after sleep normally, a murderess, and a seer, a woman who seems to know where the sleeping women have gone and who appears to know what is destined to happen.
Make no mistake about it Sleeping Beauties a massive doorstop of a novel coming in at over 700 pages it is a daunting read for someone who hasn't read a lot of King. However, don't let that put you off. Yes, the first couple of hundred pages are scene setters where the Kings take their time to introduce every cast member of the book, from the main dramatis personae, right down to a talking fox, I kid you not. In novels, this could be classed as padding, but thanks to the immense skill of the Kings, and the natural and absorbing way in which these scene-setting chapters are laid out, you quickly find yourself fully immersed in the World of Dooling and the battle of Aurora plague.
Sleeping Beauties is a timely novel, in a world that seems determined to destroy itself from the actions of men cursed with a sense of toxic masculinity. Where every passing day sees mankind wondering what it means to be "a real man" the Kings place all of this under a finely focused microscope to provide an insightful and at times damning study of what many think makes a real man.
Would the world be damned without the calming force of women kind or would it just continue to carry one as though nothing had happened? Depressingly it would seem that based on this thoughtful mirror on our world as it is, it would seem as though we would be determined to see it all burn.
The King's portrayal of society almost devoid of female interaction is intelligent, and thoughtful if at times a little heavy handed. At times it feels as though they are slightly labouring the point, but thanks to a wide cast of characters, where only a small percentage of them can be classed as either inherently good or evil, King uses dark grey areas of humanity to explore the main themes of the book. We have the erstwhile female Sherrif Lila and the Institutes' psychiatrist fighting the good fight as the only two characters who stand completely in the light. Both of them are interesting in their own way. Lila is the stereotypical mother figure, protective of her son and husband, who just happens to be the Institutes' psychiatrist, and just as protective of her hometown, strong loyal and determined not to let chaos win. She is an interesting character, similar in many ways to the cliched square-jawed hero that seemed to litter every horror novel of the 1980s; it was rather refreshing to see this cliche turned on its head and seen from a woman's perspective.
Her husband Clint Norcross is even more interesting, imagine a turtle necked sweater wearing therapist, whose hands are in constant state contemplative finger touching. A man who feels he is better suited to solving the crisis because, you know, he is a man with a degree in solving mental problems. The King's just manage to keep him on the right side of condescending, mainly because as a character he is genuinely concerned about those under his charge.
However, the real meat on the bones is provided by those characters that straddle the line between good and evil, and this exemplified by the town dog catcher, Frank Geary. A brutish, mean man, who more often than nought resorts to using his size and fists to solve a problem. For example, when a neighbours cat is run over by a careless driver he takes the matter into his own hands for fear of his daughter being ruin over, by taking a course of action that would see him lose his job. He is a man whose actions has to lead to the breakdown of his marriage. There is a section near the start of the book where he talks about an incident that happened before his marriage broke down, where he talks about "bad Frank". It's a wonderfully written piece, genuinely chilling, yet very inconsequential, and it will have you wondering if he is related to Jack Torrence. Frank's journey from lowly dog catcher to... well you will just have to read the book, is the most enjoyable part of this excellent book. The King's shine when dealing with this character arc, a man determined to do the right thing no matter what the collateral damage will be.
Strangely, Evie, despite being the focal point for both sides of the battle, is probably the least developed character in the book. This may very well be deliberate, with the King's using her more as a cypher/metaphor for the female struggle in a world dominated by toxic males. She is still a kick-ass character though, more like a smart-talking force of nature.
Sleeping Beauties is a powerful allegorical tale, and despite becoming a little bogged down in the final few acts of the novel, with its desire to get its message across. With a wonderfully ambigious ending that may well set us up for a sequel. It is still a striking read, with a deft narrative, fantastic insights on the everyday life of small-town America, while still managing to take a thoughtful look at the failings of a modern world obsessed with pointless and pathetic displays of power.
After reading this novel, I was left wondering as to whether I enjoyed it so much because it might not be a typical King novel, and the input from Owen may have tempered those parts of Stephen's writing that I could never take to. Or if I have just matured as the reader, hell it has been close to twenty-five years since I last attempted a full-on King novel. I would like to think it is a bit of both, either way; I'm going to head to the nearest bookshop and pick up a few choice King novels to test out the theory.
In this spectacular father/son collaboration, Stephen King and Owen King tell the highest of high-stakes stories: what might happen if women disappeared from the world of men?
All around the world, something is happening to women when they fall asleep; they become shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. If awakened, if the gauze wrapping their bodies is disturbed, the women become feral and spectacularly violent...
In the small town of Dooling, West Virginia, the virus is spreading through a women's prison, affecting all the inmates except one. Soon, word spreads about the mysterious Evie, who seems able to sleep - and wake. Is she a medical anomaly or a demon to be slain?
The abandoned men, left to their increasingly primal devices, are fighting each other, while Dooling's Sheriff, Lila Norcross, is just fighting to stay awake.
And the sleeping women are about to open their eyes to a new world altogether...
The first hardback print run of SLEEPING BEAUTIES will have FOUR secret hidden-on-the-board covers featuring enchanting foiled illustrations. The one you receive will be random, but all are jaw-droppingly beautiful.