The Wilderness Within is a dark fever dream of a book. This is in no way meant as a detraction. Smith created a world where the darkness of Man and the darkness of Nature stand shoulder to shoulder, one no greater in monstrosity than the other, and create a Weird (capitalization intentional) symbiosis that fleshes out a story of immense depth and imagination.
The Wilderness Within is a story of Derek Grey, a fiction writer of some success, and his trip to visit his friend Frank, longtime companion and fellow writer, in his secluded forest retreat. When Derek sees his friend he notices a oddness, a distance of being that Frank does little to explain. Frank takes Derek on a hike to the forest nearby, and from there the story slowly evolves into a hallucinatory, surreal nightmare trip of self-delusion and self-discovery culminating in an ending that…well, that would be telling.
Smith does an amazing job of showing us the inner workings of Derek. Derek is one of the most introspective characters I’ve ever read in a Weird fiction piece of any length, sharing with us the depths of insight and questioning in the face of the experiences he endures through the length of the book with clarity that never gets dry or boring. His other characters are multifaceted as well, often with very grim and surprising results. This is definitely Weird fiction you’re going to have to pay attention to, and I doubt you’ll mind.
This about an hour’s read that will mess up your day.
The Visible Filth is a novelette centered around Will, a bartender at a New Orleans dive bar. After a minor brawl at the bar, Will finds a cell phone that someone dropped. That phone become the center point of growing nightmare.
The first thing I must give Ballingrud props on is his masterful ability to build tension. I’m sitting and reading this story of bizarre love triangles and dysfunctional relationships with unqualified, dark discomfort occurring in small bursts when about three quarters of the way through the story I realized I was well and truly freaked out. It sneaks up on you and will not let you go. When I got to the ending there were long WTF moments before I closed the book. This is my current “That Just Happened” story of the year. I cannot recommend it enough.
I was introduced to Miskowski’s work at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival and Cthulhucon last year in Portland, Oregon. I picked up a copy of her short story “Stag in Flight” and am glad it didn’t get consigned to the Eternal To Read Pile (The pile. We shall not speak of the pile.) I was immediately drawn to her style and afterwards looked forward to reading more, now fulfilled with Strange is the Night.
Strange is the Night collects thirteen of Miskowski’s short stories, including the aforementioned “Stag in Flight”. The stories are definitely in the category of the Weird. While there are some moments of surrealism involved from time to time, the draw of the stories that is most consistent throughout them is what I can only express as the bizarre hidden within the ordinary. Miskowski has a beautiful gift of expressing two worlds at once; the normal, sometimes banal world and the inner, utterly strange world the former is filtered through. A good example of this is “Fur”, a story that almost meandered until the final paragraph when the crux of the story was revealed and it became a completely different story with disturbing focus.
Miskowski’s marriage of the two worlds left me wondering many times if a particular story was supernatural or not in nature. I still haven’t come to a decision on that, and am not sure if it even matters. The stories achieve their sorts of closures, and none of them are comfortable. I’ve found myself ruminating on “what really happened” in different stories many times since finishing the book, and that’s when I knew it had me. Miskowski is definitely a strong voice in Weird literature, and you would not be doing yourself a disservice in reading Strange is the Night.
Strange is the Night will be published through Journalstone on Oct. 13, 2017.
I first read Grau’s work in his collection The Nameless Dark. It contained a story entitled “Free Fireworks” which became one of my all-time favorite short stories, not just within any particular genre. I was excited to learn he had done a novella, and it does not disappoint.
The fair warning I should give you is that if you like the weird in your weird fiction to kick in quickly, you’re going to want to get past that before you read this novella. The story revolves around Hettie, a teenage girl who is awkward in every way you can conceive of. One day she meets Avery, the classic popular girl in school, and a brief but impactful encounter between them starts Hettie on a twisted path of obsession with Avery. Avery becomes everything that Hettie wants and needs to be. When Avery is struck down with a terminal disease, forcing her to be hospitalized, Hettie doubles down upon her obsession and starts exploring dark options to saving her truest friend.
And then it gets weird.
They Don’t Come Home Anymore is a story that creates its impetus through deep dives into the confusion of being a teenager, the desperation of acceptance amongst people who seem to be there just to make you miserable, and the yearning for connection. That impetus then leads to dark things that can be the truth behind mythologies, and the capability of obsession to overcome the terror of facing that is a horror unto itself. As I said the really weird part doesn’t kick in until the end, but everything leading into that should not be mistaken for being comfortable because it’s more common. Get this in your eyeballs.
They Don't Come Home Anymore can be purchased through Amazon.
Black Pantheons: Collected Tales of Gnostic Dread is the first of Lawson’s work that I’ve had the opportunity to read, and this collection shows a fantastic range of voice and original creativity. Despite the title, the eleven stories in this collection do not directly tie into Gnosticism. Rather, there is a reoccurring theme of primordial darkness that threads through a majority of the stories. There are hints of a larger cosmology at play but nothing is really fleshed out on that level, either intentionally or not I’m not sure of.
Personal favorites include:
“Demons of Manzanar”: An interesting insight into the subtlety of evil.
“Pinocchio & the Black Pantheon”: A highly entertaining, dark, original take on the classic story. Strong tip of the hat to Lovecraft, but clearly owned by Lawson’s personal voice.
“The Carousel Horse”: One of my high favorites simply because of how different it is from the other stories. A definite thematic curveball, so do not go to this story immediately. Read it after a few of the others.
"Labyrinth of Winter’s End- A Devoured Story": A brutal tale of darkness from many different streams. It’s rather hard to decide who you’re rooting for by the end of this story, it goes that grim.
"Paramnesia": A great combination of personal horror and supernatural horror. Lawson does some excellent character building in this one, a trait that really adds to some heartbreaking moments in the story.
All in all, Black Pantheons: Collected Tales of Gnostic Dread shows an excellent spectrum of talent and vision from a great, new writer to watch. Definitely give it a look.
Black Pantheons: Collected Tales of Gnostic Dread can be purchased at Amazon.
Lawson's official website
I’d seen Alectryomancer and Other Weird Tales mentioned multiple times in a short period of time on social media by people whose opinion I respect a lot, so I felt pretty confident I was going to have a good time of it and was not disappointed. Slatsky’s collection of thirteen stories traverse a wide spectrum, each one sewn into its own world on a precipice which may tip a single person or everything over the edge.
His voice in each story is consistently unique, guiding the reader through surreal and disturbing horror that does not allow the reader to take a passive role in the story being told. There is very little closure in these stories in the traditional sense. You will be taken to the point where words can give you a notion of where the bizarre course of events in a particular story, then leaves you there to fend for yourself. There is a lot of beauty there, and absolutely none of it is what you would call pretty.
I would not be putting my neck out to say that Slatsky is one of the strongest, new voices in the Weird, and eagerly look forward to more from him.
Alectryomancer and Other Weird Tales is available through Amazon.
The Secret of Ventriloquism is best described as “disquieting”. With some of the collection, such as the first story “The Mindfulness of Horror Practice”, there is a direct nihilistic assault barely disguised as a meditation. In other stories, such as “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism” and “The Secret of Ventriloquism”, the shredding of perceived realities are still there, but much deeper and require some coaxing out in order for the horror to start taking hold. The majority of the stories revolve around the art and science of the Ventriloquists, not really creating what we would call a new mythos but more of a dreadful existential cosmology. There are no gods here per se, simply because the value of worship, both on the part of the would-be worshipper and the would-be worshipped, is zero. Certain characters and creatures make appearances through various stories, creating a world of some cohesion throughout, but those associations are the only things that add the comfort of familiarity between the stories. Padgett is a student of Ligotti, and the best kind of student in that he took what his teacher had to provide and created something completely different and wonderful with it.
I love this book a great deal.
The Secret of Ventriloquism can be purchased through Amazon.
This collection is the first exposure I’ve had to Gwendolyn Kiste’s work, and if I can’t find her earlier works I will definitely be searching for her future work as it comes out. And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe is comprised of fourteen stories that show a familiar world with deep currents of bizarre beauty, pain, and sheer anomaly running through it that create a tapestry of weird horror unlike anything I’ve read before. I’m not going to give examples simply because it’s unique with every story and does nothing to try to create comparison where there is none. Suffice it to say Kiste has a wonderful gift of taking elements of life that we may take for granted or may think don’t affect us at all, then show a gem within it which can evoke wonder or sorrow or terrifying empathy, all of them at the same time not being out of the question.
And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe has many stories that literally are a hard mile's walk in someone else’s shoes, and a large part of the surreal beauty and tragedy that weave throughout these tales is wondering how they do it. Kiste is a beautiful and disturbing new voice in literary horror, and any who enjoys reading it or who is just looking for an exciting new avenue of the of the Weird is doing themselves a grave disservice if they do not pick it up.
And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe can be purchased through Journalstone or Amazon.
This book won the 2015 Shirley Jackson award, which was all I needed to pick the book up. I did a very slow read of it, as in over the span of a couple months, and by the time I had gotten to the end I was admonishing myself for dragging so long. In short, this is an amazing book.
Experimental Film is the story of Lois Cairns, a Canadian film history expert who is at a bleak chapter of her life. Currently unemployed, questioning her capability and her character as she tries to raise her autistic son, she learns of a woman who could quite possibly be Ontario’s first woman filmmaker who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Seeing the potential for an excellent documentary as well as a means towards getting her career back on track, Lois starts finding clues as to the life and disappearance of Mrs. Whitcomb, clues that lead to bizarre occurrences that start encroaching upon her life and the lives of her family, building to a crescendo of old world horror that threatens to drag life as we know it back to a cruel, cruel place.
Experimental Film unfolds at a steady pace worthy of the mystery in hides. Files creates a steady pressure on the atmospheric dread that carries through the book, interweaving it with a fantastic view into the lives of a cast of characters who are fleshed-out and real. Much of Lois’ inner thoughts that are shared revolve around her high standards she holds herself to in various roles in her life, and her challenges in upholding them. Files goes in deep, creating an honest main character of depth and complexity. Experimental Film is an excellent combination of deep horror and masterful character building that creates a reading experience of rare proportions.
Experimental Film can be bought here.
I’ve had the opportunity to read many of Morgan’s stories over the past few years in the various anthologies she’s been published in, so I was excited to see that there was a collection of her works by themselves coming out. The anticipation was even more so when I learned it was going to be a collection of her stories based on Norse myth and culture.
Morgan has a fantastic track record of crafting stories taking place in old Scandinavia that expand the boundaries while still staying true to the spirit of the Norse. Throughout the stories in The Raven’s Table, Morgan creates tales of myth including creatures of Norse origination (“The Barrow-Maid”, “The Vulgarity of Giants”) alongside vampires (“Sven Bloodhair”), an interesting take on “The Little Mermaid” (“Njord’s Daughter”), and even strong tips of the hat to H.P. Lovecraft (“With Honey Dripping”, “Aerkheim’s Horror”). The Raven’s Table also includes many strong stories not necessarily horror-based in nature, such as “Thyf’s Tale”, “The Seven Ravens”, and “Brynja’s Beacon”.
The Raven’s Table not only illustrates Morgan’s wide knowledge of Norse myth, but also the talent to share that knowledge with the reader without having to rely on vast exposition to provide cultural back story. Also, Morgan writes stories within the story (as in “The Vulgarity of Giants” and “To Fetter the Fenris-Wolf”, to name a couple.) that are reminiscent of the Eddas, further engaging the reader into the mythic world she’s sharing. The Raven’s Table is definitely an excellent read for anyone who enjoys stories of the Norse, those who enjoy a new bend on old stories, and anyone in between.
The Raven's Table can be purchased through Word Horde and Amazon
Kiernan’s recent Agents of Dreamland novella is a lean but impactful recaad. It mixes the best parts of the X-Files, Clive Barker’s Lord of Illusions, and Lovecraftian horror with a touch of noir into a disturbing tale of What Is To Come. The story centers around a government agent known as The Signalman who takes part in a case to take down a Manson-variety doomsday cult leader. When he and his team get to the cult’s compound, what they find is vastly more than a New Age collective gone wrong. The Signalman’s discovery heralds the potential end of life as we pleasantly know it, and sets him on a course filled with dread both immediate and impending, help and hindrance from the darker corners of the earth, and the blessing of never knowing how really, really bad it actually is at the moment.
This is a very non-linear story, so be prepared for some jumping around chronologically. However, this quality puts the emphasis on the relevance at the time that the reader is experiencing the particular scene, as opposed to relevance through linear progression. You find out what needs to be known when it is impactful to the story, rather than when it happened in the story’s linear timeline. While it may cause some confusion, some patience with the storyline and the cumulative tension that builds throughout the reading is well rewarded. I finished Agents of Dreamland hoping that Kiernan would write more stories of any length in this world she’s created, assuming…but that would be telling too much.
Agents of Dreamland is available here.
Griffin’s Hieroglyphs of Blood & Bone is a bizarre trip through the life of Guy, a recent divorcee who is in a personal freefall. His feelings towards his ex-wife are still a source of pendulum-swinging confusion, he hates his job, and his sole companionship is Karl, his younger bro-dude roommate and co-worker who is constantly trying to get him back in the metaphorical saddle. Guy has enough trouble with all of this to find a star to chart a new course by, then he meets Lily. Lily brings literal mystery back into his life, a mystery that seeps into every other vector point of it, sending Guy on a journey that brings every element of his life into question.
This is not an easy read. I don’t say that in terms of extreme horror, graphic violence, or vastly disturbing visuals. From almost the beginning of the book, Guy has experiences that cumulate in the reader wondering if they really happened at all. This is fair, because more than once Guy wonders as well. The depth to which this doubtfulness builds within the story and the varying levels to which it is resolved creates a tense apprehension in the ongoing process of Guy finding out what is actually real in his life. Griffin does a magnificent job of a crafting a story where the reader has little choice but to join in the unsureness (He almost does away with an ongoing sense of time altogether.) as the story goes to its inexorable end. Even at the end there is much unanswered, but it cannot be said that the questions asked are not beautiful, extraordinary, and weird. Not a book for people who absolutely need to have closure in their stories, but for anyone else who appreciates tales of the Modern Weird, you shouldn’t miss out on this.
Hieroglyphs of Blood & Bone is available through Amazon and Journalstone.
I first heard of Paul Tremblay when his novel A Head Full of Ghosts was nominated for the Horror Writers Association’s Bram Stoker Award. I immediately took a liking to his style and pacing. With his latest offering, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, I saw a lot of what I really enjoyed about the former book used in different ways.
Disappearance at Devil’s Rock has a relatively simple yet horrible plot; the disappearance of a teenage boy and that event's toll on his family and friends. We live in a day and age where such events in real life are too commonplace, my phone wouldn’t blow up with Amber alert notifications if they weren't. We only get the the benchmarks that the media can provide for us, when the child is missing and then (hopefully) the resolution. Tremblay takes the reader through the long, excruciating path of frustration, fear, and uncertainty that the family and friends go through, leading deeper and deeper into an intricate tension that doesn’t even take into account the supernatural elements. This is where I really started loving the book a lot.
Disappearance at Devil’s Rock bears a similarity of story mechanics to A Head Full of Ghosts in that both leave the reader to wonder if there is actually a supernatural element to the story at all. Horrible things happen in both stories, but what actually is the reader shown (Tremblay is a master of “Show, don’t tell” by the way.) that leads you to believe that the horror is supernatural in essence rather than mundane? The answer to this is not certain, simply because Tremblay knows how to sell the uncertainty. It weaves itself throughout the evolution of the story to where you could attempt to take the most cynical route to an answer with plenty to form a strong foundation of evidence on, but the weirdness of particular moments and how they work themselves into the mundane are so bonded into the story that you cannot just explain it away without a challenge. Even at the ending you do not know for sure, and that is worth the price of admission right there.
Disappearance at Devil’s Rock is available for purchase here.
It is my personal opinion that Stranded gets lobbed into the Horror category simply because there isn’t a Twilight Zone genre. The story centers on Noah, a young widower and a bit of a screwup on the Arctic Promise, a fishing ship captained by his ex-father-in-law.
To understate the obvious, a lot of problems arise out of that point alone.
The Arctic Promise then gets ice-locked after a horrible storm in unknown territory, shortly after which a mysteriously illness starts affecting the crew, forcing a small group of them to trudge through the potentially lethal terrain and weather to get to a pseudo-nearby station in order to get assistance. In order to avoid spoilers, I will end this brief synopsis with AND THEN IT GETS REALLY, REALLY WEIRD.
The beauty of this book is that while the weirdness of the story plays a pivotal and necessary part, the real edge comes from the people, what they do, and how they change. You know how zombie books are now rarely about the zombies and more about how the people change or grow out of dealing with the zombies? Imagine that instead of zombies you have the Arctic, animosity, regret, and desperation trying to eat your face. Then add REALLY, REALLY WEIRD to it as well and you’ve got Stranded. Bracken needs to be commended for having the talent for writing a really tight story. I picked Stranded up as an audiobook. Normally, there’s some rewinding that occurs with me when listening due to something being missed or glanced over. That didn’t occur once with this one. The story stays on a clear course for the duration, and there is practically no fat to be cut off of it. You you like your tales lean and weird, you need this book.
Stranded can be bought here.
I picked this anthology up at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival last year. I’ve come to take it on faith that if Ross has a booth set up any given year at the festival, my bank account is going to be sad. Word Horde is a consistently amazing small press, and have put out many of my favorite anthologies and novels of the past few years (Review of John Langan’s The Fisherman coming soon because holy shit.). Cthulhu Fhtagn! is no different.
Cthulhu Fhtagn! Continues the tradition that Word Horde’s The Book of Cthulhu vols. 1 & 2 started. Cosmic terror in literature has gone through a long evolution through the tales of the likes of Lovecraft, Machen, Dunsany, and Blackwood, currently cumulating in Weird Fiction as we have it today. Cthulhu Fhtagn! presents nineteen stories from some of today’s most talented purveyors of the weird, taking inspiration from their whackjob literary forebears and providing a contemporary vision of the disturbing. My personal favorites include:
"Delirium Sings in the Maelstrom" by Mike Griffin- "The Music of Erich Zann" is one of my favorite Lovecraft stories, and Griffin’s contribution is a fantastic, off-kilter homage to the story.
"The Insectivore" by Orrin Grey- A bizarre approach to affecting time-lines that will make you dislike cockroaches even more.
"On a Kansas Plain" by Michael J. Martinez- In case you weren’t aware, cultists are worse than tax collectors.
"The Prince of Lyghes" by Anya Martin- This was hands down my favorite story in the anthology. There are multiple levels of horror driving through this story, some made too impactful by being too real.
"Aerkheim’s Horror" by Christine Morgan- Viking cosmic horror! There are some great Easter eggs in the story if you look carefully.
"The Long Dark" by Wendy N. Wagner- Wagner’s contribution is a great post-apocalyptic/sci-fi/horror piece that has a great world-building for the brevity of the story. I would love to see more stories written in the world she created for it.
"The Green Revolution" by Cody Goodfellow- A strong eco-horror story, leaving it up for debate as to what the actual source of the horror is.
These are but a few of the stories in an anthology that is made up pretty much completely of standouts. It’s not a particularly quick read due to the number of stories, so you’ll have a lot to enjoy for a long time.
Cthulhu Fhtagn! can be purchased at Word Horde or Amazon.
I was excited when I heard that Gaiman was doing a book involving Norse myth. Going full force with the assumptions, I thought it would be an extension of his work along the likes of American Gods and Anansi Boys. I was mildly disappointed when Audible finally dropped the audiobook and I begin listening, but got over that quickly. There was none of Gaiman’s signature fantastical imagination behind the stories, but his wit and love for telling a good story permeated each tale in the book, and that was more than good enough.
If you’ve never read them before, the Norse myths reflect gods and goddesses very close to the humanity that worships them. They love, hate, laugh, grow old (if they’re not careful) and sometimes die (if they’re really not careful) just like us. They are capable of great sacrifice and equal pettiness. The Prose Eddas, the go-to collection of Norse myths compiled in the 13th century by the scholar and historian Snorri Sturluson, tells the story of the Norse dieties, from their carving of the worlds out of the great void Ginnungagap through to the apocalyptic end/beginning of rebirth at Ragnarok. This is the material that Gaiman weaves his renditions out of. The Norse myths, while a fascinating read for lovers of mythology and cultural anthropology, can run a bit dry. Scandinavian pragmatism being what it is, the Eddas focus more on what the Norse dieties do than what they say and how they say it. Gaiman breathes life and character into the gods and goddesses of the Norse, giving them depth and character not immediately gleaned out of their myths. Odin shows his wisdom, Freyja shows her strength of character having to deal with the oft-times yutzes she’s surrounded by, Loki shows his cleverness (Loki is a bit of a murder hobo at the end of the day, but he does it with such style.). Tyr’s sacrifice of his hand in order to bind the great wolf Fenris is written with such tension and dignity that the moment comes to life. Gaiman’s conversations between the dieties and other beings in the myths are filled with wit as well, a great departure from the myths.
Again, these stories are the completely true to the myths that they come from, with none of the modern fantasy elements that Gaiman is known for. This should not deter you from the book. By his own admission in the prologue the Norse myths are one of the sources of inspiration for what he writes today, and the care and attention he gives to the stories in Norse Mythology are as good a tribute to that love that anyone could ask for.
Norse Mythology can be purchased here.
Having only read Silvia's short story work and consistently enjoying it, I was interested to what she did with a novel format. I was not disappointed. Certain Dark things is a modern day, slightly altered reality vampire story taking place in Mexico City. The story focuses around Domingo, a young but resourceful street dweller and Atl, a relatively young vampire with family issues like crazy. Atl is on the run from family rivals, forcing her to hide in Mexico City where she must deal with compounded dangers on all fronts. Rodrigo meets her by chance and gets swept along into Atl's peril, for better or worse.
I've been hesitant to read vampire fiction of any stripe of late simply because the bulk of it falls squarely somewhere on the Twilight spectrum, where all character development is just a precursor to some human/undead bumping of uglies. Certain Dark Things avoids that. Sure, there are some romantic elements to the story, but they only go so far as to define the relationship between the characters involved, not becoming the all-consuming purpose for the characters involved to exist in the first place. All of the named players in Certain Dark Things have great depth of character, with no one being a throw-away. Silvia's world-building is excellent as well, creating a believable environment where the existence of vampires is acknowledged and how that effects the culture and everyday life. The work done into describing the various vampire types is complex without ever becoming unwieldy. The inclusion of Aztec mythology into the fabric of the story is beautiful as well, and should not be overlooked. I definitely recommend it.
Certain Dark Things can be purchased here.