Horror is the literature of anxiety, which might explain its resurgence over the past two decades. These are anxious times. The old ideological differences that in years past lay muffled beneath layers of common courtesy and other social graces now scream at family gatherings, on social media, and during dinner parties. In horror parlance, something is bursting forth, and the epicenter of the disaster is the home, the intimate gathering. Ari Aster’s films Hereditary and Midsommar or Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us reached large audiences by peeling back those layers of strained politeness and showing us the monsters that lurk behind familiar faces and places. Recent literary fiction, such as Simon Jacobs’s Palaces and Jayaprakash Satyamurthy’s Strength of Water, tactfully deploy horror tropes in service to narratives of political dissolution, expanding the scope of the genre beyond the merely personal. Our moment of social fissure demands such new artistic expressions. In short, we all have that sinking feeling, and horror writers have risen to the occasion. Perhaps this is why Joshua Reynolds’s new collection, Casefiles of the Royal Occultist: Volume 1, Monmouth’s Giants, feels a little quaint.
Casefiles is foremost an account of one character, the titular royal occultist Charles St. Cyprian, in thirteen stories that span a variety of places and times. There are a great many monsters, dispatched neatly, and a number of secondary characters that come and go like the guest stars of a television series. Reynolds is at his best when he abandons his attempts at stylistic mimicry, notably of Wodehouse and Lovecraft, and inhabits his own voice and vision. While I enjoyed the book for the brief diversion it afforded, it did little to change my mind about the basic conceptual problem I see with the occult detective genre.
In the opening story, “Monmouth’s Giants”, we meet St. Cyprian as a young playboy called Sippy. He shares the spotlight with Thomas Carnacki, from whom he will eventually inherit the title of Royal Occultist. Their relationship isn’t quite established here, except to hint at the mentorship to come. The monsters they drive back into the shadows are Gog and Magog, variously described as “formless, voiceless, but massive”, “a vast, indistinct shape”, a couple of “hand-shapes”, and a shape with hell-lanterns for eyes. I don’t mean to isolate these descriptors in order to criticize Reynolds, because the ambiguous, the amorphous, and the obscure can indeed be terrifying. But most of us, whether consciously or subconsciously, find ambiguity horrifying not when it appears in the descriptions of things but rather when it arises in their intentions. This is the trick Edgar Allan Poe used to excellent effect in his better stories, such as “Ligeia” and “Berenice.” In Reynolds’s story, Gog and Magog are fairly cut and dry monsters, inhuman things that want to harm a pair of decent humans. In what was probably a narrative miscalculation, all of the bystanders are cleared away from the scene before the action starts, leaving only the two characters we know will survive the encounter. From the reader’s standpoint, this removes any real stakes from the ensuing confrontation.
By contrast, “The Charnel Hounds” showcases Reynolds’s skillfulness as a writer. St. Cyprian and Carnacki work the trenches of World War I, but it isn’t long before Reynolds lets on that the war isn’t the main characters’ immediate concern. The setting is nicely established with attention to particular architectural details, and this in turn heightens the sense of a packed and pent space. Even when briefly showing us the world beyond the trenches, his diction is exquisitely oppressive.
There had been a village where the trench now lay. Now it was as dead as every other village between Mons and the Somme, blasted, burned and bayonetted into the mud by two opposing juggernauts (29).
By the time the ghouls arrive to feast on a pile of dead soldiers stacked cleverly if disrespectfully where the trench dead-ends, the tension is sufficiently established to carry the reader’s attention. Secondary characters are maimed, dismembered, and killed. Carnacki and St. Cyprian struggle and suffer emotionally, if not physically. If there is a misstep here it has to be the pace of the action. The killing eases only in the final three or four paragraphs, when we see Carnacki execute a ghoul in what feels like a slow motion cinematic sequence. Only in that scene do we glimpse a character’s actions together with his subjective experience of killing, and whilst the situation certainly doesn’t call for psychological depth it is nonetheless helpful to finally witness the humanity of a character amid the hurly-burly.
“The Unwrapping Party” stands out as the first story in the collection written fully in Reynolds’s own voice. Gone is the less-than-successful experiment in Wodehousian dialogue, and his story is better off for it. St. Cyprian now holds the title of Royal Occultist and has his own apprentice, the young, wisecracking Ebe Gallowglass. In crafting Gallowglass, Reynolds has leaned a bit too much on cliché, but by singing a familiar tune or two the relationship between master and apprentice is quickly and effectively established early on. We get hints throughout of previous adventures featuring the pair, and this suggestiveness adds to the sense of a larger story. The setting is the London upper crust of the 1920s, replete with esoteric orders of the idle rich. In setting the scene, Reynolds indulges the romance of the British upper class, which doesn’t travel well across the pond. This doesn’t rule out an American readership for the story, but it may indicate that British readers will be on firmer ground here. If readers of whatever stripe find themselves in a Sherlockian mood, this could make for a fun read. The monster of the piece is Nephren-Ka, the “Black Pharaoh.” The descriptions of monstrosity are effective, and Reynolds slows the action enough to bring the Black Pharaoh across as genuinely menacing. There is a fair bit of Lovecraftian floridness to either blink at or be impressed by, depending on the disposition of the reader. For example: “Where the pharaoh’s soul had once been there was now only a coruscating typhoon of cosmic blasphemy.” I would like to give fair warning to the author that I fully intend on using “a coruscating typhoon of cosmic blasphemy” to describe the current American President at some point on Twitter.
I should confess that I’m new to Joshua Reynolds’s work. This is only to say that I encountered his collection Casefiles of the Royal Occultist: Volume 1, Monmouth’s Giants with fresh eyes and more than a little eagerness to see how his writing stacked up to other occult detective stories. The short answer is: well enough, indeed. The charge of quaintness is not meant as an indictment of the writing, but it is perhaps the fate of the occult detective genre as a whole. Fictional detectives are modern priests, as critics wiser than I have already pointed out. They use special knowledge and a special skill set to seek out and rid the world of evil, and in so doing purge the community of what ails it. They bare the guilt of what they witness so that the rest of us can go on in a state of grace. I’m not sure this understanding of monstrosity, or the whole fictive apparatus of external evils fought by special men, has much to say to us today. We in the West currently inhabit an introspective moment, looking to ourselves, our families, and our friends for complicity in a variety of evils that haunt the structure of our social lives.
If a reader is looking for a quick diversion into a world-that-was, then they could do no better than to spend an hour or two perusing Reynolds’s competently written tales of the Royal Occultist. Perhaps, when all is said and done, a fun diversion is the best we can hope for. I hope it isn’t.
4 OUT OF 5
CASEFILES OF THE ROYAL OCCULTIST: MONMOUTH'S GIANTS BY JOSH REYNOLDS
Investigating, Organizing, and Occasionally Suppressing that Which Man Was Not Meant to Know!
Jazz Age Britain is rife with the impossible.
Fashionable unwrapping parties awaken the dead. Ghouls stalk the Underground. Krampus steals the sinful. Famous magicians are kidnapped by shadows.
Only the Royal Occultist can set these right.
Charles St. Cyprian and his assistant, Ebe Gallowglass, defend the British Empire against sinister secret societies, eldritch occurrences, and foul creatures of myth and legend. If there are satyrs running amok in Somerset, or werewolves prowling Wolverhampton, the daring due will be there to see them off.
Casefiles of the Royal Occultist: Monmouth's Giants is the first of several volumes collecting all of Josh Reynolds' Royal Occultist stories, including an all-new, never before published novelette, "Fane of the Black Queen."
Being a fan who isn’t necessarily old enough to have been there at the beginning of Stephen King’s career, I’ve always been curious when that cultural tipping point was for him. The moment when Stephen King became “Stephen King”, if you will. My personal opinion is that it was The Stand that elevated him into those upper realms of literary success and branded his name into the minds of readers all over.
And this may seem like grandiose dramatizing on my part, blowing up the work of a friend but if there’s any justice in the world, this book will prove to be that moment when readers alike start whispering the name of Duncan Ralston.
And the book we shall come to speak of with such reverence is The Midwives.
Before I even get into the book I think it’s important to take note that this book comes rushing in on the heels of Ghostland, an equally impressive book that had just begun to clear from our minds before another amazing book was dropped. It was like that moment when the Beatles released Rubber Soul and then months later was like, “Oh, and here’s Revolver as well. Cheers.” Again, taking me back to the roaring seventies and eighties, the height of Stephen King’s career when he would sometimes put out three books in a year, all equally good. To see Ghostland and Midwives hit the market at practically the same time flies in the face of all that should be rational in the world.
And dipping again into realms outside the actual book, the stereotype and cliche is you can’t judge a book by its cover. Maybe. But there are plenty of covers that send you diving for your wallet. Ghostland was one of those books. Midwives is another. Duncan pulled out all the stops on this one, rolling out a cover that is breathtaking, disturbing and captivating. All at the same time. It’s a cover that takes you by the shoulder and draws you in, promising not safety but merely the assurance that something memorable is about to happen. I’m not normally a fan of book covers that lean too closely to movie posters but this one is classic.
I’ll cop to it, I’m a sucker for stories about little horrific pockets of humanity that exist under their own rules, tucked away so neatly amongst the folds of society that we don’t even know that they are there. And Duncan plays up this aspect perfectly, giving the reader a chilling perspective on what the main characters will only gradually begin to understand.
There are two primary narratives running through this, first that of the escaped serial killer and his pursuit of the author who gained fame and fortune off of his crimes. The attempt to flee to safety leads the author back to his childhood home and creates the second thread, that of his re-immersion into a town where even the horrors of his nightmares fall short of reality.
It’s a book that I had trouble turning away from. That also is a cliche but it happens to be true in this case. The characters and the sinister undertones of the town create an atmosphere that is impossible to ignore. And the paranormal aspects of the story are woven in so cleanly and are so believable that the book could almost cross the divide and be accepted into the so-called ivory tower of “literary” horror. It’s a book that takes the fantastic and puts it on a level where you could actually believe it. And the nostalgic side of me loves that the style feels quite similar to the grittier classics of the seventies, alongside titles such as The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. These are books that take you into the disturbing worlds that for all you know could be happening just down the road or maybe even next door. It’s a glimpse into dark possibility and even if you dismiss the paranormal aspects it’s still a chilling reminder that you never really fully know the people in your lives. That you could be one drawn curtain away from your entire world falling to pieces. It’s a brilliant mix of a suspenseful attempt to escape the attention of an escaped serial killer, along with the creeping dread of a community that you can’t help but be unsettled by, despite knowing nothing solid about it.
If you haven’t read anything of Duncan’s before, start with this. Then read another. And another. And another. I promise you won’t be let down or feel the drag of such a journey. We are sitting at the ground floor of what should be a heralded and brilliant career. Do yourself a favor and book yourself a ticket.
A killer on the loose. A writer on the run. A town plagued by an ancient evil.
On tour with his latest book, true crime writer Martin Savage discovers one of his most-dangerous subjects has escaped. The so-called "Witch Hunter," a delusional murderer of women and their unborn children, holds a deadly grudge. He'll stop at nothing to get his revenge, and destroy everything Martin cares about.
With nowhere to run, Martin and forensic psychologist Sheila Tanner flee to the town he left when he was a boy, after his mother was locked away in a psychiatric facility. A town hidden deep in his past, where no one would think to look for them.
But things are not what they seem in Barrows Bay. The idyllic island holds terrible secrets. An ancient evil lived here long before the first Irish settlers crashed upon its shores in a coffin ship. An evil wearing the innocent faces of elderly midwives who've delivered every child in the Bay for two hundred and fifty years.
Martin and Sheila think they’re safe in his childhood home. But Martin’s mother has plans for them. Plans that require sacrifice.
And sacrifice requires blood.
Horror great Scott Sigler stamps his own brand of terror on the Aliens franchise
When I heard Scott Sigler was writing a standalone novel for the long running Aliens franchise, I was in two minds over whether this was a project worthy of such a cool author. I have been a long-term fan of Sigler for well over a decade and have read every word ever published and if you are unfamiliar with his output: let me give it to you straight up - Scott Sigler has created monsters which would fuck the Xeomorph into the middle of next month. My principal worry was whether the constraints of the Aliens franchise (acid for blood etc) would hold back the multi-dimensional imagination of the Future Doom Overlord (FDO), as his hardcore fans like to call him.
I was proven to be correct; in Aliens: Phalanx Sigler plays by the franchise rules we are all familiar with, making the backbone of the story eerily familiar and somewhat predictable. In his other fiction ‘predictable’ is not a word I would ever associate with this master of crazy over-the-top horror and science fiction. Ultimately the Aliens themselves are a faceless enemy which work better on the big-screen and in book format they’re a rather monotonous adversary, which just keep coming, and the story is never seen from their point of view. We all know how deadly these creatures are and that makes them rather boring. Sigler handles these drawbacks admirably by creating an amazingly well drawn world and I could not help wondering how the medieval planet of Ataegina would have been like if it had a genuine Sigler created ‘beast’, instead of the tired old Xenomorphs? Chances are it would have been a much better book. For a start, in most of Sigler’s fiction the ‘enemy’ does have a point of view, this is sorely lacking in Aliens: Phalanx.
Aliens franchise or not this is still an excellent Scott Sigler novel and if you’re a fan of his high-octane action sequences, gory violence and tough characters there is much to enjoy here. He most definitely stamps his mark of authority on a franchise which could do with some new ideas. Compared to some of his earlier fiction the violence is slightly toned down and considering how dangerous the Xenomorphs are, Sigler makes the brave decision of setting it on a world with no guns or modern technology. Ouch. The action picks up around fifty years after the Xenormorph invasion and mankind has all been wiped out apart from the last bastions which hide in underground or camouflaged and boobytrapped forts, which hold the last few thousand survivors. Food and supplies are short, and many are running on empty. Many people have never been outside and in a chunky book of over 500 pages a fair bit of time is spent setting the scene, introducing the culture, leaders, and the dynamics surrounding the society, the Aliens themselves are largely absent for the first 200 pages.
I’m now going to drop the use of the term ‘Xenomorph’ as the technical term used in the novel is ‘Demons’ and we quickly find out that virtually nobody has ever killed a Demon, those that do are held in the highest of esteem and are referred to as ‘Demon Killers’. As there is no technology, radios etc, the story is built around nineteen-year-old Ahiliyah who is the lead runner of a crew of three. Runners have the crucial and incredibly dangerous job of ferrying medicine, goods, trade and messages between the various underground forts. Early in the story the famous line uttered by Newt in the second film is paraphrased: “Because the demons mostly come at night.”
There is an incredibly high mortality rate for runners, many set out and are quite simply never heard of again, being picked off by the creatures. They are trained to commit suicide before risking capture, as although they don’t know the exact details, they suspect victims who are carried off alive are being used for something nasty. If you’ve seen the films, you know what is in store for them. Ahiliyah is a great lead character, ably supported by her two even younger runners, Creen and Brandun. As part of their culture/law all teenage girls make ten ‘runs’ and get a tattoo after each is completed and boys only have to make five as many will end up as warriors. Much of the human conflict in the novel revolves around the fact that Ahiliyah dreams of being a warrior, a position forbidden to girls. The plot is built around the politics of the various underground forts, their double-dealing, some of which may remind you of Dune, and Ahiliyah is convinced the behaviour of the Demons is changing, but none of the elders believe her. They are old and set in their ways and Sigler has fun clashing the young with the old.
As everybody know how dangerous the Demons are, you may wonder why there are any people left at all? Or why all runners aren’t killed straight away? This was very cool, they wear a type of ‘hidey suit’ which acts as camouflage when travelling, these journeys could be anything from a couple of days to two weeks or longer, carrying huge loads. This is only a small part of a very detailed and believable world for Sigler to let his imagination run wild.
The action sequences are worth hanging around for and in the second half you’ll realise why the novel is called Phalanx and there are some stunning fights reminiscent of ‘Custer’s Last Stand’ with a huge body-count mashed up with The 300. Scott Sigler throws in enough spicy curveballs to give the defenders a slim chance as it hurtles towards its conclusion.
If you want to know more about the fiction of Scott Sigler check out my article Ten Years of Bleeding with Scott Sigler over at Ink Heist:
Finally, it’s a well-known fact that Scott Sigler inserts his major fans, ‘the Junkies’, into his novels as a mark of appreciation and endearment. I, ‘Tony Jones’ am proud to appear in two Galactic Football League books, here’s a brief excerpt from The Champion which was a very cool moment for this Junkie of many, many years…
“Tony Jones barrelled in on all fours from Quentin’s right, Katan the Beheader from Quentin’s left. Tony’s hands shot out, a slow-motion attempt to grab Quentin under the shoulder pads, stand him up, block-destruct and toss him aside. Quentin turned sideways and drove in, sliding between the wide hands as he threw his armored right elbow forward – it smashed into Tony’s facemask, knocking the big head back.”
Scott Sigler most definitely blasts new life into a tired old franchise; but the reality is simple, Aliens: Phalanx is an appetizer for the main events….. The Gangster (Galactic Football League Book 6) and Mount Fitzroy (sequel to Earthcore) of which there have been rumours for years. Whilst we wait for these new books from the main Siglerverse, Aliens: Phalanx was a worthwhile distraction.
The #1 New York Times best-selling author of Infected delivers medieval carnage as a pre-industrial society fights extinction at the hands of a massive infestation of Xenomorphs.
Ataegina was an isolated world of medieval castles and rich cultures - vibrant until the demons rose and slaughtered ninety percent of the planet s population. Swarms of lethal creatures with black husks, murderous claws, barbed tails and dreaded "tooth-tongues" rage across the land. Terrified survivors hide in ruined mountain keeps, where they eke out a meager existence. Skilled runners travel the treacherous paths between keeps, maintaining trade and sharing information. If caught, they die screaming.
Ahiliyah of Lemeth Hold is an exceptional runner, constantly risking her life for her people. When she and her closest companions discover a new weapon, it may offer the one last chance to end the demon plague. But to save humanity, the trio must fight their way to the tunnels of Black Smoke Mountain - the lair of the mythical Demon Mother.
Aliens: Phalanx TM & (c) 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.
The older I get, the more I like flawed characters, unreliable narrators and untidy endings – all three are much more reflective of real life.
You’d hardly expect to find such depth and dynamics in a book about cannibals, but that’s what you get in Kenzie Jennings’ debut novel Reception, which is a brilliant combination of snark, grue, madness and disturbing terror from a narrator who is as much of a hot mess as anyone you’re likely to encounter.
The reception in question? A wedding, of course. It’s a great premise (Will you have the fish, the chicken or one of the guests?) and would’ve been entertaining enough had it just been simply a prose version of the type of B movie you’re likely to see Joe Bob Briggs host.
What sets this novel apart though is it aims to dig a lot deeper, and not just in the gut bucket.
Ansley Boone is a wreck of a person. A bad breakup, a lost job after a work meltdown, jail, rehab, family members whose opinions of her range from displeased to outright ashamed – plenty of threads are unraveling in Ansley’s life.
She’s been let out of rehab for the weekend to attend her sister’s wedding at a remote resort, a Not-so-Basic White Girl version of 48 Hours in which all she really has to do is show up, behave, and try to fight off the cravings and side effects of pill withdrawal. She pulls off none of this.
The first half of this book requires a little patience. Jennings spends that time drawing a portrait of a woman seemingly stuck at the bottom of a downward spiral who sometimes wonders how to get out and other times seems to enjoy floating around down there with the dregs.
Ansley says she loves her sister and wants to be there for her, but Ansley’s biggest problems are always her own: It’s hot. My head hurts. I need my pills. Can’t my mother shut the hell up? Will daddy ignore me forever? Maybe that’s what I want. That stranger sure is scary. Should I call the cops or sleep with him?
What makes the first half intriguing is Ansley could easily be a whiny garbage can of a person, but you end up rooting for her to get out of her own way. The problems Ansley creates for herself are the kind that have seemingly simple solutions to the outside observer while being overwhelmingly complex for Ansley – or maybe they’re just too much work. Either way, the drama surrounding her becomes so engrossing leading up to the wedding that just about the time you start asking “When are these cannibals going to show up?” you find yourself hoping they’ll hold off just a bit longer.
The cannibals don’t stay away, of course, and when they do arrive it’s with all the subtlety of an airstrike, a scene made more effective by just how subtle the lead up to the mayhem is. A hand held too long here, a gaze held too long there, snide comments and background noise are all the hints you get of what’s to come.
The second half of the novel is a runaway train of a nightmare, the cannibals and their dinner fighting it out in a battle to see who gets eaten and who goes hungry. A cannibal attack is bad enough. A cannibal attack while you’re jonesing is infinitely worse. And every time you think it can’t get any worse, it does. Plenty of opportunities arise to root for the victims to escape their pursuers.
But honestly, this story would’ve fallen apart right there if that’s how it played out. After such an intricate character study, a how-will-the-killer-die slasher-movie finale would’ve been quite a letdown.
But remember what I said about untidy endings? You get one here. And just for good measure, you get a twist on a twist, a device that can often fail, but here it had me cheering because a chapter prior I was downright angry at what I thought had happened.
A novel blessed by fan-favorite author Jeff Strand and recently nominated for a Splatterpunk Award hardly needs more endorsement, but I’ll give it mine. Is it too cheesy to say I’m hungry for the next meal Jennings serves up? Probably. But much like Ansley Boone would, I’m just going to say it anyway and see what happens.
This website has always been forward thinking in its coverage of women in horror month, if you would like to find more articles from and about great female horror authors just use the search function which can be found on each page of the website
While her rehab counselor’s advice replays in her mind, Ansley Boone takes on the role of dutiful bridesmaid in her little sister’s wedding at an isolated resort in the middle of hill country, a place where cell reception is virtually nonexistent and everyone else there seems a stranger primed to spring. Tensions are already high between the Boones and their withdrawal suffering eldest, who has since become the family embarrassment, but when the wedding reception takes a vicious turn, Ansley and her sister must work together to fight for survival and escape the resort before the groom’s cannibalistic family adds them to the post wedding menu.
be sure to check in tomorrow for our interview with Kenzie
The specialist anthology is doing well in the world of small-press horror these days, and as the genre slowly sheds its conservative image we are seeing the emergence of more and more fiction from LGBT+ writers. It’s not just Clive Barker beavering away on his own anymore, and in the last few years I’ve read quite a few collections of LGBT+ fiction (the best being Steve Duffy’s Queer Fear anthologies.) However, Celine Frohn’s Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology (Nyx Press) is even more specialized.
As the title implies, its focus is Gothic literature. The “queering” of Gothic tropes and the use of the genre as a springboard to interrogate questions of minority sexuality, transformation, gender identity and the return of the repressed has become increasingly common in our present-day literary landscape, but this was the first time I’d encountered an anthology entirely devoted to such concerns, so I approached Unspeakable with interest.
As you might expect, a good few of the stories here draw heavily on traditional early Gothic content: huge, structurally unsound pieces of real estate, mirrors, moons, chandeliers, women in white dresses running around in a state, artistic blood spillage, rampaging ivy and dreams groaning with significance. The quality of these varies, though for my money the lesbian haunted house two-hander “Moonlight” by Ally Kölzow is the best and most professionally written, with decent pacing and a vividness of imagery reminiscent of Angela Carter’s seminal story ‘The Lady of the House of Love’. “Moon in the Glass” by Judith Reid offers a similar vibe, although it’s written in a more on-the-nose style reminiscent of the darker end of the romance market, so may have more niche appeal.
The Victorian and Edwardian eras are also mined by several of the authors here. ‘’Doctor Barlowe’s Mirror” by Avery Kit Malone is a dark and competent work-out on the evil mirror theme, and its restrained, psychic-detectivey voice and mild sci-fi flavour set it apart here. “An Account of Service At Meryll Point” (which instead of the author’s name has the words “As recollected and set down by C.L.” appearing under the title), is a sweet little piece with the best use of 19th-century language this book can provide, though I suspect the sting in its tail would’ve been a lot stingier if the story had appeared in a more general anthology! I’m not sure exactly when “Quicksilver Prometheus” by Katie Young is set, but it feels late Edwardian, and more importantly it’s a properly weird, original bit of writing about a closeted gay painter and his relationship with a peculiar piece of art he is making while staying at a seaside town. The end felt a bit flat to me, but on this showing Young is one to watch!
Generally speaking, the stories set in the modern world do less well. They seem particularly prone to the pedestrian style that mars quite a few of the stories in this collection – some of these authors are just not ready for prime time yet – and none of the comic stories manage to amuse. Two of the contemporary offerings do stand out, however. “The Ruin” by E. Saxey is very different from the other material in the book. This confessional exploration of a sombre love affair between two fans of apocalyptic fiction benefits from an understated style intriguingly reminiscent of the quieter end of 70s sci-fi (think Christopher Priest or Susan Cooper in adult mode), and clever use is made of some Old English poetry to add emotional resonance and a feeling of the epic. The story’s realistic central relationship also offers a two-for-one shot of “alternative” sexuality, since it features a gay transman and his lover, though that’s far from the only feature of interest here. Oh, and one of the characters is rude about D.H. Lawrence, which is always a plus.
However, the prize for best story (an old chocolate coin I found down the back of the sofa) goes to “Leadbitter House” by Mason Hawthorne, which stands head and shoulders above nearly all the others in terms of style. Set in the present day, though oneirically vague with regard to place and time, it features a young heir who moves into a rambling country house he has inherited from an Aunt. In terms of both the plot and the vibe (sun-steeped, sentient gardens, great dark houses, sexual tension and a sense of latent mystery), it reminded me a lot of Barbara Vine’s classic modern-Gothic crime novel A Fatal Inversion, though that’s not to say it’s any kind of copy. An aura of true fantasy is achieved as the house and grounds slowly become unmoored from conventional reality, but the events stay believable thanks to some very sharp literary brushwork that almost makes you feel like you’re in the story at times. Hawthorne seems to be a new writer – at any rate they keep a low online profile - but hopefully we will be seeing a lot more of them soon.
The anthology also succeeds in having a pretty inclusive feel where gender etc. is concerned (a pretty important requirement!) It is sometimes said that the “L” part of “LGBT+” has a tendency to be overlooked by mainstream culture, but that’s certainly not the case here! There are plenty of sapphic stories, and women writers too - the literary descendants of Ann Radcliffe and Mary Shelley are fitly represented. It also boasts a variety of subgenres – in addition to the material I’ve mentioned above there’s sword-and-sorcery, pirates, cyber stuff and so on. It’s a reassuring reminder of how flexible and future-facing Gothic can be.
Review by Daisy Lyle
Unspeakable contains eighteen Gothic tales with uncanny twists and characters that creep under your skin. Its stories feature sapphic ghosts, terrifying creatures of the sea, and haunted houses concealing their own secrets. Whether you're looking for your non-binary knight in shining armour or a poly family to murder with, Unspeakable showcases the best contemporary Gothic queer short fiction. Even dark tales deserve their time in the sun.
Tales from Beyond the Pale - The Podcast
November 6th, 2019 – January 8th - 2020
Debuting in 2010, Tales from Beyond the Pale was created by auteur, Larry Fessenden and Glenn McQuaid from their love of classic 1930s radio dramas and as a response to the current state of the indie film world. Originally the only way to listen to the episodes would be if you were in the live audience, heard it through other outlets, or purchased an episode. In October of 2019, Tales from Beyond the Pale – The Podcast was established, releasing a past episode each week that can be downloaded/streamed for free on Android or IOS. Each month I will be providing a review of the episodes that were released.
So not to repeat myself, if you’re interested in learning more on its creation, how it’s produced, or my views on the podcast as a whole, please check out my original review.
Let’s get into it:
I wouldn’t say the episodes are better than the October 2019 kickoff, since an anthology is based on opinion, but they fit more with the podcast style. In the initial review I acknowledged that despite my amazement for the skill to make a live episode, there was concern of the “live” audience’s reactions taking you out of the story. This is not the case for the episodes I will be discussing in this review, as they were all recorded in studio. More importantly they’re all from Beyond the Pale’s third season.
All coming from season 3 does not affect the individual stories themselves, though they share similar themes of isolation, but it does offer a fun incentive for the audience to continue listening thanks to Fessenden’s opening and closing segments. Throughout the episodes, a season-long story arc unfolds as Fessenden, alone in a lighthouse, encounters a growing creature he calls “Shape.” While we only get a minute of his interaction with Shape, it’s enough to keep you intrigued about how it’ll turn out, though by the end you will wish they provided an extra few minutes to that story.
Much like the series throughout, this season provides many horror legends from both in front and behind the camera that would pique the interest of any horror fan. However, I will admit the strongest showcase of this medium’s potential comes from the writers/directors that’d be deemed “independent” or “up-and-coming.” You’ll find that while the episodes done by these horror icons are well done, they’re traditional in terms of audio drama.
I haven’t heard all the episodes in Beyond the Pales’ run, but I can say from what I did hear, this season has proven to be a masterclass in audio horror, deserving a place with the classic audio dramas that they were inspired to modernize. The only thing I leave this season wishing is that the order was altered to hit a little harder at the end.
Ep. 5: H.P. Lovecraft’s The Hound – Written by Dennis Paoli and Directed by Stuart Gordon – 30 minutes
The Allure of a jade amulet proves troublesome for two aristocratic grave robbers.
Collaborating horror icons, Barbara Crampton and Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, From Beyond, Castle Freak), come together and return to another H.P. Lovecraft tale. Their collaborative work has played a major influence on my own horror journey and offers a crowd-pleasing start to the season. The only thing better would be if Jeffrey Combs was involved.
While it’s more straightforward (as mentioned earlier) than other episodes, The Hound features, arguably one of the season’s highlights which involved the main cast in a kinky three-way. The episode is funny yet played serious. It’s a period piece but doesn’t get bogged down in exposition and where Gordon’s theatrical background proves useful.
Thanks to the talent attached and being the first episode of the season, it’s guaranteed to be remembered. For me it’s one where nostalgia won in the end, but I think you’ll find that despite an amazing sound design with the creatures and the humorous sex scene, it faces incredibly tough competition for “best of” episodes.
Ep. 6: Junk Science – Written and Directed by Brahm Revel – 36 minutes
Space can be a lonely place. For Pike and his computer AL, friendship may mean the difference between life and death.
To paraphrase Fessenden, this is their $50 million sci-fi script, and it’s probably the one I went in assuming it’d be the most problematic. The reason? As you’re dealing with the future, space, and other unknown territories to our modern human comprehension, there’s the worry that there’ll be a lot of “scene painting” dialogue. I was wrong. Revel plays it the same way it’d be presented on screen and it works for the better.
In my first article I explain how a good portion of episodes were meant to be features that weren’t going anywhere so they were cut down and altered to fit the format. Junk Science gives that perception. It contains elements and gaps of time that feel like there was more there. The “gaps” aren’t necessarily a criticism, because it still made me want to see it on screen, wishing someone would invest in an original sci-fi/horror, but they are noticeable enough to mention.
With the plot being compared to 2001 meets Event Horizon (maybe), Junk Science holds its ground thanks to the working-class feel. And despite the many plot devices that can fall into cliché, they’re altered enough to be fresh.
Ep. 7: The Ripple at Cedar Lake – Written and Directed by Glenn McQuaid – 29 minutes
A scientist, his wife and his lover get in over their heads in this 1950s crime of passion set within the multiverse.
First, a round of applause for Glenn McQuaid for telling a story that is already tricky to do visually, but to make it work through purely auditory means is outstanding. I spent the first half of the episode in awe that it was being pulled off. I am someone who obsesses about the “science” of a film’s loops, dimensions, and time travel, so having multiple versions of our three main characters seemed like quite a task for strictly audio. Yet once you let the story take you there’s no confusion about which version of the scientist you’re following.
I have really no criticism of the piece after it finished as this was a personal favorite for me. The sound design works wonders and assists the listener through the multiverse without becoming overbearing or on-the-nose. What starts off as an almost throwback to an EC Comics (Tales from the Crypt) plot enters the modern age with a bang.
Ep. 8: Food Chain – Written by April Snellings and Directed by Larry Fessenden – 39 minutes
Four hunters set out to trap the elusive Big Foot but it’s not long before the hunters become the hunted.
Speaking of EC Comics and villainous, over-the-top characters getting their comeuppance, Food Chain is the most fun you’ll have in season three. Within the writing and performances this is this season’s pinnacle of horror comedy. Don’t let that fool you, because the last ten minutes could give Saw a run for its money. I won’t spoil cringe-worthy brutality, but not being able to see what happens allows the brain to come up with something much worse than could be produced on screen.
The last third does have a tonal shift that works, but based on the silliness of the opening, can make it feel slightly jarring. I’m not referencing the plot being more than they bargained for, but rather commenting on cohesion throughout. Even if you have a drastic shift it should always feel like it belongs in the same “world.” However, thanks to the silliness described, this issue does not cause enough interference to detract from its enjoyment, and in fact provides the most relisten appeal.
Ep. 9: The Tribunal of Minos – Written and Directed by James Felix McKenney – 37 minutes
Two Americans traveling in Greece find themselves in a mysterious labyrinth haunted by ancient myths and recent memories.
Where Ripple at Cedar Lake had a hurdle in trying to deal with its complex story through audio, The Tribunal of Minos finds itself on the opposite side of the spectrum. It’s primarily two people talking in a featureless labyrinth with a few instances of “spectacle.” This lack of action does provide horror fans with a beautiful performance by Angus Scrimm that feels bittersweet as he was reaching the end of his iconic career in the genre.
As mentioned in my overview of the season, this is one that may be overshadowed by other impressive episodes. The reasoning lies in its structure and character arc. We are introduced to two characters that are meant to be very difficult but find mutual respect in their journey. Mizuo Peck plays a young woman who is angry at the world and protesting the system, and Angus Scrimm represents the very thing she hates; an old, rich, white male. Throughout we come to learn that Peck’s character is a trust fund baby and can afford to make these sacrifices because of the very system she protests. There’s little tension between the two and any of the external threats never come close enough to cause alarm. Unfortunately, by the end we are left with exposition of the ancient Greek mythological story and two people (mainly Scrimm) talking about their life and regrets.
Ep. 10: The Chambers Tape – Written and Directed by Graham Reznick – 39 minutes
Life got you down? We have just the tonic! Relax, breathe deeply and close your eyes. Let the calming effects of The Aviary work its magic on you.
This should have closed out the season. An awesome display of using the medium in innovative ways. It plays like a self-help audiobook with some twists. This review I’m making brief for fear of providing too much information and ruining the experience.
The only form of criticism (more of a warning) I could mention, deals with the concentration needed for this episode. Chambers Tape requires sitting in silence and participation to really invest in the story, thanks to the many subtleties provided. Like most, I listen to podcasts while doing something else (walking my dog or driving), all the other episodes can be listened to without issue when doing these activities.
Unlike the other episodes that could work in another medium, this is audio drama through and through, raising the bar into an artform.
Ep. 11: Natural Selection – Written and Directed by Larry Fessenden – 35 minutes
On the path to find a new species in the storied Galapogos Islands, a TV Naturalist and his cameraman encounter terrors in the night.
Fessenden, eco-horror, and a creature feature. I could end the blurb here and people who know his work will understand. It has some hilarious banter, inventive with its narrative style, and goes in a direction entering body horror territory. Right up my alley.
I mention the narrative style because it’s presented as found footage (or found audio?). This may be a turn off for some, but Fessenden does it in such a way that doesn’t feel like a gimmick. I admit it helps having Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd (Merry and Pippin from Lord of the Rings) together, as their chemistry is felt through the soundwaves.
It may not be to the same comedic extent as Food Chain (also directed by Fessenden), but Natural Selection is some of the most fun I had during the season. A quick self-contained story with some great spectacle and creature sound designs.
Ep. 12: Guttermouth – Written and Directed by Jeff Buhler – 30 minutes
Martin hears strange voices coming from the drain. Passion, obsession and madness collide when he investigates.
Who would’ve thought a tale about a sewer being would have so much beauty in it? Maybe beauty isn’t the right word…
I give Buhler credit for making fresh a premise that could’ve fallen into a “been there, done that” category. Obviously, that doesn’t mean it avoids clichés entirely, but it kept my interest with its brilliant use of sound design and vocal distortion.
My biggest issue came from an element that suggests the story may have come from a larger story, which is the marital problems. We are presented with a scenario that should have Martin stuck in a crappy/stale relationship, giving reason to his obsession with this voice. I’ll admit little is given to understand why he’d want out. His relationship has elements that are common in any marriage (busy at work, different schedules, common frustrations from living together, etc.), but both seem to love each other, checking in, and trying to make it work. Because of their mature relationship the end with his wife feels tacked on to provide justification for Martin’s actions and diminishes some of what we just listened to. Up until the last few minutes, Guttermouth was the surprise hit of the season.
Ep. 13: Little Nasties – Written and Directed by Eric Red – 30 minutes
Things are not quite as they seem when Heather Knox and her daughter, Bethany, arrive at a child beauty pageant, after dark…
I was excited to hear about Eric Red’s involvement in the series as a fan of his work, and the fact he was adapting his own short story made it all the better. I’ll champion Bad Moon and Body Parts constantly to the point of comical exhaustion from fellow collaborators.
As I’ve stated many times, the beauty of anthologies is that each person is allowed their favorite segment/episode based on their own tastes. While I’m trying to look at each episode individually, Little Nasties unfortunately comes off as the weakest use of the medium. The story itself has plenty of opportunity to satirize the world of child beauty pageants. However, even for an audio drama where dialogue is crucial to paint a mental picture for the listener, it’s so narrative-heavy and on-the-nose that it detracts from just how much fun it could’ve been. Maybe it’s one of those instances of being too close to the source material, because scenery and internal thoughts were described that were neither necessary to the plot or established through other means. Oddly enough the most successful part is the last four minutes of the episode, its gun shots and yelling establish a vivid picture.
By itself Little Nasties is good, offering laughs and a perfect violent end, but fell short as a whole.
Ep. 14: Cannibals – Written and Directed by Joe Maggio – 38 minutes
An embittered auteur encounters the young filmmaker who has been cannibalizing his work, a game of cat and mouse ensues.
Cannibals is a one-act play that despite a few variations you know where the story is headed. However, thanks to the performance of Vincent D’Onofrio, it’s a hell of a good time getting there. It also makes an interesting statement on these up-and-coming directors who use the term “homage” or “inspired by” to justify copying shots, characters, or plot devices from an older film.
Maggio manoeuvres you through the story in a way that he knows you know where it’s going, then in the last third we’re given the “twist.” Yet we know the twist is coming as well. Without using a redundancy of comments, it’s difficult to discuss this piece as its very good, but sadly gets lost going up against some amazing work throughout the season.
Season’s score: 5 out of 5
Shape shifting giant bugs invade a small American town