An unexplained series of violent murders perplexes a rookie FBI agent
I was absolutely thrilled to discover that Mexican filmmaker extraordinaire Guillermo del Doro was reuniting with Chuck Hogan for a new series of books, which kicks off with The Hollow Ones. Between 2009-2011 (was it so long ago?) the pair co-authored the outstanding vampire trilogy The Strain, which was later turned into a TV series. If you like fast paced vampire action, which begins with a single infection and, which over three books lead to an incredibly apocalyptic vision, it is very hard to beat. If you have never tried The Strain, the three books can be virtually read as a single novel and is an intense experience.
Hogan seems to have been relatively quiet since The Strain, whilst Guillermo del Toro has co-authored other works with two distinguished YA writers Daniel Kraus (Trollhunters) and Cornelia Funke for an unnecessary novelisation of his most famous film Pan’s Labyrinth (The Labyrinth of the Faun). Was any need for a YA(ish) version of Pan’s Labyrinth fifteen years after the film? Probably not. However, it probably reads better to those who have never heard of the original flick, as if you have seen the film the book is rather redundant.
The Hollow Ones is an interesting collaboration and a distinct change of direction from The Strain, in that it lacks the pace, action, and apocalypse of the earlier work. However, it is very nice to see the pair produce something fresh which does not retreat to familiar ground. Although I enjoyed the novel, I could not help thinking of a moderately successful 1987 science fiction film which aspects of the plot are strikingly similar to, simply switch the science fiction element for the supernatural and you have the same thing. It is surely a coincidence as nobody has a monopoly on such plotlines but revealing the name of the film would be a major spoiler!
The action begins in present day New Jersey with two FBI agents, Odessa and Leppo, who are called to a violent incident in a house which in the aftermath of, the veteran detective inexplicitly goes berserk and the much younger Odessa has to shoot and kill him. There is absolutely no reason for this moment of madness and in the fallout Odessa is confined to a desk, with an air of suspicion hanging over her, and her career in the FBI both in taggers and hanging by a thread. However, another element of the tragedy makes her very uncomfortable which she keeps to herself; she believes she saw a shadowy smoky presence leave her partner’s body the moment she fired the fatal shot.
Odessa is then given a dead-end assignment, clearing out the belongings of a long since retired agent who seems to have had an office cupboard that the agency has forgot existed. At this point I could not held feeling a serious Mulder and Scully vibe, with the X-Files similarly being dumped into an office as far off the beaten track as possible. Odessa tracks down the former agent, Earl Solomon, who although he is very elderly and bedbound in a hospital, she warms to.
Solomon becomes an important part of the plot as the action flashes back to 1962, the Mississippi Delta region, to when he was a rookie agent. The fact that Solomon is black is crucial to the story, there were relatively few black agents in the FBI during that period, and even fewer in the Deep South of America, where segregation and racial tensions are convincingly portrayed. There is also a code of silence; whatever you do, do not talk to the police and the threat of violence is always in the air.
I am not going to enter into the specifics of the mystery which connects Odessa and Solomon, except that the retired agent tells Odessa to contact a man called John Blackwood by dropping a letter in a non-descript letterbox and, surprise, surprise, when she gets home this guy (as if by magic) is sitting in her house waiting for her. I found this sequence akin to something you might find in a Harry Potter or other kid’s fantasy story and rather twee for an adult horror novel. However, Blackwood was obviously a guy from a different time and place, and he bounced off Odessa well, they never quite became a ‘buddy’ partnership, but their clash of styles and mannerisms was entertaining.
There are various other flashbacks to London in 1582, which fill in the back stories around Blackwood, this takes in real historical character John Dee, who was very influential in the court of Queen Elizabeth I and experimented with alchemy and other dodgy types of magic and mysticism. The crux of the story revolves around events which happened in 1582 and vibrate through time until 2020 sucking in both FBI agents in 1962 and 2020. It is great how some of it pieces together, with stylish writing and entertaining set pieces which clash and contrast the supernatural with the modern world of 2020.
Although The Hollow Ones had three well developed story strands, ultimately the individual parts were more interesting than what they morph into, which was slightly old hat and many readers are sure to feel they have been here before. The press material implies this is the start of a series and if it is to be successful I would suggest Odessa and Blackwood are given stronger ‘cases’ to investigate so that they do not come across as a poor man’s Mulder and Scully or Charlie Parker. It will be interested to see whether the authors follow the John Connolly (Charlie Parker) route in which supernatural themes are subtlety merged into their detective novels. From the way The Hollow Ones is presented, this is probably a certainly, but Connolly sets the bar exceptionally high and del Toro and Hogan will need to pick up momentum in the follow-up. It will be interesting to see which direction the series takes (and whether the hyper-busy del Toro has time for it in his busy schedule). However, in long running series, Connolly included, it takes time to develop characters with the reader growing into them, which hopefully will be the case with The Hollow Ones as events move on. A convincing opening entry, but I suspect there is better still to come.
Review by Tony Jones
A horrific crime that defies ordinary explanation.
A rookie FBI agent in dangerous, uncharted territory.
An extraordinary hero for the ages.
Odessa's life is derailed when she's forced to turn her gun on her partner, who turns suddenly, inexplicably violent while apprehending a rampaging murderer. The shooting, justified by self-defence, shakes Odessa to her core and she is placed on desk leave pending a full investigation.
But what most troubles her isn’t the tragedy itself – it’s the shadowy presence she thought she saw fleeing the deceased agent’s body after his death.
Questioning her future with the FBI and her sanity, Odessa accepts a low-level assignment to clear out the belongings of a retired agent in the New York office. What she finds there will put her on the trail of a mysterious figure named John Blackwood, a man of enormous means who claims to have been alive for centuries. What he tells her could mean he’s an unhinged lunatic. That, or he’s humanity’s best and only defence against an unspeakable evil that could corrupt even the best of us . . .
Perhaps the book's greatest strength is how well realised its world is, with some fantastic attention to detail. It's a place where you learn about ghosts in school and just accept them, a kind of parallel Earth that's adapted to allow spectres to exist alongside regular folk
There's a kind of unwritten understanding in the UK where, if someone asks you if you're fine, you say “not too bad” or something similar, even if the weevils of despair are burrowing into deep your soul, or you dropped your yoghurt on the bus.
So when you see a title like The Perfectly Fine House, you immediately think “yeah, it's not though, is it?” The answer is a definite no. There's another clue in that simple, effective cover by Don Noble too, with a set of grasping hands reaching towards a house on fire. And if you've read anything by Stephen Kozeniewski or Wile E Young before, you'll be expecting richly-realised world-building along with nerve-worrying chills. This is a book that delivers on both counts, and it's chock full of imagination, humour, romance...so much more than the cover and title suggest.
The most interesting aspect is how the paranormal is brought into the everyday, bringing to mind The Frighteners, Ghostbusters, or even the bureaucratic afterlife of Beetlejuice. In this world, exorcists are more akin to plumbers than troubled, pea-soup splattered priests. Ghosts in this world enjoy vices like sage and sex, and some humans take advantage of this by visiting ghostly hook-up agencies. It's through one such purveyor of erotic ectoplasmic encounters that we meet the main characters of Donna and her dead twin Kyle, who promises his overworked sister a stress-free vacation in the titular house.
Naturally, a non-haunted house in a world where you can pet dead dogs and hold hands (or more) with a spectre is a cause for concern. As the twins struggle to understand the place and its effect on both dead & living souls, relationships are threatened along with all of ghostkind.
Perhaps the book's greatest strength is how well realised its world is, with some fantastic attention to detail. It's a place where you learn about ghosts in school and just accept them, a kind of parallel Earth that's adapted to allow spectres to exist alongside regular folk. Disgruntled humans chase away pesky entities with windchimes, or threaten to toss them into salt jail; exorcists treat ley lines like blocked pipes, and instead of being bound to a single place, ghosts travel by popping in and out of existence, teleporting themselves wherever they like. Because it's all handled so matter-of-factly, it's easy to get on board with the idea early on without the concept having to be over-explained. Everything just fits.
Another strength is how becoming a ghost is taken for granted, a safety net of sorts for the living. Because the spirits here are somewhat tangible, if a little squishy, and visible to basically anybody, nobody seems to feel a true sense of loss, or concern about heart attacks and the like. Until the perfectly fine house starts claiming victims, that is. When the dead start to experience true death, it packs a heavy emotional and psychological punch, especially as each ghost is infused with personality instead of just being a cartoonish floating wad of sheets. It's easy to share the ghosts' panic and unease once the threat of eternal non-existence looms, and it's a credit to both authors that a story packed with dead things retains such a strong human core.
For my money, any book that can have you feeling existential dread on one page and love of life on the next is definitely worth a purchase.
In an alternate reality where ghosts are as commonplace as the weather, the most terrifying thing imaginable is a house not being haunted.
Donna Fitzpatrick runs a surrogacy agency, where ghosts can briefly possess volunteers in order to enjoy carnal pleasures. She's also working herself into an early grave. But that's no big deal because death is no worse than puberty. That's particularly evident in Donna's twin, Kyle, a self-absorbed roustabout who spends most of his time high on sage. Kyle's been in arrested development since his motorcycle accident fifteen years ago.
When Donna has a panic attack, Kyle insists she take a vacation at an abandoned mansion. There's just one small problem: there isn't a single ghost in Jackson Manor. And while an unhaunted house seems no worse than an oddity at first, soon ghosts go missing, natural disasters consume entire cities, and every afterlife on earth is threatened by the terrible secret behind . . .
THE PERFECTLY FINE HOUSE.
A wide-ranging and impressive anthology of horror
Strange Girls is a meaty and wide-ranging anthology themed around 22 stories in which women and girls play central roles, which are all authored by women also. I did wonder whether I would have picked up on this general theme if I had not been aware of it in advance? Perhaps after ten or so stories I would have had a light bulb moment and gone “Hang on a minute…..” but then again, perhaps not! This Women in Horror Anthology does not have a feminist agenda and wisely does not ram the female angle down the reader’s throat, instead subtly celebrates the crucial role of women in producing modern horror fiction with a great spread of contributors to sample.
Make sure you hang in for the end, as the anthology concludes with very informative interviews with the authors where the editor Azzurra Nox quizzes them about their favourites, pioneering female writers (Mary Shelley and Shirley Jackson are regularly name-checked), favourite books and the coolest question: “Have you ever been identified as a strange girl?” in which everybody answers ‘yes’ and often provide extra insightful, often personal, information and hints on how this might have shaped them as both a person a writer. There are also revealing anecdotes on the inspirations behind each individual story.
Like most anthologies I read this very slowly and on one level it represents excellent value for money as 22 stories was a hefty chunk of reading. Probably too much. Arguably, Strange Girls might have been stronger if some of the weaker stories had been culled for a slightly more quality over quantity approach. But perhaps that is simply me being a grump reviewer? If a dip in quality here and there does not bother you too much, I would suggest reading the book slowly for there is plenty to enjoy, with the good heavily outweighing a few misfires. I felt the first seven I have referenced were the strongest on offer, but this is open to individual interpretations.
I had previously reviewed Rebecca Rowland’s collection The Horrors Hiding in Plain Sight and so was happy to revisit her with Extinguishing Fireflies. This was one of both the stronger inclusions which shrouds its direction nicely; a little girl Lea and her mother have a very close relationship, but other things sometimes end up dead or maimed around her, with the family cat playing a major role. It might put you off having pets forever. It would have fitted nicely within Rowland’s previously published collection which was themed loosely around the horrors behind the household curtains.
Jude Reid’s Sideshow was another of my top picks. This was a fascinating tale concerning consent, a young woman (Sylvia) is at an old-fashioned carnival with her boyfriend (Richie), although it never says when it is, it has a 1950s feel to it. She does not really like Richie, but struggles saying ‘no’ to him, one gets the impression he is a high school sports star or something similar and is also a bully. Sideshow has an outstanding opening, with Richie forcing his tongue in Sylvia’s mouth and her feeling the taste of his gum in revulsion, but then the story tales a strange turn with a bizarre role reversal and power shift, which has some style and a dash of sensuality, or is it sleaze? In the concluding interview the author notes playing with the idea of how a normal relationship can be a prison for some which is a theme which lies in the background of Sideshow.
Revival by Madison Estes was one of the strongest and sneakiest of the stories as it playfully takes its time laying its cards on the table, whilst retaining a certain amount of ambiguity. It opens with the murder of a young woman, Sara, which was witnessed by the narrator, but then jumps to sometime later when this death has become an obsession and the memory of the killing impossible to shake off. The narrator is a medical student, who has access to corpses and dissection, taking the tale into very unhealthy areas and an unpleasant way of dealing with the earlier tragedy.
Rachel Bolton impressed me greatly with the quirky thriller Self-Portrait with Pears. Oddly enough the reader does not find out why the oddly titled Self Portrait with Pears is called so unless the very final paragraphs which was smart. The story centres around a first-year university student, Adam, who becomes obsessed with art student ‘D.C.’ after being introduced by his roommate Josh. Seen from Adam’s point of view, the story’s strength is its restraint, it could head into Fatal Attraction bunny-boiling territory, but it holds back and does not answer all the questions the reader might ask.
Alyson Faye’s The Doll’s House is worth a closer look. This was an impressive tale about a deaf little girl, Sophie, sent to live with her aunt after her mother is imprisoned for killing her abusive husband. The story centres upon a very old doll’s house which has been passed down the generations and have figurines which seem to be real and which the deaf little girl can hear. This was a slightly longer story but could have done with a stronger ending and was reminiscent of Josh Malerman’s House of the Head. I thought there was scope to develop The Doll’s House into an even longer work.
Erica Ruhe concludes the anthology with Tribal Influence, which was another of the best stories, a six-year-old Guatemalan refugee is picked up at the Mexican border and transferred to a detention centre. After the move it is realised, she has very powerful ESP type powers which can make others feel very strong emotions which she can control. Generally, it is seen from the point of view of the doctor who is sent to understand, and manipulate, her power on behalf of the military.
If you are after a fun little story with a witchcraft twang EF Schraeder’s Friends with Benefits is worth checking out. Liza is beginning to get over the death of her mother when she notices a small bruise on her arm which begins to throb and takes an even more sinister twist when she turns to her best friend for help. If killer dolls are your thing make sure you catch Regan Moore’s Cracked, in which a young petty thief seriously regrets stealing a bag which contains an old china doll which comes to life and is both deadly and impossible to shake off.
I do enjoy stories set in my homeland of Scotland, and Azzurra Nox’s (the editor) Patterns of Faerytales takes us to Oban in the north west of the country. Cillian and Olivia are just about to get married and leave this small Scottish town for a new life in London. Before they leave, Olivia’s mother gives Cillian a warning and a gift, of sorts, whatever he does he must not let Olivia discover the content of the locked box she gives him. He thinks she is nuts, but needs her advice and hides the box, the story is picked up a few years later and you just know what is going to happen is that it will not be pleasant.
Further stories by Angelique Fawns, Angela Sylvaine, Marnie Azzarelli, Hillary Lyon, Charlotte Platt, Ash Tudor, Emma Johnson-Rivardy and Phoebe Jane Johnson throw vampires, death row, an unpleasant family pet, mental health, night terrors and body swopping into the mix.
I would suggest avoiding Danielle R Bailey’s The Eyes of the Dead which I did not feel was a good fit for this anthology. I found this story deeply unpleasant and although it has a trigger warning for both violence and rape, it is still not for the faint hearted and I did wonder what was the point of it? It starts off in a remote part of Alaska with the murdered body of a young woman whose spirit still exists. The story then backtracks to the events leading up to her murder and then the graphic killing. If you like extreme horror you might enjoy it, but it left me colder than Alaskan morning.
There is much fun to be had here and although the anthology lacks star names, there are plenty of authors featured who could move onto bigger and better things and from the interviews obviously love the genre. Crucially, it also lacks any genuine knockout 5* stories, if you were to compare it to the best anthologies the genre has to offer such as New Fears by Mark Morris or Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year series then it comes up short, but perhaps more fairly, does hold its own against most others on the market and at over 350 pages is excellent value for money. Azzurra Nox has done a fine job of bringing together a large collection of stories loosely themed around women and showcasing authors who we are sure to hear more of in future.
For fans of American Horror Story, Shirley Jackson, and Creepshow.
You know them. Those girls that aren't quite like everyone else. Those girls who stand out in the crowd. Those girls that dare to be different. Those girls are dangerous.
In Strange Girls, twenty-one authors dare to tackle what makes the girls in this collection different. Vampires, selkies, murderous mermaids, succubus, and possessed dolls take center stage in these short stories that are sure to invoke feelings of quiet terror and uneasiness in the reader. Following the successful debut of Women in Horror anthology with My American Nightmare, Strange Girls is the sophomore effort to showcase these talented women in a genre that is often dominated by the male gaze.
Dare to take a walk on the dark side.
A cursed guidebook leads a besotted bookseller on a dangerous
In 2019 I stumbled upon Leo Darke’s Lucifer Sam which became one of my favourite novels of the year and I was delighted to give it a rare 5/5 gingernuts. It was a very quirky horror comedy built around how a failed heavy metal band saves the world, it was so crazy even the legendary Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious comes back from the dead, taking the stage for a gig near the end. It was stupid, very funny and I would recommend it very highly. Sadly, it picked up very little press from the horror community and I regard it as a lost gem. Here is the review should you fancy ‘rediscovering’ this filthy little treat:
When I heard from Grinning Skull Press that Darke had a new novel in the pipeline I got VERY excited and I hoped he would replicate the magic formulae which made Lucifer Sam such a unique experience; with a similarly clever blend of comedy, horror, sheer ridiculousness and a dollop of gore. Although Pandemonium is comparable in style to Lucifer Sam and was very enjoyable, it failed to reach the great heights of its predecessor, but still had its fair share of high points. It is also billed as ‘Book One in the 101 Ways to Hell’ series and I would question whether there is enough scope to merit a sequel.
Initially I though the novel was going to have amusing musical references, harking back to Lucifer Sam, and the opening chapter title, the rather knowingly, ‘I Hate Pink Floyd t-Shirt’ certainly backed that up, but the musical references sadly petered out. The story opens with main character Billy listening to a stolen CD of Pink Floyd cover songs when there is an aggressive knock at the door. After answering, he is promptly violently assaulted by a man who tells him to cease contacting a woman called Aura, whom we realise was Billy’s (sort of) girlfriend. Billy, in his late thirties, was a likable loser, not dissimilar to the failed rocker from Lucifer Sam.
A large part of Pandemonium takes place in a bookshop in Bristol and the amusing dynamics involving the various loser characters who work there, few of which truly enjoy their jobs and clock watch until closing time. I enjoyed these interactions, as this was a very quirky (and rather British) setting for a horror novel. After Billy takes his kicking the story flicks back to the moment when he meets Aura, a beautiful young woman he notices in the bookshop, idly flicking through guidebooks about walks across the British Isles. He does his best to chat her up, much to the amusements of his colleagues, whilst doing so he sees her thumbing through a very old looking book of walks. After she exits the shop, totally besotted by her, Billy hunts down the book she was browsing hoping it might provide a clue on how he can locate her for a date.
To say this woman has sexual magnetism would be an understatement and Billy becomes totally obsessed with her. However, we quickly realise that the book ‘The Olde Britishe Guide to 101 Walkes Through Hell’ is equally magnetic, but in very different and rather ways. If you have ever seen the Japanese horror film Dark Water there is a ball which scarily reappears after being thrown away, this book does something similar and holds whoever reads it in a dark obsessive funk, drawing them to a particular walk.
If you have ever been a casual rambler in the south of England Pandemonium may well put you off as much of the book revolves around a certain route: ‘Walk No 21 Deepest, Darkest Somerset’ which several brave souls embark upon only to face a sticky end! Some of these scenes were very entertaining, such as when perennial shoplifter Cyril Peck (who hates the countryside) nicks the book and finds himself in the middle of nowhere attempting ‘Walk No 21’ when you just know something horrible is around the corner (or over the next sty) or the local rambling group who meet a violent and bloody end after stopping for their packed lunches.
Other highlights included flashbacks to Roman Briton (364 AD) where the story originates and the entertaining back-and-forth between Billy and Julie Everly. Whilst Billy is obsessed with Aura, Julie is equally obsessed with Billy and will do anything to bed him. The blend of mundane book-stacking, getting warned by their anal manager, selling the odd book, whilst side-batting Julie’s obvious advances was a good laugh and distraction from the supernatural story. You will not take any of this very seriously.
The balance between horror and comedy is difficult to get right and although it failed to hit the sweet spots of Lucifer Sam, it still jogged along nicely and was a speedy and easy read. Although Pandemonium lacked scares, but that’s the price you pay for comedy and a light writing style, however, it did have some unsettling moments surrounding the freaky whistling Billy hears when he has been close to the dodgy book or when Billy stumbles upon the pub from Hell. Make sure you hang around for the poor saps looking around for the paintball centre which does not exist. They should have all gone to the pub instead (but in Bristol, not the one from Hell!)
Review by Tony Jones
From the moment their eyes met across the crowded sales floor, Billy knew he had met his soulmate, the woman he was meant to be with. While on a date, the appearance of three hooded figures in a field spooks Aura, and she tells Billy he needs to put her from his mind, forget she ever existed. Then she was gone.
But how do you forget the one you are destined to be with?
The only clue to his girlfriend's disappearance is an old and very strange guide to country walks that Aura had shown great interest in-particularly Walk No. 21, which would take the traveler through "deepest, darkest Somerset."
What is it about Walk No. 21 that had Aura so fascinated?
And why has it become an obsession, not only of Billy's, but of anyone who has come in contact with the book?
This past year, I Read the opening book in Lee Murray’s Taine Mckenna series, Into the Mist, and had an absolute blast, so naturally I jumped on the opportunity to review her upcoming collection . I was unsure what to expect, as I’d never read any of Murray’s shorts. That being said, this collection does not disappoint!
Murray is a wonderful writer, and her skill is on display here in full force. All of the stories feel completely different. Murray has a knack for writing in different time periods and with characters from all different cultural backgrounds in a way that just pulls you into the story. You feel like you’re in the caverns, immersed in the jungles. You can see the results of the fallout and picture the zombies chasing the characters.
This book features plenty of action, scares, and horrific imagery. Not only that, but bonus points for having a Taine Mckenna short thrown in the mix. Some of my personal favorites here were Hawaiki, Selfie, The New Breed, and Into the Clouded Sky. Although those were my personal favorites, I enjoyed everything I read.
Grotesque: Monster Stories is an outstanding collection from a fantastic author. Be on the lookout for what’s sure to be one of the top collections of 2020.
by John Lynch
11 short stories from the imagination of New Zealand's multiple award-winning author and editor Lee Murray! Contains 4 original stories including a new adventure in the much-lauded and awarded Taine McKenna series!
The book has already received outstanding praise and reviews, including the following:-
“With Grotesque: Monster Stories, Lee Murray proves she is a first-rate talent! These stories are fascinating,
unexpected, and scary as hell!” — Jonathan Maberry, New York Times bestselling author of Rage and V-Wars.
“Action, thrills, monsters, awesome!” — USA Today bestselling author, David Wood.
“It has been said creating is a path of immortality; Murray’s engaging tales bring us into the dream time of imagination, mixing her unique dark stories and the Māori culture to create a collection existing outside of time, taking us with it.” — Linda D. Addison, award-winning author and HWA Lifetime Achievement Award recipient.
Some of these child-centric stories, such as ‘Unicorn Meat’, were too unremittingly black for my taste (though you can’t say the title doesn’t warn you), but others contained an appealing thread of hope gleaming redly in the dingy tapestry of despair, poverty and cruelty
In my recent review of Gary McMahon’s novella Glorious Beasts I mentioned his long and enviable track record as a short fiction writer. Now Journalstone/Trepidatio have published a new collection of his stories from the last six years. The title, Some Bruising May Occur, is of manifest excellence, but do the stories live up to it?
They’ve certainly chosen a cracking one-two punch to start things off. ‘My Boy Builds Coffins’ has featured both in Black Static magazine and Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, Volume 8, and you can see why. McMahon is able to mine the simple premise described in the title – a small and otherwise crashingly normal boy unnerves his parents by taking up the building of mysterious miniature caskets – to unearth a fine crop of terrors such as parental guilt and inadequacy, bereavement, and the loss of childhood innocence. The latter is in fact a recurring preoccupation of the writer, although in many of the stories in this collection the innocence is not so much lost as wantonly smashed with the hammer of abuse by a procession of unfit parents and authority figures. The second story ‘Some Pictures in an Album’ is for my money the best of these, partly because it uses a technique I love – telling a very dark story through snapshots described by a traumatized narrator – and also because it avoids feeding the reader too much information, leaving a nice little garden of nightmares to flourish in the interstices of the plot.
Some of these child-centric stories, such as ‘Unicorn Meat’, were too unremittingly black for my taste (though you can’t say the title doesn’t warn you), but others contained an appealing thread of hope gleaming redly in the dingy tapestry of despair, poverty and cruelty. For instance ‘Little Boxes’ – which also boasts such a great basic premise that I’m amazed no-one seems to have thought of it before – is a very enjoyable look at the form a supernaturally-enhanced uprising of disaffected youth might take, though if you’re the sort of person who lies awake at night worrying about just how pissed off Generation Z are going to be when they grow up, then you might want to skip this one. ‘Hard Knocks’, which deals with a school shooting, also has a satisfying ending which contains a substantial component of revenge but without being too black-and-white.
McMahon’s adults, meanwhile, are not always evil, and many of the characters here are just ordinary people struggling to keep their heads above the black waters of modern life, with depression, dysfunctional relationships and addiction being recurring themes. Often the weird elements in a story will emerge seamlessly from the awful environments they occur in, and when you think back on the stories it’s often hard to remember at exactly what point the supernatural intrudes. And yet these incursions of strangeness, dark as they are, often add a note of liberation, however fleeting, to the hopeless, predictable and often marginal lives of the heroes and heroines. This is the case in ‘Tethered Dogs’, which features a prostitute granted an occult power (but at a very heavy price), and ‘What We Mean When We Talk About The Dead’. This examination of the afterlife is almost upbeat by comparison with the other tales in this collection, and together with ‘Tethered Dogs’ it is the most reminiscent of McMahon’s Thomas Usher novels.
Not all the stories are so focussed on social justice, however, and in fact some of the best are more overtly fantastical. ‘Kaiju’ pulls off the trick of making you seriously entertain the possibility of a Godzilla-type entity appearing without warning to clobber us all; it is, of course, seen through the lens of a survivor, but it has a more original plot than a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction. ‘Cinder Images’ is a headfuck of the Nicholas Royle variety about a cursed film with the power to warp reality, and ‘The Night Just Got Darker’ is that rare thing, a story about the nature of writing that you can actually finish and enjoy. So whatever type of horror fiction floats your boat, you should find something that tickles your fancy here, as long as you like your horror lean, unsentimental and committed to depicting the modern world without airbrushing.
Review by Daisy Lyle
This book is a tour of the dark places, a literary journey into the shadows at the heart of the human experience.
Despite what you might think, these stories take place in a world very much like our own. Here you will find darkness and light, love and hate, pain and ecstasy. People just like you and I live inside these stories: the hurt, the damaged, the mad, the bad, the hopeful and the hopeless...
Here, pain is often something to be endured on the way to some form of revelation. Death is not always the end. You will be faced by monsters, and you will discover that sometimes the worst monsters are those with a human face.
So be careful. Remain focused. Keep your arms inside the vehicle at all times.
In these stories, transformation will happen.
You will encounter the extremes of human nature.
And, yes, some bruising may occur
‘Malorie’, sequel to ‘Birdbox’, fails to reach the heights of its predecessor
The release of Birdbox in 2015 heralded one of the most original literary talents of the last decade and in the subsequent five years Josh Malerman’s creativity has dazzled the horror world. But did Birdbox genuinely need a sequel or is it simply a cash-in following the hugely successful Netflix film of the same name? Malerman has said Malorie’s story was unfinished business and so we head back to the same postapocalyptic world, with sequel Malorie, where dangerous strange creatures roam freely and if sighted make the majority of those who see them go mad, kill themselves, those close to them them, or all three.
I read Birdbox when it was brand new and over the years have used it for my senior school book club twice, where we held both our discussions blindfolded! Hell, as far as I know, I might even have invented the ‘Bird Box Challenge’ which was hyped when the film was released. Over the past few years, I have enjoyed watching the novel spread out from being a popular horror story in the horror community into an international bestseller and Josh Malerman, who is an aimable and charming guy who knows the genre inside out, deserves every success the book and film brings. But the million-dollar question is a big one: is Malorie any good?
First up, it is impossible to recreate the freshness, fear factor or sheer freshness of Birdbox, and to be fair to Malorie does not attempt to, it merely continues the story of main character Malorie a couple of years later. Interestingly, it seems to have been written in such a way that if you have only seen the film then you could probably follow the thread of this outing easily enough. It goes without saying though, reading this without having devoured the predecessor would be the height of stupidity. There are countless references to the characters in Birdbox and what happened, so Malorie is a much richer experience for having read book one. Another notable difference is that this new book only has one linear plotline, rather than the narratives which were split over two time periods in the original, this fact alone makes Birdbox a more complex and challenging read.
Although Malorie was an entertaining page-turner, ultimately it lacked the ambition of Birdbox and seemed rather short, with quite a simplistic storyline which was little more than a journey. Most of the action is set ten years after the conclusion of the previous book, seventeen years after the initial appearance of the creatures, Malorie is living in an isolated summer camp and rarely sees any other people. She lives with her two children Olympia and Tom who are now sixteen who know nothing of the world except what she has told them. But they are teenagers, not exactly rebellious, but want to branch out, Tom especially, longs for freedom and enjoys inventing things and has a deep fascination for the creatures.
For Malorie things take an uncomfortable turn when a census-taker turns up at their camp and although she refuse to talk to him, the man leaves a list of notes and names which detail recorded encounters with the creatures and other information, which leads to Malorie having to make a decision which could potentially change their lives forever. This symbolised the first seed of a possible return to civilisation and the census guy reminded me of the conman pretending to deliver letters in David Brin’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece The Postman. And the fact that a long (but fascinating) sequence of the novel is set on a train reinforces that idea, reminding me of Alden Bell’s zombie classic The Reapers are the Angels, where teenage Temple sees her first train, symbolising something similar, the possible return of the old ways.
Malorie just does not do enough to truly grab me. The creatures are no longer genuinely scary as this time out we realise all they are ever going to do is going to lurk in the background, benign, and rather dull. The mounting dread of Birdbox is also sadly absent. Also, if you are looking for any resolution about the creatures, their motives, origins, or anything else, you are going to be sadly disappointed. I think this was a missed opportunity and the chance to take the story in a new direction, instead Malerman opted to play it safe. Very safe.
The story is told in the third person from Malorie, Tom and Olympia’s point of view, with a couple of smaller characters thrown in. One of the strongest aspects of the book is the contrast between Malorie and the two teenagers, who see their mother as the equivalent of an old granny from a different era. They have grown up in the world full of creatures and have almost superhuman hearing, Malorie on the other hand not only wears a blindfold, but a hood also. Her children rebel against this strict and tiresome regime which they see as over the top. Teenagers will be teenagers. These contrasts were fascinating; as for them survival is not enough, they want to live. These developments kept the book going, the creatures merely blended into the background like wallpaper.
I am sure many readers will be delighted with this return to the Birdbox world, but we are talking about Josh Malerman here, an unpredictable author renowned for taking chances with his fiction. I have read everything he has published except Pig, and even if I have not connected with all his fiction, one cannot ever question his vision, originality and desire to push literary boundaries. Malorie is a decent sequel, but it lacks the qualities which attracted me to Josh Malerman in the first place. It is too ‘safe’, not a word I ever expected to use when referring to an author known for originality and fiction which is impossible to categorise.