They say perseverance pays off, and for the most part, it does, but I have to admit that I am a lazy reader. And I usually never persevere with a novel when the first few pages don't grab me. Being dyslexic has left me with a love hate relationship with books, I love getting lost in a good book, but I hate that so many great books get cast away because they are "too difficult" for me. And before I go any further, I have to admit that We Wait by Megan Taylor was going to be one of those books that would have become a did not finish if I hadn't agreed to review for a blog tour. My sense of duty was too strong to give up on this book.
Thank God Almighty that I did persevere with We Wait, because around the second chapter something in my brain clicked into place and, like that transition scene in Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy steps out of her house into the technicolour glory of Oz, Taylor's beautiful style of prose, awoke in full glory in my mind. From that point on I was wholly invested in this exciting and moving take on the gothic novel.
In a classic Gothic trope, our protagonist, fifteen-year-old Maddie along with her best friend are shipped off to a mansion in the countryside, after Maddie's behaviour causes some concern. While Maddie hates the fact that she has been shipped off out of the way, her friend Ellie is enthralled by the move. However, as is common in Gothic novels, there is a darkness and lots of secrets waiting to be uncovered in the walls of the Crawley's estate, where the ghosts await to ensure that the generations of the Crawley family must face secrets and lies that could tear them apart.
So far so reasonably standard gothic fare, but don't let the basic premise of We Wait fool you into thinking that this is just another gothic novel filled with recycled tropes and thinly painted cyphers masquerading as carbon copy protagonists. Taylor has far to much respect for this genre and more than enough talent to lift this wonderful novel far above the trappings of its basic premise.
Firstly, Taylor's prose is something to behold, poetic, beautiful, and capable of lifting what could be the most basic of descriptive passages into a dense and sensuous passage dripping with untold metaphor and ripe for interpretation. I'll be honest here it was this rich prose that initially put me off the book, I found myself losing my way between the layered sentences, but once my mind found the right path I could see just how amazing this book was and devoured the rest of it on one sitting.
I loved the duality of the book, unlike the majority of Gothic novels We Wait, throws the classic windswept chilly landscape out of the window and sets the novel during the height of summer, but Taylor's descriptions of the darkness that threatens to engulf everyone is crafted with a masterfully claustrophobic and oppressive style. The duality of the narrative is carried through in the innovative use of dual narration from the youthful Ellie and her aunt Natalie Crawley. Both are haunted by their past and the present situation that they both find themselves in. With the dark, oppressive nature of the country estate butting heads with the bright and sunny countryside.
However, my favourite use of the duality of the narrative comes from the relationship between Ellie and Maddie, Ellie is introspective, and shy, a typical wallflower. In contrast, Maddie is full of life, achievement and confidence. Taylor's examination of their relationship is totally on point, filled with a fracted sense of beauty; this is a poignant and moving look at the teenage relationships.
Layered over the narrative is a deep sense of impending doom, Taylor dangles the darkness to come in front of the reader with a great skill, which makes the reader feel that same way when a thunderstorm is brewing, you can literally feel the tension building across your temples as the pressure builds just before the storm is unleashed. The oppressive nature of the narrative is a masterclass in gothic storytelling.
We Wait was a revelation, an exquisitely crafted novel, that proves that the gothic genre, is still capable of surprises and unique takes.
The wealthy Crawleys can’t abide a scandal, so when fifteen-year-old Maddie’s behaviour causes concern, she’s packed off to the family’s country estate, along with her best friend, Ellie. But while Maddie is resentful, Ellie is secretly thrilled. A whole summer at Greywater House, which she’s heard so much about – and with Maddie, who she adores…
But from the moment the girls arrive, it’s clear there’s more to the house and the family than Ellie could ever have imagined. Maddie’s aunt, Natalie, and her bedridden grandmother are far from welcoming – and something has been waiting at Greywaters, something that flits among the shadows and whispers in the night.
As the July heat rises and the girls’ relationship intensifies, the house’s ghosts can’t be contained, and it isn’t just Ellie who has reason to be afraid. Three generations of the Crawley family must face their secrets when past and present violently collide.
“But Laine should have learned by now that when you have too much faith in something, it is bound to hurt you. Too much faith in anything will suck you dry. In this way, all the world is a vampire.”
Lost Souls (1992), published as Poppy Z. Brite, was Billy Martin’s debut novel and made Brite a huge name in Horror circles. The novel was released as part of Dell’s Abyss line, which with works such as Kathe Koja’s The Cipher (1991) was helping to redefine Horror at the tail end of the 80s Horror paperback boom. The novel remains powerful and seductive to this day. Steeped in the aesthetics of late 80s/early 90s goth rock and teenage angst, Martin celebrates queerness, rock music, alternative subcultures and magic as an escape from the mundane conformity of American middle-class suburbia. Lost Souls is also one of the key reimaginings of the vampire myth for the modern era, one that bears a strong influence over conceptions of the vampire that followed. As such it remains a potent invocation of its era, a core horror text of the 90s, and a darkly compelling read.
Lost Souls is the story of Nothing, a boy born from vampires in New Orleans who is brought up in suburban Maryland. Alienated from his surroundings, he runs away from home and discovers his true nature with his first taste of blood. He hooks up with his father Zillah and his cronies Molochai and Twig, three decadent predatory immortals who have been feeding on human blood and nihilistically partying for centuries. Lost Souls is also the story of Ghost, psychic sensitive lead singer of the band Lost Souls?, with his best friend and guitarist Steve Finn. When Nothing, Zillah and their entourage show up in their hometown of Missing Mile, Ghost senses the arrival of dark times, and he, Steve and Steve’s ex-girlfriend Ann Bransby-Smith get caught up in the chaos and bloodshed.
The 80s horror paperback boom, for all its strengths, frequently catered to a market of frustrated adolescent straight boys. The genre birthed Clive Barker’s transgressive explorations of sexuality in The Books Of Blood (1984-5), but far more common was a conservative portrayal of sexuality that equates premarital sex with death and is strongly focused on the male gaze, reducing its women to voluptuous sex objects likely to be menaced or killed by the story’s monster. Lost Souls’ open queerness feels nothing short of revolutionary in this context. Martin does not merely equate vampires with queerness, though his vampires are very much queer. The novel is framed as a battle for Nothing’s soul, but it is not a case of monstrous queerness versus heterosexual, conservative middle American values. Nothing rejects the latter outright, knowing that to live in this way would be to deny not just his own nature but what for him makes life exciting and worth living. Nothing is offered a choice between the nihilistic hedonism of his vampire heritage with Zillah, Molochai and Twig and a new life with his musical heroes in Lost Souls?, one that is just as alternative and queer but is not built on innocent blood. Although Ghost and Steve do not hook up in the book – fans would have to wait for the subsequent short story ‘Stay Awake’ (2000) for that – the novel portrays Ghost and Steve’s burgeoning romantic relationship, showing it as much healthier and less destructive than Steve’s abusive relationship with Ann.
The novel subverts the association between homosexuality and the death drive, which would have been particularly prevalent at the time due to the AIDS epidemic and the propaganda surrounding it. The straight relationships in Lost Souls are thoroughly destructive – not only is Steve’s relationship with Ann abusive, in order to be born baby vampires chew their way out of their mothers’ wombs, almost inevitably resulting in the mother’s death. Thus, whilst Martin’s vampires are not undead humans and cannot turn their victims into vampires, their reproduction is built on death. This association of reproductive, heterosexual sex with death connects heterosexuality rather than queerness to the death drive, in defiance of then-current propaganda about AIDS as “the gay plague”. Thus with Lost Souls, Martin frees queerness from its association with death and situates it with the conservative family values the novel rails against.
Lost Souls is a celebration of alternative lifestyles and subcultures. Drinking deeply of the goth aesthetic, it is a novel in which its gaunt, pale heroes prefer to wear black, put on thick dark eyeliner, and are adorned with tattoos and piercings. The clubs where all the cool kids go to escape the monotony of suburbia all play the Cure. Zillah, Molochai and Twig have Foetus and the Bauhaus logo stencilled on the side of their black van. Martin’s loving immersion in the goth subculture vividly transports the readers back to the time it was written. But beyond that, the novel celebrates any place where a relief from conformity can be found, from the dingy bars in small towns where teenagers can get served alcohol to the revelry of the French Quarter of New Orleans. In its glorification of rock music, runaways, and casual drug use, it is unafraid to explore the darker underside of the shiny “acceptable” face America presents to the world.
At the heart of Martin’s novel are his wonderfully drawn characters. Everyone in the novel has suffered varying degrees of trauma, and Martin explores the various ways in which the characters respond to this, both sympathetically and unsympathetically. However dark his characters get, they are always compelling, and they are made relatable through their desire to find a place where they can fit in, to find people who they can share love with. Steve and Ghost’s love for each other sees them through the horrors they witness. Whilst Nothing may ultimately lose his soul by embracing his vampire heritage, the bond he forges with his own people sustains him through the darkness and ultimately, he does find his own surrogate family. This desire for connection unites all of Martin’s misfits and outsiders, and is a large part of what makes Lost Souls such a haunting read all these years later.
Sex, blood and rock'n'roll - from the master of gothic horror
At a club in Missing Mile, just outside New Orleans, the children of the night gather. They dress in black and they're looking for acceptance. There's Ghost, who sees what others do not; Ann, looking for love; and Jason, whose real name is Nothing, seeking the deathless truth about his father - and himself.
But into Missing Mile tonight come three beautiful, hip vagabonds: Molochai, Twig and seductive, green-eyed Zillah. They are on their own lost journey, slaking their ancient thirst for blood, aching for supple young flesh.
In Nothing and Ann they find it. Now Ghost must pursue them all. To save Ann from her new friends, to save Nothing from himself.
First published in the early 90s, Lost Souls redefined the vampire novel for a new generation and remains unsurpassed in its dark wit, graphic descriptions and its power to send shivers of panic and pleasure down your spine...
When I first heard that Kit Power had a new book coming out (coming on Halloween 2020, published by Horrific Tales Publishing), I jumped at the chance to review it, and I mean JUMPED. I didn’t even wait for Jim to offer it out for review because I was so worried that someone would answer before me and get the honour. Instead, I cheekily yelled “dibs!” on it and then went off with my review copy, smiling a childish smile.
Usually, reading a book for review scares me. As a rule, I do not put out negative reviews of books released by self-published authors or smaller presses. Just because I hate something, it doesn’t mean I want to tear a hard-working writer down and potentially put other people off buying their work. To each their own. Being asked to review something by a writer I know fills me with dread because on one hand, yes I’d love to offer their book some positive publicity, but on the other hand, oh my god, what if I hate it? And it has happened. A couple of years ago, I had three in a row like that and then I had to answer awkward questions about why I hadn’t put the review out yet. It put me off writing book reviews for a long while. I hate almost everything these days. Honestly, I don’t know what my problem is.
I only tell you this to offer a clue about the quality of Kit Power’s writing and story-telling. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Kit in person, but we often cross paths on the Interwebs and I have got to talk to him a bit (Robocop!), and I’d like to think we’re friends. The fact that I go into review copies with fear and awkwardness and have a new rule to not risk reading books by people I know, just in case, should say a lot about me practically begging Jim to let me take on A Song For The End. That’s how confident I was that I would love it.
So, did I?
Bill and his band write and record a new song, the greatest song they have ever written. It seems that everyone who hears it agrees, and before they know it, the song is going viral. And the consequences are dire.
I’ll stop there because I really don’t want to ruin a single thing about the book, but the concept is such a great launching point that I was hooked straight away. As we go through the story, Bill’s problems just get worse and worse, the plot thickens in an unexpected way, and as things build, the tension is so satisfying. I love feeling like that when I’m reading a book, and this one was definitely a “just one more chapter before I go to sleep” kind of story. In fact, I fell asleep with my computer on my lap reading this, not once but twice. And not in a “it put me to sleep” sort of way, in a “my eyes were closing hours ago but I can’t stop reading” sort of way.
The concept is intriguing and reminded me a bit of Joe Hill’s Horns, though it’s really not similar for the most part, except for in its theme. The pacing is excellent – I’d find that an hour of reading just flashed by. The writing itself is wonderful; intelligent but accessible and unpretentious.
I found myself cringing for the protagonist and empathising for him, but I also felt that way about the antagonist. I thought he was both right and wrong, and I found myself unable to decide how I wanted the story to go. It was so much fun. Kit’s characters are always brilliant. I recently told someone that I’d put Kit’s characters in league with Stephen King’s for how real they feel to read, and I meant it. He has many strengths as a writer but I think he particularly excels in character and dialogue, making great use of the principle of “show, don’t tell” to work in little details that flesh the characters out. I don’t think I’ve ever read what’s known as an info dump in one of Kit’s stories. He knows how to seamlessly work in relationship dynamics, history, and all manner of other things that help you to see the characters as real people. This works even more to his advantage when he writes in the first person, as this story is written.
Thematically, I find that this story gets heavier the more I think about it. It’s about the truth, and the consequences of it. I guess it’s widely accepted that lying is generally seen as a bad thing, but A Song For The End sort of flings the doors wide open on that notion and goes, “well actually, is it?’ After all, everything is about context, and lies are not always wrong or harmful, and definitely have their place. The story deals with the complexities of dishonesty, reasoning, and control. Furthermore, the ending is almost Orwellian because of the consequences of what is happening in the narrative. I realise this is all a bit cryptic but I can’t elaborate without spoiling things.
This isn’t a horror story in the sense that it will spook you, but it will fill you with dread if you put yourself in the shoes of any one of the characters. It’s excellent, a definite 5 out of 5 for me, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Do yourself a favour and pre-order it as soon as you can! In fact, go back through Kit’s other works if you’ve not had the pleasure already (and for the love of all that is good, be sure to get your hands on Breaking Point while you’re at it – it’s disgustingly good!). For the life of me, I can’t understand why Kit Power is not yet topping every best-seller list because he deserves to be.
Oh, and I can’t leave without mentioning the cover, which is not only badass but much more in tune with the plot than you first realise.
I loved this book, can you tell?
A review by K. M. Edwards
‘Becoming an overnight sensation was supposed to be a good thing.
Not for Bill Cutter, supply teacher and weekend rock star. His band, The Fallen, have just released their latest tune on social media, and it’s blowing up.
So is the body count.
Now, Bill faces a frantic race against time to stop the spread of the song, before the horrific effects can no longer be contained.
Terrifying, bitterly funny, and tragic, A Song For The End is a breakneck, bloodsoaked tale of truth, lies, consequences… and Rock N Roll.
a great book with an enjoyable style and a good mix of darkness and humor. Jason Parent is definitely an author I will read more of, and encourage others to try his books if they have not already
To be honest – I’d read this book’s sequel, Victoria, about a year or so before I’d read What Hides Within. I really enjoyed Victoria – it was packed with action and humor – and so I bought What Hides Within, and enjoyed it as well. What Hides Within is a quieter book than its sequel, but it is full of darkness and humor so it was a great read!
The main character is a mediocre man named Clive. Most of the book is spent from his POV, but not entirely. Clive goes kayaking with his friend-with-benefits, Morgan, and takes his kayak under an unused bridge. He is covered in giant spider webs that are so big he never makes it to the other side. He soon experiences a clogged ear and passes it off as trapped water. His doctor cannot find anything wrong with his ear, so nothing can be done. Eventually, the thing in his ear starts talking to him. Since it’s coming from inside him, he wonders if he’s going crazy and hearing voices.
Clive even undergoes brain surgery because a neurosurgeon later saw what looked like a mass on his brain. But when the doctor opened his skull, there was no tumor. So he sews Clive back up again and apologizes for the misdiagnosis. While Clive is recovering in the hospital, the voice’s owner reveals herself. She is an ancient, translucent spider who has been burrowing inside Clive’s head since he disturbed her home under the bridge. He’s not overly concerned at first, since he’s on heavy pain meds and is not entirely convinced the spider is real. He names her Chester.
After Clive is released from the hospital, Chester makes it known that she is a permanent resident in his head for as long as she likes. She eventually convinces him that she can improve his life if he would relax and follow her cues - and for a time, it does. Eventually, Chester’s desires become more sinister, and unfortunately, she doesn’t feel like leaving.
I don’t want to give any more of the plot away, but it was overall a very enjoyable story. There is a lot of humor mixed into this book, as it was with Victoria. I found myself laughing out loud at some of the quips from Clive and a few other characters. And the author made some very realistic and believable characters. So it was pretty easy to buy-into the characters, and find ones I loved and ones I hated.
This book is a little longer than ones I tend to read, but for a long book, the pace didn’t drag anywhere. It kept my interest throughout. The ending may have been a touch rushed, whereas the rest of the book had a very steady cadence and nice flow. The ending was very satisfactory and I can see how it played well for the sequel (although I enjoyed the sequel without having read this book first). I enjoy Jason’s style of writing - it’s flowy but not too poetic; the dialogues are very natural; and the steady dry humor is fantastic.
Overall, this is a great book with an enjoyable style and a good mix of darkness and humor. Jason Parent is definitely an author I will read more of, and encourage others to try his books if they have not already.
RATING 5 OUT OF 5
Clive Menard is just an ordinary guy living an ordinary life. But when a talking spider crawls inside his head, things get a lot less ordinary…and people start dying.
Could an itsy-bitsy arachnid be behind the killing spree terrorizing Clive’s community? To evade a sharp detective and find a murderer among friends, Clive must shake the cobwebs loose and piece together the puzzle of his life, all without falling prey to a dark force beyond his comprehension.
A genre-twisting dark comedy, What Hides Within is an EPIC Finalist and Independent eBook Award Runner-Up for Best Horror.
“I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes horror. It will make you cringe. It will make you shudder. It will make you want to take a shower. But you won't be able to put it down.” - Thomas W. Everson, author of The Rain Experience Trilogy
Time flies when you are having fun, and I can't believe that we have reached volume 5 in this series of anthologies from the ever-reliable Black Shuck Books.
It has been a fantastic series, where the minimalistic covers masking the dark delicacies between the covers, there might be those who do not appreciate the covers, but I believe that these simplistic covers allow the names and stories to do the talking. And boy do these stories talk.
Taking the unifying theme of Midsummer eve, you might be forgiven for thinking that this is just going to be one Wicker Man, after one Midsommer duff local pub tribute act. Don't worry folks; there isn't a single middle-aged man trying to squeeze into a pair of folk horror lycra pants here.
I usually steer clear of themed anthologies in so many cases the theme either becomes stale by the time you reach the midpoint, or you find that the authors are doing literary contortions to make their story fit in with the theme. Thankfully the editor, Steve J Shaw, and the authors presented here have enough experience and talent to prevent either of these things to happen.
There are two ways to read an anthology, in order or dipping in and out cherry-picking your favourite authors first. I have it good authority that the second method drives editors mad, as they spend a lot of time carefully selecting the running order of the stories. I have to be honest here. I jumped ahead to read one of them out of order as I was excited to read my first story from this author, I am glad I did as it was one of my favourites of the anthology.
But for those of you who read them in printing order, the editor must ensure that the first story is something special, and oh my word is My Darling Freya something special. Stephen Laws' twisted "love story" is a taut, claustrophobic tale of love, unrequited love, and the dangers of dating an utter psycho. His use of constantly repeating phrases from Freya throughout the story might sound off-putting. However, these repeating phrases serve to ramp up the tension to a suffocating level, where you feel the terror and fear that Bryan feels trapped underneath her with a knife pressed against his throat. It's an imaginative motif that sets the anthology a colossal bar to live up to.
The Oak King Abides by Kelly White (this is the story I jumped ahead to read) takes the most literal interpretation of the theme and weaves it into a Wicker Man / Midsommar love letter, but don't let that put you off. White's excellent characterisation and realistic dialogue, combined with a deeply disturbing depiction of those nasty small villages that have those equally disturbing summer festivals ( I live in an area where there are five such villages all within close walking distance) is a joy to read. Kelly has a strong voice that rises above limitations of the stories narrative to produce a chilling tale that reminds us never to go away for the weekend as nothing good will ever come out of it.
I've been umming and ahhing ever since I finished this anthology as to what was my favourite story, if you were to ask me tomorrow it might change, but Stewart Hotston's Phototoxicity (Bring Me Sunshine) is the one I'm picking today. We all dream about living away from everyone else, just you and your dog on some beautiful remote Scottish island, with no one else for miles. Sounds idyllic, doesn't it? And despite decades of film and TV you still get someone doing this who ends up upsetting the "locals". You would think in this age of knowledge we would have learned not to do this. Hotston's tale captures the bleak beauty and the veiled mystical menace of the Scottish woodlands with a sweat inducing majesty in this goosebump inducing story.
Robert Shearman has long been considered to be a master of the short story format, and Eve, Mid Summer, confirms his mastery of the short story. This chilling tale of love and obsession raises the creep factor to a level where you, the reader feel like a dirty voyeur, much like those caught under the unrelenting spell of Eve. This is at times an incredibly uncomfortable read, but Shearman's use of dark vein of black humour that bubbles underneath the main narrative of the story prevent it from becoming so painful that you have to stop reading. When love is this all-encompassing, sometimes you pray for sweet release.
Simon Clark has been one of my literary heroes for close to thirty years. And Torch Song Without Words does nothing to dent my feelings on this. Using the concept of synaesthesia as the backbone to this tale, and the ability of a mysterious composer whose music has the power to change our memories, and perception of the world is a stroke of genius. Torch Song Without Words starts as a claustrophobic story about looking for answers but slowly morphs into a fast-paced adventure survival story. Clark steers this shift in pace with the skill of an adroit storyteller, with Torch Song Without Words ending up like those long extinct excellent BBC 1 shows on a Sunday evening that scared and entertained a generation of kids.
Heaven on Earth by Jenn Ashworth takes a common theme of love and duty present in this anthology and turns it on its head with this moving look at the disintegration of a newlywed couple's relationship while on their honeymoon, while the world around them disintegrates in unison thanks to some unnamed disease.
Told solely from the perspective of the groom, this is an emotive story that forgoes any sense of what could be classed as "classic horror", instead it relies on a powerful sense of emotional, existential dread and horror as our protagonist slowly realises that paradise as a location and a state of mind is so easily ripped apart.
And those are just my personal favourite stories of the collection, although each story presented here is more than worthy of inclusion in this powerful anthology. Midsummer Eve breaks free from the shackles of many horror anthologies, if you are looking for quick fixes of blood and gore, then this anthology might disappoint, but if you are looking for an anthology that eats away at your psyche, with powerful stories that linger in your brain long after you have turned the last page, then this is a perfect read for you.
There is a moving sense of melancholy that pervades the spaces between the words of every story here, with loss hurt and pain pushing through the pages, you might not have a smile on your face after you finish this, but you will be happy in knowing that you have read an exceptional anthology, that doesn't go for the easy option of themed anthologies. Great British Horror 5 builds on the significant volumes before to deliver the best one yet. Where Steve J Shaw goes with volume 6, I don't know, but I will be along for the ride.
The overall impression left by ‘Skeleton Melodies’ is of an author who is definitely going places. Some of his prose could do with a bit of pruning, but it’s a polished collection covering a wide variety of fears ancient and modern, and I will be watching Smith’s development as a writer with interest.
Hippocampus Press has published some fine new weird fiction authors recently, such as Richard Gavin and John Langan, so I was keen to try out Clint Smith’s latest collection The Skeleton Melodies, especially as it comes recommended by another talented US weirdsmith, Laird Barron.
At first glance Dan Sauer’s cover artwork, with its rainbow of dark but lurid colors and gothic font, evokes the aesthetics of 60s colour horror films like The Masque of The Red Death, and it had me worried that Hippocampus were trying to peddle Smith as one of those Hammer or Roger Corman nostalgia merchants that have crept into literature recently. However, when you look more closely a great deal of beautiful etched detail and layering becomes visible in Sauer’s artwork, and you realize you are looking at something new and individual rather than just a re-hash of old stuff (go here to see it up close: https://clintsmithfiction.com/the-skeleton-melodies/).
This is one case where you can judge the book by its cover, because the same can be said of many of Smith’s stories. Things don’t begin very auspiciously: the opening story ‘Lisa’s Pieces’, which arguably has the highest profile of them all since it featured in a recent S. T. Joshi anthology, is one of the least interesting, being a fairly standard piece of Frankenstein/Herbert West-y medical horror, albeit updated for the present day. And as I read on, I found myself increasingly confounded by Smith’s love affair with alliteration, which is so extreme that it must be a deliberate stylistic choice and not just literary incompetence. The final story ‘Haunt Me Still’ contains the following gem: “The slate-streaked sky above the bevy of bereavers was suitably subdued for the occasion”, but there are many other examples. A lot of the stories are also marred by wordy passages of the “why use one syllable when five will do” variety.
However, these are just passages, and there’s a lot of good writing here too. I can guarantee the reader will learn a lot of strange new words like “antigodlin” and “maud” (although strangely these never seem to crop up in the excessively verbose bits) and Smith also impresses with his original descriptive skills on several occasions. In ‘The Rive’, a more successful piece of medical horror concerning a nationwide system enabling the old to vampirize the young, this description of institutional muzak is quite something: “The champagne music rushes back in with casual constriction, like a palm soothingly closing over a throat.” (Thank God Smith didn’t follow that old saw about never using adverbs, because that “soothingly” really makes the sentence.) In ‘The Pecking Order’ there is a lovely bit of sinister nature description, too: “Meg made her way through the sun-spoked tunnel as birds and the hum of insects swayed and folded like the pleats of an all-encompassing curtain.” Throughout the collection I saw valiant attempts to avoid lazy, conventional writing, and they are very often successful.
Nor should readers be deterred by the basic premises of some of the tales, which repeatedly start out in a very conventional manner, only to veer off and deepen into something more interesting. ‘Animalhouse’ at first appears to be another of those man-into-beast transformation stories that claim to be serious examinations of the violent underbelly of the “toxic masculine” psyche, but which so often simply serve as an excuse for extended scenes of gloating carnage wrought on ex-girlfriends and their lovers. However, this is not the case here; Smith’s use of violence and the possibility of violence is unusual, and the story also has a good sticky, bloody, feverishly feral quality that will ensure it appeals even to those with no hoots to give about gender politics.
Similarly, my favourite story in the book, ‘Fingers Laced, as Though in Prayer’ has a few (un)pleasant surprises up its sleeve. It all kicks off with a bus full of teenagers breaking down in the sunny fields of Someplace, America - fields which turn out to contain a lot more than just crops! Consequently, I was initially tempted to dismiss this one as a literary rip-off of the horror film Jeepers Creepers 2, but there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s psychologically very gripping and convincing, and the focus is on the budding entente between one of the schoolkids and the bus driver (a very overlooked figure in many teenage dramas, in film and on paper), a middle-aged woman who turns out to have an unusual past. Though not so unusual that the reader can’t feel a good deal of empathy and interest in her situation. A very satisfying and feminist story with a good dose of the weird.
Some of the material is a bit thin: ‘The Fall of Tomlinson Hall, or the Ballad of the Butcher’s Cart’ is a predictable cannibalism/social justice crossover, and ‘Knot The Noose’, in which American drug dealers at large in Jamaica bite off more than they can chew while attempting to secure an unusual strain of cannabis, felt rushed and a bit so-whatty. However, the latter story does have worth as a kind of prelude to one of the best pieces of writing here, ‘Fiending Apophenia’. This appears to be picking up where ‘Knot The Noose’ left off: the dodgy weed has now arrived in American cities and we experience its effects through the eyes of a young small-time drug dealer who finds his mind expanding in highly unexpected ways after his first smoke. This story shows that Smith can write well in a more informal, vernacular style, and in its depiction of somewhat lost young people battling a world warping and splitting into madness it is actually quite reminiscent of Laird Barron’s own recent writing, although I find Smith’s kids less relentlessly hard-nosed and more likeable than the Barron equivalent.
In fact, the predicament of the aimless twenty-something American is one of Smith’s fortes. The protagonist of ‘Her Laugh’ – about an easily embarrassed young man who becomes fascinated with his pretty but odd neighbour – could’ve seemed like an irredeemably whiney incel in the wrong hands, but in fact it is easy to identify with his social anxieties and root for him when the shit starts to come down. I also enjoyed the echoes of some of Robert Aickman’s more erotic material in this story.
And in case that’s not enough neighbour horror for you, ‘Details That Would Otherwise Be Lost to Shadow’ offers another exploration of that perennially fruitful horror topic, What Those Freaks Next Door Are Up To. A successful yuppie lady finds herself tempted into infiltrating the home of her elderly next-door neighbours, in a set-up that reminded me a bit of Ramsey Campbell’s brilliant piece of trespass terror ‘Call First’. However, whereas Campbell’s story left a lot to the imagination and ended on a cliffhanger, Smith delves two-fistedly into a description of the strange and awful contents of the house and its denizens. Not terrifying as such, but certainly unsettling.
The overall impression left by ‘Skeleton Melodies’ is of an author who is definitely going places. Some of his prose could do with a bit of pruning, but it’s a polished collection covering a wide variety of fears ancient and modern, and I will be watching Smith’s development as a writer with interest.
Review by Daisy Lyle
Over the past several years, Clint Smith has established himself as a powerfully imaginative writer of weird fiction. In this second collection of short stories, Smith shows why his multifaceted talents have established him as one of the notable weird writers of his generation. The Skeleton Melodies features such stories as “Lisa’s Pieces,” a grisly tale of cruelty and murder; “Fiending Apophenia,” in which a schoolteacher reflects poignantly on his past derelictions; “The Fall of Tomlinson Hall,” wherein Smith draws upon his own expertise in the culinary arts to fashion a story of cannibalistic terror; and “The Rive,” a highly timely post-apocalyptic account of the horrors that inequities in health care can foster.
Other stories treat of domestic strife leading to supernatural or psychological horror, such as “Animalhouse” or “The Undertow, and They That Dwell Therein.” The volume culminates in the richly textured novella “Haunt Me Still,” one of the most subtle and powerful ghost stories in recent years.
here are some scenes which stuck with me long after putting the book down, but some descriptions made me want to skim read. It's definitely worth your time and patience though, even if it might not haunt your shelves forever.
With echoes of My Chemical Romance's classic song & video in the back of my mind, I was pleased when I flipped open the virtual cover of Claire L Smith's Helena, to be met with similar notions of love and death, plus an undercurrent of fear, right from the get-go.
Just like that band's early stylings, the writing in this gothic chiller feels lost in time, using a modern style to describe an 1800's setting. The plot involves the titular character seeking out a new home closer to her place of work at an inherited mortuary. There, she hopes to find easier times, both from a professional and personal point of view, as the ghosts she's encountered since childhood continue to trail her, while a mysterious killer stalks the streets.
As much as I loved the themes and the mood of this novella, I wasn't 100% sold on the way it was put together. There's some fantastic use of imagery when it comes to scene setting, but there are a lot of mixed metaphors and similes which kept throwing me out. There's also a reliance on using foodstuffs to describe feelings and facial expressions that never sat right with me. You can tell that the author is well versed in poetry, which obviously goes hand in hand with gothic literatrure, but here it just bogged some parts down. And that anachronistic style also means things are described that don't fit the setting, or just didn't exist in the 1800's, which kept pulling me out of the story.
Still, the book definitely delivers when it comes to fear – the initial scenes in which Helena either confronts or encounters beings from the spirit world reminded me a lot of the preacher from Poltergeist II; they're gaunt, lurching things, peering out from beneath the rims of their hats or from the depths of the shadows. Later, there are visuals that made me think of the fiery ghouls Barbara Crampton faced in We Are Still Here. There's intrigue to be had from Helena's day to day affairs, but it's those ghostly encounters which stand out the most, becoming more frequent and intense as the book goes on. By the halfway mark I was a bag of nerves, as our hero is continually pressured and tormented by wild-eyed spectres, and eventually much, much worse. The panic she feels becomes a tightening grip around your throat, and there's a nightmare scene at one point which is unrelentingly terrifying.
Fortunately for Helena, she doesn't have to face the horrors of life and the afterlife alone, with a close confidant called Miranda who moves in the same kind of spiritual circles, along with understanding and company from a couple called Audrey and Valerie. The men in her life range from a doggedly persistent detective to a pair of secretive brothers, and there's a hint of romance along the way, but it's never the main drive. Helena's journey is a slow burn, so while the plot seems to be ambling in places, it's worth sticking with for how monstrously effective and weirdly beautiful it gets.
Overall then, I've got mixed feelings about Helena. It's undoubtedly scary, nightmare-inducing even, but sometimes it trips over itself with purple prose. There are some scenes which stuck with me long after putting the book down, but some descriptions made me want to skim read. It's definitely worth your time and patience though, even if it might not haunt your shelves forever.
REVIEW BY BEN WALKER
On the outskirts of London, 1855, mortician and funeral director Helena Morrigan struggles with her limited finances and the heavy burdens of her past. Desperate to secure herself, she takes up residence in an aged house closer the graveyard, closer to the lost souls that sense her torment and are determined to take her place in the mortal world. As she tries to tame and free the ghostly figures around her, she becomes acquainted with the owners of the home, the recently orphaned siblings, Eric, Audrey and Christian Tarter. Yet, the souls she wants to save are on edge as a horrific serial killer runs rampant, giving Helena a boost in business and suspicion. Against her best efforts, Helena is suddenly thrown into a bloody mystery where new and old friendships are tested, innocents are maimed and a horrific family secret that threatens her chance at a peaceful existence and her existence itself.
Amanda Crum's To Leaven His Bones is the perfect autumnal read, full of seasonal trappings and imagery, alongside a plot involving gradual rot and renewal. Alyson Faye's The Witch Tree is by far the best poem, with tragedy and terror woven throughout its short glance at witchcraft trials. And Kev Harrison's Shaft offers some underground terror with echoes of Quatermass and the Pit minus the aliens, as a burial shaft is unearthed along with something unpleasant.
Hallowe'en slowly but surely invades our house every year, and I like to leave some pumpkin-themed stuff up all year round, because, well, it's my joint favourite time of the year alongside Xmas. So I'll always welcome the themed seasonal anthologies that spring up in & around October, but this 4th edition of Things in the Well's Trickster Treats series left me colder than a forgotten spiced latte at the back of the fridge.
Offering up a mix of 32 original stories, along with some flash fiction and poems, there were very few standouts here, with most of the misses coming down to either stories that leave you catching up with what the characters already know, or tales that took their time between shocks so much that it was sometimes hard to keep track of the proceedings. If you present a threat, then spend a bunch of time going back in time to explain the origin of that threat, it becomes far less threatening, and a fair few stories are bound to that bad habit. It's a shame, because the concepts are often gleefully ghoulish, ideas that would fit nicely in an EC Comics offering, but they keep lurching into past events just when you're hooked into the present-day stuff, and struggle to pick the pace back up afterwards. Others are more languid in their pacing, better for enjoying whilst curling up next to something warm, but not as chilling as they could be.
Similarly, the poetry mostly falls flat, either offering rhyming schemes that are more Kids Bop than Groovie Ghoulies, or running so long that again, any impact is long forgotten as you slog your way through to the end. Between this and the fiction, there are occasional mentions of literal things in wells, and I don't know if this was a deliberate thing asked for on the submission call or just a cutsey thing some of the writers threw in there, but those winks to camera seemed a little bit out of place, drawing focus away from the overall theme of things being buried or returning from the grave.
Like the season itself though, it's not all doom and gloom, and there are a few highlights that offer some spooky thrills. Amanda Crum's To Leaven His Bones is the perfect autumnal read, full of seasonal trappings and imagery, alongside a plot involving gradual rot and renewal. Alyson Faye's The Witch Tree is by far the best poem, with tragedy and terror woven throughout its short glance at witchcraft trials. And Kev Harrison's Shaft offers some underground terror with echoes of Quatermass and the Pit minus the aliens, as a burial shaft is unearthed along with something unpleasant.
Overall, it feels like the burial theme was too narrow a space to let creativity breathe, with many stories feeling constrained by the limitations of such a specific topic. But at least proceeds will be going to a good cause as with so many Things in the Well publications, so even if you don't check out the book, it's worth visiting indigenousliteracyfoundation.org.au for more on the work they're supporting with the proceeds from this release.