by Tony Jones
“Outstanding haunted house debut novel”
Once-in-a-while we stumble upon a novel which defies all expectations and hits the nail slap bang in the centre of the head, “Kill Creek” by Scott Thomas did exactly that. At first glance there is nothing at all original about this highly entertaining debut novel which borrows many ideas from other books. However, it messes around the horror clichés so cleverly the result is an intoxicating read which I sped through in a few nights loving every minute.
I took the plunge on “Kill Creek” after Shane Keene recommended it: "A slow-burn, skin-crawling haunted house novel that had me on the edge of my seat until the last page. This debut establishes Scott Thomas as a force to be reckoned with on the horror scene. " If you don’t know who Shane is check out his website https://shotgunlogic.com/ as he is one of the very best horror and dark fiction reviewers in the business. Few know horror as well as this dude and he was right on the money with this book and he reviews regularly for various leading horror sites.
The publisher Inkshares operates with a crowdfunding model instead of agents and acquisition editors in deciding what to publish. Their community of readers can pre-order a book project on Inkshares.com, and if the project hits its funding limit, Inkshares brings the book to life by providing editorial services, design, production, national distribution, and marketing. If “Kill Creek” is a good example the quality of novel that comes out of Inkshares then I will be paying a very close interest to their future releases. They have a very good track record after recently releasing the excellent “A God in the Shed” a few months back.
What of the “Kill Creek” plot then? Like I said nothing new, except for a haunted house story cleverly manipulated into a time-spanning tale that pulls four suckered horror authors into a dark sinister web. The prologue reveals the house has a dark past, and when two spinster sisters Rachel and Rebecca Finch purchased it in 1975 it had already developed a dark reputation stretching back to the days of slavery. Some years into their residency Rachel invites Dr Adubel, a well-known paranormal expert to spend time in the house, he writes a book about his experiences and “Phantoms of the Prairie” becomes a bestseller. The book ensures the house’s reputation as one of the scariest places in America is truly cemented.
Flip forward some years into the main part of the story, a popular internet supernatural TV host, known only as Wainwright, invites four very well-known horror writers to spend a night in the house. In some ways this is the oldest cliché in the horror book; spending a night in a haunted house. However, the author really spices it up, as what follows is a slow burner which builds wonderfully over the duration of the novel. In actual-fact, very little of the novel takes place in the house, but it casts a long and dangerous shadow as the four authors find out.
Many of the most entertaining sequences derived from spotting traits, or at least guessing, which writers Scott Thomas might have based his four bestselling authors upon? Maybe it was nobody at all, but I have a feeling there are bits and pieces of Stephen King, RL Stine and a good few others. These central four characters are very well-defined with Sam McGarver probably the main protagonist who suffers from writer’s block and currently teaches literature at college whilst his agent hounds him for his fourth unwritten novel. We also have Sebastian Cole, seen as the grandfather of modern horror fiction, a very cool female author TC Moore who writes violent and sexually explicit material and Daniel Slaughter a prolific teen writer whose novels usually have a strong Christian message. Sam and TC are the biggest characters, but the plot is revealed from all four points of view and their interactions with each other are a real strength of the book.
Although “Kill Creek” does borrow from classics such as “The Haunting of Hill House” I really liked the way the author avoided other stereotypical haunted stuff; there are no creaking staircases or branches clicking against tree windows, instead there is intense paranoia and a complex haunting story which is a thrilling read. You’ll be rooting for Sam and TC in no time at all, right up to the terrific ending. Many of us must have thought the haunted house novel was as played out as the zombie story, but Scott Thomas shows there is still life in the old haunted house yarn. An author to watch out for.
By John Boden
My first experience with the work of Scott Cole was with his lovely and ridiculously brilliant novelette, Superghost a few years ago. I have crossed paths with him many times, count him a friend and one of the most knowledgeable folks I know when it comes to obscure horror film, anyway--I always ask when he's going to have a new book out. This past summer, I got my answer.
Slices is a collection of wildly weird and brutally bizarre stories, some very short. Written in Cole's wry style where it's completely normal for these surreal shenanigans to be happening. There are over thirty tales of twisted terror and odd behaviors in here. I loved them all.
Opening with "The Regenerates" in which a man pulls his tongue free from his mouth and it blossoms into a progeny of clones. "Violins For Sale" takes the idea of mishearing something to a severely twisted and brutal conclusion. In "Cat Tree Summer" a guy on a writing retreat discovers a tree that give cat-shaped fruit. "Horns Up" is primo heavy metal mayhem with lightning and demons. "The Bigot" delivers a stark and scarring lesson in comeuppance, when a bigoted man awakens in a strange setting with little memory and a reflection that challenges him.
"Slices Of Me" is what a strange one, where a man decides he is delicious and peddles himself to the masses. "Smoke Detector" exposes an alien menace that is right under our noses. "God" concerns an amusement park-type place that is built from the remains of God, after he's found dead. "Rough Night" takes the common Fellow-wakes-with-no-memory-of-the-previous-night scenario and boils it down to its barest ingredients for an effective flash piece.
All of these stories are entertaining and all of them are absurdly weird. Some more so than others. But with Cole's style nothing seems to be weird just for weird's sake. That just how shit goes down in his head, man. Give it a go. But wear an apron and some gloves, there's a lot of goo in here.
Slices is available from Black T-Shirt Books and Amazon.
If it weren’t for the 2017 copyright date stamped at the beginning of John Linwood Grant’s A Persistence of Geraniums, one could be forgiven for assuming Grant was a contemporary of Edwardian authors M.R. James and Arthur Conan Doyle. Each of the stories in this collection are utterly steeped in that bygone era, both in terms of setting and style.
It’s one thing to believably transport readers through space and time to immerse them in a vividly realized historical environment. It’s a whole ‘nother thing to be able to meaningfully evoke the tone and language of the writers from that period, all while still retaining a viably modern sensibility and enough of a unique voice to rise above mere facsimile. Through seven tales of mystery, murder, madness, and mysticism (plus a couple conversational interludes), Grant does exactly that.
Several of the stories here focus on “The Deptford Assassin,” Edwin Dry. A recurring character of Grant’s (one of several appearing in this collection), Dry is the best there is at what he does, but what he does isn’t very nice. He’s not some mustache-twirling villain, slavering psycho, or misunderstood antihero, though. He’s more like a perfectionist, bowler derby-clad version of “The Ice Man,” Richard Kuklinski (a real-life sociopath killer-for-hire notorious for his apparent wholesale lack of emotion and decidedly businesslike, matter-of-fact approach to life and death).
Plopping a character like that into the Edwardian era, what with its residual Victorian propriety and undercurrents of bubbling social unrest, works wonders. Whether giving a rare interview to a doomed writer, devising an elaborate scheme to arrange some private time with an otherwise inaccessible target, or even pitting his own inner darkness against that of an exorcised demon (!), Dry proves consistently compelling despite never once exhibiting so much as a dash of genuine likeability. In Dry, Grant has created a character fascinatingly disturbing in both how alien he is and how human he is.
Aforementioned encounter with a literal devil aside, the stories starring Dry tend to hew closer to detective fiction than outright horror. To wit, one standout tale feels a lot like a Sherlock Holmes story, only inverted. Instead of a meticulous detective solving a crime, piece by piece, after it’s already happened, a just-as-meticulous murderer commits his crime, piece by piece, with the reader witnessing the process as it happens. And instead of the reader going into the story knowing that this is the point, here the realization only dawns as one falls deeper down the rabbit hole.
Elsewhere, however, the collection’s non-Dry tales embrace the supernatural without reservation, specifically that most classic form of English terror: the ghost story. Grant makes good use of the subgenre’s inherent versatility. First, he opens the collection with an old woman recounting to a pair of uppity, unwanted guests her youthful brush with the spirit world. It’s an exercise in tongue-in-cheek gallows humor that nevertheless hits home with pangs of genuine pathos despite its jokey cartoon ending.
Grant follows that with a tragic yarn about a lovelorn young man who finds a wood-carving of a heart on the beach and yearns to return it to the drowned maiden who visits him in his dreams. This one is just as poetic and heartbreaking as the traditional folktales from which it takes its inspiration.
The collection eventually closes with one last ghost story that, while similarly mournful, is its own beast entirely. For starters, it’s a Carnacki story, starring the famed occult detective originally created by early 20th century fantasist William Hope Hodgson. What’s more, it may very well be the best Carnacki story Hodgson himself never wrote. Contemplative, sobering, and downright deconstructionist, Grant’s take on the character defies convention with a narrative that is unassuming and (to be honest) uneventful, but ultimately profound. It’s a stark reminder that behind every swashbuckling pulp hero there is (or at least could be) a real person, complete with secrets, regrets, and an overwhelming awareness of their own mortality.
Accompanying Grant’s prose throughout are numerous illustrations by Paul Boswell which mirror the writing’s tone by channeling shades of James McBryde, Edward Gorey, and, at times, Stephen Gammell. Altogether, A Persistence of Geraniums may be a slim volume, but it is one that fully realizes a very specific, and very engaging, vision. Readers may be able to finish the whole thing in one sitting, but that just makes it all the more tempting to dive back in a second go. Or a third. Or a fourth. Or…
Elspeth Reeves’ comfortable London life has fallen apart: after losing her job, her boyfriend and her home she retreats to her parents’ house in Wilsby-Under Wychwood. However, the day she arrives a corpse is found in the wood, dressed as a character from the local folk tale of The Carrion King, and Elspeth gets involved in the investigation.
I have to confess a sense of disappointment when I realised I was reading a crime novel. I generally don’t enjoy crime fiction, and the initial setup here could have come from a how-to-structure-your-crime-novel manual.
While it’s structured as a traditional whodunit with a bunch of suspects, all of whom have secrets, it kept me gripped in a way that most mainstream crime doesn’t. The prose is consistently smooth and readable while the pace is expertly handled, starting with police standing around wondering what to do and escalating to a frantic race against time by the end. The mythology at the book’s heart is intriguing and even secondary characters are well realised.
I was reminded of the Michael Slade horror thrillers I used to enjoy in the eighties – Mann manages to spend time in the killer’s mind while maintaining the mystery until the end. Speculating is part of the fun of this kind of book.
A jolly, fast-moving and entertaining read, not shackled too much by genre clichés.
by John Boden
A young woman is making her way across the desert, navigating the back roads and asphalt veins of this beast of a country, when she is picked up by a man. An older fellow with yellow teeth and a darker soul than she could ever imagine. He abducts Celia and spirits her away to a ramshackle church in the literal middle of nowhere. There she is held prisoner with other women, of varying ages, all with numbers carved into their foreheads. After the man makes her number 14, he leaves in his big black car and she and the others are watched by his large dog.
Casey is in a hospital; she can't really communicate what her problem is, she sings an old spiritual and tries to make sense of the visions she sees of herself in a dark and dusty place, of others like her but older. With the help of an orderly with a special skill, like hers, she's about to embark on a quest to save this girl from her visions and possibly herself in the process.
We then walk a tightrope between our world, where Casey and Javier race against time to solve a puzzle with pieces missing and that "other" world, that exists between the fabric of them both, where an old man can build an empire of pain and viciousness and still be home in time for dinner.
This book was brilliant. I wish I could delve deeper into the plot but, I feel I would usurp some of its power by giving too much away. Suffice it to say, that Those Who Follow is the first long-form work I've read from Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason AKA The Sisters Of Slaughter, and it is indeed a monstrous slab (in short novella-ish form) of science fiction and unabashed horror. The brutality shown by the villain in this piece is staggering. This one is definitely among the best books I've read so far this year.
Those Who Follow is available from Bloodshot Books and on Amazon.
By Tony Jones
“Ronald Malfi is on top form in this scarily varied twenty story anthology
Ronald Malfi follows one of the standout horror novels of 2017 “Bone White” with a wildly eclectic collection of short stories which effortlessly blend supernatural horror, dark humour, madness, psycho killers, dark fiction with the downright weird. “We Should Have Left Well Enough Alone” features twenty stories penned between 2002 and 2015 and although I loved the majority of the entries, a couple left me scratching my head, generally though the breadth was remarkable. As I chose to read the twenty in page sequence I really had no way of predicting what was to come next such was the unpredictability of this box of treats. Malfi’s stories do not follow any particular short story rules, ghost story traditions or any recognisable formulae, so if you’re looking to pigeonhole this guy, don’t bother, he really does his own thing. But if you want an anthology to widen your eyes, keep you guessing, or provide a nasty chuckle then dive straight in. I’ve never read his short fiction before, but this collection clearly shows he is much more than a superb novelist of dark fiction, much of which I have read.
Reviewing all twenty will take forever so I’m going to focus on several of my personal favourites… “The Dinner Party” had an ending that was so horrible that I had to read it several times just in case I got it wrong. Actually, it still bothers me a bit. It had a twist ending so nasty the king of the surprise ending Roald Dahl would have been proud of it. A young and very neurotic mum gets stressed preparing a dinner for her husband and his business bosses, simultaneously she is paranoid she is being stalked, combined the tension is ratcheted up as she fusses over both dinner and the baby. You’re going to love it, even if you don’t, I guarantee you’ll never forget the ending.
Some of the most powerful stories, including “The Dinner Party” did not feature any supernatural occurrences and “Painstation” was a real sleazy little crackerjack which really did not need it. Loser Keanan is obsessed with a work colleague, Casey Magigan, who he benignly stalks eventually into a club with a rather foul purpose he does not expect. Initially you think he has stumbled into some kind of sadomasochism den only for things to take a much darker turn for the worse. Although it was pretty horrible, it was also sickly funny as Keanan’s obsession hits full throttle as his desire increases. “Under the Tutelage of Mr. Trueheart” also lacked the supernatural, playing on the loneliness of a little boy manipulated by a rather unpleasant old man who has own dark agenda. These three were short stories of the highest quality which in many ways dealt with the weakness of the human condition through dark fiction.
“The Glad Street Angel” was another fine entry which also lacked any supernatural context, however you may read the story another way. A troubled young man is recovering after a stint in rehab after an unspecified loss left his entire family devastated. He tells everyone he is okay, but we the reader know this is far from the case in this terrifying study of loss and guilt.
The rather wonderful “Knocking” is perhaps the closest you’ll get to a traditional ghost story in the collection. I don’t know if Malfi has ever lived in London, but he seems to be aware of the poor level of housing in my fine city! A young couple rent a draughty house in London and the wife is certain she hears knocks and thumps from the closet, it begins to annoy her more and more to the extent she even suspects her husband of deliberately teasing her. By a certain point the husband really wishes he listened to her… Like many of the tales it has a superb ending with ambiguity of what is to come next.
“The House on Cottage Lane” is another unsettling tale of a Halloween dare that backfires. A young boy is forced to play with a succession of local foster kids by his well-meaning father and after being forced to take a kid he really doesn’t like trick or treating things go horribly wrong. “The Housewarming Party” finds Malfi in very playful mood when a couple new to the area throw a party which gets a bit out of hand and really looks like it will never end. Filled with mad imagery and the slow dread of something amiss this story is pretty irresistible as the party from hell, continues and continues and continues…. “Closing In” was another freaky addition which would have made a great “Twilight Zone” episode, and is a superb example of how to build a very vivid story around what sounds at first glance to be a pretty dumb idea. But when a hitman ends up staying in a hotel-room which begins to shrink all bets are off. Lovely entertaining stuff told over ten expertly crafted pages.
The above were my personal favourites, but there were many other very fine examples, including “Learned Children” an unsettling tale of a new teacher in a primary school where the kids had no respect for him, or learning in general, and what exactly did happen to his predecessor? “The Jumping Sharks of Dyer Island” was another twister which has an unpredictable ending, a married couple are on holiday, the wife flirts with a dancer who doubles up as a tourist guide who invites the couple shark-watching the next morning. Is the husband threatened or does he have his own agenda? It is told very drolly until the unpleasant ending kicks in.
“Pembroke Page” resembled the sort of old fashioned retro horror story popular in the 1970s and 1980s which Ramsey Campbell might have written, a collector of rare books stumbles upon a tome which appears to have supernatural power, but soon someone else comes looking for it and such is the power of obsession there is no way he is going to part with it. A father and his two children lament the disappearance of his wife (their mother) in “The Good Father”, but where did she go? And Malfi takes crazy right up to eleven in “All the Pretty Girls” in the unsavoury tale of a car which men develop an unhealthy obsession for, and even kill for.
So there really is a lot on offer in this all-encompassing collection, you’re going to enjoy taking a huge leap into the deep waters of dark fiction with a master storyteller leading you by the hand. I’m sure other readers many well pinpoint different stories as their favourites such is the overall quality which has a top notch balance of supernatural and non-supernatural tales. Not many horror novelists will have a strong enough back-catalogue of short fiction kicking around to produce a collection of stories to rival “We Should Have Left Well Enough Alone” but for Malfi it’s a walk in the park. Highly recommended, as is his 2017 novel “Bone White” which is one of the best novels published this year. I’ll be surprised if it does not appear on many ‘best of’ horror lists at the end of the year.
By George Ilett Anderson
Cuts like a Razor
After reading Karen Runge’s “Seeing Double”, the immediate thought that springs to mind is that psychological horror often leaves the best scars. This, her startling debut novel from Grey Matters Press, is the kind of reading experience that left me feeling rather battered and bruised by story’s end.
Set in Asia, the book is about the trio of Ada, Daniel and Neven who form a fragile predatory relationship with one another and the world at large that increasingly turn parasitic until it threatens to consume them from within. Driven on by their voracious lust for inflicting pain, control and suffering, the trio prey on unsuspecting travellers subjecting them to sexual abuse and torture before disposing of what remains. To call “Seeing Double” uncomfortable and harrowing would be an understatement. It is a novel that takes an unflinching look at the effects and consequences of abuse and is probably one of the most deeply unsettling and disturbing books that I’ve read this year.
There are moments in this novel that are just toe curling to read. That leaves you with the distinct impression that you are witnessing three extremely damaged people who have gone far beyond the point of all return. Yet despite an overwhelming sense of revulsion at the three, Runge manages to elicit a modicum of compassion towards her human monsters. These are people who have endured pasts that haunt them on a daily basis. A point reinforced by the ghosts that seem to be shadowing their every move as their relationship starts to increasingly sour and deteriorate.
I don’t think I can quite begin to state how good the writing on display here is. It takes a rare skill to create empathy for people bereft of anything remotely resembling humanity but Runge’s writing is sharp and precise like a scalpel; progressively peeling back the layers to expose what makes the lead characters tick. It’s a feeling made more pronounced by the warped and twisted love story that forms the backbone of the novel as Daniel, Ada and Neven struggle with their feelings towards each other and their own inner demons.
It’s the kind of storytelling that really gets under your skin, making your flesh crawl at the thought of feeling sympathy for the devil. A stark and disturbing journey into some of the deeper and darker recesses of the human condition, “Seeing Double” will leave an indelible stain on your psyche.
Reading an S.P. Miskowski story is a lot like being in one. While engaged in a seemingly mundane, everyday act, you gradually feel an increasing unease creeping up your spine. It’s subtle enough that you think you can shake it, but you can’t, and soon enough that unease gives birth to dizzying paranoia. By the time you’ve wised up enough to what’s going on to recognize that said paranoia is not unwarranted, you’re all too aware that the darkness you thought was intruding on your life was in fact already there. In truth, it has always been there. It is a part of you. What’s more, you are a part of it.
Bringing together ten stories previously published elsewhere along with three all-new tales, Miskowski’s new collection, Strange is the Night, is full of damaged souls, the sort that beg you to reach out and give them a hand even while a voice in the back of your mind screams at you to run away.
To wit, “This Many” introduces us to Lorrie, a well-meaning but ultimately self-absorbed mother more interested in giving her daughter the childhood she herself never had than the one the young girl actually wants. Her misplaced priorities are brought into sharp focus when a mysterious woman shows up to the child’s birthday party, splattered with blood stains and reeking of rot.
Elsewhere, in the vaguely Kafkaesque “Stag in Flight,” Benny, an antisocial agoraphobe searches for a reason to live while under a pall of suicidal depression, social anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Rejecting society’s fixation on manufactured happiness in favor of transformative misanthropy, Benny finds unexpected companionship in the form of a hungry, skittering insect.
Such an emphasis on broken and jaded people results in Mikowski’s fiction frequently coming across more as quietly tragic than outwardly horrific. Though irregularly tinged with surprising hints of dry humor, Strange is the Night is built atop a foundation of sadness and regret far more haunting than any skull-faced specter or furniture-flinging poltergeist. Miskowski doesn’t shy away from more overt genre archetypes, your monsters and murderers and what-have-you, but she isn’t afraid to peel back the smooth skin of normality to expose a more familiar foulness either. The hulking, razor-taloned beast that prowls the namesake domicile of “Animal House” is scary, but the buried traumas and careless cruelties concealed by its cash-strapped collegiate victims prove even scarier.
What draws you in to these tales is the depth of Miskowski’s characterizations and the seemingly effortless quality of her prose. It’s not just the confident, conversational smoothness that propels you through them at a rocket-powered pace, nor is it simply the skillful use of detail through which Miskowski evokes a concrete sense of place without ever bogging things down in descriptive excess. It’s the conviction, the harsh, heartbreaking earnestness which all but erases the line between audience and text. It makes you feel less like you’re reading words on a page and more like you’re experiencing real events as they actually happen, even at the height of their uncanny strangeness.
Some of these stories are so simple as to be brilliant, such as “A.G.A.,” which is told entirely through the dialogue of a pair of drinking buddies, one of whom observes a peculiar coincidence: anyone and everyone who’s ever wronged him meets a grisly accidental end, almost as if he’s got a particularly vengeful guardian angel watching over him. Still other tales resist explication, pulling raw emotional power out of mystery and murk; in “Death and Disbursement” a life insurance agent endures increasingly abusive phone calls from an apparently senile client. Is he descending into dementia, though, or is there something else afoot, something unseen and unheard lurking on the other end of the line, terrorizing an old man? How? Why? Miskowski keeps the answers just out of reach.
Horror, it must be said, is often at its best when it defies understanding. After all, understanding requires order, and order puts people at ease. When horror has a scapegoat, a creature or killer you can point to and say “That’s the Other,” then even the most outlandish situation is, if nothing else, comprehensible. It may be dangerous but at least it has parameters, boundaries which limit it to a decidedly human sphere. But if mankind were to brush up against something truly Other, is it not more likely that it would not come in some recognizable form, that we would not manage more than an incomplete glimpse of the whole picture, and that we would not be afforded satisfactory explanation?
That is why the stories in Strange is the Night are so effective. Miskowki understands that there is horror in not knowing. More importantly, she understand that, even in our daily lives, in our own hearts and minds, in the reflections we see in the mirror every morning, none of us really knows as much as we think we do.
Over cocktails an executive describes to a friend the disturbing history of a strangely potent guardian angel. A young mom tries to perfect and prolong her daughter’s childhood with obsessive parenting. A critic’s petty denouncement of an ingénue’s performance leads to a theatrical night of reckoning. A cult member makes nice for a parole board hearing years after committing an infamous crime.
A multiple Shirley Jackson Award nominee, S.P. Miskowski serves up an uncompromising collection of thirteen modern tales of desire and self-destruction. Strange is the Night offers further proof that Miskowski is—as Black Static book reviewer Peter Tennant notes—“one of the most interesting and original writers to emerge in recent years.”