In my round up of my favorite collections and anthologies of 2019 I mentioned how this year had been particularly hard for me in terms of both reading and in physical and mental health. And true to form I have ended up closing out this year by being physically and mentally crippled thanks to a nasty dose of sciatica, and the mental fugue brought about by the cocktail of six pain killers that I have been put on to manage the pain. I had hoped to do all of the books on this list justice bu writing new mini, or in some cases the first, reviews for them, but since it has taken me over a week to just write this introduction, I'm going to have to cheat by copying in either the synopsis of the book, or the final closing paragraph of the original review, if the book was previously reviewed on the site.
My heartfelt apologies goes out to the authors and publishers, I had hoped to make this a bit special, but sadly the pain is too much and I wanted this to go out before the end of the year.
All of these books are exceptional, and all of them are deserving of your time and money, so if you fancy purchasing any of these books, please click on the titles, as the links to purchase them are embedded in them.
So in no particular order, except for the very last entry which is my book of the year, here my my pics of 2019
A dark and eerie tale of vengeance that explores what evil really is. Fans of M.R. Carey, Tim Lebbon, Sarah Lotz, and Lauren Beukes will revel in the underlying tension and deep-seated paranoia that runs parallel to the hellish scenes of murder, death, and decay.
After a brutal break-in that left her family traumatised, Trish Feenan jumps at the chance of a fresh start in a charming historic town. But in the back garden of her new cottage sits an unsettling reminder of past wrongs: a standing stone, once one of the markers that kept plague sufferers outside the village bounds, its ‘powers’ renewed every year in a ritual that seems to be more than just local oddity.
As the Feenans settle in, they experience unexplained accidents, accompanied by sightings of a girl who vanishes into thin air. Soon, it becomes obvious that there is a reason traditions must not slip, and that all acts of betrayal, even those committed centuries ago, have consequences...
The main themes of The Plague Stones are how we are never truly free of our past, and how our past sins will soon catch up with us. And Brogden handles these with a deft flair, allowing the dual timelines of the narrative to flow and interlock with each other revealing just enough information and action to keep the reader hooked as the horror unfolds. However, Brogden also uses this book to tackle some other essential themes, such as the unjust nature of social injustice. The parallels between the Hasewell's haves and have nots of both times lines are heartbreaking, with modern day slumlords standing in for the fearful village fathers of yore.
Brogden also manages to convey a believable thread of, for want of a better word, kitchen sink drama. The dynamics of the interpersonal relationships between the members of the Feenan clan are exceptionally well done, from the mother who just wants the best for her family, to the son struggling to find his way in life, never having both feet planted firmly in any social strata. Or the father, who also wants the best for his family, but also feels resentful for not being the one who has done it. He is a man driven by a pride that is shackled by having to toe the party line. The sense of fury and frustration bubbles just under the surface of all the scenes in which he plays a vital role.
The Plague Stones cements Brogden's reputation as both an accomplished storyteller and as a master of the modern folk horror tale. They say you are never more than ten feet away from a rat, and after reading this book, you'll wish you never knew that fact.
Full review can be read here
All My Colors by David Quantick
From Emmy-award winning author David Quantick, All My Colors is a darkly comic novel about a man who remembers a book that may not exist, with dire consequences. A bizarre, mind-bending story at the intersection of Richard Bachman, Charlie Kaufman and Franz Kafka.
It is March 1979 in DeKalb Illinois. Todd Milstead is a wannabe writer, a serial adulterer, and a jerk, only tolerated by his friends because he throws the best parties with the best booze. During one particular party, Todd is showing off his perfect recall, quoting poetry and literature word for word plucked from his eidetic memory. When he begins quoting from a book no one else seems to know, a novel called All My Colors, Todd is incredulous. He can quote it from cover to cover and yet it doesn’t seem to exist.
With a looming divorce and mounting financial worries, Todd finally tries to write a novel, with the vague idea of making money from his talent. The only problem is he can’t write. But the book – All My Colors – is there in his head. Todd makes a decision: he will “write” this book that nobody but him can remember. After all, if nobody’s heard of it, how can he get into trouble?
As the dire consequences of his actions come home to both Todd and his long-suffering friends, it becomes clear that there is a high – and painful – price to pay for his crime.
Quantick keeps the story flowing fast, with his assured use of dialogue rather than long descriptive passages to move the narrative forward, which is not surprising considering his background in script writing. Balance the absurd, and nasty with a razor sharp wit Quantick has written a book that can be read and enjoyed by a wide fanbase. There are enough horror and cosmic shenanigans to please the horror crowd, and there are enough humour and reflective analysis to appeal to the broader audience.
All My Colours is the perfect companion to TV's Black Mirror, and may just give you an insight into why authors and creatives can be a bit messed up in the head .
Full review can be read here
In this mosaic horror/crime novel, ghosts and old gods guide the hands of those caught up in a violent struggle to save the soul of the American southwest. A man tasked with shuttling children over the border believes the Virgin Mary is guiding him towards final justice. A woman offers colonizer blood to the Mother of Chaos. A boy joins corpse destroyers to seek vengeance for the death of his father. These stories intertwine with those of a vengeful spirit and a hungry creature to paint a timely, compelling, pulpy portrait of revenge, family, and hope.
“Call him the Barrio Palahniuk, a badass Henry Miller, Charles Willeford in Cholo-land—whatever the moniker, for my money Gabino Iglesias is one of the most fearless, original and riveting writers working today.” – Jerry Stahl, author of Permanent Midnight
“Iglesias is a master of compact phrasing and perfectly paced suspense.” - Los Angeles Review of Books
When people say that horror doesn't haven't the ability to create a powerful novel that tackles the problems and injustices faced by a whole population of people, while still delivering a tight and thrilling narrative I point them to this book. Be warned this book will leave you angry and raw
It was an English summers day like any other until the snow began to fall and kept falling. Within hours, the entire country was buried beneath a freezing white blanket. And hidden within the blizzard conditions things began to move and kill and feast.
Seth is one of the few passengers to survive the train crash. Now he and his fellow survivors face a new world of snow, ice and freezing fog, where they will be hunted like prey in the ruins of Great Britain.
They must run.
They must hide.
They must survive THE COLD.
When it comes to bleak fiction there is none so bleak as Hawkin's bleak. Hawkin's minimalistic narrative and exceptional pacing lends this book a soul crushing denouement. Existential despair and cosmic monsters combine for a powerful tale.
Read Tony Jones' and George Illet Anderson's reviews here
“The Finite started as a dream; an image, really, on the edge of waking. My daughter and I, joining a stream of people walking past our house. We were marching together, and I saw that many of those behind us were sick, and struggling, and then I looked to the horizon and saw the mushroom cloud. I remember a wave of perfect horror and despair washing over me; the sure and certain knowledge that our march was doomed, as were we.
The image didn’t make it into the story, but the feeling did. King instructs us to write about what scares us. In The Finite, I wrote about the worst thing I can imagine; my own childhood nightmare, resurrected and visited on my kid.” – Kit Power
I still find it hard to think about this book without welling up inside, think of this as an updated companion piece to the classic When the Wind Blows. This is one of the most emotional pure and raw stories I have ever written, it could only have come from an author with a heart as big as Kit's. This book will devastate you, the horror, the hopelessness and beauty of this the prose is a wonder to read.
Maria is a wanted woman. She's wanted by and Aztec trafficker, a cartel boss, the people she fights for, and now the Devil she can't resist.Her journey begins as a would-be immigrant turned vampire in Juarez, Mexico until the injustices of the world turn her into something else. She's not just out for blood, she wants answers.Maria spends twenty-two years in motel cleaning purgatory trying to keep her faith and sanity intact. When she feels all hope is lost she meets an ex-boxer that offers her a new job and teaches her to fight. During this time, she becomes an unlikely bad ass enforcer of justice for the community that has embraced her. Is she a saint or an old God from a forgotten past?
Not only does she evolve into the woman she always hoped to be, but she finds her creator – Adam- he is nothing like she imagined. He invites Maria to travel with him to England to join The Keepers, a vampire organization led by the ancient Mordecai and Dr. Elizabeth Appleton.
Learning that the true vampire way isn’t destruction but the safety of humanity, Maria joins The Keepers as they uncover a plot set into motion by Lucifer himself. The Keepers must end his corruption through political manipulation or watch as the world hurtles towards self-destruction.
If you had said to me that I would be reading a vampire novel in 2019, that did something new and different with the genre I would have called you crazy. But V. Castro's unique voice and point of view has created a book that while it ticks all of my vampire boxes, ancient vampire societies, a kick ass hero, whose journey is played out realistically and the threat of an apocalypse.
From the author of The Loosening Skin and The Beauty, Aliya Whiteley, Skein Island is a powerful and disturbing look at the roles we play, and how they form and divide us. This new edition features a brand new novelette set in the same world as Skein Island.
Skein Island, since 1945 a private refuge for women, lies in turbulent waters twelve miles off the coast of Devon. Visitors are only allowed by invitation from the reclusive Lady Amelia Worthington. Women stay for one week, paying for their stay with a story from their past; a Declaration for the Island's vast library.
Marianne's invitation arrives shortly before her quiet life at the library is violently interrupted, the aftermath leaving her husband David feeling helpless. Now, just like her mother did seventeen years ago, she must discover what her story is. Secrets are buried deep on Skein Island. The monsters of Ancient Greece and the atrocities of World War II, heroes and villains with their seers and sidekicks, and the stories of a thousand lifetimes all threaten to break free.
But every story needs an ending, whatever the cost.
Where to start with this brooding novel? It mixes Greek mythology, with secrets and lies, and the need for some men to feel that they are always in control of everything and everyone in their lives. This multilayered mythical story, keeps it secrets close to its heart, nothing is given away casually, it requires the reader to become fully immersed in its angry beauty.
Acclaimed author Priya Sharma transports readers back in time with Ormeshadow, a coming-of-age story as dark and rich as good soil.
Burning with resentment and intrigue, this fantastical family drama invites readers to dig up the secrets of the Belman family, and wonder whether myths and legends are real enough to answer for a history of sin.
Uprooted from Bath by his father's failures, Gideon Belman finds himself stranded on Ormeshadow farm, an ancient place of chalk and ash and shadow. The land crests the Orme, a buried, sleeping dragon that dreams resentment, jealousy, estrangement, death. Or so the folklore says. Growing up in a house that hates him, Gideon finds his only comforts in the land. Gideon will live or die by the Orme, as all his family has.
Every now and then a book breaks out from the horror genre, and finds an audience outside of our community, and out of all of the books on this list, this is book most likely to do this. It taps into the wider psyche of the reading population, and while we can still see it as being one of our own, it can be embraced by others, because they don't see it has horror. This folk horror tinged novel of family, of not fitting in, of obligation and the need to be your own person, is a haunting and oppressing look at those trapped by the circumstances of their lives.
Read Kit Power's review here
Howard is a lonely, isolated boy who lives in the run-down seaside town of Innsmouth. Most of the town’s men left to fight the Great War and didn’t come back, and those that did, like Howard’s neighbour Mr Derleth, brought their own scars and strange stories with them. None quite so strange as what is about to happen to Howard, however.
An undersea earthquake brings a strange black reef to the surface just off the coast of Innsmouth, and with it something else. Something old, and forgotten, and every bit as lonely as the young boy who discovers it. What follows is a unique and secret friendship that will change the life of both Howard and his bizarre new friend forever.
Books for this age range rarely even attempt to tackle any themes, they are generally insipid books with no substance, so to find a book filled with emotional depth, and a strong message about friendships and our place in the universe is an utter joy to discover.
Lex's writing is assured, and poetic, allowing this book to be both respectful to the source material without ever coming across as a pastiche. Aided by illustrations that capture the tone and sentimentality of the book perfectly from Liam "Pais" Hill, The Old One and the Sea is novel that should be read by all ages, even the most hardened of horror fans will get "the feels" from this exceptional emotionally packed tale. We all struggle to find our place in the universe, and without a doubt, this book should find a place on your bookshelves.
Read the full review here
The summer blockbuster book! Probably.
With an encyclopaedic knowledge of cake, and exclusive access to the church’s stockpile of holy weapons, the Order of the Crimson Rosary are on the frontline in the eternal war between good and evil. Whether it’s repelling demonic possession, judging the authenticity of supposed miracles or having the final say on the colour of bunting at church fetes, the organisation's members sacrifice their own freedom to keep the world safe.
Father Flynn, the top operative in the UK, has been responsible for a number of recent high profile gaffs. Given an ultimatum, he must choose between returning to his old job of preserving the last microfiche machine in the church’s library, or submit himself for rehabilitation.
Yet evil doesn’t take a ticket and wait in line, as the dreaded cannibal nuns from outer space land to begin their annual harvest. Can Flynn get himself sober enough to repel their evil machinations? Or will another idyllic British village become the nun’s latest buffet?
One thing’s for certain, to beat them, Father Flynn is going to have to kick the habit.
In a year where every other book that has appeared on this list has been on the more serious end of horror fiction, it may seem odd that my book of the year should go to the most stupid and silly book I have read in a long time.
But in year which has been crap both personally, and globally, this book has been a much needed antidote to all that has gone on. Don't let the stupid and silly description above put you off, this is a masterclass in absurd storytelling, and despite the batshit crazy premise of the book, and the irreverent nature of the plot, this is a wonderfully written piece of pure escapism. It takes a huge amount of talent to produce a book so out there, without it turning into one big mess.
Read my full review here
I was very excited to receive a copy of In Darkness Delight: Creatures of the Night because I liked the first one, Masters of Midnight so much. And while there were many good stories within the Creatures of the Night collection, overall, I didn’t find this collection as powerful as I expected it would be.
This collection did expose me to authors I’ve never read before, which is always a good thing. Some of the authors I’ve been hearing about since I started reviewing books in the horror genre, about 18 months ago. Other authors were brand new to me.
I did have a few favorite stories that stuck with me well after reading them.
The collection opens with “The People in the Toilet” by Mason Morgan. A young boy is convinced that there are bad people living in the toilet. The boy is more afraid of the toilet than he is of his abusive father that makes the lives of the boy and his mother a living hell. It was pretty unsettling to me at first, but I’d rather read something which moves than does not. A strong way to open the collection, this story might have you think about toilets a little differently.
I also really liked “Scales” by Christopher Motz. This one made me cringe with the gruesome accounts of a horrible flesh-eating infection that starts in his foot. And plenty of maggots. I’m not one who easily cringes, but when I put myself in the main character’s position while reading the book, I felt a little green. I read this while waiting to donate blood, so mixing in a little body horror while waiting for the needle made for an interesting evening. But then other lines cracked me up so hard, I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. I love to laugh, so if someone can mix humor with horror in a way I like, then I’m a fan.
“A Survivor” by Ray Garton totally blew me away. One night, Robby’s father was bitten by a weird animal. He said it’d had more than four legs and moved so quickly it was like a blur. Then his father started changing, acting distant and sinister. This story was expertly packed with a dark, foreboding feeling throughout the whole thing, and an unexpected ending that was hard to shake off.
“Hinkles” by Kristopher Rufty was another one of my favorites. I liked it right away because the “creature” was an animate stuffed animal named Hinkles. I watched Chucky at a really young age, so any sort of toy or doll that can move on its own really freaks me out. We also always had sock monkeys growing up, so I just imagined one of our own stuffed animals coming to life, like in this short story. There was a great mix of creepiness, violence and humor in this one. Hinkles is quite the smartass.
Other stories I liked were “Gertrude” by Evans Light and “The Worms Turn” by Frank Oreto.
All of the pieces included in the anthology were well-written, so the quality of writing/editing was there. They just didn’t resonate with me, personally. It could very well be that the theme of the collection might not have been for me, but I’d hoped for more frights and scares than I got from the book. It’s still worth checking out if you’re a fan of short story collections.
And while I may not have liked this collection as much as the other Corpus Press collections I’ve read, I liked how many of the stories conveyed a sense of overcoming something, or at least trying to overcome something. The characters were trying to rid themselves of a past that haunts them, an infestation that simply shows up, or an evil creature that lurks in the night. I know that can often be said about the horror genre - the MC is facing something dark and terrible and must call upon something deep inside to survive. A number of these stories captured that deep sense of determination and willpower to fight.
My rating - 3.5 out of 5 stars
This year has been a particularly challenging one for me, not just in terms of reading, but on a more personal level, work, family life, the ever-darkening political landscape of the UK, and an almost constant companion in the form of chronic pain, have all eaten into my reading and reviewing time. There was a very dark period from August to September where it felt as though I hadn't read or reviewed a single thing. The energy or will to commit to reading had gone, thankfully it passed, but it means that my tally for reading is way lower than a normal year. However, what I did read this year has been in the main utterly spectacular. For every naysayer who thinks the horror genre is dead, the genre sticks two fingers and a middle finger up at them and produces a slew of great books.
Apart from my book of the year which will be revealed in part three of this roundup, the books presented here aren't ranked in any particular order. Picking a favourite book isn't as easy as picking a favourite flavour of chocolate ( it's coffee by the way), like music, your taste and feelings shifts ever so slightly every day. My book of the year though is without a doubt a book that resonated completely with me, and whenever any asks me to recommend a book it's always the first book to spring to mind.
To kick things off here is the pick of my favourite single-author collections and anthologies.
I have been a huge fan of Laura Mauro's writing since I first read her story When Charlie Sleeps in Black Static Magazine. It's no surprise that her collection found a home with Undertow Publications, as they have a reputation of publishing some of the finest literary and thought provoking horror out there. This collection is a masterclass in how horror has the power to provoke the deepest and most profound of emotions. I challenge anyone to read this book, and not be touched by the fractured beauty of Mauro's emotive prose. But look below the surface and you will find a verdant vein of anger and determination in these stories, there is a real sense of resilience and defiance to Muaro's underlying themes. Sing Your Sadness Deep never failed to impress me, with every story showing a dynamic range of stories, while still maintaining the identity of the author's defining style of writing.
In many ways you can view Georgina's This House of Wounds as a sister to Laura's book above. They are both published by Undertow Books, and both share the common ground of literary horror. This House of Wounds, is a powerhouse of a short story collection. Bruce has a special gift for distorting and bending the traditional narrative structure. The stories presented here, at first glance can be quite daunting, but once you become familiarized to the fact that this isn't a run of the mill collection, you join forces with Bruce's primal scream of rage at the world and its injustices.
Without a doubt, My Dead and Blackened Heart is a phenomenal collection of short stories. The breadth and depth of the stories present here are proof positive that Freudenberg is a gifted writer, in many short story collections the author's voice, and stylistic leanings often become somewhat samey. The stories while, read in isolation might be great, but when read together, they have a habit of running into each other. This isn't the case here. Freudenberg understands the nature and needs of every one of these stories, and he shifts his narrative stylings to match the requirements with the eye of a master craftsman. The opening story is a perfect example of this, it's a lean story, almost clinical in its execution, but it fits the needs of the story. The same goes for the terrible trio of stories, the shift in style, and even in the rhythm of the narrative is a joy to behold.
If there is a take-home message of 2019 short story collections, is this is the year where female authors knocked it out of the park. Sarah Read was a new author to me, and I picked up this collection on the recommendations of a number of fellow reviewers who had been singing her praise for a long time. And boy am I glad that I did, These stories are often bleak, and very disturbing, that often utilize familiar tropes, especially the monster with a human face in an exceptionally gifted way to tackle many real-world problems and social injustices. The stories presented here will leave you battered and bruised with their heartfelt honesty and their ability to leave the reader completely chilled to the core
The Woods (PentAnth) Paperback by Phil Sloman, Cate Gardner, James Everington, Mark West, Penny Jones
This relatively short anthology of short stories brings together some of the UK's finest horror authors, in a diverse and wholly satisfying quick read, from Sloman's moving tale of neglected child who goes on a teddy bears picnic, to Mark West's more fast-paced and action-filled tale, or James Everington's tightly controlled narrative reveals, or Cate Gardener proving once again just how amazing a writer she is, and confirming that her recently announced collection will be going straight to the top of my TBR pile, and finally Penny Jones potent tale of mental illness. While all of these stories share a common premise, the range of stories and the manner in which they tackle them is a perfect example of the sheer range of top quality horror stories that have come out this year
You might have noticed that a lot of the books featured in this roundup have had mention of playing around with normal narratives, either in terms of the way the story has been constructed or in the use of non-standard protagonists. Tim Major's weird slipstream collection opens with one of the strangest opening gambits I have ever read in a collection. O Cul-de-Sac! takes the overriding theme of the book which his homes, family and houses, and runs with it, in a way that could probably only be matched by Forrest Gump. Any story that takes the point of view of an overprotective home, has to be read to be believed. In a sort of reverse haunted house story Major has created an odd but completely captivating story. Elsewhere we have a range and mix of stories from the excellent novella Carus & Mitch, a post-apocalyptic tale of two sisters told with a deftly crafted unreliable narrator, to the humorous tale of a man obsessed with tracking not just his steps, but hs finab=cial and business success along with his sexual conquests, it's a wry look at the society we are in danger of turning into.
When you factor in the excellent story notes ( I wish all authors included these) and a soundtrack list to read the collection to, this is a unique highly interesting collection.
Folk horror has become the go-to subgenre in horror, now that the zombie novel has slowly shuffled out of the spotlight. And much like the swath of zombie stories that clogged up every collection and anthology, far too many of them were written by authors who either were clearly jumping on the bandwagon or had the barest minimum understanding of the nature of the subgenre.
Luckily we have storytellers like Tracy Fahey, whose knowledge, understanding and respect for these tales is paramount.
All of us who have a passion for reading probably grew up reading fairy tales, not the Disneyfied safe ones, where everything turns out perfect, and the prince finds his princess, I'm talking about the true fairy tales from the old country, where the fey folk, were mischievous at best, and downright evil at their worst. The Celtic fairy tale was not one of comfort, it was a tale to frighten.
New Music for Old Rituals is a marvellous collection of modern fairy and folk tales, dripping with a malevolent menace, that reminds the reader, that while we may have moved on from the fireside tale, the old ones, are never that far away, and veil that separates our world is painfully fragile. Fahey uses these stories to look at many of the problems that are faced by us, such as depression and loneliness, This is a tremendous collection that slips between the cracks in the armour that we think the modern world gives us, to pluck at the primordial vein of frailty that still exists in all of us.
Mistletoe is a perfect festive ghost story. The modern setting marks a departure from Littlewood’s more recent works like The Crow Garden and The Hidden People which had historical settings. For my part, I think Littlewood excels at her historical writing and I prefer her period novels to her modern writing. But if you enjoyed A Cold Season and The Unquiet House, then chances are you’re going to relish this festive treat.
The main protagonist and only point of view character is Leah, who gives up her city life to move to the remote Maitland Farm. It’s a move that’s supposed to leave the ghosts of the past firmly behind her, but she finds that the farm has its own ghosts, and they’re determined to intrude on her future – and possibly even steal it.
The prose doesn’t rush, but takes its time in describing Maitland Farm and the snow that forms such an integral part of the tale. Some might find it a little sluggish but never once was I bored and I was always keen to resume the story when I picked the book back up. The plot here is important, but so is the setting, which has a substantial influence over Leah’s happiness and troubles. Both the snow and Maitland Farm itself are external representations of the grief, turmoil, and changes going on inside Leah.
Littlewood is a genius in drawing distinctions between city and country living, even down to the type of snow they get. It is acknowledged from the start that Leah knows nothing about farming and has no intention of getting the farm working again, so it’s an interesting juxtaposition to read about a real farm when it comes to those sections involving Cath, Charlie, and Andrew. While Maitland Farm represents an empty shell filled with the potential for comfort and a new life, Ingleby Nook is already a well-established family home. The contrast Littlewood draws between the two locations only adds to the sinister feelings the reader associates with Maitland Farm.
I have a comment to make that I feel should be noted for completeness, but it isn’t necessarily a criticism. I found that Leah’s attitude to the death of her husband and child wasn’t really what I would expect. It was constantly referred to but even the memory of it seemed to evoke no particularly strong reaction in Leah.
I feel that any character who has suffered loss in the same manner as Leah (particularly when it comes to Josh’s death) should have a stronger reaction to such recent and painful memories. However, while Leah’s responses might have felt a little unrealistic at times, I think bringing too much emotion into her character wouldn’t have worked.
This isn’t designed to be a tense, despairing tale like Disappearance at Devil’s Rock or The Night Wood, both of which focus on the loss of children with great intensity. Mistletoe is a Christmas ghost story in the same vein as Susan Cooper or perhaps Dickens.
After all, the best and most believable ghost stories are those where the protagonist is very grounded and not prone to swings of emotion or flights of fancy. Leah makes the perfect protagonist to draw you into the haunting. So, although that issue of emotions jarred with me a little, it wasn’t something that I think necessarily detracts from what the novel aspires to be.
And while Leah’s emotional responses are perhaps a little understated, you can’t fault the choices that brought her to this impossible situation. Even when she intentionally alienates herself, it seems like a sensible, rational decision.
Christmas is a time for family, and a time for ghosts. This dark period of the year has always been prone to contradictions that writers can exploit. One passage in particular stood out for me when Littlewood switches from talking about the excitement children feel about Father Christmas visiting to the following passage:
Leah shifted, not liking to think of someone creeping through the house at night, even if it was Father Christmas. After all, he was a stranger too, wasn’t he? Yet he had the right of tradition to enter her home, to eat her food, wander where he would, leave what gifts he chose behind. And he was supposed to be able to see everything, even into her heart, to judge whether she was bad or good; to decide which way the scales tipped, whether she should be rewarded or punished.
A good, festive ghost story will take the familiarity and brightness of Christmas and turn it on its head, just like Littlewood does here.
Mistletoe is a novel that carries on the much-loved tradition of a Christmas ghost story. It is a slow-burn book that alternates between the sparkling joy of Christmas, the beauty of fresh snow, and the darkness that both lurks in the heart of man and which stalks the countryside.
This book should become a firm, festive favourite to anyone who enjoyed Littlewood’s The Unquiet House.
West Virginia is no place to be stranded on Thanksgiving….
For much of the time Valerie Nieman’s entertaining To the Bones read like a straight thriller, which potentially had some supernatural murmurings dancing around the side-lines which are explored in more detail as the novel develops. The story opens with Darrick MacBredhon waking up, disorientated, in a sunken ditch and in a blind panic to pull himself out of it believes he discovers human bones, lots of them. Through an early flashback we realise a local policeman tried to kill him.
The story is set in the town of the remote town of Redbird, Carbon County (West Virginia) on the evening of Thanksgiving. Lourana Taylor is working in the local casino, snow is falling, she is looking forward to locking up and going home when the injured Darrick staggers in looking for help. Looking worse for wear he claims to have lost his car, keys and wallet. Against her better judgment Louransa decides to help him, sensing he is telling the truth and is not a threat, takes him home with her after closing the casino.
Due to lack of transport, the weather and the holiday Darrick is stranded and they quickly realise the cops are looking for him. Darrick is not the only one with problems; Lourana’s daughter disappeared and she suspected this might have something to do with her employers, the powerful local industrial family the Kavanaghs. This family controls the local factories, police and newspapers and their company Kavanagh Coal and Limestone is rumoured to be responsible for the terrible pollution, which is responsible for destroying the local river, forests and for dropping acid drainage into the systems. But even if there was evidence, they rule with fear and money and nobody would speak against them.
For a while this novel teetered dangerously close into heading into Erin Brockovich territory with Darrick and Lourana going on some sort of crusade to find her daughter and stand-up against the evil of industry. You might even have expected Julia Roberts to make a cheeky guest appearance! It does this to some extent, but it also heads into a strange supernatural direction involving psychic abilities. I was not entirely convinced this balance of thriller and something which you might come across in Stranger Things worked but was happy enough to go along for the ride. The scenes with the weird psychic ‘pushing’ were well played, but for any readers who were expecting a straight thriller might think they seemed slightly left-of-centre.
Darrick and Lourana were convincing central characters, with some of Darrick’s past revealed as the novel developed. Other characters are thrown into the mix including the policeman Marco who helps them, a reporter Person, who is one of the few people not to be in the pocket of Kavanagh. Along the way there are some terrific scenes, the most impressive being the collapse of a bridge, when a group of Christians are praying on it, due to metal corrosion caused by pollution. When the people hit the water, they begin to burn. It takes a long time for the reclusive Kavanagh family to finally appear, but it is worth the wait, and they are a seriously nasty bunch.
The supernatural element of the story becomes more crucial as it reaches the climax and if I flicked flick back to the beginning it really was not the book I thought it was going to be, which can only be a good thing. I enjoyed the downbeat nature of To the Bones and although it was a decent mic horror and thriller is lacked something which would have made it stand out in a very crowded horror market.
The opening scene in the graveyard I found to be intoxicating. I was pulled into this gothic world of death and rebirth and the author had me hooked from here. I started reading this just before my shift at work, I did not want to put it down. I found myself quite excited for breaks just so I could read some more. I was that engrossed I actually finished it in one sitting.
This is what is needed in stories. To be hooked in from the get-go. To be so engrossed from the first sentence that you need to know more. To feel it running through your head all day long, questions that you desperately need to know the answers to. Perfection in print.
Our lead character, Katie, has spent a long time in a mental institution. She learned to cover her ‘abilities’, as well as learning to ‘fit in’ to her predicament. As a girl with special talents that regular folk could not understand, she was forced to normalize herself as to avoid any more ‘treatments’ from the facility.
Going back to her childhood home on the request of the police chief, an old friend of her and her father, he informs her of a gruesome string of unsolved murders, referring tentatively to a ‘what’ rather than a ‘who’. Ritualistic killings of children, a most destructive and disturbing crime. The chief needs Katies help in finding out just what is happening in this once quite town. He is aware of her abilities and knows she can help, she is the only one who can. I won’t really say anything else about the plot because SPOILERS!
Impressed would be an understatement with regards to the imagery used in this story. There is a poetic graphicness to it. The grotesqueness is somewhat beautiful in a way. I can’t think of the words to describe this, but the mental image from the mutating monster is very alluring for the horror monster fan. I was little disturbed as it is something I am terrified off, but I won’t give too much away. It has been written so well you can really put yourself there, right in the thick of the action.
There is something great about reading an author’s work of whom you are completely unfamiliar with. There are no expectations, no comparisons to be made, a blank slate. It is highly refreshing. I note that this is book 3 in the series ‘Blackwater Val’. I will certainly be looking forward to reading book 1 and book 2 now.
I don’t feel like it is ‘samey’ or just another horror story. I found it quite original and thought provoking. The level of thought that has gone into this piece of work is obvious. The story has been mapped out very well, and the level of detail blew me away. It’s a very immersive, quite horrifying tale. One I would highly recommend others to read.
A full five out of five from me for ‘Every Foul Spirit’
So . . . what am I told?
A familiar small town. A wrathful, metamorphic killer with supernatural abilities. A young girl whose time has come—angel of life, and death—is the only one who can stop his unspeakable deeds.
Katie Franklin has turned twenty-one at last, and been released from the Ransom Sanitarium. And hell has been released with her. Now it’s back to the Val, where monsters are real . . .
Something evil is stalking the shadows of Blackwater Val, and it wants lifeblood and flesh. What she finds waiting in the unhallowed darkness there will forever haunt her—and you. Return with her if you dare. To see the dead children. Feel their torment. To face the old terror.
Proudly represented by Crystal Lake Publishing—Tales from the Darkest Depths.
There really is nothing like a great collection of ghost stories as the nights get darker. If you’re like me, a fan of MR James and Dickens, then this anthology should appeal. It’s filled with new stories that manage to capture the essence of chilling tales from the past and ghosts from all walks of life.
A lot of credit for anthologies, quite rightly, goes to the authors for their creative works. However, editors always do a lot of work behind the scenes – not just in soliciting stories from the best writers, but also editing them so that they go from gleaming to sparkling, and setting the stories in just the right order to keep the readers interested. There has to be a balance between ghostliness and gore, so that the reader doesn’t get overwhelmed or bored. O’Regan manages to get this balance spot on.
While there were a couple of stories in this anthology that didn’t really grab me, I couldn’t deny that even these tales were well-written and engaging. I got to the end feeling as if every piece had a value of its own.
We start with one of my favourite stories of the anthology: When We Fall, We Forget by Angela Slatter, which plays on old religious ideas very nicely. The author manages to get a wealth of backstory in without seeming like it’s cramming the pages with essential information and managing to maintain the atmosphere. In this, I feel that the house was as much of a character as the named humans.
After reading Tom is in the Attic, I had to text Robert Shearman and berate him for causing me to put down the anthology and walk away for a time. His story isn’t exactly scary, but – as we’ve come to expect from Shearman tales – it was deeply disturbing. Childhood innocence is perverted; the main character starts off appearing insane, but you get the end feeling that she couldn’t be any other way if she hoped to survive the weirdness around her. This is not a story you would want to be trapped inside.
I’ve not read any Joe Hill, but on the basis of his story, 20th Century Ghost, I certainly will in the future. I mean it as no disrespect when I say that his style and delivery is very much like Stephen King’s: small town America, focussing on small people, and drawing us completely into their lives. In this case, the action revolves around a haunted cinema, and although each of the characters appears only briefly, Hill deftly weaves them into our minds so that we feel we know them intimately by the end.
A Man Walking His Dog by Tim Lebbon is a wonderful idea – a story focussing on the eponymous dog owner who finds the corpse on his morning walk. I could sense there was a twist coming but when it arrived, I was genuinely surprised, and a little touched by the sadness of it.
Cameo by Laura Purcell evokes a truly Gothic atmosphere while keeping itself firmly rooted in the present. It might be cliched, but there’s something immensely satisfying in a ghost story that starts in a rambling “Hall” of some description. The characters experience a very personal haunting, one that you feel has been stalking them for quite some time. Who knew jewellery could be so creepy?
Catriona Ward’s offering, Lula-Belle, focusses on two sisters living together and harks back to the brutal chills that we found in her novel Rawblood. I still can’t decide whether Lula-Belle was corrupted by outside influences or whether corruption was in her nature. The ending is that strange mixture of bitterness and solace that often characterises Ward’s writing, where the characters know the horror is not over but it’s over for now, and that’s enough for them.
For her story, Front Row Rider, Muriel Gray chooses to give us a character-based piece. It’s not particularly scary, and some would say it is a trifle predictable, but I was drawn in by the way this haunting had become such a part of normal existence to the main protagonist. She had just absorbed the terror into her daily routine, and that brought an extra chill-factor to the story. I had anticipated the general theme of the ending before it arrived, but there was an added element to the conclusion that I enjoyed.
I’d read A Haunting by John Connolly before, but that didn’t stop it bringing tears to my eyes when I read it in this anthology. As ever, Connolly renders his characters in such a detailed, sympathetic manner that you can’t help feeling their plight in your very heart.
I have to say that My Life in Politics by MR Carey didn’t work overall for me. I found the characters a little bit too distant to draw me in. However, the exchange with the statue was just such an amazing curveball in the story that really worked, and that alone made it fun to read – as did the immensely satisfying ending.
Frank, Hide by Josh Malerman is a tale with a twist that you’ve seen before, and yet Malerman wrote with such panache that I was happy to read along and find out how this was going to resolve itself. The ending was bizarrely abstract, but that just added to the chills when you got to the final scene.
Although I didn’t find The Chain Walk by Helen Grant in the least bit scary, that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t an enjoyable story. Some very vivid descriptions really brought this tale and its characters alive for me.
AK Benedict really is a master of the short story, and The Adjoining Room stayed with me long after I’d put down the book. We don’t see the monster, but we don’t need to – Benedict renders in surreal and bloody detail exactly what it does to its victims. And that ending really tugged on my heartstrings.
The Ghost in the Glade by Kelley Armstrong was concisely told with a nice twist. Armstrong made good use of childhood imaginings to really bring out old fears from the depths of your psyche. I liked how the ghost wasn’t typical – not vengeful, not pitiable, just petty and irritating. The ending was particularly satisfying.
The Restoration by George Mann was another story that didn’t really grab me or leave me with chills. However, there is an in-depth knowledge of art restoration that really gives his story some veracity and the characters were believable and pitiable.
A real slow-burn tale is One New Follower by Mark A. Latham. Some stories relying on technology to add to the mystery of a ghost story don’t always work, but Latham mixes cultism, ghosts, and modern photography with great skill, and his bleak ending gave me goosebumps.
Towards the end of this anthology we have the fabulous and astoundingly creative story by Paul Tremblay called A Haunted House is a Wheel Upon Which Some Are Broken. If you buy the anthology for just one story, then it’s this one. It has to be the first time I’ve seen the “choose your story” format used for a short story. And not only does it work, providing the reader something fresh that they’ve not seen before, but the format itself also acts as commentary on the plight of the characters and the cyclical nature of both life and hauntings. Bravo, Tremblay, bravo.
In Halloo by Gemma Files, I liked how the author wove speech from an unknown source into the narrative, adding to the tension without creating too much confusion. I had an inkling of where the story was going, and while I wasn’t particularly scared or creeped out, watching how one woman’s attempt to regain sanity is her ultimate downfall into madness made for uncomfortable reading.
The anthology ends with a tale by Alison Littlewood. As ever, Littlewood manages to weave a tale using the space between the words as well as the narrative itself. The Marvellous Talking Machine follows her trend of mixing historical fact with horrifying fiction, and the chilling ending to her tale makes a fitting conclusion to this book.
Phantoms is a collection of exceptionally well-written stories reflecting a broad range of storytelling styles. I can’t imagine any book more suitable for reading before a roaring fire on a dark autumn night.
Folklore and cosmic horror mashup in a tale effortlessly spread across the 1980s and 1990s
I am not 100% certain whether ‘Catfish John’ is a real American myth, or whether the character is inspired another similar tale, the top results on Google referred to a song of the same name with no creature being referenced. So, perhaps he’s a shaggy dog story dreamed up by the author. Many of the chapters of Catfish Lullaby begin with extracts from the book ‘Myths, History and Legends from the Delta to the Bayou’ (2016) which Amazon indicates is a fabricated publication, so it looks like author AC Wise has fun weaving a cosmic horror story out of what, may or not be, based upon a local folktale of some kind.
The story is set in the small town of Lewis, opening in 1986, when central character Caleb, the son of a local policeman is a small boy which concludes when he is an adult, still living in the same location. Along the way the plot makes jumps of a few years, firstly from 1986 effortlessly sliding into 1992 before into adulthood. As a child Caleb is both fascinated and scared by the local legend of ‘Catfish John’ a creature which is supposed to lurk in the local swamps and which the local kids believe to be responsible for the disappearance of a couple of local girls. Or perhaps these are just stories they use to scare each other and there is a genuine killer on the loose? Caleb lives with his father and grandmother after the death of his mother a few years earlier.
Interestingly, Catfish John lurks within the story rather than dominating a plot which has other intriguing strands. In 1986 the house of a family with a dubious reputation (the Royce clan) burns down and with nowhere else to go Caleb’s father temporarily takes in the little girl, Cere, who survives the fire. Initially Caleb is wary of Cere because of her family’s reputation, but eventually they develop a peculiar connection which threads throughout the period the story spans. Other local children are also scared of Cere, and there is an outstanding scene when on the school bus she is able to scare off two bullies by announcing she is a witch and their fear of not knowing causes them to lose face.
The childhood and adult sequences are interconnected and themes of sexuality and race are also convincingly explored. As an adult we realise Caleb is gay and he is also black, which is more apparent in the childhood sequences when he is bullied because of his colour. I was not entirely convinced by the cosmic horror (or magic) element of the story which was vaguely defined and I struggled to make sense of some of it, especially the idea that Cere could be connected to the world ending, was a jump too far. Having a swamp monster legend was one thing, but the manner in which the two stories connected was not quite so neat and perhaps the intriguing entity Catfish John could have had more page time himself?
Caleb was an impressive leading character who showed a lot of compassion and although Cere drifted in and out of the story she was also outstanding and they were ably supported by Caleb’s dad who was also larger than life. Horror, fantasy, evil and the pain of family are also nicely interwoven in a novella which covers a lot of ground. The themes of childhood and memories lurk below the surface; can the adult Caleb really trust his own memories of what he saw the night the fire occurred and the other strange things which followed him around when in the presence of the decidedly odd Cere?
I do enjoy stories which are rich in folklore but the mashup with Lovecraft’s brand of cosmic horror failed to click entirely for me. It was ambitious for sure, blending Catfish John, which could be based on a thousand swamp myths, with an entirely different type of otherworldly horror was very ambitious and might have worked better if the story had been longer which would have also allowed for a number of other loose ends to be tightened or tied up. Having said that, there is a lot of fun to be had here and this very engaging novella was very good company by an author I had previously never read before but will happily revisit in the future.