HEARTS STRANGE AND DREADFUL by Tim McGregor

Hearts Strange and Dreadful
By Tim McGregor
Off Limits Press — February 2021
ISBN: 9780578840512
— Paperback — 276 pp.


What a delectable novel to read in the dark, cold, waning days of winter, as they give way to the gray-slushed thaw of early spring! What a fitting story for the current plagues of the past year and our near future. What an impressive dawn for the new Off Limits Press, with Hearts Strange and Dreadful serving as the novel debut for their catalog. What an exceptional voice Tim McGregor has created in his protagonist Hester Stokely. What a stirring, heart-wrenching tale of familial devotion and feminine fortitude. What a successful rendering of a classic horror staple into a historical setting, which somehow also reads fresh and relevant for the present: timeless themes in genre fiction that could just as easily pass for conventional literature with a supernatural twist.

It is 1821. While daily life remains full of struggles, New Englanders enjoy relative peace and prosperity, but still recall recent wars past, and a season of strange weather and abnormal darkness. After the tragic death of her parents in a house fire during that gloomier period, orphaned Hester Stokely moved from the Rhode Island town where she was born to the nearby Wickstead to live with her paternal uncle Pardon, his wife Katherine, and their six children. Though welcomed into the family there and feeling deeply appreciative, Hester cannot help but also feel secondary to the primary offspring; she feels the weight of added expectations and responsibilities around the home and land, as if to earn her keep not assured by direct birthright. While proud and confident in her intellect, domestic abilities, and common sense, Hester cannot help but feel inadequate in her spiritual resolve compared to her pious and devout sister cousin Faith. With a deep scar marring her own face, Hester can only look at the beauty and social success of her other sister cousin Prudence and dream of the joy, comfort, or ease for which Pru seems destined. Despite such doubts in herself, Hester persists in doing what is necessary, of doing her best, and being as kind and grateful as she can manage. While some Wickstead residents mock Hester’s appearance and abuse her ready willingness and aptitude to help, others come to her support, particularly her steadfast friend Will, who also bears disfigurement (a lost arm) and comes from a less affluent Wickstead farming family. But Hester’s yearning is directed toward Henry, the handsome son of the town innkeepers, who shows occasional kindness to, and notice of, her.

The life of Wickstead’s residents becomes unbalanced with the arrival of an injured and raving man on a near-dead horse. Taken in by Pardon’s aid and nursed by Hester in the family barn, the half-crazed man, a resident of Hester’s nearby birth town, reveals frightening, nigh unbelievable news: a plague of galloping consumption appeared in the town, rapidly raging from homestead to homestead, felling countless and driving survivors to fear and paranoia. Spinning out of control with superstition, grounds were torn up, graves desecrated; mobs looked to the cleansing power of fire, but could not contain the chaos. Utterly burnt to the ground the town is no more. The man has fled carrying talismans of protection that bear the reek of vile idolatrous Catholicism to the puritan-descended residents of Wickstead. Though apparently the only survivor if his tale bears true, the man also attempts to flee his caregivers despite his serious injuries, lamenting of a dangerous force in pursuit that will kill him, and which could bring destruction to all.

As the town leaders (with Pardon among them) debate what to do about the man and his dire news, a wealthy, widowed Lady also arrives in town at the Inn as a refugee from the nearby town, damning the man as the cause of its destruction and offering a generous reward for his capture and punishment. However, returning to the barn, Pardon finds the raving man has escaped and fled, apparently, not without leaving something behind. That next morning, Hester finds Prudence sprawled on the floor by the entry, returned after a clandestine night-time rendezvous with her fiancé, racked with a cough and symptoms of consumption. As Hester and the family deal with their tragedy, fear and paranoia begin spreading in Wickstead, just as the stranger said occurred in the nearby town. Unable to discern the plague’s exact nature and ill-equipped to defend against it, Hester nonetheless perseveres to do everything that is in her power and resolve, even as the threat reveals itself to be far darker than normal consumptive contagion.

With a narrative told from Hester’s first-person perspective, McGregor immediately establishes the tenacity of his female protagonist amid the hardships of 1820s New England rural society. The novel opens with a scene where Hester’s two older brother cousins have difficulty completing their responsibilities in butchering a lamb. Unable to handle the discomfort of the gore, the boys pass the most difficult parts of the jobs to Hester. Though she likes the task no more than they, she has the experience and maturity to follow the task through her discomfort. She does what is necessary. Unlike her brother cousins, she also has no power or privilege to refuse the job, for she lives in their household at their mercy and grace. This short introductory scene symbolizes the rest of the novel, with Hester showing that of everyone she is the most ‘adult’. No matter the difficulty or what it requires of her to let go, she will get the job done. What use is complaining? All other characters show some degree of this, but no one else embodies it to Hester’s degree. Yet, she also has moments of ‘weakness’ in the sense that she gives in to her desires or dreams. When she does, she feels slightly guilty, and prays or thinks of wanting to have more strength for future moments. Yet, one gets the sense she wouldn’t change those decisions even if she (and her society) don’t put value (or punish) such acts of self-care.

In this way, with this voice, McGregor writes historical fiction that realistically roots itself in the 1820s with its particular adversity and culturally imposed limitations for women without celebrating or extolling that. And with the plot featuring a plague, isolation, and additional care responsibilities, it serves as very potent reminder of how much this misogyny remains ever-present in today’s society as amid the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic women have been expected to make the greater professional sacrifices in child care and domestic maintenance. How many right now are doing what they’d otherwise find inconceivable or impossible, simply because there is no other option. Hard tasks need to be done. The only other alternative is loss to family, giving up life. This is the battle at the center of Hearts Strange and Dreadful, this is the core of Hester’s fortitude, the appeal of her voice, and the heart-breaking nature of her narrative.

Hearts Strange and Dreadful will be a gut-wrenching in many spots; not to spoil anything specific, it’s ending may particularly feel bittersweet to many. Though a sequel is by no means necessary, one finishes this novel knowing that it is not the actual end of Hester’s story, but it is the clear and proper end to this one. Hardship and discomfort continues. This is the 1820s for a rural woman with a scarred visage. But there is certainty that Hester will go on just as strongly, and that some happiness and betterment can be achievable even with that hardship. Everything that Hester looked upon with admiration and jealousy – what she saw as lacking or impossible in her life – has died; her perceived deficiencies actually gave her strength and have allowed her to survive. That will go on.

With this novel McGregor has done something that I’ve seen a lot of mainstream authors try to do under mainstream, conventional literature marketing: write a horror story featuring an iconic legend that everyone is familiar with, but leave it unnamed and somehow keep it essential and interesting. The first I can think to do this is one of the most famous horror writers in existence, and it worked fairly well. More recent ones I’ve seen were disappointing. They flirted with genre while trying to keep ‘respectable’ and clever. They failed at all that. Hearts Strange and Dreadful succeeds at this fantastically, first by doing the reverse: marketing as horror, but having the bulk of the novel present itself within pure realism. The historical setting makes this possible. To us, plague and disease is something relatively well-defined and real. Galloping consumption is tuberculosis, caused by a bacteria, Mycobacterium tuberculosis. We can fight it (albeit with resistance looming) via antibiotics. For the characters of this novel, however, the plague that descends upon Wickstead is supernatural, uncanny. The treatments even by established groups of society (early ‘doctors’, barber-surgeons, etc) are seen as suspect with superstition and religious faith being more assured protections or hopes. By the time the novel gets to things that would be supernatural for we the readers, there is no change in the tone of the novel or its characters. If anything the supernatural (from our perspective) now presents a physical reality for them that the conventional, actual realistic cause of an invisible microbe, never could within this setting prior to the invention of the microscope. The novel just keeps reading like conventional historical literature.

This also makes Hearts Strange and Dreadful chilling in its horror, for it seems very plausible from that perspective of a plague, and we see bits of it in our lives now. Adding to the chilling atmosphere of it all is the rural isolation of the settings: towns near but still separated by significant distances. Even before our lives were so intertwined by easy travel, pandemic was a grave threat. That realistic, chilling horror behind the novel and its atmosphere slowly builds as Wickstead descends further into fear. By the novel’s close McGregor builds this to intense moments of visceral horror that fans of the genre will appreciate and will have been awaiting; gore presaged by the opening scene of Hester’s slaughter of the lamb.

I feel as though there is still a lot one could say about this novel, but I’ll finish things off before droning on too long. I’m not sure I could imagine this novel being written any better. I stupidly left my copy of the book at home or I would have put quotes in here to show the power of its language and Hester’s voice. It’s still rather early in 2021, but I can be certain that this novel will feature as one of my favorites for the year, and even more I can see it as a novel I could look forward to returning to reread; savor it a second time in a year to come. McGregor’s writing is new to me, but I’ll be keeping my eye out for future releases by him or copies of his previously published work. And I’m eager to start the next of Off Limits Press‘s offerings.


THE MONSTER OF ELENDHAVEN by Jennifer Giesbrecht

The Monster of Elendhaven
By Jennifer Giesbrecht
Tor.com Publishing — September 2019
ISBN: 9781250225689
— Paperback — 160 pp.


A decaying, disease-infested city in the frigid North, Eldenhaven is populated by many sorts of unsavory characters, profiting on the misery of others as the city apocalyptically slouches on the edge of the sea into grimy ruin. But stalking among them is a monster, a man – a creature. Born of Eldenhaven: its magic, its perversity, its cruelty, this monster has given himself the name Johann, and he thrives on the messy violence of taking lives, unstoppable. With hazy to no memories of his existence before he washed up on the docks of the city, Johann’s lust for murder seems beyond his control, or escape, for he does not seem able to die.

One day, Johann observes another monster, Florian Leickenbloom, a young man who can influence the minds of others. A magician. Coming from one of the former leading (founding) houses of Eldenhaven, Florian couldn’t look any different from the rough lower-class edges of Johann. But beneath outward appearances, Johann can see the vile nature, something maybe more darkly powerful than himself, and something also beautiful. Together, Johann and Florian begin to discover one another, forming a twisted relationship that spins with threads of their pasts, and a tragedy surrounding Florian’s deceased twin sister Flora. Meanwhile, a woman named Eleanor has arrived in Eldenhaven, in search of Florian and looking for monsters to slay.

I’ve been watching a bunch of the TV program Oddities recently, and one of the things that I appreciate about the people featured on the show is how they find beauty in the dark and macabre, even in cold, indifferent tragedy or horror. It’s a quality that attracts many to the horror genre as fans, a way of seeing and remembering the human inherent in mortality and even within the monstrous. The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht is a book for that sort of person. Gruelingly dark at times, the novella features a Victorianesque gothic atmosphere brought alive by some of the most luscious prose I’ve seen in the genre. It mixes modern in with the antiquated vibe, making this feel a lot like steampunk, though without the technology aspect.

The blurb by Joe Hill on the cover is no exaggeration. Giesbrecht writes poetically and honestly no matter what the topic of focus: architecture, a blood-splattering murder, a character’s outfit, a rape. The prose isn’t for the squeamish, and those wishing to avoid reading certain dark topics might wish to stay away. It is a story from the point of view of a serial killer, after all. But, nothing of this is gratuitous. And it is not merely just Grim Dark. Beneath the moments of violence (physical or mental) is a study of characters, a study of relationships among people who have been broken, in a city coming apart. Even amongst all of that darkness sits something beautiful, something of love.

As twisted as the relationship is between Florian and Johann, and as awful as they each individually are, together they hold the possibility of redemption for one another. Saying too much about this would spoil the major revelations of The Monster of Elendhaven, but the bubbling eroticism between these two represents a fascinating study on the question of power imbalances in relationships. Who is the exploiter and who is the exploited between the two is not so clear. And, as wrong as so much is about their relationship, it has the power to make some things more right. But will it? And is it ‘okay’ if it does?

Like Oddities, the novella forces its characters (and thus the reader) to look at things that might be uncomfortable and horrendous and consider what can be learned from it, or how something gorgeous might be made from it. That is one of the things that the horror genre does so well. The ending to The Monster of Elendhaven doesn’t seem to neatly wrap things up or give answers to these questions as some readers might crave. There is definitely room here for Giesbrecht to take and resolve things further, and I really hope that she does return to this world and its characters.

I read The Monster of Elendhaven back in October, a perfect fit for the Halloween season. Just getting to a review of it now and thinking about it, I would be just as happy reading it any time of the year. I also read it back-to-back with Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, another dark offering from Tor.com Publishing I’d recommend. I plan to also feature that here soon while also covering its sequel Harrow the Ninth. If you happened to read those novels of The Locked Tomb series already and enjoyed them, I think you’d likewise enjoy Jennifer Giesbrecht’s novella.


THE WORM AND HIS KINGS by Hailey Piper

The Worm and His Kings
By Hailey Piper
Off Limits Press — November 2020
ISBN: 9780578779799
— Paperback — 116 pp.


I’m very happy to see the start of this new publisher devoted to horror, Off Limits Press. I took advantage of a sale they had on two of their first releases, this novella and Crossroads by Laurel Hightower, and the other day I just received a copy of Tim McGregor’s novel Hearts Strange and Dreadful for review. That one is just released today, so I hope to get it read and reviewed up here soon. If Haley Piper’s The Worm and His King is any indication of their quality, I’ll be happy to keep up with all of Off Limits horror releases.

The Worm and His Kings does an awful lot in just a little over one-hundred pages. Cosmic horror used to symbolize one woman’s journey of resilience and strength, its plot is fairly straightforward to encapsulate, but doesn’t do the book’s rich characterization or complex themes justice. But, it is the framework for those things:

Monique and Donna have fallen on hard times. Forced out of their New York City apartment with the rising rents of the early 1990s, they end up in a shelter, and now Monique is on the street without Donna, who has gone missing. Donna is just one of several ‘invisible’ people in the city that have not just been lost, but have been taken. Monique has seen a taloned monster, the Gray Maiden, creeping from the tunnels and taking other homeless through the cracks into the subterranean underside of the city’s belly. Monique sleeps in the tunnel beside a strange spot that all others avoid, a spot that her senses tell her is a bleak nothingness. There, when she next sees the Gray Maiden appear, come for prey, Monique follows it into the lair of a frightening cult, to find and rescue Donna.

During Monique’s journey into the underworld she another woman looking for a professor friend who infiltrated the cult, and together they follow suit, trying to blend into the horror they discover, ignorant of what exactly it all entails. Monique finds the courage to keep going – to never give up – with thoughts of her devotion to Donna, and recollection of horrors she already has faced and survived: a family who has ostracized her, and a criminally incompetent back-alley surgeon who botched her sexual reassignment surgery with intent to merely harvest organs from her for the black market.

Monique’s history, and the nature of the cult, the Gray Maiden, and the fate of Donna are only gradually revealed as Monique’s journey from surface tunnel into the depths of the otherworldly cult occurs. The story shines as a positive example of a transexual’s journey of discovery; acceptance of everything they always have been. Even with the dark tones of horror, and body horror of botched surgery, Piper’s message becomes that a human being – including transexuals – is not just about their physical body, but is something deeper and ingrained. In her past Monique never felt comfortable in her (male) body. Now that aspect of dysmorphia may be gone, but she still feels the scars of the surgery and not feeling fully female now either. Her relationship with, and support from, Donna drives her to overcome these doubts. They fuel her mission to find her strengths, who she really is, to be reunited with the woman who makes her feel whole, healed and just right.

Cosmic horror is not my favorite sub-genre (despite how much of it I seem to have read recently), and some of the hopeless darkness inherent to it I feel battles somewhat against the positive themes of empowerment in the novella. Cosmic horror is about the individual, the human, being powerless, against the cosmic evil (as I understand it at least). This novella subverts that, yet also its ending still provides heavy doses of uncertainty and darkness that one might traditionally expect.

Piper also effectively sets the pace and rhythm of the novella, each chapter like a step, revealing more. Not every moment is taken up by action, but Monique’s sense of purpose provides a momentum that drives things forward all the same. Once she steps onto the path of her journey things proceed in a rush, and details come in a blur. Important observations, or key memories, arrive in a burst, easy to miss if not reading carefully for the nuance. This permits Piper to fit everything into the slim novella length, but also keeps the reader fully engaged. The reader, along with Monique, muddles through the uncertainties to reach the revelations.

The characters in The Worm and His Kings are the destitute and oppressed, those that feel powerless against the world, let alone a cosmic horror and its giant clawed monsters. Even the acolytes of the cult are victimized, misled and turned towards something awful in their despair, succumbing to what they see inevitable. Monique demonstrates this doesn’t have to be the case, that resistance and perseverance alone become form of victory.

Like the best of weird horror, Piper’s novella chills and entertains, but potently reflects the horrific in society that we can resist: economic divisions, bigotry, misogyny, and the temptations to just give up. Off Limits Press is still offering deals on their first releases, and whether you can take advantage of those or not, The Worm and His Kings is a shining gem that the genre fans should appreciate.


DEPARTMENT ZERO by Paul Crilley

Department Zero
By Paul Crilley
Pyr Books — January 2017
ISBN: 9781633882010
— Paperback — 320 pp.


For some reason my reading over the last days has featured a good amount of cosmic horror, a sub-genre I don’t dislike, but also don’t gravitate toward. Given this, I thought it might be a good time to feature Paul Crilley’s 2017 novel Department Zero for a review from the backlist. Supernatural horror equal parts cosmic and comic, Department Zero has accurately been compared to the Men in Black series concept, with monsters in place of aliens. But, it also features characterization and motivation in its protagonist that goes beyond what those films attempted, and a multiversed panorama of settings and Lovecraftian creatures.

If you read any of my short fiction reviews, or the one I’ll soon write on Hailey Piper’s The Worm and His Kings, you’ll already know that I haven’t read Lovecraft. And even with the number of cosmic horror stories inspired by his style and creations, I don’t pay attention to, or care, who’s who or what’s what. Department Zero can be enjoyed without knowing anything about Lovecraft’s stories. I imagine it would be even more enriching for fans of the sub-genre who might get references. But, the heart of the story, its humor, and its non-stop moving action persist even if stripped from the cosmic horror particulars.

The protagonist of the novel is Harry Priest, a good-hearted – but generally failing-at-life – guy, whose job is to clean up deaths at crime/accident scenes. Stability at least accompanies this unpleasant occupation, stability that keeps him up with financial responsibilities to his ex-wife and continued visitations with his beloved daughter. No matter what crappy kind of day he has, Harry’s sole priority in life is getting to say goodnight to his daughter with a bedtime story.

On what he expects to be a routine biohazard removal job, Harry discovers something inexplicably bizarre amid the gory scene, and soon finds himself targeted by unfathomable creatures of nightmare. Harry’s actions at the crime scene draw the attention of one Havelock Graves, a self-absorbed agent for the Interstitial Crime Department (ICD), whose team has been demoted to “Department Zero” in punishment for the botched crime scene that Harry has accidentally disturbed. Harry has now been targeted by an evil cult that thinks he is involved in their multidimensional schemes, forcing Harry to join up as part of Graves’ team to reinstate them to ICD’s good gracious, and to thwart a criminal plan that spans the dimensions. The cult seeks the Spear of Destiny, a tool that can be used to free the cosmic entity/god Cthulhu from his dreamlike stasis.

Department Zero thus represents one huge mashup novel: science fiction, fantasy, gory horror, with a bit of mystery/thriller mixed in, all written with a lighthearted tongue-in-cheek humor from Harry’s point of view. No single one of these elements really works to overtake the rest, and Crilley keeps the engaging plot moving swiftly so that on a whole these disparate genre elements just all add up to a simply entertaining read.

The rapid pace of the novel has some downside to it, in that the reader doesn’t get too much of a chance to breathe or appreciate the multiverse as much as might be possible with more extensive scene-setting. On the other hand, like a good action movie, it keeps readers from worrying too much about the sense or silliness of it all, and simply instead just enjoying the ride. The main moments of ‘down-time’ from the novel’s plot propelling forward in action come from the grounded characterization of Harry Priest’s love for his daughter. Amid all the craziness and fantasy, there is something purely human and ‘realistic’ in his motivations and desires.

I suspect that the most prominent factor to Department Zero that will determine whether a reader likes the novel or decides to put it down unfinished will come down to appreciation of the humor. Some may find it too much, but others will find the quirkiness to hit the spot. It’s hard to predict where potential readers may lie, but if this summary and genre mash-up peaks your interest, it’s a wacky entertainment worth trying out. The blog Books, Bones & Buffy: Adventures in Speculative Fiction has an excerpt available for download, which might help potential readers decide if the novel’s tone is the right fit.

While Department Zero was not a book I was particularly looking for, it was one of those random ARC finds that left me pleased and glad that it found me.


IT CAME FROM THE MULTIPLEX: 80s MIDNIGHT CHILLERS Edited by Joshua Viola

It Came from the Multiplex: 80s Midnight Chillers
Edited By Joshua Viola
Hex Publishers — September 2020
ISBN: 9781733917759
— Paperback — 316 pp.


Inherently as an anthology, It Came from the Multiplex embodies variety not just in its contributors, but in the style, tone, and depth of its stories. Even when looking at their shared genre of horror or theme of 80s movie nostalgia, the fourteen offerings vary considerably in their approach to those molds. Readers are likely to approach the collection through the lens of their expectations, perhaps based on the excellent B-horror-VHS-inspired cover art, or recognition of a handful of contributing authors. Readers might interpret the variation in stories they discover, and distances from their expectations, as indicative of differing ‘quality’.

I tend to enjoy a pretty wide-range of fiction and styles, but still of course have things I don’t care for. I found It Came from the Multiplex to be rather consistent in quality. The majority of stories are good, there are a handful of excellent ones that stood out to my preferences. And there were a few that I liked less. If you are a very particular reader, and are looking for one or two ‘kinds’ of horror stories (or only particular approaches to the thematic prompt), there might be a lot less for you here to enjoy. If you are a general fan of horror short fiction, you should be satisfied with a spectrum of enjoyable reads. If, like me, you are a sucker for cult horror movies and metafiction about them on top of that general interest, you should love the hell out of a good percentage of the offerings, well exceeding the price of admission.

Before I get to comments on each of the individual stories in the collection, two additional comments about the art. Not only does the cover fit well, but stories are also accompanied by illustrations. Growing up with a horror diet of Edward Gorey art in John Bellairs’ novels and Stephen Gammell drawings in Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, spooktacular images are almost an essential element for me to really dig into a horror tale. Readers of an ebook edition of this might miss out on this, but a repeating cartoon of a creature appears in the header of each verso page. Subtle differences between them create animated tentacle waving as readers flip through the pages. While certainly not a huge deal, it is a whimsical little addition.

On to the stories!

“Alien Parasites from Outer Space” by Warren Hammond An enjoyable lead story that immediately brought to mind plots and spirit of SF/horror B-movies in the Body Snatchers vein. Set in a drive-in theater with a group of teenagers, the story didn’t really fit into the 1980’s theme so much as the 1970’s, though my memory only really goes back to the mid to latter 80’s for experience.

“Return of the Alien Parasites from Outer Space” by Angie Hodapp Consistent with the tendency of sequels to not be quite as good as their original offering. This directly continues the events from the first story, and the overall tone stays consistent. But, the story went into directions completely different from what I had in mind after finishing the first. The danger of a sequel, I liked my version better, even though this was technically good.

“Negative Creep” by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro After two relatively light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek entries things go more creepy with a story that we see from the start won’t go well. Through flashback we learn of a supernatural entity stalking a group of teen cinephiles. As some of them wind up dead, the survivors try to figure out what draws the force’s attraction. One of my favorite stories in the collection, this contains a host of 80s references from music to film, but also has depth beneath it all, themes on the growing culture of noise and distractions, and silence.

“Helluloid” by Dayton Ward & Kevin Dilmore Another story with a group of teenage characters, this time featuring a self-described necromancer who conducts a summoning ceremony in an old movie theater basement with her boyfriend and others. You can guess how things will go. Even if predictable it’s an enjoyable read.

“Rise, Ye Vermin!” by Betty Rocksteady A welcome addition of a female voice in a collection that like the 80s skews far too much toward the male point-of-view. The villain of the story, a theater owner, actually reminds me a lot of a John Bellairs villain, but here those standing against him are a pair of employees who have been trying to keep their lesbian relationship a secret from the close-minded town. Rocksteady does shock and gore well, and this story is no exception, another standout.

“The Cronenberg Concerto” by Keith Ferrell Another standout selection of the collection follows here, by an author who It Came from the Multiplex honors at its start with a dedication in memorial. The first of what I would characterize as disturbing horror stories in the collection, building from the previous. As the title indicates, the plot involves a fan of the body-horror films of David Cronenberg. The creepiness builds as the reader realizes what is happening here, and Ferrell accomplishes this through some of the most ‘literary’ crafting of sentences and voice in the collection.

“Creature Feature” by Gary Jonas Imagination reins in this entry, both from the author in crafting it and within the minds of the protagonist and the readers, as one tries to guess what horrific secrets lie behind a curtain. A man is tasked with making precisely timed deliveries to a theater that appears closed to the public, yet constantly showing footage to an unknown audience. His rules: Never be late. Don’t ask too many questions. His curiosity and friendliness with the young woman working there draw him into discoveries.

“Invisible” by Mario Acevedo As with Ferrell’s story, one that makes the reader squirm by seeing through the eyes of a disturbed character, a serial killer at a drive-in. There are several twists in this one, but despite them I could always tell where things were going. It still works in achieving its effect at bringing the horror to you.

“Screen Haunt” by Orrin Grey A young woman writes and directs a film inspired by a missing sister. Melancholy and disturbing, it reminded me a lot of the types of stories in another movie-themed collection I read, Lost Films from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing. Most of the stories in the collection don’t fit into Halloween time when I actually read this collection, but this one sure does, with the creepiness of costumes at the fore.

“The Devil’s Reel” by Sean Eads & Joshua Viola Parents at a Baptist Church don’t want their children to be attending a lock-in movie night at the local theater where they might watch questionable material. But the new theater owner talks them into it with the wholesome movies he promises to show. Only he lies. Oppressive religion is a staple of horror, I’d even say a cliche. Here at least it is turned a bit in that they are proven right to suspect. I guess this is really a story that goes in the direction of: what if movies really are Satan trying to corrupt the youth?

“On the Rocks” by K. Nicole Davis Two couples settle in for an outdoor summer showing of The Howling in a natural amphitheater. The sun goes down and a full moon rises for the start of the show. Then mayhem. A shorter entry that doesn’t aspire to too much, but ends with a perfect final sentence.

“Coming Attractions” by Stephen Graham Jones Teenagers sneak into a supposedly haunted theater and end up investigating what lies behind panels in a men’s room that was remodeled when putting in urinals to replace the previous, more communal set-up. Creepy terror awaits. I usually love Jones’ work. This is good, but didn’t stand out to me compared to some of the others after one read.

“Late Sleepers” by Steve Rasnic Tem Another big name author in horror, I’ve liked much of the short fiction I’ve read by Tem, but the one novel I’ve read I found simply okay. This one is great. Home for Thanksgiving, a college student wakes at night after being at odds with his family, now feeling not quite right, with a hazy memory. Going out for air he finds himself at the local small theater, showing weird clip montages and an independent feature for those who can’t sleep – all the way until dawn. Tem perfectly captureslate night eerieness and the paradoxical relief and discomfort that the genre can offer.

“Special Makeup” by Kevin J. Anderson Probably the most widely recognized name among contributors to this collection, this story seemed to fit least into the overall theme – and decade. To boot, I couldn’t find anything particularly remarkable about it. An unfortunate end to the shows.

It Came from the Multiplex also features: Foreward by Bret & Jeanni Smith, Introduction by Paul Campion, Listing of Cast and Crew, and Acknowledgments. Cover by AJ Nazzaro. Story illustrations by Xander Smith and Header Art by Aaron Lovett


THE KRAKEN SEA by

The Kraken Sea
By E. Catherine Tobler
Apex Book Company — June 2016
ISBN: 1937009408
125 Pages — Paperback


From its beginning, Tobler’s The Kraken Sea percolates with atmospheric prose, establishing a lusciously murky fantasy that its cover promises in vivid, dark tones. Although featuring touches of the horror genre, the novella taxonomically fits somewhere between dark fantasy and ‘weird fiction’. But at its core rests the familiar plot and themes of a mainstream coming-of-age tale, a protagonist in search of discovering – and accepting – themselves.

Jackson is a fifteen year old orphan in the care of nuns and their overseeing priests in a late nineteenth century New York hospital. But Jackson is different than the other orphans there; a monstrous nature lies beneath his surface, ready to break forth when he loses control. Tentacles undulate inside him, and scales form upon his skin. Aside from Sister Jerome Grace, others look at him with uncertainty and fear, leaving Jackson unwanted and ashamed.

But this changes when the sisters bring Jackson to a train enshrouded in smoke and steam, where they explain that he has been picked to live with someone across the country in San Francisco. A woman named Cressida owns and runs an entertainment establishment there named Macquarie’s, and she has been searching for a boy with unique characteristics. A boy like Jackson.

Arriving at Macquarie’s, Jackson discovers a foreboding world of magic and cut-throat business rivalries. Bronze lions guard the entrance to consume anyone they deem unworthy, physical spaces within shift, and a shadow-eating kraken lurks in the basement depths. Everywhere, secrets abide for Jackson to discover, including those of his origin, Cressida’s intentions, and the allegiances of Mae, a mysteriously attractive lion-tamer from a rival gang.

Some themes of The Kraken Sea, and the names of certain characters, directly reference the Greek mythology of the Moirai, AKA the three Fates. I’m not particularly well-read in classical mythology and in general find it overstuffed with confusing complexity, like comic universes. Though the novella uses this mythology as a defining aspect, it isn’t the only stone Tobler includes in her foundation for the story. She balances that Greek myth with elements of Lovecraft, steampunk, and general YA literature to create a nice blend that never goes too far down one road.

Although I don’t favor the novella length in general and I found this did drag a bit in its middle I still enjoyed the overall mystery and adventure of this. Above all, the weird, dark atmosphere of the text is superb. Tobler’s writing is beautiful, her words richly evocative of the magically strange world The Kraken Sea is set in. Cressida, with the live fox she wears around her neck, represents a powerful, memorable character who steals scenes and the imagination.

I think I would love this even more were it developed into a full-fledged novel, but it still serves as an entertaining read filled with intoxicating language and imagery that readers of dark fantasy will appreciate.


This review is part of the Apex Book Company back catalog blog tour, all through the month of September 2019. Look for reviews of other Apex titles in the upcoming weeks.

In the meantime, they are offering 25% off everything in the Apex store all month long with discount code SEPTEMBER. So order now to support a great company and discover more of their catalog.

THE BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR, VOLUME SEVEN, Edited by Ellen Datlow

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The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Seven

Edited by Ellen Datlow
Night Shade Books – August 2015
ISBN 9781597805759 – 400 Pages – eBook
Source: Edelweiss


Contents:
“The Atlas of Hell” by Nathan Ballingrud
“Winter Children” by Angela Slater
“A Dweller in Amenty” by Genevieve Valentine
“Outside Heavenly” by Rio Youers
“Shay Corsham Worsted” by Garth Nix
“Allochton” by Livia Llewellyn
“Chapter Six” by Stephen Graham Jones
“This is Not For You” by Gemma Files
“Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8)” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
“The Culvert” by Dale Bailey
“Past Reno” by Brian Evenson
“The Coat off His Back” by Keris McDonald
“The Worms Crawl” by Laird Barron
“The Dogs Home” by Alison Littlewood
“Persistence of Vision” by Orrin Grey
“It Flows from the Mouth” by Robert Shearman
“Wingless Beasts” by Lucy Taylor
“Departures” by Carole Johnstone
“Ymir” by John Langan
“Plink” by Kurt Dinan
“Nigredo” by Cody Goodfellow

A week of short story collection reviews, and the second of a horror anthology edited by the hardworking Ellen Datlow. This seventh volume of the Best Horror of the Year series came out last summer; Volume Eight is now available as well, though I haven’t gotten to read it yet. For fans or the curious,  you can currently enter to win a copy of the new volume in a Goodreads’ giveaway courtesy of Night Shade Books (entry deadline of 12th August 2016).
 –
In the sea of short story anthologies Volume Seven  is excellent, and it represents the variety of horror short fiction well. How you define horror and your expectations of the genre may cloud your appreciation of this. But if you are a regular reader there shouldn’t be any big surprises in the kinds of stories here or the authors included: genre leaders who frequently appear in horror anthologies, certainly those edited by Datlow. Horror is not always synonymous with scary or supernatural, so there is a range of tales in the collection which brush against other labels within the continuum of genre – such as crime, or ‘mainstream lit’.
As always with such variety most readers won’t love everything here, because reading has that personal component and none of us are clones of Datlow. (Or are some of you out there? Hmmm, that would explain her prolific output of quality…) For me there were several stories in Volume Seven that I just didn’t care for. It also features a relatively high number of entries I had read previously, most notably three from the Datlow-edited Fearful Symmetries (reviewed by me here). Those three in question are all excellent, but I know readers may have an issue with such recycling. I didn’t mind too much as I read them far enough apart, but even to me it seemed a bit too high in overlap. Then again if you aren’t a regular reader of this stuff, you won’t mind a bit!
 –
This volume begins with Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Atlas of Hell” one of those Fearful Symmetries stories. Mixing the occult, black-market antiques, and a criminal underworld the story is dark and entertaining, in a manner that reminds me, with its bayou setting, of Albert E. Cowdrey’s fantasy/horror often found in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Ballingrud’s story is just as entertaining and the prose is even more magical. The aforementioned magazine is the source of another of my favorite stories in this volume, Dale Bailey’s “The Culvert”, which deals with the creepy, dangerous explorations of childhood and the connection between twins. Robert Shearman’s stories are always inventive and creepy (I previously reviewed his collection They Do the Same Things Differently There), and his offering here of “It Flows from the Mouth” is no different. Highly recommended. Langan has a story here, “Ymir” that fits in mythological fantasy more than horror. I didn’t really care though, as it is an entertaining tale.
One thing I was happy to note in this anthology was the inclusion of two stories from John Joseph Adams’ Nightmare magazine, a relatively young sister to the SFF Lightspeed. Each month this outlet puts out a small selection of quality horror fiction, along with some nonfiction such as essays on what ‘horror’ means to various individuals. The two stories included here may not have been my favorite from that year from its electronic pages, but they are quite good. “This is Not for You” by Gemma Files is from their Women Destroy Horror! special issue that I still haven’t managed to read, and I hope the rest of it is as interesting and well done as Files’ story. Valentine’s story “A Dweller in Amenty” is a poignant and powerful one on the concept of ‘Sin-eating’.
The biggest, and most surprising, disappointment in the collection is “Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8)” by Caitlín R. Kiernan. I had high expectations as I like Kiernan’s dark fiction, and lots of other readers were calling this a favorite. Its language is utterly melodic and beautiful, but I found it ultimately un-engaging beyond that, the story predictable and flat. On the other end of the spectrum “Plink” by Kurt Dinan impressed me greatly. Psychological horror that touches the sometimes difficult relationship between teacher and student, it perhaps connected with me even more because of my academic profession. Dinan is utterly new to me though he’s appeared in other collections before, such as Paula Guran’s 2010 Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror. He recently had his debut novel for young adults released (Don’t Get Caught), and that’s now on my  to-read list.
This wasn’t my favorite collection edited by Datlow, but it was still very enjoyable overall and it reinforced some favorite authors in my memory for future reading decisions. Most fans of horror fiction or interested newbies should certainly give it a look, but if you extensively read the genre there will be better anthology options out there of original material of course.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

THE MONSTROUS, Edited by Ellen Datlow

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The Monstrous
Edited by Ellen Datlow
Tachyon Publications – October 2015
ASIN B010MCWEI6 – 384 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


Contents:
“A Natural History of Autumn” by Jeffrey Ford
“Ashputtle” by Peter Straub
“Giants in the Earth” by Dale Bailey
“The Beginning of the Year without Summer” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
“A Wish from a Bone” by Gemma Files
“The Last, Clean, Bright Summer” by Livia Llewellyn
“The Totals” by Adam-Troy Castro
“The Chill Clutch of the Unseen” by Kim Newman
“Down Among the Dead Men” by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois
“Catching Flies” by Carole Johnstone
“Our Turn Too Will One Day Come” by Brian Hodge
“Grindstone” by Stephen Graham Jones
“Doll Hands” by Adam L.G. Nevill
“How I Met the Ghoul” by Sofia Samatar
“Jenny Come to Play” by Terry Dowling
“Miss Ill-Kept Runt” by Glen Hirshberg
“Chasing Sunset” by A.C. Wise
“The Monster Makers” by Steve Rasnic Tem
“Piano Man” by Christopher Fowler
“Corpsemouth” by John Langan

For anyone familiar with editor Datlow the short review for her recent horror anthology The Monstrous would be that it is everything you’ve come to expect from her superb taste and expert experience. If you’ve liked previous anthologies from her, you’ll love this. If you’re a decided non-fan, I wouldn’t expect this anthology to change your mind, tastes in horror just don’t match.
 –
For anyone wanting to give modern horror a try who hasn’t read a Datlow anthology, this is a fine place to start, if not her previous curated volumes. Awhile back I reviewed another Datlow anthology, Fearful Symmetries. Several of the authors featured in that collection reappear here offering new works, and a small number of stories are actually duplicated. In the case of Gemma File’s “A Wish from a Bone” I particularly didn’t mind the rerun. Her story, featuring a TV documentary crew entering an ancient Middle Eastern tomb, is just as entertaining the second time though. A few of the authors I had hoped would also pop up in this anthology were absent, such as Helen Marshall, but this at least gave me the chance for some new discoveries.
The selections in The Monstrous run the gamut of the horror genre, from the subtle to the creepy, the graphic, and the weird. The anthology’s theme also fits a broad interpretation of ‘monstrous’. The monsters are human and beastly, earthly and supernatural, literal and figurative. In many cases the monstrous is unexpected, as are the directions and tones the stories may take. “The Last, Clean, Bright Summer” by Livia Llewellyn is perhaps the best example of the latter. The title of this story and its start suggest family-friendly positivity, pleasant days and warmth. But Llewellyn quickly turns behind the façade of tradition and happiness toward the darkness at the heart of a family gathering. This story is Lovecraftian in inspiration, but not so heavily as to ruin my appreciation of its  well-played contrasts.
 –
Peter Straub, a name that should be recognized by anyone familiar with horror, includes “Ashputtle” here, a creepy and subtle story about a kindergarten teacher who appears increasingly a bit ‘off’. Other authors in the collection should be known from short fiction markets, such as Dale Bailey (“Giants in the Earth”) whose work is often in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, or Sofia Samatar (“How I Met the Ghoul”) whose work has appeared throughout the major ezines, such as Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and Uncanny magazines. Bailey’s story of coal miners encountering something abnormal does a great job handling settling and the inherent uneasiness of dangerous professions. Samatar, a Somali American, offers an uncommon (in the West) version of the ghoul, which in  Middle Eastern myth is something more like a desert-based mermaid, a beautiful spirit luring men to their demise.
There were only a couple of stories that I didn’t particularly enjoy in this collection, and most fall into a range I would call ‘very good’. A couple really grabbed me though. “Down Among the Dead Men” is a collaboration between a name unknown to me (Jack Dann) and a well-known science fiction editor (Gardner Dozois). Featuring a vampire in a concentration camp this is the kind of story that obviously has huge symbolic and emotional weight. The combination would be very easy to botch up, but Dann and Dozois pull it off amazingly, creating riveting drama that combines the monstrous and the human. Some may think that the Holocaust has enough horror in it without needing a supernatural addition. Yet, this element of a fantastic monster alongside human atrocity allows development and clarity of profound themes.
The collection ends with “Corpsemouth” by John Langan, a stellar example of an ‘epic’ short story. Including emotional complexity with strong characters and plot this story merges the modern with the ancient. In part its style reminds me of classic gothic horror tales of Britain, but with modern language and present-day context. This marks one of multiple stories in this collection that feature horrors that reveal themselves in relation to family. Perhaps this frequency is because of their power, monstrous realities we are innocently born into and cannot easily escape. Ones we have a responsibility of blood to face and overcome. “Corpsemouth” is a top take on this theme, bringing The Monstrous to a satisfying conclusion that makes me greedily await Datlow’s next project.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

THE FIFTH HOUSE OF THE HEART by Ben Tripp

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The Fifth House of the Heart
By Ben Tripp
Gallery Books – July 2015
ISBN 9781476782645 – 400 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


For fans of atmosphere and adventure stories with a paranormal twist, The Fifth House of the Heart is a marvelously fun summer read. This is one of those book equivalents to the summer blockbuster, and I could easily see it adapted as such for the screen. There is nothing particular intellectual to it, no grand social commentary, no character studies that pull at the heartstrings in explorations of the human psyche. What it does have is a well-told story that mixes horror with an international heist, using delightful characters and a dash of humor and gothic thrills.
Imagine that vampires have existed among us, for generations of human lives. Sure, it’s been done countless times before from Dracula to The Southern Vampire Mysteries. But what I haven’t seen is combining the immortality of vampires with inspiration from PBS’s Antiques Roadshow. If one could live for centuries, amass global fortunes, and horde goods like a dragon in your lair, just think what priceless antiques one could then collect through the ages to enjoy beside the coffin where you rest, decorating the castle where you lurk.
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Admired antiques dealer Asmodeus “Sax” Saxon-Tang has gained fortune and glory traveling all over the world acquiring some of the finest artifacts known, including items long lost to history. Sax’s ego and success have been built through a secret edge: he knows that vampires exist and he has hunted and killed them to steal their ancient treasures. Now, late in his life, Sax’s arrogance and greed has caught up to him. A powerful vampire from his past has set sights on Sax, putting his loved ones at risk. Together with a misfit team of thieves,  vampire hunters, and a secret order of the Catholic church, Sax journeys to destroy the monster and gain one last score, into what may be a deadly trap for all.
Part of what makes The Fifth House of the Heart work well is the point-of-view of Sax: one part crotchety old man, one part big softie. He has a great sense of humor, even within the deathly serious situations that face him. Filled with guilt over the luck of his past despite cowardice, he finds moments of bravery, bearing acceptance of his faults and pride for his strengths.
I found Tripp’s take on the vampire myth particularly fascinating though. The vampires of The Fifth House of the Heart only superficially resemble the ‘classic’ European creature. Ancient and strong, but not undead or easily killed by special weapons, they are monsters that begin to take on the characteristics of that which they consume. Those that feed on humans will appear human, according to the gender they favor as prey. Those that feed on other animals will take on that form. In a blend of vampire and shape-shifting myths, Tripp writes the vampires as something truly terrifying, creatures that shine in the horror and gore of some action scenes of the novel.
There are many best-selling novels out there that are written primarily for their entertaining story and likable characters. Those in series tend to quickly become formulaic. Others remain popular despite unintentionally poor writing or scenarios that I think may actually lower a reader’s intelligence. (cough, Dan Brown, cough) For all its fun, The Fifth House of the Heart remains smart. Like most of the books from another horror writer – a guy from Maine who everyone knows – Tripp’s novel doesn’t abandon the essential cores to the art of good writing, even though art is not its purpose at all.
Aside from the plot, (anti?)-hero, and monsters at the novel’s forefront, Tripp also nails so many of the background elements. The secondary characters, historical details, sensory descriptions, and general gothic atmosphere all combine contextually as a foundation for the entertaining story that towers above. This is a book that I look forward to rereading again soon.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

TRUTH OR DARE?, Edited by Max Booth III

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Truth or Dare?
Edited By Max Booth III
Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing – 31st October 2015
ISBN 9780986059452  – 234 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


CONTENTS:
“Shackled to the Shadows”, by Richard Thomas
“An Unpleasant Truth about Death”, by Eric J. Guignard
“Mantid”, by Kenneth W. Cain
“A Ribbon, a Rover”, by Jessica McHugh
“Iz”, by Eli Wilde
“Laal Andhi”, by Usman T. Malik
“The Bone Witch”, by Chantal Noordeloos
“The Pole”, by William Meikle
“Lucy’s Arrow”, by Jay Wilburn
“Change”, by Peter & Shannon Giglio
“Marco Polo”, by James Chambers
“The Dog Metaphor”, by Vincenzo Bilof
“The Whited Sepulchre”, by Nik Korpon
“Rattlebone Express”, by Sanford Allen
“The Shadow Life of Suburbia”, by T. Fox Dunham
“The Other Bonfire”, by Jeremy C. Shipp
“Oh Fuck, it’s the Cops”, by Joe McKinney

        –

I wish I would’ve had copy of this back around the time it was initially released, because it would be the perfect thing to read through the nights around Halloween. The short stories of this themed horror collection Truth or Dare of course share a framework around the party game. But they also share a common universe in setting and characters, the high school students of Greene Point High in Ohio who gather around a bonfire on Halloween night to reveal untold tales or meet the twisted challenges of peers.
While the shared aspect works fine as a setup, the collection doesn’t really hold up to many strong linkages between stories, and it is hard to envision how the events of all the stories could possibly all have occurred during this one supposed night. Yet, this aspect is something that can just be basically ignored, and each of the stories work fine with separate consideration as part of a shared theme collection rather than a shared universe narrative as well.
The stories reminded me of the quality and breadth that readers could expect from typical horror short fiction markets, including Nightmare Magazine, which I’m most familiar with, and the collection includes well-established authors and new-comers alike. A few of the stories didn’t impress me much, but on the whole the collection kept me entertained and provided the slight chills that scary stories and horror provide.
Truth or Dare opens with Thomas’ “Shackled to the Shadows”, which does a good job at setting the overall tone, first person narration, and a general structure shared by many of the loosely connected stories. With this story one already gets a sense that there are many levels of horror surrounding this high school game: the pains of being an outsider within the harsh realms of teenage existence, the monstrosity that people can manifest and the hatred it can in turn engender from victims. Beyond the internal viciousness of the characters there is also the impression of external malevolence, supernatural and ancient. In this opening story and beyond the reader sees that there is the horror of the story itself, but like all good campfire tales they conclude with hints of an even greater horror awakened, to come.
After the opening story heavy on tone, Guignard’s “An Unpleasant Truth about Death” relates an interesting plot about a near (or perhaps actual) death experience that highlights the dangers of intense curiosity and touches upon the power that games like Truth or Dare have, a superstitious hold of rules that one doesn’t take seriously on the level of rationality, but breeds deep fear in the soul upon transgression.
Though entertaining, Guignard’s story (or the one related by the character at least) has the feeling of being contrived – to have that creepy effect on the reader (or the fictional audience in the story). This isn’t a bad thing, I think it’s partially something integral to these kinds of stories, and it reminded me somewhat of the way classic creepy folklore goes, having an emotional effect but then triggering questions about how some plot detail could really happen – or why. This kind of effect casts doubt on whether the scary story is true, giving the audience a rational out to discount danger and allay fear. But what if it did happen?
Perhaps you can recall Schwartz’s classic Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark collections? Many of the stories in Truth or Dare reminded me of that style, tone, and plotting, but for an adult audience. Jessica McHugh’s “A Ribbon, Rover” is a great example of that, with a compelling plot that seems inventive yet also something born of ageless tales, mirroring the character of the story itself. I’ve read one novel of McHugh’s prior, but this is closer to actual classic horror and I look forward to reading more in that vein from her lovely mind. “The Bone Witch” and “Rattlebone Express” are two others that recalled those feelings of fairy tale and folklore in excellent modern fashion.
“The Bone Witch” also had slight tones of humor in it, despite a rather horrific situation and outcome. “Change” later in the collection from the Giglios also has this certain lightness, which provides some nice variety amid the more darkly emotional stories or the creature horrors of stories like “Mantid” and McKinney’s closing piece.
A few stories also delve into deeper waters of real horror, or in the case of “Iz” tackle the general issue of what makes a monster, what they do both to threaten society or perhaps provide for society. “The Pole” almost literally brings up Nazi skeletons in the closet and “Marco Polo” tackles the very real horrors of abuse. Malik provides a story (Laal Andhi, or Crimson Storm) of horrors from Pakistan, linking uncanny events with the real violence of terrorism, where macabre events from childhood end up imprinting damage on a young boy leading him to senseless and hopeless conflagration in the future.
A satisfying collection that would particularly fit reading in situations (beyond Halloween time) like a summer camping trip, Truth or Dare features a really good idea with the game as a theme for the horror genre. Even if Booth’s collection fails to make a cohesive narrative taken all together, it succeeds well in providing a range of tales that horror fans would enjoy and perhaps some new authors to discover.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.