Children of Demeter
By E.V. Knight
Raw Dog Screaming Press — August 2021
ISBN: 9781947879331 — Paperback — 186 pp.
Sociologist Sarah Bisset needs her sabbatical not just for an academic recharge, but to find herself again following tragedy and betrayal. Her husband has died in a car accident, and with him in the vehicle was the mistress she didn’t know he had. She uses the insurance money to buy an infamous property in rural Wisconsin, a destination for her sabbatical research, but moreover an escape from her routine life and a home soured with memories of her duplicitous husband.
The purchased farmhouse and its lands are the former homestead of the Children of Demeter, a mysterious counterculture commune that led a seemingly peaceful hippie existence within the small community before disappearing overnight without trace or explanation in 1973. Partnering with a podcast that features stories of the unexplained (that is run by the son of her longtime friend) Sarah sets out to investigate the history of the agrarian hippie group and its enigmatic leader, interviewing longtime residents of the town and scope out the property, its lake, and the adjacent caves. Each bit of an answer they find only brings more questions.
Already confused by a personal relationship clouded in deception, Sarah begins to notice oddities around the house that begin to lead her to further question her identity, and her sanity. The secrets of the property and the twenty-five mostly women and children who once called it home come coupled with inexplicable oddities: signs of someone – or something – living in the basement, barren land where nothing will grow, a psychedelic mural depicting a strange creature coming from the lake, and a hostile neighbor who appears to want a dark past kept hidden.
I previously read and reviewed E.V. Knight’s The Fourth Whore from Raw Dog Screaming Press, a title that impressed me in its feminist themes and vibrant writing despite not being the genre of story that I’m particularly partial to. The plot of that novel necessitated a harsh, almost vitriolic tone and style, making a novel that while thought provoking and high quality, wasn’t ‘fun’ to read, or bewitching in that pleasurable way that some horror can do for me. Horror like a gothic ghost story. When I read the plot synopsis of Children of Demeter I knew this would probably be something I’d adore, a beloved sub-genre in the hands of an author who writes engagingly and who can place powerful feminist themes in an interesting light. Children of Demeter didn’t disappoint that expectation.
The mysteries of a possible haunting, the secrets of an old property and the uncertain nature of this cult of fertility and harvest make for a classically captivating gothic horror. Knight puts an interesting spin on this by tying it in with psychedelic hippie culture. At heart of the novel is not something of ghosts, monsters, or the true story of the cult’s past. It’s the nature of Sarah, her identity as a person, as a woman. It’s a psychological, or perhaps even a social, horror story, though those other paranormal elements do get their due, secrets become revealed. The journey toward that is just coupled to Sarah’s rocky path to self-rediscovery, both literal and metaphorical.
The only aspect of the novel that didn’t really work for me was the podcast angle. As a concept of the plot it works fine, the issue becomes Knight’s incorporation of the podcast dialogue into the novel. There is a cheesiness to the podcast presentation that takes away from the tone of the novel and Sarah’s point of view. It also ends up serving as a way to reveal information about the past quickly in the form of interviews. But, that doesn’t have as satisfying an effect on the reader than if these details were divulged in another format than a verbatim oral transcript.
Aside from these moments, the creepy slow build up and the ultimate climax of the novel play out pitch perfectly in a successful combination of mythology, classic horror, and modern themes. Knight has won the Bram Stoker award already for horror, but after reading this I feel as though she’d also have great things to contribute to the mystery/suspense genre. Children of Demeter could almost classify in that realm over horror. If mythology, mysterious cults and gothic tones are among your cherished elements of fiction, check this one out.
By Laurel Hightower
Off Limits Press — August 2020
ISBN: 9780578723563 — Paperback — 110 pp.
Cover Art: Alfred Obare
When Chris’ son Trey dies in a car accident, a part of her is taken along with him by a rapacious, inescapable grief. Chris continues though her life keeping an emotional distance from other relationships, including a friend/neighbor, Dan, with whom she shares potential romantic interest. She regularly visits the roadside site of Trey’s crash, leaving trinkets in memorial and conversing with her son in her mind. Even upon returning home from that ritual, the echoes of his voice continue in her mind, a whisper of his physical reality now vanished.
Until one day the conversations become more difficult, as if Trey’s voice has gone silent in her mind, even if not memory. Panicked with further loss, she awakens in the middle of the night to see her dead son standing in the streetlight below her bedroom window, waving to her. A brief moment later and the ghost is gone. Chris comes to speculate this change might be linked to a prick on her finger that happened while visiting Trey’s memorial, and a drop of blood that fell to the earth there, beside the tree where he died.
Chris thinks about those stories of magic, blood, and sacrifice that she’s heard. And wonders. Can she keep Trey returning to her? If so, what horrific forces are behind it, and what will be the cost? And could it be worth it? Her grief and pain demand that she try, especially as she begins to find her actions may be linked to Trey’s peace and rest.
I don’t know as I’ve ever read a story that is so unflinchingly heart-wrenching and brutal as Crossroads. Hightower is not telling a new type of horror story here. But she does make a well-trod horror story of sacrifice into something that is far more uncompromising, focused, and honest than any I have ever seen before. As a reader I kept wanting her to give clear answers to the forces behind Trey’s ghostly appearances. How much is in Chris’ head? Does a demon have control of Trey, and if so why? Or is this apparition of Trey actually a demon? Hightower doesn’t go down any of those roads of ‘easy’ fulfillment and instead stays centered on the heart of this novel, how a mother handles grief and love.
Now I’m not even a parent, let alone a mother, but Hightower makes Chris’ anguish relatable and felt on a more general human level for any compassionate reader. As Chris becomes pulled more into the belief that her sacrifices will not just give her comfort, but will also provide Trey relief, she willingly ups the intensity to give more of herself. Though she questions whether her actions will even work or not, she barely hesitates to go on because the simple matter is that it doesn’t matter. If there’s even a slight chance that Trey will be helped by this, she will do it. The reader looks upon this and wonders if this is real, or delusion, and thus is thrust into this with as much uncertainty as Chris. The reader doesn’t have enough information to judge her, and is left only with the ability to read on with pained sorrow and the sense that they might be pulled down a similar role for someone they love.
Horror is a genre that is not just for entertainment and scares, but also a way of approaching trauma and mortality, of symbolizing difficult and draining emotions within a realm of the fantastic. Hightower does this while showing that sometimes people never can fully escape or recover from that trauma. It’s an ugly and difficult truth. While Chris and her love for Trey form the core of the novella, Crossroads also forms a story of how others can love and support people who live amid such devastating trauma and grief.
The father of Trey, Chris’ ex-husband also is going through grief over the loss of his son. The former couple remain on relatively good speaking terms, even after the ex’s marriage to a new woman. They avoid confronting each other with things that might overwhelm the other, yet make it clear that they are each there to support. At one point in the novella, the ex-husband visits Chris and tells her about similar dreams/voices of Trey that also haunt him, voicing concern for each of them.
A central pillar to Chris’ support network is Dan, a man who listens rather than quickly acts to try to ‘solve’ things. He loves Chris, and knows she’s equally attracted to him, but can’t handle much from a relationship at the time. Dan gives Chris everything, and only, what she needs of him. As he watches her destroy herself, for ‘only’ a glimmer of hope that it might be real/benefit Trey’s soul, he still supports her in every mood. He does his best to prevent her sacrifices from consuming or ending her life completely. But, he also realizes he lacks the power/ability to ‘save’ her. She’s an autonomous adult individual who seems perfectly clear-thinking despite the fantastic, unbelievable situation. Ultimately, the decisions are hers, and he can only do his best to be there for her in them.
How phenomenally difficult that is. Dan ends up seeming to doubt himself, questioning if maybe he should do more. But ultimately, his love for Chris is much as Chris’ for Trey. As devastating as a place that love leads, together they prevent it from dragging them into despair or fear.
No one gets to end happy here, and for that reason Crossroads concludes as a very ‘difficult’, harrowing novella. But one that therein perfectly encapsulates its themes and the emotions it dares to explore. Horror readers are typically willing to allow fiction to help them explore those darker realms, and Hightower does an exceptional job at facilitating that.
(Hard Case Crime Series #147)
By Stephen King
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — March 2021
ISBN: 9781789096491 — Paperback — 248 pp.
Does Stephen King need his new novels covered or advertised by book reviews? Probably not. Are there potential readers out there who are undecided if his writing is something they’d be interested in? Probably few. But then again, there’s likely a fair number of people out there who’ve read something by King, and would read another, just not anything. Some may have read another Hard Case Crime by him and been disappointed, and now are hesitant to go for another. So, a review still seems worthwhile to me, and hopefully will be beneficial for some.
Though he’s written three novels for the Hard Case Crime label, this is the first of them that I’ve read. From what I’ve gathered, there weren’t many big fans of the first one, The Colorado Kid. The second, Joyland, fared with better word of mouth. In my opinion, King’s newest, Later, stands as a great success: a quick, entertaining read that should appeal to King and Hard Case Crime fans alike.
As a young boy, Jamie realizes that he can see people that no others can. He sees dead people. (Though as he points out to readers, not quite like the boy in that famous M. Night Shyamalan picture.) Jamie can see and talk to the recently deceased, but only for a short period of days before their voices and form dissipate and move on to whatever comes later for these souls. During their brief existence as a remnant these ghosts seem -usually – more emotionally detached from that which interested them before. But Jamie discovers that if he poses these ghosts questions, they are compelled to respond with the truth alone. This remains inexplicable to Jamie (and convenient for the plot, though I don’t complain too strongly over that.). But this fact makes Jamie’s ability potentially very useful to someone who might want to get secrets that people attempt to take with them to the grave.
Jamie’s mother struggles to stay financially afloat as a single parent in New York City through turbulent years in her profession as a literary agent/editor. As she tries to raise Jamie and come to terms with his abilities, she also tries to keep her fastidious and eccentric writer clients appeased and productive (profitable for her as well.) Aside from Jamie and her professional client relationships, she has a NYPD cop girlfriend who is a big fan of her most famous client. The problem is, her girlfriend is also a crooked cop, looking to profit off drug distribution.
As Jamie grows up he begins to appreciate just who his mother’s ‘good friend’ Liz actually is, and feels increasing responsibility to support his mother as she has so long supported him. He also gets to know his ability and overcome the trauma of seeing ghosts of people who have just died in terrible disfiguring accidents. But, Liz’s illegal activities and a serial bomber who is terrorizing the city are about to make Jamie’s supernatural talents into a greater vulnerability than he’s experienced or appreciated.
At various points in the book Jamie reminds readers that this is a horror story. As is typical for King (and lots of the horror genre in general) the worst monsters in Later are the humans, not the supernatural boogies. Jamie wants to be normal, unencumbered by the difficulty of looking at dead people. However as the first years pass from his youngest memories, his supernatural ability becomes something completely mundane. Most of the dead people look indistinguishable from those alive. The rare grotesque cases born from a violent demise get somewhat easier to deal with as Jamie knows what to expect and can prepare himself. He has even faced the threat of an evil demonic force and come out on top. The real danger of his abilities lie in how others will exploit him.
His mother understands this when she first realizes the reality of his abilities, and quickly teaches him to conceal his talents from all but herself, until she opens the ‘circle of trust’ up to include her girlfriend Liz, a woman of far greater moral weakness and desperation. Liz’s takes the King character role of the severely flawed person who makes the protagonist’s bad situation go too far, far worse. She also takes what works well as a horror novel and puts a justice/crime spin to it through a plot that reads familiar in the noir pages of Hard Case Crime. Some readers may feel that this horror/crime hybrid has a plot that really unfurls too late, at ~ three quarters of the way in. I didn’t mind one bit, because leading up to all of that hybrid action were pages and pages of great characterization.
It’s no secret that King writes children characters really well, particularly capturing that adolescent age of males going into their teens. With the voice of Jamie, King sticks with what works well. I did not want to put the novel down at any moment, I just wanted to keep learning about what Jamie would do with his ability – or how he would be used; what he would discover about himself; how his small family of he and his mother would make it out of the challenges that faced them. Just as King sticks in his wheelhouse with Jamie, he likewise stays with the familiar with the occupation of Jamie’s literary agent/editor mother. Being a lover of books and the publishing industry myself, I enjoyed this aspect and its nice references, particularly a sample NYT Dwight Garner review that made me emit a loud ‘hah!”
Other secondary characters King pens equally strongly. The elderly professor neighbor was another favorite of mine, most particularly for the role the amiable man plays in preparing Jamie for facing a particularly malevolent spirit of a serial bomber/killer. It may not have been King’s intention, but the scenes of this subject and interactions between the professor and the young boy reminded me of the beloved gothic plots and characters of John Bellairs: Professor Childermass and Johnny Dixon. In many regards the novel ended up taking on the flavor of a Bellairs YA novel – just with more foul language and drugs involved. Going along with these associations, the novel also references/plays with the classic ghost story “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” by M.R. James. James was a major influence on Bellairs, so even if King is just directly alluding to James with Later, he equally indirectly alludes to Bellairs.
If you have liked things by King, and like classic ghost stories, this should be quick and enjoyable read. Likewise, if you’re just a fan of the general Hard Case Crime label noir, there is enough intersection with the classic motifs of that genre (crooked cops, drug running, monstrous crime bosses with perverse sexual proclivities, etc) to make it familiar and sate the appetite.
From page one Jamie – and I guess King – makes note of the frequent use of the title word ‘later’. I kind of hope that we will see more of Jamie later in future books. The character and tone just work too well to be finished with. Later on one day I may whistle for that, and see what comes.
On the Night Border
By James Chambers
Raw Dog Screaming Press — September 2019
ISBN: 9781947879119 — Paperback — 218 pp.
Cover: Daniele Serra (Art) and Jennifer Barnes (Design)
Seeing posts about the recent release of There Comes a Midnight Hour by Gary A. Braunbeck put me in the mood for reading something from Raw Dog Screaming Press, so I read one I had on-hand: The Fourth Whore by E.V. Knight. After reviewing that the other day, I decided to just make both review posts this week on RDSP titles.
It’s been awhile since I read James Chambers’ collection On the Night Border, so I glanced through it anew to write this. I’d previously encountered Chambers’ writing in Truth or Dare?, an anthology from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, which included the Chambers story “Marco Polo”, reprinted in On the Night Border. Though I thought it was an average to good story back then, it is only upon rereading it in the context of stories by Chambers that I could fully appreciate all it is, and the wide range of what Chambers can effectively write within the horror genre.
The first handful of stories in this collection immediately establish that Chambers can work well with completely different voices and styles. “A Song Left Behind in the Aztakea Hills” features a Lovecraftian plot set in New England. Its protagonist is an artist, a painter, who once knew Jack Kerouac. A mathematician seeks him out at the local bar to hear a story about his time with Kerouac, in particular an incident that occurred in the nearby hills on a trip with a band. As they travel back to the hills, the artist recalls the otherworldly sounds they experienced there, and he faces the mingling grief and indifference of being recently dumped by his boyfriend. The story is written with poetic descriptions and complex layers to its sentences. Chambers renders one section in the style of Kerouac, a mad frenzy that is a fitting pairing to Lovecraft. Though taken place in relatively contemporary time, the richness of the style and words evoke the eldritch inspirations behind the tale.
The next story, the aforementioned “Marco Polo”, is also set in relatively contemporary times and draws on themes of madness and recovery, but centers on a completely different population: teens. A group of friends dare one another to enter the fire-charred remains of a house to recover an object. The notorious house inspires fear both due to the physical danger of its ruins, but also on the spiritual side. It was the site for something horrendous, and the object is somehow associated with it. The reader soon learns more details, and the meaning of the title becomes apparent. But I won’t spoil that. With a focus on the impetuousness of youth, Chambers style and tone completely shifts from the first story. Curt dialogue between the friends and colloquial taunts blend with the inner thoughts of teenage uncertainty. But these soon give way to text again depicting madness. However, where in “A Song Left Behind in the Aztakea Hills” that madness fit the Lovecraft style mold, here it takes the form of slasher film syle.
Already, readers can begin to get a sense of those elements common to all of Chambers’ stories. First, he uses a plot set up that will be familiar to horror readers, or anyone who has heard a scary story or urban legend. He then chooses a unique voice to explore one central theme through that plot setup. He does that in ways that then take something ordinary and and skew it into a dark and dream-like haze. The story formed as the end product thus really fits with the title to this collection: a tale on the border between the mundane and bone chilling, on the border of familiar and uncanny.
“Lost Daughters” serves as a great example. One of my favorites in the collection, it began like something I read or heard before. A man drives on dark road over ‘suicide bridge’. He stops to pick up three young women, concerned for their safety out alone on such a night. Sounds like a ghost story from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. To that setup Chambers then explores the emotions of a concerned father, and through that character’s voice reveals the terror as terror begins to unfold and his concern shifts to self preservation. I quickly realized these aren’t ghosts, they are another horror staple But, then the end brings the fatherhood concern theme full circle in novel ways.
To follow this, “Sum’bitch and the Arakadile” demonstrates yet another unique character/voice for Chambers to use, while also illustrating the first example in the collection of using some humor alongside the horror, even if the tone doesn’t ever really become ‘light’ per se. Later, with “Living/Dead”, Chambers shows that he can in fact do that too, with a memorably sweet story that uses the zombie concept to explore the mystery of love. This, right after the most brutal story in On the Night Border: “The Driver, Under a Chesire Moon”, where the main character is the eponymous driver, explaining to a passenger his fascination with the evils done against children, and the staggering statistics of child disappearance.
Though Chambers’ stories all share some common core, the shifts in voice and sub-genre of horror make it a very eclectic and varied collection. Looking at other reviews of On the Night Border, readers often seem to indicate very different stories as favorites, note others as good, and more rarely point out one not liked. Considering Chambers’ range, I don’t find this surprising. He’s very much a jack-of-all-trades within short fiction horror. Unless one really doesn’t like the voice or sub-genre he chooses, a reader will at least find a story to be decent. He’s not going to change your mind about what you’re partial to. But whatever horror thing is your favorite, he’ll write one that you will probably just adore.
I could not read “Mnemonicide” because it is written as an exercise in the second person. No matter how much that fits the story, I just don’t care. But others mark that as a favorite. I could take or leave Lovecraft. “Odd Quahogs” a story here featuring Dagon was good, but nothing special to me. The Lovecraftian “A Song Left Behind in the Aztakea Hills” I liked even more, but still wouldn’t put at the top.
Beyond ones mentioned earlier above, “The Many Hands Inside the Mountain”, “What’s in the Bag, Dad?”, “Picture Man”, and “Red Mami” were among my favorites. I won’t belabor things with summaries of those, and I’m out of fresh insights to particularly connect with them as examples.
Before getting to my last points, for the sense of completeness: “The Chamber of Last Earthly Delights” sat kind of in the bottom middle for me in level of appreciation. It’s inspired by the mythology of Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow (not James Chambers the author of this collection). Unlike Lovecraft mythos, I have never heard of Robert Chambers or his work before. The story goes in a more SF direction than others, which I found interesting. But, perhaps missing the reference/inspiration, the themes and plot of the story were really lost on me.
That James Chambers can so effectively employ varied voices/styles in a range of horror sub-genres seems to have led him to not just use other mythos as his inspiration, but to go even a bit further and pen additional stories featuring classic characters. The remaining two stories in the collection I haven’t yet mentioned fall into this category. In both cases, I’ve read nothing on the original sources, but unlike The King in Yellow, I have at least heard of them and/or their creators.
The first, “A Wandering Blackness” features Anton Zarnak, Supernatural Sleuth, a character by Lin Carter. Once Zarnak gets into this story by Chambers, it is awesome. The lead up to that, however, seemed unnecessarily prolonged. The second I read as far more successful: “Lost Boy” featuring Kolchak, the Night Stalker, a character who Chambers has also written for in the graphic novel format. It’s a familiar changeling fairy story, but the modern twist of a mother wronged by a rich businessman and the Kolchak series placement make it interesting and satisfying.
The collection is followed by author notes on each of the stories. I found these really useful for recalling some stories for this review so long after first reading them, but also they provide fantastic insights into why Chambers wrote them – the themes he found himself pondering or the inspiration/voice he wanted to delve into. The notes enhance the stories, especially for then rereading and gaining new appreciations.
Horror fans are sure to find a good deal to enjoy in On the Night Border. I failed to mention earlier one other element that ties together all the stories. No matter their voice or style, they are all cinematically evocative. Chambers writing really makes the reader hear and see what is going on, while also triggering the other senses like any good horror should. It deserves continued notice, and I hope to see much more from Chambers.
The Fourth Whore
By EV Knight
Raw Dog Screaming Press — March 2020
ISBN: 9781947879164 — Paperback — 226 pp.
Struggling day-by-day to survive in the slums of Detroit, Kenzi Brooks does whatever is necessary to keep control of her life, using the power of her body as a woman, supported by her street-wise friend Gloria, but at odds with her alcoholic, hostile mother. As rough as Kenzi’s present may be, her past has been even more damaging. Sixteen years ago, at the age of seven, she walked to the store with her brother, and watched him struck down in a hit-and-run. She would have died in that accident as well, were it not for the strange, dark-robed figure she saw. A man who made her pause, a man with scrawled writing up his flesh, and a large black bird with him. Through the ensuing years she years Kenzi couldn’t be certain if this Scribbled Man was a figment of her imagination or something very real. Arguing for the latter, she carries a lucky rabbit foot that she recalls him giving her. It serves as a reminder of that tragedy, of her father’s subsequent death, and her continued pain; the sharp edges of the claw used to cut herself in ritual self harm.
An attack by members of a drug gang after payments leaves Kenzi badly injured and her mother dead. During the assault, Kenzi unknowingly releases the spirit held within the rabbit foot: Lilith, the first created mate for Adam, who was cast from the Garden of Eden for refusing to be subservient to her husband. Abandoned and tormented by fallen angels, Lilith becomes mother to half-breed demons and slowly a demon herself, or as she comes to think of it, a goddess. One of the angels she trusted, but who ended up failing and betraying her, is Sariel. For Sariel’s actions in defiance of the Creator, he is punished to serve as the Angel of Death, forced to collect human souls with his avian companion Enoch until he also captures all of Lilith’s demon-spawn. Sariel is Kenzi’s Scribbled Man, and he has plans and hopes for this special girl who can see him through her heterochromatic eyes.
But, the escaped Lilith has very different plans for Kenzi, and for the world. Lilith intends to usher in the apocalypse, to destroy the world and remake things in her image where women are not terrorized in subservience. Where she is worshipped. She recruits other women to her path, to serve as the Whores of the Apocalypse (parallels to the Four Horsemen of Revelation). Due to the unique nature of Kenzi and what Sariel has done, she will make the ideal fourth whore. But who will Kenzi choose to believe and follow: Sariel her Scribbled Man from her childhood, or the powerful and vengeful Lilith?
The Fourth Whore thus has a lot going on in it for ~225 pages: multiple intersecting back stories as well as competing paths for Kenzi’s future. Knight structures the novel with short chapters written from different points of view. Sariel, Lilith, and Kenzi account for the most, but other chapters use the point of view of the Whore of War, the Whore of Pestilence, and a young male doctor who sympathizes with/is attracted to Kenzi. This organization works really well, and the chapter titles, rendered as “The Book of Sariel” (for example), make it easy to figure out what character or plot thread will be featured. Even with two “Books of Kenzi” in a row, Knight splits her protagonist’s point of view into two chapters that break with the action and a hook to keep reading. This makes The Fourth Whore easy to make one’s way through it.
What may make The Fourth Whore more difficult to get through it, for some readers, is its uncompromising and unflinching intensity. It features dark, troubling themes of rape, mental/psychological trauma, self harm, and perverted abandon. Readers can almost hear, see, smell, and feel the viscera that fills the pages with all bodily fluids imaginable. Knight writes raw, graphic scenes of sexuality that equally don’t shy from biological frankness.
Some may then wonder why would somebody want to read such things? I imagine that regular fans of dark fantasy and horror know exactly why such brutal honesty can be therapeutic, while others know it is something that they just have to avoid and can’t manage. Either is fair. For those who aren’t so sure, or wonder how all of that could transcend simple vulgar gore to mean something significant – and something feminist at that – read on…
The Fourth Whore is a fascinating work of feminist fantasy/horror built upon the iconic JudaeoChristian mythology of Lilith, the Nephilim, and the history of the Salem Witch trials. It illustrates the many ways in which women have been suppressed, oppressed, demonized, controlled, and assaulted. Literally and symbolically. Mentally and physically. It also contains female characters who have all witnessed or experienced this and chosen to reject being trapped within that system. To act differently with unapologetic pride and fervor. They take derogatory language and weaponize it. They take something that they’ve been historically asked to view with shame, guilt, and submissiveness and made it into a celebration of power. The question that all of the The Fourth Whore hinges upon becomes one of at what point does rebellion against an unjust system of power become equally hurtful in new ways? Or, is one really free from that system of power if it merely redirects harm?
Kenzi’s internal battle through the novel is between trusting two powerful forces of authority who both lie to her and want to use her. One is male, admits mistakes in the past, but professes to be trying to do better. The other is female and says that the male just wants to continue using her. The kicker is, both are kinda right! Kenzi comes to appreciate just how horribly and awfully Lilith has been treated. Without excusing any of that, though, she cannot necessarily come to condone what Lilith has become or now desires. She confronts the realization that victims might turn into the monsters, continuing the pain that was visited upon them. Others might act as monsters – and still have that in them, but perhaps want something more. These realizations become symbolic for Kenzi’s own victimhood. Without losing sight of what unfair trauma she has faced and the wrongs done to her by others without any fault of her own, she sees a fork in the road of what can be done to perhaps heal. One pathway exists as the one she herself has so often taken: relief by further pain. Cutting. Another path is turning that vengeance away from oneself and outward to the world – the route of Lilith and her disciples. But perhaps there is also a third to find.
All readers may not agree with how all these themes and questions go in the novel. And frankly many – including Knight – might disagree with my interpretation of things. It’s important to note I am male and coming at this from a different perspective than other readers may. As a male I really appreciated the characters of Sariel and Henry (the doctor). Not because I wanted someone like me in the story, but because Knight does convey that male perspective so well (imho) of wanting to do better, to do right, but likewise existing on societal pillars both conscious and unconscious that might work against it. Even if others end up feeling very differently about the novel’s themes, the one thing I think it’s safe to say is that The Fourth Whore invites analysis around them.
The only significant criticism that I might make of the novel is that the dialogue becomes very stilted and hammy at times, particularly in the more sexually or generally emotionally charged scenes. Some of those lines then make secondary characters comically clichéd, or at the very least too un-nuanced. Despite such moments of unevenness, the overall arching plot of the entertaining story, as well the depth and complexity of its themes, makes The Fourth Whore an overall success.
This should give potential readers an idea if they fit into the novel’s audience. But even if this isn’t a fit, I would say that the name EV Knight is one that you should keep an open mind for with future titles. She writes intelligent and perceptive horror, and future things from her may connect to dark fantasy fans who might not be able to quite manage this particular intensity of content and themes.
EDIT IN UPDATE:
I just realized that I completely neglected to say more on Enoch! Enoch is the real star of the book :D. I particularly love the running ‘gag’ that Enoch’s gender is abundantly clear to Kenzi, but Sariel remains mostly obstinate and clueless. She could star in her own series.
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
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
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.
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.