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.