THE BLACK PHONE: STORIES (20th CENTURY GHOSTS) by Joe Hill

The Black Phone: Stories
(20th Century Ghosts)
By Joe Hill
William Morrow & Company — December 2021
ISBN: 9780063215139
— Paperback — 480 pp.


First published in 2005 as 20th Century Ghosts, Joe Hill’s debut collection of sixteen short stories has been reprinted and rebranded as The Black Phone to coincide with another short story found within, now adapted into a film by Blumhouse Productions and directed by Scott Derrickson of the original Doctor Strange film. Blumhouse debuted the film at a festival in September 2021, with Universal slating it for broad release in January of this year. The film tie-in version of the collection therefore released just prior, in December. However, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic pushed the film into February, and then ultimately until now, June 2022. With the film now finally released to strong reviews, it seemed the right time for covering this copy I received. There is currently a new Goodreads giveaway for the collection as well, for anyone interested in winning a copy.

Of all the stories found within, “20th Century Ghosts” works the best as a representative title for the whole collection. “That Black Phone”, not so much. But, the latter does make some sense for adaptation into a film. It’s the most conventional horror story within the collection, with a plot that calls to mind real-life, serial-killer horrors and fictionalized retellings alike. And the characters of “The Black Phone” are closest to what one might find in something by Hill’s father, Stephen King.

The story of “The Black Phone is very simple. A young teen is abducted off the street by a fat man who works as a clown. The man gets the boy close to his van by drawing his attention after clumsily ‘losing’ a cluster of black helium-filled balloons from his van. The boy awakens locked in a basement, with only an old-style rotary phone hanging from the bare walls. The man seems on edge, both from keeping the abducted boy hidden in his basement, and from hallucinations of the phone ringing. But that can’t be possible. The phone doesn’t work. They boy hears the phone ring himself, and when he answers he hears the voice of one of the man’s past victims, a voice offering encouragement and the hope of escape.

Even with how well this general plot fits the mold of standard horror film plots, it remains unclear reading the few pages of “The Black Phone” of how it could be effectively expanded into a full length movie. And Ethan Hawke is a far, far cry from descriptions of the abductor in the short story. The short story is good, but its clear that the film is taking the basic plot and some visual elements of the story to craft something more complex, and perhaps more interesting, though also more derivative of King’s work in the opinions of some reviews I’ve read.

Though “The Black Phone” is good, other stories in this collection are clearly superior, with more originality and emotional resonance. Many fall into the category of horror, some simply the darker side of fantasy, and one of the best is actually on the conventional side of literature, and sweet. Hill also employs darkness and horror with a varying touch. Some stories, like “The Black Phone” are full-on horror from start to finish, while others only give a small dose of dread or terror, even just subtly implied.

And that calls to mind the stylistic tendency that does seem to unite most (if not all) the sixteen stories in the collection: Hill’s penchant for leaving things implied, for reader’s to form a complete image of their own, constructed from the pieces he provides. For some casual readers this could make the stories here feel unfinished, cut-off just when a clearly stated resolution or final image should be divulged. Hill’s stories typically lack any sort of coda, and even leave off directly telling the reader how things ‘conclude’.

However, this should not equate to the stories being interpreted as ‘unfinished’. Hill does provide plenty of details and contexts on how things will likely proceed from the moment the text of the story stops. His literary endings easily segue into film-like images that should spool through the reader’s mind. Often those ending moments also involve that little injection of horror, in a frightening realization and grim interpretation of where the story really has gone, despite expectations and assumptions.

The highlights of this collection for me were “20th Century Ghosts”, “Pop Art”, “You Will Hear the Locust Sing”, “Abraham’s Boys”, “Dead-Wood”, and “Voluntary Committal”. The last of these is a novella that concludes the main collection. I’ve written before how I dislike novellas, with their long length, at the end of things when my instincts call for a winding down. Despite this, the slow build unease of the plot and its understated horror were a success. “Dead-Wood” is on the opposite end of the length spectrum: a flash fiction done very well, touching on an aspect of ghosts I’ve often wondered about as a biologist. “Abraham’s Boys”, taken from an anthology on Van Helsing, is a powerful take on the effects of horror and trauma on the Dracula character, and his family, well after the novel concludes. It looks at the absolute violence and horror that define that character traditionally considered heroic and ‘good’. “You Will Hear the Locust Sing” is a wonderful creature horror-Kafkaesque mash-up, with bits of gore and humor alike. “Pop Art” is a touching story of friendship that shows Hill has talent well beyond the fields of horror genre tradition (which, interestingly, father King has often showed as well with works like “Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption”.) Finally, “20th Century Ghosts” is a well done ghost story of longing and memory – not ghosts for terror – that also displays a nostalgic love for the ‘ghost’ of cinema past.

Besides these stories, “Best New Horror”, the aforementioned “The Black Phone”, and “The Last Breath” were solid tales with a lot going for them, but also limitations. Like “The Black Phone”, “Best New Horror” felt very familiar, and predictable. Featuring a writer protagonist also seemed too well worn in this genre of horror, or any. Nonetheless, it’s still an entertaining horror read. “The Last Breath” has great atmosphere and is a fun idea, but falters at the end with predictable inevitability. It’s a case where Hill could have (and probably should have) ended it sooner, leaving the obvious conclusion unspoken and implied alone.

“In the Rundown”, “The Cape”, “The Widow’s Breakfast”, “Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead”, and “My Father’s Mask” all failed to really captivate me, though they had moments of inspired brilliance (“The Cape”) or a fun foundation from horror geekdom (“Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead”).

If you are counting along, that’s fifteen stories, and I mentioned at the start that this a collection of sixteen. Don’t skip the acknowledgements, because Hill places a meta flash fiction within, “Scheherazade’s Typewriter” like a hidden CD bonus track. It’s worth the quick read.

While all the stories of The Black Phone (20th Century Ghosts) may not connect for readers, short horror fiction fans should find several tales within that make it worth reading, particularly when Hill’s general style works for personal tastes. If you only know of Hill vaguely and indirectly through the Blumhouse The Black Phone movie, or another of his numerous TV/film adaptations (and enjoyed any of those) you should definitely give his writing a look.


SCREAMS FROM THE DARK Edited by Ellen Datlow

Screams from the Dark:
29 Tales of Monsters and the Monstrous
Edited by Ellen Datlow
Tor Nightfire — June 2022
ISBN: 9781250797063
— Hardcover — 496 pp.


Amid a period of lots of horrible news, the 2021 debut of the Tor Nightfire imprint has provided a lot of literary relief as a major new outlet for horror fiction. The deeply respected editor and anthologist Ellen Datlow has long acquired short fiction for the Tor.com site, and its more fantastic news that she’s expanding that role into the Nightfire realm.

With Screams from the Dark: 29 Tales of Monsters and the Monstrous, Datlow compiles an impressively diverse array of dark fantasy and horror stories from an all-star lineup of authors. Indeed, reading this collection feels like the literary equivalent of watching an all-star sports team under the management of a venerated Hall of Famer. Screams from the Dark is a celebration of achievement in dark fiction. It takes a simple theme, gathers a broad panel of award-winning artists under Datlow, and lets them all do their thing. Like in a sports all-star game, some play as seriously as they normally would, some show off a bit, and some just have fun.

For casual fans, or people looking for a specific brand of the game of horror, the results might vary. But, there will surely be something to enjoy. For devoted fans of the genre whose tastes enjoy sampling across the range of the genre, there is unlikely to be a more successful anthology than Datlow and the authors provide in Screams from the Dark.

The theme of this collection, Monsters, is not a new one for Datlow. In 2015 she published The Monstrous, an original anthology for Tachyon Publications that I reviewed here back then. Screams from the Dark serves thus as a thematic sequel, bringing some authors back, but also bringing in new voices that give this a more modern vibe consistent with the latest in dark short fiction. Additionally, whereas that older collection mostly fell within the horror genre, Screams from the Dark, I would argue, draws equally from dark fantasy as horror. For me that is no problem at all. But some may wish for chills – or screams – from the horror side. The only criticism I have of the collection is actually its title. I feel it’s too generic for the specific monster theme, and a bit distant from the style and effects of the stories within.

29 Tales of Monsters and the Monstrous makes a better lead title, even if less evocative. But that number in there, 29, does reflect the hefty amount of text that this anthology gifts to its readers. Few of the stories here are very short, and also few are super long. Most fit into that perfect short story length to exert their spell. And for discerning readers with diverse stylistic or genre tastes, all 29 of these stories should captivate.

I started the anthology with plans to simply review/mention only my favorite stories. Though I did have favorites, I soon found that would be too difficult, or would shortchange a lot of stories/authors still deserving note. All the contributors in Screams from the Dark offer high quality tales that show off their talent and speculative, dark vision.

So, to the individual stories:

“You Have What I Need” by Ian Rogers – A perfect start to things, an entertaining story of the attack on a hospital ER by viral-infected vampires. The characters and setting, with pandemic relevance, play with the idea of exactly what a ‘monster’ is.

“The Midway” by Fran Wilde – The question of who and what are monstrous develops even more in this story of having to work a real lousy summer job at an amusement park where the electrical power and crowd draw come from sacrifices to an eldritch sea creature. Loved the combining vibes of nostalgia with something just a bit off.

“Wet Red Grin” by Gemma Files – A truly horrific tale set in a nursing home. Vividly written and grim, it delves into family and magic through the threat of a parasitic essence within a dying old woman. One of my favorites for emotional depth, language, and imagery.

“The Virgin Jimmy Peck” by Daryl Gregory – Should be among the favorites for anyone who likes humor with their horror. A cult has implanted a monstrous creation within the eponymous protagonist. The horrific set-up is played lightly, though still darkly, with character silliness and fun nods to horror classics.

“The Ghost of a Flea” by Priya Sharma – Fascinating and well composed historical dark fiction inspired by Robert Hooke’s early micrographs and William Blake’s painting that gives this tale its name. As a microbiologist I was excited to see something alluding to Hooke. Though I’m unfamiliar with Blake, the story here of a couple investigating strange, supernatural killings works even without the historical references as a dark fantasy/crime mash-up.

“The Atrocity Exhibitionists” by Brian Hodge – Another story with connection to the pandemic, this shows even more timeliness in its treatment of self-harm and the allure of the fleeting nature of fame. Such an intense and dark story, that will truly haunt readers.

“”The Father of Modern Gynecology”: J. Marion Syms, M.D. (1813 – 1883)” by Joyce Carol Oates – Here, Oates goes the route of dark details from history to reflect on the fears and terror of today. You can look up the real J. Marion Sims, but the fictionalized autobiographical story here shows the monster just as well, with clear parallels to contemporary politics.

“Here Comes Your Man” by Indrapramit Das – Here is a perfect example of how to build tension and make that suspense pay off in a short story. Wit the tale of a young couple who leave their rural home for a festival in the city, Das makes the reader feel the discomforts of culture shock and displacement among things that still have the air of familiarity and safety. Exceptionally well-rendered characters and brutal story telling.

“Siolaigh” by Siobhan Carroll – Set among the Outer Hebrides off the coast of Scotland, this story grabs the reader with “A man’s severed arm lay in the surf” and doesn’t let go. Is it a legendary sea serpent that is the monster responsible? The local color of setting and the customs of lore give this tale an eerie, briny atmosphere as it considers what a monster may be.

“What is Love But the Quiet Moments After Dinner?” by Richard Kadrey – A date between Caleb and Patti seems to be going along swimmingly, heading for the bedroom, until they each reveal surprising secrets. Kadrey takes an absurd moment that could be played for humor, but twists it into a splendidly macabre romance of the monstrous.

“The Island” by Norman Partridge – The action of the story opens with a vampire aboard a ship, forced to flee hunters in his homeland, in dire and gruesome battle with the sailors. The vampire Count washes onto island that is not an island, shores that seem to gather monsters. The story has a vintage tone that ties to its allusions to the cast of the classic Universal monster films of old Hollywood.

“Flaming Teeth” by Garry Kilworth – Another story with a hidden island to follow the previous, this harkens back to old Hollywood adventures in exotic lands where monsters abound, in this case a corner of the southern Pacific where a giant creature known by a local name that translates into “Flaming Teeth”. It’s an entertaining look at natural predation and what we consider (hypocritically?) ‘monstrous’ from our point of view in the food chain.

“Strandling” by Caitlín R. Kiernan – This story paints a picture of a bleak future sadly too believable, saturated with the “hydrocarbon debris of a thoughtless world.” A lonely, exhausted desolation where mutant monstrosities are born from our monstrosity, and two women cling to one another against seeming inevitability. A beautiful, if dark, tale that features some lovely nuggets on the parasitic – mutalistic continuum of symbiosis that stands at the center of life and the the themes here.

“The Special One” by Chịkọdịlị Emelụmadụ – “They named her Joy, an ordinary name for a child who became extraordinary, at least in childhood.” Filled with luscious text, this story presents itself as a fable on expectations and the pressures one bears to meet them. On the dark side of fantasy, it turns into horror with an unsettling ending that masterfully closes things.

“Devil” by Glen Hirshberg – A second modern-day tale that plays upon classic stories of exotic exploration. Here, the devil refers to the Tasmanian devil, a creature some tourists seek sight of in the wilds of the island, in a place where only train tracks remain from the colonizers who attempted to conquer the wilderness. Predator-prey dynamics and the ghosts of history haunt the unsuspected interlopers.

“Crick Crack Rattle Tap” by A. C. Wise – One of the most impactful stories of the collection, troubling and brutal, yet compassionate all at the same time. A young mother grapples with post-partum emotions, her desires conflicting between nourishing and exasperated. Shamed as flashes of tendernesses give way to resentment, her mind nonetheless turns in horror to a fairy tale rhyme, to rid her aching of its burden. Hardly an easy read in its emotion, this is just a brilliant fable of darkness and melancholy.

“Children of the Night” by Stephen Graham Jones – Light fare from Jones that embraces silliness and humor to have fun with the monster theme. The title evokes the classic line from Tod Browning’s Dracula (or was it even in Bram Stoker’s novel?) However, this one is actually about Bigfoot, and plays fancifully with the typical explanation of sightings of the cryptid as people in ape costumes.

“The Smell of Waiting” by Kaaron Warren – Such a touching and bittersweet story of a girl who discovers she has the power to resurrect life after the death of her puppy, and later, a vicious attack/murder of her mother. While she has this extraordinary power that others might view as ‘monstrous’, Warren forces readers to confront what such abilities might be like when able to provide relief to others, but never oneself.

“Now Voyager” by Livia Llewellyn – Wow, ummm, what? This was my first reaction to this genre-bending offering by Llewellyn. Then I reread it and loved it even more. The story is a science fiction dark fantasy that imagines a far-future Earth where a Princess, member of a deformed royal family looks out over a caldera considering the approaching death of the human Camera of the Gods and the selection of a replacement from among potential novitiates. This gem does so much, and so subtly, with exquisite prose. Are the monsters the alien Gods, or the Princess and her family who look the part and knowingly sacrifice others to a form of slavery? The richness of the story allows interpretations and new discoveries with rereads. An unconventional horror amid the rest of the collection, but superbly uncanny.

“The Last Drop” by Carole Johnstone – A tale that echoes the earlier offering from Oates, this is a fictionalized retelling of historical events and (at least some) characters. Set in the mid/late 19th century, it involves a woman put on trial for murder. In it, Johnstone includes details from actual court transcripts. The modern reader’s uncertainty of the woman’s guilt of the monstrous crime becomes accentuated by appreciations of societal blindness and atipathy toward women.

“Three Mothers Mountain” by Nathan Ballingrud – I have adored everything I’ve read by Ballingrud I think, and this was no exception. I still haven’t read his recent (now maybe old?) collection and really need to. Anyway, this story about witches, repercussions of magic, and the painful choices/sacrifices people make for family has familiar tones and themes for any dark fantasy fan. Yet, somehow Ballingrud manages to make it all seem fresh and evocative.

“Widow-Light” by Margo Lanagan – Fans of modern feminist recasting of fairy tales should adore this short fantasy from Langan. It stands unique among the other offerings of the collection in having perhaps the most hopeful, happy of endings. This is not to say it doesn’t touch upon darkness or horror in getting there, with themes of relevance to today’s reality as much as a fantasy world. I particularly appreciated how this is an original story in the fairy tale style, rather than something based off any particular fable or trope.

“Sweet Potato” by Joe R. Lansdale – The neighbor of an old woman who likes to set out bird seed, sit on her porch, and then shoot the birds who come each day, decides to take up gardening. When he discovers the perverted old lady dead and decomposing in her yard, he considers whether her body might be put to better use. This reads like a fairly standard contemporary short horror, but Lansdale’s talent keeps it engaging and fun.

“Knock, Knock” by Brian Evenson – A man kills his uncle, but soon a knocking comes on the door, revealing the murder may not have quite taken. This plays well both as a literal horror and as a psychological one of a man being tormented by his monstrous actions. In either case it is another familiar horror theme, but again one handled in just the way, with just the right atmosphere and structure, to make it enjoyable.

“What is Meat with No God” by Cassandra Khaw – I believe this is the shortest story within the collection, but Khaw does a lot within its fitting length. Heavy on hypnotic atmosphere, with an equally dazzling title, the story is a simple one of a monstrous soldier who cannot be killed, whose path of bloody carnage has no deviation until complete. The short length leaves a great deal of ambiguity to the background of the story and its interpretations, leaving a lot of room for the reader to draw conclusions.

“Bitten Himself” by Laird Barron – This one is a follow-up to one of Barron’s most known stories, “The Procession of the Black Soth.” I haven’t actually read that one, to my memory, so can’t comment on connections beyond the reappearance here of the title entity. In this, the protagonist is a deprived criminal/murderer who encounters his doppelgänger, and then cosmic-horror-vibed Black Sloth, to face his eternal punishment. Fans of Barron’s horror won’t be disappointed.

“Burial” by Kristi DeMeester – Something about DeMeester’s writing tends to hit the right notes with me. They are windows into the dark and pain that women have faced, and continue to face in life, tales of finding power and agency in that. Even so distant from my own experiences, the passion of her writing still resonates with me. No different here, a tale of a girl trying to save her sister and herself from a selfish, abusive mother, and her creation of a new mother from that agonizing desperation.

“Beautiful Dreamer” by Jeffrey Ford – In a time of increased partisanship, mistrust, and rancor between those on opposite ends of the US political expression, it is nice to see this short monster story of a horror that might help bridge the divide. Despite its themes, the story is a simple, unadorned one of people protecting themselves/hunting a dangerous mutant creature. Not very dark in tone, it is gory and splatter filled, an entertaining story that creature feature horror fans should enjoy.

“Blodsuger” by John Langan – Datlow saves the longest story for last, a practice that seems common to collections and anthologies. But, it’s one that I don’t really care for much, I’d rather a shorter sip to end things. The title of this one is an Anglicization of ‘bloedzuiger‘, the Dutch word for ‘leech’. (Advanced copies of the anthology used the Dutch spelling for the title from what I can tell.) A horror author tells a tale about an ice fishing experience with his grandfather where he lands a monster from Danish lore, that proceeds to unleash terror. Though I personally found the text too long, Langan certainly does a great job balancing an atmosphere of dread/horror with the nostalgia/mundane of family life.

Screams from the Dark is an anthology I could see easily returning to. Many of the tales bear rereading, and I am sure that personal favorites (or ones that resonate most strongly with me) might vary with time and age.

Datlow concludes her introduction to the anthology with these words, which I find just as fitting here:

What’s most interesting to me as a reader is the range of monstrousness that exists within ourselves and that we impose on the creatures unlike us that we name monsters. Monsters are our mirrors: in them, we see who we hope we are not, in order to understand who we war.

This is why the diverse range of authors, styles, and sub-genre are so integral to the success of Screams from the Dark. Monsters are deeply personal beasts, and the monstrous will change over one’s life experiences, through the political and social upheaval that surround us. Not every story here will likely resonate with you. But, which do, may change. And even at this moment of now, they all offer an empathic glimpse into what others see lurking in their mirrors, darkly.


ANNA by Sammy H.K. Smith

“… Anna is a tautly written dystopian thriller immerses readers in a brutal world of struggling for survival and personhood. It is not inspirational. It is a horrifying and brutal first-person account of traumatic abuse and finding a possibility of some freedom or power despite it…”

Read my entire debut review for Fantasy Book Critic of Anna HERE

Solaris (Rebellion Press) – May 2021 – Hardcover – 300 pp.

CHILDREN OF DEMETER by E.V. Knight

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.


CROSSROADS by Laurel Hightower

Crossroads
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.


LATER by Stephen King

Later
(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.


Tor Nightfire: First Season of Books from the New Horror Imprint

Tor Nightfire

Usually I’ll go more out of my way to support and spread the word about small independent presses that I adore. But, Tor has always been supportive of my reviews and their new upstarting Nightfire horror imprint is one that I’m especially excited about! Perhaps it is the pandemic, but for whatever reason I’ve been on a recent horror kick, enjoying ‘old’ favorite publishers like Raw Dog Screaming Press or the new Off Limits Press. Now the excitement builds for what looks to be a stellar lineup in the Tor Nightfire first season catalog. So here’s a brief news highlight for the upcoming books due out this fall from Tor Nightfire.

I’m due to receive some of the titles in advance for review, and probably will try to pick up as many as I can of the others when they’re released. So, look for reviews here to come and in the meantime check out the details on them all:

First up in their catalog for 7th September 2021 release is Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, an urban fantasy-noir with vampires:

“Welcome to Mexico City, an oasis in a sea of vampires. Domingo, a lonely garbage-collecting street kid, is just trying to survive its heavily policed streets when a jaded vampire on the run swoops into his life. Atl, the descendant of Aztec blood drinkers, is smart, beautiful, and dangerous. Domingo is mesmerized.

Atl needs to quickly escape the city, far from the rival narco-vampire clan relentlessly pursuing her. Her plan doesn’t include Domingo, but little by little, Atl finds herself warming up to the scrappy young man and his undeniable charm. As the trail of corpses stretches behind her, local cops and crime bosses both start closing in.

Vampires, humans, cops, and criminals collide in the dark streets of Mexico City. Do Atl and Domingo even stand a chance of making it out alive? Or will the city devour them all?”

The following week features the release of Slewfoot: A Tale of Bewitchery by Brom. I don’t know dark fantasist Brom, and I was at first off-put by his use of a singular name. But the description of this just sounds wonderful.

“Connecticut, 1666. An ancient spirit awakens in a dark wood. The wildfolk call him Father, slayer, protector.

The colonists call him Slewfoot, demon, devil.

To Abitha, a recently widowed outcast, alone and vulnerable in her pious village, he is the only one she can turn to for help.

Together, they ignite a battle between pagan and Puritan – one that threatens to destroy the entire village, leaving nothing but ashes and bloodshed in their wake.

“If it is a devil you seek, then it is a devil you shall have!”

This terrifying tale of bewitchery features more than two dozen of Brom’s haunting paintings, fully immersing readers in this wild and unforgiving world.”

Witches continue the theme with the next week in September and a reprint (I believe) of Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, translated from the Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier. I am seriously disappointed that translator’s name is not on the cover, and even more so that it’s not on the publication page/materials. A newly translated novel by Heuvelt, Echo, is due in 2022 from Nightfire as well.

Due out the final week in September is The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward. The cover reveal was just held for this psychological horror, and it is a beauty. I don’t think I had originally requested it, but now I’m hoping I might be able to find the time.

“In a boarded-up house on a dead-end street at the edge of the wild Washington woods lives a family of three.

A teenage girl who isn’t allowed outside, not after last time.
A man who drinks alone in front of his TV, trying to ignore the gaps in his memory.
And a house cat who loves napping and reading the Bible.

An unspeakable secret binds them together, but when a new neighbor moves in next door, what is buried out among the birch trees may come back to haunt them all.”

Speaking of awesome covers, Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw has a doozy. This novella featuring a haunted house had me sold without even reading the blurb and I feel both guilty and tremendously joyful I’ll be able to read it before its 19th October release. For others, just in time for Halloween!

“A Heian-era mansion stands abandoned, its foundations resting on the bones of a bride and its walls packed with the remains of the girls sacrificed to keep her company.

It’s the perfect venue for a group of thrill-seeking friends, brought back together to celebrate a wedding.

A night of food, drinks, and games quickly spirals into a nightmare as secrets get dragged out and relationships are tested.

But the house has secrets too. Lurking in the shadows is the ghost bride with a black smile and a hungry heart.

And she gets lonely down there in the dirt.

Effortlessly taking the classic haunted house story and turning it on its head, Nothing but Blackened Teeth is a sharp and devastating exploration of grief, the parasitic nature of relationships, and the consequences of our actions.”

I’m very happy to see that Tor Nightfire has an anthology of short fiction due out their first year as well, in November. Dark Stars: New Tales of Darkest Horror, edited by John F. D. Taff is apparently an homage to classic 1980s collection that I’ve sadly never encountered. Guess I will have to delve into both!

Dark Stars is a tribute to horror’s longstanding short fiction legacy, featuring 12 terrifying original stories from today’s most noteworthy authors, with an introduction by bestselling author Josh Malerman and an afterword by Ramsey Campbell.

Created as an homage to the 1980 classic horror anthology, Dark Forces, edited by Kirby McCauley, this collection features 12 original novelettes showcasing today’s top horror talent. Dark Stars features all-new terrifying stories from award-winning authors and up-and-coming voices like Stephen Graham Jones, Priya Sharma, Usman T. Malik, and Alma Katsu, with seasoned author John F. D. Taff at the helm. An afterword from original Dark Forces contributor Ramsey Campbell is a poignant finale to this bone-chilling collection.

Enter if you dare, dear reader, and discover what horrors await in Dark Stars…”

The only release due from their catalog that I’ve skipped over is a second one released on that debut day of 7th September: The Living Dead a new novel based on George A. Romero’s zombieverse, written by Daniel Kraus. It’s now the only on that I haven’t felt much anticipation for. But if I end up devouring all their other titles as I hope, the completist in me might need to check this out as well.

I certainly don’t plan to regularly feature the whole catalogs of big publishers, but I hope readers and followers appreciate learning about this new imprint if they haven’t already.

Upcoming Unsung Stories Fantasy/Horror Anthology to Raise Awareness of Mental Health Issues: OUT OF THE DARKNESS

From Unsung Stories and Together for Mental Wellbeing

Out of the Darkness:

An Anthology of Horror and Dark Fantasy

If you didn’t notice the news earlier this month, Unsung Stories is publishing Out of the Darkness, an anthology of dark fantasy and horror fiction raising awareness of mental health issues with Together for Mental Wellbeing. From their release:

“[They] have Kickstarter exclusives on offer, including the chance to have your name in the book as part of the amazing community that supports indie publishing, and an exclusive, numbered hardback edition that is strictly limited to 100 copies worldwide. There are also opportunities to have your work critiqued by the award-winning Unsung Stories team, and bundles of books by featured Unsung authors.

Out of the Darkness challenges some of the most exciting voices in horror and dark fantasy to bring their worst fears out into the light. From the black dog of depression to acute anxiety and schizophrenia, these stories prove what fans of horror fiction have long known – that we must understand our demons to overcome them.

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, what began as a mental health crisis has rapidly become an unprecedented tsunami. The Centre for Mental Health has estimated that 10 million people will need mental health support in the UK as a direct consequence of Covid-19, with a staggering 1.5 million of those being under eighteen.

Edited by Dan Coxon (This Dreaming Isle) and featuring exclusive stories by Alison Moore, Jenn Ashworth, Tim Major and Aliya Whiteley, this collection harnesses the power of fiction to explore and explain the darkest moments in our lives. 

Horror isn’t just about the chills – it’s also about the healing that comes after.”

Table of Contents 

  • Nocturia – Nicholas Royle 
  • The Note – Jenn Ashworth 
  • Lonely Souls in Quiet Houses – Laura Mauro 
  • Seabound – Alison Moore 
  • Goodbye, Jonathan Tumbledown – Tim Major 
  • The Chorus – Aliya Whiteley 
  • The Forlorn Hope – Verity Holloway 
  • Oblio – Richard V. Hirst 
  • Still She Visits – Eugen Bacon 
  • Bloodybones Jones – Sam Thompson 
  • The Lightness of their Hearts – Georgina Bruce 
  • The Residential – Gary Budden 
  • Replacement Bus Service – Ashley Stokes 
  • Temple – Anna Vaught 
  • The Hungry Dark – Simon Bestwick 

Additional stories by Malcolm Devlin and Gareth E. Rees are slated for stretch goals.

I’ve already backed this and I’d encourage others to do the same. Support the Kickstarter here!

ON THE NIGHT BORDER by James Chambers

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

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.