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.


THE DARK MAGAZINE #69 (February 2021) Edited by Sean Wallace


Another issue with three of four stories to read. Those three fit the billing of dark fantasy, and were notably good, with one particularly sticking with me to lead off the issue:

“Laughter Among the Trees” by Suzan Palumbo — An immigrant to Canada with her parents from the West Indies, Anarika has mixed feelings about the birth of her sister Sabrina, an immediate citizen of this new land, her only home in contrast to the rest of the family. But, when Sab goes missing on a family camping trip, Ana deals with the guilt and the pain of her parents for the years to come. The eerie story combines familiar conventional themes of sibling rivalry and the immigrant experience with elements of classic horror (ghosts) and the monstrosities of colonization in very effective ways.

“The Yoke of the Aspens” by Kay Chronister — I do not read you.

“One Last Broken Thing” by Aimee Ogden — Liv’s mother has abandoned her and her father, who now live on an unproductive farm where her father shoots any animal that he sees in the fields. At school Liv is mocked and outcast. But as HS graduation approaches, Liv yearns to depart for college, though her father remains set against it. An apt title for a story showing how people can be broken by the past and loss, but also the power of staying true to oneself.

“A Resting Place For Dolls” by Priya Sridhar — A baker who is distraught over the suicide of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain uses a doll-making hobby – and power – inherited from her grandmother to help friends and acquaintances in her life who struggle with depression and stress. An anti-Voodoo doll kind of concept here, in a brief but good short story.

The issue also features cover art “Angel Fire East” by Tomislav Tikulin.


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HEARTS STRANGE AND DREADFUL by Tim McGregor

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


THE DARK MAGAZINE #68 (January 2021) Edited by Sean Wallace


Three of the four stories in this issue I adored, and the other might be appreciated by those who aren’t put off by its voice. The Dark Magazine continues to excel in presenting horror/dark fantasy that span a large variety of the genres, with no two stories alike here.

“The Van Etten House” by Carrie Laben — Two friends begin a partnership as online collectible dealers in their college town after graduation. Within the packed house of deceased hoarder, they discover a room of custom-made dolls that appear modeled after children contacted though Christian magazine pen-pal want ads. And it gets ore unsettling. The most conventional horror story in the issue, in this case also one of my favorites. Creepy dolls will always be something that gets me, and the idea gets a fresh look here both in terms of the doll’s creator and their effects. Alongside this, the strength of the bond between the partners becomes tested. This could fit right in adapted into a horror anthology TV series, and I loved its atmosphere of familiar horror territory in a new way.

“Love for Ashes” by Frances Ogamba — You did not read this story because I started talking to you in it.

“There, in the Woods” by Clara Madrigano — A woman living in her childhood home considers the recent disappearance of a boy from the neighborhood in the nearby woods, a sinister place where her husband also recently disappeared, and others in her past. Understandably questioned by police, she find herself unable to leave the house, yet still drawn by the lure of the woods and the truth she knows deep down. The story can be read symbolically, or literally as horror/fantasy, and it could likely evoke different interpretations according to the reader and details held onto. It’s unsettling and mysterious, and I’ll look forward now to more from the author written in English as this, or translated from Portuguese.

“Each Night an Adaptation” by Osahon Ize-Iyamu — A girl sleeps in her dead father’s house to help him enter the afterlife, and to help her mother who cannot handle keeping the tradition herself. And how this shapes her future. A touching short piece on how people handle grief, deal with the heaviness of expectations, and confront horror. Though dark, it is pervaded with an atmosphere of perseverance and strength in its protagonist, the aptly named Destiny.

The issue also features cover art by Vincent Chong.