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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.


THE MONSTER OF ELENDHAVEN by Jennifer Giesbrecht

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


THE WORM AND HIS KINGS by Hailey Piper

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


DEPARTMENT ZERO by Paul Crilley

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


NIGHTMARE MAGAZINE #100 (January 2021) Edited by John Joseph Adams


For its 100th issue, this Nightmare includes a large selection of stories beyond the four that normally an issue would contain. Some of the stories are available to read for free on the website, but it’s a particular bargain this month to purchase for the complete contents. I’ve subscribed since (near) the start of the magazine’s run, and as a fan of dark fantasy, I haven’t regretted it. The close of this issue has given me one of those moments where I wish the horror field could collectively decide to take a breather from mining the Lovecraft though.

“How to Break into a Hotel Room” by Stephen Graham Jones — A scam artist goes to steal some things from a hotel room to sell off to his friend and longtime partner. Though the job seems to proceed well, he enters into a bare hotel room to face ghosts from a tragic episode of their past crimes. What sets this story above the norm is the voice that Jones gives to Javi the scam artist. Solid display of horror short fiction here, though I’m uncertain why the past choses this particular moment to catch up on Javier.

“Rotten Little Town: An Oral History” by Adam-Troy Castro — Written as a series of interviews with the (surviving) creator/writer and cast of a successful cult TV show. It chronologically proceeds though the seasons of the show’s run, providing details of the on-screen and behind-the-scene elements of cast relationships and bringing the series to life. Between the lines, the reader realizes that there is something dark and sinister influencing things. I enjoyed the format of this story and the idea of the ‘dirty secrets’ of production that can occur only to be hushed up, but taking it in a really malevolent and controlling direction.

“I Let You Out” by Desirina Boskovich  — A woman is haunted through life by a monster that emerges from closets. An over-zealous religious family makes the terror worse, and casts judgement and doubt upon the victim. She recalls the monster’s first visit, and forces herself to look upon its face. The metaphoric themes of this are familiar in dark short fiction: feminism, overcoming trauma. Boskovich approaches them with some fine, tender writing that doesn’t go down the ‘revenge’ route that other stories in this vein often turn.

“Last Stop on Route Nine” by Tananarive Due — Driving in Florida from her grandmother’s funeral to a luncheon Charlotte and her younger cousin Kai get lost in the fog on Route 9. Stopping for directions at a house by an old boarded-up gas station, they are hexed by a crazed old racist woman and flee back into the fog before finding aid. The story involves a journey into another time in a way. The realization of the characters that they don’t want to go back also serves as a reminder that the racist, dark corners remain.

“Darkness, Metastatic” by Sam J. Miller — I read this right before going to sleep, and a story has not creeped me out as much as this one did in a long time. As usual, Miller writes exceptionally well, with characters and situations that can tug on emotions. In this a man named Aaron becomes concerned when his ex, and investigative documentary partner, begins leaving lots of dark messages on another ex’s phone. Digging deeper and trying to connect back with his ex, named Caleb, he learns more of Caleb’s investigation into seemingly unconnected murders, and discovers a creepy viral app called Met_A_Static that may have changed Caleb, and now has targeted Aaron. I haven’t found much interpretation to make of this story yet after one read, but it certainly works on the base horror level.

“Wolfsbane” by Maria Dahvana Headley — A feminist retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood story with witchcraft, mother, daughter, sister, grandmother, and wolves. Not the style of story I go for, but the themes of it are great and Headley’s writing, as usual, is exquisite.

“Thin Cold Hands” by Gemma Files — First published in LampLight in 2018, this story has popped up since reprinted The Dark Magazine and in one of Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year collections. This is a creepy changeling story about mothers, daughters, and home. Though others by Files have resonated more with me, this is a solid horror story that is worth a reread.

“The Things Eric Eats Before He Eats Himself” by Carmen Maria Machado — A short story whose title sums up the plot entirely. The list of foodstuffs is fascinating varied to read, written in a careful flow of musical words.

“Up From Slavery” by Victor Lavalle — This reprint of a short novella that originally appeared in Weird Tales starts with a scene of a train crash, a scene that shows how well Lavalle can write. Simon Dust grew up as a black boy in the foster care system, and never knew who his parents were. One day, while copy-editing a new edition of Booker T. Washington’s memoir (which gives this story its title) Dust receives a letter with his father’s name in it, informing him that his father has died and left his home in Syracuse to Dust. There, Dust further discovers this man who has claimed to be his father was a white man, and that his body was discovered under creepy circumstances. This sets up the Lovecraftian horror that follows, a story of gods and slaves that takes creatures from the iconic and inexplicably influential writer’s stories and reworks them into powerful themes of racism and identity. Those who are familiar with Lovecraft will probably get more from this story. I had to look up the references, and as much as I enjoyed the emotional and thematic core of the story, I just don’t get the fascination with Lovecraft tropes.

“Jaws of Saturn” by Laird Barron — Another Lovecraftian reprint taken from Barron’s collection The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All and Other Stories. A woman tells her hired gun boyfriend about the strange dreams that have been plaguing her, and the hypnotist she is seeing for treatment in quitting smoking. After a marathon sexual encounter together and further talk of her odd dreams, the guy decides to look into this hypnotist further. The weird horror that he discovers is beyond anything he could’ve expected. Barron writes amazingly, but here there is nothing underneath the cosmic horror angle for me to really grab onto and appreciate, and this genre of horror alone doesn’t suffice.

With “The H Word” horror column by Orrin Gray, author spotlights, a book review from Terence Taylor, and a roundtable interview with outgoing editor John Joseph Adams and incoming editor Wendy N. Wagner.


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

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


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

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

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

On to the stories!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


LAST ONES LEFT ALIVE by Sarah Davis-Goff

Last Ones Left Alive
By Sarah Davis-Goff
Flatiron Books — January 2019
ISBN: 9781250235220
288 Pages — Hardback


A friend and I have a disagreement each time The Road comes up in conversation. I find the novel overly sparse and dull, and its literary accolades frustrate me given that genre has done the same themes well for years (albeit also poorly). My friend explains that both the novel and movie resonate with him as a father, and I concede that’s a connection I wouldn’t have.

Last Ones Left Alive represents an opposite of The Road in a couple of respects. Davis-Goff employs a feminist focus where McCarthy wrote of masculinity, and she reverses the parent-child relationship and point-of-view so that it is the younger generation bearing the responsibility of care. For whatever reasons, although being male myself, I found Last Ones Left Alive‘s take on the post-apocalyptic setting and characters for more relatable and interesting.

Orpen has grown up living in relative isolation on an island off the coast of Ireland with her mother, Mam, and Mam’s partner Maeve. There are no reasons to travel off the island, and many reasons not to. Civilization has collapsed and zombie-like monsters called skrake prowl about, savage remnants of what used to be human. Mam and Maeve have raised Orpen to defend herself, but also to be extremely wary of both the unnatural skrake and natural dangers, including what the human male could present to a young woman.

Orpen has had no choice but to leave the island in search of survivors on the mainland, in the fabled Phoenix City, a bastion of peace protected by a class of warrior women called Banshees. As the novel begins, Orpen trudges on blistered feet, pushing Maeve in a wheel barrow, a dog at their side:

Around us the landscape changes constantly. The road shifts beneath me, twists and slopes, and every time I look up, the world presents me with something new and I feel fresh too. Despite myself, despite everything. The world ended a long time ago, but it is still beautiful.

We are moving.

Looking at her lying slumped in the barrow makes my chest feel like it’s collapsing in on itself. She is so small- “scrawny” is the word. She never used to be small. I look away, and twenty paces later I’m at it again, watching the closed-up face with the sweaty sheen.

We move. We rest again. The dog beside us, the nails on his paws clacking against the road. I can feel the hesitation off him. He’s asking me do I know what I’m doing and don’t I want to go home.

I do, I tell him. But I can’t.

Maeve’s lined skin is being burned by the sun underneath its grayness. I take off my hat and put it on her lightly, so most of her face is in shadow. I can pretend she’s asleep. I stop again and rearrange her so she’s facing forward, facing into whatever’s coming at us. She’d feel better that way. I feel better. Maeve wasn’t one for looking too often at me anyway, unless for a fight.

I’ve a new pain, then, the sun pounding down on one stop at the top of my forehead.

We move. My fear so big, so palpable, that it could be an animal walking beside us. I try to make friends with it.

pp. 2 – 3

Davis-Goff’s writing thus moves fluidly, a mixture of hopeful, imaginative descriptions punctuated with short, hard truths. She gives Orpen a voice of utter exhaustion, yet propped up from despair through resilience. Through the clouds of melancholy and fear poke shines of her faith and wonderment.

A short novel, Last Ones Left Alive has the feel of a perfect novella, though I don’t know its word count for where it technically falls. The pace starts off wonderfully, immersing the reader in Orpen’s world amid a struggle to figure out precisely what is going on. After a short time, action breaks out, and soon Orpen meets other humans. Things slow after the initial start, as Davis-Goff takes us both deeper into Orpen’s character and provides flashbacks into her life before on the island with Mam and Maeve. Falling onto the literary side of things, the novel is never really about action, and the skrake play minor roles in comparison to the focus on Orpen’s maturation and discoveries.

Last Ones Left Alive is a coming-of-age tale about a young girl’s self realization, but also evolving from what she has internalized from parental instruction to form her own perceptions of the world in its beauties and dangers. Her guardians and protectors lost, she rapidly learns to be this herself, for self and others.

Only one male character appears in Last Ones Left Alive, one of the people Orpen encounters while on her journey to Phoenix City. Based on what she has been taught of men, she nearly kills the man upon meeting him in order to protect herself, little different from if she ran into a skrake. However, the behaviors of the man soon show her the faultiness of a simple anti-male perspective. Unlike skrake, humanity is complex.

The novel ends with many questions unresolved, several possible futures for the fate of Orpen, secondary characters, and the role of the Banshees. While I was happy with the ending, I imagine some readers wanting more closure and answers could be disappointed. I do not know if a sequel is planned, but one could easily work. Though satisfied with where things sit, I would certainly not turn down more.


THE KRAKEN SEA by

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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