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.


THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES by Aliya Whiteley

 

The Arrival of Missives
By Aliya Whiteley
Unsung Stories – May 2016
ISBN 9781907389375 – 120 Pages – Paperback
Source: Direct from Publisher


The weight and devastation of the Great War (World War I) has ended. Young Shirley Fearn looks toward her future with hopeful dreams that echo English society’s wish to transition from the bleak, meaningless tragedy of war to a freedom of bright, purposeful possibility. The only child of a village farmer, Shirley has grown up under the expectation that she would settle as a housewife, marrying an eligible young man who could take over the farm. Finishing her schooling and entering into maturity, however, Shirley feels driven towards other goals: leaving a domestic life to train as a schoolteacher at a nearby college.
A strong respect and romantic infatuation with her schoolteacher, an injured veteran named Mr. Tiller, helps fuel those goals even more. But her illusions of who Mr. Tiller is and her place in his life become shattered when he comes to her with a wild story of visions of a future disaster, and demands for actions Shirley must take to prevent its fulfillment. With the approaching village celebration of May Day, the crowning of a new May Queen, and the dawn of a new Spring, Shirley is pulled between the expectations of her family, the demands of a mentor, her developing sexuality, and the independent drives of her spirit and intellect.
When Unsung Stories contacted me about providing a copy of this for review I really hesitated. Starting in a full time faculty position has gotten me really ‘behind’ in reviews that I’m just now getting back in the groove of putting up/submitting. Did I really want to take on something more? As a novella it is a short length commitment, but the novella form is not something I gravitate toward. And the last (and unfortunately only) book I’ve read from the press previously disappointed. But something made me say ‘okay I’ll give it a look’. I am so glad that I did because The Arrival of Missives is a beautifully written story, a joy to read that actually shows me how effective an appropriately constructed novella can be.
I hadn’t immediately recognized Aliya Whiteley’s name (as accomplished as she is), though I later realized I had previously read one of her stories in Strange Horizons. In a way this is fortunate as it really did make this new novella a complete surprise. And who doesn’t love becoming enraptured with the writing of someone unexpectedly? However, whether you are familiar with Whiteley or not, this bit of literature with a touch of genre science fiction and romance is worth considering for an afternoon’s pleasure.
At its core the novella is a simple coming of age story, but Whiteley expertly constructs it to address the themes on multiple levels, visiting the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ on multiple levels from personal, societal, historical, and science fictional (time travel). Shirley is a richly drawn character who struggles with issues of identity and independence, but in a way that avoids simple answers or cliché. The other characters are less developed, and the motivations and psyche of Mr. Tiller feel uncertain beyond the need to fulfill the plot. But as a novella the focus on Shirley and her point of view – which itself is confused about Mr. Tiller’s intentions and moral authority – make this necessary.
The language of The Arrival of Missives fits its setting, characters, and themes perfectly, and is filled with a range of emotion and descriptive color that simply make the novella a pleasant and engaging read. I recommend giving it a read.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic advanced reading copy of this from the publisher  in exchange for an honest review.

Cosmocopia, by Paul Di Filippo

Cosmocopia, by Paul Di Filippo
Publisher: Open Road Media
ISBN: 1497664659
132 pages, eBook
Published: 2nd September 2014
(Originally publlished in 2008)
Source: NetGalley

 In Paul Di Filippo’s review column in last month’s issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine he mentioned his novella Cosmocopia as an example of ‘posthumous fantasy’, a subgenre description that I hadn’t heard before, though I have certainly read. Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant come to mind. With the novella length, Di Filippo effectively focuses his exploration into a few basic themes that the genre can embody.
Frank Lazorg is a former talented fantasy illustrator whose artistic productivity and physical vitality have vanished from a stroke in his old age. His desire to achieve one last glorious creation prior to death seem within grasp, however, when a friends sends him a pigment extract for his paints that turns out to also be a potent, reinvigorating drug. Unable to resist the potential it provides, Lazorg takes the addictive, mind-altering drug. Augmenting the emotional turmoil of his past memories, and the fragility of his present, the drug pushes Lazorg into madness and tragic violence that ends up shattering his reality. Lazorg awakes, perhaps transferred, perhaps reborn, in a place familiar yet bizarrely different in biology and physics, perhaps with another chance at life.
The characters and the behavior of physical reality in the universe where Lazorg finds himself are vividly, imaginatively written by Di Filippo. Lazorg is forced to discover this familiar – though foreign – world along with the reader, and stumbling through his new life as he attempts to discover and outlet for his talents and rekindle the artistic creation he yearns for. And the reader begins to increasingly sympathize with Lazorg, who despite his monstrous actions, you want to see find personal redemption in his new lease on life. Despite his mistakes and selfishness, you see the touching love and devotion of those he now finds himself among, and how that has the potential at least to change him into something redeemed.
At the core, Di Filippo uses this posthumous fantasy set-up to explore those basic issues of life and death: Where do we go when we die? Is there an afterlife? Are we reborn? Are there other universes out there? Do we migrate life after life, closer and closer to some ultimate meaning, to a cosmic truth? Is there someone in control and if so do they deserve our respect, or our ire?
This novella isn’t about answering any of those questions, it is just about providing a weird journey that addresses some of these in a narrative to get you thinking about them. I don’t want to say too much about what happens to Lazorg in his new environment, or where he goes from there. I don’t want to reveal what the new world appears to be, because that would ruin the fun of reading this, or of coming up with your own interpretations. I personally found the ending to be perfect, perfectly ironic. If you missed out on this when it was first released as I had, I do recommend picking up this newly available ebook version to discover this.
Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from Open Road Media via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Journal of the Plague Year

Journal of the Plague Year:
A Post-Apocalyptic Omnibus
 by Various
Publisher: Abaddon Books
ISBN: 1781082464
400 pages, paperback
Published: 12th August 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
Orbital Decay, by Malcolm Ross
Dead Kelly, by C.B. Harvey
The Bloody Deluge, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

 Though I’ve read plenty of shared-universe novels, they all have fallen into the media-tie-in category, but I’d been intrigued by titles in the Abaddon catalog and the apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic setting of this “Afterblight” series seemed like something I’d easily enjoy. And this omnibus collection ended up being basically what I expected, nothing flashy or awe-inspiring, but a fresh and varied series of genre stories that keeps the reader entertained.
Each of the three novellas in the omnibus has its positive qualities, but each also came with problems for me. As such, no single story stood out above the others: none exceptional, yet each ultimately satisfying and worth the read. What impresses me most about Journal of the Plague Year is how unique each of the three novellas is. All apocalyptic, each falls into a particular sub-genre.
Orbital Decay has an emphasis on science fiction, and in terms of plot and set-up I found this the most intriguing. The American and Russian crew aboard a space station in orbit of Earth watch in isolation from the rest of humanity as the disease known as “The Cull” begins to spread throughout the world. The physical and psychological stresses of space coupled with international and personal tensions between crew-members become exacerbated as the characters watch the Apocalypse unfold below them to friends and family and some struggle to figure out the disease’s cause and how safe they are on the station.
The strengths of Ross’ contribution to the omnibus center on the characterizations, their individual psychology and interactions. Unfortunately in terms of science fiction, serious errors occur when dealing with biology, with Ross apparently confusing critical differences between viruses and bacteria. The sections dealing with the nature of the disease took me right out of the story into sighs and groans. There are also a lot of technical details in the story, but I can’t really comment how believable or accurate these were.
Dead Kelly is best classified in crime, or horror, being a tale full of degenerate criminals struggling for control and pursuing personal vendettas in the power vacuum following civilization’s collapse. Kelly is the former leader of a group that fell apart when a big heist went sour. Having faked his death, Kelly has been hiding out in the Australian outback, but now returns to his old familiar haunts and colleagues in the new post-Cull world. This story has a lot of raw energy, with a protagonist who is both revolting and compelling depending on the particular passage being read. It is a brutal story of betrayal, justice, and revenge.
And as such it is a lot of fun. Readers that can’t stomach intense situations or unlikable protagonists won’t want anything to do with this. The overall tone of Harvey’s novella as a revenge tale is rather familiar, however. Most of the story proceeds in expected fashion and thereby comes across as too simplistic. But to Harvey’s credit, it does end in a particularly strong fashion that is unexpected, yet ends up feeling just right.
The Bloody Deluge was the deepest of the three novellas, about big ideas of faith versus reason, order versus chaos, freedom versus control, hope versus despair. Here, Tchaikovsky tackles the big issues of what could happen to society and individuals faced with a post-apocalyptic landscape. Set in Eastern Europe, it has a certain novelty of setting, which helps against the familiarity of tackling these sorts of issues in the post-apocalyptic genre. Though the themes are well-worn, Tchaikovsky still has important things to say and handles them in a far more balanced and nuanced manner than I first expected.
This final novella falls into a general adventure genre where a group of individuals on the run from one cult-like community/power ends up falling into the protection/influence of another. The story can be separated into three distinct parts: the chase, the rescue/protection, and an ultimate battle. I found the final portion vastly superior to the opening, which really seemed to drag. I’m glad I stuck with it to read completely, but it would’ve been improved shortened.
In the end this should be a straight-forward decision for anyone considering reading Journal of the Plague Year – it’s safe to judge on its marketing appearance. If apocalyptic sci-fi and adventure stories are a genre you generally enjoy then this is worth checking out. If you are looking for a particular kind of emphasis (sci-fi, horror, or adventure) then you may want to just read a particular novella here rather than them all.
Three Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from Abaddon Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

Return of the Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett

Return of the Thin Man,
by Dashiell Hammett
Publisher: Mysterious Press
ISBN: 080212156X
256 pages, paperback
Published October 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

The “Thin Man” movies are among my favorite, and I can always go for a good film noir, but I haven’t yet read Dashiell Hammett, the writer responsible for so many of the classic characters and styles of these movies. It was a pleasure to finally read some of his work, though when it says “novella” it really does mean the ” “.

The two stories here are really informal scripts, written in a distinctive simple style intended for film production, in this case what became the movies “After the Thin Man” and “Another Thin Man”. The eventual films produced (that you should see if you haven’t) are not far removed from these treatments by Hammett. The witty dialogue was left largely intact in the screen version and surprisingly few details of the plot were taken out or altered.

As such, reading these is just as fun as watching the movies. So, if you are a fan of “The Thin Man” series and are open to experiencing them in a slightly different version in a different medium, then I’d highly recommend reading these. Similarly, if you haven’t seen the films but like crime mysteries and good humor and wit, then these will be entertaining stories to read, particularly the first, which is a bit more original than the second ‘novella’, which is largely a re-working of another Hammett story.

If you are familiar with the movies inside and out, then I’m not sure how much will be gained from reading these, other than that experience through a different form or getting to note the deviations from the final film product where they occur. It is interesting to note that those in control of enforcing the Production Code of the day were just as arbitrary and illogical as the MPAA today.

Three Stars out of Five

Chip Crockett’s Christmas Carol, by Elizabeth Hand

Chip Crockett’s Christmas Carol,
by Elizabeth Hand
Publisher: Open Road Media
ASIN: B00GM742EA
144 pages, Kindle Edition
Published December 2013
(Original Publ: 2001)
Source: NetGalley

A perfect little holiday season tale that blends a combination of inspirations including nostalgic memories of magical childhood entertainers, the frustrations and difficulties with raising autistic children, and of course Dickens’ classic Christmas tale.

This novella may be considered a fantasy, but only subtly so, in fact it is far more realistic than Dickens’, but just as powerful. The plot is simple and endearing, but builds slowly and purposefully throughout. What gives Hand’s a particular punch of soul to Hand’s story is the cast of strongly drawn characters, beautifully complete and human, good-hearted and resilient despite their flaws, both the ones they were born with or the ones that their environment has given them.

If you are looking for a nice quick read during the Christmas season in addition to, or in place of some classic tale, then consider picking this up.

Notably, proceeds of its sale go to the charity Autism Speaks in memory of a victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Four Stars out of Five