Short Take: “The Secret Name,” Eve Harms

Rating: 3 out of 5

Eve Harms brings us the short tale The Secret Name (Kendra Temples: The Demonic Diaries) in the form of a series of blog posts. It’s an intriguing and original attempt, but it often makes the scary material feel like it’s being held at arm’s length.

Kendra Temples is in desperate need of a job–her boyfriend Steve is getting pretty upset at the amount of back rent she owes. When she finds a job listing for a librarian for a private book collection, she knows she’s found her dream job. Unfortunately, after interviewing, she hears nothing back for a couple of months. She reluctantly agrees to work for Steve’s creepy father in his tanning salon. When she finally hears that she got the librarian job, she quickly dumps the tanning salon gig. The library in question turns out to be very old and HUGE, and in particular Eli, the wealthy film producer, wants her to find the occult section. When Kendra hears screaming within the house and finds out Eli has a wife locked away, she starts becoming suspicious as to what’s really going on.

Kendra does everything that the star of a horror movie would do while the audience sits back and rails about how stupid they’re being. She charges into all the places she’s not supposed to be. She breaks every promise she makes to anyone, seemingly without even hesitating to think about it. She fails to listen to every warning. It makes it really hard to relate to her as a protagonist. She’s also a bit of a flake who rarely takes anything seriously.

Between Kendra as a protagonist, the reliance on Kendra being a foolish flake to forward the plot, and the fact that the blog entry format keeps things at a remove, I can’t give this more than a 3/5. I wish I could, because the story is interesting, and the images of books and papers included in the story are really neat.

Content note for a little bit of animal harm.

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Review: “Midnight in the Pentagram,” ed. Kenneth W. Cain

Rating: 4 out of 5

As a note, I end up giving most multiple-author anthologies a 4/5 largely as a result of the fact that most people’s personal tastes won’t wholly match up with those of the editor, but the stories have usually gone through an editor who has motivation for finding the good stuff. It balances out a bit. Midnight in the Pentagram, edited by Kenneth W. Cain, fits that pattern.

I have a handful of favorites in here. Brian Moreland’s “The Corn Maidens” involves a young woman with a disturbing power, and a village with equally disturbing traditions. I absolutely love how this one played out.

Top billing (in my mind) should go to Laurel Hightower’s “The Other.” It’s a fascinating look at a possessed man’s life. He’s losing time, his wife suddenly seems to hate him, and his things get moved around. This is an incredibly powerful story.

“Angel Dust,” by Shannon Felton, is a bizarre story of drugs, possession, and demons that’s oddly intriguing. James Newman’s “I Know He Loves Me (He Just Has a Funny Way of Showing It)” is another possession story that takes things in an unexpected and fascinating direction. There seems to be a bounty of excellent possession stories, like P.D. Cacek’s “Diminishing Returns,” in which a woman with Alzheimer’s seems to be possessed.

Todd Keisling’s “The Gods of Our Fathers,” set in the same universe as his “Devil’s Creek,” is absolutely beautiful, and very dark. A girl whose father turned away from the Old Gods to the Christian god tries to find a way out of her life of pain and terror.

“A Night Above,” by John Quick, is a hilarious (and oddly touching!) story of a demon summoned to a slumber party, and I loved it!

Charlotte Platt’s “Family Business” introduces us to Lisa, who has followed in her family’s business of restoring and repairing antiques. A mysterious visitor named Levi brings her an artifact to be repaired, and things get strange from there. Action, horror, and a nice shiver down your spine!

Many other stories are quite good–there are plenty of possessions, summonings, and other intriguing stories to read.

Things that made some of the other stories not as good for me included one in which an aging aunt is completely and utterly stereotypical, right down to magically taking a pie out of the oven just as her unexpected visitors arrive (there are a couple of other stories with very stereotypical characters, but not many). Some stories feel like they end just a tad bit too soon, not quite taking us to an adequate resolution. One story has an odd clumsy rhythm; I think it’s because typically high-stress parts of a story have at least some shorter sentences to help convey that choppy feeling, and this story just kept the same “normal” pace throughout (it takes away from the tension and drama). A few stories seem to hurry their way through, and could have used a bit more detail.

Content note for: self-harm, racial slurs, child molestation and abuse, animal harm, rape, abuse and murder of slaves, death of a baby, highly detailed torture, xenophobia, and of course, since this book contains a wide range of horror stories, gore. I definitely recommend reading this one. Many stories are just wonderful, and most of the rest are very good. The theme is covered very well, and all of the stories feel as though they fit.

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Review: “Camp Slaughter,” Sergio Gomez

Rating: 2 out of 5

Maybe I should learn not to pick up books that Amazon algorithms recommend to me. Sergio Gomez’s Camp Slaughter isn’t bad, but it isn’t particularly good, either. Lakewood Cabin is advertised as the most secluded cabin for rent in Pennsylvania. However, it’s also the site of a number of disappearances. Nadine Lang and her husband Stephen find someone in the cabin when they hear a noise in the middle of the night. That doesn’t go well for them. Sometime later, Fred and his friends go along with Gavin, who’s something of a jerk, to have a week-long vacation at the cabin. Meanwhile, Emeril and Molly are searching for the truth about the area. Emeril is a paranormal researcher, while Molly is a documentarian. They have a rather successful YouTube channel.

The killer, Ignacio, is a mish-mash of obnoxious and even bigoted stereotypes. Naturally the serial killer/cannibal is fat. Naturally he’s mentally challenged. Sometimes he’s a bit childlike; couldn’t see that coming (that was sarcasm). Of course he has a second identity that takes over sometimes. Of course he has a job as a janitor somewhere, where he does such a good job that his bosses love him. (His job is only brought up once and then never seen again, despite the fact that there were characters and some fair details introduced there.)

Some of the details don’t add up. I mean sure, Ignacio is a janitor, but he seems to run around leaving massive splatters and pools of blood (and decapitated heads) so carelessly that someone should have noticed something at some point. Especially with the people who go missing, and his farmhouse not so far away. Everybody also seems to make an awfully swift leap to deciding the killer must be a cannibal. Literally the only evidence they have of that is the fact that people go missing and their bodies are never found.

Sometimes the perspective shifts way too quickly, literally between one paragraph and the next, and you often have to read another page or two before you even realize it’s happened.

There is some decent thriller/slasher fare in here, which is why this gets a 2/5 instead of a 1/5. Obviously, content note for lots of gore with a side of mutilation.

SPOILER WARNING: I wish this book could make up its mind whether it wants to be a supernatural thriller or an “ordinary” thriller. Ignacio apparently sees the souls of the dead, except that this only happens once in the book and never has any relevance to the plot. Likewise Emeril senses something paranormal about part of the lakeside area, but it never has any relevance to the plot and never gets mentioned again. The only strange thing that appears consistently is Ignacio’s bizarre suped-up hearing, and there’s never any explanation for why, when he can hear a person’s heart beating from comparatively far away, screams don’t disable him. It feels like the author couldn’t decide whether he wanted to actually have anything paranormal in here or not. Also, the teens do not make sure the killer is dead. One of them was about to, but the other told them not to. Like, really? Hasn’t at least one of them seen a horror movie? Ignacio also took two bullets–one probably in a bad place–and kept going without any sign of weakness (maybe I should have put that up under stereotypes too). There’s also a moment when Molly picks up Emeril’s gun–which he’s shot a couple of times with no chance to reload–and suddenly it’s fully-loaded. END SPOILERS

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Short Take: “The Worm and His Kings,” Hailey Piper

Rating: 5 out of 5

Hailey Piper’s The Worm and His Kings begins on the streets: Monique Lane, 20 years old, is homeless. Most nights she beds down next to a spot she calls the empty place, where people instinctively never tread. Her girlfriend Donna has gone missing, and she thinks if she stays in Freedom Tunnel, she might figure out where she went. Something called “Gray Hill” is stalking Freedom Tunnel, taking another homeless woman every night. Monique believes it may have taken Donna, so she’s determined to follow it to its lair.

This story has beautiful trans and lesbian rep in it. There are strong themes of sexual identity running throughout, as well as themes of dealing with family when you aren’t what they expected you to be, the strength of love, the desperation to be what you want to be, and acceptance.

The cosmic horror woven throughout is intriguing and engaging: cultists, songs that can alter the universe, universal powers that can break apart the world, creatures from “someplace else,” and a bunch of scary beings you wouldn’t want to meet up with in a dark alley.

This is totally different from Piper’s Benny Rose the Cannibal King, but it’s also every bit as good, if not better!

“The Worm is too much to explain. Oh, the things people will worship.”

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Review: “Devouring Dark,” Alan Baxter

Rating: 5 out of 5

Alan Baxter’s Devouring Dark introduces us to Matt MacLeod, a man with a strange darkness inside of him. If he goes too long without letting it out, it hurts him. But when he lets it out it also hurts and debilitates him. If he directs the darkness into another person, it kills them, sucking the life from their bodies. He’s spent years finding and investigating terrible people who deserve to die, so that he can kill them with a clear conscience. Now someone saw him kill, and “the Boss,” Vince Stratton, is determined to turn him into a weapon by threatening his family. At the same time, Amy Cavendish, a hospice nurse, gently takes a darkness from the souls of the dying and stores it within her. When she finds someone who deserves a slow death, she equally gently releases the darkness into them, causing them to die of tumors within months. Soon Matt finds himself caught up in a world of mobsters, hit men, and corrupt cops. And at night, Amy sees to the needs of Vince’s father, Terry Stratton, while aware that he’ll be dying soon. Meanwhile, each time Amy uses her abilities, a mysterious dark figure gains solidity and menaces her.

The characters in this novel are wonderful. Amy and Matt make an unusual set of protagonists. Each of them has killed, though of course for only the best of reasons (or so they have decided). Corrupt cop Charlie Collins takes instructions and payments from just about every criminal enterprise in town, but he believes it’s warranted because it supposedly helps him concentrate on catching rapists and murderers who prey on everyday people. Because of the cast of characters, this story becomes a bit of a musing on why people kill, why people might feel they have to kill, whether evil means can be used to do good, and how they justify it to themselves, told within the framework of an unusual and creepy horror/thriller tale. (Without any preachiness or over-ruminating.)

Oh! Apropos of nothing, I love that the cop doesn’t have the stereotypical drinking problem. Instead, he has a cocaine problem (one that he doesn’t see as a problem), and that works very differently!

As always with Baxter books, the pacing is so on-point that you won’t even notice it. It’s a smooth-as-silk ride that builds up into wildness. The question of how our protagonists gained their mysterious “abilities” (curses?) gets some satisfaction, but not entirely, so it isn’t quite wrapped up in a bow. I thought we got just enough detail there, and it definitely changes some things.

All in all this is a great story of how cosmic horror can touch two small lives and spread outward from there.

Content note: briefly touches on the subject of child molestation and rape.

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Review: “The Between,” Tananarive Due

Rating: 5 out of 5

Tananarive Due’s The Between is a really intriguing story. Hilton James discovered his Nana dead on the kitchen floor. He ran down the road to find someone, but when they return she’s alive and making dinner. She dismisses it as a faint, but he knows better. Some time later, he goes swimming and gets caught by an undertow. Nana saves him, and she drowns. After that he was raised by other relatives. Now he’s heading up a drug rehab center, and he’s married to Dede, who is the first Black circuit court judge in the county. They have two kids, Kaya and Jamil. Things just got stressful for the family–someone sent a letter to Dede that threatened her family and was full of racial hatred. The stress seems to be getting to Hilton: his nightmares have returned. Sometimes he experiences things only to have them happen over again (for the first time?), or happen differently than he remembers. He’s getting no rest and falling asleep on the job. His memories become unreliable. His nightmares give him a clue as to the identity of the anonymous stalker (who continues to send letters), but the stress of everything is tearing apart his relationships. And he almost dies, again.

This is a slow-burn story, with Hilton coming slowly unglued as the tale goes on. He becomes obsessed with protecting his family: buying a gun, getting a guard dog, staying up at night watching through the windows, refusing to let his family leave the house. Meanwhile, his nightmares are eating away at him. They seem to indicate that he shouldn’t be alive. His children shouldn’t be alive. Someone or something is trying to set that right, and they’ve found a way to influence someone who’s willing to do the work for them.

Hilton and Dede’s marriage already had problems. Both of them are responsible for that. Dede seems to take offense very easily, while Hilton often doesn’t want to put the effort in to be loving to her when she needs him. They’re both smart, caring people–they’re just a little off-kilter with each other. It’s nice to see an example of how two people can very much love each other yet still have serious marital trouble.

This is a wonderful story, leaving you wondering for most of the book how much of his nightmares is real, and how much is just a dream?

Content note: sex, a tiny bit of animal harm.

How many times do you think you can die?

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Review: “Spirits Rising,” Krista D. Ball

Rating: 4 out of 5

Krista D. Ball’s paranormal novella Spirits Rising (Spirit Caller Series Book 1) is an enjoyable start to a series. (It is also found in: Beginnings: first novels in multiple series by Krista D. Ball.) It took me a bit to get into it, but by the end I was hooked. Rachel, a grief counselor who used to work with the police department, sees ghosts. She can also feel them nearby. As far as she knows, that’s about the extent of her abilities. She worries over how her neighbors must see her, particularly since she’s had church tracts stuck on her door repeatedly with text about burning witches, and everyone seems to call her “sensitive.” At least her neighbor, old Mrs. Saunders, seems to like her! One day, Rachel gets a phone call from Manny, a kid at the local high school, who needs help. Since his father is one of the churchgoing folk who seem to hate Rachel so much, she calls Jeremy, a Mountie, to come along with her. When they find Manny’s basement full of drunk dead Vikings, things get strange!

The world-building was a little slow for me at first. It mostly consisted of Rachel floundering a bit. Also, one of the through-threads is the fact that Rachel is head-over-heels for Jeremy, who already has a girlfriend, and I didn’t really like that plot (I don’t find Jeremy as wonderful as Rachel does, and I don’t really feel the chemistry between them). Normally I’m all for the love plots, just not this time.

Rachel and her friends end up caught in the middle of a bit of a war between various dead people. Rachel has to figure out how to set them to rest, while they make war, destroy things, and in one case, come to visit her by name and have a chat.

What really made this book ultimately so interesting to me was Rachel’s interactions with the other people in her village. They aren’t at all as expected, and I really loved that.

[As a note: I have also read book two, Dark Whispers, and that one definitely gets a 5/5 from me. So if you’re at all on the fence, that might sway you toward giving the series a try.]

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Short Take: “Food Fright,” Nico Bell

Rating: 3 out of 5

Nico Bell’s novella Food Fright (Rewind or Die) is a humor/horror cross-genre work. It didn’t live up to my two favorite blends of humor and horror (The Roo [review] and Playing Possum [review]). In those books, you could still very much get the horror, whereas in this book, the humor was so silly and over-the-top that any horror was rendered null and void. If that floats your boat, obviously you’ll get more mileage out of this book than I did.

The year is 1995 (hey, a “classic” horror story not set in the 80s!). Cassie Adler, perennial outcast and high school soccer player, wants the popular girls on the team to like her. So she goes along with convincing Jennifer, the new girl, to come to an “initiation.” When the hazing goes horrifically wrong (this is the last thing that I found genuinely horrifying about the story), Jennifer ends up dead. She returns for revenge, but since she died in the home ec classroom–which was largely used for cooking–she seems limited to food-themed acts. There’s a giant attack croissant. A brownie monster. A cotton candy tornado (cherry-flavored). The town witches try to set Jennifer to rest, but without much luck. (Of course, it’s their fault everything went so badly in the first place.) Will Cassie and her best friend Jamie survive Jennifer’s hunger for revenge?

Jamie is pretty much the only character in here that I liked. She genuinely listens to and cares for Cassie, and she believes her. She’s willing to help Cassie try to set Jennifer to rest no matter how dangerous things get. I was also fond of the home ec teacher, Emily, and her friend Audrey, who seem to be the only reasonable witches in town. It was Emily’s screwup that led to Jennifer’s death, and she’s trying her best to fix things. She also doesn’t want to look bad in front of the high priestess, who arbitrates whether she gets to join the coven or not.

If you like your humor to be seriously silly, go for it. Unfortunately, for me, it rendered everything after that first death completely un-horrifying.

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Review: “Parasite,” Darcy Coates

Rating: 5 out of 5

Parasite, by Darcy Coates, is less a novel and more a series of short stories that are meant to be read in order. Every story takes place on a different station, starting with Station 331 and going incrementally until it ends on Station 335. Each story contains a different set of characters, so there is no through-line protagonist. This has both good and bad effects. One thing that surprised me about the stories is that I was able to switch interest in the characters from story to story. I never felt like I was losing something because of the lack of a single protagonist, and I thought that I would.

In “Station 331,” a very unimportant, tiny station on a moon is manned by three women. Their job is mostly to “deal with” any dangerous lifeforms that might end up on the moon via comets or space debris. It’s a job given to people who have royally messed up, due to the isolation and boredom. This time, the characters find a new type of lifeform hanging around, one that’s big, black, tentacled, and has rivulets of red running along it. This is a kind of parasite, able to wear a person’s skin and personality, allowing it entrance to all sorts of places.

We work our way back toward the center of the known universe with each story. 45 distress calls have been logged in 10 days, and they’re running out of trouble-shooting teams to send. When Kala (in Station 333) gets a hold of a sample of the being, she discovers a couple of weaknesses. Can she escape to get word out?

The aliens work their way toward bigger and bigger outposts–this does a fantastic job of upping the stakes and tension with each story.. Maren, Saul, Mark, and Gin (Station 334) have an extra problem to deal with: their commander, Suriya, is going mad. Apparently this isn’t entirely unexpected in isolated outposts, but it sure complicates things when the aliens show up!

In “Station 335,” Mitzi, former military with a dishonorable discharge, is assigned a mission (because the government is legitimately that low on people to fight the aliens). She has a squad full of people who’ve never fought before and never should have been sent on a mission like this. By this time, roughly a third of stations have gone dark. This is the biggest mission yet: burning an entire planet free of the aliens that took it over.

Coates’s strengths are in characters, pacing, and action. I had no trouble getting into the characters in each story, even though there was no overarching protagonist. I was thrilled when two people figured out they loved each other, and I was horrified when a character I was fond of got taken over. The writing really hooked my emotions. The pacing, with the stakes getting higher in each story, was fantastic. And the action scenes were packed with heroic efforts and high-stakes battles. The only thing at all that might be considered a negative is that due to the format, as well as there being no protagonist, there’s also no overall closure or satisfaction to the book. The individual stories are ended well, but there’s no overall “ending.” Mostly this bothered me a little because I never got an answer to the question: how did all of these aliens show up on so many little outposts at once?

I would absolutely read a book formed like this one again. At least, if Darcy Coates was writing it.

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Short Take: “The Book Club,” Alan Baxter

Rating: 5 out of 5

Often when I’m stressed or tired I just want a fun horror book (preferably a novella I can read as a break) to take my mind off of everything. So far Alan Baxter’s books have really hit that niche for me, much like William Meikle’s. The Book Club is the fifth of Baxter’s works that I’ve read, and every single one has rated a 5/5.

Jason Wilkes is waiting for his wife Kate to come home from her monthly book club. When she doesn’t show up, he calls the only member of the group he has a phone number for, but her friend Dave says she left the club as normal. He calls the police and Sergeant Cooke and Office Dale show up. Obviously the spouse is always going to be the first suspect, and Cooke and Dale seem to enjoy playing bad cop/good cop. Jason refuses to sit at home waiting for his wife to call, so he starts poking into things on his own. It turns out Dave’s phone was a burner phone that no longer is in service, and there’s CCTV footage of someone who isn’t Kate driving her car. As Jason goes further and further out on a limb to find out what happened to Kate, he starts to come face-to-face with some unbelievable–and terrifying–truths.

I enjoyed the characters in here. Jason feels very real in his grief and anger, as do the members of his and Kate’s families that we meet. In particular I like the members of the “book club,” because they’re almost certainly guaranteed to not be what you’re expecting! Cooke and Dale take some standard cop traits and twist them a bit, which I also like.

I can’t get into much without giving certain things away, so that’s why this is a short take instead of a full review. This is a grim combination of horror and a bizarre kind of personal optimism.

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