Review: “To Offer Her Pleasure,” Ali Seay

Rating: 4 out of 5

Ali Seay’s horror novella To Offer Her Pleasure is a truly wild ride. Ben lost his father to cancer at 15, and his mother walked away at 16 with her boyfriend Patrick. Not sure when–or if–she’s going to return, he determines to take care of himself. Really he’s been doing that anyway since his father died. As he goes through his father’s things in order to feel close to him, he finds a hidden book. It’s called “To Offer Her Pleasure,” and it seems like it’s written in words Ben can almost read. It also has an image of a female form with horns that seems to move. He starts to find himself compelled to “feed” the book (the woman?) flesh and blood sacrifices, and she starts to demand MORE. Then his father comes to him in a dream and tells him the woman can give him a family if he just keeps sacrificing to her.

Ben’s reaction to all of this going on makes him an unusual horror protagonist. He isn’t so much horrified by his actions, and he isn’t even sure why. Yet at the same time, he is absolutely resolute in his desire to not harm certain entities. The combination is appealing.

We meet a few of Ben’s neighbors and friends. Mike from down the street is desperate for company. Steve has a bit of rage simmering under the surface. And Ben is attracted to Alice from his D&D group–she’s sweet, confident, and energetic. One neighbor is concerned for Ben in his mother’s absence. Each comes alive in interesting ways, even in cases where we don’t get to see them for long.

This really takes a hard look at what “family” means, and can mean. What does it take for someone to be a mother or a father? Or to be a good mother or father? How do you choose your own family? What sacrifices do you have to make to have the family you want or need?

The reason I gave this a 4 out of 5 instead of a 5 out of 5 is because there is no sequel planned and this book left too many loose ends. There are several woods oddities that so far have no explanation or apparent purpose in the story. Things feel rather like they end in the middle of the story with so much left to come or be resolved. There’s also a hint that a neighbor may know more than she’s saying about Ben’s father. There’s a certain feeling of a lack of satisfaction arising from those loose ends. Normally I love the novella format for horror, but this book needed to be novel-length.

Content note: sex, some gore, animal death, violence, murder.

“This is the part where I should stop but I don’t. I don’t, and everything goes terribly wrong.”

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Review: “Nameless: Season One,” Dean Koontz

Rating: 4 out of 5

Dean Koontz’s Nameless: Season One is six short novelettes that do, in fact, resemble a season of a television show in structure. The first books are episodic, and then a little bit of arc plot slips in, followed by a season-ender that includes arc-plot revelations.

The basic setup is this: “Nameless” is a man who only remembers the last two years of his life. He’s okay with this; he has the feeling that he agreed to the artificially-induced amnesia, and that he’s better off not remembering who he was. He works for a mysterious organization, and his contact is called simply the Ace of Diamonds. This group selects targets for him: bad people who have gotten away with murder and other horrible crimes. He exacts “truth” rather than justice or revenge (supposedly), taking on different identities and delivering some sort of supposedly-deserved punishment. The organization behind him clearly has deep pockets and voluminous resources. To up the ante and make things even more interesting, Nameless sometimes has clairvoyant flashes of things that have happened already or things that are to come. As the season progresses, he starts having a particular and unusual montage of clairvoyant glimpses that may be past, future, or some blending of the two. And if he can’t figure out where it takes place and how to deal with it, people will die.

In the Heart of the Fire (Nameless: Season One Book 1) introduces us to Nameless and his mission. He has no credit cards and carries no ID. He’s directed to motels where he has reservations awaiting him. Cars are left for him to use; mysterious suitcases full of clothes and cash accompany him. He shows up to speak to one Jennifer Demeter, a woman at the end of her rope. The local sheriff Russell Soakes seems obsessed with her, refusing to take no for an answer as he attempts to court her. But there’s a twist–she’s realized that he isn’t interested in her. He’s fixated on her 10-year-old daughter, Seraphina. And she’d do anything to protect her daughter. Soakes’s family pretty much owns the area, so there’s no good way to turn him in to law enforcement. And he’s been a predator for years–Nameless’s organization has figured that much out. So it’s up to Nameless to deal with Soakes. There’s just one major problem: his clairvoyance has shown him a future in which Jennifer dies, and he can’t always change the future. This story is a nail-biter with horrific bad guys we can totally feel good about rooting against. Jennifer in particular is an interesting character.

In Photographing the Dead (Nameless: Season One Book 2), Nameless hunts a wealthy, privileged serial killer. Can he nab him before a pair of twin women come upon the serial killer while hiking? Photographer Oxenwald is an interesting killer. He sees himself as an avatar of Death, and is almost wholly fixated on his “hunts.”

The Praying Mantis Bride (Nameless: Season One Book 3) is a bit different than the other installments. Nameless’s target this time is an exceedingly superstitious woman who has married and killed three different wealthy men. At first I wasn’t sure why Nameless’s organization would target someone like her, but it becomes obvious eventually. The setup for dealing with Lucia in this one is more complex than the previous two, and it’s really fascinating. Nameless is tasked with using Lucia’s superstitions against her.

Red Rain (Nameless: Season One Book 4) focuses on a disfigured woman named Regina who lost her two young children in a fire. When she tried to push on the idea that the fire was deliberately set, she was threatened. The various people involved have a long history of arson-for-insurance-money, and Nameless plans to deal with the lot of them.

In The Mercy of Snakes (Nameless: Season One Book 5), wealthy senior citizens at Oakshore Park are dying of strokes. Brock McCall believes this is no coincidence, and that the doctor who owns the place is killing people. Nameless’s organization has uncovered a conspiracy, and it’s his job to deal with the various conspirators. Just to make things more difficult, he seems to be developing some possible cracks in his amnesia, and a weird montage-clairvoyant episode returns.

Memories of Tomorrow (Nameless: Season One Book 6) brings us to the end of the season. First, Nameless has to rescue a young boy who’s been kidnapped by his stepfather, a drug addict who killed his own wife. As he heads out on his own afterward, something feels very wrong. He starts seeing things from his weird vision, only slightly off. A young boy instead of a young girl. A waitress whose features are slightly wrong and whose name isn’t right. He will do whatever it takes to prevent the nightmare pile-up from his vision from coming true–and then he’ll have to beg Ace to shore up the cracks in his rapidly failing amnesia. We do find out who he is, why he became Nameless, and why he does what he does, with some questions left unanswered for the next (and final) season.

I do have a few questions and issues. One, why does Nameless get his money in hundred as well as twenties? Almost no businesses will break hundreds at this point; it’s difficult to use them as legal tender in most places, and yet he seems to have no trouble with this. Two, I’m not really buying this whole “truth not justice” thing. The truth doesn’t always get out from what he does, and it seems like we really are dealing more with vengeance than anything else, despite the fact that the organization and Nameless have no relationship to the people they’re helping (or avenging). Three, Nameless repeats the idea that “white-hat hackers” have a comparatively easy time of ferreting out the truth. You don’t have to look far to see that just because people want to do good and have some computer skills doesn’t guarantee anything (remember how multiple people got misidentified as the Boston Marathon bomber by well-meaning internet sleuths?).

While the series glosses over some things, it’s still intriguing and fun, especially if you like stories of bad people getting what’s coming to them.

To be fair to himself, perhaps he should accept that some fates are sewn into the fabric of time with tighter stitches than others.

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Review: “The Bad Book,” ed. John F.D. Taff

Rating: 4 out of 5

The Bad Book is an anthology curated by John F.D. Taff that takes as its premise: what if biblical stories, but horror? The result is intriguing.

Hailey Piper is up to her usual hijinks with “Wife-Beast of Eden,” a story about Adam as the spoiled golden child and woman as nothing more than a gift for him. Eve finds out things she’d rather not know and comes across Lilith in the outskirts of the garden. Kristi DeMeester’s “To Dash Their Heads Against the Stones” is about a young woman who is possessed by the ghosts of infants. It’s a very sad and difficult read.

A body is not a house. A body can hold so much more.

Alan Baxter’s “Nurturing His Nature” is a creepy serial killer tale in which one experienced killer finds a budding killer who could use a few pointers. As you might guess from this, some tales fit the theme in more roundabout ways than others. Mark Matthews brings us “Golgorth Street,” in which a pair of junkies raise a Christ-like child while dealing heroin for a terrifying man. I didn’t feel like the growing child had much personality beyond his purpose in the story, but otherwise the tale was interesting.

V. Castro brings us “The House that Demons Built,” which roams from the Thomas Jefferson days of the White House to a future in which the world may end. A woman named Luisa Aguila is wide-open to calls from the dead, and she’s afraid of what she’ll see when she takes her son Lorenzo to the White House on a school trip. I had trouble getting into this one, but the ending is really interesting. Errick Nunnally’s “Tooth and Axe” is an unusual story in which a slave learns what freedom could be, after watching his Master take Rasa’s mother’s teeth to replace his own. There is a chunk of missing time in this one that I wanted to know more about, but it’s still a complete story.

Cindy O’Quinn’s “A Gathering on the Mountain” is one of my favorites. A young woman named Hobeth Freeborn has the sight, and she can tell that a traveling faith healer is evil. She isn’t the only one who’s noticed, however, and the mountain people have their own ways of handling con artists. Samantha Kolesnik’s “Shrewd” is another of my favorites. Marge lives in a sleepy town, working a dead-end job, married to a man she doesn’t love. When she finds herself attracted to the new stock boy, Harper, her life takes a very unexpected turn. This story did not go anywhere that I could have anticipated, but I absolutely loved it. Another favorite? Sarah Read’s “Seeing Stones.” A religious zealot is killing practicing psychics, and a psychic detective is brought in on the case. This is absolutely beautiful in how it’s handled. Todd Keisling does an excellent job with “Gethsemane,” in which we get a very different look at why Judas might have betrayed Jesus. There are some wonderful cosmic horror hints here that totally made this piece for me. Philip Fracassi’s “Marmalade” tells the story of a big orange cat who seems to work miracles on the sick–and the horrors that follow.

“Son of Man,” by doungjai gam and Ed Kurtz, is a creepy story about a former felon who finds an unusual form of salvation. It does raise some interesting questions about how to handle the urge to sin. John Langan’s “El” is an interesting tale that hints at older truths than what we see in the Bible.

My favorite stories were almost all (except for Keisling’s entry) not explicitly and overtly biblical in nature, but rather dealt with modern-day issues surrounding religion. All of them depicted rich worlds in quick strokes with intriguing characters at the core. The more religious/explicitly biblical stories are also quite good, but which you prefer will depend on your likes and dislikes as a reader.

Content note: miscarriage, animal death, drug use, dismemberment/disfigurement, removal of teeth, murder, child death.

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Review: “Reclaimed,” Madeleine Roux

Rating: 5 out of 5

Madeleine Roux’s science fiction/horror novel Reclaimed takes place a couple hundred years in the future. Earth is in bad shape, and Senna lives on a space station. She has a lot of trauma from a horrible event that left her as the sole survivor, and a reclusive, wealthy, brilliant technologist, Paxton Dunn, offers her a way out: he can erase the traumatic memories, and leave the rest of her intact. Along with her are two other participants. Han, a brilliant 14-year-old boy who idolizes Paxton, wants to forget details surrounding his mother’s death. Zurri, a supermodel, wants to forget the horrific death of her stalker. Paxton promises the LENG program can help all of them, but there are unexpected side effects, and the participants start to wonder if more memories aren’t being taken away from them than just the ones they expected.

The characters are wonderful. Paxton is not the stereotypical reclusive genius. While he surrounds himself with beautiful women, that’s a detail that becomes much more interesting as we learn more about those women. Senna is shy and easily overwhelmed, but she has a great deal of strength inside. Zurri is the very definition of fierce; while she comes across as a demanding diva, she too has that inner strength, and has some very firm moral convictions. Han seems like an arrogant kid, yet he has his own sort of brilliance and his own emotional needs. Not a single character in here disappointed me or felt too one-sided. Senna is the closest we get to a traditionally “likable” character, but they’re all absolutely engaging. They make a particularly intriguing whole as a group–not at all three characters I would have thought to throw together.

Most of the book takes place on the barely-inhabited Ganymede. The place is dangerous, and Paxton lives there with just a skeleton crew. There’s intriguing use of some technologies, not always in expected ways. We do eventually see how LENG works, getting a bit more information with each person who’s subjected to the method. The LENG program is very beautifully handled in how it’s revealed to us a bit at a time, via both its effects and the experiences of the three participants. The theme of how our traumas inform who we are, and what might happen if we try to curate our memories, is riveting.

This is my second Madeleine Roux book, and I love both of them. I hope she writes more books that take place in this universe, as the combination of horror and science fiction is a favorite of mine!

Then came the fear.

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Short Take: “Operation: Sahara,” William Meikle

Rating: 4 out of 5

I was so happy to realize that book 12 of William Meikle’s S-Squad series, Operation: Sahara, had come out! It’s a hugely fun series of adventure/horror/creature feature military-vs-monsters novellas. Each one takes just a couple of hours or so to read, has fun banter between the Scottish military characters, some tidbits of interesting character exploration, and lots of monster-fighting action! This time, a 10-person research team has gone missing in the Sahara desert. The squad has to (unofficially) go into Libyan territory to rescue the researchers, who were looking for a lost city named Zerzura. As they make their way through the desert, their first hint that something’s gone wrong is a camel covered in blood (not its own). When Captain John Banks reads an excerpt from a journal that mentions a giant statue of a beetle, he starts to suspect the squad is going to encounter monsters again.

My one letdown with this volume is that it felt like the end of the story wrapped up a bit too quickly. Other than that, it was the usual fun. This time we spend some time following Davies around as he gets separated from the group, and it makes for an interesting change of pace. It’s still weird being without Hynd, but Wiggo’s adjustment to his promotion is keeping things engaging.

I absolutely recommend this book, and if you haven’t read the other books yet, the whole series. Each book should be able to stand fairly well on its own, but there’s a minor amount of character turnover and development, so it wouldn’t hurt to read the books in order. My only content note is for a bit of blood, death, and injury.

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Review: “Amalgam: Book One: Contact,” Mike Duke

Rating: 3 out of 5

I’m a huge fan of the SF/horror combo (the Alien franchise, etc.), so I was really looking forward to Mike Duke’s AMALGAM: BOOK ONE: CONTACT. Unfortunately it only somewhat lived up to that anticipation. Our story takes place in 2177 on a mining colony on an exomoon. Maynard Creed is one of a number of miners trying to reach an unidentified vein of high-density metal within the exomoon in hopes of a large payout. When it turns out to be alien technology instead of a resource, and Maynard discovers something unusual within it, everything goes sideways. Soon he and his fellow employees are trying their best to get rid of a rampaging monster that eats everyone in sight. Hopefully he’ll also be able to save his girlfriend, Jenna, who’s on board the nearby station.

I started out seriously not liking Maynard, largely because he referred to his ex-wife taking him to the cleaners in the divorce as her “raping” him. Comparing every trouble to rape is seriously obnoxious. I never ended up liking him, but at least he’s decent apart from that. He’s an interesting character who is a bit blunt and rude, but who stands up and does the right thing under pressure. There’s an excellent scene in which he very nearly loses his mind, which is great because he isn’t a trained soldier and shouldn’t be calm about dealing with an alien attack.

Jenna at one point describes Savannah, a “Sex-Synth” who comes to her clinic (Jenna is a doctor), as being “voluptuous” and having hair that “tickled at the top of her breasts.” It’s very much a men-writing-women moment, because women rarely view each other this way. Especially when we’re talking about a doctor doing the observing, and it’s someone she already seems familiar with.

Unfortunately there are too many red herrings (in terms of resources that are baldly described up front and then ignored later), and too many plot holes (mostly involving the creature’s intelligence and ability to absorb people’s memories and knowledge). If you want a few details, check the spoiler section at the bottom of this review.

The action elements are the best parts of this book. There’s some fun combat, lots of weaponry, interesting actions on the alien’s part, and so on. The combat is fun and intense, interspersed with tense periods of sweat-filled quiet as characters try to avoid or outwit the alien rather than just outrunning it. I don’t think I’ll read the rest of the series, but I can see that decision depending heavily on the reader’s individual preferences.

Content note: painful death and dismemberment.

SPOILER WARNING: Savannah is a total red herring. I mean it’s kind of nice that something unexpected happens, but it also feels a bit off when we get a couple of pages about how she was built on a Combat Synth chassis and can access those abilities when humans are threatened, then that doesn’t pay off properly. That isn’t the only red herring–there are multiple other resources (drones, battle armor) that are set up and then casually discarded without any payoff. It would be nice if they’d at least started to be useful before taking a left turn, rather than simply going unused, although at least I can hope they’ll be used in later books. In addition, the alien creature seems to absorb knowledge from the people it consumes–it uses security codes from multiple victims. However, when it consumes several people who are working to bait it into a trap, it never picks up on the trap. Also, even though the marines know it has these codes, it never occurs to them that it might actually use them when trying to survive their trap. Also also, when the good guys send an SOS for evac, they totally fail to mention that the alien is in any way intelligent or in possession of colonists’ memories. I’ll avoid details about the ending except to say that once again they completely fail to anticipate the creature’s intelligence/access to memories in what they’re anticipating. END SPOILERS

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Review: “Tiamat’s Wrath,” James S.A. Corey

Rating: 5 out of 5

In James S.A. Corey’s Tiamat’s Wrath (The Expanse, 8), once again the crew of the Rocinante is scattered to the four winds. Holden is captive on Laconia (he likens himself to a “dancing bear,” left to wander under guard so people will realize the high consul isn’t afraid of him). Bobbie and Alex are using their captured Laconian ship, the Gathering Storm, to run missions for the underground. Naomi is helping Saba to run the underground, sifting through information and coming up with battle plans. And Amos… well, he went on a mission to Laconia and vanished, never heard from again. Teresa Duarte, 14-year-old daughter of the Laconian high consul, has become one of our point-of-view characters, and Elvi Okoye returns as well.

Elvi and her husband Fayez have taken positions with the Laconians (not like they had much choice) tooling around the “dead systems” looking for alien artifacts. When a horrific event sends her back to Laconia, she’s assigned to work with Doctor Cortázar to find a cure for something that’s happened to the high consul. She’d rather work with anyone else, but she doesn’t have a choice in the matter. How Elvi’s being brought into everything that’s going on, what she discovers, and how she handles it ends up being quite significant. She’s being buffeted by forces she can’t control, but she isn’t alone.

Holden is up to something. His words to a variety of people seem to have hidden meaning, as though he’s working an agenda beyond the obvious. He’s learned a little bit of subtlety in his old age. He’s pushing at Teresa, trying to bring her to some kind of realization. It was his words to Duarte that caused Elvi to be given her current job. He’s out of the game almost entirely… or is he? There are costs to being a prisoner, and he isn’t really the man he used to be.

Teresa feels alone. Everybody is nice to her because they have to be, and her every move is scrutinized. She’s a rebellious teen, only her acts of rebellion will have far-reaching consequences. She’s made a new friend, and she doesn’t want to help her minders to cover up her father’s odd infirmity. When she sneaks out of the compound, she stumbles into all kinds of trouble. She may be angry, bitter, and afraid, but she has a lot of smarts and a lot of strength as well.

Naomi, Bobbie, and Alex are each doing their own part in the quiet fight against Laconian rule. They’re working with a mixed bag of recruits, and relying on as much secrecy as is humanly possible. It seems virtually impossible that they’ll survive much longer. Between the three of them exist existential questions about why and how to fight the Laconians’ authoritarian rule. As they take on their missions, things get SO TENSE.

Throughout all of this looms the threat of the forces that destroyed the protomolecule-producing aliens. Something triggers longer, more devastating effects from them, beyond just the gates occasionally eating a ship or the three minutes of unconsciousness when the Tempest’s weapon was fired.

There are high-consequence circumstances going on. The fate of worlds is at stake. The human race is in danger. And each individual member of Holden’s crew could be wiped out at any moment. There are unexpected casualties and seemingly inevitable ones, so that you never know quite what’s going to happen.

I’m still loving this series, and I’ve pre-ordered book 9!

“It’s been a really weird day.”

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Review: “Far From Home,” ed. Samantha Kolesnik

Rating: 4 out of 5

Samantha Kolesnik edited this anthology of short, adventure- and travel-themed horror stories, Far From Home: an Anthology of Adventure Horror. Like many anthologies, I think that people will find the overall quality solidly good, but of course not every story will resonate with every reader.

Some stories really hit the spot for me. Hailey Piper’s “Crepuscular” was tormented and bleak, a story about a girl who’s having increasingly dangerous fits, and the two mothers who will do anything to save her. Lenn Woolston’s “Hungry,” about a high school couple who goes off into the woods to take photographs before leaving for different colleges, is enrapturing–it captures the hungry emotions of its characters perfectly.

Ali Seay’s “Descending” is a riveting and unusual look at a sociopath (psychopath?) who’s desperate to feel something, anything. Stephanie Ellis’s “Penance” is a beautiful story about two women who seem like they’ve taken a wrong turn, and their husbands who are having mid-life crises. Ross Jeffery’s “Towing the Chum Line” is a shudder-inducing story about a couple of newlyweds who want to see as many major varieties of sharks as they can. A.K. Dennis’s “Those Who Wander” introduces us to Derek, who apparently got lost in the woods after his girlfriend, Sarah, broke up with him. When he finds a smug, possibly threatening man by a fire, he has to weigh the desire to warm up and dry off with his distrust of the man.

“I tend to find things I like and kill them. Jeans, lipsticks, shoes. People.”

Villimey Mist’s “Hell of a Ride,” about a woman who’s still grieving for her dead foster child, is one of those stories that can be interesting and engaging despite being predictable (really, many horror stories work because they use classic horror tropes). A.A. Medina’s “An Open Casket Adrift,” in which Delilah finds herself adrift in a boat with her father’s corpse, is a great look into the mind of someone who’s going a touch mad.

I enjoyed Vaughn A. Jackson’s “The Thing at the Top of the Mountain.” Nix Rhodes, history student, wants to find some ruins to spice up her thesis with. Antonella, her guide, seems awfully nervous. Cynthia Pelayo’s “The Light Blinds,” about a couple who’ve been chasing stories of mysterious lights in the skies, was good but not really my thing. Michael Patrick Hicks wrote “A Song of the Earth,” a story of four people who go hiking and what they find. I couldn’t understand how a group of people would think it was a good idea to take someone who’s never hiked before on a hundred-mile(!) hike for funsies, but the ending was intriguing. Beverley Lee’s “Little Girl Lost” was very good (a woman going on a treasure hunt by horseback gets lost in the snow), but I was more intrigued by the abandoned original plotline than I was by the eventual conclusion.

Some of the stories just struck me as… kind of odd. Good, but I couldn’t connect with them in some way. The events in these stories felt a little random. Ed Kurtz’s “Lay Low” with its unlucky prospector, Charlie Lee Landry, was one of those. Mitch Sebourn’s “The Apostle” is about a lawyer who did some embezzling, and the weird mural in her new home that won’t go away. The story was good, but the ending didn’t really work for me. Audrey Williams’s “I Never Want to Go Back” felt oddly random, as though the story was a kind of free association exercise, which didn’t really work for me; the tone was also very matter-of-fact. It’s a tale of a woman who finds herself going through a mirror into a dark world beyond. Carmen Baca’s “Deavale’s Design” sees grad student Nate inheriting a cursed trunk. I couldn’t understand why his and his professor’s reaction to reading an outlandish account of two-foot-tall natives and a cursed trunk led to immediate unflinching belief and resignation.

Content note–this is not an anthology of “extreme” horror, but still has its moments. Expect a bit of body horror, blood and gore, deaths, murder, one detailed instance of animal harm/death (in Ross Jeffery’s story), and a touch of cannibalism.

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Review: “Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 6,” Various Authors

Rating: 4 out of 5

Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 6 includes a number of very good stories, including a few by authors I know and love (Christine Morgan, Hailey Piper). I also definitely found a few new authors to check out!

Ronald Kelly’s “The Nipples In Dad’s Tool Box” is unexpected and fascinating. There’s a serial killer called “The Handyman Killer,” and Cody is starting to worry that his father might be the killer. I was very drawn in by this one.

Christine Morgan’s “Going Green” doesn’t really seem to fit the tone of the rest of the book, but it’s also one of my favorite stories in here. Zeaa wants to finally best her frenemy Brangelina’s knack for getting ahead of all the ecological trends and making her look bad. She’s going to the company Eden to have a radical procedure done. She’s warned that once the process has started, it can’t be stopped. The story unfolds much like the flowering of a plant.

Rachel Nussbaum’s “Whiskey to the Wound” is another favorite from this book. When someone grabs Derek off the street and takes his kidney, he finds he cannot die. The story surrounding how this came about is minimal, because it isn’t really relevant to the tale. This is an interesting sort of not-quite–romance, half-friendship, semi-sexual tale set against a backdrop of blood and guts.

Hailey Piper’s “In Subspace, No One Can Hear You Scream” delves into the mind of a person who is allowing herself to be dominated in front of an audience. As they sink deeper into the experience than ever before, something unexpected happens. This is, in part, a delve into the thoughts of someone who is deeply unsatisfied with their body.

Sean Patrick Hazlett’s “The Pogonip Fog” is a fairly straightforward story of people being killed by monsters in the snow, but the ending adds to the experience in an unexpected way.

Alicia Hilton’s “Gunfire and Brimstone” rode a kind of line for me. At times it was too surreal, and at times it was absolutely fascinating. Baby Gordon is oddly aggressive with his mother, but all is not as it seems.

Matthew V. Brockmeyer’s “The Happiest Man in the World” is another favorite, particularly when you add the title of the story into the rest of it. A widower deputy participates in a raid against a doctor who’s selling prescriptions and performing back-alley abortions. He finds a very strange baby(?) and against his will is drawn to take it home with him. Things get a bit wild after that!

Patrick C. Harrison III’s “Full Moon Shindig” tells a brief and bloody tale. Travis returns from the military to go to a party with his old high school friends. He’s shocked at the state of the party–half-naked people, sex in full view of the crowd, drug use, and oh yeah, a young woman tied to a pool table. I really appreciated where this story took the reader. My only difficulty with it was trying to figure out a weird detail in the ending.

Christine Morgan has a second story in here with “The Drinking-Horn.” Ullvik the Bottomless has trouble finding enough alcoholic beverages to keep himself satisfied. This takes a rather fascinating and unexpected turn.

Octavia Cade’s “Otto Han Speaks to the Dead” tackles the guilt of developing weapons of war, combined with a ghost story. Instead of haunting her own husband, the ghost decides to haunt an acquaintance who might still be salvageable.

Deborah Sheldon’s “All the Stars In Her Eyes” introduces us to Janet and her daughter, Aurora, who has an odd condition that leaves sparkling stars in her eyes. When a dog shows up with the same condition, Janet thinks Aurora’s mysterious father is going to return. It’s hard to figure out how much to believe in Janet’s assertions, and to me there was a little too much ambiguity still, but it definitely gave me a chill.

Alessandro Manzetti’s “The Saint” just confused the hell out of me. There’s a mysterious serial killer who’s taking apart prostitutes. And… that’s sort of it. It’s a weird time, maybe a sort of dystopian future I think?, and the story just abruptly ends without anything really happening on-screen.

Robert Guffey’s “Her Wounded Eyes” is another story that confused me. One character seems to die in two different ways, and maybe one or both are not real? And how much of what Wanda thinks is happening is really happening? I wanted to like this one, but couldn’t pin it down enough.

Too-surreal events are one of the things that turn me off in horror, as are abrupt endings, and those are the problems I experienced in most of the stories I didn’t like as much. If those two stylistic choices aren’t ones that bother you, you’ll probably find the entire book even better than I did.

Content note: Torture, murder, gore, body horror, masochism, sexual content, memories of rape, cancer, dysphoria, dismemberment, animal death, suicide, the lead-up to rape, domestic violence.

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Review: “The Black Farm,” Elias Witherow

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Elias Witherow’s horror novel The Black Farm, about what happens after you commit suicide, is a wildly mixed bag. He says in his author’s note that he wants to bring “fresh concepts” to and “breathe new life into” the horror genre. While much of this book is in fact surprisingly original, there are veins of terribly stale stereotypes and tropes shot through it. Some very unfortunate ones, in fact.

Nick and Jess are at the end of their ropes. Jess had a miscarriage, Nick’s father died in an accident, Nick lost his job, he received an eviction notice, and Jess’s sister was diagnosed with terminal cancer. They decide there’s only one way to handle their problems: a joint suicide. When they take a whole lot of sleeping pills, Nick wakes up in a very strange place. The sun is a sickly ball of red dripping black fluid. Red tears rend the sky. A disfigured monster of a man is dragging him into a building, where he’s told that he’s on the Black Farm ruled by The Pig. When Heaven and Hell couldn’t decide what to do with those who committed suicide, they compromised by creating this place. The Pig was put in place over it, and it went a little crazy. Now the abominations created by The Pig (the Pig-Born) torture and kill people over and over, and they’re repeatedly reborn onto the Farm to suffer and die again. Nick is frantic with worry for Jess, and determined to find her any way he has to.

Content note: Suicide and suicidal ideation. Rape and torture. Dismemberment. “Breeding” monstrosities. Cannibalism. Vomit. Fatphobia, as well as racial stereotype, and the stereotype of the “perfect woman.”

I’ll get the bad parts over with. The vast majority of the bad guys are fat, and the stereotypical fat = evil trope is heavily drawn. The only Black character lived in “the projects” and killed himself with a drug overdose. Jess is the most insanely perfect woman ever: perfectly pure, perfectly loving, perfectly understanding, perfectly supportive at every turn. She barely talks, is a victim in need of rescuing, and meekly does everything Nick tells her to. She’s so thoroughly one-note on her pedestal it’s ridiculous; she’s a shining beacon of “no real woman could ever remotely live up to this.” The other woman who shows up, Megan, is largely there to suffer so that Nick can be pushed into his character development. There’s also a very big theme of “you had no idea how good you had it and you should have appreciated it while you could” with respect to people who are suicidal, and that’s incredibly unempathetic. There’s a character who, within five minutes of meeting Nick, casually spills all his greatest weaknesses to Nick. I facepalmed. The book could also use another editing pass.

There are some aspects of the worldbuilding that don’t make sense to me. The island on which the Black Farm is found isn’t huge, yet it seems almost sparsely populated. If no one can die without being reformed in another location on the island, and every suicide arrives here, and apparently women can have children here, then how on earth is there no overpopulation? How are there not human children running around? For that matter, why does everyone speak English? When people die on the Farm and are reformed, they clearly return in some sort of better health than when they died, so are there any effects that linger? Since food and drinking water are hard to come by, can someone starve/dehydrate to death? Is it possible to become ill? Is clothing reformed as well? I don’t need every question answered, but I need to feel like the author has a handle on how things work, and I don’t.

I don’t often read “extreme” horror; I made an exception for this one because I saw the book recommended a lot on a certain books of horror group. I will give the author this: he makes the nastier content absolutely integral to and necessary to the plot, which is what I want when I read extreme horror. It’s key to how Nick changes and what he accomplishes; it isn’t heaped on for sheer titillation.

The idea of the Black Farm is absolutely fascinating. It’s this little somewhat-out-of-control reality with an all-too-vain godlet running it. The Pig wants the power its betters have–it wants to create life, and a world. It isn’t mindlessly evil. It leaves me wanting to know more, and I like that. Nick’s journey from loving boyfriend desperate to find his girlfriend to insane badass doing every last thing he can think to do is what made this an otherwise good book for me.

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