Novella Review: Everything Is Beautiful and Nothing Bad Can Happen Here by Michael Wehunt

NOTICE: I received a free reviewer’s copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way influences my opinions of the story. As part of Nightscape Press’ Charitable Chapbooks series, one-third of the proceeds go to the Southern Poverty Law Center. You can purchase a copy of the book here on their website.

Summary: Bea Holcombe loves her life in Fontaine Falls, a perfect little town tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. She has never thought to question that love until her next-door neighbor opens fire on a crowd of black demonstrators gathered in the city park to protest the town’s Confederate statue. Lester Neal has torn open an invisible wound in Fontaine Falls, and what festers inside of it will change Bea, her family, and the dimming mind of her mother forever.

As the national media descends and violence spreads, the town endures a conflict it is no longer insulated from. Bea is given a special sight so that she may witness how deep the rot has burrowed inside the postcard charm of Fontaine Falls. And she will be asked to turn the light of scrutiny and complicity upon herself as she is visited by horrors that won’t rest quietly. “This is a ghost story,” she tells us repeatedly. This unflinching, poetic novella is an examination of that claim—its layers of truth, of untruth, and the uneasy specters that inhabit modern America.

Content Warnings: Racism, Slurs, Body Horror

Review: Whenever a white author wants to talk about racism in their story, I get a little anxious. Not because I believe a white author shouldn’t write a story about racism. It’s because, when they do, the story rings hollow. Too often, stories about racism from white authors offer too many platitudes that simply are not true.

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Novella Review: He Digs A Hole by Danger Slater

Summary: Get a job. Get married. Buy a house. Cut off your hands and replace them with gardening tools. Dig a hole. Can you hear the worms calling? Keep digging.

Content Warnings: Body Horror, Extreme Gore, Attempted (Worm) Rape, Mentions of Suicidal Idealization

Beware. A few spoilers ahead.

Review: Before delving deeper into the current horror scene, I had no idea bizarro horror existed. Discovering it certainly instilled equal measures of curiosity and bafflement. I had seen some pretty bizarre plots in, say, television and film, but I never imagined seeing it in the genre book world. People got away with gonzo plots like this in the publishing industry? Without self-publishing? Really?

I knew I had to try this out myself. Looking through various sites for recommendations, I quickly selected He Digs A Hole by Danger Slater as one of my best options. For those of you who have reviewed the book in the past, you don’t need to worry.

I enjoyed the book. I reveled in the meta, the comedy, the gore and guts, and even the most sentimental scenes in the entire story.

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Classics Review: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Summary: The classic supernatural thriller by an author who helped define the genre. First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting;’ Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

Content Warning: Emotional Abuse, Sexism, Mentions of Child Abuse, Severe Religious Imagery

Review: For those who don’t know me well, my favorite book of all time is We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. It may come as a surprise, even! Most of my reads tend to lean on the fantastical or the supernatural, but my favorite book of all time happens to be a psychological domestic horror book?

That’s just how good Shirley Jackson is in her craft. The Haunting of Hill House only demonstrates more of Jackson’s brilliance.

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Novel Review: Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

Summary: After suffering a tragic loss, eleven-year-old Ollie who only finds solace in books discovers a chilling ghost story about a girl named Beth, the two brothers who loved her, and a peculiar deal made with “the smiling man”–a sinister specter who grants your most tightly held wish, but only for the ultimate price.
Captivated by the tale, Ollie begins to wonder if the smiling man might be real when she stumbles upon the graves of the very people she’s been reading about on a school trip to a nearby farm. Then, later, when her school bus breaks down on the ride home, the strange bus driver tells Ollie and her classmates: “Best get moving. At nightfall they’ll come for the rest of you.” Nightfall is, indeed, fast descending when Ollie’s previously broken digital wristwatch begins a startling countdown and delivers a terrifying message: RUN.
Only Ollie and two of her classmates heed these warnings. As the trio head out into the woods–bordered by a field of scarecrows that seem to be watching them–the bus driver has just one final piece of advice for Ollie and her friends: “Avoid large places. Keep to small.”
And with that, a deliciously creepy and hair-raising adventure begins.

Content Warnings: Body Horror, Child Endangerment

Review: When people think of child-friendly horror, they usually think of a few films or shows: Coraline, Are You Afraid of The Dark?, Beetlejuice, The Addams Family, and popular multi-media franchise Goosebumps. Many adult horror fans cite these properties as their start into the horror fandom. Nevertheless, horror aimed at children tends to be out of focus in reviewer circles despite the controversy surrounding these products.

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Nonfiction Review: Monster, She Wrote by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson

Summary: Frankenstein was just the beginning: horror stories and other weird fiction wouldn’t exist without the women who created it. From Gothic ghost stories to psychological horror to science fiction, women have been primary architects of speculative literature of all sorts. And their own life stories are as intriguing as their fiction. Everyone knows about Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein, who was rumored to keep her late husband’s heart in her desk drawer. But have you heard of Margaret “Mad Madge” Cavendish, who wrote a science-fiction epic 150 years earlier (and liked to wear topless gowns to the theater)? If you know the astounding work of Shirley Jackson, whose novel The Haunting of Hill House was reinvented as a Netflix series, then try the psychological hauntings of Violet Paget, who was openly involved in long-term romantic relationships with women in the Victorian era. You’ll meet celebrated icons (Ann Radcliffe, V. C. Andrews), forgotten wordsmiths (Eli Colter, Ruby Jean Jensen), and today’s vanguard (Helen Oyeyemi). Curated reading lists point you to their most spine-chilling tales.

Part biography, part reader’s guide, the engaging write-ups and detailed reading lists will introduce you to more than a hundred authors and over two hundred of their mysterious and spooky novels, novellas, and stories.

Note: No content warnings this time as the authors do a good job of providing them. However, if you dislike even a mention of rape or incest, you might want to avoid V.C. Andrews’ biography and some of the earlier chapters involving the older history of the Gothic novel.

Review: Since I first started this blog, I have combed throughout the internet, my university library, and other databases for forgotten authors in horror history. My focus often narrowed to female writers of all kinds, of every distinguishable stripe, but my searches often amounted to repeated names. Trips to blogs such as Too Much Horror Fiction, Graveyard Shift Sisters, and Ladies of Horror Fiction helped me out immensely, but there was only so much material three blogs can give someone.

Then I found this book at my local Barnes & Noble.

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Novel Review: The Rust Maidens by Gwendolyn Kiste

Summary: Somethings happening to the girls on Denton Street. It’s the summer of 1980 in Cleveland, Ohio, and Phoebe Shaw and her best friend Jacqueline have just graduated high school, only to confront an ugly, uncertain future. Across the city, abandoned factories populate the skyline; meanwhile at the shore, one strong spark, and the Cuyahoga River might catch fire. But none of that compares to what’s happening in their own west side neighborhood. The girls Phoebe and Jacqueline have grown up with are changing. It starts with footprints of dark water on the sidewalk. Then, one by one, the girls’bodies wither away, their fingernails turning to broken glass, and their bones exposed like corroded metal beneath their flesh. As rumors spread about the grotesque transformations, soon everyone from nosy tourists to clinic doctors and government men start arriving on Denton Street, eager to catch sight of “the Rust Maidens” in metamorphosis. But even with all the onlookers, nobody can explain what’s happening or why—except perhaps the Rust Maidens themselves. Whispering in secret, they know more than they’re telling, and Phoebe realizes her former friends are quietly preparing for something that will tear their neighborhood apart. Alternating between past and present, Phoebe struggles to unravel the mystery of the Rust Maidens—and her own unwitting role in the transformations—before she loses everything she’s held dear: her home, her best friend, and even perhaps her own body.

Content Warnings: Teenage Pregnancy, Child Abuse, Body Horror

Review: Many reviewers have already written pages of praise and adulation for Gwendolyn Kiste’s full-length novel so let me cut right to the chase: this is a wonderful coming-of-age story for the horror fan, period.

Kiste writes beautifully here, crafting this dilapidated Cleveland neighborhood like any other Gothic novel’s beautiful ruined castles. It’s the most believable American neighborhood imaginable, and it’s made all the more frightening because of its “American values” as its girls transform into visions of decay and ruin.

Because the monster here definitely is not any of the Rust Maidens. The closest thing to a one-dimensional monster in the novel is the owner of the mill, but the real fear and dread come extensively from the adult members of Phoebe’s neighborhood. As Phoebe’s narrative makes clear again and again, the mistakes and terrible decisions thrust on the Rust Maidens are only an extension of how her neighbors generally ruin girls’ lives through their judgmental attitudes, gossiping, and refusal to give them agency that they’re happy to celebrate in their husbands. Even if the perceived agency is again circumvented by the mechanics of capitalism (as seen through the constant image of the mill strike).

Thankfully, the book isn’t all doom and gloom. For all the terrible things that happen throughout the book and the apathy of so many people, Phoebe’s story is also about renewal, redemption, and the unconditional love in a true friendship. Her relationship with Jacqueline, her utter refusal to forget the Rust Maidens as the rest of the town continues to ignore their choices, all of these factors make it a beautiful read.

If I had a complaint, I’d say that this suburb seems particularly white-washed even for Cleveland. There aren’t any characters of color, not even amongst agents from the government or tourists that visit the town from all over. In a narrative about how women are treated like so much trash, the specific trials of a woman of color would make a hell of a lot of sense.

Nonetheless, you can’t go wrong with The Rust Maidens if you’re looking for a bittersweet, Gothic read this Halloween.

Rating: ★★★★ of 5 stars!

Classics Review: The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James

Summary: Considered by many to be the most terrifying writer in English, M. R. James was an eminent scholar who spent his entire adult life in the academic surroundings of Eton and Cambridge. His classic supernatural tales draw on the terrors of the everyday, in which documents and objects unleash terrible forces, often in closed rooms and nighttime settings where imagination runs riot. Lonely country houses, remote inns, ancient churches or the manuscript collections of great libraries provide settings for unbearable menace from creatures seeking retribution and harm. These stories have lost none of their power to unsettle and disturb.

Content Warnings: Period-typical Sexism and Racism, Child Death, Body Horror

Review: Montage Rhodes James is often considered the best writer of ghost stories in the English language, particularly in the niche of the antiquarian ghost story. Considering that reputation, the moment a used copy of his collected ghost stories showed up in a book store during a trip to New York City, I just had to pick it up for myself. What better way to see if his reputation is deserved?

Thankfully, James’ stories were delightfully creepy and kept me engaged this entire week.

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Collection Review: Greener Pastures by Michael Wehunt

Summary: In his striking debut collection, Greener Pastures, Michael Wehunt shows why he is a powerful new voice in horror and literary weird fiction.

From the round-robin, found-footage nightmare of “October Film Haunt: Under the House” (selected for The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror) to the jazz-soaked “The Devil Under the Maison Blue” (selected for both The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror and Year’s Best Weird Fiction), these beautifully crafted, emotionally resonant stories speak of the unknown encroaching upon the familiar, the inscrutable power of grief and desire, and the thinness between all our layers. Where nature rubs against small towns, in mountains and woods and bedrooms, here is strangeness seen through a poet’s eye.

They say there are always greener pastures. These stories consider the cost of that promise.

Content Warning: Body Horror, Incest, CSA, Rape

Review: Thus far, the best short story collection I have read this year has been the amazing She Said Destroy by Nadia Bulkin. But if I had to pick a distinct second so far, Greener Pastures definitely qualifies.

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Novel Review: Clickers II The Next Wave by J.F. Gonzalez and Brian Keene

Summary: The first wave was just the beginning . . . 

The United States is in ruins. It has just suffered one of the worst hurricanes in history, the people are demoralized, and the president is a religious fanatic. Then things get really bad – the Clickers return. Thousands of the monsters swarm across the entire nation and march inland, slaughtering anyone and anything they come across. But this time the Clickers aren’t blindly rushing onto land – they are being led by an intelligence older than civilization itself. A force that wants to take dry land away from the mammals. Those left alive soon realize that they must do everything and anything they can to protect humanity – no matter the cost.

This isn’t war, this is extermination.

Content Warnings: Rape, Gore, Mutilation, Child Death, Body Horror

Review: Not too long ago, I immersed myself in the world of Clickers by J.F. Gonzalez and Mark Williams. I found it to be an entertaining B-movie romp with a disappointing scene and one very annoying, racist Sheriff. Considering my enjoyment, I thought reading the second Clickers novel would be a really fun choice for a summer vacation read.

I found myself asking, “Could this match or even overcome the detriments of the original?”

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