Best of the Best (Horror of the Year)

As a book product, the latest edition of The Best Horror of the Year severely disappoints: the volume is rife with typographical and formatting errors. But this glaring lack of proofreading by Night Shade Books can be forgiven, thanks to the supreme quality of the anthology’s contents. Editor Ellen Datlow has selected a highly impressive collection of horror stories, written by both genre veterans and promising newcomers alike.

In honor of tonight’s New Year’s Eve ball drop, here is another type of countdown: my choice of the ten best pieces in Volume XIV.


10. “The God Bag” by Christopher Golden

At the outset, the horrors here are of the most realistic, relatable kind: the difficulty of dealing with a parent’s dementia and failing health. But then Golden takes matters to another, uncanny level, via the titular pouch filled with paper scraps of inscribed “prayers.”


9. “Three Sisters Bog” by Eóin Murphy

In this wonderfully descriptive tale, a father and son’s attempt to retrieve their runaway Labrador leads them into the land and lair of a trio of sinister siblings. These weird sisters might be the most unnerving witches ever encountered outside of Shakespearean tragedy.


8. “Chit Chit” by Steve Toase

This crime noir/folk horror mash-up (involving a heist that aims to gain possession of buried horse skulls) reads like a literary version of the film Kill List. Toase (justly represented twice within the anthology’s table of contents) once again proves himself to be a preeminent writer of short-form horror.


7. “Shuck” by G.V. Anderson

A moped-crash survivor is h(a)unted by Black Shuck, the canine death-harbinger of British legend. No mere knockoff of Final Destination, though, Anderson’s story features a climactic twist concerned with more than just dire comeuppance.


6. “The King of Stones” by Simon Stranzas

Folk horror at its finest: nature’s seemingly tranquil beauty is belied by the performance of savage rites in an isolated orchard. This story easily garners the award for Most Harrowing Repurposing of a Peach Pit.


5. “Redwater” by Simon Bestwick

This relentlessly entertaining monster vehicle makes the Rita‘s venture into the Black Lagoon seem as innocuous as a Disneyworld ride by comparison. Bestwick’s narrative presents a captivating setting (the post-apocalyptic Floodland, which includes a partially submerged churchyard) stocked with unique humanoid creatures from the deep.


4. “Jack-in-the-Box” by Robin Furth

Blackthorn House is a remote English estate harboring plenty of Gothic secrets, but the skeletons are hardly confined to the closets. Brimming with arresting visuals, Furth’s tale would make for an excellent adaptation as a future episode of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities.


3. “Caker’s Man” by Matthew Holness

Reminiscent of the work of Ramsey Campbell, Holness’s story (in which a single mom and her children are terrorized by a strange neighbor) creates an atmosphere of almost unbearable dread as the creepy details steadily accrete. Safe to say, after reading this frightfest, I will never look at a birthday cake the same way again.


2. “Tiptoe” by Laird Barron

An odd father seems more predatorial than paternal, as Barron proves that he doesn’t have to invoke the Lovecraftian cosmos in order to unsettle his readers. Commissioned for the tribute anthology When Things Get Dark, this sneaky-scary story perfectly captures Shirley Jackson’s American Gothic sensibility.


1. “Shards” by Ian Rogers

The hoary cabin-in-the-woods subgenre proves to be alive and well in this inspired riff on The Evil Dead. Rogers splashes horror across the page in gonzo style, but it’s the traumatic aftermath of the protagonists’ discovery of a cursed gramophone that haunts the most. The most wildly enjoyable horror story I have read in many a year.


The Veil Thins, The Plot Thickens: A Review of Halloween Beyond


Halloween Beyond: Piercing the Veil (Crystal Lake Publishing, 2022)

I can’t think of a more appropriate October Overflow post than a review of a book called Halloween Beyond.

The title of this collection of three thematically-linked novellas refers to a seasonal store that pops up across the country (a la Spirit Halloween). This is no ordinary franchise, though, and the store clerk–a mysterious beauty named Maeve–conducts business with an interest in more than commercial retail. She executes various secret schemes, for purposes that cannot be reduced to the simply sinister (a trite female rewrite of Leland Gaunt Maeve isn’t).

With its Piercing the Veil subtitle, the book forecasts crossings back and forth between the earthly realm and supernatural otherworlds. Yet the book defies expectations thanks to the strikingly varidirectional approaches the three authors take. In the leadoff piece, Lisa Morton’s “The Talking Board,” protagonist Kayla attempts to reach and rescue her sister Hailey who disappeared in the reputedly haunted “Ghost Woods” outside of town the previous Halloween night. Lucy Snyder’s “New Blood” floats the idea of a shady seaside town (which hosts a less-than-innocent Halloween party for local children) and plunges into the deep waters of Lovecraftian horror. Finally, Kate Maruyama’s “A Gentleman’s Suit” presents a yard-haunt prop (a boat-piloting Charon animatronic) that opens an uncanny portal into the afterlife.

Perhaps because of the gender of the respective contributors, there’s a certain commonality to the viewpoint characters of each novella (although Maruyama’s employment of a nonbinary narrator whose identity is integral to the plot provides a welcome variation). The most important characteristics the selections share, though, are richly atmospheric prose and intriguing plots. Fans of Al Sarrantonio’s Orangefield Cycle are sure to relish this book’s combination of the autumnal and the mythic.

Starting with a terrific premise and then impressively developing it, Halloween Beyond makes for a quite satisfying holiday treat. There also seems to be a lot more space left on the curious shop’s shelves for other authors to stock with darkly imaginative items, so I’m hoping that Halloween Beyond pops up again next October with further linked-novella volumes or even an entire theme anthology.


Regal Sequel (A Review of Long Live the Pumpkin Queen)

Long Live the Pumpkin Queen by Shea Ernshaw (Disney Press, 2022)

Nearly three decades after The Nightmare Before Christmas, there’s another nightmare brewing before Halloween.

Set shortly after the events of the beloved Tim Burton film, Shea Ernshaw’s YA fantasy novel begins with the wedding of Sally to Jack Skellington. While happy to be married to the bone man of her dreams, the newly crowned Pumpkin Queen frets over her new title and role. Riddled with self-doubt and feeling crushed by the press of expectations, she flees Halloween Town for a quiet walk through the Hinterlands. Beyond the grove of holiday trees, the hidden entrance to a forgotten realm is discovered, and when Sally accidentally leaves the door to this mysterious tree ajar, a worlds-spanning scourge is unleashed–a new Big Bad who makes Oogie Boogie seems cute and cuddly by comparison.

The novel offers readers the chance to revisit Burton’s colorful cast of monsters and to learn more about the dark holiday realm they inhabit: “In Halloween Town,” Sally notes, our graveyard rests on the outer border near the gate, where the howling voices of the dead can be heard echoing through the streets each night.” But it’s the excursion to the various other holiday towns that proves most remarkable here, as these fantasy worlds (Valentine’s Town, St. Patrick’s Town, etc.) are finely imagined and depicted via vivid detail.

Written in the first-person present tense, the narrative can feel a bit odd at first, but this stylistic choice creates a sense of dreamlike immersion that is appropriate to the plot. Ernshaw’s prose does shade toward the purple at times, and Sally’s repeated description of her emotions in terms of her ragdoll makeup (“My leaves stir wildly in my chest”; “dread slithers up and down my patchwork seams”) seems overdone. The metaphors get messy: after stating that her body is stuffed with “dried, shriveled leaves” and that she has “no bones to break,” Sally later refers to ” my linen bones” and an echo that “sends a spike of cold down to my tailbone.” But that’s my only real critique of this highly inventive and entertaining book.

Long Live the Pumpkin Queen is a fun fantasy novel that will delight Nightmare fans of all ages. I’m already dreaming of a potential screen adaptation by Disney–what better way to commemorate next year’s thirtieth anniversary of the original film’s release? Time to get started, Tim, on those stop-motion puppets…


Nights in the Ghostly October–A Review of Literally Dead: Tales of Halloween Hauntings

Literally Dead: Tales of Halloween Hauntings (Alienhead Press, 2022)

A theme anthology such as this one runs the risk of falling into the sentimental (beloved, departed relative returns from beyond the veil on Halloween) or the cliched (the holiday-observer who doesn’t realize his or her own ethereal state). Editor Gaby Triana’s selections tend to avoid such pitfalls, but the anthology is a bit of a mixed bag in terms of both form and content. The book features both fantastic cover art by Lynne Hanson (who recounts the image’s genesis in her introduction to Literally Dead) and wonderful end-of-text icons appropriate to each preceding story, but there are also some glaring errors (e.g. the anthology’s epigraph cites Stephen King’s Dance [sic] Macabre). Several of the stories fell flat for this reviewer from the start, while others engrossed me before proving disappointing with their endings or puzzling in their lack of recognizable connection to Halloween. Still, these tough-to-swallow stories only make the book’s real treats that much easier to relish. My pick for the six best pieces sampled:

“When They Fall” by Steve Rasnic Tem. A solitary man in a creepy hilltop manse is haunted (perhaps literally) by a tragic night of trick-or-treating in his family’s past. Quiet, shadowy horror in the grand tradition of Charles L. Grant.

“Ghosts of Candies Past” by Jeff Strand. Something is clearly amiss when the narrator’s children return home on Halloween with their trick-or-treat bags filled with discontinued confections in vintage wrappers. The uncanny soon gives way to the splattery, though, in this gloriously grotesque romp.

“The Ghost Lake Mermaid” by Alethea Kontis. Much like in Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (which Kontis’s story resembles in its concerns with local lore and brutish bully figures), the aura here is more autumnal than Halloween-specific, but no matter. And if a mermaid at first seems an odd fantastical element to include in a ghost story, it certainly won’t by the end of this well-crafted account of a spirit-drenched lake.

“No One Sings in the City of the Dead” by Tim Waggoner. The most overtly horrific entry in the entire anthology (wait until you see what stuffs the Clown Lady’s treat bag!). A grieving widow resurrects her late husband with the help of a cemetery-dwelling “entity, who guards the gate between worlds, one who takes the form of a figure you find most frightening and who only appears on Halloween night” like some holiday-celebrating Pennywise.

“A Scavenger Hunt When the Veil is Thin” by Gwendolyn Kiste. Written in the second person, this list story guides the addressee through the titular Halloween ritual: the daring infiltration of the “decrepit abode” haunted by the ghost of its female owner (a nonconformist cast out and viciously persecuted by the townspeople). Transcending its ow horror scenario, Kiste’s narrative presents not just a frightful attempt to fulfill a prescribed task but also a feminist quest for liberation and self-direction.

“How to Unmake a Ghost” by Sara Tantlinger. Tantlinger’s story shares the same format as Kiste’s, yet is distinctive in its utter inventiveness. The text outlines the series of steps (carried out in a cemetery on Halloween night) required to overcome the parasitical side effects of having summoned the ghost of a loved one. A poignant tale of love and grief, of memory and the necessity of letting go–and a Stoker Award honoree in the making.

Literally Dead might not be a perfect anthology, but (thanks to these six standout tales alone) surely deserves a spot on the Halloween lover’s bookshelf.


Reprieve (Book Review)

Reprieve by James Han Mattson (William Morrow, 2021)

James Han Mattson’s second novel (following 2017’s The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves) features a terrific premise: the horror goes too far at a controversial, full-contact haunted attraction in Lincoln, Nebraska, when a deranged stranger breaks into the Quigley House haunt and slashes the throat of one of the attendees/contestants. This grim incident is established from the outset (Mattson includes witness-stand testimonies and other court evidence), but the plot matters here are hardly cut and dried. Much like in Quigley House itself, the line between staged illusion and stark reality gets blurred, and the various characters are forced to wrestle with the question of their individual responsibility in the tragic event that transpired.

A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Mattson possesses impressive writing skills and takes a strong literary approach to his subject. Via alternating viewpoint chapters, he delves deep into his main characters, patiently exploring the complexities of their personalities. Other characters, though, are not as well-developed: two of the four team members competing during that fateful night at Quigley House are barely there for the reader. While this is no doubt deliberate on Mattson’s part (one key player, the international student Jaidee, journeys to America in misguided romantic pursuit of his former English teacher back in Thailand–a man he knows almost nothing about), a noticeable imbalance results.

The real unevenness of the novel, though, emerges in the presentation of the narrative’s horror aspects (interspersed “the night of” chapters dramatizing the experience inside the various rooms or “cells” of Quigley House). Yes, there’s a motley crew of actors decked out as monsters and psychos, and there’s undeniable grotesquerie (lots of fake blood is spewed) and physical rigor (wooden bludgeons and shock wands are wielded against the contestants), but Mattson fails to fully capture the horrific intensity for which the haunt is notorious. Suspense naturally suffers because of the book’s achronological structure: the reader already knows who did–and did not–make it out of Quigley House unscathed. The larger issue, arguably, is that Mattson comes across as someone slumming in genre territory; on horror ground, the author’s footing is not as assured. The very safe-word that supplies the novel’s title smacks of stiltedness, sounds like nothing a customer would ever utter at an actual haunt.

For all its promise, Reprieve ultimately disappoints on a few different levels. The big plot twist explaining what really happened at Quigley House falls flat as it falls back on a scheme of sleazy manipulation that is no great surprise (since the real villain of the piece has been made clear throughout). The novel also falls short of its lofty aims, at least as they are articulated by book-jacket hype (“a provocative exploration of capitalism, hate politics, racial fetishism, and our obsession with fear as entertainment”; “combines the psychological tension of classic horror with searing social criticism to present an unsettling portrait of this tangled American life”). Reprieve recalls the film Crash in its crafted intersecting of the lives of disparate characters and in its portrayal of how discrete elements can create a combustible composite, but the book (to this reviewer, at least) lacks any profound statement about issues of race, social class, or sexual orientation. Finally, Mattson’s narrative disappoints in its concluding disavowal of genre horror. A protagonist established as a horror film lover and Constant Reader of Stephen King cringes at her teenage interests when looking back on them later in life. “All that horror nonsense” is now dismissed as treacherous, and the former fandom viewed as a time of misspent youth meant to be outgrown.

Mattson is a gifted writer who scripts beautiful prose, but the house of fiction that he constructs here proves less than the sum of its parts. Failing to serve serious food for thought, it also is apt to leave a sour taste with those who truly savor horror fare.


Countdown: The Top Ten in The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Thirteen

Ellen Datlow’s latest addition to her superlative anthology series features twenty-four stories and one poem. There is a certain disproportion to the contents: as Datlow herself admits in her introductory “Summation 2020,” “For some reason, the overwhelming number [of contributors] this year are from the United Kingdom” (which makes this feel more like one of Stephen Jones’s annual Best New Horror compilations). A quarter of the selections come from just two anthologies: After Sundown and Final Cuts: New Tales of Hollywood Horror and Other Spectacles (the latter edited by Datlow). Repetition of tropes (e.g. haunted houses) and settings (e.g. harsh winter landscapes) is also noticeable here. But while the contents lack somewhat in diversity, they evince consistent high quality; overall, The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Thirteen is a very impressive collection of genre talent.

So just before the ball drops in Times Square, here’s my countdown of the ten best selections in this 2021 anthology:

10. “A Treat for Your Last Day” by Simon Bestwick. This one presents a simple yet chillingly plausible premise: a family outing devolves into tragedy. As the narrator hauntingly reminds us at tale’s end: “Life is basically a field full of hidden landmines, and nothing you can do protects you against treading on one.”

9. “In the English Rain” by Steve Duffy. A coming-of-age tale that features a compelling setting. History and horrific imagining are blurred, as a home once briefly owned by John Lennon turns out to be the haunt of a terrifying child-murderer.

8. “Come Closer” by Gemma Files. A surreal and supremely creepy narrative concerning an itinerant haunted house that appears to slide through the neighborhood and displace the existing residences.

7. “The Whisper of Stars” by Thana Niveau. A harrowing cosmic horror tale set in the frozen wilds of the Arctic Circle. Reminiscent of the best outdoors horror of Algernon Blackwood.

6. “Lords of the Matinee” by Stephen Graham Jones. A fine variation on the haunted-theater story, and yet another instance of Jones’s uncanny ability to wring horror from the most quotidian elements (in this case, a kitchen can opener).

5. “Sicko” by Stephen Volk. Think “Psycho meets Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Volk crafts a moving alternative narrative of the horror genre’s most famous shower victim.

4. “A Deed Without a Name” by Jack Lothian. Speaking of riffs on classic works.,.This richly detailed story takes a different perspective onto Shakespeare’s Macbeth, turning the Weird Sisters into sympathetic protagonists.

3. “A Hotel in Germany” by Catriona Ward. A tale that proves (in exquisite prose, to boot) that there are still fresh vampire stories to tell. This was my first encounter with Ward’s work, whose much-ballyhooed The Last House on Needless Street has now shot to the top of my must-read list.

2. “Scream Queen” by Nathan Ballingrud. A writer who always seems to produce excellent short fiction, and this piece is no exception. A documentary delving into a cult-favorite horror film from 1970 transforms into a harrowing descent into the occult.

1. “Cleaver, Meat, and Block” by Maria Haskins. This impactful post-apocalyptic (and revenge) narrative about a cannibalism-inducing plague reads like an engrossing mini-movie. Much more terrifying than typical zombie fare, as the antagonists here are too recognizably human in their savage inhumanity.


My Heart is a Chainsaw (Book Review)

My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones (Saga Press, 2021)

I finished–and immediately re-read–this novel months ago, yet never ended up reviewing it here on Dispatches from the Macabre Republic, perhaps fearing that I wouldn’t have the words to do it justice. But considering that Stephen Graham Jones’s latest effort is currently showing up on every year-end “Best of” list, I figured now is the time to speak my piece about this incredible book. My Heart is a Chainsaw is a literary Cupid’s arrow that penetrates deeply and leaves the horror lover swooning.

The narrative starts out hot, with a prologue-style opening chapter in which a pair of young tourists from the Netherlands are murdered during a late-night lake frolic. From here, the action simmers down, but a deliberate pace does not mean a dull pace. Jones takes the time to establish his large cast’s characters and backstories, the setting (the isolated mountain community of Proofrock, Idaho, which has a long, dark history including a massacre a half-century earlier at the now notoriously dubbed “Camp Blood”), and the present situation (someone seems to begrudge the conversion of forest land on the far side of Indian Lake into a luxury development for the ultra-rich). The book’s protagonist, graduating high-schooler and horror movie savant Jade Daniels, finds numerous signs that an actual slasher cycle is about to erupt in her hometown, but of course, this American teenage Cassandra is discounted even as the body count begins to rise. Dreadful suspense (stemming from the killer’s vicious deeds and concealed identity) mounts, and the narrative momentum steadily builds to an extended climax (involving a 4th of July lake-float screening of Jaws) marked by scenes of jaw-dropping violence.

Jones’s book chapters are evocatively titled and glossed by those of golden-era slasher films (e.g., Just Before Dawn, Happy Birthday to Me, Hell Night). They are also intercut by sections labeled “Slasher 101”–the texts of extra-credit papers Jade composed for her history teacher, Mr. Holmes. Jade’s mini-treatises offer a slash course on the genre’s workings, educating not only her uninitiated teacher (and later the classmate Jade identifies as a quintessential final girl), but the reader as well. One need not be a slasher buff to approach/appreciate this book, but likely will become one before the end credits roll.

No doubt, it is Jade’s voice and viewpoint (from chapter two onwards, the narrative is presented through her third-person-limited perspective) that dominates, and delightfully so. Jade is wise beyond her years and possesses a sharp wit (her snarky attitude never grows irritating, though). For all her social outcast status (resulting from her poverty, her Native American heritage, her unabashed horror fandom…) in Proofrock, she proves quite endearing and easily elicits reader sympathy. Jade is a fighter, a figure of fierce independence, but her tough exterior (as Jones gradually reveals) covers a host of emotional wounds. Simply put, Jade Daniels is destined to become a classic and much beloved character, a horror genre equivalent of Huck Finn or Scout Finch.

Hers is a story I didn’t want to draw to a close, and thankfully, it doesn’t. For sure, this novel forms Jones’s magnus opus of slasher fiction (topping previous esteemed endeavors such as Demon Theory and The Last Final Girl), but maybe not for long. In then end, the best statement I can make about My Heart is a Chainsaw is that it’s only the start of a trilogy; Jade returns to Proofrock and encounters more macabre mayhem next summer in Don’t Fear the Reaper.


Nothing More Brilliant Than

Something More Than Night by Kim Newman (Titan Books, 2021)

Kim Newman (who, in his Anno Dracula series, has proven himself an absolute master of horror/dark fantasy narratives with an alternate-history twist) begins here with an ingenious premise: Raymond Chandler and Boris Karloff (real name: Billy Pratt) aren’t just Hollywood contemporaries but compadres whose relationship traces back to their days as English public school students. They have both been marked by the ultimate femme fatale (a vampiric muse known as Ariadne), and they repeatedly have been embroiled in cases involving occult-tinged crimes. At the start of Something More Than Night (a title drawn from Chandler’s introduction to his collection Trouble is My Business), the mystery writer and the horror actor are confronted with the bizarre death of their friend, private investigator Joh Devlin (who has served as an inspiration for Chandler’s Philip Marlowe character). The crime scene conspicuously restages the murder (suicide?) of the chauffeur Owen Taylor in Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep. An equally unsubtle calling card has been left for Karloff, in the form of his own annotated script (for his recent film The Man They Could Not Hang) found in the glove compartment of Devlin’s crashed car.

As if all this weren’t compelling enough, the narrative thrusts Chandler and Karloff into an investigation that opens up onto citywide corruption and supernatural conspiracy. The case points them toward an immortality-obsessed studio mogul whose mad experiments with electricity make Victor Frankenstein’s labwork seem prosaic by comparison. Newman’s plot, which time jumps back and forth as the various pieces of the uncanny puzzle are laid out, grabs hold of the reader with the strength of a Universal monster; it bullets along even as it delves into elaborate set-pieces. There are breathtaking escapes (e.g. from sanitarium imprisonment), faceoffs with oddball gunmen and clowning killers, explorations of a spooky, deathtrap-rigged mansion. And copious literary and cinematic references all along the way. As in the best hardboiled detective novels, the joy is in the journey rather than the destination, the thrill ride throughout more than some clever, climactic solving of a mystery.

Newman (whose “Afterword and Acknowledgements” section reveals an incredible amount of research for the novel) presents a masterclass in world-building here. He brings late-30’s Los Angeles to life in exquisite detail, ranging from movie studio to mean street to police precinct and beyond. The verisimilitude achieved by the invoking of Chandler’s and Karloff’s biography and bibliography/filmography makes the wildly fantastic aspects of the tale seem grounded in bedrock reality. Something more than the immediate scene can be sensed as well, as the narrative connects to a broader historical context. The America depicted here is a country still recovering from the first World War, and teetering on the precipice of the next one.

Of the book’s many strengths, its greatest has to be its voice. Chandler provides first-person narration, an account worthy of his soon-to-be-famous detective hero. For instance, he flashes an abundance of sardonic wit: “The Princesses Royal would scorn the place as too ostentatiously luxurious. A hundred-and-fifty-thousand dollars’ worth of smudge hung on the [hospital room’s] walls, mostly right side up. Paris in the rain. Sunsets at sea. A clown with no eyes. You’d want to recover just to get away from the art.” And, of course, there’s no shortage of slangy, hyperbolic similes: “The woman’s wet silk dress was transparent, stuck like cellophane wrapping a bon-bon. Her figure would draw the eye in dry church clothes. Now she looked like the centrepiece of a Spicy Mystery cover, tethered to a hooded fiend’s altar.” That being said, Newman is interested in more than mere hardboiled pastiche. The use of Chandler as narrator affords interesting insight into that author’s creative mindset, and allows introspective assessment of personal flaws (such as Chandler’s struggle with alcoholism). No doubt this novel overflows with stylistic verve, but substance is never submerged.

Although some of the characters (Ariadne, Stephen Swift) connect to other Newman works, the novel functions perfectly as a standalone. At the same time, there appears to be ample space for a sequel, and that is a most welcome prospect. Anyone who isn’t already a fan of Chandler or Karloff will be after reading this amazingly imaginative effort featuring the pair of 20th Century cultural icons. A monster of a mashup of the hardboiled-detective and horror genres, Something More Than Night shines in Noirvember–or at any other time of year.


Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow (Book Review)

Horseman: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow by Christina Henry (Berkeley, 2021)

This engrossing novel (Henry has a knack for crafting chapter endings that leave the reader helpless but to turn the page) returns to the enchanted region of Sleepy Hollow and presents the village and surrounding woods in all their rural, autumnal, and dark magical splendor. Set three decades after the events of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Horseman offers a convincing extrapolation of what life has been like for the Van Brunt family in the time since Brom and Katrina wed. It also fills in some of Irving’s longstanding blanks along the way, most notably in the case of what happened to Ichabod Crane the night he was pumpkin-thumped on that fateful ride home from the Van Tassel quilting frolic.

The book is narrated by fourteen-year-old Ben Van Brunt (whose grandparents are Brom and Katrina): a rambunctious adventurer in rebellion against the roles mapped out by family upbringing and village life. Such narrative perspective gives Horseman a certain young-adult feel, but make no mistake, this is an unflinching horror novel. Its plot feels like Irving’s “Legend” by way of Stephen King’s The Outsider: a fiendish creature is preying on young boys, savagely devouring their heads and hands (and leaving behind corpses that decompose in gruesomely advanced manner). With its scheming-warlock and evil-seducer character types, its woodland forays, and its thematic concern with haunting family legacy, the book also conveys a strong American Gothic atmosphere.

By the end of the first chapter, Henry reveals an interesting twist: Ben (short for Bente) is actually a female who isn’t just going through some tomboy phase; the character insistently identifies as male. At first, this might seem a jarring choice by the author, a retroactive importing of modern issues into the early-19th Century. But Ben’s desires prove easily understandable within the world of the novel, considering his idolizing of his grandfather Brom (who in turn treats Ben like the son he tragically lost). Ben’s liminal status is also integral to the plot: the character’s unusual appearance (dresses have been ditched for breeches) causes him to be deemed “unnatural” in the eyes of the provincial villagers, and he faces suspicion and persecution as the body count from the bizarre murders rises. Ben experiences moments of terrible peril and suffers some serious harm during the novel, but is also aided by a curious connection with the notorious Horseman of local lore.

A word of warning: this is not the ghostly, galloping Hessian created by Irving. The salient characteristic–headlessness–is even lacking here. Henry’s version of the Horseman (who remains in the background for much of the narrative) is more guardian spirit than harrying goblin. This could prove disappointing to readers expecting the majestic headhunter popularized by “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Nevertheless, Henry deserves credit for her fresh take, her refusal to follow the same old chase-to-the-churchyard path. Casting its own captivating spell, Horseman is a welcome addition to the ever-growing body of literature that has developed from Irving’s classic story.


The Final Girl Support Group (Book Review)

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix (Berkeley, 2021)

Grady Hendrix’s latest novel wasn’t what I expected–it was even better.

Based on the subject matter, I figured the book would go heavy on the meta, with lots of character mentions of popular horror films. The slasher references, though, are woven unobtrusively into the narrative. The real-life final girls within the world of the novel have had film franchises made of their ordeals, and these series prove to be thinly-veiled versions of genre classics such as Friday the 13th, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream. There are ample parallels for readers to notice, but the postmodern playfulness never gets in the way of the story Hendrix is telling.

Secondly, given the author’s track record for publishing humor-laced horror, I cracked the covers of The Final Girl Support Group anticipating a continuous display of irreverent wit. Not that there aren’t fine comedic moments here, but Hendrix handles the figure of the final girl with admirable seriousness. His protagonist, narrator Lynette Tarkington, is still struggling with her near-death experience decades later. She’s paranoid and agoraphobic, has disconnected from others (she lives alone, save for a pepper-plant companion called Fine–short for Final Plant). Lynette is painfully aware of the trauma and trials that remain long after the physical wounds scar over:

I know what happens to those [final] girls. After the movie deals get signed, after the film franchise fails, after you realize that while everyone else was filling out college applications you were locked in a residential treatment program pretending you weren’t scared of the dark. After the talk show circuit, after your third therapist just accepts that he’s your Zoloft-dispensing machine and you won’t be making any breakthroughs on his watch, after you realize that the only interesting thing that’ll ever happen to you happened when you were sixteen, after you stop going outside, after you start browsing locksmiths the way other women browse the windows of Tiffany’s, after you’ve left town because you couldn’t deal with the “Why not you?” looks from the parents of all your dead friends, after you’ve lost everything, been through the fire, started knowing your stalkers by their first names, after all that happens you wind up where I’m going today: in a church basement in Burbank, seated with your back to the wall, trying to hold the pieces of your life together.

The book has an ingenious hook: the women who famously withstood slasher massacres are secretly meeting in a monthly support group organized by a therapist specializing in final girls. The sextet of respective survivors understand that they are an endangered species these days (the novel is set in 2010), a realization that grows more stark when a mysterious killer starts to prey on the group members. Hendrix’s plot sweeps the reader along, presenting numerous twists and terrifying set-pieces. Lynette goes through quite a character arc, faltering many times but ultimately rising above her fears and insecurities to obtain true final girl status. By delving into Lynette’s viewpoint, Hendrix supplies the critical element most often lacking in slasher films: complex characterization.

The structure of Hendrix’s book is also noteworthy. The chapters are all cleverly titled, echoing the syntax of horror-film identifiers (e.g., The Final Girl Support Group 3-D, The Final Girl Support Group’s New Nightmare, Final Girl Vs. Final Girl, Bride of the Final Girls). Bracketing each chapter are various faux documents (therapist notes, incident reports, interview transcripts, diary entries, newspaper clippings and magazine articles) that both supplement the main narrative and explore the cultural significance of the final girl. Unfortunately, an early interpellated piece insufficiently disguises a character’s identity, spoiling some of the mystery (count yourself lucky if you happen to gloss over the clue).

But that’s the only negative note I have on this wonderful, compellingly readable book. A feminism-conscious tribute to horror’s last girls standing, The Final Girl Support Group is an instant classic destined to stand as Hendrix’s greatest literary achievement.