Third Time a Final Girl: A Review of The Angel of Indian Lake

The Angel of Indian Lake by Stephen Graham Jones (Saga Press, 2024)

“The Savage History of Proofrock, Idaho” (as aptly dubbed by a student’s video essay in the book’s opening) gets an added chapter, in this final installment of The Indian Lake Trilogy. Genre savant Stephen Graham Jones pens another novelistic love letter to horror fans, and once again proves himself a master of devising/revising the slasher narrative. Readers are guaranteed to laugh out loud, to cry (Jones is as skilled as an Ultimate Fighting Champion when it comes to hitting his audience squarely in the feels), to cheer dramatic acts of heroism, and to cringe at the bursts of graphic violence (e.g. “She folds over holding onto the axe handle but [ ___ ] pulls it back to him, Tall Boots’s intestines unspooling like a long meaty tapeworm she’s been keeping secret since second grade”).

Like its predecessors, My Heart Is a Chainsaw and Don’t Fear the ReaperAngel begins as a bit of a slow burn (the expected opening-scene slayings notwithstanding). Jones takes the time to (re-)establish his characters (the major players and the potential red herrings) and to plant his plot stakes (sketching the circumstances that furnish the requisite isolation; in this instance, it’s a raging forest fire that’s “giving these killings a cover to keep happening”). Once the dominoes are all set in place, though, and the tipping point is reached, the narrative is all hurtling momentum. Former nemeses resurface (in perfectly Gothic fashion, the past refuses to stay dead and buried in Proofrock) and new final girls rise to the violent occasion. Several levels of mystery rivet reader interest, starting with the basic question of what sort of hell has broken loose here–how to explain the series of bizarre deaths (many seeming to result from barehanded decapitation)? Who is the antagonist running around wearing Ghostface (masks)? And who constitutes the title character, the apparent apparition (sporting a “tattered white nightgown and J-horror hair”) reportedly making the town’s environs its haunt? From start to finish, Jones impressively orchestrates his novel’s plot, offering call backs galore and giving familiar story beats fresh resonance.

Angel picks up four years after the events of Reaper, with protagonist Jade Daniels (recently released from her latest prison stint) now back in Proofrock working as the history teacher at Henderson High. She bears plentiful scars from her past two runs through a “slasher cycle,” and is still dealing with the emotional/psychological toll of those prior experiences (Jade pops pills prescribed for “panic attacks,” “social anxiety,” “depression,” and “PTSD”). But she remains a font of slasher knowledge, as cinematic fantasy continues to form both an armor against the harsh realities of life and a special weapon that helps her survive the killing field into which Proofrock has once again transformed. Throughout the trilogy, Jones has experimented with narrative viewpoint, and the bulk of Angel is written in the first-person present, with the unfolding mayhem filtered through Jade’s thoughtstream. This is the closest the reader could possibly get with Jade, and her legions of fans will no doubt relish the intimacy.

Like the two earlier volumes, Angel includes inter-chapter segments. This time they are presented as “reports of investigation” by the Baker Solutions investigative firm (which is attempting to prove that Jade’s community activism has shaded off into criminal vandalism). The official nature of these reports makes them less entertaining than the “Slasher 101”-style essays in Chainsaw and Reaper, but the reports deftly spool out exposition (and have some moving surprises nested within). They also reward the astute reader by embedding key clues to the book’s mysteries.

In Angel, Jones does not shy away from pointed criticism, but never approaches preachiness (recurrent targets: the evils masked by Christianity, and America’s ignominious expansion into the West). The author also continues to interrogate the final girl figure, mining new insight into her nature and significance. Once again, Jade–older, wearier, leerier–is the last person to envision herself as a final girl, yet for the third and ultimate time she proves her metal-AF mettle. Verbally witty and amazingly resilient, brave and vulnerable, badass and tender-hearted, Jade is an unforgettable protagonist, and Angel gives her a legendary send-off.

In the book’s acknowledgment section (which reads like an ultra-informative afterword), Jones states that he felt the need to go “shriekier and gorier” in the trilogy finale. To that end, his book is a screaming success. For all its splattery chaos, the novel nicely ties up loose ends; events from previous volumes receive retroactive explanation, and the closing pages of Angel hearken all the way back to the opening chapter of Chainsaw. Jones brings his Indian Lake Trilogy to an absolutely satisfying conclusion, where the only bittersweet element lies in the realization that this is the end of Jade’s story. Some solace, though: this final girl seems destined to reappear in new form–in the hopefully-near-future adaptation (whether as film trilogy or streaming series) that Jones’s slasher narratives demand.

You wouldn’t want to live (or die) in Proofrock, but it’s a wonderful place to visit, in any shape or form. There might never be another horror locale to match its dark majesty or boast such a rousing heroine in residence.

 

Five Faves

I won’t call this a Best Books of 2023 post, because there are too many titles (A Haunting on the Hill and Beware the Woman and The Strange and Spin a Black Yarn and…) that still top my TBR list. But of the new releases that I did read this year, here are my five favorites:

 

How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix

Hendrix’s knack for crafting flawed characters that you can’t help but fear for and cheer for is on full display here. The narrative is at once hilarious, horripilating, and heartwarming, and combines slow-mounting dread with explosions of gonzo horror (two words: Squirrel Nativity). In the devious Pupkin, Hendrix has created the hand-puppet equivalent of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Perfectly plotted and featuring a series of staggering twists, How to Sell a Haunted House is Hendrix’s best novel–at least until his next one is published, because this writer just keeps getting better and better with each release.

 

Don’t Fear the Reaper by Stephen Graham Jones

The middle volume of the Indian Lake Trilogy offers the same slasher-film savviness and protagonist sassiness as My Heart Is a Chainsaw, and more. Jones is careful to account for how the survivors of the first book’s climactic massacre have been physically affected and psychologically altered by the experience. The canvas gets larger here (various viewpoint characters are presented), but the time frame (thirty-six blizzardy hours) is condensed, resulting in maximized suspense. An Indigenous serial killer (with a predilection for skinning his victims alive) runs amok in Proofrock, but his monstrosity still manages to elicit reader sympathy, as Jones invokes the horrors of American history. This outsized psycho is a formidable and unforgettable antagonist, but he doesn’t overshadow defiant final girl Jade Daniels, who solidifies her status as one of the greatest horror-novel heroines ever penned.

 

Long Past Midnight by Jonathan Maberry

As a fan of the Pine Deep Trilogy (Ghost Road Blues, Dead Man’s Song, Bad Moon Rising), I relished the chance to return to the Most Haunted Town in America. This collection of Tales from Pine Deep expands the literary lore of the rural Pennsylvanian community; we get prequel pieces set many years prior to the events of the Trilogy, and sequel stories that dramatize the lingering effects of the nearly cataclysmic Red Wave. The entries are all winners, demonstrating Maberry’s ability as a storyteller and his facility in crossing genres (other characters from Maberry’s prolific catalogue, such as Joe Ledger, are drawn into Pine Deep intrigue). The volume also features a wonderful Author’s Introduction, in which Maberry traces the experiences that shaped him and directly influenced his creation of Pine Deep.

 

Holly by Stephen King

The author’s beloved recurring character, Holly Gibney, finally gets the chance to headline her own novel. She doesn’t falter here, rising to the challenge presented by a disturbing missing-persons case (conducted during the Covid pandemic). Her investigations this time around might not lead her to a superhuman Brady Hartsfield or a supernatural Outsider, but the American Gothic pair of retired professors encountered prove just as harrowing in their own hyper-intellectual way. There are strong echoes of The Silence of the Lambs throughout (and especially in the climax), but the narrative is by no means derivative. This is quintessential King, an absorbing and propulsive story that takes Constant Readers on quite a thrill ride.

 

Black River Orchard by Chuck Wendig

Reminiscent of the apocalyptic novels of Stephen King (The Stand, The Tommyknockers) and the dark fantasy epics of Clive Barker (The Great and Secret Show, Galilee), Wendig’s latest effort (concerning a strangely addictive variety of apple whose empowering effects are too good to be true) is an absolute masterpiece. The narrative seamlessly combines elements of murder mystery, body horror, folk horror (including some of the creepiest cultist masks ever imagined), American Gothic horror (small-town prejudices and predations abound), and supernatural horror (involving diabolical bargaining). This book truly has it all: a complex (but expertly executed) plot, unique yet relatable characters, and exquisite, sensuous prose. The only negative comment that can be made about it is that readers might never look at an apple the same way again. Any Best Horror Books of 2023 list that doesn’t laud Black River Orchard should be immediately dismissed. Easily, my favorite read of the year.

 

 

 

Persistently Sinister: The 20th Anniversary Edition of Sara Gran’s Come Closer

Sara Gran’s 2003 novel Come Closer is one of the most revered texts in the modern horror genre. As such, it has long been on my radar, but I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I had never read it until recently. Thankfully, though, Soho Press’s release of a 20th Anniversary Edition of the book prompted me to rectify my extended error.

Gran’s short novel–whose protagonist Amanda believes she is possessed by a ferocious, fanged female demon named Naamah–offers a masterclass in unreliable narration. Has Amanda been genuinely invaded by a force of outside evil, or is she just replete with her own inner demons, someone who finally gives in to her most impish impulses? Amanda attributes a “subtle” seduction to Naamah: “This mental voice is new, it’s a sound you’re not accustomed to hearing in your own head, but it’s not that different either, it’s done a good job of imitating your own silent voice and you like what it’s saying.” But the truest subtlety here might be Gran’s, as the author suggests that the perceived possession could be a delusion–a convenient eschewing of responsibility for all the vice and violence to which Amanda resorts. There is also a crafted ambiguity to the novel’s titular dictate: do these two words stem from Naamah, eager to draw her targeted subject into her demonic embrace, or from the lonely and unsatisfied Amanda, who on a fundamental level welcomes the idea of having “someone to love me, and never leave me alone”?

Come Closer has been hailed widely as one of the most frightening books written over the past two decades. Such buzz perhaps set me up for disappointment, as Amanda’s account proved less exquisitely unnerving than I anticipated. Granted, different readers have different triggers; as a lapsed Catholic, I don’t put much stock in the diabolical and don’t dread the malicious attention of a demon as a more devout believer might. Likewise, I can recognize that this book–in which Amanda loses control over her own body, and frequently awakens from blackouts following Naamah’s bawdy binges to find herself “naked and shivering in bed with a man I had never seen before”–will hit much closer to home with a female audience. That being said, the horror here appears to be compromised somewhat by the diaristic format. Yes, unease steadily mounts as Naamah’s seeming influence over Amanda grows more pronounced, but the sequence of short chapters prevents the narrative from achieving sustained suspense. Undoubtedly, some chilling incidents are presented (Amanda’s attempted drowning of a young girl already struggling to stay afloat; her apparent savaging of an obnoxious newsstand-operator with a boxcutter), yet these other characters are so thinly sketched by Amanda that the reader (this one, at least) fails to find their plight especially terrifying. What I actually found most evocative were the scenes centered on Amanda’s burgeoning psychic powers (byproduct of her demonic possession). She experiences ghostly glimpses of past acts of human depravity, and grows painfully attuned to suffering: “A vintage yellow dress I had saved for special occasions now made me nauseated–its previous owner had been a drunk, and when I wore it I felt my liver burn with cirrhosis.”

There were a couple of aspects of the novel that pleasantly surprised me. First, its dark humor: just as Naamah takes wicked delight in tormenting her host, Gran herself seems to revel in the opportunity to satirize the spiritualist entrepreneurs who attempt to “depossess” Amanda. There is also a strong feminist undercurrent to the narrative. Naamah claims to be the rejected second wife of Adam (the world’s original male), mentored in demonism by Adam’s first wife Lilith, who “wasn’t good enough at all, she wouldn’t lie down and take it, and she wouldn’t do what she was asked or told.” One cannot overlook the fact that a female demon is employed as the possessing entity in this novel, allowing Gran to rework the more rapacious/salacious Pazuzu-inside-Regan dynamics of a canonical text such as The Exorcist.

In hindsight, Gran’s novel neatly aligns with a long tradition of American Gothic fiction. Characters obsessively trying to locate the source of strange noises within the walls of their home hearken back to the narrator’s desperate probing of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Amanda’s suspicion that the doctors she visits are secret Satanists constitutes an unmistakable allusion to Rosemary’s Baby. There’s also a strong Fight Club vibe here, from the squalid neighborhood Amanda first lives in to the mental institution that she finally haunts at book’s end.

The 20th Anniversary Edition includes a new Postscript purporting to be “A Note from the Editors” of 2003’s Come Closer–a device that lends an added air of verisimilitude to the preceding novel. This Postscript also furthers the deliberate ambiguity and boundary-blurring of Amanda’s narrative. “In order to help the afflicted, the ruminating, and the confused,” the Editors state, “we have provided this series of questions and answers to illuminate, educate, and, hopefully, keep readers on the correct path.” But the structuring quickly breaks down, as the responding Editors prove perhaps even more disturbed than those seeking their guidance.

Come Closer might not be the scariest book published in the past twenty years, but it’s surely one of the most satisfying the horror genre has offered. Like the best of Poe’s work, its artful complexity–its vacillation between supernatural and psychological explanation–encourages continuous scrutiny. Ultimately, the book’s enticing title might be interpreted as an open invitation to attentive readers, those willing to expose themselves to utter engrossment.

 

The Fuss About Gus

The Last Haunt by Max Booth III (Cemetery Gates Media, 2023)

In this new novella, author Max Booth III offers a thinly-veiled version of notorious extreme-haunt operator Russ McKamey (here dubbed Gus McKinley). Subtitled “An Oral History of the McKinley House Massacre,” The Last Haunt is structured as a sequence of dramatic monologues–as a juxtaposition of the testimony (by a neighbor, a responding officer, Gus’s father, his ex-wife, his girlfriend, a haunt actor, former haunt participants, and a fellow haunt operator [wittily christened “Miguel Myers”]) provided to an anonymous writer working on a true-crime-style project. The resulting narrative operates via ominous hint and contradiction (of others’ claims); the reader knows early on that bad shit went down on a fateful October 31st night, but not exactly what happened or who is responsible for the killings. Through this approach, Booth also achieves authorial distance. There is no moralistic judgment infused into prose, which leaves the audience to decide about Gus (who never gets to speak for himself): simply a depraved sadist, or a savvy entertainer, almost admirable in his own aberrant way?

Although dealing with a fictionalized extreme haunt, the book itself does not constitute extreme horror. Disturbing details about Gus’s backyard boot camp of brutality– waterboarding, the forced ingestion of one’s own vomit–are related, but Booth isn’t scripting the novelistic equivalent of torture porn (The Last Haunt is less graphic than a literary novel with similar subject matter: James Han Mattson’s Reprieve, which I previously reviewed here.). In its overt focus on a “Massacre,” the book forewarns that matters are bound to get messy, yet even with the shocking violence of its conclusion, The Last Haunt proves surprisingly restrained. Which isn’t to say that Booth’s book fails to deliver satisfying chills; its plot reminded me of the formula for the Paranormal Activity films–a slow, steady trickle that turns into a sudden climactic gush.

On one level, The Last Haunt succeeds as a variation on the traditional revenge narrative (showing reprehensible people receiving their just desserts). Arguably more rewarding here, though, is the metacommentary the novella furnishes. About the haunt industry and the value of horror entertainment (Gus allegedly gets his ideas from the movies). About the power of fear–for both those who generate it an those forced to experience it. About mob mentality and the impact of social media. The narrative also naturally leads readers to consider their own proclivities, to question how far they are willing to go, what they would or wouldn’t do for “the privilege of experiencing something wholly unique and bizarre.”

Fans of documentary-style horror will appreciate the design of The Last Haunt. Sneakily seasonal (and not just because of Gus’s “Halloween shenanigans”), Booth’s quick, engrossing book makes for a finely haunting late-October read.

Final note: those curious (morbidly or otherwise) about Gus’s real-life model are encouraged to check out Monster Inside: America’s Most Extreme Haunted House, the recent documentary about Russ McKamey currently streaming on Hulu.

Screamin’ Season

October Screams: A Halloween Anthology. Edited by Kenneth W. Cain (Kangas Kahn Publishing, 2023).

Open your candy bags wide, Halloween lovers, because October Screams dishes out a heap of all-new narrative treats. And several of these dark confections are utterly delectable…

Shades of Practical Magic can be glimpsed in Gwendolyn Kiste’s “Twin Flames,” in which a pair of sisters are burdened by a dark legacy. The Addams Family is also invoked, but the uncanny clan depicted here definitely proves more creepy than kooky.

Todd Keisling’s folk/cosmic-horror tale “The Puppeteer of Samhain” presents a dramatic monologue with a traumatic twist. The eponymous god-and-monster is a walking (or rather, gliding) frightfest, an eldritch Celtic creature whose Halloween night handiwork reaches deep into the reader.

Halloween and the alien invasion theme trace back nearly a century to Orson Welles’s notorious radio broadcast, but Larry Hinkle’s “The Last Halloween” evinces more of the gonzo sensibility of Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! Hinkle sends out a sinister yet grinning account of a night of trick-or-treating gone spectacularly awry.

Steve Rasnic Tem’s “Tutti I Morti” stands out by virtue of its elderly protagonist and its turn to Italian holiday customs. The grotesque imagery of the story’s climax supplies enough nightmare fuel to feed a worldwide bonfire.

Constant Readers of Stephen King will dig the Pet Sematary vibe of Ronald Malfi’s “Tate” (the back-from-the-grave child of the title even sounds a lot like the surname of Gage Creed). Making matters even more grueling and ghoulish, Malfi also features a bizarre children’s special–The Jack-o’-Screams Halloween Spooktacular–whose background airing serves as a freak chorus commenting on the story’s terrible events.

“The Iron Maiden” by Rebecca Rowland opens with typical trappings (teens foolishly investigate a reputed haunted house on Halloween night) but ultimately offers a fresh, savage twist on a familiar figure of Celtic lore. And how not to appreciate a tale named after a legendary heavy metal band (and which makes strong thematic use of their song “2 Minutes to Midnight”)?

In Philip Fracassi’s “Eleven One,” protagonist Gwen awakens the day after a disastrous Halloween (her fiancé broke off their engagement) hung over, in a mental fog, and seemingly cut off from the wider world. This slow burn of a story builds to an expected yet effective climax thanks to Fracassi’s masterful amassing of unnerving detail.

Hands down, my favorite entry in the anthology is Gemma Amor’s “The Hooper Street Halloween Decoration Committee.” I’ll never be able to look at those giant Home Depot skeleton figures the same way again after the wickedly witty use an overzealous neighborhood makes of them here). This blackly humorous tale is just begging to be adapted as a segment of Creepshow next season.

As publisher Kevin Kangas explains in his afterward, the anthology’s contents were gathered by both author invite and an open submission period. To be honest, the result is a certain unevenness–a noticeable difference in quality between the pieces by the more popular authors and those by the less recognizable names. Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable story collection overall; the About the Authors section (in which the writers share their inspirations for their respective stories, and provide a photo of themselves in Halloween costume) adds a nice concluding touch. October Screams might not be October Dreams (still the black-and-orange standard), but it will make a fine addition to the Halloween reader’s fiction collection.

 

 

Let Me Count the Slays

For me, and likely most readers of this post, horror is a year-round love affair. But no doubt it’s the High Holiday month of October that renders us the most enraptured. Halloween season is the time to bask in the enticing glow of scary films/shows both new and classic, to devote oneself passionately to the reading of horror novels, collections, and anthologies. For those trying to determine which literary treats to stock up on this October, there is no better source to consult than Sadie “Mother Horror” Hartmann’s new nonfiction publication 101 Horror Books to Read Before You’re Murdered.

As Josh Malerman accurately glosses in his foreword, Hartmann’s impressive book presents “an overflowing bibliography of an entire genre.” 101 Horror Books focuses on title released between 2000-2023, and is organized into five thematic sections (Paranormal, Supernatural, Human Monsters, Natural Order Horror, and Short Story Collections) that are further subdivided into subgenre categories (e.g., Demons and Possession, The Occult & Witchcraft, Cosmic Horror). Each of these sections/categories receives an introductory overview; Hartmann also concludes her  reviews with a handy “At a Glance” reference guide that indexes the selected title according to its specific themes, its Tone (e.g., Bleak, Blood-Soaked, Disorienting, Humorous, Shocking) Style (e.g., Character-Driven, Dual Timeline, Lyrical, Clive Barker[ish]) Setting, and Publisher (Hartmann highlights books published both traditionally and independently).

A renowned editor, essayist, and book reviewer, Hartmann is first and foremost a horror fan. Her love for the genre shines through brilliantly here. She does not hesitate to wax enthusiastic, whether in a couple of succinct sentences (Philip Fracassi’s Boys in the Valley “is the scariest coming-of-age story I have read since Stephen King’s IT. It’s the scariest demon possession book I’ve read since The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty.”) or in a more extensive passage:

Just Like Home is the future of horror. The direction we’re heading toward. It’s whipcrack smart, intricately plotted, and fluctuates perfectly between a past and present narrative. The characters are complex–each serving a purpose to further the horror embedded in this tale. Nobody is an afterthought or an add-on. Every line of dialogue develops layers upon layers of nuance. [Sarah] Gailey’s insidious brand of supernatural terror effortlessly works together with psychological elements to create a hybrid thriller-horror rollercoaster that I could have ridden on into oblivion. What a dark, delicious, seductive book. I’ll never get over it, and it’s forever on my book recommendation list.

In only a couple of pages, Hartmann’s reviews capture what each book is about, and what writerly strengths it demonstrates (e.g. Chuck Wendig’s style in The Book of Accidents “is uniquely accessible and compelling like a best friend telling you a great story. His wheelhouse is reaching past the page to grab his audience’s emotions.”). Hartmann also highlights the literary/cultural significance of her selections. For instance, she touts the modern relevance of Alexis Henderson’s The Year of the Witching: “This book stands as a reminder that we have not evolved past the horrors of the Salem witch trials. A warning that society continues to be capable of twisting and perverting religious texts in order to persecute, and ultimately condemn, people who live lives not “approved” by whatever dogmatic leadership is in position of authority.”

Hartmann’s extensive compendium is also in a certain sense a very intimate and revealing book. The reader gains a lot of insight into the author’s personality (“I’m a scaredy cat who reads a lot of horror. The more horror books you read, the wiser you become.”). Hartmann reveals her own reading preferences–her personal favorite subgenres. She cites the books on her 101 list that strike her as the “most thought-provoking,” “taboo,” and “darkest, most extreme,” and identifies “the single most wicked character to ever terrify me in literature.” Just as rewardingly, she shares her philosophies of horror, analyzing its import as a genre (“It’s a communal way of exchanging our fears and anxieties about grief, loss, and death without the risk of actually going through tragedy. Or for people with such experiences, it’s a way to relate.”) and impact on its audience (“Horror readers are given a special gift by authors: teaching us how to broaden our capacity for empathy in the real world by braving other people’s harsh realities through their fictional accounts.”).

All told, a tour de force offering by Hartmann, but this multifaceted, polyvocal book is not restricted to her particular perspective. Hartmann features ten Author Spotlight sections (lauding writers–such as Stephen Graham Jones, Tananarive Due, and Paul Tremblay–whose admirable body of work makes it too difficult to choose a single book); each of these sections concludes with a blurb from that author, listing their own three favorite horror books. The volume also features a series of guest essays (by Cassandra Khaw, Hailey Piper, Eric LaRocca, and RJ Joseph). Such genre deep-diving by various respected professionals makes the book feel like the literary equivalent of documentary series such as Eli Roth’s History of Horror or The 101 Scariest Horror Movie Moments of All Time.

One major trigger warning: if you are someone who dreads the thought of your TBR pile suddenly mutating and rising to monstrous heights, avoid this book like the blackest of plagues. Otherwise, seek out 101 Horror Books to Read Before You’re Murdered as if you’re life depended on the immediate purchase. I would even go so far as to recommend getting a print copy (glossy, colorful, and featuring an aesthetically-pleasing layout that includes entertaining sidebars–“Animals Gone Wild!”; “The Exorcist’s Tool Kit”) as well as an eBook edition (if you like to highlight/annotate your texts). At once informative and inspiring, Hartmann’s book is destined to prove an indispensable resource for readers and writers of horror alike.

 

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.