A Halloween Special: But What IS Horror Anyway?

Happy Halloween to all you spooksters out there! I’ve been wanting to take some time out and talk inanely about what “horror” means to me for a while now, and everyone finally rolled their eyes and gestured for me to go ahead. Alex described the concept to me very succinctly a short while ago by saying that “horror is the fear of a loss of agency.” I thought that was an incredibly profound and direct way of looking at what causes the sense of horror and prompted me to get this piece hammered out. If you’ve ever wondered why it was that someone liked a type of horror you think sucks, or if you’re just curious about my thoughts on what makes things scary and why, buckle up. If this isn’t your thing…well it’s only Halloween once a year so buckle up anyway because we’re about to dive in.

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Body HorrorThe fear of our own mortality.

Anyone who is afraid of the sight of blood or has felt squeamish at the thought of how their body truly works will be intimately familiar with this type of horror. Body horror, in essence, is the utilization of humanity’s natural disgust response to affect the reader or viewer in a physical way. When a person flinches as someone is stabbed by a murderer or feel sick to their stomach at the description of a parasitic infestation, they are reacting to a type of body horror. This is one of the most fundamental and easy to access types of fear reactions in people, as there is very little build up required. Describing the “gory details” can force people to react, even without a great deal of empathy for the characters, which is part of why this type of horror is so frequently associated with lower quality stories, or if not lower quality, then lower effort.

In her research paper on disgust, “Disgust As An Adaptive System For Disease Avoidance Behavior,” Valerie Curtis states that “Disgust is a fundamental part of human nature.” She points out that Charles Darwin was the first thinker to propose the universality of disgust, and builds upon their reasoning that the feeling of disgust originally arose in order to protect us from parasites and other disease vectors. This idea goes a long way to explain some of the most common themes in body horror. Witnessing bodily torture, parasites crawling under the skin, decaying bodies, these are all common tropes and frequently used within horror to elicit a physical response in the viewer or reader. It’s not hard to make the connection between these “scary” ideas and the fact that they act as disease vectors, that we are programmed to our core with a deep and unavoidable abhorrence for the reminder that our bodies are frail and easily disrupted systems that are keeping “us” alive.

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Paranormal The fear of our lack of understanding

I still remember the first time I was exposed to the idea of solipsism. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, solipsism is the theory that an individual can only ever be completely sure of their own inner self. At a surface level that seems like a fairly obvious insight, but once the idea is picked at some troubling questions can emerge. How can anyone be sure that what they’re seeing is reality? What evidence do we have that our perception of the world is shared by anyone else? The feeling of uncertainty and dread that tends to follow from an examination of this idea is at the core of what drives paranormal horror.

Humans by our physical nature are restricted to an infinitesimally limited view and understanding of the universe we operate within. Limited to our (fairly poor) senses, we can see a fraction of the colors that exist, smell almost nothing, hear a tiny range of frequencies, and touch only what we imagine to be physical. On top of all that we have a mushy organ that tries to interpret all of this information and build a cohesive narrative out of it. The understanding of how limited and non-comprehensive our experience of reality is can lead to the obvious question of “what are we missing?” It is this question that lives at the heart of paranormal horror. It is the attempt to tap into that sort of fugue state of existential dread at the realization of how much reality we miss as we go through our lives and that if we’re missing so much, there must be something we aren’t even aware that we’re missing. Whether that takes the form of ghosts, demons, or simply a house that really doesn’t like being lived in doesn’t matter as much as the idea behind why these forces are scary. We are unable to experience their true nature and it is horrifying for us to be reminded of our limitations and frailties.

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Psychological The fear we create for ourselves

I bet you’re thinking that this is a silly way to categorize horror. “All horror is psychological,” you say, “it’s all in your head.” You’re right, but so is everything else and that’s not even what I was going to say, so maybe you should let me finish. The nerve of people these days.

Why is it that so many people, myself included, can much more comfortably read horror than experience it in other types of media? I have an active and vivid imagination, so I can assure you that it is not due to some lack of ability to see horrifying things in my mind’s eye. It has to do with the atmosphere of horror and how that atmosphere is used to affect the person consuming said horror. It is important to note that all horror relies on atmosphere and as such there is always some attention paid to ensuring that atmosphere has horrific elements.Creators within the audiovisual space have a more expansive toolkit, and have the ability to evoke a terror response in a number of different ways. By coordinating different techniques, including auditory cues and sharp visual jump cuts, creators can trigger the flight or fight response within their viewers in order to cultivate a more subconscious atmosphere for the horror to thrive within. It is these involuntary responses that makes horror movies and games, at least for me, much more physically affecting and difficult to enjoy. In this sense the jump scare and spooky music are acting as a laugh track, placed there to ensure that even someone not paying attention to anything knows “this is the scary part.”

In contrast, horror in literature is stripped of these tools that are always so near to hand in film. Psychological horror in the written word must make careful use of writing technique, prose, and word choice to slowly drip feed the atmosphere to the reader. If done right, the writer can build empathy for the character and their situation, having the horror burrow further into the reader’s mind. There’s no payoff in seeing the “monsters” in The Shadow Over Innsmouth if you hadn’t spent the previous pages of the story exploring the town through the main character’s eyes, whereas a scary prosthetic or animatronic monster can frighten people at any point in a film with the right music and editing. It is the careful push and pull of giving the reader just enough information to lure them in but not so much that the reveal is spoiled at the climax of the book that is so impressive when authors get it right.

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Cosmic HorrorThe fear of our own insignificance

Imagine for a moment there was a world ending asteroid on a collision course with Earth. Nothing can stop it and we can’t get away, but it’s not supposed to hit for months. What do you think the overwhelming feeling would be? I doubt “screaming terror” would be the prevailing emotion. I imagine that most people would describe it with one word, “dread.” Dread at the inevitability of destruction due to something that cannot be reasoned with or understood as a motivated actor. Cosmic horror is the elevation of this event from an act of nature we don’t understand, to a god like consciousness we don’t understand. It is the exploration of the idea that the asteroid has motivations of its own, and chose to head this way, but not for any reason we could claim to understand.

Humans have spent all of our recorded history at the top of what we think of as the food chain here on Earth, but there was a far greater amount of time when modern man was just another species hiding in the dark from predators and struggling against extinction. The idea of a threat to your existence that threatens not out of personal enmity but instead its fundamental nature is one that has a significant amount of historical significance to humans, and it is easy to see that stories recalling this feeling can impact us so deeply to this day. The concept that a Cthulhu or the Worm Gods or Hastur could unintentionally destroy us all on their way to doing something else and not even notice is powerful, frightening, and reminds us of how insignificant we are in the grand scale of the universe. Cosmic horror beckons every time we look up at night and remember that each point of light is a star bigger than we can begin to comprehend.

In conclusion – So why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we seek out things that will haunt and unsettle us in the small hours of the night and come unbeckoned when we finally fall asleep? I can’t speak for everyone who reads horror but I personally view it as a type of desensitization. Similar to cognitive behavioral therapy for mental illness, horror as a genre allows individuals to seek out, explore, and come to terms with both the things they knew they feared and the ones that were bubbling under the surface. “Face your fears” is a common refrain and piece of life advice because it encourages you to stand up to something that frightens you and grow past it, or at least learn how to not let it control you. Horror allows a safe place to do this standing up at whatever pace works best for the reader. If you can’t do one thing that scares you every day, try to read one thing that scares you instead.

Let me know all of the problems you’ve had with this thought piece about what scares us in the comments and thanks for making it this far.

-Will

The Burning White – A Light(bringer) At The End Of The Tunnel

51rfff0pfml._sx321_bo1204203200_Ending a big series is always an experience that creates a lot of mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s nice to finally know what happens after thousands of pages of build-up and investment. On the other hand, there is a strange comfort when there are books still unpublished – and when you realize that no more are coming, you can be left feeling a little empty. In those moments, I often find myself asking “were the hours I invested in reading this story worth it?” When I asked this question of The Lightbringer series by Brent Weeks, the answer is a conditional yes.

Last week saw the release of the fifth and final installment of The Lightbringer series: The Burning White. The series has been a tumultuous rollercoaster of emotions, both in terms of story and my reviews. If you were paying a weird amount of attention to our content and rankings you might have seen things like A thought piece by Will Klein talking about how book one, The Black Prism, taught him not to judge books by their first 4th. On the recommendations page, you might have seen the series land in tier one many years ago, tier three for a short period of time, or that it now has found its final resting place in the tier twos. It’s a divisive and evocative story that I have a lot of opinions on, and I’m lucky that I have a platform on which to voice them.

Although we have referenced the series in about 10 different lists and thought pieces, we haven’t actually reviewed one of the books properly until now. A part of this is because it is really hard to talk about the story without giving anything away. For those of you completely unfamiliar with the story of this five part epic, it goes a little something like this:

The Lightbringer Series follows five key POVs (Gavin, Kip, Liv, Teia, and Karris) in a fight to save their world from annihilation. Author Brent Weeks’ world is governed by light where individuals are occasionally blessed with the power to ‘draft’ one or more colors of the rainbow and turn the light into solid matter of the corresponding color. Each color has a unique well-developed identity, and drafting them causes changes to the drafter over time. Drafting is a powerful and dangerous magic that ends in the death of the drafter once they reach the limit of their magic. Once that unknown limit of a color is reached, they are consumed by that color and become a monstrous wight. The one exception to this law of nature is the prism, a full spectrum drafter who is given the responsibility of ensuring the colors are balanced in exchange for unlimited drafting. Color imbalances result in catastrophe, so the role of a prism is pivotal to the survival of the world. The prism is the head of Chromeria, a governmental body that exists as both a bureaucracy and university to govern and educate citizens from all over the world. To protect the prism, an elite core of bodyguards called ‘The Blackguard’ protect them at all times – for the premature death of a prism could mean the end of civilization. Our story follows POV’s that range from The Prism himself to members of The Blackguard, students of Chromeria, and members of the ruling council.

One of the nice things about reviewing series is it’s often easy to talk about books as a group because of how many similarities they share. With The Lightbringer, that is impossible because their biggest shared quality is how different they are. Will, in his aforementioned piece, talks about how the first book, The Black Prism, has a very slow start – but once it finds its momentum it becomes a carnival of delight. Book two, The Blinding Knife, flawlessly takes the baton and serves the reader a cornucopia of twists, political intrigue, action, cool worldbuilding, and excellent character building. Then we hit book three, The Broken Eye, and things change again. Multiple characters you were invested in get sidelined, others you only knew in passing are thrust into the limelight, and the direction and tone of the book take a very large turn. The pacing slows down, the twists become so frequent that things start to get confusing, and the book ends in a very strange place. Then we have book four, The Blood Mirror. Originally, Weeks wanted to write a quartet of books to tell this story. However, when he finished the series he found that he needed more space and time to really do it justice – and expanded it to five books. Accordingly, there was a large delay between when The Broken Eye, The Blood Mirror, and The Burning White (book five), came out. Book four was… confusing to me. I no longer felt like there was a driver behind the wheel, and the story seemed to careen off into a strange new space that I didn’t understand. While I still enjoyed the fourth installment, it was nowhere near the same level of passion that the earlier installments evoked and I was ready to write off the series. Then I read The Burning White.

Looking back at the saga, I think that future readers are going to feel confused as to some of my impressions of the series. The reason for this is because The Blood Mirror and The Burning White are very obviously a book that was split– poorly, in my opinion — in half. So many strange choices about book four make sense when you reach the end of the series and you see Weeks very much stick the landing. While all of the books in this series feel like wild rides where you don’t understand what is going on, The Blood Mirror is the only one that feels like it isn’t a self-contained story. This plus the fact that I had to wait for large periods of time to read The Burning White severely damaged my investment in the series. However, I think that new readers who can read all five books back to back likely won’t have the same problems I had. That being said, I do think that Weeks was a little self-indulgent (which is his right as an author) in what he included and padded the story with. I feel there was a good chunk of content that could have been cut and streamlined to make the books better overall. However, The Burning White does do a lot of things right. The majority of the characters have satisfying endings – Gavin, Kip, and Teia in particular. There are a set of final twists that feel so very good, and make you feel like you finally got the settings on a lens correctly and can see clearly for the first time. The final battle of the series is sufficiently epic with tons of pulse-pounding action and excitement. Finally, there is a lot of emotional pay off that made the faltering journey through these five books feel worth it.

At the end of the day though, The Burning White found the holes in my psyche left by the talons of the first books in the series and dug itself in. Despite going in with low expectations and a resigned sense of duty to finish a series that I had already invested so much time in, I was pretty blown out of the water. The Burning White is a brilliant conclusion to a strong series with some minor flaws. The Lightbringer is unpolished, one of a kind, a rollercoaster with no brakes, and worth your time. Weeks should be proud of what he has accomplished, and in the hollow wake of finishing this massive story, I find myself excited to see what he is going to do next.

Rating: The Burning White – 9.0/10
-Andrew

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 – A Subway Ride You’d Rather Stay On

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Why did it have to be a novella? QTL readers familiar with my other reviews will know that I tend to harp on authors for padding their stories out to novel-length. It has historically been one of my largest pain points in reading horror, as I personally feel that the genre tends to be at its best when it remains lean, punchy, and shocking. Cue the gasps when I reveal that, at least for The Haunting of Tram Car 015, I wish it was a novel. In fact, I wish this was book one of a fifteen book series reminiscent of the old Spenser detective books. I devoured this story, and as much as I tend to appreciate and advocate for affecting stand-alones, this world cries out for more exploration than it’s received both here and in P. Djeli Clark’s short story “A Dead Djinn In Cairo.”

The Haunting of Tram Car 015, set in Cairo in the early 1910s, follows a pair of supernatural investigators looking into what they’re initially told is a haunted tram car. Through a series of trial and error mishaps, bargaining, intimidation, and a small bit of cross-dressing, the two investigators eventually work out the nuts and bolts of the case. The novella doesn’t tread any fresh ground for the detective genre through its story, and anyone looking for surprises here is going to be disappointed. As someone who grew up reading the Spenser books and loves a good mystery, it was very solid, if by the numbers, detective fare. 

Our main characters, Agents Hamed and Onsi, once again follow a format we’ve seen before in the genre. Agent Hamed is a cynical but effective investigator who’s been on the job for quite some time and is a little stuck in his ways. While anyone who’s read detective stories or mysteries before will have seen this dynamic play out, I thought that Clark managed to imbue the characters with just enough that was different that they still seemed fresh. Agent Onsi is fresh out of the academy and has an air of Carrot about him, for those familiar with the Discworld books. Enthusiastic, intelligent, and extremely devoted to each individual letter of the law, much of the comic relief comes from Onsi’s inability to stop talking or read the room. His reading out the specific statues violated by the possession of the tram to the spirit haunting it was hilarious to me, and Hamed’s inner monologue as it was happening was a great moment of levity.

While the characters and story may at least feel familiar to readers, what truly sets The Haunting of Tram Car 015 apart is its setting. The Cairo described within the text is a bustling and diverse megacity due to the re-release of magic into the world about 50 years prior by the Egyptians. This changed the course of history as we’re familiar with it and elevated Egypt to world power status immediately, freeing them of their colonial shackles and putting them at the very forefront of the world stage. During the events of the novella the shockwaves of this are still being felt throughout the world. The integration of Djinni and other magic beings is discussed at length, as well as domestic and foreign views of how the remainder of the world is handling the fact that Egypt is now (once again) a major player in world politics. I especially enjoyed the conflict Hamed experiences in his traditionalism in regard to his view of women and how to treat them in public in contrast to his progressivism when it comes to the spiritual denizens of Cairo. In addition to all of the larger worldwide political exploration, the story takes place at the same time as the country is about to vote on women’s suffrage. The added bustle of the city increases the stakes during several moments of the plot, and I felt that Clark did a good job exploring how the events of the prior 50 years have changed the culture in Egypt to the point that the women’s suffrage movement is both possible and extremely popular. I wasn’t expecting this going in, but I felt like it added a great deal to the sense that this story was taking place in a real world inhabited by real people, regardless of how magical and otherworldly it seems on its face.

With a title like The Haunting of Tram Car 015, I expected some elements of horror. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed in this particular case. While the story is “spooky” in that it revolves around a haunting and there are things adjacent to ghosts in it, I never really felt scared by any of the descriptions or events. There was always a distinct sense of threat and consequence if things went wrong, and the final conclusion of the story was very much edge-of-your-seat stuff, but I was left wishing I had felt more scared by things, rather than unsettled. This certainly may not be the case for everyone, though depending on what it is that you’re scared of there are some moments that could give people the heebie-jeebies, but it just never really happened for me.

Even with the lower level of spooks than I personally prefer, The Haunting of Tram Car 015 left me wanting so much more. Normally I would say that to mean it didn’t reach the heights it could have and I was left disappointed on that account. In this instance, I wanted about 300 more pages of worldbuilding and exploring this version of Cairo. I adored the world Clark built and felt something akin to whimsy as he described the workings and machinations that keep such a unique city running. I will be overjoyed if we ever get to see more of Agents Hamed and Onsi, but I’m glad to have spent even a brief period following them on a romp through a city I’ll never forget.

Rating: The Haunting of Tram Car 015 – 8.5/10

Sisters of the Vast Black – We’re Nuns, We’re Nuns in Space!

I’ve never been a religious person by any stretch of the imagination. Our family only went to church on Christmas, and that was about it. As a result, finding myself excited about the prospect of the Catholic Church in space was a weird experience for me. Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather scratched an itch I didn’t know I had (ARC provided by the publisher through NetGalley). Rather wrote an engaging novel about a small group of nuns learning the meaning of their faith in a galaxy reluctant to embrace the larger Catholic Church.

Sisters of the Vast Black takes place on a living ship, Our Lady of Impossible Constellations, and follows the sisters of the Order of Saint Rita as they travel to a new colony in distress. Along the way, they deal with adapting earthly church doctrine to spacefaring life in big ways and small. The Catholic Church, defeated years ago along with Earth in a war for control of the space born colonies, is resurgent and willing to test its new sense of power and reach. The sisters of the Order begin to feel the influence from the Church themselves, causing them to question their faith. Individuals’ secrets are brought into the light as pressure starts to mount and their loyalty to each other and the church is tested. 

The story itself meandered a little for the first half of the book. It didn’t feel like it had a lot of direction, and the narrative often takes a backseat to the worldbuilding. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but since it is a novella I was a little worried about where the story was going to end up. Fortunately, Rather pulls it in for a tighter second half. She uses everything she explored in the first half to hone in on the characters’ individual stories as they grapple with the tightening control from the Church and reignition of war. Any concerns I had about losing the thread were washed away in the succinct but open ending that focused on individual faith in the shadow of the Catholic Church. 

The narrative’s success depended on the characters themselves. Rather takes the time to develop the characters by giving them a weight that makes them relatable. I found myself enmeshed in their lives with the day-to-day of maintaining the ship instead of waiting for something to rock the boat so to speak. The daily repetitive tasks and the small conversations about church doctrine and coming changes helped to build the identity of the characters quickly without throwing a quick succession of  events at the reader. The hushed ways they whispered to each other about their lives, or rumors they have heard built a sense of community among them that set them apart from the world they inhabited. It was a really nice touch that made me care about who they were as people instead of just pieces to move the story along. 

The real star of the book, for me, was the setting. The world Rather created was subtle yet incredibly enticing. Not only did the church feel important to the characters, it felt like a living presence within the solar system. There was a history that felt raw and immediate, like an open wound that had not been properly tended. Rather wrote a distinct lack of finality to everything that made the world really come alive. There was also a lot of understated interplay between the characters and the setting, making the characters feel present within the world while also being very affected by it. I think that without the deft handling of the setting and its effects on the people living in it, this book would have fallen short. 

Sisters of the Vast Black is unfortunately brief, but it packs a punch. The themes of sin and redemption are cleverly explored through the characters and the world. Rather’s sense of history and ability to portray the longstanding effects of past events is admirable. I want more of this world, more of the people living inside it, finding their way in the dark. I want to watch it change in the small subtle ways that mirror the real world. Needless to say, I recommend Sisters of the Vast Black especially if you’re looking for something a little different that feels human at heart, and otherworldly in scope.

Rating: Sisters of the Vast Black – 8.0/10

Our Top 7 Horror Short Recommendations

I bought a jacket this past spring and have been looking at it occasionally with a longing that can only be matched by temporarily separated lovers. As such, you can only imagine my joy when the temperature here in Chicago finally dropped to numbers starting with “4,” and I could put it on. Because this is a review site, I will give my jacket five stars out of five. I loved it and will use it regularly in the future. What this dropping temperature and (awesome) jacket weather really means, though, is that it’s October! Spooky month is finally upon us and with it comes recommendations for horror short stories. I’ve put together a list of short stories and novellas from a variety of places that top my list of the best shorts out there, and I hope you take some time in the dark and grey evenings of this month to seek some of these out and enjoy them. I want to stress before we get going, however, that these are in no particular order and simply sum up some of our favorites here at QTL.

The Colour Out of Space by H.P. Lovecraft

I wanted to start the list strong, so I’ve chosen the horror short that I hold all others up to in comparison. The Colour Out of Space exemplifies and embodies the true core of cosmic horror for me. Taking place on the farm of Nahum Gardner, the story describes the slow descent into madness that the inhabitants of the farm undergo due to a strange meteorite falling next to their well. The single best part of this story to me is the complete lack of “monsters” or any other frightful beings with ill intentions. Lovecraft distilled the essence of atmospheric dread down to its purest form, describing in a languid and predatory style the cascade of small events that start seeming “off” before inevitably leading Nahum and his family on an unstoppable journey to horror and death. It is the very fact that the “antagonist” of this particular story is a meteorite that perfectly sums up the sense of impersonal and unlucky inevitability that the finest cosmic horror creates. The Gardners were not personally targeted by this meteorite, and the effects it causes are not purposeful. Instead, the fundamental nature of the stone is so inimical to life on earth and humans that its simple presence acts as a corrupting influence and brings with it a pure and distinct sense of an “other” that doesn’t just not care that it’s causing suffering, it doesn’t even notice.

Proboscis by Laird Barron

I love when stories decide on a specific theme and explore that idea as deeply as possible. Proboscis is either the story of a man losing his mind or a deeply unsettling revelation as to an aspect of our world better left not understood. Told through a framing device relying heavily on entomology and proboscises, shocking I know, this story features a thrilling psychological aspect that I think elevates it beyond most of the genre. Barron sprinkles the narrative with details that unsettle effortlessly and invite the reader to make connections that may or may not actually be there. The use of insects to poke at the primal disgust that they engender in humanity, and the suggestion that the protagonist is actually losing his mind coalesce and create a bubbling atmosphere of mounting dread and constant unease. While I obviously will not spoil anything in this brief blurb, I will say that the ending of this story is the single most memorable conclusion to a short story I’ve ever read, and it still makes me shiver.

A Song For Quiet by Cassandra Khaw

One of the two entries on this list that is closer to novella-length than short story territory, A Song For Quiet is probably my least favorite of the stories here. I wanted to get that out there because that should help readers understand that when I say I’m including this for one main aspect, it’s because that aspect is so unbelievably good that it nearly erased all my other foibles with the book. A Song For Quiet is on this list due to the sheer weightiness and luxuriance of Khaw’s horrific descriptions. The prose used during the songs Deacon James plays in the narrative is stunning. I was instantly impacted by the sheer terror of what I was reading, the way it was described and Khaw’s choices of words for events. Specifically her ability to describe events that are by their nature difficult to understand and purposefully “Weird with a capital w” is incredibly impressive. This story is one of those tales that makes you want to read the rest of the author’s catalogue regardless of genre. Cassandra Khaw has a way with the horrific that I’m startled and impressed by, and while this is the second of the two current Persons Non Grata stories available, I would recommend starting here with her work.

Procession of the Black Sloth by Laird Barron

This lovely little tale from Laird Barron is probably one of the more haunting stories I’ve read in the past couple of years. Barron fills every sentence with a creeping dread that is impossible to ignore. It follows a modern Pinkerton type investigator as he is sent to a factory in China to monitor the local disgruntled workforce. Unfortunately, there is a little exotic orientalism that seems to drive some of the horror, but a lot of aforementioned dread is built upon the transgressive nature of the protagonist. He is a voyeur through and through, expanding his work into a hobby as he spies on others through his hotel window. In my experience, Barron relies heavily on the lone gruff male stereotype, but this story is the one time I felt that this archetype is analyzed through the horror, instead of being an easy entry point. The protagonist feels creepy, but his need to watch pulls the reader into the mysteries he sees. He’s a bad guy, but the narrative is infectious through his eyes. Barron’s patient execution of the story kept me pulling at the string, needing to know more. He did not rush to reveal the terrible kernel, allowing the mystery and the protagonist’s need to investigate without revealing himself drive the story. I could not pull my eyes away from the page until the last word, and even then I still feel trapped by its trance. In some ways the story itself mirrors the reader’s fascination with the horror, but luckily for us we can’t become the story. We can only be consumed with the terror that the one true way to understand something is to be a part of it.

My Heart Struck Sorrow by John Hornor Jacobs

Here it is. Any of you who have been reading the site lately have probably stumbled on my review for A Lush and Seething Hell, by John Hornor Jacobs. This was my personal favorite of the two stories, and while I will encourage you to read the entire review here, it would be rude not to at least briefly go into why this story hit me so hard. Jacobs manages to infuse a story that is steeped in the terrifying and built to unsettle with something adjacent to wistfulness for a different and more magical time. There was something so powerful in Cromwell’s sense of longing, his need to find out whether the story of Stagger Lee was true, his need to find anything that will distract him or give him a sense of belonging or meaning. The flavor of this story was so piquant and unique, while being so familiar and almost nostalgic at the same time that I was sucked into the riptides of its narrative, completely lacking control or a sense of the time as I struggled to stay afloat. This story ripped me out of the well worn tracks of my day to day life and spat me out somewhere unsettlingly familiar, like going to your childhood home and finding that the furniture is all the same but has been moved around slightly. It’s a feeling I’ve been unable to shake since, and I highly recommend any tales with that kind of staying power.

A Long Spoon by Jonathon L. Howard

I’ll probably be punished by “true” horror fans for including this one on the list, but they’re nerds anyway, so what are they gonna do about it? Nothing, that’s what. More humor than horror and more laugh-inducing than limb-rending, the Johannes Cabal series more winks to the world of horror than explores it, but I can’t help myself but include my favorite tale from that world in this list. Taking place just before the last of the numbered entries in the series, A Long Spoon tells the tale of how Cabal meets Zarenyia, a devil of hell. Not the devil, though they have met on occasion before, long story. After being forced to ask her “nicely” to guide him into the darkest depths of hell, the two embark on a zany and mildly horrifying romp into said dark depths. I am a huge fan of all things Cabal, and these are 32 of the most enjoyable pages I’ve read involving murder, mayhem, and women who are giant spiders from the waist down. If any of that sounds like something you can get into, go read the 4 main series books and sundry short stories and novellas leading up to this, then read it. I know that sounds like a lot, but the Cabal series is one of those palate cleansers that you can read pretty much anytime and have a great experience.

How the Day Runs Down by John Langan

Is it wrong to include a short story that’s actually a series of vignettes in a list about short stories? I don’t think so and anyway I need to talk about this somewhere as it’s just so odd. How the Day Runs Down is a horror short story being told from the perspective of the Stage Manager, a character in Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. Doling out small-town wisdom and anecdotes about the characters living in this small town as he discusses their successes and failings as the town falls to the living dead, there is a surreal and eminently memorable atmosphere that drips from this story from the first page. It’s even written partly as a screenplay, which creates a sort of hushed collaboration between the Stage Manager and the reader, in that we too know what’s about to happen to these characters and have an opportunity to stop it (or at least it’s shown that the Stage Manager does, when he chooses to). The culpability of watching all the events within the story unfold weighed heavy on me, and made me feel a sense of guilty voyeurism as I, we, did nothing. It was an experience I’ve never forgotten and is one unique to zombie horror at least, if not horror in general. 

And with that we’re done with the list. There are hundreds of incredible stories that didn’t make the cut, and if I missed your personal favorite please let me know in the comments what it was and why you think it should be here. I hope you all have a spookily good October and find exactly the level of terror you’re looking for.

The Rise of Kyoshi – Solid as a Rock

F.C. Yee’s The Rise of Kyoshi, written with Avatar co-creator Michael Dante DiMartino, breaks new ground in the Avatar universe while paying homage to the source material that fans love. The novel explores new territories and pursues intriguing storylines that equally satisfy that Avatar craving and provide a fresh journey back to the world of benders. 

The Rise of Kyoshi follows the titular earth Avatar in her early days. Yee cleverly circumvents tried-and-true Avatar tropes–discovering the new Avatar, training montages, etc.– by placing Kyoshi in the center of a secret scandal. The Avatar has been incorrectly identified, and Kyoshi is his servant. The revelation that Kyoshi is the actual Avatar (and has been living with the misidentified one) kickstarts an Aang-worthy whirlwind of controversy, betrayal, and growth for both Kyoshi and her comrades. From there, the story meanders through the Earth Kingdom as Kyoshi learns about herself and her bending abilities. Yee weaves an elegant tapestry of politics, history, bending, and character to build upon the world fans know and love, but Rise doesn’t lean on these Avatar-trappings for support. Rather, Yee builds on the rich lore of the Avatar universe and crafts a unique story that deftly avoids using the critically acclaimed source material as a crutch. 

Kyoshi’s story is one of heartbreak, personal discovery, and hunger for power. We meet her as a fledgling bender who’s been cast aside by her parents, teachers, and society at large. Her adventures characterize her as a tough but unseasoned bender who has a keen eye for strategy but has yet to find her true moral compass. In this way, she’s an interesting middle ground between the two Avatars we’ve explored most in the two TV shows: Aang and Korra. Kyoshi blends Aang’s thirst for bending prowess with Korra’s search for meaning and self-discovery, creating a powerhouse character that’s just plain fun to read about. 

The supporting cast boasts a collection of interesting characters who typically stray into archetypal territory. While The Rise of Kyoshi deals with heavy themes and doesn’t steer clear of tough topics, the characters adjacent to Kyoshi are indicative of the young adult genre stamp. Kyoshi’s “Team Avatar” comprises a smattering of benders who each have a stand-out personality trait: there’s the aloof/suspicious leader of the bunch, the reluctant sifu, the warmhearted but tough-on-the-outside friend, and many more. This isn’t to say they aren’t lovable or enjoyable to see in action. Instead, I got the sense that there’s more to the characters than is readily available here.

The most unexpected surprise during my read-through was the exquisite description of bending. As an Avatar superfan, I worried that prose wouldn’t be a fit vehicle for the insane acts of bending often portrayed by the core series or the graphic novels. But Yee rose to the challenge and doled out amazing bending set-pieces. He treats bending techniques with great care and makes it feel real and intuitive, which is a crucial element in any Avatar story. 

The Rise of Kyoshi begs the question: will non-Avatar fans enjoy this/is it a good entry point to the world? My opinion: this book is best served as a dessert following the entree that is the series rather than an appetizer. It uses the series as its foundation, despite being a prequel, and deals out fan service in a tasteful way that gives added meaning to ardent fans. That said, a new reader could very much enjoy the prosaic introduction to Avatar and use it as a gateway to the larger pantheon of TV and graphic novels set in the same universe. 

Casting aside any previous fandom or lack thereof, The Rise of Kyoshi is an excellent extension of Avatar lore. Kyoshi is a perfect subject, lending a new perspective to the Avatar’s history and duties outside of Aang and Korra. As the avatar universe continues to successfully expand, it’s impressive how the worldbuilding remains consistently high quality, fresh, and doesn’t step on the toes of what came before. I’m already eagerly awaiting The Shadow of Kyoshi, which releases July 2020. If you’re a fan of Avatar in any capacity, this one’s for you.

Rating: The Rise of Kyoshi – 8.5/10

-Cole

Future Tense Fiction – A Variety of Hope and Anxiety

Future Tense Fiction

After reading Broken Stars earlier this year, I became somewhat enamored by the idea of short story collections. I love that they can be incredibly focused while allowing the reader some room to explore outside the story. So when offered the chance to read Future Tense Fiction, a collection of works from well known contemporary authors from Slate’s column of the same name, I jumped at the opportunity. I’m not going to talk about the collection as a whole, mostly because it didn’t have the single guiding hand feel to it that Broken Stars did. Overall I came away fairly satisfied, with only a couple of the stories not leaving much of an impact. Mostly I wanted to take the time to highlight a few of the stories that touched me in different ways in the hopes of piquing your interest in the form and its strengths. 

First up: Domestic Violence by Madeline Ashby. The story follows Kristin as she tries to determine why a co-worker is running late. Janae, the woman in question, mentions that the smart home she lives in won’t let her out without solving riddles that her husband has devised. It’s a very simple premise, but the horror behind it stuck with me. Ashby’s prose is dripping with the small infractions men put women through on a daily basis that are easily exacerbated by technology. While I consider myself fairly cognizant of these attitudes, Ashby exposed a few other ways in which technologies that are touted as convenient may only be convenient for some. It was an enlightening read that will stick with me for a while, and will push me to continue considering the unexamined implications of convenience technology. 

Burned over Territory by Lee Konstantinou was my second favorite story from the batch. It takes place in a post-Universal Basic Income United States, in which everyone receives a monthly check from the government to support themselves. The story follows Viola, a former heroin addict, who is running for Chairperson of the Federation. The Federation is an organization that members give their basic income to, and in return receive housing, food and other basic necessities, allowing them to pursue what interests they may. I particularly enjoyed Konstantinou’s ability to explore a system of government and the trials it faces within a limited page count through the fairly realized character of Viola. Often a lot of the more “political” science fiction I’ve read pushes politics to the side, waving away issues with the creation of a new system, but Konstantinou places it front and center. Although the system itself is different, the same societal problems we experience in our society linger, making the election stakes feel incredibly real and giving the Federation a vitality I was not expecting. It felt like an honest attempt at an exploration of a more left-wing ideal of politics, highlighting that revolution is ongoing and will always have to deal with the same systemic problems we face today.

Mika Model by Paolo Bacigalupi was another of the more horrifying stories in the collection. It has a neo-noir setting and follows Detective Rivera as he is dragged into a murder case where the perpetrator is a sex robot. I know it sounds a little ludicrous, and Bacigalupi seems to give a wink to the reader by using the trappings and structure of a noir detective thriller. What makes the story so much more compelling, however, is Bacigalupi’s use of language and how specific characters interact with Mika, the robot involved in the murder. On the surface it is plainly a story about determining the humanity of a robot designed to be, effectively, a mechanical sex worker. Bacigalupi does not stop there and consistently urges the reader to pull on the thread to unravel something deeper. Ultimately, I came away with my stomach in knots, unable to cope with the extrapolation of this story to any sort of “other” people may encounter on a daily basis.

I’ll end with my favorite story of the bunch, Lions and Gazelles by Hannu Rajaniemi. The main gist of the story is that ultra-venture capitalists host a yearly competition in which startups compete with each other for funds. The novelty comes from contest being a race in which the entrepreneurs competing for cash enhance their bodies biologically. In the competition, mechanical modifications are forbidden, and the competitors, in a sense, become their own experiment while they attempt to hunt down a mechanical gazelle and win the prize. Having recently read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, along with taking up running, Rajaniemi’s story cut immediately to the heart of the sport. The main character’s arc was so thoroughly satisfying, and Rajaniemi perfectly captured the thrill of the chase with his prose. It was incredibly streamlined and had such purpose driving the story I was engrossed from beginning to end. If you’re a runner, this story is magical.

All in all, this collection makes me want to pay closer attention to short stories. There is a purpose to them, and when done well, it can get a reader to feel or think differently in only a few pages. There are a few other stories I would like to highlight here, but I feel like I would just come off as gushing. Future Tense Fiction is a delightful collection that captured my imagination in fourteen different ways. So if you’re at all interested in short stories and the power they can wield, I highly recommend picking up Future Tense. 

Rating: Future Tense Fiction – A Highly Recommended Cornucopia of Stories for your Fall Reading/10

-Alex

P.S. If you can’t get enough of talking crows, this collection has a story for you. 

Hollow Kingdom – Crow And Tell

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Kira Jane Buxton’s Hollow Kingdom, for better or worse, is one of the most unique books I’ve read in recent memory. Buxton treads new ground within the zombie genre, exploring the apocalypse through new eyes. Buxton veers so sharply off the beaten path that Hollow Kingdom feels like something entirely new. Whether readers find the playful departure from typical zombie fare refreshing or off-putting, though, will likely boil down to personal taste and maturity. This is not a genre-defying, revolutionary work of literature, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a fun diversion for some.

Hollow Kingdom follows protagonist Shit Turd (S.T. for short, and no, I am not joking), a Seattle-dwelling domesticated crow. S.T.’s owner, Big Jim, succumbs to the zombifying disease that has already spread to most of his known world. Following a few hilarious attempts to heal Big Jim (including delivering a cocktail of Walgreens-brand over-the-counter medications to the decaying human), S.T. takes Dennis, his basset-hound companion, on a journey to find the cure. This is where the novel veers wildly off the usual zombie-apocalypse path and represents the turning point where I expect readers will choose either to skip this story or see it through. S.T. and Dennis realize the infection is incredibly widespread and has left thousands of Seattle’s domestic pets trapped in their homes. They take it upon themselves to unite two worlds–the domestic and wild animals–to free those trapped in their homes and ostensibly find a way to cure their human compatriots.

Following in the footsteps of its whimsical premise, Hollow Kingdom boasts idiosyncratic prose. It is littered with strong cussing and references to brand name products (S.T. considers Cheetos a delicacy). The jokes and irreverent language take a scattershot approach: volume over accuracy. Many of the quickfire puns or references land with chuckle-worthy gusto and others breeze by forgettably. On the whole, I enjoyed the less serious tone. There’s something enticing about a swearing crow with human-like behaviors; it led me to swiftly devour the book despite a few other misgivings.

This brings me to the story. The recap above only covers the first few chapters and overlooks some of the more spoilery aspects of the novel, but there are tons of fun set pieces in this 320-page read that I never expected. Some of it’s great, like a diversion to the aquarium during which S.T. talks to an octopus; Aura, the bird equivalent of the internet; and S.T.’s interactions with wild animals to whom he only feels tangentially connected. Other elements fell short, though I suspect those faults boiled down mostly to personal taste. The zombies are underexplored and under described, and I get it–it’s not a book about the zombies or even the humans who became the zombies. But this caveat opens up some story holes that left me saying “Huh?” more than once. The cause of the zombification, and the later stages of it, are both underdeveloped. It’s not an outright knock on the book, though. I’ve already said it, but it’s worth reinforcing that these problems may cause no issue with other readers. I just wanted a more traditional zombie story within the fun and carefree packaging of Buxton’s prose.

The characters of Hollow Kingdom slot neatly into my personal disconnect between prose and story, resting right in the middle. It’s intriguing to explore the zombie apocalypse through the lens of animals, and S.T. interacts with a bevy of them. Cool, crazy, smart, stupid–the gang’s all here, and meeting them as the human-ish S.T. is a fun romp through an interesting cast of fauna.

Hollow Kingdom is one of those books that requires a specific palate. It’s a read that I’d recommend to friends with a distinct checklist of “likes” in a novel, or to someone seeking a completely new take on zombies and the impact of their spread through humanity on other living beings. At its best, it’s an amusing adventure through S.T.’s zombie-ridden world, and if the premise sounds interesting, it’s worth checking out.

Rating: Hollow Kingdom – 6.5/10
-Cole

A Little Hatred – If The Shoe Fits, Drop It

35606041Reviewing A Little Hatred, the first book of a new trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, from the perspective of “should you read it?” is a waste of everyone’s time. If you have read The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and The Last Argument of Kings you absolutely know this will probably be the best book that comes out this year, so you should obviously read it. If you haven’t read these books, or don’t know who Joe Abercrombie is, then you should get out of here and go read them. Seriously, please do not keep reading for your own good. As with everything involving Abercrombie, it is best to go in as blind as possible and you will thank me later. So instead, I am going to do something a little different with this review. Without spoiling anything, I will be talking about the emotional gauntlet it put me through. But first, some general bookkeeping about the novel.

If you want to know about the plot, all you need to know is that it takes place a good number of years after the first trilogy and is focused mostly on the children of our characters from the previous series. The characters and action are best in class for the genre, possibly for books as a whole. The worldbuilding is good but might be the weakest part of the book; however, there is a nice focus on the current political climate that will likely resonate and stir up a lot of emotions in readers.

Jumping back to feelings, I would describe the emotional experience of A Little Hatred as ‘harrowing’. Imagine you are trapped in a beautiful room, with lots of nice furnishings and cool gadgets to play with. It creates some nice nostalgia in your brain and you feel warm and happy in the room – like you could live there forever. Then imagine that you are told there is a bomb in the room somewhere with an unknown timer, and after a bit of panicking, you try the door only to find yourself locked in. That is the emotional experience of reading A Little Hatred. At this point in my experience with Joe Abercrombie, I am familiar with the drill. Joe writes something that seems pleasant from one angle but is horrific from another. What I have enjoyed about his books is that even if you know the shoe is going to drop, it’s still incredibly hard to see the foot wearing it.

A Little Hatred knows all of this and leans into it. There is a really clever dichotomy between the older generation who know how the world works, the new cast who are filled with naivete. Abercrombie cleverly writes it so that the reader sitting perfectly between the two generations, is pushed and pulled between them. The novel is a prescription for anxiety that I didn’t want but couldn’t help but be addicted to. One of the things about Abercrombie that is so frustrating, in an intentional way, is his commentary on “progress”. Abercrombie turns his dark meditations towards the ineffable march of human technological progress and the stagnation of human emotion or intellect. It is a depressing paradox that he is unfortunately good at illustrating. One of the things that I want from these new books is for the world to finally see some progress – for humanity to finally improve and grow and get better. A Little Hatred does an amazing job of showing a possible light at the end of that tunnel. But, as only the first of a three-part story, we have no idea if that light will turn out to be a new dawn or a meteor coming to cause an extinction-level event to my trust and love.

A Little Hatred is confusing and emotional and my review will likely change two books from now when Abercrombie shows that I was wrong about everything – including things like who my parents are. The book is a gift of anxiety, lost sleep, depression, excitement, and betrayal. I don’t know why I keep reading his books, all they do is upset me for a month afterward because I can’t stop thinking about them. Everyone would probably live a happier and more carefree life if they never picked up a piece of Abercrombie’s haunting fiction. I highly recommend it, probably the best book I have read this year.

Rating: A Little Hatred – 10/10
-Andrew