Shorefall – Remember To Breathe

Do you like rollercoasters? Do you like feeling the grim reaper’s breath on your neck as you hurtle through time and space at speeds that the human mind wasn’t meant to comprehend? Does being super incredibly stressed for uncomfortably long periods of time turn you on? If you answered yes to any of these questions have I got a book for you! Shorefall, by Robert Jackson Bennett, is the emotional equivalent of being shot into the sun at terminal velocity and I absolutely love it.

If you are just reading The Quill to Live for the first time, welcome to the site! Please know that we collectively love RJB and think he is one of the best contemporary writers of modern fantasy. Shorefall did little to dissuade us of that notion. The book is the sequel to Foundryside (our review of book one can be found here) and while Shorefall picks up the narrative three years later – it only feels like seconds. Sancia, Berenice, Orso, and Gregory have founded their own scriving house with plans to use the technology they invent, steal, and extort to better the world around them and burn the remaining established houses to the ground. However, these plans need to take a major pause when they learn of an otherworldly threat descending on their beloved city. There are some mild spoilers for Foundryside after the cover picture so turn back now if you haven’t read the first book and want to remain completely pure.

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At the end of book one, the Foundrysiders released what seemed to be a god from her entrapment. They had mixed feelings about this, but feel decidedly negative when they learn that a second opposing diety looks poised to also return to wage war on everything. The first hierophant, a man who could wipe cities off the planet with a thought, is coming back. The Foundrysiders begin to scramble to prevent the hierophant’s return, as it could spell the end of reality itself.

Here’s the thing. I thought Shorefall would be a story about our lovable crew from book one working together to figure out how to prevent this clearly unstoppable force of nature from coming back and ruining existence. The book would be a game of tag between the Foundrysiders and the cult ushering the hierophant’s return. At the end of the book, the cult might get successful in bringing him back in some form and we would have an intense set up for book three in this series. That is not what happened, at all. I am sorry for these mild Shorefall spoilers, but the first hierophant makes it back in something like the first 10% of the book. The entirety of Shorefall after this point essentially becomes the story of “what if a team of four talented engineers got into a batshit insane pissing match with Cthulu?” It is one of the most intense and fast-paced stories I have ever read, with the sense of palpable urgency never letting up for a single second. Every second of this novel feels appropriately like a mere mortal standing firm against the will of a cosmic deity and saying “fuck you.” It is a work of art.

The magic continues to be one of the coolest and most imaginative concepts that I have ever read. Bennett refuses to be backed into a corner by his premise and continues to find more and more interesting ways to step outside the box he built for himself. The way the characters use and bend the rules of the world to affect change feels like an inconceivably large puzzle snapping into the correct configuration. The magic is also still visceral and nightmarish. I am haunted by some of the descriptions and deaths from this series. I see them in my mind when I lay down to sleep at night and cannot block the sounds of their imagined cries as they are ripped to pieces. This series is not for the squeamish.

Shorefall is so much more than I expected. On top of giving me enough anxiety to have a stroke, it has truly beautiful character stories. Just like in book one the POV is split between all four of our leads, with a slightly greater focus placed on Sancia and Gregory. Each character is dealing with some heavy stuff that is explored in great detail. To give you a peek into some of their trials: Sancia is trying to understand what to do with her life now that she has stability for the first time ever. Gregory is trying to gain some semblance of control over literally anything to feel like he has a shred of agency in his life. Berenice is struggling with the idea that while she is amazing at many things, in order to do what is needed she has to step outside the comfort zone she has hidden in her entire life. Orso is coping with the profound realization that most of his life’s work isn’t going to amount to anything and trying to find meaning in his existence. This is only a fraction of what these characters are going through and it is wonderful.

However, I will say that while it is truly impressive that Bennett managed to create such a fast-paced story with such memorable character arcs – it feels like these two powerful elements of the story do not compliment each other well. The pacing rips you through the story so fast there is rarely time to sit and digest things. This works well from a plot perspective because it keeps you so off-balance that every new piece of information feels like an amazing twist. But these character stories are beautiful and deserve to be luxuriated in, and there simply doesn’t feel like there is enough time to do so with how fact the pace moves. I just want it all, to be pulled across a lake of imagination at the speed of sound and at the same time sit on the shores and calmly enjoy the view.

Shorefall is not what I expected in the best way possible. It is a lightning strike to the spine, an explosion of ideas and feelings, and a hauntingly beautiful story about good people making hard choices. It is a success as a sequel in every possible way and I can think of and if you are not already reading The Founders series by Robert Jackson Bennett you are missing out. Shorefall is not a book to let pass you by like a ship in the night.

Rating: Shorefall – 9.5/10
-Andrew

Beneath The Rising – On Top of Its Game

I have always been enticed by cosmic horror and other Lovecraft adjacent stories, but I never really dove into the genre. It’s always lurking in the background, taunting me with its perceptions of madness. Luckily for me, Premee Mohamed’s Beneath The Rising is a Lovecraftian story filled to the brim with horror, adventure, a dash of comedy, and a lot of fast-paced adventure. Beneath the Rising follows two teenagers on the cusp of adulthood and on the eve of destruction as they sort out their friendship and try to contain the Lovecraftian consequences of their decisions. Written through the eyes of seventeen-year-old Nick Prasad, the story explores the nature of cultural and class differences, shared traumas, and teenage romance as the characters attempt to save the world from Eldritch horrors.

The story begins when Johnny, Nick’s childhood friend and supergenius, Joanna “Johnny” Chambers”, returns from her latest travels of the world and shows Nick her latest experiment, a new unending source of clean energy. Upon activating the device, strange beings start appearing and harassing the two teenagers. Soon, Johnny reveals to Nick that she fears she has awoken the Ancient Ones, beings she has learned about through the various scientific societies she is a part of. Nick is inadvertently pulled into the chaos of Johnny’s quest to save the world by virtue of being her closest friend, even though he feels he barely knows her. He’s poor, of Indian descent and secretly in love with Johnny, a rich, white supergenius who flies around the world. 

Mohamed’s ability to explain the world through Nick’s eyes is wonderful. I sometimes felt lost, but it seemed like a deliberate choice, becauseNick’s consciousness switched between memories and current events with no real transition. It was as if I was reading someone’s thoughts while they were trying to parse what was happening in front of them and also reconciling it with a memory it triggered. These were the only times I felt pulled out of the book, but it gradually became less jarring as I attuned to the style. Nick felt like a teenage boy, aware of the seriousness at hand, but willing to take a crack at a joke to impress his friend. He referenced pop-culture a decent amount, but mostly because that was the easiest way to relate to the absurd situations he found himself in. Normally, I cringe at pop culture mentions, but they felt natural here in a way I have not experienced before. It felt like Mohamed purposefully wrote them as a point of contact for Nick to make sense of the world instead of being used to relate to the reader, and that is refreshing.

With the story being told in the moment through Nick’s point of view, the pacing is fun and frenetic. It conveys a sense of what Nick and Johnny must be feeling as they face the end of the world. There are constantly new threats that must be dealt with, or a new library to get to in order to find a way to defeat the Ancient Ones. Mohamed’s strength as an author is not just in her ability to keep the plot moving, but also giving the characters room to breathe and process what they just went through. Johnny lends an air of “whatever, I see crazy stuff all the time,” while Nick is still playing catchup and questioning the nature of their friendship, let alone the nature of the cosmos. Their fights with each other hit hard, and the reconciliation is earned if it even happens. Their relationship is truly engrossing as it’s pushed to the limits as these two teenagers travel across Northern Africa and the Middle East. Even more astounding is Mohamed never let the larger plot fade away and lose relevance, having it hover over the characters like a sword of Damocles. It put a lot of pressure on the story and kept pulling me to the next page.

I am not an avid reader of Lovecraft, but even so, something about the way the mythos is used felt refreshing. The Ancient Ones were always within reach, but rarely ever in sight, adding an increasing amount of tension. This might be disappointing for some, but I did not mind it. The first time “something” showed up in the story, I felt my blood run cold and I owe that to Mohamed’s careful and deliberate revelation of the world. My feelings as a reader often seemed to mirror Nick’s, unsure of what was going on and always needing an explanation, but only able to get a little bit from Johnny. It felt like a madness creeping into Nick’s brain, as if what he was going through could not possibly be real, but there was no other explanation. Moments that were humorous could also be easily turned on their heads as moments of horror. I never got the sensation that I missed the cue, however, as if Mohamed was hinting at the ambiguity for a reason and making me think about how teenagers would handle themselves in these terrifying situations.

The last aspect of the book that really gripped me, however, was just how insidious every interaction felt. Mohamed starts the story off with a moment of alternative American history in which 9/11 happens, but the planes miss. Similar tensions still pervade the western hemisphere, however, and Nick receives some of the backlash as an Indian person born and raised in Canada. It felt real, and as if Mohamed looked at me through the pages of her book, and asked “are you paying attention?” I could not stop looking for the little ways this change wove its tendrils into how Nick and Johnny engaged each other and the world given their backgrounds. I felt every word and turn of phrase had to be dissected. Being inside Nick’s head only fine-tuned this notion, making Johnny feel unreliable and dodgy in response to his inquiries. It was bold, and I felt it paid off immensely through the rest of the story.

Overall, if you’re looking for a fast, fun take on the cosmic horror genre that pushes its characters to the limits, Beneath The Rising is for you. Mohamed cares for her characters, and her love of the world that she’s built shines through. There are plenty of twists that are as revealing of the story as they are impactful to the characters. I had a blast, and this book makes me want to dive further into the genre. So, if you feel its pull even slightly, its worth it to answer its call.

Beneath The Rising: 8.0/10

-Alex

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.

Winter Tide – Cooler than the Other Side of the Salt Water

a1zmg0rj1slWinter Tide, by Ruthanna Emrys, is a book I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time. Essentially a subversive take on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, the book is told from the perspective of one of his “monsters”, and I’d always been intrigued by the description. Now that I’ve wrapped up this story, I’m incredibly disappointed in myself for having waited so long to try it out. It certainly wasn’t the story I was expecting when I initially started reading, but the story I got is one of the absolute best I’ve read this year, and it’s a tale that I imagine will stick with me in the coming months.

I guess it was the fact that it takes place in a world where Lovecraft’s stories are canon (of a sort) that led me to erroneously believe that this would be a horror story when I started it. The fact that it was being told from the perspective of Aphra Marsh, originally an Innsmouth resident and one of the last two living and unchanged Deep Ones (along with her brother Caleb), made it more likely to draw the curtains and reveal the “horror” for what it really was, but I still thought that something so grounded in tales that left me quaking would…well, leave me quaking again. I was wrong about that, as this book sets out to chill the reader in other ways, more mundane and yet more deeply disturbing for that very mundanity.

Readers of Lovecraft, by this point, must make their forays into his work with eyes open and with the understanding that the man behind the words was a monster in his own right. Deeply xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic, even for the woeful standards of his time, Lovecraft channeled his fears of the other and anger at those who “wouldn’t mind their place” into works of seething atmospheric dread and unknowable terrors. It is impossible to extricate the man and his abhorrent beliefs from the monsters and stories he wrote into existence, as it was those very beliefs that gave him such an insight into the dark and dreadful recesses of humanity. I think this is why we see so many novels that make an attempt to “reclaim” or “rewrite” his works, twisting them on their head and showing him for what he was.

It is no accident, then, that Winter Tide is as sincere a refutation of those mores and ideas as I’ve found to date. The decision to accept that the old stories are canon, but canon as set down by men like Lovecraft himself, and show those stories and ideas for how twisted and wrong they are is incredibly powerful. Emrys draws parallels between the treatment of the Innsmouth folk in internment camps and the treatment of other indigenous peoples as a way of showing that rather than horrific monsters to be feared, the Men of the Water are simply that – human. When you consider how the United States government treated the native peoples of the Americas, and how they were viewed by the common populace as barbaric monsters at the time, it is easy to see in subsequent reads of the original tale The Shadow Over Innsmouth how the perceptions of the “hero” of the story could be twisted by a lack of understanding, or a lack of desire to understand.

It’s not just the big ideas that Emrys refutes, either. Everything in the novel, down to the occasional use of overwrought prose to make a call back to Lovecraft’s less than stellar narrative voice (using the word vertiginous rather than dizzying, as one example of many) was planned and executed fantastically. The specific use of Asenath Waite from The Thing on the Doorstep is another example of her twisting of Lovecraft’s original less-than-savory intent, as is the choice to change the spelling of the name of one of the elder gods from Shub-Niggurath to Shub-Nigarath. It’s a small thing but changes the way the name is said internally from one that was clearly using a racial epithet to make something feel dark and dangerous, to one that simply sounds strange and distant.

That being said, all the best intentions and refutations of humanity’s darker nature in the world won’t help a book if the story and writing are off, of course, but Emrys shines here as well. I said earlier in this review that the story I received is not the one I expected, and the story I got was stellar. An adventurous mystery romp through the Miskatonic Bay region with a diverse and interesting cast of characters was a really pleasant surprise once I realized that was what I was reading. Each of the characters is developed well and written superbly, and every story beat and emotional reveal was handled deftly and sympathetically. My only complaint is that the main driving force of the mystery takes a hard detour and turns out to be something of a mcguffin, but the real mystery and plot that replaces it was far more interesting in the end, and as such I have a hard time faulting the book for it.

Winter Tide was fantastic, fun, meaningful, painful, and expansive. I loved the full cast of protagonists and loved rooting against the entire cast of antagonists, though in the end there aren’t really any “bad guys” per se, simply people with different ideas on how things should be done and not enough information on why things shouldn’t be done that way. Ruthanna Emrys has a fantastic voice as an author and I cannot wait to start the second book in the series, Deep Roots, released in June of this year.

Rating: Winter Tide – 9.5/10
-Will

Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute – It’s A Frighteningly Good Time

Boy howdy it’s mid-August and you know what that means: horror review time! There’s nothing scarier to me than 90 degree days with 90% humidity, and the electric bill that will be coming from me running my AC on the highest possible setting for months on end. In honor of the true terror brought on by the depths of summer, we’re hopping back on the Cabal Train!

Wait…no, that was the first book. The Cabal Dirigib-

No, no that was book two. Let me try again.

We’re back on the Cabal Long-Journey-Through-Mysterious-Lands-With-Mysterious-Travel-Partners-That-Involves-Multiple-Transportation-Methods.

Perfect.

51toff8i01l-_sx331_bo1204203200_For those of you who forgot, we reviewed the first two books in the series quite some time ago, you can find those reviews here and here. As a quick catch-up (though I don’t know why you’d be reading the review of a third book in a series if you had forgotten, kinda weird to be completely honest), the series follows a German necromancer (of some little infamy) named Johannes Cabal on his various travels and travails. To this point in the series proper (spoilers follow) he has bargained his way out of a deal with the devil and foiled an aristocratic plot aboard a dirigible. Having literally walked away from the dirigible’s crash landing, he has arrived back at his three-story Victorian townhouse that has been somehow moved to a deserted countryside through less-than-mundane means. As he recovers from his unexpected turn to heroism, he is approached by three men from the Fear Institute who want him to be their guide through the Dreamlands, and this is where our story begins.

The Fear Institute is a small group of intelligentsia that has dedicated itself to eradicating what they call the “Phobic Animus”, which is a silly name they have for the physical embodiment of fear itself. They believe that by eliminating this Animus they can eliminate fear in the human race and lead mankind to a more rational way of living and thinking. The problem, for them, is that the Animus resides in the Dreamlands, which are notoriously difficult to access and travel in. Based on the fact that the book isn’t over after three chapters, I think it’s fairly safe to spoil that they do end up in the Dreamlands, and it is there that the vast majority of the book takes place.

Any of you that have read Lovecraft in the past will have at least a passing familiarity with the Dreamlands, as they feature in one of his most popular stories: “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”. It is in this book that readers will solidify this series as a favorite or decide that it’s not for them after all. In previous books there were scattered references to the Cthulhu mythos, one-off moments of horror, and the occasional weirdness among what were mostly fun adventure stories. This is a stark contrast to that as the lovecraftian horror and sense of the weird really takes its place at the fore. I will not spoil the specifics, but the group’s entry into the dreamlands reads as a straight cross of parts from “Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “The Music of Erich Zann” in only the best way. There are many more moments which brought to mind my favorite aspects of cosmic horror and instill a true feeling of mortal minds in a place not meant for them. As someone who enjoys that style of writing and that particular flavor of horror, this book was so far up my alley it was in the adjacent street. I can, however, see this as being a major issue if you are a reader for who the horror was tolerated in order to get to the action or detective scenes. There are still moments of almost Sherlockian deduction from Cabal, but the horror and weird has taken a front row seat and does not relinquish it for the majority of the book.

While this was certainly the spookiest of the Cabal novels thus far, it was also the funniest to me. Until this point in the series Cabal has relied mostly on having one character as the foil to his dry and biting wit. Horst, in the first book, played the sidekick and doting protector. Leonie, in the second book, acted in more of a friendly antagonism. In this book, we have three travelling companions, who all have very distinct personalities, that fall victim to Cabal’s jibes and sarcasm. In a way, this tripling of party members leads to a similar tripling of sardonic remarks and cutting jokes, all of which were as funny as any in the previous books. I find Howard’s ability to make me laugh in the midst of spine-tingling terror absolutely astounding and was continually impressed by how he always seems to find just the right balance of scares and scoffs.

The Cabal series has only gotten stronger with each entry, and after each story I find myself liking Johannes himself even more. His character arc is absolutely fantastic and never feels unrealistic to me. His slow transition from actual villain to reluctant hero has been believable and fun on every page. I cannot recommend reading the Cabal series highly enough, and while the series’ mix of cosmic horror and sardonic humor may throw some people for a loop, I have enjoyed each novel more than the last (and the short stories are well worth a read, too). Give it a go and I guarantee you have a ghoulishly good time.

Rating: Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute – 9.5/10
-Will

Persons Non Grata: More Like Short Stories Really Great-a? I’m sorry, I’ll be going.

I was having a conversation with the other QTL staff the other day about how hard it can be to sort out the proper cosmic horror from the remainder of the “weird fiction”, and how frustrating that can be for someone who likes cosmic horror so much more than weird fiction. We came to the conclusion that cosmic horror is likely so niche that it sells better when lumped in with weird fiction than it would by itself. I think there’s likely something to that. If that is the case, however, imagine how niche cosmic horror stories through the window dressing of old pulp noir detective novels must be. Very niche. Very fun, but definitely very niche. Would you put it in the detective section? It’s definitely a detective story. Would you put it in the thrillers section? It’s definitely thrilling. Would you put it in the weird fiction section? Fuck no, make a cosmic horror section and put it there for god’s sake. Regardless of how you’d like to categorize it, Cassandra Khaw’s Persons Non Grata series is a compelling, fun, and extremely fresh entry into the overarching body of work in the Cthulhu Mythos and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for any of the genres I just listed.

Persons Non Grata is made up of two short novels, Hammers on Bone and A Song for Quiet. Both books have runtimes of around a hundred pages, which is a good length for horror in my personal opinion. I find the shorter stories can end up feeling more gimmicky than truly unsettling, the equivalent of jump scares in movies. On the other hand, longer form horror never truly scares me due to it spreading itself so thin. This particular length really allows for a small and focused tale to stretch out and breathe without wearing out its welcome. I think these stories would be published best as one novel with a third part as a finale, but I just review horror books on a fantasy blog, what do I know?

9780765392718_p0_v5_s192x300Hammers On Bone follows John Persons, the series namesake, a hardboiled private investigator from another time. A very, very different time. You see, there’s something not quite right about Persons, maybe the fact that he’s really just a monster wearing human flesh himself. Not really a spoiler, as he mentions this frequent enough to start to get old towards the end of the story. Khaw’s dedication to the pulp detective story vibe comes through most in Persons’ inner monologues, his vocabulary is straight out of a Dick Tracy comic. Women are birds, men are toughs, you get the idea. If you find this particular type of storytelling annoying you probably won’t enjoy it any more than normal here, and I can see this being a major turnoff for people who are unable to fall in to the Spenser vibe. I personally am a fan, and the mix of pulp, noir, thriller, and chthonic entities tickles me in just the right way.

The motivation for the detecting in Hammers on Bone isn’t hugely important. A kid goes to Persons and hires him to kill his dad. It’s made to seem that he’s just a domestic abuser, but based on the fact that the detective is a primordial monster himself that’s probably not the case, right? Right. The horror in Hammers on Bone is absolutely fantastic. Khaw walks a fine line between the concise and punchy narration style of old detective novels while nodding at the overly descriptive and flowery language of the older school of cosmic horror and the combination allows the reader’s imagination to do the heavy lifting. Descriptions of a man transforming into a mass of eyes (Maybe? How reliable is our narrator?), a fight with an eldritch horror, and just the depersonalizing dreary grind of life in modern cities are all dripping with dread and create an absolutely oppressive atmosphere throughout. I thought that some of the descriptions of the actual action were a little confusing, but the novel isn’t about the action and I think that’s forgivable.

a-song-for-quiet_origA Song for Quiet switches protagonist to Deacon James, a saxophone playing blues man from Georgia. Persons still features, but as a persistent secondary character that is shown to be just as monstrous as the things he fights. It’s great to see the protagonist from the first book through another person’s (heh) eyes, you’re shown that he’s not putting on quite as convincing a façade as he believes, and paints the first book in a very different light than if it were read alone. I thought A Song for Quiet was incredible. The horror is varied, it’s described sublimely, the length is perfect, and the characters are everything I want in a horror story. I was on edge from the second page of the book, and there were passages where I desperately wanted to put the book down but found myself unable to, wrapped up in the horrible spectacle of it all. I don’t want to spoil anything about this book, and it’s short enough to take a gamble on without reading the blurb on goodreads, just pick it up and see for yourself. A Song for Quiet is in my top 5 for horror stories, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Persons Non Grata is an absolutely fantastic series that more people should be checking out. Short and easy to read, unique and flavorful, brilliantly written, and absolutely dripping with that heavy sense of wrong that fans of cosmic horror will instantly recognize, this series has jumped into my must reads and I cannot wait to see what Cassandra Khaw does with this series next.

Rating:
Hammers on Bone: 8.5/10
A Song for Quiet: 9.5/10
-Will