The Outside – Seeing the Forest Over the Trees

51ti-w7znslI hate missing books. Sometimes they just come out during a crowded release season, or I’m feeling too burnt out to give the book its proper due. Whatever the case, there is a satisfaction you feel when you finally get to it regardless of the book’s quality. However, there are those perfect moments, when your anticipation is rewarded and the story is more than you could have dreamed. Such is the case with this book. The cover was alluring with its grey negative space punctured by the red space suit, and the large yellow block lettering for the title. Its synopsis pulled me in closer and whispered its potential for dark secrets into my ear. The Outside, by Ada Hoffman, is a monster of a book that capitalizes on its premise and left me needing more.

The story follows Yasira Shien, an autistic scientist on the verge of inventing a new energy drive. In the midst of an experiment, the device explodes, allowing Yasira to see beyond the limits of her reality. However, the space station is destroyed and her fellow scientists are killed in the accident, and she is brought before the AI Gods, who shepherd mankind, and her work is deemed heretical. For penance, they offer her the chance to serve Nemesis, the god who hunts heretics and keeps humanity safe from the Outside. But Yasira wouldn’t hunt anyone, instead she needs to bring home her mentor in order to please Nemesis. As her search progresses, however, she begins to question the nature of her reality and begins to doubt who has her best interests at heart.

This book was quite the ride, annihilating my expectations. I don’t even know where to begin, because there are so many goodies packed in. The characters are top notch, the story is thrilling, the horror elements are creepy, and the way Hoffman handles her themes is just…magical. I think I’m also burying the lead on this one, but the lovecraftian horror is…out of this world. I couldn’t help it, this book just makes me want to sing about it, and if I had a singing voice, you’d be hearing this instead of reading it.

Let’s get beyond the gush, though, and highlight what makes me love this book. First off, Hoffman’s take on AI Gods guiding humanity through space is fantastic. There is a deep history here that carries a sense of weight, and the various characters really feel like they live there. The Gods themselves, while virtually all powerful, need humans and their souls in order to continue existing and projecting their miracles. There is this foreboding sense too that they want humanity to develop a specific way, allowing them to experiment in limited ways, but also restricting their own benevolence to avoid coddling. They maintain a sense of order through a structured hierarchy involving angels and other servants. These servants are, more often than not, augmented humans who have become more machine than human. Akavi is one of Nemesis’ angels, and he’s an utter delight as he tries to get Yasira to bring him to her former mentor through whatever means are at his disposal.

Hoffman utilizes this premise to maximum effect in regards to character, story and themes. I don’t want to get into too much detail about one particular thing for two reasons. One, the story itself is just a joy to read blind. Two, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Every piece is like a gear in an intricate clock, winding through an elegant dance that encompasses the whole story. The push and pull on Yasira as she does Nemesis’ bidding while wrestling with the mind-opening teachings of her former mentor is astonishing. Every plot point felt like a new door being opened into understanding everything else that came before it while also breaking down your understanding of Hoffman’s world. It was enchanting, and I was enthralled from beginning to end. An end which synthesized everything before it and feels complete in its own respect.

There are a few issues I had with the book, but they are mostly small and not worthy of a deeper dive. They weren’t fundamental problems that slowed the ticking of the clock and rarely pulled me out of the experience. It’s a hard novel to dissect because it works on the grander scale that the little pieces get subsumed by the whole. It feels like reading about the inner workings of Big Ben and then going to see it and all your knowledge about it is overtaken by awe, allowing you to appreciate it on all of its levels. I truly got lost in this book, and I can’t wait to read more from this series. So open your door and then your mind, it’s time to go to The Outside.

Rating: The Outside – 8.5/10
Alex

The Troupe And American Elsewhere – The Bennett Backlog

I recently moved from NYC to the suburbs. In preparing to depart the city, I made an effort to request a number of more hard to find books on my TBR pile that the NYPL had, but a smaller library would not have access to. Two of these books were The Troupe and American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett. If you know anything about this site’s preferences, you likely know that we love RJB and consider him one of our collective favorite authors – he is even an NPC in our group Dungeons & Dragons campaign. His Divine Cities trilogy is one of our absolute favorite series ever, and The Founders Trilogy is climbing its way up there as he puts out more books. But, there are a number of his older books that we have never gotten to. Thus, I set out to complete my experience with all of his books and found myself reading two separate standalone novels of his in a single week.

71xhdsor41lLet’s start with The Troupe. This book tells the story of sixteen-year-old pianist George Carole. George is a very gifted pianist who has established himself in the vaudeville community in an attempt to find the man he suspects to be his father, the great Heironomo Silenus. Yet as he chases down his father’s troupe, he begins to understand that their performances are strange even for vaudeville: for wherever they happen to tour, the very nature of the world seems to change. Because there is a secret within Silenus’ show so ancient and dangerous that it has won him many powerful enemies. And it’s not until after he joins them that George realizes the troupe is not simply touring: they are running for their very lives.

The Troupe, despite my love of vaudeville acts, is likely my least favorite of all of Bennett’s work I have read to date. It’s not a bad book by any means, but it feels like it lacks the sophistication and creativity that every one of his other novels has on full display. The characters are interesting, but not engrossing. The world is magical, but not wondrous. You can see the beginnings of the style that I have come to love in his more recent works on display, but his signature creativity of worlds and cleverness of themes are not quite present. One thing I did enjoy about The Troupe is that it feels a lot closer to horror than most of Bennett’s other work, and horror is something that Bennett does very very well. But there is an odd clash of atmospheric cues, as George feels like a more simplistic character out of a young adult novel, while the supporting cast feels like twisted adult characters that have complex pasts. I really enjoyed the characterization of the troupe’s members, but George fell very flat for me as a protagonist. George does grow, but he does it in these awkward lurches forward that feel like watching bad actors read off lines. I like where he ends up, but I don’t like how he got there.

On the positive side, the plot of The Troupe was very surprising and original. The ending, like all Bennett books, was powerful and meaningful and did a lot of the work to charm me, despite my lukewarm feelings about the rest of the book. Bennett clearly had some big thoughts that he wanted to build this story towards like a staircase into the sky, but I think there are just a few steps missing. All in all, I think The Troupe is a fascinating case study for someone who is already a fan of Bennett’s work, or a great book for someone who loves horror and vaudeville, but not the first book I would hand to an RJB newcomer.

bennet_americanelsewhere_tp1American Elsewhere, on the other hand, is absolutely a book I would give to anyone without reservation. This book is Bennett’s take on the small, sleepy American town that’s hiding big secrets. Wink, New Mexico – a perfect little town not found on any map. In this town, there are quiet streets lined with pretty houses, houses that conceal the strangest things. Our story follows Mona Bright, an ex-cop who inherits her long-dead mother’s home in Wink. And the closer Mona gets to her mother’s past, the more she understands that the people of Wink are very, very different.

American Elsewhere is Bennett’s interpretation of the American dream, and it is simply brilliant. It’s about answering the question, “what would happen if extraterrestrial beings took the promise of America at complete face value?” It’s strange, terrifying, poignant, and playful, and I had an absolute blast reading it. The narrative hops between two foci. The first follows the main cast as it tells this sweeping story that is part science fiction, part horror, and part thriller. The second is these little vignettes of the ‘aliens’ trying to find their own slices of America and how those interpretations go horrifyingly wrong. The two narratives mix extremely well to paint this vivid alternative take on the American dream and it surprises and delights. The themes are well-realized, the characters are deep, and the plot is gripping. There isn’t a lot more that I can ask from a novel, though there are one or two places for improvement.

While I love the majority of the characters, Mona herself felt a bit flat. While Bennett leaves her open to the experience, giving the readers a self-insert, there wasn’t enough to her character to build contrast with the themes that make people fully invest in her story. She just doesn’t feel like she has a lot of thoughts, feelings, or reactions to things, sorta like she’s just on autopilot. I just didn’t feel as close a connection with her as I have with other Bennett characters. In addition, the pacing of American Elsewhere is a little wonky. There are certain sections that can feel very slow and lose the momentum of the story. However, other than these two complaints, I very much enjoyed every other part of the story.

In the end, both The Troupe and American Elsewhere are compelling reads for Bennett fans, but Elsewhere does a much better job at standing alone as a strong novel. I would recommend either book to a reader who feels drawn to the subject matter and I feel like it is pretty hard to go wrong with Bennett regardless of which of his books you pick up. Whether you are simply looking for more content after you finish The Divine Cities, or feel a hankering for a decent standalone novel because you don’t want to commit to a series, these books are for you.

Rating:
The Troupe – 7.5/10
American Elsewhere – 9.0/10
-Andrew

House of Leaves – A Maze of Our Own Making

I am not equipped to write this review. Honestly, I’m not sure if anyone would be. I mean maybe if I had an English degree and an understanding of western literature beyond high school, I might be more confident, but we work with what we have. My desire to read House of Leaves started a few years ago, back when book club was still a thing we got together for, and House of Leaves popped up when I searched for a horror book to suggest. The premise intrigued me: a house full of secrets that is larger on the inside than the outside. A tale about the deep siren’s call of obsession that entwines the reader’s need for answers with the protagonists’. Fortunately, for the club, and my budding reading habits, this book was vetoed. It lingered in the back of my mind for years until right before COVID hit the U.S. I saw a single copy of it in the bookstore and the longing to read it surged in my chest. Of course I purchased it, and then when I opened it, I saw the madness within and shelved it. I had too many spring books to review, sothis had to wait a few more months. October rolled around and ‘twas the season, so I cracked this tome open and ventured into the unknown.

For those who don’t know, House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski, is a modern horror/surrealist piece of literature that defies any real description. It’s a story several times removed from the story featured in the synopsis. Essentially, the book is a documentary about a family that buys a haunted house and explores its dark depths. It’s also the story of a blind man’s attempt to explain the documentary as it is, offering symbolic meaning and providing psychoanalysis through a series of footnotes that cover western mythology as well as critical reception of the film. This is then commentated on by yet another man, who happens upon the manuscript after said blind man dies, and he discovers it while rummaging through the dead man’s apartment while drunk. It’s part textbook, part story, part diary, and all nightmare. It’s truly a monster of a book, and we haven’t even touched the formatting of the different sections that heighten the tension.

I can hear you now, “what the fuck are you on, trying to talk about this weird book?” Honestly, I don’t even know why I’m writing this. I feel uncomfortable even recommending this book to anyone who isn’t already interested. In some ways I am driven by my obsession to talk about it so that I may find the end of the maze internally. There is something special about this book, and it gnawed at me until the very last page. I want others to experience it for themselves. I found it nearly impossible to put down, and I wouldn’t have except for the fact that I had to sleep, work to make a living, and eat food so I could continue to read this book. It wormed its way into my brain, feeding on the ends of my neurons that weren’t dedicated to it. The obsession took hold of me like a rabid dog burying a bone. I felt connected to the book in a way I hadn’t really felt connected to a piece of fiction before. I needed to know every little detail. I wanted to satiate my curiosity while applauding my own intelligence for catching on. I wanted to be swept away, and my to be breath taken from my lungs when major revelations occurred. I yearned to know every detail of these people’s lives, know how they ticked, and understand why they were the way they were. And the book just fed my desires, making me think of my own experience in relation to Johnny Truant, the man who finds the manuscript. I craved to know how Johnny related to the Navidsons, the family who bought this home and set upon themselves the task of discovering its mysteries.

The formatting felt like a drug. I turned the book upside down, diagonal, sideways. I read pages while standing in front of a mirror. I read backwards through pages I had already read forwards. There was no challenge presented by the changing format I did not meet. I had to know everything. My boat had left the docks and I let the wind take me wherever it was blowing. The initial fear I felt when I gazed upon the complex maze of letters and words was replaced with the joy of exploration. I felt an intense desire to pick up every morsel left by the conglomerate of authors, worried that missing one little piece would degrade the effort put in. The changing landscape of the text only fueled this passion, giving the book a geography that is so rarely seen. The little cracks and crevices provided so many rewards, so many pats on the back, it was as addicting as it was fulfilling.

Until it wasn’t. There was a moment in the book where my hunger became an emptiness. I knew I needed to fill it, but the story was over. It just ended. The characters, the Navidsons, Johnny, the women Johnny talked to, all their lives just go on. There are no conventional conclusions to their story. There were one hundred fifty pages of appendices, full of letters, photographs, and scrap art. I just had to digest it all, and yet the rewards were missing. I read four hundred pages of the six hundred and fifty pages in a single sitting, and I felt dead. I spent roughly forty five minutes translating a code in one of the end letters. Once the book was over I just sat there. I asked myself, was it me? Did the book just lose its magic? Was I not getting it? Then I remembered one of the first pages of the book, in an iconic typewriter font, somewhat off center, the phrase This is not for you appears. And it all started to come together for me in a brilliant understanding and while that emptiness brought on by the book never really left me, I felt satisfied.

Again, I ask myself, and probably you too, dear reader, why do I bring up this book? Why am I giving you an outline of my experience? Describing my feeling about a book that defies explanation, or tidy description. A book that requires a larger than healthy level of effort, and a frankly ludicrous amount of buy in mentally. Something that isn’t quite fantasy, and not really science fiction either, and barely horror? Those words echo in my mind This is not for you, as I try to come up with a reason. This is not for you, This is not for you, This is not for you. And, maybe therein lies the answer.

Rating: House of LeavesThis is for me./10
-Alex

Psycho – Scares From Page To Screen

Robert Bloch’s Psycho is one of those iconic stories that summons a deluge of mental images with its name alone. It’s a flagship horror/murder mystery tale that defines its genre and earns countless homages in various mediums. Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation is undoubtedly the first thing that springs to mind when anyone mentions Psycho, thanks largely to the classic shower scene, replete with nails-on-a-chalkboard-esque violin screeches and chocolate syrup masquerading as violent spurts of blood. Hitchcock’s adaptation itself is the very reason I read Robert Bloch’s Psycho. The book and its big-screen sibling were the latest topic of discussion on my Page2Screen series with Kicking the Seat founder and movie critic extraordinaire Ian Simmons. Bloch’s novel of addled minds and murder mysteries is simultaneously prescient and a surefire product of its time. If you’ve missed the book or the movie, here’s your requisite spoiler warning before I dive in. 

Psycho puts Norman Bates centerstage. Bates runs a motel on the side of a now-defunct highway that receives very little traffic. His only constant companion is his mother, who hovers over him and prevents him from truly growing into a functioning adult. Norman, as any reader will quickly discover, suffers from some undefined mental ailment. His mother has been dead for 20 years, and Norman has carried on as though she’s right beside him, and in a way she is. Mary, a beautiful young woman engaged to a hardware store clerk she met on a cruise ship, steals $40,000 from her boss and makes a run for it, hoping the money will help her pay off the debts of Sam Loomis, her fiancé. She makes a wrong turn and ends up at the Bates motel for an evening. Norman welcomes her and checks her in, but his mother’s influence takes over. Norman’s “mother” kills Mary and buries her car in the swamp behind the Bates house near the hotel. The story that follows is told through alternating POVs: Norman Bates as he tries to cover up the damage he’s done and Sam Loomis, accompanied by Lila, Mary’s sister, as they try to track Mary’s whereabouts. 

Psycho offers a chilling dissection of psychosis via Norman Bates. It’s a thin tome–my paperback copy has 176 pages–and the story moves along briskly. The plot itself is fine, and the book’s pace is surprisingly nestled between fast and slow, right in the middle. I won’t waste any space detailing the intricacies of what actually happens, because that’s the crux of the book. Instead, I’ll discuss a few aspects of Psycho that left me uncertain about whether it’s worthy of a recommendation. 

I’ll start with the good. Psycho’s treatment of authorities is hauntingly relevant to our current social climate. Lila believes from the start that Mary’s disappearance bears signs of overt criminality. She finds Sam Loomis and asks him for help, but he is hesitant to bring in the police. A private investigator joins the hunt for Mary and asks for 24 hours before they contact the authorities. Sam and Lila agree. It’s fine to shrug this off as a plot device. But when the 24 hours expires and Sam and Lila do contact the sheriff, he does virtually nothing, sweeping Bates’ crimes under the rug. I actually found this the most haunting aspect of Psycho: the police are unwilling to solve a clear issue, instead choosing to fuel the fire by completely ignoring the problem altogether. Self-interest reigns supreme, especially if it means the guy with a badge doesn’t have to answer for his wrongdoings. I’ll leave it there to avoid delving into more social commentary, but I enjoyed Psycho for its honest look at authoritative complacency and its consequences. 

Psycho faltered when it came time to truly scare the bejeezus out of me. Norman Bates? Terrifying, but as a concept. The things he does? Horrific. His mental impairment (which is explored later in the book)? Tragic, with chilling results. Psycho has all sorts of fodder for a terrifying and suspenseful experience, but I think it’s too much a product of its time to offer any real jump scares or true tension. When I read a book billed as “Icily terrifying!” on its back cover, I want hair-raising horror moments. I want to be scared to head downstairs to my unfinished basement just to do a load of laundry. I’m no horror connoisseur, but I think Bloch’s writing comes from a time when “telling” was the norm and “showing” hadn’t quite snuffed it out as the dominant storytelling device. It’s hard to say this, though, because Psycho excels in many areas, and I appreciate it for its place among influential literary achievements. I just wasn’t bowled over by the prose.

This problem peaked at the novel’s conclusion, when loose ends are tied up neatly with a few pages of blatant exposition. Again, likely a product of the book’s time, but I left unsatisfied. On the other hand, the final pages brought me the only jump-scare-worthy moment of the entire book. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s one many first-time readers will likely predict and enjoy despite expecting it. 

From a genre point of view, Psycho seems to teeter between horror/thriller and the slightly supernatural. For me, Psycho felt like a precursor to authors like Stephen King, who blend the mystic with the real and package it all in a tight story. Psycho does just that, though with a few hiccups along the way, making it a worthwhile read for SFF fans. 

Psycho first published in 1959, and Hitchcock’s cinematic retelling released in 1960. I highly doubt a 2020 review will do much to sway newcomers one way or the other. Psycho exists in a weird sort of limbo where the horror elements age poorly but the social issues contained within can still resonate 60 years later. If you’re a horror/thriller or murder mystery fan, Psycho is worth the read if only to understand how it influenced the genre. If you want a modern and tense thriller, you may be better off finding a different read. 

Rating: Psycho – 6.5/10

-Cole

The Shadow Saint: Out Of The Shadows, Into The Limelight

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Okay, let’s do a checklist here of things I like that The Shadow Saint has in it, yeah? Krakens attacking ships: check. Skeletons with dry senses of humor: check. Horrifying surreal imagery: big ol’ check. Ghouls: still a check there too. I could keep going for a while but I think you all get the idea, The Shadow Saint ticks a lot of the boxes of things that I like in a book, and I really, really liked it. Sorry for the review spoiler, but get over it, or don’t, whatever.

The Shadow Saint, by Gareth Hanrahan, is the second book in The Black Iron Legacy series. Given that it is the second book, you probably shouldn’t be reading a review or a synopsis of it if you haven’t read the first book, The Gutter Prayer, but I’m not your dad so you can do whatever you want, man. You can find our review of Prayer here if you are wondering if it’s for you. That said, spoilers lie ahead for the first book and you should venture forth at your own peril. 

Our story picks up soon after the close of the first novel, with our previous protagonists mostly either dead or fundamentally changed by their experiences. The appearance of the New City, due to the Gutter Miracle from book one, and the fall of the alchemical stranglehold of the guild and their Tallowmen, have thrown Guerdon into chaos. For those familiar with the city, it’s pretty much business as usual. Unfortunately, that is about to change when the Godswar finally comes to Guerdon. 

One of my minor complaints in my review of the previous book (still here), was that the rest of the world felt a little underdeveloped compared to all of the information and history we received about Guerdon and its place in the world. We knew that there was a death empire called Haith, but little else about it. We knew that Ishmere was perpetrating a “godswar” that was causing a massive influx of refugees, but outside of a couple of chapters and descriptions of the various horrors, we never got a chance to experience them. In The Shadow Saint, all of that changes. It almost felt as if Hanrahan heard the (very mild) criticism, and decided that if we wanted to know about the rest of the world, then we’d best buckle up for book two. Saint packs so much worldbuilding and information into its runtime, without feeling bloated at any point, that I am frankly amazed. I have a much better understanding of the world and how it functions after this book, and it all felt surprisingly important to the overall plot. Ishmere is the one small exception to this because while we did get more of a glimpse into individual Ishmerians and their choices and beliefs, the actual society still feels a little blank. 

On the other hand, we have the empire of Haith. Normally I would briefly go over all of the various factions in my paragraph about worldbuilding, but I am so enthralled with and enraptured by the idea of Haith that I just need to gush about it for a little bit. Haith is an “eternal empire” run by necromancers (necromancers are so hot right now). Instead of worshipping gods, their power instead comes from the creation of magical artifacts they refer to as phylacteries. These phylacteries are held by the head of an individual noble house and contain the souls and accumulated knowledge and experience of all those who have held the artifact before. Think Avatar the Last Airbender, with each phylactery granting the holder knowledge of thousands of their greatest ancestors rather than the previous avatars. The moments that we see this in the book are incredibly cool and I loved the descriptions of how the character going through this moment experienced it personally. As I mentioned before, only the previous wielder of the phylactery can transfer their soul into it and become Enshrined, the highest class in Haith. Beneath the Enshrined, we have the Vigilant; individuals whose souls are bound to their bodies after death and become magical living skeletons forever working toward the betterment of the Empire of Haith. Needless to say, the concept of legions of skeleton warriors led by necromantic superhumans against a nation of mad warring gods is pretty far up my alley, and I absolutely loved it.

I also loved Hanrahan’s improvement in terms of the plot. I mentioned in my last review that while The Gutter Prayer was a fun ride, I felt the plot could be directionless and meandering at times before it finally found its stride. The Shadow Saint felt like it noticeably addressed this issue with a much more cohesive and streamlined plot. I’m not sure how much of it was my preexisting knowledge of the city of Guerdon and the characters that live there, and how much of it was Hanrahan smoothing out the hiccups from the previous installment, but the pacing and engineering of the plot is spot on in The Shadow Saint. However, I did feel that the actual climax happened rather quickly – but I think that was more a result of the sheer amount of things happening than any mechanical failing on Hanrahan’s part.

I’d like to wrap up with a note on the prose and descriptions. Hanrahan has a gift for describing the miraculous and horrifying in a way that makes it easy to imagine and hard to forget. In a book that is about warring gods and saints, miraculous massacres of undead bone soldiers, and a living city that was created by magic everything still manages to feel real and weighty. I could envision every stilling of the waters by the Kraken, and the descriptions of the Smoke Painter drawing glowing sigils in the sky that turned those that looked at them mad clicked with the part of me that loves cosmic horror and the rabbit hole of the SCP Foundation wiki. I need more of this world in my life, and I hope that Hanrahan decides to continue this world’s story whether it revolves around Guerdon and the characters from this series or not. I had a ton of fun reading this book. The Shadow Saint is a stellar sophomore effort and I can only hope that Hanrahan continues his skyward trajectory from here. I will be on the lookout for more news on the world of The Black Iron Legacy, and I desperately hope that I get the opportunity to return to this world sometime in the future. As it stands, we already have two fantastic books and I cannot recommend highly enough that you bump this series to be next in line on your reading schedule. 

Rating: The Shadow Saint – 9.0/10

-Will

 

Scary Stories for Young Foxes: The Name Is A Trap It’s Actually Scary

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Sometimes it’s not a bad thing to judge a book by its cover. I occasionally see cover art so striking that I want to buy the book just for display, regardless of whether the content is all that good. Christian McKay Heidicker’s novel Scary Stories for Young Foxes is one such book. With expressive and stunning cover art and the promise of similarly styled illustrations for some of the stories, I knew I’d pick this book up just for how pretty it was, and I hoped that I’d end up enjoying the story as well. Luckily for me, Heidicker absolutely knocked it out of the park, and I will feel absolutely no shame placing this front and center on my bookshelf. 

Scary Stories for Young Foxes is a collection of eight short stories that are thoroughly interconnected and serve to tell a single overarching tale. Told through the window dressing of a group of fox kits sneaking out to hear scary stories from a nearby older fox, the novel strikes an interesting balance between outright horror and old-time fairy story morality tales. Each of the so-called scary stories is meant to teach the kits an important lesson while still having a distinct “stories around a campfire” spookiness to them. I thought that the individual stories were all very good as self-contained narratives while clearly building toward an overarching tale, and though the “twist” was incredibly clear from almost the beginning of the book, I did enjoy the slow reveal that went on over the runtime.

I was very interested to find out exactly where on the horror spectrum this book would land, what with the title including “for Young Foxes” and all. Particularly with the whole storybook illustration style and the campfire story window dressing, I was ready for this book to be mildly scary but mostly cute. Boy howdy, I was not prepared for what I got. Scary Stories doesn’t pull punches at all, and the first story absolutely wrecked me. The final three paragraphs are pretty much burned into my brain. Heidicker’s ability to scare through describing sounds is absolutely fantastic and really plays into the overall aesthetic of the book. You can imagine a good storyteller making the klikklikklak sound as the flames from the fire jump around them, and even on the page these descriptions just drip with suspense and terror. Not every story really spooked me, but most of them did, and there are a couple that were absolutely terrifying and would feel at home in any horror collection out there.

While slightly less stellar than the spooks, the characters were still very solid. We follow two foxes named Mia and Uly as they are separated from their dens as kits. Over the course of the novel we are shown them growing into adult foxes and experiencing a variety of frights in the process. All of the characters, main and side, felt well distinguished and unique enough to easily discern them from one another. Clocking in at 272 pages and containing eight distinct stories told by a third party to the events, this isn’t the book for you if you’re looking for in-depth character profiles, but I didn’t think the remainder of the book suffered for it.

After a chapter or two, I was ready to complain about how I would have preferred eight totally unconnected stories and how the fact that they were all related to each other would diminish the scariness and impact of the plot. As I read, though, I realized that wasn’t really the type of horror story I was in for. While I enjoy extremely dark stories and generally have found the “no one made it out okay” type of tale to be my favorite, I really enjoyed having Mia and Uly’s story slowly unravel for me. I thought the pacing was fantastic and felt that the breaks for the illustration and quick pauses where the storyteller talks directly to the listening kits were timed perfectly to add suspense. In addition to heightening the mood, I thought that the notes each of the stories ended on, upbeat or dark, were very well planned out and thoughtfully used to impact how I felt while I was reading it. It all added up to a sense of supreme intent and careful construction.

I think that Scary Stories for Young Foxes is great. I had a blast reading it and would recommend it to readers of nearly any age. Not leaning on “adult” themes of horror while remaining dark, scary, and impactful is a difficult trick to manage, and Heidicker pulls it off with aplomb. I would highly recommend giving this book a try, and while I am a devout Kindler would recommend even more reading it in paper to enjoy the fantastic illustrations that are included. 

 

Rating: Scary Stories for Young Foxes – 8.5/10

Cold Storage: More Like Lukewarm but Still Comfortable

I’ve had no small amount of difficulty deciding how to rate this book. Cold Storage, by David Koepp, is a horror novel that essentially takes Richard Preston’s nonfiction book, The Hot Zone, and jazzes it up with sentient mushrooms instead of Ebola. 

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It’s a choice that should have fallen firmly within my wheelhouse but, spoiler alert, my reaction at the end was fairly tepid. To me, this type of scary situation is served better through a sense of realism, where it can remain firmly grounded and can subtly suspend the reader’s disbelief. While I enjoyed the moments that felt over the top, I definitely felt like this was more of a Michael Bay take on the “scary disease outbreak” genre. This may resonate with some, but for me, it feels as if it misses the point of good horror as it doesn’t remind the reader that scary stuff happens all the time and more importantly, that scary stuff can happen to them.

Beginning with a brief first look into the story 32 years before the events of the meat of the book, Cold Storage introduces us to one of our main characters, Roberto Diaz, in what appears to be a very trying time in his life. Tempted to cheat on his wife with a colleague and on his way to Australia with her and his partner, he is given a first-hand look at what Koepp has named Cordyceps Novus, the “villain” of the book. A mind-controlling fungus familiar to anyone who has watched the docuseries Planet Earth or played the video game The Last of Us, Cordyceps is a parasitic mushroom that infects the brain of (currently) insects and turns them into zombie suicide bombers. After the mission to Australia Cordyceps Novus is contained and put into, you guessed it, cold storage in the United States. Fast forward 32 years and, you guessed it again, Cordyceps Novus has somehow managed to breach its containment and start infecting stuff. Cue a mostly grounded and fun adventure with a few absolutely eyebrow-raising moments.

These moments are experienced by the aforementioned Roberto Diaz and a pair of civilians, Teacake and Naomi Williams. I found the parts with Teacake and Naomi to be the most fun parts of the book. From their perspectives, we are given an exciting and fun story that starts as a fun mystery and quickly moves to abject horror. After finally meeting while at work on the night shift at the storage facility, they hear a beeping and, since they’re characters in a horror book, decide they need to check it out. This leads to a really fun story of hijinks and “don’t do that!” moments reminiscent of watching a horror movie in a theater. Diaz’s story, on the other hand, didn’t really ever click for me. I liked the idea of a run-down and retired superagent having to be reactivated for the return of his biggest boogeyman, and I thought there was a lot of potential there. Unfortunately, this part of the story made it very difficult to suspend my disbelief. I was willing to go along with a lot of stuff, I’m reading a book about a horrifying mushroom zombie parasite outbreak, but there were things so ridiculous and absolutely impossible that I actually put the book down for a minute. It was strange to read something that seemed so far outside the bounds of the realism that the rest of the book seemed to strive for, and it really left a sour taste in my mouth.

Swinging back into the positives, I really enjoyed the descriptions of Cordyceps Novus and the thought patterns that the infected were going through. The way the parasite evolved through the book and Koepp’s reasoning for it struck me as very realistic while still being alien enough to frighten. I felt that the pseudo-scientific reasoning for the paths the fungus took while mutating was really interesting and served to build a really interesting villain out of what is a replicating colony of spores at the end of the day. I really wish that the book had either been longer or that this had been at least a duology, as I don’t think that Cordyceps Novus really had enough runtime to shine as a true threat and exciting villain. What we got was good, but I wanted more.

That feeling of wanting more plays into a theory of mine about this book. I think this was a screenplay that was a difficult sell to production companies after the zombie genre collapse, and Koepp decided to flesh it out to a full-length novel. The over the top action scenes and buddy/romance story between Naomi and Teacake, the superagent gearing up scenes, and the final climax all seem more like they were written for the big screen than as a novel. I don’t think this is a bad thing, and what we got was a fun and exciting ride for the runtime, but I couldn’t shake that sneaking suspicion and when I looked recently at the back of the book there is a blurb specifically touting Koepp as a screenwriter and not an author, which I found somewhat edifying to this theory. I hope that Koepp continues writing for the page, though, as this was a fun time.

Cold Storage was not a masterpiece. However, it was a very fun, easy, and quick read that I immediately recommended to my friend in the car when I put it down. It reads like a novelization of an action-horror movie, and as such is a really great popcorn book to turn the critical parts of your brain off and have a good time with. If you’re looking for retired government agents, some pretty legit body horror, and a zombie deer riding elevators then look no further than Cold Storage.

Rating: Cold Storage – 6.5/10

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 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

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.