REVIEW: “Mictian Diabolus” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Mictian Diabolus”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 28-45 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: graphic descriptions of human torture and mutilation.

It’s a strange experience to read a story that is well-written but nevertheless not a nice story. Such was my experience reading this one, a story of petty crime, drug addiction, the grotesque and demonic, all carefully put together and elegantly wrapped up, but still sordid.

The story follows the classic structure of a high school/teen horror movie, each step leading inexorably on to the predictable ending. At the end, the only question I left with was ‘what (or who) is Mictian?’ — a question unanswered in the story but easily answered via google. So I learned something new reading this story, so the unpleasant experience wasn’t wholly without reward.

REVIEW: “Death on Mars” by Madeline Ashby

Review of Madeline Ashby, “Death on Mars”, in Visions, Ventures, Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, edited by Ed Finn and Joey Eschrich, (Center for Science and Imagination, Arizona State University, 2017): 115-136 — Download here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The premise of this story is an experiment:

To see if women—with their lower caloric needs, their lesser weight, their quite literally cheaper labor, in more ways than one—could get the job done on Phobos? (p. 117)

Even now, when so much work has been done to address the lack of women in STEM (which is sadly all too much reflected in SFF, both amongst the writers and the written), the status quo is still such that I’m not surprised it is a woman that has written a story based on this premise.

This was not the only thing that separated this story out from the others I’ve read so far in this anthology. The other was that the science was not the focus; instead, it is the women and their relationships with each other, and how these relationships are disrupted by the arrival of a newcomer bearing unwanted news. They are the heart of the story; the science, their life on Phobos, these are all incidental.

This was a quiet, poignant story, well worth the reading. It’s hard not to cry at it, but at the same time it’s hard not to recognize the beautiful wonder of seeing these women “where we’re supposed to be. Because this is where we are at our best” (p. 135). What better death could one ask for, than to die knowing they died where they were supposed to be, being the best they could be?

REVIEW: “Furtherest” by Kaaron Warren

Review of Kaaron Warren, “Furtherest”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 55—76. Purchase Here. Originally published in Dark Screams Volume Seven, edited by Brian James Freeman (Cemetery Dance/Hydra, 2017). Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis.

Another engaging story in the anthology, and a rewarding read. The story revolves around four boat houses on an Australian beach, with the (unnamed female) protagonist’s family occupying one house during their summer beach holidays, and the others acting as home to the indolent ‘Jason’s dad’ and the rather disturbing ‘Mr White/Grandpa Sheet/Grandad Sheet’ as he’s variously called. There is something sinister about the dunes at the back of the house and there are rumours of a spate of suicides over the years, so no-one wants to venture inside, despite Grandpa Sheet’s exhortations to see who can go ‘furtherest’. The story starts when the protagonist is a young girl, and then resumes when she is older and the family, experiencing its own problems, visits the beach once again. It’s a mysterious and unnerving story that kept me gripped to the end.

It took me a little while to get into the narrator’s voice and to work out the different characters in the houses and so on, but the gradual reveal of the various layered elements of the story was admirable, as was the portrayal of family dynamics. I also learnt a lot from the story. With the early reference to the Vietnam conflict I originally assumed that the story was set in the USA and was a little confused by some of the more British phrasing, only to realise the that story takes place in Australia – and not only that I’m a bit ignorant of some aspects Australian history and culture, but also that I don’t seem to have read much horror fiction set in Australia, which is something that I’ll have to rectify. I intend to check out Warren’s other stories in the near future.

REVIEW: “Store in a Dark Place” by David Stevens

Review of David Stevens, “Store in a Dark Place”, Space and Time #130 Winter 2017 pp. 29-34. Purchase here. Review by Ben Serna-Grey.


What a strange and very dark story. The story follows a protagonist named Gerald whose deformed head is locked up in a box. He has flashbacks and deals with his paranoia that everywhere he goes death and destruction follow. The story is set in a ruined world which the author has apparently explored before in two previously published stories: “Avoiding Gagarin,” in Aurealis, and “The Big Reveal” in Kaleidotrope. Definitely right up your alley if you’re a fan of grimdark writing, with loads of gritty imagery and murky, confused morality.


The writing is full of a lot of rhetorical questions, which can get a little grating after a while, and leaves a lot of questions unanswered (though they may be answered better once the other two stories have been read), but the “Store in a Dark Place” is is intriguing enough. Just be prepared for a bit of a downer.

REVIEW: “The Ashen Heart of St. Fain” by Dale Carothers

Review of Dale Carothers, “The Ashen Heart of St. Fain”, Space and Time #130 Winter 2017 pp. 35-40. Purchase here. Review by Ben Serna-Grey.


A fantasy story about a young, privileged man who wants to basically be his world’s equivalent of Walt Whitman, and write a book for the common people. He seeks to write an account of the city of St. Fain, where a fallen god has left a massive burnt-out crater. Like many would-be “writers” with lofty goals, he finds himself counting more an more days without a page count and ultimately ends up caught in another person’s pain, his own failings, and his family’s expectations. This is a story of healing, but also of shattered dreams, naivete, misplaced hopes. It starts out easy enough, but don’t expect the whole ride to be full of peaceful easy feelings.

Does Nicholas ever pursue writing again and actually get some work done? I don’t know. Maybe Dale Carothers will revisit this young man’s world or it’s been visited before this story. Either way I do recommend this one. While it is refreshing to see a story every once in a while that has a not-so-happy ending, this one did actually bum me out a little. Which is a good thing, believe it or not.


REVIEW: “Hair” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Hair”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 12-26 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

The opening line of the opening story in this collection grabbed me viscerally and left me deeply uncomfortable:

Tonight, Theodore voluntarily ingested hair for the first time.

All it took was the insertion of the single world ‘voluntarily’ to conjure up images of some bizarre and creepy fetish — and also to conjure up questions that I must have answered in order to be satisfied: Why does Theodore choose to eat his own hair, and what is the reason for the strange elation it brings him?

In the end, I’m not sure I got any answers: But the sheer creepiness of the story carried me from start to finish almost without allowing me to pause for breath.

(Originally published in DarkFuse, 2016).

REVIEW: Darkest Hours by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

One of the perks of reviews is discovering new stories and new authers that one would not otherwise have ever come across — this goes both for reading reviews and writing them! Were it not for running this site, I doubt I would have come across this collection of short stories (mostly horror, but some have a stronger SFF element or slant). This is also the first time we’ve reviewed a collection of short stories all written by the same author, instead of an edited anthology, which is itself a treat: A single story never can display all facets of a single author.

The stories in this collection display many facets: Creepy, disturbing, but also skilled and precise. The overall tenor is a gory, sordid one — not really up my alley, unfortunately. In the end, I found I came away from too many of the stories feeling vaguely unclean from having read them, and I also found the glorification of male violence and the centering of the male characters rather depressing.

Nine of the stories in this collection have been previous published, but the remaining seven are new. As is usual on this site, we’ll review each of the stories in turn, and link the reviews to the list below:

If horror is your thing, you’ll probably find a story for you in this collection. If horror isn’t your thing, you may still yet find a story for you in this collection. Or you might be better off avoiding it.

REVIEW: “Holiday Romance” by Mark Morris

Review of Mark Morris, “Holiday Romance”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 31—54. Purchase Here. Originally published in Black Static #58 (2017). Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis.

I loved this story. From the opening paragraph I knew that the author’s writing style was going to chime with me, and as soon as it became apparent that the story was set in an English seaside town (smell the nostalgia!) I was on board and fully paid up.

Our protagonist, Skelton (great name), is escaping his failing marriage with a trip to the coastal holiday town he visited as a teenager, and where he had an unrequited infatuation with a girl he’s never forgotten. It isn’t long before he meets an intriguing woman holidaying with her infirm husband, and the police are asking him questions about body parts found on the beach that, impossibly, seem to match his DNA.

I guessed where the story was going quite early on but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment of it; instead reading it felt more like visiting with an old friend. I was a bit sceptical about the rapidity with which DNA test results became available (pretty swish forensic service in that part of England) but perhaps that’s misplaced.

Overall, this is a lovely story about the decisions we make (or don’t) and their repercussions, and a reminder that all relationships eventually decline, though not all to the same severity or extent. The ending, though disturbing, offers some hope. Highly recommended.

REVIEW: “Liquid Air” by Inna Effress

Review of Inna Effress, “Liquid Air”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 21—30. Purchase Here. Originally published in Nightscript III, edited by C.M. Muller (Nightscript, 2017). Purchase Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis.

One of the shorter stories in the anthology, this is an interesting piece that follows Kris as she goes to collect some neon signage from an unusual sign technician, and is told to return on the morrow as it is not yet finished. We then get an insight into Kris’s home life and the growing insanity of her doll-obsessed husband and failing marriage. When she returns to collect the signage the next day she makes a decision that brings about something of a cataclysm for her and others.

The story is a bit disjointed and I’m not sure that the various parts hang together as well as they could, though it may be that some of the meaning has passed me by; I was certainly left with a few questions at the end. I wasn’t sufficiently convinced of Kate’s relatively sudden (and prolonged) acquiescence to physical intimacy with the technician, even if they had met once before, and it felt like the husband’s obsession could have been dealt with more satisfactorily. Nonetheless, it was an entertaining read and the real strength of the story is in the descriptions, with the final section, detailing the aftermath of a flood that has unearthed the contents of a cemetery (and a few other things), really standing out. Well worth a read.

REVIEW: “When You’re Ready” by M. Ian Bell

Review of M. Ian Bell, “When You’re Ready”, Apex Magazine 110 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

A scientist is hard at work, modeling a human life from conception, tweaking variables of upbringing, trying to guide the simulant to a specific outcome. He’s done this many times before, but never gets the results he is looking for. The story follows his current attempt, with reflections on what has gone wrong before.

I enjoyed the way this story plays with memory and experience, and how people are hurt, supported, and otherwise influenced by the people around them and by their own choices. The way it engages with the nature versus nurture question is hardly unique – I think it’s pretty well accepted at this point that both factor into the people we become – but the depth of the reflection is rare, and I found it rewarding. I feel like this mirrors how many of us reflect on our lives, endlessly imagining how different circumstances might have brought us closer to the person we wish we were.

The story deals with so many interesting questions. How much can you change a person before they become unrecognizable to the people who know them? Can undesirable events lead to desirable results? What about an individual is inborn, and how much can be changed through experience? And most importantly, how much can a person will themselves to change, given a set past?

This doesn’t have what I would consider a twist ending, but the ending does color the story that came before, once you get to it. The pieces of the past slowly come together to create a satisfying conclusion. I highly recommend this for anyone who likes reflective, essentially psychological science fiction.