REVIEW: “Speaking of Ghosts” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Speaking of Ghosts”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 214-225 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

It’s a ghost story! Jem has a ghost haunting his storage closet, and who does he turn to for help? Not the internet, not an exorcist, not a medium, not an exterminator, no… “a past colleague and good friend…a double PhD (Philosophy and English Literature) with a specialty in 18th-19th century Gothic fiction” (p. 215). Because if there’s one thing academics are good at is banishing ghosts…

Dr. Raymond Block has an unfortunate tendency towards verbosity which is rather irritating to read. He’s more a charicature than a character, and as an academic I find it a bit frustrating to see the usual literary stereotypes of academics being reinforced. But on a more practical side of things, it means that a lot of this story is devoted to dialogue which does little to move the story forward; so by the time I reached the end, it felt like very little had happened.

(Originally published in Vague Visions, 2017).

REVIEW: “Satanic Panic” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Satanic Panic”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 202-212 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Content note: Cruelty to animals.

Satanic panic has swept Jarad Cross’s hometown, and when the neighborhood pets start being brutalized, all “the God-fearing cops” (p. 204) knew exactly where to turn their suspicion: To someone who met all the purported requirements of a Satanist, Jarad himself. But Jarad is no Satanist, and he “loved animals a lot more than he loved all the judgmental fuckers populating this bum-ass town” (p. 205).

With this story, there are two options where you can locate the horror: If Jarad is innocent, then who or what is the unknown Satanist that is torturing and killing the animals? Alternatively, if Jarad is innocent, then how can he fight against the panic, when neither fact nor reason will carry any weight? What is scarier, the Satanism or the Satanic panic? I know where my answer lies, but will encourage people to read the story and decide for themselves.

REVIEW: “Gasping” by Brandon O’Brien

Review of Brandon O’Brien, “Gasping”, Apex Magazine 111 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

A childless husband and wife find a baby by the ocean and adopt her. Colleen and Owen love baby Aislinn as their own, and they all move from Ireland to Trinidad. The girl is obviously not quite human, with breathing problems and strange reactions to water. But she grows up into a fine young woman, which is when the problems start.

I love a good selkie story or a changeling child, and I’m not alone in that. There’s a reason why both are so popular. This is not exactly either of those – Aislinn isn’t quite a selkie, as there is no seal skin, but she came from the water and to the water she must return. And a changeling child implies a switch, implies a human babe taken away somewhere, and that is also false. But this story sips from both of those classic narratives to excellent effect. This is a story about growing up, and about the difficulty parents face in letting their children go.

This is also a love story, between Aislinn and a girl in her class, Aditi. Their relationship captures the purity and innocence of young love free of angst, and brings a joyful counterpoint to the inevitably bittersweet ending.

The story is written in a dialect that I had some trouble following, but I got the hang of it by the end. If you are put off by that sort of thing, I recommend sticking it out, anyway. The story is worth it. I assume that this is a common Trinidadian dialect, and that it grounds the story in place, even if it is one I am unfamiliar with.

Overall, I enjoyed this story. The blending of fairy tale motifs and cultures set a delightful stage, and the casual acceptance of a lesbian love story is well worth checking out!

REVIEW: “Lost in the Dark” by John Langan

Review of John Langan, “Lost in the Dark”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 379—422. Purchase Here. Originally published in Haunted Nights, edited by Ellen Datlow and Lisa Morton (Blumhouse Book/Anchor Books), 2017. Purchase Here.  Reviewed by Rob Francis

An unusual and original story, and the longest in the anthology. A university lecturer is meeting one of his previous students (Sarah), who several years before wrote and directed a massively successful horror film (Lost in the Dark) that has since become a movie franchise. Some of the film seems to be based on true events wrapped up in an abandoned mine, cultism and the imprisonment of dark forces, but the narrator is interested in the ten-year anniversary interview Sarah did that suggests the film was originally made as a form of documentary, and subsequently expanded and fictionalised. The story here is a summary of what is known about the true events behind the film and its villain (Bad Agatha), some of the actors involved, and some details on key scenes from the film. This all sets up the meeting with Sarah effectively, when we find out the truth behind the documentary that was originally filmed when Sarah and her crew visited the abandoned mine. We are left with a mystery at the end as to what exactly happened and who really had a rapport with the spirit of Bad Agatha.

It’s a great tale to finish the anthology. All the sections of the story were effectively interwoven and the gradual reveal of what (may have) happened is deftly done throughout. There is some interesting reflection on the nature of horror stories and films, how stories and myths propagate and change over time, and the industry of horror that has developed over recent decades. At first we wonder why Sarah (and indeed some of the others) may have been so keen to develop a film based on a relatively traumatic event they experienced, but the ending hints at some explanations for this. This is a story that I am sure I will revisit many times.

REVIEW: “Eqalussuaq” by Tim Major

Review of Tim Major, “Eqalussuaq”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 361—377. Purchase Here. Originally published in Not One of Us #58, October 2017. Purchase Here.  Reviewed by Rob Francis

An interesting take on the idea of aural horror, which I haven’t seen much of — I remember Ramsay Campbell writing an interesting story featuring this (Hearing is Believing) but can’t recall much else. In this piece, Lea is a work-obsessed audio engineer (sound recordist?) who has been recording rare sounds of nature in Greenland (the movements of underwater icebergs etc.). When a rare shark species turns up she rushes to record it; and when it attacks her she somehow, in a way she doesn’t understand, makes a bargain with it to take someone else instead. When she returns home, to her somewhat ignored little boy, the odd screams of the shark seem to follow her, interfering with her recordings and ultimately her life until someone has to pay a high price to silence them.

This was a tremendous story and the internal conflict between Lea’s more devoted love for her work and her dutiful love for her son is well-handled. The idea and location of the story are original and innovative aspects of the tale, and it didn’t unfold quite as I expected so I was pleasantly surprised by the end. Highly recommended.

REVIEW: “Sabbatical” by Mike Thorn

Review of Mike Thorn, “Sabbatical”, Darkest Hours (Unnerving, 2017): 182-199 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This story surprised me. After story after story of misogyny, male privilege, and general assholeish behavior, this one featured a character (Gage) willing to call out such problematic behavior in a fellow character (Thad): The first time I’ve seen this behavior explicitly commented on in the book. What a refreshing change!

This was also one of the few stories where the psychology of the story worked well one me — there was a constant wondering of why? and what will happen next? and even a bit of how?.

I don’t think these two things are disconnected: By framing Gage as someone who is not a jerk, Thorn makes me care about him and what will happen to him, and the uncertainty on this latter count is unsettling, and thus provoking, and successful.

(Originally published in Dark Moon Digest, 2017.)

REVIEW: “The Starry Crown” by Marc E. Fitch

Review of Marc E. Fitch, “The Starry Crown”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 345—359. Purchase Here. Originally published in Horror Library Volume 6, edited by Eric G. Guignard (Cutting Block Books, 2017). Purchase Here.  Reviewed by Rob Francis

A research student travels to the Deep South of the USA to look for the mysterious origins of the hymn/folk song ‘Down to the Valley’ or ‘The Good Old Way’ (usually referred to as ‘Down to the River to Pray’ in popular culture, I believe). He ends up in ‘Evanstown’, South Carolina, once home of one Llewellyn Cobb who may have originally written the song. He’s told to seek out the oldest Baptist church in the town and in doing so comes across a religion involving the sacrifice of young black boys by the (respectable) white community to appease something old and eldritch that lives in the river valley.

It’s a gripping story involving some sleuthing, and deftly explores elements of racial tension in the South and the systematic and unequal valuation of life. At the end, the narrator notes that if this tale were published as research it would be laughed off as fiction, and so he has presented it as such….

This piece is thought-provoking and entertaining and I was very impressed with it. There was one odd bit referring to ‘Walker’s house’, which I think should be ‘Cobb’s house’ so I’m guessing the Cobb character was called Walker at one point in the story’s history, unless I’ve missed something. A nice slice of Southern Gothic.